Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Yom Kippur Day Sermon

 YK Sermon II 2020

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Kehilat Shalom



On Sept. 23, 2001, a most unusual event took place in Yankee Stadium in New York City. There was a five hour long memorial service with Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones serving as co-hosts, with the participation of rabbis, ministers, the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop, the Imam of the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, as well as Buddhist and Hindu religious leaders. New York’s then-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, spoke, as did the then-Governor George Pataki. Placido Domingo, Bette Midler, and Lee Greenwood sang. The service was broadcast in its entirety on what were then considered the “four major TV networks”: CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It was originally planned to be held in Central Park but so soon after 9/11, the security implications of an event that might be attended by a million or more people quickly led to the service being moved to the more-controlled environs of Yankee Stadium, and tickets were given primarily to the families of those who were killed or missing. Contemporaneous news coverage of the service refers to the 6,000 people presumed dead or missing, which was what was believed to be the number at the time; it was not until much later that we learned that the true number of those killed was actually just under 3,000, including those who died at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA.


Today we are in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 people in the United States so far with no end in sight. To put this in terms of the 9/11 death toll, this is 67 9/11s and we add another 9/11 every four days. When the death toll reached 100,000 many newspapers ran feature sections with the stories of some of those who had died, but the 200,000 milestone which was reached this week received much less attention. There are many reasons for this, of course; the presidential election, the passing of Justice Ginsburg, tropical storms, and other stories competed for attention. There is also a large element of fatigue -- we are all tired of the virus, but unfortunately the virus is not tired of us. 


When I went back to read the coverage of the interfaith memorial service at Yankee Stadium, it was jarring to read the estimates of 6,000 dead in the 9/11 attacks. Some of those who were assumed dead were later found elsewhere; others had not come to work that day, were waiting for elevators in the lobbies of the Twin Towers when the first plane struck, or were otherwise not present and didn’t even realize that they were among those assumed to be killed. Why was there a rush to hold a memorial service before the number of dead was even known and while rescue and recovery work continued at Ground Zero?


But the need to ritualize mourning is, I think, if not quite universal then almost so. When my mother died three years ago, she wanted no funeral or memorial service of any kind. But neither my brother, who is an active Unitarian, nor I, found ourselves able to fully comply with her wishes. I said Kaddish for 11 months and held a shiva minyan at the synagogue. My brother arranged for a memorial service at his Unitarian congregation after scattering her ashes at the New Jersey shore. I am sure that in specifying that there be no services, my mother was trying to relieve us from the burden of arranging them. But she unwittingly left us with a different type of burden; a circle of grief that was not fully closed.


We are of course all aware of the terrible toll of this pandemic. Not only 200,000 plus lives lost but millions of jobs, trillions of dollars in economic activity, businesses closed, lifecycle events cancelled, and years of education lost. And many of the millions who have been sickened by the virus but did not die from it have had and will continue to have all kinds of medical issues known and unknown.


We can calculate losses in numbers of deaths and in dollars but there are other losses, less tangible but no less real. For many of us, the fear of dying alone is one of the greatest fears we have. And yet, because of coronavirus restrictions which are quite necessary and proper, thousands of people have died alone, without their loved ones nearby to hold their hand and just be with them as they face the unknown.


Because of the pandemic, travel is restricted -- sometimes by law, other times by the precautions that people quite naturally take in the face of a highly contagious and deadly disease. In our mobile society, many of us have relatives all over the country if not the globe. When a parent dies and is going to be buried several hundred miles away, should their adult child risk their own health and that of the rest of their family to fly there for the funeral? Do they stay home and participate at a distance on Zoom? Will there even be a Zoom? I officiated at a Zoom funeral towards the beginning of the pandemic, and the spotty data coverage at the cemetery combined with the high winds that created background noise, made the Zoom feed almost useless for the friends and family who were not permitted to be at the cemetery.


One of the virtues of traditional Jewish mourning rituals is that they give us a roadmap and a schedule. From the time the death occurs until the funeral you are exempt from all ritual requirements and don’t even count for a minyan -- which means you don’t yet say Kaddish, for example. From the time of the funeral for seven days you don’t leave your house, you don’t go to work, the minyan comes to you. But what do you do if the funeral is delayed for several days, a week, or even longer -- as was quite common at the beginning of the pandemic? What significance does it have to stay in your house for seven days when you haven’t left your house for months? What does it mean for the minyan to come to you when it’s been coming to you over Zoom since mid-March?

Our individual mourning has become so complicated because much of what we would normally do either cannot be done, or ironically enough, is precisely what we are doing already as part of our day-to-day lives in this time period. Our national mourning is even more complicated.


While I was struck by the fact that we had what was to all intents and purposes a national memorial service for 9/11 even before all the victims were found and the number of dead known, 9/11 was a discrete event. It happened, it was over, and we knew who was responsible. We had a president who understood that one of their most important roles is to serve as “consoler in chief,” to bring our country together and unify us in times of trouble.  We do not have unity today. Everything about this pandemic has become politicized and partisan-- whether to wear a mask or not, whether to observe physical distancing or not, whether children get the disease and spread it to others, whether we can trust that the vaccine which does not yet exist will be safe and effective once it is distributed. 


