Making Light Against the Darkness- Closing Remarks from the Chattanooga Service of Remembrance on Yom Hashoah, May 1, 2019

As Jews, we normally think of memory as a blessing. But on a night like this, it is hard not to think of memory as a curse. It is a burden we have to carry, that 6 million of our people were slaughtered while the world watched. It is a darkness that we will never escape. It is ever present in our history and in our psyche as Jews. It is a darkness that gives a choice, to dwell in it or to respond to it. Barely 70 years after the War, we have barely begun to find our voice, reconciling what happened with our faith and our desire to carry Jewish life forward. With every passing year, as memories fade, and the numbers of survivors continues to shrink, our call to respond to the darkness becomes ever more clear. We cannot allow the world to forget. Memory is like the flames we lit tonight. They flicker, and ultimately they fade unless we add fuel for them to burn. As Jews who are commanded to keep a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, we must keep the flame of memory alive. Ignorance and Holocaust denial is spreading like a virus. As first-hand witnesses are becoming fewer in number, we cannot allow the darkness to reign. We must shed light on it for the world to see, so they will know in every generation here after, what happens when senseless hate based on lies and irrational fears is left unchecked. As Jews we know for a fact it happened to us, and we also know it can and has happened to other peoples around the world. Hatred and fear of the other is leading to death and destruction all over the world. It happened to us, so we have a special calling not to let the world fall into darkness, not to allow any group to be persecuted. We bear a unique burden to be a light to the nations, to cast light into dark places.  For when we say “Never again,” we mean it never again–  to us, never again to anyone, anywhere. With a mission such as this, our tradition invites us to be God’s partners in completing creation.

After the attack this past Saturday at the Chabad near San Diego, the courageous rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein called to his congregation and to the rest of the world saying the only way to remove darkness is with light. He asks us all to be more God-like as we actively work to repel evil. We can follow in God’s ways, seeing that light is the beginning of goodness.

The Torah tells us, in the beginning, there was only darkness, and the first act of creation was to separate light from darkness. In the beginning there was only darkness. Light became the catalyst for all life on Earth, and God saw the light and said “it is good.” Indeed it is very good. This is as much a spiritual truth, as it is a scientific truth. In complete darkness, plants, animals, people do not thrive. In the order of creation, light paves the way for everything that follows. And darkness still exists. We confront this in our morning prayers when we say, Blessed is God who creates light and who creates darkness….  Blessed is God who creates darkness. It is hard to reconcile. In fact, the Isaiah verse, on which this prayer is based, compares light to peace and darkness to evil. Just the same, we offer praises to God, for darkness too is part of creation. Without darkness, we would not have the contrast of day versus night, and creation would never have reached the seventh day, our Shabbat, a day of holiness standing in contrast against the ordinary.

This is not to say that we are obligated to accept darkness. We just know that, sadly, darkness is an inescapable reality. This is also not to be so banal as to say, without the dark times, we could not enjoy the bright times. You know how people say, “It’s always darkest before the light.” Such theology at Yom Hashoah would demean the memory of the 6 million victims. It would be disrespectful to the survivors and to the descendants of all the victims. What I am saying is– we cannot escape darkness, but goodness, like life and like Shabbat are created by the contrast of light against darkness. I believe this was the call of Rabbi Goldstein, after the attack on his synagogue in California. He called upon his congregation, and Jews everywhere, working with all willing partners, to push away darkness with acts of light like, repelling senseless hate and violence with education, activism, tzedakah, and Tikkun Olam. These things cannot take away the darkness completely, but they can create a strong light to overpower and contain the forces of darkness.

So let us all join together, because against the inevitable darkness, we have no choice BUT to be sources of light. As God’s partners in renewing the act of creation, we can push aside the destructive forces of ignorance and hate, as we work to replace them with wisdom and life. We have to say loudly and clearly, “no more!” No more Poways. No more Pittsburghs. No more Auschwitzes. No more Birchenaus. No more senseless attacks like the mosque in New Zealand or the churches in Sri Lanka. No more destruction of churches in Louisiana. No more baseless hate. No more discrimination. No more genocide. No more. Never again.

This is our calling on this night of remembrance, Yom Hashoah u’gevurah, to push aside the darkness of the Shoah with gevurah, heroic acts which bring light where none exists.

And so I conclude this evening’s service with a prayer from the evening Shema section of the Mishkan Tefillah prayerbook. It is a poem by the poet Leah Goldberg who emigrated from Lithuania to Tel Aviv in 1935,  on the eve of the destruction that swept through Europe. She lived at a terrible hour of change and wrote words which speak to us across the years:

This is an hour of change.

Within it we stand uncertain on the border of light.

Shall we draw back or cross over?

Where shall our hearts turn?

Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,

Or cross over?

This is the hour of change, and within it,

We stand quietly

On the border of light.

What lies before us?

Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,

Or cross over?

 

And so we pray, that together as brothers and sisters, we will confront the darkness, and push it aside, as we cross over into a place of light.

 

Baruch atah Adonai, hamaariv aravim. Blessed is God who causes the contrast between night and day.

 

May we remember the darkness. May we always bring light. And may our work turn the memories of all those we lost into an eternal blessing. And let us say, “Amen.”

