Here we Go!

I usually only write about old, “vintage” TV shows and while I do occasionally watch a current show, my TV watching usually revolves around the old sitcoms and game shows (I love the 1960’s version of To Tell the Truth currently airing on Buzzr network).

But there is one current program that I never miss and no matter what anyone else says about it, when the day of its season premiere nears, I can’t wait.

And tonight’s the night!

Yes, tonight I plan to watch 22 people, each of them much better looking and in much better shape than I, take off on a trip around the world on The Amazing Race. And, as I have done for the previous 28 editions of this series, I will be with them vicariously every step of the way as they face physical challenges, exhausting three day legs, nights sleeping in a desert camp or doing any number of crazy things hoping to win the one million dollar prize.

I love The Amazing Race and have loved every season since I began watching 16 years ago. Some of the “gimmicks” in the last few seasons haven’t appealed to me but I’ve still watched every episode cheering on my favorite teams and watching as the teams travel to exotic places that I can only dream of going to.

I will never run the Amazing Race. I will not bungee jump or sky dive, I can’t shlep barrels of beer or whatever else these strong young people have to carry and observance of kashrut would prevent me from participating in the “eating challenge” that shows up at least once every season.

But, if the teams were allowed to take along an older individual to read the maps, figure out the best airline tickets to buy, solve some geography puzzles and gently remind them to enjoy the scenery as they race around the world, I would be right there. I’d even learn to drive a standard transmission car- something some incredibly short sighted Amazing Race participants didn’t do before leaving on the race which is something I will never understand.

But, no one wants me on the Amazing Race. So, I have to be satisfied watching these people I don’t know take my trip of a lifetime.

I can’t wait.

Sermon for Shabbat Hahodesh March 25, 2017




Shabbat Hahodesh always feels to me like the official beginning of Pesach preparation. I know some of us have already bought some Pesach food and are starting to do the cleaning before the holiday. But, now the serious preparation begins.

This seems like the watershed moment to me because of the Maftir reading. Today’s maftir centered around the preparation for the original Pesach sacrifice. God commands Moses to communicate the details of the sacrifice to the people which Moses then does in the section immediately following our Maftir. We stopped the reading today after the instructions given to Moses and will pick it up again two weeks from Tuesday on the first morning of Pesach with the description of the performance of the sacrifice and the exodus itself. So, we have a little more than two weeks to mirror the Torah: to go from preparation to actuality, At our Seders we will re-create the exodus symbolically and we now have two weeks to prepare.

This morning, I want to give you an assignment as part of your Pesach preparation. I want to ask you a question which I hope you will consider very seriously over the next two weeks. I hope you will give your answer at your Seder and for those who are here, I hope you will share your answer during services on the first day of Pesach when we will leave time to discuss the question.

Here is the question: “What is this all about?” Or, in hebrew, Mah Zot?

You may recognize this as the question asked by the tam, the simple child in the section of the Haggadah known as the four children. In this section, four conversations found in the Torah between parent and child are assumed by the rabbis to involve children of different temperaments: wise, wicked or rebellious, simple and one who doesn’t know how to ask a question.

As you may recall and as I taught at Limmud Michigan this past Sunday, I am very uncomfortable with the rabbis assigning labels to the children. I feel that they should have labeled the questions instead, as once a label is attached to a person, it is so difficult for the person to change. But, leaving that thought aside for the moment, the section of the four children is truly fascinating and this morning, I want to focus on the child who I think is most often overlooked in this section: the tam, the simple, naïve child, the one who asks: Mah Zot, What is this?

I spent some time this week looking into the question of the tam and I found something fascinating that I had not known before. In some of the texts of the four children, this child is not known as tam, simple, but has another more damaging label attached to him. In the Jerusalem Talmud, this third child, the one who looks at everything going on at the Seder and asks: Mah Zot? What is this? is not called tam but in fact, she is called teepaysh. The Hebrew speakers among us are either laughing or sitting in shock because teepaysh means…stupid.

So, now instead of a simple child, we have a stupid child.

It goes from bad to worse.

But, leaving aside the labels, what is also troubling to me is the answer given to the teepaysh. The question: Mah Zot, what is all this? is to be answered according to the Jerusalem Talmud with the answer that we give to the wise child in our Haggada. The parent is to respond by instructing the child in all the laws of Pesach right up to the law of not eating anything after the afikoman, the small piece of matza which is eaten at the end of dessert.

Before I tell you what it so troubling about that to me, let me assure you that I believe the laws of Pesach should be critical to all of us and we should learn them and observe them. But, the idea that a lack of knowledge about the Seder that would cause someone to ask: “What’s going on here?” is to be answered with a halachic, Jewish legal discourse is terribly troubling.