The same Jewish tradition that provides us a roadmap for mourning also recognizes that sometimes that roadmap needs to be adjusted due to circumstances we can’t control. If a funeral has to be delayed, we begin shiva when the body is given over to the custody of those who will perform the burial. If we did not learn of a death until 30 days or more has passed, we sit shiva for only one hour. While at times I have given congregants advice based on these specific rulings, the point is, the tradition recognizes that we do what we can and that is sufficient in the eyes of God and in the eyes of those we have lost. 


God asks us on Yom Kippur  what we are going to do now. How will we move forward? We are left mourning national losses to COVID, and left mourning the life we had before COVID. Mourning  a life of social interaction, travel, and interpersonal supports. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to acknowledge those losses, as well as associated personal regrets, by refraining from such activities as bathing, eating or drinking. Just like with the restrictions we face during COVID, our body is uncomfortable during Yom Kippur; by feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain. And we can seek comfort in the fact that God has faith in us that we can indeed move forward through tragedies such as 9/11 and the Pandemic.


May the memory of those we have lost inspire us to live always by our highest ideals.



Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

 YK Sermon I 2020

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Kehilat Shalom


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away Erev Rosh Hashanah, once said “so often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be a great good fortune.” She was talking about the fact that when she was fresh out of law school, no major law firm would give a job as a permanent associate to a woman. If she had been hired by one of the firms where she applied, she said in an interview, she probably would have followed the typical career trajectory and ascended up the ladder of corporate law. Instead she turned to academics and legal advocacy, and we all know the rest of the story.


On Rosh Hashanah I briefly discussed what may be one of the most difficult prayers of the High Holiday liturgy, Unetaneh Tokef, which says that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water and who by plague . . . but teshuvah, prayer, and acts of charity and justice can transform the harshness of our destiny.


It seems almost contradictory; if it is written and sealed, how can we do anything about it?


But I believe that this seeming contradiction contains the seeds of a powerful lesson. Accepting that we are not always in control can help us to judge others more favorably. It can also help us to judge ourselves more favorably; and one of the great sources of suffering that I have seen in 34 years as a rabbi, is people being extremely and unfairly critical of themselves as well as of others.


But accepting that certain things are beyond our control could also lead us to passivity. While we need to accept that not everything is within our control, that doesn’t mean that it’s the case that nothing is in our control. While we often don’t control what happens to us, we do have the ability to choose how we respond. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, instead of a sermon, I taught a text from Avot D’rabbi Natan about a conversation between Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua as they were gazing on the ruins of the Temple.  The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and Rabban Yohanan died twenty years later so while we don’t know exactly when this conversation took place, it was no further away from the destruction of the Temple than 9/11 is for us today. A very recent memory, a wound that was still open.

Rabbi Joshua lamented the destruction of the Temple because, in keeping with explicit Torahitic teaching, he believed that only through the Temple rituals of animal sacrifice could Jews gain atonement. But Rabban Yohanan told him not to grieve, that we have another means of atonement which is just as efficacious -- gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness. How does Rabban Yohanan know that this is so? Because it says in Hosea 6:6 -- “I desire hesed and not sacrifices.”

The text doesn’t tell us how Rabbi Joshua responded but he would have been biblically correct to disagree. What gave Rabban Yohanan the right to change the rules? And what gave him the right to bring a quote from Hosea -- in the Bible, sure, but not part of the Torah and thus not legally authoritative -- in order to do so?

In establishing that acts of lovingkindness were spiritually and legally the equivalent of Temple sacrifices, Rabban Yohanan is responsible for the fact that Judaism still exists today. He knew that there was no possibility of rebuilding the Temple; it was he who had been smuggled out of the besieged Jerusalem shortly before the Romans destroyed the Temple and cut a deal with them to establish a yeshiva in Yavne, on the coast. 

Leonard Cohen wrote: 

Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering 

There is a crack, a crack in everything 

That's how the light gets in. 


Under the leadership of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, our ancestors forgot their perfect offerings sacrificed in the Temple and let the lights in through the cracks to create the Judaism we practice today; rabbis instead of priests, prayer instead of sacrifices, and Torah study and acts of lovingkindness as our holiest actions.


Last year on Yom Kippur in one of my sermons I said the following:

The Hebrew term for a synagogue is “Bet Knesset” which means “House of Assembly.” But when we pray in Hebrew for the welfare of the congregation and its members, we do not use the term “Bet Knesset” but rather “Kehila” or “Kehila Kedosha” -- congregation or holy congregation -- the same word as in the name of our congregation. We are Kehilat Shalom; we are not Beit Knesset Shalom. Our beautiful building is the place we study, the place we pray, the place we gather with each other for friendship and fellowship. But the building is not the congregation; the people are the wonderful congregation we have today.


I did not know then that for six months and more, our building would not even be the place where we study, pray, and gather for friendship and fellowship. Zoom has been that place, as have to a lesser extent the telephone, emails, and text messages. And yet we have not skipped a beat. We have had a minyan and more for every Friday night and Saturday morning service and for all but one or two weekday evening minyans. We had a beautiful Bat Mitzvah which was written up in Bethesda Magazine. We added a weekly Havdalah service and virtual social events. We have had an educational musical performance, cooking lessons, classes and lectures. We had a meeting with the CEO of the Jewish Federation and next month will have a meeting with our Member of Congress. We’ve had a drive-thru kosher barbecue and a pick-up Break Fast and a drive-in Shofar Service. And I participated over Zoom in the Bet Din for a conversion candidate in Iowa City, sponsored by the rabbi there who usually has to bring candidates to Chicago to meet with a Bet Din.


