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Love Your Brother: Interdependence on Independence Day

This is a very busy time of year. Last week we had Yom HaShoah and today we commemorated Yom HaZikaron and tonight we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut. To end off this cycle of anguish and exhilaration, this Shabbat we read Kedoshim. There we read:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your brother. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

While the Golden Rule is supposed to be a guideline for all of society, amidst this week we cannot help but understand it in the unique national context of brethren. This week I saw a tear-jerking video on the tension between brothers that you should watch:

This gets to the foundation of our being brethren, but did we need to learn it from Adolf Hitler? And what will our understanding of who we are as a nation be when there are no more survivors in our midst to remind us?

If we did not learn this lesson from our Torah portion, we could also have learned it from any number of other places  in our tradition. I just found an interesting take on this Golden Rules by the Kav HaYashar,  Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover  a 18th Century teacher of Mussar. He wrote:

It is written, “And you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The Sages have remarked that this verse is a fundamental principle of the Torah (Toras Kohanim, Parashas Kedoshim 4). And there is no greater display of love than the mandatory rebuking of one’s Jewish brother if he sees in him some unseemly matter, that is, a sin or transgression. For the souls of all Israel are intimately connected to one another. (Kav HaYashar 5:1)

How can we be in a deep relationship with people who act differently without being so “judge-itive”? The nature of caring about people is caring about how they act. In a profound way our actions reflect on each other. This intimate connection should also be measured by how much we respect each other’s choices. This is the challenge for every family, nation, and our world today. This starts with how we model the bounds of respect with our siblings and children. We should be blessed to not need Hitler for this.

Yom HaAtzmaut is Israel’s Independence Day and a day for us  to celebrate our interdependence as a Jewish People. Chag Sameakh

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Sweet Sweet Candy: A Thought for Yom HaShoah

Recently I was talking with my dear friend Rabbi Seth Braunstein about our synagogue’s Women’s Prayer group. They were having an issue in that the children were demanding to have a Candy Lady there, just as we have Chaim,our beloved Candy Man, in the regular service. The question was if the new Candy Lady should get the candy from Chaim Ezra. Why would Chaim Ezra pay for their candy?

Image result for dum dum lollipops

In thinking about this question I reflected back to a blog I posted back in 2011. There I wrote:

Our 7-year-old son, Yadid, recently went to the dentist who informed us that he has three cavities. My first response to the news was to cut the volume of candy in his diet. But how can I deprive him the experience of getting that lollipop from the “candy man” in our synagogue on Shabbat? The “candy man” is Chaim Ezra.  He is a saintly elderly man who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest.

My wife and I have chosen to not tell our children about the Holocaust until they are older. Too often our community has chosen to teach the Holocaust as an expedient educational route.  It takes a lot less time to teach someone how Jews died then how to live Jewishly.  My wife and I choose not to teach the latter partly because we don’t see the added value of educating our young children about anti-Semitism.  Why would I want my children to know anything accept for the sweetness of Jewish life?

For someone like Chaim Ezra who has tasted the bitterness of true hatred in his life, I cannot imagine denying him the joy of bringing joy to the next generation. We live in a time of tremendous freedom. While the Holocaust will always be in our memory, as the years pass there will fewer and fewer survivors. I often worry that our youngest, Emunah, might not have memories of knowing a survivor.

In commemoration of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance day, I encourage everyone to introduce their children to a survivor and find a new way to make Jewish life sweet. And it can never hurt to brush. ( Saidtomyself.com April 29, 2011)

Eight years later we all feel blessed to have Chaim Ezra in our lives. It seems like just yesterday, but that 7 year old is now 15. And instead of my insecurity about Emunah having a relationship with him, Libi has taken her place as our youngest. I do get special joy of bringing her to synagogue to get a lollipop from the Candy Man. And as I reflect on today being Yom HaShoah, I look back at this post and ask myself, “How naïve was I?” From Pittsburgh to Poway and from Christchurch to Sri Lanka, we are regularly discussing Antisemitism and other acts of terrorism that have become the new normal. As sad as I am for our society and my children to witness the reemergence of this hatred and heightened levels of terrorism in our world, I have a different level of sadness for Chaim Ezra. While no one should experience such hatred in their lives, knowing what Chaim Ezra has gone through it is excruciating that he has to do it again. Were all of those times we said, “Never Again”, just platitudes?

