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.

No.

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.

Taming the Wild Things – A sermon for Parashat Tetzaveh, Shabbat February 11, 2022

One of the most interesting things Art Spiegelman said during his talk last Monday came from his friendship with Maurice Sendak, the artist who created WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I’ll tell you what that was in a moment. But first, just a reflection on Sendak’s most famous work. It seems trivial now, but if you think about it, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was revolutionary. It was essentially a bedtime story in which a child, Max, confronts his biggest fear, that there will be monsters after the lights go out. The monsters “roar their terrible roars and nash their terrible teeth.” This could be frightening, but Max perseveres and becomes the King of the wild things, ultimately leading them in the “wild rumpus” and sends them to bed without their supper. There were some who thought, when the book was printed in 1963, that it was too scary for children. The book went on to win awards, and became a standard children’s classing, but not without garnering it share of naysayers who failed to see in it the empowerment of acknowledging a child’s fears and showing them a path to overcome them. Sendak did not shy away from the difficult topic of fear, and met it head on by creating a fantastical world of his own design. He trusted his readers, even the very young ones to understand it.

And this was the wisdom that Mr. Spiegelman shared from his friend who said, “You can’t protect kids. They know everything.”

While it may be somewhat of an exaggeration, as not too many kids know the Pythagorean theorem before the fifth grade, and only a few will truly grasp photosynthesis by the time they reach, maybe forty? I don’t really know. Clearly, kids don’t KNOW everything. So, what I believe Sendak meant was that kids are perceptive and better able to understand difficult feelings if: 1. We trust them and 2. We provide models of how to cope and then grow.

Art Spiegelman, in an interview with the New Yorker 10 years ago, summed it up this way, “I think Sendak invested his work with the understanding that the distinction between children and adults is probably one of hypocrisy more than anything else.” This lines up perfectly with what Mr. Spiegelman said about removing MAUS from the classroom, that it was about control, but done under the guise of protection. That is hypocrisy…. From adults who fail in both phases I mentioned a moment ago. 1. They fail to trust kids’ natural intelligence and 2. They provide a poor example.

The importance of setting a good example goes way beyond this discussion, and even beyond the way adults model behavior for our children. We all must set examples for each other. In every facet of our lives, we ought to assume that someone is watching and looking to us as an example. This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh links this teaching to the rituals performed by the high priest. It tells us that he shall wear a Tzitz zahav, a golden diadem that will dangle from his headdress. And the gold shall be engraved with the words, KODESH L’ADONAI, “Holy to God.” When I read this, my mind immediately jumps to the headdress labeled “Kasher lepesach,” worn by Mel Brooks wears in the movie poster for Blazing Saddles. While Brooks is certainly not Kosher for Passover, as the label would indicate, such a label usually defines the contents of what is underneath. Rashi will tell us, however, it is not the priest who is holy, or holier than others, but that his task is holy work. Therefore, it the label is not one of personal elevation, but rather, one of humility. It is a reminder for the Kohen to stay focused on the important task being done on behalf of whole community. The Zohar takes this humility a step further, telling us that the golden inscription, “Holy to God,” reflects onto the head of the Israelite who brings a sacrifice to the Temple. Therefore, the priest is made aware that his actions reflect onto others, and each of them then knows that to be holy before God, they must first be holy before one another.

Making this lesson more real, the Talmud gives us a rather bizarre set of stories. We learn about our famous rabbis like Aviva and Rav Kahanah, who when they were students, went above and beyond to  follow the example of their teachers.  They took note about their practices in the bathroom and in the intimate details of their marriages. They went as far as to invade the most private of spaces. While this type of learning goes too far, in my opinion, the students’ explanation of their behavior gets to the heart of the matter. They say, “This [even the most mundane of activities] is Torah and I must learn.” We, as readers, then assume, all the more so does good role modeling matter in big things we do.

This brings us back to Art Spiegelman’s talk from a few nights ago. If every time we have the chance to expand our children’s minds, we instead protect them from hard realities, we set an example. We teach the children that they cannot be trusted to learn and grow. Then the pattern repeats, and they will grow into parents who would rather control than teach. They deny the holiness of the opportunity.

Famed psychologist and author, Wendy Mogel, calls such opportunity, “The Blessing of the Skinned Knee.” It means that life is mess. We get hurt. The world is not perfect. But only through enduring the mess and overcoming pain can do we learn how to work toward bettering ourselves and the world with it. Like Maurice Sendak, Dr. Mogel believes you cannot protect children from everything, nor should you. She writes, “If they stay too carefully protected, children will become weak or fearful… if they aren’t allowed to face scary situations, they’ll grow up frightened of life’s simplest challenges.” Therefore, she concludes, the best way to protect our children is not in the moment, but in a long-term pattern of modeling trust and growth. It means, “teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard.”

We as parents, or role models for children in our community, or simply as leaders of other people of all ages, do well to remember, the way we respond to challenges is a holy act that reflects on the people around us. If we trust them to lean into the discomfort, and we do it together, we can honor the holiness of the moment, of the opportunity, and of the holy learning we do together.

Like a parent treating a child’s skinned knee, we acknowledge the problem but show calm and assure that it’s not as bad as it seemed. If we panic, and pretend it never happened, the wounds only get worse. So, we can discover together, though it may seem like the worst thing ever, it is not as bad when take it head on and together let the healing begin.

