Ki Tisa – Stop Making Idols and Blaming Scapegoats

Some sermons are just Torah teachings. Others are a collection of cute stories around a values theme. Others are serious applications of Torah learning. And some are matters of conscience. Tonight, this is a matter of conscience. I shared earlier how my teacher Dr. Michael Meyer told us he went to Temple to be made uncomfortable, to be challenged. Well, there are things in this portion that make me uncomfortable, especially in light of some of the things happening around us right now.

This week, in Parashat Ki Tisa, we study the episode of the Golden Calf. This is story is the biblical paradigm for rejecting idol worship. It is also, perhaps the Torah’s greatest example of passing blame, right up there with eating fruit in the Garden of Eden. The stakes of blame in the story of the golden calf are raised as it becomes associated with idol worship, traditionally one of the most grievous sins one can commit. The Torah shows us to blame is to create an idol, to connect some thing or some person with undeserved responsibility.

Moses is seen as being the people’s only connection to God. Ignoring their daily providence, the gifts of food, and survival in the desert, they believe it can only come through the presence of one man. While “that man,” Moses, spend forty days away from the community, they believe God cannot be with them. They turn to Aaron who has been left in charge. They demand of him, “make us a god,” something we can see and follow. Rather than calm them or assure them that Moses would soon return, Aaron, possibly fearful of the mob, gives in. He gathers gold from all the people and molds it into a golden calf. They call out, “this is your god who brought you out of Egypt,” and it can be assumed, they assigned all providence and goodness to this very god, this calf, this lifeless statue. They have accepted the golden calf as God, and this has all happened under Aaron’s watch, with his support, and active participation. Very much a part of this deed, as a leader, he is even more culpable. However, when confronted with what he has done, he will choose blame.

When Moses comes down and discovers the people worshiping the calf, Aaron says they told him to make a god. They were afraid Moses would not return. At this moment, Aaron probably recognizes he could blame collective fear for his following actions. He admits to gathering the gold and throwing it into the fire. He cannot bring himself to admit that he shaped the gold into a calf, instead blaming the fire for spitting out a calf.

It is not hard to understand why the story happens this way. Aaron and the people of Israel are motivated by anxiety, resentment, and fear. These elements that lead to idolatry are also identified by Psychologist Carl Alasko (in the book Beyond Blame) as key catalysts for blame. Idolatry and blame are thus intertwined as two sides of the same coin.   

So, let’s recap. Moses is equated with God. Then Moses is blamed for being gone. Then the people are afraid. Aaron fears the people. He builds an idol. They all worship the idol as if it were God. Moses and God get angry. Aaron blames Moses. And Aaron blames the people. And Aaron even blames the fire. He blames everyone and everything, essentially making idols of them, imbuing them with power they do not have.

Idolatry and blame are inextricably linked through this episode of the golden calf. This link will be established in perpetuity as future generations will make sin offerings as atonement for the golden calf. According to many sources, a living cow must lose its life on account of the sin of idolatry. And at least one source says the scapegoat itself, the goat onto which sins are transferred before being thrown over a cliff, makes atonement for the golden calf. The scapegoat is a type of idolatry, imposing our faults and fears onto an object or animal that cannot possibly own the traits we give it. Nonetheless, we are commanded to cast blame onto some unsuspecting, undeserving animal in exchange for the sin of casting undue merit onto a molten idol. Fear for fear. Sin for Sin. Idol for idol.

I think at some point, we are supposed to read this story of the golden calf, examine the fallout, and ultimately recognize the absurdity of this cycle of blame.

Lately, it seems we get further and further away from understanding this lesson. Lawmakers in our state have made forbidden idols out of Transgender Tennesseeans and have treated drag shows as golden calfs to be destroyed. Recent legislation has made it illegal to provide gender affirming healthcare to minors, including, not just the physical care, but also counseling. This type of care is not only affirming, but in many cases life saving as it curbs the suicide rate among transgender youth. The law is as cruel as it is potentially dangerous. The state has also restricted drag shows, preventing minors from attending. Their stated purpose is to keep kids away from sexually explicit performances, as if any man dressed in woman’s clothes is inherently explicit. It is not, as evidenced by the times I have played Esther or a chorus girl in a Temple Purim Shpiel. In theory, such Purim shpiels could now be illegal in Tennessee, but that is not really what I am concerned about.  I, a cis-gendered straight male, am not worried about how this affects me. What worries me is, this is a needless prohibition something that is true performance art and a source of entertainment for many. There is nothing about drag that is inherently harmful to children, any moreso than cheerleaders at basketball game. The absurd line defining what our lawmakers call “prurient” is not about how much body is exposed, but rather what the performer’s gender is relative to the outfit they are wearing. The law itself is nonsensical, but sadly it is real. The application of the law and its enforcement have yet to be fully determined, so the ramifications are unknown. What is known is that the transgender law and the drag show law are direct attacks against our LGBTQ+ community. As a group they are no stranger to this kind of treatment, as for centuries they have been blamed for any number of things. Throughout history, whether homosexuality has been wrongly equated with pedophilia, or whether they have been blamed for inviting God’s wrath through hurricaines, or for corrupting minors by daring to cross-dress in public, unjustified fears have been transferred onto them. They have been involuntarily made into idols, receiving blame for sins they did not commit, but which been imposed on them from the outside.

It is the golden calf all over again. Irrational fears. Transfer of sins. Creation of an idol. Destruction of an idol. Passing of an idol. A scapegoat suffering. All because leaders fail to lead as they bow to the whims of angry homophobic masses.

And let’s be clear, while I am speaking mostly in the third person, the community threatened is really US, our Mizpah members, our friends, our children, our parents, and anyone who loves someone who is LGBTQ. Their fight is all of our fight. The Prophets of the Tanach demand that cast our lot with the oppressed. At some point the idolatrous cycle of fear and blame has to stop. And it is easy to point to our socially conservative neighbors and say they are responsible for this. We risk making idols of them, turning them into objects of disdain. Instead, we can take ownership of our responsibility as friends, citizens of Tennessee, and people motivated to pursue justice until it becomes real. Let’s start by writing to our governor and our state representatives. We must not believe it is futile, as we hope we can reach people’s hearts one at a time. Let us join in protest actions like the one that happened last week at Miller Park, at which Mizpah was represented. Let us support organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and help them to flex legal muscle to overturn these bans.

May we together bring an end to senseless fear, end the cycle of blame, and once and for all, atone for the sin of the golden calf by not making idols of our own.


You Can Be A Hero- Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning, 5783


The other day, I got one of the best compliments from my son. He’s 14, so you take ‘em when you can get ‘em. He said to one of his friends,  “I had some awesome pancakes for breakfast.” I felt pretty good about myself, for I made those pancakes. I know.  Lots of people make pancakes, but this was special. I only started making them during quarantine… And I made them from scratch. It had never occurred to me that you could make pancakes without the Bisquick mix. I thought there was something special in the box, and there was…. if you think dextrose and monoglycerides are special. I did not have any mix, so, I found a recipe online. Surprise! Everything I needed was already in the cupboard. And, no. We don’t have monoglycerides in the house. Turns out you don’t need them. The results? Well, the discerning palate of a 14-year-old boy said they were awesome. I know there’s nothing heroic in making pancakes from scratch, but a compliment can make you feel like a hero.

This is what I really want to talk about, being a hero. We usually believe heroes are other people, but, there is a recipe to being a hero, and like the pancake ingredients in my cupboard, we already have what we need

We will talk about those hero ingredients. First, let’s talk about one of Judaism’s most overlooked act of heroism. I will tell you what that was, in a bit.

At this time, though, we remember a time of heroic triumph as we turn to page 194 with this prayer of freedom.



Now, the greatest heroic act in Jewish history. You know about the burning bush and the Red sea, but they were just the beginning for Moses. His later heroic act fits this description by Stan Lee, creator of Marvel Comics. He said, “[heroes are] tested on their courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion and resourcefulness.” Therefore, superpowers are not just leaping tall buildings or Spidey senses. The best powers are values that push the hero to use their special skills. Moses had the superpower of prophesy, stronger than any person before or after. But he would not have been a hero had he not used his powers to serve others. About this, Stan Lee also said, a “hero is someone who is concerned about other people’s well-being and will go out of his or her way to help them–even if there is no chance of a reward.”

This is just what Moses does. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God threatens vengeance. Their names will be blotted out from the Book of Life. Meanwhile, Moses is in the clear, but he can’t stand to see widespread suffering. He says, “[if you do not forgive their sin], erase me from your book. He offers up his own merits to stand on behalf of his people. Moses is willing to be erased, himself, in order to spare his people.

