My sacred task as rabbi is to ignite the God-given hidden spark within each person, and connect this light to others through building spiritual community. The tool of ignition, inspiration, and agitation is our Torah, 70 Faces and all, and my task is make Torah come alive (through diverse venues) in the present so it will live in the future. I seek to be a madrich/guide and leader who can help others traverse through the windy pathways of life.
I want to begin today by
telling you about two friends I lost this summer.Let me just make something clear – these two guys are very
much alive and healthy, and may they both be written in the book of life!I lost these friends on Facebook, they
both De-Friended me over the summer.
My first friend is named
Shmuel.We were friends in high
school and connected through our synagogue youth group, USY.Shmuel was the head of the social
action/Tikkun Olam committee and it was his passion.He organized food baggings for our local Jewish Family
Services, volunteering opportunities at nursing homes, and other projects – he
was a real blessing for us.We
kept in touch after high school, but we drifted apart.Six years ago, I ran into Shmuel in New
York, but he looked a lot different.He wasn’t wearing a kippah anymore, nor was he keeping kosher.When I greeted him, he told me to call
him Sam, because Shmuel was a little too Jewish for him.Sam took his passion for social justice
to the next level, working for a non-profit that deals with conflict resolution
in the African American community.Sam is doing amazing work in the world and living his dream.At the time, I was a rabbinical
student, following a different path, but with the same goal in mind – to leave
the world better off than it was before.We became Facebook friends and kept in touch that way, that is, until
When the war in Gaza broke
out, I posted my support for the state of Israel against Hamas, posting images
and videos of Israeli civilians hiding in bomb shelters, but his posts were
different – he posted scenes from Gaza with the hashtag #freegaza.Then, I saw a video of Sam marching in
a demonstration in the diamond district of New York.He had a sign, #FreeGaza, and he was chanting along with his
fellow protestors, Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer,
what happened to my friend Shmuel from USY?I messaged him.After some pleasantries, I had to ask him the question: “Sam, how could
you march chanting, Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea?Don’t you know that this means an end
to the State of Israel?
He wrote me back, “let me
ask you something Rabbi Dave – as a so called religious Jew, how can you
support Israel, a state that does not accept anyone who isn’t Jewish?If we are all made in the image of God,
B’tezlem Elohim, how can you not mourn the dead of Gaza along with the dead of
Israel?How can the people of
Never Again perpetuate a genocide in Gaza?!?
My answer:“Sam, I feel terrible for the innocent
Gazans dying, especially the children, and in fact, I posted about it, but at
the same time, I don’t blame Israel for these terrible losses – I blame Hamas
who used its own people as human shields, who teaches their people hate of not
only Israel, but all Jews.Don’t
take my word for it, read Hamas’s charter.In the face of rocket attacks and terror tunnels, Israel has
to defend herself, and Israel used every possible way to warn civilians to
leave areas which Hamas was using to fire rockets.”
He answered me, “What
about Rabbi Hillel’s teaching - “U’ksheani le’atzmi, mah ani?” – If I am only
for myself, what am I?Don’t you
remember that class from Hebrew school, when the Israelites were freed from
Egpyt, it wasn’t just them, but a mixed multitude.Rabbi, you are stuck in the Jewish ghetto – but I am
free.We don’t have to worry about
anti-Semitism anymore, it’s not the 1930’s.The only reason why people hate Jews is because of your
precious Israel.To be honest
Rabbi, I can’t be friends with you anymore – goodbye.”
conversation, he ‘de-friended’ me.
Shmuel, or as he calls
himself, Sam, is not here today, but I wish he was.I want to talk to him and really understand where he’s
coming from, but I know that you have a Sam in your life, and maybe we can begin
to understand him today.
I have another friend who
I once knew a while ago with named Mitchell.We went to college together, and I was always trying to get
him to come to Hillel with me, but he never would.He was never really into Judaism until our senior year when
something in him cliqued.Mitch
started going to the Orthodox minyan at our Hillel, and then, he started
dressing differently.He put on
tzitzit and a kippah and wore them everyday, and then, he made aliyah.He went to a Yeshivah for a year, met a
nice young woman, and after three weeks of seeing each other, they
married.His name was no longer
Mitch, but now, he goes by his Hebrew name, Mordechai.Mordechai and his wife Rivka live in a
settlement in the West Bank, or as he calls it, Judea, with their seven
children.Although Mordechai isn’t
wealthy, he gives tzedakah to many Jewish causes that help Jews not just in
Israel, but around the world.Mordechai and I kept in touch over the years as we both share a deep
love of both our people, and the land of Israel.
This summer, I posted my
anger at the vicious murder of Muhammed Al Khdeir by Jewish terrorists on my
Facebook wall.He messaged me, and
told me that he no longer wants to read any of my posts and told me he is going
to de-friend me.
