Yom Kippur Pre-Yizkor 2015

Pre Yizkor 2015

           It is amazing how much longer we live these days than did our parents or grandparents. It almost seems that no matter how much we are destroying the earth and are filling ourselves with cholesterol and those evil carbohydrates, we’re living longer than ever before. Despite all the things that will kill us, we somehow survive. Even smokers are living long lives compared to the average lifespan a few generations ago. Pretty amazing.

          But it’s not without its pains. And I don’t just mean the kvetches we live through as we grow older. I mean the pain our old age can cause our children. We don’t often talk about the toll our old age causes anybody else. It’s usually about what we want or we need. And so it should be- after all, the Torah insists that we treat the elderly with deference and respect. There’s a story about Rabbi Tarfon, who lived in the late 1st Century, which is about 2,000 years ago. It’s recorded in the Talmud that when his mother was walking on Shabbat in the courtyard the heel of her sandal broke off and he put his hand underneath her foot for each step she took so she wouldn’t be uncomfortable.  Some would say she was walking all over him. Others, that it was a great way to show kibud av v’em, honor of father and mother.

          Some of us have lifted some of the burden from our children by having a living will- an advance directive in the event, God forbid, that we are stricken with an illness or condition which keeps us from making a competent decision about our future.  Each of us should have that. Of course, we don’t usually have it in our wallet or pocketbook in the event we have, god forbid, a catastrophic event. However the new technology out there has a bracelet with a built in thumb drive which can be inserted into any computer which will print out that advanced directive.

          Even if you’re not that technically savvy, you could also actually talk to your children and say unequivocally how you feel about your future and what steps you’d like them to take if, God forbid, a catastrophic event happens. I suggest talking to ALL of your children. Better yet, write down your thoughts and send it to all of them. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard one sibling say to another: Oh, Mother didn’t mean that literally. Spell it out for them, and tell them you mean it literally.

          Why? Because years of guilt over not having been the best child they could have been bubble to the surface when we are faced with a parent who is nearing the end of their days. And when they are finally ready to step up to the plate and be that wonderful son or daughter, the last thing they may want to do is support your wish that no heroic measures be taken.

          So far, all of this is basic, it’s common sense. It’s also really all about us and our desires for the end of our own lives. But what is not nearly as obvious, and what is so much more difficult to do, is to take a look at how our decisions about our waning years affect our children.

          There was a time not so long ago when old age began at 60 or so. Think about it- if Social Security was to last, it had to factor in that many people would not live very long receiving benefits. If anyone in government in the 1950’s really believed that people would live well into their 70’s and 80’s, do you really think they would have set up a system that would keep people receiving benefits for more years than they even worked? All those black and white TV shows where someone was visiting an elderly parent in a hospital- how old was the elderly parent? Sometimes still in their 50’s! But certainly in their 60’s. Heck, today people start considering a career change in their 60’s.

          And that means that their children, who were in their 20’s and 30’s, still vibrant, still filled with plenty of energy and strength, were taking care of elderly parents who were in their 60’s. But today, it’s children in their 60’s, and often 70’s taking care of parents in their 80’s and 90’s. And that’s quite a burden.

          But other things have changed too. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, when parents told their children “Don’t you dare put me into one of those homes!” Those facilities were not very nice. The care was sub par, and unless you had lots of money, it was extremely unpleasant to even think of a parent living in most of them. But today, even the mediocre nursing homes are like palaces. Government regulations and patient and resident advocacy has made great leaps forward. I often visit people in long term care homes or assisted living situations where they are living much fancier lives than I am. I’d love to get a wing at Elan Gardens for my family. Why should I have to wait until I retire?

          But many of us still insist that we don’t want to leave our home. We say, This is where I raised my family, this is where I want to stay. This is where my memories are. And that’s all true. But the question we must learn to ask is, at what cost? I don’t mean financial cost- there are all kinds of ways to work out the finances. I mean the cost to our children. How well can they possibly sleep knowing that we may be one step away from fracturing a hip? I know it happens in assisted living centers, but not nearly as easily as it happens at home. And what happens when we no longer can truly judge how well we are remembering things- like whether or not we kept the stove on after the water all boiled down?

          Of course we were amazing drivers when we were younger. We drove across the country, we handled the snow and ice, and we never had an accident. But how do we take it when our kids suggest that perhaps it’s time to give up driving because they see changes in us that we don’t want to or cannot see ourselves? We get angry with them for daring to take away our independence. But do we stop and ask why they are daring to do so? Is it that they hate us or is it that they love us? We may have no fear about our driving, but shouldn’t they?

          We may agree with Sinefeld who did a shtick on getting older and said that people should be permitted to drive their age. You reach 75- that should be your speed limit. You hit 80- go for it. You deserve to get there sooner since you’ve got less time left. He said that when you become a senior citizen you should be expected to pull out of the driveway without having to look to see if anyone is coming. They should have to watch out for you.

          But in reality every time some of us get into the car some of our children cringe and cross their fingers. Not so much for our sake, but for the sake of whoever we might God forbid hit. I have had some long talks with some members of our community who confided in me that sometimes they completely forget where they are going, or end up at a doctor’s office that they didn’t have an appointment for because they were on the way to the supermarket.

          Some people literally have no choice. They have no one to look after them, and no means to pay for even a mediocre assisted living situation. But those of us who do have the support of children or grandchildren, or nieces or nephews, or younger siblings- you know- who are only in their 80’s- we have an obligation to listen to them and to consider their suggestions. Why should our desire to be completely independent trump their desire to sleep at night without fear that the police are going to call with news of an accident? They already are staying up for similar reasons when their own kids are out late. They should have to fear the worst for their parents too?

          I have had adult children, already at retirement age, literally in tears telling me how frightened they are, how tired they are, how devoid of energy they are from helping to keep their promise to make it possible for their parents to remain independent in their home forever.

          The plight of the caretaker child is one that largely gets ignored. It’s not fair. Not when there are alternatives which may remove some independence but will provide an extremely comfortable living with 24 hour emergency care. Those individuals who have gone that route have not had any regrets. In fact, most of them have made more friends and lead more active lives than they did in their homes.

          And as we learned from Fiddler on the Roof- what’s so important about our home? A little bit of this, a little bit of that, A pot, a pan, a broom, a hat. It’s not so terrible. And anyway, wouldn’t it be nice to see your kids smiling again?

          By the way, this is not an indictment of elderly parents. It applies equally to the children who often wouldn’t think of speaking to their parents about such matters. It might be guilt, it might be a sense of obligation, it might be simply ingrained in them never even to suggest a long term care facility. That’s not fair either. It’s not fair to your parent who might have a much more active life living in close proximity to others, and who might get out more under supervision than they currently do. It’s not fair to your children who see the toll their grandparents may be taking on you. Having a conversation, or a number of conversations with your children and your parents about what options are available as parents get older and as their children get older is very important. You probably had the conversation many years ago with your child about the birds and the bees. It’s time for your children to repay the deed with a new conversation now that the birds and bees are a lot older.

          So as we ask God to grant our desires in this New Year, we may need to consider changing some of our desires a bit to help accommodate the prayers of those who are concerned about us, those who love us and want us to be safe and well.

          I miss those members of our congregation who have gone to live with or close to their children. I miss their smiles and their presence at services each week. But I’m proud of them for giving up some independence, and even for giving up their familiar sights and sounds, and leaving good friends in order to help their children sleep well knowing they are safe and sound.

          Personally, I’m ready to give up the car and the home and move into assisted living. Unfortunately with all my kids my accountant informed me that I can’t afford to retire until ten years after I die. But for the sake of those who care about us, I hope and pray we’ll listen closely to what they have to offer, and consider their suggestions wisely. May God help us with those decisions. Amen.

Kol Nidre- Erev Yom Kippur 2015- Holiness

Kol Nidre 2015 Holiness

          Something big is missing these days. It’s something some of us, if we’re old enough, grew up with. We may not have realized it even existed. But it certainly did. I think it enhanced our lives. Obviously many did not, and so it has essentially been drained from our society over the past five or six decades.

          What do you think it was that existed for most of human history up until the 1960s and is now no longer a driving force in society? Well, what was commonplace up till then that has been quite successfully removed through the intervening years? The answer is, the Bible. A concerted effort was made to remove the Bible from public discourse and education. The word we often use is separation of Church and State, which is kind of interesting because of the word separation. But it was really nothing of the sort. It was removal of church from state. It was the systematic removal of religious values, ideas, pictures, names, rituals, and words from the public, and the forcing of whatever remained behind the closed doors of homes and houses of worship. If religion had been separate but equal, we’d still see it and hear it all the time. Instead we created an environment where a few presidential debates ago a candidate was asked which person he held in the highest esteem, and when he answered Jesus- people were flabbergasted. How dare someone who plans to be President have the audacity to call to mind a religious figure at such a time? How could he be trusted to keep Jesus out of the White House?

          I’ve noted this in the past, it’s clearly been a theme in many sermons, and I’m sure many are not happy that I bring up the subject again. So while I still have another 22 or so hours to ask forgiveness for getting you upset, let me try a different tact. Let me explain to you just what the Torah, the Bible actually is, and why it has been so crucial to society, and what effects its removal has brought. I won’t even try to convince you that the effects have been bad, because they’re not necessarily. But you deserve to know the truth about what this Torah of ours really is.

          What is it that makes the Torah, the Bible so special? Holiness. Holiness is sacred separation. Holiness is distinction directed by God. Holiness is difference, discrimination, contrast, disparity, divergence, variance, deviation, conflict, discrepancy, tension, dispute, opposition, discord, inconsistency, incompatibility. The one thing holiness is not- is equality.

God makes distinctions. Clear and concise distinctions. He has no trouble at all calling some things good and other things bad. No qualms about some people being good and other people being bad. No problem at all loving some and hating others. The God of our Torah is a judgmental God. He is not a multicultural God, He is not a very tolerant God, He is not an easy going God, and He is most certainly not a politically correct God.

          He is critical, He is demanding, He is pushy, He is strong willed, He is jealous, He is hot tempered to the point of needing Moses to help him with anger management. Just a few weeks ago we read in Parshat Eikev- – After the Golden Calf incident God tells Moses, HEREF MIMENI V’ASHMIDEIM! Leave me alone so I can wipe out this stiff-necked people and make you a new and better nation! And Moses talks God out of it, “O Lord, think of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Pay no attention to these stubborn people.” You’d think he was about to break into a chorus of Let it Go, Let it Go! Then the great line: “What will the neighbors think? You went to all that trouble to bring them out of Egypt only to kill them off in the desert?” And the conclusion includes the words we recited a few minutes ago just at the conclusion of the Kol Nidre prayer: SLACH NA LA’AVON HA’AM HAZEH- Forgive this people, this nation for their sins K’GODEL CHASDECHA- because of Your great mercy.

God treats the Children of Israel like, well, like children most of the time. He comes across as a parent who is constantly nitpicking about something or other. It’s as if He knows better than we what’s good for us. Eat this, don’t eat this. Build this, but don’t build that. Say this, don’t say that. Work on these days, don’t work on these other days. He tells us who we can marry and who we can’t. My God He even has the audacity to tell us who we can pray to and who we cannot. For God’s sake, who the heck does He think He is?

          He’s a parent. He sets limits and creates parameters and lets us know distinctions. He judges us the way parents must do. Otherwise we’d do whatever we wanted to do. Which wouldn’t be a problem if we were naturally wise and good. But instead we’re naturally selfish and dumb. I think our Divine parent in heaven is the epitome of wisdom and understanding. After all, who better than our creator to know us inside and out?

          And yet we really aren’t bothered by any of this. I mean, it doesn’t really affect us in our daily routine.  We’d just as easily curse using God’s name as not. We don’t even think about it. It’s as if there is no fear of God left. No fear of what will happen in the next world. No fear of Divine Punishment. The whole idea of the Torah was to instill the fear of God into the ex slaves.

          We have more fear of the wrath of Allah than we do the wrath of God. We tiptoe around with Islam- we don’t even tell our kids who brought down the World Trade Center towers- My kids came home from school on 9/11 and had no idea that the terrorists were Muslim extremists. Yale University published a scholarly text about the Mohammed cartoons and it refused to publish the actual cartoons!!

          How can millions of Muslims be sparked into rioting over some cartoons of the Muslim equivalent of Moses- not of Jesus, mind you, who is considered Divine by two billion Christians in the world, but the equivalent of our very own Moses- who received the commandments at Sinai and is the greatest prophet in Judaism? Could you fathom Jews rioting over a cartoon depiction of Moses? Most Jews don’t even believe he ever existed. Most Jews think the entire Bible is a cartoon.

          Here’s the description of a current off Broadway show called Bad Jews. Bad Jews is the story of Daphna Feygenbaum, a “Real Jew” with an Israeli boyfriend she met on Birthright. When Daphna’s cousin Liam brings home his shiksa girlfriend Melody and declares ownership of their grandfather’s Chai necklace, a vicious and hilarious brawl over family, faith and legacy ensues. Have you heard the backlash from the Jewish community? Instead of complaining about how Jews are portrayed on the stage the JCC will probably organize a bus trip- not to protest the show, but to see it.

          You can’t even get tickets to the Book of Mormon. But it’s got some of the most foul mouthed irreverent and sacrilegious dialogue on Broadway and it’s all about a religious faith held deeply by millions of devout followers. How many? Over 15 million and growing by leaps and bounds. Mormons have already outnumbered the Jews and will soon leave us in the dust. And how many of them are rioting because of the Tony Award winning blasphemy taking place at the Ryan O’Neil Theatre? None.

