VaYetze-Clinging to One’s Spouse

My sermon for this past Shabbat’s auf ruf

This week’s Torah portion features one of the best love scenes in the entire Torah. Jacob, after fleeing from the wrath of his brother and having the dream of the ladder with ascending and descending angels, arrives in Haran, seeking out his uncle Laban. Upon arriving there, he sees his cousin Rachel coming to water her sheep. Rachel could not water the sheep until all the shepherds roll the stone off the well. All the shepherds are needed to roll the stone, indicating its immense size. However, in a moment of passion Jacob rolls off the stone all by himself! He then waters all of the sheep, kisses Rachel and cries.

What a romantic scene! The knight in shining armor comes to chivalrously help the maiden in need and has a moment of superhuman strength to accomplish the necessary task. He then gets the girl, brings her home and decides to marry her. However, the task is not so easy. Uncle Laban makes Jacob work in the family business for 7 years, promising that he will give Jacob his beloved Rachel after that point. Jacob agrees and has so much passion for Rachel that the years pass by as if they were days. However, Laban tricks Jacob, giving him a veiled Leah instead! Jacob marries the wrong girl and is forced to work an additional 7 years for his beloved Rachel.

This story illustrates what I believe is a crucial life lesson: marriage takes hard work (literally)! What begins as a moment of passion, an infatuation or crush over another in a fairy-tale serenity will eventually be beset with the work involved in maintaining a marriage. That does not mean that the initial passion is forgotten or that the love goes away: the text indicates that Jacob stayed in love with Rachel for his entire life. However, that initial love blossoms into something even more beautiful: the creation of a new household. Two become one.

This line of thinking is consistent with the first line of the commentary: “And Jacob went out from Beer Sheva and he went to Haran.” Commentators ask why both parts of the verse are necessary?  Surely it would have been enough to just say “Jacob went to Haran.”  This is further troubling to commentators because the Bible never specified when Avraham and Isaac went out, so why does it do it for Jacob?

An answer to this is provided by Ephraim of Luntshitz, a 16th century commentator whose commentary is entitled Kli Yakar.  Ephraim said that unlike Abraham and Isaac, Jacob removed his thoughts from the place where his parents lived.  He quotes the Yalkut Shimoni, a 13th century Midrash, which says that Jacob’s sole focus became his new home in Haran with Rachel and Leah.  The midrash sees this as the central idea to be taken from the verse “A man should leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife.”  Therefore, Jacob’s going out, as indicated in the verse, was not merely a physical journey but a transformed mindset, focusing on his present life conditions rather than his past.

I would emend the biblical verse to indicate that while one might physically leave his/her parents upon getting married, s/he does not leave the teachings and values that his/her parents have taught. These go forward to setting up the new marriage and the present-day family dynamics. We take what we learned from growing up with our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and siblings as well as what we have learned from the world experience over the years and we add them to our household.

I think there is a lesson here for all of us: the importance of living in accordance with where we are now as opposed to where we were in the past.  To be like Jacob and Rachel, like Robert and Bari, and go out into a new present reality, is a challenge, yet it is one that I think we should all embrace.  This does not mean to completely disregard the past, nor does it mean to disregard the opinions from family members who know us, love us and care about us.  What it means is to not let our past perceptions of ourselves get in the way of where we are now.  Let us strive to be like Jacob and Rachel, continually basing our mindset on our present day reality.  In so doing, we will always be prepared to embrace today as it truly is and to make meaningful decisions about our present day lives.

Counting Our Blessings

As Thanskgiving approaches, it is time to count the blessings that we have in life. When I celebrated Thanksgiving in Milwaukee, my grandmother always used to say, “What are you thankful for?” Gratitude is a practice that I have adopted every time I lead a family service. When we read the Birchot HaShachar (morning blessings) I have us read in English (“Praised are you Adonai, source of blessing” and then have someone say what they are grateful for. Generally it is one of the basic staples of life: family, friends, food, clothing or shelter. I want to add a few things to this list for which I am grateful

1.) I am grateful to have a loving, supportive community in Jericho. It is not easy to move cross-country and begin a new job, and thanks to the support of congregants and friends, my wife and I have not only had a successful transition but a thriving one.

2.) I am grateful for the changing seasons: the leaves turning colors, the temperature fluctuations (as frustrating as they might be at times) and the raindrops and (not yet but soon to be) snowflakes.

3.) I am grateful to live in a country that judges its cases through juries and trials. While at times I disagree with the decisions (as in the grand jury’s recent acquittal in Ferguson) I appreciate having the opportunity to cases to be judged with due process of law.

