Therefore, Choose Life

imageCan we talk about things that annoy us?

Every day brings us an array of stuff that tries our patience. You buy something that needs to be assembled, and the instructions don’t make sense. You’re out on a golf course and you hit a straight drive; but when you get to where it ought to be lying, the ball is not there. You toss 16 socks into a clothes dryer and you get only 15 back.
And then, we all have special pet peeves.
Me, I really hate cliches. In fact, I avoid a cliché like I avoid the plague! And even though a theme of Yom Kippur’s traditional Torah reading for Reform Jews (which we will read tomorrow) features the words, “choose life,” I often get annoyed at this phrase.
Indeed, for many years I thought the charge to “choose life” was an unbearable cliché. Except for the severely depressed — of course a tragic phenomenon — who would not choose life?

It’s like when Margaret Fuller, the nineteenth century transcendentalist, declared, “I accept the universe.” To which Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle sardonically responded, “Gad, she’d better!”

“Choose life” strikes me as a watered down version of “keep passing the open windows”.
“Keep passing the open windows” is the phrase that comes from the John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire, published in 1981. It is a catchphrase among the Berry family, the characters whose story is told in the novel. It is drawn from a story that the Berry parents tell their children, about a street performer called “The King of Mice.” He committed suicide in jumping from a window. “Keep passing the open windows” is the family’s way of saying to each other to carry on when the going gets tough.
But the Bible says, “Choose life” and not “Keep passing the open windows”. So we are back to a cliché!
For more than a hundred years Reform Jews have featured these words in our Yom Kippur morning service, reading from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 instead of from the traditional selection of Leviticus 16.
Presumably our Reform forebears were more interested in avoiding congregational attention focused on the scapegoat – featured in the traditional Yom Kippur reading from Leviticus 16 – than they were emphatically promoting the notion of choosing life. Early Reform rabbis felt that Jews were already well acquainted with being scapegoated and didn’t need any blatant reminders. Also the primitivism of the scapegoat clashed with their Age of Enlightenment sensibility.
I am also quite sure that they had no idea that the words “choose life” – when found on a car bumper sticker – would have a specific meaning concerning abortion issues.
But back to our cliché.
Fortunately, I do believe that an important message can be mined out of the phrase if we look a little more closely.
The context of this appeal, in Deuteronomy 30, is the need for each of us to decide what path in life to take, the blessed or the cursed, of life or of death. Life here is not the literal opting to not die (sorry, Hamlet) but the sum of all of our choices. The words are a general call to follow a good path.
Not many people are going to argue against this appeal, even if their life choices do not always reflect this advice. So once again, we seem to be dealing with a cliché.

But here is something important: the actual Hebrew, u-vaharta bahayim, doesn’t exactly translate as “choose life,” but rather “therefore, choose life.” Often over-looked, I am intrigued by this word “therefore”.

In general, Hebrew is a much more compact language than English. One Hebrew word might take three or more English words in order to provide an accurate rendering. The Hebrew letter “vav” – actually pronounced “u” at the beginning of the word “u-vaharta” — can be understood in this case as implying a logical conclusion to the argument. That is to say, “therefore”.

For instance, here is a translation from the 1917 edition of the Jewish Publication Society:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; [u-vaharta] therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”

Hebrew scholars connect the letter “vav” (rendered here as “u” in Hebrew for grammatical reasons far beyond my explaining tonight) with the image of a “hook”.
Hence, one might argue that the “vav” in our phrase is the “hook” that turns the cliché into an important message. In other words, this word “therefore” is important.

The implication is that God has made a case for choosing life beyond the oft-repeated parental phrase, “Because I said so.”
And the “therefore” is the key.
So what does this “therefore” reflect? What is the great argument that God makes for choosing life?

