Moses for President


As the U.S. presidential primary process slouches toward what will doubtlessly be a contested convention season this summer, I find myself not infrequently wondering what guidance the Jewish tradition would have for selecting our next leader. I have already written that Judaism would advocate against a particular candidate in the race. But who would the Jewish tradition urge us to support?

The answer I’ve settled upon is that Judaism endorses not a specific contemporary candidate but rather a prototype, and that, if possible, we ought to support the candidate who each of us feels most closely embodies this prototype. So, I humbly offer the prototypical Jewish presidential nominee, and just in time for Passover: Moses for president.

Let’s get the attack ads out of the way first. Raised in Pharaoh’s palace (Exodus 2:9), it would be easy to characterize Moses as an out-of-touch one-percenter who cannot identify with the struggles of the common person. Indeed, Moses’ would-be followers seem to have leveled this line of criticism against him in a few instances (2:14, 5:21). He is not a talented orator (4:10, et. al.) and seems to have a hot temper (2:12, et. al.). And he is not reputed to have been a devoted family-man, focusing on his career at the expense of caring for his wife and son (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Tzav 13).

But while Moses is by no means a perfect person, he possesses qualities that uniquely qualify him for leadership.

First, Moses is a man of questions. While he has only a handful of lines of dialogue in the biblical narrative before he receives God’s call, most of those lines are questions (cf. 2:13, 3:3, 3:11, etc.). And even Moses’ statements and actions prior to his commission that are not technically questions are investigatory in nature (cf. 2:11, 3:3). Despite the fact that many of us associate leadership with decisiveness, leadership is more accurately about discovery. A leader must determine the best way forward for his or her followers, which requires the curiosity and courage to discover the uncharted. In other words, while we ultimately look to our leaders to make firm decisions, the best leaders are the ones who ask a lot of questions in order to get the information necessary to make deeply informed decisions. God needed a leader to liberate the Israelites, and since leadership requires asking good questions, God needed Moses, a man of questions.

A second, and related, quality that uniquely qualifies Moses for leadership is his humility. The Book of Numbers refers to Moses as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (12:3). Moses repeatedly insists to God that he is not suited to lead (Exodus 3:11, et. al.). Perhaps ironically, however, Moses’ failure to recognize his own greatness is precisely what makes him great; his inability to see his own leadership potential is exactly what qualifies him to lead. Great leaders ask a lot of questions, and inquisitive people are by definition humble. Arrogant people generally fail to recognize what they do not yet know and are thus incapable of intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. Modest people, on the other hand, are aware of their intellectual deficiencies, skeptical of their own certainties, open to changing their minds based on learning new information, and eager to grow.
Additionally, great leaders respect and admire their followers. They humbly recognize their followers’ strengths, learn from their expertise, nurture their partnership, and unleash their latent potential. Arrogant people make poor leaders because they look down on others and have little patience for those they view as inferior. For these reasons, haughtiness is consistently called out in the Bible and rabbinic literature as the most contemptible of qualities, while humility makes one fit to lead.

The third and final quality that moves me to endorse Moses for president is his sensitivity to others’ pain and his passion for justice. Good leaders take their followers down paths that will improve their lives. Great leaders recognize that this responsibility is most relevant to those who suffer the most – the poor, the weak, and the systemically disadvantaged.

Moreover, great leaders recognize that improving the lives of the worst-off often requires tremendous courage, for doing so can involve the unpopular or dangerous tasks of upending some people’s privilege when that privilege causes oppression. In the biblical narrative, Moses repeatedly and bravely defends the weak when they are oppressed by the powerful, and uplifts the disadvantaged.

The first time we encounter Moses in the text as an adult, he is leaving Pharaoh’s palace, his childhood home, in order to witness the subjugation of the Israelites, an act the rabbinic tradition interprets as Moses taking the initiative to become aware of others’ suffering and become pained about it (Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 1:27). When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, he is so outraged by the injustice that he physically intervenes – a self-sacrificing act that forces him to flee Egypt, leaving behind the wealth and power of the palace (Exodus 2:11-15).

When he sees some shepherds harassing a group of women and preventing them from drawing well-water, he rises to the women’s defense, chasing away the shepherds and even helping the women water their flock (2:17). It is telling that God only calls upon Moses to liberate the Israelites after these events take place, as if God chooses Moses because of these acts of moral courage. Indeed, Moses is so passionate about fair treatment, so sensitive to others’ suffering, that he is even willing to directly challenge God’s commitment to justice (5:22-23).

In the view of the Jewish tradition, a great leader need not be perfect, but he or she must, like Moses, be inquisitive, modest, and compassionate. Do any of the current presidential candidates meet the Moses standard? The answer, of course, depends on each person’s judgment. Personally, I see ways in which each of the leading candidates embody Mosaic values and ways in which they do not. But we don’t typically get to elect the perfect candidate, just the best of the options we have. If we were to wait to vote for Moses, we might never cast a ballot.

What we can do – those of us who agree that Moses is a worthy political prototype – is to evaluate the candidates and decide who best, even if imperfectly, aligns with his virtues. We may not get to elect Moses for president. But perhaps we can come close.

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30 Days of Liberation – 2016

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The Talmud teaches that, during the 30 days before Passover, we should learn about matters related to the holiday. In that spirit, I composed a brief message for each of the previous 30 days, drawing from the wisdom Passover imparts. I hope you find these messages meaningful and inspiring, and if you do, feel free to share any or all of them far and wide.
Day 1 – Pharaonic Politics
“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground'” (Exodus 1:8-10). So the Passover drama begins. Pharaoh rises to power through rallying his people around a common, if implausible, enemy – a growing immigrant population – and launches a campaign of intimidation, subjugation, and brutalization against this imagined foe. Too often in history, would-be leaders pursue power by identifying enemies rather than through proposing practical solutions for people’s most pressing challenges. This impulse is understandable. Identifying enemies is easier than developing solutions, and often more effective, especially if one’s objective is power rather than service. After all, believing that a particular person or group are the cause of one’s problems is more satisfying than understanding the complex phenomena at the root of our problems that defy easy solutions. But words have consequences, even if the person uttering them doesn’t really mean what he says. Enemies, once identified, must be battled and, ultimately, destroyed. And, once destroyed, the leader must continually conjure new dragons to slay. Beware, then, the demagogue who appeals to prejudice and fear. Pharaonic politics are eternal.
Day 2 – Post-Traumatic Growth
Compelled by Pharaoh’s fear-mongering, the Egyptians impose forced labor upon the Israelites, hoping to neutralize the imagined threat. But “the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out” (Exodus 1:12). The suffering should have crushed the Israelites. Instead, it made them prosper. The same can be true for each of us, if we allow it. Of course, none of us enjoy hardship, and pain need not be welcomed as a gift. However, the wisest among us harness trauma as a catalyst for growth. The next time you experience a difficulty, ask yourself: How can I be more like the Israelites here, growing because of – and in direct proportion to – the challenge I face?
Day 3 – Haters Gonna Hate
The Israelites draw Pharaoh’s ire because of their success: “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). When they prosper despite Pharaoh’s attempt to suppress them, they earn the enmity of the Egyptian people, too (1:12). While it is not wise to set out to make enemies, and while it is always worthy to enlist as many friends, partners, and supporters as we possibly can, we should also remember: success breeds opposition. Ironically, we can know we are on a path to victory when we encounter people trying to stand in our way. When you confront a hater, reflect. Do they have a point, or are they merely pointing out that you’re on the right track?
Day 4 – Who Owns Who?
Do you own your stuff, or does your stuff own you? We would typically say that the former describes our relationship with our possessions, but when we consider the lengths we go through to get, hold on to, and maintain certain items, it becomes clear that, for many of us, the latter is at least partially true. One might wonder how the Egyptians managed to enslave an entire population of Israelites already living peacefully and prosperously in its midst. The biblical text records no act of force; there was no police roundup of Israelite communities, no military raid. Instead, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites “b’parekh” (Exodus 1:13). Literally, this translates as “oppressiveness,” but some commentators read it as a contraction of the Hebrew words for “soft speech.” The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites not through coersion but through soft speech. What kind of soft speech? “They told them, ‘Come, build cities that you may dwell in'” (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher). The Israelites were thus enslaved by their own desire for upward social mobility, their yearning for nice, new things. In every age, the same trap is set for us. We are entitled to own nice things, but we must be careful that they do not come to own us.
Day 5 – Don’t Live for the Applause
Most of us love being praised. Compliments and “likes” feel good. But adulation has a dark side. It can lead us to ignore important voices of constructive criticism, compel us to do only that which is popular, or cause anxiety when the applause feels more faint. The Passover story seeks to liberate us from praise’s narcotic qualities. Scripture teaches that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites “b’farekh” (Exodus 1:13). Literally, this translates as “oppressiveness,” but some commentators understand it as a contraction ofthe Hebrew words for “soft speech.” The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites not through oppressive force but through kind words. The adoration of others can quickly become a trap from which escape becomes elusive. Enjoy well-earned compliments, but do not let it supplant a healthy self-confidence or a strong internal critic.
Day 6 – Spiritual Midwifery
The Exodus story is not only a historical-political narrative; it is also a psycho-spiritual drama, a metaphor that speaks to our inner struggles. We all have an inner Pharaoh, propelled by our fears and our appetites, that seeks to subjugate and subvert our deepest yearnings. So when the biblical Pharaoh plots to kill every newborn Israelite baby boy, it mirrors the fact that within each of us is a force that strives to sabotage our drive to truly flourish. But, as my teacher Reb Sholom Brodt explains, each of us also has an inner midwife, a force within us who is always trying to open doors for our innate goodness to shine forth. The Exodus happens because two brave Israelite midwives heroically refuse to carry out Pharaoh’s horrific law, leading to the birth of Moses. Personal redemption requires empowering our inner midwives to stand up to the designs of our inner Pharaohs.
Day 7 – Hear and Believe
Two cries. Two responses. One message. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers a crying baby in a basket among the reeds on the banks of the Nile. She “took pity on him,” drew him from the water, and adopted him as her son. Later, God hears the cries of the Israelites “groaning under the bondage.” God begins the workof drawing them out of Egypt, and taking them in as a beloved. Too often, we insulate ourselves from, rationalize away, or even ignore the suffering of others. The Exodus story reminds us that redemption only happens when we enable ourselves to hear and believe those entreaties. Not only must we commit ourselves to acknowledging the cries, but we also must choose not to see them as manipulations, delusions, or expressions of weakness, but rather as authentic outbursts of pain and need.
Day 8 – Adulthood
When exactly does one become an adult? Do we cross the threshold to adulthood at a particular age? A particular stage of biological development? Or does it have to do with our level of maturity and responsibility? If the latter, what ought to be the standard? The Book of Exodus says twice of Moses, “and he grew up” (2:10, 2:11). A midrash teaches that the first statement refers to Moses’ physical maturity, while the latter refers to Moses’ character. In other words, Moses only truly becomes an adult when he demonstrates moral greatness. And what is that? He “permitted his eyes and his heart to be pained” by witnessing the Israelites’ labor (Exodus Rabbah 1:27). We reach adulthood only when we open our eyes to suffering in the world, and when we permit ourselves to be pained by it.
Day 9 – From Great to Good
What makes us great? Usually, we think of greatness as a condition resulting from success, conventionally understood. However, Passover teaches us something different. Twice, the Book ofExodus says of Moses, “and he grew up” (2:10, 2:11). A midrash teaches that the first statement is about Moses’ size, and the second is about his “greatness.” What makes Moses great? He went out to witness the Israelites’ labor, permitting himself to be pained by their pain, and then struck down an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, an act that forced him to flee Egypt, leaving behind the wealth and power of Pharaoh’s palace. Moses’ greatness comes not from success. Rather, it is his character – his compassion, his moral courage – that makes him great. Our worth is not dictated by our successes or our failures. Only when we strive to be good can we become great.

