Sunday, August 20, 2017

The ‘Glasses’ of Blessing© - Parashat Re’eh and a Response to #Charlottesville

The ‘Glasses’ of Blessing©
Parashat Re’eh and a Response to Charlottesville
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

There’s a big event coming up in just a couple of days, the solar eclipse.  But the aspect of this once in a century natural phenomena that interests me the most might surprise you:  the eclipse glasses.

By now, you probably know it's not ok to stare directly into the sun. Although it feels less intuitive, the same rule applies during an eclipse. By looking directly at the sun, you are essentially cooking your eyes but because your retina doesn’t have pain sensors therefore you won’t feel your eyes being irreparably damaged. 

I thought I could just pick the exclusive glasses up at the library, but they’ve been gone for months!  I didn’t have any luck in any stores either – in fact, one store began by saying we don’t have eclipse glasses before I even said one word!

I finally got my pair – in fact, I had to buy 25 just to get 4, and if you’re wondering, I sold the rest of them within 10 minutes of posting them for sale!    

But it got me thinking of the significance of Monday – a day when everyone will looking up at the same thing, opening our eyes to an image. 

And so I thought about the pain the past week, when most of us opened our eyes and saw things that we thought were relegated to the past.

We saw the videos of white supremacist carrying Tikki torches repeating the phrase, "Jews will not replace us."

I’ll never forget SEEING the videos of those men, men who in the past would be wearing hoods but now were wearing khakis and white polos, waving flags with swastikas and carrying tikki torches.  I looked at my son and realized, I never had to see this as a child, but my grandparents, Holocaust survivors, did. And of course, the lack of response by our president, then the both sides debacle.  I thought to myself, what the heck is happening, is the world is upside down? I received messages from congregants:  tell me what to think, what should we do? 

So today, I want to offer two responses to last weekend’s events: 

1.    I want to find the black and white in a world that is filled with shades of grey

2.   Where do we go from here? 

It started as a protest to protect history from their point of view – they were protesting the taking down of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  But the march that we saw on Friday night, in the now infamous video, showed the truth.  They marched with fire in their hands, saying in unison, You will not replace us…Jews will not replace us.  

They marched with red swastikas.  If it were in black and white and in German, you would have thought it was 1930’s Germany.  The sheer number of people dwarfed the previous Nazi rally that was made famous in 1977.  Skokie, a northern Chicago suburb, had a population of about 70,00o, 40,000 of whom were Jewish, and approximately 5,000 of the Jewish residents were survivors of the Holocaust.

The Nazis wanted to march down the streets, dressed in Nazi uniforms, and waving swastika flags.  The debate became about free speech, not dissimilar to today’s debate.  After a court battle, the Nazis won, they marched – but only about 20 Nazis came out to march.[1]  In the end, it was a non-event, and in fact, there were more counter protesters that day, who were looked at as heroes.  President Carter at the time said, “If such views must be expressed, I am pleased they will not go unanswered. That is why I want to voice my complete solidarity with those citizens of Skokie and Chicago who will gather Sunday in a peaceful demonstration of their abhorrence of Nazism.”

And now, well, we know what happened.  Not only was this rally stronger, but it seems even more mainstream, and depending on which news channels you watch, it seems a lot more nuanced.    

We live in a truly wondrous time – the information age, but with the ease of information flow comes an almost paralyzing effect on us.  There’s too much – and sometimes, they are too many sides.  The deeper we go down the rabbit hole of articles and opinions, we become paralyzed.

Looking at this case – we hear the justifications – it’s about preserving history; it’s about free speech; it’s about our rights; not everyone who marched with the Nazis were actually Nazis; and so on. 

I often times love living in the gray, the messiness of life, but sometimes, there is right, and there is wrong, and we see a clear choice in this week’s parashah, Re’eh. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)  

26 See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: 27 blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; 28 and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.

“One of the gifts of great leaders, and one from which each of us can learn, is that they frame reality for the group. They define its situation. They specify its aims. They articulate its choices. They tell us where we are and where we are going in a way no satellite navigation system could. They show us the map and the destination, and help us see why we should choose this route not that.”[2] 

Moses gives us a clear choice when there is so much information that he is giving to his people.  Remember, there are 613 mitzvoth, each with its own subset of rules. 