The answer is this: the “therefore” indicates the great power of each of us to make any choice we want.
In other words the point of choosing life is that we all have that choice. This is far from redundant and it is not merely a cliché.
It is in fact novel and extraordinary.
Hear this: Nothing is preordained.
There is no destiny, only choice.
This is the great outlook of Judaism whittled down to a deceptively simple sentence. A profoundly simple sentence.
It’s what God tells Cain when he complains that his sacrifice was not received with the right amount of respect. God says to him: you can sin or not, you can hold a grudge or not. It’s your choice.
What we may think of as predetermined actions, fate or destiny is purely an illusion. The reality is completely different: we have absolute free will.
All the time. Whether to love or hate or feel indifference. Whether to care or not care. To respond or not respond. Our physical bodies may operate without our consent — it’s called breathing — but morally and emotionally we are free agents.
The author Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked whether he believed in free will or predestination. “We have to believe in free will,” he replied. “We’ve got no choice.”
Yes, some of us are born with great opportunities and others come into the world imprisoned by poverty and even illness. I’m not addressing at this moment the great social, physical and material inequalities in this world, this city, or even this congregation.
I’m speaking about our own individual awareness of the choices before us. I’m arguing that our choices, what we can choose to do, are far greater than we might imagine.
We are not prisoners of fate. Nothing is decided in advance. Our choices are freely ours to make, and the consequences that follow are on our account as well.
We all know some people who live and die with bitter hearts, and it might seem cruel to say but let’s be honest: it’s a choice to live that way. In this one regard, we all have the power to decide how tragedy affects us. We can choose bitterness, that is our right. But it is not our fate.
After a crisis or disappointment we can look at what’s gone or we can look at what’s left. It’s a choice.
The takeaway from this understanding of u-vaharta bahayyim – “therefore, choose life” — is the dizzying reality of what it means to be completely free in our moral agency. In short, we don’t choose what people do to us but we do decide how we respond and how we treat others.
I’m not suggesting this is necessarily good news.
Actual free choice can be terrifying. Think this through with me: We are all equal in this matter, rich or poor; we are all given the same 168 hours a week. We are all presented with an avalanche of choices every second of every one of those 168 hours.
And I have to ask: More often than not do we choose the path of kindness over pettiness? Do we share our time and treasure with others? Do we better our minds and ennoble our hearts? Do we nurse grudges or make a new plan?
Be honest: who among us wants that kind of responsibility? Wouldn’t we rather question our moral agency? You know, let ourselves off the hook?

Understandably there are times when we want to be let off that hook. When we can shrug our shoulders and say, “it’s beyond my control.”
I get it. We are not given the same amount of opportunity and good luck. And life is not fair.
But this doesn’t negate the choices before us.
And Yom Kippur is not the time for turning away from the truth, even when it’s disturbing. Especially when it’s disturbing.
Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor who spent much of World War II in the concentration camps, wrote extensively on human choice and the meaning of life. He concluded that our freedom as humans is not freedom from conditions, but rather it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions. This is the choice we face. We cannot choose our past. But we can choose how we respond to that past. We can be victimized, of course, but we need not be victims.
To be fair, in recent years there are those in the science fields who argue that free will is only an illusion, that we are encumbered by our biology. Were this true it would make “choose life” even worse than a cliché. It would render it a cruel irrelevancy.
For instance, Sam Harris writes in his 2012 book, Free Will, that free will itself is an illusion, and he uses science and his own cognition to attempt to prove his thesis. Here is his conclusion:
It is not that free will is simply an illusion—our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality. Rather, we are mistaken about our experience. Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.
Sam Harris has been one of those writers who challenges belief in God (his book is dedicated to that late confirmed atheist, Christopher Hitchens) and now he appears to be challenging our belief in ourselves. His reasoning is clever, and maybe even entertaining, if at times confusing, but that does not mean I agree with him.