Day 10 – Leaders Ask Questions
Why did God choose Moses? Over the centuries, biblical commentators have suggested many answers to this question, but it was because leaders ask questions, and Moses was a man of questions. Indeed, while Moses has only a handful of dialogue lines before God calls him, most of those lines are questions (cf. 2:13, 3:3, 3:11, etc.). And even Moses’ statements and actions prior to his commission that are not technically questions are investigatory in nature (cf. 2:11, 3:3). Leadership is about discovering the best way forward, which requires the curiosity to discover the uncharted, the humility to recognize what one does not yet know, and the courage to figure it out. God needed a leader, and since a leader asks questions, God needed Moses, a man of questions. Wherever you are called to lead, the path toliberation will only be discovered by asking.
Day 11 – Timing is Everything
At the end of chapter 2 of the Book of Exodus, there’s a strange passage: “A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” Did the Israelites not cry out before this? Did God somehow not hear or see what was going on? Did God forget the covenant? What did God not know? And what does the death of Pharaoh have to do with anything? The answer, in a word, is timing. In order for the Israelites to be redeemed, God needs Moses to return to Egypt. In order for Moses to return, the Pharaoh that sentenced him to death had to be out of the picture (Abraham ibn Ezra, 2:23). At the same time, since people have free will, a new Pharaoh could have ended Israelite enslavement, so God had to wait and see what the new Pharaoh would do. When God saw that the new Pharaoh chose to perpetuate the oppression, “God knew” it was time. If any of these circumstances had been otherwise, even God’s best plans to redeem the Israelites would have been thwarted. Even God had to wait until the time was right. The same is true for us: we may have a great idea, but unless it’s the right time, unless the conditions are just right to enable the idea to flourish, even our best plans will ultimately be a waste. Don’t underestimate the importance of timing in your life.
Day 12 – How the Force Really Awakens
Many of us associate moments of spiritual awakening with serendipity: the unassuming person, going about his or her daily business, is suddenly and inescapably struck by the divine spirit, or by a flash of brilliant insight. Think Paul on the road to Damascus, or Rey discovering she’s strong with the Force. That’s why so manyof us are “spiritual but not religious.” But while those kind of experiences are certainly possible, you are far more likely to have such a moment if you set out looking for it. Rather than by being randomly struck with a bright idea, the inventor innovates by working hard to solve a problem, and the musician composes by sitting to write music. So too is the seeker most likely to receive spiritual connection and insight through practices like meditation, prayer, or the study of sacred text. The truth is it’s hard to be spiritual without the help of religious practice. According to the medieval Italian commentator Seforno, Moses doesn’t stumble upon the Burning Bush by accident. Rather, he went to the “Mountain of God” to pray and meditate (2:1). Only by seeking God can he – and we – encounter God.
Day 13 – No Secrets
One of the principles of traditional Jewish study is that the Torah contains nothing superfluous. A seemingly unnecessary word is not just a clever turn-of-phrase, but rather harbors deeper meaning. So when God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush and says, “I saw, I have surely seen the suffering of my people in Egypt,” the classical commentators assume there’s a good reason for the excess verbiage. Abraham Ibn Ezra says it means God saw not only the violence done to the Israelites in public, but also what was done to them in private, reminding us that, from the Jewish perspective, there is no morally neutral deed, no act without significance. We may think certain behaviors are innocuous because they take place in private. Ibn Ezra reminds us that we are never alone. Everything we do matters.
Day 14 – Sacrificing the Present
Since the Torah contains nothing superfluous, many classical commentators take an interest in Exodus 3:7, when God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush and says, “I saw, I have surely seen the suffering of my people in Egypt.” Musaf Rashi, a medieval commentary on Rashi, says it means God saw the sins Israel would commit in the future (e.g. with the Golden Calf), but nevertheless acted to save them because of what God saw in the present. Often, we refrain from doing what is necessary right now because of a fear of how things will turn out down the road. While it is certainly important to consider the future consequences of our actions, God reminds us that we must not sacrifice the present moment for the unknown future. As the Eastern mystic Lao Tzu once wrote, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Day 15 – The Inner I
When God tasks Moses with liberating the Israelites, Moses replies “Who am I (mi anokhi) that I should go to Pharaoh?” Interestingly, in the Hebrew, the word Moses uses for I, “anokhi,” is more famously used when God speaks about God’s self. Human speakers usually use the word “ani.” Perhaps Moses unwittingly hints here that there is godliness within him, he just hasn’t recognized it yet. That’s why God’s response is so powerful: “I will be with you.” In other words, God is telling Moses, there is already an “anokhi” within you, and when you set out on this sacred task, your inner I will be the one empowering you. The same is true with us. There is already godliness within us, and we too can accomplish wonders, if only we could see and embrace it.

Day 16 – Who am I?
When God tasks Moses with liberatingthe Israelites, Moses humbly replies “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” God offers the somewhat inscrutable response, “This will be your sign that I have sent you.” What, exactly, is the sign? According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, Moses’ acknowledgement of his own inadequacy is itself the sign that God has sent him. Moses is qualified to go to Pharaoh precisely because of his humility, his recognition that he has not yet reached his spiritual, moral, and intellectual potential. The fact that Moses would say “Who am I” is the sign that he is God’s chosen. A leader is qualified only when he or she can freely admit his or her own inadequacies, and we can do God’s work in the world only when we can affirm our need to grow.

Day 17 – The Real Revolution of the Exodus
At the Burning Bush, Moses asks for God’s name, and God responds opaquely, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” usually translated as “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be.” Such a mysterious answer begs for interpretation, however, and indeed there are hundreds ofways to understand it. Allow me to propose one more: I am that which is. I am all ofexistence. I am the ultimate reality. The Israelites were not just slaves in Egypt, they were slaves of Egypt, accepting the premises upon which Egyptian society was based: that some people are inherently more valuable than others, that worth could only be measured in wealth, that the material was of such importance the dead needed to carry it with them to the next world. Liberation from Egypt, then, required not only freedom from slavery, but also from the Egyptian mentality. And thus God’s first message to the Israelites, through Moses, the real revolution of the Exodus that still echoes today, is that there is more to reality than what can be touched and things more important than what can be bought; that, in a world where all is One in God, everyone is of equal and infinite value.