So what is the choice?  What do we stand for and what do the idolaters stand for? 

In essence, I think one of the great innovations of the Torah is the concept that each person is created in the image of God.  And if we are, that means that each person is also deserving of life.  The Torah essentially outlaws perpetual slavery – only God owns us.  The idolatry that we witnessed, not just in Charlottesville, but in Rome, in Nazi Germany, in the Southern States during slavery[3], is that not all people are created equally – there can be whole nations that are necessarily born as animals, and like animals, they can be slaughtered without remorse. 

Rashi comments on verse 28 – you learn that one who commits idolatry turns completely away from the path that Israel was commanded to follow.  This is why the Sages said, “One who acknowledges an idol denies the entire Torah.” 

What do we do when we are confronted by the idolatry of our time?  We must stand up to it.  As Elie Wiesel said in his speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, “And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever, wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”

I mentioned a fact before:  if we stare at the eclipse without glasses, we will not notice our eyes cooking because we cannot feel the pain.  It reminds me of the story of the frog in the pot – if you throw him in when it is boiling, he’ll jump out right away.  If you put him in cold and slowly turn up the heat, he’ll die before he discovers he’s cooking.  As a grandson of four Holocaust survivors, I know the price of complacency and silence. 

There are times for nuance, but in these times, we need to put our glasses on, the glasses of blessing and curse – when we can filter through the distractions. 

The answer is clear – the Swastika, the Confederate Flag and the philosophies of hate are wrong and they are a curse.  We cannot be distracted by why we think people feel this way, and we cannot let our neighbors become distracted.  It’s as simple as blessing and curse. 

Good leadership means calling out evil where it is – not making excuses for it or rationalizing it – there are not two sides.  There are no good Nazis or KKK members, and if you march with people who say Jews will not replace us and with a swastika, well, let’s just say, you made your choice. 

The next thing I want to talk about is where we go from here.  I want to return to the eclipse.  During the brightest part of the day, it will literally become dark. 

The Akeidat Yitzchak explains that solar eclipse really refers to the death of the righteous, the lights of our community who are extinguished.  Our world is darkened from the loss of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed in a car ramming by a Domestic Terrorist, 42-year-old State Trooper H. Jay Cullen and 40-year-old Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates who died in a tragic helicopter accident.  Our world is darkened by the victims of terror in Spain killed by ISIS terrorists. 

It seems like our bright days are becoming darker after each passing year and month. 

But we can do something about it…

There is an old Jewish folklore about the town of Chelm, the home of the world’s wisest fools or the world’s most foolish wise people – no one really knows which one is correct.  Anyway, they had a problem – they didn’t really have enough money for street lamps, so at night, they depended on the moon to light up the dark sky.  When the moon was full, everything was brighter – people were happier….lovers would stroll in the streets holding hands, children would listen their parents, even cats and dogs got along.  But when the moon went away, and the darkness overtook everyone, everyone became sad.  So, the wise leaders came up with a solution – let’s capture the moon!  Then, when it goes away, we can just bring it back!  One of the genius leaders came up with an idea:  he told them about his favorite thing to do – eating soup under the moon light.  Every full moon, he would go out and eat a big bowl of soup, and when he would stare down at it, he would see the moon.  If only we could create a huge soup bowl, all of our problems would be answered!  We could capture the moon and the light – it will be ours forever!  So they did just that – they built a huge bowl of soup and everyone added a little soup to the mix.  And they waited for the moon to come out, and when it did, they put the bowl in the town square, they saw the beautiful reflection, and the elders of the town snuck up on the moon with a huge cover, and boom, just like that, they captured moon!  They went to bed that night, and the next night came, they took the cover off, and – and the moon was gone.  They questioned each person – until someone confessed – it was the rabbi of the town.   Why would he do this?!?  His answer – there are things we enjoy while we have them, and we can enjoy them.  And the people asked, “like a shirt or shoes?”  Yes.  “like love and hugs.”  Yes.  Like Joy?  Yes.  And the moon!  Yes, the moon as well, but only when we share it can we really enjoy its light.  That’s why I had to let it go.”  The people asked, “Rabbi, what will we do now on these dark and sad nights?”  And the wise rabbi went on, “here’s the thing, sadness comes to us all, that’s life, but we cannot capture the moon – we can share the moon, and other things.  And so they all came up with an idea, whenever they were sad, the people would share soup – because soup may not make the whole town happy like the moon, but it helps make things a little better if you share it together. 

