Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, August 26, 2017

Sermon for August 26, 2017

Parashat Shoftim

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is replete with instructions for magistrates and officials.  It contains the oft quoted verse “Tsedek, tsedek tirdof,”  “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” in addition to other memorable quotations.  There is one verse, from Deuteronomy 17:14, which captures my interest this morning.  It says, “If, after you have entered the land that Adonai your God has assigned to you and taken possession of it and settled in it you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the other nations around me, you shall be free to set a king over yourselves, one chosen by God.”  For several centuries after the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, we did not have a king.  We were ruled by tribal chieftains, called Judges in the Bible, strong men and women respected for their military prowess and wisdom.  Under pressure from the Philistines, the people urged the prophet Samuel to give them a king, quoting Deuteronomy when they implored, “so that we might be like the rest of the nations.”

In the 19th century, when the ghetto walls fell down around us, many of us said “We want to be like the rest of the nations.”  We will never know how many thousands took that reasoning to the extreme by converting to Christianity.  Many others who remained Jewish looked for an expression of Judaism that would allow us to remain Jews, but not be too different from those around us.  Hence, Reform Judaism was born.  In addition, “To what degree do we want to be like the nations of the world and to what degree do we want to be different was at the heart of the argument among the founding generation of Zionists.”[i]

While Jews have always lived in Israel and have always yearned to return to Israel, modern political Zionism was created by Theodore Herzl who, after reporting on the Dreyfus trial in Paris in 1894, realized that anti-Semitism was so endemic even in France, the most enlightened of European countries, that Jews would never be accepted as equal citizens and must have a country of our own.  He believed that “in order for Jews to survive in the modern world, they would have to become like the other nations- but they would divorce themselves from them and live apart in a land of their own.”[ii]  Herzl created the mechanisms through which the State of Israel was founded, such as the World Zionist Congress and the Jewish National Fund before he died at the tender age of 44, exhausted because of his work on behalf of the Jewish people.

His most severe critic was Ahad Ha’am, a Jew of Odessa who founded what came to be known as “cultural Zionism.”  He did not want Israel to be another Switzerland or Poland.  He wanted to see a flowering of Jewish life and culture.  He thought that “the Jewish people had a unique spiritual mission.”  He wrote “A political ideal which is not grounded in our national culture is apt to seduce us from loyalty to our own inner spirit and to beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political domination.”  For Ahad Ha’am, it was not enough for a Jewish state to exist- we needed to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ an advocate for justice, equality, human rights and peace.”[iii]

This debate, whether Israel should be a state of the Jews or a Jewish state, still rages today.  Should Israel be a state of the Jews or a Jewish state?  If it is a Jewish state, whose version of Judaism is definitive?  I, and millions of other Liberal Jews, strongly believe that the bonds between religion and state should be untangled, that religious observance should be voluntary and not compulsory.  We advocate for a separation between religion and state. We also believe that Progressive Judaism can help the Jewish state be both a normal country as well as Jewish country.  In this way, Judaism will flourish in the land of our ancestors and we can become, as Ahad Ha’am hoped, a ‘light unto the nations.’

This past Wednesday, the rabbinical students of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem went to the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul with the Women of the Wall, who mark the beginning of each month by blowing the shofar and reading Torah.  There were over two hundred others present, Progressive Jews who simply wanted to pray together. I read from the President of the Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken’s, letter to us:


When entering into the Kotel plaza security area, our students wore kippot and brought tallitot as proud Reform Jews. This prompted Kotel security guards to search two of our female students in an inappropriate manner, ostensibly “looking for Torah scrolls” and “other ritual objects” which have been restricted from the women’s section of the Kotel by order of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Orthodox authority in control of the Kotel by order of the state-sponsored chief rabbinate. Because they were identified as Reform Jews, they were taken aside and asked to lift their skirts and shirts in front of the guards before they could enter the Kotel plaza. A third student was only spared this embarrassment due to the immediate intervention of two of our alumni, Rabbis Noa Sattath and Gilad Kariv, on legal grounds.

