Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, November 8, 2019

Captain America and Veteran's Day

I hope you’re familiar with Captain America’s shield. In case you’re not, here’s what you
need to know: It’s made of vibranium, an element you won’t find on the periodic table but you will find in the pages of Marvel comics.

Vibranium is an indestructible, somewhat magical element from the fictional nation of Wakanda. In its popular disc form, Captain America’s shield absorbs kinetic energy, making weapon impact minimal. He can even use it as weapon itself! His superspeed and ability to perfectly calculate trajectories lets him throw and bounce the shield like an indestructible frisbee.

Captain America’s shield is his totem, a symbol of the Cap’s resolve and heroism.

But the shield is only a tool. The Cap’s true powers come from a superserum, coursing through his veins.

And….at that, comic book fans would argue that his powers have nothing to do with the superserum but have everything to do with his heart. 

Captain America is deeply altruistic. His sense of right and wrong gives him his true super powers.

As you know, Judaism also has its fair share of symbolic shields, reminders of our special mission to bring light unto the nations.

The one we know most is the Jewish Star…in Hebrew known as magein David…so more accurately translated as the shield of David.

The symbol is ubiquitous these days, but use of the Star of David as a Jewish symbol only became widespread in 17th-century Europe, when it was displayed on synagogues to identify them as Jewish places of worship.

In antiquity, the most commonly used symbol of Judaism was the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed by the
Romans in 70 C.E.[1] The menorah is described in the Torah and the light imagery has obvious resonance for us today. If you visit Israel, you’ll see the menorah as the national symbol.

The star of David, on the other hand, is more ambiguous. First, the star has very little to do with King David. The origins and meanings are unclear, mostly because the six-sided star can be found across eastern cultures. It wasn’t until Zionism grabbed hold of it in the 1800’s that it became recognizable as distinctively Jewish and associated with Jewish peoplehood.

The meaning took a turn in the 1930’s when the Nazis famously tried to pervert this symbol
of the Jews. They forced us to wear it mockingly.
Our symbol of strength was used to humiliate us. But despite the efforts, we came out the other side. And what did we do with the Magein David after WWII?

We stuck it smack dab in the middle of the Israeli flag – flying the face of those who tried to use it as a symbol of death. We reasserted its protective power. We said, this is not yours. Like Captain America’s shield, the power came from our resolve.

It is important for us to consider another symbol, though, that suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

If I were to put a swastika up on this screen, you’d probably have a quick and negative visceral reaction to it. Swastikas are well-known symbols of white supremacy and anti-semitism. We’ve been seeing them around Westchester in a frightening resurgence.

But that’s not how the symbol originated.

The Nazis stole it from Indian culture. “The swastika has [actually] existed for 5,000 years in Asia as a symbol of good fortune. It's a very common religious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Placing the swastikas on the doorstep is a way of extending good wishes to all who come [through a person’s home].”[2]

This positive, life-affirming symbol is displayed most prominently during Diwali, a joyous five-day festival of lights that ended just last week.

But unfortunately, Indian friends of mine are at a loss. They want to proudly celebrate their sacred occasion with all its joyous symbols, but the swastika has been so co-opted, they aren’t displaying it for fear of mis-understanding.

It makes me so sad that the Nazis are able to win in this way – their evil erasing a joyful symbol for Indian-Americans. I urge each of us to keep in mind how important context is. As Jews, we should be helping our friends to display their religious symbol, helping to wipe away the dirt the Nazis threw onto it. We must look toward peaceful unity, not divisive appropriation. Keep that in mind next Diwali.

Which brings us to Veteran’s Day. Veteran’s Day used to be known as Armistice Day, honoring the end of WWI and a hope for lasting peace. But two wars later, the name was changed and the day concentrates on the contributions of our soldiers.

The name change reflects the sad reality of our society: The bravery of our armed forces? Indisputable. The possibility of peace? Debatable.

So perhaps Captain America can inspire us to carry on. In one issue of his comics, he’s encouraged to run for office and play the political game. The Cap declines, saying, “I have worked and fought all my life for the growth and advancement of the American Dream…We must all live in the real world…and sometimes that world can be pretty grim. But it is the dream…the hope…that makes the reality [of the world] worth living…I made a personal pledge to uphold the dream…and as long as the dream remains even partially unfulfilled, I cannot abandon it.”

May it be so for all of us. Ken Yhi Ratzon.



Thursday, October 10, 2019

Yizkor Presentation

Remembering Faith Zimmerman

My Grandma Faith was a woman who spoke in proclamations. She’s famous for them really. For example:

Every Thanksgiving she would proclaim that “this is the last Thanksgiving” she’d be making her famous stuffed cabbage. But sure enough, with enough cajoling from my sister, she’d be rolling those cabbage leaves up again the following year.

Or, if you ever brought up that time that so-and-so was sick or ended up in the hospital, from a broken bone to a difficult labor, she would always proclaim, “…and we almost lost her!” According to the grandmother, every member of our family was “almost lost” at some point in their lives.

Oh, and then the most random one was when she would proclaim she didn’t like Spanish food because in a prior life she was a witch burned at the stake in the Spanish Inquisition.

Given all this, I guess it makes sense that she sang Dayenu with fervor at Passover. Dayenu is the ultimate proclamation – it would have been enough! – a requires an enthusiastic singing voice, which my grandmother had.

When my Grandma Faith would call me, she’d say, “Mara, it’s your lady grandmother here!” Grandma Faith was your classic lady of the 1940’s, a true member of the greatest generation. She was an FDR-loving, liberally minded gal who worked her whole life, even though she really didn’t have to. She was a teacher and guidance counselor. She played bridge and drank scotch with her husband, my grandfather, who she was happily married to for 70 plus years. She was president of her local American Association of University Women. She founded a synagogue and was part of the League of Women Voters. I got my feminism from her.

Rabbi Billy was gracious enough to officiate at her funeral. I had officiated at Mark’s mother’s funeral, and my Grandma Jane’s funeral, but I found this one difficult to do. I didn’t realize why until after the intake. After the intake with my family, Rabbi Billy turned to me and said, “Wow. It’s like they were describing you.”

And I suppose that’s right. I can be ornery like her, smart like her, loud-mouthed like her, loving like her.

My grandmother referred to Noah as “her royal highness” and Asher as “the holy terror.” In true Grandma fashion, she’d insist on holding them, even though we thought she wasn’t strong enough to do so. “Ridiculous!” she’d say, “do you know how many babies I’ve held in my life?”

Grandma’s bond to Noah in particular was so unique and special. I really miss watching it in action. I’ll never forget when Mark and I took the kids to see my grandparents in Florida. 5 year old Noah hadn’t seen “Gee” in months. The minute we entered their apartment, Noah climbed up onto the couch, gave Grandma a hug, and then put her head in her lap. She remained snuggled up to Grandma until we had to pry her away to go back to the hotel. I think they had twin souls, born in different times. There was always an ease between them, a true closeness. We have so many pictures of the two of them snuggling. I am so grateful for those pictures.