I choose – using that specific word – to believe in a world where there is free choice. (Ideally I also want to believe in a Deity who cares about the choices I make.) Therefore, the “therefore” in “therefore, choose life” to me means rejecting appeals to fatalism. It means expanding our awareness of the choices before us.
And it means, whether we like it or not, taking responsibility for our choices.
Consider the story of the rabbinical student who has left the study house and is hurrying home. A peasant on the way asks the student to help him with his spilled wares. He responds that he can’t. The peasant rebukes the student: “Don’t say you can’t. Say you won’t. You always have a choice.”

This tale is an appeal to stop lying to ourselves. Our actions are not predetermined or based on factors beyond our control. We are free moral agents, and that implies the great power within us.
As Marianne Williamson wrote (and Nelson Mandela cited in his 1994 inaugural address), “…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” When seen in this way, “therefore, choose life” ceases to become a cliché and instead can be regarded as a sobering realization. Our personal responsibility for who we are is far greater than we imagined.
God is saying to us in stark terms: I gave you life. I gave you free choice. Now choose wisely! Therefore, choose life!
Therefore, choose life!
You know, contrary to what I said before, sometimes choosing life can be quite literal. Consider this tale of Gisella Perl. She was seized by the Gestapo, along with her parents and husband, in March 1944. She came from Sighet, the same village as Elie Weisel’s hometown. She was taken to Auschwitz and, being a physician, was put to work under the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
Mengele performed savage medical experiments on prisoners, especially women and the disabled. He would tell pregnant women to report to him so that he could send them to another camp for better nutrition. Women would run to him and tell him, “I’m pregnant!” Dr. Perl soon discovered that these women were then taken to the research block and used as guinea pigs, after which mother and embryo would be thrown into the crematorium.

Gisella Perl decided to warn the women of the danger. She would abort every pregnancy she could in order to save the mothers’ lives. In addition to the abortions, she was one of five doctors at Auschwitz who were supposed to operate a hospital ward with no beds, bandages, drugs or instruments. She had to try and heal the many diseases brought on by torture, starvation, and filth. She had to treat broken bones and heads that had been cracked by vicious beatings. Her only medicine to offer was the spoken word. She would tell her patients that one day life would be good again.

When she was liberated, she wandered through Germany on foot, searching for her family. She quickly learned that her husband had been beaten to death just before liberation and her teenage son had died in a gas chamber. She herself now succumbed to grief and tried to kill herself with poison. Unsuccessful, she was taken to a convent in France to recuperate.

In 1947, Gisella came to the United States to speak to doctors of the horrors she saw. One day she met Eleanor Roosevelt and they had lunch together. The former first lady told her, “Stop torturing yourself; become a doctor again.” With the help of a local congressman, she opened an office in Manhattan and joined the staff of Mount Sinai Hospital. There she became an expert in treating fertility and delivered three thousand babies. In her seventies she moved to Jerusalem and donated her time to the gynecological clinic at Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, helping women to give birth.

Whenever she entered a delivery room, after she began to deliver babies again after the war, she would always first stop to utter her own special prayer: “God, you owe me a life, a living baby.”
Gisella Perl knew firsthand despair and fear. But she also was able to draw on a wellspring of hope and faith. She was a living embodiment of courage and the choice to choose life.

Therefore, choose life.

Therefore, meaning: we have the choice.
As we age, will we become bitter or better? Will we be victims or victors? Will we see the glass half-full or half-empty?
None of these choices is predetermined. We can always bear a grudge, but that too is a choice. A seductive one, yes, but nursing such grudges is often like gnawing on a bone. It might taste good for awhile but we gradually realize the bone we are gnawing on is our own bone. And it is not going to end well.
Is that the choice we want to make?

So herein lies our path. We make ourselves aware of the choices, we determine how we want to respond, and if we choose to live with integrity, we act accordingly.
It is precisely this profound simplicity at the core of the exhortation to choose life.
There’s an old Arab 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 a big, black door next to the execution site. 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.”

