Category Archives: From The Rabbi

Yom Kippur Sermon 5778 by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur services on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Spoiler alert: For those of you who didn’t see “Wonder Woman,” I will be giving away major plot points.  This summer I watched the movie “Wonder Woman” — three times. I also now own the DVD.  I absolutely loved it. It was fun, hugely entertaining, and made me feel great.  “Wonder Woman” is smart, charming, playful, and glamorous—things that we don’t often say about superhero movies.  I absolutely loved seeing Gal Gadot, a former Miss Israel and Israeli actress, work her magic on the screen.  She lights up the screen with her presence, and is unabashedly Israeli, even down to her accent.  The movie is well-made, with beautiful colors, great music, and great double entendres, as well as very funny lines.  The fighting scenes, which usually leave me bored, brought me great pleasure.  I will confess that I found great comfort in watching a powerful woman in a golden tiara and thigh-high boots beat hordes of terrible men. Oh, what fun!

I don’t profess to be knowledgeable about comic books.  Indeed, I only found out a few years ago that people who know comics divide themselves into Marvel or DC titles.  Prior to watching the movie, I learned a little bit about Wonder Woman’s origins.  According to historian and Harvard professor Dr. Jill Lepore, in 1940, after critics complained that Superman and Batman were too violent, All-American Comics hired as a consultant a lawyer and psychologist named William Moulton Marston, who lived with two women, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, in a polyamorous relationship.  Both women had graduate degrees in psychology; Holloway was also a lawyer.  With their help, he pitched a comic book featuring a female superhero whose enemy is inequality.  A press release explained: “‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men,” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women.”  As you might imagine, within a year “Wonder Woman” comic books were banned, allegedly on claims of indecency.  She then became the secretary for the Justice League.  When all the men went out to war, Wonder Woman stayed behind to answer the mail.  She would call out: “Good luck, boys! I wish I could be going with you!”  Her original creators were furious!

In 1975, Lynda Carter became Diana Prince in a television series.  The series took place during World War II.  According to the series press release, when the forces of evil threatened the nation, Diana would spin to transform into Wonder Woman, armed with a magic belt that gave her tremendous strength, bracelets that would stop any bullet, a tiara that could be thrown as a returning weapon and an unbreakable magic lasso that would force anyone to tell the truth.  It was a hit throughout the world.

In the movie, Diana grows up on the Island of Themyscira, watching other Amazons do hand-to hand combat and savage sword play to pass the time.  Her mother, Hippolyta, doesn’t want her to learn to fight because she knows that Diana’s destiny is to fight Ares, and she dreads the coming of this day.  Diana’s aunt, Antiope, has different ideas.  She believes Diana should know what to do when the situation arises.  She teaches Diana how to fight, until she becomes the strongest fighter on the whole island of the Amazons.  Now Diana is a grown woman, World War I is coming to an end, and her island is invaded by Steve Trevor, an allied spy, followed by boatloads of German soldiers.  Fighting ensues, the German soldiers are defeated, and the Amazons have suffered many casualties.  Diana feels she must go away with Steve to save the world. She sees a single monster as the sole obstacle to a world of peace and justice, and she seeks to defeat him.  Yet, she is very conflicted.  While she feels she needs to fight Ares and make sure humanity is saved, she knows she can’t have her mother’s blessing.  Her mother doesn’t want to lose her, and doesn’t want her daughter to be hurt.  Hippolyta explains to her daughter that, in her view, human beings don’t deserve her.  Diana confronts her mother saying that she must go and fight Ares, the God of War.  Hippolyta, with a pained look on her face, says to her daughter: “If you choose to leave, you may never return.”  To which Diana responds: “Who will I be if I stay?”  When I heard that line in the movie, I immediately thought about the maxim of the 1st century BCE Sage Hillel, in Pirkei Avot:

If I am not for me, who will be?

If I am for myself alone, what am I?

And if not now, when?

The traditional commentators see this in the following way:

  1. If I am not for me, who will be? That means people can only attain virtue through their own strivings.
  2. If I am for myself alone, what am I? That means selfishness and disregard for others are traits of inhumanity.
  3. And if not now, when? That means moral obligations must be carried out as occasions arise and must not be postponed, lest the opportunities pass by.

While I like the traditional interpretations, I feel that there is more to this equation.  The traditional interpretations see the three questions as separate entities, barely connected to each other.  I do feel, however, that this is a literary unit, and as such its message is not in the separate questions, but in the amalgamation of the three.

If we see the three questions together, they point out that uncertainty is at the heart of every human enterprise.  How can I balance the need to take care of myself with the need to take care of the world, with the correct timing for my actions?  All our actions have many angles, many inner motivations, and many prisms.  When we accept that we all live with uncertainties, open to the many possibilities, we cannot see things in simple terms, in distinct and clear categories of right and wrong.  When we ask ourselves, am I taking care of myself, while taking care of others, at this moment in time, we do live a richer, and more difficult, life.  There are always many, competing perspectives that are constantly tugging at our emotional and intellectual strings.  These three questions are potent because they point out to us the power of uncertainty, the idea that we can grow from being open to the many possibilities of living.

Living with the power of uncertainty can be dizzying at time, and can make us feel at a loss.  Those are the moments that we feel tempted to see things in one way, and one way only.  We are tempted to find certainty in every one of our actions.