This search was a dramatic and disgraceful new tactic in the effort to demean Reform and Conservative Jews, limit the right of Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel, and intimidate those who stand for religious pluralism. To subject committed women studying to be Jewish leaders–lovers of Israel and supporters of Jewish life—to an illegal and inappropriate search is deeply disturbing and divides us as a people. Throughout this encounter, our students honored all of us by their composure. They tell us that they emerged from this experience more energized than ever to fulfill their sacred mission as future leaders of the Reform Movement and the Jewish People. We count on them to build a vibrant Jewish future in Israel, North America, and around the globe with respect and understanding for a broad variety of approaches to Judaism. Our students will continue to lead and join in the fight for religious pluralism in Jerusalem and the State of Israel, and we will always support them in all they do.

No Jew should ever prevent others from exercising their rights to pray peacefully in the manner they choose.

Will Israel become a “light unto the nations” of will it be a theocracy controlled by the rigid Orthodox establishment?  This is a question that will be answered in the voting booth as Israeli citizens vote for a government that does not cower in the face of Orthodox demands.  What can we do?  The answer is perplexing. We should not, I strongly believe, stop giving to the Associated nor should we stop buying Israel Bonds.  Our love for the State of Israel out weights our displeasure with the government.  We can, though, support the organizations in Israel that work for a pluralistic and egalitarian country, such as the Israel Religious Action Center.  IRAC is our champion that legally challenges the infringements of religious and human rights.  I give to IRAC every year.  I hope, as you consider the recipients of your tzedakah, that you will give to IRAC this year and in the foreseeable future.  Until Israel becomes a true “light unto the nations” we must keep the lights from going out.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Rabbi Neal Gold, ARZA commentary, September 10, 2016.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, June 30, 2017

Reform Community

Sermon for June 30, 2017

What a delight it is to once again welcome the members of Har Sinai and my friend, Cantor Robert Gerber, to Oheb Shalom as we participate in our almost century old custom of sharing summer services.  The earliest reference I could find of this custom was from an Oheb Shalom bulletin in the early 1920’s.  It may go back even farther than that.  I am glad that there are some traditions that we are still observing. I still lament Baltimore Hebrew’s withdrawal from what had been our Summer Union Shabbat services.  I hope that in the near future the newly Reform Bolton Street Synagogue will join with us as we celebrate Shabbat as a Reform community.

Those two words, “Reform community,” are the crux of my message to you tonight.   Allow me to digress for a moment as I speak about our Torah portion for this Shabbat and then come back to the subject at hand.  You will see how they are directly related.

We read this week from Parashat Chukat which, besides being my Bar Mitzvah portion fifty-three years ago, is a fascinating lens through which to understand our people’s Weltanschauung in ancient times.  The Torah portion from the Book of Numbers (19) speaks about the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, a completely red cow which had no defect and had never worn a yoke, whose ashes were necessary to be part of a mixture including cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet stuff.  This mixture would be sprinkled over those who became impure because of contact with a corpse.  They had to be sprinkled with the mixture on the third and seventh day after the contact in order to become ritually pure and re-enter the community of life.  One of the mysteries of this procedure is that the one who burns the cow and mixes the ashes becomes ritually impure in the process.  In other words, the same substance which makes those who have contact with the dead pure, makes those who prepare it impure.  The rabbis cannot explain this paradox and say it is simply something we must accept on faith.  It is a “chok,” a law which cannot be rationally explained.

There are ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and around the world which are trying to raise a Parah Adumah, a perfectly red or brown cow.  They are doing so because without one, the Third Temple in Jerusalem cannot be rebuilt.  In order to enter the Temple all must be purified with the mixture that includes the ashes of the red heifer.   This brings us back to the events of this week, for it is the same people who are raising the red heifer, the ultra-Orthodox, whose political parties control the thirteen votes in the Knesset Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to maintain his coalition government.  In November, 2015, in an address in Washington, D.C., Netanyahu promised: “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews.” Specifically, he told the thousands at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly, he hoped his government would soon reach the “long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] will be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a point of division.”  In January, 2016, we rejoiced when Netanyahu and his cabinet endorsed an agreement between the government, the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Jewish Federations of North America in which the government promised to construct an egalitarian prayer space just south of the existing Kotel plaza that would be equal in size and significance to the traditional worship space at the Kotel that separates men and women.  Since this moment, the ultra-Orthodox parties of United Torah Judaism and SHAS have campaigned against the agreement, saying the Kotel must be liberated from the demonic Reform Jews, whom they often compare to Nazis.  On this past Sunday, Netanyahu succumbed to the pressure and halted implementation of this agreement.   His minister of health, Yaakov Litzman, leader of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, boasted, “The government’s decision to freeze the Western Wall arrangement sends a clear message to the entire world: The Reform do not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”  To add insult to injury, the Knesset also advanced a law denying the Jewishness of Israeli citizens not converted by officials under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.  This means any conversion at which a Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox rabbi officiates is invalid.  It also invalidates conversions we have performed in the past.  Suddenly, thousands of Jews who have made the decision to cast their lot with the Jewish people are no longer considered Jewish by the chief rabbinate of Israel.  This action by Netanyahu creates a huge rift between his government and the Jews of the Diaspora, who are overwhelmingly non-Orthodox.  We are Zionists who love the land and insist that the Kotel, the ancient remnant of the Temple, belongs not just to the Haredim, but to all the Jewish people.  Israel is a home for the entirety of Klal Yisrael.  Netanyahu’s action inflicts a wound upon us that cannot be easily healed.  It causes a breach between Jews just when Israel needs us the most.  Israel is beset by foreign enemies.  There is little sympathy for Israel among the left in this country and in Europe.  Millennials do not identify with Israel as do older Jews because of actions such as this.  Netanyahu’s action is a Shanda, a disgrace.

