Friday, December 20, 2013


This week, we begin reading the book of Shemot, known in English as “Exodus.” It begins, “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt.” It then goes on to list the names of the 12 children of Jacob — the large family which is about to become a nation, and eventually, a religion. The great commentator Rashi notices a problem, though. These verses don’t add any new information — we were already told, at the end of the book Bereishit (Genesis) who traveled to Egypt; this is repetitive. And, a core Rabbinic belief is that nothing in the Torah is ever repetitive, extraneous or otherwise unnecessary. God doesn’t waste words. So, why this relisting of the names of our ancestors?

Rashi teaches that these opening words are not meant to give us information about the brother’s names. Rather, this is a sign of God’s love. God is acting like a parent who, rather than simply saying, “good night kids,” instead goes up to each one, calls each by his or her name, maybe gives them a gentle kiss on the keppe, and then moves on to the next one. One by one, each child gets recognized, and so each child is shown that they’re special.

Rashi then goes on to say that this is just like what God does with the stars, each and every night, to get them to shine. God doesn’t just call them out as a group; God calls each star by name. I can’t help but think that this reference to stars is purposeful — it’s an allusion to the promise God made to Abraham, and then to Jacob, that eventually we would outnumber the stars of the sky. We are the stars. God loves each of us, as individuals. Every one of us. Each and every life — every single, solitary life — is holy to God. Each one is equally holy.

Every person is dear to God. Every person is dear.

On Monday, we said goodbye to Samuel Sommer. We buried Shmuel Asher Uzziel ben HaRav Michael Aharon v’haRav Pesach Esther. Most of you know him better as “Superman Sam.” About a year and a half ago, Sam was diagnosed with AML — acute myeloid leukemia. And, from the earliest days of his illness, his parents have been blogging about their trials, fears, ups and downs. At first, it was just read by those who knew the Sommer family, but it started to get read more and more widely, and eventually went viral to a degree which no one could have, or would have, predicted. Sam’s story, through Phyllis and Michael’s writing, has reached tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands of people. It made them care about Sam. It caused them to mourn his death.

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading the comments sections of various articles on the web, and am consistently amazed by how many people, from all over the world, feel connected to Sam, and to his family. They feel the loss of his life. People who would have otherwise know nothing of the life of this little boy, let alone his death, are truly, deeply moved. It has been amazing and inspiring to watch.

And, here’s the thing: Sam wasn’t special.

Of course, he was special to his parents. Immeasurably special. He was special to his entire family, and he was special to their friends (who, in the Sommer clan, are really just an extended family). He was special to everyone who knew him. He was special.

Just like every kid.

They’re all special. All of them. Each one is unique. Each one is loved with an endless, painful intensity, by those around them. Each is special to those who love them.

Around seven kids died of cancer today. Around seven kids die of cancer, every day. About 1500 people, total, die of cancer, every day. Roughly the same number die from heart disease. Over 300 die in accidents. Something like 100 take their own lives. Every day.

And, each and every one of them has a blog.

Most of them never got written, of course. Most of them will never be written. But, each and every one of them has a mother who rails against the unfairness of the decree. Each and every one of them has a father who worries, constantly, about whether he’s doing the right thing. Each had more to give, more stories to tell. Sam was special to us because we were brought inside. We were allowed, through the grace, generosity of spirit, and unfathomable strength of his parents, to read his blog. But, every child, every person, has a story. And that story is as heartbreaking as Sam’s.

We hide from this reality. Of course we do; we have to hide from it. We couldn’t make it through one day, we couldn’t make it through one minute of one day, if we really thought about, if we really understood, if we really felt the pain of each and every one of these people.

We aren’t God, after all.

But, in counting every star, in kissing every little offensively prematurely bald head, God is reminding us, oh so gently, that we can only hide so well from what is real. However tightly we may shut our eyes, reality abides, just outside of our awareness. Every now and then, we have to be willing to take a deep breath, steel ourselves, and look. Because, when we realize the depth of the pain, when we realize how broken our world truly is, then we will realize that, whatever we have done, whatever we are doing to fix this world, it is not enough. It is not nearly enough.

Tikkun Olam can take so many forms. It can take the form of giving tzedakah, Or of joining a few dozen other slightly meshuganeh rabbis in shaving our heads, to raise awareness and more money. It can take the form of cooking a meal, or offering a ride to someone in need right here in our synagogue. It can just be the simple act of treating someone kindly, of offering a kind word instead of a reprimand, of asking someone how they are, rather than telling them what’s bothering you. These are ways — a few ways — in which we can repair our world.

I often teach that Shabbat is a time of make-believe, when we pretend that everything is right in the world, so that we can remind ourselves of our goal, remind ourselves of what a perfect world looks like, and restore our energy to make another attempt at reaching it. You’ll forgive me if, today, I can’t quite do that. You’ll forgive me if, today, like every day for the past week or few, I’m keenly aware of how imperfect our world is. How broken. How desperately in need of tikkun, of fixing. Of healing.

