The song consists of only six simple words: six words sung over and over again.

But those words have been sung at such significant moments.

– in the life of the State of Israel when the existence of the state lay in the balance.

– by Jews in the former Soviet Union who sang them, quietly at first and then more loudly and defiantly as the years went along.

– at bar and bat mitzvah and wedding parties as guests twirl around in a hora.

And, three weeks from tonight, on Simchat Torah, we will sing them out with pride outside the synagogue so that everyone will hear.

Six short words.

Sung over and over again.

Place after place, time after time, year after year.

Please join in singing them with me.

Am Yisrael Hai. Od Avinu Hai.

The people of Israel, The Jewish people live.

They are words of exultation and joy celebrating that our people’s glorious past, as important as it is, has led to something more critical: a present and, God willing, a strong future. And, now more than ever, we need to sing those words and embrace those words and live that promise.

I only translated the first phrase Am Yisrael Hai. That phrase we understand.

But, what do we make of the second phrase?

Od Avinu Hai. Our father still lives.

What does this mean? Who is “our father” that is being referred to?

Look it up and you’ll very likely find the explanation that “our father” refers to God.

But, it does not.

Avinu, “our father”, in this phrase does not refer to God. It refers to the patriarch Jacob, our patriarch, who was also known as Israel.

The phrase is a reference to a Talmudic text. In the Talmudic tractate of Ta’anit, we read that Rabbi Yochanan said something very strange: “Our father Jacob never died”.

Rabbi Nachman answered him bluntly: “So why did they waste time eulogizing, embalming and burying him?

Rabbi Yochanan responded metaphorically: “There is a verse in the prophet Jeremiah which compares Jacob, Israel, to his descendants. So, as long as his descendants remain alive, Jacob, Israel, remains alive”.

Thus, am Yisrael hai, od avinu hai.

The people of Israel live and therefore, our father, Jacob, Israel lives.

We keep Jacob alive when we, as a people, stay alive.

That’s what the song says.

At least the way we sing it.

But, I disagree.

I think the song, and Rabbi Yochanan, have it backwards.

We do not keep Jacob alive.

Jacob keeps us alive.

It is only if we keep the spirit of our patriarch alive that our people’s future, at least its meaningful and vital future, will be assured.

We can only live meaningfully as Jews if we truly live as the descendants of Israel.

This is my thirtieth Rosh Hashana on this bima. Twenty-nine years ago this Rosh Hashana, I delivered my first two High Holy Day sermons at Beth Israel and I still believe deeply in the message of those sermons.

I spoke that year about Jacob, Israel, and the two aspects of his life that should define who we are as Jews.

On the first day, I spoke about Israel the wrestler. On the second day, I spoke about Jacob the dreamer.

Jacob, our father, was given the name Israel, the one who “wrestles with God”, when he struggled with an angel on a dark lonely night. He serves as a model for us to always wrestle with the world, to confront difficult questions in the name of our tradition and faith, to not be satisfied with simple answers to complex issues or reduce Judaism to a children’s game.

And Jacob, our father who dreamed of a ladder rising to heaven is also a model for us. He calls on us to set our sights higher, to rise above the disappointments and cynicism of today to believe in and work for a better tomorrow for us and for the world.

As long as we keep Jacob alive, as long as we keep wrestling, as long as we keep dreaming, our people will truly stay alive.

That was my message on Rosh Hashana 1988 and it is my message today.

However, in my first moments as rabbi here, I didn’t want to be specific about which issues we should be wrestling with. I had to get to know the congregation and the congregation had to get to know me before I went too deeply into specifics. So, I spoke more in generalities.

That was wise then.

But, today, I want to go far beyond the generalities and speak about four issues which I have been wrestling with for years and which I believe we, as Jews must wrestle with now and in the future, here and throughout our Jewish world.

There are so many issues to choose from but I have chosen four, representative of different aspects of what it means to be a Jew.

Four issues that are worthy of wrestling with.

First, and this one is the proverbial elephant in the room, I have been wrestling with the issue of rising Anti-Semitism throughout the world and here at home. I have steadfastly maintained optimism regarding our nation and the safety it provides for us as Jews and I still trust in the safety and security of our peoples in this nation despite recent trends. I still trust in the political and judicial systems and the good will of the majority of Americans.

But, even I have begun to wonder in ways I never thought I ever would. When I entered rabbinical school Anti Semitism was, for the most part, far away and back then. Not any more. Hatred of Jews seems to be much more common and we must confront it and must accept its deepening reality.

We must protect ourselves.

We must be vigilant.

But, I believe that as we wrestle with our fears, we must keep two thoughts in mind. First, we can not become insular and care only for ourselves. We need to continue to be involved in community efforts, to know our neighbors, to share their fears and concerns, to build alliances and to be part of the American society. We must respond and join hands and stand up and speak out when anyone in this nation is targeted.

And secondly, we can not teach our children that our Jewish identity is wrapped up in potential victimhood. No matter how much we may fear, we need to concentrate on making Judaism mean something elevating and sanctifying in our lives, not just a flag waving identification in defiance of a hate-filled world. How we balance our needs for self-preservation with a determined effort to deepen our appreciation for Jewish learning, for spirituality, for observance of the mitzvot is absolutely one of the most important struggles we face.

On a completely different subject, I believe we must wrestle with scientific advancement and new scientific realities, particularly in the area of the life sciences.

For more than 10 years, I have been involved in two different groups comprised of scientists and faith leaders. We have met monthly to explore and wrestle with questions concerning the intersection of faith and science.

During many of our sessions, we discussed new techniques and discoveries in the life sciences: the human genome and genetic therapies, advances in medical treatments, theories concerning genetic basis of human behavior and so many more. These discussions eventually brought us to questions concerning what it means to be a human being, and what, if any, limitations there should be to scientific exploration and human experimentation.

These fascinating discussions about scientific progress have not diminished my belief in God as creator. Rather, the discussions have deepened that belief. Every new piece of scientific information I have been exposed to has made me believe even more in the purposeful creation of the human being and as evidence of the divine.

And, at the same time, I have marveled at the intellectual curiosity and dedication of scientists to reveal and better understand so much of what makes human beings and the world work.

But, the question that comes up again and again for me is how do we remain appropriately humble as human beings, holding firm to our values and our ethics and recognizing that we are not all powerful while at the same time taking advantage of procedures and discoveries which can enhance or extend or better explain our lives. And, how do we decide when to say that progress can be dangerous: just because we can do something, is it necessarily good for us and for the world to do it?

I believe that thoughtful Jews must actively engage in questions such as these. We need to wrestle with what it means to be a thinking, creative human being while still believing in the divine and in the essential importance of the soul.

Thirdly, Jews and especially Conservative Jews have to wrestle more seriously with the reality of intermarriage.

Currently, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement prohibits rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriage ceremonies. I respect the authority of my rabbinic organization and will not do so.

But, like many of my colleagues, I have been wrestling with this issue for years and, as some of you have heard me imply in the past, my thinking has gradually been changing.

I believe without question that the sharing of a religious faith and identity is a great advantage in a marriage and I do believe our future would be significantly more secure if we find ways to lower the rate of interfaith marriage among Jews.

I believe that without question but I also see the world changing and synagogues changing.

We have made many changes here at Beth Israel over the last 30 years as we have wrestled with the reality of intermarriage. We now welcome all family members as members of the shul. We have begun to say mazal tov and to announce interfaith marriages in our bulletin. We will, within the halachic standards of our Torah service, perform an aufruf for an interfaith couple should the couple desire it.