We have two choices – hatred and loneliness, and love and community.  Let’s choose love. 

It’s really easy to give a sermon that Nazis and KKK members are evil, although it would probably be a worthwhile sermon in the National Cathedral tomorrow.  But for us, Jews living in Boca Raton, we have seen a number of groups being called out over the last year, like immigrants and refugees, and the question is, where are we? 

In our parashah, we learn about the prohibition of eating certain birds, among them, the Chasida, or the stork, and according to Maimonides, every impure bird has a cruel nature.  Now, Rashi says that stork is called Chasida or righteous one, because it distributes food to its friends. So why then, would the stork be classified among the impure birds, [considering that it is so generous to other storks]?  But, R. Isaac Meir Rothenberg One must, however, act with loving kindness and generosity not just with one’s friends, but with all of creation.  And the one who deals generously only with his friends has a cruel nature -- and this is why [the stork] is impure.

Let’s not fall into the stork’s trap – a true Chasid also cares for others who aren’t like him.

And on Monday night, after you’ve put your eclipse glasses away, come light up the night with our interfaith community as part of our vigil.  Let’s gather together to show the world that diversity is our true strength. 

I’ve been asked all week, rabbi, what do we do, where do we go?  I don’t know what the future will hold – I hope it doesn’t get worse, but I can’t tell you if things will get brighter or darker.  But if we make the right choices, if we choose blessing and put the right glasses on, then at least we can bring more light to the world no matter how dark it gets.


[2] “Defining Reality” -
[3] Excerpt from Alexander H. Stephens “Corner Stone” Speech in Savannah, Georgia - March 21, 1861, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Weekly Message - Seeing Fire (in response to #Charlottesville)

The kindling of light is synonymous with our holy days, Shabbat and holidays.  In our home, like many, it is a ritual where our whole family gathers around the candles.  We light them, place our hands over eyes, and together, we say the blessing.  It is hard to articulate how I feel after I open my eyes to see the lights in front of me, and my loving family surrounding me.  It is a mixture of gratitude, warmth, hope, but most of all, Shalom.  I see different colors - white, yellow, blue, and red
Shalom does not just mean peace, but a sense of being whole.  In fact, the reason we light Shabbat candles every week is because of Shalom Bayit, peace in the home.  The original reason was quite practical - we could not light candles on Shabbat, so we light them before Shabbat begins in order to have lights at our Shabbat meal on Friday evening.  This prevents us from bumping into one another, but also, it shields us from the fears that come with darkness. 
As we look upon these lights, we realize that we are beginning of a dream on earth that is Shabbat, as the rabbis of the Talmud teach us, it is 1/60th of the world to come, a taste of paradise.  Our heavenly experience ends with the Havdallah ceremony which literally means separation.  We end Shabbat with light, just as we began, as we light the Havdallah candle, at least two wicks together to create a larger flame.  We smell spices that act as holy smelling salts to prepare us for the week ahead.
Last Saturday night, I emerged from the world to come to the world as it is, and it was shocking, brutal, and almost unbelievable. 
I woke up to images of swastikas on red flags and Confederate flags flown by armed men.  I woke up to the video of a terrorist attack as a young woman, Heather Heyer, was murdered by a car ramming and hearing the news of the two police officers, State Trooper H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates, who were killed in a helicopter accident during the weekend. 
And then I saw the videos of white supremacist carrying Tikki torches repeating the phrase, "Jews will not replace us."  I read the account of Shabbat in Charlottesville from Congregation Beth Israel.  Here is an excerpt from the president of the congregation:
"For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don't know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn't take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I'm paranoid. I don't know. Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, "There's the synagogue!" followed by chants of "Seig Heil" and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn't know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it's the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.  When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.
This is 2017 in the United States of America."
Fire can warm us and bring us peace on Friday night, and fire can be a source of hate and destruction as we saw on Friday night in Charlottesville. 
When we open our eyes, what do we see?  What type of America are we seeing today?  
I have received many messages from congregants asking for guidance, for some wisdom as to what to do, where do we go from here?
I would like to offer the following:
Gather together in community for prayer and song this Shabbat.  The theme of this Shabbat, parashat Re'eh, will be seeing.  Our parashah opens with a stark contrast of sides.  Moses says, "Re'eh/See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse..." 
On Friday night, we will gather for a sweet and soulful Friday night service in our Living Room minyan.  The spiritual question will focus on sight - what are the blessings we see around us?  How do we cope when we see curse in front of us? 
On Shabbat morning, I'll be giving a dvar torah/sermon which will deal with the events of the week and how the wisdom of our Torah can help guide us to see the paths in front of us. 
After services, I will be leading an impromptu learning session titled Human Dignity in a Time of Crisis, and I will leave plenty of time for discussion and sharing. 
On Monday, I invite you all to join our interfaith community as we hold a candle lighting vigil in Sanborn Square (details below) on Monday evening at 8 pm.