Day 18 – Stages of Redemption
The number four repeatedly appears in the rituals ofPassover observance: there are four questions, four cups ofwine, four sons, etc. Tradition holds that this number corresponds to four terms for liberation uttered by God in Exodus 6:6-7, “I will take you out,” “I will save you,” “I will redeem you,” and “I will take you.” Some commentators teach that these are actually four distinct stages ofliberation, rather than mere synonyms (cf. Beit Ya’akov). First, the people had to be physically removed from their enslavement. Then, they had to be saved from their own learned tolerance for injustice. Next, they had to be redeemed from the ways in which their suffering had twisted their own souls. Only then could they be taken by God, only then could they be fully committed to their new, true Master, God. The same is true of our own personal liberation, whatever it may be. We ultimately want to be free of all that holds us back from flourishing, but this requires a few steps. First, we must distance ourselves from whatever is trapping us in our current situation, whether that be our own actions or the influences of others. Then, we must address our complacency with the status quo. Next, we must eradicate within ourselves our desire, born of comfort or fear, to return to the very contexts that trapped us. Only then can we live truly liberated lives.
Day 19 – Becoming Prophets
One of the most misunderstood biblical concepts is that of a prophet. A prophet was not an ascetic mystic or a clairvoyant fortune-teller. Rather, a prophet was a person who spoke out about God’s will. A prophet was God’s public defender. So, when God tells Moses, “I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet” (Exodus 7:1), God teaches that one can fill a prophetic role not only for God, but also for other people. After all, every person is made in God’s image, and every man and woman is, in a sense, our brother or sister. The redemptive promise of Passover invites us to recognize those people in our lives who function as our prophets, to nurture relationships with those who could become our prophets, and, most importantly, to become prophets for the voiceless Images of God in our lives.
Day 20 – How to Get to Carnegie Hall
Much ink has been spilt on the issue of the hardening ofPharaoh’s heart. A hard heart is a biblical euphemism for recalcitrance, a stubborn refusal to yield to the dictates ofconscience and compassion. Pharaoh’s hard heart is what prevents him from setting the Israelites free, and in turn what causes God to unleash the 10 plagues. But in several instances, the text implies that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, which calls into question the justice of his being punished through the plagues. However, I think the term “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (cf. Exodus 10:27) is an idiom. When Homer writes that Athena guides Diomedes’ spear, all he means is that Diomedes threw his spear with exceptional accuracy. Similarly, God hardening Pharaoh’s heart simply means that Pharaoh’s recalcitrance – in the face of all the evidence – was extraordinary. How does one get to be so stubborn, so callous? Well, how does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, of course. Pharaoh had made a habit of his own coldness. He had trained himself to respond to injustice with cruelty, to opportunities to change with digging in his heels. Eventually, the response became instinctive. A sin leads to another sin, the rabbis teach, while a good deed leads to another good deed. The way to condition ourselves to act justly when it matters is to make a point of regularly doing good.
Day 21 – Hearts and Livers
What exactly is a hardened heart, anyway? A particularly colorful midrash likens it to a twice-cooked liver. Cooked once, properly, liver is soft and supple and melts-in-your-mouth. Cooked twice, improperly, it is tough and virtually inedible. More importantly, the exterior of such a liver becomes impermeable, like rubber. That’s what happens to Pharaoh. His heart becomes incapable of letting things enter: not only the Israelites’ cries and Moses’ pleas, but also the devastation of the plagues and the suffering of his own people. Once the heart is closed off, apathy becomes undiscerning and, as with Pharaoh, that’s when life begins to end.
Day 22 – Because of Righteous Women
One of the most noticeable features of the Seder is the prevalence of the number 4 :4 cupsof wine, 4 questions, the 4 children. There are,of course, a number of explanations for this. Symbolism always works that way. But I think the Seder itself answers this question. In the song “Ehad Mi Yode’a (Who Knows One)?” that we seeing toward the end of the service, four is understood to represent the Matriarchs, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Perhaps the rabbis who designed the Seder were trying to tell us something about the strong connection between righteous women and redemption, that the second cannot exist without the first. Indeed, the Exodus story is replete with examples of brave women risking everything in order to ensure that liberation happens, and the rabbinic tradition insists that redemption occurred only on account of the righteous women of that generation. The women kept faith while the men lost it, were resilient while the men faltered, stood up while men capitulated. The Seder reminds us that if we want to learn the lessons of our history, and to know the right direction for our future, we must look to the leadership and moral courage of women.
Day 23 – The Death of Firstbornism
Of the ten plagues, the one that stands out as the most brutal, and perhaps the most confounding, is the last one, the Death of the Firstborn. Why did every firstborn Egyptian, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well” have to die in order for the Israelites to be set free (Exodus 12:29)? Because it was not about killing individuals; it was about dismantling an ideology. Time and again, the Torah establishes Egypt as a foil for the biblical worldview; Egypt embodies the exact opposite of Israel’s values. At the core of Egyptian values is ingrained hierarchy. Where Israel sees human dignity as equal, absolute, and infinite, Egypt sees it as contingent on birth order, family status, and wealth. Where Egypt sees one’s origin as determinative of one’s destiny, Israel sees the right and ability we each have to transcend the circumstances into which we are born. Throughout the Bible, first-born children are supplanted by more meritorious younger siblings: Isaac, Jacob, and David, to name a few. Killing the firstborn is a repudiation of Egypt’s outlook on the primacy of one’s past and an embrace of true human freedom, the potential each of us has to transcend our inherited limitations.

Day 24 – How to See God
When Pharaoh’s magicians could not replicate the third plague, lice, they exclaimed, “This is the finger ofGod!” (Exodus 8:19). Yet Pharaoh refused to accept their conclusions. Indeed, Pharaoh fails to recognize God’s role in the plagues despite repeated acts that cannot be otherwise explained. How could Pharaoh have been so obtuse back then? The answer, of course, is the same many of us are today. God is not a premise that can be proven or disproven based on the quality of the argumentation or the preponderance of the evidence. Instead, we can experience God only after we first determine to see God’s presence in the world. If we don’t first commit to seeing God at work in the world, then even the most spectacular of miracles will appear bereft of the divine. However, when we approach the world expecting to see God’s presence, then even the most mundane occurrences will radiate godly light. Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” The Exodus story and the Jewish tradition establishes Einstein’s insight as a spiritual and a moral choice each of us perpetually faces.

Day 25 – Inner Fire
“When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation” (Exodus 9:23-24).  A midrashic tradition holds that this hail was unique, special, miraculous: the “lightning” referenced in the passage was actually inside the hail. The hail of the 7th plague was a ball of ice with fire in the middle. Perhaps this was to remind the Egyptians that no matter how cold they were toward Israelite suffering, there remained within them a soft, caring heart waiting to be revealed in compassion for the plight of others. We too can sometimes be apathetic to others’ pain. The hail reminds us that this is not who we are at our core. And we too can lose our sense of purpose in the routines and responsibilities of our lives. The hail reminds us that, even so, our passion perpetually blazes within, waiting to be rediscovered and unleashed.
Day 26 – Story Shapes Us
One of the unique features of humanity is that we are a storytelling species. No other animal so uses narrative to construct and understand its reality. Our stories literally shape us. From the earliest days in our lives, the narratives our parents, teachers, and other caregivers tell us nurture our perception of others, ourselves, and our relationship with everything. Thus the central imperative of the Exodus narrative is not to cultivate personal liberation or even to redeem the oppressed, important though those lessons derived from the story may be. Rather, it is “And on that day you shall tell your son” (Ex. 13:8), a command that shapes the primary ritual of Passover, the Seder. The instruction to tell our children the story of Passover is not to remember the history, per se. Nor is it to teach our children about their heritage. Rather, it is to shape them – and us – into people whose relationship to reality is rooted in the narrative. Only through the act of telling the story can we come to see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt; and only then can we see how we are still slaves or Pharaohs, how others are oppressed or oppressors, and to know on which side of our reality, understood in the shadow of the story, we are called to stand.
Day 27 – Recognizing Your Siblings
The ninth plague, darkness, is often overshadowed by the plague that comes before it, locusts, and the profoundly more extreme plague that succeeds it, the death of the firstborn. But embedded in the account of the darkness plague is a key to theliberation to which Passover invites us. Look closely at what happens when Moses causes darkness to fall on Egypt. The text doesn’t say people could not see each other. Rather, it says “a person could not see his brother” (Exodus 10:23). Was the darkness literal darkness? Or is it a metaphor, a darkness borne of Egyptians’ inability to recognize in the face of the other their brother or sister. A society that abides oppression is by definition one where people do not see their fellow men and women as the siblings they truly are. And such a society is enveloped in darkness. During the darkness, “All the Children of Israel enjoyed light in their dwellings.” To qualify as a child of Israel, to live in the light, one must recognize the brotherhood and sisterhood of all. Otherwise, one remains plunged in darkness as a child of Egypt.
Day 28 – A Moral Safety Net
Among the most perplexing aspects of the Passover narrative is that, just before the final plague, God tells each Israelite family to sit down together for a meal of lamb “roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs” (Exodus 12:9). This meal, God instructs, is to be eaten on the same night every year following the Exodus, not only on the eve ofliberation itself (12:14), a command that becomes the basis of the Seder ritual practiced by most Jews even today. Why a meal? Why at this moment? Why forever? The Passover story communicates the central moral messages of the Jewish tradition, the eternal missions of the Jewish people: that unity is the fundamental reality, that we are all related to each other, that living in such a world requires treating others with dignity and sowing justice, that we must therefore oppose Pharaohs. We transmit that message through story because narrative is how we construct our reality. We transmit that story through ritual so it can be uniformly passed through generations. And we transmit the ritual through food, because a meal provides an effective context for bringing people together, without which the ritual and the story would be useless. As a friend and teacher put it to me recently, “a meal is a moral safety net.” Without our food, we would risk losing our eternal moral message. Treat your Seder accordingly.

30 Days of Liberation: Day 29 – Carrying the Past With Us

Imagine the moment: God strikes down all the firstborn in Egypt. Pharaoh demands the Children of Israel leave at once. Egyptians rush to the Israelites’ settlements to give them reparations of gold and silver, a mixed multitude flocks to the Israelites to leave Egypt with them, and the Israelites themselves are scrambling to leave, not even having enough time to prepare bread for the journey. And where is Moses in this frenzied and eventful moment? On a lengthy quest to find Joseph’s bones, so he can take them with him out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19, Midrash Aggadah ad. loc.)! Moses’ actions seem perplexing to us moderns. When a future of infinite possibilities calls, why waste time and energy digging up old bones? Moreover, why weigh yourself down on the journey forward by carrying the burdens of the past? Because there is no future detached from the past, no self without a backstory. As a tree detached from the soil, we wither if we ignore where we came from, caring solely on where we are going. We cannot enter the Promised Land – or even leave Egypt – unless we carry Joseph’s bones with us.

Day 30 – Who Do You Serve?
With all this talk of liberation, it’s easy to forget that the objective of the Exodus was not liberation. Rather, the objectiveof the Exodus was covenant. God delivers the Children of Israel from Egypt so they will enter into a relationship with God. That relationship calls on Israel to be devoted to godliness and to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), meaning a people committed to loving and serving others, helping them live more godly lives and sowing peace in the world (Mishnah Avot 1:12). Covenant, of course, first requires liberation. The Children of Israel could not serve God while they still served Pharaoh. A person can only have one primary relational loyalty. Ultimately, one either serves Pharaoh or God and cannot do both simultaneously. The question Passover offers is not, “Are you free?” Rather, it is “Who or what do you serve?” How you will answer that question this year makes all the difference.
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The Jewish Case Against Donald Trump


A few months ago, a New Jersey rabbi had a dream of rallying his colleagues in support of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump. Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg reportedly built a Facebook page called “Rabbis for Trump,” hoping it would attract like-minded rabbis. It didn’t. The page was then renamed “Rabbi for Trump.” Alas, as Rabbi Akiva said to Rabbi Eliezer after the latter remained the lone stubborn dissenting voice regarding the purity of a particular type of oven, “My master, it appears to me that thy colleagues keep aloof from thee” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b), ultimately, Trump’s key rabbinic supporter abandoned his lost cause, attempting to close down the page in early February.

