Friday, December 5, 2014

Use Your Desires

A nice teaching from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev on this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach)*.

* To my text-loving friends, the playing around he does with Jacob/Esau is really cool, but too convoluted for me to go into right here. But, it's in translation in Green's Speaking Torah if you can't read the original Hebrew. 

He teaches that, when we are trying to do the right thing, our evil urge (or, our baser desires, if you prefer) will get in the way--we'll be tempted to do something else. Go ahead and tell that part of ourself, "Don't worry--we'll get earthly reward for this, too." Basically, bribe our less righteous parts with presents and promises, so that they don't subvert us.

What kinds of rewards? Oh, I guess that depends on what/how we each believe. If you want to believe that doing this or that righteous act will give you good fortune in the lottery--go ahead*! If you want to believe that people will like you more if you are (or just act like) a mensch--go ahead! Anything you can tell yourself, true or not, that gets you to do the right thing--go ahead!

 * Spoiler Alert: it won't.

But, aren't we supposed to do the right things for the right reasons? Isn't it bad to have personal gain and ulterior motives in mind? Well, yes and no. It's not ideal for sure. But, isn't doing the right thing for the wrong reason better than not doing it at all? And, if we do this enough, we might find ourselves finally defeating those lower urges, and then being able to do the right thing for the right reasons!

Many doctors go into medicine, at least in part, to make a lot of money and buy a nice car. You know what--some of them still save lives, no matter why they started doing so. Sometimes I visit a sick person (or lead a service, or teach a class...) not because I want to, but because I have to, and I'll get in trouble if I don't. We can all think of examples--sometimes we just can't do the right thing for the right reasons. But, that doesn't mean that we can't find a way to do it, anyway.

That's the wrestling that we're all doing--pitting our higher selves against the parts of our selves which we're not so proud of. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into letting those good parts win. And, then we'll find that we don't need to wrestle so hard, after all.

Name It

This week's Torah portion contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with--well, it's not clear what, exactly, he was wrestling with. An angel? A man? Something. Anyway, when the fight is more or less over, Jacob asks for the other's name, and the reply is "Why are you asking for my name?" And, Jacob never gets his answer.

But, Rabbi Y.L. Hasman* says that, actually, Jacob did get an answer. That, the angel's name is, in fact, "Why are you asking for my name?"

* This is in Itturei Torah, vol II page. 306 for anyone who wants to see the original

You see, according to many traditions, this man/angel/other was actually the yetzer ra, the inclination to do evil, or the sitra achra, the "other (dark) side" of human nature. Or, Satan*. Basically, this was evil incarnate. And, what he's telling Jacob is that the true name of evil is, "Why are you asking for my name?"

* Yes, Rabbinic tradition includes Satan, but he's nothing like the Satan of Christian tradition.

How does evil thrive? It thrives by people not being willing to deal with it. To look at it, understand it, and name it. By getting people to pay attention to something else, and deny that the evil is real, or important. What evil wants, more than anything, is to be anonymous and unrecognized. That's how it wins.

The first step in fighting any evil is to acknowledge that it's real, and that it needs fighting. When we see injustice, or oppression, or tragedy, we absolutely have to stand up and name it. We have to say that we don't accept it, and that it has no place in our world.

And, that we will fight it until the break of dawn, just like Jacob did, if we have to.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Recognizing The Good

Deuteronomy 23:8 teaches us, "Do not abhor an Egyptian." Do not hate, do not despise an Egyptian.

Why the heck not?

I don't mean to be rude, but let's think about this for a moment. This commandment was given to the Israelites in the desert, not so long after having been freed from 400 years of slavery at the hand of the Egyptians. Those same Egyptians were the ones who, not so long before, had tried to wipe us out by throwing our babies into the Nile. Pardon me for saying this, but it seems that Egypt* may have earned a bit of hatred.

* Just to be clear, we're talking about the ancient Kingdom of Egypt, not modern Egypt and Egyptians. 

But, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that, as true as that narrative is, it's incomplete. It leaves out an important part of the story. Because, before they became our oppressors, the Egyptians were our saviors. In the book of Genesis, we hear of a great famine, and of how our ancestors were near starvation*. Egypt allowed us to enter as guests, and to settle there. And, in Egypt we survived, and we thrived.

* Those Canaan days...we used to know...

Without that hospitality, our people would have died out only a few generations after having been born. Without Egypt, there would be no Jews and no Judaism*. And, by extension, there would be no Christianity, or Islam. So, Egypt truly did earn our hatred. But, Egypt truly did earn our gratitude, as well.

* And no pastrami or matza ball soup, while we're at it.

And now, we get to choose which one to focus on.