For those who are away and would like to do something at their own table, I offer the following program - #TogetherattheTable 

I have much more to say on this issue, and I invite you to come to hear my thoughts this Shabbat.

May this Shabbat bring peace here, to Charlottesville, to those who are mourning in Spain, and around the world.

Rabbi David Baum

Please join us for an interfaith candlelight vigil on Monday, August 21 at 8 pm at Sanborn Square Park in downtown Boca Raton. We, as citizens of this city, this state and this nation know that we can model behaviors of respect and tolerance for all.

A Statement on Charlottesville by the Boca Raton Interfaith Clergy Association

As religious leaders of Boca Raton representing churches, synagogues and mosques, we come together with respect for each other: for the values we share and for the differences we honor. We recognize that this is a challenging time in the life of our nation.
In Charlottesville we witnessed the violence and hatred expressed and perpetrated by Neo- Nazis, klansmen, white supremacists and white nationalists. And we join together to condemn their ideologies and the dangers these groups represent to an open, respectful, democratic, free and pluralistic society. We also mourn the deaths of Heather Heyer, State Trooper H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates. We extend our prayers and condolences to their loved ones.
In the last century, we witnessed the extraordinary evil and destruction that white-supremacy and Nazi ideology can wreak. Nearly half a million Americans gave their lives in World War II to counter totalitarian fascism, and thousands more have given their lives to fight against those who do not hold dear the rights and freedoms that form our society's bedrock.
The United States of America is founded on the principle that all are created equal, endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights are for all Americans with no exceptions or exclusions. We are saddened by the lack of clear moral leadership in our nation. As Elie Wiesel wrote, "And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever, wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe."
We hold as an article of faith that every human life is created in the divine image, and is of infinite and equal value.  Therefore, we condemn the rise of racist and bigoted ideology. We encourage government leaders and law enforcement to pursue justice, to stand against hate crimes and to protect the rights of every individual. We encourage our parents and teachers to lead by crying out against expressions of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and homophobia. We must stand with the vulnerable against those who seek to persecute and intimidate.
As leaders of different faiths working respectfully for the common good of our community and all people, we ask everyone to join us in condemning hatred and violence. Please also join us for an interfaith candlelight vigil on Monday, August 21 at 8 pm at Sanborn Square Park in downtown Boca Raton. We, as citizens of this city, this state and this nation know that we can model behaviors of respect and tolerance for all.We are called to stand together as people of faith and as patriotic Americans.
Rabbi David Steinhardt, Bnai Torah Congregation
Rev. Andrew Sherman, St. Gregory's Episcopal Church
Fathi Khalfi, Imam, Islamic Center of Boca Raton
Bassem Alhalabi, President, Islamic Center of Boca Raton
Rev. Tom Tift, First United Methodist Church
Rev. Benjamin Thomas, St. Gregory's Episcopal Church
Rabbi Craig H. Ezring, Temple Beth Israel
Rev. Bill Mitchell, Boca Raton Community Church
Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Brockman, Temple Beth El
Rabbi Greg Weisman, Temple Beth El
Rev. Dr. Richard B. Barbour, Advent Lutheran Church
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh 
Rabbi Robert Silvers, Congregation B'nai Israel
Rabbi Dan Levin, Temple Beth El
Rev. Rachel DeLaune, First United Methodist Church
Rev. Marcus Zillman, II, First United Methodist Church
Rev. Michael McGraw, St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church
Rabbi David Englander, Bnai Torah Congregation
Rabbi Rony Keller, Congregation B'nai Israel
Rabbi Allison Cohen, Congregation B'nai Israel

It is hard to put into words how many of us feel following a weekend in which we witnessed white supremacists and neo-nazis marching openly in America, leaving violence and tragedy in their wake.