My grandma was diagnosed with Leukemia and died in the span of 3 months. I was able to be with her in Florida while she was in hospice. She was alert for the first day, less so for the ones after. It may sound strange to say, but those days in hospice were some of the most special in my life…particularly those hours when I sent my mom and my aunt away for some coffee. I bought some trashy magazines, turned off the lights, and just sat next to her, holding her hand.

At times she’d get agitated and push back the covers. She’d say in a stupor, “Mara, this is ridiculous! Let me get my shoes!” and I’d have to tuck her back into bed. “Ssssh, grandma, ssssh.” The hospice nurse said this was normal. When someone is dying, but lived life so determinedly, it is hard for them to let go. “They fight it,” she told me.

At one point, Grandma apologized. She said, “I’m so sorry you have to sit here with me like this.” I proclaimed to her: “Grandma, I’ve got two kids who never leave me alone and a full time job. Sitting here with you, reading my trashy magazines, is a gift!” She smiled and shifted back to sleep.

Amazingly, I wasn’t sad in those moments. I felt calm, complete and at peace. If one must die, this should be the way it happens. A room full of natural light, affirmations of love, and stories of a life well lived.

Whereas once my grandmother held my mother, held me, held my children, now I could hold her. And when I couldn’t anymore, God could.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Walk In, Not Away - Yom Kippur Morning 5780/2019

If DNA is the blueprint of our bodies, computer code is the blueprint of our lives. Code lies at
the base of all software programs and technological devices, meaning it builds our educational materials, professional workspaces, and even our social lives as they migrate onto smartphones and apps.

A lot of computer code is privately owned by people and businesses, making it proprietary and top-secret. “You can see what it does, but you can’t see how it works unless you work at the company that makes it.”[1]Despite these exclusive ownerships, the world mostly runs on “open-source code,” meaning it is free, re-usable and collaborative. Anyone can inspect, modify and enhance it.[2]

Technology writer Paul Ford is particularly fascinated by the way people improve open-source code, fixing bugs in public forums. His own code-correcting program is a living document of human collaboration. He muses: “with a history going back more than 40 years; the codebase itself starts in the 1980s, and as I write this there are [almost 140,000] different [edits] that get you from then to now. More than 600 contributors have worked on it. I find those numbers magical: A huge, complex system that edits all kinds of files started from nothing and then, with nearly 140,000 documented human actions, arrived at its current state. It has leaders but no owner, and it will move along the path in which people take it…It will outlive me.”

Reading Ford’s perspective, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to Jewish text and tradition. It has a history going back more than 5,000 years, the codebase starting somewhere in early human civilization. There are thousands of texts that get you from then to now. Millions of contributors have worked on it. It has leaders but no owner and it will outlive us.

I’m confident that Judaism isn’t going anywhere. Our numbers may increase or decrease, but we’ve proven that even up against the most formidable, murderous foes, we find a way to survive. We edit, re-interpret or adjust the code to meet the challenge.

But this doesn’t mean we can just coast into 5780 with ease. Whereas once Judaism’s survival meant outlasting empires and despots, it must now survive a “you-do-you” culture, a social ethos radically concerned with the self. These days we’ve all become individual arbiters of right and wrong, dedicating our time and money to the promotion of the self. In doing so, we seek happiness ferociously but are left wondering why it alludes us and our children.

Being an active part of a humanity’s magical, complex system and Judaism’s evolving 

codebase has taken a backseat to this more egotistic focus. Americans in general have turned so extremely inward that most institutions of greater camaraderie are starting to crumble around us. 

According to Gallup Polling[3], Americans lack confidence in a great many things: 87% of Americans have “some or very little confidence” in Congress and the government, 71% have some or very little confidence in our public schools. Overall church affiliation is at an all-time low of 50%, attributed to the increasing proportion of Americans with no religious preference and a general “lack of confidence” in organized religion. Synagogue affiliation and formal engagement with the Jewish community is not far behind this statistic.

While there are many factors behind these figures, research shows that in present-day America, lack of empathy and a lost sense of “being in it together” seem to the biggest contributors. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the US doesn’t even crack the top 10 of the United Nation’s ranking of the world’s happiest countries in 2019.

Consider Finland as a comparison, ranked by the United Nations as the happiest country in the world. Interestingly, not only are native-born Finns happy, but immigrants to Finland are thriving just as equally. What causes this? The report finds that Finns “pay high taxes for a social safety net, they trust their government, they live in freedom and they are generous with each other.”[4]

Americans have become self-obsessed and aren’t better for it. We know this intuitively. Our lives in a cutthroat capitalist culture are fast-paced and lonely. So we seek out quick, cheap highs and engage only in that we think makes us and our children “happy.” “We’ve moved more to a microview of well-being, having positivity in the minute,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California.[5]

The irony is that in our desperate desire to seek out more joy in our lives, we’re abandoning the places that can actually help us find it. We consume media that fits nicely with our own point of view, we engage in activities, even altruistic ones, that give us momentary highs. But like a bottle rocket blasting upward, we have nothing underneath it to sustain us for the long haul. After we experience the high, we crash right back down.

Judaism has warned about the cult of the self and quick fixes of pleasure since its inception. The insistence on one, supreme God and the prohibition against idolatry, found right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, advocate for a step out of the self. It’s not so much that God is possessive or egotistical, but that we are. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Daniel Prager find that “when we excise God from our lives, we fill the void with gods of our own choosing: science, revolution, happiness, [and] the self…”

Sarah Hurwitz, head speechwriter for First Lady Michele Obama, recently published a must-read book called Here All Along. It’s about her journey to find meaning in her life and how she found it in Judaism. She picks up on Telushkin and Prager’s train of thought: They seem to be talking about an specific sort of idolatry, where we have a belief in false gods, “including the belief that you yourself are God, in control of everything.” She’s critical of how we engage with social institutions, particularly religious ones, saying that we stick around for the easy, feel-good parts and walk out the door as soon as it requires something of us: “We’re reifying, maybe even deifying, ourselves, focusing on the self-discovery, self-affirmation, and self-expression parts of religion and neglecting the self-discipline, self-sacrifice and self-transcendence parts.”

Why are we abandoning social institutions and ancient wisdom when we know that they can bring us the happiness we seek? Well, our out-of-control self-determination drives us to anything that feels good and avoid, at all costs, the things that challenge or trouble us. I’m not saying we should temper those things Hurwitz mentions: self-expression, personal autonomy over our bodies and beliefs. Instead, I resonate deeply with her concern – can we find room in our lives for confrontation, challenge and sacrifice along with self-discovery?