A Jewish Response to Book Banning, Sermon for Friday Night, January 28, 2022

I am going to read you a quote and ask if it sounds familiar. I realize we are on-line, but I will give a few seconds as you try to place it in context.

“… [W]e found that these books were full of innumerable errors, abuses, blasphemies, and wickedness such as arouse shame in those who speak of them and horrify the hearer, to such an extent that these books cannot be tolerated in the name of God[i].”

It’s not word for word, but it does sound a lot like the words from the school board in nearby McMinn county when they banned the book Maus from being taught in the classroom.

Their actual words were that Maus included “rough, objectionable language” that they should not “enable or promote.” Furthermore, having children read it is “not wise or healthy.” Of course, I categorically disagree with their assessment, as I disagree with the assessment from the first quote I read. That quote that spoke of blasphemies and wickedness came from the year 1248 and was written about another book of Jewish interest, the Talmud. This statement was part of the conclusion drawn after Pope Innocent IV ordered and evaluation of the Talmud, fearing it was an anti-Christian book.

This persecution of our prized book began some years before when Nicholas Donin, who had converted away from Judaism, was the first to raise these concerns. Pope Gregory IX ordered an investigation, and there followed a series of public disputations where Jewish scholars of the time had to defend the Talmud, the Talmud was banned. Worse than that, the Talmud was burned. By joint order of the Pope and the French king, every known volume of Talmud, 10,000 books in all, were placed on 24 wagons and set ablaze.

Later, all remaining Talmud editions were redacted to remove any material that those in power found objectionable.

The Famous Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg who witnessed these events described his feelings this way:

“My tears formed a river that reached to the Sinai desert and to the graves of Moshe and Aharon.” And he questioned, “Is there another Torah to replace the Torah which you have taken from us?[ii]

This gets to the heart of what book banning is. It is a form of control, a way to dominate and marginalize ideas that those in power find threatening. The author of Maus, Art Spiegelman said it succinctly.

“It has the breath of autocracy and fascism about it.” Then he added this chilling observation. “I think of it as a harbinger of things to come[iii].”

For those who do not know what this is all about, the book Maus is a groundbreaking graphic novel in which Spiegelman shared the story of his father’s experiences in Poland during the Holocaust. With his own creative flair, he told it through the visual metaphor of cats and mice. While the story is true, it is also fantastical in that all the characters are animals. It is a combination  of vivid storytelling, strong images, and stark realities. It is the story of unimpeded fascism and the depths of man’s inhumanity against man. And he found a balance that gave access to a wide audience, to many different reading levels and ages, who could begin the explorations of the terrible history. For these efforts, Spiegelman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize when the book was published back in 1992. It has become a staple text at all levels of Holocaust education, providing a spark among many adolescents who understood the profound lesson that this must never happen again.

Now thirty years later, a school district in our state is keeping it from being taught in a classroom, and why? They believe eight appearances of words like “Damn” that kids can hear on Youtube, in video games, on any number of Tik Tok videos or even in their own homes might harm them. They worry that the imagery of mice  being hanged and one instance where a female mouse’s body is exposed will be harmful to the adolescent mind. All of these words and images, in much more realistic representations, are already prevalent in entertainment, and somehow, these depictions in Maus, which can serve to truly educate, are deemed offensive. It is an unfortunate convergence of a small group of small minds asserting the privilege of their power over the masses. At its heart, this is not a display of promoting “decency” in the classroom, but more so of imposing a narrow view of the world onto others. The members of the school board have the power, so they can, and they did. It is an exercise in domination and subjugation.  

Of course, this is not the Talmud that is being banned. One could argue that the banning of Maus is more important an event, and more dangerous. The Talmud is a book intended for internal study and guidance for Jewish life. We do not proclaim it to be instructive to the rest of the world, though its methods of argumentation and much of its wisdom can be universally enlightening. Maus is a different case. This book holds a special place in the heart of the Jewish world with its proven ability to be a beacon, to share our story with the world and help them to understand our shared mission to end senseless hate before it turns into oppression, and at the very worst, before it becomes genocide. The ban is not just an affront to the Jewish community. It is an affront to history and to education writ large.

This is the real tragedy of the book ban, as our frustration mounts like the tears of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, and we wonder “is there another book to replace this one?” Of course, there are plenty of books on the Holocaust, but Maus has proven to have a particular appeal and power to reach people. So, this ban leads to a lost opportunity to connect with a generation of young people in McMinn County. The Holocaust has long felt like a burden that we as Jews have had to bear alone. Remembering the persecution and the murder of 6 million of our people has been an overwhelming task. The more we gain partners who understand and agree to share the load with us, the easier it is to move forward and to continue the important work. I will never forget meeting Linda Hooper, from the Paperclips project in Whitwell and hearing her students talk about how important it was to learn every detail of what happened. They, without having met any Jewish people in small-town Tennessee, knew how important our story  was. It was not just history. It was about the human condition, and they felt compelled to be part of the mission to share their learning with the world. I always get a tear just thinking about their project and their words because it means the burden is no longer just ours, whether born into Judaism, choose to be Jewish, or become part of a Jewish family. We have partners who choose to share the work.

So, this is very personal, and when the book is banned, it strikes at the core of Jewish being and feels like a diminishment of our collective struggle for survival. Worse, it diminishes the greater task of stopping fascism and persecution, as Spiegelman’s storytelling demonstrates that what happened once could absolutely happen again.