Moses’ sacrifice is like the Iron Man snap. For those who don’t know, that means one man gave his life to save half of all life in the Universe. If that sounds exaggerated, just consider the Unetanah Tokef prayer. The stakes of being in or out of the Book of Life are high. Some will die by water, some by fire, some by sword, some by beast, some by famine, some by thirst. Moses is willing to suffer any of those disasters just to help others. That’s an even bigger sacrifice than the one we read about on Rosh Hashanah. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac would have served only Abraham, and Isaac would have paid the highest price. He never calls God’s bluff saying, “If you want one of us, take both of us.” Moses, on the other hand, casts his lot with the people so they would share one fate.

The Torah is clear, no one else can equal Moses in age or in deeds. Still, the Torah asks us to be like Moses, to do the heroic thing when needed. As I said earlier, we all possess the ingredients to be heroes. And, what are those ingredients? I will tell you, in a bit….

First, let us listen to the words of Unetaneh Tokef, and consider the dangers we might face in the coming year, and how we might overcome them. We are on page 208.



The recipe for being a hero comes from Dr. Ari Kohen, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Nebraska. He has written extensively on the topic and lectured around the world. One of the first things he points out is, a hero is an ordinary person… who does extraordinary things. Recognizing that we are ordinary people is the first step to being a hero. Dr. Kohen then qualifies the term “doing extraordinary things” to mean they are done for a principle, a greater good, or in service to others. That means to be a hero, one must find inherent worth in the people they hope to serve. Jewish tradition teaches every person is made in the image of God. We are all equally ordinary, with potential to be equally exceptional. At the end of the day, a hero, like Moses, recognizes that all mankind shares the same desires for life, love, safety, and security. That is the baseline requirement for being a hero. That was why a hero named Wesley Autrey leaped from a New York subway platform to protect a stranger who had fallen between the tracks. He lay on top of the man, protecting him as the train passed inches above his head. When asked why he did it, he said, “I just saw someone who needed help.” In other words, he first saw someone equally in the image of God.

The second ingredient for being a hero is to have heroes. Dr. Kohen advises not to choose athletes, who have magnificent skill, but do not take risks to serve others. There are exceptions like Roberto Clemente and Colin Kaepernick. Clemente died in a plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Kaepernick risked his football career to draw attention to racial injustice in America. Clemente, Kaepernick, and all heroes have a common trait that we also share. They are not perfect people. Dr. Kohen says it is ok for heroes not to be perfect. He mentions Oskar Schindler, who saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. He did many questionable things during his life, but he risked his fortune and his very life to protect as many people as he could. Permission for a hero to be imperfect means each of us is still eligible. Admitting our imperfections is in fact the central purpose of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are here as good people, who have sinned in some ways, and who look to do better in the coming year. We qualify. We can be heroes.

As for the third ingredient to being a hero, we will get to that in a moment….

For now, let us acknowledge this special moment in time and our call to make the most of this moment. Let us rise for Kedusha on page 218.



The third ingredient for being a hero, according to Dr. Kohen, is empathy. Some of the greatest acts of heroism begin with empathy practiced in the home. People who care for a sick relative, often sacrificing their own self-interests are heroes. They understand what it means to be in pain and afraid, and therefore, they do all they can to provide care and comfort. They usually deny heroism, saying, “What else would I do?” But their deeds should be celebrated. I found this story online, but its essence defines any number of heroes I have met over the years.

Before 2015, Ben never believed he could be a full-time caregiver. Then in 2015, Elizabeth, his wife of almost 50 years, was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor. An aggressive course of therapy destroyed the tumor, but left her with immobilizing back pain. He has to help her in and out of her chair and walks by her side. He is ready to assist her twenty-four hours a day.

“[It] is exhausting,” Ben says, but he chooses to find the positives. “When I say that Elizabeth is the center of my life it is simply a statement of fact…. I’ve learned… about myself. My selfishness and [ability to ignore] another’s discomfort are taking some big hits…”

His deeds start with love, but they represent something more, something hard to define. We hear it in this advice he gives to anyone in his situation:

“Remember all your spouse means to you, all she/he has done for you and how much you have benefited from the relationship.”

He believes he is a better person for it. He has expanded his empathy. He has become a hero.

For those who gives so much of themselves, and who deny being heros, you have no idea how many people might be watching and learning from what you do. From watching you, they may find the strength to rise to the occasion if it arrives. Be assured, inspiring others is its own type of heroism, and nothing is more inspiring than seeing people taking care of each other. It all starts with active empathy.

I will tell you the final hero ingredient, in a bit.

But at this time, we take a moment of silent reflection to consider how we might rise to the call to heroism, for those closest to us and for all people. We pray silently.


The final ingredient for being a hero, Dr. Kohen says, is the same thing it takes to get to Carnegie Hall—practice. The greatest impediment to heroism is the bystander effect when everyone waits for someone else to act. This is the classic case of a bully. No one stands up to the bully because they fear being bullied themselves. It is the rare person who will risk their own security to defend the defenseless. But the Torah with its command, to “not stand idly by” demands nothing less. Dr. Kohen acknowledges we all like to believe we will be the hero, but most people end up being bystanders. The best way to overcome the bystander effect is to be in the practice of standing out. It starts with little things, nonconformist acts, even maybe in our wardrobe, bright colored pants or crazy socks. Hero practice also includes every day that are selfless, recognizing a need and filling it without thought of personal gain. For example, Dr. Kohen talks about shlepping his kids to the grocery, and how someone returning the shopping cart for him is a small act of heroism. A basic act of kindness has the potential to change another person’s life. During a recent Shabbat service, Sam Wolfe from the City of Chattanooga, told our congregation how he cheerfully greeted a homeless man who then wept, saying it had been 3 months since another human had spoken to him. His humanity had begun to be restored. The point is this, small heroic acts condition us over time to do what is needed when the time comes. We hope we will never have to dive under a train or run into a burning building or engage an active shooter or save a person’s life, but if we strive to be heroes every day, we can change many lives along the way, and when major events unfold, we are more likely, to rise to any occasion.

Therefore, let as all strive to be heros in the coming year. We already have all the basic ingredients. Therefore, we can do the little things, to refuse to be bystanders, and at every moment be ready to rise to the occasion. In doing so, we guarantee that we can all be inscribed for blessing in the book of life.

And we enter into our Torah service when we will hear the words Atem Nitzvavim, our reminder on Yom Kippur that we are all responsible for one another. The Torah service begins on page 252 as we rise for Avinu Malkeinu.

For the Sin of Kalut Rosh… Stand against hate speech, Sermon for Kol Nidre 5783


One Shabbat, not long ago, a member of our choir passed out during Aleinu. It gave us all quite a scare. An ambulance was called, and thankfully, everything turned out fine. With the relief of a happy resolution, one of our members reminded me how I started my sermon. I had opened by saying, “I am about to say something blasphemous.” I say this frequently when I directly challenge part of the Torah, like the book of Leviticus. I then demonstrate that “lightning did not strike, nor did the walls cave in.” It’s a fun way to encourage critical thinking about God and religion. But, on that particular Shabbat, we experienced a lightning strike of sorts, with an unexpected scare, and our member warned, “be careful what you say.”

Tonight, I think of this moment in light of the story of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Temple priests, they offered alien fire, a sacrifice that God did not require, and then died, consumed by raging flames from the altar. I cannot help imagining how hard it must have been to change the workplace sign to say, “Zero days accident free.” But in all seriousness, we can turn to the story of Nadav and Avihu for an important lesson on Yom Kippur. On this day, our worship recalls through imagery and metaphor the Temple sacrifice. Understanding how one sacrifice went bad can help us live with purpose in the coming year. I confess to laughing about a choir member’s health scare, only after the fact when all was ok, and we could joke about my sermon being responsible for it. And I confess to making a joke about Nadav and Avihu, and workplace safety. Laughter can be a release from tension, offering healing after a time of fear. It can also serve as an entrée to tackling difficult topics. For centuries, humor has been the verbal chicken soup of the Jewish people. However, as Ecclesiastes teaches, there is a time for every purpose.

Yom Kippur is ultimately not a time for laughter.

What is a time for, we will talk about in just a bit. First let us turn to page 22 as we rise together for the “Call to worship.”



Yom Kippur is not a time to laugh. It is a time of self-reflection and improvement. We atone for past sins and strive to erase them from our lives. I dare not suggest that laughter demands atonement. What I am saying is, it can be a sin to laugh at the wrong times. One of the Al Cheit’s, the confessions in our Machzor, is for the sin of Kalut Rosh. We translate it to mean “making light of serious situations.” A midrash explains that was the sin of Nadav and Avihu. They did not take seriously the task at hand. They laughed too much when their focus needed to be pure.