He asked me, “How
can you mourn over the death of an Arab – aren’t they all guilty?How can you place them above your own
people?!?Didn’t Rabbi Hillel say,
Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – I am not for myself, who will be for me?Don’t you remember the teaching from
the Torah of Amalek – we must blot out their memory, men, women and
children!I for one refuse to
mourn for the death of a child who will become a terrorist one-day!I can’t be friends with anyone who
disagrees with this core belief of Judaism.”
And then, Mitch, or Mordechai, de-friended me.
Mordechai, is not here
today, but I wish he was.I want
to talk to him and really understand where he’s coming from, but I know that
you have a Mordechai in your life, and maybe we can begin to understand him
That feeling, torn between
being Jewish and being a part of the larger world is the condition of the Jew
in the modern age.Both Sam and
Morderchai, when it comes down to it, want the same thing – to make the world a
better place after they have left it.Sam and Morderchai represent two types of people in a phrase coined by
the author Yossi Klein Ha-Levi - Pesach Jews, and Purim Jews.
He writes:Jewish history speaks to our generation
in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us
to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of
that command is: “Don’t be brutal.” The second voice commands us to remember
how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering
in the desert, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be naive.”
The question is – can both
types of Jews be members of the same tribe?
My answer – yes, and more
than that, these Jews live in the same person – there are very few of us who
are pure Sams, pure Pesach Jews, and few Mordechais, pure Purim Jews – but
there’s a bit of Sam, or Pesach in me, and Mordechai, Purim, in me, and I bet
there might be a bit of them in you as well.
Let me first talk to the
Sam in us, the universalist, the one who took takes the idea of Btzelem Elohim,
that all humans are created in God’s image, very seriously.And since today is Yom Harat HaOlam,
the day that humanity was created, this might be a great place to start.It’s true, we learn in the book of
Genesis, that God created Human in God’s own image, and the midrash expands on
it, telling us that God makes each person unique, and every person must say
that the world was created for my sake…but, we don’t read this section from the
Torah on Rosh Hashanah.We
actually read about the first Jewish family – Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael
and Isaac.Sure, they may be
imperfect, but it’s the story of the first Jewish family, which was how we
started – as a people.We don’t
exist in a vacuum.We are
surrounded by other nations, but we are unique, just as they are unique.In the Zichronot service which we will
shortly read, we tell how God remembered Noah with love, remembered Lot, both
of whom aren’t Jewish, but we say with pride – God remembered God’s covenant
with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob – the message is clear - God has a
covenant with the Jewish people, and it is special.
Avraham Infeld, the former
international director of Hillel, has devoted his life to the idea of Jewish people
hood. He often says, we have
been taught that Judaism is a religion, but before it is a religion, we are a
Ruth, the first convert to
Judaism, the great-grandmother of King David, the forerunner to the messiah for
both Jews and Christians once said, “Your people shall be my people and your
God is my God.The order is not
accidental. If I want to become Christian I would say, “Your God is my God,”
but when it comes to Judaism, I cannot first say, “Your God is my God” until I
say, “Your people is my people.”
Rachelli Fraenkel, the
mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three boys murdered by Hamas terrorists
this summer said this about her ordeal:“People from all over were saying these are not just your boys, these
are our children. Sometimes I ask myself was this just an illusion? I have this
image of a person walking in the dark and it’s raining and their stumbling and
they’re figuring out their way.They don’t see anything and then for a second there’s lightning and in
that lightning they see the reality of their surroundings. It helps them guide
their way. We had days and days of lightning. It’s no illusion what we saw
there, ourselves. We’re part of something huge. We’re part of a people, of a
true family that’s for real.”
So to Sam, I say, yes, you are
correct, if I am only for myself what am I, but I cannot get to that point of
being for others, if I am not for myself at all.That’s why Hillel starts the quote, Im Ein Ani Li – If I am
not for myself, who will be for me?
– that’s part of my job – to be here for you.You might have a lot of places where you hang your hat, but
you have only one home, only one place where you can be yourself, and loved
unconditionally.The Jewish people
are your collective home, and we will be here for you whenever you are ready to
To the Mordechai in us,
who only focuses on Im Ein ani li, mi li, if I am not for myself, who will be
for me. I have to say that you are missing a big part of Judaism.
Today is not Yom Harat
HaAm – the Day the Nation Was Created, It’s Yom Harat HaOlam!Sure, we read about the story of
Abraham, the first Jew, but our prayers are about standing with all the nations
of the world being judged by God.