How many of those Christian fanatics that we Jews are so afraid of rioted in the streets every time some so called artist immersed a crucifix in his urine or wiped dung all over the blessed mother? None. Two billion Christians have the symbol of their faith on display at a public museum in Cincinnati drowned in urine and not one shout of Death to America is heard. This is from the Internet: “In 1987, American artist Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was exhibited at the Stux Gallery in New York and was favorably received. Serrano received $15,000 for the work, from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts.

“Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Catholic nun, stated in a television interview with Bill Moyers that she regarded the work as not blasphemous but a statement on “what we have done to Christ”: that is, the way contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.”

So what do you think happened to Sister Wendy Beckett? Did the Pope issue a Fatwah calling for her immediate death, which is what happens to a Muslim who dares to criticize his religion publicly?

My purpose is not to criticize Islam. It’s not even to point out how absurd it is for us to cower in its face and to tiptoe about on eggshells so that even the folks at Charlie Hebdo aren’t doing anti Muslim caricatures any more. My purpose is to ask why we as Jews can’t even stand up for our one tiny little homeland. Why we as Jews can’t even allow for a modicum of concern that our Torah has been radically removed from public view in America which is based in its values and precepts.

The holiness outlined in our Torah is present on almost every single page, on every column of those scrolls in our beautiful Ark. And Parsha after Parsha, reading after reading, all we get is distinctions and judgmental statements and commandments to do this but not that. And the sum of it all is that what is clearly the epitome of Judaism, enshrined in that Torah, its holiness, is diametrically opposed to how we think and behave today in America.

Equality has supplanted holiness. There is no difference between men and women. No difference between boys and girls. No difference between the life of a fetus in the womb and a decayed tooth. No difference between a marriage of a man and a woman and a man and a man or a woman and a woman. No difference between the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of human beings today by Syria and the retaliation by the Israelis when rockets are fired into her cities from Gaza. Wait, there is a difference- Israel is worse.

If we were naturally equal, if there were true equality, 14% of hockey players would be black, and only 14% of basketball players would be. If there were true equality half the convicted felons in prison for violent crime would be women. If there is no difference between men and women, why aren’t half of the gang members women? And if it’s because of societal norms and forcing these differences, why on earth would we want to change that?

We have removed the distinctions and differences that were part of our civilization for all of human history, and we have done so within a few years. The White House was lit up in rainbow colored lights after a Supreme Court decision that made everything equal when it comes to marriage, thereby nullifying the Torah’s decision given by the Heavenly Court that insisted on distinctions in marriage.

I believe it is directly a result of successfully removing that Torah from public view and discourse over the past decades. The Torah’s values, the distinctions of Holiness, are no longer the values we hold dear in our modern age.

And in case you want to point to the Torah and say it has been chauvinistic toward women and it allowed for slavery which are common criticisms of the Bible, it’s not true. Biblical law releases slaves every seven years and any slave who runs away from his master needed to be protected. It’s forbidden in the Torah to return a runaway slave to his master. Obviously if he ran away he wasn’t being treated well. Slavery was largely a method for working off a debt or a crime, not the buying and selling of human beings. Kidnapping is a capital offense in the Torah.

As for chauvinism- the Torah demands that marriage can only happen if there is a man and a woman. How can that possibly be chauvinistic? As for multiple wives, each and every Biblical account of more than one wife was a dysfunctional marriage. Every last one. And long before Black Lives Matter got into the limelight the Torah, thousands of years ago, has the story of Miriam criticizing Moses’ Ethiopian wife because her skin was dark, and God punishes Miriam with leprosy that caused her own skin to turn scaly white until Moses begged God to heal her.

And yet anyone who holds to the Biblical definition of marriage as it has been defined for all of human history is not merely politically incorrect. One who accepts the Holiness code in the Torah is not only wrong, but is also hate-filled. A florist who refuses to do a gay wedding party is not only liable for a lawsuit and fines, but is homophobic. A photographer who has taken family pictures including gay family members for years, but today refuses to do the photos of a gay couple’s wedding is not only breaking the law, but is a hate filled religious extremist.

How could this change occur so quickly? It takes decades to approve new life saving drugs, and yet we have changed an institution that has lasted millennia in the space of a few years. How fast did this happen? Our President was elected twice openly stating that he believes that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. That’s how fast he went from homophobe to wonderful.

The Conservative Movement studied the issue for ten years and finally came up with a determination that Conservative rabbis could perform a union ceremony, but not a wedding ceremony, for same sex Jewish couples. After all, the Hebrew term for marriage is KIDDUSHIN- Holiness. Obviously that Kiddushin, that Holiness requires the distinctiveness of a man and a woman. Am I the last person on earth to remember that we used to call men and women the opposite sex?  Within a year of that announcement, there was no longer any distinction and Conservative rabbis were performing full Jewish weddings of same sex couples. No distinctions any more. And no discussion. No public discourse. In other words, The supreme court knows better than the Torah.

That the Torah forbids this expressly, and even considers it a capital offense is irrelevant. We know better than the Torah. The Children of Israel know better than the Creator of Humanity. And why shouldn’t they know better? After all, Father Knows Best is by today’s standards the quintessence of political incorrectness. It deserves to be mocked and smothered in derision. And so must it be for the Father in Heaven. We are living in the days where children know best. Family Guy got it right by having the baby with a huge brain and a British accent making an utter fool of the father in that cartoon. Heck, adults are watching cartoons made for adults these days. Need we say more?

So can I ask a silly question? Why do we read from the Torah every week? To quote a famous politician, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” If we walk in here assuming that we do not believe the Torah’s essence- that we no longer believe in distinctions, and that aside from an unfortunate traffic accident there is nothing else wrong with Bruce Jenner, then why do we continue to read the Torah? Why not just come together and read a few of Maya Angelou’s poems, and go down for Kiddush?

          Nostalgia? Because it feels good? Tradition? Remember how Tevye had to take a few moments each time he was faced with a holiness dilemma in his life- On the one hand she loves him, On the other hand there was no matchmaker- He has to pause and think about it. He has to weigh the consequences. For us as Americans, forget about discussing it. The Supreme court rules in favor by one vote and the White House has multi colored lights on it. The end. There is no on the other hand. Why didn’t we DEMAND the other hand? Why didn’t we DEMAND a national discussion on the issue?

          Because it’s an issue of holiness, not morality. There’s nothing immoral about gay marriage. Morality changes as society does. It used to be immoral to sleep together before marriage. Nowadays you yawn when a couple moves in together before marriage. And believe me, they didn’t have separate beds like Lucy and Desi- and Lucy and Desi were married! Morality is fluid. Like gender has become. What was socially unheard of fifty years ago is commonplace today. What still has a societal taboo today- like more than two people marrying, or siblings marrying, will eventually become commonplace as well. I mean, what moral argument can you make that two people who were adopted from different families and raised as brother and sister shouldn’t be allowed to fall in love in their twenties and marry? It’s love. We may say yech, but today’s yech is tomorrow’s love, just as yesterday’s yech is today’s love.

          Here’s a great question. What moral reason could there possibly be for prohibiting both men and women from going topless. Or bottomless, for that matter? Aside from the potential of a lot more car accidents, is there a reason other than holiness that presents a problem with public nudity? I mean, what could be more natural? What could be more liberating? What could be more equality based?

          The fact that Adam and Eve realized they were naked and HID FROM GOD in the garden of Eden should suggest that according to the Torah there was a problem with nudity. But take away that Torah, and your left with your opinion, your sexist, intolerant, xenophobic, homophobic, racist, bigoted, opinion.

          I think it’s time to reintroduce the concept of holiness into society. And to bring that holiness up to par with CHOL, which is the Jewish term for not holy, or secular. The days in between the beginning and end of Sukkot or Passover are called CHOL hamo’ed- the Secular days of the festival. They’re not separated out from the calendar the way Yuntif is. You can go to work, you can do what you normally do on a weekday. Shabbat is not Chol- it’s Kadosh- holy. Yuntif is not Chol, it’s Kadosh-holy. In Judaism, marriage is not Chol- it’s Kadosh which means there are rules that apply which separates it from even love. Because love itself is not KADOSH, not holy, it’s Chol. It only becomes Kadosh through marriage. When it gets separated from emotion, from sex, from lust and becomes something higher.

          Let’s allow the conversation about holiness to find its way back into society again. Let’s not see it as a threat to everything we hold dear, let’s see it as a challenge to the unbridled equality we currently embrace.

Rosh Hashanah 2015 Day 2- ISRAEL and the IRAN DEAL

Rosh Hashanah Day 2

According to surveys most American Jews support the Iran nuclear deal. There are more Christians opposed to it than Jews for the reason that it leaves Israel exposed to an existential threat. It’s not that Jews who support the deal aren’t concerned about Israel’s future. I’m sure they are. The reason is that very very few of those who support any deal with Iran actually have children or grandchildren who are being raised in Israel.

Think about it. Iran, which everyone agrees is the world’s biggest supporter of Islamic terrorism, has announced not once, not twice, but regularly that it plans to destroy the country that your grandchildren live in. How apt are you to support a deal that relies on believing in the good faith of this leading supporter of terror?

But if you have no children or grandchildren living in Israel, then you can focus on what’s best for America. And to be honest, I can’t see how America really needs to be nervous about what Iran does. And if this deal can keep them at bay for another dozen years or so, that sounds pretty good to me.

But if your kids and grandchildren are growing up in the very spot that Iran, even throughout the negotiations, has publicly announced it intends to destroy, you’d probably hesitate to release all of the frozen assets that the sanctions against Iran have successfully kept Iran from essentially doing whatever it wants to Israel. Last week, the top general in Tehran said, “The US and the Zionists should know that the Islamic Revolution will continue enhancing its preparedness until it overthrows Israel and liberates Palestine.” I suppose supporters of the deal assume this Brigadier General was speaking figuratively. As was the advisor to the speaker of the Iranian Parliament: “Our positions against the usurper Zionist regime have not changed at all; Israel should be annihilated and this is our ultimate theme.”  And the Ayatollah himself recently said he gives Israel just 25 more years before it is completely destroyed. Jews in America may be divided on how good this deal is, but Jews in Israel are not.

You know the line about having two Jews in a room and you end up with three opinions? Almost miraculously, President Obama and John Kerry have brought together almost all Israelis, from the far right to the far left, in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Why? How did this miracle happen? Because they all, from right to left, have children and grandchildren growing up in Israel. And because Iran has targeted Israel with destruction. It hasn’t hinted at it. It hasn’t mused about it. It hasn’t contemplated it. It has literally sent cash to leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas to try and kill as many Jews as possible. And with an infusion of $100 billion dollars to be spread among Hezbollah and Hamas who are within shooting range of Israel’s cities, Israel doesn’t need to wait for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. It will have bombs and rockets and machine guns and cement for more tunnels and the lives of their children and grandchildren are that much less safe because of it.

So that answers the question of why some Jews support the deal and others don’t. But why are all the people who support the deal from one particular side of the political spectrum, and all those who are against the deal, unless they have family or friends living in Israel, are from the other side of the political stream?

And it’s not only on this question. One side wanted the US to intervene as soon as Assad began killing his own people. They wanted to support the rebels who were fighting the Asad regime. But the administration did not agree. And even after Syria crossed a red line and used poison gas on its people, the administration refused to take action. And when the previous administration indicated that it would be a long war in Iraq, and that we shouldn’t rush to remove American troops, the current leadership made it a priority to remove all troops expeditiously.

The result has been an America clearly divided on foreign policy right down the aisle for the most part. Syria has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its own people. ISIS has filled the vacuum in Iraq that American soldiers created when they left. And the administration insists that its policies have been right, and the other side of the political aisle in America insists they were wrong.

Of course it would be easy to say that the reason is partisan politics. That those who disagree with the current administration simply hate the president no matter what he says or does. Maybe some would. But I don’t think that’s why there is such a huge gap between the two sides.

I think the real reason America is split down the middle on these issues is what motivates each side. In other words, what does each side fear? What is the greatest threat to America’s future?

The President announced last week when he visited Alaska that the greatest issue that America faces today is climate change. And I believe him when he says that. I think that’s the divide in politics today. One side believes the greatest fear we are facing is CO2 emissions. The other side believes the greatest fear is human evil. Your actions and inaction will depend on what your greatest fears are.

If you don’t see it that way, then why not ask people you know who support one political party or the other: What is your greatest fear for the future? ISIS or ICE melting due to climate change.

Why does one political side support capital punishment and the other side  abhors it? It’s about our approach to evil. It’s not that the one side is ok with evil, it’s that it doesn’t recognize evil in black and white terms. It can understand evil. It can even have compassion depending on the circumstances, like how the person grew up, what kind of childhood he had, what kind of economic conditions may have led to his depression or distress. What kind of mental illness he fought with.

People who are against capital punishment believe that somewhere along the way we, society, caused the problems that led to this tragedy. People who are in favor of it hold the guilty party responsible for his actions. People on the left tend to believe that people are basically good, and that society corrupts them. Race, gender, and class issues cause all kinds of societal ills which can lead someone astray. People on the right believe that humans have the capacity to do great evil usually due to insatiable selfishness.

The reason religious people tend to be more right than left is that traditional religion holds the individual responsible for his behavior, and the Torah clearly sends the message that evil is to be hated and destroyed in the name of peace.

