Loyalty to our country and our faith… No one can question it or take it away. Sermon for 8-23-2019

I remember the day Jen and I first expanded our family. Just a few months before our wedding we decided to get a dog. We went to the Memphis Humane Society and selected this beautiful Chow mix with a red mane and glassy eyes who just stole our hearts. We imagined taking her home, her sitting at our feet, obeying our every command, and never barking except to warn us about an intruder. She was going to be the perfect dog, loyal and obedient in every way. Well, the next day, I went by myself to sign the adoption papers. They gave me a simple rope leash, and as soon as I took it in my hand, she started to pull in every direction but forward. My shoulder rotated at angles it wasn’t designed for, and then I switched hands and she ran through my legs wrapping me up like a lassoed steer. I finally got her to the car, pushed her in, and she jumped out the window on the other side and led me on a chase all over midtown Memphis. After I finally wrangled her back to the car, covered in sweat and out of breath, I took her home. Soon it was time to name her.  That night, Jen and I sat across the room from our new dog. She lay down against the wall, as far from us as she could be. She gave us a skeptical look. One name was instantly ruled out. Fido. It was too cliché anyway. Fido, as you know, means loyal, and that is a trait we associate with dogs. However, this dog had disabused me of that myth. She was anything but Fido. She did look like a lion, so we named her Nala.

Thinking back on Nala, and our first days with her, I have learned some important lessons about loyalty.

I expected loyalty because Nala should have been grateful for being released from the humane society. However, she had not had the best experience with people in the past, and so her trust would have to be earned.

I expected loyalty because we gave her food. But she had some food aggression early on. It would take time before she would learn to trust that we were not going to take it away from her

I expected loyalty because that is just what dogs do, but if we did not exercise our duty of care, to protect her, to bathe her, to walk her, and look after her health, then she would never give her loyalty to us.

Now Nala was a particularly stubborn dog, a typical trait of the Chow breed. I always say, she was not a dog that we trained, but rather a dog with which we reached an agreement. Over time she became a loyal, faithful member of the family. But that trust was earned over time.

With people, of course, it is different, but there are similarities. Loyalty should never be taken for granted. Loyalty is earned over repeated, positive interactions which build trust, and which make us feel safe. This is especially true in situations where there is a power differential. The person with power might expect blind loyalty by virtue of their position, but if they are abusive towards others, trample on their values, or continually degrade the people whom they lead, then loyalty is at best, a charade. At worst that loyalty is coerced through fear. True loyalty is earned through mutual respect.

This past week, the President of the United States questioned the loyalty of American Jews, specifically the nearly 80% who vote Democrat. This is nothing new, for Jews to be accused of disloyalty. It is an age-old anti-Semitic trope that we are mysterious others, with exotic practices, who cannot be trusted. Feeding into this idea, the President simultaneously questioned our loyalty to our country, our loyalty to each other, and our loyalty to the State of Israel. Presumably, he believes that anyone who does not agree with his policy stances is disloyal because he sees himself as the ultimate representation of America and as the greatest Defender of Israel in history. The President expects loyalty by virtue of his position, like we all should be grateful dogs looking for a treat. He expects that we should all just fall in line even though his opinions are debatable, and his policies, in the eyes of many, do not represent the best of American values or of Israeli values. Of course there are many who are happy with his decisions and his support for Prime Minister Netanyahu. But to disagree with them, or to believe there is a better way, is not disloyal. To voice our disagreement is an expression of loyalty– loyalty to something bigger than men who happen to be in seats of power

To understand the expectations of loyalty in America, we can look to the the oath of allegiance taken by immigrants who become naturalized citizens. While few of us have taken this oath, it is very much worth knowing the words, and hearing what is included in it. It is likewise important to hear what is not included. It says:.