4.) I am grateful to live in a country that encourages freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and free speech. While at times I disagree with opinions that I hear, I am grateful to have the opportunity to dialogue and hear diverse points of view.

5.) I am grateful for the Torah and the wisdom it imparts in how I live my life each and every day. Not only the written wisdom but also the spiritual wisdom that I find in reflection, in nature and in my community.

6.) I am grateful for friends who, though some live across the world or across the country, are never too far to call, text, ask advice from or learn from.

7.) I am grateful for my family always being there for me. My parents who raised me into the person I am today, my siblings who have encouraged me throughout my life journey, my grandmother who I often call and ask advice from, my uncles and aunts for always being there for me and last (but not least) my wife for being my life partner in every aspect, for always listening and working with me through life’s challenges and for loving me for who I am.

8.) I am grateful each morning I wake up to the sunrise that I have another day to try to make the world a better place.

May each of you have a happy, healthy and blessed Thanksgiving.

Fostering Harmony in a Multireligious Household

For those who did not see my response to this question in the Newsday article on Saturday November 8, here it is. The entire article can be accessed off of my News Articles page on this website.

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The key is open and frequent communication. The adults in the household need to let each other know their personal faith story — what parts of their faith they are passionate about and would like to incorporate into the household and what parts they are not comfortable with and would like to dissociate from their household. This could range from whether to put up a Christmas tree or Hanukkah menorah to what religion to raise children in — and everything in between.

In sharing one’s story, I would encourage empathetic listening between the partners and actively working together. This is holy work and, although messy at times, it is crucial to do.

If there are children, I feel the focus needs to be on what is in their best interests. Raising children in both faiths might be an approach a family takes but it is not a simple endeavor. More open communication between the partners will lead to well-thought-out decisions being made and a healthy household environment.

 At the Jericho Jewish Center, we are welcoming to households of different faiths, and my approach begins by actively listening to people’s stories and their aspirations for their families.

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Sermon After Synagogue Attack

Please remain standing for the Memorial Prayer.

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt-how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” Why am I quoting this, a section from Ki Tetzei also read on Shabbat Zachor, today, when we read Toledot? I had prepared a different sermon comparing Jacob and Esau to people with different learning needs, which I will plan to give next year. However, I feel the need to address today the atrocious murder that occurred on Tuesday in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.

As we unfortunately learned, two Palestinian cousins walked into a synagogue with a gun and meat cleavers, killing 4 rabbis: Rabbi Moshe Twersky (Isadore Twersky’s son and Joseph Soloveitchik’s grandson) z”l, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg z”l, Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky z”l, Rabbi Calman Levine z”l and Druze policeman Zidan Sayif z”l, all of blessed memory. The rabbis were davening their morning prayers, just as we have gathered today to pray to God. They were attacked at a moment of deep communication with the Almighty, a moment of vulnerability, just as Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur War over 40 years ago. Tallitot and Siddurim were bloodied; there were bullet holes in the synagogue wall and the loss of life, including that of the Head of the Yeshiva.

How many of you came to services today with the fear of a terrorist attack? How many of you have ever been afraid of going to a synagogue or Jewish event? While there are terror attacks against Jews in our country, we are fortunate that we can worship and live as we please without the daily fear of an attack.

When Steve Mann told be about the attack at Tuesday minyan, I immediately had two thoughts. First, the fact that I have been able to pray to God every morning at services without fear of an attack. I cannot imagine being in the middle of a prayer to God, in a state of great fervor and vulnerability, and all of a sudden being attacked by a terrorist. Secondly, I thought about a program I had attended called Heritage Retreats, of which the unstated goal was to make you baal teshuva and attend Yeshivat Machon Shlomo in Har Nof for one year. Machon Shlomo is down the street from Torat Moshe, the yeshiva where the shooting occurred. What would have been my reaction to hearing the sound of a gun or people being butchered to death?