When we have certainty, we close ourselves to other possibilities.  When we see things in one perspective, and have our minds made up that the way we think and act is the only correct way, we find ourselves locked in the prison of single perspectives.  Life loses its color, and our outlook is bleak.  There is a saying, attributed to Mark Twain, that clarifies the issues that arise with having complete certainty.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In other words, when a person is absolutely certain that s/he knows something to be absolutely true, without a shadow of a doubt, with certainty, that is when a person gets in trouble.  When we think we know the right way, and the only right way is our way, we close ourselves to other opinions, to other perspectives, and our reality becomes shriveled, sad, limited.  Without the ability to be open to questions, to different perspectives, to asking ourselves at the same time, is this good for me, for the world, and is this the right time, we incur the sin of certainty.

On Yom Kippur, we beat our chests and pronounce a list of sins.  We say: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, a full alphabet listing of things that we have collectively done wrong.  This year, as we ponder our responsibilities through the list of actions, we must reflect upon the three questions that together point the way to the truth of the moral dilemma of living life on this earth.  Maybe we will have to add this additional sin to our list: the sin of certainty.

One might ask, but if I am not certain about something, how can I act in this world?  How are we to decide what to do, and not be paralyzed by doubt?  How are we to balance the power of uncertainty with the sin of certainty, and still do something in this world?  The answer to this question is found in the question I have been asking myself the whole summer: What would Wonder Woman do?

At the end of the movie, Diana finally discovers that she is the weapon that will destroy Ares.  The two are in an intense fight.  Steve Trevor, the man Diana rescued and fell in love with, dies, by flying away with a plane full of mustard gas and sacrificing himself so that London would not be destroyed.  He held in balance the three questions and came to the realization that he must do something that went beyond his personal interest.

Diana is devastated, and wants to spread her inner devastation on everyone around her.  She holds up a military vehicle in order to kill Dr. Poison, the mad scientist who created the vicious gas that killed the man she loves.  Ares, taking advantage of Diana’s pain, goads her about killing Dr. Poison, saying that after all, humans don’t deserve Diana, her courage, and her fight for their lives.  At this moment, Diana thinks about Steve, lowers the military vehicle she was going to smash on the mad scientist’s head, and says: “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  And then she proceeds to destroy Ares.

I don’t have to tell you that at this point in the movie I was sobbing.  Okay, I am known for having cried at commercials, but I was really moved to tears here.  “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  This is the answer to my quandary.  The answer to the three questions, the answer to not falling prey to the sin of certainty because of my fear and discomfort with uncertainty, is to act according to my beliefs.  It is not to act based on a value judgment about what other people deserve.  The way to act with integrity in this world is to stay centered, understanding that what we believe is the true motivation for our actions.  It is not about deserve.  We all act out of deeply held beliefs and perspectives.  If we are open to the fact that we are all acting this way, we can understand and hear with compassion other people’s perspectives.  The way we see and experience the world is highly personal, and if we accept the power of uncertainty we can recognize that other people’s ideas, while different than ours, have their place.  We will all come to conclusions about whatever we think is right or wrong based on what we believe.  And I believe in love.

I believe in loving other people as myself, as we learn from the Book of Leviticus.  I believe in caring, in listening with compassion, and in multiple perspectives.  I believe in seeing things from a kindhearted, loving point of view.  I believe that every human being has the potential of doing good and being good, and when I am proven wrong, I add this to the list of experiences I have, knowing that I am growing as an individual, because it is not about deserve.  And even when I am pained by choosing the wrong answer to the quandary, I know I acted out of love and compassion, and that my actions reflected my beliefs.

In this new year of 5778, let’s beat the sin of certainty out of our chests, embracing the power of uncertainty, and acting according to what we believe, not judging what others deserve.  And may we all believe in love.

Rosh Hashanah (Day 2) Sermon by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashanah (Day 2) services on Friday, September 22, 2017.

I came to this country in 1989 to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, after spending my first year in Israel. In between my year in Israel and coming to America, I went to the American Consulate to get my student visa, and had my interview with one of the consular officials. Some of you who are here today are familiar with this procedure, since so many people in our congregation work for the State Department. The official explained to me that I was not to work outside of the seminary in my first year of school, but that in my second year I could work in fields that correlated to my studies. In my second year in the USA I had my papers signed by the school’s registrar confirming that I could be employed, and went to teach religious school in a Manhattan synagogue. One day, I received a call from that religious school office saying that two officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Services had just come over to the synagogue and were on their way to see me. I was to wait for them in my dorm room to show all my papers and documents, proving that I could work in the United States. Apparently, Immigration had received an anonymous call saying that I was working illegally in this synagogue in Manhattan.