Modern Christianity, indeed modern Judaism has turned much of this on its head and found ways to take messages from the Bible and reconfigure them to fit a more progressive perspective. The only commandment, for example, that appears in all five books of the Torah- and there is only one that appears in all five- is the command to execute murderers. Even in the Talmud that command is twisted and turned so as to make capital punishment almost impossible to impose. In tractate Makkot we read: “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a bloody court. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.’ R. Tarfon and R. Akiva said, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed’; Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel said: ‘If so, they would have multiplied murderers in Israel.’”  Were there really Republicans and Democrats in the Talmud?

So two thousand years later we’re still debating the matter. Which only means that we shouldn’t be so sure that we’ve got the right answer. But it also means that the world isn’t so clear on matters of good and evil either. Which is why Israel can be excoriated around the world for being a bloodthirsty enemy of the Palestinians, even though the Palestinians under Israeli control are among the healthiest, freest, and most prosperous of Arabs in any Arab country.

The BDS movement, Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions against Israel is growing by leaps and bounds on college campuses in the West. Most college students polled find Israel to be a worse place than Iran. And America is not far behind. For Israel to be considered worse than Iran or North Korea may be shocking to us, but it is the norm. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the west, and it will not be stopped by those who do not confront true evil.

Israel, filled with left leaning secular Jews, understands the existential threat Iran poses because it terrifyingly discovered dozens of terror tunnels, made with cement and rebar paid for by the Iranian regime, ready to be used to slaughter Jews in Israel and to capture hostages. Until someone who intends to kill you tunnels into your back yard, you are blinded to that reality. Until you realize how many rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israeli towns- literally tens of thousands of them- and your family is running to bomb shelters, you don’t know what evil is.

And so in the aftermath of the fighting last summer in Gaza, where Israel fired back each time a rocket was fired into Israel- the world, and most of its college students- condemned Israel for what it had done. Some even called on Israel to provide Iron Dome technology to Hamas to protect the Gazans from Israeli shells. Don’t bet on the influx of funding from Iran going to pay for missile defense for Gaza. It’s like insisting that the police share their bullet proof vests with the criminals who are firing on them during a robbery shootout.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made some controversial remarks about six weeks ago in which he compared the Iranian nuclear deal to the Holocaust. He claimed that the agreement was akin to leading Israelis “to the door of the oven”. His comments were condemned by many- including those on the right who are against the deal. But listen to why he hasn’t backed down from his words:

“The last time the world did not take seriously threats that someone was going to kill massive amounts of Jews, we ended up seeing six million Jews murdered.”

 “The Iranian government – we’re not talking about a blogger here, we’re talking about the Iranian government – has repeatedly said that it’s gonna be easier to take the Jews out because they’re all concentrated in Israel, we won’t have to go all over the world and hunt them.”

“Three times I’ve been to Auschwitz. When I talked about the oven doors, I have stood at that oven door, I know what exactly it looks like,” Huckabee continued. ”I will not apologize, and I will not recant, because the word holocaust was invoked by the Iranian government – they use that very word.”

I don’t care what party Huckabee is from. His analogy is apt. He fears the evil of an evil regime. We dismiss him as a right wing nut at our own peril.

If the Senate approves the Iran deal, or if it doesn’t, and if a Presidential veto causes it to be approved, I believe the administration will assist Israel by providing gas masks and maybe a few more Iron Dome Interceptors. Unfortunately, one of the other things that all sides on the nuclear deal agree on is that at least some of the money that will be freed up will go toward Iran’s terrorist activities in the Middle East.  I guess it’s good we can all agree on something.

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 2015

New Rosh Hashanah 5756

Over a month ago I was proud to say that my sermons for the holidays were finished. Over the past weeks I’d look over them, tweak them a bit, take something out, put something in. It was a good feeling to be done. I had worked on the ones for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, but my Rosh Hashanah sermons were ready to go.

And after this week, with Connie Stern’s funeral, and Carl Karassik, and yesterday’s with Joe Klein and Jane Danoff, and Saraea’s Bat Mitzvah, and Ethan Kruger’s Bar Mitzvah, and Coby Kornfeld’s Bar Mitzvah and Diane Friedman’s Bat Mitzvah and next week’s Renovations Shabbat Shuva, and my first grandchild on the way and yesterday I got a text with a picture of an onion- that’s how big he or she is right now- I decided to toss the first day sermon.

Life’s too short. We’ve got too much to celebrate and not enough time to kvetch. And to be honest, lots of my sermons are me kvetching about the government and politics and Israel and changes in society. And this week reminded me that there really isn’t enough time left to spend it kvetching. When we’re children and we’ve got our whole lives ahead of us, it’s appropriate to kvetch. But a sign of being an adult is that we stop kvetching so much.

So I hurried up and put a few words down to make a few quick points this morning and then we’ll go right into our musaf and the prayers that make today Rosh Hashanah like the Unetaneh Tokef which I think Cantor and his daughter Liz will sing for us. Then we’ll go home at a reasonable hour and have lunch and come back for tashlich at 5:15. I’ll see if I feel like giving my kvetchy sermon at Kol Nidre- otherwise I’ll send it to you in an email. It shouldn’t be a total loss. Tomorrow is about Israel, and that’s kind of kvetchy too so I cut it in half. I know many can’t be here tomorrow, and to be honest, I know some of you hate when I say this, I wish we’d come to our senses and stop second day of Rosh Hashanah. It’s tough to pour your heart out before God two days in a row and make them both sound as if we really mean it. I’m a Torah kind of guy, and the Torah barely mentions Rosh Hashanah, and nowhere does it even hint at a second day. But it’s a tradition.  All I can say is thank God the rabbis didn’t think it was also important to have a second day of Yom Kippur!

Anyway, in the event you’re not here- I’m against the Iran deal. And I think I know why American leaders are almost completely divided on the issue right down the line. And it has nothing to do with which party is in power or who hates or loves the president.

So just a couple of thoughts and then Musaf. And I’d like to thank a few dignitaries for giving me these thoughts. First and foremost, Cecil the Lion, of blessed memory. Despite the deaths caused by free roaming lions entering populated areas in Zimbabwe, and the fact that Cecil and his friends quite literally terrorized entire neighborhoods forcing parents to not allow their children to play outside, and despite the fact that the government of Zimbabwe has caused untold hardship and devastation for mostly racist reasons, much of the United States looks with compassion on our dear departed Cecil, and with hate and disgust and utter contempt, as well as quite a few death threats, on the dentist who paid a lot of money to kill Cecil. The King of beasts is clearly much more valuable than the dentist who puts crowns on teeth. So Thanks, Cecil, for giving me the ease with which I can point out how horribly broken our combined moral compass actually is. I’m hoping that in this new year even those of us who have been taught to follow our feelings will at least stop and think about our values before we follow our feelings. Now, admittedly, I’ve only got the Torah to go on, but Humans are more important than animals. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be upset with Cecil’s untimely demise, or even that we shouldn’t be upset with the dentist. I’m just saying that we cared about Cecil way too much.

Second, I’d like to thank Pope Francis for his encyclical on the environment.  Jews don’t have popes. And with good reason. I could see it now: What, you’re telling me I have to kiss Rabinowitz’ ring- let Rabinowitz kiss my ring. We’ve got two chief rabbis in Israel, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, and the vast majority of Israelis couldn’t care less what either of them thinks.

But people listen to the Pope. Especially a billion Catholics. And his message to the world, and specifically to one seventh of the earth’s population, was that climate change is the worst thing happening on the planet. Again, from my reading of the Torah, no matter how true the dire scientific predictions are, and no matter how much everyone has to insist that the science is settled- which makes one wonder why they need to keep saying that if it’s really so settled- the Torah is aware of the need to protect nature and the environment. There are even a few great lines that point it out. Like the one in D’varim, Deuteronomy that says if you besiege a city to capture it and set up siege works- a series of logs to keep the gates of the city closed tight until the starving people inside give up- the Torah says LO TASHCHIT- don’t cut down fruit trees to use against the city. KI HA’ADAM ETZ HASADEH? For are the trees of the field human that they can take refuge inside the walls of the city?

So Jewish environmentalists like to quote that line. And why not? There aren’t really any others that they can quote to enhance their agenda. This is about it. Don’t cut down the fruit trees because they can’t hide in safety inside the city. The problem is that the Torah makes clear that only the fruit trees were not to be used, but as for maple, oak, pine, etc. they were perfectly useable. The fruit trees though would provide sustenance for the Israelite forces while they were starving out the Canaanite residents of the city they had besieged.

Regardless of the meaning behind the verse, it was taken by the rabbis of the Talmud and later authorities like the Rambam a thousand years ago to be a signal for us to not waste natural resources. LO TASHCHIT- Do not cut down the fruit trees became known as BAL TASHCHIS or do not destroy something valuable. I wonder if it included a good sermon. Rambam says a person shouldn’t be buried in a suit or dress. Why, he asks, should we give it to the worms when a human being could wear it for a job? He gave other examples of ways in which nature must be preserved. Not for nature’s sake, but for the sake of humankind. And that message does not come across in the Pope’s encyclical.

I applaud the Pope for his concern for creation and for reminding everyone that God created the world. But I wish I could remind him of the verse from the creation story that says that God gave Adam and Eve seed bearing plants and trees in order to keep humankind alive, not because there was any intrinsic value in plants and trees. And in the same verse which we will read in a few weeks he creates humankind VAYIRDU- And humans shal rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, etc. And he blesses Adam and Eve and tells them P’RU UR’VU UMIL’U ET HA’ARETZ V’CHIVSHUHA- Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth V’CHIVSHUHA- And master it! Don’t retreat from it, but rather, control it and master it! That we must take care of it I believe is contained in that verse, but not for nature’s sake, rather only for ours. I’m not sure I heard that in the Pope’s words. But maybe it loses something in the translation.

But my biggest problem with the Pope is that he could have used the power of his office to say something more important than the environment- he could have told us about the evil being done in the name of religion, and specifically about the destruction of Christian towns in the middle east, and the slaughter of innocent Christians in the name of militant Islam. The heads of Christians in their ancient homes which date back to the time of Jesus are being cut off today, in 2015. Not by the Romans, but instead by the young men of ISIS. And instead the Pope chooses to tell us about climate change.

And third, I’d like to thank the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Dr. Arnold Eisen who happens to be well known to some in our congregation like his cousin Ann Rappaport and his good friend Anne Friedman Glauber. And over this weekend Chancellor Eisen went from being not my favorite writer to my new hero.

I was going to talk about my sadness that the theme of his annual Rosh Hashanah message to the Conservative Jews around the world was essentially to piggy back on the Pope’s encyclical. I wasn’t a happy camper reading it, for the same reason I wasn’t happy that it was the Pope’s big message. There is much more imminent danger to the Jewish people than climate change. Even the most dire environmental catastrophes are not expected for half a century. But the Iranian leader, the Supreme Leader himself announced last week that Israel will cease to exist within 25 years. My suggestion is let’s handle Iran and ISIS first, and then we can worry about our CO2 emissions.

But I’ve put aside my kvetching because the Chancellor had dinner with Ann Glauber and if I’m not mistaken also with Liz Alperin Solms who has spearheaded our Visioning Process that Ina talked about.

And at that dinner the Chancellor shared his thoughts about our Conservative Jewish worship. And he said what I have been, well, kvetching about for many years: He believes we need to shake up our services so that our worship will become meaningful again and not just filled with perfunctory repetitions of prayers that have lost their excitement.

That someone else in our Movement, let alone the Chancellor of the Seminary, has said what I’ve been thinking for so many years, brings joy to my heart. Even as someone who understands the vast majority of the Hebrew we do as part of a traditional service, I don’t get why we include so much mumbling, or why we feel the need to repeat what we just said silently out loud as we have done today. I know the Cantor has a better voice than we have, but saying everything twice isn’t that meaningful.

And to hear these sentiments at the precise time that we at Temple Israel are working on our own vision of who we are and how meaningful we can make our worship, is pretty close to b’sheret. I’m looking forward to this Shabbat, in fact I’m very excited about it. Because you have all contributed time and money and effort into making this sanctuary a beautiful and spiritually uplifting place to thank God for our blessings each week. And we owe it to ourselves and to God to make our worship, our tefillah, our prayer as meaningful in our day as we possibly can.

So with our prayers of comfort to those who lost loved ones in these past few weeks, and with some mixed emotions and perhaps mixed up values about poor Cecil the Lion, and with the utmost respect to the Pope despite my misgivings about his message, and with sincere appreciation to Chancelor Eisen, I wish you all a Shanah Tovah Umetukah a happy and healthy and sweet and envisioning New Year.

Talk for Shabbat Parah 3-14-15

           These weeks we’ve been reading in the Torah about truly nationalistic, entirely Jewish topics. The building of the portable temple, the Mishkan, in the desert- with all of the details and blueprints so that every single Israelite would have a record of each and every detail. It was all in anticipation of ultimately coming to our own land, the Promised Land, and building the full size Temple which would serve as a focal point for all Israelites throughout all generations.

          Even the special Maftir and Haftorah for Shabbat Parah are designed to help to purify the nation in anticipation of the Passover festival, which is all about us- our ancestors leaving Egypt so we would bask in the freedom of today.

          For thousands of years we Jews have almost taken for granted the freedom we won exiting Egypt. We’ve had our reminders, of course, of how delicate that freedom actually is. Numerous attacks by invading armies, losses, including the loss of our Holy Temple to the Babylonians and to the Romans, attacks during the Crusades, horrible treatment throughout most of the middle ages, expulsions from most of the places we had felt comfortable in from Spain to England, then pogroms in Eastern Europe and ultimately the Holocaust. How any Jew with even a slight knowledge of Jewish history could really take freedom for granted is an enigma.