The Hebrew term for gratitude is Hakarat HaTov, which literally translates as "recognizing the good." You see, there is always good around us, and there is always bad, as well. We can choose which one we want to see. Hakarat HaTov means learning to see, learning to notice the good that is in the world around us, rather than the bad. Gratitude is a choice which we can make, and gratitude is a skill we can develop — a muscle we can build. Opportunities for anger and bitterness abound in our world, but opportunities for joy and thankfulness live side-by-side with them, every moment of every day.

Let us learn to recognize the good in our world. Let us learn to recognize the blessing our lives. Let us learn to turn away from anger and resentment, and to turn towards love, and towards thanksgiving.

[This is a version of the teaching that I gave at our Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on Sunday, November 23]

Friday, November 21, 2014

A World In Need of Tikkun

As the week ends, it's hard for me not to notice, not to feel, how broken our world seems right now. Just days ago, innocent men were slaughtered in Israel while praying. Just yesterday, early in the morning, another person entered another school with a gun in his hand, and shot three people, one of whom remains in critical condition. Our world seems very much in need of Tikkun — of fixing.

Tikkun Olam — fixing the world. It a term which gets thrown around all the time in the Jewish world, usually as a description of Social Action. But, it's important to take a moment and remember, or to learn for the first time, what the term really means, and where it comes from. Although the term is much older than even this, it began taking on its current usage in the late 15th century when a group of mystics in northern Israel began creating what we now know as Kabbalah. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the founder of this new school of thought, developed the new image of creation.

Realizing that, if God is everywhere, if God is everything, then there would have been no place for God to create the world, Luria imagined that before creating anything, God had to perform an act of tzimtzum, or self-contraction. God had to compress God's self, just a little bit, in order to make some space around the edges for something else to be. Then, God sent out spheres of perfect, divine glass, each one filled with divine light, into the void — this was the perfect world which God intended to create.

But, like hot glass plunged into cold water, these vessels couldn't survive in the void, and so they shattered, sending out shards of glass and sparks of light into the emptiness. And this is the world we live in — a world of brokenness and dispersion. Our job, we are told, is to perform an act of Tikkun whenever possible — to repair one tiny piece of the world, and to restore it to the form it had before it broke apart.

This image contains within it a stark contrast between the world as it was meant to be, and the world as we find it now. This — this world around us — is not what God had intended. This isn't the world that God had in mind. And, this is not the only way that the world can be. For at least one precious moment, our world did exist in absolute perfection. All the pieces of that perfection are still with us; someone just has to put them back together again.

That's our job — to repair the world. To put it back together so that it once again resembles the world which God had intended, all along. But, if we're going to do that, then we have to remember that that better world, that more perfect world, really did exist. And that it really can, again. And that this really is our goal.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that Judaism is an antidote to a progressive sense of numbness about the world. He was mostly talking about the good stuff — the human tendency to stop paying attention to something, or to at least stop paying full attention, once we've become used to it. It's the difference between the first and last bite of a delicious dessert — one is overwhelming in its wonderfulness, and its realness. One just kind of is. Through attention, through kavannah, through practice, we have to train ourselves to never let what is extraordinary become ordinary.

But, we can also apply this teaching to that which is wrong, that which is bad in our world. We have to also avoid becoming numb to that which we rightly despise.

It's so easy to get numb, to get cynical. To just write off this world as hopeless, and people as deserving what they get. To not be willing to see that, as far away as it might seem, there is a better world out there, just waiting to be re-created. Just as we have to cultivate our sense of thankfulness and wonder, we also have to cultivate our sense of outrage, and our awareness of wrongness. We have to refuse to accept that "this is just the way things are." We have to refuse to ever fall victim to "well, what can I do about it?"

We have to train ourselves to truly believe that God does not want a world in which people are slaughtered while at prayer. That God does not want a world where people are shot while studying. Or in which people go to bed hungry night after night, while so many of us never experience a belly which is anything less than full. Where children die, or anyone dies before their time. God does not want this.

And we shouldn't be willing to accept a world like that, either. It has to offend us, down to every fiber of our being, that that's the world in which we live. We have refuse to rest until the world that we see matches the world of our dreams. Until we live in the world of God's intention.

That's why Shabbat is so precious. Shabbat is not just a chance to put up our feet and avoid our work. Shabbat is a chance to see the world as it might be: an island of wholeness and perfection, even if necessarily artificially so, in a sea of brokenness. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches, it's not so much that we’re not allowed to work on Shabbat, it's that we have to act as if there were no work to do, nothing to fix or repair, because everything is just as it should be.

That's why I get so frustrated when people talk shop in synagogue on Shabbat. Why I don't want people to talk about what their committees have to do, or something that isn't going as they like in our shul, or in their jobs. We're supposed to allow ourselves a day of not worrying, and of not planning, and of not fixing. We're supposed to allow ourselves that in part because we deserve that much. But, in part because we have to remember that everyone deserves that much, and more.

