The Theory of Everything

Karina and I were looking to get out after the blizzard yesterday so we went to see The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking. I like seeing movies after the Oscar nominations come out, and had already seen Selma and The Imitation Game. I had first learned about Dr. Hawking in Physics class in high school, and found his work fascinating (especially his struggles about whether to acknowledge a creator of the world). The technology that Dr. Hawking used to speak sounded exactly like I had remembered it.

The one thing I will never understand is how Dr. Hawking is so anti-Israel when the technology that enables him to communicate with the world was produced in Israel. I would hope that Dr. Hawking would learn to appreciate Israel’s technological innovations and appreciate that physics and politics are two separate fields.

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The Hidden Kippah

I remember visiting synagogues in Europe and noticing that after services, the men would take off their kippot. These were religious men who were Sabbath observant, so why would they take off their kippah? Because the value of pikuah nefesh, saving themselves from getting beaten up or tormented, took precedence over wearing a kippah.

I read in yesterday’s Newsday about a “hidden kippah,” made out of real or synthetic hair, that one clips on from the inside. This product was made in Rehovot, Israel and is being marketed in particular to French Jews. I had mixed feelings about reading the article. On the one hand, I appreciate that it helps those who want to wear a kippah yet are afraid to. On the other hand, I felt saddened that people would have to hide their kippot, the symbols of their Jewish identity. I pray for the day when Jews from all over the world will be able to wear the kippah of their choice, whether it is a colorful kippah like mine, a velvet kippah. a white kippah or a different variation. May the day come soon when fellow Jews from all around the world will be able to proudly wear a kippah, rather than hide this integral part of their identity.

The Jewish Community-Parshat Bo

In this week’s portion, Moses demonstrates that he is a leader for the entire community. After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh gave in and says “Go and worship your G-d in the desert; who will be the ones to go?” Moses replied, “Our young and our old will go.” This angered Pharaoh who would only allow the men to go. Pharaoh knew that if everyone left they would not return, so he wanted to hold some of the people back. Moses, however, said that either all the Israelites would go or none of them would.

Why did Moses argue for the children to come? The medieval commentator Chizkuni states that “the way of children is to celebrate.” Rabbi Harold Kushner brings two alternative interpretations in The Etz Hayim Humash: that “no celebration is complete without children” and that “a child without parents is an orphan but a nation without children is an orphan people.” The last point is especially poignant, without the children there is no future.

The commentaries are great at emphasizing the children but I believe it is equally important that Moses said the elderly must go as well. Elders bring wisdom to the community through their past lived experiences. They also provide a sense of historical precedent as to why things are as they are. Moses knew that just as the children are necessary so too are the older individuals. As we must look towards the future, so must we also remember the past and what brought us to this present day. Moses felt it was important that everyone be able to leave Egypt, regardless of their age. This has a lot to say for how the Jewish community works: that everyone is a valued member of our community. The way of a successful synagogue is to leave no one behind, showing each person that he or she has a valued, integral place in our community. Let us be like Moses and open doors for everyone to enter into our congregation, whether it be those who are single or married, young families or empty nesters, traditional or secular, inmarried or intermarried. That is how we will perpetuate and give value to our Jewish community.

World Zionist Congress: Support MERCAZ!

As I mentioned in November, I will be devoting this sermon to the history of the World Zionist Congress and why I believe it is important to vote in the elections, which began on Tuesday and which continue until April 30. What is the World Zionist Congress? It is a convening body that determines the policies of the World Zionist Organization, which was set up to “build an infrastructure to further the cause of Jewish settlement in Palestine,” and today in Israel. The congress dates back to August 1897, when it was first convened by Theodore Herzl at Basel, Switzerland. It currently meets once every 4 years in Israel.

The World Zionist Congress has undergone a number of changes, signified by Programs. The most recent is the Jerusalem Program of 2004 which states:

The foundations of Zionism are:

  • The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital, in the life of the nation;
  • Aliyahto Israel from all countries and the effective integration of all immigrants into Israeli Society.
  • Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.
  • Ensuring the future and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people by furthering Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education, fostering spiritual and cultural values and teaching Hebrew as the national language;
  • Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people, and struggling against all manifestations of anti-Semitism;
  • Settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism.

 

One of the conditions for voting in the election is acceptance of the Jerusalem Program.