My question tonight is this: When it comes to the courage it takes to greet the world with awareness of the choices before us, how brave are we?
Moving forward into the new year will we:
Choose to love — rather than hate.
Choose to smile — rather than frown.
Choose to build — rather than destroy.
Choose to persevere — rather than quit.
Choose to praise — rather than gossip.
Choose to heal — rather than wound.
Choose to give — rather than grasp.
Choose to act — rather than delay.
Choose to pray — rather than despair.
Choose to forgive — rather than curse.
And so I pray: May we choose to follow this appeal this day, every day, and for the rest of our lives.
U-vacharta bachayim – therefore, choose life. Amen.

Civility (Derekh Eretz), Now More Than Ever

img_0120Shanah Tovah. You may or may not like it, but I promise this day I am not going to speak about the current presidential campaign; I mean, hasn’t enough been said already? And yet, I do want to wax nostalgic for a moment about a previous campaign, not that long ago.
These days past presidential campaigns seem like from a classier, more aristocratic era. You may not remember that, in the midst of the hard-fought presidential battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, there was a remarkable moment of grace. The night Senator Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator McCain ran a television commercial that was not the typical campaign fare.

Senator McCain reminded the nation of the historical nature of his opponent’s nomination as the first person of African ancestry nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party. Not only that, the nomination took place on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here’s what Senator McCain had to say:

“Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So I wanted to stop and say ‘Congratulations.’ How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it. But tonight, senator, a job well done.”

Now, television advertising isn’t cheap. Surely there were some in the McCain camp who thought the commercial was a waste of money, that he should have stayed relentlessly on the attack. In fact, the commercial was much-celebrated as a rare moment of civility — a brief and much-appreciated vacation from the barroom brawl that is the modern political landscape.
I said I won’t speak of the current campaign and I won’t. But let’s not fool ourselves: the current campaign is not only about politics. It is ultimately about us. And whether or not we think America is already great or can be great again, the tenor of our national conversation is worrisome.

Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal this past July (7/19/16), asks this question:
When did the decline of American character begin? Maybe it was between July 1969, when two Americans walked on the moon, and a Saturday that August, when 400,000 Americans rolled in the mud at Woodstock.

Or maybe the date came later, when American culture sanctioned the idea that self-actualization should count for more than your children’s emotional health. Or when bragging ceased to be considered uncouth, and ignorance ceased to be embarrassing, and lying ceased to be shameful, and the habits of understatement gave way to ever more conspicuous displays of wealth, desire, feelings, skin.

Whenever. Whatever. Pick your date and trend. Not everything that happened to the American character in the past 50 years is bad—we are more tolerant, more empathetic and more relaxed—but much of it undoubtedly is.
Bret Stephens writes as a conservative and we may disagree with his negative reaction to what is happening today. But it would be hard to take issue with the fact that civility is on the wane.

Last year I spoke at this time about keeping the conversation going in spite of strong feelings of antipathy for each other, or at least our respective political opinions. But I’ve come to learn the problem is actually much worse. It’s not about continuing the conversation. It’s about reclaiming the conversation, that is the power of talk in a digital age.
Writing in her recent book on this topic, Sherry Turkle observes that this new digital life has gotten us into a lot of trouble. Face-to-face conversation is the most humanizing thing we do. These days we avoid such face-to-face conversation whenever possible. Unfortunately, such behavior is only an extreme example of a growing trend in our country: rude, uncivil attitudes. The world in which we live is suffering from more and more vulgar speech, indecent behavior and selfish living. We see it in our entertainment, in our streets, and in the newspaper accounts of hate crimes and vandalism. And we even see it closer to home, in the way we all too often behave.
A perfect example is the cell phone. Witness the behavior of people with cell phones these days. It is no rare thing for a dinner companion to wait fifteen minutes while the other chats into the phone. Important business meetings are put on hold because someone whips out a phone the second it starts ringing. Cell phones also are heard in this sanctuary during services. Even during a funeral.