While I acknowledge that we should train our children to observe the ritual traditions before they really understand the reasons behind them, the idea that a simple foundational question of mah zot, should be answered with a call to perform certain actions instead of a patient and straightforward explanation of the holiday is wrong. In our Haggadah, the Tam is answered: “with a strong hand, God took us out of Egypt”. That’s the right type of answer to the simple question. The question of the tam is not a plea to understand the intricacies of Jewish law and custom or why Mom and Dad spent so many hours cleaning the kitchen, it is an honest question from the heart: “what’s going on here?” and should be answered with a similarly general answer that touches the heart not simply commands.

The other day when I taught this section of the four children, I asked whether people thought the Tam was a positive, negative or neutral character. Most who answered thought he was either positive or neutral and I would agree.

I don’t know what is the cause of this child’s temimut, innocence and naivete. But in many places in the Torah, the adjective tam or tamim is considered positive. Jacob is called an ish tam, a simple, innocent man. We are all told in Deuteronomy we should all be tammim before God and of course Noah was referred to as tamim bedorotav, blameless and pure in his generation.

So, there’s nothing wrong with being tam. We’re all tam on occasion and the greater the event we are confronting, the more likely it is that a sensitive, thinking, serious human being will at least for a moment, stand in awe, only being able to shake his or her head and say: “What I am watching? What is going on here?”. Think about it: the more astounding the situation, the more earthshaking the experience, the more likely it is to bring out the tam in all of us. And, the Pesach Seder with its elaborate symbolism, beautiful text and overwhelming sensory demands is just such an experience.

So, here is my assignment. Take some time away from cleaning and shopping, Stop preparing your deep and meaningful Seder commentaries that you can’t wait to share and pick up a box of matzah or the shankbone which represents the Pesach sacrifice which is what inspired the tam’s question in the Torah text and say to yourself: “Mah Zot, What is this really all about?” Search for the simplest, most foundational answer you can find and share it with others at your Seder and share it with us at shul on the first day of Pesach.

Mah Zot? What is this all about? If it’s not about recipes or food we eat only once a year or endless hours sweeping out crumbs or delving into the text of the Haggadah or apportioning sections of the Seder for Aunts and Uncles to read, what is it all about?

I’m looking forward to hearing your answers.


The Four Children of the Pesach Haggada: Tragic Rabbinic Mistake

Yesterday, I was honored to deliver a presentation at Limmud Michigan at Wayne State University in Detroit. Limmud Michigan brought together hundreds of participant to learn from various teachers addressing various subjects of Jewish learning.

I chose to present a class on the four children of the Pesach haggadah calling it: “Brilliant Rabbinic Wisdom, Tragic Rabbinic Mistake”. I was pleased with the reaction to the class but a couple of people noted that I ran out of time at the end to develop my idea about the “mistake” more completely. It sill made an impact, judging by the reaction of the participants, and maybe a few passionate sentences at the end of my presentation were enough to be memorable for many. But, I have developed the point further and in fact it was the subject of a Kol Nidre sermon that I delivered a few years ago. During a later posting, I’ll say more about the four children section itself but here is a more complete discussion of the tragic Rabbinic mistake which should haunt us to this day and should compel us to consider those around us differently than the rabbis did.


We welcome them to our table every year and our holiday would not be complete without them.


They have been portrayed in many different ways, this time in the form of different Jews from different centuries … this time as the four Marx Brothers … this time as kids you recognize from the school playground, right up to the one with the orange spiky hair.


They don’t talk to each other. But they do talk to you.


They demand your attention, and inspire you to talk back to them with your own commentary and your own conclusions. They are fascinating creations with their roots in the Torah and their personalities crafted by Talmudic Rabbis who were so perceptive regarding human nature.


They run the gamut: one is wise, one is rebellious or even wicked, one is simple and naïve, one doesn’t even know how to ask. And they sit at the table and demand that we recognize them and identify with them.


And identify with them we do. Each year we ask ourselves: which one am I? Of course, as so many commentaries have suggested, each of us is all four of them, rolled up into the complex individual each of us is. We have a wise side, we can be rebellious. We need to confront the world with basic simplicity. We don’t even know where to begin to ask. Yes, that is what the commentaries say. But deep in our hearts, each year — depending on what has happened in our own lives, in the world at large, maybe even depending on who is leading the Seder at which we find ourselves — we identify more closely with one or the other.


These four children — wise, rebellious, simple, unable to ask –they are us and we know it.

But there is one thing about them which is not like us: they never change. Each and every year, each asks or doesn’t ask the same question; and the question they ask, or they don’t ask, is written in stone, taken directly from the Torah’s verses which describes a father teaching his child about the Exodus.