Just like with our pandemic, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, some Jews believed that it would be rebuilt soon and the old ways of worship would be restored. Rabban Yohanan understood that this was not to be and laid the groundwork for a type of Judaism that no longer depended on a particular building or a particular piece of ground; the Bible became, in the words of the poet Heinrich Heine, our “portable homeland.” While we certainly mourn the loss of lives during the Jewish Revolt against Rome and the loss of independence, few of us, I think, really mourn the fact that we no longer have a Temple where Levitical priests offer animal sacrifices to the Lord.


Jewish sovereignty was not reestablished until 1948 and the Temple has not been rebuilt. We can be pretty confident that we will not have to wait nearly 2000 years until we can once again hold services in the synagogue building without taking unacceptable risks. But social distancing and COVID precautions do not come with an on/off switch. Even under the more relaxed Montgomery County regulations which were announced literally as I was writing this sermon, we would have been able to legally accommodate only about a third of our typical High Holiday attendance today.


In having our services online we discovered that there are a lot of people in our community who have not participated in some of our in-person activities because of various pre pandemic health concerns or because it didn’t make sense to drive half an hour in each direction for a fifteen minute minyan service. We have congregants who suffer from both visible and invisible disabilities and health conditions that make it unlikely that they will feel comfortable at indoor in-person activities until there is a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. We have had participants join us for services and classes from a number of different states, from the UK and Taiwan and Canada and the Bahamas.

If we treat the six or eight or however many months of COVID precautions as a blip and simply go back to doing everything precisely as we did before, we will leave out many members of our community no matter how we define community. Is it ethical to have services which exclude some congregants? Should we continue to do Zoom services only? A hybrid model with some people at the synagogue and others online? What would that look like?


There are no easy answers to these questions. As we consider all the alternatives and discuss them, it is clear that we will not be able to go back to what we had done before, and our new reality will be deeply uncomfortable for a lot of people -- including, at times, me. But precisely 1950 years ago our ancestors faced a similar crisis as the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the main form of worship that they had was now impossible. They responded creatively with Torah study, acts of lovingkindness, and prayer replacing the Temple service. We too will figure this out and emerge stronger than before.


Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering 

There is a crack, a crack in everything 

That's how the light gets in. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Power of God in the Human Heart -- Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781

 High Holiday Sermon I 2020

Kehilat Shalom

Rabbi Charles L. Arian



Since mid-March my colleagues and I have faced a lot of situations that are so unprecedented that they  fall under the general rubric of “they didn’t teach this stuff in rabbinical school.” Although I was in fact the first student in my rabbinical school to own a personal computer, it had no hard drive and no modem, two 5.25 inch floppy disk drives and a 64k memory, and it cost $2500 in 1983, equivalent to $6500 today. The Internet had not yet been invented, let alone webcams or Zoom.


The unprecedented use of technology is only matched by the unprecedented times we are living in. I’ve been asked more than once over the last several months, where is God in the midst of all this suffering? While our ancestors saw God’s power directly at the Red Sea and at Sinai, today God works through the power of love in the human heart. We know what we need to do to get through this.


If you have not watched the series “Regular Heroes” on Amazon Prime you really ought to do so. The series tells the stories of ordinary Americans who have done extraordinary things, sometimes by just living their lives, during the pandemic. Doctors and nurses but also a hospital supply clerk and an ambulance driver. A young girl who puts together art kits to distribute to classes in poor neighborhoods. A woman in our area who raises money to obtain and distribute sanitary supplies to homeless women. A father and his young daughter who match health care workers who need to remain isolated from their families with unused RVs. 


Burnell Cotlon is 53 years old and a veteran of the US Army. He lives in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and the one which was most devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Five years ago, ten years after Katrina, there was still no grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward and in order to buy fresh fruits and vegetables or anything that wasn’t junk food, residents had to take three buses to the nearest Walmart. Or they could subsist on snacks and junk food from the local gas station.


So Burnell took his life savings from jobs working at fast food restaurants and dollar stores to buy a dilapidated building on an empty block to open the first grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward since Katrina.


When the pandemic hit New Orleans the role of Burnell’s grocery store changed. He began letting his customers run tabs and even gave away groceries for free.  In April he told the Washington Post: “Last week, I caught a lady in the back of the store stuffing things into her purse. We don’t really have shoplifters here. This whole store is two aisles. I can see everything from my seat up front. So I walked over to her real calm and put my hand on her shoulder. I took her purse and opened it up. Inside she had a carton of eggs, a six-pack of wieners, and two or three candy bars. She started crying. She said she had three kids, and her man had lost his job, and they had nothing to eat and no place to go. Maybe it was a lie. I don’t know. But who’s making up stories for seven or eight dollars of groceries? She was telling me, “Please, please, I’m begging you,” and I stood there and thought about it, and what am I supposed to do?


I said: “That’s okay. You’re all right.” I let her take it. I like to help. I always want to say yes. But I’m starting to get more desperate myself, so it’s getting harder.


“This guy, he was hurting. He needed something to eat. He picked up four cans of tuna, a Sno-Ball, and laundry detergent. He told me he was good for it as soon he gets his unemployment check, and I trust him. I rang it up for eleven dollars. I took out a notebook that I usually keep near the register and started a little tab.


That notebook kept coming back out. Next it was Ms. Richmond. She did housekeeping at a hotel and lost that. Her tab was $48. Then it was a lady who shucks oysters downtown. She’s got a big family to take care of, so she’s at $155. Then there’s another guy who I deliver to, since he’s bedridden, and I showed up with two bags and he had nothing to give me. So he’s at $54.80.


