Power To Make Good Choices

I am sure that many of us have been watching the Olympics. This year’s Olympics has had a historic first: a team of 10 athletes who are displaced persons from South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria and are now together as members of the Refugee Olympic Team.

As a team, the 10 represent no nation, but at the opening ceremony, they walked in under the Olympic flag, while the Olympic anthem was played. The team was created by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to raise awareness of the world refugee crisis.

IOC president Thomas Bach said in a statement, “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that, despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

Initially, 43 potential candidates were identified by the various National Olympic Committees for inclusion in the team. The final selection process considered sporting ability, personal circumstances and United Nations-verified refugee status. To pay for athlete training, the IOC established a fund of $2 million.

The 10 refugee athletes include:

James Nyang Chiengjiek, who fled South Sudan to avoid being captured by rebels intent on recruiting child soldiers. A runner, he is competing in track-and-road, 400m.
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, who fled South Sudan at age 10, competing in track-and-road, 800m.
Paulo Lokoro, another refugee from South Sudan, competing in track-and-road, 1500m.
Anjelina Lohalith has not seen her parents since she was 6 and her village in South Sudan was destroyed. Competing in track-and-road, 1500m.
Yiech Biel lived for 10 years in a refugee camp after fleeing South Sudan. Competing in track-and-road, 800m.
Yonas Kinde fled Ethiopia. Competes in track-and-road, marathon.
Popole Misenga fled Democratic Republic of Congo at age 6 after his mother was murdered. Competing in judo, 90kg.
Yolande Mabika, a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo, competing in judo, 70kg.
Rami Anis fled Syria. Competing in swimming 100m butterfly.
Yusra Mardini fled Syria. When the crowded small boat she was on started to capsize, Mardini and her sister swam for more than three hours in the sea, pushing the boat and helping more than a dozen non-swimmers on the boat survive the journey. Competing in swimming, 100m freestyle.

This is not a fairy tale story, and none of the refugee team competitors is likely to medal, but for many, the symbolism of their participation is powerful. They are 10 people, representing 60 million refugees.

There are critics who view the refugee team as an exploitation of the athletes for political gain, but whatever the case, these 10 people have expressed their sense of thrill to be competing at an international level. Several of the refugee team members say they hope their participation in the Olympics will bring hope and inspiration to other refugees.

While many of us may feel bad for these refugees, and the countless wayfarers they represent, it has been a long time since the Jewish people were associated with refugee status.
We would have to go back to pre-State of Israel times, such as during the Holocaust.

Tomorrow night, however, Jews throughout the world will observe the Ninth of AV, a time in which we remember the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples and the creation of millions of refugees. This is not including the northern tribes, who were exiled earlier by the Assyrians, or of course the victims of countless expulsions throughout the medieval ages.

On the one hand, it makes sense to commemorate the tragedies. On the other hand, the creation of a Diaspora – a spreading out of the Jewish People – has had many wonderful results that we should not ignore. This is one reason why Reform Jews are pretty ambivalent when it comes to the Ninth of AV.

The early American Reformer Rabbi David Einhorn put it this way:

The one Temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to Thy honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe…The true and real sanctuary, They imperishable testimony, remained ours, untouched and undimmed… In this our hope, this day of mourning and of fasting hath, according to the word of Thy prophet, been turned into a solemn day of rejoicing in view of the glorious destiny of Thy law and our high messianic mission which had its beginning with the historic events which we recall today” (Olat Tamid, Rabbi David Einhorn, trans. Emil Hirsch, S. Ettlinger: 1896, Chicago, pp. 144-145).

This week, speaking of Einhorn’s vision, Rabbi David Segal of Aspen wrote,

This transformation of a day of ancient mourning into a modern universalistic festival spoke to the classical Reform principle of being a light to the nations by spreading ethical monotheism to the world. The Diaspora, made possible by the Temple’s destruction, enabled our noble mission.

Notably, Einhorn’s liturgical innovation predated both the modern state of Israel and the Reform Movement’s support of Zionism. Einhorn’s solution to the Tisha B’Av question does not work for us today because it lacks balance and because the Jewish world has changed dramatically.

So what might be the modern message of Tisha B’av? Or why do I take this holy day seriously if not traditionally? Personally, I try to find relevant lessons from the tragedy and the commemorations.