A couple of weeks ago someone pick pocketed my phone when I was riding home from Temple on the bus. I am not happy with this theft and would not want to thank the culprit, but not having a smart phone for a week did make me see how much people are zoned out on their phones. A visitor from another planet, watching how people obsessively are on their phones and ignore each other might well conclude the human race was being ruled by small, flat-screened robots. It’s kind of sad.
And we all know how cell phones have managed to make driving in Chicago even more dangerous than it was before.

Speaking of bad driving, we should know that the problem is not unique to our area. I recently read of a Colorado funeral director complaining about the impatient drivers who dart in and out of funeral processions instead of waiting for them to pass.
There was a time when, if nothing else, at least a funeral procession received a little respect. But this time is over. Uncivil drivers are not only rude. They bear a great responsibility for the fact that cars kill far more people each year in our country than handguns.
Then there is this: A mother was driving with her young daughter. Traffic was heavy, the weather was terrible and mom got just a bit frazzled and began commenting on the habits and flaws of all the other drivers on the road, and not favorably, either.

As they pulled into their driveway, the daughter spoke up.
“I have a question, Mom. When you’re driving,” she asked, “are you ever the idiot?”
These days, things aren’t any better up in the sky. Airlines have seen a steady rise in hostile passengers. There was the angry man who threw his suitcase at an eight-month pregnant airline employee, all because he missed a flight connection. Or consider the woman who punched a flight attendant because there were no more sandwiches.

It’s also true that some airline employees themselves have become far less polite in recent years. It’s gotten so bad that American Air Lines has begun a civility campaign.
Then there is also a growing incivility in Washington, a phenomenon that will surprise none of us.

The growing incivility naturally has trickled down to our children. According to one survey, almost ninety percent of grade school teachers and principals report that they often face abusive language from students. We have seen the rise of violence in our schools. Guns are easy to be had and tempers are easily flared.

Now, it is important to point out that, when I use the term civility, I mean far more than good manners. Manners are cultural and therefore relative. Good manners in The Midwest may be somewhat different than good manners in Manhattan.

Civility is a broader, more absolute term. Stephen Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”

I like this definition because it reminds us that the goal of civility is not to know which knife to use with our butter. The goal is to get along together. And the means to reach this goal can only be through sacrifice. It can only be achieved by giving people the respect they may not deserve but is ours to bestow anyway. Now, such people may not have earned our civility, but we are not civil because the world is fair or because it gives us pleasure. We are civil because, in the end, it is only such respectful behavior that binds us together as a community. Without such behavior, we have nothing to hold us together.
In Judaism we have a Hebrew expression for this kind of civility: derekh eretz. Literally meaning “the way of the land,” the term refers to common decency and civility. Our heritage even proclaims that the Torah itself means nothing if people don’t practice derekh eretz, if people aren’t willing to make the sacrifices needed to live together.
Derekh eretz is not just a quaint Hebrew term. Nor should it be considered a cliché. Derekh eretz is a significant Jewish value. It was so important to the ancient rabbis that they developed two tractates of the Talmud to describe how we should govern our lives by the principles of derekh eretz. Here are some of their teachings:
Let the honor of another person be as dear to you as your own.
Show respect to all persons.
It is better that you be ashamed of yourself than be put to shame by others. Let not your teeth bring shame upon you, nor your mouth bring you to abuse (Derekh Eretz Zuta 2:8).
Temple Sholom and our wider community are summoned to act by a set of values associated with “derekh eretz.” Our behavior is guided by these principles of respect, honor, honesty, integrity, dignity, and humility. These patterns of behavior are literally “the way of the land.” They are the foundations of our relationship as a community and with one another. And even when holiness hides from us, we still act with derekh eretz because such actions fan the holy sparks within us.

As we as a congregation prepare for our hundred and fiftieth birthday next September, it is so important we remember that a sacred community is measured by its kindness and welcoming spirit, not merely by its historic significance.
And now, this year, as we gather to consider how we might improve our lives, and the life of our community, I would like to imagine what a more civil world might be like. To consider what we should be doing to make such civility a greater part of who we are and what we do.
The baseness of this current political cycle aside, I want to believe we can reverse the slide towards more vulgarity and rudeness. I would like us to see how derekh eretz might help us refine our society and give us more hope for a future of kindness and class, instead of the mean and cold climate too prevalent on our streets and in our world today.