          But it is clear that we do not appreciate our freedom as much as we should. Secular Jews in Europe are starting to wake up. In America, which is becoming very European in its values, we’re still fast asleep.

          I’ll give you two examples, both from College life, as we celebrate our Leah back visiting with us. The most well known in recent days is the Univeristy of Oklahoma fraternity video showing a student leading a one line chant about pledges who might sign up to join the fraternity. The words that were repeated were: You can hang them from a tree but they’ll never sign with me- there will never be a N-word at SAE.

          I don’t know what those students, apparently dressed in formalwear, were doing on that bus- if they were going to a party, if they were coming from one- I don’t know if alcohol played a role or not. I do know that black students have been members of that fraternity, so I don’t even follow why they were chanting as they did. The students who led the chant have been expelled from the university. The fraternity has been closed, the letters Sigma Alpha and Epsilon have been removed from the brick outer wall of the building. And until something else big happens in the news, or unless Hillary Clinton’s private Facebook account goes viral, we will continue to see and hear about this nasty, mean chant and the boys who were responsible for it.

          The boys were expelled from school within a few days. Their futures clearly uncertain, and undoubtedly heavily burdened especially with the national attention. I’m not certain what the penalties for other offenses on campus might be. Would a student be expelled for a DUI for example, which could be deadly depending on the circumstances. Would they be expelled for selling drugs on campus? Would they be expelled for getting into a fight and putting a fellow student in the hospital? I honestly don’t know. But my immediate reaction to the expulsions was, isn’t that a bit harsh? I mean, no one was physically assaulted. After seeing the video, and especially seeing that the dullard who was leading the chant needed to read the lyrics from a paper, I don’t think anyone actually fears that they’ll be strung up in a noose anytime soon at that campus. I think the most dreadful concern might be that a black student might not want to join Sigma Alpha Epsilon any time soon.

          I hate to wander back to my childhood, but does anyone else remember a different chant? “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Must this immature and incredibly stupid display of foolishness really hold the attention of such a huge part of America for days on end?

Here’s a quote from the student group that posted the video online: “Even after 50 years after the events that occurred in Selma, Alabama we still have a reason to march. We as a people have indeed come a long way, but yet still have so far to go.”

I understand why the President of the United States used essentially the same words from Selma about Ferguson, Missouri last week. Someone really should have sent him the memo that the Justice Department completely and utterly exonerated the police officer who shot the young man who tried to grab the officer’s gun during the tragic episode. And I certainly understand that the police department in Ferguson should henceforth arrest no further citizens of color once they reach the 67 per cent of the population mark in order to avoid the charge of racism.

But really, to even think of a comparison between these dumb fraternity students and the events that led to the original march in Selma is to make the abhorrent racism of the post slavery era as insignificant as this nasty and mean chant on the bus. If only we had the ability to see the difference between true evil and callous nastiness. But we can’t. If we could, then Israel would be praised around the world, instead of despised. The same college campuses whose students believe that what these fraternity boys did was absolutely evil and worthy of incessant news coverage and brings to mind Jim Crow, also consider Israel to be the worst country in the Middle East.

Which brings us to the second college incident. A month ago the UCLA student council met to interview Rachel Beyda, a sophomore who is Jewish, who was nominated to the judicial board. There was no concern noted by anyone on the council about her credentials, but from a video taken of the meeting, one council member, named Fabienne Roth, asked her about being Jewish: “how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” The council excused Rachel Beyda from the room and continued to discuss her nomination for three quarters of an hour. The only issue discussed was whether her Jewishness was a problem. Ultimately, the council voted to reject her nomination.

Only after the council members were cautioned by a faculty advisor about considering the nominee’s religion did the students change their position and confirm her.

          For some reason this video has not actually gone viral. Perhaps because it was taken down from the UCLA website while recordings of the other council meetings are still up on the web. Or perhaps it’s because this display of bigotry and intolerance wasn’t on the front page of the major newspapers as has been the University of Oklahoma matter. There was no talk of punishing the students who were involved in this anti-Semitic incident. No one is suggesting that they be censured, brought before an ethics review committee of the University, and certainly no one has even fathomed expulsion from the school.

          Would the same be true if it had been a Muslim student that was nominated? Would anyone have asked such questions of a Muslim student? How about a black student?

          Dennis Prager was in London a few months ago to be part of the debate at the Oxford Union, which has been hosting debates since 1823. The debate was titled: “Hamas is a greater obstacle to peace than Israel.”

          Prager and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach debated Professor of international relations at Oxford Avi Shlaim, an expatriate Israeli, and one his many students, Dr. Mishana Hosseinioun, an American who received her Ph.D. from Berkeley

          Here are some of the statements they made during the debate which garnered much applause from the large student body present:

“Hamas has an obligation to defend the Palestinian people against Israeli aggression.”

“What we are witnessing are [Israel’s] ongoing crimes against humanity.”

“[Israel] has waged innumerable acts of unprovoked and unwarranted acts of aggression against the Palestinians.”

“Hamas has abandoned its more militant ways for a more conciliatory platform of moderation.”

“The world turns a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinians and gives Israel carte blanche to do to Arabs as was once done to the Jews.”

“Israel is behaving like Nazi Germany.” (Long Applause.)

“The motion before this house is preposterous because it blames the victim [Hamas] and exonerates the oppressor [Israel].”

“Israeli occupation is the most prolonged and brutal military occupation of modern time.”

          Prager and Boteach put up a good fight. But partially because truth is no longer a value on the college campus, and instead race, gender, and class has taken front stage, these nasty lines excoriating Israel got the most applause because they were so familiar to the students. Needless to say, when the students voted, the Oxford Professor and his Berkley protégé won the debate. At Oxford, and in much of the world, Israel is seen as more of an obstacle to peace than Hamas.

          As we anticipate this holiday of freedom, and celebrate together as Jews our freedom and the freedom of the relatively new State of Israel, we’d better keep our eyes and ears open, even on this side of the Atlantic, and in particular keep an eye on what is happening on campus.

The Prime Minister’s Speech March, 2015

Talk for Parshat Ki Tissa- Netanyahu

             At the Purim Carnival last week we saw Aaron Kaufer, who won Phyllis Mundy’s congressional seat a few months ago when Phyllis retired. Gerri was feeding Ella and I asked Aaron if he was planning to kiss all the babies while he was at the carnival. And Gerri reminded him of how difficult a student he was a few years ago in Hebrew School. Aaron said that he would be addressing the state legislature in Harrisburg on Wednesday when a bipartisan statement of support for Israel is adopted by the State House. He said he’d be speaking about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address of the United States Congress that same day.

            Yesterday I saw a video of Aaron’s brief but meaningful statement to the representatives of our state. I must admit, I was impressed. It was a one minute sermon and it was quite fitting for framing Pennsylvania’s support for Israel at the same time that Israel’s Prime Minister was addressing the US Congress on the day before Purim, the Fast of Esther. As I listened to Cantor Abraham reading the Megillah at Minyan Wednesday evening and then again Thursday morning, I heard twice the words I had heard my whole life- Mordecai sends word to Esther that she must go to the King and plead her case on behalf of her people now that Haman has decreed that the Jews will be annihilated.

            Esther sends back word to Mordecai: Everyone in the kingdom knows that if any person, man or woman, enters the king’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one outcome for him- that he be put to death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter to him may he live. And I have not been summoned to visit the king for the last thirty days.

            Mordecai tells Esther that she must go regardless of the consequences- that perhaps it was for this very reason that she was destined to become queen. And Esther agreed and asked that the Jews declare a fast and pray on behalf of her mission.

            Listen to how our Aaron told this to the representatives in our state house: “In the Book of Esther, Queen Esther breaches protocol and enters into the king’s inner chamber in order to make the case for the salvation of the Jewish People. Queen Esther was a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin, and she entered the king’s personal domain on that day that would be known as the Fast of Esther. So too in the year 2015 the Prime Minister of Israel, a man named Benjamin, breached protocol and entered into the chambers of government in order to make the case for the salvation of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. He spoke before Congress on the very same day as Queen Esther, the Fast of Esther. The modern day threat to the State of Israel comes from the very same place as the Biblical threat did- called Persia then, and called Iran now. And with God’s help, he will be equally as successful.”

            It seems that Aaron was listening in Hebrew school. It’s a very meaningful point that he made, and he brings pride to the Jewish people and our congregation by sharing those words in the State House.

            I was very moved by Netanyahu’s speech, which I saw from Sam Greenberg’s hospital room. Sitting next to a Jewish war veteran, a past national commander of the Jewish war veterans, by the way- the current national commander will be visiting Wilkes-Barre next Friday and Sam and Barbara will be hosting him at a lunch at the JCC- we’re all invited and especially those who are in or support the JWV. I was glad to hear the Prime Minister applaud President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for their dedication to Israel and their efforts to help secure peace in the Middle East. And I was glad to see the vast majority of our senators and members of the House of Representatives applaud the Prime Minister. Much of that applause was accompanied by standing ovations. I don’t think most rabbis could say they’ve ever seen so many Gentiles standing for a Jewish fellow- their shul members on Yom Kippur don’t stand that often.

            I was exceedingly proud of being part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People during that speech. Seeing and hearing the reactions of most members of Congress, I was exceedingly proud of being an American as well. I wasn’t proud because of some nationalist fervor as a Jew or as an American. I was proud because it was all about the values we share, Israel and America, that make us unique in the world.

            Have you ever stopped to wonder why evil regimes always seem to vocally and publicly spew their hatred for both America and Israel? Have you ever wondered why Iran, for example, refers to America as the Great Satan and to Israel as the Little Satan? Because we both share the values that they despise. Liberty for all, E Pluribus Unum- from many diverse backgrounds we come together as one people. Anyone can become an American and anyone can become a Jew. Anyone can apply for citizenship to both countries. And you become American or Jewish overnight. How long does it take someone to become a Frenchman? Or a Britt? Or an Iranian or a Turk? The answer is never. But in America you can speak with a thick Austrian accent and become governor of the largest state in the union. And in Judaism you can convert and a week later have an Aliyah to the Torah.

            Iran hates that. And it hates that we believe in God as a people. That belief is challenged often from within our ranks, and it’s been severely limited. But two things are clear. First, the Prime Minister of Israel looked across that hall of Congress, and saw the likeness of Moses staring back at him holding the Ten Commandments. It’s the very vision from today’s Torah portion- at least before Moses smashed those tablets upon seeing the Golden Calf, and at least before that depiction of Moses with those tablets written in Hebrew are chiseled off the wall.

            And second, the Prime Minister, whose speech will go down in history as one of the greatest ever delivered before Congress, spoke from a podium, precisely where the President of the United States gives his State of the Union address, which is directly under the words emblazoned in the marble façade above that read In God We Trust.

            If you’ve ever wondered why America and Israel are so similarly hated by so many around the world, it’s because we share these values- Liberty, In God We Trust, and E pluribus unum. I haven’t heard France labeled the medium sized Satan. I haven’t heard anyone call Canada the Northern Satan. I haven’t heard anyone call out Belize for annihilation. In fact, no democratic country has its citizens constantly worry about attacks from missiles, from suicide bombs, from drivers purposely running over innocent civilians, and from neighbors engaged in the process of gaining nuclear capabilities which they have publicly declared will be aimed at them other than Israel. Because in the midst of 5 million square miles of Muslim countries, Israel’s 7,000 square miles of liberty and belief in God and a melting pot ideal are the quintessence of the devil.

            Today we read of the Torah being prepared to be presented to the Israelites as Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai. And we wonder- what’s so horrible about that Torah? What’s in it that would engender such hatred from so many around the world? Which of those Ten Commandments is so offensive, so vile, so cruel that nations would try for over 3,000 years to annihilate the ones who brought those commandments into the world? And that in our own day we would live to see Hitler almost complete that task and watch as Iran pledges to do the same.

            In the Talmud in tractate Shabbat the question is asked, Why is there such hatred directed against the Jews? What makes us Jews? The Torah. Where did we get the Torah? Mt. Siani. How is Sinai pronounced in Hebrew? SINAI. What’s the Hebrew word for hatred? SIN’AH. The Talmud says the source of the hatred of the Jews is what we received from Sinai that makes us Jews. The Torah.

            It’s that Torah that the Jews shared with the rest of the world, and which the Christians ultimately used to build America on its values. And that’s why we are so hated.

            You know what the critics of Netanyahu’s speech have been saying? You know what the concerns are of the 55 or so members of the Congress and Senate who boycotted that speech? You know what the President said about it- he read the transcript, didn’t have a chance to see it. That there was nothing new in the talk. I said that last week before he gave it. It was almost the same talk he gave at the United Nations- but unlike the United Nations, this was a talk to the equally hated Americans. And they listened carefully and were moved.

            Those who boycotted said it was fear mongering. Do they hear themselves? Fear mongering? And what do they call the global warming screaming they all do? It’s supposed to calm everyone down when they say that in 40 years temperatures will be so hot we’ll be dying in the streets? At least maybe some of this ice will melt in 40 years. But this is imminent, and we’ve already seen the evil that Iran is capable of without nuclear arms. It’s not as if we’ve got nothing to fear. 9/11 has proven that we’ve got plenty to fear. And Israel- well, one purim celebration featured a 21 year old Palestinian driving into a crowd with a hatchet by his side ready to get out and not only take off purim masks but chop off entire heads.

            Is that fear mongering? Or is that reality. Last year’s New York Times in February had a piece that announced that in 30 years 103 ski resorts in North America would cease to be viable because snow would disappear. I’m still trying to figure out the downside of that report. But for heaven’s sake- that’s fear mongering. Especially this winter. But imagining a nuclear Iran in a few years once sanctions are lifted? Imagining that somehow they’ll actually be truthful to the UN inspectors about where their nuclear facilities actually are?

