Illumin8 2016

1st Night – Playing with Fire

During the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Holy Temple had been used for the worship of Greek gods. When the Maccabees captured it, they set about rededicating it for the service of the God of Israel. Central to the eight-day-long ceremony for rededicating the Temple was kindling the flames of the Menorah. Though the Maccabees only found sufficient oil for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight.

This much, most people know. The name of the holiday celebrating this event, Hanukkah, means “dedication,” and the primary ritual of the festival is lighting a Menorah. But what does fire have to do with dedicating the Temple in the first place?
Think about what fire is: pure energy. It has no borders or boundaries. It illuminates what is dark, warms what is cold, and melts what is frozen solid. It symbolizes passion and love, heart and soul, boundlessness and power. By fire’s light, we can see what was previously hidden to us and we can discover paths forward that were heretofore concealed.
Fire, from our tradition’s perspective, is the perfect symbol for the essence of religion, a force for wakefulness and purpose, hope and strength, compassion and boundary-crossing connection. No wonder God is described in the Torah as a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), why God appears to Abraham, Moses, and the Children of Israel as fire (Genesis 15:17, Exodus 3:2, 19:18), why God’s glory in the Tabernacle is described as fire (Ex. 40:38), and why we, to this day, symbolize God’s continuous presence in our synagogues with a ner tamid, an eternal flame.
In a brilliant recent TED talk, my rabbi, Sharon Brous, taught that the rituals of our tradition were originally designed “to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place.” Our rites are supposed to help us remember the fire at the heart of our faith. The problem, she argued, is that after a few centuries, the reminder remains but the fire gets lost and forgotten:
That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.


When the Maccabees rededicated the Temple through lighting a flame, they were making a statement. Religion, ultimately, is not about beautiful buildings or the carefully choreographed ceremonies that take place in them. Those things are important, but only to the extent that they point us to the fire at religion’s heart. Without the fire, there is only idolatry, the veneration of hollow symbols. Which means that every so often, a new flame needs to be lit, redirecting our attention to the core of who we are called to be, and rededicating ourselves for what we are called to do. As we kindle our candles this Hanukkah, may their light and heat reinvigorate our spirits.

2nd Night – “A” Great Miracle?

The Hebrew letters on the dreidel – nun, gimmel, heh, and shin – are supposedly meant to stand for the words nes gadol hayah sham, “A great miracle happened there.” Presumably, this refers to the miracle of a day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days.

But, wait. If there was only enough oil to last for one day, then the Maccabees didn’t witness only one miracle. They witnessed a new miracle each day!
I wonder if they thought about it that way. My guess is they didn’t. After all, on the first night, there was no miracle. They expected the oil to burn for at least that long. Sure, there must have been much amazement, awe, and celebration on the second night (which we observe tonight). On that night they witnessed the truly unexpected, that one day’s oil lasted an additional day. But I’ll bet that, as each day passed, what was once miraculous became increasingly ordinary. Perhaps that’s why, today, we generally don’t think of Hanukkah as the story of several miracles, but rather, as the tale of “a great miracle.” Once we witness a miracle, it becomes hard to see that same event as miraculous when it occurs again.
Here’s how my rabbi, Bradley Shavit Artson, puts it:

Miracles are when something you never thought possible happens, which means that it’s now possible. When a miracle occurs, your world expands by precisely the impact of that same miracle. Something that had been pure fantasy became real.
Once something extraordinary becomes ordinary, we cease to remember how extraordinary it was in the first place! As Rabbi Artson teaches, “Just because something happens often doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.”
That’s why we don’t only light one or two candles during Hanukkah. We light a candle each night, reminding us that the miracle was still miraculous each of the eight nights, despite the fact that the same miracle happened the night before.
Our Hanukkah observance thus becomes a reminder of the thousands of miracles we encounter each and every day but tend to regard as ordinary. Again, Rabbi Artson teaches:
Think of the miracle of a universe in which inorganic matter became organic matter, in which some of that organic matter complexified in such a way that it gained rudimentary consciousness and the ability to organize itself.  Some of that self-organizing matter acquired the ability to replicate itself,  creating another generation, and some of that self-organizing organic matter got smart enough to crawl out of the wet and onto the dry.  And some of that matter on the dry climbed up a tree and developed binocular vision and prehensile thumbs. And then they climbed down from the trees, our distant ancestors, and here we are, a piece of the universe emerged into life; emerged into consciousness; emerged into awareness.  Isn’t that a miracle within a miracle?
Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Caro, a Sixteenth Century Kabbalist, mystic, and legal authority, wrote that, while most people focus on the miracle of the Red Sea splitting, an insightful person would recognize that “the fact that those waters have existed for thousands of centuries [is] a greater testament to the light of their maker than any single magical moment could possibly be.” Sure, a sea splitting is miraculous. But the sea itself is also miracle! So, too, is the earth beneath your feet, the potatoes in your latkes, each and every breath. These may seem mundane, but they are, in fact, miraculous.
As we kindle the Hanukkah lights each night, we recall the miraculous in the mundane, the extraordinary in the ordinary, “Your miracles that are with us each and every day” (Siddur). A growing body of research indicates that if we cultivate such awareness, if we encounter our world with a sense of awe, it will enable us to feel a greater sense of oneness with others, increase our generosity, and enhance our life satisfaction. It might even lead to world peace.
We don’t want for miracles in our world. We just don’t often recognize them when we see them. If this holiday helps us see the miracles that are with us always, we will have received a true Hanukkah gift.


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Remarks at Interfaith Standing Together Press Conference

15337549_10154909945162275_7395177813311807654_nIt is an honor to stand in this sanctuary surrounded by colleagues and friends representing so many brother and sister faith traditions.

