This is a test of the email notification for postings. Some of the email notifications for my early posting today ended up in spam files. If you did not see the posting from this morning, you can find it entitled: “In Memory of Vin Scully”.

Thank you

In Memory of Vin Scully

This morning, we learned of the death of Vin Scully who was, in my opinion, the best baseball announcer ever. As I thought about the joy that baseball announcers bring to our lives, I thought of a sermon I delivered in 1992 for Parashat Naso which contains Birkat Kohanim, the blessing of the priests. Here is the sermon I delivered that week:



This past week, I fulfilled one of my lifelong ambitions. 

It wasn’t quite for real but it was the next best thing. 

On Thursday night, I was able to sit in a booth on the top level of Tiger Stadium, put on a headset, watch a monitor and simulate a broadcast of one inning of a game between the Tigers and the Red Sox as part of the “Fantasy Play By Play” promotion. Despite the fact that the inning that I chose to broadcast, the third inning, was the quickest, least interesting of a long and otherwise interesting ball game, I felt, for those ten minutes like I was where I was always supposed to be. 

As I sat high atop the stadium and barely resisted all inclinations to lock myself in for the duration of the season, a serious thought came to mind. I thought about one element that connects baseball to this week’s parasha, to Judaism in general and to myself. 

Baseball is a game of rituals. These rituals are found on two different levels. First, there is the ritual involved among the fans. In no other game or pastime is there such a unifying sense that you are participants, doing what you are supposed to do. You have to stand up for the seventh inning stretch. You have to eat hot dogs, unless thankfully spared by the laws of kashrut. You have to at least make a passing attempt to keep score in the program. You have to. There is no choice. 

But, baseball’s more enduring ritual is the ritual on the field. Each game, in essence, is exactly the same: a very carefully structured, balanced, regulated progress of 3 strikes, 3 outs, 3 times 3 innings, 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to the plate and 90 feet between the bases. As my teacher in such matters, the late Bart Giamatti wrote: “Baseball is a game of symmetrical demands in a symmetrical setting which encourage both passion and precision.”

Giamatti expressed the idea that because of baseball’s ritual precision, the players were encouraged to act passionately: to find the meaning in the precision by creating within the tight boundaries of the ballpark, new responses to the immutable structures of the game. 

As I sat on top of the stadium Thursday evening, I realized that one of the responsibilities of the announcers is to express the passion and allow others to feel like they were there and involved in the passionate ritual.

Before I listened to the tape of my broadcast, I knew I had failed miserably.

I only spoke. I knew what I was feeling but I wasn’t passing it along. If someone had read the script of my performance, it wouldn’t have been bad. But, I just didn’t pass along the emotion along with the ritual. 

What a challenge it is. It is what separates Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully and Harry Carey and, my favorite Red Sox announcer, Ned Martin, from all the rest.

And, it is also the ultimate challenge for those who engage in public Jewish ritual.

We have chosen as a people to believe that service to God needs to be repetitive in form, consistent, predictable. We have taught that our prayers and rituals mean more than the sum of the meanings of each individual word, that the structures are worth keeping merely because they have been kept for so long and because their roots are in our experience of the divine.

But, somewhere, the passion must come through. 

This morning, we read the section of the book of Numbers which contains birkat kohanim, the blessing of the priests which is such an important part of our tradition. 

Let me share with you two brief comments on this blessing. 

First: the priestly blessing is introduced with the words; koh tivarachu, thus you should bless the people of Israel. The commentaries offer many explanations to the word: thus. Each of these teachings indicates that the blessing had to be said in a particular way: aloud, in Hebrew, standing, with arms outstretched. The blessing was not just the words but also all that went along with the words. 

But Jewish tradition added an element to this ritual. It was not enough that this be a beautiful grouping of three phrases, each with a similar cadence, 3 words, 5 words, 7 words; the structure was not enough, even if we add the different elements which were required: aloud, standing etc. 

When the priests blessed the people, they preceded the blessing with another blessing: that God had commanded them to bless the people in love. It was not enough that they say the words and perform the rituals. They had to do it with love. 

I am quite sure that, on occasion, priests said this blessing without that sense of love. But, it is the potential that ritual has to be infused with love which keeps it alive. It is, in our tradition, the infusing of symmetrical structures with subjective emotion that brings about true worship.