I knew everything was in order, and I waited in my dorm room. The two officers came to the seminary gates, a male and a female. They were led to my dorm room. They flashed their badges. Immigration and Naturalization Services, it read. They came in, and were rough and intimidating. They were shouting at me. I could not understand why they were treating me as if I had committed some kind of crime. I clumsily offered if they wanted to sit down, they declined and ordered me to bring out my passport and visa. I was nervous and intimidated, and with trembling hands gave them what they had asked for. As soon as they saw my papers, it became clear to them that they had received a false tip. There was nothing in my dorm room that could be considered even slightly suspicious, and my papers were absolutely in order. To my horror, at this point they bordered on abusive. The male officer brusquely asked that my papers be copied. I said that the only place we could copy the papers was in the library, hoping against hope that these officers would go away. I dreaded the idea of having to walk into the library flanked by two immigration officials. Well, he was not to be dissuaded. I grabbed my library and copier card, and the three of us went to the library, the female officer in front of me, the male officer flanking me in the back, giving the impression that I was being arrested. I felt the eyes of every student, faculty member, and personnel of the seminary on me. I copied all my papers, and they snatched it away from my hands. At the end of the ordeal, they were both visibly upset that there was nothing for them to do with me, and still very intimidating and rough.  It was a horrible, unnerving experience.

I understand that I was one of the rarest cases that these officers had in their lives. Yet, I had a personal glimpse of how scary it can be to deal with seasoned officers who have seen everything. I understood how one might feel on the receiving end of an immigration raid. I understood the helplessness and fear one has when dealing with the immigration system in the US. I believe there is a lot of misinformation on the issue of immigration in this country, and today I will share with you a few personal insights.

I recognize and appreciate that there must be a lot of vetting of who comes into the United States. I know that our country, (and I am proud to be an American citizen, part of this wonderful country) is maligned in many countries in the world, and that there are people constantly trying to bring harm and destruction to us. I also know that the vetting process that immigrants go through is very thorough. It took me 9 years from the moment that I applied for my green card to the moment that I swore my allegiance to the USA as a citizen. It was a long process, and it only wasn’t longer because I was aided by lawyers throughout the process. The lawyers and the majority of the officials that I met through this process were highly competent people. It is just that immigration law in this country is complicated, antiquated, and impossible to truly enforce. The political discourse, which jumbles immigration, refugees, and work visas into one crisis, is very confusing and disheartening.

Our tradition, however, gives us an unequivocal mandate regarding the treatment of immigrants. In the Torah, the term used for immigrant is Ger, which is commonly translated as stranger. The Ger is someone who is not native to the tribes of Israel, but that for one reason or another joins the people of Israel. Just like contemporary immigrants and refugees, they joined the people of Israel because of family ties, love, better work opportunities, or a true love of God. A few verses from the Torah can inform our perspectives about immigration.

Exodus 22:20

20. You shall not wrong an immigrant, nor oppress him; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

9. Also you shall not oppress an immigrant; for you know the heart of the immigrant, seeing that you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33-34

33. And if an immigrant dwells with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.

34. But the immigrant who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Eternal your God.

Numbers 15:15-16

15. One law shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the immigrant who dwells with you, an ordinance forever in your generations; as you are, so shall the immigrant be before the Eternal.

16. One Torah and one code shall be for you, and for the immigrant who dwells with you.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19

17. For the Eternal your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, mighty and awesome, which favors no person, nor takes bribes;

18. God executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and loves the immigrant, giving them food and garment.

19. Love you therefore the immigrant; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 24:17-19; 24:22

17. You shall not pervert the judgment of the immigrant, nor of the orphan; nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge;

18. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you there; therefore I command you to do this thing.

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the immigrant, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Eternal your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

22. And you shall remember that you were an immigrant enslaved in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

Take a moment to reflect on the passages you just heard. These are but a few verses, only in the five books of Moses, that inform our understanding of the treatment of immigrants and refugees. These verses demand empathy from us, demand that we do not forget our origins, and that we protect others in the way that we would have liked to be protected and cared for. From all these verses, we can infer that according to the Torah, Israelites must treat immigrants in a respectful and loving manner, because once we were immigrants. We had to immigrate to the land of Egypt, because of famine, and a lack of appropriate conditions to raise our families. In Egypt, we were treated poorly, we were enslaved. We built the big monuments that came to symbolize the prosperity of that country. The Torah reminds us, again and again, that we know the heart of the immigrant and the oppressed, and because of that we are to treat them as we would like to be treated. We have to provide for them, together with our own poor.

Immigration Law in the United States has always been complicated. Quotas established in the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted to the United States each year. That act was tinged with racial undertones, trying to keep certain nationalities, and Jews, from immigrating to this country. From 1924 to 1965, the system of quotas meant to make it impossible for large migration. In the midst of these years, there was WWII, and the Holocaust. We, as Jews, were caught stranded in Europe, without a place to go.  That is when the episode of the St. Louis happened.

Since Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass”on November 9–10, 1938, many Jews realized the danger they were in and wanted to emigrate. On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. There were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States. The passengers held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration. However, just a week before the ship sailed the Cuban president invalidated all recently issued landing certificates, because of a corruption scandal. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government sent away 908 Jewish passengers, refusing to admit them or to allow them to disembark from the ship. On June 2, the Cuban president ordered the ship out of Cuban waters.

Since they were so close to Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. The State Department and the White House decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

In 1939, the annual combined German-Austrian immigration quota was 27,370 and was quickly filled. In fact, there was a waiting list of at least several years. US officials could only have granted visas to the St. Louis passengers by denying them to the thousands of German Jews placed further up on the waiting list. Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking an extraordinary step for an unpopular cause.

Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed a bill to die in committee that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.

Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. They were distributed through many European nations, and 254 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

The episode of the St. Louis makes it clear that there was a lack of political will, coupled with laws that did not reflect the demand of the times, resulting in the mass extermination of Jews who were caught in Europe without the ability to save themselves and their families. It is important to notice that there were anti-Jewish, as well as anti-immigration sentiments in the nation, fueled by an economic crisis.

In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act created a different reality by eliminating the racialist immigration quotas that were set by the Immigration Act of 1924. Since 1965, many things have changed, and immigration again needs a re-focusing.

Right now, there is legislation introduced in the Senate called the RAISE act, (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act). There are many things this bill will do, but there is one that feels very personal. The bill will remove pathways for parents, siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to apply for permanent lawful residency status in the U.S., limiting the family path to spouses and minor children only. If this would be the case when my mother moved here, she would never be able to have a green card or be a citizen of this country. Like her, there are many older immigrants that have their pensions from another country, and end up paying taxes both here and in their country of origin.

From what I learn from the Torah, and my experiences, I believe that our country needs to take a hard look at the motivations of new legislations, and the effect of limiting immigration in general. I do believe that Congress can find a path for immigration that will work to the benefit of our country, because I believe in this country, in our Government, and in the democratic process. And I believe that with courage our representatives can start finding real solutions that will open our country, wisely, to a path of sustainable immigration.

I hope that today I was able to give you a different perspective on issues of immigration. I hope that you take my words in the spirit in which they are meant, which is to show that behind big policies there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who, like me, have productive lives in this country we call home, but are afraid that things can change at the drop of a hat.  I hope that my words today open a dialogue on issues of immigration, in our congregation and in our community.

May we be able to find positive pathways to make our country, our community, and our individual lives more productive and better in the coming year.

Notes:

1) All the information about the transatlantic liner St. Louis came from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

2) All the information about the RAISE act came from the bill in Congress. ( S.354 — 115th Congress (2017-2018))

Rosh Hashanah (Day 1) Sermon by Rabbi Bass

On August 13, I was standing in the airport in Lisbon. We were coming back from a truly wonderful trip in Israel and Portugal.

In Lisbon, I visited the site of the massacre of 1506.  In 1497, The King of Portugal, D. Manuel I, forced the conversion of Jews in Portugal, pressured by Spain. On Easter Day, 1506, many people were gathered at the Convent of Saint Dominic, praying for the end of the drought and plague that ravaged Portugal. The priest noticed that the face of a statue was radiant, and proclaimed that all gathered were witnessing a miracle, since the statue’s face was lit, seemingly from within. Soon, he claimed, the plague and drought would end. Two New Christians, who were Jews who had been forcibly converted, followed the trail of the light, and quite dismissively, pointed out to the priest that it was coming from a crack in the window. The priest, unhappy that his claim was being challenged, incited a mob against the two, claiming they were heretics. The crowd carried the men out, where they were beaten to death. At this point, the crowd was excited, and carried out the bloodiest pogrom that Lisbon ever saw. Removing entire Jewish families from their homes, the mob killed almost 2000 people by beating them to death, or burning them at the stake. The Royal Guard arrived and stopped the madness, later punishing many people including the priest who had incited the mob.

In the middle of the Rossio, a bustling neighborhood that once was the home of thousands of Jews, stands a monument. It is a monument of tolerance, commemorating the massacre of 1506. This monument was installed on April 22, 2008. The monument is a Jewish star, fashioned out of marble and metal, and it is inscribed with the words: ”In memory of the thousands of Jews victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism assassinated on this square during the massacre initiated on the 19th of April 1506.” This monument is a part of a reparations movement in Portugal, that is coupled with the offering of citizenship to Jews that can prove their family lived in Portugal in the 16th century. The Portuguese have realized how much they lost by expelling the Jews, and are now trying to bring back a Jewish presence.

On August 13, 2017, I was at the Lisbon airport waiting to come home, when I looked at the TV and saw a scary mob scene: Nazi flags, and people in fatigues fully armed in front of a synagogue. I watched the scene in disbelief as the words Charlottesville, VA, appeared on the screen. I looked online and found out what had happened the day before. The news and the images hit me very hard. I was seeing a clear manifestation of explosive evil. At that moment, the echoes of what happened in Lisbon in 1506 amplified my reaction to what was happening very close to my home that day.

We are here, gathered, a month later. What happened in Charlottesville shook the foundation of our beliefs and certainties in this country, with its old and familiar undertones, yet also with new and disquieting ones. Charlottesville, a town that houses a university, a place that Thomas Jefferson helped to establish, a city where Jews have been living since the 1870s, whose mayor is Jewish, whose past mayor is Sikh, was the stage of this major racist, anti-Jewish demonstration. It was frightening for all of us to see the incredibly bold display of hatred. There were many, quite chilling chants uttered by the Nazis and White Supremacists. For us, some are difficult to hear: “The Jews will not replace us.” “Blood and Soil,” the Nazi refrain. We know well that racism is evil, that anti-Semitism is evil, and that white supremacy is completely against the values of our community and nation. Let me remind you the outward purpose of this rally: it was to protest the removal of a monument to a Confederate General, Robert E. Lee.