I find especially important a classic reason given by the ancient rabbis for the second expulsion from Jerusalem.
The Talmud (BT Gittin 55b-56a) records a fascinating but very relevant debate between the Rabbinic leaders and Rabbi Zechaiah b. Abkulas. It occurred in 66 BCE when Judea was under Roman control. Bar Kamza, a Jew, felt slighted by Judea’s Rabbinic and political leadership and was determined to avenge this insult. He thus informed Emperor Nero that the Jews were not loyal subjects and as proof he proposed that Nero send a calf to be sacrificed as a gift offering in the Temple. Bar Kamza delivered the calf but not before he had made a slight cut on its lip that the Jews regarded as a blemish but not the Romans.

The Rabbis immediately understood what had transpired and were faced with a dilemma: whether to refuse the animal thereby spurning the royal gift or to sacrifice it in violation of Jewish practice. They were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government, but Rabbi Zechariah contended that people will now believe that blemished animals can be bought as an offering in the Temple. The Rabbis then considered killing Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Zechariah protested, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”

The Rabbis, immobilized by “Zechariah’s dilemma,” neither sacrificed the calf nor executed Bar Kamza, who then reported the Rabbis’ rejection of the royal gift.

The Emperor’s ire at the perceived slap in the face set into motion a series of events leading to the Jewish revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Temple and countless Jewish casualties. The Talmud’s footnote to this story is the lament, “through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

Was Rabbi Zechariah correct? Did the Rabbis exhibit a failure of nerve in not following the path of least existence? Was it wise to insist upon upholding the highest moral and ritual standards regardless of the cost?

And what do we learn from this for the dilemmas we face today? Think of Isis, or Hamas.
Do we engage the enemy with force necessary to succeed and to survive? Or should our first concern be avoiding any possibility of collateral damage? Does Isis’ immoral actions give us the freedom to pursue the war in a manner that compromises our own moral standards?

The Talmud bemoans that two millennia ago the Rabbis and the leadership of Judea paid a dear price by allowing themselves to be swayed by Zechariah’s insistence that our moral and ritual principles must be upheld regardless of the consequences.. The Tradition ultimately rejected Zechariah’s argument. The Rabbis certainly believed that life was sacred and that bloodshed violated God’s will – but there are exceptions.

If a rodef (a pursuer) threatens your life, you must do what is necessary to save yourself. Self-defense is not merely a valid response – it is a required moral response.

Similarly a nation threatened by a neighboring rodef has a moral right to take needed action to defend its people. Thus in 1967 when Israel was threatened by the alliance of Egypt and Syria, it took pre-emptive action – that assured the successful culmination of the Six Day War

In contrast in 1973 when there were again clear signs that Egypt and Syria were preparing to attack Israel, the government heeded the warnings from Washington to hold fire until attacked. The failure to preempt hostilities led to great losses in the early days of the Yom Kippur War. There was actually a period when it seemed that Israel would be defeated with all the horrible consequences that would have inevitably followed.
When Jews gather tomorrow evening to observe the Fast we will lament not only past tragedies in our history but also the ongoing tragedy of Israeli deaths in this ongoing war with Terror. While we rightfully believe that given the conditions in which the war must be waged, collateral damage is inevitable, we nonetheless pause to shed tears over the innocent lives that have been lost and the great upheaval that has disrupted the lives of so many. Make no mistake: it is a great luxury to no longer fear being refugees, but such a luxury comes at a price. It costs many lives and it changes your national character.
That’s the price of wanting to be alive. And secure.

As we remember the tragedies of the past and confront the sad realities of the present, may we never lose sight of Isaiah’s great hope that the day will come when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and none shall wage war any more. It’s an age old dream, but woe unto us if we lose faith in human efforts to help make that dream come true.

The Crack is Where the Light Gets In

These days, as you well know, Chicago is filled with tourists. Some will even venture up the top of our various Sky Scrapers and go to balconies that APPEAR to be outside and then they will look down.

Now, imagine if all of a sudden there was a crack!

Actually, it really happened. Last October, a floor panel in a newly opened glass walkway cracked. The skywalk was suspended some 325 feet above a canyon floor in central China. Think about the height of 10 feet. Think about the height of a high diving board. It’s high.
Now think three … hundred … and twenty-five feet above the canyon floor, and you’re standing on a plate of glass suspended in midair, as it were, and the glass suddenly CRACKS!
To say that this freaked everyone out is an understatement. Terror among the tourists!!!
That was the screaming headline on media sites.

Hearing that news is enough to send a chill up the spine of even the most intrepid among us; seeing pictures of the bridge makes it even worse. They show a narrow, 1,300-foot-long glass-bottomed walkway, part of which is wrapped high in the air across a cliff face and part of which is suspended between two canyon walls in Yuntai Mountain Scenic Park in Henan province, China.