To my mind, this synagogue is the perfect place for us to stand together against hate and deliver a message of inclusion and love. We Jews know full well the consequences of hateful rhetoric and actions, especially when they come from or are enabled by the powerful and privileged. Our history is filled with instances of victimization and oppression, times when bigotry was given license and persecution was encouraged.

To my right is a Torah scroll rescued from Czechoslovakia after World War II. It is the sole surviving remnant of a Jewish community that was otherwise destroyed simply because of its faith.

In many ways, we Jews see that Torah as a symbol of who we are called to be in the world, a people plucked from the ashes of destruction in order to share God’s message to humanity.

That message begins with the claim that every human being is a child of God. We are all of us brothers and sisters. The Torah then asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And over and over again the words of that scroll cry out the answer, yes. We are responsible for the welfare of all our brothers and sisters.

The Torah tells us to love both our neighbor and the stranger; it insists that all human beings – male or female, Christian or Muslim, native-born or immigrant, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, everyone – deserve equal protection, equal rights, and equal respect.

It tells us that when our fellow human being is poor, we are duty-bound to care for him; that when our fellow human being is hungry, we are obligated to feed him; that when our fellow human being is suffering or hurt, we must lift him up.

Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, it says. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Lo tukhal l’hit’alem it insists. You must not look away.

So we are here today because we refuse to stand idly by when any of our brothers and sisters are victims of the prejudice, intimidation, and aggression that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has proliferated in our country since last month’s election.

We refuse to look away when hateful rhetoric emanates not only from the most ignorant and fearful pockets of our society but also from corridors of power.

We refuse to look away when bigotry inspires discriminatory policies or hate-fueled violence.

We are here to affirm that every human being was created in the divine image, that each of us has equal and infinite value, that we are all brothers and sisters.

We are here to stand with and for any person, and any community, whose dignity, welfare, or lives are at risk, especially when they are threatened with the implied consent of the powerful.

And we are here to demand that all our leaders – whether they be local, state, or national officials – recognize the divine image in every single human being; that they uphold George Washington’s vision that our government will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”; that they will be steadfast in working for and lifting up every one of us.

We are here to pledge ourselves to fulfilling this country’s historic promise that the circle of liberty will ever expand to include us all; and we are here to fulfill our faith’s command that we are, all of us, called to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

May God give us strength. May God bless us with peace.

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From Great to Good: Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

In the 19th Century, British philosopher Thomas Carlyle argued that history is mainly about the accomplishments of great people. Since then, many thinkers have pointed out the flaws in Carlyle’s “Great Men” theory, but, whether intentionally or not, history is often still taught this way. We teach our kids about the past largely through the stories of great people doing big, important things.

The stories we tell convey values, whether we mean them to or not. And the message of this approach to history is that our significance depends on the preeminence of our accomplishments. I know I grew up internalizing this message. It was reinforced by parents and teachers who, in ways subtle and overt, taught me that my worth was commensurate with my achievements, that if I wanted to live a life of meaning and value, I had to be great by doing great things.

What is striking to me is how significantly this view differs from that of the Jewish tradition. If one were to make a list of the major figures of the Bible, what would be striking is that they were called by God to take on significant roles not because they had remarkable accomplishments or were uniquely gifted but, rather, because they were good. And even as they ascend to roles of significance in the unfolding story of the Jewish people, the Torah focuses not on their accomplishments, but on their character.

Take Noah, for example. Why did God choose Noah to survive the Flood?

Here’s what the Torah tells us:

נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃ /

Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

The terminology here is unclear, so let’s break it down a bit. First, Noah is called “איש צדיק,” a righteous man. What does it mean to be righteous? According to tradition, Noah is called righteous because he cared for the needs of others (Tanhuma 4; Rashi).

Next, Noah is called “תמים בדרתיו,” blameless in his age. The term תמים, blameless, means a person of integrity, someone who is never accused of wronging others. But Noah is called “blameless in his age,” as if to indicate that, far from perfect, Noah was a person of integrity only compared with others who lived at the time. Given the fact that Noah lived among people so wicked that God wanted to destroy them, this is not exactly soaring praise.

So it turns out that Noah wasn’t extraordinary. He wasn’t chosen because he did great things. He was chosen because he strove to live a life of goodness in an indecent time, hence the coda, “את האלהים התהלך נח,” literally, Noah caused himself to walk with God. Noah’s only noteworthy accomplishment was that he worked hard to stay on a path of goodness.

Even as Noah is called upon to do something extraordinary, the Bible presents him in his full, imperfect humanity. After the flood waters subside, Noah plants a vineyard, makes a batch of wine, gets wasted, and has a private naked party in his tent. Not exactly the behavior of a “great man.”  

See, the Torah isn’t especially interested in Noah’s accomplishments. Rather, it wants us to reflect on how a good but imperfect person fares when the stakes are high. And, for Noah, the answer is…good. But not great.

The same can be said of the man who is perhaps the greatest hero of the Torah, Moses. The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly why God chose Moses, but it certainly is not because Moses is “great.”

Having grown up a child of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace, he probably never worked a day in his life. When God first appears to Moses, he is a shepherd, working for his father-in-law, and a fugitive from Egyptian justice. He struggles with self-confidence. He was not a good public speaker.

So why did God choose Moses? Well, all we’re told about him before his calling is that he repeatedly stands up against injustice, championing the cause of the victim against the oppressor. First he kills an Egyptian who is ruthlessly beating a Hebrew slave. Then he intervenes when he sees a Hebrew picking a fight with a fellow slave. And finally he rises to the defense of Midianite girls who were being harassed by shepherds. Moses, too, was chosen by God not because he was great, but because he was good.