Regardless of where we each stand politically, we can ALL agree: hatred, bigotry, and violence cannot be tolerated in our communities. When our values are threatened in this way, we raise our voices and rise up-not just in opposition but in unity.

In this spirit, we're coming together this Friday, August 18th, to mobilize a grassroots movement of Shabbat dinners across the country dedicated to celebrating diversity, equality, and inclusion in the face of fear, division, and hate.

We invite you to join us by gathering people in your communities and networks for a Together at the Table dinner to engage in constructive dialogue with a plurality of perspectives, to address deep, painful divides in our communities, and to consider the role we can play in strengthening civil discourse and society.

Share the Movement #TogetherattheTable
Use the hashtag #togetheratthetable to post on social media, share with the community, and spread the movement.
Conservative Movement Statement on Violent Demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA

Posted on: 
Monday August 14, 2017

Dear Colleagues, 
In the aftermath of violent demonstrations by white supremacists and their sympathizers in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in 3 deaths and many injuries, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued the following statement:
The Rabbinical Assembly is shocked and horrified by the violent demonstrations of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and their sympathizers in Charlottesville, Virginia this past Saturday which resulted directly in the deaths of one civilian and two state police officers and in many other serious injuries. We applaud the swift and effective actions of Mayor Mike Signer of Charlottesville and Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, as well as their appropriate condemnations of the bigotry, antisemitism and hatred that inspired the rally itself. Many leaders have taken the indispensable step of naming the dangerous philosophies and movements that united these demonstrators. These events have been rightly labeled as incidents of domestic terror by both Democrats and Republicans. 

We call upon United States officials including President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to condemn neo-Nazi, white supremacist and alt-right movements by name. The repeated failure to do so by top U.S. officials has fueled their growth and poses an imminent threat to all Americans as Saturday's violent rallies showed. History has demonstrated that where a country's leaders fail to condemn these philosophies, violence and hatred can quickly and exponentially consume the fabric of civil society. Our leaders must act now. Let us continue to pray for and to work for the day when all shall "sit under his/her vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid."

Rabbi Philip Scheim, President, The Rabbinical Assembly
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO, The Rabbinical Assembly
Margo Gold, President, USCJ
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO, USCJ

Follow me on Twitter @rabbidavidbaum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Miracles in Our Places©

The Miracles in Our Places© 

 Parashat Ekev

Rabbi David Baum

It was the Wednesday, my fourth day at Camp Ramah Darom.  I came to Darom on Erev Rosh Hodesh Av, which is arguably the saddest month of the year.  During the month of Adar, our joy increase, but in Av, our joy decreases.  In order to show this decrease in joy during the first nine days of the month of Av, we do not drink wine or eat meat.  Now, abstaining from wine at a summer camp is not very difficult, but abstaining from meat can be a challenge for many (my apologies to our vegetarians and vegans in our congregation).  Luckily, for the Orthodox Carnivores at camp, there are some opportunities for taking a break from our vegetarian meals.  There's a little known exception to the no meat for nine days rule:  One can eat meat if he or she is part of a siyyum, the completion of a holy book.

Wednesday is always barbecue day at Camp Ramah Darom (and it was also Yom Sport or Color War), so a number of staff members came together and studied Mishnah Berachot in order to complete the book.  There are nine chapters in the book, the eight people studied, but the entire camp studied the ninth chapter together.  I happened to be sitting with Avi's eidah, the youngest eidah in camp, Nitzanim.  This was Avi's first summer as a hanich, a camper, at Ramah Darom.  They asked us all to pair up, and so my chevrutah/learning partner was Avi.  I was thrilled...I cannot say the same for Avi.

I want to read you the Mishnah we were chosen to study together, from the 9th chapter of Mishnah Berachot.

הָרוֹאֶה מָקוֹם שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ בוֹ נִסִּים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה

He/She that sees a place where miracles were done for Israel should say, “Blessed [is God] who did miracles for our ancestors in this place.”