On Shabbat, we create a world which looks, as far as is possible, like the world of our dreams, and then we leave that dreamworld and head back out into the work-world, we’re both refreshed, but also refocused and recommitted. We have to remember that children in the Sudan deserve to run around and laugh in the back of their sanctuaries, challah crumbs and grape juice (or their equivalent) falling all over their clothes. That parents deserve to have their children — all of them — around their tables, and to never be fearful of the sound of an incoming late-night text. That Jews deserve to gather to pray without security outside their door. As do Muslims, and Christians, and Hindus, and Wiccans. That we all deserve to live a life without pain.

Let us take this Shabbat, and enjoy every precious moment of it. Let us refuse to become numb to the blessings in our lives and then, when Shabbat is over, let us refuse to become blind to the empty spaces in the world around us, so desperately in need of being filled with blessings of their own. Let us refuse to become numb to the shards of our broken world, calling out for repair.

[This is a version of the sermon given by Rabbi Rosenberg on Friday, November 21, 2014]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The People Who Hope

As some of you know, I was in a TV news clip yesterday, talking about the horrific terrorist attack in Jerusalem. A few people commented that they appreciated my hopeful message, so I wanted to take a moment and expand on it, because I do believe it's a key, beautiful Jewish teaching.

History is long. Very long. And, if looking at that history, particularly Jewish history, teaches us anything, it's that anything is possible. Not every thing is possible right now, in this moment. But this moment won't last forever, and neither will the circumstances which surround us. Our people's history is a testament to the possibility of achieving what is currently impossible, and my favorite formulation of this idea comes from Samson Raphael Hirsch, which I talked about a couple of years ago in this blog:
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the godfather of what we now call Modern Orthodox Judaism, noticed that the first born Jew, Yitzhak, was named after laughter. His parents, Abraham and Sarah, had grown so old that when God tells Sarah she’s going to have a baby, she laughs. It’s an utterly ridiculous idea, at her age (and, frankly, she’s more concerned with Abraham’s age than hers!). So, when she eventually has a baby, she names him after that laughter. That’s because, Hirsch teaches, from our first moments, our people’s history has been so ridiculous as to be laughable. Our patriarch and matriarch didn’t have a child until they had reached a ridiculous high age. The idea that we could survive 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering the desert, conquer a hostile land, establish a kingdom — it’s laughable. Survive 2000 years of exile and dispersion — and not just survive, but thrive? Laughable. Revive a dead language? Drain the swamps, make the desert bloom and create a modern state out of almost nothing? Survive the death camps and outlive Hitler? Become one of the great military powers of the world at the same time that those who remain outside of Israel become a thriving, vibrant people? Ridiculous, and utterly hopeless.
That’s who we are — we are the people who regularly do that which is so impossible as to be laughable. We are the people who never lose hope, no matter what.

You certainly don't need to turn to Judaism to see this lesson; it's all around us. Imagine telling someone, 200 years ago, that the US and England would be closest allies. Imagine telling someone 75 years ago that France, Germany and Italy, to name just a few countries, would be joined under a single currency, and would also be allies.  I'm not saying that we're only 75 years away from making peace with the Palestinians — I have no idea how long it might take. Truth be told, I seriously doubt it will happen in my lifetime. But, I don't know that for sure. And, even if I am right, my lifetime is really just a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. To think that that which is impossible now is therefore impossible forever is a pretty egotistical way to look at the world.

That which is impossible now is regularly accomplished in the future. And, after that, it starts to seem as if it was inevitable, all along.

None of this takes away from the pain of the moment. None of this makes an intolerable situation any more tolerable. But, it does give us hope. If our people can move from slavery to freedom, if Israel can move from a dream to reality in a single lifetime, then nothing is impossible.

Not even peace with the Palestinians.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Praying In Sports

I started to write this, I remembered that I'd actually written about it once before, not that long ago. It's kinda long and rambly, and not exactly what I wanted to say today, but if you're really interested, you can read it here.

Anyway… Somehow, in our Talmud class yesterday, we found ourselves talking about people who pray during sporting events. It's a pretty easy target — most people I know, religious or not, love to pick on people who do this. "Do you really think that God cares about the outcome of a football game? Doesn't God have bigger things to worry about?"

Actually, I do think that God cares about the outcome of a football game.

Now, if you know me at all, then you know that "God cares" is a metaphorical term for me. I don't mean it literally. I don't believe for a moment that God cares about things the way that you and I care about them. I don't believe in a God who has a personality, preferences, moods, or even an independent, verifiable existence, while we're at it. But, in a symbolic, poetic way, I do believe that "God cares" about certain things. It's not all that different from if I said, "Mother Nature cares if you litter." You would never think that I meant that in a literal, human-ish to kind of way, but you'd probably understand what I meant by it, more or less.