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

To whom does one swear allegiance in America? Notice the absence of any elected office, especially the absence of the word President. So to whom do we owe our loyalty. It’s actually not to a “whom.” Our loyalty goes to a “what.” That what is the Constitution. The Constitution is the Law of the Land, and by swearing allegiance to it, a citizen pledges to be governed by the rule of law. If you look into the sample questions on the United States naturalization and immigration website, it will say that implicit in the rule of law is that nobody is above the law. That means, under no circumstance does anyone, at any time, for any reason,  have to pledge loyalty to a person, not even to the President. Expecting such loyalty would be absurd, especially with our two party system. No one has to pledge allegiance to the person they did not vote for. They merely accept that another person or party will be the appointed stewards of the Constitution. Even if they voted for the winner, the duty of allegiance never changes. Allegiance is owed to the higher ideals of law. In fact, to expect our loyalty to elected leaders is to invert the order of things. As caretakers of the law, they should be working to please us, to seek our approval, and not the other way around.

As to whom we owe our loyalty as Jews, as far back as biblical times, loyalty was reserved for God. That loyalty was represented through observance of the laws as laid out in the Torah. Even during the time when there was a king in Israel, that king never ruled as anything more than a designated governor tasked with administering the law. And the kings were fallible. From the outset, the very notion of having a king was suspect. In fact, in the Book of First Samuel, when the Saul is rising to the position of king, the people cry out that they sinned just by asking to have a king. They seemed to know the potential pitfalls that came with placing a human in a position of such high command. The Prophet Samuel warned them about the threats of corruption:

[A king] will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen… they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons… He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers.  14 He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers… 18 The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen;

Still the people persisted, for they desired political leadership and were willing to take the risk. Nevertheless, ingrained in this story is healthy skepticism of kings and their motives. The king was to be, an administrator of the law, and, at the same level same as his subjects, the king was to be answerable to the source of law and life. No one was to be above the law. As far as loyalty was concerned, the king had a solemn responsibility to God and to the people he served. The Book of Samuel even refers to some men who doubted Saul’s worthiness, and in response, Saul made no accusations. No. Instead, he remained silent, knowing he had to earn their trust.

Now, when Saul was anointed as Israel’s King, he did not take a formal oath.  He did however receive some warning. This instruction was given by Samuel to the king and to all of Israel:

“If you will revere the LORD, worship Him, and obey Him, and will not flout the LORD’s command, if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, well and good.

And it goes on, “Above all, you must revere the LORD and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; and consider how grandly He has dealt with you.  For if you persist in your wrongdoing, both you and your king shall be swept away.”

The people and the king are equally commanded and warned. The only loyalty is to God and law. To make that abundantly clear, the law of the monarchy is established by the Prophet Samuel who acts only at the behest of God. This forever cements the role of the Prophet. The Prophet is the check and balance against government corruption. The Prophet Nathan famously called out King David for killing Uriah and stealing his wife. The Prophet Jeremiah called out King Jeohiakim’s abuses of power to build his palace. The Prophet is the voice of the people who can never be rendered powerless as long as their faith remains. The prophet is the guarantor that loyalty is not pledged to people, but to the highest ideals of justice, equality, and peace as taught in the Torah.

About Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

The prophet was an individual who said no to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions … His fundamental objective was to reconcile man and God… due to man’s false sense of sovereignty, to his abuse of freedom, to his aggressive, sprawling pride…

So, a Jew owes no loyalty to anyone but God. That loyalty is manifest, even for the agnostics and atheists among us, in the way we uphold the highest values of Torah. And an American owes no allegiance to any person who may hold a false sense of sovereignty. Our allegiance is only to the Constitution and for the values of liberty and the pursuit of happiness for which it stands. Furthermore, we owe no loyalty to a leader of the State of Israel, or any foreign prince, potentate, or State. We can hold Israel’s security as a high value, and we can celebrate the wonders of a modern Jewish state, while at the same time acknowledging its flaws and areas for improvement. We can believe that our government and the government of Israel must work harder at upholding the ideals of their founding documents. That does not mean we are abandoning them or being treasonous to either. We are loyal to the ideals, and not to the people currently charged with governance. We have long known that all men are fallible, and no one is above doubt or reproach.