I consider these all to be positive changes.

But, as a Conservative synagogue, we can’t make one critical change: the rabbi can’t stand with the couple and bring the spiritual element to the sacred moment they begin their married life.

So, I have wrestled with this reality for years and I have come to the conclusion that the status quo is wrong.

Let me tell you why.

Let me ask rhetorical questions. Once an interfaith marriage becomes a reality in your family, how many of you have chosen not to embrace the future family member who is not Jewish? How many of you have not done your best to make that individual feel welcome in your family? How many of you considered doing what Jews used to do and sit shiva for the one who intermarries?

I don’t even have to wait for answers. I know what most of you would say because you’ve told me and you’ve shown me.

As parents, as grandparents, you do what you should do and what I’ve told you to do if you have asked: you reach out and embrace.


And you hope that your friends and extended family do the same.

So, why should the only person that alienates a Jew and his or her beloved be the one person who could most effectively serve as a positive influence in their feelings about communal Jewish spiritual life?

Why is it the rabbi who has to be the bad guy?

When an interfaith couple approaches a rabbi because they sincerely want him or her to officiate, we should be able to say yes.

We shouldn’t sign a traditional ketubah. We shouldn’t have the language of kiddushin, halachic marriage said under the huppah. We shouldn’t say all of the sheva brachot, the 7 wedding blessings. I believe we shouldn’t co-officiate with a clergy of a different faith. But, after all of the “no’s” we could work out something beautiful and spiritual and we need to.

I honestly have no idea how this will affect us demographically or sociologically. Time would tell. But, I believe it is the right thing to do.


Finally, let me bring up one final issue.

We need to keep wrestling with issues facing the State of Israel.

Let me be absolutely clear although I sincerely hope you don’t need me to tell you how I feel after all these years.

There is no wrestling with the question of the legitimacy of Israel.

There is no wrestling with the question of the importance of Israel to our lives as Jews.

There is no wrestling with the sacred responsibility Israel has to ensure the security of her people given terrorism and threats the nation faces.

There is no wrestling with the pride we should feel at the thrilling accomplishments of the state in 70 short years.

Those are givens.

But, if we think that we can ensure a love of Israel among Jews of future generations by merely repeating those well-rehearsed givens while stifling questions and dissent about critical issues, we are wrong.

We teach our children to be actively engaged in ethical, political and philosophical questions of all kinds here at home and then we rush to close off debate when it comes to Israel. And, while it is true that we need to remember and account for the difference between living on the front lines in Israel and living on the sidelines in the Diaspora, how Israel acts does matter to all of us.

And so, we must wrestle with the difficult questions.

How do we react to the exclusion of and discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism which is often accompanied by horrendous libelous speech by government officials?

How do we speak out against the terrible disruption of daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank and Bedouin in the Negev beyond any legitimate security demands?

How do we respond to events in the holy city of Jerusalem when, instead of being a place of dreams, the holy city becomes the setting for an extremist form of triumphant nationalism which denigrates the humanity of the other?

How do we reconcile our justifiable pride at the democratic ideal of Israel with the increasing limits placed on freedom of expression and protest?

Before you criticize me for raising these issues, and I know some of you will, talk to young Jews about what they’re thinking.

We do our children and, I believe, Israel, no favor if we stop wrestling with these and so many other issues and doing so openly and respectfully as a sign of love and concern. I would rather our young people hear those questions from those who love and support Israel rather than from other people in other settings.

And, if we consider Israel to be our spiritual home, not just our political home, rabbis must be role models for wrestling with these issues.

That is and always has been the role of a rabbi.


Four areas of wrestling. And there are so many more that I have been wrestling with.

What is the meaning of prayer in today’s world?

Should we make changes in our Shabbat observance to account for the different pace of life today or do we need the “Temple in time” as Heschel called Shabbat even more deeply today?

How should we respond philosophically and ritually to deeper and more complicated questions of gender identification that are being raised throughout our society?

And, the most important question: what do we do about the eighth day of Pesach?

These and so many other questions need to be wrestled with and we can not accept simple answers.

But, Jacob didn’t only wrestle. He dreamed as well and we sometimes have to stop wrestling in the night and take time to dream in broad daylight as well.

Let me tell you a story again. I’ve told it many times.

During my first year in Ann Arbor, I was invited to speak to a class of 13 year olds at the humanistic Jewish Cultural School. I was asked this question by one of the children:

“I’m a secular Jew. You’re a religious Jew. Is there anything we both can believe in?”

I thought for a while and said that there certainly is.

I said that every Jew has to believe that the story human beings are writing in this world will have a happy ending. Every Jew has to believe that the world can be perfected. Every Jew has to believe with perfect faith that there will come a time when all of our precious, most glorious, most impossible dreams, actually come true.

Im lo machar az machratyaim:

If not tomorrow, then the day after.

We must believe.

More than forty years ago, I decided to become a rabbi for three practical reasons and one more general reason. First, I wanted to study and teach Torah. Second, I wanted a career that would enable me to work directly with people. Third, I wanted to find a job which would permit me more easily to live a deeply satisfying personally meaningful spiritual life as an observant Jew on my own terms.

As the song says: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

But, seriously, I also chose to become a rabbi for a more conceptual reason.

I chose to become a rabbi because I am an optimist, an idealist and a dreamer and I really do believe that this world is worth believing in and dreaming for and that Judaism as a faith can help the world be redeemed.

And that hasn’t changed.

So, even as we wrestle and question and debate and struggle, we must continue to imagine that ladder leading ever upwards with us, each and every succeeding generation, climbing one step further up.

As a Jew, I refuse to give up on my dreams.

As a Jew, I refuse to give up on the world.

Sometimes, I feel like I’ve wrestled too long and just want things to be simple.

Sometimes, I feel like being a dreamer is for children or fools.

We all feel that way sometimes.

But, when that cynicism surfaces, I think we should close our eyes and imagine that our father Jacob comes along and taps us on the shoulder and says: “without my inspiration, the Jewish people will not stay alive or at least, their lives won’t be as meaningful. Wrestle and dream, just like I did and our people will flourish and our future will be even better than our past”.

So, that’ brings me back the beginning.

Six simple words. We sing them so loudly.

But we don’t sing them correctly.


We don’t keep Jacob alive, Jacob, Israel, the wrestler and dreamer, keeps us alive.

So join with me once again in singing that simple song. But, this time let’s sing it the right way: the other way around.

Od Avinu Hai, Am Yisrael Hai.

Let us proclaim that as long as our father, Jacob, lives and inspires our hearts and minds, we will live a meaningful existence as Jews and our people will truly live.

If our father lives, we will live as well.






Sermon for Shabbat Re’eh August 19. 2017

                           LIGHT AND SHADOW

It can be said about almost everything that occurs in this world or any action that we may perform: “There’s a bracha for that”. “There’s a blessing for that”.  Jews have a blessing for almost everything in our world.

         So, naturally, many people have asked me recently: “Is there a blessing for a solar eclipse?”

         The answer is, traditionally, no.

But I disagree.

         I have been eagerly anticipating this coming Monday for a year or so. Under different circumstances, I would be getting in my car and driving to Southern Illinois to experience the total eclipse. I can’t. So I’ll have to be satisfied, weather permitting, with the 70% or so we’ll see here.

         And, I can’t wait.

         I am fascinated by all things astronomical and see in them both the creative powers of God and the wisdom of human beings which allows us to explain and predict the orbits and movements of the heavenly lights.

         I read something the other day regarding solar eclipses that I had never read before.

