Sermon: Ki Tissa 5772

March 8th, 2012 by admin | No Comments | Filed in Sermons

Shabbat Shalom.
I want to share 2 verses from this week’s Torah reading, parashat Ki Tissa; 1st from Exodus 30: 13:
יג זֶה יִתְּנוּ…-מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל… תְּרוּמָה לַיהוָה. 30: 13 This they shall give, every one …, half a shekel … for an offering to the LORD.

And, then, 2 verses letter we read: “The rich shall not give more” (Exodus 30:15) העשיר לא ירבה (שמות ל:טו)

The context of this section is that in order to construct and maintain the Mishkan – the Tabernacle, a half-shekel tax was collected from each male Israelite age 21 and older.
This collection served 2 purposes; a) an accurate census, and, b) to give everyone an equal opportunity to contribute to the Temple.
We can read this verse as does the biblical commentator, Chizkuni (on 30:15): every person had to give equivalent amounts to ensure an accurate census. Or, understand it like Ibn Ezra teaches using 30:12 to explain that the contribution represented “a ransom for [the contributor’s] soul” (30:12). All souls are equal, thus, the contribution always had to be a half-shekel because whether rich or poor, everyone is equal before God.
Think about it for a moment: up to this point in history, no other ancient Near East ancient society had such a declaration of equality. The identical half-shekel donation from every individual etched the value of equality into the consciousness of the Jewish nation; a value that we gave to the world – a value that has only recently, tentatively, barely begun to become a reality in the modern-day Middle East. Except for 1 country – Israel.
Now, we have oft heard how the USA and Israel share an inseparable bond based on shared values of freedom and democracy. However, what really matters, what really counts, pun-intended, is how this concept of equality is actuated!

Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…[and] freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…” This ethos is reflected in the fact that Israel is the most advanced and tolerant country in the Middle East and Israel consistently takes steps to combat racial discrimination and ensure equality across Israeli society.
A recent diplomatic appointment demonstrates how the modern state of Israel works hard to promote this critical value of equal rights for all of its citizens. Moreover, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently noted the significance of the appointment of Ethiopian immigrant Belaynesh Zevadia as Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that beyond the fact that Zevadia is a talented diplomat, “This appointment is particularly significant in that it sends a message about fighting against discrimination, and I am proud to be the first foreign minister to appoint an Ethiopian ambassador on behalf of the state of Israel.” Commenting on her appointment, Zevadia said that “This is proof that in Israel opportunity is available to everyone, native Israelis and new immigrants alike.”
The uniform half shekel donation mandated by the Torah communicated the value of equality before God. Through the years, Israel continues to uphold this sacred value by striving to ensure equal rights for all Israeli citizens: Jew and non-Jew alike. This they shall give, every one …, half a shekel … for an offering to the LORD and by doing so, it becomes a powerful statement to every nation upon the face of the earth. God-willing, 1 day, all nations will learn the lessons taught in this Shabbat’s Torah reading!