I couldn’t pass that along the other night at the ballpark. No matter how much I love the game, I couldn’t quite pass it along the way I could while sitting in front of the TV or in the stands watching with friends. There the passion came through but not in the broadcast booth.

But, my experience taught me that what a rabbi does is not so different from the announcer. We have our ritual and we have people performing the ritual in varying degrees of love and sincerity. It is the rabbi’s role to make sure that those who aren’t on the field feel the passion involved in Jewish ritual by explaining, elucidating and commenting, orchestrating and coordinating. No rabbi succeeds in those tasks all of the time. But, it is the potential to do so that keeps us trying. 

The other night, I learned that there are similarities between the two respectable professions: baseball announcer and rabbi. 

I also learned the most important thing: no matter what my dreams might be, I’d rather be here. 

In Memory of a Childhood Friend

I never met him but I consider him a close friend and, tonight, as so many mourn his death, in a way I am mourning as well.

His name was Tony Dow but for so many he will always be known as Wally Cleaver.

I love classic situation comedies and have written and spoken extensively about my love of I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show and so many others. These were the greatest examples of the uniquely American art of the Situation Comedy. I love them all.

But, as much as I love I Love Lucy and the others, MY show was Leave it to Beaver.

I am 7 years younger than Jerry Mathers and 10 years younger than Tony Dow but growing up in a family with one older brother, I identified with the show from the first time I watched it as a kid.

My mother didn’t wear pearls to breakfast and didn’t set a table with fine china and crystal for dinner each evening. My father didn’t have all the answers and didn’t turn every mistake I made into a gentle learning opportunity. My friends weren’t as colorful and quirky as Beaver and Wally’s friends. I never backed my father’s car into the street or climbed a billboard to see whether there was real soup in the soup bowl. I never made a funny face to ruin my class yearbook picture and I never insulted a friend who spoke only Spanish by repeating what I had been taught to say by a “friend” and telling him he had a face like a pig.

I never did any of those things but, in my mind, I was just like Beaver and although I had and still have a very close relationship with my older brother whom I love so dearly and respect so deeply, I always felt like Wally was another older brother.

He was just adventurous enough. He occasionally did “goofy” things but usually was the one to warn Beaver about the stupid things he was about to do and often helped him out of trouble he had gotten into. He was steady and he was wise and I learned so much from him.

And that is why Leave it to Beaver was my show. It was my show because I learned so much from it. I Love Lucy always made me laugh but Leave it to Beaver made me think about what it meant to grow up. And Wally, served, in many ways to be the role model of the one who made it through the hardest part of childhood.

I’m 67 and I still watch the show and I still love it and I still learn from it.

And Wally was always one of my most important teachers.

But, as true as that might be, what I’m feeling tonight is sadness: sadness for Tony Dow’s family and close friends who are in mourning but also sadness for me because tonight, I feel so much older.

I know how to feel better though. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to watch an episode of Leave it to Beaver and I know it will make me smile and it might just teach me something essential about life.

That is why it is MY show and why I feel tonight like I have lost a close friend.

May the memory of Tony Dow be for a blessing.

July 4, 2022

On this Independence Day, we placed our American flag in front of our house as we do every year.

Despite the fact that there is much to bemoan about our country at this point in time and much to fear as we look to the future, we still proudly display the flag. For, as so many have written so eloquently over the past few days, our country is worth believing in and working for.

Over the past few weeks, decisions by the Supreme Court have codified into law the direction that the United States has been moving in for the past few years. While not surprised, I am still shocked by the rulings in the matters of Roe v. Wade, gun possession, regulations intended to address the climate crisis and, as I discuss in my podcast to be posted this coming Thursday, the public school prayer decision. (wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com)

Each of these rulings have been so horribly upsetting to so many and, in fact, in some cases, the majority of Americans clearly disagree with the direction the court has taken. This fact, in and of itself, should deeply concern us for the future (but also should provide us some hope).

In addition, as more details emerge about the January 6 insurrection and more political candidates embrace the lie about election fraud, we appropriately fear what actions might surround the mid-term elections and the 2024 Presidential election.

There is so much to fear.

But, there is hope.