We commemorate Yom HaShoah on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We choose to create memory around our fighting back. At this moment I feel particularly moved by the words of Rabbi Yisroel  Goldstein the Rabbi of Chabad of Poway. He said, “I guarantee you, we will not be intimidated or deterred by terror. Terror will not win.” We need to dig in deep and do the real work of making sure that hate and terror never beat out our love and devotion. While we need to teach about the Holocaust and Antisemitism, we cannot allow terror to fool us into taking the expedient educational route.  In his eulogy for Lori Gilbert-Kaye Rabbi Goldstein quoted the Rebbe and said, “Victims live in the past, but survivors live in the future.”  While we need to reinvest in safety and security in our community, we cannot cower in fear or let that investment replace investing in the joy of living Jewishly.

With that I return to the question that Rav Seth shared with me. Why would this Holocaust survivor want to pay for all of the candy? As it turns out, Chaim Ezra pays for the candy with money he gets from German reparations.

A month and a half ago on Purim we read about our salvation from another genocide in the Persian Empire. There we we read on Purim: 
As the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month that was reversed for them Mi’Yagon l’Simcha – from grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day-to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:22)
There is a special profound feeling that comes from a reversal of sadness into happiness. Chaim Ezra and all of our survivors deserve this kind of sweetness in their lives. We all have a lot of work to do to ensure that we can reverse all of the grief of this last year into joy. We need this for ourselves and our children. And I still think it could not hurt to brush.

Let My People… Wait, What?

Of all of the thousands of things Moshe says in the Torah, his most line famous by far is, “Let my people go.” But when we look at the actual text of Exodus and read what Moshe says to Pharaoh, it surprising and complex:
Afterward Moshe and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:

‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness’… The God of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God…” (Exodus 5:1-3 )

Three days?! Why would Moshe ask for a three day holiday instead of liberation from slavery? Besides being an easier pill for Pharaoh to swallow, what could he have been thinking?

Have you ever tried something new, only to discover that you didn’t realize the full potential of what you were missing? Though I doubt the Israelites were enjoying their lives as slaves, it’s the only life they had ever known. No one but Moshe knew anything about a life of freedom. Before the Israelites had their first taste of actual freedom, Moshe understood the importance of helping them imagine what their new life would be like. Experiencing the juxtaposition of slavery and freedom would make it perfectly clear – their new life would be a utopia.

Anyone who has ever spent time at Jewish camp knows this to be true. Camp is truly a utopia – a place of ideal perfection. Camp is where many of us experience freedom on our own for the first time. After each summer, we return back to reality and wonder what life would be if we could spend every day of the year at camp with our friends laughing, singing, and dancing. But in reality, camp would not feel like the utopia it is if it were not for the ten other regular months of the year.

Jewish camp gave me that first taste of the way my life could be. This Passover, when I ask myself how am I doing at being the Moshe in my life, I think of how I can grant the gifts of camp – of freedom and discovery. This Passover, let’s all be grateful for the utopias we have in our lives.

-rereposted in FJC blog 

Another Woman’s March: Between Purim and Chanukah

A few months ago there was a big tumult regarding the Women’s March of Washington. Three of the four lead organizers had attended events hosted by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made a living off of making antisemitic remarks.  Perceptions that the leaders of the Women’s March had failed to condemn the rhetoric and subsequent accusations of antisemitism within the organization itself led to former co-founder Teresa Shook to call for their resignations and were followed by the disassociation of numerous state chapters. By December 2018, The New York Times reported that “charges of antisemitism are now roiling the movement and overshadowing plans for more marches.”

Questions about alleged antisemitism connected to the Women’s March organizers have swirled for months in response to an article in online Jewish magazine Tablet. While the organizers had repeatedly denied all accusations of misconduct or using inappropriate speech, the issue resurfaced when two of the March’s organizers appeared on “The View”. During the show, March co-president Tamika Mallory was asked why she posted a photo of herself and Louis Farrakhan on Instagram with a caption indicating her adulation of this hatemonger. “I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric,” Mallory responded. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.” Pressed on the issue, Mallory said, “I don’t agree with many of Minister Farrakhan’s statements,” but when asked directly if she condemned them, she demurred. “I don’t agree with these statements,” Mallory responded. “It’s not my language, it’s not the way that I speak, it’s not how I organize … I should never be judged through the lens of a man.”

Image result for tamika on the view

What are the implications of judging a woman through the lens of a man? What is the right lens to judge a person who brings on a foe as an ally? What are the implications of a cause that I find to be just even if the allies brought together to support this cause are deplorable?