 

As American Jews, our allegiances to Torah and to the Constitution meld together perfectly, for the Constitution demands nothing antithetical to the practice of Judaism. In fact, the Constitution guarantees every citizen’s right to practice their religion. And the Torah demands of us to comport ourselves in ways that love our neighbors and lead us on paths to peace. They go together. And if ever, the two laws should come into conflict, we have a standing principle called Dina d’malchuta. It is an Aramaic term stating that the law of our country supersedes ritual laws of Judaism. For this reason do state marriage licenses get signed before Ketubahs, the Jewish marriage licenses. For this reason do we first have to report deaths to state organizations and abide by their rules before performing our burial rituals. They do not prevent our Jewish practice. Likewise, Jewish practice does not impede the following of the law in our land.

This is something that has been lost by some in recent conversations. American Jews, or Jewish Americans, have the right to participate in the governing process, each according to their own conscience. Holding on to high ideals, loyalty is not questioned. We may disagree about their application, but that is nothing new among the Jewish people. We have volumes upon volumes of books detailing our disagreements over thousands of years. But at the end of the day, our loyalty cannot be questioned. Kol Yisrael aravin zeh v’zeh. All or Israel is responsible for one another, and we point our loyalty in the same direction, to no man or king, but to the source of life. Likewise, Jewish Americans feel a deep bond with our fellow Americans and in the struggle to create a more perfect union. We have spilled our blood for this country, we have worked for this country, we have served in all branches of government for this country. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist. Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green Party, Northerner, Southerner, Midwesterner, West Coast, East Coast, we are all very much proud and loyal to Judaism and to American, and no one, no man of flesh and blood can question that or take it away.

 

 

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To Deceive or Receive the Stranger- Sermon for Shelach Lecha (31st anniversary of my Bar-Mitzvah), June 28, 2019

So I’m listening to a podcast, as I frequently do as I drive down the mountain. They are talking about the near destruction of the Walt Disney company in the mid 80’s. Cash strapped from budget overruns on building EPCOT Center, an investment group comes in to attempt a hostile takeover. What I learned was there is a common ploy to fend off a hostile takeover. The thing to do is intentionally make your company look as unappealing as possible. This is done by taking on lots of extra debt and devaluing stock. So Disney spends 200 million dollars to buy a real estate company, and then 337 million dollars to buy the Gibson Greeting Card Company of Cincinnati, OH. Neither purchase makes much sense for the entertainment company. But through these actions, they intentionally make the company less appealing to a potential buyer. It is kind of the classic Scooby Doo plot where they fake having a haunted house to scare away the new owners. Instead of a haunted house, it was a haunted balance sheet. And they would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. This strategy always failed on Scooby Doo, and it actually almost backfired on Disney in the 80’s. It was a fairly harmless deception, and it is an accepted finance strategy. Still the idea of using deception to frighten people away is strange, especially when we are taught that welcome is a value, not to mention honesty. Just the same, it is intriguing and is a subject we encounter in this week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Shelach Lecha, Moses sends 12 spies to check out the land of Canaan. They are supposed to report back to verify the goodness of this land, their destination, the land which has been promised to them. When they return, they declare it is indeed a fruitful place flowing with milk and honey, but 10 out of the 12 spies declare that it is too dangerous to go there.

“It is a land that devours its people. The people are giants,” they say. “We felt like grasshoppers compared to them, and so we must have looked to them.” This last part is rather important, and often overlooked. They say, “we looked like grasshoppers.” Just how good are these spies if they are seen during their mission? Even worse, they know they have been seen. Rashi tells us the spies have heard the Canaanites talking about ants in the vineyards that look like people. In the Talmud, it tells us the same Canaanites see men like grasshoppers in a tree. So we have 12 spies hiding in a tree trying to be inconspicuous. It’s like a Keystone Cops version of the Torah. These are the worst spies ever. They have been made, and then they fall for a clever trick. Rather than attack or imprison them, the Canaanites show the spies exactly what they want them to see. Their hope is they will go back to their brethren and convince them not to come. It really is brilliant. Various commentators tell us, that the land devouring its people alludes to the many funerals the spies witness in the short time they are there. We can assume maybe these funerals are staged to make the land seem dangerous. We are also told that the men of the land, all the ones they see are of great size. We read nothing about the men they do not see. This means only the largest of the men are paraded before the spies. This also opens the door to the possibility that these giant men are ringers. They are identified as Nephilim, which can be interpreted as the amazing ones. The spies are amazed to see them, perhaps because they do not really belong there. They are hired to look menacing and deter the Israelite invasion.