I grew up in a home in which the four children, or four sons as we knew them then, were among the most important characters we met over the course of the year. The leader of our Seder loved them, found them to be so deeply meaningful and inspirational; and, perhaps because of that, his son took his fascination even further, teaching classes year after year about the intricacies of the commentary and interpretation and how accurate it is to the text. I love to teach this text and have shared it with so many, especially, bar and bat mitzvah families and always with the same lesson: our kids, as we, are each distinct individuals and go through different stages and each must be answered in an appropriate way.

But one year, I realized something troubling about the four children that I had never noticed before. It was so obvious and I had missed it all along; and not only had I missed it, but in all my studying I had never come across this comment from any Rabbi or scholar. If someone else had written it, I would quote it in his or her name and, as our sages say, thus help bring redemption to the world, the reward for appropriately attributing a teaching. But I haven’t found it anywhere else.


And here is what troubles me ….


How can we do this to people we respect and learn from? How can we set them in stone the way we do? Throughout history, they will never change. They will always be wise or rebellious or simple or unquestioning. They are never allowed to change.

And that is for one simple reason: because they have been given a name — wise, rebellious, simple, unquestioning. And once someone has a name, that name becomes their identity.


The wise child will never rebel, he will always be wise. The rebellious child will never conform, he will always be the rasha. The simple child will never understand, he will never grow. The fourth will never speak.


How much better would it have been, how much wiser would our Rabbis — who are usually so on target educationally — have been had they introduced these four children as: the one who asked a wise question, the one who asked a rebellious question, the one who asked a simple question, the one who did not ask at all.



It would have been a subtle difference, but it would have been so instructive; for instead of labeling them, it would have been their question that would have been labeled. And the possibility would have existed that this rebellious child might one day have asked a wise question, and the wise child decided to play rebel for one day, and we would have focused on the action instead of the personality.


I want you to open your machzor for a moment and turn to page 239, to the Selichot prayers for the Yom Kippur service, prayers which we will say in a few moments and then repeat on four other occasions before we blow the Shofar tomorrow evening.


I want you to follow with me a progression in these penitential prayers that I think is extremely significant and perceptive and will help us all understand teshuva, repentance, more clearly.


After we sing the words which seem to define the Kol Nidre service, Ki Anu Amecha V’atah Elohaynu, we make two statements: Anu kishay oref v’atah erech apayim. Anu …


These are dangerous statements to make. They may be true, but they are dangerous. Yes, at times we are stubborn. But it is such a dangerous statement, the machzor doesn’t allow it to stand.


The selichot prayers are not allowed to end here. Instead, we go in a different direction. We progress to Ashamnu — an acrostic list of generalized sins that someone in the community has committed, which we confess together for two reasons: one, we’re all in this together and confessing all of the sins provides cover for those who really did some of these awful things; and secondly, we’re never sure we remember all the negative things we’ve done, so expressing regret for something we may not have done may not be the worst thing in the world.

Note that in the Ashamnu, the statement that anu k’shay oref (“we are stubborn”) has been changed into kishinu oref, which is a verb not an adjective, and is translated “we have acted stubbornly.”


This idea than continues with the al het, which focuses solely on actions as we confess the sins we have committed.


The machzor has done what the haggada didn’t do: it moves beyond labeling to identifying actions, something that each of us knows in our hearts is the best way to judge an individual or judge ourselves.



When we label ourselves or attach a label to someone else, it is so difficult, near impossible to shake. How many children have suffered because they have been labeled? How many adults have found the road to desired teshuva locked before them, because society in general has attached a label to them like a straight jacket which can not be shed? How many of us struggle to escape the labels we have internalized and allowed to dominate our lives?


In so many ways, our actions are an extension of our personality. But how often do we use that as an excuse? We say: “I’m just a stubborn person, I’ll never change.” How often does society expect nothing more from an individual who has been labeled hopeless? How often do we not even recognize when a person we have classified in a negative way has acted in a completely different way, a way which ought to inspire our respect but instead is treated with cynicism because, after all, what good can we really expect from such a person?


Of course, once we have acted in a certain way enough times, it becomes difficult to break out of it. Our Rabbis taught sichar mitzvah mitzvah sichar avayrah avayrah, which I will translate as “the result of doing a mitzvah is doing another mitzvah, the result of sinning is sinning again.” Our actions do become ingrained and become part of us. But that is what teshuva is meant to correct, breaking away from patterns; and as difficult as it is to do that, it is infinitely more difficult when the actions that we have performed are not just associated with us but become identified, by others and by ourselves, with our very being.