            And lastly, the arguments against Netanyahu’s visit were that it was all politics. Fine. And boycotting the speech of America’s greatest ally in the Middle East was also pure politics. I think it was also politically foolish for those who did. They could have come and not applauded. They could have come and not stood up for the standing ovations. All because of protocol? Israel is pondering its future life or death, and these guys think protocol is more important? They must have all thought that Queen Esther was wrong to risk her life to go before the king to save her people.

            After introducing Eli Weisel toward the end of his speech, Netanyahu said: “I can guarantee you this — the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.”

 “We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves.” “We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.” He quoted Moses saying in Hebrew CHIZKU V’IMTZU AL TIR’U V’AL T’ARTZU MIPNEIHEM, “Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them.”

Standing ovation.

Yom Kippur Morning 5775 “It’s All About Perspective”

Rabbi Larry Kaplan  Temple Israel, Wilkes-Barre, PA
Yom Kippur Morning 5775 “It’s All About Perspective”

I remember a funeral I did for a four year old in Florida. She was born with a congenital brain abnormality for which there was no treatment. She achieved the mental capacity of a six month old, and came to services each week with her family who always doted on her. She had serious medical problems throughout her short life, and her funeral was attended by hundreds of people.

In the eulogy I said that she was the one of the luckiest people I knew. Because when I sit with every other family and talk about the loved one that had died, I always hear good stories and sad stories. Even the most righteous Tzaddik had sad times, often miserably sad during his lifetime. And there were the few for whom almost no complimentary words could be found.

I remember one family who had not one nice thing to say about their deceased parent. Not one. I was tempted to tell the joke about the rabbi who had to eulogize the meanest man in the community. And when he got up to speak, he didn’t know what to say. There was silence. He looked out at the people who had gathered hoping that someone would say something nice.

Finally a man stood up and said, “I knew him…..His brother was worse!”

But with this little girl, named Ariel, which means Lion of God, the eulogy was easy. She had the best life. It was short, but it was sweet. She only knew love. Her sister and brother loved her. Her parents loved her smiles and laughs, and dressed her like a princess. Even the dog treated her like his prized possession. She was definitely spoiled. No one ever spoke crossly with her, she never heard harsh words or experienced grief or despair. She never grew to comprehend the evil that humans are capable of, the disasters that happen every day, the fighting and killing and anger and hostility. All she knew, from the moment she was born until her short life ended, was complete and utter love.

From her perspective, life was amazing.

For us, it’s different. It’s extremely difficult to keep life in perspective. We’re usually not comparing ourselves to Ariel. We’re usually comparing ourselves to those we envy. I’ve often quoted Joseph Telushkin’s mother in this regard. The story I heard Dennis Prager tell is that he and his childhood friend Joseph Telushkin were sitting in Joseph’s kitchen where his mother was preparing dinner. The boys were talking about how wonderful it must be to live at the neighbor’s home since they just got a brand new Cadillac. How happy they must be. Mrs. Telushkin turned around and said to them, “The only people I know that are truly happy are people that I don’t know very well.”

When we look for perspective by comparing ourselves to others, we will undoubtedly fall short. Prager tells the story of visiting a fellow radio talk show host in the Midwest. He said he entered the man’s office and immediately got the feeling that this person was loved and appreciated. He saw pictures of the man’s family- his beautiful wife and two daughters. As they spoke it became clear that the man felt truly blessed- he looked forward to coming to work each day where he spoke to thousands of people on the radio and loved every minute of it. He adored his family and for a moment, Prager believed he was finally sitting before a person who had it all.

And the discussion turned to the Internet, and the man said he finds it to be a Godsend. Prager asked him why. The man said, because it’s got all the latest information about MS which his wife was diagnosed with last year. And Prager’s heart sank as he now felt profoundly sorry for this person whose life looked so wonderful just a few seconds earlier.

Perspective is tough. It can make us feel very vulnerable instead of very safe. It can make us feel very depressed instead of very happy.

We get cues about perspective from our tradition. The Talmud cautions us: AL TISTAKEL B’KANKAN, ELAH B’MAH SHEYESH BO- Don’t look at the container, instead focus on what’s inside. Rabbi Mark Greenspan wrote a sermon some years ago about Susan Boyle- remember her? She was on the British version of American Idol and she nearly knocked the judges and the audience out of their seats. This 47 year old single woman, grey frizzy hair, not exactly svelt, kind of frumpy looking who claimed never to have been kissed before, who lived with her cat in a small village in Scotland, becomes an overnight musical success. And she’s done half a dozen hit albums and is in concert all around the world to this day.

AL TISTAKEL B’KANKAN, ELAH B’MAH SHEYESH BO- Don’t look at the container, instead focus on what’s inside. Rabbi Greenspan reminds us of a great Talmudic story about Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, a brilliant scholar who was a blacksmith, the humblest of professions. That was back in the days when rabbis earned a real living and were just rabbis on the side. Rabbi Joshua was known for his great wisdom and his homely looks. Because he was a respected sage, Rabbi Joshua had access to the aristocracy of his day even though he was a humble craftsman. Once, the daughter of Caesar commented to him, “What a pity; that God would place such glorious wisdom in so ugly a vessel!”

Rabbi Joshua replied, “Tell me, in what kind of vessel does your father keep his wine?” Caesar’s daughter said: “In earthenware jugs.” Joshua: “Ordinary people keep wine in earthenware jugs; you, who are so important, you should keep it in vessels of silver or gold!”

Caesar’s daughter went and told her father, who had his wine put into vessels of silver and gold. And of course what happened?– the wine immediately turned sour. Caesar summoned Rabbi Joshua and asked him, “Why did you give my daughter such advice?”

Rabbi Joshua said: “The same question she asked me, I turned around and asked her.”

We have been blessed with perspective that is the curse of our strongest sense- our sense of sight. What we see is how we draw conclusions about people. We see strange piercings or multiple tattoos, we draw conclusions about those people. I know I do. I usually conclude that they have a much greater tolerance for pain than I have. The third paragraph of the Shema, the VAYOMER tells us to tie strings, fringes onto our four cornered garments. The Tallis we wear, is a throwback to the toga or poncho type clothing our ancestors wore with four corners, and the fringes that the Torah commands us to attach to them. It wasn’t about prayer, and it wasn’t about wearing it at services. It was the opposite- it was designed to be part of our normal attire. It was for whenever we went out into public.

UR’ITEM OTO And you shall look at those strings and be reminded of all of God’s commandments. V’LO TATURU And you shall not go astray ACHAREI L’VAVCHEM V’ACHAREI EINEICHEM- following your heart or your eyes ASHER ATEM ZONIM ACHAREIHEM- which pervert you. Actually the word ZONIM means which prostitute you to do all kinds of nasty things. Our hearts and our EYES can make a pretty dangerous pair.

How serious a problem would prostitution be if we were not blessed with the gift of sight? Or racism? Would there be racism without our eyes causing all kinds of problems? No wonder our Torah gave us a commandment to put a reminder on our clothing to keep us mindful of how easily our eyes and our hearts can lead us into trouble. And it is the eyes that most often distort our perspective on life.

How we look to ourselves and especially to others can be a huge problem for happiness and contentment. You can be an extremely kind and compassionate person, but if your appearance doesn’t fit into societal norms, most people don’t bother looking inside at your soul or your character. It causes all kinds of problems even when people do know your character- many marriages end because of the toll age takes on our bodies. We look at the wedding picture, and then look at our spouse 35 years later and say that’s not who I married. And TV and the Internet doesn’t make it easier. Because the last thing you see before you fall asleep is the image of the Diet Pepsi model on the TV. And then you wake up in the morning and look at who you’re married to. We need to keep perspective and it’s a daily challenge, which is why we need those Tzitzit, those fringes constantly flying in front of our eyes.

There’s another story in the Talmud, one that’s not usually on the Talmud’s Greatest Hits list, but which is a reminder of how vulnerable we are to losing perspective. A certain person was meticulous about wearing Tzitzit- his fringed garment. He heard of a prostitute who would spend the day with him for four hundred gold pieces. So he sent the money and went to visit her. She was up in the bedroom waiting for him, but when he got into bed with her his Tzitzit, the fringes started to slap him in the face and he fell out of the bed. The prostitute thought he found some flaw in her, and demanded to know why he wouldn’t stay with her. He explained that she was indeed very beautiful, but the Tzitzit reminded him of the laws God gave us so he must leave.

Before she let him go she demanded to know the town he was from and who his teacher was. She sold all her belongings and donated the money to charity. She visited the town, went to the rabbi and begged to be converted to Judaism. The rabbi asked her if she had her eye on one of his students, and she said yes. So he proceeded with the conversion, and afterwards she was able to marry the student and engage legally in what his Tzitzit wouldn’t allow him to do before.

Even without physical Tzitzit, we need help in keeping perspective. You look in the mirror and see that you’ve grown old. So you have a choice. You can act old, or you can push yourself to be as young as you possibly can be. We’re not beholden to our eyes to determine how active and how vibrant we are.

You can step on a scale and it tells you you’ve gained weight. And then you can be sad about that and go eat something overflowing with calories because we’re depressed about how we look. Or we can ignore the scale and focus on how we feel. And eating better makes us feel better even if our eyes suggest otherwise.

When I get in the elevator at General hospital I inevitably stand before a huge poster labeled Body Mass Index. It’s a huge chart with your height along the top axis and your weight along the side axis. And the point at which the height and the weight meet is your BMI. There are about three columns that are shaded in green, which means you have a good Body Mass Index. You have to weigh 125 pounds and be 6 foot 4 inches tall to be in the green section.

Next is the yellow- this is borderline, but it’s where anyone who looks reasonably normal fits. Then is the red section, supportively labeled “obese”, and then you get to where I fit in, the brown section, much like the color of the earth of the grave, which has the haunting words, “Morbidly Obese”. It’s like why bother going to visit anyone on the 8th floor, I should just go directly to the cardiac unit.

But the truth is, the chart is wrong. It’s not as simple as putting together a few numbers and getting the answers. There are all kinds of factors involved, and perspective is crucial. When I’m careful about what I eat and I get exercise, I feel great. I’ve got plenty of energy, I’m not tired during the day, I don’t huff and puff when I walk up stairs. Of course I’d like to be much thinner, and some day, God willing, my metabolism will catch up to my desires. But in the meantime I have a choice. I can focus on that dreadful chart in the elevator, or I can focus on how I’m living my life and how good I feel.

It’s all about perspective. That’s why we begin our day with comparing ourselves to God. Right after the list of morning blessings we say every single day of the year, including today, there is a paragraph that says RIBBON KOL OLAMIM, Master of the Universe- we aren’t coming before You based on our righteousness- we’re bringing our prayerful supplications based on Your abundant compassion. MAH ANU? What are we? MEH CHAYYEINU? What value is our life? MEH CHASDEINU? What substance is there in our kindness? MAH STIDKEINU? What’s the value of our righteousness MA YISH’EINU, MA KOCHEINU, MAH G’VURATEINU? Or of our strength or our courage or goodness? MAH NOMAR L’FANECHA- What can we possibly say before You? HALO KOL HAGIBORIM K’AYIN LEFANECHA- Before you the most heroic are insignificant, ANSHEI HASHEM K’LO HAYU- The famous are as if they had never existed. CHACHAMIM K’VLI MADA UNVONIM KIVLI HASKEL- The learned are like the ignorant, the wise are like fools, for most of our deeds are worthless and our days expire like a breath. Measured against Your perfection we are barely higher than the animals, for we are all so trivial.

That’s how Jews begin their day. We put our relationship with God into perspective. We are dust compared to God. And so we had better keep that in mind when we walk around thinking that we’re such hot shots. Before we open our mouth to tear down another person, before we think that the entire world is here for my pleasure, before we act without stopping to think of the impact of our behavior- we must pause for some perspective. We need to build ourselves up from dust simply by being as good as we possibly can be, as noble as we can be, as just as we can be.

And while that’s how the Siddur starts us off every single day, there is only one day out of the year where that paragraph of perspective is used during the Amidah, during the central prayers of the day- and that day is today on Yom Kippur. We are reminded, at the end of the Amidah, and during the Neilah service, of that need for perspective. We are reminded as if imaginary Tzitzit are flying up and hitting us in the face for being so brazen and filled with such hubris and chutzpah as to think that we are God.

Instead we are humbled as we gain perspective on life, as we give thanks to God for the life we have, and as we turn every negative into a positive and learn to appreciate all the blessings God has bestowed upon us.

May the memory of that precious little Ariel remind us of how to take advantage of every minute of life for the best, as we now remember those who have gone to their eternal home.


Kol Nidre 2014 The Last War

Rabbi Larry Kaplan  Temple Israel, Wilkes-Barre, PA
Kol Nidre 5775 “The Last War”

This was a difficult summer for Jews. Maybe not for all Jews, but for those who were watching the news and listening to the radio, it was a tough one. It began for us with the visit from our Shlicha, the representative from the Jewish Agency to our JCC camp. Yarden Rappaport, 22, finished in March her two years of mandatory service, and an additional year as an officer in the Israel Defense Force. She spent a few months training and preparing to be one of 1200 Israeli emissaries to Jewish communities in the United States and around the world. Then she boarded a plane and landed in Newark a week before camp started.

When she got to our house, the driver told us that the question she kept asking as they left Newark airport and began the ride across Route 80 was what’s behind all those trees. The trees we take for granted all around us mesmerized Yarden because she knows that every tree in Israel was planted by hand. To see literally millions of trees was shocking to her.