Anyhow, we wonder why do the Canaanites have to go through all this trouble? We are told they are stronger, and they know they are mightier. They should have nothing to fear… Yet their strategy of deterrence is born of fear. We gain this insight by turning to the Haftarah portion from the book of Joshua. We encounter a similar spying episode. Instead of hiding in a tree, the spies hide in the house of a woman name Rahav. After she sends away the soldiers who had been looking for the spies, she tells the spies everyone in her land is afraid. “Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the Land are quaking before you.” So if we step back and look at the story of the spies in Shelach Lecha, it is not about the spies’ fears. Rather it is about the unusual lengths people will go to when they are driven by fear and therefore a desire to repel strangers.

It is a surprising twist from the behavior we might expect from an enemy nation in the Torah. Putting on a show to deter the Israelites seems awfully quaint by biblical standards. One might expect more extreme deterrents like we read about with enemy nations. They do things like capturing and imprisoning the opposition without trial, then treating them with cruelty, forcing them to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, showing little to no concern for the on-going nutrition and health concerns for those prisoners, some of who might die under those conditions in the custody of the Cannanite captors.  All of these things could be effective deterrents to anyone else who dares cross the border. They would be a show of a very different kind from the one the Canaanites choose to perform.

Unfortunately, not everyone responds to fear of the stranger the same way. Our own nation in the current day has chosen to put on a show for potential asylum seekers and immigrant at our southern border. The show we put on is a display of unfairness coupled with cruelty. The intent is not to process these waves of potential immigrants, or even to punish the ones who cross illegally, as most of those detained are seeking a legal asylum process. No. This is about deterrence. I call this a show because it does not represent who we really are as a nation. Most of us still believe in Emma Lazarus’s poem which is engraved on the Stature of Liberty, “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We are a nation of immigrants who therefore have no cause to be afraid of immigrants. All of our ancestors were once feared for their capacity to be a drain on the system, or to take jobs away, or to bring crime corruption and disease with us. But history and experience have shown, in the main, this has not born out. Each wave of immigrants have found their place and made us a stronger, more prosperous nation. So truly, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sadly, fear is driving our policy and causing, as it did for the Canaanites in our Torah portion, aberrant behaviors. Unfortunately, the psychological warfare is much worse than hiring giants and staging funeral. It is family separations, children in cages, lack of soap and blankets, unsanitary conditions, lack of medical care. The purpose for all of this, is not even about the people currently in detention centers. It is more cynical than that. As we cause permanent damage and suffering to thousands of children and thousands more adults, the apparent intent is to deter the next group of impoverished, desperate people from approaching our country. It will be years before we understand the humanitarian toll of our current policies, but it will not be legacy to be proud of. And yet, despite all of this, immigrants keep coming.

Perhaps they know something, that this cruelty is not who America really is, that this is just a temporary deception, and that we will eventually come to our senses as the beacon of freedom, decency, and compassion we have always claimed to be.  Perhaps they are following the pattern of the two dissenting spies in our story, the ones who see the giants and the land devouring its people, and know in their hearts, it is still better than where they are in the barren wilderness, and where they have been as slaves. Or maybe they see through the act, and like the dissenting spies say, nevertheless “have no fear of this people.” And perhaps, most importantly, they keep coming because they still believe in the America that we have collectively forgotten to be.

In the Torah portion, the Canaanites choose between peaceful and violent deterrents. Surprisingly, they make a peaceful choice. Still it is a choice based on deception. What they fail to consider is a third option, the one our nation must return to, which is, when meeting the stranger who wishes to dwell with you, drop your baseless fears and open your gates with the knowledge the land is good. It is big enough and the resources are great enough. So please come, share them with us as neighbors. It is the honest choice, the peaceful choice, the humane choice.