The hope lies in those of us who disagree with the direction of the court and reject those who continue to raise doubts about election integrity and who refuse to follow the lead of those who are moving in this country to disenfranchise others and to act as a nation without compassion or concern for equal justice. We must continue to raise our voices and continue to work for a different direction in our country.

In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln spoke the immortal words: “With malice towards none, with charity towards all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

There were many who questioned how he could have said these words when there were such sharp divisions in the nation and the wounds were not bound up neatly by any means.

Similarly today, it is hard to imagine how we might show enough lack of malice and enough charity and compassion attitudes to work to bring our nation together when the divisions are so deep. But, we can’t give up on the United States of America. We must speak loudly and clearly and seek common ground where it can be found to move away from extremism and to work together to the extent possible to repair this nation.

We must all continue to be proud in the hope our flag symbolizes.

May we all bring the spirit of hope to all we do in the days to come.

Two Beautiful Parks, Two Important Perspectives

         For many years, I have been intrigued by a place called Bryce Canyon National Park. I had never been there, but I had thought it about often. I have visited a few of the National Parks and they all provide great experiences, but I had dreamed of visiting Bryce for two reasons. 

First, the obvious reason: I had heard it was extraordinary beautiful and unique. 

And secondly, because I have a 2nd cousin whom I have never met who lives and runs a store just outside the park. I have wanted to meet her since we first connected about 15 years ago when two branches of my father’s family “discovered” each other. There had been a split in the family two generations ago and, thanks to a wonderful coincidence, we found each other and that led to sharing of family history stories and a better understanding of where we came from. 

So, visiting Bryce was always a dream of mine and when our son, Avi, and I were considering where we might go for a trip together during his vacation and he proposed the idea of going to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, I realized I could make my dream come true. 

We started at Zion National Park, and I have to say that it is an absolutely phenomenal place. In many ways, it was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. The cliffs rising up from the canyon, the beautiful trees, rock formations and the way that the same view looks totally different at different times of day were enthralling.

We hiked on some of the less demanding trails (after all I’m 67, more about that later) in Kolob Canyons and climbing to what are known as the Emerald Pools. We walked along the Virgin River until it begins its course into the narrowest parts of Zion Canyon. 

It was an unforgettable experience, and I could easily see why Avi considers it his favorite National Park of the many he has visited. 

Then, it was on to Bryce Canyon. 

The experience of Bryce Canyon is different from that of Zion. Instead of looking up at the cliffs, you look down on the canyon from above and I found myself mesmerized- and I can think of no more accurate word- by the “hoodoos”- the spire like formations of rock. They are incredibly beautiful and seem to have a “personality” of their own, each different, each more exquisite and impressive than the next. 

Some looked like animals. Some arranged as if a forming a “temple” on a hill. Others, like the ones shown here, reminded me of a group of people, appearing like “sentinels” guarding the valley below. I have never seen anything like them in my life. 

         Now, I’m home, more or less over jet lag and thinking back on what I experienced in these two remarkable places and I realized that these two parks affirmed in a dramatic way something that I have always felt is one of the most important perspectives our tradition offers on what it means to be a human being.

Zion and Bryce Canyon left me with two contrasting but complementary feelings- each critical feelings which we need to continue to balance in our lives. 

While Zion was awe-inspiring and overwhelming in many ways, I felt swept up in the park, carried, as it were, up the walls of the canyon to reach for the skies. Looking up from the bottom of the canyon at the rock walls and cliffs elevated me and made me appreciate once again the glorious beauty of the world. It affirmed my thoughts on how important the role of God as “creator” is in my faith and my theology as seeing the beauty of the world and the intricacy of the universe inspires us to greater heights.

Then, there was Bryce Canyon which left me with a completely different feeling.

From the top of the canyon looking down into these enormous hoodoos, I felt tremendously small, humbled by non-human “figures” which dwarfed my shadow. I could not get out of my mind the fact that these hoodoos were there millenia before I was born and would remain long after I am no longer walking this earth. 

So, I was reminded again, as our tradition teaches, that we must each remember that we are created in the image of God with all that potential that implies while recognizing that we are but dust in ashes and that we are such an imperceptibly small part of our universe. 

