Sunday, October 18, 2015

After the Flood Came The Rainbow- Reflections on Israel and the Flood of Stabbings

After the Flood  Came The Rainbow- Reflections on Israel and the Flood of Stabbings
This Shabbat we read the account of Noah and the Flood, the restoration of human and animal life, and the start of civilization as we come to know it.
What is it that brought the flood on in the first place?
We started with a wonderful world, a Gan Eden, a Paradise, literally. From thereon, all fell  downhill.  By the end of last week’s portion of Bereshit, we read:” Va timaley ha'aretz hamas"- The world is filled with violence. (Gen 6)
I note with poignant irony that the center of the world, the Gan Eden that is destroyed, is the very fertile and fruitful land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Nahar Hidekel and Nahar Prat. This is called Mesopotamia, the Land Between the Rivers. In Arabic, it is Al Sham, and on the geopolitical map, Iraq and Syria. As it was before the flood, so it seems now to be a region filled with Hamas-violence; people of common and shared heritage, ancestry, and history, engage in active self-destruction. An entire region is depopulated as millions have escaped to neighboring lands and there is a flood of refugees as has not been seen since World War II.
It is with even greater irony that I note that the word for violence in Hebrew, “Hamas”, is also an abbreviation for  Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement – the Political movement that today rules over Gaza. The most fitting image that I could find for Hamas, today, besides rockets and tunnels, is one that has been posted by Hamas approved media of Sheikh Muhammed Sallah delivering the Friday prayer at Rafah Mosque as he holds a butcher knife in his hand:
“attack in threes and fours...cut them into body parts. . .Some should restrain the victim while others attack with axes and butcher knives."
It is eerily reminiscent of the SA, Sturmabteilung, song of Nazi thugs as they terrorized their way to control of Germany ( we tend to forget that terror was a highly respected tool as founding principal of Nazism):
Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt Geht’s noch einmal so gut
“When Jewish blood spurts from our knives things will go twice as well.”
We are told by foreign policy experts that this is the reaction of poor and underprivileged people, even though most of the  attackers come from middle class and educated backgrounds. We are told by our Secretary of State that this is a response to resent settlement policies but that has actually gone down in numbers.
We are told that this goes back to 1967, when Israel took over the Gaza strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Desert.
 But Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace.  Yet even with that Egyptian TV and media produced anti-Semitic  programming comparable to that of Der Sturmer. ( Only this year, for the first time, they broadcast a show that presented Jews in a positive light, and the country was in shock.)
So, we are told, this goes back to 1967. Israel pulled out of Gaza ten years ago, only to have it turn into an armed camp, loaded with missiles fired at civilian targets.
So, we are told, this goes back to 1967.In 1993 Israel started the Peace talks that would lead to a Palestinian state and pulled back from most of the West Bank. Bloodshed followed. 
Maybe, we are told, it is because Israel entered southern Lebanon in 1982 to push back Arafat's PLO.  Israel pulled out, unilaterally, unconditionally, in 2000. But that led to the dominance of Hizbollah and thousands of missiles fired at Israel.
No. The anger that we see, whether in Gaza or in the West Bank or from anywhere else in the Arab world, is not from 1967 and settlements on the West Bank, and it is not from some fictional takeover of the Temple Mount by some imaginary conspirators. It goes back to 1948 and the shame of failure of the Palestinian Arabs and their supposed brothers of the other Arab nations. It goes back to 1917, the date many Palestinians consider the beginning of the Zionist invasion. (While Zionist Weizmann and Arab liberator Emir Feisal tried to cooperate on a Jewish homeland in Palestine, this was torpedoed by the Emir's fellow Arab leaders). It goes back to 1881, when the first wave of modern settlers came.
But it goes back, even earlier. No other people on earth have had to defend their right to live in their own land, except the Jews. How far back?
As far back as Genesis. The story of creation leads the great Bible scholar, Rashi, to ask," Why bother with the ancient account of creation? Why not start with what we need to do? Mitzvoth, observances.”
His answer:
We need to show that there is a creator of the world, who established the nations on earth, and determines history and determines what people live in what lands, because the nations state:"Listim atem”: You are thieves- You stole the land from Seven Nations!" No, we did not steal; it was God's prerogative to determine that we deserved it.
When did Rashi write this? At the start of the Crusades. Jews were murdered by Crusaders while Christians and Moslems fought over who ruled the Land of Israel and Jerusalem in particular. I can only think that he chose this interpretation to remind himself and his fellows whose Promised Land it was.
But even this insight is older than Rashi's time. He adapted it from a Midrash composed centuries.It was a response to on long-going attacks on Jews and Judaism dating to Greek and Roman times.
The great Roman historian, Tacitus, writing shortly after the destruction of the first Temple, imagines the ancient Jews to be a band of outcasts that invaded Egypt and then were repulsed, sent to the desert. These brigands then went on to conquer the land of Canaan and expel the inhabitants. The Roman emperors from that period refused to called the land Judea and instead labelled it "Palestina" in order to deny the Jews a connection to their.