This has gone from a grocery store to a food pantry. That’s how I’m feeling.”

Because “Regular Heroes” is a feel-good television reality show, the producers of the show have a celebrity place a call at the end of the segment to thank them and tell them what gifts the producers are giving them. In this case, it was Alicia Keys who called and presented Burnell with all kinds of equipment to make his store function more efficiently as well as a bunch of staple foodstuffs so he could continue to give food away to the most needy people in the community. And so Burnell’s Market remains in business and Mr. Cotlon continues to serve his community.


“Regular Heroes” presents the kind of country we would like to see ourselves as. I watched it every Friday afternoon for eight weeks as new episodes came out and I cried and cried through each episode. It renewed my faith in humanity -- that most people are good, that most people care, that most people will go above and beyond and place their wealth and their health at risk for the good of the community.


And we are that country but we are sadly not only that country. There is a reason that the United States has 4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths.


Burnell Cotlon loves his community and his community reciprocates that love, and they take care of each other. And here at Kehilat Shalom, we also do a pretty good job of caring for each other.

Did anyone imagine back in March when we first started holding our services over Zoom that in September we would still be doing so? That kids would still be doing distance learning and many people would still be working from home or worse yet, not working at all? That close to 200,000 people in this country would die of COVID-19?

This country is filled with people like Burnell Cotlon, like Roman Grandinetti who kept his Manhattan deli open to feed first responders, like Athena Hayley who was once homeless and now feeds and clothes homeless people in Los Angeles. Sadly it is also filled with people who assault store employees who are fulfilling their job responsibilities by trying to make sure that anyone who enters wears a mask, and people who insist on holding large events without masks and without social distancing despite the dangers that these events cause.


Rabbi Akiva said that “you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” is the general principle on which all of the Torah stands.As we recall the miracles of the Red Sea and Sinai, we can and we will overcome this pandemic. We can and we will meet again in our sanctuary. We can and we will rebuild our economy and see our kids back in their school buildings, safely. In order to do so, we need to love our neighbors. Not only the neighbor who looks like me and votes like me and prays like me and speaks my language. Like it or not, we are all in this together. As we begin the New Year, may our country be blessed with the power of love so that together we can build a better future.


Monday, April 6, 2020

Hoarding and Shortages

I heard this story at a Holocaust Remembrance Day program some years ago and I cannot swear that every detail is accurate, but the story itself is true. The person who told it is a friend who is the son of Holocaust survivors

His father was around 16 years old and the family was locked up in the Warsaw Ghetto with thousands of other Jews and no food. They were on the verge of starvation when the 16 year old decided he had nothing to lose by trying to sneak out of the Ghetto and find some food. If he succeeded, they would have something to eat. If he got killed trying, then they were still no worse off because they were soon going to die of starvation anyway.

My friend's father was gone several hours and came back with exactly one potato -- not much for their family of four, but something.

He triumphantly handed it to his father who proceeded to take a knife, cut the potato in half, and head for the door of the family's apartment.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

"The people downstairs are hungry too."


Thursday, March 26, 2020

Passover in an Age of COVID-19

Passover in an age of COVID-19
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD


Observing Passover (Pesach) always presents challenges but this year is more challenging than usual. In this article I want to address two different issues:
Observing the Seder when health guidelines tell us not to gather with people outside our immediate household.
Keeping kosher for Passover when going shopping presents a health hazard and supply chains are interrupted.

I do not intend to address the overall question of keeping kosher for Passover as I have covered that in previous years. That guidance can be found here but should be used bearing in mind the particular leniencies which are applicable this year.

Seder:
It should be absolutely clear that under no circumstances is it permitted to gather for Seder with people other than your immediate household. There is a principle in halacha (Jewish law) known as dina d’malchuta dina (the law of the land is the law) and it is a Jewish religious obligation to obey civil laws. Since the State of Maryland has issued rulings restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people, and has further advised people to remain at home except for truly essential activities, and public health guidelines call for us to maintain a distance of at least six feet from people who are not part of our household, we consider it a sin to violate these guidelines. If you are still planning to gather for Seder with a group of less than 10, maintaining the six foot separation, you may only do so if your physician tells you that this is permitted.
Kehilat Shalom has already been streaming daily and Shabbat services via Zoom since March 19. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement has issued guidelines that permit the use of video streaming for services (and by analogy the Pesach Seder) and allow for the recitation of Kaddish provided that there are at least ten participants and they can all see and hear each other. (This provision is why we use Zoom rather than Facebook Live or Youtube which are one way rather than interactive connections.)
The original CJLS guidance specified that streaming needed to be done in such a way that the equipment was not operated on Shabbat, neither by the person moderating or hosting the streaming session, nor by the other participants. Unfortunately, following this guidance requires all kinds of IT infrastructure that costs many thousands of dollars which we do not possess. Therefore I reluctantly concluded that we would violate the CJLS guidelines and offer Zoom services on Shabbat regardless. My reasoning is that the prohibitions which are violated by operating Zoom on Shabbat are d’rabbanan (rabbinic) rather than d’oraita (biblical) and that the rabbis have the authority to suspend d’rabbanan prohibitions when it is in the public interest to do so.