There is a big difference
between Noah and Abraham –Noah cared only for his
family, he never questions God before the flood, before the destruction of
humanity. Abraham cared for all –
when God says he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, Abraham argues with God
– Ironically, Abraham the father of the Jewish people, stands up for those who
are not part of his tribe, and Noah, the new Adam, stands up only for his
relatives.You are a son of
Abraham – who stood up for other peoples – and Abraham is not just our father,
but the father of other people’s, the Christians and the Muslims.
In the book of Isaiah, we
read about a time when the Temple will be turned into a Beit Tefillah, a house
of prayer, for all peoples, not just us.
It’s not just in the
Bible, but even in our law codes.We read very specific text telling us that we must visit the non-Jewish
sick along with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead we find, just as
we bury the Jewish dead – for the sake of the ways of peace.
The Alenu prayer was
written just for today, but it became so popular that it was added at the end
of the every service.In Alenu, we
say that one day, the world will be perfected, healed, and all humanity will
call on Your name.God is melech
al kol ha’aretz – God who rules over all lands, and all the peoples, not just
us.In the Zichronot, we learn
that God remembers God’s covenant with us, but also with other peoples.
Even Zionism, which began
as a secular movement, was an attempt to create a country for the Jewish
people, was an attempt for our people to re-enter history and to stand along
side the nations of the world.
After 2000 years, we FINALLY have a place at the worlds
We are a nation apart from
others, but we are to be a light unto the nations, an Or LaGoyim.
Jews don’t hide their light – we share it with the
We believe in Tikkun Olam –
healing the world, not just ourselves.
We have something
beautiful to share with the world – we can’t be scared to share it.
To Mordechai, I ask, do
you criticize Israel when she helps feed Gazan civilians?Did you criticize Israel when she sent
hospital units to Japan following the earthquake and nuclear fall out, or to
Haiti following the earthquake, or to any number of areas of disaster?Do you criticize Israel when it comes
up with ways to help the entire world – like clean energy, security, and
As Jews living in the
modern world, we have to hold the universalism of Sam, and the particularism of
Mordechai in the same hand. We have to celebrate both
Pesach, a celebration of freedom for all the oppressed of the world, and Purim,
the warning of Jewish vulnerability.
I want to end by telling
you the story of Steven Soltloff, a reporter beheaded by ISIS terrorists this
summer.When he was being held
captive, it was unclear as to who Steven really was, which was intentional – you
see, Steven was from Miami, Florida, and he was a Jew.His grandparents were Holocaust
survivors, and he attended Jewish day school at Temple Beth Am in Miami.His parents feared that Steven would
meet the same fate as Daniel Pearl, another journalist who was kidnapped and
beheaded in Pakistan because he was Jewish.So they tried to remove any references to his Jewish
background from the internet.In
the end, it was all for naught, but I found his life, short as it was, to be
At his memorial service,
his rabbi, Terry Bookman, said:“Steven
believed deeply that all people were created in the image of God, the One God
of all humanity.We may call him
Adonai, while others call upon him as Jesus or Allah. But Steven knew we all
have one Father, which makes us one family on earth.”
But his rabbi also added, “Steven
was a proud and committed Jew, a loyal American and a citizen of Israel.”
While in college, Steven
went on Birthright, and he moved to Israel, studying counter terrorism at the Interdisciplinary
Center in Herzliya.He kept in
touch with his Jewish friends and I’m told cared deeply about his Jewish
In his short life, Steven
Sotloff found the balance – between being a Jew who cared about his people, and
human being who cared about all peoples.May we all find that balance – of being a citizen of Israel, and a
citizen of the world.
On this holiday, we stand
on the peak of the world – looking out at the year ahead.We see each unique person and the
contributions they give to the world, but we see our own people a little more
brightly.We see a beautiful
tapestry of humanity.Each thread
representing a person, each patch a people, and the whole is greater than the
sum of its parts.
Rosh Hashanah is a time to
balance each other out – to focus – are we moving too much towards being only a
Pesach Jew, or only a Purim Jew?
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman
asked a very basic question – Why be Jewish?His answer:We
Jews are a people who stand not only for ourselves and our own destiny but also
for the greater purpose of humankind as a whole…We have a mission to the world,
not to convert it but to better it; to help it remember the God whom we
discovered at Sinai but who, we believe, is available in one form or another to
all humankind.This is our reason
When you see yourself only
fighting for others, while ignoring your people, I want you to think about
Hillel’s line – If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
When you see yourself only
caring about Jews – I want you to think of Hillel’s next line – if I am only
for myself, what am I?
And when you get an email
asking you to bag food for Jewish families in need, and another email asking
you to glean food for all families in need - don’t say you do not have the time
to support others - I want you to ask yourself, if not now, when?
Being a Jew also means
that we hold all of these ideas in our hands and hearts.We stand in the middle, holding our
hands out to the Sam’s and Mordechai’s in our lives; bringing them closer to
us, to their home.
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