But it goes back even before the Romans.
There was an exhibition at the Getty Museum of the original of Persian King Cyrus, calling on the peoples that had been conquered and exiled by Babylonia to return to their homeland. This is recalled in the Bible; with that royal authority, the Judean exiles returned to Judea. Even then, even with the force of the Persian government edict to back them and with Nehemiah, a Persian court official given general authority, the returnees were opposed. Nehemiah describes how the builders of the new walls of Jerusalem were attacked: with one hand they worked at construction and with the other held a weapon.
For centuries, we have had to apologize for being in the land of Israel. Greeks never apologized for overrunning the original Mycenaeans. The Indo-Aryans never apologized for overrunning the original inhabitants of India. The Europeans have never apologized to the Native Americans for overrunning the Americas, and so forth. Only Jews have to explain.
Now, I have to bring some personal perspective to this spate of violence.
This has been on-going, unabated for decades.
 My grandfather's grandfather and grandmother, in 1881, gave their possessions to their children and went to spend their last years in the holy city of Safed, Tzfat. It was a strenuous journey in those days, from Austro-Hungary to the Land of Israel, from the liberal Austrian Empire to a very corrupt Ottoman Empire. They did not live out their last years in peace but were murdered by their neighboring Arabs who stole the silver that they had brought with them.
We can talk about the Hebron Massacre in 1928, before there was a state of Israel,  or the on-going murders carried out by Fedayeen gangs before 1967.  
In 1969 I came to Israel as a student and I was told constantly to be on the lookout for explosives left by terrorists. One such explosion had occurred at the Hebrew University shortly before I arrived, causing much bloodshed.
This was only one of many such waves of violence before there was massive construction when the Israeli government was still waiting naively for the Arab states to sit down and negotiate a peace after the six-day war.
In 1986, we moved for a few years to Israel. The first thing our children learned was " Chafetz Chashud", a suspect object. Bombs were planted by the Palestinians everywhere.
We lived in Kfar Saba where one bomb went off at the bus station and another was found before it could go off at a kindergarten. A fire bomb was thrown at an Israeli car that had driven through a Palestinian neighborhood; the family was burned to death.
In 1993, we had that delusion of peace, with the Oslo accords and the Noble Peace Prize.
Arafat shortly thereafter gave a speech, to which both Americans and Israelis were deaf:
"This agreement is no more than the agreement signed by our Prophet Muhammed and the Qurasyh in Mecca."  He repeated this reference many times but we all chose to be deaf to it.
The treaty, every student of the Koran understood, was a ruse, to buy time till Muhammed was ready to conquer Mecca. The Oslo accord was now Arafat’s ruse.
So it is no wonder that in the years following the Peace accords, there were ongoing acts of terror, winked at or actively encouraged the Palestinian Authority, by Fatah, and Hamas.
Our daughter spent a year as a student at the Hebrew University in 1996, the year of café bombings and bus bombings. She saw firsthand what the Israelis got for reaching out a hand of peace.
Yes, Netanyahu can be obnoxious and stubborn. Yes, Israelis can and do make mistakes. Yes, there are be Israeli extremists, extremists who are roundly condemned by Israeli leadership, from both left and right. Israelis never pass out candies and never shoot fireworks if an Israeli extremist kills a Palestinian; such celebrations are common when the reverse occurs. Israelis never pay to support families of Israeli extremists as a reward, but the Palestinian Authority has paid reward money to the tune of many multiples of millions to the families of the “martyrs”.
Here is what Israeli police do as our Sam Schwartz, who works with the Raanana police force,  wrote after a terror attack there:
      "Among our primary missions were to scour the streets trying to prevent the next attack but also to prevent any citizens from engaging in vigilante attacks against innocent Arab residents. Happy are the people of Israel that even in our hour of fear and indignation, when killers are still roaming free on the streets, our police still prioritize protecting all members of society. "

Israeli incitement is not and never was the root cause of this violence.
The Chinese were colonized and abused by the Manchurians, the Europeans and the Japanese. They have a historic right to be mad at the world. Instead, they have built their country into a powerhouse.
The Indians were colonized first by the Mogul emperors, then by the British. India is now a major world player.
After World War Two, tens of millions of people were uprooted from their lands in Europe. Tens of millions of Hindus and Moslems fled when India and Pakistan were established. Eventually, all of these refugees were settled in new homes.
It is the Arab world in particular that is mired in unresolved conflict and pain. No Arab country, except Jordan has allowed the Palestinians any rights to settle in their land of refuge, this has guaranteed their endless sense of helplessness. No other group of refugees has its own UN division nor had so many multiple billions thrown at it, guaranteeing their dependence on such largesse.                                                                                                                                                                                      
I want to make a long case short. We are not dealing with a normal antagonism, such as English against the French or French against Germans.