A crucial point: When it comes to civility, we should first understand that genuine civility requires that we make sacrifices, even for strangers. The essence of civility is giving up something for the sake of someone else. In some contexts, this logic of self-sacrifice is easy to grasp. For instance, in the 19th century, as railroad travel became common, it was natural that so many people in tight spaces needed to sacrifice some of their independence for the common good. To help such people practice civility, Isaac Peebles wrote a bestseller, entitled Politeness on Railroads. Here was some of the advice: “[W]hispering, loud talking, immoderate laughing, and singing should not be indulged by any passenger. Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing way.” In addition, conductors cracked down on passengers who “indulg[ed] personal preferences at the expense of other passengers.”
Unfortunately, these days, we travel under the illusion that we are no longer sharing tight spaces and therefore such sacrifices are no longer necessary. We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers.
To put it another way, when we travel on a train together it’s easy to remember that we are sharing a journey. When people are driving alone in their cars, facing traffic from the other direction, it’s harder to remember that all of us are still sharing a journey. And like travelers in a fourth-class railway car, the journey will be impossible if we aren’t prepared to make sacrifices for the comfort of others.

Those of us who take public transportation in Chicago know that, ironically, a big problem with public transit these days is, er, the public. This despite the fact we actually quite often are on a train. Not all the public. Just the seat hoggers, loud talkers, music blasters, door blockers, smelly eaters, backpack bludgeoners, litterers and boors who won’t give their seats to pregnant or disabled passengers. And of course the manspreaders!
Trying to improve the ride, Metra this summer launched its first courtesy campaign with reminders to “Ride Nice.” The five-poster campaign features images contained within the frame of a mobile phone, reflecting what most riders are staring at these days. One shows a 1960s pop art-style cartoon lady, gasping in horror over people clipping their nails and grooming their beards.
Some CTA ads are startling as well — one has a picture of people on an “L” car waist-deep in garbage, with the slogan “Your Maid Doesn’t Work Here.” An ad reminding people to “Stand Right, Walk Left” on escalators prompted a tweet from a grateful customer saying the poster had taken more time off his commute than anything else the CTA had done.

In the end, it’s not just about nice manners. It’s about thinking about other people. In other words, our society will continue to decline if we are unable to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Paradoxically derekh eretz even means at times putting up with the bad behavior of others. We need to be better at tolerating the poor driver who makes us late; we need to keep our mouths closed when some foolish person’s banter invites a stinging comeback; we need to become less self-absorbed and more aware of the people around us. We need to remember their needs and feelings, not only because it will make us in the end feel better. It is also simply the right thing to do. It is derekh eretz.
When the people around us do not behave with derekh eretz we might want to exercise the Jewish virtue – of Erech Apayim – of being slow to anger. In the Torah, this virtue is first mentioned as one of the attributes of God – the ability to show self restraint in the face of repeated Israelite provocation. The Book of Proverbs repeatedly cautions against losing self-control. It is better to be slow to anger, it suggests, than to be mighty, better to have self control than to conquer a city. What it really means is our ability to experience things which are deeply annoying without letting them frustrate or anger us. To quote the 19th Century Mussar leader Rabbi Mendel of Satanov: When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, why aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief?
We cannot control how others treat us but we can control how we respond. Here’s an experiment: the next time you find yourself getting angry at someone or something, ask yourself to find five red things – it can be in the room or on your device, wherever. By the time you find and enumerate them, it is quite possible you will have settled down. Try it!