May we soon see an end to cruelty as compassion reigns, and may those needing shelter and asylum find justice and fair opportunities to know the safety and prosperity that we enjoy, and to which all are entitled.

 

 

 

 

“THOU SHALL NOT ASK…” — a story for First Friday, June 7, 2019

Tonight, I want to talk about a very strange piece of Talmud I discovered the other day. It says, “You are commanded to say things that will be listened to.” In other words, if you know it’s good advice that someone will accept, you may not keep it to yourself. You absolutely MUST say it. On the other hand, and this is where it gets weird, the Talmud also says, “But you are commanded not to say things that will not be listened to.” This means parents would never talk to their kids! And I’d stop giving sermons at Yom Kippur. No no.. just kidding. I’d do it anyway. Just like tonight. Whether you listen or not, they pay me to talk. So I am going to tell you a story, and it will include this little bit of Talmud I just spoke about. And we will hear that story, after we sing Hinei Ma Tov. How Good it is to be here tonight as friends, as we celebrate this Shabbat.

 

 

Once upon a time, in the old country, there was a very successful banker named Kaspi. He was very clever. Every project he touched made a lot of money. You know about Rocekfeller and Rothchild. You may have heard of Bezos and Buffett… Warren not Jimmy. Although Jimmy does alright for himself. While he wastes away in Margaritaville, he finally can replace his lost shaker of salt. Anyway, all of these famous rich people were nothing compared Kaspi. Next to him they’d all be schnorrers. If they had property, he had estates. If they had mansions, he’d have palaces. If they had Mercedes, he had Bentleys, or whatever the equivalent would have been in 19th century Poland… probably a bunch of fancy horses pulling a buggy… a really nice buggy, a surrey even, with a fringe on top. And it had leather seats and a sound system, and by sound system I mean his own personal Klezmer band that just rode around with him all day. It’s not exactly XM radio, but for his time, Kaspi was living in style. He was the envy of his town…. But despite all of his wealth, he also had a tragic flaw, which I will tell you about in a bit.

For now, we think about confronting our own shortcomings as we take action, rising together, as we hear the call to worship.

 

 

So Kaspi this wealthy man of the old country, successful in so many ways had a terrible flaw. He was selfish. The people of the town knew you could never ask Kaspi for anything, because he wouldn’t even listen. He’d just say no. It was like he wrote the lyrics for Meghan Trainor’s pop song. “My name is no. My sign is no. My number is No.” And one might imagine Kaspi sending people away singing, “Nah to the ah to the no no no.” They just don’t write lyrics like that any more. But if they did, we could be sure that Kaspi would be there to collect his royalties. To be sure, Kaspi paid his taxes. He paid his dues to his synagogue. He even paid into the building fund, but he always paid the bare minimum. He was like an orange that only gave a drop of juice, when he could have filled hundreds of glasses. People used to wonder what he did with all of his wealth, weather he slept on piles of cash, or ate bullion, no the soup but bullion, like gold coins. They wondered if he counted his money all day long, or if he just thew bunches of money in the air and shouted, wheeee! Kaspi was a total mystery. The only thing people knew for sure about him is that his answer was always “No.” So they just never asked, until one day… and I will tell you about that one day soon. For now we think about caring for one another beyond our basic needs. We pray for shelter, and whatsmore we pray for that shelter to be protected throughout the night. We ask God, and if we really listen, we ask ourselves to help one another to achieve this goal.

 

 

So one day, Rabbi Yisroel showed up at Kaspi’s door. He came with a whole entourage of community leaders. The rabbi knocked, and Kaspi politely invited everyone inside. They made small talk. The weather is nice. The Czar is a schlemiel. The synagogue is fine… can’t believe how early the holidays are this year… you know the usual. But then Kaspi knew the rabbi had to be there for a reason, so he cut to the chase.

“My dear rabbi, I know you have come to ask me for something. What is it?” Kaspi readied himself to say no. But his tongue had barely touched his palate when the rabbi surprised him.

“Actually, I came to not ask you for something.”