And Moses, like Noah, remains imperfect even after he is elevated to an extraordinary position. Of course, Moses had many fine qualities, but he is also an inattentive husband and an absentee father. He is prone to fears, doubts, and fits of rage. The Torah presents Moses as a good, but flawed, man who finds himself at the center of an extraordinary moment and must strive to do the best he can.

These examples – just two of many I could have selected – point to a crucial difference between our tradition and other systems of thought, including the culture in which we live. In other systems, one becomes a person of significance only through having remarkable accomplishments. Judaism, on the other hand, focuses not on greatness, but rather on goodness.

What’s the difference? Goodness is fundamentally a moral quality. It is about how we care for ourselves, how we treat others, how we relate to our community and the wider world. Greatness is fundamentally goal-oriented. It is about what one achieves. Put a different way, goodness is about flourishing and serving others, while greatness is about surpassing others and attaining power over them.

Consider some of the models our tradition holds up of those whose primary goal in life is the pursuit of greatness: The builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to be great. But, according to tradition, their pursuit of greatness resulted in “jealousy and hatred,” strife and bloodshed.

King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, also wanted to be great. He wanted to prove to everyone – and this is a direct quote from the Bible – that “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.” So instead of relieving the people of the burdensome taxes and building projects initiated by his father, Rehoboam said, “My father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions!” How did that turn out for Rehoboam? As we learned yesterday, Rehoboam’s thirst for greatness caused the people of Israel to secede from the kingdom, ultimately to be lost forever.

No wonder the great sage Hillel once taught, “When you seek fame, you destroy your name” (Mishnah Avot 1:13). Since the pursuit of greatness typically entails stepping on others, our tradition warns that, sooner or later, the result of that path is ruin.

Greatness has no bell-curve. It is inherently unequal and competitive. Either your accomplishments are more special or important than the accomplishments of others, or they’re not. Goodness, however, takes into account our personal strengths, talents, skills, and abilities. It recognizes that each of us is limited by the resources we have and frequently handicapped by our weaknesses and by circumstances beyond our control. Therefore, focusing on goodness means we are not in competition with Abraham or Moses or with each other, because each of us can only be as good as we can be.

When the Hasidic master, the great Reb Zusya, was on his deathbed, he sat and cried bitterly. His students gathered around him, speculating about what could be making their rabbi so despondent. One said, “I bet he’s crying because he fears that God will be disappointed that he was not as righteous as Abraham.” “No,” said another, “it’s because he fears that God will tell him he was not as holy as Moses.” Overhearing the conversation, Reb Zusya turned to his students. Through his tears, he whispered: “In the coming world, the Holy One will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ Rather, God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ That is what I fear. And that is why I weep.”

What matters is not being as great as the greats, or better than our peers. What matters is whether you did as good as you possibly could.  

Greatness has no room for failure. Either you’ve achieved greatness, or you’re a loser. Goodness, however, has a margin for error. One doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. In fact, quite often the quest for perfection gets in the way of goodness.

Pursuing greatness over goodness can be paralyzing. For example, I was having a hard time starting to write this sermon. I really wanted you to like it. I wanted it to be great. The best sermon you’ve ever heard. The sermon you’ll be speaking about at lunch today, and at dinner tonight, and all throughout the rest of the year. I wanted it to be the sermon that you forward to all your friends, with the subject line reading, “FWD: You HAVE to read this sermon!” I want it to be so incredible, so universally captivating, that it gets a thousand “likes” when I post it on Facebook, and then goes viral on the Internet. I wanted it to be taught in seminaries, where future clergy will aspire to give sermons just like this one.

With goals like these, it’s no wonder I struggled to even begin typing. What could I possibly write that would guarantee my attaining those objectives? What if some of you hated it? What if it bored some of you to sleep? Or worse yet, what if you laughed at me?

That’s one of the ways the pursuit of greatness gets in the way of our being good. It sets the bar so high that we become too paralyzed to even start trying.

Another way the pursuit of greatness impedes goodness is that it distorts our approach to the task at hand, ironically making us worse at the very thing we are striving to do excellently.

Remember the movie Major League? It was one of my favorite films growing up. Major League chronicles the misadventures of a hapless bunch of misfits who strive to turn the Cleveland Indians into a championship baseball team. One of the best characters in that movie was Willie Mays Hayes, played by Wesley Snipes. Hayes was a good ballplayer, one of the fastest baserunners in the league. The trouble was, Hayes wasn’t content being good. Hayes wanted to be a legend. So, instead of playing to his strengths by hitting the ball on the ground and utilizing his speed, he would try to hit a home-run every at-bat, and always came up hilariously short. It is only when Hayes focuses on being good – aiming for base hits, running bases thoughtfully, considering his role as part of a team rather than as an individual superstar – that he could actually become great.

And, most importantly, the pursuit of greatness can harm us and those around us.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown points out that pursuing greatness is inherently about earning others’ “approval and acceptance.” Our sense of self-worth becomes dependent on whether others like how we look, envy our possessions, think our spouse is attractive, consider our children talented or brilliant or well-behaved, or admire our professional accomplishments. When we pursue greatness, we put our worth in other people’s hands.

The problem, of course, is that the viewing public can never fully know us. They cannot see our hearts, our souls, what we are capable of and what our limitations are. They usually cannot see our intentions or our level of effort. They don’t love us and can’t forgive our shortcomings. And it’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

And when we don’t internalize the truth that universal acceptance is illusory, our life becomes an unending cycle: we seek the validation of others; we fail because that’s literally impossible; we feel unworthy because we didn’t get the approval we sought; we seek more validation to overcome the feelings of worthlessness.

In her book, Brown demonstrates that this cycle leads us down paths of “depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.” We miss out on opportunities because we become “too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.” We don’t follow our dreams because we become deeply afraid “of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others.” We hurt those close to us – our spouses, our children, our friends, our co-workers – when we neglect them to focus on our great accomplishments or when we feel the way they look or act will reflect poorly on how others perceive us. We numb our feelings of inadequacy with anything that takes the edge off and quiets the voice that tells us “you are not enough.”