There are underlying complications of an Islamic world and civilization that is in turmoil, in particular in the Arab core. It is far behind the Christian west (except in the Emirates, where we bank our oil money), far behind the Buddhist and Confucian east, far behind the Hindu civilization to their southeast.
 It is exacerbated for an Arab Moslem population that has had to swallow this fact of modern history. Not only were they under the thumb of the Turks for centuries, let alone the British and French for a few decades but now, they are under the lowly Jew!
The situation is closest to that of the poor white southerner of the past century;  no matter how miserable, he could feel superior to the lowly black, who then dared to sit at the front of the bus.
Here is  that lowly Jew, who must walk when a Moslem rides, who  must live in the Meilah, who may never build a synagogue above a mosque, who is ritually impure, that lowly Jew now rules over Moslems and over lands considered " Wakf", lands dedicated to Islam.
This creates a deep-set emotional quandary that prevents the Palestinians in particular from taking the steps to get to what they need. It will remain so as long as the world continues to treat them as incompetent children and fails to demand mature behavior of their leadership. Only then will anything change.
 It is very annoying therefore when people who are supposed to be our friends try to justify what the Palestinians are doing.
Our government kept absolutely silent when Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Abbas, declared," Al Aksa is ours and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They have no right to desecrate them with their dirty feet." Police went in briefly, it is true, to the Al-Aksa, but nobody , nobody, went in to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is far from the Temple Mount. Who cares about truth!
 He accused the Israeli police of executing a 13-year old in cold-blood, a 13-year old who was later interviewed as he lay in an Israeli hospital, saved by Israelis, and in good condition. Who cares about truth!
With all this our state department has been so careful to be " even-handed". Abbas is not criticized and US money still pours into the Palestinian authority.Our Secretary of State Kerry lays the blame on " a massive increase in settlements" that has led to "frustration and violence."
Someone ran a fact check on this accusation. It turn out that there has been less settlement construction under Netanyahu than under any other Prime Minister since 1995,less than under Sharon, Barak, Olmert and even Netanyahu in his first round as Prime Minister. That is 1554 houses a year. Is that massive construction?
Our country needs to be the first to call upon the Palestinian leadership to grow up, stop crying, stop whimpering, and act like a leadership of a mature state they claim to desire. The UN, under ban Ki Moon, should stop talking about Israeli excessive force and challenge the Palestinian Authority to begin to act like the government it pretends to be.
I admit that I do not have solutions. I am only posting the problems at the core.
I do have one thought, from our reading of this morning. Noah is given God’s covenant of peace, as symbolized by the rainbow. I pray that we soon see the rainbow of peace for all parties—before any flood washes all away.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Koheleth, Ben Sira and the Direction for our Congregation

            Koheleth, Ben Sira and the Direction for our Congregation     Shmini Atzeret 2015

            People often ask me, “ What holiday is this?”. After all, we know about Sukkoth- we have these ramshackle huts. We know about Simhat Torah- after all, everyone likes to dance around. But all we usually think about Shmini Atzeret is that it has become the occasion for Yizkor.
            Even the Bible didn’t give us a clear explanation. This is simple, in straight translation, the Eight Day of Atzeret. What is Atzeret? A  good question. It is usually translated as “Assembly”, since the Hebrew word “Atzeret” can mean a gathering or an assembly. We have been gathered together for 7 days of Sukkot, and now we have one more day to gather. Yet another reading of the word “ Atzeret” is  “Conclusion.” This is a conclusion of the festival of Sukkoth and a conclusion of the entire sacred season of this month.
            Why this day? It is said that God so much enjoyed watching his people celebrating that he said,” Don’t leave me. Stay an extra day with me.”
            This day has since been imbued with additional significance. Sukkoth was always associated with prayers for rain, and yesterday, by tradition, was Hoshana Rabbah. Jews beat willow branches as a physical prayer for rain, and today, we add the verse  Mashiv haruach ,”Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”. That verse is highlighted by chanting the Musaf in the tones of the Yom Kippur Neilah. Our sages taught us “ Im ayn Kemach, ayn torah-- if there is no dough, no physical nourishment, there can be no Torah”.  We cannot have religion without physical prosperity and wellbeing.
            Now that your curiosity has been settled and you can answer someone’s question, ”What is Shmini Atzeret”, we must provoke two other questions.  The first question, is “ Why is there no explanation for Shmini Atzeret. Why is it left open ended?” The second question is,”Since we need our physical nourishment in order to get spiritual nourishment, how do we keep this congregation going?”
            The first question is the easier.
                        There is an old tradition of reading from Koheleth, the book of Ecclesiastes, at the season of Sukkoth. It is the fall, summer has ended, and winter is coming, and we are getting older. The Sages said that Koheleth was written by King Solomon when he was an old man and it feels like it.  There is another ancient book, however, commonly called Ecclesiasticus. Note that name is almost the same. It is also called the Wisdom of Ben Sira.