According to witnesses, when the crack happened, there was a sudden loud bang and a tremor beneath the feet of bridge crossers who weren’t even near the shattered section. People started screaming and running to the ends of the bridge.

The good news is that the cracked panel did not give way and no one was hurt, but the bridge was immediately closed for repairs. Park officials say there never was any danger, as the crack, probably caused by an object a visitor dropped, was only in the top layer of the panel — and the panes are reportedly designed to carry 1,700 pounds — but people on the walkway when the shattering occurred weren’t comforted.

Even before the crack, people were uneasy crossing the bridge — a bridge of nothing. A bridge of air. The glass creates an illusion that you’re walking in space with nothing to support you. Yet, you don’t fall. Gravity is thwarted by a pane of glass beneath your feet.

The whole idea is to let visitors see the depths below them, and for those who try it, it takes a lot of courage to venture out.

Some people get on their hands and knees and crawl across. Others grab the side cables and shuffled their grasp of the cables as they inch across. Some others walk confidently — but fast, preferring to get across as soon as possible.

Sort of describes how many of us shuffle along in our own kind of walk with faith, doesn’t it?
Here in the United States, we have our own glass-bottomed attraction, the famous Skywalk bridge in the Grand Canyon National Park.

Visitors can walk out on a glass-bottomed platform that juts out into thin air more than 700 feet above the canyon floor.

It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time. In your mind, you know the glass will support you, and that the structure is completely safe. But your gut doesn’t quite embrace what the mind believes.

Tourists report that their heart rates go up. Some sweat a bit. And many try not to look down at their feet, which seem to be suspended in midair.

Still, most people have faith. They walk out on the glass and enjoy the remarkable vistas created by God.

But having faith is not always easy. In this week’s Torah portion the people are fed up with faith. They complain. They doubt.

Their faith is tested. The crack comes in their faith. They have seen miracles but they have also been promised a land they have yet to see. They are tired of promises. They are tied of struggling with faith.

This reality is not unusual in the Torah. Reflecting genuine human experience, it is more the rule than the exception. But that’s what makes Judaism so relevant, even after thousands of years. Our faith is not perfect. It is often stretched if not severed. And yet that is not the end of the relationship with God. Sometimes it is the beginning of a stronger relationship.

Leonard Cohen has a song in which he declares that “There is a crack in everything. That’s where the light comes in!”
There’s a scene in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the intrepid archaeologist/adventurer is fleeing one enemy or another and comes to the edge of a huge and yawning chasm. He stops his forward progress in the nick of time, and teeters there, about to fall in. Then he rights himself and surveys his situation.

Indiana can’t go back; danger lurks there. Yet it seems just as impossible to go forward. That would mean certain death. Then, our hero reaches down and picks up a handful of gravel. He throws it out ahead of him, over the cliff. The falling stones don’t travel far. Just a few inches below the level of his boots. They land on an invisible footbridge he never knew was there.

That’s not a bad image for facing life’s challenges. There may appear for a time to be no way forward. But, by God’s grace, there is such a way. It just hasn’t been revealed yet.

When it comes to finding a light in the crack there was no one in the twentieth century more respected or revered than the late Elie Wiesel. I need not say much about him since he may be one of the most famous people who ever lived. It will be a darker world without him.

But let me share a few words of his:
More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted. Many things, good and less good, have since happened to those who survived it. They learned to build on ruins. Family life was re-created. Children were born, friendships struck. They learned to have faith in their surroundings, even in their fellow men and women. Gratitude has replaced bitterness in their hearts. No one is as capable of thankfulness as they are. Thankful to anyone willing to hear their tales and become their ally in the battle against apathy and forgetfulness. For them every moment is grace.

Oh, they do not forgive the killers and their accomplices, nor should they. Nor should you, Master of the Universe. But they no longer look at every passer-by with suspicion. Nor do they see a dagger in every hand.

Does this mean that the wounds in their soul have healed? They will never heal. As long as a spark of the flames of Auschwitz and Treblinka glows in their memory, so long will my joy be incomplete.

What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?

I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don’t know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz. Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?

But my faith was no longer pure. How could it be? It was filled with anguish rather than fervor, with perplexity more than piety. In the kingdom of eternal night, on the Days of Awe, which are the Days of Judgment, my traditional prayers were directed to you as well as against you, Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?

In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty. Their established culpability is irrelevant to my ”problem” with you, Master of the Universe. In my childhood I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from you.

Where were you, God of kindness, in Auschwitz? What was going on in heaven, at the celestial tribunal, while your children were marked for humiliation, isolation and death only because they were Jewish?