Do you recall reading President Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, in which he wrote about American politicians who sacrificed their political careers to do the right thing?  If Binyamin Netanyahu had only read that book and had the courage to do the right thing he would reject the demands of the Haredim!

So, what do we do now?  We await word on actions to be taken by the leadership of our movements.  They are in Israel now for a board meeting of the Jewish Agency and are meeting continuously.  Next, we must find a way to punish the government of Israel rather than the people and State of Israel.  We do not stop visiting and do not stop buying Israel Bonds.  Right now, we should contact the Israeli ambassador in D.C. and give him a piece of our mind.  He must know how disappointed and offended by his government’s actions.  We should also be contributing to Reform organizations such as the Israel Religious Action Center and the World Union for Progressive Judaism which do wonderful work on our behalf. We will not be dismissed and insist that we are counted among the Jewish people.  All we want is to pray freely as Reform Jews at our most sacred site.  We want those whom we convert to be recognized as the Jews they are.  Our expression of Judaism is as legitimate, if not more so, than that of the extremist, non-Zionist, Haredim.  It is time that the government of Israel recognizes us and grants us official recognition.  We will not stop under these goals are achieved.  May this time come soon!

Kein Y’hi Ratson– May this be God’s will and let us say:




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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, June 23, 2017

Be Happy! It’s Iyar!

June 23, 2017

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh, the first evening of the month of Iyar.  Summer has formerly begun and we are thinking of upcoming barbecues, vacations, and beach days.  We have bought a few books for light reading and are trying to take it easy for a little while.  Gardens are beginning to bloom and summer flowers radiate their beauty.  My garden has yielded its first delicious cucumbers with lots more on the way.  While we are enjoying the summer respite, we at Oheb Shalom and probably at every synagogue in the world, are planning for the High Holydays.  After all, Rosh Hashanah is just three months away.  Who will chant Torah?  Who will read Haftarah?  What recent b’nei mitzvah should we honor with a reading?  Have they registered for rHouse in order to be included?  That is what we are dealing with over the next couple of weeks.

If we didn’t watch the news or read the newspapers, all would be lovely.  Our country is in crisis, the homicide rate in Baltimore is reaching new highs, and from Afghanistan to Syria to London, there is just bad news.  People we love get sick, others die.  We go to funerals at least weekly.  How can we possibly be happy when there is so much suffering around us?  Our Tradition tells us that it is important for us not to look just at the darkness but at the light. Our world “contains an abundance of goodness. Most human beings are decent and law-abiding individuals. Millions of people arrive home safely every night. Hundreds of thousands of planes land every day without the slightest problem. Most children are born healthy. The sun comes up every morning, without exception. There is always enough air for everyone to breathe. Millions enjoy higher economic standards than ever experienced by their ancestors. Pain prevention has improved dramatically over time. International communication systems have brought us in touch with each other under all circumstances, wherever we live. Luxurious senior citizens homes have replaced the tragic scenes of the elderly languishing in the streets. Clearly, marriage is still seen as sacred, and helping each other is still seen as virtuous.” [i]

There is much goodness and happiness in our world.  Fortunately, our Tradition teaches us how to achieve happiness in our lives.