Shabbat Shalem – 2/24-25/12

February 28th, 2012 by admin | No Comments | Filed in Sermons

Shabbat Shalem
Shabbat Shalom
This Shabbat we are participating in the Jewish Federation of MetroWest Able program of Shabbat Shalem, the Sabbath of Inclusion. The Able program has as its goal to work with area congregations to assist them in becoming more inclusive and welcoming to families with needs: the whole range of disabilities and challenges that individuals and families face.
Our Torah teaches “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind … (Leviticus 19:14). Hence comes our Halakhic and moral imperative to assure all equal access to our congregation. I am proud to say that our temple has been recognized as a Metro West Able Congregation, which does not mean that there is not more that we can do, but we are clearly on the path of greater inclusiveness.
Just some brief examples: We have elevator lifts for those who are wheel-chair bound. In our Early Childhood program we currently have children from 2 hearing-impaired families – the children can hear, the parents are deaf – and, thus, through various grants we utilize cutting edge technologies and sign-language interpreters to help these parents. We also provide screening of the children in the ECP for early detection of learning, speech, vision and hearing issues.
In our Religious School, we have had many students who come to us whom learn differently, therefore, we utilize a multi-discipline approach to include them in our program.
However, in my rabbinate’s philosphy, inclusiveness goes beyond the needs of those challenged in various ways to what I describe as the metaphor of Avraham’s tent. Imagine a Bedouin tent, which has a square like shape with a flat top, such was the shape of Avraham’s tent, and it is taught that the flaps of the tent were always open on all 4 sides. Therefore, no matter from which direction a stranger approached, there was always a portal into it and the ability to make that stranger into a welcome guest.
We embrace this metaphor to create what is called Big Tent Judaism – to create a congregation that welcomes all; we call this Keruv, which means OutReach.
We do Keruv to include those in interfaith relationships – we do not condone intermarriage, but nor do we punish those who have made a partner decision out of love. Therefore, we work to make those in interfaith relationships feel welcome and comfortable and included in congregational life; of course, within certain Halakhic restrictions. I am proud to say that those in our congregation who are intermarried are couples that make a strong commitment to raising their children as Jews, including conversion of the children when required. And, I am extremely proud that we are one of probably very few congregations in our area that have serving as a Vice-President of the temple someone who is intermarried!
Our tent is also open wide to those who are gay or lesbian. Again, I am extremely proud that our temple is one of a very few Conservative congregations where such couples can solemnize their loving relationship with a legal commitment ceremony. You may or may not agree with such a policy; but is part of which makes us the most inclusive Conservative congregation in our area.
All of the above are vital ways that we make our temple more inclusive, more welcoming and more hamish. We do so because not only is it a moral imperative but a clear understanding of what our Torah teaches.
Yes, we open the flaps of our tent because each person must have equal access to our sacred community. Thus, no one that in the past society and religions have scorned are turned away; we believe that every individual is able to make their own significant contribution as the Psalmist decrees: “The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” (118:22)
In addition, we do not know who might rise up when life is challenging, or when that will happen. The Psalmist cried out, “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?” He went on to answer his own question. “My help comes from God, Maker of Heaven and Earth” (121:1); hence, with faith we can find an answer we might have missed otherwise.
And last, I evoke the anointing of David to become King David: God told Samuel to anoint a man to replace Saul as the next Israelite king with a son of Jesse of Bethlehem. Saul assumed it would be the eldest, but God replied, “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees does the Lord see; a man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7) As a rabbi, as a congregation, as a community, we must follow God’s example and see what is in the heart!

Sermon: Shabbat Bo – The State of the Union

January 27th, 2012 by admin | No Comments | Filed in Sermons

State of the Union
Shabbat Shalom.
It must be so difficult to be a leader of a nation. We learned on Wednesday that on the eve of the upcoming State of the Union Address, another Navy Seals Mission, authorized by President Obama, had successfully rescued 2 aid workers, 1 of whom is an American, whom been held hostage by Somali pirates in Somalia. I can’t imagine the stress of sending those Seals into obvious mortal danger, and then to stand before a joint session of Congress to deliver the State of the Union address.
I did watch the speech, but I am not about to comment on the content of the speech. What I do want to share is something that I was involved in just prior to the speech; an on-line, typed conversation with a FaceBook friend, not on the public page of FB, but through private messaging.
This FB friend, is a former resident of Springfield, he grew up here, his parents of blessed memory where members of the shul, and we are primarily FB friends based on what I believe is our mutual passion for U.M. sports – Go Terps! This is person also happens to be a rabid, full-throated Republican. For example, during the weekly debates by the candidates vying for the Republican nomination to run for president, he posts on FB a running commentary. Now, I don’t have to agree with his political positions, but I usually find them an interesting read and perspective.
However, whenever he posts something that is critical of President Obama, he refers to him not as President Obama, rather by a 1 word derogatory play on his last name: Obummer. And, then Tuesday evening, just prior to the speech, he posted the following: “Everyone make sure to watch Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels deliver the GOP response to the nearly hour long crap-fest called the State of the Union.” After that posting, I had enough, and sent him a message!
What did I object to? Not his freedom of speech right to criticize the president’s policies or decisions. What deeply bothers me is the denigration of the Office of the President by the derogatory personal mocking of a president’s name, and by the insulting the constitutionally mandated State of the Union address.
Then, to add insult to injury, yesterday, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, with her public pointing and wagging her finger in the face of the president!?!??! You don’t like what the president says, speak out against the issues – a right protected by what those Navy Seals; do risking their lives to protect our freedom, but do so while respecting the office of the presidency – which demonstrates how democracy works!
Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo; it begins with the bringing of the last 3 plagues upon Egypt, and teaches a powerful lesson on the respect of leadership, even if you don’t agree with what the leader is doing.
After the 9th plague, the plaque of darkness, God tells Moshe to have the people collect objects of silver and gold form their Egyptian neighbors, and we read that “the Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people” (Ex. 11:3). Yes, we see God’s influence, but we are told in a midrash on this verse that it is because during that period of darkness, the Hebrews did not take advantage of the Egyptians and plunder their homes.
However, note what the 2nd half of that verse states: “Moshe himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people” (Ex. 11:3). Amazing, a leader being shown respect not for his positions on issues, obviously they were in direct opposition to those of the Pharaoh’s courtiers and the Egyptian people, but still receiving the respect of the office of leadership.
There is a lot to learn from this 1 verse of our Torah; if only modern politicians and their supports could learn it, too.
Kain y`hee ratzon – may it only be….ALUASA