            Now, Koheleth would seem to be a very bitter old man. He is very cynical in tone and attitude. For him, wisdom is a fool’s quest. ” Hevel havalim,Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. . .            I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.  . . . Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain. . .  Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.”
            On the other hand, Ben Sira concludes on just the opposite note, as if he is intentionally responding to Koheleth:
            “See for yourselves! I have labored only a little, but have found much.
Acquire but a little instruction, and you will win silver and gold through her.
May your soul rejoice in God’s mercy; do not be ashamed to give him praise.
Work at your tasks in due season, and in his own time God will give you your reward.”
            Which one of these made the cut to be in the Bible?
            After much debate, the Rabbis decided to keep the sceptic Koheleth. However, until the last century, if I wanted to read Ben Sira, I had to go borrow a copy ,based on a Greek text, from the Catholic Church. It was not till a little over 120 years ago, that an original Hebrew text of Ben Sira was found in the Cairo Geniza ( by the founding figure of my Rabbinical school, Cambridge Prof. Solomon Schechter) and another text found in the Dead Sea scrolls in the last century.
            So, I go to the questioning. The Rabbis justify the book from these verses at the end,” The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd.” The goads (which they also interpret as a ‘volleyball’, a back and forth) are to prompt us and lead us to one source because a faith questioned is a faith that can withstand challenges.
            It is that willingness to examine and analyze that has enabled us to pass through every crisis and every challenge in all history.
            Koheleth is in, Ben Sira is out. That is the nature of Jewish thought.
            Judaism is one unopened question that will be resolved ” Teyku” Ever? Never?  The word is from the Aramaic, Teykum”, let it stand, a tie. The metaphoric explanation is that “ Tishbi Yavo veyetaretz  kushiyot v sheelot”, Elijah, the prophet, at the end of days, will give us the final answer. In either way, there are, it seems 321 cases of Teyku, of undecided problems in the Talmud, which may well be half of all the cases. That makes us very unlike Catholicism, for example, which requires a very well-reasoned and logical conclusion, a catechism that then becomes binding on the community of the faithful. We are left debating, and we are told, that our sages, even when they are dead and in heaven, are still debating.
             That is why we have a festival of Shmini Atzeret with an open-ended meaning for a name.
            Which takes me now to our second question, of the future of our synagogue and the quandary of dealing with Jews and Judaism  into the 21st century. ” Since we need our physical nourishment in order to get spiritual nourishment, how do we keep this congregation going?”
            Many years back, when I was a student in Rabbinical school ( the Jewish Theological Seminary of the aforementioned scholar, Solomon Schechter), I prepared a paper on the challenges facing modern Judaism, especially Conservative Judaism. What was true 40 years ago, was true 200 years ago, when another Rabbi Nachman ( my Hebrew name) wrote his masterpiece, A Guide to the Perplexed for Modern Times . He adapted the title of Maimonides great work of a thousand years ago, which was an attempt to meet the challenges of rational philosophy on faith by adopting rational philosophy. Krochmal moved on to the next step for his time and day, the European Enlightenment.  Why did Judaism continue, while all other civilizations went through ups, plateaus, downs and outs? It continued because the spirit of Judaism was one which responded actively and creatively to the needs of the times.
            To cut short some 200 years of intervening Jewish history, this is what I proposed- my own version of Moreh Nebuchim. Conservative Judaism had generally been seen as a middle road:, neither Reform nor Orthodox, Halakhic but not much observed,  a traditional service but with a lot of English and explanation to make the service longer,the Rabbi as  gentleman and  scholar. All in combination made this the success formula for American Jewry for the bulk of the last century. The ground had shifted greatly, however, while was a student.
            I came out with a formula which is the kind that business schools like. An organizational diagram rather than a unified theory. We needed to explore, we needed to break out. I came up a three dimensional Judaism, with eight different variations on a spectrum of more observant to less in Jewish law in one direction, from traditional to radical in faith, from mystical to ethnic-secular in tone.  What we had to keep us together was the agreement that we were, at the core one, one people, one story, one God, however we would explain that.
            To succeed, the large synagogue of the 20th century would need to be broken up into small ones, competing, under one roof. My very first position, in fact, was in Houston, where one synagogue had two congregations, and my first mission was to create, at least for the High Holy days, another congregation, a family congregation with a woman as the Cantor and a children’s choir. Today, there are three services running simultaneously in that synagogue, all filled. Indeed, that is the trend.
            Now, what can we do here? We have at best, two minyans worth on a Shabbat. It’s hard to cut that down into two groups. So our next best is to try and bring in alternative services. That is our experiment with Makom LA. That is the experiment I tried with last week’s Magic Sukkah. We share our facilities with the Iranian American Jewish Federation; they too recognize their need to “break the eggs” in order to make an omelet. That is why , this Shabbat, we saw an American Ashkenazi Cantor lead a service for a Bat Mitzvah girl who read from the Torah to a Persian congregation that has its own very distinct traditions. It is true that it took almost forever, but it is, nevertheless, a major move for a very traditional community.