         Apparently, the only reason that we can experience a total solar eclipse with the brilliant ring that shows around the sun at totality is because even though the sun is 400 times larger than the moon, the moon is 400 times closer to the earth. That enables the moon to cover the disc of the sun perfectly from our perspective. If the sun was bigger or the moon further away, there would be no total eclipse as we know it.

         What a coincidence.

         Or is it?

         I don’t claim that God created the sun and the moon of a particular size just to delight us every few years. Our world could exist very well without this experience.

         But, I do believe in a world which has been created with a certain symmetry, balance and intricate structure which enables it to continue to exist in a largely predictable way. And, as you have heard me say many times, while I believe completely and with perfect faith in the idea of the big bang theory and the scientific realities of the world as it is, I also believe that the hand of God, at the very least, started this process going. I do not want to look at anything in the natural world and say, for example: “What a lucky break that human beings can think and feel and dream of great things”. The further I look into the scientific realities of life, the more I am inclined to see a God who dreamed of a world in which thinking, feeling human beings could function.

         So, I will celebrate the eclipse with a bracha: Oseh Ma’asei Beraysheet: acknowledging God who fashions the work of creation. I urge you to consider taking a moment during the eclipse to do the same and recognize the truly wondrous world in which we live.

         But, as I said before, traditionally, a bracha is not said over an eclipse. This is because it was considered a bad omen for the world to see the sun darkened.

         I don’t consider it a bad omen. I know it will only last for a few minutes and we’ll go back to sunlight so I will say a bracha.

         But, I do think that during the eclipse we should consider what it means when a light falls into shadow.

         There is a beautiful legend about the sun and the moon which teaches that when they were created, they were created to be equal size and each with a light of its own. But, the moon complained to God that there couldn’t be two equal size rulers, one had to be superior. So, God took the moon at its word and lessened it because it rejected equality. The sun, which was satisfied in sharing glory, was given superiority.

         We have another bracha in our tradition, said when one sees a human being of notable physical stature or unique appearance. We acknowledge that God is mishaneh habriyot: varies the creations.

         While different in appearance, each of us is created with an equal piece of the image of God. We are instructed by our tradition to acknowledge and celebrate the distinctiveness of human beings.

         But, some people can’t accept this.

         Some say we can’t all be equal. Like the moon, some say, a choice should be made.

         And when people say this, they disgrace our creator. They sow seeds of hatred and eclipse any potential light that their society and community could offer.

         And that brings us to this moment in our nation’s history.

It must be said clearly by every American of good will and with any moral compass, from the very top of the power structure to each and every one of us here. The threat posed by White Supremacists, those racists who feed on Nazi rhetoric and actions and who terrorize and threaten people whom they deem to be different, including you and me, must be called out and opposed in the strongest possible terms. There can be no equivocation and no attempt at moral equivalency when those with such hatred are involved.

         Our nation has seen a rise in rhetoric and actions, notably in Charlottesville, but other places as well, which are drawn from the most despicable, hate-filled ideology. This hatred has always been present in America, usually somewhat under the surface. But, it has been brought into the open by many factors notably the many expressions of divisiveness and code words of hatred which were spoken or tolerated by candidate then President Trump.

These can not be what America is about.

         The people who claim that there isn’t room in this country for equality must be rejected and ostracized and can not be given even the slightest hint that there is any tolerance for what they believe or what they seek to do.

         It is absolutely true that there in intolerance on all sides of the political spectrum. I’ve personally encountered it. But, here and now, this is the battle that is raging and this horrendous viewpoint must be answered with unified voices of rejection without any hesitation or mincing of words.

         Our nation can be a light unto the world. But, that light is eclipsed when those who believe in this poisonous ideology, a way of “thinking” that has led to persecution of so many in this country and resulted in the murder of six million of our people and millions of others in Europe, are allowed even for a moment to think that it has a place in this nation.

         I have heard thousands of statements by presidents in my lifetime. Some I have agreed with. Some I have disagreed with. Some have angered me. Some have served as an inspiration to me throughout my life. But, President Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people” among those who stood with those who held Nazi flags, shouting anti-Semitic and racist chants is the most offensive and despicable statement I have ever heard from a President of the United States. How dare anyone call someone showing any support or tolerance for such an agenda a fine person?  Unbelievable and completely unacceptable.

         Every day, we must live out our responsibility never to let the light of freedom and equality that our patriots, our soldiers and our citizens, fought for and died for be darkened by hatred and bigotry.

         And, we must demand that our elected officials take responsible action to see that we, and all communities threatened by hatred, will be safe in this great country.

         Let me close with words of hope and comfort, especially to the young people here.

         I believe deeply in the goodness of the majority of people of this nation in which we are blessed to live. I believe, and I have received many calls and emails over the past few days to demonstrate this, that there are people of good will all around this nation ready to stand with us, just as we must be ready to stand with others who are threatened.

         There will be some battles ahead. I pray that these battles will only be battles of words, God forbid we see more violence. But, we must be ready to stand alongside other people of good will to insure our and others’ safety. We will have plenty of allies. There is good all around us.

Our parasha begins: See I set before you blessing and curse, life and death. Choose life. It is a clear choice but a choice which must be made.

Choose life, not death.

Choose equality, not hatred.

Choose light, not darkness.                  

Choose light and choose it loudly and clearly.

Sermon for Shabbat Emor May 13, 2017



Our journey through the year can be defined by the holidays which we observe and Parashat Emor includes one of the lists of the cycle of those holidays. Shabbat and the festivals are described in great detail as are the days which we have come to know as Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days.

Regarding those days, the Torah’s description of Yom Kippur resonates with us in its commandments regarding self-denial and the promise of atonement. But the holiday described just before it is not as familiar. There is no mention of t’shuva, repentance. There is no mention of turning the page on the calendar to a New Year. There is no mention of apples and honey and not even a reference to the name Rosh Hashana as that is a term applied to this day much later in our history. So, what is mentioned? That day is called Yom Zichron Teruah, a day commemorated with loud blasts of a horn.

Of course our Rosh Hashana wouldn’t be the same without the blowing of the Shofar but the development over history has taken the holiday far beyond whatever its original meaning was. The Torah is not clear as to exactly what the blast from the horn was supposed to mean. But, for two thousand years now, the blast has meant the call to action, the awakening of the conscience, the determination to build a better life and a better world.

And, while the Torah uses the word T’ruah to refer to all the sounds that are blown from the Shofar, one of the series of three sounds that we blow is known specifically as T’ruah:  9 staccato notes which in the mystical tradition convey the sense of brokenness, the sense of a world desperately in need of repair. T’ruah also conveys the sense of urgency as it sounds like an unrelenting alarm clock which will not give us rest until it is heeded.

For many in the Jewish community, the word T’ruah now symbolizes something else as well. It symbolizes rabbis, cantors, rabbinical and cantorial students and laypeople from all the movements within Judaism who have come together determined to work for human rights here in the United States, in Israel and in the territories. T’ruah was the name taken by the organization that was once called Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. While continuing to hold great respect for the Israeli organization of Rabbis for Human Rights, the North American organization ended its formal relationship with the Israeli group several years ago in order to focus on human rights issues here at home in addition to those in Israel. A new name was chosen: T’ruah: the Rabbinical Call for Human Rights.

I had been a member of the board of RHR-North America for a few years when I was asked to serve as national co-chair of this new organization with a new name, an expanded vision and a new executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs.