Because it begins with the assumption that our value depends on the adulation of others, the pursuit of greatness is always self-defeating. It’s like building a house of cards on unstable ground in unpredictable weather.

The pursuit of goodness, however, is always self-building, because it is based upon the recognition that each of us is already enough, that each of us is already worthy, that we don’t need extraordinary accomplishments or others’ approval to know that we matter.

For proof of this, look no further than the Jewish people. As Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, “Knowing that we have been chosen by God is precisely what gives the Jewish people our resilience, generosity, and fortitude.” It is telling that the mission of the Jewish people has never been understood as “be great” but, rather, “be holy” (Leviticus 19:1). “Do justice. Love goodness, Walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Only through recognizing that, no matter what, we are valued, accepted, and affirmed has our people throughout history felt emboldened to take risks, to follow our dreams, to honor ourselves and care for others.

Now, you might say that we Jews are great. Maybe so. But that status has been secured not through seeking greatness but, rather, through our historic pursuit of goodness, a path that was made possible only through God’s unconditional, unyielding love for us (Deut. 7:7).

What’s true on a national scale is also true for each of us as individuals. Each of us is a child of God, princes and princesses born to the highest of sovereigns. How much greater do we need to be?

When we begin with the knowledge that we matter to the most exalted being in the universe, we can be free: free from the need to impress, free to live life our own way, free to focus on doing right by ourselves and those around us.

Through the knowledge of God’s love, we also become free to take risks, to make mistakes, and to forgive ourselves our shortcomings.

Our tradition affirms that God loves us unconditionally: ahavah rabah ahavtanu, God loves us with a great love. While we can deviate from the path God holds out for us, there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us, nothing we need to do to earn God’s love for us.

God also intimately knows every part of us: atah yode’a razei olam – You know our innermost secrets – ba-beten y’datikha – God knew you before you were even born (Jeremiah 1:5). While we have a responsibility to live up to our own potential, we are only competing against ourselves, and God knows both our strengths and our limitations.

And, as we remind ourselves again and again over these High Holy Days, God is El rahum v’hanun, erekh apayim v’rav hesed, a God of compassion, grace, patience, abounding love; a God who forgives us when we falter. Of course, we must learn and grow from our failures. But our tradition’s claim that God is forgiving means that it is O.K. to stumble and fall; we are not expected to be perfect.

When we understand that failure is part and parcel of being human, we need not to be paralyzed by the fear of failure, the pressure to be perfect, or the guilt of missing the mark. We only need to be as good as we can be. When we fall, we can look at ourselves with godly compassion and forgive ourselves. Then, we can shake off the dust, rise, and get back to work.

The pursuit of greatness has always been a major part of American culture. When business writer Jim Collins published a book a few years back called Good to Great, millions of copies flew off the shelves. Still today, greatness is very much part of the zeitgeist. The importance of making ourselves great is all some people talk about. Many of us have been made to feel that, in order to live a worthwhile life, that’s what we must strive for. In fact, when I told some folks I was writing a sermon called, “From Great to Good,” deliberately playing off the title of Collins’s bestseller, they immediately responded, “But isn’t that going backwards?!”  

The answer, I think, is no. Not from Judaism’s perspective, anyway. Here’s how the prophet Jeremiah puts it:

כה אמר יהוה

אל־יתהלל חכם בחכמתו

ואל־יתהלל הגבור בגבורתו

אל־יתהלל עשיר בעשרו

כי אם־בזאת יתהלל המתהלל:

השכל וידע אותי כי אני יהוה עשה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ כי־באלה חפצתי נאם־יהוה


Thus said the Holy One:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;

Let not the strong man glory in his strength;

Let not the rich man glory in his riches.

But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Holy One act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; And – declares the Holy One – it is in these I delight. (Jer. 9:22-23).

In the year to come, ask not “how can I become a success,” but, rather, “how can I be more kind, just, and fair?” Ask not, “how can I stand above others” but, rather, “how can I walk with God?” Ask not, “how can I be great,” but, rather, “how can I be good?”

Shanah tovah.


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One Community, One Campus: Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777


Of all the enemies our ancestors faced in antiquity, perhaps none were more fearsome than the Assyrians. Around 900 BCE, Assyria began to conquer much of what was at the time the known world. The empire Assyria built stretched from Syria in the west to Iran in the east, and from Turkey in the north to the Arabian peninsula in the south.

The Assyrians built their empire with unprecedented military might and brutality. Its fleet of chariots was without parallel; its soldiers fierce and bloodthirsty; its strategy of siege, conquest, and plunder terrified everyone in its warpath. After Assyria invaded, destroyed, and despoiled your country, it would take captive a conquered people’s best and brightest and resettle them elsewhere in the empire. This brutal innovation broke the power of vanquished nations, ensuring that their lands would forever remain under Assyrian control.

Such was the brutal fate that befell some of our ancestors. After the death of King Solomon, the united kingdom of Israel split into two: a kingdom in the north called Israel, and a kingdom in the south called Judah. Those two separate and independent nations, populated by people with shared ethnicity and culture but differing tribal and geographic loyalties, existed side-by-side for nearly two centuries until 722 BCE. In 722, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.

Against this backdrop, a movement began that would alter the course of Jewish history. King Hezekiah of Judah ascended the throne around the time Assyria conquered Israel. He assumed that, now that they had laid waste to Israel, Judah would be next in Assyrian crosshairs. So Hezekiah made preparations to withstand the impending Assyrian assault.

What did he do? He took steps to make the Temple in Jerusalem the center of Jewish religious life.