When you read the selichot prayers this year, think about how different it is to confess actions than to doom yourself to a life of such actions with the adjective the machzor begins with and then rejects. Think about how many times, without thinking about it, we ourselves have allowed the labels we assign to others to trap ourselves — and to trap them — into a situation in which teshuva, repentance becomes impossible.


Then think back to those four guests at the Seder table — how horrible their lives have become because we’ve never let them be any different than they were at the one moment they opened up their mouths.


What a terrible injustice we have done to them and to so many of God’s children who came after them.


Please rise for the selichot prayers.

Purim 5777: A Different Time- A Renewed Responsibility

One of the questions that rabbis are most often asked about stories from the Tanach, from the Bible, is: Did that story really happen? Whether the question comes from an argumentative adolescent, a student of history or someone trying to come to terms with the tradition, it is a valid question which I answer in different ways depending on what story we’re talking about.

So, how do I answer this question when it is asked about the story of Purim from Megillat Esther? I answer it this way: “Probably not, at least there is no evidence that it actually happened. But, except for some of the cartoon like exaggerations of the story, it very well could have happened”.

After all, one could easily imagine a situation in which a nation was ruled by a ruler who was better known how far his empire stretched and the stories of his opulent wealth and glamorous parties than experience in actually governing; a leader who had a history of negative attitudes and behavior regarding women; one who turned to advisors to tell him what to do rather than offer his own vision and policies and one who had at least one advisor with a dangerous and offensive attitude towards minorities.

I guess it could happen.

So, I always answered the question by saying: “If it didn’t happen, it could have” and that makes the story critical.

And the story becomes even more critical for us given the threat that the entire situation presented to the Jews of Shushan.

This Purim is different from many others. Many Jews in America feel like the story of the threat of annihilation makes it all hit too close to home to treat with the usual joy and celebration that marks the holiday.

I am sympathetic to this and understand why people would feel that way. Even one bomb threat that leaves a child or her parents feeling endangered is one too many. Even one vandalized cemetery, an act which tears at our heart and our respect for history and family, is one too many. Even one incident of anti-Semitic graffiti is one too many. We have a right and an obligation to be concerned about our and our children’s future as Jews in America.

I personally believe that talk of the existential threat to American Jews is being exaggerated to a great degree but I accept without question that the situation is different now than in past years. So let me share with you today three actions that I believe we must take given our situation at this time of Purim.

First, when presented the opportunity, we have to be Esthers. We have to stand up proudly for who we are. We can not hide. We can not feel pressured to tone down our public commitment to our faith or to our people. Perhaps, as an aside, that is part of the reason why so many of us are talking so much about the Israel baseball team in the World Baseball Classic which is writing its own Cinderella story, winning game after game. This team is made up largely of American Jews who are proud to stand up for who they are as Jews and we are all elevated by such actions in all phases of life. They and so many others provide us with good examples to follow for all of us on and off the field.

Secondly, we need to act to protect ourselves and our institutions appropriately as we have and will continue to do at Beth Israel. You need to know that we have taken appropriate steps to make our and our children’s gathering in this place as safe as possible and you will be hearing more about this in the days to come. Know that we take these issues very seriously and that we want everyone to feel securely embraced by the warmth and security community provides.

Finally, we need to do one more thing. We need to realize that as concerned as we may be about our own security as American Jews, we are part of a bigger picture and if we turn inward only, if we become so obsessed with our issues of security and safety that we ignore the other issues that are being faced in this nation, our community will still, in the end suffer, no matter how safe we are.

We can not focus so deeply on our situation that we ignore the issues that face us, among them: the availability of affordable health care to all, concern for the environment our children will inherit, the need to ensure a commitment to truth and honesty in government rather than exaggerated or fabricated alternatives, and our responsibility to be a nation which provides for safety and respect for all regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or financial status. We can not become so self-absorbed that we ignore our greater role as Americans- a role becoming more and more crucial with each passing day.

Let us look back at the book of Esther for a moment. How did the Jews of Shushan respond to their salvation from Haman’s plan? Leave aside the story of the massacre in chapter 9 and focus on the positive. The Jews of Shushan expressed their joy by celebrating and sharing gifts with their friends. But then, when Mordecai institutes the holiday of Purim for the future, another aspect of celebration is added: the people not only gave gifts to friends, but matanot l’evyonim, they gave to the needy as well. Mordecai realized that people who were restricted in their concern to those just like them were not being the people they could be or the people they should be. So, he widened the obligations of Purim to include giving tzedakah, giving charity as we do today.