I served in the role of co-chair for two years and since my term ended, I have served on the board. It has been an honor and a privilege to have done so and while my term on the board will be complete as of June and I will be stepping down I do so with only the greatest respect and admiration for Rabbi Jacobs, the T’ruah staff, for the organization and for the work that T’ruah continues to accomplish.
Among other efforts, T’ruah has taken American Jews physically and spiritually to the tomato fields of Florida to support the work of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers who have had great success in righting some of the terrible wrongs that had literally enslaved farm workers in the tomato industry.

T’ruah has awakened American Jews to wrestle with the complicated, delicate and critical issue of policing and to strongly oppose the disgraceful expansion of solitary confinement.

T’ruah has successfully brought to light the use of funds by charitable organizations to support efforts that evict Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from their homes in deference to Jewish settlers.

But, most importantly T’ruah has reminded us that human rights has to be high on the agenda of the Jewish community. As we face issues of immigration and refugee status and sanctuary here at home and as Israel faces the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War which brought such tremendously positive results in terms of security and the return to the kotel and the Old City of Jerusalem but which has carried with it for the Palestinian people ramifications  which can not be ignored or minimized, the questions of human rights become even more critical.

I am proud to have been part of the leadership of T’ruah: and I will continue to support and encourage your support for this vital, sacred work.

The foundation of our commitment to human rights as Jews is found throughout our tradition. It is found in Beraysheet which reminds us that we are created equally in the image of God.  It is found in Leviticus which as we read last week we are called on to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is found in the Mishna which commands that the honor of another be as dear to us as our own. It can even be inferred from our counting of the omer which urges us to see freedom as carrying with it obligations responsibilities as we move towards the mountain top.

As a people, we can not ignore the commitment to human rights.

And, what applies for us as Jews applies for all people.

I will close therefore with the eloquent and courageous words of Senator John McCain who, in a recent essay, criticized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who had claimed that conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interest.

In response, Senator McCain, no stranger to the horrendous effects of human rights abuses, wrote: “I consider myself a realist. I have certainly seen my share of the world as it really is and not how I wish it would be. What I’ve learned is that it is foolish to view realism and idealism as incompatible or to consider our power and wealth as encumbered by the demands of justice, morality and conscience. In the real world, as lived and experienced by real people, the demand for human rights and dignity, the longing for liberty and justice and opportunity, the hatred of oppression and corruption and cruelty is reality. By denying this experience, we deny the aspirations of billions of people.”

Thank you Senator McCain for those brave, inspiring words and thank you for reminding us that human rights is not a partisan issue. We can disagree on specifics but we can not ignore our responsibilities as human beings.

And thank you to T’ruah for what you have taught me and what you continue to teach all of us: that, as Jews,  must always be committed to principles of human rights.

Each day must be a Yom T’ruah, each day we must listen to the sound of a world desperately in need of repair and we must listen to the cries of those who depend upon us to insure their rights as human beings.

It is a call we must heed every day as we continue our journey through the years.

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.


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)


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.


Kol Nidre Sermon 2016

Every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Rabbi of Nemirov would vanish.

He was nowhere to be seen-neither in the synagogue nor in the two Houses of Study nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. His door stood open; whoever wished could go in and out; no one would steal from the rabbi. But not a living creature was within.

Where could the rabbi be? Where should he be? In heaven, no doubt.

That’s what the people thought.

So begins one of the most beloved short stories in all of Jewish tradition, If Not Higher. Written around the turn of the last century by the author I.L. Peretz, the story has charmed and inspired readers and listeners through the years and for good reason.

I assume many of you know the story. For those who don’t, I am about to ruin it by sharing the ending. But, there is much more to the story than the ending so you will find copies of the story on the table outside the synagogue. You don’t have to put aside too much time, as it is very short.

So, the disciples of the rabbi of Nemirov think he goes to heaven on the Fridays during Elul when the penitential prayers, the Selichot prayers, are said, because, after all, the only thing that could be more important than being with the community is pleading directly to the Kadosh Baruch Hu for their health and prosperity.

But, a skeptic, referred to in the story only as a “Litvak” doubts that the rabbi goes to heaven so he secretly follows him, lying under the rabbi’s bed at night and following him the next morning. He finds that, in fact, the rabbi changes into peasant clothing, and chops wood bringing it to a small cold cabin in which a frail, elderly woman lives alone. He places the wood in the stove, lights the fire, tells her she can pay him later and leaves to change back to his clothing, arriving at the shul just before Shabbat.

So, now when the disciples say that the rabbi ascends to heaven, the Litvak, now a disciple himself, adds quietly: oyb nisht noch hecher, “if not higher”.

Tonight, on the holiest night of the year, in the spirit of this beautiful story, I want to address on one concept, one quality, one human attribute which is one of the most important treasures we possess: the ability to show compassion.

I fervently believe that the most important principle of Jewish belief is the absolute conviction that we can turn this world into heaven, into the garden of Eden. In fact, we can, despite all of our woes and despite all of our disappointment, reach even higher than heaven; but only if we live lives of compassion.

There have been many books written on compassion in recent years and I can’t possibly do justice to the subject tonight. I know I can only skim the surface of what is a much deeper and more complex issue than I will present this evening. Yet we all must begin somewhere and taking time on this holiest of holy days to speak about the subject of compassion is an expression of how indispensable this value is to our lives.

And I know of what I speak.

Over my years as a congregation rabbi, I have learned how deeply compassion matters in the rabbinate. I have learned how compassion or lack thereof and the perception that we are or are not compassionate at any given moment can solidify or completely undermine a relationship with a congregant. Learning this, sometimes the hard way, has been an essential part of my growth in my profession. Neither I, nor any of us is perfect. Each of us, no matter who we are and what we do, must work daily, hourly, to develop further the power of compassion within our souls and learn how sincerely demonstrating compassion is absolutely critical in our relationship with others.

Alan Morinis, the inspiration behind the contemporary revival of Mussar, a Jewish path towards ethical and meaningful living, notes that “the moral precepts of Judaism demand that we be compassionate to every soul”. He defines compassion as “a deep emotional feeling arising out of identification with the other that seeks a concrete expression”.

There are two key elements of that statement. The second is found in the words “concrete expression”. Compassion can not be just a feeling, it must be expressed through action to be meaningful. We must be willing to chop the wood and light the fire.

But, the other key element of the statement is found in the word “identification”.

In one of the most powerful statements in the Torah, we are told that we must not oppress the stranger because “you know the soul of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. According to the Torah, our history of being slaves obligates us to sincerely care for those who are enslaved or who are strangers.

But, this raises a question. If we hadn’t been slaves, if we hadn’t been strangers, if we couldn’t identify based on our own personal or in this case historical experience, would we still be obligated to show compassion to the stranger? And the answer must be yes. There can be no double standard.

While knowing the soul of the stranger might make us more empathetic, it does not excuse those without that experience from acting with compassion. As Alan Morinis teachers, it is about “identification with the other”. We can and must identify with another person simply because he or she is, like us, a human being.

Compassion is not dependent on completely understanding and identifying with the situation another person finds herself in. It means cutting through all of the defense mechanisms we have built that prevent us from deeply listening to and sincerely connecting with others and seeing in another person a human soul, a kindred spirit.

For example, we may not know how it feels to face a particular illness or to endure a difficult financial hardship or to be alone in a new community without friends or family. We may not have experienced the stress that honest and well-meaning police and other law enforcement professionals face and we may not be able to directly identify with Americans of color for whom merely walking down a street or driving a car can mean taking a serious risk. But that can not and must not prevent us from being compassionate and acting to support to those who are faced with those situations. It may make it more difficult but that is no excuse.