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Acharei Mot-zah, The Original MRE, April 26, 2019

During my senior year of college, I had a college roommate, Chuck, who was in the Army ROTC. Frequently, I would get back from class, and the floor of our room would be covered in a camouflage tarp. There would be muddy boots in the corner. And usually, there were soggy fatigues hanging from a hook after an intense morning of doing drills. It was not uncommon for me to discover Chuck, and another ROTC friend sitting in front of the TV, watching SportsCenter while eating something out of these brown envelopes. The food did not look appetizing, at all. They explained to me these were MRE’s. Meals Ready to Eat. They were trying them out as part of their training. A combat soldier could carry several in a backpack. They included a main course, some sweets, and powdered drinks, even coffee. Many of the MREs even came equipped with small heating contraptions so a soldier could have a hot meal, like spaghetti and meatballs, or chili, or even a veggie omelette. It seemed pretty gross to me, but Chuck seemed to enjoy it. I dare say, in hindsight, I think Chuck was proud to be eating an MRE because it was a sign of his special commitment to being part of our armed forces. Having that kind of pride, even though it cannot save every meal, has to make food taste better. At their core, MREs ought not be considered fine dining. The purpose of army rations, from the doughboys of World War I to the K rations of World War II and Korea were designed to provide basic sustenance for a soldier on the go. Flavor and variety were not part of the initial goal. Survival was. About 40 years ago, the MRE was designed to be lightweight, with the elimination of metal cans, and compact so a soldier could carry more of them into the field. An initiative to improve the taste and variety only began when it was discovered soldiers were consuming only 60% of the calories. The MREs became known as Meals rejected by everyone, or Meals refusing to Exit. So, improving the flavor, though a bonus, was not about gastronomy– again it was merely a question of survival. In a field of combat, a soldier needs to be able to eat fast, when the opportunity arises, and they need to be sustained so they can fulfill their duties. The MREs, I am sure, are far from perfect. But they are designed to get the job done.

I am thinking about this because tonight, according to Reform Jewish practice, is the conclusion of Passover. If you look at the service handout, you will see that is how I named this sermon. The Torah portion is Acharei Mot, which means after the death [of Aaaron’s sons]. It tells us how Aaron must move on from his period of mourning back to his regular duties. In a similar vein, tonight we think of Acharei, which means after, Matzah. Acharei Matzah, the time after Matzah. We transition away from Matzah and return to eating bread, and let me just say, “We all need to chill out.” It’s seven days—eight if you want to be super strict. And Matzah, according to our tradition, is a way of remembering the Exodus. In our flight from slavery, our ancestors did not have the luxury of baking full loaves of bread, so they just took unrisen matzah from the ovens and left. You might call Matzah the original MRE. It was not designed for flavor. It was however designed for expediency and sustenance. And as the Israelites escaped, they were not regretting the absence of bread. We can be pretty sure they were grateful for the Matzah they carried in their packs because having it, at the very least, meant another day of survival. Absent other choices, flour and water baked in 18 minutes can be the most delicious meal because they are forever tied to the great moment of redemption.

For millenia, we have enhanced our telling of the Passover story by eating Matzah. We are supposed to feel as though we ourselves are being freed from bondage, and words do not suffice. Sitting comfortably in our homes or in Feinstein Hall, it is hard to recreate the feeling of being freed. Yes, we eat bitter herbs and dip things in salt water, but Matzah takes the story telling to the next level. It reminds us of the urgency. We cannot create the adrenaline rush of rushing from our homes at a moment’s notice and entering into an uncertain future. We can however eat the bread hastily made, unleavened and plain. It augments our understanding of the moment by simulating the rush. Matzah is a pretty powerful food, and so if, like my old roommate Chuck with his MRE, we can eat Matzah with pride, adding flavor to it that no measure of salt or pepper can match.

So like I said, as Passover ends, let’s all just chill out. It was not a fast. We only refrained from eating certain foods, and in the process, we replaced them with others. We are fortunate to have had this opportunity because it invited us to explore new ways to fulfill our nutritional needs. Let us ponder this for a moment, without Matzah, we would have never Matzah Ball soup– one of the greatest Jewish discoveries, second only to the Salk vaccine. And I can tell you, the sense of urgency with my birthday on Day 2 of Passover, led my wife to a flourless chocolate cake recipe which was outstanding. So a little self denial can actually lead us to a place of incredible indulgence.

More than anything, we can think of eating Matzah as a privilege. While during a seder, it is a commandment, with every Jew being required to eat at least a small portion of matzah, after the seders, Matzah becomes a choice. Matzah and Kosher for Passover products are luxury items. When we choose to eat matzah, and are blessed to have the means to acquire it, it is a great privilege. Generally, however, we do not talk like people who feel blessed. We treat Matzah as, “The bread of affliction.” It is time we change our attitude about Matzah, to see it as a blessing, not a curse, As an honor, transcending commandment, a way of setting this time apart from the rest of the year as we the Jewish community observe a practice that sets us apart from the rest of the world.

And when we make the choice, embracing our privilege during the week of Passover, we open the door to another great Mitzvah. We get to educate the world about the holiday’s important themes. When we go to school or work and refrain from bread and cakes, instead pulling out our matzah sandwiches and our charoset and even our macaroons, we spark the interest of people around us. This is truly the essence of Passover, to tell the story and to continue learning from it year after year. Just like when we ask the four questions at the seder table, saying why is this night different from all other nights, when we eat Matzah but not chametz, we invite our non-Jewish friends and neighbors to ask us what it is all about. In those moments, we get to share our pride in who we are as Jews and to revel in the ever-unfolding power of the holiday. Memory. We remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and therefore in every generation, we eat matzah to remind ourselves the urgency of helping the oppressed wherever they are.