Two contrasting feelings from two incredible experiences. Two contrasting feelings that touched different places within me. 

So, which was more meaningful? 

         In one sense, it is impossible to choose between them, nor should I, but if I’m honest, I would say that on a spiritual level, Bryce Canyon resonated with me just a shade more deeply. 

         Perhaps that is because of where I am in life. 

         I do not consider myself “old” and, God willing, have time to visit many more National Parks and experience many more milestones in my life. But I’ve reached the age where I am aware of limitations more than I was a few years ago. I find myself still dreaming, still grabbing onto visions of goals I haven’t yet achieved but doing so within the context of reality, the nagging aches and pains and the fears of watching the years pass by. 

         For me, Bryce Canyon affirmed something that we all realize as we get older: that we can and must continue to dream and continue to seek moments of elevation and grandeur, recognizing that we each comprise an irreplaceable and unique part of the universe. But we realize more clearly every day that our time here is finite and the universe will go on without us sometime in the not-too-distant future and that that is the way of the world.

         So, the lesson is that as we get older, we need to act on our dreams. We need to go to the places we dream of going to and meet the people we dream of meeting- and yes, I did meet my cousin for the first time, and we had a wonderful “reunion”. 

We need to continue to find places where we remind ourselves how grand it is to be a human being and how precious each day is and places which affirm what we’re feeling inside as we watch the years go by. 


I am posting here a sermon that I delivered in 2017 following the horrible mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. As I read it, I realized it has significant relevance today following the horrible attacks in Buffalo and in Uvalde.


November 2017

                     THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

One of my favorite phrases in the Siddur is: Va’ani Tifalati. Taken from Psalm 69, the words can be translated in many different ways. I have always found great meaning in this translation: “As for me, this is my prayer.” 

As I considered the topic of my sermon for this week, I remembered a line from a song written by the late Jim Croce. In a song entitled “Which Way Are you Going?”, he wrote these words: “Words once honored turn to lies.”

It is true that there are certain words that once seemed perfectly honorable and acceptable suddenly begin to resonate poorly and can even become the object of ridicule. Such is the case today in many circles with these 3 simple words: “thoughts and prayers”.

After the horrendous tragedy which took place in Sutherland Springs, Texas this past Sunday, it seems that anyone who dares to say those once honored words: “our thoughts and prayers are with the families”, was being chastised. “We don’t need thoughts and prayers. We need action.”

And I agree 100% we most definitely do need action. 

But, thoughts and prayers can help as well. 

Let me share with you once again, as I know I have done many times before, my favorite thought concerning Jewish prayer. I do not know where I heard it stated as simply and clearly as I intend to do this morning although a lengthy commentary by the 19th century Torah commentator, the Malbim, seems to get to the same point in a rather subtle way. 

When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is sent by his master to find a wife for Isaac, he says a prayer “may the one who offers water not only to me but to my camels as well, let her be the one you, God, have chosen for Isaac”. 

What kind of prayer is this? What is this prayer about? 

Reading it closely, we discover that Eliezer is not asking God to pick the woman and let him know who it is by having her ask to water the camels. Rather, he is saying to God: ”I have made my choice. I will choose the one who is kindhearted enough to offer to water my camels and I hope you agree”. In essence, he is saying that he is making this choice because it is consistent with the values that his master had taught him and he feels it will find favor with God.

Eliezer is not asking for a magic sign. He is instead reaching deep inside and deciding which course of action is best and hoping that it coincides with God’s will. He is not praying to God to release him from the responsibility to act. He is praying that he be wise enough to make a good choice. The object of the prayer is not to make God act, rather to have the wisdom and the courage to act in accordance with what he believes God would want. 

So, prayer need not entail asking for external, divine help for our problems. Prayer really means marshaling our own forces, convincing ourselves that we can at least attempt to solve a problem and building up strength and courage to overcome the obstacles in the way. It isn’t always enough but, as part of a bigger package, it is definitely worthwhile. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said; “Prayer may not save us but prayer may make us worthy of being saved”.

Telling someone who is in pain that he or she is in our thoughts and prayers after suffering a loss is truly a compassionate thing to say and I will not refrain from saying it. It does mean something essential to some people and it brings a sense of support and concern which can be so deeply helpful to an individual in pain.