In my view, there is a place for rabbinic voices in politics. Rabbis are meant to advance Torah in the world, and the Torah is, among other things, a political document. However, there is something unsettling about rabbinic endorsements of political candidates, since it is hard to imagine a party or a politician that fully and unambiguously reflects or advocates for the Torah’s vision of a good society. Often, such endorsements represent the rabbi’s political point of view garbed in his or her rabbinic authority.

At the same time, it is telling when virtually no rabbis endorse a particular candidate or when many, if not most, actively oppose one. Such rare cases of rabbinic agreement (in a highly controversial arena like politics, no less) call for attention and analysis, because they indicate a consensus about bedrock Jewish values, about our collective rabbinic desire for leaders who embody and advance those values, and about our collective rejection of figures who stand in stark contrast with those values. In the 2016 presidential election, there is indeed such a candidate, a politician virtually universally rejected by American Jewish spiritual leaders: Donald J. Trump.

The Jewish tradition would reject Trump because of his positions. His domestic policy positions – such as building a wall to prevent Mexican immigration, deporting the roughly 11.5 million illegal immigrants currently in the country, and banning Muslim immigration – advance a stunningly cruel vision of America, where white and Christian citizens enjoy renewed and unchallenged supremacy. His foreign policy is belligerent and brutal in its protectionism and hawkishness, turning trade into a zero-sum game where others have to lose in order for America to “win,” and in matters of war and peace presuming that the only way to keep Americans safe is to devalue the lives of non-Americans.

These positions are anathema to Jewish values. Our tradition makes explicit our moral responsibility to ensure to the best of our ability that the circumstances of others’ lives, especially the lives of those who are unlike us, match what we would want for ours: Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:34).

The Bible invokes our collective memory of oppression in Egypt no less than 36 times, harnessing our history over and again so that we connect the crises others face today with our crises yesterday, to see their story as our story, to experience their reality as personally as we would our own. The Torah trains us to want for others, and particularly for others who are disadvantaged, what we would want for ourselves.

And our tradition imparts the moral responsibility toward the other as an extension of our theology. The Torah’s most basic faith claim is that “God is One.” If God is one, then all is one. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein puts it, “God is Melech ha-Olam, Sovereign of All, the God of global concern. In God, there is no such thing as care for our own apart from concern for the other, because in God there is no such thing as the other.” In a one-God universe, we are all one – brothers and sisters, children of one parent (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).
Where Trump seeks “greatness,” Judaism desires goodness. Where Trump wants to “win,” Judaism demands justice. Advocating for mass deportations, vilifying hundreds of millions of peaceful and law-abiding adherents of a major world religion, pursuing the economic devastation of other countries, and gleefully advocating torture are all antithetical to the Jewish moral ethos.

And I believe the Jewish tradition would reject Trump because of the personality with which he dangerously marries his immoral positions. Take, for example, Trump’s characteristically unfiltered manner of speaking. This trait may appeal to those weary of restrictive political correctness and endlessly focus-grouped and programmed politician-speak, but his propensity for vulgarity, innuendo, invective, and slander also reflect a lack of concern for the opinions or feelings of others.

The Jewish tradition, on the other hand, deals at length with our responsibility to watch our mouths. For instance, Genesis 1 holds that God created the world through speech. The rabbis commonly interpreted this to mean that words create worlds. Speech has the power to shape reality in profound and enduring ways, to build up and to break down. That’s what the biblical book of Proverbs means when it teaches, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), why the rabbis of the Talmud adjure us, “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know’” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rakhot 4a), and why entire tractates of Jewish law are devoted to shmirat halashon, guarding our speech. Our power of speech calls for extreme responsibility.

Similarly, while most politicians exhibit some degree of narcissism and have a propensity for self-promotion, Trump wears these qualities on his sleeve. Trump revels in displays of arrogance, frequently reminding audiences of his greatness, his singular talents, and his unparalleled successes.

The Jewish tradition teaches us to be wary of such arrogant people, especially when they are in positions of leadership. Those who see themselves as special tend look down on others. They have little compassion for those they do not perceive to be on the same level. They presume always to be right, never allowing for new information to change their mind. When our family members, peers, or co-workers exhibit that quality, most of us find them insufferable. When leaders possess that quality, they are dangerous. That’s why the biblical model for leadership is Moses, a man described as exceedingly humble (Numbers 12:3), and why haughtiness is consistently called out in the Bible and rabbinic literature as the most contemptible of qualities.

We look to our leaders both to articulate a vision for where we ought to go and also to be models for who we ought to be – as individuals, and as a people. On both of these grounds, it seems to me that the Jewish tradition speaks with a clear, and uncharacteristically unified, voice: Donald Trump is unfit to lead.

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I Fell in Love With David Bowie and Judaism Together, for Complementary Reasons


Like millions of others, I was shocked and devastated to hear of David Bowie’s tragic and untimely death on Monday.  But as is so frequently the case, we only reflect on what someone meant to us, on what they taught and will continue to teach us, after they cross over. So, as I absorbed the news, I spent some time processing what this unique and precious life, what this singular talent, meant and means to me.

I discovered and fell in love with Bowie as a teenager, at precisely the same time I discovered and fell in love with Judaism, and for complementary reasons. As I entered high school, I switched from a small Jewish day school to a larger Christian prep school. In that new environment, I felt really lonely. I wasn’t athletic enough for the jocks, creative enough for the artists, or smart enough for the honors’ students.

I found the belonging I sought with a small group of punks and goths at my school. This new circle of friends didn’t always bring out the best in my character or encourage the best choices, but they at least (thankfully) influenced my musical tastes, which to that point, like so many tweens, were comprised primarily of whatever happened to be playing at the time on the Top 40 radio stations. I raged along to the anger and cynicism of punk rock, but as I went down the rabbit hole of that genre, I found myself increasingly gravitating to darker forms of expression, like Goth and industrial, and in particular bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.


It was through those bands that I discovered David Bowie. I learned that Bowie had toured with NIN, one of the world’s biggest bands at the time, an expression of reverence for one of their biggest musical and spiritual influences. I learned, too, that in so many ways, Marilyn Manson deliberately sought to emulate Bowie’s propensity to shock, provoke, and reinvent himself.

Falling in love with Bowie changed me. Punk, Goth and industrial music advocated a form of rebellion that ironically reinforced the very sense of alienation against which they were rebelling. Its message: society rejects you, so you should reject society. Bowie, on the other hand, taught that uniqueness can be less about battling against others and more about loving and embracing who you are, about channeling your individuality into something constructive, beautiful, and meaningful. Being different from society’s definition of “normal” doesn’t have to be an expression of the middle finger; it can be an expression of the heart.

For all their celebration of nonconformity, punk, Goth and industrial culture actually promoted a lot of conformity: you couldn’t really be a self-respecting punk, for example, unless you wore plaid pants and combat boots and listened to certain bands. Bowie, however, refused to let himself be defined by one thing, recognizing that uniqueness requires dynamism.


It was around the same time I discovered, through involvement in a Jewish youth group that continues to embody the best of our values, United Synagogue Youth, that the Jewish tradition championed similar sentiments. Most people assume organized religion promotes conformity and stasis, but, in so many ways, Judaism actually advocates insurrection and perpetual self-transformation.

For example, Noah was saved from the flood because he resisted his culture’s profound social pressure and lived a righteous life in a time of lawlessness. The rabbinic tradition holds that God selected Abraham as the first Jew because he was the only person who was skeptical of the idolatry popular in his time, the only person who was willing to defy convention and worship one God. Jacob is lauded because he dwelled in the house of the wicked Laban and still lived a godly life. Our Israelite ancestors are the heroes of a story in which they are an “abomination” to the dominant culture because of their social, ethnic, and religious differences, and are led to freedom by the only Egyptian noble willing to intervene when injustice is perpetrated.

Moments of conformity in the Bible are usually associated with sin, as with the Golden Calf and the Spies, whereas moments of nonconformity are exalted, as with the zealot Pinhas. From the Patriarchs to the Israelites, from Elijah to Ezekiel, from the Maccabees to the rabbis, our tradition celebrates the stories of people who were unapologetic about who they were, defied society’s pressure about who they were supposed to be and, through embracing their own uniqueness, changed the very world into which they previously didn’t fit. These are not stories of the destructive rebellion of the alienated, but rather of the constructive revolution of the unique. David Bowie taught me that it was okay to be strange. Simultaneously, Judaism taught me that being different was sacred.
Similarly, Judaism recognizes that to be true to its own countercultural impulse, it must encourage self-criticism, dissent, and debate, a recognition that, just because something had always been understood or done a certain way, does not necessarily mean it’s right, or right for now, or right for everyone, and that a tradition without the capacity for change risks becoming a fossil, or an idol, or both. David Bowie taught me that staying strange takes constant work. Judaism taught me that the work of staying strange is a mitzvah.

Thank you, David Bowie, for being so gloriously weird, for teaching me the true power of being strange, and for enabling me to rediscover through my religion the holiness of the abnormal and the sanctity of transformation. May your memory always remain a source of blessing.

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Our Kids – Yom Kippur 5776/2015

6748772-3x4-700x933They have become the most powerful symbols of the past year. But before they were symbols, they were people.

Early each morning, sometimes before sunrise, 3 year-old Aylan would sneak quietly out of his bed, shuffle softly against the stone floor of his small home, and crack open the door of his parents bedroom. He would peek in, to see if anyone was stirring. If he saw the grown-ups sleeping soundly, he would walk over to the side of the bed where his father, Abdullah, was snoring away. Standing inches away from his father’s face, Aylan would try to wake him by timidly whispering, “Babba? Babba?” If that didn’t work, the boy would start to raise his voice: “Babba! Babba! Is it time to wake up?” Some mornings, there might be a little poking involved, or maybe even a leap onto the bed. Eventually, Abdullah would open his eyes, grab the boy in a tight embrace, pull him into the bed, and give him a big kiss, singing, “ṣabāḥul kẖayr, good morning, sweet boy!”