On March 25 the CJLS issued guidance which says that “ideally” the above practices should be followed but if they cannot be, it is permissible in current circumstances to connect to or initiate a stream from a computer which is already operating if it can be done by instructing a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa to do so or by clicking on a link rather than typing in a web address. The stream itself should also be set up so that it does not record. In my opinion this guidance is much more realistic and we should strive to follow it, but I still maintain that typing into a computer on Shabbat or causing video recording is at worst a rabbinic rather than biblical prohibition and can be overridden if necessary under current circumstances. Therefore it is permitted to conduct a Seder over Zoom or similar technology and include friends and family who cannot safely join you in person. Ideally there should be a seder plate at each location but at a minimum each location should have three matzahs, wine or grape juice, carpas (any green vegetable), maror (any bitter vegetable), and salt water.

Keeping Kosher for Pesach:

The main concern as we shop for Pesach this year is disruption of the supply chain combined with the risk of going shopping, and all the more so the possibility of having to go from store to store since availability of products is so inconsistent. One way to minimize this problem locally is to do your Pesach shopping online through https://shop.motismarket.com/. Most of the products in their system are Kosher for Passover, and those which are not are clearly marked. They will deliver your order to our area but like everyone else they are limited by availability of product and have limited delivery time slots available.
Bear in mind that while it is prohibited to eat chametz (“leavened products” which combine liquid and any of the five grains wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) it is required to eat matzah only for the Seder. If you are having difficulty obtaining matzah this is helpful to remember. Those who have a sufficient supply of matzah should be willing to help make sure that their fellow Jews have at least three matzahs for the Seder and find a way to get them to each other in a contactless manner.
Karpas can be any vegetable (in Israel it is commonly a boiled potato). Maror can be any vegetable which brings a tear to the eye if consumed raw. In Israel it is usually romaine lettuce but it could be hot peppers, fresh ginger, mustard greens or raw lemon if horseradish is unavailable.
As I referenced in my general Passover guide, the CJLS in 2015 permitted all Jews, not just Sephardim, to consume kitniyot (“legumes”, things such as beans, rice, and corn) on Passover. For this year the CJLS is urging everyone to permit the consumption of kitniyot and general guidance can be found in my above article.
I have previously written and discussed the halachic concept of bitul b’shishim which means that an amount of non-kosher food or drink which is less than 1/60th of the total volume is nullified and the product remains kosher. While this doesn’t apply to chametz during Pesach, it does apply before Pesach and we formally nullify any chametz in our possession the night before and the morning of the first Seder. In practical terms it


means that if one didn’t sort through the beans or rice they bought before Pesach and they happen to find a grain of chametz in it before cooking, they can simply discard the chametz and the food remains permissible.
The concept of bitul b’shishim also means that while we normally strive to buy products which are certified for Passover, in a crisis situation such as this year we can rely on bitul to purchase products which we know do not contain any chametz but might have been produced on a production line which is also used for chametz. The CJLS has published a more in depth guide to Pesach shopping for this year which can be accessed here.

On Monday March 30 at 10 am I will be offering a seminar on these issues as well as a Q&A at the following link: https://zoom.us/j/6450339344

While I am happy to answer any questions and provide guidance, unless you are doing your Pesach shopping prior to this coming Monday I would ask you to hold your questions until the seminar since your question may be of broader interest.

My fervent prayer for all of us is that we merit to observe this coming Pesach as safely as we can and that in future years we once again join together in person to proclaim “next year in Jerusalem.”


Thursday, January 16, 2020

MLK Address from 2010


In January of 2010, ten years ago, I was invited by the Norwich, CT NAACP Branch to give the keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service.


I want to thank Rev. Barbara White and Evans Memorial for hosting this event, and I want to thank you for honoring me with this invitation to speak here today as we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Rev. Greg Perry called me several weeks ago and asked me to do this, there was no doubt in my mind that I would accept, but I was a little surprised and a little bewildered. But then I remembered a conversation that I had about a year ago with Brother Joseph Hemphill, who some of you certainly know. What you may not know is that some of my conversations with Brother Joseph work their way into the sermons I give at Beth Jacob. And it was just about a year ago, because we Jews read the entire Five Books of Moses every year through, and it is just about this time of year that we begin reading the book of Exodus. So freedom and liberation are on our minds, and it is always appropriate that we're reading the Book of Exodus at the time that we are also remembering Dr. King. And it was in that context that Brother Joseph said something that really stuck with me. He said, "you know, what Dr. King did, he didn't just do for the Black people."

And that's correct, and that's why it's OK for a white, Jewish person to give this talk today. What Dr. King did, he did for all of us. As Abraham Lincoln said so long ago, "as I would not be a slave, I would not be a slave master." It is not just that Black people needed to be liberated from the shackles of racism and oppression. White people needed to be liberated from their own oppression as well, because oppression is a product of fear. It is not just African Americans who are better off today because of Dr. King. All of us are better off, because we are working together for a society where we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Dr. King's dream was not a Black dream or a white dream, it was an American dream, and a human dream. And it was a dream influenced by the Abrahamic covenants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I want to begin this afternoon with a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish legal and ethical materials, laws and stories, that was codified around 1500 years ago, but much of the material is quite a bit older than that. When I as a Jew and a rabbi read or hear stories of Jesus, they are familiar to me, because Jesus, too, was a rabbi, and he was not the only rabbi of his time to teach by means of stories and parables. So maybe those of you who are Christians will find something familiar in this type of story as well.