Consider Gen Z. That’s today’s teens. Along with Millennials, they demonstrate the lowest engagement in organized religion in history. That said, lack of engagement with religious institutions has not stopped them from being moral, caring people. You don’t need church or temple for that, really. It’s good to have a motivating factor, it’s good to find strength in numbers, but you don’t need organized religion to make the world a better place. Indeed, we’re rearing one of the most socially conscious, activist generations ever.

Yet we’re also raising the most anxious and depressed generation ever recorded. According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of teens say anxiety and depression are a “major problem” among their peers. They suffer in an existential way.

There are a number of contributing factors: social media and modern parenting trends being

the biggest. According to psychologists, “Happiness is emphasized so much in our culture that some parents think it's their job to make their kids happy all the time.”[6]Unfortunately, we misconstrue happiness for lack of disappointment and the absence of struggle. Today’s kids are emotionally dependent and unable to weather life’s storms effectively. Resilience is at an all-time low.

But this, thisis exactly where Judaism starts. Yisrael means to struggle – to tackle the complexities of life - the existential questions - and come out the other side changed and more fulfilled. It is to put time, energy and money into showing up and working it out together. Not every moment is fun, but every moment can move us from merely living to truly thriving.

Yom Kippur is the “day of dread.” The rabbis called it such because we imagine we are standing in God’s throneroom, awaiting a judgement on our lives. Today, I think we see Yom Kippur as a day of dread because we spend a whole day immersed in the emotions and fears we try to avoid all year. Today, we are faced with the brutal vulnerability of our humanity. Today, we admit to our faults, most of which we have tried to reason way or sweep under the rug. It hurts. It sucks. But it has the power, if you’ll let it, to transform you. Hurwitz urges us: “Yom Kippur is Judaism’s way of telling us: Do not wait for a nose-diving airplane or your final days in hospice to take your life seriously.”

But we don’t like to feel this way. We don’t like to feel small, or vulnerable, or obligated to anyone but ourselves and our immediate family. So we avoid it. We avoid it spiritually and we avoid it physically. It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Being part of a formal Jewish community, like a synagogue, is like going to the gym. The less you go, the more you neglect it and the less you feel like you “need it” in your life. It’s a waste of money.

But if you make it part of your regular practice, it becomes second nature. You even crave it. In fact, with regular attendance and participation, we can find ourselves healthier, wiser and more fulfilled. A 2015 survey by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center found that participating in a religious organization was the only contemporary social activity associated with sustained happiness—even more than volunteering for a charity, taking educational courses or participating in a political or community organization.[7]

There’s an important word in this conclusion, though. One must participatein a religious community. It is not enough to just “feel connected” to that community.

On a number of occasions now, I’ve been told that our religious school has done its job really well. A young person, or a family, “feels Jewish.” Therefore, they need not continue with their Jewish education or with synagogue membership because, mission accomplished, everyone feels Jewish.

I wish I could be content with this. But “Jewish” is not just a designation in your head, a box you check on a census. It’s not a feeling of nostalgia that exists only to warm your heart. It can do that, it should do that, but that can’t be all it does. In the end, that feeling lives and dies inside of you and offers little to the world around you. Feelings wax and wane in our lives. Why would this one be any different?

So many of us are gratified that we, our children or our grandchildren love being Jewish, but do we know how we are going to transform and transmit our knowledge? Without ongoing engagement, how will Jewish tradition nurture you through the high and low seasons of your life? And an even more grim question: why be Jewish at all when it is becoming scary to be Jewish publicly? Might you diminish or hide your “sense of Jewishness” in the face of those who tell you it is wrong? Is it really worth the trouble?

Basically, we’ve made it all about us when it really should be about our collective history, our shared destiny, and God.

This is our modern-day idolatry. Yom Kippur day is about reorienting our hearts and turning to the Divine presence that unites all of us.

Today, we understand God in two ways. One is the still, small voice within us, the voice we must listen for and nurture. The other is the transcendent, connective force of the universe. It is God within and without.

Judaism done outside of community is not Judaism. Our tradition makes this clear in so 
many ways: you must have ten people for a gathering, public feasts and celebrations are mandated by law.

Indeed, the only time in Torah that God finds anything “lo tov” – not good – is when people go

it alone. The phrase occurs just two times – two times in the whole of Torah! First in the Garden of Eden where God realizes it is not good for the first human to be alone and creates a partner for them. The second time is when Moses’s father in law, Jethro, tells him it is not good for Moses to render his decisions on his own, for certainly he will burn out and lead the people astray. He must engage other leaders of his community for help. They must render decisions as well.

Torah teaches that not only do we need companionship, we need people to challenge us and help us to grow.

To just “know” you are Jewish is to sell yourself short of what could be a more enriching process. You may be met with some spiritual wrestling, but the Jewish people ultimately seek a more sustainable happiness, a dance with the rhythm of life, rather than instant gratification.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering,highlights the power of bringing people together. “Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel and make sense of the world. Lawgivers have understood, perhaps as well as anyone, the power inherent in gatherings. In democracies, the freedom to assemble is one of the foundational rights granted to every individual. In countries descending into authoritarianism, one of the first things to go is the right to assemble. Why? Because of what can happen when people come together: [we] exchange information, inspire one another, test out new ways of being together.”

There are many personalized, uber-convenient ways to do “Jewish stuff” these days. There are ways to watch services online and study Hebrew in small groups from the comfort of your living room. These experiences aren’t bad. In fact, they’re not too unlike the experience of the generations before us.

My grandfather wasn’t really part of a synagogue growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930’s. He was playing stickball and helping his poultryman father, an immigrant from Eastern Europe. He used to help his dad pluck chickens and drive them over the Brooklyn bridge to the Manhattan restaurants. When he was 12, his parents brought in a melamed, a religious teacher who would educate him and have him ready for his bar mitzvah. Private tutoring is not a new thing.

But things were different for my grandfather than they are for us. Jewish identity was not just established internally, but externally as well. Your Jewishness determined your job and college opportunities, your friends, and who you married. “Jewish” was the culture you lived in, the words you spoke and the food you ate. You could feel more or less Jewish, but still be immersed in a Jewish community.

Thankfully, many of the restrictions Jews faced then don’t apply today. We can access a diversity of thoughts, cultures and institutions that help us to be worldly and included in the broader culture. I don’t begrudge this for a second. As Parker urged: if we assemble and exchange ideas, we can be transformed.

But this means we have to work harder to preserve and develop Jewish tradition. We have to support, with our time and our money, Jewish institutions. If we take a consumerist approach to Jewish life and synagogue, saying, “I got what I needed” and then walk away, then we weaken the ability for anyone else to have that experience. Then we’ve really lost sight of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

One person cannot generate and sustain a Jewish life alone, no matter how “Jewish” they feel. Judaism has always been synonymous with community.

And while participating in the greater community, the individual soul can be enriched. Jewish tradition is an on-going, dynamic conversation between people. The original open-source code. We’re all speaking the same processing language; coders building on one another’s contributions, fixing bugs, creating new functions.