Earlier today, at our Shabbat limmud Torah study, we discussed the commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek that we read in the Maftir. We read a commentary by Nechama Leibowitz, who perhaps was inspired by an exquisitely beautiful commentary on this commandment by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch about what it means to be a Jew. They both expressed the idea that the reason given in the Torah for the need to destroy Amalek: that they did not “fear God” meant that they rejected human responsibility to seek justice for all. Listen to some of Hirsch’s words written in the 19th century as he explains what we can not forget when it comes to destroying Amalek:


        “Do not forget this if you should ever falter and, like Amalek, forget God and your duty, seeking only opportunities to use your superiority in matters great or small to the detriment of your fellow men. Persevere in the humanity and justice that your God has taught you. It is to these virtues that the future belongs. Justice and humanity will forever triumph over brutality and violence.”

Wise words for us to consider.

So, tonight and tomorrow, we will celebrate our salvation with unrestrained joy as our tradition demands of us. But, the next day and every day, while we seek calm and peace for ourselves, we must return to stand and to labor for justice and humanity for all.


A Time of Transition, Parashat Vayechi 2017



As I begin my remarks this morning, I want to pay tribute both to Dr. Martin Luther King on the weekend of the holiday dedicated to his memory and to our teacher Doctor Abraham Joshua Heschel whose yahrzeit will be observed tomorrow evening. These two remarkable men, who worked together for freedom for all, taught us that the role of religion and religious institutions is to stand up for the values and ethical principles that are at the core of our religious faiths and to recognize that when faced with critical issues and critical times, it is, to use Dr. Heschel’s words, no time for neutrality.

May their memory be for a blessing.

As we enter the third week of January, we stand at a moment of transition.

We celebrated in a season past, a new beginning with hopes and dreams, full of confidence and a glorious new era for the world.

Since that time, we have seen great strides and experienced disappointment.

And, now we enter into the unknown.

As we experience this transition, from the reading of the book of Genesis to the reading of the book of Exodus, we leave behind the hope embodied in the creation story. We say goodbye to names and faces we have come to know, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Joseph, all human beings whose stories although far from perfect have, in the end, established the values and priorities for our people.

I would like to share with you this morning two midrashim, two commentaries, to mark this transition, one concerning the end of the book of Beraysheet and one concerning the beginning of the book of Shmot.

According to a beautiful legend from Devarim Rabbah, Jacob, Israel, lay dying and called his sons around him. He said to them: “I fear you may be disloyal to the covenant that I and my grandfather, Abraham established”. His sons respond in unision: “Shema Yisrael”, Listen Israel, Ado-nai Elohaynu Ado-nai Echad, The Lord our God, the Lord is One.

Jacob responds: Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed. Blessed be God’s Glorious kingdom forever.

And, he closes his eyes for the last time assured of his sons’ loyalty, confident of the future.

And the book and story of Genesis ends.

The second Midrash is one which is often found in the Hagaddah, to be read at the Seder.

The Midrash teaches that while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they did not change their names, they did not change their language andthey did not engage in speech or in activities which were unbecoming.

They remained firm to their values. And so they were redeemed.

Both of these texts stress the importance of remaining loyal to our deepest principles and our greatest values as Jews and as human beings.

That is what keeps a people alive, especially at times of great changes.

In our nation, we too stand at a time of transition.

Eight years ago, on this Shabbat, I stood on this bima and expressed hope for where we were headed as a nation. It was all so new. We hardly knew Barack Obama, soon to be our nation’s leader. There were so many uncertainties. But, there was hope, glorious hope.

Looking back on the past 8 years, I believe there have been, as there were in the book of Genesis, great successes, and there have been disappointments as well. It hasn’t been perfect in any way shape or form.

Not every presidential decision was the correct one. Not every challenge was met properly or adequately by President Obama and his administration.

But, the one thing that has been clear is that our nation’s leader was determined to uphold certain values that I believe are the values our nation should embody: inclusion, respect for all people, thoughtful, careful consideration of the responsibilities of government and the governmental process, the search for peace through diplomacy and the list goes on.

President Obama was not by any measure an unqualified success as president. But, our values stood firm and he conducted the office with grace, maturity and served as a role model for our young people. And if anyone doubts this, watch the video of the ceremony in President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a man I have admired for many, many years, Vice President Joseph Biden. The values and the ideals expressed by President Obama during that ceremony will echo in our minds for many years. He lived out those ideals and values during his presidency and that is so critical.

As we enter this new book in the life of our nation, I am so deeply concerned because I am afraid that our president elect will not reflect the values of who we are as a nation: respect, compassion, equality, justice.

I know some of you are more confident in this way regarding the incoming administration and our president-elect than I.

I respect that. I mean that sincerely. If I have learned one thing in the past few months, it is that none of us have all the answers and we need to talk with each other respectfully.