These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades. You have vocal defenders, you know. Many theological answers were given me, such as: ”God is God. He alone knows what He is doing. One has no right to question Him or His ways.” Or: ”Auschwitz was a punishment for European Jewry’s sins of assimilation and/or Zionism.” And: ”Isn’t Israel the solution? Without Auschwitz, there would have been no Israel.”

I reject all these answers. Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with God nor without God. At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men. And their aim was to destroy not only us but you as well. Ought we not to think of your pain, too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t you also suffered?

…[So I have an idea:] let us make up, Master of the Universe. In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.

To which I would add: I need your light – the world needs it.
Let’s start over again together.

This, Too, is Torah

This week NBC5 Chicago aired a segment on how they helped me convince Macy’s to stop harassing me for thousands of dollars of credit card charges that I never made. The bills started coming many months ago and countless time on the phone never solved the issue, despite repeated promises from the Macy’s representatives. I could have handled the situation differently than turning to a television station. I could have hired an attorney. I could have called the CFO of the company, whom I had met by chance in an entirely different context and of whom I think highly. However, when it comes to corporations I am an idealist. I believe that many of them serve the community with excellence and good customer relations. My past experience with Macy’s was a testament to this fact.

For reasons I don’t understand those days seem over. The victims like me can feel like a nameless Kafka protagonist, endlessly on the phone and nothing every changing. NBC5 not only took care of the problem for me. They also exposed the issue for a larger audience. This was important to me. This may not seem like Torah but I believe the general definition of Torah includes efforts at keeping the world a place of justice. For the ancient rabbis who wrote the Talmud I believe my efforts – and those of NBC5 – meet that standard.

As I explained to the reporter, Robin Green, the ancient rabbis might even hold Macy’s more accountable than the criminal who stole my identity and racked up all those charges (in Florida, a state I have not been in for years). After all, criminals break the law. It is wrong but it is what they do. A giant retailer is supposed to take care of its customers. Macy’s failed in that effort.

I hope that Macy’s will do better in the future. (I don’t think the resignation of the CEO last month was due to my complaint, but of course you never know – LOL). This much I know: if enough people like me feel not well served by a corporation it will have to change or it will not survive. I am grateful to the Fourth Estate for putting light on the problem. To quote Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice (chosen 100 years ago): “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Many years ago the Boy Scouts of America troop in my congregation in Florida refused to disavow the national anti-GLBTQ policy and left the synagogue instead. The New York Times interviewed me and asked if I was sending back my Eagle Scout Badge. I said no, but I was putting it in the drawer, waiting for a time when the BSA would be pro-GLBTQ. Likewise I look forward to the day I walk back into a Macy’s store.

As I already wrote, when it comes to corporations, I am an idealist. But all of us at times have to be reminded, “You’re better than that.”

Hebrew Can Save Your Life

Chaim Grade was a poet of the mid-twentieth century in Europe. The son of a Hebrew teacher, he received a religious and secular education. He became one of Lithuania’s greatest interpreters of Jewish literature. He fled the German invasion of Vilnius in World War II and sought refuge in the Soviet Union. Later he moved to the United States. In his memoir, My Mother’s Sabbath Days, he recalls sneaking into the Soviet Union and being cornered in a forest by Russian soldiers. They examined his Hebrew bible and, although Grade did not speak Russian, he could tell from their looks they suspected it was some kind of German code book and that he was a spy. They were going to kill him. All of a sudden a Russian officer rode up on horseback. He spoke with the soldiers and demanded to see the book. With a bemused expression he marked the book and gave it to Grade. He then ordered the men to leave. Grade was alone in the forest, his life spared. The Bible was marked on a page from the prophet Jeremiah, with the words: “I am always with you, says God, and will protect you.”

What happened? Most likely the Russian officer had been a religious Jew before the Russian revolution and had studied the Torah in Hebrew school. Without betraying his background he was able to save Grade and through Hebrew send him an encoded message – “Don’t worry, chaver; you are not alone.”

I share this story because I am spending two weeks on faculty at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (the first Reform Jewish camp, established in 1952) in the unit that has 83 high school students spend the summer here speaking only in Hebrew. It is called Chalutzim (pioneers). There is no other program like this for Reform Jews in the country. This is a program that is vital to the future of Reform Judaism because we need to make sure that we keep our Hebrew alive. Hebrew is more than a language. It is a way of looking at the world, a bridge to the Bible, and a means of keeping us close to our Israeli brothers and sisters. Olin Sang Ruby has been offering this program for decades. The number of graduates who are confident in their Hebrew cannot be measured.