Abdullah would take the giggling, smiling boy into his room to get dressed while their mother, Rehenna, made breakfast. Invariably, Aylan would demand to be dressed in a t-shirt, shorts, and his very favorite brown velcro sneakers. Once the shoes were securely strapped to his feet, he would hop around the house with playful energy and a smile that could just as easily take over his face as it could light up a room.

By all accounts, Aylan Kurdi was a typical 3 year-old boy. He loved imaginative play, teddy bears, soccer, and his big brother, Ghalib. He could have been anyone’s son, or even my daughter, who is the same age, and reminds me so much of him.

Freddie Gray was also a fairly typical young man. So much about his character – his soul, his smile, his laughter – might remind you of your own son or daughter. He was sweet with his elders and generally respectful of authority. Even as a young adult, Freddie visited his disabled mother every day. He was known as the neighborhood funny guy, the class clown. True, he was never a great student, and, thanks to his asthma, he was no athlete. But he perpetually had a vivacious smile, a brightness that was matched by his bold fashion sense. He was affable, never took things too seriously, and did everything he could to make others laugh, like peppering his interactions with silly jokes and purposefully off-key singing.  Maybe that’s why they called him “Pepper.” An ex-girlfriend summed him up like this: ““He was so loyal, so kindhearted, so warm. Every time you saw him, you just smiled, because you knew you were going to have a good day.”

As familiar as Freddie may have been, however, the circumstances surrounding his life were anything but, at least to most of us who gather today in this sanctuary: Freddie was born to an undereducated single mother who struggled with addiction, and raised in an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood called Sandtown. Sandtown is nearly 100 percent African-American, and its sons and daughters make up a disproportionate share of Maryland’s state prisons. While Sandtown has no grocery stores or restaurants, it is filled with boarded and decaying rowhouses and projects, like the dilapidated Gilmor Homes building where Freddie grew up. These are not just ugly places to live. They’re also dangerous: Having been built cheaply and haphazardly, many of Sandtown’s homes were later discovered to have dangerously high concentrations of lead paint. The walls and windowsills of Freddie’s childhood home contained enough lead to poison him and his siblings, leaving them incapable of leading fully functional adult lives.

In his important recent book, Our Kids, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam demonstrates how poverty in today’s America, like the environment where Freddie grew up, creates a vicious and violent vortex from which it is nearly impossible to escape. This reality is especially true for black kids: Black poverty tends to be worse than white poverty to begin with, and lingering racial biases – like the fact that black men are disproportionately likely to be stopped and searched by police – make the climb out of poverty more difficult for African-Americans.

That’s why the circumstances surrounding Freddie’s death, while foreign to most of us, were typical of his neighborhood: We don’t know exactly what happened, but here’s what we do know: Last April, Freddie was arrested following a foot chase. It isn’t clear why he ran, other than a fear of the police typical of his peers. But we do know that, after he was caught, officers were filmed dragging his limp, handcuffed body, and putting him in the back of a police van. We know that the officers did not put a seatbelt on him, a violation of department policy. We know that, again against department policy, they did not offer him medical attention, despite several requests. We know that he was not breathing when he arrived at the station. And we know that he was eventually taken to the hospital, where he died, a week later, of a severe spinal injury.

Similarly, the circumstances surrounding Aylan’s life and death are so foreign to most of us, and yet totally typical in his part of the world: He was born in Damascus, where his father Abdullah was a barber. When civil war erupted, and intense and brutal fighting engulfed the capital, Abdullah moved the family to Aleppo, and then to Kobane, and then from city to city, followed by violence wherever they went.

Aylan’s family eventually settled in Turkey, and Abdullah worked to save money to eventually find a safer and more permanent home for the family. Maybe they would settle somewhere in Europe, or maybe they would join Abdullah’s sister in Vancouver. Aylan was overjoyed about the adventure ahead. He spent many nights over those weeks too excited to sleep, imagining what his new life would be like. Eventually, Abdullah saved enough to pay smugglers to sneak the family into Greece.

Late one night, Abdullah and Rehenna woke their boys. They dressed the bleary eyed kids – Aylan, of course, in his favorite red t-shirt and blue shorts – and made sure to strap the velcro on Aylan’s favorite brown sneakers extra tight for the journey ahead. They boarded the smugglers’ small boat under cover of darkness. But the raft was overloaded, and when it hit choppy waters, the captain panicked, jumped overboard, and swam for shore.

The boat capsized. The life vests aboard the vessel turned out to be fake, and Abdullah was the only family member who knew how to swim. He tried to keep his wife and sons above water, but massive waves kept pushing them down, and soon enough, Rehenna, Ghalib and Aylan drowned in the turbulent Aegean waters. As day broke a few hours later, a Turkish policeman discovered Aylan’s limp, lifeless body slumped facedown on the beach. He was still wearing his red t-shirt and blue shorts; his favorite brown velcro sneakers still fastened firmly to his tiny feet.

Before they became symbols of the fight against institutional racism and of the global refugee crisis, they were people. And though many of the circumstances that surrounded their lives and that surrounded their deaths may be unfamiliar and even unfathomable to many of us, in the basic and infinitely and equally precious humanity they share with us and with our own children, Freddie Gray, Aylan Kurdi, and the countless others caught in circumstances similar to theirs, are no different than any of our sons, or any of our daughters.

It is our shared humanity that makes us responsible for their welfare, that calls on us to treat all kids, especially disadvantaged and marginalized kids, as our kids, to ensure to the best of our ability that the circumstances of their lives match what we would want for our own children.

Our tradition makes explicit this moral responsibility through appeal to historical experience: “You shall love the stranger/ the outcast/ the disadvantaged as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Consider the reality that, were we alive in virtually any other era of Jewish history, Aylan or Freddie could have easily been our kids. Had we been alive not in 2015 C.E. but rather in 1515 B.C.E., our kids would have been born into the slums of ancient Egypt, into lives of debilitating restriction and inescapable inequality; into a society where the majority population viewed them with derision as inherently inferior, as fearsome others, as abominations to be marginalized. Had we been alive then and not now, we, too, would have had to strap sandals onto little feet to escape from a war-ravaged country into an unknown and harsh wilderness. Had we been alive in 1915, we would have been the ones loading our kids onto dilapidated and overcrowded boats to flee the poverty and pogroms of the shtetl to make the uncertain journey across an ocean to a new world. Had we been alive then, our kids would might have been born into the hovels and tenements of the Lower East Side, where they were likely to get swept up into gangs, violence, liquor, and crime. Had we been alive in 1945, it would have been our kids targeted by the authorities because of their ethnicity, and it might have been our kids who trembled as they fled their homes from the terror of a brutal dictatorship.

The Bible invokes our collective memory of oppression no less than 36 times, harnessing our history over and again so that we connect the crises others face today with our crises yesterday, to see their story as our story, to experience their reality as personally as we would our own. The Torah trains us to want for others, and particularly for others who are disadvantaged, what we would want for ourselves.

And our tradition imparts the moral responsibility to treat all kids like our kids as an extension of our theology: The Torah’s most basic faith claim is Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad – God is One. If God is one, then all is one. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein puts it, “God is Melech ha-Olam, Sovereign of All, the God of global concern. In God, there is no such thing as care for our own apart from concern for the other, because in God there is no such thing as the other.” In God, you and me, us and them, ours and theirs is all ultimately an illusion – an insight that is now supported by the cutting edge in contemporary physics. We may be separated on the surface, but on the deepest level of reality, we are totally interconnected, manifestations of the same oneness.  That means there is ultimately no distinction between my parents and your parents, or between you and me, because we are all brothers and sisters, children of one parent. And there is no distinction between my kids and your kids because, in a one-God universe, they are all our kids.

This insight is so central to our purpose as Jews that we are called to meditate on it today, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, through confronting a powerful morality play starring an ancient Israelite prophet named Jonah.

You know the story: God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them to change their wicked ways. Jonah, however, doesn’t want to save Nineveh. So he runs away and boards a ship to Tarshish, a distant city in exactly the opposite direction.

Why does Jonah run? Here’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s masterful explanation:

Historically, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. They besieged Jerusalem, humiliated its king, and carried off its treasures. For an Israelite, Nineveh was the enemy, the world center of evil, the heart of darkness. Save Nineveh? Why would Jonah want to save Nineveh?

It’s a fair objection. But if Nineveh is Israel’s enemy, and the Israelites are God’s chosen, then why does God care what happens to the people of Nineveh? Why does God send Jonah in the first place?

Because, to God, Assyrian children are as important as Israelite children. They are all God’s kids. And as such, God believes the welfare of the people of Nineveh ought to be the Jewish people’s concern, too. In a monotheistic tradition, their kids are our kids.

But Jonah doesn’t agree with the tradition on behalf of which he purports to prophesy. He doesn’t believe, or at least he does not want to believe, that it’s his responsibility to save Nineveh. Their kids are their problem, he insists, not mine.

So Jonah boards the ship to Tarshish. He escapes down into the hold and slips into a deep sleep. God then sends a tempest that threatens to sink the ship. The panicked captain finds Jonah and exclaims, “How can you sleep?!” How can you rest in oblivious serenity when the tempest rages about you? How can you live in this world of injustice and suffering and retreat to your comfortable chambers and shut your eyes?

The captain’s words seem to snap Jonah out of his complacency. He realizes that he is the cause of the storm, and volunteers to be thrown overboard in order to save his shipmates.

Does this act signify that Jonah finally understands that his actions have consequences beyond his usual sphere of concern, that he is responsible for the welfare of others, or is it merely his way of continuing to escape?

It’s hard to know for sure, so God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah to hammer home the teaching. Rabbi Feinstein explains:

At the bottom of the sea, far from the world, Jonah sits alone in the dark, putrid innards of the fish. Welcome to God’s classroom. You craved a life protected from the needs and claims of others? You yearned for a refuge from the cries of a suffering world, from responsibility for any but your very own? Congratulations. You’ve found your reality! How do you like it? How does it smell? A little like death? Engagement with the world is more than a cultural value; it is the very life breath of the Jewish soul. Cut off from the world and turned entirely inward, the Jewish soul suffocates.