But, I look ahead with more uncertainty than I have ever felt before as we approach a new administration. There are just too many warning signs that these values are not the foundation of President elect Trump and do not embody his vision for our nation and we all have seen those warning signs over the past two years. As a congregant said the other day in my office when we speaking about the prospect of the administration: “This isn’t the way I was raised”. Those words resonated with me deeply.

I hope I am proven wrong about the future. And I promise you I will admit it if that is the case.

But, this is no time for neutrality. It must be said.

It is an awesome responsibility to be a leader. I only hope and pray that President Elect Trump understands how every American, and especially our children, are going to watch his every statement and decision and learn from them. I certainly hope that he is successful in creating jobs for those for who have been passed over by the recent recovery, in defeating ISIS and lessening the threat of terror and in tinkering with health care reform so that more are served and no one loses the coverage they have gained, and if he does accomplish any of these, kol hakavod, I will congratulate him. But, if he continues to act and speak the way he has, if parents have to continue to say to their children each and every day: “we didn’t raise you this way”, then his presidency will be a failure and will constitute a threat to the very fabric of our nation.

I know from many of you that you have these same fears So what do we do?

What remains for us to do is what Jacob’s children did: swear allegiance to the values and principles that we know are critical to us as Americans and stand together and raise our voices to make sure those principles guide us and our leaders,: that our speech and actions are honorable, that we don’t change our language and we stay true to our name.

I am going to ask you to please stand as I read a second prayer for our country; this one from the new Conservative prayer book, Lev Shalem. Please listen to it carefully and consider it a fervent prayer for the future of our nation.

(The prayer can be found in Lev Shalem)

Richard Adams

So many today are focused on the death of Carrie Fisher and rightly so. Her role as Princess Leia and in other movies were groundbreaking in many ways and her loss is another one of those far too frequent losses that we have seen recently.

I don’t have much to add to what has been said about Carrie Fisher but I noticed today in the newspaper another rather lengthy obituary which I need to recognize. I read today of the death of Richard Adams, author of one of my favorite books: Watership Down.

I haven’t read the book in years but it’s time to go back and read it again. It is a story about rabbits, their joys, their struggles, their lives and their deaths. But, in so many ways, it is a story about human beings as well.

While I haven’t read the book for many years, there is one quotation which has stuck with me since I read it for the first time so many years ago. I have used it in classes and in other settings as I think it reflects something so important in our lives.

Here is the quotation in its entirety, from the very end of Watership Down. It describes  Hazel, one of the central characters of the book:

One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as in days go by. He had been dreaming in a confused way-something about rain and elder bloom- when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him- no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first. Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said: “Do you want to talk to me?”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other, “You know me, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my Lord”, he said. “Yes, I know you”.

“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”

They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy sense.

“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right- and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”

He reached the top of the bank in a single powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom. 

These paragraphs have stayed with me since I first read them. They are not only an example of exquisite writing but a hopeful vision of our common destination.

I have never forgotten them and pray I never will.


“The Long Way Around”: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey

I am happy to announce that my book entitled: “The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey has been published and is available on

The book is a unique combination of stories about my life and the sermons that these stories have inspired. This selection from the introduction summarizes my purpose in writing this book:

This book is about who I am and where I have come from. It is about how the stories I remember, the interests I have, and the unique idiosyncrasies of my life have led to the sermons I most deeply treasure.

I hope the reader will find the stories enjoyable and engaging. They are dear to me but I’m quite sure that there is nothing so unique about my life’s stories that alone would make for an interesting book. The focus of this book is on how the stories and the sermons intersect. I believe this demonstrates the ways our personal experiences can lead to lessons that we can share with those around us.

I have been working on this book for more than 10 years as I tried to decide on the proper format that could best convey the message that I wanted to share. I am glad to be able to tell some of my stories, to pay tribute to my parents and my teachers and to share words that I have shared from the bima at Beth Israel.

I hope that those who read it will find it meaningful from a Jewish perspective and interesting from a personal perspective as well.

Thank you to all whose encouragement helped make this possible. My wife, Ellen, and my children, Avi and Mickie, have inspired me to continue to believe in this project and to see it through. Thank you to all of those who read sections of the book and gave me such good advice and thank you to Sarah Wood for her invaluable editorial assistance.

Happy Hanukkah to all and I do hope you enjoy reading my stories and sermons.

In Memory of John Glenn

Here is the sermon I delivered just before John Glenn returned to space on the Space Shuttle in 1998. May his memory be for a blessing.




It has been a while since I have quoted the words of my favorite songwriter, Harry Chapin. So, let me share with you some words of his which could have been written about Noah:

“And the faces they all fade together.