As this Passover, the chag ha-matzoth, draws to a close, let us reflect on the week and re-focus our thoughts on the privileges and blessings the holiday provided. Then as were-enter the normal part of our culinary lives, we can do so with a renewed sense of perspective, blessing, and gratitude.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Secret to a Long Life- Parashat Metzora, April 12, 2019

If you ask anyone what the secret to long life is, you are bound to get as many different answers as the number of people you ask. Everyone has a different idea. For example, just this past week, while I was suffering from allergies, I heard lots of different theories and prescriptions. Each one was just as unique as the person who offered the advice… which was occasionally unsolicited…but always appreciated. There was hot tea with honey, but it had to be regional honey… By the way, regional honey sounds like a really cute pet name for a spouse. I love my regional honey. Anyhow, I also heard names of every possible allergy medication, some to be taken through the mouth, and some to be squirted in the nose. I heard names of 4 different anti-inflammatories. I was asked if I had strep. I was told to get on antibitotics, and I was told not to take antibiotics. Strangely, now that I think about it, not one person offered me chicken soup. Maybe that’s why my symptoms lasted so long. Anyhow, everyone had their own theory and their own prescription, and that was just about a little post-nasal drip. When we get into something like the secret to long life, it gets even more complicated. Some people will say the secret is a long and happy marriage. Others will say it is loving your job. Others will say it is exercise. Some will say it is about learning to relax. And still others will say the secret of life is paying attention to details. Of course, the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy famously said the secret to life is 42. The answer of course is probably all of the above, minus the bit about 42. Of course, Judaism offers us an answer, actually lots of answers, but tonight, we are going to focus on just one that appears in our Torah portion, Parashat Metzora.

This secret to life in the parasha stands apart from the others because, while the other answers focus on gaining benefit for ourselves, the Torah portion will tell us it is how we treat each other. The lesson starts in the most unexpected way. It is from the portion’s opening line, “This is the law of the leper.” Yes, the law of the leper, the one who suffers from a terrible skin disease which the Torah describes in excruciating detail. To make the “law of the leper” more than skin deep, a midrash tells a story.

A peddler travels town to town, and in the long-standing tradition of snakeoil salesmen, he sets up a booth and calls out, “Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?” Crowds gather around him. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy “the elixir of life?”  Meanwhile, the great sage, Rav Jannai is studying in his den as he hears the commotion outside. From his window, he calls to the peddler to come to him. “Sell it to me, this elixir of life,” he says, but the peddler refuses.

“Neither you nor people like you,” the peddler explains, “require that which I have to sell.”

Frustrated, Rav Jannai becomes insistent. The Peddlers shows him the item for sale. It is the book of Psalms, and it is opened to Psalm 34. “You already have this. It says, ‘Who is the man who desires life? Guard your tongue from evill. Shun evil and do good.’”

At this, Rav Jannai blurts out, “I have been studying this verse all my life, but did not understand it until this salesman explained it. The secret to life is guarding your tongue from evil. And, furthermore, it’s just what Moses says in the Torah, with the law of the leper. The Hebrew word Metzorah is an abbreviation of the words Motzi shem ra, which means one who gossips, giving others a shem ra, a bad name.

I like this so much because it gives us something to talk about aside from the ickyness of skin disease. It also makes the secret of long life about caring about others, their feelings and their reputations.

It is for good reason that one way to describe slanderous speech is “poisoning the well.” It is a tactic of argumentation, often used in politics, where you attempt to discredit a person’s ideas by pre-emptively creating a bad feeling about them. Whether true or false, by linking them to an unpopular thing, you taint whatever they say next. It becomes poisoned. The thing about the image of the poisoned well is that it affects so many more people than just the target. Countless others get hurt too. Often times, the one who planted the poison can be affected as they too might need water from the well. It is a powerful metaphor.

Jewish tradition teaches that gossip hurts three people. The one who it is about, the one who hears it, and ultimately the one who spoke it. There can be very real consequences for it, much worse than a skin infection. An interesting example of this was described in a blog on Forbes.com

Derek was leading a project team at his company. They had a magnificent working relationship and were very productive. Nick, a member of the team called Derek one day to request a leave of absence as there were some significant family issues. They needed immediate counseling. After a few days, Derek explained to the rest of the team the reason for Nick’s absence.

Though he did this without malicious intent, he still managed to spread private information that could be embarrassing to Nick. The great rabbi Chofetz Chaim, taught that speech does not have to be malicious or even untrue to be harmful. Some things, some facts are just better left unsaid. And the information shared by Derek was not essential for the others to know.

What happened next was a confrontation. Lynn, an important member of the team, told Derek how inappropriate it was to share Nick’s private information. She was offended and angered. And her response was likely just the tip of the iceberg. What Derek, as the manager did, was rip apart the cohesion of the group, demonstrating a lack of trust. He also created some potential ruptures as people could treat Nick differently and maybe even try to manipulate his absence for their gain. Letting out that one piece information had the potential to destroy the team’s unity and their trust in their leadership. In the end, they could all pay a hefty price for the transgression, and it could come back to hurt the one who began it.

The well had been poisoned, and the one who accidentally dropped in the poison, ended up suffering from its effects.