She quickly overcame her shock and settled in, to our family, to all the babies, to the shopping, to the JCC camp, to the Jewish community, and to the wider Wyoming Valley. She did an amazing program with the mostly non-Jewish JCC campers and staff, so that by the middle of the summer each and every camper could sing the Hatikvah, knew their colors in Hebrew, and learned the word of the day each day of camp, and knew more about Israel than some of us do.

Yarden spoke from this Bimah to our congregation on Shabbat, she spoke at Temple B’nai B’rith, at the JCC, at First Presbyterian Church, and at a church in Bear Creek.

And while it was a very busy summer, you could see that Yarden, this young Lieutenant in the Israeli army, was homesick. Had it been a normal summer, I don’t think she would have been. But when she received alerts on her cell phone each day about missile attacks and when a code red was sounded in her home town of Tel Aviv, she wondered why she was having so much fun making new friends here in Northeastern Pennsylvania where the biggest fear is from a deranged cop killer and not having to run to air raid shelters because of rocket attacks.

Her 80 year old grandmother lives in a first floor apartment near her family. But they only have 90 seconds from the sounding of the air raid sirens to get to the bomb shelter. Her grandmother can’t get down the steps that quickly, so she sits in her apartment trusting that the Iron Dome missile defense system will do its job and knock the rocket out of the sky before it hits a populated area.

We’ve had the rockets for years now. And with the Iron Dome knocking them out of the sky, we had a sense things would be ok. But then we saw the tunnels. Dozens of tunnels. Not like the ones dug in the movie the great escape. These were tunnels that remind you of the Lehigh Tunnel. Real tunnels reinforced with rebar and cement, with communication lines and lights running through them. All designed for terror, for kidnapping, for blowing up Jews in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Yarden was homesick for that?

I joked with Pat Leahy, president of Wilkes University, who was at the church in Bear Creek the Sunday that Yarden spoke. I said why not offer her a year’s scholarship to stay in town as a visiting International student? He seemed to like the idea. And I had no idea how long the war in Gaza would last, and what new elements of terror might be uncovered. But Yarden treated it all lightly, and said she’d certainly consider coming back next year as the Israeli representative. But she had every intention of returning to Israel where she knew she belonged.

So Gaza is quiet. And Israel is looking at the north where Hezbollah has watched and learned from their Hamas counterparts. And the world hates Israel more than ever because it dared to fire back when the rockets came streaming in. And Jews, lots of Jews joined the ranks of those who were extremely critical of Israel for its killing of so many innocent Palestinians in Gaza. And when they hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak of Israel’s Defense Force as the most moral army on earth, they laugh and say he’s a warmonger who likes killing Palestinian children. Jews are saying that.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s all a big lie and the Israelis really do like killing Palestinians. I mean, how moral can they be? They drop leaflets with instructions in Arabic on when they will be bombing the rocket launchers in their neighborhood, and with maps that show the Palestinians exactly where they will be safe and how to get there. They send text messages directly to their cell phones. They broadcast on Arabic TV. That sounds pretty moral. I don’t think America is doing that before it bombs ISIS strongholds that obviously have innocent civilians nearby.

But Israel knows that Hamas is cruel and evil- they use innocent women and children as human shields and at gunpoint force them to remain next to the rocket launchers. And then use the pictures of their dead bodies as proof to the world that Israel is guilty of war crimes.

So Hamas is at fault. Or is it? If Israel knows that this is how Hamas behaves, and still it bombs the rocket launchers, isn’t Israel guilty of purposely killing innocents since it knows they will not leave?

Maybe so. And so I wonder, what is Israel’s alternative? Let the rocket launchers keep launching rockets? Let Israelis keep running into bomb shelters indefinitely? The fact that we are even thinking of these questions is a bit absurd, isn’t it? I mean, where else on earth would you find a country attacked by a sworn enemy, an enemy who has blatantly called for your destruction, and instead of flattening your enemy with every ounce of firepower you have, you sit and debate whether or not you should fire back because it will mean killing innocents.

And it’s Jews who are saying this! Jews are calling Israel baby killers. I ask this all the time- Jews who are critical of Israel. Do you really need to be the conscience of the Jewish State? Do you really need to be the one telling Israel to hold its fire? Telling Israel to leave the settlements? Telling Israel to get rid of Netanyahu? We Jews are a fraction of one percent of the world’s population. There are many, many millions of people all around the world that would love to see Israel destroyed. Don’t you think it would be ok for you to let all of those people criticize Israel without your help? Couldn’t you consider, that while Israel fights for its very life and existence, couldn’t you possibly consider just shutting up?

A prominent rabbi has written that we’ve been misled about Gaza and Israel’s role. He writes that when Sharon pulled every last Jew out of Gaza in 2005, “In fact, Israel never withdrew from Gaza. After it pulled out its military and civilians, it continued to blockade the seaport, the airport, and kept total control of the border crossings, allowing only a trickle of people to leave what was, and still is, an open-air jail. The withdrawal was not an act of peace; it was a continual act of war.” He wrote that Hamas is the group that truly wants peace, and that Israel wants only one thing: to annex the entire West Bank.

Well, we can differ on what we think Israel really wants and what Hamas really wants, but it’s kind of tough to differ on facts. And this rabbi’s facts are simply not accurate.  Because while Israel did continue to control the border crossings with Israel, it had no control whatsoever over the border crossings with Egypt. But Egypt felt it was necessary to close its border with Gaza too. I guess it’s easier just to blame Israel. And as far as this open air jail having a seaport blockade- the hundreds of tons of cement that have been poured through these years to create those dozens of terror tunnels suggest that it wasn’t much of a blockade to begin with.

While looking for other articles written by this particular rabbi, I found one from August blaming the entire Gaza war this summer on Israel and on Netanyahu in particular. He explained, “Hamas responded to Netanyahu’s provocations with rockets, as Israel unleashed its fighter jets, attack helicopters, and tanks.” Then he wrote: “A country has a right to defend itself against rockets, but Hamas did not start this war. It was orchestrated by Netanyahu and the rockets were a response to Israel’s shelling and land incursion into Gaza.” I suppose I wouldn’t have been so surprised to see such blatant criticism of Israel, even by a rabbi, on the Peace Now website, for example. But this came up on the website of the Gulf Daily News- The Voice of Bahrain. Bahrain is the little wealthy Arab country on the Persian Gulf nestled in between Saudi Arabia and Iran which also seems to show up on most of the lists of countries with the most human rights abuses. And that’s where this rabbi’s lovely sentiments about Israel are proudly displayed. The piece ends: “Netanyahu wants to convince the world that Hamas started this conflict with rockets, but the reality is quite different.” But the rockets have been fired regularly for years now. They didn’t just begin this summer. They began in 2007. How do you just ignore that? I’ve decided not to purchase a subscription to the Bahrain Daily News, either in Arabic or in English.

But most of the good stuff Israel does will not make it to the Bahrain Daily News. Or to the New York Times. Most of the good stuff Israel does simply goes unnoticed.

I sent out an email during the summer with a video showing a field hospital Israel set up a year ago along the border with Syria in the northeast of Israel in the Golan Heights. This was back in the days when the President was telling us that ISIS is a junior varsity team and not to worry about them. But the war in Syria was getting very close to Israel, and the army hospital was treating seriously wounded Syrians who needed medical attention.

It caught my eye because I had a picture from our trip in March of the same place that this new field hospital was operating. It was outside the border with Kuneitra, Syria. When we visited Mt. Bental I took a picture of Kuneitra which you can clearly see from the mountain. And in the video we see Israeli doctors and paramedics treating Syrian civilians who were injured in bombings in Syria. And the reporter wanted to know if the man the doctor was treating was a fighter, was he part of the hostilities? And the doctor said he doesn’t care- his job is to treat the injured. But the reporter pressed him, so the doctor asked the young man in Arabic if he was a fighter in the militia, and the man answered him. The doctor turned to the reporter and said, “He says he’s not in the militia” and continued to check his blood pressure.

Then we see the Israelis preparing to return the young man to Syria. He is loaded on a Syrian truck to go back home. But first they check to make sure there is no Hebrew on the blankets, not even a laundry tag. No Hebrew on the bandages or supplies. The prescription drugs are put into plain containers with instructions hand written in Arabic. It would be extremely dangerous for them if any of these wounded Syrians ever divulged that they had been treated by Israeli doctors in Israel.

So no one will know. Jews won’t know what Israel does to help even sworn enemies of Israel, and Syria will never know. And the United Nations will never know and it doesn’t really matter. Because it’s not about how good, how moral, how upright are the Israelis and how evil, how detestable, how depraved is the enemy. Because the world already knows that. And it doesn’t care. It’s all about what you think of Israel. Can you look at Israel and accept the fact that it has done better in its short life than most other countries can do in hundreds of years? Or do you look at Israel and only find fault.

The author George Gilder calls this the Israel Test. He wrote a book by that name. He’s not a Jew, nor is he an evangelical Christian who supports Israel. He’s simply a scholar who looks at the facts. Israel is either to be envied and emulated, or envied and hated. How do you look at the person at work who truly excels? Or the person at school who is simply a stellar student? Or the entrepreneur who has a gift and becomes extremely successful? You have two choices. You can say I want to be more like that person- I applaud what that person is doing and I want to incorporate into my life, my studies, my work, my job the things that he or she is doing to bring about success. Or, You can say I hate that person for being so successful. I wish he failed. She is making me look bad. I hate him.

According to Gilder, passing the Israel Test is to choose to emulate the high achiever instead of bringing him down. Most people simply don’t naturally do that. And apparently, neither do most governments. The number of people present in the General Assembly last week when Netanyahu spoke were very few. Which meant very little applause for what was simply the truth about the situation in the Middle East. Most of the UN does not pass the Israel test. And that’s a shame. But it says more about the UN than it does about Israel.

It’s particularly unfortunate given the attention ISIS is getting. Because ISIS is, at its heart, about taking over everything. Its name should send shivers down the spines mainly of Jews, but of Israel’s neighbors as well. Because they’re in the middle of it. What does ISIS or more accurately, ISIL mean? It stands for the Arabic words DOWLE IlISLAMYYIA- The Islamic Dowle- which means State, FI IRAAQ W’ILSHAAM, in Iraq and SHAAM. We’ve seen the word LEVANT used to describe the rest of the Middle East- Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. But in Arabic it’s not Levant, it’s Sham. What is Sham? In the Torah, when Noah’s sons are born, they are named SHEM, CHAM, and YAFET. We are descended from Shem. We are Shemites or Semites. But so are the others who live in that area. SHAM is the Arabic pronunciation of that same name. We are all potential subjects of the DOWLE ILISLAMIYYA FI IRAQ W’ILSHAM. ISIS, or more accurately ISIL or DASH, is the ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ, SYRIA, LEBANON, EGYPT, TURKEY, JORDAN, CYPRUS and ISRAEL.

They’re coming for all of us. It’s not that Israel is at fault. It’s that Israel is right smack in the middle of it all. It’s time to get a bit nervous.

There’s a song written by Dov Seltzer just after the 1973 Yom Kippur war 41 years ago today, that was sung by Yeharom Gaon- called Hamilchama HaAchrona, the last war. ANI MAVTIACH LACH, YALDAH SHELI K’TANA, SHE ZOT T’H’YEH HAMILCHAMA HA’ACHRONA- I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war.

For all the tank corps soldiers with their dusty faces
Who survived all the enemy fire and grueling fighting,
For all the sailors who attacked the ports,
Their eyes caked heavy with salt from the seas.

For the pilots who broke through the deadly battle
And were hit by rocket fire and flak
For the paratroopers who, amid lead and smoke,
Saw you overhead, like an angel.

For the artillerymen who, in the hailstorm of mortars
Stood like a pillar of fire along the frontline,
For the medics and doctors who, with all their soul and strength
Restored breath, restored blood, restored life itself.

For the signalmen whose voice cut through the nights,
For all the reservists and all the soldiers,
For all the fathers who went into battle
And want to return home to you…

ANI MAVTIACH LACH, YALDAH SHELI K’TANA, SHE ZOT T’H’YEH HAMILCHAMA HA’ACHRONA- I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war.

The rabbi I quoted earlier is wrong. Because the country that produces and sings songs like this one is the country that wants peace the most. Maybe someday, when Israel’s enemies learn how to sing songs like this, there really will be peace.

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 2014 Greatest Moral Hits from Torah

Rabbi Larry Kaplan  Temple Israel, Wilkes-Barre, PA
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5775 “The Greatest Moral Hits of the Torah- One from each of the Five Books”

I love the Torah. I’ve come to be amazed at its depth of meaning and its amazing message to all generations. It’s not that I find it without flaws- anything written down by humans is bound to be flawed. But the concepts are so profound they had to have been influenced by God. I want to share five moral lessons, one from each book of the Torah.

Genesis, B’reisheet, the first book, the one which carries the name and the message of this holiday Rosh Hashanah, begins with creation. That in and of itself is comforting. As I suggested yesterday, imagine growing up being taught that everything happened by coincidence, that nothing was planned. Imagine that there was no Intelligent Design, with no Intelligent Designer or creator at work. That the bold, vibrant colors of autumn which we are beginning to see, and the fact that we have eyes to behold them, is all a fluke of nature. Wow, how depressing. I want to know that God wanted the fall to be beautiful and that He wanted me to appreciate it. So the stories in B’reisheet, in Genesis are truly special.

