Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Stumbling Over Guns Again and Again

This is the devar Torah I gave Monday night, December 16, 2013 at our team to curb gun violence meeting.

God commands us “not to place a stumbling block in front of the blind.” (Lev. 19:14) We can all understand why.  To deliberately place a stumbling block in front of a blind person is dangerous and cruel.  The rabbis extended the literal meaning of this law to a more inclusive understanding.  We are not allowed to put what ever a person is blind to in front of him.  (Rashi)  For example if you know a person is dieting, we are not allowed to place a piece of rich chocolate cake under his nose and entice with our words him to eat it.  We shouldn’t say things like: “Oh, one piece won’t make a difference.”  “Go ahead anyway, enjoy yourself.”

I thought of this verse as I was reading Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed article “The Killer Who Supports Gun Control” in Sunday’s newspaper. (December 15, 2013) http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/a-perspective-on-guns-murder-suicide-from-attica/?_r=0 . Kristof writes about a convicted murderer, John Lennon (his real name but no connection to the Beatles).  Lennon gives us a modern gun example illustrating the verse “not placing a stumbling block before the blind.”

Lennon writes: “I do take responsibility for the murder; I’m sorry for taking his life and the life he could have had.  But without a gun, I would not have killed.”  He describes a gun as “that perfect killing machine.”  He would not have been able both physically and mentally to murder the victim if he had to strangle him, bludgeon him, or stab him.   Only the gun assured him success.  He goes on to say that a fellow prisoner, a friend of the victim, tried to avenge his friend’s death by stabbing Lennon with a shiv.  He stabbed Lennon six times, but Lennon survived.  A gun would have killed him instantly.  He also admits he had suicidal thoughts in prison, but since he didn’t have access to a gun, he didn’t attempt suicide.  Hanging is the best option in prison, but it is difficult and grim.  He opted for living instead.

Near the end of the article Lennon concludes: “I’m all for the market system, but when the products are killing machines, why shouldn’t we tighten measures to keep guns out of the hands of people like me.  Or in other words, let’s not place a stumbling block before the blind. 

We have the responsibility to curb senseless gun violence. We have formed our team to curb gun violence in order to do our part.  If you want to join us at Marathon JCC, our next meeting to curb gun violence will be Monday, January 13, 2014 at 7:45 p.m.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Not Even a Walrus

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:  
     "I deeply sympathize." 
With sobs and tears he sorted out
     those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket handkerchief
     Before his streaming eyes.
Louis Carol, Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 4 (The Walrus and the Carpenter st. 17

Reading Roger Cohen’s Op Ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times (November 26, 2013), one gets the impression that only a hysterical militaristic Israel is dead set against the agreement between the West and Iran.  He conveniently ignores and omits the fact that most of the Arab world has lined up behind Saudi Arabia against loosening sanctions against Iran as reported in the Times as well. “The Saudi king and his envoys — like the Israelis — have spent weeks lobbying fruitlessly against the interim nuclear accord with Iran that was reached in Geneva on Sunday.” 

America is blessed to live so far away from Iran that it doesn’t pose an existential problem for us.  Not so for those Arab countries who are in the Middle EastIran has exported its revolution to its neighbors.  Just look at its responsibility for all of Lebanon’s troubles and its role in the civil war in Syria. And how much more so Israel. In the past, Iran has denied the Holocaust and supported the annihilation of the Jewish state through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. It has armed them to the teeth with more rockets than ever before.  These rockets are always aimed at civilian targets.  Too bad Cohen isn’t one bit sympathetic of Israeli fears of just one of these rockets being armed with a nuclear war head.

Even as the talks between Iran and the West were going on, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech supporting the jihadists and Islamists terrorist organizations vow of Israel’s destruction. “Peace be upon the children of our nation, peace be upon the brave jihadists in Palestinian and Lebanese resistance…” The ayatollah promises a restructuring of the Middle East: “Palestine will be free, have no doubt in this. … Palestinians will return there and there will be a Palestinian government … and that is based on the truth revealed by God. A new Middle East will be … an Islamic Middle East.” He called Israel a “rabid dog” and we all know what one must do to any rabid animal.  History has taught the Jewish people to take seriously any threat of genocide.  No wonder Israel wants to see the dismantlement of all the nuclear reactors and not just a moratorium where Iran could restart its nuclear bomb program at any time and have the same capabilities before the moratorium within two months. You would think that Roger Cohen even while disagreeing with Israel can show some understanding of her position.
As if those words promising a new Holocaust weren’t enough while negotiating was going on, The Washing Free Beacon reports that
“Iranian missile technicians secretly visited North Korea as part of joint development of a new rocket booster for long-range missiles or space launchers, at the same time nuclear talks took place in Geneva, according to U.S. officials. The booster is believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to be intended for a new long-range missile or space launch vehicle that could be used to carry nuclear warheads, and could be exported to Iran in the future. Recent U.S. intelligence assessments have said that both North Korea and Iran are expected to have missiles capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear warhead in the next two years.”
I just wonder how he will feel about allowing Iran to continue its march towards a nuclear weapon when its rockets are aimed at the Great Satan.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving's Wonder Bread Stuffing

This is the devar Torah I gave last night at the Little Neck/Douglaston Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.