Kalut Rosh is not just laughter, but generally lacking requisite seriousness. A lesson in this comes from an unlikely source. This past year, a new translation emerged of the story of Bambi. Yes, it’s the same Bambi from the Disney movie, sort of.  Originally in German, the first English translation in 1928 watered down the narrative. It was actually an serious allegory. Disney further distanced the story from its intent. While sweet and cute, many of the author’s original themes were lost. Critic, Kathryn Shulz, wrote in the New Yorker, “Bambi is no more about animals than [George Orwell’s] Animal Farm is.” Bambi’s author, Felix Salter, was an assimilated Jew living in Vienna. Changing his name from Salzmann to Salter was just one way he tried to blend in with the noble class. His story is similar to Theordore Herzl’s, who enjoyed full inclusion and opportunity in their society. Jewishness and Jewish religion were not intrinsic to who they were, until, they witnessed the rise fascism and anti-semitism around them. Herzl’s response was to become the father of modern Zionism, working to carve out a safe space for Jewish people in one small corner of the world. Salter became an admirer and friend of Herzl’s. Salter deepened his connection with Jewish identity through Zionism. In his writing, he embedded stories alienation and oppression. Bambi was a prime example. One character in particular demonstrates the dangers of being complacent. A deer becomes domesticated by hunters and therefore believes himself to be immune from danger. Despite the warnings from others of his kind, he frolics in the open meadow and is killed by a hunter’s bullet. This reflected Salter’s realization that, no matter what, no matter his individual acceptance by the ruling class, when tides of history turned, he was always vulnerable to the whims of prejudice. His concerns became a stark reality when Hitler rose to power in 1933, just 10 years after Bambi’s publication. Salter was one of the fortunate ones to flee Austria, being granted asylum in Switzerland. According to writer Judy Gruen, Bambi is a parable about minorities “having to keep watch of their surroundings.”

That is a familiar refrain in Jewish history, and we will learn more about that soon. Before that, we will hear the words of Chatzi Kaddish in which we take not of our surroundings, praising the holiness and greatness of God’s name for the many gifts in our lives. Please turn to page 45.



Balancing freedom with vigilance, keeping watch of our surroundings has long been an important part of being Jewish. We embrace the invitations to inclusion, ever since emancipation in Europe, and now with our unparalleled safety and success in America. Still, all the while, we must not be Kalut Rosh, lacking seriousness in the face of potential threats. Fascism has never been good for the Jews. Nor has the spread of Big Lies. Or attacks against Democracy. We cannot be dismissive when we hear rumblings of Rothchild banking conspiracies, or Jewish space lasers, or false claims about George Soros and globalist elites, all antisemitic code words. It is unwise to assume they are talking about someone else just because one may generally be on the same side of political debates. Anyone who will speak or permit hate speech against some Jewish people will eventually speak hate against all Jewish people. Likewise, we can’t just dismiss as free speech the embrace of QAnon by elected officials. QAnon is a mutation of the blood libel, which is a false accusation that has tormented Jewish communities for centuries. QAnon has metastasized as an expansion of the blood libel, from Jews to all perceived political enemies. It would be folly to assume “no one really believes that.” It is likewise folly to assume it is no big deal even if we agree with some of those people’s political leanings. The growing role of tolerating hate as being politically expedient is alarming. Hate speech needs to be confronted and condemned, and anyone who fails to reject such wild beliefs should be deemed unworthy to hold office. Assuming it will pass, or assuming anyone is immune from these growing movements is guilty of Kalut Rosh. Safety comes from being Koved Rosh, heavy minded with seriousness of purpose, and directly confronting leaders, or even our friends, who embrace or overlook dangerous ideologies. This may sound like the problem comes from one side of the political spectrum. It most certainly does not. I will address that in a few moments.

In the meantime, we focus on the intention of our prayers, hoping that our seriousness of purpose makes these prayers for atonement and peace acceptable before God.

R’tzei is on page 72.



As evidence that neither right nor left have exclusive claim to Jewish hate speech, we need only to consider the recent city council election for district 8, the district that includes our Temple. Antisemitism became a central issue. And, as I stand before you on Yom Kippur, I confess, that I almost let it go. Videos from two years ago surfaced of one candidate saying that “Jews overwhelmingly supported the slave trade in America,” and “what are we going to do about it?” At the time of the original video, I and other members of the Jewish community confronted this person and laid out the facts. We also attempted to demonstrate that their framing of the history was in line with common anti-Jewish tropes spoken by, among others, Louis Farrakhan, who called Jews termites. This leader repeatedly refused offers for direct dialogue. When the videos were taken down from the internet, even without apology or acknowledgment, I considered the issue settled. At that time, our city and nation were in the midst of the raging pandemic and protests over the death of George Floyd were on-going. There were bigger issues than one misguided community leader. When the videos re-surfaced, I was going to ignore them. The videos came from an unofficial negative campaign, and I did not need to be involved in that kind of politics. To my mind, it was old news, and I mistakenly believed the candidate had moved on from their antisemitic beliefs. To the contrary, they doubled down, tripled down, bringing in anti-Zionist rhetoric Anti-zionism is thinly veiled anti-Jewish hate speech. It is one thing to disagree with policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinian people, in line with opinions of about half of Israel’s citizens, but it is another thing entirely to suggest the end of the Jewish state. I realized I had been Kalut Rosh, not serious enough in the face of growing anti-Jewish rhetoric from those who otherwise consider themselves liberal or progressive. Having let it go, it came back again, and trying to let it go again raised the real possibility Chattanooga might have someone unrepentant about their anti-semitic feelings on our City Council.

Now, as I condemn silence, I invite us all to share a moment of silence, to pray the confessions of our heart, and perhaps to consider how from here on out, we will not be silent again when the moment calls for action.

We continue silently.



My surprise in the recent election was how tepid the overall response was. I expected my phone to start ringing, my email box to fill up. Antisemitism was on public display in an important city race. It went largely unnoticed, the election largely not viewed as important. Some may have just accepted it as another person with crazy rants, and therefore unelectable. History has taught us not to underestimate the electability of people with crazy rants. Even many of our supposed allies in the non-Jewish world held their silence or suggested we were overreacting. In the end, 70 votes in district 8, kept an open anti-semite from joining City Council. That is really close. Forty-five percent of voters in district 8, the district where our Temple resides, either believe the Jews had an outsized role in slavery, or are willing to accept these statements from a “Change candidate.” That presents us with a challenge, how to convince those 45% that the Jewish community wishes to be their partners in change, but never at the expense of our own integrity and safety. There is work to do there, and I hope these relationships can be built on honest, direct dialogue. In this work, we cannot afford to be Kalut Rosh.

Kalut Rosh is not just about laughing, or making light of danger, it is also being complacent, even permissive. It comes from a desire not to make waves, or perhaps too strong a commitment to the idea that “This too shall pass.” Let us then be Koved Rosh, serious in purpose actively working together, ensuring that the dangers pass, convincing others to reject hateful ideology, and furthermore, to reject anyone who fails to condmen those who speak hate without shame or apology.

In this work, in 5783 and beyond, may we be strong and resolute, fair-minded and open to dialogue. May we be serious in purpose, to protect ourselves, our families, and our community from all threats, so that we can continue to enjoy the freedoms, safety, and the laughter that life here has given us.

With these intentions in our hearts, let us now begin our Yom Kippur confessions on page 82.

Rainbow Flags and Pride – Shabbat Shuvah, September 30, 2022

A couple words about my rainbow bow tie tonight. I wear it in support of Chattanooga Pride this weekend. And you may not know, the very reason I started to wear a bow tie was to support marriage equality. One of my pastor friends in Lincoln, Nebraska bought some bow ties designed by actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson proceeds from the sales were going to support the advancement of marriage equality, before it became the law of the land. I decided to try it too, and I learned to tie a bow tie. Then I kept buying more and more. So every time I wear a bow tie, it reminds of the need to support the pride.

Somewhat a propos of this, Demetri Martin, a comedian who I quote frequently, talks about the rainbow as a symbol for LGBTQ pride. He says it seems unfair that “one group took refracted light.” In other words, the symbol is the entirety of the color spectrum. Of course, it’s a joke. And behind the joke’s irony is acknowledgment that the rainbow is a great symbol, and we should all want to be part of it. In the Torah, the rainbow is a sign that stands against destruction. And in current context, it is a sign of inclusion. These are two values that stand perfectly together. The Jewish people know too well how being different has left us vulnerable to destruction, and therefore, the image of the rainbow reminds us to protect others who are likewise vulnerable. And for the LGBTQ community, the rainbow seems the perfect symbol as a sign of welcome to all people to co-exist. Whether they be red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, or violet, whether they are white, or black, brown, or anything in between, anyone in the full spectrum is invited to share the light of the rainbow, so long as they do it with mutual acceptance. In contrast to Demetri Martin’s joke, one group did not take refracted light, they chose to display it. The symbol all at once proclaims, let us celebrate each other and not destroy. Let us all live together in full acceptance.