So, the secret to a long life, according to Judaism, is to go out of our way not to do it. We should guard our tongue from evil, and do good. Instead of being Motzi shem ra, spreaders of a bad name, we can be motzi shem tov, those who spread a good name.

Think about news reporters for a moment. Their job must feel like they are constantly spreading bad news and delivering information that rightfully damages reputations. Even when it is necessary, it has to be taxing. But if we watch the news and see the difference when a reporter gets to cover good news, we can see just how positive the effect is. The classic example was Walter Cronkite being moved to tears during the moon landing. In recent years, we see reporters fall apart watching reunions of families reuniting after a military deployment. The important though infrequent good reporting has to have a holistic effect on them over all. We are all like reporters in our lives, with opportunities to share information. Spreading a good name is always better for the health of our community, and ultimately for ourselves. Spreading a bad name on the other hand, is what the Torah calls Metzora, a leprous infection that spreads fast and spares no one.

Indeed, there will be times when we have to share hurtful information, but we must always do so with caution. Therefore let us strive to spread names of goodness and not bad, for the health of our friends, our families, our co-workers, and  yes, for the betterment of ourselves.

For that is Judaism’s ”Secret of Life.”

Moishe Ends the Drought- Story for First Friday, April 5, 2019

Once long ago, back in the old country, there was a terrible drought. Our tradition has long seen rain as a gift from God, and rain is a sign of God’s love. Here in Chattanooga, we might recently wonder, “God, could you maybe love us a little less?” There can be too much of a good thing, you know. So you’d appreciate it, if your rabbi would not bother talking about rain tonight. Dayenu. We’ve had enough. I get it, so let me just say from the outset, this is not really a story about rain. It’s about something more important.  When our tradition speaks of drought or flood, it is not about lack or abundance, it is a metaphor for the world being out sync. Like a machine, when the world seems out of order, it is a sign that something in the innerworkings is broken. If you put fifty cents in the coke machine, you expect one coke, no more, no less. If nothing comes out, you’ve got a problem. It would be no less problematic if suddenly fifty cans of coke came shooting out of the machine, pounding into your shins, falling at your feet, fizzling all over the place. Whether nothing or overabundance, either is a sign of malfunction.

So, in this story I am about to tell, it is not about how much rain is falling. It is about the rain and how much you need at that moment. The drought is a sign that the world is out of order, and we have to figure out how to fix it.

And alas, long ago, back in the old country, there was a terrible drought. The crops stopped growing. The wells went dry. The people were thirsty. The rabbi turned to the heavens and prayed for help. And that night, he had a dream. And I will tell you about that dream in a moment.

First we welcome Shabbat by lighting candles as we turn to page 120 in our prayer books.

——————————-

In the midst of this terrible drought, the rabbi had a dream. In this dream he heard a voice:

“Your prayers will not bring rain, nor will the prayers of the community. Only one man’s prayer will have the power to succeed.  It is Moishe the shopkeeper. Only he can be the messenger of the community and lead the congregation in prayer. It is only by his prayer that rain can return.”

The rabbi awoke with a start. He told his wife about the dream. She thought he had lost his mind, that he was delirious from hunger and thirst. She told him to go back to sleep and wasted no time in doing so herself. But the rabbi was troubled.

“Moishe the shopkeeper?” he questioned out loud. “An ignorant man. He does not know the prayerbook. He has never studied. He barely reads the Hebrew words and recites them like a nervous child. Surely the voice was mistaken. There are more than one Moishe in this town. There’s Moishe the tailor, Moishe the banker, and Moishe the Magnificent, a magician entertainer who was always available for weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs.

“I’ll bet,” the rabbi thought to himself, “It’s Moishe the milkman. He has such a beautiful voice when he davens. It’s more like Moishe the Mezzo Soprano. Yes, if he leads us in worship, God will have no choice but to be moved and give us rain.”

The rabbi went to Moishe the milkman and invited him to lead the service. But rain did not come. Days went by, and the rabbi was disturbed by yet another dream….

Which you will hear about soon, I promise. But first, we continue our own prayers in earnest, as we turn to page 146 and we rise together for the call to worship.

————————–

So the experiment with Moishe the Mezzo Soprano Milkman failed. And the rabbi had a second dream—this one more intense than the first. The voice boomed:

“I said, have Moishe the Shopkeeper lead the prayers. Then rain will fall. If he does not, your prayers will not be answered.”

Again, the rabbi awoke and startled his wife.

“It just makes no sense. The voice can’t mean Moishe the shopkeeper. I’ll bet it means Bontshe the Bookeseller. Not much of a voice, but ohhh such a scholar. I will ask him to lead the service.”

The rabbi’s wife looked at her husband lovingly and said, “Great, can I go back to sleep now?”

The next morning, the rabbi invited Bontshe the bookseller to lead the service, and again no rain fell. Days went by, and the rabbi had another dream.

The voice came to him, slightly irritated, and said:

“Look, once was funny. Twice, I mean come on. I said, and let me be perfectly clear here, it is Moishe The Shopkeer, not Moishe the Chicken Farmer, or Moishe the Mixologist, or Moishe the Moocher. He was a way down hoochie coocher. It’s not Bontshe or Basha or Malka or Herschey. Not Fishel or Feibush, or Motel or Mashel. It’s not the bookkeeper nor bookie nor butcher nor baker. I want Moishe, that’s M-O-I-S-H-E the Shopkeeper. There’s only one. Have HIM lead the service, then you get rain. It’s so easy. Come on.”