To us, this may seem like a surprising strategy. Why not raise an army? Or levy more taxes? Or build a bigger wall?

But in actuality, it was a brilliant move, one that has lessons to teach for our time as well.

See, centralizing worship in Jerusalem was major innovation. Some might say it was a revolution. True, King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem about 250 years before Hezekiah, but the people still worshipped freely at shrines all over ancient Israel. So when, according to the biblical Book of Kings, Hezekiah “abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post” (2 Kings 18:4), he was in fact taking drastic measures to deal with drastic times.

Why’d he do it? Hezekiah centralized worship in Jerusalem because he believed in the message best encapsulated by the modern protest adage, “the people united can never be defeated!” Or, as the midrash teaches:

אם נוטל אדם אגודה של קנים, שמא יכול לשברם בבת אחת.

ואלו נוטלן אחת אחת, אפלו תינוק משברן.

וכן את מוצא שאין ישראל נגאלין עד שיהיו כלן אגדה אחת.

“When many reeds are bound together, it’s not possible to break them; but if they are separated one from another, then even an infant can break them. From this we learn that Israel will not be redeemed until they are united.”

Hezekiah believed that only a united kingdom could resist the Assyrian threat. And only creating one spiritual center could make his people into one community.

Moving all worship to Jerusalem united the people financially. Remember that our ancestors prayed largely through animal sacrifice. An entire economic system naturally developed around such an institution. When worship can take place anywhere, that economy is smaller, more diffuse, and weaker. By requiring that worship occur only in one location, Hezekiah ensured a larger, interconnected, interdependent, and more robust worship economy. And by housing that economy in the capital, Hezekiah could more easily amass the resources he needed to invest in the institutions and projects that would make all of Judah strong, prosperous, and able to resist Assyria.

And centralizing worship united the people politically, socially, and culturally. When worship can take place anywhere, traditions and practices will vary from place to place. This was an important insight for Hezekiah, since Judah had just absorbed an influx of northern Israelites who worshipped God a little differently than their southern cousins. Diversity is a beautiful thing until it convinces people that their differences are greater than that which unites them, and that their parochial loyalties are more precious than the common welfare. When that happens, differences can become divisions, divisions can breed enmity or strife, and a kingdom can disintegrate and weaken.

Creating one shared religious space emphasized the traditions and values the people shared. It facilitated meaningful relationships, enabling everyone, regardless of background, to engage with each other in times of pain and in times of joy, bringing meaning and holiness to each stage of each other’s life’s journeys. Coalescing around one physical symbol – a symbol, no less, that evoked the people’s glorious shared past and was situated in the heart of a city originally built to unite the northern and southern tribes – provided a shared identity to a diverse people, helping them become one community.

Yes, a Temple is just a building. And God is everywhere, so of course God can theoretically be worshipped anywhere. But when people are invited to see a building as their shared home and their common access point for the transcendent, something powerful happens. The people become united. And a people united can never be defeated.

Hezekiah’s gamble paid off. In 701, Assyria invaded Judah. Miraculously, Jerusalem managed to withstand the siege. The Assyrian military machine that had once seemed invincible was halted through the power of a newly united Judean people, a people that was brought together by virtue of a common house of worship.

A lot has changed since Hezekiah’s time, and yet much has remained the same. The Assyrians are long gone, but the Jewish community today still faces existential threats. Thankfully, in our time, there aren’t many external enemies bent on wiping us from the map. But there are still Assyrians on our doorstep, if you know how to spot them. And Jewish survival is never guaranteed.

Our open, free, multicultural society, where religion is practiced only as a matter of conscience and not compulsion, is both the most extraordinary, unprecedented blessing in all of Jewish history and, paradoxically, one of the greatest threats to Jewish survival we have ever encountered. In our time, each of us is free to worship however, wherever, whenever, and to whomever we want, or not to worship at all.

This freedom, when combined with the equal competition of differing religious traditions in the open marketplace of ideas, the widespread perception of hypocrisy and abuse in organized religious life, the ability to find meaning and community outside of the religious tradition into which one is born, the downturn in social pressure to affiliate with an established religious community, and the decline of institutional affiliation in general has led to a dizzying decline of organized religion.

The American Jewish community is not immune to this reality. We’ve seen this phenomenon up-close and personal here in Richmond: Consider our temple’s last two decades. In 1994, we had 830 member households; by 2014, when I became your rabbi, we had 420. Our experience is not unique. Our neighboring congregations have fared similarly over the last two decades, as have synagogues nationwide. Nearly everyone out there is having a hard time.

Now, I’m very proud to say that today, Temple Beth-El is growing. But we must be honest about the trials we’ve endured and the strong headwinds we still face.

Confronted with this reality, we would do well to learn from King Hezekiah, and we at Temple Beth-El have the capacity to put this wisdom into practice right now.

Our congregation strives to be an intentional and interconnected spiritual community where we all help each other grow Jewishly, flourish personally, and build a better world. But, if we are honest, sometimes we miss the mark. There are exquisite moments when I experience our cohesiveness and unity, moments when God’s presence is palpable, when I am convinced not only that our community will endure but that it will thrive long into the future because of the sanctity, love, and strength we bring to each others’ lives. Such moments are the essence of Jewish life, the way we nurture the souls of those who are here with us this day, and the way we inspire those who are not here with us today to embrace us tomorrow.

But there are also times, and I suspect you have felt them too, when we feel atomized, a collection of smaller sub-communities, groups, and even cliques. When I see us cluster within our own social, demographic, and geographical groups, I become sad. I know how it hurts people, and how it diminishes each of our lives. And I become afraid, for I know that congregations where people separate from one another physically, emotionally, and spiritually drive people away and endanger their own future.