And when we face a difficult issue, while prayer is not a substitute for action, prayer can encourage us to face the challenges of life, gather up our strength and do what must be done. 

Prayer is not a replacement for action, it is a call to action.

When we gather here on Shabbat morning and when any congregation gathers in any faith, the community expresses a yearning for more meaningful lives and for a better world. We reach out to God to inspire us to try harder, to dig deeper, to see more clearly and to act more decisively. 

Gathering in prayer is a call to action.

And we so desperately need action. Our nation’s leaders must face up to the terrible plague of gun violence in our society and do what has to be done to effectively address the issue of the horrible proliferation of guns in our nation, especially guns the types of which no individual should have any access to. 

How many more tragedies will it take before our leaders act? 

Action speaks more loudly than prayer. But, let’s not be so quick to dismiss the power of prayer. Prayer allows us to reach deeper to find the wise way to act and in this case thoughtful, considered introspection can, I believe, lead to only one conclusion, that we must change the way we think and act about guns in our nation. There is no choice. There is no option. It is what God would want and it is what we must do. 

Those mourning in Texas, in Las Vegas, in Charleston, in Connecticut and on and on and on and on must always be in our thoughts. They inspire and demand our prayers and our actions.

May we have the strength to stem this terrible tide of violence and death. May our leaders and all of us gather the courage and the strength to do what must be done. 

As for me, that is my prayer

And I know I share it with so many of you. 

May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts and, most importantly, the works of our hands that those meditations inspire, be acceptable to you O Lord. 


Publicizing the Miracles

         On the morning before the first Seder, it is customary to hold a siyyum- the recognition of the conclusion of a section of a traditional Jewish text. This is done so that one can then hold what is known as a seudat mitzvah, a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a commandment. Eating at this seudat mitzvah supersedes the traditional “fast of the firstborn” so that those who would otherwise be obligated to fast can in fact eat on the day before Pesach.

         This Friday morning, I will be teaching a section of text that I have been studying for the past month. I have a thought on the Seder based on that text which I will include in my teaching and want those of you who will not be at the siyyum to read this idea in advance so that you can, if you wish, include it in your thoughts about the Seder and plan accordingly. 

         One of the traditions relating to the holiday of Chanukkah is that the Chanukkah lights are placed in the window facing the street. This is done for the purpose of pirsuma nisa, publicizing the miracles of Chanukkah and identifies the home as one which celebrates the holiday. 

         This is a beautiful tradition and one which I believe can be connected to the holiday of Pesach.

         The Seder is the most dramatic and meaningful home ritual of the entire Jewish year. It is a beautiful and sacred moment whose beauty we sometimes take for granted. 

         That leads me to my suggestion regarding the Seder. 

         If your Seder is held in a room with windows facing out to the street, I suggest you keep your blinds wide open during the Seder. 

         Just as lighting the Chanukkah lights in the window makes the observance of the ritual a public statement, so, I believe this will help make our observance of the Seder a public statement. 

         The impact of this could be profound. 

         Imagine a person who was not familiar with the Seder, or Jewish traditions in general, walking on the street and looking into the window and seeing people of all ages gathered around a table, engaged in conversation, singing and feasting. Consider  what a person would think about Jews and our traditions if they saw the Seder taking place. They would appreciate how it brings together people from different generations to observe ancient traditions with joy and passion. They would, I believe, be inspired by the sight.

         We have an opportunity on Pesach night to perform another act of pirsuna nisa, publicizing a miracle. In this case, though, we would be publicizing two miracles: the miracle of the Exodus and the miracle of the survival of our people for millenia. 

         In addition, there is always the possibility that a Jewish person who didn’t have a place to observe the Seder or who had neglected to plan for participating in a Seder, might be moved to knock on the door and ask to be included. 

         That last point may seem a bit far-fetched, and, in fact, we might be reluctant to invite a stranger into our home for various reasons. But, we shouldn’t be so hasty to come to that conclusion and I say that it in light of a personal experience that I am remembering this Pesach.