The famous Chasidic Rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, taught that “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.”  The prophet Nehemiah wrote (8:-10) almost 2,500 years ago, “Do not mourn or weep.  Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks and send some to those who have nothing prepared.  This day is sacred to our God.  Do not grieve, for the Lord is your strength.”  Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most depressing author in the Tanach, tells us to find something meaningful to do, to find a person to love, and to enjoy our food and drink.  In other words, the world may be in a terrible state, but we should try to grab whatever happiness we can when we can.

The Psalmist wrote, “Zeh Hayom Asa Adonai, Nagila v’Nismicha Vo– This is the day that God has made.  Come and let us rejoice in it!” (Psalm 118:24).   Every day we awake to new possibilities and new challenges.  We are enjoined to serve God with all our hearts and all our strength and strive to be happy.  So- you are thinking it’s easier said than done.  Allow me to share with you several ways we can ensure our own personal happiness.

The sages ask the question (Pirke Avot 4:1), “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”  Contentedness, which may very well be the definition of happiness, comes from the recognition that we have all we need, that we are not envious of others and that we are thankful for what we have.  This leads us to the next point, which is gratitude.  Our Tradition urges us to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  We are not promised anything when we are born, so everything we have, from the moment when we open our eyes in the morning to the ability to take our first step, is a gift from God.  That is why we say daily blessings- to thank God for literally every gift we receive.  Anyone who has had any kind of surgery knows that recovery is difficult but the end result is worthwhile.  We should be grateful that those of us still here have issues that can be medically or surgically corrected.  The rabbis tell us that we should recite one hundred blessings a day (Menachot 42b) to express our gratitude for the gifts we receive every minute of every day.

Professor Tal Ben-Shacher, in his book “Happier,” wrote, “We are so constituted that we actually need our lives to have meaning.  Without a higher purpose, a calling, an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness…for us to be happy it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture.  We need to find meaning on the specific level of our daily existence as well.”[ii]  The well-known Dr. Victor Frankl explains (Man’s Search for Meaning), “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.  What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaningful waiting to be fulfilled by him.”  To be happy, we need to give back, to make our community and our world a little better.  Whether it is by packing backpacks here once a month, tutoring a child, making a hospital visit, or delivering Meals on Wheels, to be happy we need to find something meaningful to contribute to our society.  Regardless of how old or infirm, we can still give back.  For many years, the women of our Sisterhood, in a group affectionately known as “Knit wits,” made blankets for a homeless shelter and the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.  Everyone can find some contentment by giving back.

So we see, dear friends, that there is a formula for attaining personal happiness.  Now all we have to do is apply it to ourselves.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Nathan Lopes Cardozo, The Algemeiner, June 15, 2017


[ii] Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, Judaism’s Value of Happiness, March 9, 2012.

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, June 9, 2017

Fifty Years Ago Today

June 9, 2017

Fifty years ago today we were sitting in front of our television sets, anxiously watching the news with Walter Cronkite.  Our eyes scanned and then read in detail every morsel of information we could get in the morning and evening newspapers.  Just four days before, Israel launched a pre-emptive air strike against the Egyptian Air Force, practically destroying it on the ground.  That strike was followed by similar strikes against the Jordanian and Syrian air forces, giving Israel air superiority over the battlefields.  This attack was preceded by several months of increased tension.  For the next few minutes, let me take you back to that time in May and June of 1967, a time that literally changed our world forever.

In a frenzy of pan-Arab solidarity, the Egyptian President, Gamel Abdel Nasser, had recently created the United Arab Republic, consolidating the armed forces of Egypt and Syria into one command structure.  He held talks with Jordan’s King Hussein, seeking to ally with Jordan in the coming struggle with Israel.  Israel entered into secret negotiations with King Hussein, alas, as we will find, to no avail.  In mid-May, Nasser ordered the UN forces in the Sinai, which had separated Israel and Egypt since 1956, to leave.  U Thant, the Secretary-General of the UN, quickly complied, leaving Israel’s Southern flank completely exposed.  To make matters even tenser, Nasser ordered the Egyptian Navy to blockade the Gulf of Aqaba, cutting off Israel’s life line to the Port of Eilat.  The situation continually escalated until, if you remember, we expected an immanent invasion of Israel and a second Shoah.  In preparation for an expected disaster, the Israelis were digging trenches around schools and even pits for mass graves.   The Israelis had a choice- to await an Egyptian attack from the south and a Syrian attack from the North or to take offensive action, which was the desire of the Israeli military.  After much discussion, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Defense Minister, and Yitzchak Rabin, Israel’s Chief of Staff, decided with the agreement of the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt while holding the line against Syria.  Immediately after the airstrike on June 5, the Israeli armored forces began their advance into the Sinai.  The battle was over by June 8, when the Israelis reached the Suez Canal.