He still could not believe it. Moishe the shopkeeper. He thought a Talmud was the name of a colorful bird. He thought Pirke Avot was a brand of antacid. He didn’t know Shema from Shinola.  The rabbi knew what he had to do.

And I will tell you about that in a bit.

First we think about the brokenness in our world, and how each of us is called upon to do our part. We pray a prayer of freedom, for our world to be healed as we liberate each other from the struggles brokenness causes.

Let us pray together on page 157.

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So the next morning, after this third dream, the rabbi went to the synagogue. The entire community was there. Everyone sat quietly staring at the rabbi, waiting for their instructions.

The rabbi announced, “Today, we are going to be led in worship by Moishe the shopkeeper.”

After a moment of confusion, the sanctuary erupted in laughter. “The rabbi has told a good joke to put is in a better mood. So Nu, who shall really lead us today?”

I said, “Moishe the shopkeeper will lead.” This time there was no laughter. They knew he could not lead. He didn’t know the words. He didn’t know his Alef from his Taf. This drought was too serious to risk it on someone like Moishe the Shopkeeper. People started yelling at the rabbi and then at each other. Even Moishe realized the absurdity of the request. He tried to sneak to the back of the room. While everyone was arguing, he could escape. But the rabbi’s wife caught him before he could leave. She assured him, that if her husband was so certain, then this had to be right. Also, what else have they to lose. She guided him gently to the front of sanctuary where he stood on the bima next to the rabbi.

The rabbi opened the prayerbook to the right page and placed it in Moishe’s hands.

“I can barely read the words,” Moishe protested.

“It’s okay,” the rabbi reassured, trying to convince himself it was really ok. “Just try saying what is in your heart.”

The rabbi then took a seat in the congregation.

Moishe stared at the book for a few awkward moments. Everyone was waiting to join in prayer. Moishe’s mouth opened, but he did not make a sound. He just set the book down and ran out of the sanctuary. He then… well what happened next, you will hear in a moment.

For now we turn to page 164, and we understand Moishe’s struggle. He did not know what to say, and so we too, in our prayer pray for help to open our mouths so they may form good and true words of praise.

Please turn to page 164 as we rise.

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Leaving everyone hanging, Moishe ran out of the synagogue and sprinted to his shop. He grabbed the balance scales he used for measuring goods and setting prices. He tucked the scales under his arm and ran back to the synagogue. He arrived out of breath to discover that no one had moved. It was as if not even a molecule of air had changed place as the room remained still in a stunned silence. Now drenched in sweat from running, he was disheveled from head to toe, hair out of place, shirt untucked. He stood on the bima and held up his scales like a trophy. Everyone’s eyes grew wide, partly from curiosity, and partly with fear. In this drought, the rabbi had lost his mind. Moishe the Shopkeeper had lost his mind. Who would be next?

Moishe announced, “RIbono Shel Olam, Oh God, Master of the Universe, I have no words of Torah or prayer. I have only my good name to show you. I cannot read the holy words. I do not know the sacred service, but Avinu Shebashamayim, our parent in heaven, hear these words. I brought my scales to remind you that I have always been honest. I never cheated even one person. I have never lied. I have upheld the commandment to be honest in weights and measures. Please hear these words and bring us rain.”

At that very moment, something happened, and I will tell you about that…. Right now.

At that moment, the skies grew dark, and torrents of rain fell to the ground. The people were overjoyed. They ran outside and splashed in puddles. They opened their mouths to taste the sweet water and their thirst was quenched. They braced themselves for the joyous work of tending to their fields which were certain to grow very soon.  They sang together songs of praise, thanking God for this incredible gift. And then, as if that weren’t enough, something equally remarkable happened. And I will tell you about that in a bit.

But right now, let us offer this prayer for peace, with Shalom Rav on page 178.

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In the midst of their celebrations, the people of the town gradually realized the meaning of Moishe’s words and all that was happening. One by one, each returned to his or her home or to his or her shop and made very subtle adjustments to the scales they used in their businesses. The tweaks they made were to reset them to the way they should have been, to true and just scales, not scales tilted toward increasing their profits. Everyone but Moishe the shopkeeper had set their scales to favor themselves, and for this they had been met with a drought. No prayer, nor Torah study, nor thumping of a Bible, or proclamation of piety can undo the brokenness in a world where we look out for ourselves at the expense of our fellow Man. The prayer of Moishe the Shopkeeper was the prayer of healing for it was the one that demonstrated the truest knowledge, knowledge of justice. Even better, his prayer demonstrated for the people of his town, and for us all, how we can fix our world, by being accountable for our deeds, changing them, and doing always what is right.

So no, this was not a story about rain, or a drought. Nor was it about a rabbi, or a shopkeeper. It was a story about brokenness in the world. When the world seems out of order, and it often does, perhaps these days more than ever, we can remember the best way to fix this great machine is to balance the inner workings. We each play our part in making it function the right way. To fix the world, we don’t have to be a master mechanic, or a master scholar, or a master of any particular skill. All we have to master is mitzvot, our sacred obligations that call upon us to act justly and do what is right, making it possible for others to join us.