I said yesterday that we are naturally, at our essence, selfish creatures. What I didn’t say was that the Bible, the Torah, right in the beginning of Genesis, announces that fact. In Chapter 8, just as the Noah story is ending, Noah has sent out the dove which returns with an olive leaf in its bill, showing that the waters had receded sufficiently to find a tree on which to perch. That has become the symbol of peace to this day.

No one seems to argue that the dove and its olive branch are a symbol of peace. And yet it’s entirely Biblical in origin. But a few verses later comes one that many people would argue is not true. “VAYOMER ADONAI EL LIBO”- God said in His heart: Never again will I doom the earth because of mankind. “KI YETZER LEV HA’ADAM RA MIN’URAV- The inclination of a person’s heart is toward evil from their youth. I didn’t use the word evil yesterday. I said we’re all naturally created selfish. Our lives as infants depend on it. But through moral education we learn to become less and less selfish, and more and more selfless. The process is called maturity.

Those who do not mature, who remain consumed with their own wants and desires, cause the most damage in society. When, a few chapters earlier, God creates humankind by scooping up a Divine handful of earth to fashion Adam, He said LO TOV HEYOT ADAM L’VADO- It is not good for man to be alone. God wasn’t saying, Nebuch, look at that poor shnook- he sits home alone every Saturday night-  he never goes out on a date, I should do something about that. God wasn’t concerned with Adam’s loneliness, He was concerned with what he would do if he remained a loner. Who fills our jail cells for committing violent crime? Middle aged married men? Unmarried women? No, the violent criminals who fill our prisons share something in common. They are young, selfish, unattached, unmarried loners. I’m not saying they wake up in the morning and ask what anti-social destructive, mean thing can I do today? They wake up in the morning and ask what will make me happy? They don’t care that achieving their own happiness will lead to others being very unhappy, because they are not mature. They are behaving like a child who refuses to share, or who steals the toys from the other child. Such behavior is not evil while we are children. But it becomes evil if we do not mature, if we are not taught and conditioned to care about others.

The Torah teaches a valuable lesson in Genesis: YETZER LEV HA’ADAM RA MIN’URAV- Our natural, innate inclination is to be selfish from the time we are children. Our children have been taught something different: When young people resort to violence, it’s because of racism, or economic inequality, or some other outside factor. Dennis Prager summed it up best: The difference between the education most American kids get and the Yeshiva Torah education he got, is that for most secular American kids, the biggest thing they need to fight is all outside of themselves, while Prager was taught that the biggest problem he will have to fight in his lifetime is himself. KI YETZER LEV HA’ADAM RA MIN’URAV- The inclination of our hearts is toward selfishness from our youth.

Second Book of the Torah is SHMOT- Exodus. It’s filled with amazing and sublime teachings, not the least of which are the Ten Commandments. I’ll focus on one specific law in Exodus, but it is repeated throughout the Torah and the rest of the Bible, as it became a common theme among the Prophets as well. In Exodus 22 we read KOL ALMANA V’YATOM LO T’ANUN- You shall not mistreat the widow and the orphan. If you do, I will hear their cry and my anger shall blaze against you and your wives will become widows and your children orphans.

The Biblical mandate to take care of the widow and orphan is well known. It is undoubtedly what stands behind so many of our social welfare programs today. The vast majority of the help provided by our governments, state, local, and federal, go to single mothers and their children. It’s an overwhelming cost, it never goes down, and we have no reason to believe that it will ever subside.

But while the Biblical mandate, adopted not only by the Prophets but by Christianity as well, was an extremely important moral value, it does not actually apply in our circumstances. In the Torah, taking care of the widow and orphans was doable. The community was able to support them, and did. But let’s look closer. Who were the widows? Who were the orphans? They were those whose husbands and fathers died as a result of war or illness. And there was plenty of each. If we in America were expected to take care of every widow and every orphan whose husband or father died from disease or violence, we could easily handle that need. We would undoubtedly take care of it through religious organizations. There would probably be no need to tax anyone.

What we have done for over half a century is to change the meaning of widow and orphan. Today’s widows and orphans are the ones we see listed each Christmas in the newspaper. We read about the Valley Santa who is requesting financial assistance on behalf of an unmarried mother of three young children who can’t make it on her own. In fact, there is almost never a request for aid from a married couple with children. We have created a brand new kind of widow and orphan in America- those women who were never married, and those children who were not born into a family with a married mother and father. The Torah knew that it was nearly impossible for one parent to raise a child alone. And so it provided strict laws that the sex act could only take place between married people. We on the other hand, have set up day care centers in high schools.

Our family has fostered over 80 different children over these years, and it has been a true blessing for us. But not one- not one child that has crossed our threshold has come from a family with parents who are married to each other. Not one. We have adopted their newly created orphans, we have welcomed into our family the newly created widows. But the moral values of our Torah need to be brought back, so that all children have the opportunity to be brought into this world into the hands of loving parents who are married to each other. To me it doesn’t matter if it’s mom and dad or mom and mom or dad and dad- but it’s got to start out with two.

The third Book, VAYIKRA, Leviticus, is primarily about the sacrifices brought by our ancestors to the Temple. I’m tempted to look at the verse that Rabbi Hillel used when asked by a heathen to sum up the entire Torah while standing on one foot. “VAHAVTA L’REIACHA KAMOCHA” Love your neighbor as yourself- all the rest is commentary, now go and learn. But even though that is clearly the greatest commandment of all, I think we can learn a lot from one that comes a few verses earlier in chapter 19. UV’KUTZR’CHEM ET K’TZIR ARTZ’CHEM- When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or return to gather the pile you had forgotten to bring to the barn, or pick all the unripened grapes from your vineyards. Instead you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.

So you’ve planted your field with grain. And you go out to harvest- you must cut corners. In other words, leave the corners of your fields unharvested. And if you gather up your grain and leave one sheaf behind, you may not go back to retrieve it. And if you are picking fruit you must leave any unripe fruit on the tree, you are not allowed to harvest it.

All of this- the produce in the corners of the field, the forgotten sheaf, the unripened fruit on the tree- it all must be left for the poor and the stranger to come in to your field and harvest it themselves.

This might not have been so profound in antiquity. It may have simply been moral and just. But today it is absolutely sublime. Because we must not only harvest to the very edge of our field, to the furthest corner of our property, we must not only pick every last grape, take every last apple even if it is beyond the reach of our highest ladder, we must go back for every grain we may have forgotten, because we are taxed on all of it. We must do all the labor ourselves, and then hand over thirty, forty per cent of our labor to the government. Who will then be voted back into office by those who receive checks in the mail or debit cards to use buying steaks and lobster at Sam’s Club, where my son works and tells me this is what people are using their SNAP debit cards to buy.

The Bible’s amazingly moral concept was that the poor and the destitute would come into my field, the one I paid for, the one I planted, and would do exactly the same sweaty work I did- they would pull out the stalks of wheat as I did, they would climb up the trees and get the unripe apples as I would have, they will go back and carry off the bundles of grain I had forgotten. And they would feel as though they had worked for their food just as I had. They would not have shame, and I would not bear resentment. Because it was fair. It was moral. It was just.

When politicians declare that I’m not giving my fair share, and that my taxes need to be raised, all I can think of is Leviticus 19.

The fourth book, B’MIDBAR, Numbers, has amazing stories of the Israelites in the desert. But there’s one that seems to have been ignored. We didn’t need Martin Luther King to teach us that we should be color blind. Chapter 12 of Numbers does just that. Moses’ brother and sister Aaron and Miriam challenged their brother’s authority. They specifically made a point of bringing up the fact that Moses had married a Cushite woman, a woman from Ethiopia with very dark skin. And when God punished Miriam for her racial outburst, she was stricken with leprosy- her skin became scaly white. Moses pleaded on her behalf and God cured her. But the lesson was clear- the color of one’s skin represented the reality that we are all created in God’s image. And Dr. King’s message, that the color of anyone’s skin is irrelevant, has been ignored just about as much as the lesson Miriam learned in the Book of Numbers.

Just last week, there was yet another call in the newspaper for more minority teachers in our public schools. How can these children be expected to become good citizens if they have no role models that look like them to look up to in their classrooms? What a foolish, disparaging thing to wonder. How is it that so many teenagers of Asian descent become valedictorians of their high schools or universities, without having had one Asian teacher or administrator to look up to? What an embarrassing campaign there has been about needing a photo id to vote. You need a photo id to pick up a package at the post office. And yet politicians insisted that a photo id policy would keep minorities from voting. Could you imagine if they had said such a policy would discriminate against Jews. That somehow Jews didn’t have the same capacity to procure a voter ID as everyone else. What a horrible, nasty suggestion that because someone has darker skin they don’t have the wherewithal to get a photo id. And minority leaders went along with it. Whether the idea was entirely the fault of one party trying to exclude minorities from voting, or it was entirely the fault of the other party for suggesting that minorities didn’t know how to get a photo id, either way, it goes against a basic Biblical teaching: We are all created in God’s image, and we are not permitted to use race against anyone.

D’varim, Deuteronomy is chock full of great lines. Maybe you’ve heard this one: SH’MA YISRAEL ADONAI ELOHEINU ADONAI ECHAD. It’s also got a restatement of the Ten Commandments that appear in Exodus. But one of the most unambiguous moral laws of the Torah in Deuteronomy is one which we seem to ignore completely in our society. HASHEIV TISHIVEIM L’ACHICHA- In Chapter 22 we read if you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it- you must take it back to your neighbor. If you do not know who owns it, you shall bring it home with you and provide for it until he comes to claim it. You shall do the same for any other animal, for any garment, indeed for anything that your fellow human being has lost- LO TUCHAL L’HITALEM- You shall not remain indifferent.

What is the pithy phrase we’ve been taught regarding the return of lost objects? FINDER’S KEEPERS LOSER’S WEEPERS. It’s the polar opposite of the Torah’s mandate. The Talmud considers a person who finds something that belongs to someone else and does nothing to locate the owner, such a person is considered a thief. Judaism commands that we not only return lost objects, but that we announce publicly that we have found a lost object.

I remember during my years at Camp Ramah that at the end of a meal, before the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals was recited, someone would hold up an object- a sweatshirt, a hat, a towel, and announce to the camp: HINENEI MUCHAN UMEZUMAN L’KAYEIM MITZVAT HASHAVAT AVEIDAH- I am ready and willing to perform the Mitzvah of returning lost objects.

In other words, finding something and NOT trying to find its owner is considered in Judaism to be a SIN. So if that is the case, just how far do you have to go to return something that someone else lost?

The rabbis of the Talmud say that the deciding factor is YEI’USH, which means despair. If one can reasonably assume that the owner of the object believes there is a chance he or she will be able to get that object back, there is no YEI’USH, no despair. But if the owner would certainly despair of ever seeing it again, there is YEI’USH, and the finder does not need to return it.

A simple example is finding a quarter on the floor at the mall. The chance that someone would reasonably expect someone to turn in a quarter to the lost and found is pretty slim. You might give it to Tzedakah if you find it, but you don’t need to put an ad in the newspaper announcing it. But what about a dollar bill? What about a five dollar bill? What about a hundred dollar bill?

The rabbis go into great detail with many examples in the Talmud of when a person would feel YEI’USH, and when they would expect to be able to reclaim their lost property. Unfortunately, we’re living in an environment that says these Biblical moral rules we’ve looked at today are unnecessary. Instead, we should just rely on our own hearts to determine our actions. The result is that property people could have reasonably assumed a few thousand years ago they would see again, now has become YEI’USH because the Torah’s moral values are no longer being taught. Perhaps someday we’ll see the light again. Until then, make sure you don’t lose anything more than a quarter, since your chances of getting it back are pretty slim.


Rosh Hashanah 2014 Day 1 Believe in God Even if You Don’t Believe

Rabbi Larry Kaplan  Temple Israel, Wilkes-Barre, PA Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5775 “Believe in God Whether you Believe it or Not!”

It’s Rosh Hashanah. And I am fascinated by how and why this holiday has become so incredibly important in our calendar. The Torah does not exactly speak volumes about today. In fact, it never mentions Rosh Hashanah by name. It has four or five lines that talk about the first day of the seventh month, which makes one wonder how it ever got the name New Year’s. In fact, the Torah says almost nothing about today other than that it is a day of rest, a day to bring a sacrifice, and a day to hear a loud blast, presumably from a shofar since they didn’t have the shofar blowing app that we do today. There is no mention of the words Rosh Hashanah, no mention of doing this two days in a row, no mention of getting dressed up, and no mention of buying tickets.

Instead of tickets we are commanded to bring along one bull, one ram, seven young lambs without blemish. Also some flour mixed with oil. Also an extra goat to serve as a purification sacrifice for your sins, plus the normal beginning of the month sacrifice.

One of my teachers in camp Ramah, and later during my time studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was Reuven Hammer. He loved prayer and was fascinated by it. He has contributed to the design and commentary of the various Siddurim that the Conservative Movement has produced, and he taught me about the deep connection between the Biblical psalms and prayer. He teaches that seven psalms in particular, from 94 to 100, provide the central themes for Rosh Hashanah.

They are 1) That God created the world on Rosh Hashanah. 2) That God ruled as king from the creation of humankind on Rosh Hashanah, and 3) That God judges His creations on Rosh Hashanah.

So why is this all happening in the 7th month? Because 7 has special significance, and always did in the ancient world. The 7th day was Shabbat- the culmination of creation. So the 7th month must be a holy time as well, and therefore is called a MIKRA KODESH, a holy day. Those seven psalms which declare that God is Creator, Ruler, and Judge happen to be the same psalms that introduce the 7th day- the Friday evening service. Does this opening line of psalm 95 sound familiar to anyone? LECHU NERAN’NA LADONAI NARI’YAH L’TZUR YISH’EINU. Let us sing to God the rock of our salvation. NIVR’CHA LIFNEI ADONAI OSEINU- Let us worship before God our Creator.