Well, whatever you mean if/when you say "God cares," then it's probably fair to say that God cares about everything. God is, pretty much by definition, unlimited. Infinite. Encompassing all things. If God cares about anything, and God cares about everything. Do we really think that, literally or metaphorically, God has a limit on attention span or bandwidth?

I think it's pretty ridiculous to claim that praying can actually affect the outcome of a sporting event. I think it's pretty ridiculous to imply that God takes sides in these things (well, maybe, maybe not). But, as a devout non-literalist, when I ask for things in prayer I'm trying to express a need. I'm trying to express my sense of dependence on something, or some One, outside of myself. I'm trying to remind myself to be humble about what I accomplish, and to not take what I have for granted.

And, I'm pretty sure that I can do all of that, even during a football game.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Hope

I posted this on Facebook, but I wanted to take a moment and expand on what I was thinking.

A few days ago, 106 retired generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners signed a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to engage in a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. They say that it's realistic to pursue what everyone that I know called, until recently, the obvious and almost inevitable framework for peace: a return to a modified version of the '67 borders with negotiated land-swaps, a reasonable resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem and so on. Not only is it realistic, they say, but it can be pursued without putting Israel's security at risk.

It's important to note what they're saying, because many who are against negotiating with the Palestinians will make an argument that is a bit of a red herring here. Many will say that there is no realistic chance for peace because the Palestinian leadership doesn't really want peace. That they engage in a peace process only as a tactical way to engage in the larger battle against Israel. Therefore, we shouldn't negotiate at all.

And, you know what? They might be right. It's a very reasonable reading of recent history to suggest that the Palestinian leaders have no real desire for peace. What they want is nothing less than the total annihilation of Israel. I actually tend to think this way — it seems pretty clear to me that the Palestinian leadership has been an impenetrable barrier to peace for long as I can remember. It doesn't matter what Israel offers or says, because there isn't an honest partner who is listening. As much as I am disgusted with Netanyahu's approach to settlements and such, I don't think he's actually made peace less likely in the near future, because there was no chance of it to begin with. To use an inappropriately lighthearted metaphor, how ardently I pursue Heidi Klum has nothing to do with whether I will ever go on a date with her, because she just isn't interested in me. I can be the sweetest suitor in history, or I can be an obnoxious jerk; either way, we're not having dinner.

But, what if I'm wrong*?  What if there is a chance for peace? What if there's a silently growing groundswell of peace-lovers among Palestinians, which only needs an opportunity to actually show itself? What if, given the right conditions, more moderate leadership might actually find a foothold?

* About the Palestinians. I'm pretty sure I'm right about Heidi Klum.

What if, even if there isn't a chance now, even if there isn't a chance in the near or mid-term future, there's a chance for peace somewhere down the line? What if Israel's actions now will have no bearing on the possibility of peace in my lifetime, but will have a very large impact on whether we can achieve peace in the next generation?

And, this is where I get back to that letter, what if we have nothing to lose by trying? I mean it when I say that I firmly believe that nothing that the Israeli government can offer will bring peace in our day. But, am I sure? Of course not. How could I possibly know that? Even if I had inside information, which no one reading this does, I couldn't be 100% sure. And, if it's true that we can pursue that faint possibility of peace without harming Israel's ability to defend itself, then why, in God's name, wouldn't we do that? What can be lost by seeking peace, even when it's exceedingly unlikely?

And, that brings me to the other point which I vaguely referenced in my FB post--the surety with which most of us talk about this issue. As anyone who knows me knows, I resist any attempt to be sure when uncertainty is called for. To making our world seem simple and understandable when it's actually complicated and inscrutable.

If you say to me that there is no chance for peace, if you say to me that Israel can't even explore peace without putting itself in grievous danger, then I'll just point you to this letter. Because 106 men and women who dedicated and risked their lives in defense of Israel disagree with you. 106 people who, I can only assume, care more deeply for Israel than I can possibly imagine, think that it's possible and advisable. I'm not saying that, based on this one letter, Israel should drop all concerns and enter into negotiations today, without any planning or care. These generals aren't guaranteed to be right, any more than the naysayers are. But, it seems pretty clear to me that anyone who claims that there is no chance for peace and absolutely no way to explore it safely is speaking based on their biases and presumptions, not on an analysis of the facts. Because 106 experts would like to disagree with you.

That feeling, when I read that letter? That's hope. And, to quote a favorite movie, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best thing. At least for today, when I think about Israel, I feel a sense of hope, for the first time in a long time. HaTikvah--the Hope.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Do Not Stand Idly By

Do Not Stand Idly By

Yom Kippur, 5775
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

The morning of December 14, 2012 started out normally, as these kinds of mornings always do. But then, sometime in the late morning, I noticed a few, troubling messages on my Facebook wall. A few of my friends who still live back where I grew up started wondering what was going on with all the sirens, and all of the police cars and ambulances rushing by, lights flashing. They were all hoping it was nothing too serious, but the size of the response made that seem unlikely. It wasn’t long before we started to hear what was happening. Before we all started to hear.