While this is the first time Maus has been in the crosshairs, other school boards around the nation have been actively working to ban books that dare to represent the world as it is rather than the world as they wish to see it. A Black Author, Jerry Craft’s book, the New Kid, told his true-life story about facing racism when he moved to a new school. A school in Texas banned it after a parent complained that it was promoting “Critical race theory,” the all-too-familiar bogeyman of those who refuse to acknowledge the reality of racism. Meanwhile other books by Toni Morrison and even American classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men are being threatened. Other titles that dare to address LGBTQ issues and the lives of immigrants are also under fire. The common thread is that truth seems to make the powerful uncomfortable. Those who ban books stifle knowledge as they fail to realize the pursuit of knowledge begins with discomfort. Instead of banning it, we should lean into the discomfort.

We should hope Art Spiegelman is not correct about this “being a harbinger of things to come,” but I fear he may be right. It is part of a continuum of abuse of power, and it could happen here. It is never too early to let our own school board in Hamilton County know we will not stand for book banning, not in our home. As Jews we have a unique perspective on being subjugated through book persecution, and where that can lead. As lovers of wisdom, we have an obligation to uphold the freedom of thought. We must permit young minds to expand beyond the artificial constraints placed on them by a short sided few.

Let us uphold the longstanding Jewish belief that learning is sustenance, and that sustenance will lead us to more learning. Ultimately, the more we learn, the more we are sustained. It is true for us, and it can be true for all.

Shabbat Shalom.


[i] “The Burning of the Talmud: Paris, 1239-1248,” The Jew in the Medieval World, Jacob Rader Marcus, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1999, pp. 166-167.

[ii] https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1242-all-talmuds-in-paris-are-burned-1.5281064#ob-player

[iii] https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/art-spiegelman-tennessee-school-board-maus-ban-1291262/

Trauma Shall Not Destroy Us: Learning from Rabbi Charlie” – Mizpah Newsletter article for February 2022

Among the many interviews he gave after being held hostage in his own synagogue, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Colleyville, TX shared these thoughts:

“I’m going to assume that even if they do not look like the stereotypical person who’s going to come into a Jewish synagogue, I want them there. Whether they’re somebody who’s Jewish, who’s coming in from another community or from our community, or whether they’re not Jewish, and maybe they’re exploring Judaism for the first time, or they just want to see what a Jewish service is all about because they’re curious and they’re asking, am I going to belong? And I want them to know that they are going to belong. Hospitality means the world[1].”

  • Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, January 20 interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered”

I have to say from the outset, I am not sure I agree with Rabbi Charlie. I have known Charlie for eighteen years, having overlapped during our studies at HUC Cincinnati. I succeeded him as Vice-President of the Rabbinical Student Association, and in the years since ordination, we have worked together in a cohort of small congregational rabbis. I know him to be among the finest, most compassionate, most committed to social justice rabbis I have known. He is also among the most humble of rabbis, never seeking limelight, only focused on leading his congregation and working toward peace and justice. Contrary to his ambitions, recent events thrust him into the limelight and have framed him as an expert on responding to trauma. So, I can say I don’t agree that I would let a stranger with unclear purpose or motive, into our sanctuary, knowing the potential dangers that we as Jews have always faced. Yet, I have to admit, he has perspective and experience, along with rabbinic skills that I already admired. Therefore, I must reconsider my reaction.

Of course, strong security measures have to be part of the answer. On this we agree. Rabbi Charlie credits multiple crisis trainings for his escape, and, at Mizpah, we have hosted similar trainings and plan to do more in the near future. Still, Rabbi Charlie’s words reflect something greater than self-defense. He upholds a core Jewish value, hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. In any other context, they are indisputable. At Mizpah, we pride ourselves on welcoming school groups, opening our doors to new friends, inviting people considering Judaism, or community neighbors who simply want to learn about what we do. Yet, when hospitality is violated, especially to the degree in which lives are threatened, our instinct tells us to shut the doors, violating a mitzvah as we reject the stranger. This is a natural, though rash, response to trauma. For Rabbi Charlie and his congregation, the trauma was real and immediate. For the rest of the Jewish world, the trauma was just as real and vicarious, part of the long story of the collective trauma of the Jewish people. In a post on the Sinai and Synapses website[2], Razel Solow, PhD and Kent Harber, PhD write that the definition of trauma is an event that violates basic beliefs about the world which include, “The world is just, [it] is well-ordered, and the self is good.” They write these are three legs of a stool that give the world meaning. Trauma occurs when one or more of these legs is broken. The stool topples over, and “recovery depends on the degree to which meaning… can be restored.” Rejecting the stranger would be a sign, that the stool remains broken.

Rabbi Charlie teaches us, in his own way, that we need to be resilient in order to heal. Rabbi Jackie Rosenberg, in her manual about trauma for Jewish educators,  writes, “resilience isn’t static or about returning to some ideal form. [It] involves noticing our reactions and distress; building our emotional, somatic and spiritual capacities to experience uncomfortable sensations; and cultivating our abilities to make choices about how to respond[3].” We have choices, to lose our welcoming nature, or to be mindfully aware that we continue, scarred yet resolute about what is right. Healing, Rabbi Rosenberg says, “is the ability to think and act outside of trauma reactions[4].” We do not deny our pain or our fear, but we choose not to allow those feelings to dictate our actions. Resilience and healing are ultimately about growing, learning, and moving forward.

The Prophet Isaiah tells us this, saying:

“When you pass through water, I will be with you; Through streams, They shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, You shall not be scorched; Through flame, It shall not burn you[5].”