Now I confess, what I just said is my own derash on the rainbow flag. Its meaning actually runs much deeper, and its history is profoundly important. None other than Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, asked an artist to create flag tfor the gay community. This was 1977. The artist, Gilbert Baker, knew it was an important task. He said, “Flags are about proclaiming power.” Behind such a statement is the horrible truth that for years, gay men and women, were powerless, marginalized, shamed, victimized, and forced to be closeted. A flag would be a bold statement of unity and of purpose. They were not going to ask for power, they were just going to claim it, and, with it, the right to self-determination. Already in use in some communities was the pink triangle, which was a bit like a Jewish person wearing a yellow star. It was the symbol that homosexuals were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Gilbert Baker, in claiming power did not want something that was a reminder of victimhood, or a symbol imposed from the outside. He said he wanted, “something beautiful. Something from us.” And what he chose was something better than any flag established before or since. In his words, “It was a natural flag. It came from the sky.” Otherwise stated, it belongs to no one, and is a statement of values. In his mind, the colors of the rainbow were not about the spectrum of people, but rather the spectrum of universal ideals to be shared. They are there for all of us if who choose to embrace them.

The colors are: Red for Vitality, Orange for Healing, Yellow for Sunlight, Green for Nature, Indigo for Harmony and Violet for Spirit. Anyone who would pass judgment against another based on sexual preference or gender identity is clearly lacking at least one if not all of the above. Furthermore, they are participating in the very thing the Torah’s rainbow stands against, senseless and cruel destruction. Exclusion, hate, rejection, ridicule, isolation, these things destroy lives, and have for centuries. And it must stop. We all need to share the values of the rainbow flag and either fly it or admire it with pride. Doing so is part of the Jewish call to love your neighbor and not to stand idly by when they are in pain. It is also part of the truth that is supposed to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.

You may ask why I choose to speak about this on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of return, just before Yom Kippur? There are three reasons. First, is that this Shabbat coincides with Chattanooga pride week, and I want it to be clear that Mizpah is a supportive and affirming congregation. To that end, Social action chair, Debra Dubow is organizing Mizpah members to participate in the Pride Parade on Sunday at 11:30. I will be at a funeral, but will try to be there and be supportive as soon as I can. The second reason I am speaking on this is somewhat personal. I have not always been enlightened. In my younger years, I did not understand the full rainbow spectrum of people, and said things that, as an adult, I am ashamed of. I actually credit my Temple and our NFTY youth group for opening my eyes and changing my mind. I want to do the same for others. So, speaking on this is a form of Teshuvah or atonement for me. As for atonement, so much harm has been done, and most of us have passively allowed for implicit bias to endure against the LGBTQ community. For the sin of silence and failures to defend our neighbors, this is the perfect time to repent and set a better course. And lastly, my third reason for talking about pride tonight is I am incensed to learn about death threats being made against Pride events, and threats to burn down businesses hosting events. These forms of intimidation have no place in civilized society, let alone a democratic society, especially in a city that had been known for its increasing level of tolerance. What’s happening is scary, and it is wrong. But it is happening in our city, and for the sins of some of our neighbors, we cannot ourselves atone, but we can exercise the mitzvah of setting others on the path of justice. We must try to change minds by example and by showing our support for Pride through words and through our presence.

Now, it must be noted that the hateful threats against Pride have risen amidst a phony controversy. Last weekend, there were some drag shows held around town that were billed as family events. Parents, LGBTQ and otherwise, brought kids to enjoy the entertainment. A video circulated on the internet, and it drew the ire from people who see drag, that is to say, men dancing while dressed as woman, as some kind of perversion, rather than as it is intended as an expression of art, as commentary on gender norms, and as just a whole lot of fun. Even our newly elected county mayor weighed in with a tweet condemning the family shows, saying it was against “Hamilton County Values,” as if he really spoke for all of us. He lent validity to the hateful rhetoric that was circulating and claimed children’s presence at these events was sexual abuse and a form of “Grooming.” These are vile allegations, and feed right into age-old, debunked stereotypes that gay is the same as pedophile. It is horrific. And the misidentification of grooming does disservice to raising awareness of the actual thing. It has absolutely nothing to do with a drag show during Pride. That any of this has become controversial, and the hate being elevated legitimized by public officials, has tainted what should be a fun celebration of community, freedom, and identity.

The stereotypes and hate speech have to be called out for what they are. And on this Shabbat shuvah, we can express our regret that our friends still have to fight these fights just to be who they are and love who they love.

So let us commit to enjoying the rainbow together, bringing an end to senseless destruction, and sharing the spectrum of light with all who wish to bask in it.

For the sins of indifference, for failures to stand against injustice, for remaining silent in the face of hate, O God, forgive us, pardon us, and lead us atonement.

Shabbat Shalom. Shana Tova. Happy Pride. And may we all be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.


Enjoy a Slice of Life- Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5783


You know the oldest Rosh Hashanah joke, right? I can’t believe it’s 5783. I keep writing 5782 on my checks. The joke plays on the tension when the calendar turns over but nothing feels different. It has become a common refrain to say, “I barely remember what day it is anymore.” In our lifetimes, that feeling has never been as pronounced as it was these last three years. It does not seem possible that this is the third High Holy day season since the beginning of the Covid- 19 pandemic. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we held Catskills night soon followed by an Elton John Purim Spiel? Is it possible that two full cycles of Jewish holidays have come and gone? Where did the time go? Feelings of lost time bring with them anxiety. We cannot stop time, but we can slow it down a little. We can break time down into special moments. It’s like eating an elephant (not kosher by the way), one bite at a time. We approach the overwhelming monolith of time and break it down into moments. In those moments we can savor individual slices of life. More about that, in a bit.

For now we take this moment to rise with purpose for the Call to Worship on p. 142.



A phrase from the Machzor helps us capture slices of life. After the last Shofar sounds, there is a poem, “Hayom Harat Olam.” Difficult to translate, it is usually rendered, “Today is the world’s birthday.” That, somehow, does not feel right. It’s not really a birthday with hats and cake. The key word, “Harat,” is closer to the Hebrew for pregnancy. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, from New York’s Central Synagogue suggests, in normal times, we could read this phrase as, ”Today, the world is pregnant with possibilities.” However, she struggles to understand this amid the current state of the world and with lost opportunities.  She looks differently at the word “Olam” which can be read, not as world, but as “eternity.” She therefore proposes, “Hayom Harat Olam,” really means, “Today is a day of eternal pregnancy.” She reflects the agony felt by the Prophet Jeremiah who wished his mother had stayed eternally pregnant. But Rabbi Buchdahl knows, if we let ourselves despair like Jeremiah, leaving potential unrealized. She says, “It would be a crisis of epic proportions.”

Rabbi Buchdahl gave this sermon two years ago at the height of the Pandemic. Still today, “Lost time” remains a constant theme. As we are learning to live normally again, time still slips away.

Still, through quarantine and in this period of reboot, there have been moments of meaning: celebrations, weddings, births, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, birthdays,  anniversaries, and graduations. They also include the sad, but sacred moments like funerals and shivas. Even the hard times are filled with meaning. This is one of the great gifts of Judaism, opportunities to slow time, so many holidays and life cycles to enjoy as slices of life.

Like a piece of pie, “slices of life” are meant to be savored. It is ironic that Covid-19 has been associated with loss of taste and smell because we miss out on so many of the world’s flavors. So, it is my hope, in the coming year of 5783, that we will find ways to slow time down, to experience each day.

With that in mind, it is best to read “Hayom Harat Olam” according to our current Machzor. It’s on page 285 if you want to check. It says, “Today the world is born anew.” Along these lines, Rabbi Norman Lamm, one of the great teachers of the 20th century said:

“[this day, we] break the bonds of habit… that keep our vast treasures locked up.… [the sound of the shofar] is the call to release and emancipate our talents, our abilities our greatness.”

We are born anew. We liberate ourselves from despair and commit to living beyond mere existence. We find ways to slow time and enjoy every slice of life.

At this time, we consider the following blessings as a guide liberating our talents and applying them in the world. Let us rise together for Tefillah on page 166.



I remember the first time I heard the term, “slice of life.” In Middle School, a teacher was explaining Impressionist paintings. She said what made this style special, beyond the brush strokes, was the subject matter: Picnic lunches on a grassy hill, barmaids, and ballet rehearsals. They were slices of life, tinted in the haziness of memory. These moments make us nostalgic for times that feel familiar even if we were not there.

We might view this day of Rosh Hashanah through an Impressionist lens, with brushstrokes of liturgy and music. It is a day to slow the world down and reflect on the past year. The lessons of today carry into the coming year, after all, today the world is born anew. This year, let our commitment to time also be born anew. Let us slow down time by enjoying slices of life.

But how? I will tell you in a moment. For now we freeze time to proclaim the holiness of this day. Please rise or Kedusha on page 184.



To slow down time, we can find inspiration in my favorite movie of the past year. Shockingly, it was not Disney or Marvel, but Tick Tick Boom. It is the story of composer Jonathan Larson before he became famous for the Broadway smash hit Rent. The title Tick Tick Boom describes Larson’s anxiety that youth is slipping away before he has realized professional success. He feels pressure to graduate from twenty-something artist to being a responsible adult. Every moment brings him closer to doom. He wrestles with the loss of time.