The Torah teaches, in a portion just a few weeks away, “If you follow my commandments and do them, God will bring rain in their seasons.” In other words, the world will balance on the scales just as it should—still, with health and peace for all.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

The Bread of Affection- Newsletter article for April, 2019

A friend once confided that he does not eat Matzah during Passover. After reminding him that rabbis don’t take confession, I assured him that was a very minor transgression, if you could even call it that. He went on to explain, “I like Matzah so much, that I eat it year round, and Matzah at Passover is the ‘bread of affliction.’ So I afflict myself by not having it.” His logic made sense, but there remains a problem. Eating Matzah is about so much more than just avoiding leavened bread, It is the most important observance of Passover. During the Seder, every Jew is commanded to eat “kezayit,” at least an olive-size measurement of Matzah. Matzah is the key ingredient to a Passover meal. Otherwise it is just dinner. Another friend shared with me that he had a similar hangup. He refused to eat Passover cakes because they were are efforts to emulate forbidden foods with less appetizing but permissible ingredients. Passover, he believed, was to remember what we lacked rather than minimize our feelings of deprivation. With all due respect to these friends, I think they were missing out, and also forgetting the most important values of Passover. The Talmud teaches (Pesachim 99b), “A person may not eat from Mincha (the time of the afternoon service) until dark.” Rashi explains, “so that he may eat the Matzah with a hearty appetite.” This is considered “hiddur Mitzvah,” which is the term for going that extra mile to fulfilling a command. It is also a way of enhancing the enjoyment of Matzah which adds to our joy. Good food always tastes even better when we are really hungry. Matzah is meant to be enjoyed. Tradition also seeks to guarantee enjoyment by demanding a minimum amount to savor. Therefore, Matzah is not really about affliction. It is about experiencing the Exodus. We are supposed to feel the joy of going from servitude to freedom, and the Matzah according to legend was the unleavened bread we ate as we hurried away from bondage. it is more than “Halachmah anya,” the bread of affliction. It is actually a bread of celebration.After artificially creating tension in our lives with hunger, the first taste of Matzah is the first taste of freedom as we go from hunger to sustenance. We rejoice in our freedom and then go the extra mile in celebrating by taking our prized ingredients and turning them into the sweetest desserts we can. This is not against the sentiments of Passover. To the contrary, it punctuates the story, from suffering, to the moment of Exodus, to the ongoing sweetness of freedom.

As we gather around the Seder table on April 19, whether at Mizpah or in our homes, we can think of these important values. No matter how much we enjoy the Matzah, we can know this is the joyful taste of celebration, and we can think, beyond food, about the things that bring fulfillment to our lives— family, homes, love, laughter, friendship.  As we recite the blessings, we can force ourselves to imagine a world without those things, linking that feeling to the pangs of hunger. As we taste the bread of freedom, we then remind ourselves how great our lives are for the wonderful gifts we enjoy.

May this coming Passover be a wonderful festival of joy for us all, and may we cherish all the flavors of freedom that make it great.

A Cure For Loneliness- Parashat Shemini, March 29, 2019

Let’s talk about ice cream for a minute. We all have a favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s, right? What is it?

Personally, I am rather fond of Cherry Garcia. It is rich cherry ice cream with big cherry chunks and pieces of fudge. It is good. It holds all of the traits that have made Ben and Jerry’s a special, and popular brand of ice cream for the last 30 years. It has rich flavors, complemented by pieces of candy or fruit or nuts which are mixed in to create a special palate of flavors. The variety of mix-in ingredients is very intentional, and a sign of how important collaboration is. It is possible to make good ice cream that is plain, but the textures are what make Ben and Jerry’s extraordinary. Turns out that Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two nice Jewish boys were friends since high school. Their friendship which endured being separated for college, led them to a special place. As roommates in the mid 70’s, the decided to go into business together. First, it was going to be bagels, but they quickly turned their thoughts to ice cream and took a correspondence course to learn the trade. Now here is where their unique collaboration set them apart. Jerry was obsessed with making each flavor rich and complex while Ben has a condition called anosmia which means he can neither smell nor taste his food. So he relies on textures to get variety in his diet. And so for him, it was always important to add multiple textures with large chunks. Thus their trademark style was born. Dessert has never been the same.

I do not bring this up as an advertisement for Ben and Jerry’s. I get zero kick backs from the downtown store, and I also like to shop local at Clumpie’s—no kickbacks there either. I mention Ben and Jerry’s because they are an example, one of millions I am sure, that demonstrate how two are truly better than one. That is a direct quote from the book of Ecclesiastes, by the way. It says. “one who is alone… who amasses great riches, his eye can never be sated… he denies himself enjoyment [without someone to share it with]. Two are better than one, in that their earnings can be enjoyed.” Working together elevates the earnings, but more importantly it improves the fruits of our work, the product as well as the process of creating that product. To teach us this, long before Ben and Jerry,  the Torah, gave us Moses and Aaron. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, Moses and Aaron go into the tent of meeting together. In his commentary, Rashi wants us to ask why they go in together. Aaron, as high priest is the only one who is necessary. Rashi gives two good explanations. The first is that Moses has to show him how to light the incense properly. Two are better than one after all. It’s teamwork. It’s nice. But Rashi’s second explanation is the topping on the sundae… back to ice cream again, sorry. Rashi gives some back story. Aaron is in the tent, doing sacrifices, lighting incense, following all of his orders to the letter, but he is frustrated. The Shechinah, God’s divine presence, has yet to descend into the tent. He gets angry at Moses, thinking his brother made false promises. So then Moses enters the tent with Aaron, and then the Shechinah descends. God’s presence comes when two work together. So important is this lesson it is a trope in the Torah. In the story of creation, God says, “It is not good for a man to be alone,” just before creating Eve. It is encoded in the making of the holy ark. On the lid, there must be two, golden cherubs facing each other. Midrash will tell us it is the very point in the middle, where there gazes meet is where God’s presence will reside. This idea will be repeated in Pirke Avot, the ethics of the fathers, when it teaches that wherever at least two join to share words of Torah, the Shechinah is present.