In other words, there have been and will be setbacks, but through it all, if we collectively exercise Torah values we hold dear, we, as a resilient people, emerge healed and strong. We hold true to certain unshakeable truths, that kindness and hospitality matter, and that as Jews we must be conduits for these values sharing them with the world.

So, all of that said, I am still not sure I am there yet, but if Rabbi Charlie is, then maybe we should be too.

As we continue to move forward, let us continue to heal, led, not by fear, but by kindness and love.


[1] https://www.npr.org/2022/01/20/1074191124/hostage-synagogue-texas-rabbi

[2] https://sinaiandsynapses.org/content/order-amidst-chaos-how-judaism-and-psychology-respond-to-trauma/

[3] Rosenberg, J. (2020). Introduction to Trauma, Healing and Resilience for Rabbis, Jewish Educators and Organizers [Ebook] (1st ed.). Wyncote: Reconstructing Judaism.

[4] Ibid, citing Sousan Abadian & Tamar Miller, (2008). “Taming the Beast: Trauma in Jewish Religious and Political Life. Journal of Jewish Communal Service, 83(2/3), (2008) 236-237.

[5] Isaiah 43:2

Eulogy for a survivor on International Holocaust Remembrance Day- Remembering my friend Lou Leviticus

In honor of this solemn day, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to share this eulogy I had the privilege of writing for a remarkable person, engineer, and educator who was a survivor of the Holocaust. Knowing him and being tasked with writing these words was one of the great honors of my life.

The Book of (Lou) Leviticus

Lou was one of a kind. I take pride in knowing that he liked me… despite my being a rabbi. He was not a big fan of religion. He didn’t much need the books of Torah. One might say his very life was its own book of Torah. Quite appropriate for a man named Leviticus. Still, Lou’s story was not at all like his namesake, which focuses on laws of purity and holiness. Lou’s life, the Book of Lou, if you will, was filled with action. It is an amazing story, that has been told and retold, and like the Torah, needs to be retold and retold forever. Of the Torah, our Jewish sages teach, we turn and turn our way through it, reading it over and over again, for everything can be discovered in it. The same can be said of the Book of Lou. The more we examine the life and Legacy of Lou, we discover some of most important lessons that mankind can learn. We learn about the terrible consequences of senseless hatred. We learn the resiliency of the human spirit. We learn the challenges and hard choices of survival. We learn that life takes us on a rollercoaster of ups and downs, from tragedy to triumphs to tragedy and back again. We learn the importance of education and culture. And we learn the duty to share love and learning with the world. The Book of Lou Leviticus teaches us all these things and more. All we have to do is turn it, and turn it, examining it in order to remember Lou, his life, his lessons, his legacy.

As we study the book of Lou, it is best to start with, pardon the expression, Lou’s Genesis. He was born July 4, 1931, in the city of Aalten, a farming town in the Netherlands. He was the only child of parents Max and Sera Leviticus, and of his own admission, he was spoiled rotten. His earliest years were not easy, as the economic depression made it hard for Max to find work. Lou lived with his mother in her parents’ home in the country while his father bounced from job to job in Amsterdam trying to support his family. When at last his father found a steady job, the family moved to the city in Amsterdam where they lived a very comfortable middle-class life. 

Before the war came to the Netherlands, Lou recalled a happy childhood. An only child, he never wanted for anything, toys, love, and attention. He developed a special closeness with his paternal grandmother Francine who, though she lived far away in the Hague, managed to spoil him. In her spoiling, however, she helped to plant the seeds for some of Lou’s passions which he would embrace throughout his life. A gift of a high-powered radio allowed him to hear programming from all across Europe, introducing him to other cultures and other languages which he could absorb. Grandma Francine also exposed him to culture and literature, taking young Lou to the opera, and the art museum always guiding him in appreciating the skill and technique of the masters.

Lou also developed an early attachment to animals, of every kind, and of every size. He had a knack with dogs. When Lou was a toddler, he had an encounter with a cousin’s dog who was known to have an aggressive temper. This dog might have torn the hand off of any ordinary person, but Lou was no ordinary person. This dog walked right up to young Lou and licked his hand and sat there to receive a good scratching. Lou’s affection was not reserved only for housepets. He also had a way with horses who trusted him immediately, and he became an adept trainer of hedgehogs which he would catch, feed and train as an amusement while in hiding in the Dutch countryside. His fascination with hedgehogs would remain even to Lou’s last days. Rose said, even as she was sorting through her husband’s computer files, a graphic of a hedgehog popped up on the screen to say Hello.

This connection to the animal kingdom provides a glimpse into Lou’s character. He was sensitive and caring. He was also fearless and persistent. He wrote in his book about regular visits to the local zoo where he was allowed into the primate cages to feed and interact with the beasts. One day, an orangutan got too excited, latched on to Lou’s hand and rolled around the enclosure like a bowling ball. Lou’s shoulder was separated in the incident, but he was proud of it, as, his arm in a sling, he would brag to the neighborhood kids. He remained undeterred from his love animals. Over the course of his life, he would write, that his connection to animals helped him cope with the very difficult things he had endured in life. He remarked that all you had to do was love them, and they would love you back. Furthermore, no animal had ever treated him badly. Lou would discover the hard way that the same could not be said of humans.

This brings us to the second part of Lou’s life. We go from Lou’s Genesis, to Lou’s Exodus.