Then, the best scene in the best movie I saw this last year, teaches us how to enjoy a slice of life. Jonathan Larson has been watching the Broadway show Sunday in the Park with George. It was Stephen Sondheim’s tribute to the painting, Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte. If you are not familiar, it is the one in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The artist Georges Seurat, with hundreds of thousands of colorful dots, created a dream-like day in the park. From that idyllic scene, composer Stephen Sondheim imagined a love story emerging  from the many figures in the painting. And in Tick Tick Boom, Jonathan Larson stands in the middle of a diner where he serves the overprivileged crowd during a typical Sunday Brunch. This moment, like all the Sunday brunches before, is a reminder of his failures. Patrons shout for coffee refills, while everything he cares about is slipping away. He calls out for everything to “stop.” And it does.

The mood becomes dreamlike, as a beautiful memory. Restaurant patrons sing, the chromium blue diner begins to glow, everyone emerges from the cramped space into a sunny day. Like Georges Seurat did for Grand Jatte, Larson pauses an ordinary Sunday, transforming a bland moment into a slice of life to remember.

This is, of course a movie, not real life, but like Georges Seurat did, and Sondheim and Jonathan Larson after him, we can take ordinary days and find something in them to preserve. When we do, we slow down time so we can find joy in the moment. We cannot all be painters or composers, but we can be masters at the art of living.

We will meet a master of the art of living, in a bit. But for now, we stop to fulfill mitzvah of hearing the Shofar. Please turn to page 206 as we invite our Shofar players to the Bima.



I recently learned about the art of living from a story shared by Rabbi, Bob Alper. He spoke of his friend, Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein. Near the end of the war, Gerda was one of 2,000 young girls forced to go on a long death march during a cold winter in Czechoslovakia. Out of those 2,000, only 120 would survive. Among the casualties was Gerda’s dear friend, Ilse Kleinzahler. As Ilse was dying in Gerda’s arms, she made her friend promise that she would try to live just one more week. Gerda agreed, even though she knew such a promise was beyond her control. And then, like a miracle, one week later Gerda was liberated. One of liberating American troops was a nice Jewish lieutenant whom she would later marry.

Fast forward fifteen years. Gerda lives in Buffalo, raising a family. She tours the country talking about the Holocaust. All the while, she remembers the meaning of lost years, her lost parents, her lost brother whose time on earth was cut short. She holds dear memories of Ilse and the profound difference one little week made in her life. She mourns not only Ilse, but all of her lost opportunities. Lost time leads Gerda to appreciate every small moment. This comes sharply into focus one night while speaking in Pittsburgh. Her youngest son Jimmy, then in kindergarten, would be performing in a school program the following day. There were no available flights from Pittsburg to Buffalo. So, Gerda found a bus schedule and rode through the night so she could watch her Jimmy.  The other parents were astonished that she would endure a night ride on the bus for something that seemed trivial. But, nothing to Gerda was trivial. She said, “I knew Ilse would have crawled from Pittsburgh to Buffalo to see her little boy standing on the stage.” She could not dare to do any less.

Over the years, Rabbi Alper has thought of his friend when he intentionally slows down time to savor a slice of life, at his own children’s presentations. Each time he remembers Gerda’s lesson, “Ilse would have crawled,” and he knows “this moment is holy.”

And this is the essence of it all, making units of time holy, unique, set apart from the others. Psychologist Diana Raab says “when we’ve lived similar experiences over and over again, time tends to go more quickly.” For better or for worse, she calls time a “rubbery thing.” That means it can stretch out, but it can also bounce back. We unstretch the rubber band of time by increasing our mental engagement. The more we are mindful of our surroundings, noticing small details, and being in the moment, the more we slow time and savor it. The secret, according to Dr. Raab, is firsts. They happen more often when we are young, first days of school, first loves, first kisses, our first car. We pay attention to every detail of those firsts, and they become engrained in our memories. So, to break to monotony, let us strive to make as many firsts as we can. Rosh Hashanah has been done 5783 times, but this one can be special. On the way home, take a different route, try a new restaurant, meet a new friend, listen to a new song in the car, buy a new game to play with your family, do something this day that sets the tone for the coming year.


The original Latin for the phrase “Time Flies” is “Tempus fugit.” That means we are fugitives from time. This year, may we instead be captors of time, slowing it down, breaking the bonds of habit, finding joy in every day, and doing whatever it takes, traveling by bus or crawling if we have to, to participate in special moments. In this period of renewal, the world is truly being born anew, and none of us know how much time we will have, so let us, at every opportunity, be prepared to enjoy a slice of life.

And and now, at this sacred and memorable moment, let us contemplate silently how we might savor every moment of this coming year. We continue with silent prayer.


Free Smells – A Story For Erev Rosh Hashana 5783


I never thought I would do what I am about to do. I will hold up a sandwich shop as a paragon of Jewish values***. It is not Subway, though I like their slogan, “Eat Fresh,” and their meatball sub is so much better than it should be. While I do not reject Subway, I prefer, at least the advertising slogan, from Jimmy John’s. They are Freaky Fast, but it is not that which impresses me. Rather, it is their very original ad campaign that speaks to me today. It is, “Free smells.” Simple and true, and it plants a seed that just catching a whiff of their fresh baked bread will make you want to come in and buy. Smell is powerful, and valuable, but also ethereal, impossible to control what wafts by a person’s olfactory senses and therefore very hard to monetize. “Smells are free,” which is good, except for the unpleasant ones which might make us want our money back.

Anyhow, all this talk of sandwiches is necessary to set the table for the story I am about to tell. And I will tell you that story soon, I promise. In the meantime let us rise into this New Year with the call to worship on page 20.

*** Note: This is about a catchy slogan not sandwich quality because River Street Deli makes the best sandwich in Chattanooga, hands down.



The story about free smells is a legend about the wisdom of King Solomon. Our story, however, begins not with him, but with a common Israelite walking the streets of Jerusalem. Let’s call him Chayim. Chayim was walking to work one morning and passed by a bakery. This bakery’s owner, let’s call her Mitzi, had a strong head for business. She had a great product and knew how to sell it. She called her bakery, Mitzi Lechem (like Mitzi lechem min ha-Aretz), and it was known to be the best in the land, with people lining up daily to purchase pitas, challahs, and all sorts of other breads to offer with their Temple sacrifice, to bring home or, for the less patient, to satisfy their morning cravings. Lines would stretch around multiple city blocks, and the magnificent smell of the fresh baked bread wafting through Jerusalem would entice customers and keep them in line as they waited their turn to enjoy Mitzi’s products. Now Chayim was on his way to work as a house painter. He earned just enough to feed his family and to save a few coins for tzedakah. Rarely did he have enough to enjoy the luxury of Mitzi’s fresh baked bread. On this day, he carried a modest lunch in a knapsack along with a few coins to give to homeless people on the street. As Chayim walked by the long lines, and past the doorway of Mitzi Lechem, he was enthralled by the smell. Having neither the time nor the money to buy bread, he peeked his head in just long enough to take a big whiff. Before he could continue on his way, a loud voice yelled, “Stop right there!”


Chayim froze in his tracks….


And I will tell you what happened next, in a moment. For now, we continue with a prayer of freedom on page 33.



So there Chayim stood in the doorway of the bakery. Mitzi, the owner, accosted him. Arms waving wildly, her words running a mile a minute. ‘How could you? Ganef. Thief. I work all day to bake this bread. This is my living. How dare you steal from me, a hard working business woman?”


Chayim was stunned. A pious man, he had never stolen a thing in his life. No one had even suspected him of such of a thing. But there he was, face to face with an irate Mitzi.


“Ma’am, I don’t know what you are talking about? I have been in your store but a few seconds. It’s impossible for me to have stolen anything. I am an honest man. Feel free to look in my bag if you must.”


Mitzi yelled, “I don’t need to look in your bag. I can’t get back what you took. You have stolen the smell of my bread. And now you must pay for it.”


Chayim refused, and turned his back to leave. Mitzi heard the coins jingling in his knapsack.


“If you won’t pay me,” Mitzi said, “then I shall collect payment myself.” She ripped open Chayim’s bag and a small piece of wrapped fish fell to the ground, along with a few small coins that clinked as they hit the floor. They both dove to the ground to pick up the scattered items, and this caused quite a commotion. A crowd formed around them, as they tugged back and forth shouting, “my fish!,” “my coins!,” “my bread!”


Finally, a member of King Solomon’s royal guard showed up and asked, “What’s all this then?” I guess I imagine him as an English constable.


“This man is a common thief,” Mitzi said. He must confess.


“All I did was smell the delicious bread baking in Mitzi’s store.” Chayim objected.


“Aha! He admits it! Now he must pay.”