Our Scripture reading for tonight (Deut. 8:3-17) reminds us that God fed the Israelites manna in the wilderness those 40 years to teach us that “man doesn’t live on bread alone.” (Dt 8:3) Miraculously this manna fell from heaven every day except our Sabbath to feed our ancestors. Consequently, I like to call this miraculous manna the very first Wonder Bread.

When the Israelites initially encountered manna they had no idea what it was.  Moses told them it was “manna or in Hebrew tuv in."  If you rearrange the letters tuv in you get the word vbunt or faith.  Israel showed great faith relying upon God’s love to feed them each and every day during the 40 years. 

Scripture is calling us to keep faith with God all year and not just around our holidays.  It is easy to feed the hungry when we celebrate Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas.  We’re in a sharing mood.  Sadly, we tend to neglect needy come February when the food banks’ shelves are empty. 

Rabbi Hama in the name of Rabbi Hannina explained the verse in Deuteronomy 13:5 “Follow God, your Lord”:  What does this mean?  Is it possible for a mortal to follow God’s presence?  The verse means to teach us we should follow the attributes of the Holy One.  As God fed the hungry, we should feed the hungry.”

I believe this is one of the messages of the second scriptural passage.  I pray that we have the faith, emunah, to follow God all year round by sharing our bread with the hungry. Amen

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sweet Revenge

Below is a copy of my closing remarks at last night's community-wide Yom Hashoa observance:

We have come here tonight to fulfill a sacred promise made to the generation of the Holocaust.  We’ve promised not only to remember both the survivors and the murdered, but also to avenge the martyrs’ deaths.  That is what they wanted.  That is what they wrote over and over and over again in their last testaments.  For example, when last 12 Jews to be murdered at the death camp at Chelmno, in January 1944, they wrote:  “If any relatives or friends of these individuals are left alive, then be informed that all the Jews who were removed from Lodz were killed most brutally…If you survive avenge our blood.” 

Thanks to all the allies’ soldiers and all of the partisans, the third Reich was defeated and has been relegated to the dust bin of history. Don Darkes wrote “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold and there is no sweeter dish than outliving an enemy” If this be the case, then we have had our revenge.    But I believe that our revenge has been even better because there is no better revenge than success.  The Nazis tried to destroy the Jewish people, but we have not only survived; we have triumphed and we have flourished.  Let me just share 3 proofs with you.
My first proof:  In 2007 Germany 's biggest synagogue, on Rykestrasse in Berlin, reopened after a lavish restoration. The synagogue was set ablaze on Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938.  The 100 year old synagogue, with a 1,200-person capacity, has been described as one of the jewels of Germany's Jewish community.

My second proof:  On January 4, 2010, Mrs. Yitta Schwartz of Monroe, New York died at age 94. A Holocaust survivor and member of the Satmar Hasidim, Mrs. Schwartz and her husband had 16 surviving children and, at last count, 170 grandchildren. At the time of her death, Mrs. Schwartz is believed to have had over 2,500 descendants.

My third, last, and best proof:  The State of Israel is a strong, free, democratic country where Jews live in the dignity of their own country. There Jewish culture, language, and peoplehood flourish. Israel is renowned as the start-up nation leading the world with revolutionary technology.  And Israel defends Jewish people every where, both inside and outside her borders.

Let us pray to God that the Ribbono Shel Olam continue to bless us as we keep our promises to remember and exact our revenge by becoming even more successful in all of our righteous and worthy endeavors.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Which One Are You Now?

 Which one are you Now?