War came to the Netherlands when Lou was nine years old. His happy childhood, like so many lives in Europe and around the world, was interrupted. His father was called to Reserve service in the Dutch army. Lou was proud that his father fought for their country, and he loved to be seen walking around town with his uniformed father, the hero. As we know, the German war machine greatly overmatched the Dutch defenses who capitulated after only a few days. Lou remembered his father’s return from battle, and how he just sat in his chair and cried. The tears were for the nation, which was lost, and also for everything else which he knew was soon to be lost along with it.

Like all Jews living under Nazi occupation, Lou was forced to wear a yellow star. Other freedoms were soon taken away as well. His father lost his job as Jewish people were no longer allowed to be employed in non-Jewish companies. They were not allowed to use public transportation and were only permitted to go outside at certain times of day. Before long, Lou had to start attending a school only for Jewish children. His beloved dog Julie was taken away because a neighbor complained that a Jew should own a dog. A neighbor, a member of the Nazi party even confiscated Lou’s bicycle and then gifted it to his own child. 

All of these events made Lou’s blood boil. And he was angered not only at the injustice but was also furious at his feeling of utter helplessness. And if it were only material possessions, it might have been bearable. But he and his Jewish friends were subject to random attacks on the street. On multiple occasions he was beat up, even had his head smashed through a window, all while passersby ignored or even reveled in his plight. At his young age, Lou barely understood what it meant to be Jewish. He rarely went to synagogue and did not care for Hebrew school at all. He did not understand why parentage had made him a target nor could he comprehend what was different about Jews that they should be subjected to that treatment.

Lou’s family eventually went into hiding. With the support from the Dutch resistance, they went to the countryside where they took shelter on a farm. When that welcome wore out, they were shuffled to another safe house, a second-floor apartment outside of Amsterdam. It provided a temporary refuge. In hiding Lou occupied himself with games, frequently beating his father in chess, though in hindsight, he was fairly sure Dad was letting him win. But he also read every book he could find in that apartment. He was too young to understand a lot of what he read, but he would read and read again just to pass the time. Amazing that even under terrible duress, he showed signs of a budding academic with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

If Lou’s world had been shaken by events until that point, it was shattered one grey afternoon in November 1942. The family heard heavy footsteps climbing toward their apartment. A man shouted, “Police, stay where you are.” In a flash, Lou opened the shutters on a back-room window of the apartment and jumped through it. Somehow landing uninjured, Lou looked up to see his father wildly shooing him away just before he closed the shutters. By the slimmest of margins, this act bought Lou just enough time to escape.

And he ran. This young boy, whose biggest fear before the war was having his tonsils removed, whose greatest pain had come from rolling around in an orangutan cage, and whose worst encounter with cruelty had been watching a farmer slaughter a duck, he now ran for his life. By age 11, he had witnessed unimaginable cruelty, had been subjected to terrible pain, and now feared for his life. Worse yet, he was on his own. His father closing the window was the last time he would see his parents. Both died at Auschwitz less than two months after their capture. 

Lou ran through the night making narrow escapes until, by instinct, following the sound of familiar church bells, he found the home of Joop Van der Pol who had helped his family go into hiding. Lou was taken back to a familiar farm in the countryside but later was taken by Karel Brouwer to the Milestone house where he was taken in like a member of the family. Under Brouwer’s care, in the refuge of the Dutch Resistance, Lou found safe haven and care which, despite several close calls, and more than one frantic relocation, helped him to survive the war. He was always deeply grateful for the kindness of so many people who risked their own lives to protect him and other Jews.

Following the war, Lou spent several years in an orphanage before his Exodus resulted, quite appropriately with his arrival in the Promised Land. This was the beginning of Lou Leviticus, the emergence of the confident, courageous, brilliant man we all knew. He immigrated to the budding Jewish state in Israel. There he built a new life. He studied engineering at the Technion Institute and worked on a kibbutz where he was a skilled tractor mechanic. His first journey to the United States brought him to South Bend, Indiana where he earned his PhD at Purdue University. Lou returned Israel where he worked and raised a family. He also served in Israeli army, being called into active duty for multiple defenses of the homeland notably in 1967 and in 1973. Sadly, during the 1973 war, the most harrowing in Israel’s history, Lou’s son Eitan was one of the many casualties suffered by the Jewish state. The grief of losing a son would always remain with Lou who had witnessed the horror of war from every possible angle. Lou managed to move on, mostly because he had no other choice.

In 1975, Lou accepted a position at the University of Nebraska as professor of agricultural engineering. This, we could call the beginning Lou’s Numbers, for here he would flourish, as director of the Nebraska Tractor Test Labratory. Among his many accomplishments was working with NASA on the development of the moon rover which bears his name among the researchers who made it possible. There is something comforting in knowing that whenever we miss Lou, we can look to the moon and know that his name is engraved on it. Lou finished his career, having advanced the technology allowing farmers to increase their yields and helping to feed the world. But even after his retirement in 1998, he would never quit working as he remained the curator of the Larsen tractor museum on the UNL campus.

Lou’s numbers were not limited to his professional life. No one thing or endeavor could begin to define the man he was. Perhaps his proudest personal achievement was marrying Rose, whom he had known for years. When both found themselves single at the same time, Lou convinced her to move across the ocean to America where they were married in 1982. He developed strong relationships with Rose’s children, treating them like his own. He was also close with his 5 grandchildren and one great granddaughter. One of his greatest joys was showing off the tractor museum to the grandkids who were mesmerized by his enthusiasm and knowledge.

