Category Archives: Rabbi Message

Between You and Me- Sept 2019

Recently, I was told its name is Joe Pye Weed. But since I’ve been living in Asheville, I know it to be the wildflower that bursts forth each year to tell me I’d better get a move on and write my High Holy Day sermons. I had to laugh when I learned that Joe Pye Weed was a Native American medicinal plant named after a Mohegan sachem, healer, from Massachusetts, known for its sweat inducing properties, which apparently is conducive to healing typhus. I just look at it and start to perspire!

In all seriousness, these weeks of deep reflection during Elul are full of awe and dread for me. Will my messages speak to the deepest yearnings of your hearts? Will I be able to communicate something of the deepest yearnings of my heart? And when all is said and done, will our hearts collectively open wider?

It is only the day after Tisha B’Av as I write this column, still a full 7 weeks away from having to commit anything to paper, thank goodness. My aim, as always, will not be to stand on a bully pulpit (literally) and present what Judaism says and have that be the last word, or try to make you believe as I do. When the time comes, I will humbly offer you messages I feel you need to hear with the hopes that it will open your minds and hearts. But more importantly, that it will inspire you to continue the conversation, with one another and with me because that is where the richer truth will emerge.

A thousand years ago, the rabbis imagined the Israelites had to chase down God’s revelation at Mount Sinai and that it was anything but easy:

“When the Holy One of Blessing gave the Torah at Sinai…[He] would speak and the voice would go out and travel the whole world: Israel would hear the voice coming to them from the South and they would run to the South to meet the voice; and from the South, it would switch for them to the North, and they would all run to the North; and from the North, it would switch to the East and they would run to the East; and from the East it would switch to the West and they would run to the West; and from the West it would switch [to come] from the heavens; and they would suspend their eyes [to the heavens] and it would switch [to come] from the earth , and they would stare at the earth… Rabbi Yochanan said the voice would go out and divide into seventy voices for the seventy languages…”

I’m grateful to these wise minds who invited us to pattern our own search for truth similarly: as coming in many forms and requiring us to leave where we are to find and hear it.

I look forward to celebrating our 12th holy season together.

Between You and Me – August 2019

The Talmud tells the story of a man called Honi the
Circle-Maker, a Jewish Rip Van Winkle, who went out for a walk, sat down to rest, and fell asleep for 70 years.  When he awoke and returned to his village, no one recognized him.  Separated from his former companions, he died of loneliness, at which point the Talmud comments: “O chevruta o mituta; either friendship or death!”

Almost 2,000 years later, we have the science to back up what the rabbis intuitively knew about the life-giving nature of companionship and friendship.  Loneliness is literally as powerful an indicator of premature death from heart disease as other factors like diet & exercise. People who define themselves as lonely or feeling socially isolated appears to increase the risk of having a heart attack, angina, or of eventually dying of heart disease, by 29%.  The risk of stroke increases by 32%, almost a full third.

In an age of unprecedented connectivity, making accumulating Facebook friends and followers as simple as touching a screen, one might think our loneliness would be heading the way of the Dodo bird.  However, studies show that people who spend more than 3 hours on social media and cell phones, ironically feel 30% more depressed.  Four or more hours on our cell phones also decreases our empathy for others by 40%.  This gives a whole new meaning to the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies.”

That reminds me of another story the sages of old tell about a young student who wanted to know what heaven and hell were like.  An angel acceded to her request, and brought her first to hell.  The first thing she noticed was the food: banquet tables were laden with every possible delicacy and steaming platters of food – and delectable aromas wafted through the halls.  But then she noticed the people.  They were glum and bitter and miserable.

And then she understood why: large wooden spoons were strapped onto everyone’s arms, past the elbow, so that they couldn’t bend their arms to put any food into their mouths.  When the student arrived at the entrance to heaven, she was taken aback.  The scene was identical: the same banquet tables, the same delicacies and steaming platters – and the same large wooden spoons strapped onto everyone’s arms.  However, the scene was not glum.  There was singing and talking and laughter because people figured out they could feed each other.

The moral of this story is, of course, going it alone is hell.  Our heart’s true happiness is found in the ways we help our fellows flourish.  We can’t do it alone.  Ecclesiastes wisely observed, “Two are better than one.  For should one fall, one can raise the other.  But woe to him who falls with no one to raise him up.”

The rabbis taught that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed on the 9th of Av 1949 years ago this month because of a persistent enmity that grew between friends, giving new meaning to the adage chevruta or mituta, friendship or death.  The Chasidic master Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz taught: “Friendship is like a stone. A stone has no value, but when you rub two stones together properly, sparks of fire emerge.”  Think about someone whom you consider to be a very special friend.  In what ways has that friend helped you to become a better person?  In what ways have you helped your friend to grow?  How will you show your gratitude to that person?

1These findings were published in the scientific journal “Heart”, the official journal of the British Cardiovascular Society, 2016.

Between You and Me

“If you stop doing hard things,” she said, “you’ll stop being able to do hard things.”  That was what my health instructor said during class a couple of weeks ago.  She was lamenting how her mother, who used to be on her feet all the time while she was working, had retired, joined the YMCA and gravitated towards doing chair yoga as her primary movement practice.  Because her standing muscles slowly atrophied, she took a fall in the locker room and was heading into surgery to repair various injuries.

When she said that, I realized that my whole life has been guided by a similar principle.  If I had allowed my natural shyness to win the day, I’d have never taken a public speaking class in college.  If I had never taken that class and gained experience facing my paralyzing fears, I might not have summoned the chutzpah to apply to Rabbinical school.  If I’d have given myself over to those persistent and unpleasant nerves for the first 15 years of my rabbinate (!), I may have given up on being a rabbi. It’s not that I’m never nervous before speaking.  It’s not that all my talks are amazing.  It is that I’ve built a strong muscle for doing things that are hard for me because I’m doing them all the time: earning 3 black belts in TaeKwonDo, engaging in training programs that provide new challenges for my professional and personal life.  There are easier paths.  I’m almost 50.  I could just keep doing what I’ve always done.