Half the crowd agreed with Mitzi and demanded that Chayim pay her right away. The other half sided with Chayim. They shouted back and forth until the guard yelled, “Silence! We shall take this matter to King Solomon to let him decide what is right.”


And you will hear about that, in just a bit. At this time, we consider our own role in bringing justie to the world as we rise for Tefillah on page 42.



Arriving before the King’s throne, Mitzi the baker spoke first. “I work all day, baking to make an honest living. This man entered my store and took a big whiff of the aromas that resulted from my labors.”


Chayim gave his rebuttal. “The smell was in the air. All I did was breathe. In this kingdom, do we now have to pay to breathe?”


Mitzi then shot back. “I know the law. You have to pay for anything you take.”


At that moment, Solomon interjected. “That is indeed the law.” Chayim’s jaw hit the floor. And Mitzi smiled.


“Now sir,” the king said talking to Chayim, “take your bag with the coins in it, and shake it.” He did, and the coins jingled. The king then looked at Mitzi. “Now you have been paid.”


“You can’t be serious,” Mitzi said in disgust.


“Yes, Chayim has paid for the smell of your bread, with the sound of his money.”


Now, Chayim won the day, but he took away the wrong lesson.  


A few years later, King Solomon, knowing Chayim was a painter, invited him to enter an art competition. The winner would receive a bag of gold and have their work put on permanent display in the palace. The competition was a team, both named Ruben. Naturally, they signed their works as “Rubens.” Don’t’ worry, this was 960 BCE, they’ll be able to sue HIM. Anyhow, the Rubens worked hard, planning their colors, considering the dimensions, measuring the shading, doing all those things to create a true masterpiece fit for a palace. Meanwhile, Chayim watched the competition toil. He saw their exhaustion, and he decided to put up a mirror. The reflection would be just as beautiful as the Reubens’ work. After all, if jingling coins can pay for aromas, a reflection can be just as good as art. At worst, it would be a draw.


Then came the moment of truth. King Solomon entered the room with a bag of gold, and after consideration, he placed the bag in front of the Reubens’ painting. Chayim was aghast.


“Is my work not just as beautiful as theirs?”


“Yes,” replied the king. “Do you not see in the mirror, there is a reflection of the bag of gold? Your reward is equal to the effort you put into the work.”


And there is, of course, a moral to these stories, which I shall soon share with you. In the meantime, just as the wisdom of King Solomon made peace between his people, we pray for peace as we sing Shalom Rav on p. 66.



About the stories you have heard tonight, my disclaimer. These are actual, fictional stories from the Jewish tradition. Only the names have changed to protect me from direct plagiarism. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, is purely coincidental… with the exception of King Solomon, who is definitely dead, but exists in folktales as a character, probably not resembling when he was living. So any resemblance to his actual being is not only coincidental, but entirely accidental. But, my friends, that is not the point!


The point is this, with Mitzi the baker, the bakery’s aromas were the reward of her hard work which could be shared by all.  How often do we seek reward for simply doing the right thing? Judaism teaches that the reward of mitzvah is the betterment of the world that we all share. Beautiful aromas can be the byproduct, even the reward for our efforts. And we want that goodness to spread for everyone to enjoy.


As for Chayim, the painter, how often do we mistake our intentions for the actual work? How often do we know what needs to be done, but offer up a mere reflection, even barely a shadow of the necessary work? In return, like in these stories, we gain only the jingle of coins or the reflection of gold, the exact value of the effort we put into our work. We should want the real reward, and that is the work of these High Holy Days that begin tonight. For ten days our goal is to truly and deeply examine our being, to ask ourselves if we are realizing the greatest potential of our own humanity. We then make necessary changes. This is done not with ideas, but with action. Maimonides teaches that true atonement occurs, not when you admit you have done wrong, but when you have the opportunity to make the same choice, but do better. Atonement is when our intentions become real. On Rosh Hashanah, we enter the bakery, we take in the aromas, and we yearn to sustain ourselves on the bread of learning and life. On Yom Kippur, we will complete the work of our repentance, not with mere reflections of our hearts, but with a true tableau of beauty created through our deeds.


May our actions in this New Year be equal to our intentions, may we create aromas and beauty for ourselves and our world, and may our work be worthy of true reward that spreads to all people. And in so doing, may each and all of us have a sweet and happy new year.


As we examine our lives and strive to be better before God, our parent, our ruler, let us rise as a community to hear the words of Avinu Malkeinu. Page 76.

Can we get water from the rock? Or, will justice well up like waters? – Sermon from July 8, 2022, Parashat Chukat

I would like to re-write a famous passage of the Bible. It’s from the Prophet Amos (5:24), “Let Justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” It’s a little bit radical, but I would like to add one syllable to the beginning. That syllable is “Ha,” and I assure you, it is no laughing matter.

You might wonder what one little syllable can do. Well, language is fascinating. In any language, the tiniest subtle nuance can change what you say, and even change the mood of the room. Consider this, on my first visit to Israel, we went to the Kibbutz where David Ben-Gurion had lived. It’s called Sde BoKER. BoKER is a Hebrew term for a “cowboy.” It sounds an awful lot like BOker, which means “morning.” The difference is only in which syllable gets the right emphasis. So, if you wake up in Jerusalem and tell someone “BoKER tov,” they might wonder if are saying “good morning” or if you are calling them a “good cowboy.” Maybe it’s both. I imagine this was what John Wayne would hear on the streets of Tel Aviv. BOker tov, BoKER tov. Good morning good cowboy.  And along these lines, and apropos of nothing, it was my second day living in France when I learned just how amusing the French find us Americans. You see, we have a tendency to say “Merci Beau-cue.” Like Barbecue, when it is supposed to be “Merci beaucoup,” like coup d’état. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, it’s the difference between saying “Thank you very much,” or saying, “Thank you, nice tush.” Even if you mean the latter of these, you still shouldn’t say it.

Subtle differences change everything. In fact, the Torah portion this week, Parashat Chukat, hinges on one letter, barely a word fragment, a part of a word that is not translatable. This one little alters the course for the future of the Israelites, and for their leader Moses. It happens to be the very same letter I want to add to the verse from Amos. This Torah portion includes the episode where Moses strikes the rock to bring forth water for the people to drink. We tend to understand Moses’ mistake being that he was  told to “speak to the rock,” but, instead, he hit the rock. Not once, but twice. Knowing that Moses’s punishment will be that he does not get to enter the promised land, it seems a heavy price to pay for his adding a little flourish to the command. It’s a rock, it’s not like he could have hurt it with his staff. And it’s not like the whole scene is going to look any less miraculous if he talks to the rock or hits it. It would have been an amazing sight no matter what. And it’s also not like God withheld the water after Moses failed to follow instructions. We have to look deeper into the story. To understand, we have to hear what Moses said to the people before hitting the rock in light of God’s explanation for the consequence. Moses says, “Listen you rebels, are we going to get water from this rock?” And then after the water comes out, God tells Moses that he “failed to uphold the sanctity of God’s name before the people.” How did Moses fail to uphold God? By asking the question, if the miracle is possible. And so, we might ask, how do we know it’s a question? The Torah is written without punctuation, definitely no question marks, except for an occasional “Ha.” A carefully placed “Ha” in the Torah turns a statement into a question. So, the words meaning from the rock begin, “Ha-min ha-sela.” It’s a question, and as a question, it opens the door for doubt. By causing doubt among the people, that is how Moses failed to uphold God. At least as I read this story, if Moses had simply said, “We will get water from this rock,” it would not have mattered if he talked to it or if he hit it. One little syllable can mean so much. And in my opinion, Moses got a bad rap, because when you want water, and all you see is arid desert, doubt is a perfectly normal thing, and to be dependent on miracles, well that is not normal, nor is it realistic.

And this brings us back to Amos. Like Moses, he was intended to see waters welling up and pouring out like a mighty stream. These flowing torrents were meant to be metaphors for justice. Now Amos, was living in an arid desert where the waters of justice was scarce. As a prophet, his statements were pointed to the future, his words aspirational. We tend to read Amos’s words with too much certainty, that it will happen. Therefore, I would add the interrogative “Ha” to the beginning. “Will justice well up like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream?” We are living in a time when justice and righteousness seem like distant dreams. Russia continues to commit war crimes in Ukraine, and justice seems like a distant dream. In our own nation, some people have attained such high position that they are above the law. Crimes was committed in broad daylight, with evidence for all to see, fail to stick because the popular and the wealthy find ways to evade prosecution and punishment. We live in a time where decades of hard-won legal precedents that expanded rights regarding women’s bodies, rights to privacy, and guaranteed separation of church and state have been overturned in just a few days. Decades of work were undone in short time.  We live in a time where we can be scolded for politicizing a tragedy, senseless tragedies like last week’s shooting in Highland Park on the Fourth of July. It’s not political to say that a disturbed 21-year-old should not have been allowed access to high powered rifle. Yet to propose, in the wake of the shootings, that we need to have stricter laws around gun safety is labeled politicizing. The thing is in our democracy, politics is the only way to effect meaningful change to laws and the systems that govern us. When the rules leave open the possibility for someone like the shooter in Highland Park to own a gun, we are living in a justice desert, and we pray for the waters to flow. The more that actions are stifled, the more rights that disappear, the more Amos’s proclamation becomes ensconced as a question.