Lou’s family remembers his sense of humor. Often self-effacing, he was also known to tease a little. That might have been the true sign of his affection for you, if he could joke with you and get you to laugh with him. Rose recalls that she was drawn to Lou for his intellect and his decisiveness. He taught her about the stars, modern art, and music appreciation. He especially loved Jazz. It was not uncommon for Lou, on a whim, to pop into a jazz club, even on the way back from an airport run to pick up a visitor. He taught himself to lay piano and guitar and played in a jazz band for a number of years. It seemed that whatever he set his mind to doing, he could not only succeed, but excel. I am told, just weeks before his death, he had actually become a champion at bowling, on the Wii video game system at the Grand Lodge at the Preserve.

Lou’s Numbers, his personal and professional achievements are too many to be counted. Also defying enumeration is his contribution to the world with the fifth book of his Torah– Lou’s Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a Greek word meaning repetition. It was through repeating his story, time and again that most people came to know Lou. It was relatively late in life that he began to publicly share his story, partially out of humility wondering what made him so special, but also because he had never come to terms with all he had seen and done. But after recording testimony for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation in 1990, he decided to keep telling the story, accepting speaking engagements all over Nebraska. Thus, he profoundly affected generations of Nebraskans by bearing witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust and sharing the lessons of where hate and resentment can lead. He also shared a message of hope, that no matter how bad things seemed, there was always a reason to live and there was always a way out. 

Lou quickly discovered that sharing his story was also personally rewarding. He became involved with the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha and translated a Dutch play about the Holocaust into English. He took a starring role into which he poured his soul and enjoyed taking it on a tour. These educational activities became emotional therapy for Lou. He eventually decided to put everything he could recall into a book, “Tales from the Milestone” which he saw as his crowning achievement. It is very much Lou, frank, honest, and no holds barred, and needs to be read. 

Lou would probably say quite humbly that it was just his story, while it shares a truth about human nature which we must never forget. Lou was always amazed at how much he affected his listeners and readers who embraced him like an old friend. He had a knack for capturing people’s hearts and minds. Rose always stood in awe, as her husband was treated like a celebrity with teenagers snapping selfies with a man who had helped to change their lives. 

It is both fitting and tragic that he was scheduled to speak at the Lincoln Alternative school the same week he had the stroke. Even though walking had become burdensome as his body aged faster than his mind, he remained committed to sharing his story, even to the end. Tragically, this presentation never happened. Those students will have to learn the lessons another way. The Deuteronomy by Lou Leviticus has come to an end. Now it is up to us who knew him to pick up the mantle of his Torah and to keep the repetitions going. It is up to us to keep turning the scrolls, to tell it and retell and share it with the world so that we can never forget. 

When we talk about Torah, it is about much more than religious doctrine. The ever-important Hebrew word means teaching. The concept of Torah is bigger. It refers to teaching of eternal truths that take an eternity to study and learn. Such was the life and Torah of Lou Leviticus. In all his books and chapters, from his Genesis in the NEtherlands, to his Exodus escaping death, to re-inventing himself to become a grown Leviticus, to his Numbers of achievements, to his Deuteronomy inspiring people to make the best of themselves and to change the world, Lou’s Torah is one which, after 84 years is done being written, it is a story that will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew him.

Zichrono Livracha, May the Memory of Lou Leviticus always be for an eternal blessing.

MLK and the Promised Land, Gifts That Keep on Giving, Remarks for Parashat Beshalach and MLK Weekend– January 14, 2022

In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, one of the great scenes sees a group of Jewish revolutionaries in Roman times debating “What have the Romans ever done for us?” This is meant rhetorically, a call to arms, but one of the men casually mentions, “the aqueduct.” And the momentum gets derailed. Then the question becomes, “aside from the aqueduct, what have they done?” And then the floodgates open. Sanitation. Roads. Irrigation. Education. Law and order. Good wine. and Medicine. Then the leader has to ask, “But aside from all that, what have they ever done for us?” 

Now of course, the Romans were not benevolent rulers, but the advances in civilization were hard to overlook, which is what makes that scene so good.  

Sometimes, I like wonder, what would a conversation be like if someone asked, what have the Jews ever done for the world? Before I say more, I think you know, I am going to tell you, we have given the world a lot. In the words of Sammy Davis Jr., famously quoted by Bart in an episode of the Simpsons, “The Jews are a swinging bunch of people… after thousands of years of waiting and holding on and fighting, they finally made it.”  

Let’s start with the obvious, matzah ball soup. Then there is music. I already mentioned last month the great Christmas songs contributed by various Jews. Then there are Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin, just to name a few. And never forget, it was one of ours, Barry Manilow, wrote the songs that make the whole world sing. And never forget Jewish humor, the list of humorists is too long to name, but the fact that there is a Youtube channel for “Old Jews Telling Jokes” says about everything you need to know about the importance of Jewish humor. Much of the success of our humor is owed to the nature of the Yiddish language. And in addition to the soup, the music, the art, the literature, the humor, we have given the world many colorful expressions, some which I cannot say from this Bima. But, as writer Leo Rosten points out in the preface to the “Joys of Yiddish,” where would language be without words like shmaltz, shmooze, or shlep? What would we call a no-goodnik, or a peace-nik? How could we be sarcastic without using terms like fancy-shmancy. So yes, we Jews have given the world a lot. It goes well beyond humor, and music, and language. We have also given the world irrepressible ideas. I am glad to say, it has not gone unnoticed.  