Monuments are important. In our tradition, we are commanded to create a lasting monument for our deceased family members. In the Torah, there are many mentions of monuments, matzevot. For example, when Jacob wakes up from his dream in Beth El he sets the stones on which he was sleeping as a Matzevah, as a monument to the experience he had. There are many examples of monuments that are set up to remember events in the lives of the Israelites. Yet, there are also warnings about monuments. In the Book of Exodus, chapter 23 verse 24 we read:

“You shall not bow down to their gods and you shall not worship them, and you shall not do as they do, but you shall utterly tear them down and you shall completely destroy their monuments.”

In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are taught to not worship any other God than the Eternal. If there are statues, monuments to these false deities in the path of the Israelites, monuments that are a source of confusion, misunderstanding and idolatry, that will lead people astray, they are commanded to destroy them.

According to the Torah, monuments can help us remember an important moment in our lives as a nation, and monuments can also guide us on the wrong path. There are monuments that should stay, and monuments that must be removed. As we read in the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season: a time to break down and a time build, et lifrotz ve’eit livnot. In our country, we are in a time to re-think our monuments, their placement, and their purpose. Historian Carl Becker writes: ”History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” A culture demonstrates its values by what it chooses to remember and what it chooses to forget, and by how it remembers its choices. We must be attuned to when the monuments were created, and what was the reason for their creation. The monument in Lisbon is important and touching. Yet it was created in 2008, 502 years after the massacre. It was created when the financial crisis made Portugal one of the least desirable European countries when it came to investments and development. Having the monument was a strategic plan to bring more investments and resources, as well as tourism to Portugal. The statute in Charlottesville was erected in 1924, 57 years after the end of the Civil War. The process of granting civil rights to former slaves was in full force. The South was still reeling from the Civil war, in economic turmoil, in fear, and dealing with so much loss. What was the purpose of erecting a monument that commemorated a Confederate General, with the Confederacy’s history of slavery? I disagree with those who say that this was an expression of memory and history. To me, this statue is a monument to forgetting. Forgetting the taskmaster’s whip, the disemboweled people on trees, slaves’ blood, scars on children’s backs.

Maybe these monuments are to be destroyed, maybe they are to be collected somewhere and preserved as a memorial of a dark past. What is clear is that the monument in Charlottesville, like many other monuments in the South, betray feelings and attitudes that are still very raw in our country. The statues present a series of difficulties, because they are emblematic of the sentiments that fueled their creation: racism, fear, and hatred.

In the Talmud, in Mas. Berachoth 32a, there is a discussion about the Golden Calf episode. God and Moshe are talking after the Israelites had sinned by building a golden calf, a monument to a Caananite deity, and worshiping it. God cannot contain God’s rage at this demonstration of unfaithfulness. God says to Moshe, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them.” Moshe said to himself: If God is telling me to leave God alone, it must be because this matter is dependent on me – Davar zeh Talui bi. I can intervene here. Immediately, Moshe sprung to his feet and was strengthened in prayer, asking God to have mercy on the people of Israel and to forgive them for their transgression. Moshe realizes he has a power, one of reasoning and persuasion. He understands, based on God’s comment, that it is up to him to change the course of events. There is something he can do when dealing with God’s anger. He understands that the strength to act must come from within.

In the Yamim Norayim, the Days of Awe, we are supposed to do Heshbon Hanefesh, moral stock-taking. On these days, we participate in the process of deep introspection, figuring out what are our personal matzevot, the monuments that we have inside. We figure out what our personal power is, and when we can say, like Moshe: “This matter is dependent on me – Davar zeh Talui bi.”  This year, we must look inside ourselves and decide which monuments have to stay and which monuments have to go, and which monuments should be removed but kept somewhere else as a reminder of a dark past. Do I hold fast to grudges, grievances, and forget personal screw-ups, and forget the kindnesses of people that I now take for granted? Today, we must explore all our internal monuments, with a sharp eye, without shame.  We do this so that our personal transformation can fuel social transformation. With the internal strength that we gain from truly examining the inner and inter-personal monuments, we ask: What are our internal monuments to love, to peace, and to diversity? What are our internal monuments to racism, bias and privilege?  Racism in our communities doesn’t involve hoods, torches and flags, like the ones seen in Charlottesville. Holding on to grudges, putting down people, and fueling feuds makes our hearts fertile ground for fear, hate, and racism. Can I dig deeper and dismantle what is not helpful to the betterment of my society?  How can I contribute to a moral reset in an American society that has become hospitable to hate? It is not only in our public lives that we choose what to remember and what to forget. In our personal relationships, at this time of the year, we also must be careful of what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Davar ze talui bi – This matter is dependent on me.

There are many structures we need to build into our system to make sure that we are a force of good in our society. We erect the important matzevot, the much-needed good monuments and structures, when we let our empathy, our internal power, our compassion speak louder than any other voice inside of us.  We must hit our moral reset button, and counter hate at all times, starting at our kitchen tables, in the way that we raise the moral issues with our families. We can counter hate, racism, and prejudice in our schools, in our personal relationships, and in our day to day interactions by raising the issues when they come up, and being open to understanding where issues are coming from and what we need to change in our attitudes. With the power of these personal structures we can build communities that make sure our nation lives up to its ideals.