            In short, I need all of us here to ask the question, what we can do to keep this community up and going. We are in the midst of one of the great creative centers of world culture. We can do a great variety of programming here—family, musical, literary, educational, you name it. We can join forces with Makom LA beyond just the  Friday and Shabbat services. We can work with our Iranian counterparts here. We just need elbow grease—we need it from you.
            We need help to reach out to our neighbors. We need people to make phone calls. We need people to sit on the board. We need people to plan and invent. A donation wouldn’t hurt, either.
            If we can get all of us on board, we do ourselves a long lasting favor. We keep the chain of Jewish tradition, the link L’dor vador-from generation to generation, going on and on. I want to put us in the frame of thought for Yizkor, and go back to Ecclesiasticus, who had a great opening for Yizkor:
Let us now praise famous men (and women), and our fathers( and mothers )that begat us.
2The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.
3Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
4Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:
5Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
6Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:
7All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
10But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
14Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.
15The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.
For the sake of those who went before us, we commit ourselves to carry on in their devotion and Massaim Tovim, good deeds. Amen.




Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What Is It That We Jews Remember When We Say “ Zachor”? A Response to Natalie Portman's Important Question

What is it that we Jews Remember When We Say “ Zachor”?   Yom Kippur Yizkor  2015

Here is a deep  Rabbinical discussion for you :
The Yeshiva student asks the Rabbi:Why are four questions asked on Passover and no questions on Yom Kippur? After all, Yom Kippur is the greatest day of the calendar—If Pesah, gets 4 questions, Yom Kippur, all achat kamh ve lamah, even more so, should have at least 4 questions.
To which the Rabbi replied:
Because on all other days, just like on Yom Kippur, to see a Jew upset and moan is not unusual and raises no questions. But on Pesah, but to see a Jew happy!? That demands an explanation!
So, on Yom Kippur, we are in our normal mode—brooding, concerned, and moaning. So much trouble- so much anxiety—how can we dig in and find some good in all of it?
    We compound this mood by the emphasis that people place on Yizkor.This aspect takes on a sanctity of its own, as if it were given to Moses on Sinai itself, even though it is strictly an Ashkenazi custom.
    It is a reflection of the exceptionally heavy burden that was placed upon the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, who faced a continuous history of crusade, pogrom, and expulsion over the past 1000 years. It is said that the service of Yizkor goes back to the massacres during the Crusades, when the survivors gathered in their synagogues to celebrate the Festivals, and then were struck with tears at the thought of their fellows who were no longer alive to celebrate with them.
    Onto this, we have, in the past decades, we have added the Remembarcne of the victims of the Holocaust, a reality of our modern history that we cannot escape.
    You can see that we Jews have the memory of an elephant. We remember past tragedies but we remember past triumphs as well.  Zachor”, Remember, is such a powerful force in our collective psyche.
                As many Jewish scholars have pointed out, Remembering, for a Jew, is not remembering details of historical events and facts. It is what academics call “ HeilGeschichte”, the Sacred memory of History. Something as ancient as the Exodus becomes more powerful to a child  than any bricks and stones that an archaeologist can unearth. It is taking the events of the past and turning them into tools for cultivating the soul of a people.  
            Remembrance of past keeps us in the present and points to the future..
    Let us think again of the one great horror of Jewry in the 20th century-- the Shoah. In what way can bringing up again and again such horrors light the way for the us in the future? It ended 70 years ago, after all.
            Yet see how we can’t escape it. The United States is in the midst of a deal with the largest state sponsor of terror and anti-semitism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the hopes that it can forestall this rogue regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. I can tell you that our friends next door at the Iranian American Jewish federation are very, very worried. They understand the regime form the inside. But not just Iranian Jews. American Jews suddenly find themselves questioned by erstwhile allies on the left about dual loyalty and there are splits inside the Jewish community. There is no doubt that our malaise stems from this memory of the not-distant past.
            So, can we pull something positive from this Remembrance?  Can we take a message form this that is past a collective post-traumatic stress disorder? 
            The greatest lesson is that we are the contradiction of Nazism and that our message is at the foundation of civilization.
            Now, we ask, with the Holocaust, was Hitler out to get the Jews, or Judaism. On the surface, it could be argued that, unlike any other campaign against us, only in the Holocaust were Jews threatened with extermination—In the ancient war of the Romans against the Jews, a Jew could side with the Romans and be made a general or a court advisor. Under Christian or Moslem persecution, a Jew could switch sides, and be saved.
            But under Hitler, all Jews were equal—equally doomed-- Communist and Hasid, Zionist and  German war hero ,Reform, Orthodox, atheist, Baptized Christian, it made no difference.

            Clearly, Hitler was out to get the Jews as a people as never before. Still, was it only because he didn’t like our noses?