Of course, the willingness to make sacrifices does not mean there won’t be occasions when we will need to criticize others. Silent tolerance is not always the right response. Twentieth century author Oliver Herford, known as the American Oscar Wilde, may have had this in mind when he observed that “a gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.” In other words, there will be times when we need to confront another human being. Nevertheless, we should understand that our criticism should always be civil. Any genuine civility must allow us to criticize others but not by jettisoning the respect we owe all of God’s creatures.
When it comes to deciding whether or not to offer criticism, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives the following advice. First, we should ask ourselves how offering the criticism makes us feel. Does it give us pleasure or pain? If a part of us relishes the idea of rebuking the person, we probably shouldn’t do it. But if we truly don’t want to offer the criticism and yet feel morally obligated to do so, then chances are we are doing the right thing.
It’s also important that our criticism be non-threatening and useful to the person. The medieval philosopher Maimonides puts it like this: “He who rebukes another…should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good….” I personally have also found that, when admonishing someone, it’s important to avoid judgmental words like “bad” or “unprofessional” that immediately put someone on the defensive.
This year Temple Sholom will join four other Reform congregations in the country to meet together and study how to practice responsible conflict resolution. Make no mistake: derekh eretz is NOT about avoiding conflict. It is about dealing with conflict in the right way.
In general criticism should never be used to push people down while raising us up. Such words should never be said in haste, nor without humanity. And never should our goal be to make the other person feel bad. Think about how much more civil life would be if we remembered to always care about the person whom we are addressing.
My yoga teacher puts it like this: “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” Not a bad way to get through the day.

Indeed, when it comes to civility, the sacrifices we make and the sensitivity we observe all boil down to one golden rule: remember the divinity in each other. This is our greatest challenge and our greatest hope. In an age of increasing violence in our entertainment and everyday speech, not to mention the vicious personal attacks in politics, civility means restoring a sense of awe for all human beings.
For a moment, travel back in your mind to this summer in Rio. It was one of the big races. New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin was lying on the track, dazed after a heavy fall and with her hopes of an Olympic medal seemingly over. Suddenly, there was a hand on her shoulder and a voice in her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.”
It was American Abbey D’Agostino, offering to help. This after the two had collided.
Hamblin had fallen heavily on her right shoulder. D’Agostino got up, but Hamblin was just lying there. She appeared to be crying. Instead of running in pursuit of the others, D’Agostino crouched down and put her hand on the New Zealander’s shoulder, then under her arms to help her up, and softly urged her not to quit.
“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said of D’Agostino. “I’ve never met her before…And isn’t that just so amazing. Such an amazing woman.”
In an Olympics that had seen a few unsavory incidents — the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent, the booing of a French pole vaulter by the Brazilian crowd, the lying Ryan Lochte — Hamblin and D’Agostino provided a memory that captured the Olympic spirit.
Olympic officials also decided that both runners, and Austria’s Jennifer Wenth, who was also affected by the collision, would have places in that Friday’s final.
“I’m never going to forget that moment,” Hamblin said. “When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that’s my story … That girl shaking my shoulder, (saying) ‘come on, get up’.”

Moving forward I suggest this is the image we conjure up as we head out the door each morning. We are not judged by who gets there first in the race of life. The greater goal is whom we bring with us. And just imagine: if we treat others as noble people, as people with souls, then we are being civil and courteous, and just maybe we are helping them to grow into civil and courteous people, and we’ll be making a more humane society for us all.
This is not always easy, of course. If someone cuts us off in traffic, I can think of a more gratifying response than pleasantly waving to them. It’s also more enjoyable to yell at an incompetent sales person instead of patiently smiling at them. But when we act with civility despite our more natural instincts, we are giving ourselves a gift. For although in the short term showing our anger may feel wonderful, down the road we will most likely feel bad for our behavior and we will have contributed to the growing incivility around us. And who knows? Maybe our one kind act will tip the balance towards a better world?

Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

May this New Year be a herald of such a newer world, whose appearance is so sorely awaited. And may the days, months and years ahead be blessed with more kindness, more understanding, more derekh eretz and more peace. Amen.

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.

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.)