And the applause it’s all gone so fast

And the story of every darkened stage

Is that the glory just does not last.”


Here was Noah. Righteous or not so great, it doesn’t matter. He did his job. He saved the animals. He was God’s safety valve to begin creation again.

He comes out of the ark and represents all humans to come in accepting God’s covenant. He sacrifices. He plants a vineyard. And then, the glory fades as he drinks of the wine, drinks too much and disgraces himself in his tent.

It is so sad to read. For if God had come back to Noah and had said: “I need you for another assignment”, he would not have been ready. He could not have done it again.

Why did it happen? A friend once gave a sermon which identified Noah with everyone who had ever failed to survive the letdown which comes after a “peak experience” as he called it. Noah was the paradigm for someone who had done a terrific job at an impossible task, had his 40 days of fame, let alone 15 minutes, realized his destiny in life and then walked away saying: “Can it ever be the same again? What else could there be to live for?”

It is a sad reality that so many fail to strengthen themselves for the letdown which is sure to come after having scaled the heights. We feel for Noah because we know he is familiar to all of us.

What could he have done? He started off in the right way. He turned to his family, found something else to do, to occupy himself. But he just didn’t get the breaks or just didn’t see it through. Had he paid a bit more attention to himself, had he invested the energy to try just that much harder to apply himself after a brief and well-deserved rest, had he really believed that down the road another opportunity might come along to scale the heights, maybe he wouldn’t have let himself go that far down.

So, when we find someone who learns how to keep a peak experience in perspective and is ready at all times to change a bit of the world again, we have to pay that person a great amount of respect and honor.

You may be jaded. I am not.

You may be cynical. I am not.

You may think that it is all P.R, I don’t.

All I know is that it is a tremendous lesson for all of us as to the fact that unbelievable as it may seem, the chances sometimes do come again and we have to find that as the absolute, bottom line reason to keep ourselves sharp after a peak experience.

And so, I hope it is fun for him. I hope it is everything he wants it to be.

And, most of all, I pray, God how I pray, that he come back safely.

And this comes from my heart because I tell you I remember.

I wasn’t yet 7 years old but I remember.

I remember sitting in our den, home from school because of a blizzard, holding a globe and watching on TV.

And I remember those three words.

And I remember the chill I got down my spine even though I didn’t understand them.

And I repeated them in daydreams for so many years after.

And I anticipate that same chill as I say them with so much of my heart: “Godspeed John Glenn”.

You are teaching us all such a critical lesson. I only hope we pay attention and learn from you as you scale the heights again.


A Final Thanksgiving Thought

Thanksgiving is a nostalgic time for most of us. While I don’t need an excuse to be nostalgic about New England, a thought occurred to me the other day about a favorite spot along the coast north of Boston.

In the town of Gloucester, there is a very famous statue of a sailor at the wheel of a ship. If you haven’t been to Gloucester, you’ve probably seen a picture of the statue. We would visit Gloucester once during the summer and that statue was always the landmark that I looked for to know we had arrived in this rather unique town. I was always intrigued by the statue and the inscription on the base; “Those that go down to the sea in ships”.

The statue is called the Fisherman’s Memorial and stands as a tribute to those from Gloucester who died in the course of their work. It is a sad place indeed.

But, it is interesting to note that the inscription was taken out of context and is really inappropriate for a memorial.

The phrase; “Those that go down to the sea in ships” is taken from Psalm 107. But, that psalm is in fact a psalm of thanksgiving as it mentions several groups of people who faced danger and were saved after crying out to God. The sailors mentioned in the psalm faced a raging storm but were saved as were those lost in the desert and those who were imprisoned.

Psalm 107 is an important psalm in our tradition even though it is not used as part of the standard service. The psalm inspired the concept of the “gomel blessing” which is recited by a person who has survived a difficult experience: an illness, a long journey, imprisonment and the like. The situations in which the blessing is called for are derived from the psalm. Saying the gomel blessing can be extremely meaningful for one who feels gratitude for a return to safety or to health.

But, a hasidic rabbi pointed out once that if we thank God for saving us from the storm or helping us to survive an illness, we should also thank God for the days that there were no storms and days on which we healthy. Gratitude should come not only when we survive a difficult situation but when we are in a good place.

So, yesterday during services, I led all the congregation in a gomel blessing thanking God for the good that we have in our lives. I wouldn’t do it every week but I think we are going to make it an annual tradition in the congregation. It feels good to express thanks for that which we have and what better time to do it than Thanksgiving weekend.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend and may we always find ways to express gratitude for that which we have.


It has been quite a week.