Think of a basic sense of Jewishness as a simple computer program. It’s effective, a good foundation. But over time there are going to be glitches: incompatibilities with modern software, formats that change; viruses and interruptions. If the code isn’t updated or patched over time, it will be rendered useless and eventually void.

The code embedded into every Jew, young and old, needs reformatting and refreshing. It needs the finesse of more experienced coders, the creative input of fellow writers. If left alone, it loses relevance and fades. If shared with others, it grows and expands, it transforms the heart of the Jew and the world itself. If one is not connected to a power source, it is too easy for the Jewish light to die out.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hillel taught: “Do not withdraw yourself from the community; Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die;” By this he means, being in community reminds us of our individual value and even adds to it. Don’t be so chutzpadik to think you can go it alone.

He then concludes his teaching: “Do not say “It is not possible to understand this” for eventually it will be understood; Do not say “When I have free time I will study,” for you may never have free time.” Just because it is uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should run from it. Just because it requires more of you doesn’t mean it’s expendable. God is optimistic that we can rise to the challenges of our human existence, but that we cannot meet these challenges alone. “Do not withdraw yourself from the community” - each one of us may not be sure of ourselves but we can certainly find confidence in one another. Jewish is what we are when we are together. Ken yhi ratzon.

Closing prayer

On a warm summer day, a traveler came upon three brick layers working side by side. The traveler asked all three: what are you doing?

The first bricklayer answered: I’m laying bricks.

The second answered: I’m feeding my family.

The third answered: I’m building a palace.

All three men answered correctly. The first brick layer saw just the task at hand. He had bricks, he had mortar and he had been asked to put the two together. That’s why he did it. A reason good enough.

The second man answered with his personal reason for his laborious task. His job of bricklaying enabled him to put food on the table for his family. That’s why he did it. A reason good enough.

The third man, though, did not just concentrate on the task itself. He understood that his task was a part of a larger whole – building to something bigger and more beautiful than the section he was working on. Imagine how fulfilled he must have been every day he showed up to work.

I want that fulfillment for each of us and for the children of this congregation. We cannot build a palace alone.

Lucky for us, the palace has already been built! But if we walk out of it, saying to ourselves, “it will always be there if I want to go back and visit,” then it will fall into disrepair. It won’t bring the same majesty to others that you enjoyed.

As Isaiah urged us this morning: “Individuals from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins, restore foundations laid long ago, so that you will be called Repairer of fallen walls…and then you can seek the favor of the Eternal, who will let you enjoy the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… With God’s eternal guidance, your thirst will be quenched, you bones will gain strength. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.”

In other words, be a builder, a restorer. Walk in, not away.

G’mar chatima tovah– let’s finish this Yom Kippur strong and united.





[5]Are We Living in a Post-Happiness World? Laura M. Holson, The New York Times. Sun Sept 29 2019.

[6]Gen Z Now: Report by the Jewish Education Project


Friday, February 15, 2019

The Light Within

Last weekend, Zach and I travelled with 12 temple teens to Washington DC to participate in the Religious Action Center’s L’taken Seminar. We’ll tell you more about that on March 1. What you need to know now is that the weekend culminates in the teens crisscrossing and then infiltrating Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives in Congress.

As we walked around the Hill, the kids noticed the humanoid statues on top of the Supreme Court, the Capitol dome, and the other marble structures that populate the environs. “Who’s that?” a kid would ask. We pulled out our phones, did a quick google search and said, “oh! That’s Truth!...oh hey, there’s Freedom on top of rotunda!”

It felt a little silly to say, being that statues representing virtues aren’t so in vogue right now. Not to mention, it’s not very Jewish to have such statues of goddesses and muses, but cie la vie.

And speaking of French, the goddess of Freedom makes an appearance in another important spot: yup, you guessed it, in the New York harbor as the Statue of Liberty.

These famous statues stand as a reminder of our country’s communal aspirations, symbols of the values that should guide our democracy. A while it’s possible that every American could name these values, it’s the next part that’s hard: that is, applyingthose values to the laws of the land. As much as we can agree on what they are, its nearly impossible these days to agree on what they mean for policy. It’s great that Truth stands on top of the Supreme Court, but is there such a thing as objective truth? What, or who, is truly free in the land where Freedom raises her hand high?

Symbols are powerful namely because they are interpretative. Symbols – either physical or descriptive – are shape shifters. Sure, they mean something, but just what that is depends on the person encountering the symbol.
For example, John Cunningham, an American historian, clarifies that the Statue of Liberty was not conceived or built as a symbol of immigration, but it quickly became such as the immigrant ships sailed under her outstretch arm. She was actually supposed to be an abolitionist symbol. She was conceived by the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society who was a prominent and important political thinker of his time. He, and others, saw freedom and democracy actually blooming in America with the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

It wasn’t until Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, New Colossus, was penned and donated to an auction – the proceeds of which would help fund construction of the stone pedestal – that its freedom-as-applied-to-immigrants symbolism was cemented.

The poem famously reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

When applied to this week’s Torah portion, “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightning” is particularly powerful. Tetzaveh opens with the command to bring clear, beaten olive oil to light the lamps of the community menorah. The lamps must remain ablaze regularly, all day long, for all time, throughout the ages. The eternal nature of this holy light is emphasized no less than four times in two verses.

But why does God need the light to burn continuously? Well, firstly, it’s a potent symbol. It can symbolize the warmth of God’s presence or the light of Torah in our lives.

Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 36:2) highlights that God, the Source of light, doesn't need the light we produce with eternal light. Rather, the ner tamid is for the people so that "you can return light to Me as I give light to you."[1]

This is where I think the light’s symbolism runs deeper. While the ambient light of the Divine is always present, it’s not always detected. We humans need a reminder of the holiness around us. Furthermore, the lights of the menorah need to be kindled by human hands – a lesson that without our hard work and good deeds, God’s light may diminish, even disappear, from Earth. The Torah teaches us that we must be curators of God’s light. We provide the fuel, we nurture its vitality.

Certainly this metaphorical torch has been passed through the generations. We kindle God’s light to this day, not just in our ark’s ner tamid, but in our Sabbath candles, channukiyot, campfires and yartzeit candles. The light evokes memory, the melodies of our lives that buoy us in difficult moments. We light candles at justice-driven vigils, symbols of being a “light unto the nations” and those who tend to the light of God on earth.

But what about the light’s dark side? Think of the olives, crushed violently into oil by human hands? That is destruction in the name ofcreating light. How many times in human history have we justified crushing buildings, trampling fields, pummeling lives in the name of illumination?

A Chassidic saying picks up on this complexity in the oil’s metaphor: “When one speaks crushing words of rebuke, it must be with the sole purpose of enlightening, illuminating and uplifting one's fellow. Never, God forbid, to humiliate and break him.”

So what does it mean to harness God’s light? As Emma Lazarus puts it, the Statue of Liberty is a mighty woman with a torch of imprisoned lightning. This is like the ancient menorah, burning with the light of life and the astonishing blaze of God’s power.