So today, I want to explain the great miracles that I experienced at camp, that you should probably know about yourselves, and how we can bring these miracles with us to our lives and how we do Judaism.

Miracle 1:

Back to Wednesday - As we read the mishnah together, I got a little emotional – here we are, in this place, and were it not for this place, it is likely that Avi nor his siblings would not have been created.  Not only is he alive, but we are studying Torah together!  And trust me, getting Avi to study Torah with me is a miracle on its own.

The idea of the miracle of their lives got a hold of me, and I was lost in the moment.  Avi didn't get it – what is so miraculous about this place, and Abbah, why are you getting emotional?!?

What's really interesting is that this mishnah is directly related to our Torah portion.  The mishnah is all about Berachot, blessings.  We say blessings after we experience something in this world, not just food or drink, but the wonders of nature and experience.

וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה יְי אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־יְי אֱלֹקיךָ
And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God... (Deuteronomy 10:12)

The Rabbis in the Talmud interpreted this to mean that one should say at least 100 blessings a day from the hebrew word Mah, what, which they turn into Meah, 100.

Experiencing this miracle, and noting it out loud, while annoying Avi, was an incredible moment for me.  And so, I thought about how I can do more of this with him – to say blessings for daily occurrences together.  To recognize the miracles that surround us on a daily basis, even if it annoys the people around us!

Also, there's an app for recognizing daily miracles!  

Which brought me to my next miracle:  Miracle 2.

It was during my time at Ramah when the camp welcomed a number of families as part of Darom's family camp.  These were people whom I had grown up with in youth group and spent time with at Ramah in the late 90's – you know, last century.  Some of us kept in touch, some of us live in the same cities, but most of went off on our own separate paths.  The incredible thing was that most of us married people we met on staff at Camp Ramah.

Intermarriage and the Conservative movement has been written and spoken about extensively this summer, but here I saw something interesting.

So what is the miracle here?!?  There is a famous midrash where a Roman aristocrat woman and a famous rabbi have an intellectual debate – she says, if your God is so mighty and created the world, what has He been doing since creation?  He answers – he's been matching up couples.  The Roman woman laughs at him – are you kidding me!  I can do that!  – she tries to match her slaves up, 1000 male slaves and 1000 female slaves.  The next day, they come back to her, one with a black eye, the other with a busted lip, another with a cracked skull – all asking to be released from their marriages. The woman went back to the rabbi and said, "There is no god like your God, and your Torah is true."

The Rabbi's answer:  arranging marriages that work is akin to the splitting of the Red Sea.

In other words, splitting the red sea, that's no problem!  Matching couples for life, now that's a miracle.

Steve Cohen, the famous sociologist, wrote recently that Ramah and other intensive Jewish and Zionist programs are particularly important, but not just for the reasons you might think.  In an interview, he said the following:

“Ramah and such camps are among the best ways to assure that our young Jews meet and marry other Jews, especially now that intermarriage is being undertaken so widely. Because of their Ramah friendships, they marry fellow campers, or they participate in strong Jewish social networks that make romantic referrals.  Many educationally intensive Jewish camps, those with a strong Jewish mission, accomplish similar goals. Specifically, Ramah bestows Jewish cultural capacity and the ability to function as educated Jews in the real world. It also satisfies the need for meaning that so many of our young people want and need, and connects them to a strong Jewish community for years beyond their time at camp — often for a lifetime.”

In a sense, perhaps we can say that God is working through these Jewish summer camps – creating matches that last a life time.

Miracles do not happen by God alone – we, human beings, are a part of that miracle making.  As we saw in the story, two Jews marrying in an open world can be a miraculous act, but we know it doesn't happen without our help and support.

My humble ask is that we try and change the conversation that we are having about intermarriage – that if we want to promote in-marriage, we should think about sending our young people to work on staff at Camp Ramah and other immersive Jewish experiences over the summer.  Internships may look good on a resume and might make you some more money in the future, but finding a nice Jewish boy or girl to spend your life with is truly priceless.

And finally, Miracle #3 – when your child follows in your footsteps.

As parents, we desperately want our children to love the same things we love, whether it is a sports team, or certain foods, or places, but especially God and Judaism.  It is truly an elusive thing – but sometimes, miracles do happen.