In his book, “The Gifts of the Jews,” Thomas Cahill, not Jewish, says the Torah is the first conception of a future not being pre-determined. It is determined by our present actions, and human behavior is morally significant, man is free, and therefore progress is possible.i Furthermore, a British historian Paul Johnson defers to the Jews, “To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.” 

That’s quite a list. It would be impossible for anyone to question, with any ounce of sincerity, “What have the Jews ever done for us?” 

And now this is where I am going to get serious. I think the greatest gift we have given the world is in our Torah portion this week. This is parashat Beshalach that includes, the “Song of the Sea.” Freed from 400 years of slavery, an army chasing them, backed against the wall, facing certain doom, the Israelites survive and move on to freedom. The midrash teaches that the seas did not part until at least one Israelite took a positive action of their own accord, taking a step into the water. 

Going from servitude and yearning to freedom, beyond miracles, depends on a human action as a catalyst. This is a gift of the Jews, not just that we dreamed of freedom, but we tell a story in which we had agency to see the dream realized. The historian I mentioned before, Paul Johnson, also said, “the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time.” He said this about the Jews, but I am going to say this tonight about the person whom our nation honors this weekend, the great Martin Luther King, Jr. The story of the Exodus is Torah. It is our story, but it was groundbreaking in such a way that it continues to inspire people with hope. 

Dr. King formulated this story to speak to the injustices of his own time, and it was done in a way that transcended basic metaphor. In his famous mountaintop speech, he describes his vision —“I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.” His listeners knew he was talking to and about them, and with this familiar story, they well identified with the suffering of their past and present, and they could envision a better future. Theologian, Gary S. Selby, in his book “Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom,” describes how Exodus helped civil rights advocates understand the fruits of their labors. He writes, “The narrative… provided a mechanism through which participants could attribute causality to the events that were unfolding around them.” With resolve they would know results.  

As part of this resolve, King’s genius in reformulating the Exodus story was his insistence on staying united. He reminded his followers that division strengthens the oppressor.  

“Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it…. He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”  

Gary Selby calls this a call for “collective identity.” It is a direct call against those who strike out on their own and harm the overall movement with rash actions. It was a demand for organization and a shared purpose. In his remarks, Dr. King cleverly repeated the words “Children of Israel,” reminding his followers that sharing one identity and one destiny gave them strength. Ultimately, he made a substitution for the Bible with its Promised Land. In its place he looked to the yet unrealized dreams of the US Constitution by calling the document into question.  

“Somewhere,” he says, “I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.” 

Here, we hear echos of the “I Have a Dream” speech in which he calls the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “promissory notes,” that will only be paid when all men share the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Dr. King’s work and legacy brought us all closer to that promised land, but we are still not there, as fundamental voting rights are being threatened in many American states and half the Senate refuses to address the issue. Protecting these rights is one of the best ways to clear a path toward the Promised Land. Thus, the work continues. 

We must lend our voices to the cause of equality. In doing this work, we can be proud that the ideals of the Exodus story, freedom, equality, self-determination, guided by moral choices, are ideas that we Jews gave to the world. It is a gift from which we have received a great return as the Torah’s ideas were crafted by a genius who gave us a new way to understand our own story. And so, our gift keeps on giving and challenging all of us to climb to the mountaintop, where we can also see the vision of the Promised Land, and we can all go there together. 

So, on this MLK weekend, let us pray, may the member of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. be for a blessing. Mat his words, like the “Song of the Sea,” resonate in our ears forever. 

Vaccinating the Gray Rhino, a sermon for New Year’s Eve and a return to virtual worship, December 31, 2021

I apologize in advance if this is going to sound a bit like Dungeons and Dragons, but imagine yourself trapped in a room with a giant, horned, gray beast who is staring you down and looks intent to charge at you. What do you do? It should seem obvious that you would immediately leave the room, or do something to protect yourself. If it was Dungeons and Dragons, you might cast a spell. But clearly, you would take action. Or maybe not. A writer named Michell Wucker observed, all too often, that most people in this situation do nothing. In 2016, she wrote a book called “The Gray Rhino.” The Gray Rhino is a metaphor from something dangerous, that we can clearly observe, but we fail to respond to it. People with Gray Rhino syndrome neither leave a nor prepare a defense. They just act as if the it is not there and hope it will go away. Full disclosure, she wrote this about economics and business, but was surprised when her readers started applying the lessons to untreated skin growths and other physical ailments. And the World’s response to Covid 19 has also been fertile ground for Gray Rhino Comparisons. We will come back to that.

Meanwhile, Wucker’s explanation for the origins of Gray Rhino sound eerily familiar—they start with denial and then what she calls “muddling,” which she says are the reasons we create to avoid solving a problem. The root causes stem from Optimism bias, our aversion to hearing bad news, Confirmation bias, when we only seek information that already agrees with us, and then ultimately not taking steps to change just because we find the steps unpleasant.

