Friday, October 28, 2011


To all of the non-baseball fans out there, I wanted to make sure you knew about last night's Game Six of the World Series between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Commentators are already declaring the Cardinals' victory, which forces a Game Seven tonight, the greatest World Series game of all time!!  Read the local St. Louis coverage of the game here.

One of the things that caught my eye in reading all of the coverage of the game this morning was the fact that the Rangers' staff had already started preparing their locker room for the World Series victory party (which would have taken place had the Rangers won the game....which they literally on the verge of doing).  But alas, the Cards won.  And so, the hanging of plastic sheets over TV monitors and computers (to protect them from champagne) proved premature and unnecessary.
I love baseball (RIP 2011 Philadelphia Phillies).  But I never understood why locker room celebrations had to be marked by an excess of champagne and beer (televised live of course).
Either the Cards or the Rangers are going to win tonight's game, and the Series.  And one of them is sure to be doing some serious celebrating.  But at the risk of being a "party pooper," I want to devote this week's Etanu to the question of celebrating responsibly.

Some have suggested that champagne use be curtailed in baseball's postseason....Major League Baseball has asked teams to make sure that non-alcoholic choices are available...But I am going one step further.  I want to go on the record today to say that there is something wrong with the public glorification of excessive drinking - even when a team has just won the World Series.

I am deeply concerned about the mixed messages that we send our kids (and adults who continue to struggle with making healthy choices about alcohol) when network television broadcasts our larger than life heroes celebrating with champagne.

I'm not suggesting that Judaism is "dry" and believes we should be too.  Our tradition firmly accepts that there is a time and a place for enjoying alcohol moderation.  Adults in our community are invited to enjoy a little bit of wine during kiddush on Shabbat.  And we're invited to have four cups of wine on Passover (seders can get long and boring, after all).  But maintaining that sense of moderation is key.  Our tradition never allows or encourages binge drinking.  And it certainly never endorses alcohol-induced irresponsible behavior like drunk driving.

Judaism's approach to alcohol comes from several different places in the Torah, including in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Noach.  The portion is famously known for the story of the Great Flood...of Noah and his family (and all the animals) hunkering down on the Ark for 40 days and 40 nights....until eventually the rain stopped, they could get off the boat, get on with human history.

Except...there's a strange post-script to the story (Genesis 9:20-29).  According to the text, the very first thing that Noah did when he got off the boat was plant a vineyard.  (One commentator suggests that it was because Noah had an unhealthy dependence on alcohol, and desperately needed wine after the Flood.  And so, before planting fruits or vegetables, he started taking steps so that he could ultimately drink.)

Later, when he finally drank the wine, there is a bizarre incident with his sons.  It involves Noah being naked.  It's way strange.  The text isn't clear if something sexual happened...or if Noah just got so drunk that he became immodest/didn't realize that he was stripping...

What is clear is that the Torah is teaching us that alcohol (especially when we abuse it) has the power to make us do things that we don't even realize in the moment that we are doing.  And that is terribly problematic when it comes to a Jewish way of life.  Our ethics demand that we are constantly aware of our actions, and that we are always striving to make good, healthy, safe choices.

This strange incident with Noah and his sons teaches us about the danger that we put ourselves (and others) in when we lose control, and give up the ability to evaluate our actions/interactions with others.

So: to the Cardinals or the Rangers...whoever wins conscious of your behavior, and of what kind of message your champagne party is sending to impressionable Americans who are watching on TV.

And for the rest of us: a reminder that drinking requires a tremendous amount of maturity - to be self aware to know when we are approaching our limit, to know when we are potentially putting our bodies in harm's know when we absolutely should not be getting behind the wheel of a car, or hooking up with someone that we hardly know (or trust).

For anyone that has struggled with alcohol, the good news is that there are amazing resources to help!  Click here for the website of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) or click here to find AA meetings around the country.  Everyone should also know about JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others)...the Jewish response to Alcoholism.  Click here for a directory of their local meetings.

Hoping you'll keep all of this information in mind...And that the next time you have occasion to celebrate...that you do it responsibly.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Release of Gilad Shalit: Finding (and Fulfilling) Our Purpose in Life

Hopefully by now you've heard about the big news from Israel this week about the release of Gilad Shalit, after being held for five years as a hostage by Hamas.

In exchange for his release, the Israeli government agreed to release more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners - many of them convicted murderers and terrorists.  (It's so important to remember that, even as we rejoice in Gilad's safe return, many of the families of the victims of other acts of terror are suffering - in knowing that the murderers of their children are being freed.  Do take the time to click here to read the short but poignant reflection written by my good friend Rabbi Micah Streiffer about Gilad Shalit and our friend Marla Bennett z"l (who so many in San Diego knew and loved).)