Compassion is not sympathy and it most certainly is not pity. Compassion demands that we meet another person face-to-face and eye to eye, as equal human beings, to seek to better understand what another faces as she goes through daily life. Compassion demands that we show respect for another individual as an equal creation of God, deserving of that respect and sincere concern.

In her book entitled: “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” Karen Armstrong writes about the charter for compassion which you can read about at These are statements of commitment to caring for others which many institutions, including the city of Ann Arbor, have signed on to. On the website, which has some wonderful resources on the subject, you will find the simple but powerful words: “We believe that all human beings are born with the capacity for compassion and that it must be cultivated for human beings to survive and thrive.”

This quotation reflects what actually inspired me to give this sermon, one I’ve been thinking about ever since we started using the Sim Shalom siddur some 20 years ago. Every Shabbat morning, we read in our prayer for peace: “Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations with the power of compassion”. I can’t tell you how much I dislike that sentence. God has already given all human beings the power of compassion. We don’t have to pray for it. We just have to use it. We are all born with the capacity for compassion.

Both Alan Morinis and Karen Armstrong and my friend and colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg in her book: “From Enemy to Friend” note that the Hebrew term for compassion- rachamim- shares its linguistic root with the word rechem which means “womb”.

To me, the connection of the word rachamim to rechem means that the ability to be compassionate is part of our very being from the beginning.

In her book, Armstrong notes a theory which I understand has been refuted by many scientists. But I still like it, so it doesn’t matter to me whether you hear it as fact or myth. It is still powerful.

She says that in the “deepest recess of their minds, men and women are indeed ruthlessly selfish. The egotism is rooted in the “old brain” which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago.” She writes that these creatures were motivated by what are referred to as the “four fs”: feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproduction. She continues: “But over the millennia, human beings also evolved a new brain, the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and on ourselves and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.”

I find this idea to be so deeply meaningful if only as midrash. It is reflected in our Jewish tradition of yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good inclination and the evil inclination which in at least one classic rabbinic text is represented, not as good vs. evil, but as the self-centered vs. the altruistic and compassionate inclinations. These two tendencies struggle for dominance in our minds and actions. This concept teaches that a part of us is hard wired to be compassionate and that we only need allow it to take precedence over the self-serving parts of our soul.

Compassion is so important in so many arenas of life, most notably in our relationships with one another. But, let me share some thoughts first on the issue in the public arena.

Where is the compassion in our nation? Why, during this election season, are words of kindness and concern and empathy and sympathy not universally expressed? Why, even given differences in our perspectives on policy, are we so often hearing words which degrade and demean other human beings with no compassion and simple kindness?

We see this in the discussion relating to refugees or those in this nation illegally and yes, there must be limits to compassion when it comes to public policy. We have to understand that self-preservation is critical. But, our policies and our priorities as communities and as a nation need to be rooted in respecting individuals and accepting and honoring the basic humanity of another man and woman, whomever and wherever they are, no matter what they look like and, I can not believe that I have to say this, how much they weigh. For they are us. And this is what America must stand for.

And it is what our community must stand for and I am so proud of the efforts of our Jewish Family Services regarding refugees in our community. You will hear more about this and volunteer opportunities tomorrow morning.

Now, I should be point out that Karen Armstrong ends her 12 step program with a chapter called: “Love your Enemies”. I’m really not there. We need to have enough concern for ourselves and our needs to protect ourselves and our families.

But, we would do well to remember the words of the classic rabbinic text, Avot deRabbi Natan which is the basis of the title of Rabbi Eilberg’s book: “Who is a hero, one who turns an enemy into a friend”. It is not prudent to show boundless compassion for those who intend to hurt us but, seeking out ways to better understand another individual and to perform carefully chosen acts of compassion may in fact turn an enemy into a friend and that I have seen happen in my own professional life.

That is why I am so distraught over those who have given up the dream of an end to the Israel/Palestinian conflict and refused to even consider the possibility that there are many Palestinians who are just as frustrated and sick over the continued conflict as Israelis are and who have been so deeply harmed by the past 50 years of occupation. And that is true no matter to whom one ascribes the blame for the suffering of the Palestinian people.

A group of Beth Israel congregants has been meeting monthly for over a year with Jewish and Palestinian members of the group Zeitouna, to learn from each other and share thoughts and fears and hopes with each other. It has been such an uplifting and inspiring experience and I believe strongly that there is still hope. Without endangering our love of Israel and Israel’s needs for security, a relationship based on mutual compassion is still a possibility.

Compassion is a critical piece in Jewish law as well. Our sages repeatedly taught that we must act lifnim mishurat hadin beyond the letter of the law to show compassion for another.

And, there are times when even the law itself fades in importance to compassion. Let me give you an example. We are commanded not to lie. But, a midrash comments on the story in Genesis about Abraham and Sarah in a way which is very enlightening. In the Torah after Sarah says to God: “how can I have a child as my husband is old?”, God relates the statement to Abraham saying that Sarah said: how can I have child seeing that I, Sarah, am old God doesn’t mention what Sarah said about Abraham’s old age. The midrash says that God is teaching us that one can lie for the sake of peace within the home. One can tell a falsehood if the intent is to be compassionate.

Then there is the lovely rabbinic story about the rabbi who is approached by a poor woman. She has just slaughtered a chicken and found its lungs discolored, which might make the chicken tref. She shows the lung to the rabbi and asks him if the chicken is kosher. Before he answers, the rabbi must ask himself one question: can she afford to buy another chicken?

Compassion is more critical than the law.

A few years ago, our Conservative movement radically changed its approach to same sex relationships. It was too long in coming but our rabbis finally found a legal justification for formally recognizing such relationships and same sex marriage within Jewish law. But, whatever resolution their legal investigation brought them, I believe that most rabbis entered into the halachic process with a desire to change the law. That desire was rooted in compassion; not pity, not patronizing attitudes, but in the recognition that the human instinct to love another person is so basic and so foundational that we could no longer turn our backs on what clearly is true love. For so many of us, and I include myself, learning to move past the defenses we had set up to truly look into the eyes of couples who so clearly love each other made all the difference in our attitudes.

And, I believe that our Conservative movement needs to use that same compassionate spirit to allow rabbis to do what we can’t do now and what we could do without violating Jewish law. I believe that Conservative rabbis should be given permission to officiate at a wedding ceremony for an interfaith couple should we choose to do so. If a couple approaches a rabbi to officiate at their wedding because they know and trust the rabbi or because they find Jewish tradition meaningful, we need, within certain guidelines, to say “yes”. I would not seek to make this a traditionally halachic, Jewish legal ceremony as that would unnecessarily compromise Jewish law. But, we could easily develop a spiritual ceremony outside of the law. For the good of our movement and our people, we need, as rabbis, to be part of that couple’s life at that critical moment.

But it is more than pragmatism. It would be an expression of compassion, of validation of the feelings of a couple in love and an opportunity to bring more spiritual meaning to their relationship and to show them that we sincerely mean our words of welcome.

I will not officiate at such a ceremony unless and until I am given permission to do so by our Rabbinical Assembly. But, I hope that day comes soon.

But, to return to the subject at hand, compassion is critical not just in public policy but in our actions towards one another.

Last year, on the first night of Rosh Hashana, I asked you to commit to one new Jewish activity over the year. Many of you talked to me about what you chose to do.

This year, I want to ask you to do something different.

This year, I want to ask you to find one new way each month to express compassion in the year just begun.