One day Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered Elijah the Prophet. As you know, in our traditions Elijah is considered to be the harbinger of the Messiah. And so Rabbi Yehoshua asked him “when will the Messiah come?”
“Ask him yourself”, came the reply. “He sits at the gate of Rome with all the other beggars, but there is one way you can single him out. All of the beggars un-bandage all their wounds at once and then re-bandage them all at once. But the Messiah un-bandages one and then immediately re-bandages it, un-bandages another and then re-bandages it, thinking that perhaps he will be needed and have to go in a hurry.”
Rabbi Yehoshua traveled to Rome and found the Messiah as Elijah had said. “Shalom to you my Master and Teacher.” “Shalom to you, ben Levi.”
“When will Master come.” “Today!” the Messiah replied.
When Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah he was crestfallen. “Surely he lied to me, because he said he would come today and yet there is no sign of him.”
“You misunderstood what he was saying,” replied Elijah. “He was quoting to you from Scripture, Psalm 95. ‘Today – if you would but hearken to God’s voice.’”

Imagine a world where no child goes to bed hungry. Where no child lives in fear of the adults who control his life. Where the poor are not merely given what they need to survive but treated with respect, and given the tools with which to lift themselves out of poverty. Where workers are always treated fairly. Where disputes between individuals and between nations are settled on the basis of justice and reason, not on the basis of who has the greater might. Where animals are protected from human cruelty; where natural resources are treasured as God’s gift to humanity and used wisely, with concern for future generations and their needs. Where the elderly are not considered a burden but treasured for their wisdom and experience. 

Such a world is not a fantasy. That world is possible. You and I, with God's help, can bring that world into being. 3500 years ago at Mt. Sinai, God gave the Jewish people a plan to bring that world into fruition. And then Christianity and Islam came onto the scene to spread that plan, but we still -- all of us -- continue to fall short.

The Jewish people really became a people in Egypt. When Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, the entire nation consisted of one patriarch, his twelve sons and one daughter, the wives and children of the twelve sons and their household employees – a band of seventy souls in all, perhaps. After four hundred years that number had grown somewhat. Six hundred thousand adult males left Egypt -- together with wives and children probably 2.5 to 3 million.
The Jewish people, then, was forged in the crucible of slavery. Thirty seven times the Torah commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Not so we should seek revenge.  In fact, we are specifically commanded not to hate the Egyptians, because they provided us food when we faced starvation. No, the Torah reminds us of our origin as strangers in order to remind us that because we were strangers, we in turn have a special responsibility not to oppress the stranger but to love him.
At the time of Jesus, there were two other great rabbis of the age, Hillel and Shammai. Once there was a pagan who, for whatever reason, enjoyed making fun of rabbis. He went to  Shammai, and said to him: “I am willing to convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai like Jesus was a carpenter by profession and apparently brooked no nonsense. He took the yardstick that was in his hand and whacked the pagan over the head.
              So the pagan went to Hillel. And Hillel took him up on the challenge. He said to him “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn."
     For us Jews, there are two sources of values. One is the Bible, and the other is Jewish history. I believe that it is no accident that Jews have been in the forefront of every struggle for human freedom.
Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were close friends. The picture of them marching arm in arm during the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is one of the great iconic images of the Civil Rights era. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a "Conference on Religion and Race" in Chicago. This is what Dr. Heschel said then:
"At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."
 Thus it is no accident that the two white volunteers killed by the Klan during Mississippi Freedom Summer in the United States almost fifty years ago alongside James Chaney were Jews named Schwerner and Goodman. It is no accident that in apartheid South Africa, for years and years the only anti-apartheid member of the all-white legislature was Helen Suzman, the Jewish representative of a predominantly Jewish district in Johannesburg. It is no accident that the two demographic groups in the United States whose voting patterns are most alike are African Americans and Jewish Americans. It is no accident; it is a direct result of the Torah’s repeated admonition to “not oppress the stranger, but remember that you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.


            All the rest is commentary. But in our day Hillel’s teaching is not enough. It is not enough because it is merely passive. And as both Blacks and Jews learned so painfully within the memory of many sitting here today, it is not enough to merely personally refrain from doing evil. Rabbi Heschel said  "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference," while Dr. King said "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system." Not to act communicates "to the oppressor that his (sic) actions are morally right." And so I would add a corollary to Hillel’s maxim: “what has been done to you, do not let be done to another.”

In February 1993 I was part of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who spent a week in Haiti examining the human rights situation there and the U.S. government’s policy at the time of returning Haitian refugees who were intercepted trying to make their way by boat to our country. And interestingly enough, all ten of us cited exactly the same motivation for going on this trip: the St. Louis.
In 1939 a boat with 900 Jewish refugees steamed away from the shores of Germany. They were bound for Cuba, which had given them visas. But for one reason or another, the Cubans changed their minds and sent the refugees away. So the boat, the St. Louis, headed for New York harbor. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent them back to Germany, where most of them disappeared in the crematoria of the Holocaust.
So for a Jew, who knows Jewish history, seeing a boatload of refugees returned home to face likely death hit too close to home. When I am asked one day what I did when we sent the Haitians away to be killed, I won’t have to say “I was a good German. I did nothing.”
We are a people that learn from history. Because we were slaves and strangers in Egypt, we have tried to free the slave and honor the rights of the stranger. Because the world watched and did nothing while we were slaughtered, we were determined not to watch and do nothing as Bosnians and Rwandans were slaughtered. And because we are all of us people who learn from history -- whether as Jewish people, as Black people, or simply as American people -- we cannot sit idly by and watch and do nothing while people continue to die in Haiti.