This year, we are attempting to tackle this challenge head-on in multiple ways. One major new effort is The Havurah Project, a program that connects small groups of community members across social and demographic divides at the common space of the Shabbat table. Through this simple idea – congregants sharing Shabbat with other congregants in each other’s homes – we will weave a stronger and more cohesive communal fabric. I’m pleased to announce that nearly a quarter of our congregation, folks ranging in age from 6 months to 90+, is participating in this pilot year of The Havurah Project!

Registration for the Havurah Project is closed, but if you want to participate and for some reason missed the boat, drop me a line. I’ll see if there’s something we can do. At the very least, we hope to have even more of you participate in the project in the future. Through the Havurah Project, we are bridging communal divides and helping deepen each of our relationships with each other, with the community as a whole, and with the Jewish tradition. By coming together in this way, our community will grow stronger and more vibrant.

But the Havurah Project is just the beginning. There is something even more significant that we must do. If we are to be one congregational community, we need one spiritual home. As King Hezekiah demonstrated two thousand years ago, the only way for us to secure our community’s future is to create one campus.

One community. One shared future. One campus. A vision for our congregation that is both beautiful in its simplicity and profound in its necessity.

For the past two decades, we have owned, operated, maintained, and divided time between two disparate campuses.

When we began building our school campus on Parham, the rationale was simple: We needed more space. As a fundraising pamphlet printed at the time explains:

Our school building is no longer adequate for Temple Beth-El’s needs. The classrooms are too small and too few. We do not have a usable library with computer work stations, reading areas, and a broad selection of books. Nor do we have a chapel for holding services at the school. Simply stated, we have outgrown our current building.  

Expanding may have made sense at the time, and may have adequately addressed our facilities needs, at least while we were a congregation of over 800 families. But today, our congregation is half the size it was back then. And while we’re growing, it is very unlikely that we will swell back to that size any time soon, given the headwinds we face. Our original reason for having two campuses no longer applies.

But it’s not just about having too much space. It’s that our two-campus model has harmed us and threatens our future.

Over the past twenty years, having two campuses has divided us socially, culturally, and spiritually. When part of our community primarily engages with one campus, and the other part of our community primarily engages with another, how can anyone feel that they are part of one cohesive community?

We have seen how our two campuses have split us into distinct “School” and “shul” communities and distinct West-End and city communities, both with the look and feel of being autonomous communities in their own rights.

We have seen how having two campuses has led to the development of a community of congregants who gravitate to Parham, and a community of congregants who gravitate to Grove, how it has led to a reality in which many of our children never set foot in our sanctuary until their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and in which many of our elders never encounter the vibrant sound of our children learning Torah.

Having two homes communicates that our differences are greater than that which unites us, and that our demographic loyalties or needs as individual religious consumers are more precious than the larger community we share.

Our current two-campus model also disables us from adequately investing – emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, financially – in either venue. We can all see the results: This once magnificent campus, which was built by the parents and grandparents of the people in this room – has been permitted to fall into disrepair before our very eyes. Resources are always scarce, and funds that could be used to restore, renovate, and redesign this campus are perpetually diverted to the Parham building.

Meanwhile, our Parham campus is also showing signs of age. Funds we need to make necessary repairs there are being diverted to projects like fixing the social hall ceiling here. We simply can’t afford the facilities we want and need at both locations.

And the fact that human and financial resources need to be channelled to the upkeep and operation of both buildings means we have less to allocate to the real business of congregational life. It makes our staff less able to collaborate, focus, and execute our holy work with quality and efficiency. And we as a congregation can’t adequately invest in the kind of vibrant programming we envision, or the outreach work we need to do in order to grow. The result is perpetually diminishing returns.

But, to paraphrase the great Eastern philosopher Lao Tzu, when we let go of what we are, we can become what we might be. If we were to share one campus, we could emphasize our collective past, present, and future. If we were to coalesce around one symbol – a physical, tangible, symbol – congregants of diverse backgrounds and needs could discover and take pride in their shared identity. It would also strengthen and solidify our place in the public’s perception.

Having one common space would enable everyone in our community, regardless of where they are from, to engage with each other in times of pain and in times of joy. It would help us forge stronger bonds and bring meaning and holiness to each other at each stage of our life’s journeys.

Having one campus would enable us to invest our finite resources where they most matter: into the programs and engagement tools we need to nurture a dynamic, passionate, and heymish spiritual community where we support and inspire each other.

I know that the path to creating one shared campus will be a long and challenging one. I’m also aware that we’ve tried this before and have failed. To be successful, our entire community must walk this path side by side, hand in hand. It cannot only be about one person’s vision. All of our voices have to be heard. Plans will have to be developed and debated. Resources will have to be raised. Difficult decisions will have to be made.

We must overcome our fears through our faith in each other and in the importance of our community’s purpose. We must overcome our cynicism borne of past failures and present frustrations with hope for the bright future God is holding out for us.

Yes, it may be a hard road ahead. But, to paraphrase Anais Nin, the day has come when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more dangerous than the risk it will take to blossom. Either we address this issue now, together, our own way, or the modern-day Assyrians will do it for us.

So this year, under the leadership of our Visioning Steering Committee, we are going to start the process. Our first step will be to convene focus groups comprised of a diverse and representative cross-section of our congregation to hear from you about what you would like a synagogue campus to do for you. These groups will not focus on questions of geography – as in which of our current campuses do you prefer – but rather on what features a facility would need to have in order for it to maximally contribute to nurturing communal connection and spiritual engagement.

Our ushers are now coming down the aisles and handing out postcards. These postcards explain how we will conduct these focus groups, and what will be expected from the participants of those gatherings.

On the card you’ll find a link to an online registration form. If you would like to take part in one of our focus groups, please either go to that website and register or return your filled-out card to the Temple office. The deadline for registering is Erev Yom Kippur, Tuesday, October 11.