And so, here we are, hours away from 2022, and we are not where we thought we would be on this New Year’s Eve. It is Friday, so I fully expected to be in the sanctuary. What I did not expect was that I would again be offering a service in an empty sanctuary. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. This had become our status quo, and I had become good at managing an online service. I had a routine. Then the routine changed. We figured out how to go hybrid, with some hiccups here and there, but since July we have gotten it done. We have even managed to fill the sanctuary a bit. Those were highly optimistic times. Back in June, we had people in the sanctuary for Eden’s Bar-Mitzvah, my family then went to Disney World, the happiest and most crowded place on Earth. We enjoyed what appeared to be a world turning a corner. Covid cases and hospitalizations were way down. Vaccines were rolling out, mask mandates were lessening, there was a general feeling of optimism. We ate indoors for the first time. We came home thinking we were entering into a braver, newer world. Summer ended, and our High Holy Days at Mizpah felt triumphant, like the sound of the Shofar was awakening all of us into a better reality. We were fighting the Gray Rhino, and winning. But then the Delta variant came. The window of optimism was closing. It became clear it had been a momentary blip. We soldiered on, still working to mitigate risk, feeling that, at least in things we could control, we were doing our part to live our lives and stop the spread of the terrible virus. I don’t have to tell you, we are in the throes of Omicron, and the rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations in state, county, and city have caused us to return to on-line only, for what we hope will be a short period of time. As a congregation, we are simply trying to do our part, first to protect our members, volunteers, and staff, and also to perform our civic duty to do what we can to control the spread of Coronavirus. So here we are. The disappointment is palpable. We all feel it. Postponing what was supposed to be the triumphant return of First Friday dinners was like almost grasping the golden ring before it suddenly disappeared. We take solace in our lack of denial, and taking action as we confront the Gray Rhino in our midst.

Knowing we are taking important steps lessens the sting, but we share our disappointment. However, in the spirit of Jewish tradition, let us not despair. For that moment of optimism we had was real, and it was hard-earned. It can return. We can learn about this Jewish value from Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, the hope. The lyric says, “Hatikvah bat shenot alapayim.” It has been the hope of two thousand years. Therefore the last six months of hope seem a trifle against our people’s ability to survive, thrive, and strive across generations and millenia. Hope in Judaism is never lost. It endures because, whatever our hopes or goals, we are strong and patient, and we do what it takes to turn hopes into reality. The work is hard and long. We do not have to complete the work. But never are we free not to do it.

This brings me to the most powerful thing any of us can do to fight this dreaded pandemic and return us to being filled with hope as we were this past Summer. Vaccinations. Honestly, I had never thought I would sermonize on Covid vaccinations because I could not imagine anyone willfully refusing to get a shot that could save their lives and keep their families safe. It did not seem necessary. However, it has become clear that, while many of us have fought the Gray Rhino, too many more have ignored it. As many doctors call it now, it is a Pandemic of the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated make up amajority of the positive cases and a preponderance of hospitalizations and deaths from Coronavirus. Let us not be fooled by the term Pandemic of the unvaccinated, because as long as it goes on, it threatens to affect all of our lives. The best explanation for why we, and so many other synagogues and religious institutions have returned to online services is the high number of people across our country who have refused the vaccine. As I said, I do not intend to preach to the choir, except to do this, to emphasize that the act of getting a vaccine is more than a right thing to do, it is a mitzvah fully in concert with Jewish values. My hope is that this knowledge will encourage some who is not vaccinated to get it, and also to arm us with ethical arguments for vaccinations that are rooted deeply in Torah.

It all begins with Pikuach Nefesh, that we can do anything it takes to save a life. But there are so many who reject that life is threatened, despite the death toll in America approaching 1 million.

So we tell them we have an obligation to act against an imminent danger. The Shulchan Aruch points to the Torah law about building a guardrail on our roof as a precaution to keep someone from falling. And bonus, to borrow a phrase, when you build a guard rail, the life you save could be your own.” This legal teaching extends to any action against a force that endangers our lives. The 16th century scholar Moses Isserles taught about this, saying that if a plague breaks out in a city, the inhabitants should try to leave. One famous commentator added that a parent who does not remove their children from the threat of an epidemic is responsible for the child’s fate. Over the years, this teaching has been applied by rabbis to encourage vaccines. It applied to the small pox vaccine, to the polio vaccine, and now also to the Covid 19 vaccine. Lest anyone say this is just from Progressive Reform rabbis, my source for this information was the Chabad website, not known as a bastion of liberalism. This idea spans Jewish thought.

Some doubters will claim they fear the health effects from receiving the vaccine, they should first consult that adverse reactionsare rare. Even allergic reactions are rare and treatable since vaccine recipients are monitored following their shots. And deaths resulting from Covid vaccines are rare. Nevertheless, the 19th century rabbi, Yisroel Lipschutz advised about the smallpox vaccine, which had a rate of death of 1 in a 1000, that one should still get it. In the 20th century, Rebbe Schneerson would say the same about the polio vaccine, the underlying value being “Al tifros min hatzibur,” one should not separate from their community. In other words, the welfare of the community is strengthened by the efforts of the individuals. Any individual who fails to participate diminishes their community. While personal autonomy is important in Judaism, the overall good of mankind takes precedence.

This is all so very crucial. We all just want our lives back. We want to feel the optimism when it looked like the pandemic was under control. It is generally accepted that COVID will become endemic, and we will keep living with it, maybe one day without masks, and maybe one day without needing everything to be offered virtually. The best way to manage it for now, is to see that Gray Rhino and to fight it with everything that we have. It starts with vaccinations. They will keep our hope alive, Hatikvah bat shnatayim, our hope of two years. It goes on, and we pray that the dream we hold in our hearts will come true.

Shabbat shalom, have a happy and safe New year. May 2022 bring us all health and joy.