I began my remarks with a reference to Amalek. Why? I certainly do not believe (as some claim) that all Arabs or all Muslims are Amalek. I have had enough experiences with moderate Islam not to believe this. What I do believe is that terrorists, who prey on innocent civilians, are exactly like Amalek. I learned from Rabbi Art Vernon of Congregation Shaaray Shalom in West Hempstead, who has a haredi (ultra-orthodox) daughter in Har Nof, that this site was deliberately planned by the terrorists. One of the two terrorists, Uday and Rassan Abu Jamal from East Jerusalem, worked next to the synagogue on Agassi Street. He knew that nearby there was another, modern Orthodox synagogue. However, the members of that synagogue, who have served in the Israeli army, all have guns, so the Abu Jamal cousins would have been shot dead upon entering. Therefore, the ultra-Orthodox synagogue was targeted, as its members do not serve in the Israeli army and do not have guns. This act, in my opinion, makes the brothers like Amalek: they went after innocent, defenseless Israelis with (in my opinion) the goal of killing as many as possible. As with Amalek, Israel cannot forget this action and must respond in kind until all terrorists, all traces of Amalek, are eliminated from the land.

You may have noticed 5 chairs on the Bimah, each of which has a picture of one of the deceased and an image from the murder. 4 of the chairs have a tallit (prayer shawl) and a siddur (prayerbook). This represents the 4 rabbis who were killed holding their siddurim in fervent prayers to God and wearing their bloody tallitot unto the moment of death. The 5th chair has an Israeli flag and represents the Druze police officer who was killed. Zidan Sayif gave his life to devotedly serving his homeland. He was a traffic cop called to the scene of a massacre, and we are grateful for what he did (and for what all the Israeli Druze do) to serve Israel.

I asked everyone to bring their favorite Siddur and wear their favorite Tallit and Kippah. My favorite Siddur is VaAni Tefilati, the Conservative movement’s Siddur in Israel. At one point it was the second best-selling book in all of Israel, indicating Israelis’ desire for a more liberal prayerbook by which to connect to God. The tallit that I am wearing contains images of Jerusalem to show solidarity with Israel today. The Kippah I am wearing, also with images of Jerusalem, was designed by Israeli artist Yair Emmanuel. All three of my ritual items come from or have connection to the Land of Israel. I would like to hear during Kiddush about your connections to your ritual items.

In the email I sent you I wrote about 4 things that each of us can do to show solidarity with Israel, one of which is being here today, another is joining me at the AIPAC Policy Conference to meet with our representatives and urge them about the importance of a strong US-Israel relationship, and a third is joining us on our congregational Israel trip next November. What I did not mention, which I want to touch on now is that everyone here 18 and older can vote in the elections for the upcoming World Zionist Congress. I will devote a sermon in January (when the elections open) to what is the World Zionist Congress, why it is important to vote and why I hope that everyone here will consider voting for MERCAZ, the Conservative movement’s party in the elections. However, I wanted to give a taste of it now because we often feel so powerless to do anything of influence in Israel yet in reality we do have power. We can vote in the elections to ensure that the World Zionist Congress has delegates who care about our issues regarding Israel.

The lessons I want to leave us with are the following. The terrorists are interested in targeting Jews-not just Zionists, not just Israelis but Jews. They will target the most vulnerable and defenseless members of our people. As in the case of Amalek, we cannot let them win. As Warren Kozak said at the Institute of Adult Jewish Studies this past Monday night, Israel needs to give a strong response to any terrorist action-and I believe Israel will. At the same time, we must stand strong and in solidarity with our brethren. The principle of kol yisrael arevin zeh bah zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another, is no more true than it is today. Even if we do not relate to the haredi world, which tends to be insular and not Zionist, it is imperative that we stand with our ultra-Orthodox brethren-for the attack could have just as easily been on us. For the terrorists a Jew is a Jew is a Jew-so for us all Jews must stand strong and together. Finally, please join us for morning and evening minyan, committing to at least one morning or one night per week. I thank those who have made their commitments and ask others to do so for us to stand strong as a community, celebrating our constitutional principles of freedom of assembly and freedom of worship and helping those in our congregation who need a minyan to say Kaddish.

Cantor Black will now sing HaTikvah so we can show our solidarity with Israel. Please rise and face the Israeli flag.

A Father for Israel

Father Nadaf

At a New York Board of Rabbis event yesterday I was privileged to learn from Father Gabriel Nadaf, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Nazareth. Father Nadaf has been persecuted by Muslim leaders for his urging Arab Christians to enter the Israeli Defense Forces. Nadaf wants Christians to become integrated into Israeli society, where they have lived so well under the State of Israel. For these words he has received numerous death threats as well as threats to his economic security. Abbas has urged Greek Orthodox patriarch to eliminate Nadaf’s position, thereby depriving him of his livelihood, because of Nadaf’s belief that Christian Arabs must ally themselves with their Jewish bretheren and actively support their homeland of Israel.