The Haggadah quoting the Mishnah in Pesachim 10:4 posits that there are four different kinds of children, one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t even know how to ask.  The editor of Rav Kook’s Hagadah cites a commentary from Rabbi Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Judah Hakohen Kook.  “He liked to quote from the book Yein Levanon the following insight:  In the Hebrew language, the word for ‘wise man,’ hakham, refers not only to intellectual acumen but connotes moral virtues as well.  The hakham is also a tsaddik (righteous person). This is certainly borne out by the opposition of the wise child to the wicked child.  We might have expected the wording to be ‘One wise, one foolish (tipesh), ‘or one righteous (tzaddik), one wicked” From the fact that the opposite of hakham (wise) is rasha (wicked), we are given to understand that a hakham is a tzaddik by definition. (Rav Kook’s Hagadah, page 47)

An example of the difference between a wise person and a wicked person can be ripped from the headlines.  Children are in the news again and unfortunately these teenagers are more wicked than wise. Recently, two male students on the Stubenville High School football team were convicted of raping a 16 year girl who was so drunk she was not conscious at the time. Another from of violence has reared its ugly head.  Rape is not a sexual crime; it is a violent crime against another person’s body.  Some of the media coverage of the rape conviction was almost as shocking as the despicable act itself. CNN said the boys were promising students.  ABCNews made excuses for the rapists. NBCNEWS laments the boys promising football careers. USAToday stressed that the victim was drunk.  Apparently not only young adults fall into the wicked category.  Violence has permeated all strata of life in America and the media perpetuates this violent culture.

But violence as a solution is so ingrained in our society that the Stubenville story has not yet ended.  A day after two high school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl, authorities arrested two Ohio girls suspected of making online threats against the accuser. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the girls arrested Monday posted threatening comments on Twitter on Sunday, the day the players were convicted in Steubenville. One of the messages was later reposted on Facebook.  The older girl all of 16 years old was charged with aggravated menacing for a tweet that threatened homicide and said "you ripped my family apart," according to the attorney general's office. The girl is a cousin of one of the defendants attorney general spokesman Dan Tierney said Tuesday. A Twitter message from the younger girl, 15 years old, threatened the accuser with bodily harm, leading to a menacing charge, the office said.

Seeing the faults of others, while excusing them in ourselves, is a most common sin. If we are to be worthy of our final redemption, the Haggadah forces us to examine our own behavior as we delve deeper into the wisdom being taught by the four children.  The editor of the Rav Kook Hagadah notices that the Hagaddah repeats the word “one” again and again even though it is superfluous. Instead of saying one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t even know how to ask, it could have just said wise, wicked, simple, and who does not know how to ask. 

“It is possible that a great truth is contained herein.  The numerical value of the word echad (one) is thirteen. Four times thirteen equals fifty-two.  The number fifty-two is expressed in Hebrew as ben, the word for son (which I have been translating as child). In reality the four children are not separate entities.  All four of them together (echad+ echad+ echad+ echad) comprise a single child…”  (page 47)  Each one of us has the capacity to be wise or wicked or simple or who doesn’t even know how to ask.  Each moment we get to choose which child we shall emulate.  Our tradition calls us to follow God’s example and strive to be righteousness in all of our ways because the fate of the world depends upon each of us.

Choose wisely.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What's worse than slavery?

Why did God have to take the Jewish people out of slavery performing great signs and wonders?  Why didn’t they rise up in rebellion as the American people did against Great Britain back in 1776 or as the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, or Syrians are who have been fighting against their autocratic regimes during the Arab Spring with the hope of installing a democratic government? 

Our tradition laments that the Israelites had sunk so low that they had become accustomed to slavery and couldn’t even imagine being free a people.   Even after they were freed, they still had a slave mentality and tried God’s patience 10 times in the desert.  Finally God decreed that that generation would never enter the Land of Israel.  Only the generations who grew up free during the 40 years of wandering in the desert, would be able to conquer the Land God had promised them.

But slavery wasn’t the only thing our ancestors got used to.  In fact there was something even worse than getting used to slavery.  In the retelling of the story of Passover, the Haggadah quotes Deuteronomy 16: 6.  “And the Egyptians dealt evil with us, and oppressed us, and imposed upon us hard labor.”  Rabbi Avraham Kook was wont to pun on this verse: “The Egyptians made us evil.  Rabbi Isaac Arieli explained how the Egyptians made us evil in his book Midrash Ariel. The Egyptians made us evil by accustoming us to seeing atrocities. (The Rav Kook Hagadah, p. 66-7) 

The lot of a slave is terrible.  He is just disposable property.  To save money Pharaoh feed them matza because it was inexpensive and a little bit goes a long way.  There is only so much matza a person can eat before he feels all clogged up.  Some of our ancestors must have wasted away for lack of a nutritious diet.  If Pharaoh and his slave owners were anything like the slave owners here in America, they too must have raped defenseless slaves, women, men, and children depending upon their proclivities.   Finally if slaves weren’t performing up to Pharaohs standings or meeting their quotas or for any other reason, they were whipped and sometimes punished with death. Because of an irrational fear, Pharaoh had all the male children thrown in the Nile and Moses saved a kinsman from a taskmaster’s beating.  Violence had seeped into the slave culture for the very next day Moses tries to stop two Hebrews from fighting.  Indeed the Israelites had become so accustomed to atrocities they didn’t complained and accepted that way of life as normal even with their dealings with one another.