Naturally the spark of Shechinah can be viewed as a spark of creativity as in the creation of an ice cream flavor, or in writing a show. What would Rodgers have been without Hammerstein, or vice versa. Or what would John without Paul, Roger without Pete, or Mick without Keith? Individually, they might have been very good. But they are best together. Although it is partially about collaboration and creation, the presence of Shechinah is really about something more basic. Plainly read, Ecclesiastes says it is about enjoyment of life. When even riches cannot make a solitary person happy, the Shechinah is about the joy of shared experience.

The opposite is sadly all to true. When a person is alone, it does not truly negate God’s presence. God can be in any place or any time. And there can be meaningful moments of inspiration when we are by ourselves, but when one is truly alone, not by choice, the feeling of loneliness can be overwhelming, and it makes it much harder to feel enjoyment.

We all know who Mother Theresa was. She famously devoted her life to serving impoverished people around the world. She fearlessly went into villages where people were suffering from hunger and all sorts of communicable diseases. Through all of these experiences, she has been quoted for this observation: “The biggest disease today,” she said, “is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.” She defined loneliness as a disease, and one that can spread all too fast when we fail to notice the symptoms. As a corollary to her statement on loneliness, she said, “The greatest evil is lack of love and charity, that terrible indifference toward one’s neighbor.” Indifference is equally a cause of loneliness as the circumstances which cause it. To be indifferent is like knowingly holding a vaccine but refusing to share it. We all have an obligation to cure loneliness. In this case we are all licensed pharmacists obligated to distribute the medicine freely. Not to do so, according Mother Theresa, is to share responsibility for the spreading epidemic.

I do not need to list the signs of loneliness. We pretty much know them when we see them. We also know that recent loss, tragedy, or life changes like moving or divorce or loss of a job can trigger loneliness. Our job is to see them and not to be indifferent. We have an obligation to respond, at the very least reach out. All it takes is a small gesture, a phone call, even a voice mail just to check in. If we see someone in person, maybe we invite them for a cup of coffee. If we don’t know the person, sometimes just a smile and kind greeting with some conversation can ease the loneliness. Even a token gesture can go a long way. Our project to help Federal workers during the shutdown made such a great impact because the giftcards, which covered only a fraction of the workers’ expenses, were gifts that were more valuable than money. They had a healing effect as they reminded fellow Chattanoogans they were not alone.

And by the way, it is possible to feel lonely when we are with other people. Even if there are thousands of people around, if we feel excluded, or somehow on the outside of the experience, we feel isolated. This is one of the reasons I insist, and yes I had pushback in a previous congregation on this, I insist on starting services with a handshake and Shabbat Shalom greeting. In this sanctuary, where we can sit apart from the community, and where newcomers may not know anyone or even how to use our prayerbook, the Shabbat Shalom greeting is an invitation for everyone to be part of the moment, to receive a warm smile, and maybe a fist bump. A newcomer can be invited to sit next to a longstanding member. Every single person can know that he or she is valued and welcome. It is only a small action, but like all of our prayers, it is a model for how we wish to conduct ourselves when we leave this sanctuary.

Loneliness may a disease, but it is a curable disease. For as long as at least one other person takes an interest in the life of another human being, the healing can begin. Knowing “Two are better than one,” Moses joined Aaron in the tent of meeting and made it possible for God’s presence to join them. So too can invite the Shechinah. If we do not know where to begin, we can start with one simple word, “Hi.” Then in the midst of God’s presence, we can take it from there.

Shabbat Shalom.

Doing Right For the Right Reasons, Parashat Tzav, March 22, 2109

The history of innovation is filled with accidental discoveries. Penicillin was discovered from mold invading an experiment. The microwave oven was invented when a researcher at Raytheon was trying to improve radar technology when he discovered the peanut cluster bar in his pocket had melted. These are examples of fortuitous accidents when the discoverer was already doing important intentional research. There are however instances of happy accidents, but when the motivations of the inventor are, shall we say, suspect.

In 1853, a chef named George Crum became furious when a customer sent his food back to the kitchen. The French fries were apparently not crispy enough. Acting out of spite, Crum sliced a potato up paper thin, dipped them in salt and deep fried them to a hardened crisp. That will teach him to send his food back. To his surprise, however, the customer loved the dish, and that is how potato chips were born. An angry chef was driven into a fit that started a food sensation.

In 1905, a mischievous lad named Frank Epperson was mixing water with sugary soda powder. Though he should have known better, he left the bottle on the porch outside with the stirring stick still in it. When he came outside the next morning, he discovered a frozen, tasty treat that could be eaten right off the stick. He called it an Epsicle, and eventually changed the name to popsicle. A discipline issue with a forgetful child led to discovery of a beloved summertime snack.