The Jordanians began their offensive on June 5, shelling Jerusalem and its outskirts.  Israeli forces under General Uzi Narkiss went on the offensive and pushed the Jordanians out of the West Bank by late on June 7.  Paratroopers reached the Kotel that day, reuniting the Old City with the rest of Jerusalem.  Fighting was fierce for control of Jerusalem.  Israeli casualties were high.  One of five soldiers was killed in the fighting.  On June 8, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew the shofar at the Kotel and held the first service there since 1948.

The Syrians did not open artillery fire against Israeli settlements in the north until June 6.  Three times that day, Syrian forces tried to take Kibbutz Dan but were repulsed in heavy fighting.  Israeli forces were moved to the north and offensive operations began in earnest on June 9.  Israeli forces captured the Golan Heights and advanced east of Kuneitra, only thirty miles from Damascus.

The fighting was over on June 10.  All three Arab countries agreed to a UN arranged cease fire.  Israelis, joined by Jews around the world, rejoiced.  David had once again beaten Goliath.  Israel’s territory more than doubled.  Immediately, however, there were warning signs that all was not to be peaceful.  Arabs once again fled from Israeli forces as they did in 1948 during what they called the Nakba, the Catastrophe.  They joined their brethren in Jordan where they still hoped to one day be able to return to their homes.  Egypt began the War of Attrition on the Sinai which melded into the Yom Kippur War.  Israel suffered from a huge case of hubris, allowing itself to be unprepared for the Egyptian and Syrian onslaught seven years later.  Jewish messianists believed the victory in the Six Day War precipitated the coming of the mashiach.  They began building settlements on the West Bank, so many that over 400,000 Jews live there today.  The settlers are calling for an Eretz Yisrael Shleima, one unified state encompassing all the West Bank and Israel.  This state of affairs leads to over six million Israelis occupying three million Palestinians in a type of Apartheid state.  The other alternative is a one state democracy in which the Arabs will eventually outnumber Jews, destroying the Jewish State.  Neither solution is tenable.

The Palestinians, too, live in a fantasy world, still hoping to return to their ancestral homes in Israel and to push over six million well-armed Jews into the sea.  This will not happen.  When Ehud Barak was Prime Minister of Israel eighteen years ago, he offered Arafat everything the Palestinians wanted, including control over East Jerusalem, with the exception of the right of Palestinian return.  Arafat, fearing loss of face and literal assassination if he signed the agreement, called for an Intifada to begin.  Even now, the Palestinians have not recognized that they need to make peace with an Israeli government and get a state on the West Bank within already agreed upon borders.  Israeli Messianists will have to reconcile themselves with reality as well.  Israel cannot continue to rule over three million Palestinians who do not vote in Israeli elections and don’t enjoy equal rights.  To do so, will condemn future generations of Israeli to continued bitter conflict with their Palestinian neighbors.

Fifty years after the Six Day War, the “matzav,” the situation, is still not resolved.  We pray that there will be a just and secure peace in our lifetimes.



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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, April 21, 2017

Can Counting the Omer Save Western Civilization?

April 21, 2017

This sermon is entitled “Can counting the Omer save Western civilization?”  It is a rather presumptuous title for what may be an absurd idea.  Let me share with you where the idea for this sermon originated.

One of my favorite op-ed writers, David Brooks, a Jewish Republican who writes for the New York Times, recently wrote a piece (April 21, 2017) on the rise of authoritarian governments and the decline of Western liberalism.  Brooks laments that faith in the ideals of Western civilization is falling all around us and few are rising to defend Western ideals.  Brooks writes, “Western civilization has inherent values- the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.  It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.  It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals…the first consequence of the decline is the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only do not believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative but don’t even pretend to believe in them as former dictators did.  Over the past few years, especially, we have entered the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.”  Brooks’ point is well made.  There has been a decline in democracy across the world and few are rising to protect it.