            What was behind this ultimate madness that engulfed an entire nation? It was not just the Jew as the carrier of some racial traits or blood type. It was that the Jew, whatever variation of Jew could be imagined, represented the great moral weight of religious tradition that shaped Western Civilization at its best. For that reason, the books of the Jews had to be burned, not just the bodies.
            Judasim is the negation of everything that Nazism stood for. Judaism , every resemblance to it, was to be destroyed. Christianity, indirectly, and all of its moral baggage, would eventually be destroyed as well, in the final end-game, even though many Christian groups were duped to play along.
            So I want us to recall with the Yizkor of our martyrs, what it is we that we stood for and still stand for.
            Nazism, and much social theory that preceded it,  took the teachings of Darwin’s concept of survival  of the fittest and twisted it to their own ends. Struggle for survival is part of nature and the powerful have the obligation to trample the weak in that struggle.
            Jews, for all our supposed isolation and clannishness, were the bearers of the concept of  “ all men are created equal.”
I give you just one source that defines this, in the warnings given to witnesses in court in capital cases, from the Talmud:
Therefore, only a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. 
Again but a single person was created for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”.
Again, but a single person was created against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”.
Again but a single person was created to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another.
Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”
Is there any greater example of the dignity of the individual, the great potential, in which each one of us says,” For my sake the world was created”.
In Nazism, only one people, genetically, had the capacity for culture and civilization. All truth could flow out of one land and one race only.
Our Sages emphasized that the Torah itself was not given in the land of Israel, but in the wilderness at Sinai. What did the sages teach us from this?
Torah was given openly, in public, in a place belonging to no one, for had Torah been given in the Land of Israel they would have said to the nations of the world, "You have no portion in it!" Since it was given openly, in public, in a place belonging to no one, anyone who wants can come and receive it.  Exodus 19.32, Mekhilta Bahodesh 1.II 198 .
You see, our sages taught in this, that as much as we may be “ Am Segulah”, a distinguished people, we hold no monopoly on the great teachings of the Torah. It is given in the wilderness, ownerless, so that anyone who wants to can come and receive it.
            The racial theory of Nazism, of the innate supremacy of one people, necessarily called for eugenics and elimination of people with defects. The first gas chambers were set up for the elimination of the mentally incapacitated and later perfected on the Jews.
            What is our take?
You know that we have blessings for fruits, vegetables, and wine, anything we enjoy.
Then for sights of nature- thunder and lightening, oceans and mountains, blsooms in the springtime,  all sights of nature that impress us. We have blessings for categories of people, as well, for scholars, for Kings, even for beautiful people.
Finally, though, we find a blessing for a person or an animal that is disfugured. What kind of blessing could there possibly be?
         Upon seeing some one who is disfigured-- we say. barukh atah.. meshaneh et habriyot
Prasied are you ... who  varies his creatures.
                       In other words, where others see disaster or a source of ridicule, we say, meshaneh--variation, change, difference. What we may see as wrong or inferior-- is also a part of God's creation--change, variation, and difference, are not roadblocks, but essential parts of creation.
                         In Nazi doctrine,if there is a superior race, it must be lead by a superior human being. Superman, the Leader, the Fuehrer, is the embodiment of the great will of history, the one who holds the true vision of the future, before whom, all Parliaments and Congresses are useless.
           In the Torah, a King is tolerated, barely, and he is told that he must abide by the laws of the Torah, may not amass wealth or power or wives. The Kings of ancient Israel are constantly hemmed in by the people and the Prophets.
            It is no wonder that the movement for European democracy came first from those who studied and preached the Bible in the language of the people. Five centuries ago, Tyndale stated that it is for government of the people, by the people, for the people. It is this attitude that is embodied in the American Declaration of Independence, and in the call to break free from the British Crown. There can be no Fuehrer, no divine leader, in a world inspired by teachings that came from the Jews. .    
           In the theory of Nazism, the survival of the fittest race requires that all other races be subservient to the Aryan race, that they exist to serve the Herrenvolk.
           The Talmud  Yerushalmi teaches otherwise, and it is codified in Jewish law:
           In a community where Jews and gentiles (pagans, we presume) dwell together, we establish charity collections jointly and distribute to the poor of the gentiles and to the poor of Israel. We care for the ill of the gentiles and for the ill of Israel. We bury the dead of the gentiles and we bury of Israel. We comfort the mourners among the gentiles and we comfort the mourners of Israel, we cleanse the garments of the gentiles and we cleanse the garments of Israel—Mipney Darkey Shalom—all for the sake of peace.
           Finally, the Nazis taught that the supreme race must constantly prove and improves its merits through war to secure lands for the expansion of its people. In Nazism, terror is the cherished tool of the regime, and war is the noblest action and its purpose is to dominate.
           It is no wonder, that the United Nations, which came into existence to unify the civilized world against Nazi barbarism, put these words from Isaiah, on its walls.”Nations shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war any more.”