         Forty years ago, I and my good friend Rabbi Allan Berkowitz spent the beginning of Pesach in the former Soviet Union. We were one of many pairs of rabbis, rabbinical students and Jewish educators who traveled to the USSR throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s to meet refuseniks- those who had been refused permission to emigrate to Israel. These Jews suffered significant persecution for wishing to emigrate and the objective of these “missions” was to encourage refuseniks to remain strong, to teach them more about Jewish customs and observance and to bring back information for those working for the cause of Soviet Jewry.

Those of us who participated in these journeys returned with experiences which changed us in many ways.

         On erev Pesach 1982, we found ourselves in the city of Kishinev, now Chisinau Moldova. We spent much of the day trying to contact several families we had been instructed to meet but we were unsuccessful.

         Faced with the prospect of observing a make-shift Seder in our hotel room, we tried one last time to make contact with one of the families. We knocked on the door of a home whose address we had been given and after I said the simple word: “Shalom”, the woman who answered the door pulled us into the home, welcomed us and fed us some matza latkes. We then accompanied her to services at the synagogue and later that evening, we joined her family for a memorable Seder. I have never forgotten the act of kindness that this family showed us as they welcomed us into their home.

         That Seder was held in the basement, as holding the Seder in a more visible place might have been an invitation for trouble. 

         As we gather in this wonderful land of freedom, observing our holidays without fear, we should open our windows wide to express our pride in our ritual, educate others and perhaps, in just the right circumstance, open our door to someone who is looking for a place to join in the Pesach Seder. 

         Hag Sameach to all! 

A Memorial Tribute

Tonight and tomorrow we observe the 17th yahrzeit for my mother, Gertrude Dobrusin z”l.

It is so difficult to believe that it has been 17 years since her death. We feel her presence in our lives in so many ways and all who knew her will always remember her smile and her cheerful disposition.

Mom was, first and foremost, a wife and a mother. She embraced those roles with great dedication, and they defined her life in many ways. She graduated Simmons College with a degree in journalism and gave up her career as a newspaper reporter to marry my dad. She constantly supported him in his career and when he started his own public relations business late in life, she was right there with him editing his material and helping him succeed.

She was so proud of my brother and me and our families. She was also so proud of the fact that both of her sons were rabbis. Although Mom was not particularly committed to traditional Jewish observance and didn’t find great meaning in going to synagogue (unless my brother or I were conducting the service), in many senses, she was, in her own way, a very spiritual person.

As I wrote about her in my book: “Mom often told me: “I find my religion in the flowers and the trees. And while she was hardly what one would call an outdoorswoman, she loved to look at nature from comfortable places inside the house or riding in the car.

She had a special annual ritual as each spring she would take us to the window every day and show us the buds on the trees which I imagine was her equivalent of witnessing the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. She would look at them with tears in her eyes and loved that moment deeply.”

As I write this, I’m looking out our window hoping that the buds will soon appear and when they do, I’ll be looking at them every day as I do each year.

Her yahrzeit comes in the week before Pesach. While she loved to prepare for the Seder and to see the family together, there was one specific part of the Seder that Mom looked forward to. She loved to read from Psalm 114: “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like sheep”. Mom loved animals. She grew up on a farm surrounded by the goats and chickens and pigs and her dog, Duke. When she visited us, our animals were drawn to her almost magically.

I think she loved this phrase from the Psalms because she loved animals but also because she found great meaning in the image of the animals skipping with joy. In many ways, Mom skipped through life, always with a smile, always optimistic. Even during difficult times, she remained optimistic and hopeful.

Mom loved the Peanuts gang, especially Snoopy. And, in fact, I like to think she and Snoopy were kindred spirits and I mean that with the most respect. Mom was beloved by all. She was a dreamer, a loyal and loving companion to my dad and was always so full of positive energy and so full of joy.Her memory is always for a blessing to all who knew her and who will never forget her smile and her love of life.

Purim on TV

The holiday of Purim brings with it many traditions and one of them is the tradition of “Purim Torah”, using sacred texts in unusual and humorous ways to bring some extra joy to the holiday. Here is my attempt at a bit of “Purim Torah” especially for those who are fans of vintage (and somewhat more recent) TV shows.

Happy Purim everyone!

                           PURIM COMES TO TV!