I have been on staff at camp for many years and on faculty for now three years. I have never been more honored to be here than I am now. Hebrew is truly the secrete of the secret sauce that makes this place so special. It permeates each unit and every meal. We should all aspire to have Hebrew a stronger part of our identity. It will be Hebrew that keeps us centered and keeps us as one people.

A Report from the 2016 American Jewish Committee Global Forum

A story I heard yesterday from an Israeli journalist: A call goes out to all nations to find a way to take human beings to Mars. The United States announces a plan that will take thirty years, but it will bring a human mission to Mars and bring them home. The Israelis announce they can have a ship ready in FIVE years and will successfully land their crew on Mars. They just won’t have a plan to bring them home. “Once they are there, they can figure that part out.” The upshot is that, at least according to one journalist, Israel has many strengths but doesn’t always consider the long picture.

These days it seems like much of our political discourse throughout the world is playing by those rules. We vote for what or who feels good in the moment, not remembering, as Kennedy once said, that people campaign in poetry but they govern in prose. One of the reasons I like the American Jewish Committee is that it is all about the long view. Unlike many Jewish and political organizations, the AJC was founded in 1906 on the strength of important and serious conversations with movers and shakers (or future ones) from the places of power in the world.

This year’s Global Forum, certainly delivered. In an age of political vulgarity, I only saw here in Washington old fashioned civility and intellectual inquiry. Excellent speakers presented their views on the current challenges of foaming antisemitism (A.K.A., Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions) and the security and political challenges facing Israel. The aftermath of the Iran deal was addressed but without rancor. We were also inspired by moral courage of such greats at the Air France pilot who forty years ago would not abandon his Jewish passengers in Uganda, and the current college students who stand up to bigotry and racism on campus.

I am so proud and pleased that Chicago has such a vibrant AJC chapter. More than one hundred came to the Forum, many Temple Sholom members. 110 years ago, AJC was begun to fight antisemitism and advocate for the Jewish people and global human rights. It’s mission has never been more timely.

Happy Passover Message

A Passover Message from Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

An Arab chief tells a story of a spy who was captured and then sentenced to death by a general in the Persian army. This general had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between the firing squad and the big, black door. As the moment for execution drew near, the spy was brought to the Persian general, who asked the question, “What will it be: the firing squad or the big, black door?”

The spy hesitated for a long time. It was a difficult decision. He chose the firing squad.

Moments later shots rang out confirming his execution. The general turned to his aide and said, “They always prefer the known way to the unknown. It is characteristic of people to be afraid of the undefined. Yet, we gave him a choice.”

The aide said, “What lies beyond the big door?”

“Freedom,” replied the general. “I’ve known only a few brave enough to take it.”

This year, as we contemplate the meaning of freedom I hope we will pledge to work harder to liberate those imprisoned by hate, ignorance and poverty. And I hope we will pledge to work on ourselves as well.

The Haggadah teaches us that בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים: In every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as if they were liberated from Egypt. In Hebrew, Egypt is known as ‘Mitzrayim,’ a narrow place. The seder asks that we identify with those currently oppressed, marginalized, or restricted; those who yearn and fight for freedom. Not out of pity, but because we are or have been them.

During the seder, we should not only ask the traditional Four Questions, but also invite each other to become living documents and witnesses to oppression and liberation, both social and personal. At your Seder I encourage people to ask each other these questions: Which communities or individuals are currently in Mitzrayim – in a narrow place? And when have you dwelt in Mitzrayim? Finally, what is keeping you back from walking through the door of freedom?

You might even recite this poem, by Adrienne Rich:

Either you will

go through this door

or you will not go through.

If you go through

there is always the risk

of remembering your name.

Things looks at you doubly

and you must look back

and let them happen.

If you do not go through

it is possible

to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes

to hold your position

to die bravely

but much will blind you,

much will evade you,

at what cost who knows?

The door itself

makes no promises.

It is only a door.
Will you decided to go through the door marked “Freedom”?

Happy Pesach! And enjoy the questions!

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

A Report from AIPAC

A Report from AIPAC
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
March 21, 2016

Washington, DC – I always figured this year’s conference would be electrified by the presence of presidential candidates in an election year. I had not considered the possibility that Donald J. Trump would be among the speakers. Nor would I have thought how quickly we would have sunk in the political culture of our nation. And yet here we are. These days I have often been thinking of the following story:

It is told that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded and kept. They require sustained effort to maintain.

We are in the midst of an attack on the very nature of the Republic. Therefore, when it comes to the question of leadership, how we respond to inappropriate leadership is very important. I decided days ago to be one of the first rabbis to call for a boycott of the Trump speech. While Mr. Trump speaks I will be with other rabbis, studying texts on civility and responsible public discourse.