The only way to be totally disconnected from other people so as to have no responsibility for them is to be dead. Life is interconnected, and those relationships demand we be responsible for each other.  

Did Jonah learn his lesson? There’s only one way to know for sure. God tells the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land and then again instructs Jonah to go save Nineveh. This time, Jonah obeys. He reaches the city and prophesies impending doom. The people of Nineveh actually repent, and God saves the city.

But God’s compassion for the people of Nineveh infuriates Jonah. Nineveh’s salvation was precisely the outcome Jonah was seeking to avoid in the first place. If Nineveh’s kids are spared, he fears, then the privilege of Israel’s kids is diminished.

God realizes that Jonah has not gotten the point, so God devises another lesson: God creates a giant plant and makes it grow over Jonah’s head to shield him from the sun. The next morning, God sends a worm to devour the plant. As the sun begins to beat down on Jonah’s head, Jonah is devastated by the loss of his beloved, protecting plant. God points out to Jonah: “You are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…?”

The story ends there, abruptly. We don’t know if Jonah finally learned his lesson. But that’s not really the point. The point is whether we’ve learned it. God’s question is left unanswered at the end of the Book of Jonah, because it’s a question posed to each of us, right here, right now: Just as each of your children are infinitely precious to you, can you understand that each and every person on the planet infinitely precious to God, since they are all God’s children? And if both you and I are God’s children, and we and they are God’s children, then can you strive to see each other, and each other’s children, as possessing equally incalculable worth? Can you walk in the world with the awareness that all of God’s kids are your kids, too? How might we act differently if we were to see all kids as our kids?

How might we act if we thought of the poor kid born in the slums of Baltimore, or Chicago, or Richmond, as our kid, too? Might we be more inclined to rail against those policies and systems that trap so many of our kids in lives of poverty?

How might we act if we thought of the young black man whose spine was snapped while in police custody for the crime of being afraid of the police, as our kids, too? Might we be more inclined to advocate for safeguards against the racial bias still so tragically prevalent in our law-enforcement and systems of justice?

How might we act if we thought of the Syrian kid fleeing the only home he’s ever known, embarking upon the arduous journey from Syria to Turkey, from Hungary to Germany, trembling in the cold of night, asleep in fields and deserts and railway stations across the globe, threatened by those who wish to thwart his efforts to seek asylum, as our kid, too? Might we demand our leaders take in more refugees, increase humanitarian aid, and prioritize resolving the crisis in Syria? [PAUSE]

Can we, like God, and unlike Jonah, see all kids as our kids? That’s the eternal Jewish question, asked of us each year on Yom Kippur. And it is a question that takes on a special significance in our time, when inequality of all kinds has become a yawning chasm on the local, national, and international levels. In Our Kids, Putnam demonstrates, with a devastating collection of the best available data, that the main cause of this deepening inequality is that we no longer see other people’s kids as our kids. We love our own kids, and are apathetic about theirs. We want to give our kids every advantage, but aren’t concerned that others don’t have equal opportunities to succeed.

Our apathy about the future of other people’s kids is not only a moral failing, it is also ultimately self-defeating. Since we are all interconnected, what happens to other people’s kids will inevitably impact us, too. As Putnam proves, when poverty is allowed to fester, even the wealthy are eventually affected. When inequality persists, more inequality becomes tolerable. Suffering elsewhere cannot be contained by borders or walls or oceans; it eventually reaches our shores, too. That is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he wrote from a Birmingham Jail, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. All life is interrelated.”

Like the fire burning down the house next door, whose flames could easily spread to our own home if they aren’t extinguished, we cannot abide the suffering of someone’s else kids just because they’re not our own; we cannot tolerate injustice just because it is happening to someone else.

Our father Abraham was the first to teach us, and the world, this lesson. According to the rabbis of the midrash, there once was a birah doleket, a palace in flames. Most people passed right by the burning palace, saying “Not my palace, not my problem.” Only one person bothered to stop and consider whether there was anyone trapped inside, whether the owner needed help, or whether there was simply no one else around to put out flames that needed extinguishing. According to our rabbis, Abraham was called to be the first Jew because he was like that unique person. He saw a world on fire with injustice and suffering, and was the only one in his time who stopped to ask what he could do to help put out the flames.

That’s what it means to be a Jew. To see the palace on fire and say, “Even if it’s not my palace, it’s still my problem.”

The fire is still raging all around us. The inhabitants of the palace are still in peril, and the owner of the palace needs our help. In this New Year, let’s join together, grab a bucket, and get to work.

Shanah tovah.

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Mastering the Service of the Heart – Kol Nidrei 5776/2015


At its heart, Yom Kippur is about forgiveness, about each of us having an opportunity to enter into the new year with a clean slate, absolved of our past transgressions. Forgiveness, however, requires confession. In order to be freed of the burdens of past guilt, each of us must first acknowledge what we are guilty of.

In that spirit, I feel compelled to begin this Yom Kippur with a confession of my own:

I don’t believe in God.

OK, now that I have successfully shocked and outraged a sizable percentage of you, I am ready to follow up that confession with an important qualification: I do, indeed, believe in God. I just don’t believe in the god that I’ll bet most of you presume I believe in because I am a rabbi. And I don’t believe in the god most of you think that you’re supposed to believe in as Jews, even though, if we are to be honest with each other, I’ll bet most of you do not actually believe in that god, either.

You know, of course, the god I’m talking about. Maybe some of you are picturing that god right now, no doubt aided by the imagery evoked in the High Holy Day prayerbook, that of God as Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King; an old, masculine ruler who sits on His throne to judge all his creatures with perfect judgment, patiently listening to our prayers to determine who among us is worthy of another year, choosing which of us to inscribe for life. This god knows everything, including that which is hidden and that which has not yet come to pass, and is all-powerful.

Let’s call this God-image “classical theology,” since it’s been the most popular understanding of God since Aristotle.

There are, of course, plenty of voices and texts in our tradition that support the classical view. And some of you may indeed, with purity and sincerity, believe in a god so understood. My intention is not, in any way, to belittle or refute your faith. If you find that classical conception of God meaningful or helpful, then I laud and celebrate your faith, especially if you take that faith seriously and live by its demands.

Personally, though, I struggle with that understanding of God for any number of reasons. I certainly believe that there is more to reality than the observable and quantifiable. I identify that awesome mystery as God. But as a person persuaded by science, I am skeptical of the supernatural. So, while I acknowledge that we do not yet understand every aspect of how our universe works, I cannot believe that there are forces that operate outside the bounds of nature’s laws. Even if God exists, God must obey the rules.

I affirm that there is power, and maybe even consciousness, in the cosmos that both far exceeds my own and is impossible for science to verify or reject. I call that immensely powerful and conscious organizing force God. Yet I cannot reconcile a power or a consciousness that is simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. If such a power existed, bad things would not happen to good people. I suspect that most of us who struggle with the notion of God, or reject belief outright, do so largely on similar grounds. For God to be God, God must be good and just.

My theology, my belief in a just and loving God bound by natural law, may be unorthodox, but it helps me understand the universe and my place in it in a way that I find personally meaningful, intellectually compelling, and compatible with traditional Judaism.

However, since we are being honest with each other today, I have to admit that my rejection of classical theology sometimes makes one particular religious act especially difficult for me: prayer. After all, to whom or what, exactly, am I praying? What, if anything, can that entity or power actually do about the things for which I’m praying? And, on top of all that, of what benefit is praying by reading from a book that is filled with hundreds of pages of words that are not mine and are written in an alien language? What am I to do with all the prayerbook’s God-language, especially since it is so evocative of the God-idea I reject? And why do I need to pray with a community?

These problems are probably even more acute for those among us who are agnostic or atheist, and studies estimate that is between half and two-thirds of you. No wonder we have such trouble getting people to come to services! We could improve the music, the sermons, and the prayerbooks all we want. We could spend millions constructing the ideal worship environment. But none of it will be of any use if the vast majority of us see prayer irrelevant and obsolete. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Blessed Memory once put it, “The [crisis] of prayer is not esthetic, it’s theological.” Our synagogues will remain empty unless we can demonstrate, especially to the skeptics among us, that prayer is real.

In order to do that, we must first dispel the biggest myth about Jewish prayer, that its purpose is, primarily, to persuade God to intervene in our lives and world, even, if necessary, by supernatural means. According to this myth, if we say the right words, pile on the right praises, or offer the most earnest entreaties, we can change God’s mind.

But this view doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for those who don’t believe. It doesn’t make sense for those who struggle with belief or hold an unorthodox theology. And it doesn’t even make sense for those who believe in classical theology. After all, wouldn’t an omniscient God already know what we want before we pray for it? How could our prayers change the mind of a perfect God? And why does God not award the righteous everything they pray for?

No, the purpose of prayer cannot be changing God’s mind. Rather, Jewish tradition has always emphasized that the purpose of prayer is actually to change our hearts. The Talmud famously refers to prayer as avodah sh’ba-lev, literally, the “work that is inside the heart.” In other words, prayer is heart work, an opportunity to refine and repair the inner brokenness with which we all struggle.

Perhaps that’s why the Hebrew word for prayer is tefillah. Tefillah comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Lamed-Lamed, which means judgement, so it more literally translates not as prayer, but rather as the process of judging oneself. Instead of being a confrontation with God, prayer is actually meant to be a confrontation with ourselves, an examination of our own hearts and our own souls, an opportunity for us to hold our lives up to the light of what we can become.

It turns out, however, that, left to our own devices, most of us are not very good at thorough introspection, honest self-evaluation, or personal transformation. We strive to do the right and the good, but we are so often unclear about what the best next step ought to be, given our present circumstance. We judge ourselves either too favorably or not favorably enough, and avoid insights that might compel us to change direction. We compare ourselves to others, to their actions, their accomplishments, or their possessions, rather than measure our lives by the yardstick of our own potential.

Our rabbis knew this about us. בְּטֶרֶם אֶצָּרְךָ בַבֶּטֶן יְדַעְתִּיךָ “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” So they developed a powerful tool to aid us called a Siddur, a prayerbook.