Just yesterday we just dodged another bullet. A University of Central Florida dropout planned an attack on the campus but committed suicide in a dorm before carrying it out, the authorities said Monday. The man, James Oliver Seevakumaran, 30, pulled a gun on another student, who then called police, said the university’s police chief, Richard Beary. Thanks to the quick response of the police before he could carry out his deadly plan, Mr. Seevakumaran shot himself in the head. Four explosive devices were found in a backpack, and Chief Beary said he believed that Mr. Seevakumaran pulled a fire alarm in the dorm to get other students out in the open for an attack.  What could have been another Virginia Tech tragedy, ended up with no loss of innocent life!

We have become so accustomed to gun violence atrocities that it has become part of our everyday culture.  Just think how many gun allusions we employ in our daily speech.  Do you stick to your guns?  Do you believe that forewarned is to be forearmed?  Have you known anybody who has gone ballistic or at least gone off half cocked? How many of you have dodged a bullet but not in the literal sense that I used in an above paragraph?  We have become so inured to gun violence that we have allowed our leaders enact laws and policies that perpetuate murder.  Here are just a few examples:

1.     In the United States, we register births, marriages, divorces and deaths; we register cars, trucks, boats, trailers, bicycles, houses, lands, dogs, and cats- everything but guns.

2.     In most states, a person can buy and own a gun without knowing how to use it and there are no requirements that gun owners be trained in the safe operation of guns.

3.     The Consumer Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the Consumer Protection Commission from examining the quality or safety of any gun or any piece of ammunition.  Teddy Bears, dolls and toy guns must pass four sets of strict regulations before they can be sold.

4.     States with the highest rates of death and injuries by guns have the weakest gun laws and the largest export of crime guns compared to other states with stronger laws.

5.     Studies have shown that sane gun regulations will reduce gun violence in America.  During the 10 year ban on semi-automatic guns was on the books, the murder rate dropped significantly.

6.     In 2010 the Virginia Legislature passed a law which permits persons to carry their guns into bars provided they do not consume alcohol while there.  State police chiefs described this legislation as “a recipe for disaster.”

7.     College students who have serious alcohol behaviors are more likely to have guns with them at school. A study, based on a nationally representative sample of more than 15,000 students at 130 4-year colleges, found students arrested for driving under the influence are twice as likely to have guns compared with students who have not been so arrested

8.     More than 50% of guns acquired at crime scenes come from 1% of gun dealers. The ATF knows who the rogue dealers are, but present law blocks the agency from publicizing their activities or putting them out of business.

9.     In late 2005, the United States Congress and President George W Bush passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce Act, which denies victims of gun violence the right to sue manufacturers, distributors, or dealers for negligent, reckless, or irresponsible conduct. No other industry in America enjoys such blanket immunity and protection.

10. When all murders of civilians in all the developed countries of the world are tabulated, 86% occur in the United States.

Passover teaches us that we don’t have to accept the status quo and can reject the notion that gun violence is just part of our society.  God has freed us both in body and in mind.  Reducing gun violence is just as possible as our redemption out of Egypt if we would only work to end it.  Demand your legislators to ban semi-automatic guns with large clips of ammunition, to mandate background checks for all gun purchases, and to allow Federal Agencies like the FBI and ATF share background checks and gun tracing information to apprehend criminals. 

No matter what we say or what we eat this Passover, we won’t be truly free until we stop becoming accustom to gun violence and do something about it. .

Monday, March 18, 2013

We do we always bring up the past?

Top of Form
If slavery is so bad, why do we have to reenact it every Passover?  One might think we should skip over the reliving the shame of slavery.  Who wants to eat the symbolic foods like matza, poor man’s bread, the bitter herb, and the dipping in salt water? Shouldn’t we rather concentrate upon the psalms of praise, Hallel, and eating of the festive meal with its four cups of wine?

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught that revelation from on top of Mt. Sinai is a continuous event as it is written:  “Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horeb, another name for Sinai,…” (Avot  6:2)  Just as revelation from Sinai is a continuous event, so too do I believe that the Exodus from Egypt is a continuous event and that’s why we still need to remember our time as slaves to Pharaoh.  We’re still not out of the woods yet.