            Brother Joseph was right when he reminded me that what Dr. King did, he did for all of us. Dr. King's genius was that his vision was rooted in the biblical texts that almost all Americans hold to be sacred. His dream was, as he himself said, "deeply rooted in the American dream." He called us, all of us, to be the kind of people that we know in our hearts that we ought to be. He called us to live lives of justice and of peace. He called us, finally, to join hands and build the kind of world that God wants us to have. He called us to hearken to God's voice.   
              When will redemption come? Today, if we would hearken to God’s voice.
              When will redemption come? When we bring it. Let’s not wait to begin the task.




Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Importance of a Home


Sermon Delivered Yom Kippur Morning 5780
October 9, 2019

A classmate of mine from rabbinical school once said to me that to avoid angering congregants on the High Holidays, a rabbi should avoid talking about three subjects: 1.) politics; 2.) religion; and 3.) anything else.

For a long time Israel was the exception in the American Jewish community to my friend’s cynical advice. American Jews might be divided about lots of things but we were all united in support of Israel. I remember going to my mostly working-class-Catholic public high school every day wearing a button that said “We Are One” for months after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. A couple of years later I wore a button that said “We Are All Zionists” after the United Nations General Assembly passed its infamous -- now repealed -- resolution asserting that Zionism was a form of racism. These buttons represented shared sentiments among Jews then.

But those days of commonplace support for Israel are long gone. While we often hear that like much of American society, American Jews are polarized about Israel, that isn’t even the right word. Polarization properly understood implies that we are split into two warring camps, but it’s much more complicated than that. We are splintered into groups which don’t understand each other, don’t talk with each other, and at times even demonize each other.

“We Are One” was never quite true but in today’s Jewish community we are many. There are those who are enthusiastic supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, approve  of his actions and his policies, and will be disappointed if, as appears likely, he does not continue to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister. There are those who might have had some doubts about Netanyahu but felt that it was our duty as American Jews to support the elected government of Israel, period. There are those who consider themselves to be pro-Israel but do not support Netanyahu, are concerned that some of his polices were actually harming Israel, and are hopeful that there will be a new prime minister soon. Then there are those who no longer know what to think and just throw up their hands in frustration. And finally, there are those, mostly young, who are quite vocal about not supporting Israel because they feel that support of Israel conflicts with the progressive and humanistic values they were taught as Jews.

These young progressives might be surprised to learn that there was a time when supporting Israel was considered a progressive cause.  For example, in 1950 the folk quartet “The Weavers” , which included Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, recorded the Israeli folk song “Tzena, Tzena.'' This song was also recorded by Mitch Miller, Chet Atkins, and the Smothers Brothers. Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba together recorded the Israeli folk song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” while Belafonte alone also recorded “Hava Nagila” and “Hinei Mah Tov u’Mah Naim.” Now it is seen by many as an oxymoron if you state that you are liberal and pro-Israel.

Israel was a progressive cause for many reasons. Progressives tend to support the underdog and in the struggle to establish a Jewish state, Israel was seen as an underdog. Zionism fought against both the British empire and the Arab nations, all of which were theocratic monarchies. Most of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers -- David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Sharett, Yigal Allon -- were socialists and many of them had spent time living on kibbutzim, the purest form of socialism ever put into practice.  The Histradrut labor union advocated democratic socialism, and it was one of the most important institutions in the country along with the Labor Party, which governed Israel uninterruptedly from 1948 until 1977.

Israel is in many ways still an extremely progressive country. Israel has developed a healthcare system that simultaneously guarantees health insurance to everyone and preserves choice and competition, as Israelis can choose between four nationwide HMOs. Men and women are guaranteed equal pay and equal employment access. Transgender soldiers serve in the Israeli military; Palestinian gays and lesbians seek refuge in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from the homophobic attitudes of Palestinian society.

How then did Israel lose the support of so many progressives? We all know the history; the 1967 Six Day War left Israel in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which it conquered from Jordan, the Golan Heights which it conquered from Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip which it conquered from Egypt. East Jerusalem and the Golan have since been formally annexed to Israel and their residents have the option to seek Israeli citizenship. Sinai was returned to Egypt under the terms of a peace treaty and Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, but fifty two years after the Six Day war the status of the West Bank is still unresolved. This is an extraordinarily complicated issue and I could speak for several hours and still not cover it adequately. Israel’s public relations has suffered hugely with the unresolved status of the territories. Trite slogans that do not recognize the complexities are helpful to no one. 

The issue of the West Bank has divided Jews’ opinions on Israel.  There is a growing group of young American Jews known as “If Not Now” that essentially has a one-plank platform: “end the American Jewish community’s support for the Occupation.” They are officially neutral on support for a two-state solution or a one-state solution and whether Israel should exist at all.

On the other hand one hears from some American Jews that these disputed territories are the heartland of Biblical Israel -- which is true; that Israel won them in a war that the Arabs started -- which is also true -- and that no country has ever withdrawn from territories conquered that way -- which is not true.