January 13th, 2012 by admin | No Comments | Filed in Sermons

Shabbat Shalom.
One of the most enriching aspects of Torah study is that each time I look at the weekly parasha; I see it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.
In this week’s sedra, Parashat Shemot, there is a particular verb that seems to weave the portion together: to look or see.
Pharaoh orders the midwives to look at the sex of the newborn baby.
Moshe’s mother sees the beauty of her baby boy.
Pharaoh’s daughter sees a basket in the reeds and sees that is a crying baby.
A grown-up Moshe sees the suffering of the Hebrews and sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.
God hears the moaning of the Hebrews and sees them.
Moshe sees a burning bush and then turns aside to look at this marvel.
God sees Moshe’s readiness and calls to him from the bush.
At that moment, Moshe, overwhelmed by the awe of the moment, hides his face because he is afraid to look at God.
Moshe doubts that the people will believe that he actually saw God.
Moshe then performs wondrous signs in the sight of the people and the people believe that God has seen their suffering.
Thus, all manner of seeing: curiosity, compassion, readiness to receive the divine, and as well as the fear of seeing or inability to see permeate this parasha.
Last week, the director of the NJ region of the ADL was transferred to NY, leaving no director here in NJ; nor are there plans to replace him. The office will be kept open in NJ, but without a director, and only an assurance that attention will be given to the NJ region from the NY office.
In response, my question is, “don’t they see what is going on here in NJ?
In just a matter of a few weeks there have been four attacks on synagogues in Bergen County. Of course, each is being investigated by the police as a hate-crime, and, in addition, the one this week in Rutherford as attempted murder.
And, the NJ office of the ADL was notified of the anti-Semitic rhetoric spewed from the mouth of a 12-year old student at FMG Middle School, here, in Springfield, at a public town-hall meeting with Gov. Christie, and with the aid and support of the child’s father. And, in response to the NJJN’s article on this incident, the child’s father unleashed additional anti-Semitic venom on the blog site of the on-line edition of the NJJN in which I was slandered by this child’s father.
Do you see a pattern here? Are we seeing an increase in anti-Semitism, which had thought to be on the decline? Have we not seen such patterns in the past?
Do we have the vision to foresee some resolution to this recent rise in anti-Semitism?
Well, here’s how I see it:
• I look forward to the capture of the perpetrator or perpetrators of the attacks we have seen take place in Bergen County. And, we know that they will be treated under the law as hate crimes, which incurs additional penalties. But, what I look to see are laws that impose even stronger, mandatory sentences for such crimes.
• I also want to see laws that, although libertarians will see as an attack on our Freedom of Speech, laws that will impose sentences as a hate-crime for those who spew forth anti-Semitic rhetoric in the public arena! Such laws already exist in Germany!
• And, as ridiculous as it may sound or impossible to implement, I would like to see every expectant parent be required to read the following lyrics from the musical, South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Is such a vision too much to seek?
Kain Y`hee Ratzon – May it be God’s will!