There are so many possibilities. We can truly listen to someone in need and hold their hands or hug them tightly. We can perform acts of tzedakah for their own sake and with a willing attitude. We can, as Rabbi Eilberg expresses beautifully in her book, demonstrate compassion by having more patience with the person who drives slowly or cuts us off or searches for the proper credit card while standing ahead of us in line at the store. By the way, my family will tell you that that is where I have to start.

And, we can teach our children, even more sincerely and urgently than we already do, to care for others, to reach out a hand to a friend, to stand up for them when they are bullied or excluded or shamed.

There are so many possibilities. We must constantly search for ways to express compassion in all phases of our lives.

But, as we do, let us remember three additional things:

First, let us learn to freely accept compassion from others. Too often, we think we can get by on our own or we raise the bar of our expectations of others to the point where we reject well-meaning acts of compassion because they didn’t respond exactly or as quickly as we might like. Let us judge others’ actions lichaf zechut, with the benefit of the doubt and accept the kindness of friends and strangers without judgment.

Then, let us learn to be compassionate to ourselves. Let us do what we must do to take care of ourselves, to recognize that we are important too and that in order to do for others, we must be compassionate with ourselves and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and the respect we seek to give others. Our tradition would demand of us that we practice self-compassion. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

I’ll preface the third and final point with a story. One erev Shabbat, many years ago, I read If Not Higher to a group of 12 year olds at Camp Ramah in New England. I asked them: “Why do you think the rabbi of Nemirov performed his act of compassion in secret? Why didn’t he tell his community where he was going and what he was doing?”

I assumed the kids would recognize the importance of humility when performing an act of compassion. “Do it secretly and don’t take credit for it”.

But, no one answered my question until one of the campers whom I later found out was the son of a rabbi, hesitatingly raised his hand and said, and I swear this is true; “Maybe she wasn’t a member of the congregation and the rabbi was afraid the congregation board would be angry for spending his time with someone who wasn’t a member”

I am proud of everything this synagogue does here in this building and outside of it to act with compassion for members and non-members alike. I am proud of our willingness and readiness, at all levels of the congregation, to be there at all times for those in need.

But, it is not enough. We must try even harder. Each of us, each of us in our own lives must find more and more ways to bring the spirit of compassion out of our souls and into our world and while I can’t be critical of the rabbi of Nemirov, as I understand his humility and his desire for anonymity, the third point is that it really is OK if others know we act compassionately. It’s OK to be a visible role model for compassion. In that way, we teach others.

All the things that we do here are meaningful only if they inspire us to try to make this world or at least a little corner of it like heaven, if not higher.

So go, be good, do good things, show compassion, light a fire and warm one corner of the world.

Shana Tova.

Dayenu: Rosh Hashana 5777



Although the times might seem to demand it, I have decided not to dedicate a High Holy Day sermon to address the Presidential election.

I made this decision for three reasons and each of them can be summed up with one Hebrew word which you all know: Dayenu. It’s enough.

First, there has been so much press coverage, so much analysis and commentary that by now, I assume you’re saying: “Dayenu”, it’s enough. I hope you have made your wise decision for whom to vote and I certainly hope you do vote. I hope you have come to shul today to consider spiritual matters and to contemplate where you are in life as we begin this new year.

Secondly, you really don’t need a sermon. If you are still uncertain about for whom to vote or about how important this election is, just go back and re-read the prayer for the United States which we heard a few minutes ago. It expresses beautifully our ideals, values and principles as a nation of equality, respect, kindness, justice, appropriate humility and compassion.

Read the prayer. Dayenu. That should be enough.

Finally, both I and Rabbi Blumenthal have addressed political issues from the bima on Shabbat morning many times this past year. We have spoken out and will continue to speak out against words which incite hatred and racial division and against proposed policies which reflect an America which would discriminate against immigrants and Muslims and which do not reflect our values as Jews and as Americans. Many of these sermons were posted on facebook or on our Beth Israel website and some are on my blog as well. Dayenu. It’s enough from the bima.

So, today I’m not going to speak any more about politics. Instead, I am going to do what rabbis are supposed to do. I am going to teach Torah.

I love to teach Torah any time and especially at moments like this when I have the opportunity to expose everyone in the congregation to Torah study including those you who do not regularly participate in our study programs. Hopefully, some of you will be so taken by this text study that you will find your way to one of our various study groups over the year.

I made the decision a few months ago to teach Torah on Rosh Hashana but it took some time for me to decide which text to teach. And here, I’ll remind you that Torah, in this context, can mean any text from Jewish tradition, not just from the five books.

Here were my criteria for choosing a text to teach:

First, I wanted to choose a text that you were likely to be familiar with and one which carries with it positive memories and associations.

Second, the text must contain varied practical and philosophical lessons that can be appreciated by a diverse congregation of individuals who come with vastly different expectations and needs.

Finally, if at all possible, the text must be one which you wouldn’t think merited serious consideration. Finding surprising lessons in unexpected places is a big part of the magic of Torah study.

Those are my criteria and, after some consideration, I made my choice and text is in the envelopes you have in front of you so I will ask those at the end of the rows to open up the envelopes and pass the papers down to those in your row and as you do, we can all start to sing:

Eelu Eelu Hotzianu, hotzianu memitrayim, hotzianu memitzrayim, dayenu.           

I have never sung Dayenu with 800 people before. It sounds good, doesn’t it?

We just have to invite more people to the Seder.

By the way, this isn’t the only tune to Dayenu. There are others. My good friend San Slomovits wrote one for a cd of new Seder songs he and his brother Laz produced a few years back. I was honored to work on that project with San and I’ll give you a brief sample of his tune a bit later.

But, for now, let’s begin with the b’racha for Torah study remembering that study in our tradition is also a form of worship and praise.

The first question to consider with Dayenu is where it fits in the Seder.

Dayenu is the last text in the Maggid, the storytelling section of the Seder. The Mishna teaches: matchil biginut u’msayaym bisehvach, we begin with the sad part of the story and end with praise. So, if we consider the Mishna’s teaching, Dayenu, coming at the end of the storytelling, is the ultimate song of Exodus celebration. Dayenu lists 15 separate acts that we praise God for as part of the process of redemption.

And, for each of these 15 acts, we say Dayenu! It would have been enough for us. By the way, if you get bored and count the “Dayenus”, don’t worry that there are only 14. The first verse mentions two acts making a total of 15 and that number is critical as you will see.

Now, the obvious problem and the first Dayenu question: Would it really have been enough for us had God brought us into the desert and not brought us across the sea or fed us food? How could that be “enough”?

The most common answer to this question is that Dayenu means that each of these would have been a sufficient reason for us to praise God. Each one, in and of itself, would have been proof of God’s power.

Let’s think about that for a moment and consider it in the context of our own lives.

Can we ever truly say Dayenu? Do we ever really feel like we have enough to be grateful for and don’t seek any more blessings in our lives?

Most people would justifiably say: “No”. It is natural that we should not be satisfied and should want more and more good in our lives.

But Dayenu teaches us that we can and should look at our lives as made up of many specific, individual reasons to be grateful. We may not have everything we want and in some situations in life, it is difficult to muster up gratitude at all. But, it is important, each day, to ask ourselves: “What are we grateful for?”

We should seek to find something in life for which we can express gratitude every day and say that that piece alone is enough to celebrate the gift of life that God has given us. And, we should be sure to express gratitude not just to God but to the people around us who make our lives what they are. Don’t delay. Do it today.