The prayer book, as our ancient rabbis designed it, is framed as an encounter, largely as a confrontation between each of us and God, but also as a meeting between us and some of the central wisdom teachings and moral imperatives of the Jewish tradition.

In so doing, the siddur holds up to each of us an articulation of our highest ideals and confronts us with the powerful, haunting question, “How does the ‘is’ of your life – your choices, your deeds, your accomplishments – measure up to the ‘ought’ of your life?”

In place of our own ego, or that Facebook acquaintance we always stack ourselves up against, the siddur invites us to use God – the exemplar of love, justice, experience, and compassion – as the yardstick to measure our lives. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way: “Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.” Holding that mirror up to us, and to our world, the siddur asks, “Are you content with what you see?”

When you intone the siddur’s words that call God rofei holei amo Yisrael, Healer of sick, you are holding up that mirror to yourself. It asks, “Are you taking care of your body? And what have you done to aid the sick and injured?”

When you say pote’ah et yadekha u’masbi’a l’khol chai ratzon, that God opens God’s hand and with love sustains all the living, that mirror asks, “Have you done enough to feed the hungry?”

When you say ga’al Yisra’el, that God is the redeemer of Israel, that mirror asks, “What is holding you back from living your best life? What is keeping you from true happiness? What are the possibilities you haven’t yet seen, the opportunities you have not yet seized?”

You’re holding that mirror when you recite the Shema, the Jewish declaration that God is One, that all reality comes from the same source and is interconnected. The mirror exposes the hypocrisy of uttering such a statement while simultaneously mistreating those of other races, religions, nationalities, abilities, and economic status, or while plundering and poisoning our planet.

We’re looking at ourselves in that mirror when we say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your power.” Will it reflect a person who embraces God’s highest characteristic of compassion, a person who loves both his neighbor and the stranger? Or will it show a person who vilifies, humiliates, exploits, intimidates the immigrant, the refugee, the disadvantaged, the broken? Will it reflect a person who hoards her wealth, or will it reveal a person who gives generously, devoting her resources to acts of kindness, justice, and world-repair?

When you say oseh ha-shalom, that God is the maker of peace, that mirror asks, “Where are you on the whole peace thing? Have you been working on peace inside yourself? How about within your household? Your community? What have you done to fulfill the prophetic vision that “Nation will not lift up sword against nation?”

Traditional Jewish prayer, in this sense, is a teacher. It teaches us, in Heschel’s words “what to aspire to…Redemption, purity of mind and tongue, or willingness to help, may hover as ideas before our mind, but the idea becomes a concern, something to long for, a goal to be reached [only] when we pray.”

Which means that you don’t need to believe in God in order for prayer to work. Though the rabbis who wrote the Siddur believed in the existence of the God they were describing, those of us who struggle with belief in God can just as easily see the God of the siddur as a personification of our highest ideals. And whether you are a believer or a doubter, viewing yourself in the light of this God idea can push you to clarify your highest hopes, discover your true aspirations, feel the pains you regularly ignore, and recall the longings you so often forget.

Traditional Jewish prayer accomplishes these tasks in another important way, too. In addition to inviting us to see ourselves through God’s eyes, the siddur also forces an encounter between each of us and our Jewish ancestors, between each of us as individuals and the living community of which we are a part, and between each of us and our future descendents.

We meet our ancestors in the open pages of the Siddur. In the words of my teacher, Reb Mimi Feigelson, “the Siddur invites [us] to stand with a millennium of Jews who have been praying these words.” When we stand with those long-lost relatives, we are challenged to consider whether we are worthy of the great gifts they gave us, whether we are upholding the legacy they left us, whether we are doing enough to cherish the treasure of Jewish tradition that so many of them were prepared to endure pogroms, and torture, and the gas chambers, rather than abandon. When I pray with the Siddur, I worship alongside my Zayde’s Zayde, and I am forced to wonder whether I am worthy of being his heir; and I worship with Moses, Hannah, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the Ba’al Shem Tov, and Debbie Friedman, and I am forced to consider how I can become a righteous, questing soul on their level.

The Siddur also forces us to encounter the present Jewish community. It provides a common prayer-language – meaning both a common liturgy and the shared Hebrew language – that is surprisingly universal among Jews, wherever they live, and whatever ideological flavor of Judaism they practice. This is true whether I pray with a real, living Jewish community, which is the tradition’s ideal, or whether I pray privately, since, by worshipping with the shared script, I am expanding beyond the confines of my own limited life and becoming more than I am alone by binding myself in that moment with all the Jewish people.

The confrontation demands that I ask myself, “Do you love the Jewish people? What are you doing about that resentment you have in your heart for other Jews, other Jewish communities, other forms of Jewish expression? And have you done enough to support the State of Israel and imperiled Jews around the world?”

And, when we open the Siddur, we meet our future descendants, the Jews of the future, who will ultimately run their fingers over those same pages and chant those same words. When we do, we are compelled to ask whether we are doing everything we can to ensure they lovingly embrace the Judaism we are bequeathing them, whether we have given them the resources necessary to make that Judaism a living part of their lives, and whether we have done enough to make sure the world they inherit is better than the one we were born into.

Jewish prayer invites us to ask ourselves many powerful questions several times a day, every day. Indeed, though it is possible that an absence of faith keeps us from synagogue, I’m willing to bet the real reason most of us stay away from Jewish prayer is that we intuit the discomfort and danger to our status quo inherent in those questions. Most of us would rather not look at our reflection in that mirror and see ourselves as we truly are. We fear we would wilt under those bright lights, and fear the life changes our answers would demand.

And in framing our prayer as an encounter with a God that is all-knowing, the Siddur provides us an opportunity to confront those hard questions with Someone who already knows our answers. And because that Someone is described as, above all, being loving and compassionate, we can answer without shame, because however we respond, we will not be judged or disregarded, only shown, if we are willing to see it, the next, best possible steps we can take forward. Whether we stand in the presence of that Someone because we believe she is really there, or whether we temporarily imagine that Someone to have an opportunity to be ourselves honestly, prayer enables us to fully encounter ourselves, and live better lives as a result of that encounter.

Prayer is heart work, and in that sense, it is hard work. It takes study, and dedication, and practice to be able to do well. That’s why this year we at Temple Beth-El are hosting a year of adult learning about prayer. We’re calling this exciting education program “Mastering the Service of the Heart.” All year long, we will be holding classes and seminars aimed at making Jewish prayer more enriching, more relevant, and more real. Whether you are a believer or a skeptic, a prayer pro or rookie, I invite you to join us for any or all of these opportunities.

Whatever the content of your belief – or lack thereof – as someone who wrestles with God as much as anybody, I nevertheless want you to know this: prayer is real. It might not change God’s mind. And it might not change your mind about God. But give it a chance, and it may very well change your heart.

Shanah Tovah.

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The Power to Choose – Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5776/2015


There’s a line in the classic sci-fi popcorn film Terminator 2: Judgment Day that I’ve always found to be very powerful, and very challenging. John Connor, the leader of the human resistance against the machines, says: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

That each of us is ultimately responsible for the steps we take, the people we become, and the lives we build – that all human beings have complete free will – is one of the very few articles of Jewish faith. Regardless of how environmental factors might influence our behavior – and our environment can indeed impact us greatly, for good or ill – we are nevertheless fully responsible for each and every one of our actions. As Maimonides, the towering figure of medieval Jewish law and philosophy, put it:

Free will is granted to all people. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his or hers. Should he or she desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his or hers…There is no one who forces him or her, sentences him or her, or leads him or her towards either of these two paths. Rather, he or she, on his or her own initiative and decision, tends to the path he or she chooses.

From the Torah’s perspective, however, we’ve never been very good at the free will thing. It’s not so much that we so often choose the wrong path, as Maimonides puts it, although we often do. It’s that we so often reject the notion that we get to choose our path in the first place.

We’ve been like this from the very beginning. According to the book of Genesis, God created the first two human beings and placed them in the Garden of Eden, giving them but one commandment: “You are free to eat of every tree in the garden; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”

As we all know, Adam and Eve did not follow that command. Those first human beings plucked fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and ate it.

It is that defiant act – the eating of the forbidden fruit – that gets all the publicity. But, if you ask me, it is Adam and Eve’s subsequent behavior that truly ought to command our attention.

After Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they hear God’s footsteps in the garden. Assuming that God is likely to be angry with them for their disobedience, Adam and Eve hide in the bushes. God, of course, discovers the pair, and, sensing their shame, asks them, “Did you eat of the forbidden tree?!”

Here is where it gets interesting: Adam responds by saying, “The woman You put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” So, God turns to Eve and says, “What have you done?!” And Eve, like Adam, responds by saying, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”

Who is responsible for Adam and Eve’s behavior? Eve is not being dishonest when she says that the snake persuaded her to eat the fruit. And Adam is not lying when he says that Eve was the one who put the fruit in his hand. Both are correct in the assertion that, since God is the creator of tree, fruit, serpent, and human being, God set up the pieces that cause the whole drama to unfold. Our circumstances, and the actions of others, are all largely beyond our control, and those environmental factors do indeed play a strong role in influencing our behavior.

Strong, but not definitive. For while Adam and Eve, from a certain perspective, are being honest about the nefarious influences of their environment, their responses place all responsibility for their deeds on other actors in the drama. Adam says, “It wasn’t my fault! She made me do it. Blame her. And, not for nothing, God, but since You created her, really, the blame ultimately lies with You! Don’t hold me accountable.” And Eve, for her part, says, “It wasn’t my fault, either! The snake made me do it! Blame him! And, by the way, since You created that snake, really, You are ultimately to blame. I cannot be held responsible.”

Adam and Eve’s excuses are only compelling if you believe that they literally had no choice. This, of course, is not the Bible’s perspective. Neither is it the truth.

Eve, of course, didn’t make Adam eat the fruit. She didn’t tie him down, shove the fruit in his mouth, move his jawbone to grind it into pieces, and then force it down his throat. Adam chose to eat it. Similarly, the serpent didn’t make Eve eat the fruit. That, too, was her choice.