Yet what does it mean to imprison the lightning? Are we so haughty to believe that we can keep it chained?

So here, the metaphor of the eternal light shifts. While the light is a symbol of God, it is not God itself. We are not harnessing God’s power to use it as a light saber, zapping all of our opponents. Or, to mix my George Lucas metaphors, think about how this was the fatal flaw of the Nazis in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the storyline, the Nazis want the ark of the covenant so that they can use it as a weapon of war. This arrogance leads to their demise.

The eternal light of the tabernacle, of the temple, of Judaism today is, in fact, just a reminder. It is a bright message for eternity, a sign of our partnership with God. The word Tetzavehmeans "to command," but it also means "to connect" and "to bond." Thus the verse can also be read as God saying that the light’s radiance implants a spark of the Divine in all who gaze upon it.[2]It’s about those who kindle the light, not just the light itself.

Proverbs 20:27 says it this way: “The candle of the Eternal is the lifebreath of a human, it sheds light on one’s inner being.” The eternal light not only represents the infinitude of the Divine, its fiery dancing and spectral flame mirrors the Divine life-light inside each of us. It may burn brightly, it might be hidden away, but it inside, it is still glowing. Barukh Ata Adonai, borei shel haor b’toch– Blessed are You, Eternal One, creator of the light within.

[1]Rabbi Jerome P. David -

[2]Thought is based on a teaching from the Or HaChayim: The word tetzaveh, "to command," also means "to connect" and "to bond." Thus the verse can also be read as G-d saying to Moses: "And you shall bond with the Children of Israel." For every Jewish soul has at its core a spark of the soul of Moses.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Creating Space - Parshat Va'era, post-Israel

There’s a question that has haunted me since my youth. A deep one, perhaps unanswerable, perhaps the greatest existential mystery of our time: when it comes to the 10 plagues of Egypt…what was so bad about the plague of frogs?

Seriously. We’ve made cute songs out of the plague of frogs. We hop around like frogs. We giggle at the idea of Pharaoh waking up with frogs on his head, frogs on his bed. Frogs here. Frogs there. Sure, frogs are slimy, but they’re also cute! What’s so bad about the plague of frogs?

It would seem that the rabbis had the same question about this week’s Torah portion, Va’era. In diving into the issue, many of the rabbis conclude that the word is really not frogs but crocodiles. Now, crocodiles make a lot more sense. If we’re talking about plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, natural disasters that threatened their lives, crocodiles certainly fit the bill.

There’s also the explanation that when the frogs died, they lay everywhere – rotting, stinking, incubating maggots and helping start the next plague: lice. That makes sense too.
Furthermore, a quick dive into midrash offers another explanation for why the frogs weren’t so cute to sing about. The language of the Hebrew passage is peculiar: the word for frogs is actually in the singular. God (through Moses) says to Pharaoh: “If you refuse to let the Israelites go, behold, I will smite all your territory with a frog.”

So how did one frog become a plague? The rabbis explain that indeed one frog did come up from the Nile first – and when the Egyptians tried to smash it (in order to kill it), it just spewed out more frogs. In their blind anger, the Egyptians kept smashing the frogs, which led to more frogs, inciting a crazy game of whack-a-frog that ended in Egypt being overwhelmed by amphibians.

The issue wasn’t the frogs, the rabbis teach, as much as it was the Egyptians’ rashness, their inability to take a deep breath, evaluate the situation and plan calmly. This was in fact their problem all along beginning with going along with Pharaoh’s plan to enslave the Israelites before they could rise up.

Moses was guilty of this impulse as well. He rashly struck down the Egyptian taskmaster and killed him. In fact, it is Moses’ rashness later in the story – striking the rock to get water, instead of speaking to it – that prevents him from entering the Promised Land.
Fear and anxiety are able motivators. They can drive us to impetuous action. And if there is one thing our society fears most these days, it would be empty space. It takes a great deal of inner strength to sit alone for any amount of time before picking up a smart device to swipe and scroll the emptiness away.

I for one always have music on in the background. And, let me confide something in each of you – a horrible confession – I have a really, really hard time during the silent prayer. It is nearly impossible for me to turn off my brain for the 60 seconds where we sit in quiet. I’ve tried deep breathing. I’ve tried just delighting in the quiet moment. I’ve tried saying a prayer. None of it works. Outside of that time, if you’ve noticed, I’ve almost never asked you to close your eyes and meditate because for the love of God, I just can’t do it.

Yet there was an experience on our recent trip to Israel that disrupted the complacency I had in regards to this fact. We visited many places in Israel. There was little time for quiet – there were sites to see, people to chat with on the bus, giant breakfasts to eat. Yet, our itinerary took a great route. From the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv, we drove south into the Negev Desert. As much as we have “made the desert bloom,” most of it is still untouched rock formations, hidden wadis, and wind-hollowed caves.

One morning, we hiked near Avdat – a breathtaking hike past an ancient pistachio tree, a rushing waterfall, and up a canyon. The serene beauty of the environs seeped into our skin. I feel so alive, so connected to my ancestors in the Negev.

In the afternoon, we visited the Ramon crater – a geological wonder in the belly of Israel that was formed over 220 million years ago when oceans covered the area. We made two stops. The second was just off the road alongside a small wadi. It’s the rainy season, so there’s water in a small pool, surrounded by gravelly rock mounds and small cliffs.

There’s a rock by the entrance to the spot that has three Hebrew words on it: even, ruach, mayim. I turned to members of our group, and with a sarcastic laugh, I explained that it is the most profound rock I’ve ever seen. It says: rock, wind, water. Duh! That’s all that’s there!
The spot was beautiful. The best that nature had to offer. But imagine my horror when I heard the words start to come out of our tour guide’s mouth: now I want everyone to find a spot by themselves. We are going to sit quietly in this space.

Ugh. I’m thinking, I’m the group leader. I really should follow the instructions. Fine. I’ll find a spot, but I won’t meditate.

I climbed up to a small peak that jutted out. I had a good view of the group – a wonderful mess of people who by now I had been getting to know even more deeply. I looked at the rocks – beautiful strata of time. I watched the water – rippling with the wintertime’s abundance. I tried to do everything but close my eyes – but then the wind came whipping around the bend. I sat cross legged, I closed my eyes, I breathed. The wind kept flowing, swirling around my head like a concentrated vortex. And even doubtful ol’ me had a profound moment of blissful, sacred emptiness.

Rock, wind, water. It did not need to be more complicated than that. God’s creation exists in ways to remind us that we do not need to fill every moment up with words.