Democracy depends upon a belief in the value of the individual, that every person has inherent rights, that we are each created in the image of our Creator.  It demands a belief that we have the ability as a community to determine our future.  Democracy tells us that the future is not fixed, it is not a re-play of the past, but is determined through the collective action in which each citizen has an important part.  Democracy, though, would be unimaginable without Jews and the Jewish experience.  Allow me to explain.

Until the time of the Exodus, which we just celebrated during Pesach, all ancient peoples believed that the present and future would just be a rewind of the past.  There was no such thing as history, just the passing of the seasons.  Nothing was more important than ensuring the winter rains so the crops would grow in the spring and be harvested in the fall, guaranteeing that the community would not starve during the long, fallow months.  With the Exodus, our ancestors changed the concept of time.  There was an unknown future whose direction and end we cannot predict.  As Thomas Cahill wrote in The Gifts of the Jews (page 131), “…for the first time the future holds out promise.  Even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future through their actions in the present.  We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate:  we are free.  If anything can happen, we are truly liberated- as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds.”

Liberation, however, was not enough.  Freedom without responsibility yields to anarchy.  From the Sea of Reeds, we journeyed to Mt. Sinai where we received the Torah.  We became bound to God and God’s law, an event we mark on Shavuot.  Cahill wrote (page 156) “…these laws remain testimony to the fact that the Jews were the first people to develop an integrated view of life and its obligations.  Rather than imagining the demands of law and the demands of wisdom as discrete realms, they imagined that all of life, having come from the Author of life, was to be governed by a single outlook.  The material and spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one.”  Cahill goes on to say that the literary prophets encapsulated the beliefs that underpin democracy.  He says (page 239) they taught us that “There are right choices and wrong choices. To make the right choices I must consult the law of God written in my heart.  I must listen to God’s voice, which speaks not only to great leaders but to me.  I must take the I seriously.” 

Democracy could not exist without the belief in the importance of the individual, that what we do and think matters, that we have the ability to determine our individual and collective futures.  That is the great gift of the Jews, one that is being threatened by the collapse of democratic ideals around the world.  So where does the counting of the Omer fit in?

“The omer refers to the 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. This period marks the beginning of the barley harvest when, in ancient times, we would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word omer literally means “sheaf” and refers to these early offerings.

The Torah itself dictates the counting of the seven weeks following Passover: “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In its biblical context, this counting appears only to connect the first grain offering to the offering made at the peak of the harvest. As Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah, and not only with a celebration of agricultural bounty, the omer period began to symbolize the thematic link between Passover and Shavuot. While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.”[i]

The counting of the Omer reminds us that we move from freedom to responsibility, from liberation to law, from God to humanity.  As the Jewish people accepts the Torah on Mt. Sinai we collectively and individually become in charge of our fate.  The future is yet to be written.  Together we will determine what shall be.  That is the essence of democracy which is so threatened today- authoritarian leaders tell the people what they want without allowing the people to choose what they want.  The counting of the Omer, to which we now turn, contains a most powerful message- that the growth of the barley, as the growth and change inherent within each person, is a gift from God which, like democracy, needs to be cherished and protected.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

[i] My Jewish Learning

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, April 14, 2017

What is the Fourth Turning and Why is it Important?
April 14, 2017

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!  It is so nice to see you here on this lovely Erev Shabbat, a prelude to a beautiful spring weekend.  I am speaking tonight on a “hot button” topic that is at the heart of Stephen Bannon’s ideology.  You recall Stephen Bannon?  If not, let me briefly remind you that he is President Trump’s chief strategist who recently lost his seat on the National Security Council.  He is the former editor of the far Right Brietbart News and a multi-millionaire who made his fortune working at Goldman Sachs in New York and producing movies in Hollywood.  He is vociferously anti-Muslim and is the primary force pushing for a border wall with Mexico.  Breitbart News is the news source of choice for white nationalists, Klu Klux Klaners, neo-Nazis and others of that disgusting ilk.  It revels in conspiracy theories and hatred of minorities, including Jews.  Stephen Bannon has vowed to “deconstruct” the administrative state.  No one is exactly sure what that means but it sounds like the fox is running the henhouse of government.  Fortunately, he has lost some stature in recent weeks and may even be in danger of losing his job as more moderate elements in the current Administration are gaining sway over the President.  Let us, for a few minutes, give Stephen Bannon the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s say that he is a patriot who has good intentions and wants to prepare the United States for what he thinks is the cataclysm to come.  How does he know what is coming and when?  It’s all written down in this book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, “The Fourth Turning:  An American Prophecy.”  This is the pair’s third book.  Strauss is the cofounder and director of the well-known comedy troop “Capitol Steps” and Howe is a historian and economist who works for the Concord Coalition, a think tank dedicated to balancing the budget.