It has been pointed out that Trump is not antisemitic. This means little to me because he has unleashed a hatred that will turn antisemitic even if it is not yet reached that depressing milestone. History supports this inevitable truth. As Jews we have the responsibility to speak out against hatred for others because it is the right thing to do and it is also the smart thing to do.

This Wednesday night is Purim, a holiday that celebrates the triumph over a plot to exterminate the Jews of ancient Persia. The story of Purim warns us against those who assume the worst can’t happen, just because they don’t want it to. Good people can be conned, and not everyone is good; the very tolerance and open-mindedness that is sometimes ridiculed by politicians should not blind us to the fact that our republic may be in jeopardy.

We Jews, as much as anyone, have been enjoying the blessings of a republic. I hope and pray we can keep it.

Why Failure is an Option

I’m told that in the islands of the South Seas there are certain fruits which cannot be eaten and there are some places which cannot be approached. Serious harm will come to anyone who violates these prohibitions, which are called taboos. Perhaps we believe that taboos exist only on these distant islands, but actually we have them too.

In America the idea of failure is one big taboo. We avoid the word. Poor students in school rarely fail, but simply “don’t fulfill their potential.” The incompetent president of an organization is not publicly shamed by failure; a vice-president quietly assumes most of the duties. We try in every way to avoid the idea of failure and thereby to sweeten life by sugar-coating disappointments.
We believe that this is good, the Bible does not. The Bible is really into failure. The Bible practically celebrates failure!

The beginning of Leviticus, the Torah portion we are no reading, through its emphasis on sin and guilt offerings, asks us to face our failures. Yet, how may this help us? We know what we may learn from success, but what may we learn from failure?
In a world where we often are encouraged to play our strengths and celebrate our victories, failure is indeed a taboo. But there is a lot to be said about failure, and a lot to learn.
Three specific things come to mind.

I. EXCELLENCE.
There is an animal in the museum which has been long extinct. It was half-bird and half-fish. It could swim as well as it could fly. In spite of these unique gifts, it did not survive for it could not do either well. Had it failed in one of these skills, it might have escaped mediocrity and have survived.

The same is true for us. As long as the world coddles us we remain mediocre. Excellence in certain areas can only be attained through failure willingly admitted in others.
I am sure we can all recall a time we thought a certain failure would doom us but instead the end result was opening up another avenue for success in life.
I think of that scene in the movie Fame when a young student despairs of ever finding her talent. She learns the hard way that it is not dancing. Lucky for her, through her failure, she learns – as do we in the audience – that she has a gorgeous voice.

II. (In addition to excellence, there is) HUMILITY.
The stores of New York City annually entice shoppers to the city through the Macy’s Parade. The outstanding feature of the parade is a number of large balloon figures of people and animals. The parade attracts hundreds of thousands. The success of the idea has led to bigger and bigger balloons until some were too large to be managed properly.

We, too, become unmanageable if success comes too often; it then goes to our heads. We feel superior to others even if we have only had superior luck. We can learn to be decent, sympathetic, and understanding men, only by having failed once.

The Bible emphasized this through its heroes. Every great Biblical figure, from the patriarchs to the prophets, failed once. human being through their failures.
III. (Finally, in addition to excellence and humility, there is a third by product of failure:) RESILIENCE.
Resilience is what we take away from our challenges, especially our failures. Resilience is what makes us strong.
13 things that mentally strong people avoid:

1. Wasting time feeling sorry for themselves

2. Giving away their power, i.e. letting other people control their actions and their mood

3. Shying away from change

4. Wasting energy on things that cannot change

5. Worry about pleasing others

6. Fear taking calculated risks

7. Dwelling on the past

8. Making the same mistake over and over

9. Resenting other people’s success

10. Giving up after failure

11. Fearing alone time

12. Feeling the world owes them anything

Working through our failures can lead us to resilience.
A story: A man was sleeping one night in his cabin when suddenly his room filled with light, and God appeared. The Lord told the man he had work for him to do, and showed him a large rock in front of his cabin. The Lord explained that the man was to push against the rock with all his might. So, this the man did, day after day.

For many years he toiled from sun up to sun down, his shoulders set squarely against the cold, massive surface of the unmoving rock, pushing with all of his might. Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and worn out, feeling that his whole day had been spent in vain.

But slowly doubts came. He thinks to himself: “You have been pushing against that rock for a long time, and it hasn’t moved.” He begins to believe that the task is impossible and that he is a failure. These thoughts discourage and dishearten him.