Fixing our communities with the renewed energy that emanates from our individual moral stock-taking will not alleviate the fears that the scenes in Charlottesville bring up. The revulsion we feel when seeing the symbols of white supremacy waved in Charlottesville stems from our historical experiences, from persecution in the Greek and Roman times, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and many other experiences that have shaped our Jewish community. In Charlottesville, the threat of violence, the symbols held high, and the chants disturbed the whole Jewish community. How can we counteract the effects of anti-Semitism in our lives? What are the monuments that can help our community stay strong and grow in the face of this evil?

To me, the best response to anti-Semitism is to lead a proud and vibrant Jewish life. The more we are involved in Jewish life, the better we are at counteracting hate and anti-Semitism. It is through Jewish education, and the formation of a strong Jewish identity that we will be able to tear down the monuments to racism and intolerance. Have a Shabbat dinner with your family and friends, since this is an excellent opportunity for everyone to feel connected, from children to adults. Come to services and strengthen your spiritual life. Join us for fun holidays. Sukkot is coming up, and we will have a potluck dinner in the sukkah. Simchat Torah is coming up, and we have a great time dancing with the Torah to the beautiful music of a klezmer band. Come to Saturday morning or Friday night services, discuss Pirkei Avot or the Torah reading. Come to an adult education session, and strengthen your actions by understanding your deeds in this world through a Jewish lens. Support the programs of our preschool and our Religious School. Join us as we participate in Social Action programs, as we create community. A Judaism of justice and choice, a Judaism that is knowledgeable, proud, and vibrant, is the best antidote to hatred. When we know who we are, when we have a deep understanding of the richness of our tradition, we have the certainty to counteract the negativity of anti-Semitism.

May we build, in this coming year, a monument to the strength and beauty of Judaism, in our homes, in our workplaces, in our lives.

Notes:

1) With much gratitude, this sermon is based on a teaching by Rabbi David Stern.

2) The translation of matzevoteihem in the Book of Exodus 23:24 is usually “their pillars” but they serve the same purpose as monuments, therefore I used this translation for emphasis.

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Erev Rosh Hashanah services on Wednesday, September 20, 2017.

The Buddhist teacher Ajahn Brahm tells a story about his early days as a Buddhist monk, when he joined a Thai monastery. He had to help physically build the monastery. He had no experience with building materials whatsoever. At first, he thought, how hard can it be to lay a brick? But soon he realized that it was much more complicated than he imagined. He would lay a little bit of cement, and it was just not enough. He would add what to his mind was just a little bit more cement, and end up with a mess. After he learned the correct amount of cement necessary for the task, he would lay the brick over the cement and tap the sides. He would tap one side, and the other would be out of alignment. Then he would tap the other side, and the first side would get out of alignment. Through trial and error, he learned how to lay bricks. After the course of a few weeks, he learned how to lay the cement, tap the bricks, and his movements became more and more fluid, until he was done with the wall which was his responsibility to build.

After he finished the wall, and looked back to admire his hard work, he noticed that two bricks were out of alignment. They were sticking out. All he could see were these two bricks. Out of the hundreds of bricks he had laid, his eyes focused, again and again, on the same two bricks. He was so upset with himself! He tried to push the bricks, but now that the cement was set, the bricks would not move. He contemplated getting rid of the whole wall and starting again. The Head Monk came over and exclaimed: What a perfect wall! The young monk said: “Master, I see that it is not perfect. I will re-do it immediately. I see the two bricks that are sticking out, and I see that this wall is not perfect, and I will immediately correct my mistakes.”

The Head Monk asked: “How many bricks have you laid?” The novice replied, “Hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand… I’m not sure, I really lost count.” The Head Monk said: “I saw that there were two bricks sticking out, and I saw that this wall was perfect. There is no need to re-do it. It is perfect as it is. Hundreds of bricks were laid correctly, and two of them remind us that we are perfectly human.”

As we begin the Yamim Norayim, the Days of Awe, let us approach it this year with compassion for our handiwork. We have laid hundreds, maybe thousands of bricks correctly. We have made beautiful creations that embellish our lives and the lives of the people around us. We have worked hard on relationships, on projects, on the infinite details of living life in the 21st century. And I am sure that there were at least two bricks that were not perfectly layered, that are sticking out, the bricks that claim our attention at all times. This year, let’s forgive ourselves for the two bricks that were laid incorrectly, and focus on the hundreds of bricks that were laid perfectly. Let’s focus on the beautiful final creation. Let the two bricks that are sticking out remind us that we are human, that we make mistakes. In life, we must acknowledge the crooked bricks — but there is always time to do teshuvah, always time to change, and move.

Remembering Alan Youkeles

Please use the comment form below to share your memories of our beloved friend and Etz Hayim member Alan Youkeles.

May his memory be for a blessing.

If you would like to make a donation in Alan’s memory, please visit So Others Might Eat, an organization with which Alan volunteered for three decades. You may also donate to Etz Hayim in Alan’s memory with the ‘donate’ button on this page.

Should you wish to share a private message with the Youkeles family instead of posting here, please email your note to office@etzhayim.net.

Discriminating Minds

Warning: If you want to read the article referred in this piece, please ask me for a copy. I do not want to raise the internet profile of the author by increasing her web traffic. The more hits the article gets, the more popular and in demand the writer will be.