There were many voices in the Jewish community who were so triggered by the larger context of rising antisemitism that they could not see through that to the importance of the cause of the March. While I deeply appreciate the sensitivity to an association with Farrakhan being too much, I am curious about those who were against the March on the merits of it not reaching their standards of a purity of allyship. It has been noted by others that it’s a pernicious privilege to demand that a group of revolutionaries trying to make change a system maintain a purity of who they ally with for their cause.

This privilege makes sense from the perspective of Chanukah. That is to say that the Hashmonaim were revolutionaries who were fighting for their lives.  After the Maccabees beat their enemy and rededicated the Temple they found one cruse of pure oil for the Menorah. This oil was enough to last for one day, but it lasted for eight days, which was enough time for them to produce more pure oil. To the Maccabees this miracle was proof that God approved and sanctioned their military efforts. This notion of purity got expanded by the Rabbis future celebration of Chanukah. We learn:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Chanukah [demands] one light for a man and his household;  and the mehadrin- more beautiful [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and the mehadrin of the mehadrin – Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced;  but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

The most beautiful expression of this ritual is when everyone shows off the purity of God’s sanctioning the Maccabees fight against the Greeks.

This paradigm of Chanukah stands juxtaposed Purim. Similar to the Maccabees with the Greeks, Esther and Mordechai were fighting the existential threat of Haman. Both holidays tell the stories of a small group of people uniting to defeat the bloodthirsty forces of a much larger and more powerful oppressor. But where Chanukah represents an aesthetic of Jewish purity over Hellenistic physical beauty, Esther represents the opposite. She only became the queen by winning a beauty pageant. Esther uses her beauty to save her people, and most importantly to our discussion here, to do this holy work she made some interesting allies. Throughout her efforts he relies on the eunuchs. For a community that has not historically looked on intermarriage so positively we are all too happy to overlook her relationship with Ahashverosh. The strangeness of who she portrays as her ally comes to head in her second banquet with Haman and Ahashverosh. There we read:

Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” Thereupon King Ahashverosh demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?”“The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. “Does he mean,” cried the king, “to ravish the queen in my own palace?” No sooner did these words leave the king’s lips than Haman’s face was covered. (Esther 7:3-8)

Esther only request is the she and her people not be killed. She would not have bothered him if they were “just” enslaved. The King only acts when he perceives that Haman, who has been courted by Esther to these exclusive banquets, is trying to have sex with his wife in his palace. This seems incredibly strange that this is what provokes action and not his trusted adviser wanting to kill his queen or commit genocide. Ahashverosh is only moved to action when he sees his wife taking a strange bed-fellow.

Both Chanukah and Purim are stories of revolution and salvation. But while Chanukah is a story of purity, Esther is a story of persistence. Esther does whatever it takes to be successful, including using her beauty and not her purity to make strange bed-fellows. While people can still chose a Chanukah lens over a Purim lens to critique revolutionary activity, it should be mentioned that the Hashmonaim were roundly criticized by the Rabbis and were similar to today’s Taliban killing many brothers in name of ritual purity.  It was only after the privilege of winning that the Maccabees would claim that their fratricide was pure.

Coming back to our times we need to say clearly that women’s rights are truly in danger and we need to come together to fight this good fight. While Farrakhan and the larger rise of antisemitism is horrifying and needs to be blotted out, I think we need to be more understanding that revolutions by design get messy. Before we judge the leaders of the Women’s March too harshly in light of the Chanukah story, we need to see that their “misconduct or using inappropriate speech” might just be these women taking a chapter from Esther’s original Women’s March.

Purim Sameakh- Have a revolutionary holiday.

Looking to See: The Blessings of Thriving

We learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Meir said, ‘A person is obligated to bless 100 blessing every day, as the Torah says: ‘Now Israel, mah– what does God ask from you, but only to fear Hashem your God, to go in all God’s ways, and to love God, and to serve Hashem your God, with all of your heart and with all of your soul. To guard the commands of Hashem and His statutes which I command you today, for your good.(Deut. 10:12-13)  (Menachos 43b)

Instead of Rabbi Meir reading  Mah– meaning what he reads it me’ah– meaning 100. But, why say 100 blessings every day?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Positive Judaism Summit at UPenn Hillel.  There we discussed the benefit to our wellness of having a regular gratitude practice. This seems rather intuitive. Having a gratitude practice makes us attune ourselves to good things in the world. The process of looking helps us see. 

The wisdom of Rabbi Meir got much deeper when I thought about it within the context of the theme of yesterday’s conference which was “From Survive to Thrive: A New Approach for Jewish living in the 21st Century”. What might Rabbi Meir say about Positive Psychology?