Wind in Hebrew is ruach – the same word for spirit. In the second line of Genesis, we learn that “the earth was formless and empty, darkness lay over the surface of the deep, v’ruach Elohim m’rachefet al p’nei hamayim, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

We don’t know how long God’s spirit rustled around the void before it became time to start bending the light, forming the stone and splitting the waters – before all the processes of creation and evolution slowly got underway. Yet we can get snapshots of what it was like – the quiet peace of basic elements unmuddied by words and screens and wars and things.
And if we just let ourselves – allow ourselves the space to sense it, we might be surprised by the ease in which the peace can come rolling in.


In the beginning
there was a formless void in the heart of the Infinite –

vacant and hollow,
strangely heavy…
considering it was empty.

So after millennia of barrenness 
and eons of void,
With a desperate heave of distressed energy
one miniscule, puny, sub-atomic particle lightly tapped another
and an explosion cleared out the dark.

And even though millions of years would still pass
before the first conversation between man and Creator would occur,
every epoch felt as a day…

…as the sun sprouted and the moon beamed
the bacteria split and the algae bloomed
roots soaked in water and flowers ballooned
fish grew legs that trudged into mud
and the chimps cackled their call,

And just as the bounty seemed enough to make the void a distant memory,
A baby cried,
And the spirit of God moved briskly into the garden to calm him.

If God has the patience to make the space, even knowing what wonders are to come, then certainly we can aspire to pause, make the room, and allow the future to unfold in its due time. Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In the Neighborhood - Yom Kippur Morning 5779/2018

I was really excited to watch the latest documentary on Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. It’s amazing how just the mention of Fred Rogers elicits warmth and wonder. I think it’s linked to the core value of the program: tolerance. Tolerating people and tolerating feelings. Seems simple enough to us today, but it was actually pretty radical back then.

In fact, if you go back and look at the first episodes of the series, it might amaze you at how modern and perhaps controversial, they are. They center around King Friday the 13th’s disgust at changes being made in the fictional, puppet-ruled “Land of Make Believe.” Change makes him very uneasy. As a corrective measure, he sets up a border guard, institutes oppressive new laws and declares war on change. Only after a peaceful protest of floating balloon messages transcend the wall – each one declaring love, tenderness and acceptance – does King Friday end the war. He discovers that change is scary but it’s ok if you have partners in navigating it. He realizes that neighborhoods may change but you and your neighbors are in it together.

The language of partnership and collaboration was embedded deeply in the show’s message. The title of the program, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and it’s famous tagline – won’t you be my neighbor? - highlighted this. Fred Rogers explained that: “Well, I suppose it’s an invitation: “Won’t you be my neighbor.” It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you.”

We understand “neighbors” and “neighborhood” to be kind terms. A neighbor loans you their cooler, feeds your fish when you go on vacation. A neighborhood consists of the streets you know, the place where your children can wander; people living closely with the common goal of one another’s welfare. A neighborhood, ideally, is an extension of home.

Yet the concept of a neighborhood gets complicated when used colloquially. When applied to countries, for example, we talk about parts of the world being neighborhoods – but they manifest quite differently from what I just described, don’t they? Countries have borders and prejudices. They exist precisely because they are unlike their neighbors. They don’t trust one another and respond harshly to perceived physical and cultural encroachments, much like King Friday the 13th.

This is felt most potently in the neighborhood of the Middle East. Yossi Klein HaLevi, an American Israeli author, just released a tremendous book called Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.Looking out his porch to the hill across from his, he addresses an imagined Palestinian person who lives there:

“Dear Neighbor…I call you neighbor because I don’t know your name or anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, “neighbor” may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors? But I don’t know how else to address you.”[1]

If Mr. Rogers expressed that he was home by putting on a cozy sweater and changing into house shoes, when it comes to talking about Israel and her neighbors, it feels more like we’re putting on a bulletproof vest.

Yes…I’m going to be talking about Israel this morning. And I know the minute I said Israel, you could have had one of 100 different feelings. Or maybe you had all 100 of those feelings at once. Multiply that by the 1000 people in this tent, and we have an untenable heap of emotions on this subject.

So before I begin, I’d like us all to take a tip from Mr. Rogers. Let’s slowly open the door. I invite you to take off your cap, coats and shoes, slip into a sweater and some cozy slippers. Come join me in the living room. Let’s have a conversation – as neighbors. I’m going to share some of my feelings and I’m not going to judge you for yours. What you will get from me this morning is an exploration of my own feelings as someone who is deeply connected to the people and Land of Israel. You’ll hear what I’m struggling with as a Zionist. My hope is that my own wrestling will help you unpacks yours. Or it won’t. And that, in and of itself, will help you to understand where you stand.

Trust me, I did not want to preach on the most controversial topic one could choose. But I’ve spoken to too many of you about your own feelings. We have to have this conversation, as a Woodlands community and as Jews. And Mr. Rogers teaches us: it’s ok to have feelings and it’s ok to talk about them.

For American Jews, Israel can feel like Mr. Rogers’ “Land of Make Believe.” Simply put, Israel is a miracle. It has flourished into something not even Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism could imagine – a modern-day Jewish fairy tale. But it also feels far away, topsy-turvy and less than real.

Dov Waxman, a Mid-east scholar, offers this framework: “Israel is an ‘imaginary homeland’for American Jews – ‘imaginary’ not just because it is not their actual home, but also because it exists primarily in their imagination…For most American Jews, Israel has been more of amythic land than an actual place. It functions, therefore, as a kind of screen on which American Jews may project their hopes, fantasies,and fears.”[2]

We’ve heaped so many dreams onto Israel that it’s no wonder that we fall into extreme camps when talking about it.

But how can we not feel strongly about what happens in Israel?! It’s not just a modern country but the place where the whole of Jewish experience is being re-written!

When I lived there, I relished the fact that on Hanukkah all the balconies were adorned with menorahs. I loved that on Purim I found myself in the middle of a drag show at Jerusalem’s hottest gay bar. My conversation with my taxi driver seamlessly wove into my Bible class because the language of Hebrew linked them together.

Israel is the place where the line between spiritual fulfillment and the banality of everyday life vanishes.

I think Yossi Klein Halevi illustrates it best: “One morning I was driving my teenage son, Shachar, to school. Not far from the Old City, we got caught in a traffic jam. I said, “You know, in one sense here we are, sitting in a traffic jam, just like in any city anywhere. But sometimes it occurs to me that the most boring details of our daily life were the greatest dreams of our ancestors.”[3]

Scholar Jack Wertheimer explains further: “Ever since Israel’s founding, American Jews have contended with the freighted symbolism and complex realities of the Jewish state. How could it be otherwise? After living for nearly two millennia as a minority, scattered across much of the globe and dependent upon the tolerance of host countries, Jews around the world have been confronted since 1948 with a radically novel situation: A Jewish state in the land of their ancestors, with a Jewish majority exercising sovereignty and considerable military might, not only conducting its life according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and in the revived Hebrew language, but also defining itself as the homeland of every Jew and as the defender of Jews around the world.”[4]

The Jewish State is a dream-come-true: a technological wunderkind, a cultural center, a place where Jewish history awakens in each Jerusalem cobblestone and where Jews do not have to fight for the right to be Jewish. In Israel, we can be “un-remarkably” Jewish.