You can see that my copy of the book is well read and that much of it is underlined.  That is because I have read the text several times, first when it was published in 1997 and then a couple of times since.  It was a primary text that year in one of my doctoral classes.  It is a dense and difficult text but is worth a read as it claims to explain all of history through its theory of cycles.  Allow me to explain.

Strauss and Howe claim that the key to understanding history is “a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum.  Practically every major historical crisis comes in transition between saecula or at distinct periods within a saeculum. A saeculum ranges from about eighty to one hundred years.  Like the Seder, the theory is based on fours.  There are four Archetype generations within each saeculum, the Hero, Artist, Prophet, and Nomad as well as Four Turnings. We Baby Boomers, for example, are of the Prophet generation, born in the High after WW II, rebelling against our parents in the sixties and seventies, which the authors call the Second Turning or the Awakening, entering middle age in the Third Turning, the Unraveling, the early eighties through 2005, and entering elderhood during the Fourth Turning, the Crisis.  The last Fourth Turning in American history was the Great Depression and World War II. The authors predicted the Great Recession and tell us that things will only get worse during the next fifteen to twenty years.  They write “A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that…are perceived as dire…there is one simple imperative:  The society must prevail.  This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.  People support new efforts to wield public authority …government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside…public order tightens…families strengthen, gender distinctions widen…wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.”[i]  They write that “…every Fourth Turning since the fifteenth century has culminated in total war.”[ii]   “The Fourth Turning is when the Spirit of America reappears, rousting courage and fortitude from the people.  Another Crisis era is coming- and soon.”[iii]  During the Fourth Turning “new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice…America will become more isolationist than today in its unwillingness to coordinate its affairs with other countries but less isolationist in its insistence that vital national interests not be compromised.”[iv]  “Through the Fourth Turning, the old order will die, but only after having produced the seed containing the new civic order within it…a new social contract will take root…with or without war, American society will be transformed into something different…the Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin.”[v]

Bannon is using Donald Trump as his instrument to bring about the Fourth Turning. He has referred to Trump as “a blunt instrument for us.” “In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one.  He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.”[vi]  Bannon believes in authoritarian politics as preparation for a massive conflict between East and West, whether East means the Middle East or China.”[vii]  It seems that Bannon is determined to ensure that the Fourth Turning takes place, even if he has to do it himself.

There is a determinism in this theory that is very troubling.  Does free will count for nothing?  Is every crisis like the last?  Certainly, the Great Recession was nothing like the Great Depression.  In the former, the government acted to prevent a complete economic meltdown.  In the latter, the Hoover administration allowed the economy to deteriorate for another two years before recovery began in the Roosevelt administration.  Our country is not at all united.  In fact, we are more divided than at any time in recent memory.  Many Baby Boomers are working against the authoritarian impulses of this administration that Bannon champions, such as the ban on Muslim immigration and the wall with Mexico.  Many of us don’t see threats to our existence as does Bannon.  I think, instead of history being already written, the future is unknown, much of it to be determined by the current actors.  As Rabbi Akiva said in Pirke Avot 3:15: “All is foreseen and freedom of choice is granted.” In our religious Tradition, only God knows what will happen.  Our Tradition teaches us that history, in contrast to the seasons, is not cyclical but rather is linear.  There was a beginning to time and someday there will be an end to time.  It might have come when, during the Seder, we opened the door for Elijah.  Perhaps it will happen next year.  All I can tell you is that we are hopeful, optimistic and determined to make this world a better place.  We await not a Fourth Turning, but a return to values that stress our common humanity and dignity.  Towards that we will work until the long-awaited Messiah arrives.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] The Fourth Turning, page 104.

[ii] Ibid, page 119.

[iii] Ibid, page 271.

[iv] Ibid, page 276.

[v] Ibid, page 278.

[vi] Linette Lopez, Business Insider, February 2, 2017.

[vii] Ibid, page 3.