Looking at Rabbi Meir’s proof text we see something very revealing. We start with fearing God but end with loving God. We start in trying to follow an invisible God’s ways and end with leading in service. Maybe the key to moving from survival to thriving is this move from fear to love. Similarly it is critical to move from following the invisible to leading in service to others. We can make this shift daily by conditioning ourselves with the spiritual technology of 100 blessings. In so doing we habituate ourselves to thrive. 

Hosting Adar

One of my favorite stories tells of the origin story of the Besht. We read: 

Reb Eliezer, the father of the Ba’al Shem Tov, lived in a small village in the Ukraine and was particularly devoted to the mitzvah of hospitality. It was his practice to send emissaries to bring visitors to his home, and after he had filled their needs with food and drink, he would supply them with more provisions for their journey. In heaven they were very impressed by his practice, but the heavenly prosecutors claimed that Reb Eliezer had not yet reached the level of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah had reached. Just as with Job the devil asked for permission to test him, however, upon hearing of this, the prophet Elijah said that it is not proper that the devil be the one to carry out this mission, because Reb Eliezer might not be able to withstand his exacting judgment.

And so it was that one Shabbat afternoon, in the guise of a poor man on foot, Elijah descended to visit the Reb Eliezer. Upon entering Reb Eliezer’s home, he called out, “Good Shabbos!” It appeared to Reb Eliezer that his guest had desecrated the Shabbat, God forbid, and was not even embarrassed by his deeds, yet he did not become angry at him.  Instead, Reb Eliezer immediately offered the pauper food for the third Shabbat meal and after Shabbat was over, he served him the Melave Malka meal. The following morning, on Sunday, Reb Eliezer provided his guest with a generous donation, still making no mention of the sin of desecrating the Shabbat. 

Then Elijah revealed himself to him and announced, “I am the prophet Elijah, and in merit of your exceptional deed, you will be privileged to bear a son who will light up the eyes of Israel.”(adapted from  Reshimot Devarim 4, p. 35)

This story speaks to the centrality of hachnasat orechim-hospitality in Jewish life. 

I was thinking about it today as the second day of Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni. As we learn in the Gemara:

Mi’SheNichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– One who welcomes Adar increases joy. ( Taanit 29)

Nichnas and hachnasat have the same root. This makes me translate this differently. One who hosts Adar increases joy.

This makes me go back to the story of Reb Eliezer. What does it take to really be a good host? Yes it means opening up our homes, but that is the easy part. The hard part is opening up our hearts. In Adar we need to get into the spirit of putting on the mask of being hospitable so that we can actually get to the level of Abraham and Sara If we do that we will increase joy by lighting the eyes of Israel. 

Hodesh Tov

I Love Israel: Growing Past Hope

For the past week I have had the Winona Oak and Chainsmokersearworm Hope stuck in my head.  This song tells the story of a woman’s reflection of the abusive relationship that she had with a partner when she was younger.  The chorus is particularly sticky. They sing:

You made me feel high
‘Cause you had me so low, low, low
You only seemed tall
‘Cause you stunted my grow-grow-growth
I only wanted you ’cause I couldn’t have you
Now that I know
That wasn’t love, that wasn’t love, that was just hope

The protagonist realizes that what she thought was a strong relationship was just an immature dependency. The song is catchy and worth a listen:

I really did not give it much more thought until the merger between right-wing parties Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit, whose members are supporters of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Rightly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for endorsing this merger. While one should not be surprised with the rise of nationalism and xenophobia all over the world (e.g. Brexit and MAGA), but it is still saddening to see this strand of hatred and fear-mongering in Israel.

For Jews around the world, Israel represents our aspirations for a different future. We see this most clearly in Hatikvah, our national anthem. There we sing:

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

In my mind Israel is the realization of thousands of years of our yearning and suffering in Diaspora. This pernicious move to the right to normalize Kahane in the name of keeping us a “free nation in our land”, is actually losing the hope itself.

Thinking about  Hatikvah in this moment I found myself singing Hope by the Chainsmokers. Normalizing racism like Kahane isn’t love, that is just hope. After over 70 years of this imperfect but majestic history of the State of Israel, we need to grow up. We need to reflect on what kind of relationships we want to have and what kind of nation we want to be. We need to be bold and say that we love Israel, and immature hope is insufficient. If we push ourselves past hope to love we will expect more from our leadership and ourselves. Netanyahu is only perceived to be high in the polls because he has kept us so “low, low, low.” We need to reflect on this moment and “grow-grow-grow.”


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