Still, something needs to give us hope. Amos lived in a time when wealth was expanding for some, but so was corruption. The rich were oppressing the poor. People turned to false idols, and there was upheaval tension between the northern and southern parts of a divided kingdom. He had good reason to question and despair, but as much as I want to say “ha,” he did not. He declaratively spoke of a future time when the people of the earth would say, “enough,” and turn justice into a reality, when they would be the ones to gather the waters justice and make the rivers flow with righteousness. The Torah commentator Nachmanides tells us, that when Moses stood before the people and asked, “Will we get water from this rock?” what it meant was, “Do we, as humans, have the power to get water from this rock?” For Nachmanides, the literal answer to water from the rock, is no. We people do not have the power to do such thing. Those miracles are only God’s. However, for Amos, and for us, and the question of making justice and righteousness flow when we thirst so badly for it, well the answer is an emphatic yes. We have the power, without question. We have to wield that power, to politicize everything that is unjust, to speak out and know, just one little letter, even one little syllable, well placed and rightly spoken can change everything.

Difficult Democracy in Parashat Shelach Lecha – Sermon for Shabbat, June 24, 2022 following the overturning of Roe v. Wade

I don’t know how many of you saw, or furthermore, how many remember the dress that broke the internet back in 2015. For various scientific reasons that I do not understand, some looked at the dress and saw its colors as black and blue. Others believed the colors to be white and gold. In one poll, 61% of respondents said it was clearly white and gold, while 28% said it was black and blue. I guess the other 1% didn’t really care. I suppose if you have to be a 1 percenter, that’s the kind to be, ambivalent about silly internet polls. At the time, that’s what it really was, just a distraction from, an interesting anomaly in how people process light. In hindsight, this dress illustrates something that could be alarming. Follow my logic here. The dress was in fact black and blue, but only fewer than one third believed it to be so. That means, if the color of the dress were to be voted on, a significant majority would have called the dress white and gold. They would have democratically voted to make the falsehood into a truth.

This possibility exposes a hard truth about democracy, that its continuity teeters on argumentation grounded in truth. After all, our country’s foundational document proclaims some truths are self-evident. About the importance of truth, Richard Cherwitz, professor emeritus of communications at the University of Texas, recently penned an op-ed. He wrote, “democracy always has been rhetorically sustained, perpetuated and nurtured by rational deliberation. This has been the case historically despite sharp political differences.” Furthermore, Cherwitz underscores democracy’s reliance on the assumption that “people indeed are capable of detecting, exposing and not being taken in by fallacious reasoning.” Fallacious reasoning is what leads to failures of democracy, for it is possible to vote fiction into fact, and as Cherwitz says, citing a colleague, it is conceivable that a democracy could vote itself out of existence.

Now that is a frightening hypothetical, that becomes all too possible when voting is about winning at all costs. For an example of this, we need look nor further than this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shelach Lecha. If the future of the Israelite nation depended on a democratic vote of the twelve spies who surveilled the Promised Land. The majority opinion would have been twelve to two, as a preponderance of the scouts held the opinion they were better off wandering the wilderness. However, their reasoning was flawed. They, themselves were fearful of the nations who were present in the Land, and their fear led them to give a false report. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so must we have looked [like grasshoppers] to them.” A midrash (Numbers Rabba 16:11) points to the inherent flaw, that they had no idea how they looked in the eyes of the Canaanites. In the midrash, God scolds them saying, “How do you know that I did not make you look like angels to them?” Nevertheless, the ten spies tried to use their levers of influence, giving a false report to lead to the end they desired rather than what was best for the nation. The rule about this comes from another section of Torah. In the Book of Exodus (23:2), we are told, “You shall not side with the majority to do wrong – nor shall you bear witness to persuade the majority to pervert justice.” Their attempt to persuade the nation to their opinion was not based in truths, but in falsehoods shared in such a prolific way that they seemed real enough to the disheartened nation. The people cried out at once in agony, for they believed they had come this far just to die in the wilderness. Echoing what Richard Cherwitz wrote, fallacious reasoning infected the vote and nearly brought an end to their nation. Fortunately, in our Torah story is concerned, the majority get overruled by powerful dissent from spies Joshua and Caleb, their leader Moses, and ultimately God who is angered by the deceit. Of course, we do not have the benefit of turning to God for the truth anymore. Even the rabbis of the Talmud acknowledge, in the absence of direct revelation, we have only to follow the majority in making decisions. Theirs was an early expression of democracy, and at its heart was an assumption of integrity, honesty, open debate, even compromise, and through rich debate, they believed that through their vote, God’s will could be revealed. Paramount in this voting system was the absolute need for honesty and integrity. Without those things, the system would crumble. The vote could be self-destructive.

And through this lens, we might understand what is happening around us today. We woke up in a nation where women have fewer rights than they had yesterday. The highest court in our land has made it possible for states to ban safe and legal abortions, in many cases without exceptions, and in many cases, contrary to what Jewish tradition commands with regard to the life of a mother during a complicated pregnancy. There is no comfort in this kind of majority rule. Five Supreme Court Justices based this decision mostly on stilted and narrow views of when life begins. One of those justices is openly targeting other rights like same-sex marriage and contraception. Based on his archaic views of human sexuality and gender, he hopes the court majority will continue to oppress the civilian majority whose rights are being peeled away.

We now have a majority in this country whose voice is stifled by a minority opinion that happens to be shared by most of the 9 people who sit as final arbiters in disputes. This goes against the Jewish value of following the majority because it is based on personal opinion rather than on principles reason, intellect, justice and equality. It goes against the grain of our nation’s founding with rights and protections for all, free from the influence of religious dogma and controls, and it is symptomatic of the thing Richard Cherwitz writes about in his column, “fallacious reasoning” being the enemy of successful democracy.

And so here we are. Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” And we have to make it work, by seeking and spreading good information, having honest debate, demonstrating a willingness to consider other opinions, setting aside faith in the public forum and making reason our default space for discussion, rejecting falsehoods, and ultimately making sure that everyone, yes everyone votes. And by the way, when we are not voting, we can protest, demanding a restoration of integrity, we can make our voices heard so, instead of voting fiction into fact, we will again vote facts into liberty and justice for all.

Banning Leviticus- A sermon for Vayikra, March 11, 2022

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about book banning. Despite my vocal opposition to the general concept, I have to confess, not long ago I expressed my wish about a particular book being banned. Fair warning, what I am about to suggest may be so shocking that we might expect a bolt of lighting to shoot down from the sky. It may sound blasphemous, but I have spoken about a personal wish to see the Book of Leviticus removed from the Torah. I was speaking on a panel of spiritual leaders at a PFLAG event. PFLAG stands for Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. According to their website, they are “The first and largest organization for LGBTQ+ people, their parents, families and allies.” The meeting was  at a church in Athens, so, weeks before the issue over the graphic novel Maus, I was in McMinn county talking about a book ban. The irony is not lost on me. But to be fair, I was not exactly talking about a ban. Let me explain.

Those who come to Torah study, have often heard me say, I am not a fan of Leviticus. It’s not just the blood and the brutal sacrifices, that Blayden gets to talk about tomorrow, and it’s not just the icky talk about leprosy and other gross stuff. No, I have a real problem with one particular phrase in Leviticus that has cause more unnecessary heartache, damage, and death than any other phrase in the Torah. It is Leviticus 18:22 that says, “You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman.” In truth, it was not really the entire book of Leviticus I wanted to ban, but at least the verse. I wish we could wad it up, toss it out, bury it in a genizah, be done with it. This one solitary phrase has been extracted and isolated as a prooftext to support homophobia. Ignored is the context in which it is speaking about practices in pagan worship. Also ignored is the limited, and primitive scope of the biblical writers and redactors. They likely did not conceive of the potential for a loving relationship between two men or two women. Still, that particular verse has been isolated and wielded as a bludgeon to marginalize, intimidate, and to cause bodily harm to innocent people. It has forced children to hide their true feelings and realizations about themselves. It has caused too many to doubt their own worth to the point where they harm themselves. Undue emphasis on that one verse has made organized religion culpable for supporting or passively permitting senseless hatred to be learned in our places of worship. The verse is an abomination. I’d rather not have to deal with it. But, I am not into banning books or censorship. Even books like Leviticus that make us uncomfortable have a place. Leviticus is after all mixed bag.