Then he thinks, “Hey, why kill yourself over this? I’ll just put in my time, giving just the minimum effort; and that will be good enough.” So that’s what the weary man planned to do, but first he decided to make it a Matter of Prayer and to take his troubled thoughts to the Lord.

“Lord,” he prayed, “I have labored long and hard in your service, putting all my strength to do that which you have asked. Yet, after all this time, I have not even budged that rock by half a millimeter. What is wrong? Why am I failing?”

The Lord responded: “Wait a minute! When I asked you to serve me and you accepted, I told you that your task was to push against the rock with all of your strength, which you have done. Never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. Your task was to push. And now you come to me with your strength spent, thinking that you have failed. Really? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled, your back sinewy and brown; your hands are callused from constant pressure, your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much, and your abilities now surpass that which you used to have. Yes, you haven’t moved the rock. But your calling was to be obedient and to push and to have faith, to trust in my wisdom. That you have done. Now I, my friend, will move the rock.”

When there is a taboo on the islands of the South Seas, nothing can be done about it. Those people must live with it, but we live in the twenty-first century and can face our taboos as we as change them. We may do so with the American taboo on failure, for failure can lead us to excellence and can teach us humility, as well instill within us resilience.

(I am grateful to the American Rabbi with help in preparing this sermon.)

Israeli Paradoxes

I am writing this on Monday, February 29, a leap day and plot device in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, Pirates of Penzance.  In the story, Young Frederic is forced to be a pirate, but is allowed to give up this despicable occupation when he turns twenty-one.  However, when on his twenty-first birthday, he goes to the pirate lair to declare his independence, the pirate king has an ingenious paradox to share with Frederic: Because of your birthday, Frederic is only five years old!  So, no, he is not allowed to stop being a pirate.

My recent trip to Israel, courtesy of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has shown me many paradoxes in Israel.

For starters, despite the new age of terror in the streets of Jerusalem, Israelis are enjoying life more than ever before.  One day I went wine and beer tasting in the Ellah Valley, near Jerusalem.  It could have been the Loire Valley!

In addition, despite all the bitterness of the Palestinian plight, I visited a model Palestinian city, Rawabi, in the middle of the West Bank, where a 21st century oasis of order and beauty is taken shape. 

More meaningful to me is the contrast between my Israeli Reform youth trip leader, back in 1979, expressing his frustration to me that whenever he mentioned Reform Judaism to young people in Israel, they just laughed at him.  Last week, this troop leader, Rabbi Danny Freelander – now the head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism – spoke at the K’nesset and no one was laughing.

Finally, praying with men and woman together at the Kotel last Thursday morning, while a female colleague read from the Torah, reflects the biggest paradox of all: Reform Judaism in Israel is now seen as a solution to many who want religion without sacrificing modern values and sensitivities.  At the same time, it is becoming a huge problem to the Ultra-Orthodox who see their absolute control of matters religious in Israel challenged and even endangered.

The biggest paradox will be if we serious Reform Jews do not continue to build on our victories and push for the recognition and support Reform Jews require and need to transform Israeli society.  As the Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv said, adding her voice to the many Members of K’nesset, the President of Israel, and the Prime Minister of Israel: Israel is counting on us.

It’s time to take a leap!th

I Believe in the God of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Do You?

STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977
STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977

Unless you have been camping out on the planet Alderon you probably know a new Star Wars movie was released today.

There is a small amount of hype.

A long time ago, in a movie multiplex not so far away, a child looked up and asked: “Mom, Dad, is the Force the same thing as God?”

Actually, children have been asking that question for 40 years. The simple answer is “yes.” But this raises another question: Which god or God is at the center of the Star Wars universe?

The creator of Star Wars was well aware that his work invaded turf traditionally reserved for parents, priests and preachers. George Lucas wrote Star Wars shortly after the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. He sensed a spiritual void.

“I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand,” said Lucas, in a New Yorker interview. “There is always a lesson to be learned …. Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art and in the modern world we get them from the media – from movies.”

Lucas set out to create a modern mythology to teach right and wrong. The result was a fusion of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, of Arthurian legends and Japanese samurai epics, of Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power and the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis ….

The impact of Lucas’ work has led some researchers to speak in terms of a “Star Wars” generation.

A modern rabbi who wants to discuss self-sacrifice will be understood by more people if she refers to the death of Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than that of Rabbi Akiva.

Now we could spend many, many sermons discussing all the religious themes of Star Wars.  Tonight I want to focus in on two: (1) the Force itself , and (2) the choice that has to be made between the good side and the dark side of the Force.

First, the Force. What is the force. Is it the same as God?