So- Number 1- God is our Creator.

KI EL GADOL ADONAI UMELECH GADOL AL KOL ELOHIM- For God is great, he is the KING OF ALL ELOHIM- King of all gods! That’s God’s position as ruler, as king, as MELECH. It’s why an entire section of the Musaf service is called MALCHUYOT- The verses of Kingship.

So- Number 2- God is our King

And that psalm ends ARBA’IM SHANA AKUT B’DOR- For forty years I withstood these difficult Israelites, VA’OMAR AM TO’EI LEVAV HEIM- And I said they are a people whose heart leads them astray. V’HEIM LO YAD’U D’RACHAI- They have not followed My ways. ASHER NISHBATI B’API- IM Y’VO’UN EL M’NUCHATI- So I promised Myself that this generation would not enter my place of rest. Now that’s what I call judgment- refusing to bring into the Promised Land the generation that God had saved from slavery in Egypt.

So- Number 3- God is our Judge.

So those are the central meanings of Rosh Hashanah in this the seventh and therefore most important month of the year, on the first day of that month, where we recall the Creation of the World just as we recall creation every seventh day on Shabbat when we say at Kiddush Friday night: ZECHER L’MA’ASEI B’REISHEET- This is to remember the creation of the world.

And we march around with the Torah scroll with its crown on top to symbolize that God’s coronation as king began on this day when humankind was created in His image, and the day is filled with regal pomp, and we get dressed up to acknowledge our Sovereign.

And when the reading of the Law is finished, and Musaf begins, the Cantor offers the HINENI- a prayer of hesitation and humility since he is about to ask God for forgiveness on behalf of the congregation and its leadership. And the UNETANEH TOKEF- which means GIVING Solemnness, seriousness, momentousness, what’s the word the political commentators began to use a few years ago? Gravitas. That’s a good translation of UNETANEH TOKEF. We ascribe gravitas to the fact that God is the Supreme Judge, and judges each of us on this day.

So here we are. It’s Rosh Hashana and we’ve made a big deal out of it. We’ve sold tickets like it’s a major event. When we had more people we had it at the Kirby. But I’m wondering- are we really here because we believe that God

is our Creator, that God is our Ruler and that God is our Judge? Are we here today because we believe that? Do we believe that? Do we have to believe that?

The ancient person took for granted that God exists. Atheism is a modern construct. Heck, the ancients didn’t only believe in one God- they believed in lots of them. Even our own Torah suggests that there are many gods! Look at the second commandment: LO YIH’YEH L’CHA ELOHIM ACHEIRIM AL PANAI- You shall not have any other gods before ME! It doesn’t say believe in a higher power- that was assumed from the start. The trick was believing that our God is the top banana among gods and we can no longer pay any attention to the others.

But that ancient acceptance of the Divine is no longer cut and dry. Nowadays among the educated classes belief in God is considered, well, ancient. We know better these days. God only exists in small minds. People who listen to Rush Limbaugh believe in God. We, who listen to NPR know better.

The Prophet Jeremiah, who castigates Israel for not following God’s commandments and ultimately foresees the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, explains God’s anger with His chosen people: AL OZVAM ET TORATI ASHER NATATI LIFNEIHEM- For they have forsaken my Torah which I gave to them. A midrash written about 1500 years ago, called P’sikta D’Rav Kahana comments on that verse: For they have forsaken my Torah which I gave to them- The Midrash suggests it should read “If only they had forsaken ME and kept My Torah.” In other words, 1500 years ago rabbinic Judaism was able to say following God’s commandments is more important than believing in God.

So I have a question. We moderns, including at least some of us gathered here this morning, don’t buy in to this God stuff. We go along with it, we don’t want to stand out, we don’t consider it to be horrible or terrible like some of the atheist authors of late. But we wonder how bright, intelligent scientifically minded folks can actually believe that there’s a supernatural God in some heavenly abode. C’mon- don’t you just feel a little bit silly for believing that stuff?

So let’s say we don’t believe. After all, we can’t prove God’s existence. So my question is, why throw out the Torah just because we have trouble believing in God? Why can’t we do it the way that Midrash on Jeremiah did? Forsake God but don’t forsake God’s Torah.

How many of you would say that we humans are basically, at our nature, good? Would any of us suggest that human beings are naturally not good? Another question for clarity’s sake. Think of your life over all thus far. What would you say has caused you the most grief and anguish? What has caused you to be most miserable? Is it caused by nature- you know, hurricanes, mudslides, disease and illness? Or has most of our misery been caused by other human beings?

If the vast majority of our sadness in life has been caused by other human beings, which means that we are the cause of most of the sadness of other human beings, doesn’t that argue that we are not basically, naturally good? I mean, if we were good, would we be causing so much sadness?

Why do we cause such sadness? Because instead of being naturally good, we’re naturally selfish. Every baby teaches us that. If babies weren’t created selfish those of us who have them in our homes would all sleep through the night. The baby would wake up, look at her exhausted mother, who has been up with the colicky infant for two days straight, and say something like, “Mommy, I could use a diaper change, and I’d like to have a bottle, and I want you to hold me and rock me back to sleep for a few hours or so, but since I know how exhausted you are, I’ll just sit here in the crib and play with these colored plastic things while you rest.” That would be a good baby. Instead, babies scream louder than a truck’s air horn, and often will keep crying even after we’ve done everything we can possibly think of to comfort them. Because they were created by a compassionate, if not somewhat sadistic God, who knew they needed to start out selfish or they would die. As we mature, we shed some of that innate selfishness, but many of us still think more about ourselves than we do about the other person whose life we have, perhaps, made a bit more sad.

You know, if we humans were naturally good, it wouldn’t be such a problem to do life without God. But because we’re naturally selfish, we darned well better have a Supreme Arbiter of Right and Wrong. So when it comes to our own selfishness, which leads to us doing all kinds of mean things both intentionally and unintentionally, what’s better- leaving that entirely up to a government which can throw us in jail if we go against their selfishness rules, or leaving some of it up to a God some of us don’t believe in who might threaten to have us rot in hell if we go against His rules!

All in all, taking God and His Torah as the ultimate authority on what’s right and what’s wrong, instead of leaving it entirely up to human beings, is a much safer bet. And hopefully we humans will take cues from that Torah on running a good society. Like at least some of these commandments up here.

Of course there are problems with religion. Religion can be corrupted- after all religion is what happens when humans get hold of God. But government gets corrupted for the same reason. At least with religion, you have a chance that God has made a good influence on the people.

God is an amazing asset. Actually, the fear and respect of God, which we call Yir’at Shamayim, is phenomenal. It can keep us in our place, it can keep our selfishness in check, without resorting to handcuffs and jail cells and armored vehicles and swat teams. I can prove it. Sort of.

How many of us would agree that guns are a major problem in our society? I contend that guns are only a major problem because God has ceased to be a major influence. I can trace the history of massive homicide by guns to the decline of God and religious values in America.

Not just guns killing, but gangs, responsible for the most murders, were not such a major issue until the traditional family began to break down. And that happened when fathers became less and less important. And that happened when marriage began to be downplayed, and out of wedlock births began to soar, and welfare became acceptable with no shame, young men remained loners. And gangs became popular.

Gang members don’t punch in on a time clock each morning and punch out at 5 pm, pick up the dry-cleaning, and go home to the wife and kids. Gang members don’t take Sundays off because they are going to church with their families.

But gangsters often did. Gangsters in the 20’s did have families. They were criminals, to be sure, and they killed innocents. But there isn’t one instance, with all the tommy guns and mental illness and anti-social behavior of any gangster, any 25 year old in Chicago, going into a school and shooting up a classroom full of innocent children. Some bootlegger who didn’t pay for his protection from the mob may have turned up with a bullet in his head, but not innocent children. We had to wait until the 1980’s for that to happen.

Because gangsters knew what would land them in eternal hell. They knew what would happen to them in the next world if they dared to intentionally take the life of a child. But today’s mass murderers don’t believe that there is a next world to worry about.

I understand the desire to be rational and scientific about God. What I don’t understand is why, when the obvious is before us, we’re not willing to say ok, for the sake of society, I’ll make believe that I believe. Having faith, or feigning faith in a God who demands of us good behavior and who will punish us in the next world for the evil we do, is a good thing.

Let’s face it. We all do good things. But we also do bad things. When do we do the bad things? When we don’t think anyone is looking. Which is why so many people are getting in trouble these days- because there are cameras everywhere. On the streets, in elevators, and in the hand of everyone walking around with a cell phone. And why are there cameras everywhere? Because we don’t trust people to do good anymore. Why not? Because the camera we were using, that of God watching us, is no longer there. I say it’s time to put it back.

How do you know that the little black dome on the ceiling in the department store is actually connected to a camera? How do you know? But even if you aren’t sure it is, just knowing it’s there is enough to keep you behaving well. Let’s put God back into those little domes. Forget the domes, let’s put God back into every ceiling, into every bit of sky above us. Let’s return to the days when everyone believed that there was a God above watching your every move, and that if we did something evil or even just simply nasty or selfish, that God would know and would not be happy.

I’m not asking that everyone follow the sentiments of the second paragraph of the Aleinu- that Unto God every knee must bend and vow loyalty- I just want us to start teaching our kids again that there is a God who cares about us and demands of us good behavior, a God who loves us and wants the best for us, a God who created us and a God who will punish evil and reward goodness if not in this life, then in the world to come after we die.

I want us to give our young people hope again. Hope that no matter what the dire news of the day is, whether it’s ISIS taking over the world or it’s that climate change is going to destroy the earth, I want our kids to know that God will protect them. That God will protect their families. That when someone gets sick and dies, or is killed in an accident, God forbid, that they are with God and their pain is gone. Why on earth have we withheld that kind of comfort from these last two generations of kids? We’ve depended entirely on their parents to give them that message? We don’t even trust parents to teach our kids about the birds and the bees. That’s got to be mandated in the curriculum. But teaching them that there’s a God above who loves them and cares about them and expects them to act well, somehow that’s not valuable enough to teach as it was for a few hundred years in our country?

I realize that I’m not phrasing this as well as it was depicted on that billboard near the mall, but God is at least as important to our kids as sex is. I think kids deserve to be raised with God. It’s easier for parents. Without teaching kids about God then when your seven year old comes home with another kid’s toy in his backpack, all you can do is say that you disapprove. But to be able to point up at this, and say look, if it were up to me, I’d say keep the toy. I understand it’s natural to want it, and he’s a wealthy kid anyway, and he has plenty of others. But it isn’t up to me- it’s a rule that comes from God who created us. And God doesn’t allow us to steal. You don’t have to have a theological discussion with your seven year old about the existence of God. For his sake just make believe that you believe.

Haven’t you ever seen Miracle on 34th Street? Ok you don’t think that’s a good analogy? How about this one. Eli Wiesel tells the story as he remembers it from the Auschwitz concentration camp. After seeing the mass destruction of Jewish towns and cities, and their fellow Jews literally going up in smoke, a group of prisoners, rabbis among them, decided to put God on trial for his complicity in allowing the Holocaust to happen. Wiesel says after hours of deliberation, the verdict was in. They found God guilty as charged. And after the verdict was delivered, they stood up and said, It’s time to daven maariv.

If they, under those conditions, could muster enough faith to still believe in God, then who the heck are we to remove God from public view?

Do you think religion is a crutch? Try walking with a broken leg without one. You would rather drag yourself to the door when someone is knocking instead of using the crutch? I believe that Judaism is a crutch. I use it to get from one window to another, from one door to the next. I can’t understand why so many people insist on removing that crutch. God is good for society. We suffer more from secular than we do from the God fearing. Yes, it is certainly possible to do great evil and blame it on religion or God. How many have had their heads cut off in the name of Allah? Ah, but how many have lost their heads to the Mexican drug cartels? Many more. But don’t blame God for evil done in the name of God- because God gave us a commandment, the one just under the one about having no other Gods, the third Commandment: You shall not take God’s name in vain. But in Hebrew it’s not about cursing- it means, you shall not do evil in the name of God.

If you want to believe there is no God it’s all an accident it’s all coincidence great but for the sake of civilization make believe that you believe. For the sake of our kids let’s get over our aversion to God and His Torah. We’re the ones who brought this God of Goodness into the world, and we Jews, such a tiny percentage of the population, have been at the center of removing God from public view.

I know what some of you are thinking. You have a million reasons why I’m either wrong or why it can’t work to support bringing God back into public life. But I have to tell you something. The prayers we’ve been saying, and the Musaf we’re about to hear are not about our God, our Creator, our Our ruler, our Judge only in this beautiful sanctuary. What good is it if we only accept this image of God while we’re in here? If we’re not willing to bring God with us out in public, then I think we’re wasting our time. Judaism was never intended to be a private club.

We’ve got something truly special going here. A heritage that doesn’t require us to believe, only to try to believe. For our sake, for our children’s sake, and for the next generation’s sake. This is the first day of the seventh month, like the seventh day of Creation, and we stand in front of the commandments that our commander in chief, our Sovereign our King has given us, and we stand prepared to be judged and recorded in the book of life. This is not an academic exercise, and it’s not something we engage in simply because of tradition. It’s Rosh Hashanah, it’s about God our Creator, God our King, and God our Judge. May God help us to instill these values in the next generation. Amen.