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. New Fairfield, my hometown, is considered part of the Danbury area, as is Newtown, home of the Sandy Hook elementary school. I’m sure that on that morning, almost 2 years ago, few of you had heard of Newtown, and probably none of you had heard of Sandy Hook. But, you probably recognize those names now, as it was the site of one of the deadliest, and most horrific tragedies of our time.

It’s a strange little quirk of human nature that relatively minor connections can draw us in, emotionally, to major events. A plane crash overseas will make the news. But, if just one of the victims lived here in Tampa, we’d all pay much closer attention, and feel the tragedy more keenly. That’s how I felt, that’s how I feel, about Newtown. Newtown wasn’t where I lived, but it was my home. I had friends from there, I attended youth group events there, and I have a few friends who have kids in that school system, and in nearby schools, today. I spent a lot of time holding my breath that morning.

There was a feeling in the wake of that horrific day that something had to be done. We all know how terribly difficult the gun issue is. We know the political difficulty of passing any legislation which regulates gun ownership, on any level. And we also know the difficulty of crafting regulations which, even if passed, could actually make an impact on the gun violence which touches so many in this country. But, the consensus — or, at least it seemed like a consensus to me, at the time — was that it was time to do something. Something.

But we didn’t. Nothing happened, more or less. 5 states passed minor gun control laws. 10 passed laws protecting the rights of gun owners. And the national government shamefully passed nothing at all, not even the widely supported implementation of universal background checks. All of that momentum just dissipated, or hit a brick wall. And so, consciously and deliberately, many who support greater restrictions on firearms gave up. Or, to be more precise, they gave up on the legislative option. As my colleague, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, said to me, if we can’t pass gun regulations in the wake of Sandy Hook, then we can’t pass gun regulations. There’s no use in trying.

Rabbi Mosbacher has his own, deeper connection to gun violence. In 1999 he lost his father to it. His father, Lester, was shot dead — murdered — during a petty robbery at his small business in Chicago. In the years between his father’s murder and now, Rabbi Mosbacher has spoken about gun violence and gun control a few times, but it was never high on his rabbinic agenda. Obviously, he had strong feelings about the issue, but he always realized how difficult, and possibly futile, it was to try to address. But, in the wake of Sandy Hook, and of the complete failure of the gun-control advocates which followed, Robert Mosbacher began to work with some others on a different path. Using a Community Organizing model, they formed a plan which was not aimed at gun control and legislation, but rather at gun safety, and manufacture.

Gun manufacturers have the capability of making their products safer than they are today. It’s obvious that no gun will ever be 100% safe. But, safer than today is, without a doubt, possible. Technology exists to micro-stamp the casings of bullets as they are fired, giving the police a powerful tool in connecting bullets with the gun which fired them. Smart gun technology, which guarantees that the gun can only be fired by its owner, or by a select few people, is already deep in development, and more or less ready for market. And, the gun manufacturers have a natural, strong relationship with the gun dealers, and can use that relationship to make it harder for straw buyers — people who buy guns with the express intent of turning around and selling them to those who can’t legally buy them in stores. Gun manufacturers have the capability of doing all of this, and more. What they haven’t had is the motivation.

Rabbi Mosbacher’s idea is to use the purchasing power of the public sector to influence the gun manufacturers. Through the military and police forces, our government is responsible for 40% of all firearm purchases in this country. What if the government, or large swathes of it, could be convinced to include gun safety and responsible citizenry as some of the criteria which they use when they purchase guns? What if they asked the gun companies not only to prove the accuracy and reliability of their weapons, but also their willingness to develop new and better safety features? What if they were asked not only about their guns’ manufacturing tolerances, but about their tolerance for clearly irresponsible dealers? Might it create a market for safer weapons? Might it create a world in which weapons were, at least marginally, safer?

Mosbacher is turning to other rabbis and asking them to get involved. He’s asking them to meet with the decision-makers in their communities — mayors, police chiefs and the like. And he’s asking those rabbis to ask those leaders to sign on to a pledge to do exactly this — to simply start asking about gun safety and civic responsibility, and to consider the answers, when purchasing their weapons.