Beyond the realm of food, back in the late 18th century, a man named Humphry Davey made an accidental discovery that changed the course of medicine forever. He was experimenting with nitrous oxide. The experiments he was doing were on himself and non-clinical. He was experimenting with the drug for recreational purposes and came to the realization that it made him laugh and it lessened pain. As an apprentice surgeon, it occurred to him that it could be used as anesthesia on patients. Ever since, laughing gas has been in use for mild surgeries. In this bizarre exception to any rule, pleasure seeking recreational drug use paving the way for medical discovery.

All of these examples are basically harmless, but they do raise the issue of what it means when good things happen, but the people who do them begin for the wrong reasons. We can ask the question if the intention of a person can diminish the outcome that arises from their deed? Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Tzav raises this very issue.

The Torah instructs us in making a freewill offering. It places specific time parameters during which you can eat it. It tells us we may eat it either on that same day or on the following day. But on the third day, the rest of it must be burned up. If, however, you eat any of the leftovers on the third day, the sacrifice does not count for you. It kind of sounds like the entire ritual would be made null and void. It seems to say that it can undo the good you performed in doing and consuming the sacrifice. But our sages reject that idea, that a mitzvah can be retroactively undone. Time moves forward. Furthermore, if a mitzvah can be undone, that might mean a transgression too can be undone. This is not how we understand the world. Undoing the good of a mitzvah would be a slippery slope. After all, the effects of transgression or sin cannot be erased—they can only be atoned for and then steer future behaviors. This is a much better lesson. Morality demands that we understand that every choice we make is permanent, and we cannot simply wipe away the past. The same is said of a mitzvah. The good of a mitzvah cannot be erased. Therefore the Torah has to be saying something else. Rashi gives us a different angle on this which turns this an ethical principle. He says it is less about when the sacrifice is eaten, but rather what is the person’s intention when setting out to perform a ritual. If you are thinking that you will save some meat for the third day, defying the command, then the entire sacrifice is invalid. This applies even to meat which you ultimately eat on the first or second day, and even if you end up not saving anything for the third day. The intention is the key. Ibn Ezra expands this lesson to the entirety of the practice, according to him, if at any point during the planning, execution, or consumption of the mitzvah, one’s intention is wrong, then it is for naught. These teachings are actually quite unusual. We generally say that Judaism is more concerned about end results of a mitzvah, here we have a definitive statement about motivation. It absolutely matters. You cannot set out to do something bad and then enjoy the fruits of a positive outcome.

For practical purposes, the words good and bad are vague. And it’s a little too easy to say that someone who is bent on destruction or violence does not deserve special credit for not following through. The question of intention is about whether or not it is self-serving. With the freewill offering, saving it until the third day is about acquisition and getting the most personal benefit from something that is supposed to be done for a benevolent purpose.

The very act of saving a life can be diminished by self-serving intentions. A classic example in recent years is the hedge fund manager Martin Shkrelli who purchased the rights to produce Daraprim, a medicine used in treating people with HIV. The cost to the public at the time Shkrelli bought the rights was $13.50 per pill. Overnight, he raised the price more than 5,000% to $750 per pill. The medicine can save a life, but Shkrelli’s only motivation is profit. Of course researchers, and doctors, and manufacturers are entitled to make a living, but with such an egregious price bump, the self-serving intention is exposed, and Shkrelli deserves no credit for participating in the act of saving a life. In fact, motivated by greed, he has probably condemned more people to illness and death for want of the money or insurance that will pay for it. Sadly, this was not without precedent. In the 1920’s, Canadian researchers developed insulin for treating diabetes. They sold the patent to the University of Toronto for a whopping three Canadian dollars. Their hope was they could hold the patent and keep prices low for the manufacturers who could then sell it to the public at an affordable price. This was not to be.  Nearly 7 million Americans who rely on insulin to live have watched prices skyrocket at an unbelievable clip. In 2001, one vial could cost as little as $35, already expensive considering how many one person needs per year. But by 2015, the price had risen to $234. In recent years, the price has surpassed $500 per vial and continues to rise. This is more than just the invisible hand of the market. This is mixed up motivation. The mitzvah of saving a life ought to be pure, or as close to pure as possible. But if it begins with a motivation for self-enrichment, like a free-will offering to be eaten on the third day, the deed is diminished.

If this applies to the greatest of all mitzvot, saving a life, it too must extend to every other endeavor. Our tradition wants us to want things, even material things. This is the foundational teaching of Yetzer HaRa and Yetzer Tov, the evil inclination and the good inclination. Without the evil inclination, we would not want to earn a living, build a house, have children, etc.. It is necessary for survival. But the motivation for all of these actions, if it is greed based, can lead to excess, callousness, and selfishness. That is why we develop throughout our lives the Yetzer tov, the good inclination, to wrap itself around our evil inclination, as we manage our intentions with measured desires as we seek to do great things in our world. The yetzer tov keeps us from doing things for the wrong reasons and leads us to mitzvot which are mutually beneficial for us and our neighbors. The Hebrew word for intention is kavanah. It is often used to describe prayer. While tradition maintains that simply saying the words of prayer is good, it is always best to pray with good kavana. This is true in prayer and in the performance of all mitzvot. When we begin with the best of intentions, the fruits of our work will have truly the best results.

On this Shabbat and every day after, way we all strive to pray, live, and learn with great Kavana, purity of intent.