And when they stood under the bright lights, they hid. They deflected. They deflected because of their shame, because no one wants to be seen as a criminal. And they deflected because, when push comes to shove, they didn’t want to change. They wanted to keep eating fruit whenever temptation hit. Change, after all, is painful and exhausting, requiring much effort and endless upkeep. Fruit, on the other hand, is sweet and delicious, and, boy, am I hungry right about now.

You and me, I think we know deep down that we are still very much the children of Adam and Eve. The impulse to deflect responsibility and ascribe blame elsewhere is embedded firmly in our DNA. How many of us are intimately familiar with this scenario: Something goes wrong. Maybe we botched a sale at work, maybe we snapped at our spouse, maybe the restaurant we chose for dinner turned out to be lousy, maybe our email address turned up on the list hackers released from

The issue comes to light. All eyes turn to you. And you? You turn to the nearest possible person, place, or thing that you can plausibly point to as a responsible party; anyone or anything but you.

“I would have made that sale, but Phil didn’t give me a good-enough rundown on the client!”

“I only yelled at you because you were getting on my nerves with that constant nagging to do the dishes!”

“We only went to that stupid restaurant because Julia decided to become gluten free all of a sudden!”

“I only signed up for that website to catfish Phil after he screwed up that sale!”

These are but a few banal examples, of thousands I could give, since many if not most of us do this all the time. By the way, I struggle with this as much as anyone. Just ask Adira. We blame our parents, spouses, employers, co-workers, employees, teachers, immigrants, the government, pivoting and pointing to contend that other forces control our actions and attitudes, our faults and our unhappiness.

So we may contend, but the argument is usually untrue. Yes, your spouse may have frequently reminded you to do the dishes. But you are the one in control of your own emotions and your own response, not she. Whether or not she badgered you about the dishes, you are responsible for choosing to snap at her. Outside forces might create conditions where certain courses of action become easier or harder for us. However, even in trying circumstances, we retain our ability to freely choose our next steps.

Not only is deflecting responsibility disingenuous, it is also harmful. Since it is usually dishonest, it damages our credibility. How can a person who never accepts responsibility truly be trusted?

Since deflection places responsibility for our own wrongdoings on others, it damages relationships. After all, who wants to be identified as the reason for your problems?

Deflecting responsibility can also be paralyzing. Sometimes, we refrain from taking any action at all in circumstances where, if we fail, we anticipate we won’t be able to deflect responsibility. Our deflection impulse prevents many of us from doing things that are crucial for our future.

And here’s how deflecting responsibility is most harmful: It makes us unable to make the changes necessary to better ourselves or improve our lives. Think about it: if we can succeed in making someone or something responsible for our misdeeds, then why would we ever need to change? By perpetually casting ourselves as victims in someone else’s drama, we make ourselves perpetually blameless, perpetually perfect, perpetually immune to change.

That’s why central to teshuvah, the process of repentance we are called to undertake during the High Holy Days to put our lives on the right track, requires us to identify and acknowledge our faults, flaws, and failures. As Maimonides puts it, “When a person transgresses…whether intentionally or accidentally, in order to repent…he must confess before God…[with] a verbal confession…’ Maimonides adds that anyone who, out of pride, hides his or her transgressions, deflects responsibility, and doesn’t confess cannot achieve complete repentance.

Only when we take full ownership of our deeds, only when we affirm that we, and not other forces, are in control of our decisions and our destinies, can we truly make the changes necessary to live our best lives.

Even in the hardest of circumstances, we can take responsibility. We can refuse to be a victim. We can work to change our destiny. Not only is it possible, it is also the best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

This summer, I got to experience an inspiring real-world example of the truth of this wisdom. As most of you know, I spent a week in July in Israel on an educational mission for progressive rabbis sponsored by AIPAC.

Traveling to Israel with AIPAC offers opportunities to see and do things that most people, even most Israelis, don’t get to experience. During my trip, I shared some of these experiences with you over email, and when I returned, I shared even more during my “Redemption Blossoming” summer sermon series about Israel. If you didn’t get a chance to read or hear those sermons last month, you can check them out on my blog,

Whether or not you heard or read my Israel sermons last month, I saved my favorite experience to share with you for last:

For me and for most of my colleagues, one of the extraordinary highlights of a highlight-filled journey was visiting the new Palestinian city of Rawabi. Rawabi, situated in the West Bank just outside Ramallah, is a planned city, a city designed and constructed from the ground-up. Though its first residents moved in a few weeks after our trip, Rawabi is still unfinished. When it’s completed, the city will house 700 Palestinian families, and has space to ultimately accommodate a population of 40,000. It will include an industrial zone, schools, hospitals, entertainment centers, restaurants, shops, nightclubs, churches, mosques, and a soccer stadium.

Much of the construction is already complete, and we got to see for ourselves the gorgeous limestone apartment complexes, the stunning Roman style amphitheater, and the modern multiplex cinema decorated with frescoes of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. It was like watching Short Pump in the final stages of being built, before people began to move in. The whole enterprise is articulated beautifully by the city’s motto, “The Best is Yet to Come.”

It is important to note, though, that this ambitious $1.2 billion project is not being undertaken by any government. Quite the contrary, Rawabi is the creation of one private developer named Bashar Masri. Mr. Masri, whom we had the privilege of meeting during our visit, is a visionary Palestinian entrepreneur who is building Rawabi as a direct response to the profound challenge of statelessness.

Whatever your political opinion, one cannot deny the fact that West Bank Palestinians do not have a sovereign state of their own, and neither are they citizens of Israel. They do not share equal social and political rights with Israelis, they are subject to different laws than Israelis and are prosecuted in a different criminal justice system, and they face restrictions of all kinds that are unfamiliar to Israelis: limits on water and energy, restraints on movement and travel, and, sometimes, imprisonment without due process. Palestinians must pass through military check-points to reach work, or to visit family, or to go to the mall, and only if they have the proper, and difficult-to-obtain, paperwork. Their homes, schools, and businesses are perpetually in the shadow of imposing guard towers, concrete walls, barbed wire fences, and soldiers with guns always pointed in their direction.

True, Palestinians have the Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous governing body established as a result of the Oslo Accords, which is responsible for overseeing law enforcement and civilian administration in areas of the West Bank with sizable Palestinian populations. But even the areas governed by the PA are ultimately controlled by what is, to Palestinians, a foreign military over which they have no influence. Though this reality may indeed be justified in the name of Israeli security, an empathetic person can still understand how these conditions make life for the average Palestinian difficult and frustrating, to say the least.

Against this backdrop, the path to building Rawabi has been anything but easy. Mr. Masri not only had to raise the necessary capital, but he also essentially had to create a Fannie Mae-style home mortgage system for the West Bank, because no such thing had previously existed. He had to endure major delays due to the bureaucratic obstacles he encountered, as many Palestinians do, securing necessary permits from the Israeli authorities. He could not deliver homes on schedule due to the Israeli government’s failure to build an adequate access road or to provide water. Mr. Masri also endured obstacles from his own people: the PA promised $150 million for power, water, sewage, schools and roads, but failed to honor its pledge.

Given realities like these, one can easily understand why there is so much cynicism, despair, and nihilism in Palestinian society. What’s the point of doing anything productive if doing it is an uphill battle, and, once it’s done, you can’t be reasonably assured the initiative won’t be demolished by forces over which you have no control? It’s like building a sandcastle by the seashore. You put all this effort into building this beautiful structure, only to have an errant wave wash over it, leaving you with nothing. Build it up again, and another wave could just as easily wash that one away, too. When the future feels out of your control, life can become pointless, and when life becomes pointless, greed becomes good and destruction becomes justifiable.

But here’s the truth: the future is almost never out of our control. Even in the most difficult of conditions, where there is plenty of blame to go around, we yet have the agency to determine how we will live and what we will do.  

That’s why Rawabi is so extraordinary, and so inspiring. Through building a city like Rawabi, Mr. Masri is peacefully, proactively, and dynamically doing his part to build an independent Palestinian state, despite extremely inhibiting conditions. He believes that if a Palestinian state is in the making, then the Palestinian people must take up the responsibility for deciding what kind of state it will be, and then work to make it so. It may take a long time, but it will never happen if the people spend all their time blaming and none of it building.

Even statelessness does not mean powerlessness. Mr. Masri had every opportunity, and every excuse, to do what so many of his countrymen have done given the challenges: to turn to resistance, or to violence, or to greed, or to despair, all the while deflecting responsibility due to the poverty of his circumstances. Instead, he chose to create, to build, to invent, knowing that while he cannot control all of the forces that impact him, he still has the power to choose how to act in relation to those forces.

You and I may not have a billion dollars. You and I may not be building cities, or states. But we are building our lives, and in this sense, our choices are the same that Mr. Masri faced. Our instinct is often to deflect, to excuse our mistakes, our failings, our wrongdoings, or our inaction by laying blame on external forces. But while there are always going to be aspects of our reality beyond our control, we are not marionettes, strings being pulled by forces above and beyond. We are not absent of agency in the unfolding drama of our own lives. Ours is perpetually the choice, either to act like victims of our circumstances, or to adopt the more challenging and more painful, but ultimately more productive, path of making our own fates.

In the face of all the uncertainty, and in the face of all the obstacles, and in the face of all our limitations, we are responsible for writing our own scripts and directing our own stories. No one can be relied upon to do it for us, and no one else is ultimately to blame if we fail to do it for ourselves. Whether by what we do or by what we do not do, only we can determine what our future will look like. You always have choices, and that ability to choose gives you extraordinary power: the power to set your own future, the power to make your own fate.

During the High Holy Day season, we stand in the same place Adam did after he ate the forbidden fruit. God calls out to each of us, “Where are you?” Will we respond, like Adam, with our impulse to deflect? Or will we respond, like Abraham, like Moses, and say, “Hineni. Here I am. Here I am in all my failings, in all my vulnerabilities. Here I am ready to take ownership of where I’ve gone astray. And here I am ready, today, to own my responsibility, in spite of the challenges before me, to build a life of goodness and blessing.” God is looking for you in the garden, calling. How will you answer?

Shanah tovah.

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