The truth for all of us is that the hardest aspects of life are usually in front of us.  If we stop doing hard things, if we take the familiar road, we may stop being able to do hard things like let our children grow up and leave home, retire and find new ways to spend our time, live with new physical limitations, grieve a beloved, give up our homes and independence.

In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt famously said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Living in the arena and daring greatly has made all the difference for me.  You may reflect and discover the same is true for you.  I am grateful to you for all the opportunities you’ve given me to learn and teach and stay in the arena so that I can better serve as your rabbi.

Between You and Me – May 2019

Carpet Story

A story from Iran: When a certain Muslim had been swindled by a Jew in business, the angered party went to the regional governor and prevailed upon him to issue an official edict requiring the conversion of every Jew by a certain date, upon pain of death.

As the deadline approached, the Jewish community was paralyzed with fear.  With two weeks left, the various elders finally buried their long-standing differences and held a solemn conference at the house of the chief rabbi.  After much thought, they agreed to send a delegation to the governor, but had no idea how to persuade him to change his mind.  The rabbi’s wife said, “Leave it to me and my sisters.”

When the time came, the Rabbi’s wife presented the delegation with two enormous silk rugs, woven by the women in the province.  She gave them specific instructions on what to do when they faced the governor.

A few days later the delegation stood trembling before the Governor. “There is nothing that will make me change my mind, but since you are here, what have you to say?”

“We have brought you a gift, as a token of our gratitude for these many long years during which we have been privileged to live quietly and obediently under your powerful protection.”  The governor liked gifts.  The elders had both of the carpets brought in and unfurled at the ruler’s feet.  “On behalf of the Jewish community of this province, we place these two humble offerings before His Excellency, and request that He choose one of them as our tribute.”

Both carpets were broad, plush, tightly woven, and made out of the most exquisite material.  The first one was covered with colorful curving calyxes and designs of gold and green and turquoise, intricately intertwined with whirling waves of purple petunias which spiraled ceaselessly and centripetally towards the median.  The second carpet was red.  That’s all it was.  The whole rug was just one sprawling, solid red mat, from warp to woof, from end to end.  “I should have you all decapitated for such insolence!” said the Governor.  “Do you take me for a fool?  Who in his right mind would not choose the first carpet—and who in full possession of his faculties would choose the second?”

The most senior member of the Jewish delegation stepped forward from amongst his peers and looked the governor straight in the eye.  “The silk rugs are the territories under your benevolent sway.  Today that province is filled with peoples of every imaginable culture and creed and in this way, it resembles the first carpet.  Would Your Excellency, then, exchange the first carpet for the second?”

Which rug, which neighborhood, which country, which world do you want?  At times, even I long for the ease of a plain rug.  It’s just easier to figure out how to make it work in my home.  But the monochromatic rug doesn’t dance in the light or offer my mind the possibility of seeing how green and blue do go together, especially when I’ve convinced myself that they don’t.  However, uniformity is not a worthy aspiration of an enlightened soul because it doesn’t accept the truth that the world by its nature, is and will be, full of dazzling diversity.  True peace and well-being will come when we can find a way to weave every difference into the whole so it finds its unique light.

May , 2019

Between You and Me – April 2019

The Hagaddah does a great job telling the story of the Israelite’s enslavement at the hands of the mighty Pharaoh.  How with an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders, God redeemed us from captivity.

Many of us will reflect at our Seder tables about those who are victims of tyranny today at the hand of modern day Pharaohs: the Syrians at the hand of Assad, the Venezuelans at the hand of Nicolas Maduro, the children who labor illegally in the flower markets in Columbia and Ecuador, the degradation of human beings at the hands of human traffickers of all kinds, the oppression of women all over the world, the slow destruction of planet earth at the hand of humanity.  There is no shortage of victims and violators.

If the Hagaddah reminds us of the tragedy of involuntary enslavement, the Rabbis of the Midrash chose to point out the sin of voluntary enslavement in this story.  They argued that the book of Exodus tells about two enslaved peoples and concludes with the liberation of one of them and the destruction of the other.  The only difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians was that the Egyptians chose to become enslaved to Pharaoh.  “Why were the Egyptians compared to maror?  To teach you that just as the maror, the beginning of which is soft while its end is hard, so were the Egyptians…” (Pesachim 39a).  In other words, the Sages of the Midrash claimed that the Egyptians started out neutral but became complicit with their leader as the Exodus unfolds.  Pharaoh’s xenophobia directed at the Israelites leads him to deploy his own people to do the dirty work of murdering and enslaving them.  The Egyptians, say the rabbis, are guilty of self-enslavement because they followed their despotic leader.  Any moral Egyptian had a choice to walk away from his fellow countrymen and from his leader and be on the right side of history.  According to the Rabbis, some of them realized the error of their ways and did join the Israelites in exile.  The ones who remained, however, even when they saw they were on the verge of ruin, became Pharaoh’s instruments once again in his last ditch effort to salvage his rule, giving chase to the Israelites and meeting their end in the angry sea.

We’d do well to consider the importance of the moral standard the rabbis establish in their Midrashic reading of the Exodus.  It is always hard to stand up against the tide, to speak out when we see our people, our nation going astray.  But the rabbis say the difficulty of the task does not dismiss us from undertaking it.  We are not wholly responsible for everything that happens.  But in those matters in which we can be voices and actors on the right side of history, we are challenged not to enslave ourselves to the Pharaohs out there and be followers of our better angels, a greater Leader, and a truer Truth.