But at the same time, modern Israel is far from the manifestation of our Jewish hopes and dreams. Just look to an untenable situation in the West Bank and Gaza…a right-wing religious take-over of Jewish affairs…an unnecessary Nation-State Bill that alienated Israel’s minorities over the summer.

There’s unresolved conflict at every border – far from the neighborhood ideal. Take for example The Iron Dome – the air defense system that guards the country. It has provided immeasurable safety to the people living there, but what does it mean that such a technology needs to exist? Since 2011, it has intercepted over 1000 enemy rockets.

Yes, the Israeli people deserve safety, but think of the cycle of violence that has led to such a situation.

David Grossman, an Israeli author, recently delivered these words on Israel’s memorial day: “Home is a place whose walls – borders – are clear and accepted; who existence is stable, solid, and relaxed; who inhabitants know its intimate codes; whose relations with its neighbors have been settled. It projects a sense of future…and we Israelis, even after 70 years…are not yet there. We are not yet home. Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at-home-in-the-world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home.”[5]

If the sense of home is complicated for Israelis, it’s even more of a quagmire for American Jews. We were taught, or we believe, that Israel is a magical place where Jewish suffering ends, where morality reigns, and holiness effortlessly infuses the benign. A lot of the time that is true.

And a lot of the time, it’s not.

I know that many of you have trouble talking to your children and grandchildren about Israel. Young people today are reminding us that we raised them to be socially conscious individuals with a strong moral compass. According to them, it is precisely that moral compass that makes it difficult for them to support Israel. And we just don’t know what to say.

What are we to say when we are out with our friends and they say to us, “how can you support Israel when you see what it’s doing to the Palestinians and other minorities?” I know many of you have been asked this question.

My initial answer, albeit fraught, tends to be simple: I can disagree with the current government’s policies and I can maintain faith in Israel’s promise. I believe in the dream and maintain my hope.

I understand that Israel is inextricably linked to the Jewish past, present and future yet now wrestles with wielding something Jews have never had before: power. It’s not an excuse for Israel’s actions, but rather a demanding new reality.

Many organizations make claim on American Jewry’s voice on Israel: AIPAC, JSTREET, the New Israel Fund. Add to the mix the even more controversial Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. Each believes it is promoting a moral voice in our uniquely Jewish space.

I’m not going to tell you who to support. Yet I will offer two things to consider when evaluating an organization’s stance on Israel.

First, do they listen to multiple narratives; can they hear many voices in a rancorous room? You may side with one voice more than the other, but when you completely silence one narrative, you lose sight of the full picture.

Secondly, is there love in their message? Not infatuation, not fanaticism, but love - the real kind. The kind where you commit to helping your partner grow. The kind where you know you are bound together by history and understanding; because you are bound by a familial pledge to raise one another up in holiness.

It is because of this love that I am deeply hurt when I watch particular organizations and news-media slowly erase the centuries-old Jewish struggle for autonomy. I see the blind-spots in their reporting, the inability to admit any good that Israel pursues or the centuries of anti-Semitism that we Jews have faced and continue to experience.

And with that same fire in my belly, I cannot support moral laxity in the one place where we should be living our moral utopia. When the Chief Rabbinate of Israel won’t let my Reform colleagues officiate weddings and Palestinian homes are being demolished, I will speak up. I will speak up because I believe that many of these internal issues impact the safety of the country – either in the way it’s viewed on the world-stage or how it functions for Israel’s citizens and her neighbors.

As American Jews, we exist in a meaningful in-between space. Worldwide Jewry consists of about 14.5 million people. Of that, about half of Jews live in Israel and half live in the US. We may be far away, but we are half a whole.

I can’t cast a vote for Israel’s leaders, but I can cast a vote for the moral conscience of a Jewish state.

I can also speak up to the American government, reminding our nation’s leaders: don’t forget about my people and our cause.

Now, you may argue it is not my place to weigh in on internal issues of the Israeli state. But consider the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. In a very Jewish response to a global crisis, overtime, Israel has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from Africa. In November 2017, Netanyahu’s government announced it would force these approximately 38,000 refugees to leave Israel or face indefinite jail time. Jews around the world organized and insisted that Israel as a Jewish state fulfill its responsibility toward those fleeing torture, slavery, and war. Bowing to this pressure, on April 24, 2018, Netanyahu backed down.[6 Our voice mattered.

So then what is Zionism for a Jew like me – one who appreciates, respects, and is at times disappointed by the modern state? Simply put: my Zionism is a love for the Jewish homeland and a belief in its moral imperative.

Back in April, a few of us from Woodlands joined the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City. We marched with ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The groups around us were Orthodox day schools, Zionist youth groups, and, on a whole, more traditional congregations. The ARZA delegation wore a shirt that drew a lot of attention for how small a contingent we were: “This is What a Zionist Looks Like.”

I thought it was clever. I was also tentative. The word “Zionist” has become so corrupted, to emblazon it on my body felt bolder than I wanted to be. Who knew what version of the word someone would assume? Just being at the parade was a statement I wasn’t sure I wanted to be making. My relationship to Israel is so multi-vocal that I hesitated to be linked with an event that seemed to be so monolithically messaged.

But that was exactly the point of being there, wasn’t it? So I put on the shirt. I wanted to say, Zionism includes me – all my loving, all my wrestling, all my nuance. I want to be a people free in our land. Not to the exclusion of other people, but also not to the omission of my people and our story. Israel is a dream, a dream only partially fulfilled.

I hate to break it to you: there’s no magical ending here. Maybe you’ve felt heard or maybe you are completely incensed. Those 100 emotions you may have felt are still there.

But here’s the thing about feelings. They can be expressed, understood, and ultimately transformative. Wrestling with them leads to our growth – individually and as a people.

Is it uncomfortable to talk about Israel? Sure. But it’s worth our effort. And if we think of it in terms of neighborliness, perhaps we’ll actually get somewhere.

After the September 11th attacks, Fred Rogers offered this public service announcement which feels apt when considering what we see and hear about Israel today:

“If you grew up with our Neighborhood, you may remember how we sometimes talked about difficult things. There were days ... even beautiful days ... that weren't happy. In fact, there were some that were really sad.Well, we've had a lot of days like that in our world. We've seen what some people do when they don't know anything else to do with their anger…[there is a way] to express…feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods."

I’d like to see healing in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of the Mideast.

It’s not going to be as easy as peace balloons being sent over a wall. It will take much listening, much sharing, more invitations to be close to one another.

So then one more Fred Rogers piece of wisdom that sounds a lot like Herzl: “What makes the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, and it may take months or years for a wish to come true, but it’s far more likely to happen when you care so much about a wish that you’ll do all you can to make it happen.”

In other words: if you will it, it is no dream.