After reading Dayenu, we might feel intimidated by the author’s effusive praise. But, remember, it was easy for him to say Dayenu about the acts of the Exodus because he was looking in retrospect and he knew that there was a happy ending to the story. In retrospect, after everything has turned out right, it’s easy to rationalize everything and truly appreciate everything that came before. But it is harder in the midst of our lives to express complete gratitude when we don’t know what the future holds. Still, living in the moment and finding the strength to express gratitude adds so much to our lives.

Let me demonstrate that. The list of miracles in Dayenu appears in another place in the traditional Haggada, right after our Dayenu.

These are the same but just in a list without the word Dayenu. It all seems so sterile, so drab compared to our song. You can’t even try to sing this. Without the expression of gratitude and praise, it is so much less satisfying.

When we express gratitude, when we recognize significant events in our lives as worthy of thanks, we add poetry and melody to our lives.

Now, when I read this other section, the one without the shout of Dayenu, I get the impression that the author prefers to see the Exodus as a total experience rather than breaking it down to individual pieces.

But, I think Dayenu’s approach is more reflective of the way we look at life.

We try to envision our life as a packaged unit but it’s so difficult. In the midst of life, we usually see events and judge each one as they are happening. Occasionally, on Rosh Hashana or perhaps on one of those dreaded but so, so welcome “special birthdays”, we take the opportunity to look back, to take stock and see events neatly fitting together. But, much more often, we see our lives as steps along a path, hopefully with some direction but in the midst of life, we are more likely focused on the step we’re on rather than seeing the entire stairway.

I began this morning by singing a tune that everyone knows and I mentioned San Slomovits. When San began to work on a tune for Dayenu, I made him promise that he would make his tune better than the familiar one in one critical way.

Our familiar tune is lacking because it leaves out the most important line of Dayenu. I refer to the introductory line. Without this line, the song is much less meaningful.

Kamah ma’alot tovot l’makom aleynu. How many acts of kindness God has performed for us! (This translation comes from the Rabbinical Assembly Haggada.)

I begged San to include it and he did, writing the following

Kamah, Kamah Ma’lot, Tovot Limakom Alyenu…

            Why is this first line so important? It is critical because it clearly was the inspiration for the entire song. The key word is Ma’alot. Ma’alot translated here as “acts of kindness” literally means “steps”.

The author of Dayenu took the 15 events of the Exodus and introduced them with the word: “steps”. What you need to know and this is proof that there is often more going on in Jewish texts than meets the eye, is that the number 15 was not arbitrary.

If you look in the book of Psalms, you will find 15 psalms that begin with the expression: Shir Ha’ma’lot, a song of steps. And, you should know that there was a certain stairway leading up to the Temple in Jerusalem which had, of course, 15 steps.

So, the author of Dayenu looked at this idea of 15 steps of the Exodus and related it to the 15 steps on the way up to the Temple itself which as you can see by the last sentence is the last of the steps of redemption as the author imagines it. The 15 acts of Dayenu correspond to the 15 “step psalms” and the 15 steps up to the final place of redemption.

Now, let’s think of our lives.

Think about the past year as a stairway. Did you climb? Did you move closer to your goals? Even if you do not know where your life is leading in the grandest sense, did you perceive some kind of a movement upward and can you picture that stairway, even with its twists and turns and its uneven steps, still moving you upward?

Not every year will provide that sense of satisfaction but we must do all we can to climb higher each year, pausing occasionally to catch our breath but always looking towards a great goal while expressing gratitude for that which we have.

Rosh Hashana is like a landing between floors, a time to look back and most certainly to look ahead as we continue to climb towards our ultimate goal.

May we all reach a bit higher this year. May we go l’ayla ul’ayla, higher and higher on our path, expressing praise and gratitude for each step, big or small.

Now, let’s look more deeply into the theology of Dayenu.

I believe that when looked at from a theological perspective, this beloved song is potentially one of the most dangerous documents that our people have ever produced. I love to sing Dayenu and will continue to sing it loudly. But, it scares me terribly.

Let me explain this by referencing a recently published book entitled: “Putting God Second” by Rabbi Donniel Hartman. In this book, the author makes a strong and so deeply needed case for the primacy of ethics in religious life, noting that our interpersonal behaviors are more important than any rituals we may perform or any faith we display. The ultimate purpose of religion is to lead to an ethical life.

I could not agree more.

But, I am particularly interested this morning in Rabbi Hartman’s formulation of what he calls the two “autoimmune diseases of religion”: aspects of religion which are self-destructive, preventing people from acting according to the moral principles and ethical values which ought to be the entire reason we engage in religion in the first place.

He calls these two diseases: God-intoxication and God-manipulation.

And Dayenu, our beloved song, is evidence of both.

Hartman defines God-intoxication as a religious viewpoint which “distracts religion’s adherents from their tradition’s core moral truths” and “consume our vision that we see nothing other than God.”

Think of Noah who ignored the plight of his fellow human beings in his zeal to do God’s will. Think of Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his son to prove his faith.

Religion has to be about more than responding to God or recounting what God has done or can do for us. We have to focus on what we can do as human beings with God and our tradition’s guidance.

So, how do we deal with Dayenu which is only about what God has done, phrase after phrase, step after step, about what God did for our ancestors and no mention of any courageous stands or acts of commitment taken by the Israelites during the Exodus? This seems like the dreaded God-intoxication and in fact is just that.

We can answer this by saying that the Exodus is an exception to the danger of God-intoxication. The Exodus is considered by our tradition to be the paradigm of God’s involvement in our world. But, once the Exodus was complete and the Torah was given, it is clear that God retreated, at least to some extent, in the background when it comes to our lives on earth to allow us to find our own paths with free will. So, we can talk in these terms at the Seder about the great experience of the past.

But it is dangerous when we do it about our lives.

From a theological standpoint, Dayenu, when left alone, is misguided. Our lives can not be a litany of what God has done for us. That takes away our responsibility as human beings.

Perhaps that is why Dayenu is written in the third person while so many other of our prayers address God directly in the second person. Perhaps that is why it is written in the past tense even though we are supposed to be reliving the Exodus at the Seder and acting as if it is happening right at our tables.

Dayenu is about what a third person God did for our ancestors, not how you, God, relate to us today.

Being intoxicated with God to the point of denying the fact that we hold the key to the quality of our lives is dangerous. This Dayenu model is not Judaism as we consider it today.

The other “auto-immune disease” that Hartman describes is God-manipulation. He teaches that “the great paradigm of God-manipulation is the myth of chosenness and the ways in which it is used to serve the self-interests of the anointed to the exclusion of all others”.


How is that for a quotation on Rosh Hashana?

By the way, I think he’s right.

Our world is, sadly, full of “religious” people who see their faith as the only true path or, worse, who strive to advance their own faith through the oppression or destruction of the “other”. Seeing this is enough to cause anyone with any sense at all to question the value of organized religion altogether.

And so, Dayenu presents a potential problem.

Dayenu tells an honored and foundational story in which God saved our people and cemented our relationship to the exclusion of others.

You know, it’s OK to have such a story. Many, many religions do.

But, to believe that God continues to act for our people at the exclusion of others and to use our “chosenness” as an excuse to justify selfish actions which harm others and to invoke the Divine to continue to favor is, I believe, a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name. This sense that “God is on my side” whether reflected in selfish behavior and superior attitudes or, so much worse, in horrendous, unspeakable violence is horribly offensive. The idea that God judges by virtue of heredity rather than by moral behavior is truly a disease that can undermine any good religion can bring to this world.