When I heard about this, I deeply, passionately wanted to get involved. But, I’m not na├»ve. I know the danger of even dipping my toe into these waters. As reasonable, as fundamentally unobjectionable as this idea is, there are those who will nonetheless object. Vehemently. Passionately. Angrily. So, I sat with a few of our Social Action leaders here at the synagogue, and we talked through this issue. They agreed with the principle—again, it’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to trying to make guns safer without even touching on people’s basic rights. But, they also agreed that, whatever our logic might say, this is an emotional, deeply controversial topic. For better or for worse, our synagogue has a history of avoiding divisive, contentious political issues. Getting involved with this issue was, to put it bluntly, not worth it. And, reluctantly, I agreed. I got ready to call Rabbi Mosbacher and tell him that, with my apologies, I couldn’t get involved.

And then, I was reminded of the name of his initiative. Do Not Stand Idly By.

It’s a quote taken from the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 16. “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." Do not stand idly by. When your neighbor is bleeding, there is but one imperative. We must do something. Anything. Anything except standing, twiddling our collective thumbs. And so, I won’t. I will listen to Isaiah, and I will take his exhortation seriously. I will use the contacts and connections that I have, and I’ll try to get those meetings. And I’ll try to get those leaders to sign on to our pledge. I’m going to try to make our world safer. I’m going to try to make a difference.

I’m going to ask everyone here to carefully listen to what I am, and what I am not saying. Because, I am sure that I’m going to be misunderstood, and misrepresented. The moment I mentioned the Sandy Hook massacre, some people here assumed that I was going to be talking about gun control. And some of you probably tuned out. So, if that was you, please listen to me. Because, if you thought I was talking about gun control, then you were wrong by two degrees. First of all, this is not about gun control. And this is not about legislation. This is not about limiting, in reasonable or unreasonable ways, anyone’s Second Amendment rights. This is about trying to find ways to get gun manufacturers to willingly and voluntarily make their weapons safer. Not gun control. Gun safety.

But, more importantly, ultimately, this isn’t about guns at all. This is about Isaiah. This is about "do not stand idly by."

The honest truth is that I don’t really expect to succeed. I don’t expect that, even if I’m successful in my meetings, and I’m not sure I will be, even if every police force in the area decides to follow what dozens of other police forces in this country have already agreed to, I don’t expect it to make a world of difference. I don’t think that this is the solution to the problem. Not to the entire problem, anyway. And I’m not 100% sure that it’s a solution to any part of the problem. But, that’s okay. I am willing to fail. I am willing to try something that doesn’t work. I’m willing to try something that can’t work. What I’m no longer willing to do is to not try anything, at all. I’m not willing to stand idly by the blood of my neighbor. Not anymore.

And, you can’t, either. You must not stand idly by.

There is a very good reason that the Haftarah this morning came from the book of Isaiah. Because no one in the Bible, possibly no one in the history of Judaism, has better captured the meaning of this day.

Is this the fast I look for? A day of self affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Adonai? Isn’t this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?

To sit here on Yom Kippur and to fast, and to reflect, and to admit, and to atone, while not committing, in a serious and binding way, to making our world a better place is not a fast at all. It is not a day which is acceptable to our God. It is a sacrilege. It is an abomination. It is not religion; it is a travesty of religion. The imperative which comes out of this day is actually quite simple: do something. Do anything. Find a shackle of injustice, and then look for a key or a hack saw to unlock it. Find someone who is oppressed, and work to set them free. Find a person who is hungry or naked, and feed or clothe them. Or, at the very least, try. It is not a sin to fail. It is the gravest of sins to not even try. Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.

Find a cause. Any cause. Talk to one of our Social Action leaders, and see which causes we’re already tackling here in our congregation. See if one of those speaks to you. If not, find another. It won’t be hard. Watch the news or pay attention to your own Facebook wall. Read a paper or just take a walk down the street. If you can’t find someone in need of your help, if you can’t find a cause which is worthy of your attention, then you simply aren’t looking. There is, tragically, no end to the causes which call out to us. No one person can work on them all, and no one person can fix even one of them, by him or herself. That’s okay. That’s why we have a community; that’s why we have each other. As Rabbi Tarfon taught, 2000 years ago, you are not obligated to finish the work, but you are not free to avoid it, either. But, can you imagine what would happen if we all actually took this seriously? Can you imagine what would happen if each and every person sitting here today were to commit to doing something in this next year to help make our world better? If each and every one of us would bind ourselves to the task of not standing idly by? Can you imagine, can you dream for even an instant what would happen if every single person in this city, in this state, in this country, in this world would so commit? Can you imagine what we could accomplish, together?

I have little to no patience left for the cynics and naysayers. I know that this — whichever “this” we’re talking about — won’t solve the problem. Rather than tell me why I’m wasting my time, why don’t you try something else, as well? I know that there are other causes which are calling out, and which I am ignoring while I focus my attention over here. Rather than shame someone who’s making an imperfect effort, why not be inspired by them to make an effort of our own?