Once we receive all the registrations, we will organize the groups and inform participants of the time, date, and location of their gathering. We plan on convening 3 or 4 groups, with 8 to 10 congregants in each, over the next three months. If we receive more registrations than we have space for, we will select participants at random, accounting for the need for as much diversity as possible. But fear not: if you don’t register for a focus group, or if you get spaced out of a focus group, we will offer other ways for you to share your thoughts.

Our next step, which will occur this winter, will be to survey the entire congregation, to hear all of your views and to refine and sharpen what we learned from the focus groups. Again, we won’t be focusing on questions of “where,” but rather on “what.”

Meanwhile, we will be conducting in-depth analyses of both of our campuses to ascertain the opportunities and limitations of both properties.

Once we amass and study all of that data, most likely this spring, we will engage qualified professionals to work with us in designing multiple models for a campus that will meet our needs and desires, as well as providing us with a full understanding of the values of our current assets and creating multiple models for how we might be able to finance our dreams. Ultimately, perhaps by this time next year, we will ask all of you to weigh in on a final vision for our future home. Then, the real work of bringing our dreams to life will begin. I hope you will partner with us for each step of this exciting journey.

Throughout our people’s history, every vision of redemption has involved one people coming together as one community in one space. The vision that got us out of Egypt was joining together and marching through the wilderness to the Promised Land, a country we were to inherit, conquer, and inhabit together. The vision that saved us from the Assyrians was coalescing around the Temple, one spiritual space where we could gather and celebrate and cry and pray together as one community. And the prophetic vision for the Messianic era is “והביאנו לשלום מארבע כנפות הארץ ותוליכנו קוממיות לארצנו / You will bring us from the four corners of the earth into wholeness and lead us fearlessly into our land.”

Deep in my heart I know that the time for our congregation’s redemption is at hand. And it can only be realized by us coming together, as one community, with one home.

So, I invite you to pray with me: Adonai, El po’el yeshu’ot, Holy One, the Power that makes for redemption, in the year to come, let us join together, let us be together, let us build together. Let us stand – secure in the faith that we stand strongest only when we stand – together.

Shanah Tovah.

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Remarks at 2016 Community Eid Dinner

As-Salam-u-Alaikum and Eid Mubarak.

Adira joins me in expressing what an honor it is to be with you this evening. I am deeply grateful to the organizers for their generous invitation, for all their holy work on behalf of the local Muslim community and for a more inclusive Virginia, and, above all, for their friendship. Shukran.

I join you tonight holding a bit of cognitive dissonance. As I share with you in the joy of your sacred occasion, I am still in the final hours of the observance of the saddest day in my tradition’s calendar, known as Tisha B’Av, or the Fast of the Ninth Day of the Hebrew month of Av. On this day, for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset, Jews are forbidden from eating and drinking…As I stare at the baklava…Here’s something that was not on the list of ironies in that famous song, “It’s like being a Jew who gets invited to a Muslim community’s delicious food-filled celebration of the end of a month-long fast on the one day your religion requires you to fast. Isn’t it ironic?”

But the contrast of our two observances is not all dissonance. Tisha B’Av commemorates the most tragic day in Jewish history, the day nearly two millennia ago when the Roman legions sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple – the epicenter of ancient Jewish religious life and, metaphorically, at least, God’s dwelling place on earth. Rabbinic tradition insists that this historical devastation was not random. Rather, ruin was the result of Jewish society being mired in what they called sinat hinam, unfettered hatred. When the rabbis autopsied their people’s trauma, they concluded that hate leads to ruin.

Last night, Rev. Ben Campbell, whom many of you know well, graciously agreed to join us at our community’s Tisha B’Av observance. We were also blessed to have Dr. Damaj with us. Rev. Campbell reflected on the prescience of that rabbinic teaching, reminding us that, above all else, the ancient Jewish Temple symbolized unity. In antiquity, the Children of Israel were a disparate collection of ethnically similar tribes. The Temple would become the place where they would all meet as one, where they would be reminded of their fundamental brotherhood and sisterhood. Having one central house of worship reminded those ancient Jews of God’s oneness, a belief that implies the shared parentage not only of all Jews, but also of all humanity. Rev. Campbell pointed out that it makes perfect sense for the rabbis to claim unfettered hatred brought about the destruction of the Temple. Disintegration (“dis-integration,” in his words) is the natural result of our refusal to integrate. The symbol of oneness can only be torn apart by rampant separateness.

And it goes even deeper: The Jewish tradition has us mourn the destruction of the Temple each year and, in some senses, every day. We do this in order to direct our attention to the fact that the Temple still lies in ruins. Or, to put it in the words of my friend Rabbi David Ingber, every day that the Temple is not, as it were, rebuilt, it is being destroyed. The Talmud teaches that, each and every night, God awakens multiple times and roars like an injured lion, crying, “Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!” (Berakhot 3a). The world is broken through dis-integration, and daily remains broken through our failure to come together.

We live in a time when this tragic reality has never been more apparent. In an era where there is more possibility for togetherness than at any other time in history, powerful forces who profit from disunity and hatred constantly seek to pull us apart, exploiting our fears to turn us into enemies. We must not let them. Violent extremists taunt us into becoming as brutal as they are. Homegrown demagogues lure us to respond by normalizing prejudice and by giving thinly-veiled license for violent vigilantism. The massacre in Orlando and yesterday’s murders outside a New York mosque are two manifestations of the same basic spiritual sickness. The Temple is destroyed whenever we permit ourselves to hate each other.