         Did you ever wonder how the Purim story would be presented in somewhat contemporary culture? Probably not… but, in the spirit of this crazy holiday, here is a selection of pivotal scenes from the Purim story as they would have been portrayed on popular TV shows of the past:

         The Dick Van Dyke Show: As Haman approaches Esther to plead for his life, he trips over an ottoman and falls on Esther. At that moment, the King (played by Carl Reiner) enters the room and fires him.

         I Love Lucy: After learning that the King only picked her as Queen because she was beautiful and was bragging to everyone about her good looks while making fun of the way she sang, Esther shocks her him by appearing at the public marriage reception dressed in a fright wig with blackened teeth. The king promptly faints.

         All in the Family: Esther takes so long to tell the king about Haman’s plan to kill the Jews that his eyes glaze over and he pretends to fall asleep as he listens to the convoluted story. He only agrees to order Haman killed when his assistant Harbonah (whom he usually called “meathead”) explains to him the sociological implications of bigotry.

         Sesame Street: Haman sings to Ahasueraus: “One of these Persians is not like the other. One of these Persians just doesn’t belong…”

         I’ve Got a Secret: Esther is forced to cancel her planned guest appearance on the show because Mordecai told her not to tell anyone her secret.

         The Andy Griffith Show: Mordecai doesn’t bother to tell the King about Bigtan and Teresh who are plotting to assassinate him. He just runs up to them yelling: “Citizen’s Arrest, Citizen’s Arrest”. 

         The Honeymooners: Ahasueraus grabs Esther after Haman’s hanging and says: “Baby, you’re the greatest!”.

Friends : 4 Jews miss all the excitement because they spend all of their time in the city’s coffeehouse and bookstore called: the Shushan Noose.  

         Everybody Loves Raymond:  Mordecai and Esther can’t find a moment alone to discuss Haman’s plan because Haman and Zeresh, who happen to live next door, keep barging in to watch TV and complain about how dirty the palace is. 

         Mr. Ed: Haman does lead Mordecai around on the horse, but to avoid embarrassing himself further, Haman has the horse say: “Thus is done to the man whom the King wishes to honor”.

If you’d like to add to this list, you’re welcome to use the comments to do so. Purim Torah is for everyone! Happy Purim!!!!!


Courage in Ukraine

         I delivered this sermon last Shabbat morning, March 4, 2022 at Congregation B’nai Israel in Toledo, Ohio.

I had planned today to teach a text related to the upcoming holiday of Purim. The text, a section of liturgy entitled Shoshannat Ya’akov, is often sung after the reading of the Megilla on Purim evening. It is one of my favorite sections of Jewish liturgy and my plan was to uncover some of the meaning of the text by sharing with you a midrash that Shoshannat Ya’akov is based on.

         But the entire spirit of that Torah lesson is one of joy and humor and I felt that it wasn’t appropriate today given our concerns and our fears for the people of Ukraine and for the entire world.

         So, instead of teaching the text, I’ll go directly to the message I was going to share at the end of the Torah lesson and elaborate on it by reflecting on the situation in Ukraine.

         Before I do, let me tell you that while I have never been in Ukraine, I did spend a harrowing week in the former Soviet Union 40 years ago this Pesach on a mission visiting Soviet refuseniks. As part of that trip, I am my rabbinical school colleague Allan Berkowitz traveled both in Russia itself and in the Soviet republic of Moldovia, now the independent country of Moldova, a country which is currently absorbing many Ukrainian refugees. My memories of that week in the former Soviet Union are of fear and of the overwhelming sense of a complete lack of freedom and any sense of control over our fate. 

         Many years later, in 2013, I traveled to the former Soviet republic, now the independent nation, of Latvia. Walking in the streets of the beautiful capital of Riga and of my grandfather’s home town of Daugavpils, I saw Soviet era buildings and that took me back to that week in the Soviet Union some 33 years before. They reminded me so vividly of our frightening experience and, more importantly, of the horrendous era of oppression of Soviet citizens. But today those buildings today are the backdrop for cities brimming with freedom and people seeking to better their lives in the blessing of democracy. The cities, while facing the universal issues cities face, are full of people living their lives with hope and joy and I felt so comfortable and safe.  This is what the people of Ukraine are trying to save, and we stand with them in their fight.