Lo Alecha HaMelacha Ligmor, v’lo atah ben horim lehivateil mimena—you are not obligated to finish the work, but you are not free to avoid it, either. Our obligation today, our obligation each and every day, is to try. To strive. To hope. To dream. To build. To come together and, with each other, to work towards the repair of our world. Our obligation, today, and every day, is to not stand idly by.

Accepting War, Pursuing Peace

Accepting War, Pursuing Peace

Kol Nidrei, 5775
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

Tonight, I want to talk about Israel. Actually, that isn’t completely true. Tonight I feel compelled to talk about Israel. After a devastatingly difficult summer for our Homeland, after the tragic, unthinkable kidnapping of 3 Israeli teens, the quickly escalating military conflict which ensued, the accusations, the destruction, the misinformation, and the immeasurable fear, pain and suffering felt by all those caught in this conflict, it would feel, for me, personally, unimaginable not to talk about Israel. As a Rabbi, it would seem to be a near dereliction of responsibility.

But, at the same time, I can't say that I actually want to talk about Israel. In part, that's because of how depressing, and how fearful it can be to think about, and talk about Israel, right now. I wish that, on this holiest of nights, I could again talk about our inner, spiritual lives, or about the hopefulness implicit in our annual process of teshuvah. And, I also worry about talking about Israel because it's not always clear how I should talk about Israel. As one commentator recently put it, when rabbis talk about Israel we often become B-level pundits. You don't need or want me to talk about Israel's strategic security situation, or anything like that.

But, I do feel qualified to speak about Israel's morality, and I think that it's vitally important that we do so. Because I find myself distressed and bewildered by the treatment which Israel receives on the world stage. I'm not surprised that Israel's enemies accuse her of the most heinous of war crimes. I'm not surprised that their allies support those claims while blaming Israel for the entire ongoing conflict. But, I'll admit to being continually, deeply surprised by the willingness of intelligent, well-meaning people, here in our own country and elsewhere, to buy into that narrative.

This conflict is not a result of some imperialist desire of Israel's to suppress, dominate and eventually displace the Palestinian people. This conflict was not created, and is not primarily perpetuated, by settlements, checkpoints, security fences or anything of the sort. Although some of those surely have been contributors to the impossibility of finding a resolution, ultimately this is and always has been a battle between a country and a people on one side, and a group openly and actively dedicated to their total annihilation on the other. Hamas has always called, explicitly, not for the freedom to create their own country, but for the eradication of the State of Israel. You will never hear me claim that Israel is blameless, but you most certainly never hear me claim that Israel is even remotely close to equally culpable in this terrible, ongoing war.

I am baffled when people accuse Israel of genocide, and condemn them for targeting civilians when they so clearly exert so much energy to try to avoid civilian casualties, while their enemy brazenly seeks to maximize them, friend and foe alike. I am utterly confounded when a group of academics join together to sign a letter criticizing Israel for, among other supposed sins, notifying civilians before an attack when Hamas literally encourages its own civilians to act as human shields.

To misunderstand the basic morality of the situation is, to my mind, to turn our backs on what is possibly the most significant component of being a human being — our capacity for moral judgment. That's one of the most important but most commonly overlooked lessons from the story of Adam and Eve. When trying to tempt her to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent tells Eve that, if she eats, she will not die. Rather, he says, "you will be like God, knowing good from evil." You will be like God, knowing good from evil. The Torah is telling us that we are closest to imitating God when we embrace and use our moral facilities. That we are truly living up to our birthright of having been created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, when we are able to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong.

Yes, as I said, Israel has certainly done things along the way which have increased enmity and made peace less likely. And, yes, during the conflict — as is tragically the case during any military conflict — some individuals have committed atrocities and crimes. But, that in no way changes the basic moral calculus of this war. I honestly don't understand how generally decent people don't see what seems so morally obvious to me. It's overused, and probably overly simplistic, but Golda Meir's quote still rings essentially true, even today. If the Palestinians put down their guns today, tomorrow there will be a Palestine. If Israel puts down its guns today, tomorrow there will be no Israel.

And so, I am personally and, more importantly, religiously committed to defending Israel's essential morality, and quite frankly, I don't even think it's very difficult case to make. I'm absolutely, unquestionably committed to defending Israel's right to self-defense which is, you should know, a deeply held Jewish value. Offering our other cheek to the one who attacks us is not a commandment found in any Jewish text. We have the right — actually, we have the obligation — of self-defense and self-preservation.

But while all that is true, and while I hold to it fervently, it is at least as important that we remember that there's a difference between a willingness to fight, and an eagerness to fight. There is an essential, religious, moral distinction between rightly assigning blame to an enemy bent on our destruction, and losing our own sense of moral direction through widespread, unyielding, vitriolic hatred. Judaism may not be pacifist — we don't believe that violence is always unquestionably wrong. But, we are peaceloving, because we believe that while sometimes necessary, violence is never good. And that is, I deeply believe, a fundamentally important distinction.