Why should we care about this? We should care because the World Zionist Congress is one of the main ways we can enhance the presence of the Conservative Movement in Israel. At the Congress there are a total of 500 delegates, and the United States has the second highest number of delegates allotted to it (145). The Congress works like the Knesset in having elections in which one votes for a political party. The Conservative Movement has a party, called Mercaz. In previous years, Mercaz has been the second highest vote-getter after Artza, the Reform Movement’s party. Why does it matter? First and foremost the elections will determine how much money Masorti (Conservative) Judaism will receive in Israel. Currently it receives $2.5 million annually, which are used to support the almost 60 Masorti congregations in Israel as well as in Europe and South America. Secondly, more votes for MERCAZ increases the Jewish Agency’s support of the TALI Schools. Unlike in America, schools are divided between those which are secular and those which are religious. In the past this has meant that a school was either secular or Orthodox, but now there is a third option: TALI schools (Tarbut Lemudi Yisraeli), which offer enhanced Jewish studies within a Conservative Jewish framework. Thirdly, the more votes for MERCAZ means the more delegates, enabling those delegates to form a bloc which can be used to influence policy decisions important to us, such as the recognition of Masorti (Conservative) conversions and marriages in Israel. In addition, it could mean more government-funded positions for Masorti rabbis. Until recently, only Orthodox rabbis were funded by the Israeli government, but now 6 Masorti rabbis are in government-funded positions. This enables Masorti congregations, some of which have not hired rabbis because they cannot fund them, will be able to have a rabbi in their community.

I hope this demonstrates the importance of having as many votes for MERCAZ as possible. In past years only 180,000 Americans have voted in the elections, and there is so much room for improvement. While MERCAZ has been the second highest vote-getter in the past, that is not guaranteed to continue, as there are more and more parties participating in the election, including a Jewish National Fund Party and Shas. While I would not tell anyone how to vote, I will say that if you care about the issues important to Conservative Judaism, whether it be Conservative rabbis’ life-cycle events being recognized, an option for egalitarianism in Israel or an option for a “middle way” between secular and Orthodox education, that you consider voting for MERCAZ.

It costs $10 per adult and $5 per full-time student aged 18-30 to vote in the election, a fee which simply covers the administrative costs of running the election. The voting period is from January 15 to April 30. To vote please go to the World Zionist Organization’s website (wzo.co.il) after Shabbat. I have also e-mailed out the link to the site from MERCAZ. May we work together to support the betterment of Israel. Shabbat Shalom.

When There is No Man

ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש……

…Va’yifen koh vachoh vayar ki ein ish…

 

And when Moses had grown he went out to his fellow Hebrews and saw their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian man severely beat[1] one of his fellow Hebrews.  And Moses turned this way and that way and saw that there was no man, and he killed the Egyptian and he hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

 

This passage has often bothered Biblical commentators because of the phrase “ein ish”.  What does it mean that there was no one around?  One possibility is that the Egyptian taskmaster was literally beating the Hebrew in an isolated area where no one was around except the two of them and Moses.  An alternative interpretation could be that there were people around but no one was watching the taskmaster oppress the Hebrew, since everyone was so engrossed in his or her own work.  A third possibility, and the one I think is most accurate, is that there were people around who were either watching the beating or hearing the cries of the oppressed but did not react to it.  It was a common experience for a slave to be beaten, so they would not be surprised by it.  While the Hebrew slaves might have wanted to defend their brother, they were numbed to the reality of their day and did not take action against the injustice.  Moses, on the other hand, was seeing the oppressiveness of the Egyptian taskmaster with eyes wide open, coming directly from Pharoah’s palace, and he was enraged.  When he saw that no one was doing anything about it, he took action on his own and slew the Egyptian.

Our rabbis teach a lesson based on a similar passage.  Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, contains the statement במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש, “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a man.”  If this statement is taken on solely a literal basis, it would not make much sense, as it would imply that one’s responsibility in striving to be a person only occurs in isolated places, where there is no one around.  Instead we must take a more figurative approach: that if there is no one stepping up in the face of injustice, we must put forth effort to be the person who steps forward.  If there are no people acting to make change in our communities, we must be the one who acts and who attempts to inspire others to action.

The story of Moses and the Egyptian and the aphorism in Pirkei Avot exemplify the quotation by Elie Wiesel “the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.”  Moses saw there was no one acting to defend his Hebrew brother and thus he decided to act.  He could have easily stood by and let the Egyptian taskmaster’s cruelty go unchecked, but instead he decided to defend the safety and honor of his brother.

The practical lesson that should be taken from this Torah portion is the importance of acting out against the injustices of our day.  It is sadly ironic that we read this portion immediately following the attack of Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris, in which 4 hostages were killed and 5 others wounded. Hyper Cacher was in my opinion deliberately attacked on a Friday afternoon, when the crowds would have been the greatest as Jews gathered in preparation for Shabbat. I read an account of a woman who hid in a freezer for hours, waiting for the police to arrive and the attackers to be taken out. Our hearts are with the victims and our prayers with those who are critically wounded. We cannot stand idly by while our brethren are attacked solely because they are Jews. We cannot stand by with the atrocities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria (who yesterday committed their deadliest attack yet) and Al-Shabab in Somalia. We cannot stand by when any human being is attacked, such as those of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo who were brutally murdered on Wednesday.