On the last Shabbat at camp, Avi woke up and was ready to leave – it's been a long time away from home, a month, and he was ready to go home.  I miss Imma, and my bed, and I hate camp.  Ok, so my heart skipped a beat, but I took a break and said, we will talk tonight about you leaving early, how about that?  I knew what was coming, Havdallah, but would the magic of Havdallah work on Avi?

Sure enough, as we were swaying in a circle together reciting the words of the prayers, Avi and the rest of his bunk broke down in tears – the shoe was on the other foot!  Now he was crying!  He told me, “I don't want to leave!  I don't want to leave my friends, I love camp.  I want to stay at Camp Ramah!”  The music was loud, but I whispered the following words:

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה

Blessed is God who made did miracles for our ancestors in this place!  

He drank the kool aid – he experienced something he couldn't quite explain...
And my final lesson that I learned is – sometimes, love takes time.  We try and instill these loves with our kids, sometimes it works right away, sometimes it never works, and sometimes it takes time.  Don't give up – share the things you love with your children, even if it annoys them.

Three miracles, three lessons:
  • Recognize the miracles that surround us on a daily basis, articulate them with our words, even if it annoys the people around us!
  • The miracle of connection in a Jewish context – let's explore how we can increase these
  • Share the things you love with your children, even if it annoys them

May we all experience miracles in the days, weeks, months and years ahead – together.  Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

How Good Are Our Tents? The Kotel Controversy

How Good Are Our Tents? - The Kotel Controversy
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Parashat Balak 5777/2017

Jewish unity can be a fleeting thing as we saw in these last weeks.

The kotel compromise officially began in 2013 – took three years to get everyone on the same page, and in a day, it’s all gone.  (for a basic overview of the Kotel compromise, please read: Western Wall prayer fight ends with historic compromise

Due to the outcry from the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel, the government has delayed any changes for six months. 

Now we have six months, so what now? 

Before we start planning for the future, I would like to look to the past.  Today, I want to focus on two things: 

1.     Balaam’s famous blessing, Mah Tovu
2.     An adaptive solution to the issue of pluralism

Balaam, the infamous non-Israelite prophet, is ordered to curse the Children of Israel by a King Balak who was fearful of these ex-slaves from Egypt.  However, every time Balaam tries to curse them, he blesses them. What makes Balaam such an interesting character is in his name itself – the rabbis took his name apart, Bil – Am – literally means without a nation.  This is a prophet who doesn’t understand how a nation works.  How can a people stick together as they grow and become diverse? 

He goes up on a mountain, sees the children of Israel, and says the famous words:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How good or fair are your tents Jacob, your dwell places Israel!

There is something quite deep to these words. First, what was the good that Balaam saw regarding the tents?  The Talmud fills it in through a story:  

Bava Batra 60a
“And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). The Gemara explains: What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.

What could this mean?  Well, it is a message of privacy and respect.  They were a people, but each family had their own sense of identity.  They were united, but not uniform. 

And the next question is, what were the tents?  In the Talmud, the rabbis say the tents and dwelling places become the synagogues and study halls of the people of Israel.  As we have grown and moved around the world, our synagogues and study halls have become even more diverse. 

So if we zoom out, what did Balaam see?  He saw that a nation could only be a nation if it gives each other room and respects how they worship in their own dwelling places.  We are related, but at the same time, we are different. Pirkei Avot wisely states:  “One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" is a chassid (pious person). And one who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" is wicked.”

In the Diaspora, we have done a decent job of respecting one another’s dwelling places, our ways of worship.  In our community, we can see this through our emphasis on Jewish unity.  In Israel, this is not the case.  In Israel, the Rabbanut, the Ultra-Orthodox dominated state sanctioned rabbinate, insists on looking in everyone’s tent.  Judaism is what they say it is – your tent has to be just like our tent.

The truth is, we are never going to change their perspective – but they are not the majority of the country.  The majority of the country isn’t religious at all – 80% are secular, and most of them know nothing about the Reform and Masorti movements.  The Kotel controversy dominated our news here in the Jewish press, and it even made it to the cover of the New York Times, but it did not make it to one newspaper cover in Israel. 