In the Star Wars universe, the Force is VERY real, and it matters greatly. But is the Force equivalent with God? Let’s consider the definition of the force in the first movie:

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

This is key. The force is an energy field created by all living things.

This is actually fairly congruent with the great eastern religions, especially Buddhism. There are many different varieties of Buddhism, but most forms of Buddhism are non-theistic. They would say there is no creator God, but that all creatures share a deep connection with each other none-the-less.

However, the idea of the Force as being created by all living things is VERY different from the classical western religions: Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. God creates the world and creates life. Life does NOT create God. And the Force is rather impersonal and nebulous. Judaism would say that God is knowable, and is personal, and wants to be in relationship with his creation. But he is never created by his creation.

Thus I would never equate the Force with classic Judaism understandings of who our God is. But then there is early Chasidic thought which actually came quite close to this Star Wars notion.  Non-dualism, which is sort of when the mystic and atheist shake hands, is the idea that there is no separation from ourselves and God.  In his recent book, Everything is God, Jay Michaelson writes that things appear to be separate from each other but in reality everything is connected, and everything is therefore God.

So maybe Judaism can relate to the Force after all.

There’s something else disturbing about the Force. It is for the elite only. Yes, it’s created by all life. But only a few are able to perceive it. In Star Wars you have to have the right biological makeup–you have to have a certain threshold of what are called midi-chlorians in your body to perceive the Force.

In this way, the Force is similar to an ancient Christian heresy that was rejected over 1,800 years ago, the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was diverse in the 2nd century church. But at heart it proclaimed that only a select few could know really God. You had to be an insider, you had to have the proper knowledge and training to know God and be in relationship with him. In this, the idea of the Force is gnostic.  The ancient mystic rabbis had a similar idea.  Only the elite of the elite could know God.

Gnostics were also anti-materialists. As I said, materialism is thinking that only things made of matter are real. Gnostics said the opposite–only the spirit is real–matter is nothing more than a temporary illusion. Listen to what Yoda says in the second movie:

“My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”

We are “luminous beings” not “crude matter.” Very gnostic. In contrast the classical Jewish position is that it’s not either/or but both/and when it comes to matter and spirit. There’s more to the universe than just matter. There is a spiritual dimension that’s VERY real. But that doesn’t mean that matter is evil. God created the world and said that it was good.

Then there is the Dark Side of the Force.

The Dark Side is not equal to the good side of the Force.

Luke asks Yoda, “Is the Dark Side stronger?” To which Yoda replies, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Classical Judaism believe that there is evil in the universe, and even within ourselves. And it can be seductive.

But the forces of darkness are never equal to God. Judaism is not a dualistic relation, where good and evil are balanced.

And in Star Wars, while there were at times many Jedi knights, there were only two dark Sith Lords. They were powerful, but never all-powerful.

But the dark side is extremely seductive. And it’s a slippery slope. Yoda says to Luke,

“Beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did (Darth Vader)….”

Luke then asks, “But how am I to know the good side from the bad?”

To which Yoda replies, “You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.”

The dark side stems from anger, fear, and aggression. The good side is calm, peaceful, and passive.  In Hebrew we call it the yetzer ha tov and the yetzer hara.

That means that for each of us there is a struggle, and we constantly have to choose. That’s a main theme in Star Wars–we all have good and evil within us, and we can have to make a choice.

Luke has to struggle with the seductiveness of the dark side. It’s no accident that he wears white in the first movie, grey in the second movie, and black in the third movie–the dark side is trying to seduce him. The Emperor and Luke’s father, Darth Vader, are also trying to get him to turn to the Dark Side.

But while all of this is going on, Luke is trying to bring his father back from the dark side. His mentors think it’s hopeless, that his father is too far gone. Remember Yoda’s words from a few minutes ago: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.”?

But Luke senses the good in his father. He says to him, “Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you, the conflict.” And he also tells his sister, ” There is good in him. I’ve felt it… I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side.”

And in the end, Darth Vader returns to the good side. He destroys the emperor even though it mortally wounds him. Afterwards, as the space station is falling apart around them, Luke says to his father, “I’ll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you.”

STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977
STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977

His father replies, “You already have, Luke.” You were right. You were right about no one is beyond saving. No one is beyond redemption. Not even the wicked and evil Darth Vader, the Dark Father himself. There was still good in him.

Yes, the dark side is seductive. All of us have to struggle with sin. All of us have to turn and return to God. But God is always there. And God is always loving and forgiving. And no one is beyond redemption.

The Force may be an impersonal energy field. But the TRUE Force, the Living God longs to embrace God’s children.  All God’s children.  And that’s no fairy tale.