What are the ways that we can act against this injustice? Some of us act by giving money to relief organizations, others of us act by writing letters to public officials and others of us act by organizing rallies to inform the community about the grievances in the world and the importance of helping out.  We need to recognize all of these as being effective ways of acting out against injustice and applaud people for their efforts. I am challenging each of us to act by giving extra Tzedakah this month. At the end of the month the Tzedakah money will be sent to the Jewish Agency for Israel, helping French Jews who are striving to make Aliyah at this time.

As we reflect on the suffering in the world, both of our brethren and of those at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, let us remember the quote לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה; “You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.”  May we each do our part in working to overturn the suffering experienced by our brethren throughout the world. Let us each be “men,” like Moses, and stand up in the face of injustice for our people and for all humanity.

Snow in Jerusalem

Growing up in Milwaukee, snow in the winter was a regular occurrence for me. I grew up with snow-pants, snow-boots and making snowmen on cold winter days. Walking in a foot and a half of snow was not unusual, nor was seeing the “salting trucks” on the road. However, there are places less accustomed to having a sizable amount of snow, such as Jerusalem. For the second out of three winters, Jerusalem got hit with a massive snowstorm. Schools and roads were closed, cities were physically cut off from one another and people rushed to the grocery to get enough food to outlast the storm. Tens of thousands were left without power and people were left stranded.

Israel took many precautionary measures, closing the main highways and warning people to stay put. Centers were also established for those who were stranded to stay the night.

In the northern United States, we do not panic upon hearing about a coming snowstorm. We might try not to leave our home (except for work) but for the most part business is conducted as usual. That was not the case in Jerusalem, which the storm hit very hard, and which does not have the same infrastructure for dealing with snow-as a big storm is a rare occurrence.

Here are some pictures of the Jerusalem snow:

Snow 1 Snow 3 Snow 4Snow 2

Judah’s Rise to Excellence

This Shabbat we complete the book of Bereshit with the reading of Parashat VaYehi.  Parshat VaYehi contains blessings that Jacob gives to each of his sons and to two of his grandchildren.  The blessing that interests me most is Jacob’s blessing to Judah: גור אריה יהודה מטרף בני עלית כרע רבץ כאריה וכלביא מי יקימנו  “Judah is a lion’s whelp.  From a predator, my son, you have ascended.  He crouches and lies down like a lion, who would dare rouse him?”  The middle of this verse greatly interests me, as what does it mean that Judah has risen from being a predator?

Rashi says that Judah has ascended in moral status.  According to him, when Jacob said “a wild beast has devoured Joseph,” he meant Judah as the beast.  Judah was the leader of the brothers and thus when Jacob saw Joseph’s bloodied coat, he thought that Judah had murdered him.  Jacob therefore is saying that Judah has risen מטרף, from being one who preys on others.  When the brothers reunite with Joseph and Joseph wants to hold Benjamin captive, it is Judah who pleads to be taken prisoner instead, so that Jacob will not lose his other favorite son.

I strongly agree with Rashi’s interpretation of מטרף בני עלית.  At the beginning of the Joseph narrative, Judah is the leader of the brothers who throw Joseph into the pit and sell him into slavery.  He heads the brothers who contemplate murdering Joseph!  By the end of the Joseph narrative, Judah is still the leader, although instead of making sport of a brother’s life he holds it as sacred.  It would have been easy for Judah to let Benjamin go into Egyptian captivity, as he did with Joseph, yet this time Judah protects his brother.

The lesson to be taken from this is that moral character is a process that grows with time.  The Judah we encountered a few weeks ago was a deeply flawed man, one who would get rid of one of his brothers out of jealousy.  He was not a moral leader, but rather one who led the older brothers to gang up on the defenseless youngest one.  The Judah of this week’s parashah, however, is a man who stands up for his weakest brother and takes charge as the head of the family.  He has truly risen from being a predator to being a righteous, deserving leader.

How does this apply to us?  Throughout our lives we encounter individuals whose behavior strikes us as immoral or egregious.  While we are right to shun this behavior, we also have to keep in mind that those whose example we decry today might go through a process of personal growth, like Judah did.  We are not the people of Abraham, Isaac or even of Moses. Rather we are יהודים, the people of Judah. Our protagonist was an unlikely leader-one who would murder his brother or sell him into slavery-yet at he went through a process of moral ascent and self-improvement. That is what leadership is all about: recognizing our mistakes and working each and every day to improve them.

As we begin the secular new year, let us resolve to be like Judah, working each and every day to make ourselves the best we can be. Let us recognize that whatever mistakes we make, there is always the opportunity to make positive changes to benefit ourselves and those who are important to us. That is what it means to be a Jew-one who comes from Judah.