Just like with God-intoxication, this attitude must be limited to the experience of the Exodus. But, if we take the attitude of Dayenu into our day and assume that God is fighting our battles in opposition to the rest of the world just because we are who are, we are guilty of what Hartman calls God-manipulation and we are moving away from what should be our goal as human beings.

I believe our rabbis knew this and that is why our liturgy refers to two different times in which God interacted directly with our world and why we make Rosh Hashana such an important holiday, as important in many ways as Pesach. This is the anniversary of creation and that concept of divine creation is as dear to our people and critical to our faith as it the redemption of the Exodus.

While I hope, God willing, to give many more High Holy Day sermons in my rabbinic career, another Rosh Hashana reminds me that there are more in my past than in my future. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my favorite High Holy Day sermons, some of which will appear in the book that I’ve been working on for years and is now being prepared for publication.

One of the sermons that I did not include in the book was one I gave several years ago. I spoke about creation and stressed that Judaism implores us to believe in Intelligent Design, in a universe created consciously and with a purpose.

Of course I don’t believe in Adam and Eve. I believe in the Big Bang Theory and in Evolution. But, I also deeply believe that God orchestrated that creation to produce a world of thinking, creating and potentially good-doing human beings who could, if they put their minds to it, work together despite their differences to create paradise.

I believe in a divine creation not only because it gives us a sense that we are here for a purpose but also because it unites each person in the world as part of God. As important as the Exodus and Sinai are to our people, it is creation which celebrates the basic humanness of each individual In the world and I believe that if we and other people of faith would spend as much time talking about creation as we do about the specific moments in time that God established our unique faith covenants, we might find religion to be more a source for peace rather than conflict in the world.

Dayenu celebrates the Exodus and the importance of the giving of Torah and the land of Israel. They are absolutely critical to us as Jews. But they are not enough.

For each of us, our greatest expression of gratitude to God should be for the fact that against extraordinary odds, each one of us just happened to win the lottery when that one sperm and that one egg met. I believe a list of the acts we should thank God for, the ma’alot tovot, should begin with the two moments of creation, that of the world and that of ourselves.

That is what we should be grateful for. In and of themselves, they are cause for a big, heartfelt, loud, …no not Dayenu, because it is not enough. Our creation is not enough. We must make the most of the gift of creation we’ve been given. That is cause for a big, loud…Halleluyah.

We need the Exodus story. We need to remember and honor and cherish that which makes us unique and embrace the rituals and traditions which bring meaning to our lives as Jews. Those traditions can help to heal, to repair our world.

But, honoring the God of creation helps us to find commonality with all in the world and helps us to recognize the humanity of others, including to give just one example, immigrants or refugees whom we must view as fellow human beings not as threats to our sheltered lives. Thinking about creation should help us to build bridges, not walls.

So that is it: quite a bit to learn from a song that many of us first sang when we were very, very young.

The lessons are the importance of gratitude, the steps in our lives, keeping God in perspective while doing our job as human beings and seeking to unite with other people in the world rather than making religion only a divisive force. Talk about these ideas at lunch today and remember them six months from now when you sit at your Seder table and celebrate our unique covenant with God.

And, by the way, there is one more lesson of Dayenu and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. For the sake of those in the world who do not have enough and for the sake of our planet which must support our children and grandchildren and God willing, untold numbers of generations to follow and for the sake of our tradition which can only function in a world that works, maybe the most important message of Dayenu is that we learn to say: “it’s enough” when we know we can along with less.

But, one thing that we can never get along with less of and one thing that we should never say Dayenu about is the greatest gift we have as a people: the gift of wisdom and insight, the gift of learning and commandment, the gift of Torah.

Let us pledge to make this year of Torah learning and the life of commitment it inspires us to live as we graciously and gratefully move, God willing, to the next landing.


Officers and Judges




As we approach the High Holy Days, it is our responsibility to engage in teshuva, repentance- to redirect our thoughts and our actions and consider how we are going to make this new year different from those that have passed.

And, it is our responsibility as rabbis to try to find ways to shed light on the issue of teshuva, to find new texts or ideas which can provide new perspectives on the process of repentance.

Today, I want to share with you a beautiful commentary on the first verse in Parashat Shoftim. Then, I want to provide a twist on this commentary which I hope will provide an interesting thought relating to teshuva.

Our Torah portion begins with the words: Shoftim V’Shotrim teetayn licha bichal shiarecha asher ado—nai elohecha notayn licha.

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD gives you.

Clearly, this is a vital and foundational commandment for a community. The obligation to build a community based on justice, with appropriate safeguards is one of the requirements for the sacred community envisioned in the Torah. But there is more of interest in this verse.

The Torah is clearly talking about 2 different types of positions when it identifies shoftim and shotrim. Shoftim are judges but what are Shotrim? I have read many commentaries with many different ideas but for this morning, I am going to approach this from a bit of an anachronistic perspective and base my definition of shotrim, on the contemporary Hebrew word with the same root; mishtara, meaning “police”. “

       Shotrim is to be understood as those who protect the community and Shoftim are those that decide what is just and what is unjust.

Now let’s look at the second part of the verse because it is somewhat odd: “at the gates that God will give you”. While I understand the implication: that God will give the people the land in which the gates will appear, it is a difficult phrase and begs for an interpretation. How does God give us gates?

A commentary cited in the 17th century commentary called Shnei Luchot Habrit by Rabbi Issac Horowitz provides an answer.


The commentary begins by quoting the early mystical Jewish work, Sefer Yetzirah, which teaches that there are 7 gates to the soul: the two ears, the two eyes, the two nostrils and the mouth.

Whatever the original meaning of this text, the commentary goes on to say that these shearim, these gates, take the external impressions of the world and bring them in to our lives. Thus, says this commentary, we must place shoftim v’shotrim before each of the gates that God has given us, that God has created for us. It explains that it is our obligation to protect ourselves from that which comes in to our gates; namely, that we should allow no negative impressions to come in through these gates, that the ears would not hear bad words, the eyes not see evil and so on.

I love the idea behind that commentary. It gives a beautiful meaning to the phrase: “the gates that God has given you” and reminds us to be steadfast against being influenced by evil of all kind.

But, I have to add a bit of a twist to the commentary. The lesson that is taught: that we should protect negatives from coming into our gates is really only about shotrim, those who protect rather than shoftim, those who judge. When he says no negative impressions come in, he is talking about our being shotrim, guarding the gates.

However, the truth is that we can not completely control what comes in through our gates. Over the year to come, just like in past years, no matter how we may try to avoid them, we will hear negative things, we will see inappropriate actions. We will experience all of these.

That is why we must focus also on being shoftim, on being judges. While we can’t completely control that which comes in, we can judge what is worthy of us.

So, let us look at the first verse of the Torah portion and consider the following. God has given us gates, gates which can be open to let in that which we must hear, the cries and needs of others, the words of wisdom shared by honored teachers, the inspiration we receive from those around us.

In truth, we need to be shotrim, we need to guard ourselves from hearing and seeing things which are not worthy of God’s image within us. We need to put ourselves in situations in which we can be more sure that we are hearing and experiencing positive, constructive words and actions.

But, let’s not fool ourselves. We live in a real world and we can not isolate ourselves from all of the negatives in the world. That is why that we need also to be shoftim, to judge that which has come into our gates and make sure to distinguish between that which is positive and that which is destructive.

May we find ways to surround ourselves with goodness this year knowing we won’t entirely accomplish that. So, when negative realities get by our shotrim, may we always be ready to judge what will lead our lives and our world to a better place.