           Do Jews have a master vision of triumph at the end of days? Here is Maimonides definition of it, the conclusion of his masterpiece of Jewish law and ethics, the Mishneh Torah:
           “The Prophets , in regard to the Messianic era, had no desire to rule the world nor to subjugate the nations, nor to be elevated above the nations, nor to indulged in feasting and drinking but instead, they envisioned that the people would be free to study the Torah and its wisdom, without disturbance, and thereby gain eternity.”
           Many of you know that I have written about my father’s experience under both the Nazis and the Communists. In 1938, shortly after he had been released from a Naiz prison in berlin, he wrote an essay of the contrast between Judaism and the “isms” of his day.
  I close with his words, whereby we recognize what our goal as Jews and as human beings is on this Yom Kippur day, what it is we must so deeply remember:
         “ The originality of Judaism rests primarily on the point that the Bible, for the first time, inquired into the question of the sense and inner unity of all human history and conceived of the individual events of history as steps up to a meaningful and powerful world goal. ..
            The duty of mankind in this world is prescribed in these brave words by an ancient Jewish philosophy of history "Man is called upon to be God's co-worker in the act of creation. (Mechilta,Ex. 18:13).

We are all, as human beings, in God’s image, challenged to be God’s partner, in the act of creation. May we always so carry ourselves, thereby sanctify the Remembrance of our martyrs and erase the Remembrance of the Doers of Evil. ” Yitamu Hataim min haaretz” Let sin disappear from the earth,” U reshaim od eynam—and there shall be no doers of evil.”

Conquering our Anger with Love

Conquering our Anger with Love     Kol Nidre      2015           
            I want to share a story related to me by Cantor and Rabbi Baruch Cohen of Temple Emanuel.
            He befriended a Jewish jazz musician who had never set foot in the synagogue and had only recently developed an interest in Jewish music. At the Cantor's invitation, he visited the synagogue for Yom Kippur, stayed through the entire service, down to the  shofar blown at Neilah, and he truly relished it all.
            The next day, he came to visit the Cantor--he was overjoyed and he had a real confession to tell:
            You know something? I've apologize for sins today that I wish I had committed!"
            I certainly hope that his one attendance at synagogue did not serve as an inspiration to go out and commit something new.
            This is a day which we dedicate to cleansing of our sins and our failings and we have in the al het and the ashmanu such a long list, that as the jazz musician told the cantor, we wish we would have done some.
            But, as we know, God is long forbearing and compassionate and forgiving of anything done against him. When you have been around for billions of years, and you are going to be around for billions more, you can afford to be forgiving.
            However, we mortals are of short duration, a century at the best, and God cannot afford to be so easily forgiving of our sins towards our neighbor. Our neighbor, after all, won't be here a billion years from now.
            It is only we, not God, who can make our Shalom, our peace, with our fellow human beings, man, woman, and child, Jew or gentile, native born and stranger.
            When the sage Hillel was asked for an ideal role model for his students, it is ironic that he did not select Abraham or Moses or King David nor any of the prophets. Instead, he selected Aaron.
            "Hevey mitalmidey shel Aharon", Be like the students of Aaron.
            What an odd choice, for the Aaron of the Bible made the Golden Calf at the request of the raging mob. He displayed a spineless, gutless character.
            Yet Aaron is the hero, for he is " Ohev Shalom, rodef Shalom, Ohev et habriyot, umekarvan latorah" --he loves peace, pursues peace, loves all creation  and brings them closer to the Torah."
            Jewish literature abounds with tales of Aaron the peace-maker. The legends tell us that when a husband and wife came to him in anger, seeking a divorce, he would take the husband aside and tell him, “ You know, she really told me  some wonderful things about you.” And to the wife, he would say, “ You know, he really told me some wonderful things about you.” For the sake of Shalom  Bayit, peace in the household, the truth could be enhanced somewhat.  Our sages note that when Moses, the greatest of all prophets, died, the Torah states that the people of Israel wept, but when Aharon dies, " kol bet yisrale",  the entire people of Israel weep, for he had brought them peace.
            One of the classic figures of Jewish piety of the last century was a Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen, who was nicknamed after the title of his first book, Chofetz Chaim. It is a book on the dangers of slander and gossip. He took care never to say any word that could hurt or harm anyone and he attempted to teach that thought to his students. The title of that book comes from a verse in Psalms:
" Mi haish hehafetz hayim”- Who seeks a long life, who loves to see beautiful days". The psalm does not suggest" cut smoking, no caffeine, and avoid fats in the diet."  Rather, it says hold back your tongue from evil and most appropriate for our words tonight--"Bakesh Shalom verodfeihu--Seek peace and pursue it ."
            Sadly , what seems to be an easy message is easily obliterated. It is all to easy for hatred and anger to creep in and destroy peace.