Sermon: Miketz/Hanukkah 5772

December 22nd, 2011 by admin | No Comments | Filed in Sermons

The Last Shlomo Story

Shabbat Shalom v`Hag Samaeach!
There is a long tradition of Hanukkah Miracle stories; a genre inspired by the story of the vase of oil, sufficient for 1 day, which burned for 8 days. It seems, every generation has a story of some sort of miracle that occurred during the Festival of Hanukkah. The story that I am about to share is one of many that comes out of the Shoah, the Holocaust. This story is known as The Last Shlomo Carlebach story:
Rabbi Levi tells a story that he heard from his uncle, a rabbi in England. Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, was in England right before he got on the plane upon which he was struck by his fatal heart attack. Before he got on that fateful flight, the English rabbi turned to Shlomo and asked him to share some new story from amongst his awesome array of stories of faith. Shlomo said” o.k. Holy Brother I’ll tell you a story I haven’t told before.”
He then told him of a friend of his who was a survivor of Auschwitz. This friend recounted an event from the camps. It seems there was a very devout and sweet older man called Yosi in the barracks with him. Yosi was determined not to let the Nazis vanquish his pride and his heritage. As a result, he insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur, even though that meant not eating the one ration they received daily. As he trudged through the camp performing all the mindless functions inherent in slave labor, his lips would be silently mouthing the book of psalms. Yosi would measure his days by the number of times he would succeed in “going through” the book of psalms.
On his last Hanukkah, Yosi was determined to light Hanukkah candles. He was finally able to obtain a little bit of vegetable oil, after bartering away his winter boots, and a few threads from his uniform from which he fashioned a candle.
Yosi lit this candle on Erev Hanukkah and his face beamed and glowed in the reflection of the candle. Within minutes the door burst open and the guards clamored into the barracks. They demanded to know who lit the candle; they threatened to kill all the inhabitants of the barracks if they would not reveal the culprit. Yosi, although hunched over with age and pain stepped forward and said,”It is I”. At that moment, the friend told Shlomo, he had never seen Yosi stand so straight.
The guards hustled Yosi outside…and shot him dead, but they had forgoton to put out the candle. Rabbi Carlebach’s friend then said, “You are not going to believe me….but that candle flickered on for the rest of Hanukkah! …for eight days.” Shlomo Carlebach then told this Rabbi: “that’s it…that’s the story…That’s the story of Yosi, and that is the story of the Jewish People”
Now, I don’t know if there is any confirmation of this incident and that make-shift candle burning miraculously for 8 days, just the gravitas of the story being told by Shlomo Carlebach. However, what intrigues me is the concept that special, dare we say miraculous events tend to occur around Hanukkah.
Take the near miraculous event that Rhoda and Mark Berenson experienced this Tuesday, Erev Hanukkah, when their daughter, Lori, and their 2-year old grandson arrived to Newark Airport.
If you recall, Lori Berenson, stirred international controversy when she was convicted of aiding Peruvian guerrillas and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in a Peruvian jail. Her parents despaired of her ever returning to the United States.
After serving 15 years of her sentence, she was paroled, but restricted to stay in Peru. When her plane touched down on Tuesday, it was her first visit home since her arrest in 1995.
Her father, Mark Berenson, said that his daughter was looking forward to introducing her son to Hanukkah traditions.
Now, I am not about to confirm Lori’s visit to the US, and it is only for a short visit, she must return next month to Peru, that her visit is a miracle; but I wouldn’t doubt that thought being in the minds of her parents. Nor, would I deny their fervent wish that this miracle repeats itself, soon, God-willing, and Lori is granted the right to permanently leave Peru – b`kerov b`yamainu – it should only be soon in our time.