We have to be healers of our world. That’s what it means to be human – to be truly and fully human. That’s why we’re here, in this broken world. We’re here to be the healers and the fixers.

The very first thing we ever learn about human beings, before we are even created, is that we are betzelem Elohim, created in the image of God. That means that each and every one of us, in some way, is a shard of the Divine. That each and every one of us has infinite worth.

The Talmud teaches that, were we to be given a choice to extend one person’s life by one second, or to restore the Temple once and for all, we must choose the life. A single moment of a single life—any life—is worth more than the entire Temple itself. That’s what it means to be betzelem Elohim.

But, being betzelem Elohim also means that each of us has the potential, the capacity, for infinite compassion. Each of us really can kiss the heads of every child in pain, and call by name, every single person in need. There is no end to the call to fix the world, but there is no end to our capacity to do so, either. I pray for the strength to live my life as one created in the image of the Merciful One.

Zichrono livracha—May Samuel Sommer’s memory be a blessing. May our lives be a blessing, as well.

This is a version of the sermon I gave on Friday, Dec 20th, 2013.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Duck Dynasty and Hiding Homophobia

This is one of those times when I wonder if this is going to come out right...

You've probably heard about the recent controversy surrounding the show Duck Dynasty. In case you're new to this, Duck Dynasty is a show about a self-described "white-trash" family from Louisiana who got rich from making duck-calls. One of the characters, the patriarch Phil, recently got himself into hot water with some comments he made about homosexuality. You can probably guess them--it's ungodly. It's just like bestiality. And so on.

Let me be perfectly clear: these views, and these comments, are disgusting. Irredeemably so. Anyone who knows me knows (I hope) that I'm a strong, vocal supporter of LGBT equality, and I find these kinds of views repellant. So, I'm not about to say anything which undermines that--no, "It really wasn't that bad, was it?" Yes; It is that bad. No, "Everyone's entitled to their own religious views, right?" Sure--you're entitled to them, and I'm entitled to find them repulsive.

At the same time, I want to express some discomfort with the fact that A&E, creators of the show, suspended Phil. I'm not saying that it was the wrong decision (it was probably exactly the right decision), but that there's an aspect of it which doesn't sit well with me.

This has become a fairly regular, and depressing, pattern. Some star says something awful about gays, or African-Americans, or some other group, and there is (appropriate) outrage and disgust in reaction, and then the show, or team, or some other authority suspends them. Again--on one level (the most important level, I'd think), that's good. That's what I want. I'm fine with them being punished for airing these toxic views.

But, at the same time, I can't get away from the feeling that we're, intentionally or not, hiding these kinds of hatreds and bigotries away. We're not eradicating them, we're just pushing them off camera.

Stereotypes of this kind of person (rural, hillbilly, etc) being what they are, fair or not, was anyone surprised by what he said? Even if it hadn't come from someone who looks like he does, would anyone be surprised that someone thinks this way, and is willing to say it? It's not exactly an obscure, minority position, if you know what I mean. By suspending him, by removing him and his views from the show, nothing in reality has changed; we're now just seeing a falsely sanitized version of that world.

And, if we keep doing this, aren't we just doing the same on a larger scale.

Again, I'm not suggesting that A&E should have done something differently. I know that punishing these views, that labeling them as unacceptable and refusing to honor (or reward) someone who spews them is the right thing to do, and is (maybe more importantly) part of how we define, as a society, what is unacceptable. That's one step towards eventually eradicating those views. But, at the same time, pretending that those views aren't out there, wiping our hands of any connection with them and getting back to our entertainment feels--what? Too easy?

A&E did the right thing. But, somehow I'm left feeling like there's more to the story than just that.

Friday, December 13, 2013

It's Snowing In Hell.

Outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, there's a small valley* called the valley of hinom. The Hebrew for "valley" is gei, so this little valley is known as "GeiHinom." It's name was sometimes morphed into a Greek version, Gehenna.

* well, it's usually small. If you're trying to hike through it in the middle of the day in the middle of thesummer, after having walked all around Jerusalem, it suddenly gets very, very big. Some of my Rabbinical School classmates can verify this.

In ancient times, several cults (including, apparently, some apostate Jewish cults) used to perform child sacrifice in that valley. Needless to say, the place took on a very sinister air to the locals, who began to associate it with all bad things. In fact, it became known as the place to which bad, evil people would go when they died. Geihinom, or Gehenna, was the earliest Jewish idea of Hell.

So, if anyone ever gave you a "It'll be a cold day in Hell before..." or "I'll do that when Hell freezes over," you really should give them a call. Because, right now, as I type this, it is snowing in Hell.

Shabbat Shalom!

p.s. that photo is not actually the right valley. But, it's the closest valley I could find a picture of.