In a March edition of The New Yorker, the “Shouts & Murmurs” section had an article called: “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” by Lena Dunham. Let me unpack this sentence. In case you don’t read The New Yorker, it is a weekly magazine with interesting articles about many current issues, with a weekly fiction piece, plus cartoons and poetry. I read it weekly, even though most of the time I read back issues, or skip around a bit. The “Shouts & Murmurs” section is supposed to be funny, a bit of respite from the quite heady subjects with which the magazine usually deals. Lena Dunham is the writer, producer, and star of the HBO series Girls. I have never watched Girls before and now probably never will. All because of the extremely offensive and quite unfunny article she wrote.

The quiz consists of 35 sentences and the reader has to decide if the author is speaking about her dog or her Jewish boyfriend. Right from the title, I started having trouble with the piece. After all, in the past throughout Europe and America there were many establishments that posted warnings at the doors which read “No dogs or Jews allowed.” Unfortunately, to this day, there are still places in Europe that will post that kind of sign. As I read the title of the piece, I cringed. Are we there, again? My discomfort only grew as I read the piece. Part of me wanted to completely shut out the article and not read it, but another part wanted to know where the boundary to this tasteless article was. It felt similar to disasters on the radio or TV where I know I’ll be happier if I turn it off. Yet my fascination with the morbid ends up winning out over my better judgment. In this case, I went through all 35 sentences. I should have stopped at # 9, which reads, “This is because he comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring and don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women. They are sucked dry by their children, who ultimately leave them as soon as they find suitable mates.” There is no doubt to whom the author is referring here. The generalization of Jewish mothers is offensive and in poor taste. She follows it up with even more stereotypes about Jews, such as # 13, “He doesn’t tip,” or # 14, “And he never brings his wallet anywhere.” Really? How many stereotypes can we throw in one page-long article about Jewish men and women without any care or consideration to the fact that our people have been persecuted throughout the ages with this kind of vitriol, and that we were almost annihilated many times because of that kind of image? When the societal image of a group is constantly reinforced, it is very hard to break the chains of prejudice and see every individual for who he or she truly is.

I asked myself if I would be offended had this article omitted the word “Jewish” from its title. And the answer is a resounding “yes.” Maybe this is my own limitation, but since I don’t know her boyfriend I can only read this as a generalization about men. As the mother of a son, I would be very offended that someone was speaking about men in this way. Plus, since words have power, and they shape the way we see the world, I would feel very sad for my child that our society saw men in this light. I also asked myself how I would feel if we substituted the word “Jewish” for “Black,” “Latino,” or any other ethnicity. I would be just as horrified as I was with the prejudice toward Jews. Moreover, I don’t think that both the publication and the author could handle the outcry that would ensue if the word “Black” was substituted for “Jewish.” In the end, it is okay to say things about Jews that would be unthinkable directed toward any other group.

Sadly, the editors of The New Yorker felt the need to publish this article. It is not funny, it is not clever, and betrays, without a doubt, a very prejudiced author. I hope that both the magazine and the author become conscious of their poor judgment, and change their ways in the future. As we navigate our society, let us be aware of just how much prejudice still exists both around us, and in us.

Keeping Our Tongues

When you read this column you will either be preparing for Pessah, or there already. You should already be receiving the fruits of The Wisdom Project, the texts/tweets/e-mails from our congregation that remind you to count the Omer, and share with you wisdom that our fellow Etz Hayim members live by. If you haven’t signed up yet you still have time to get the daily reminders. Look for the link on our homepage (www.etzhayim.net).

Let me share with you the words that I shared as my first post in this series: “Don’t speak ill of the irrelevant.” These words were shared with me by a dear and very wise friend, Bonnie Leal. Bonnie is one of the smartest women I know. Her insights are profound and she has a very straightforward way of explaining the most complex issues.

The idea behind Bonnie’s saying is that most things we speak about are truly irrelevant, when you give it some thought. We should strive to discuss ideas and actions that are truly important, and not waste our energy or tongue talking about things that will not benefit our world. In Judaism, we have a related concept called Shmirat Halashon. The exact translation is “keeping one’s tongue,” but more specifically it means “to keep one’s tongue from saying bad things.” An even more pointed translation of this idiom is: “Keep your tongue inside your mouth and think about the ramifications of your words before you speak.”

The intersection of Jewish tradition and my friend Bonnie’s wisdom is especially poignant when encountering the internet behaviors “trolling” and “cyberbullying.” According to knowyourmeme.com, “Trolling is an Internet slang term used to describe any Internet user behavior that is meant to intentionally anger or frustrate someone else, though not to be confused with cyberbullying, a form of online harassment carried out against an individual in a deliberately hostile manner, often without any reason.” Shmirat Halashon and Bonnie’s maxim apply just as much in these instances, if not more. The anonymous and consequence-free nature of the internet emboldens people to say disgusting, harmful and reprehensible things they might not say out loud. We should all strive to keep our virtual tongues in check, and teach this same discipline to our children.