I’ll close with a prayer that I’ve plucked from the Jewish wedding ceremony, one that feels appropriate today: “Blessed are you, Eternal God, who created joy and gladness, peace and companionship. Eternal God, may there soon be heard in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness. Partnered together, may we go out from this blessed canopy with hope. May we one day hear in the Land of Israel the voices ofyoung people singing together. Blessed are you, Eternal God, who brings joy to the hearts of those who learn to love their neighbor.” Amen.


Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel’s great poets. In the poem I am about to read you, he finds himself wandering the streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. He stops in front of an Arab man’s shop which beckons to him like the open ark. It awakens a fraught Jewish past and a radically different present:


On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on
my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab’s hole-in-the-wall shop,
not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop with
buttons and zippers and spools of thread
in every color and snaps and buckles.
A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark.

I told him in my heart that my father too
had a shop like this, with thread and buttons.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father’s shop was burned there and he is buried here.

When I finished, it was time for the Neilah prayer.
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate
and I returned, with all the worshippers, home.

As we stand before the open ark today, we too will consider our past, present and future. Israel’s past and present are difficult. Perhaps with more moments of standing before our neighbors, and then speaking with them, the future can be brighter.

[1]Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, 1.

[2]"Trouble in the Tribe" (2014)

[3]Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, 28.

[4]“American Jews and Israel: A 60-Year Retrospective” (2008)


[6]Information and language taken from T’ruah’s website:

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Whites of Their Eyes

It’s June 1775 and Boston is under siege. It’s the beginning of what would be the American Revolutionary War. The leaders of the colonial forces learn that the British are planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills that surround it. This would give the British control of Boston Harbor. In response, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill. Still haughty with their sense of might, the British perused the colonists, resulting in the famous battle of Bunker Hill. And while the British would prevail, it was a sobering experience for them. The Americans were stronger and more determined than they thought. The road to subduing the rebellion would be long, and ultimately unsuccessful.

William Prescott would become famous for uttering a tactile warning: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Was the order to preserve gunpowder? To get a better shot? Whatever the reason, Prescott may not have been the first one to say it. Turns out the American Revolution likely wasn’t the first time it was uttered.

The origin of the phrase is disputed, yet popular – being assigned to many rulers and wars throughout history. One could look at it as a military tactic that ensures accuracy. Or you could see it as symbolic of the warrior’s resolve and commitment to reaching his target, his willingness “to go the extra mile,” so to speak.

As someone who has not witnessed war first-hand, nor had to look into the whites of the eyes of an aggressor, I wonder what this strategy has meant for soldiers through the ages. Say you reach your target, and then, while gazing into their eyes…watch the life slip out of them. What sense do you make for yourself of what you’ve just done? Sure, seeing the whites of their eyes got you your target effectively, but it also brought you face to face with the reality of your fatal actions.

Some never make sense of this. We’ve only begun to understand the depth of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and the other psychological effects of war.

On the other hand, what if seeing into your enemy’s eyes is a necessary step in helping to contextualize the morally complex minefield of taking another person’s life? What if it’s part of the thing we call war and helps one to understand the gravity of their actions? What if it’s part of justifying it?

The New York Times Magazine recently published a piece called “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior,” where journalist Eyal Press investigated the psychological life of the military technicians who operate drone aircraft. For example, one such person, Christopher Aaron, is described this way: “[he] sat before a wall of flat-screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones hovering in distant war zones. On some days, Aaron discovered, little of interest appeared on the screens, either because a blanket of clouds obscured visibility or because what was visible — goats grazing on an Afghan hillside, for instance — was mundane, even serene. Other times, what unspooled before Aaron’s eyes was jarringly intimate: coffins being carried through the streets after drone strikes; a man squatting in a field to defecate after a meal (the excrement generated a heat signature that glowed on infrared); an imam speaking to a group of 15 young boys in the courtyard of his madrasa…The first few times he saw a Predator drone unleash its lethal payload — the camera zooming in, the laser locking on, a plume of smoke rising above the scorched terrain where the missile struck — he found it surreal...But he also found it awe-inspiring. Often, he experienced a surge of adrenaline, as analysts in the room exchanged high-fives.”

Drone warfare is the next frontier. It’s intriguing. This modern technology has made it possible for less American dollars and lives to be spent on foreign operations. It allows us to be more calculated and specific about our targets. It stops more bloodshed.

Yet Press cautions against this assumption: “Among ordinary citizens, drones seem to have had a narcotizing effect, deadening the impulse to reflect on the harm they cause. Then again, the public rarely sees or hears about this harm. The sanitized language that public officials have used to describe drone strikes (“pinpoint,” “surgical”) has played into the perception that drones have turned warfare into a costless and bloodless exercise. Instead of risking more casualties, drones have fostered the alluring prospect that terrorism can be eliminated with the push of a button, a function performed by “joystick warriors” engaged in an activity as carefree and impersonal as a video game.”

He's right. War is not a fantasy world on the internet. A real person commands the missile. A real person dies. The biggest change now is the distance between the enemies. The people who feel this jarring difference the most are the military operatives who struggle to incorporate the massive moral dilemnas of war into their everyday lives. Jeff Bright, a retired pilot, describes the “bewildering nature of the transition: “I’d literally just walked out on dropping bombs on the enemy, and 20 minutes later I’d get a text — can you pick up some milk on your way home?”

There’s no getting to know the people or environment where the violence is occurring. There are less moments for compassion or new information. We might have more intel, but we have less emotional understanding.

Judaism has much to say about war, from the Biblical injunctions to today’s commentators. Torah outlaws murder yet commands a military conquest. Over centuries, the rabbis have tried to reconcile these conflicting messages – calling human life sacred while also taking it, or saying that one can preserve one life by taking another. They rank the types of war, stressing that war of defense is the most just. Yet proactive war is permitted, especially against sworn enemies of the Jews. We aren’t a pacifist religion.

That said, all the ranking and discussing and debating is to say that we Jews recognize how it incongruent war is with our moral code, yet at the same time that it is a reality of the human experience and can be done in a just way.

So perhaps we are starting to understand “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” differently. More often than not, soldiers who board the planes and fight in the trenches see the turmoil and misery that they are there to heal. They see the eyes of the people they save, and yes, the people they kill. They live in that other world – the shadow world of war. They don’t return at night to regular life because what they are living should never be given the honor of being called real life. Those who serve in the military are heroes – not because they kill, but because they go an stand in that moral no-mans land for you and me, believing deep in their hearts that they are working on the side of justice.

I’m not calling for an end to drone combat. I see its advantages. But let us not have this new technology delude us into thinking that there is a completely moral way to wage war. The battle wounds will manifest – if not physically than psychologically. The hurt must out. We must, in every act of violence, draw ourselves close enough to see, feel, intuit the whites of the eyes of our enemy and see the life slip from it. We may still be called to combat tomorrow, but perhaps the days of war will lessen as we grasp onto our remaining humanity.