Despite its faults, Leviticus contains the holiness code. In chapter 19, it teaches: Don’t curse the deaf. Respect your elders. Be honest in business. Pay your employees in a timely manner. Treat all people alike whether poor or rich. Don’t be a vengeful person. And then of course, there is the piece de resistance, the phrase that makes Leviticus worth it —Love your neighbor as yourself. The rabbis of the Talmud teach this is the greatest of all commandments, and all else is secondary. Therefore, not only should we keep Leviticus, for all the good that it contains, but we should also consider that any other statement of Torah can be rendered null and void if it conflicts with this superlative command. Love your neighbor as your self. Treat all people equally, and recognize when they are hurting. To love one’s neighbor as yourself is to know our own fears and sadness and to do all we can to keep our neighbor from having to endure those feelings. We have to look out for one another. In particular, Leviticus, and the Torah in general, has us looking out for those who are at risk.

And right now, two states away, in Florida, the State Senate has passed, and the governor is expected to sign a bill that will bring pain to the vulnerable and deny the realities of so many families in the state. They are making it unlawful to talk about homosexuality in their schools.

The language of the bill states:

“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade three or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

First of all, it is creating fear of a bogey man, that this is even part of the classroom discussion as it is. It’s addressing a problem that is not there. Additionally, the wording of the bill is so vague, that it would be impossible to determine what is age appropriate or what specifically is classroom instruction. Interpretation would be subjective, and endanger teachers’ careers. It would stifle teachers from even mentioning the subject which is why it has been dubbed the “Don’t say gay” bill. A teacher might not get to talk about his husband, or a teacher may not be able to affirm that a student lives with two loving moms. Instead of being teachers, modeling tolerance and diversity, they would have to refrain from even mentioning the topic. It is awful to think that a child whose parents are gay or who may be struggling with their own gender identity would have to feel shame because the law of the state says the words are taboo. That is the opposite of loving our neighbor as ourselves, to deny a person the right to discuss their family openly and lovingly, you know, like other families do.

Now if this was not already insidious, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, Christina Pushaw showed their hand saying that opponents of the bill support “grooming” of young kids. It plays on one of the oldest, and most harmful homophobic stereotypes of equating gay with pedophilia. In a similar fashion that the horrific blood libel spread through medieval Europe falsely claiming that Jews threatened the lives of children, Ms. Pushaw’s statement perpetuated the lie that gayness was a direct threat to child safety. Therefore, it is not a bill about protecting children. It is a bill that spreads bigotry and legislates hate.  When the bill’s supporters use this kind of language, it becomes dangerous. Then consider similar bills have been raised in Georgia and here in Tennessee, and anti transgender laws being passed in Texas and Idaho, and we see a trend that, sadly, has roots in the third book of our Torah. We need to put a stop to this trend as we bring others to a different understanding of Leviticus.

Leviticus teaches us we must defend people who are threatened, and Jewish tradition tells us, if one command appears to be in conflict with another, we ignore the one that shames our neighbor, instead preferring the one that loves our neighbor. It’s not hard. To reach that conclusion, we do not have to get rid of Leviticus, but truly study it in its entirety. When we see the bad, we can’t just get rid of it. That would be fruitless since we can never undo the harm it has caused in the past.  By confronting it head on, we are called to atonement and to work toward a better future. Then, when we discover the best truths in Leviticus we discover a better way, to love our neighbor, to defend them, and uphold their dignity, and celebrate diversity as we make this world holy for all.

Swords Into Ploughshares- a Crossfire Debate, Sermon for Parashat Vayakheil, February 25, 2022

Some of you may remember the old news show Crossfire. There was a political analyst from the right sitting across a news analyst from the left, and they would debate issues of the day on live TV, each from their Conservative and Liberal perspectives. It may never have helped to resolve any issues, but at least it showed, for all to see, two sides were talking, mostly amicably, about differing political views. Before eventually being cancelled, the show devolved into entrenched opposition, rather than thoughtful discourse, early symptoms of so many of our current ills today. At the height of its success, it had been a model of something we all need, the ability to understand opposing views as we seek a peaceful balance somewhere between differing ideas. And at its best, it was occasionally at its best, the spirit of the show exemplified an important lesson about peace, that peace is made, forged from the resolution of conflict. We know this from a familiar prayer. We say, “Oseh Shalom,” God who makes peace. If peace has to be made, peace is not the natural state. The natural state is something else. The very first line of Torah tells us the beginning of the earth was Tohu Vavohu, Chaos and Disorder. Then gradually, order is established, stage by stage. Then people are placed on Earth, and by the second generation, the cycle of conflict and peace repeats, and will continue to repeat until, well we know at least until our day.

I say all this to set up my imaginary reboot of Crossfire. I will propose two reputable hosts who will represent tow conflicting opinions, but somewhere in the breech between them, we just might find an answer to bringing more peace into our world. The hosts I propose are the Prophet Isaiah on the left, and on the Right, the Prophet Joel. Both have rightfully earned our respect, and both hold important places in the foundations of Jewish faith. So first, we start with Isaiah and his most famous dictum in Chapter 2 verse 4: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. And they shall study war no more.” It is perhaps the perfect summation of our universal yearnings for peace, that weapons be repurposed, or better yet that they will disappear, so that we focus on producing. And here, I turn to Jonathan Larson and a lyric from the show Rent. The “Opposite of War Isn’t Peace. It’s creation.” And so, Isaiah and the artist agree that the ideal is to end all manner of destruction as, rather than kill, we actively sustain one another. Isaiah and Jonathan Larson are in good company on the left of my fictional Crossfire episode. Now on the Right, we find the Prophet Joel, who of course said, “The old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions.” It is wonderful hope for a bright future. Unfortunately, his dreams and visions include his statement in chapter 4 verse 10 that says, “Beat your ploughshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.” Yes, you heard the right, the prophet, a supposed man of peace called for turning farming implements, the exact ones named by Isaiah, ploughshares and pruning hooks, into implements of war. Robert Alter, in his commentary, calls this an “obvious and grim reversal.” This statement from Joel can only be understood in context of the next line that says, “And the weak may say,  I am mighty.” The midrash in Exodus Rabba ties this to the bravery of the Maccabees who had not choice but to take up arms in defense of their freedoms. The weak and outnumbered, those who would have preferred a quiet life, had to raise arms to defeat an oppressor. The midrash compares this to other events when the people of Israel defended themselves courageously, not out of desire for bloodshed, but from their desire for tranquility. Furthermore, the midrash tells us that Maccabees and other, through their deeds, were upholding God. So, the Prophet Joel, and the writer of Exodus Rabba appear to be in opposition against Isaiah. But they do not really disagree.

Each wants the same thing. Neither has truly known it. Peace, unmixed blessing, as the prayer in Mishkan Tefillah says. Therefore, we need to call upon Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes as a moderator. There is a time for every purpose, a time to tear down, a time to build up, a time to slay, a time to heal, a time for war, and a time for peace. Both Isaiah and Joel are right, but speaking to the needs of a particular moment. Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah defines when war is permissible. To make a long story short, the only war still permissible in our day is one of self-defense, when the ploughshares become swords. Then there must be a corollary, that when the fight is down, the spears must again turn to pruning hooks. Jewish laws of self-defense demand that we no longer pursue an attacker after the threat is over. If they flee or they are disarmed or incapacitated, we no longer have license to bring harm. And then the ethical choice is to end aggression. That is the definition of peace, when war stops, and the arms are cast aside. On this the prophets Isaiah and Joel would have to agree.

And so do the words of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayakheil. In the rules of Shabbat, the portion tells us not to light fire. Contemporary Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg explains the significance of fire, that it is essential for all creative work. Last week, we learned that fire forged the unholy Golden calf. And we also know that fire will be essential for the making the holy of holies, the Mishkan, the Israelites’ mobile temple in the wilderness. Rabbi Sue Levi Ellwell says this means the very same passion and fire that can be directed toward unholy destruction can, and must be, redirected toward the sacred. Therefore, when we redirect our fire, and disassemble our spears and our swords, we create a Sabbath on the Earth, and it is in those moments of peace when we invite God to reside with us. That should be our goal.

I am speaking these words tonight as we struggle with understanding the current war in Ukraine. It is a despicable exercise of power by a blood thirsty despot. It threatens the stability of large sections of Europe and will have untold economic and security consequences around the globe. First and foremost, however, we think of the people of Ukraine directly in harm’s way. We pray for the ability of those who must fight, to turn ploughshares to swords for the cause of freedom, and that once the fighting stops, and they again wield ploughshares, that the absence of war will lead to peace. We pray that the fiery passions that have unleashed terrible destruction can be tamed and turned to productive endeavors. We pray for common sense to reign, though it seems like we pray for too much. Rather than pray for a miracle, let us return to these words in Mishkan Tefillah, written by Rabbi Stanley Chyet:

WE OUGHTN’T pray for what we’ve never known,

and humanity has never known:

unbroken peace, unmixed blessing.


Better to pray for pity, for indignation, discontent,

the will to see and touch,

the power to do good and make new.

Blessed is God who challenges us, somehow, to make peace out of the chaos.