Kaspi was bewildered. “What on earth do you mean?”

“Well,” the rabbi explained, “We have a commandment, Ask for what you want only if you will be listened to. If you will not be listened to, do not ask for what you want. So I have come to fulfill the commandment of NOT asking. This is the perfect place to observe this commandment, because more than anyone in this whole town, I know YOU will not listen if I ask for what I want.”

This got Kaspi’s attention, and piqued his curiosity. He wanted to know what the rabbi wanted. “Well, my good rabbi, perhaps you’ve got it wrong. Maybe, if you tell me what you want, I WILL listen this time.”

“Ohhhh, no, no, no, no,” rebutted the rabbi. “I’m not falling for your mind games, Mr. Kaspi. Your reputation precedes you. I know you won’t listen. So now I bid you adieu.”

The rabbi walked out the door with his entourage following. And following the entourage, there was Kaspi walking right behind them…. And I will tell you what he did in a moment.

First, just as the rabbi needed to get Kaspi’s attention, we try to get God’s attention with this series of blessings. We ask for God to continue treating us with kindness just like our ancestors, and to do this, we pray first that our mouths may open with good words which will truly be listened to.

 

 

Kaspi followed the rabbi from his home all the way to the synagogue. In the rabbi’s office, he confronted the rabbi.

“I must know what you want.”

“Ok.” The rabbi relented. “There is an older woman who owes a great deal of money to your bank…”

Kaspi cut him off. “Hold it right there. No. No. I can’t help.”

“You see,” said Rabbi Yisroel, “You didn’t listen. This is why I don’t ask.  Meanwhile, next week, you are going to take her house and she will be homeless.”

Kaspi shook his head. “But I can’t forgive her debt. It’s the bank she owes, not me. I’m just a manager. It’s not my place to…”

“A clever man,” said the rabbi, “can invent many reasons to say no. Good day sir. ”

“But…” Kaspi tried to interject.

“I said Good Day, sir.” And Kaspi walked home quietly, but deep in thought.

The next day Kaspi went to see Rabbi Yisroel again…. And I will tell you about that in a bit.

For now, in the midst of conflict like we hear about in our story, we pray for peace to end all disputes and spread throughout the earth. We pray together on page 179.

 

 

The next day, Kaspi showed up at the synagogue and interrupted a class the rabbi was teaching. He pleaded, “You have to understand. People have debts with the bank. The bank has to collect them. If they don’t the bank goes bankrupt. That wouldn’t be fair.”

The rabbi turned to his class. “Do you see how he refuses to listen?”

With this, Kaspi got red in the face. “I have to take her house. Rules are rules. I have no choice!”

“Aha,” shouted Rabbi Yisroel. “I was waiting for you to say that you had no choice. For now I am certain, beyond any measure of doubt, that if I asked for what I want, you definitely would not listen.”

The rabbi pointed to the door, and said, “Now make like a tree and get out of here.”

But Kaspi could not help himself. He came back the next day, and I will tell you about that…. Right now. He hadn’t slept, he hadn’t eaten, he’d been pacing his palatial estate all night.

“Rabbi Yisroel,” he began agitated. “She doesn’t just owe money. She owes a lot of money.”

The rabbi answered him, “A lot or a little. No matter. You still would not listen.”

“Stop saying that!” Kaspi was at the end of his rope. “Fine. I’ll pay her debt myself, but don’t you dare ever ask me for anything again!”

But Rabbi Yisroel just smiled and shook Kaspi’s hand. “It is a fine think you are doing. Such a Mitzvah. But why, I must ask, are you angry with me? I never asked you for anything.”

The debt was paid. The woman got to stay in her home. And Rabbi Yisroel taught us how to fulfill the Mitzvah of not asking for things. May we all be such mensches. And may we always be willing to listen whether someone asks us to or not.

We continue with a prayer, which even though we can never be certain it is fulfilled, it is always our hope that it will be heard and that people who are sick or suffering may be comforted and brought to refua shleima. Complete and total healing of mind body and spirit.

 

 

 

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.”

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.

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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.

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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.