I am taking an online class with Dr. David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and head of the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The class focuses on issues of food and ethics, and we were assigned two videos to watch. The first video was about Agriprocessors, the Postville, Iowa, kosher meat processing company that in May of 2008 was raided and closed for a series of violations. I had never seen that footage before, and was completely outraged by it. I never bought their meat, but still, it was horrible to see their practices. (The very little meat consumed in my home comes from Grow and Behold, and you can join the buying club for their kosher, pastured meat.) The second video was by Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a best-selling author, an autistic activist, and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. Grandin talks about ways of slaughtering animals that respect the life of the animal. Orderly and humanely done, which is the process used at Grow and Behold, the death of these animals had a different, dare I say sacred, dimension.

At the end of the video, Grandin explains that she herself eats meat, and as long as it is done in the correct way, she has no problem doing that. Here is an expert in animal behavior, and also one of the most accomplished autistic persons in the country, giving her well-researched and thoughtful opinion. For curiosity’s sake, I went to the comments section. I was appalled by the amount of both trolling and cyberbullying directed at this professor. All the vitriol, all the derisive comments, all the hurtful comments, made me wish Dr. Temple Grandin never saw that section. If she has, I hope she was able to dismiss the comments for the garbage they are, did not pay attention to them, and then just said to herself: “Don’t speak ill of the irrelevant.”

As we go about our life, may we not be trolls or bullies. Focus on doing good things for our world. Keep our tongues free from deceit, and let us not speak ill of the irrelevant.

Matzah….

I am not a big fan of Matzah. No matter what you do with Matzah, I never feel that it is really great. No one I know says: “The stuff right out of the box is great!” The majority of people will tell you, I love matzah brei, or Matzah with _______ (add whatever you like), but plain Matzah… not so much. Matzah is called lechem oni, a bread of poverty. In the Talmud, in Massechet Pessachim, we read: “Matzah is called bread of poverty because just as a beggar generally has only one piece of bread, so here too this bread can be only one piece.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev expands on this concept in his commentary, Kedushat Levi. He says:
A piece of bread is an indication of things that are lacking. Because you cannot slice a piece of bread. You cannot share it. The Matzah is called HaLachmah Anyiah, bread of poverty, because it cannot be shared, like a rich loaf of bread. It is just a slice, lonely. It is lacking something, and that something is a relationship with God. When the people of Israel are in relationship with God, they are wealthy, and they are called “Children,” Banim. When the people of Israel are alone and poor, they are called “Slaves,” Avadim.

Matzah is called bread of poverty because it cannot be shared, it stands alone, without a relationship with God, without being able to rely on the power of the community. When we are lonely, when we are not in a fruitful relationship with God and community, we are as slaves — too worried about the little details and unable to see the whole picture. We have a self-centered perspective about the world, and we become like that single slice of bread, without context, without the ability to share.

The power of the Lahma Anyiah, of the Matzah, is that it can teach us every year the importance of a relationship with God and the community. We have to taste the Matzah and go through the journey from slavery to freedom. Sometimes we allow ourselves to wallow in slavery. We let ourselves think that our misery is the greatest in the whole world. Having a commandment to eat Matzah at the Seder reminds us that the misery is only found in our lack of ability to see that around us we have our family, our friends, our community. We eat the lonely Matzah surrounded by people who love us and all of a sudden it stops being the “bread of poverty” and becomes the “bread of riches,” the riches of our communal life. The Matzah adds a reminder, every year, that indeed we have blessings in our lives. We must eat the bread of poverty so we can appreciate the blessings we have, and so we can be whole and in relationship with God and the community. The eating of Matzah promotes sharing ourselves with others when we learn together, build together, and create together. And this is the power of our gatherings for Pessah. There is nothing lacking. When we sit together at the seder we are not lonely pieces, we are part of a whole. We commit ourselves to Jewish learning and to Jewish continuity, to strengthening the connection between Jews, and of our communities and God. May we grow from strength to strength, learning not to be a lonely piece of Matzah, but to be a strong community in our relationship with God.

Giving up on the current course of study…

I am officially giving up on my course of study for the upcoming syium, and I am going to do something simpler. I will study a Seder from the Mishnah now, instead of trying to finish Massecher Brachot.

As I have written before, on Friday, April 3, we will have services at 7:00 am. During services we will finish a unit of Rabbinic text study. This is done because firstborns are supposed to fast (in many opinions, first sons and daughters) in memory of the slain firstborns of the last plague in Egypt. To avoid the fast, we organize a siyum (concluding a unit of Rabbinic text study), and we are then commanded to eat.

Every year, I try to finish a book of the Talmud. Trying to make my house kosher for Passover, to get rid of all hametz, plus the regular daily activities of my family make this time of year very stressful. Add to that the preparation of a unit of study and you have a recipe for an exploding head (Rosh Kaboom, as we say here in the office).

This year, even though I started working on it when Purim came, which is usually the time I start, I find myself not in the place where I should be. And that is mostly because of the edition I am using. I am using the Koren Talmud Bavli, a commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. It is a fabulous edition. There is so much easy to read and interesting commentary, with beautiful graphics and an easy English translation/explanation, that I find myself immersed in a page, going deeper and deeper in the concepts, and unable to turn pages as I usually do when I am preparing for the pre – Pessah Siyum.

If you come this Friday morning for services, I will not be talking about Massechet Brachot. Maybe I’ll be finished with it for next year…. But come if you can. It is always fun to finish a unit of study anyway! Hag Sameah!