The complexities about the occupation continue. The Oslo Process under Yitzhak Rabin was an attempt to “end the Occupation.” Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, with appropriate security guarantees that it would indeed be a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel and not instead of the State of Israel. Even after Rabin was murdered negotiations continued under his successors. In January 2001 the two sides met in Taba, Egypt, for a last-ditch effort. Israel offered to return 97 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. There were still significant gaps between the two parties but they were closer to an agreement than they had ever been. But the then-president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, didn’t propose continuing the negotiations and building on the progress which had been made. Instead, with the international community widely holding the Palestinians responsible for the failure of the talks, he gave the green light for a massive campaign of suicide bombings and terror attacks, hoping that the Israeli response would once again allow him to portray the Palestinians as victims. This was, to all intents and purposes, the end of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The continued ambiguous status of the West Bank territories complicates any sort of peace in the region as well as complicating American Jews’ ideas about Israel. For the last 52 years the West Bank has been in a sort of limbo where it is under Israeli control but not considered, even by Israel, as part of the State of Israel. It is a disputed territory about which there have been off and on negotiations.  A few days before the recent elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that if he won the elections he would formally annex much of Area C, which makes up around 60 percent of the land area of the West Bank, although a much smaller percentage of its Arab population.  This would have meant the end of any possibility of an eventual peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

Why would this be a problem? Because Israel was founded to be and continues to define itself as a Jewish and democratic state.. Annexation of the West Bank effectively means that Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic one but not both. If Israel were to annex the West Bank it would add 2.8 million Palestinians who would now officially be residents of the State of Israel. If Israel extends citizenship to them it will be a state with a bare majority of Jews over Arabs, and given the Arab birth rate Israel will have an Arab majority in a couple of decades. If Israel does not extend citizenship to them, it will have given up all claim to be a democratic state.

The September 17 election results have taken the question of annexation off the table for now. The majority of Israeli voters are open to the idea of two states for two peoples. But this is something that Israel cannot accomplish on its own, unilaterally.  Israel can refrain from taking steps which make a two-state solution impossible, and it can implement small steps to make day-to-day Palestinian life easier and build trust. But until there is a Palestinian partner across the table that is willing to acknowledge that Israel is here to stay and gives up on the illusory goal of millions of Palestinians returning to the very same houses they left in 1948, there will be no agreement, no Palestinian state and no end to the Occupation. 

 A peaceful resolution is possible if the moderate majorities in both Israel and the Palestinian territories give up their maximalist dreams, rein in their extremists, and recognize that their choices come down to either permanent warfare or a treaty where everyone gets some of what they want and no one gets all of what they want. The specific outlines will have to be worked out between the parties, but it is something that is in everyone’s best interest.

So why is Israel so important?  Why is a home for Jews so important? The great American poet Robert Frost wrote that ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’ Every person and every nation wants and deserves a home. 

Between 1939 and 1945, six million Jews died precisely because the Jewish people had no home.  In May 1939 a ship named the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, with about 900 German Jews bound for Cuba. The voyage of the St. Louis was in part a propaganda effort by the Nazis. They were saying to the West, you criticize our treatment of the Jews but you are hypocrites because you don’t want them either.  

The Jews on the St. Louis had visas for Cuba but the Cuban government cancelled them before the ship even arrived. The St. Louis headed to the United States but our country, too, turned them away and the ship returned to Europe. About 300 of the Jews were taken in by Great Britain and the others by the Netherlands, Belgium and France. For many of them their new countries proved only a temporary refuge and many of the St. Louis passengers ultimately died in the Holocaust.

They were turned away by Cuba and they were turned away by the United States. If the State of Israel had existed in 1939 the German Jews could have gone there and thus been saved. But in 1939 what was then Mandatory Palestine was controlled by the British who, bowing to Arab pressure, issued a White Paper shortly before the St. Louis sailed which limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 total over five years, with subsequent immigration to be subject to an Arab veto.

The increase in antisemitism throughout the world reminds us that the need for one piece of land under Jewish control, where Jews don’t need someone else’s permission to relocate, continues today. It is legitimate and even healthy for us to disagree with each other about Israeli policies, but there should be no disagreement about Israel’s importance to all of us. Keep yourself informed about Israeli news, visit Israel if you can, purchase Israeli products, watch Israeli films and movies -- there are so many to choose from on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO, and most importantly, support organizations in Israel working to make Israel the type of society you would like it to be.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis is one of the most popular authors and speakers about Israel.  Danny grew up in Baltimore, and we worked together and shared an office suite at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. During the 1998 - 99 academic year he took a sabbatical in Jerusalem. It was meant to be for one year but he and his family decided to stay permanently.

As you probably know, there is a custom that during the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur, those who have not lost a parent, child, spouse or sibling -- someone for whom one is obligated to say the Mourner’s Kaddish -- go out of the synagogue. Danny's grandfather Rabbi Robert Gordis, a prominent Conservative rabbi, considered this a superstitious custom and used to denounce it from the pulpit. In deference to his father, Danny's father would stay in the synagogue during Yizkor and raised Danny the same way; but when Danny moved to Israel, he decided to revert to the older "superstitious" custom.

Some years ago Danny was "confronted" by one of the founding members of his Jerusalem synagogue about his going out for Yizkor. Danny thought to himself, "Oh no, another lecture about following a superstition." But quite the opposite happened. The older man said to him: "When we founded this synagogue, we were all Holocaust survivors and there was not a single person who could go out for Yizkor. Then there were all the wars, and again, there was no one who could go out for Yizkor. But now, look. Most of the congregation goes out for Yizkor. [Now in a synagogue in Jerusalem, none of these people have lost a parent, child, spouse or sibling.] Ha-medina ha-zot nes. This State is a miracle."

May the people of Israel and their leaders be blessed with the courage and wisdom to preserve this miracle.