            The same sage Hillel, who spoke of Aharon, saw a country of one faction pitted against another. Hillel, upon walking by a river bank one day, spies a skull floating in the water, and  in five words  he sums up the real world:
            "De-atyft- atfuch vsof metafayich yetufun."
            Because you have drowned others, so they drowned you. And in the end, they who drowned you shall be drowned.
            This could have been Syria or Iraq, for sure, where neighbors have turned on neighbors.  It could even be in this country, where someone, bearing some ancient grudge or hatred, walks into a church or movie and begins to shoot.
            Hillel wasn’t talking about  some distant country, nor some large powerful nation. He was talking about us, Jews. In the end, tragically for the Jewish people, Hillel did not get his message across. Hillel raised many students, but not enough to change the course of history. Roman armies set fire to the ancient Temple, but it was not Rome that destroyed Jerusalem, our sages told us, but "sinat hinam," senseless hatred, of neighbor pitted against neighbor, of factions at odds with each other. That destroyed the ancient Temple.
            What was true two thousand years ago stills plagues us as human beings today.
            Bumper stickers are a convenient way to study public opinions and sentiments. One popular bumper sticker that I have seen for many years is
 “Don’t get mad--get even."
             Well, we might ask, why not get even. It feels good.
            A Hasidic teacher,   Rebbe Shmelke of Nikolsburg, tried to answer just that same question. After all , getting even feels good:
            “If your own hand by chance strikes you, would you then take a stick and hit your own hand for its heedlessness? Wouldn’t this add to your pain?
            It is the same when your neighbor causes you harm-- his soul is one with yours. Should you retaliate, it would be you who would suffer. After all, every human soul is a part of  God. "
            The cynics among us may say," Rabbi, that is easy preaching. Do you really believe that it is so easy to change human nature?  After all, that’s how we were created!”
            Don’t revenge and violence go back to the first brothers on earth, Cain and Abel ? After Cain dispatches Abel, he shrugs off God’s query,” Hashomer Ahi Anokhi?--Am I my brother's keeper?".
            The Rabbis elaborate on his reply, in the form of the greatest lame excuse in history:
            " I killed him, but You, God, gave me the power to do evil! You protect and guard all, and You let me kill him. You, God, killed him."
            We are all, in Cain's pattern, created with the power to violence, to force, to hatred. We all make the lame excuse." God, you  made me. I am not responsible. You are."
            Cain blamed God for his crime. Today, we blame other factors--When Marxism was in, we blamed the oppressive capitalist system for the violence of human society. When Freud was in, we blamed our parents for not being psychoanalysts. Now, there is a new trend, to blame flawed DNA strands. Public contemporary wisdom says we are not liable for our mistakes. It is all in our biological disposition. Is that true? Is that wisdom?
            One of the great students of human behavior, Professor Jerome Kagan, of Harvard University, challenges us,:
            " This biological disposition business has become ridiculous. . . .. Don't assume that just because a person has a temperamental quality, he has no conscious control over it. "
            If revenge can only breed revenge what then is the cure?
            The Hasidic teacher, Raphael of Bershid proposed: Do you desire that people love you? Then love them first.
            If Sinat Hinam-- Free hatred, was the cause of all our anguish, then the cure is ahavat hinam, free love-- the only true free love there can be- kindness and compassion towards our fellow human.
            Good can breed good, love can breed love, compassion can breed compassion.
            Fortunately, not every bumper sticker has a malicious message.  There is another popular bumper sticker-" Commit random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty."
            Imagine, if you would, that we all go on a rampage of doing acts of compassion- gemilut hasadim? It would be contagious and infectious. Could you imagine a political campaign in which both candidates would say “ Let’s see who can create a more compassionate America, a more compassionate world?”
            It is the same idea--if we can go out of our way to do kindness, we can increase and multiply it many times over.
            The ideas of Dr. Kagan were presaged by the Rambam, Maimonides, the seminal philosopher of Judaism, who emphasized our ability to take hold of our lives a thousand years ago.      As a physician he understood the idea of predispositions and proposed conditioning techniques to strengthen desired behaviors and to extinguish others.
            Ultimately however he takes the definitive stance:( Hilkhot Teshuvah:Ch 5)
            Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so..."
            The belief in our free ability to choose is at the very heart of Yom Kippur. It is our power and free ability to choose good, to choose life, that is the hallmark of Judaism.
            We have the power to lead lives of lovingkindness toward our fellow human being. That power can be contagious.
            The sages ask ,”what is the true prayer which we should have in our hearts?” They offer this: 
             "May it be thy will that hatred of us not arise in any man's heart nor let our hearts bear hatred toward any man, let not jealousy of us arise in any man, nor let us have jealousy towards any man." ( Yerushalmi Berakhot)
            God , too, prays, so our sages taught. What is it that he prays?
            " May it be my will that my  mercy conquer my anger, may my mercy overcome all my other traits, and may I deal in mercy with my children beyond the letter of the law.( Talmud Berakhot)

            May our prayer and God's prayer be answered  Amen.