I think of it most clearly when I remember a midrash — an ancient rabbinic story about the Torah — taught to me by my teacher, Rabbi Jerome Malino of blessed memory. Jacob and Esau, as you might remember, were the bitterest of enemies. After many years in hiding, Jacob returns to try to reconcile with his brother. Esau rushes to him, embraces him, kisses him, falls on his neck, and they both cry. But the word “vayeshkehu—he kissed him”  has some strange dots above it in the Torah scroll. The rabbinic midrash explains that the word “vayashkehu” can actually be read to mean not, "he kissed him," but, "he bit him." In this version, Esau didn't hug and kiss his brother; he grabbed him, and tried to bite his neck in order to kill him. But, a miracle happened and Jacob's neck turned to marble. Those dots above the word are pieces of Esau's broken teeth. And the midrash goes on to explain that they did indeed both cry. Esau cried for his teeth. Jacob cried for his neck. He cried not because he had been harmed, but because he had been hardened.

Jacob cried for his neck. It is, to me, among most powerful phrases in all of rabbinic literature. Because it captures an essential truth about violence. Violence always damages us. Irrevocably. Jacob cried because, even though he won this fight, even though he survived, he had been left hardened. He was no longer fully the man he had grown up being. No longer precisely the man he wanted to be. Violence, even when directed at a deadly foe, scars us. Always. We never come out better for it.

The truth is, there are many texts which I could have used in place of that Jacob and Esau midrash. King David wasn't allowed to build the Temple of which he dreamt because he had fought many wars. The fact that those wars were fought for righteous reasons didn't matter at all to God. A righteous war still leaves bloodstains on the hands of the fighters, and no one so stained can possibly build something as sacred as the Temple, God says. When the Israelites saw the Red Sea slam shut on the Egyptian Army, they celebrated with a victory song. But another ancient midrash tells us that, when they were finished, the angels gathered to sing the same song. But, God wouldn't let them. "How dare you sing songs of glory while my people are drowning?" He chastised them. Even the Egyptians were human beings, created in the image of God, and their deaths, while necessary, were not good. It was nothing to be celebrated. That same sentiment is echoed in our yearly ritual at our Seder tables when we remove one drop of wine — each one a symbol of our lessened joy — from our glasses in remembrance of those who suffered through the 10 plagues which set us free. How can our joy be complete, when any of God’s creatures are suffering?

As Jews, we are allowed to fight. We are allowed to defend ourselves. But Jews do not dance in the streets at the deaths of our enemies. To do so is an affront to God. We may engage in violence, when necessary. We do not revel in it, we do not seek it out, and we do not want it. Jewish law forbids the carrying of weapons in a synagogue; violence and holiness cannot exist in the same space.

When I hear of the deaths of innocent Palestinians, my first reaction is not that those deaths are the moral responsibility of the terrorists who hide among them, although I do believe that to be the case. My first reaction, at least on my better days, is that their deaths are a tragedy. I am distraught every time an Israeli has no choice better than one which leads to the death of an innocent. And even the death of the terrorists themselves, as hard as this is for me to believe at times, are not a good. They are not a cause for celebration. I'm saddened by the loss of a life which could have meant so much more than it did, and I am saddened for our necks, which just became a little bit harder.

I care desperately about Israel's survival but I care equally deeply for the souls of those of us who love and support Israel. What I say about Israel here, tonight, or anywhere at anytime, will have an immeasurably small effect on the actual situation in Israel. But, what I say about it, and what I say about our enemies and their deaths, and what I say about civilian deaths, and what I say about hatred and hope, will have an enormous effect on me. To be a Jew is not only to dream of a day when war will be no more, is to actively and aggressively pursue that day, never giving up, never yielding an inch until we make it real. It is to know that our true goal is not the death of our enemies but rather the arrival of the day, ushered in by our own hands, when we can instead embrace them as friends. It is to be, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman identifies himself, a peaceaholic, someone who is addicted to the idea of peace. Someone who, regardless of what happened last time, will constantly and continually look for the next opportunity to make peace, instead of war. To not just prefer peace, to not just love peace, but to seek peace, and pursue it.

I stand by our right to defend ourselves. I stand by our right to defend our families. I stand by our right to defend our nation, both this one, and our homeland in the East. I stand by those rights unequivocally. But, I stand on my love for peace. I stand on my love for all of humanity. I stand on my adamant refusal to let hatred or fear run my life or ruin my soul. I will protect who I am, as fervently as I protect my life.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky taught that all blessings are grounded in love. Only one who feels love, only one who embodies love, can truly be or create or give a blessing. May this year be one of blessing for us all. One in which we finally find ourselves at peace, rather than winning at war. May our love for humanity only grow, and our pursuit of peace never falter.

And may we all be sealed in the Book of Life.