I have been learning about the practice of adaptive change – often times, we look at problems and offer technical fixes.  For example, you have high blood pressure, so what do you do?  You take medication to lower it.  This might solve the problem technically, but the healthiest thing to do, which takes longer, is to change your lifestyle to eat healthy, get more exercise and lower your stress.  The adaptive challenge prevents the issue from recurring. 

The adaptive challenge here is not the ultra-Orthodox, rather, it is the 80% of Israelis who don’t know about us. 

So I want to offer my solution to Jewish unity, which will take a lot longer than the kotel compromise:

A reverse birthright trip – bring young Israelis to America to work in Reform and Conservative communities.  This system already exists to a certain degree.  The Jewish Agency in Israel sends shlichim, Israeli emissaries, to Jewish communities outside of Israel in various settings.  The Jewish Agency says, “our shlichim bridge the gap between Jews of different backgrounds and Israel, increase Jewish awareness and pride within your community and promote an understanding of Israel and its ideals.”  One of my life long friends is an Israeli shaliach who came to work in America for a summer from Israel.  We worked at Camp Ramah Darom together, and I will never forget when we first met, in our tiny shared room in a cabin.  He didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Hebrew, so we taught each other.  We taught each other much more than Hebrew, but our unique Jewish backgrounds.  He came from a Moroccan Jewish family, I came from a European Jewish family.  We were different, and yet, so similar.

When I visited Israel, I knew I always had a place to stay and a family to spend the holidays with, and vice versa.  Of course, I had many Israeli friends from various years at Ramah.  When I visited Israel, I not only visited the country, but I connected with real families.

(Erez and I in Jerusalem after a decade of not seeing each other!)

Can you imagine if we welcomed thousands hundreds of Israeli young men and women from secular backgrounds to work in non-Orthodox synagogues and schools?   We need a dose of Israel and Hebrew for our children, these young Israelis want an experience outside of Israel for a year to make some money and travel.

It would be an incredible win-win!

The kotel controversy is much larger than the kotel – the issue is not just about the synagogue that the Israeli government insists the kotel is – rather, it is about the acknowledgment of different expressions of Judaism in the Jewish state.  It is about Jewish religious freedom in our only state. 

I want to end with a good story that just happened:

At the Maccabiah opening ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, a Jewish Canadien Avi Steinberg, was called to the stage by Israeli actress Noa Tishby, who was emceeing the event. “I’m very excited to be here,” said Steinberg. “What makes this even more special for me is that my girlfriend, Rachel Dixon, the love of my life, who just completed her conversion to Judaism, today for the first time landed in Israel.”  Avi is in T-shirt and shorts – and Noa calls Rachel up to the stage.  Avi drops on one knee and proposes to her.  She says yes, meanwhile, they are in front of 10,000 people!  Noa goes on to say, “it would be our honor if you guys would actually get married right here, right now. Will you do it?”  And out comes a white dress, a hupah, and their rabbi, Rabbi  Avi Poupko, from Canada.  And there they are, in the Jewish dwelling place, their first home, the huppah, surrounded by the Jewish people, men and women sitting together, from different backgrounds. 

Rabbi Poupko commented on the moment

“Given the Israeli government’s recent decisions concerning the conversion law, it was a beautiful and reassuring sight to see a new convert be so embraced by tens of thousands of Jews from all across the world…I think that [this ceremony] expresses the true Jewish spirit as far as how we are to relate to individuals who have chosen to tie their fates with the Jewish people.”

It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, if the couple were Israeli, their marriage would be not be accepted in Israel.  If they lived in Israel, Avi’s wife would be not be considered Jewish because Rabbi Poupko, although Orthodox, is not a state sanctioned rabbi, and their wedding would not be recognized by Israel either.  A Conservative rabbi friend posted a picture of himself performing a wedding in Red Square in Moscow saying, “Just had the privilege of conducting a beautiful wedding for a beautiful couple under a chuppah overlooking the Kremlin. Who would have thought that the joyous voices of Jewish bride and groom and the sheva brachot would resound through Red Square? The forces of history were in evidence today. Ironic that I must pray that some day Jews in Israel will be as free to practice their religion as we are here in Russia, and have a wedding with the rabbi of their choosing.”

May we see a day soon when we have true freedom in Israel for all Jews, that we respect our tents so much that we welcome each other in, learning from each other but keeping our values and beliefs in tact. 

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotech Yisrael -

Kein Yehi Ratzon.