It was such a blessing to get to meet and learn from Father Nadaf, who met us at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue because of the security of that building. I cannot imagine his life, in which he is constantly surrounded by security, his home surrounded by surveillance and his son was beat up to the point of near-death because of Father Nadaf’s views. Father Nadaf reports that thankfully his son is almost healed from the attack and in 1 month he will enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces.

I wish there were more non-Jews like Father Nadaf in Israel, so that he was not a lone voice living each day in danger. I understand that others are afraid of speaking out, and what I found most impressive about Father Nadaf is that he is not afraid. As he pointed out, he already has a $3 million bounty on his head from Hamas so “enough of doing things in secret.” I pray that Father Nadaf will be a leader within the Greek Orthodox Church for years to come, hopefully one day having the blessing of becoming the Patriarch. We need more Father Nadafs!

Deaths of the Innocent?

To Newsday’s credit, their article about the Jerusalem shooting (“Five Murdered at Morning Prayers”) was much better than most. It humanized Rabbi Mosheh Twersky (z”l), speaking of his connections to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (z”l) and of his love for Torah. It also mentioned the strong condemnation of the attack from the Obama administration and its praise from Hamas. However, one thing that surprised me was a bullet point at the top of the second page, stating Israel vows to retaliate for deaths of the ‘innocent.’ Innocent in quotation marks? The implication appears to be that these rabbis and the Druze policeman were not innocent, or perhaps the authors of the article are asserting that this event was (as Abbas stated) a result of the “provocation” of the IDFs action in blocking Muslims from ascending the Temple Mount. I hope this is not the case, for if it is then the authors are sorely mistaken.

As I learned yesterday, this synagogue was specifically targeted because it was Haredi (ultra-orthodox). Haredim do not serve in the Israeli army and they do not carry guns with them to worship, as the modern orthodox do. They also tend not to be Zionist, or at least political Zionists. The two brothers who orchestrated the attack knew that they could not target a right-wing, Zionist synagogue because the worshipers carry guns and they would have been shot dead on the spot.* The fact that they targeted an ultra-orthodox synagogue illustrates that they were not going after Zionists or the people who are calling for a return to Jewish control of the Temple Mount. Rather, they were going after whichever Jews were vulnerable enough against whom to launch a successful attack. That is why I compared the perpetrators to Amalek because the nation of Amalek did the exact same thing against the Israelites: attacking the weak and the vulnerable.

I hope that Newsday recognizes this mistake. To write ‘innocent’ implies that the victims were not innocent, which is an implication Newsday should NOT be making. This was not an attack against soldiers-rather it was an attack against innocent civilians who have immigrated to the land of Israel to make it their home. I hope Newsday is more careful with its use of punctuation in the future.

*I learned this from Rabbi Art Vernon of Congregation Shaaray Shalom in West Hempstead who has family in Har Nof, where the shooting occurred.

The Yeshiva Attack

When I attended Tuesday morning minyan (our prayer service) I was told about a horrific shooting at the Torat Moshe Yeshiva in Har Nof. Two Palestinian cousins, using meat cleavers and a gun, stormed the yeshiva and killed 4 people, including the Rosh Kollel (Head of the Yeshiva). 3 of the 4 were dual citizens with America. We said Psalm 130 at the end of services in solidarity with Israel.

This attack brought two images to my mind. First, the fact that I have been able to pray to God every morning at services without fear of an attack. I cannot imagine being in the middle of a prayer to God, in a state of great fervor and vulnerability, and all of a sudden being attacked by a terrorist. Secondly, it reminded me of when I attended a Heritage Retreats program in Santa Barbara, California, for which the unstated goal was to get participants to sign up for a year of yeshiva in Har Nof. While the yeshiva they wanted us to attend was Machon Shlomo, it made me think about what if I had decided to study in yeshiva and there was a terrorist attack down the street? What would have been my reaction to hearing the sound of the gun or people being butchered to death? How would I have reacted hearing that talleism (prayer shawls) were covered in blood?

The brutality of attacking when people are praying to God also reminded me of the attacks of the Yom Kippur War. For some reason, our holy moments of prayer, when we are not focused on this world but rather on our relationship with God, become used against us as a source of vulnerability. It reminds me of Amalek, attacking our ancestors when they were offguard, unprepared. Not only is it cowardly, but more importantly it is barbaric and sickening. I pray for better times in Israel but also that Israel (in the words of Warren Kozak, who I heard last night), sends “a strong response.” To not do so will (unfortunately, in my opinion) show our enemies that they have a green light for future terrorist attacks.