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Sermon for Boy Scout Shabbat, March 24, 2017

Sermon for Boy Scout Shabbat, March 24, 2017

We are so pleased to welcome the members of Troop 97 to our service tonight.  Over the last many years, more than I have been alive, Troop 97 has become an integral part of Temple Oheb Shalom.  We are grateful to its members and leaders who have given so much of themselves to our congregation.  We are thankful for their many year round contributions to our synagogue life.  I am especially pleased to congratulate Dr. Barry Cohan, a life-long scout and leader of Troop 97, who recently received the first Distinguished Alumnus Award from University of Maryland School of Dentistry.  We are very proud of Barry and congratulate both him and Adele.  Without your support, Adele, Barry would not have the time and ability to do all that he does for our community.

In my brief remarks tonight, I hope to give you some guidance as to what is really important in life.  Since you are still in your formative years, you may want to think about what I will tell you and perhaps even take it to heart.

We live in turbulent times.  Our values are being assaulted simultaneously from many directions.  There are few role models in public life.  To whom or what do we look for guidance on how to live?  Of course, for us the answer is easy.  We go to Torah, in this particular case, the writings of the Rabbis.   In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (4:17), Rabbi Shimon teaches, “There are three crowns; the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship.  The crown of a good name is superior to them all.”  Over 1,800 years ago, during Rabbi Shimon’s time, there were none more important than the Kohanim, the Temple priests descended from Aaron and the kings, those descended from King David, who would one day rule again over Israel.  For the rabbis, the most important crown, here a metaphor for accomplishment, was to be a student of Torah, one who studied the accumulated wisdom of our Tradition.  Yet none of these crowns, those of Torah, priesthood or royalty, equaled the importance of a Keter Shem Tov, the crown of a good name.  Rabbi Shimon taught that maintaining a good reputation is crucial to being a successful and content human being.  We should do everything in our power to burnish, rather than tarnish, our reputations.  Nor should we harm the reputations of others by engaging in Lashon Hara, gossip.  Since our reputation means everything, spreading false reports about a person, the rabbi’s tell us, is deserving of death.  While they did not mean that literally, destroying another’s reputation through slander is a most egregious sin.

We are born to the priesthood by being descended from the Kohanim or the Leviim.  We have no control over that.  We are also born to kingship.  We are either a descendant of David or we are not.  There is no way of ascertaining if any of us are descended from Jewish royalty.  While all of us should study Torah, not all of us will become scholars of Torah.  Most of us do not have the ability or the inclination to sit and study Torah on a daily basis.  We do, however, have some control over our reputations.  Through what we say and what we do, we can either enhance or destroy our good names.

I offer you some succinct advice in how to better your reputations and make your good names shine brightly in the form of an easily remembered acrostic:

  • T stands for tattoo. While I do not like tattoos and our Tradition advocates against them, I do not literally mean tattoo. This is a symbol for doing or saying something that you will later regret.  There are so many people who get tattoos who later are sorry they did so and then spend lots of time and money trying to have them removed.  There are some things we do and say which cannot be removed or retracted.  Think very seriously before you speak and act.
  • O stands of others. Let us be empathic to others and care about them.  We can learn from everyone. Each of us is created in the image of God and has within us a spark of divinity.  We cannot ignore the needs of other people.
  • R stands for reading. We cannot read and learn enough.  Read as much as we can from various sources.  Know the viewpoint or prejudice of the author or website.  Everyone has a bias so try to be aware of source’s prejudice.  No one is ever bored if they have a book in their hands.
  • A stands for attitude. Let us be positive and optimistic.  No one likes to be around a grumpy people.  Let us look at the world in a hopeful manner.  Let us also grant good intentions to others.  Few people are deliberately mean.  Let us remember that everyone is fighting a private, internal, battle.  Let us be sensitive to whomever we meet.
  • H stands for humility. The rabbis tell us that we should have a piece of paper in each pocket.  One says “The world was created for me.”  The other reads, “I am but dust and ashes.”  While we should have confidence and self-esteem, the rabbis tell us that God reveres those who are humble.  But let us not wear our humility on our sleeves.  As Golda Meir once said as she admonished an associate, “Don’t be so humble.  You’re not that great!”

Since the letters of this acrostic spell TORAH it should be easy to remember.  Let us not forget that the most important thing we have is a good name.  We should strive to enhance our reputations and do nothing to detract from them.  In this way, we will deserve to wear the Keter Shem Tov, the crown of a good name, the ultimate achievement for a human being.

Amen and Shabbat shalom.


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