On Wednesday morning at 4 a.m., after 3 hours of tossing and turning and 45 minutes of fitful sleep, I posted my personal feelings about the election results on my facebook page. I later posted them on my new website and I urge you, if you haven’t read them to go to and read them. They reflected my immediate, deeply emotional reaction to the election and those feelings still reflect what I feel.

But, I also feel it is time for me this Shabbat in this position on this bima to look ahead and that is what I will do this morning.

God told Abraham: Lech Lecha. Go forward. I want you to keep those words in your minds today as I speak. If you are not ready to go forward, I completely understand but at some point we all must.

So, let me share with you some thoughts on what I think we all, whomever we voted for in this election, must do.

First, lech lecha, go out to the world we live in and act with compassion.

You heard me say this on Yom Kippur and it is even more important now.

There is a beautiful midrash that Abraham can be compared to a bottle of perfume which was closed. When God told Abraham lech lecha, go out, it was, the Rabbis say, as if the bottle was opened and the aroma filled the world. I love that midrash because it teaches us that our actions can have great and lasting affect. So, I want to begin by encouraging you to go out and perform acts of kindness. Turn off the TV and Facebook and go do something good for someone.

If you think compassion is a value which we are in danger of losing after this election, prove that at least in your corner of the world, it will always be there.

And, let me tell you what the first act of compassion can be. Regardless whether you are devastated or elated by the results of this election, lech lecha, go out and embrace and comfort and promise to support someone who sees himself or herself to be vulnerable after this election. There are so many in our nation who are afraid of what might lie ahead because of the rhetoric and policy proposals that we all heard from our President-elect during the campaign.

There are people who feel that they are in danger because of their religion, race, sexual identity, gender, ethnic origin, or status as immigrants. They are afraid and there are already acts of violence being perpetrated which have been linked to the election results and those acts are not just against individuals or groups, they are against all of us as Americans.

Whomever you voted for, whomever you supported, each and every one of us needs to stand and proclaim that this nation can not tolerate bigotry, can not stand by while people are threatened or persecuted. All of us, I don’t care what political party you belong to, must reach out to these individuals and speak out loudly against acts of hatred. And, we must hear that message loudly and clearly from the leaders and leaders-elect of this nation.

I have already reached out in the name of this congregation and will continue to do so. This synagogue will always stand against bigotry, against hatred, against exclusion. That I promise you.

I also want you to make sure that you have talked to and listened to your children. Our kids have heard a lot of things at home, on social media or in school. Please listen and talk with them. I hope that you tell your children that they are privileged to live in a democracy like ours. I hope you tell them that we are a nation of laws and that you still believe in this. Take their fears or their concerns seriously and help them also to move forward.

Then, in time, lech lecha, go forward and continue to be an active part of the political process. Don’t give up on it. Pirke Avot teaches: Al Tifros Min Hatzibbur, Do not separate yourself from the community. This is not the time to walk away and disengage.

Finally, lech lecha, and I know that this may be very hard, go and listen to people whom you may not agree with. That’s hard for all of us. I used to do it much more than I have done it recently and I regret that I do not do it as much. When we all stay in our little bubbles, as we are prone to do here in Ann Arbor, there are ramifications. We sometimes think we understand everyone and everything. We don’t always understand. Sometimes, we need to listen more clearly to what others are saying and feeling and experiencing. We may deeply disagree and reject what we hear. But, we still need to listen to others as well as to those with whom we agree.

So, those are things that I ask all of us to do. And now, the next step.

We all will carry with us our impressions of President-Elect Trump from this campaign. We heard and saw things which can not just be forgotten. Our tradition has taught that the tongue has great power and words once said can not be taken back. So, it is absolutely legitimate that the campaign will continue to echo in our minds as it would have been had the result been different.

But the election is over and we now look ahead to the future in this nation.

And, as a proud and hopefully patriotic American, I will say what I have said whenever I have spoken from the bima after a presidential election, echoing the words that have been said by so many people I respect, including President Obama and Secretary Clinton: President-Elect Trump will be inaugurated as our president on January 20. I wish him well in this most critical of all roles. I respect his position as the duly-elected leader of this nation. I pray that he will lead our nation properly.

I pray that we will be safe and secure and that the promise this nation offers will be shared by all of those who live in this land.

But, with an absolute determination to always stand up for the ideals and values that our Jewish tradition and our American tradition hold dear, I fervently pray that this nation will always live up to the values of justice, equality and compassion. When it does, we will celebrate and praise. When it does not, we will raise our voices loudly, passionately and clearly because being a land of justice, equality and compassion is the only way this nation will survive.

Without those values, this will not be America.

Lech Lecha… May we all go forward together.