But the Jewish tradition insists that there is a remedy for this seemingly ceaseless cycle of brokenness. V’yerushalayim irkha b’rahamim tashuv. Three times daily, the observant Jew prays: You, God, will restore Jerusalem, Your city, through love. If destruction occurs because of dis-integration, then redemption can be brought about through integration, through unity, through togetherness, through love. If the Temple is destroyed because of unfettered hatred, then it can be restored through unconstrained love. We can repair our broken world by coming together, by refusing to be enemies, by resiliently striving to be each other’s allies. Friends. Brothers and sisters.

And make no mistake: that’s what we’re doing here. We are repairing the world, all of us, together. We may not be able to change the whole world here, tonight. But we can change our own hearts. We can pray together for an end to hate, but our prayers cannot be answered until we begin to love. We can pray for redemption, but our prayers cannot be answered until we become agents of that redemption. Tonight, we model the kind of togetherness and unconstrained love we want to see in our country and world, and commit to becoming agents of redemption. It may not repair all that is broken, but it is a beautiful start.

In that sense, it feels fitting to close with two prayers. The first is a prayer by St. Francis, because, to me, nothing says “togetherness” like a Jew sharing a Catholic prayer at an Eid dinner. Feel free to join with me if you know the words:

God, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

The second prayer is actually a contemporary song called “Salaam” by the Israeli band Sheva, a group made up of Muslims and Jews who fuse traditional Jewish and Arab music with contemporary rock, forging something unique and beautiful. The words mean, “Peace will yet come upon us, and upon everyone. Peace. Upon us and upon all the world. Peace, peace.” The song uses both the Hebrew, “shalom,” and the Arabic, “salaam,” when referring to peace. If you know the words, you are welcome to sing along with me.

Od yavo shalom aleinu, v‘al kulam

Salaam, aleinu v’al kol ha-olam, salaam, salaam.

Taqabbala Allahu minna wa minkum. Shalom.

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Baccalaureate Address for Maggie Walker Governor’s School, Class of 2016


I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited here this evening. It is such an honor to be with you, to celebrate this extraordinary milestone with you and your families.

I want to share a story with you. It’s one of my favorite Jewish stories, written by my rabbinic forebears nearly two thousand years ago:

It once happened that a group of travellers set out on a boat. As they drifted out into the middle of the sea, one of the passengers took out a drill, and started to drill beneath his seat.

The other passengers begin to notice and ask, “What are you doing?”

“I’m drilling a hole!” the man replies.

“Why are you digging a hole?” the other passengers ask, incredulously.

“Why? Because it’s a nice day for drilling holes!”

As the passengers see the hole grow bigger and bigger, they began to cry and beg, “Please! Please, stop! You must stop! Don’t you see that you’re going to sink the boat?!”

The man was perplexed by their concerns. “Why are you so upset? After all, I’m only drilling under my own seat!”

Of course, we know that the driller’s attitude is absurd. If a hole is drilled in a boat, water will rush in, the boat will sink, and all the passengers will drown. Everyone is impacted, not just those near the hole. When we’re all in the same boat, it doesn’t matter if a hole is made only under one person’s seat, only in one part of the boat. One person’s problem is in reality everyone’s problem.

Why does this story matter? Why am I sharing it with you this evening, as you stand at the cusp of your high school graduation? Because the truth at the core of this story applies not only to boats, but also to our world. Though it sometimes might seem that we occupy a relatively small and insignificant place in a large world, that our lives do not touch people on the other side of Richmond, much less on the other side of the planet, the truth is that, in actuality, we are all in the same boat.

It has always been true that everyone and everything on our planet is, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” But in our time, the fact of our interconnectedness has become even more inescapable. A few years ago, President Obama reminded a crowd in Germany that “the 21st [century] has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.” To support that claim, Obama offered some powerful and compelling evidence:

The terrorists of September 11th plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil.

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

Poorly secured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, or secrets from a scientist in Pakistan could help build a bomb that detonates in Paris. The poppies in Afghanistan become the heroin in Berlin. The poverty and violence in Somalia breeds the terror of tomorrow. The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.

Obama’s words have stayed with me over the past few years as I have seen their truth continue to play out in the unfolding drama of our time. Each passing day seems to reveal more and more how our world is totally intertwined, how we are all connected in infinite and immeasurable ways. We see how poverty doesn’t only impact the poor, how racism doesn’t only impact people of color, how Islamophobia doesn’t only impact Muslims, how homophobia and transphobia doesn’t only impact LGBT individuals. We see how war and suffering halfway across the world cannot be contained by borders or walls or oceans, how conflict in Syria and Iraq can erupt in Paris and Brussels, in San Bernardino and Orlando. This is what King meant when he wrote from a Birmingham Jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…”

Graduates, this is the world you are inheriting. This is the world you enter into as young adults. An interconnected and interdependent world. A world in which our words and our deeds can have broad and unpredictable impact, for good or ill. A world in which our failing to step up, speak out, or take action can have dire consequences in places you’ve never been to or even heard of. In fact, what we don’t do can matter as much as what we do. Apathy can do as much harm as caring about the wrong things, and having concern for others beside and different from ourselves can do extraordinary good. As the modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we do — everyone — our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.”

Living in this connected world calls for lives of responsibility: responsibility for each other, responsibility for the other, responsibility for our entire planet. It’s not enough to look out for ourselves and to take care only of those closest to us. We must expand our spheres of concern and compassion.

And – we must pay attention. We must care about what’s going on and get involved, even if the issues don’t directly impact us. As the Book of Deuteronomy teaches, “You must not look away.” We cannot avert our eyes from injustice and act as though it isn’t our problem. In an interconnected world, someone else’s problem is your problem, too.

We are all in the same boat. I cannot promise you that it will always be smooth sailing. But I do know that you, class of 2016, you have the power to keep it afloat, you have the power to keep our course true. And if you do, you will play your part in helping us all make it to the Promised Land, a world of compassion, justice, and peace. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.

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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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