 Rabbi Avraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, explains why God needed to take us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.  Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to take us out of Egypt with strong hand or an outstretched arm?   He writes:

A strong hand refers to the sudden, dramatic intervention of God in our history, which immediately catapulted us from the depths of depravity in Egypt to the spiritual heights of Mount Sinai.  Bu this is only one side of the coin of divine history.  In addition to the revolution of the strong hand, there must also be the evolution symbolized by the outstretched arm. The arm is outstretched meaning that the potential yet awaits its actualization. This outstretched arm alludes to the slow, gradual spiritual evolution of the Jewish people, to an ongoing process that will eventually climax in the coming of the Messiah.

These are the two tracts of history.  One, a revolution engineered from above. Left to our own resources we would never have left Egypt.  There was required supernatural divine intervention.  But the ultimate goal is not that the Torah go against the grain of nature, but rather that human nature be refined so that the Torah can be integrated and absorbed within the framework of nature.  This gradual refinement is an ongoing process over generations upon generations.  Each individual generation has its part to pay in this spiritual drama.  For this reason we say, “In every generation everyone must see himself/herself as if he or she left Egypt.” This Exodus of the “outstretched arm” is a work in progress. It yet awaits completion. (The Rav Kook Hagadah, page 38. Orot Publishers: Spring Valley, NY, 2012)

The Haggadah calls us to look around and see where the world is still not redeemed.  Slavery in many forms still exists. The weak and the poor are still exploited.  Gun violence permeates our country and war is a constant companion to too many people around the globe. By retelling the story of our people’s slavery through words, songs, and symbolic food and seeing ourselves as if we just left Egypt, we learn that God is waiting for us with an outstretched arm to complete our world’s redemption. When we join the Holy One as His partner to finish the task of redemption, our plea “Next year in Jerusalem” will no longer be a plea in potentia, but will be realized to the full extent of our longings.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Judaism on cruise control

My new grandson celebrated his 3rd month in the land of the living.  Since my calendar was free Sunday through Tuesday of Presidents’ week, I took advantage of the break and drove up to Boston to visit him, and I guess his parents and aunt and uncle too.  I drove our new car for two reasons.  First, it has a built in g.p.s I could use in case I get lost, a pretty good assumption.  Secondly, it is a hybrid and on long distant trips we can save a lot of money on gas.

Because it is the new car, Judy drives it more than I do.  Driving it though reinforced an old lesson in a new way.  When I started driving the car, it recorded that we were getting 28.something miles per gallon of gas.  I resolved to do much better.  By not speeding too much and using the cruse control for a steady speed, I was able to end my trip by raising my gas mileage to 35.1 mpg.  I loved it when I turned off the car and before the dashboard went dark, the word excellent appears congratulating me on my superior gas mileage driving.

I was able to continue driving that car around town when I returned home from Boston.  Although I tried my best to maintain my excellent rating by driving within the speed limit, city driving of stopping and starting really lowered my mpg.  To my dismay, the car went back down to 28 mpg.

All that driving made me thing about the successful transmission of a positive and knowledgeable Jewish identity.  We are most successful in raising the next generation of Jews when adult Jewish lives are on “cruise control,” meaning living a conscious Jewish lifestyle that is steady and continuous.  If parents live their Jewish lives by making it the core of their being, then their children will appreciate the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. Instead of seeing the Shabbat as a burden, they will begin to look forward to Shabbat as a day of refreshing our souls collectively and individually.  The holidays will form and fashion the Jewish soul within by providing the yin of Yom Kippur (the ultimate serious holiday) to the yang of Purim (the ultimate joyous and fun holiday).  When children see their parents studying Torah and davening, they realize how important these activities are. 

Unfortunately, too many parents live Judaism like I drive in the city, a lot of stopping and going.  They go to Purim services when the children are young but stop when they past the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  Jewish education starts in Kindergarten and ends in 7th grade instead of seeing it as a life long journey of Jewish self discovery.  Our children learn some skills along the way.  They learn how to read Hebrew, chant a Haftorah, recite a blessing, and know a little bit about all things Jewish on a very elementary level. But just like the drastic drop of my mpg, much of what they have learned is forgotten.  These students too often drop out of Jewish life completely until they have children of their own.  By they time most of them have never had a consistent positive Jewish role model in their lives and so the cycle continues.

We’re about to enter the month of Nisan, the 6th month of the Jewish year.  We’re half way through the calendar and Rosh Hashana is only 6 months away. It is never too early to reflect upon our lives.  Just as I hope we all drive safely and competently, so to I pray that we turn on that Jewish cruse control for our sake and the sake of our children and grandchildren.