         Now let’s think about Purim. The book of Esther is the only book in the Tanach which does not mention the name of God. God is not present in the story at all. But the post Biblical tradition tried desperately to find ways to prove that in fact God was present in Shushan watching over God’s people and ensuring their victory over Haman. 

         This was done in different ways. Some found clues in the text itself. For example, the name Esther was related by some of the rabbis to the Hebrew word for “hidden” and they claim that this shows that God was hidden from sight but still active. This idea strikes me as reflecting  the famous words of James Russell Lowell quoted by Martin Luther King during one of his most beautiful and passionate speeches delivered in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.”

         The Seputagint, the Greek translation of the Bible from the end of the Biblical period takes God out of the shadows and brings God right into the spotlight, right into the book of Esther itself. The translation features additions to the Biblical book which include fervent prayers by Esther and Mordecai, prayers which our text never even imply. Esther’s prayer includes these words: “O my Lord, you only are our King, help me who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand. Ever since I was born, I have heard in the tribe of my family that you O Lord took Israel out of all the nations and you did for them all that you promised… And now save us”

         Mordecai and Esther turn their attention to God for salvation and God is brought front and center into the story.

         Finally, there is the tradition I was going to teach about Shoshannat Yaakov which is that the Harbonnah, King Ahasureruas’ servant who suggested to the king that he hang Haman and finally end the threat was not the same Harbonnah, mentioned in chapter 1 of the megillah. This Harbonnah was none other than Elijah the prophet who made himself look like Harbonnah at that moment so that the king would listen to him. So, Elijah was there as he always is to bring about our final redemption. Esther and Mordecai laid the groundwork and God through God’s agents got the job done.

         Rabbinic tradition often tried to bring God into stories lest people think that human beings could achieve their own salvation. We see that at Hanukkah time as well as the rabbis, dare I say, invented the story of the oil burning for eight days. This was clearly a divine miracle, not mentioned at all in the book of Maccabees, the source for the Hanukkah story, which focuses only on the bravery of the Maccabees.

         But, despite all of the efforts of the post-Biblical tradition, the stories of both Hanukkah and in Purim feature  acts of salvation, initiated by human beings: courageous, brave and loyal human beings who seek to save not only their lives but their way of life. 

         We may wonder where God is present in the world. We look at the pain and suffering of desperate people and we wonder why God would allow this suffering to take place. We ask the same question when we consider the Holocaust and when we experience or witness some horribly unfair tragedy affecting our or others’ lives. 

This question is so difficult but let me give two brief answers. First, I believe that, as we read in today’s Torah portion, as our ancestors gave all the materials to build a perfect, symmetrical sanctuary, human beings have been given the tools by which to save the world, to create a perfect world. We know what we have to do. But we have also been given free will and with that blessing comes the threat that people like Putin and those who support him, seek to emulate him or praise him can wreak havoc on the world and they must be stopped.

         And the second thing I can say is that if God is in fact present today and I believe God is, God is present in inspiring the valiant courage and determination of the proud and brave Ukrainian people who with the support of well-meaning people throughout the world are seeking, against all odds, to save themselves and their nation. We wish them strength and continued courage.

         Like the rabbis taught about Esther and Mordecai prayers may help but they are no substitute for action and courage. 

         I will share a prayer with you, a prayer for Ukraine, but know that it is not prayer that will save Ukraine. I fervently believe that while God is inspiring the people of Ukraine with courage and strength, it is the human effort which will save this nation and I believe that God, in fact, is praying that the people of Ukraine and their nation survive. 

A Prayer for Ukraine by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth:

Sovereign of the Universe
Who hearkens to our prayers.
We stand before You in solidarity
with all who are enduring the darkness of human conflict in Ukraine.
May You protect all innocent men, women and children
at this moment of great peril for them,
their country,
for Europe and the world.
Bring fortitude to the vulnerable,
resilience to the insecure
and strength to those who live in fear.
Incline the hearts of national leaders towards peace and reconciliation
and bless them with the wisdom, vision and perseverance needed
to end this war and restore peace to the region.
Almighty God,
strengthen the hands of those who pursue peace, not war.
Bring harmony where there is hostility;
relief where there is pain and hope where there is despair.
May He who makes peace in high places
Make peace for all on earth.

May it be God’s will…And may it be our will to make it happen. Amen