The transaction of 1000 terrorists for one soldier presents a pressing moral question.

I'd like to briefly examine it through the lens of this week's Torah portion, Parshat Breishit - the very first portion of the Torah. 

Breishit of course tells the story of creation.  And one of the things that the text goes out of its way to emphasize is that every single thing in the world was created for a particular purpose.  Light was created for Day.  And Darkness was created for Night.  Rivers were created to flow.  Etc.  Etc.

And according to the Torah, the essential purpose of humanity is to tend to our relationships with our loved ones.

How do we know this?

Because Adam (the first person) is never expected to live a solitary existence.  From the moment Adam is created, God is conscious of the fact that Adam needs a partner (thus explaining the existence of Eve).  Adam is not whole until he enters into relationship with another.

To be human is to constantly be compelled to do everything in our power to care for the ones we love.

In light of the Gilad Shalit situation, I have been thinking about the families that I know that suffered the devastating and horrible loss of a child.  And how that suffering can never fully be relieved because there is nothing that we can do to bring that child back.

And then I think of the Shalit's.  And about the fact that even though the circumstances must have made them realize that getting Gilad back was extraordinarily unlikely...that they devoted their lives over the last 5 years to making it happen.  They never gave up hope.  They couldn't imagine doing so.  Because, as parents, their chief purpose in life was to do everything they could to bring Gilad back.  That's just what we do.  It's how God made us human.

And so, in that sense, there's nothing terribly complicated for me about the transaction that Israel agreed to.  A parent, or a country, can't really give up on one of their own.  It's not how we were created to be.  We're human.  God endowed us with a DNA that dictates our concern for our own.  It's our purpose in life.

What about you?  On this Shabbat I challenge you to look in the mirror.  Who do you see in the reflection?  What is the reason you (in particular) were put on this planet?  What is the unique purpose that you have?  And what, if anything, are you doing to fulfill it?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sukkot: Challenging the Way We Think About the Other Religions of the World

Sukkot is the perfect time of year for us to think about those who are religiously different from us.  The very nature of the design of the sukkah (a walled structure that is also open) hails visitors and guests of all backgrounds to come in, and join the occupants for a meal.

The long-honored custom of ushpizin (of ritually welcoming guests into the sukkah for hospitality) also encourages diversity.  Check out this attempt at an interfaith ushpizin ritual.

The non-permanence of the sukkah also suggests that the holiday is a time for us to meditate on breaking down boundaries/divisions, rather than establishing new ones.

This theme is also played out in the Haftarah reading that Jews around the world read on the first morning of Sukkot (this past Thursday).  According to the prophet Zechariah, one of the things that might happen at the end of time is that: "The survivors of all the nations of the world who came against Jerusalem [and the Jewish People] shall annually go up to worship the Sovereign God of Heaven's Hosts and celebrate the festival of Sukkot" (Zechariah 14:16).

Some might read this passage as suggesting a fervent belief by our ancient Biblical ancestors that their religion was superior to all of the other religions of the world.  And that, at the end of time, everyone else would realize the "error of their ways" and come to embrace Judaism as well.

But that would be a significant mistake.  The passage doesn't say anything about everyone needing to be Jewish.  It only suggests an immense value in having all of the people of the world do something (in this case, celebrate Sukkot) together.

Behind that statement is an assumption that we are more alike than we are different.  And that whatever surface level religious beliefs might distinguish us from each other, at the end of the day we are all seeking a Higher Power and a worldview that will enable us to do Good in the world.  And that, occasionally at least, it would be an awfully healthy thing if we were able to figure out a way to become friends with one another.

Off the top of my head, I would say that the Olympics are the closest we come in our society to actually pulling this off today.  Once every four years (okay, every 2 for a Winter Games, and every 2 for a Summer Games), the whole world (regardless of race, religion, or political philosophy) comes together to celebrate, and compete in, Sport.

The bad news is that we have 287 days to go until the London Summer Games.

And, pending some other domestic or world crisis (God forbid), the only thing we have to distract ourselves with on television until then is...the Republican primary for the 2012 presidential election. of the dominant news stories coming out of that race thus far has been....the candidates' religion!

Watch this video from Chris Matthews' show on Hardball (Oct 13, 2011).  It covers the basic background surrounding the suggestion by Rick Perry (and others associated with the Republican Party) that Mitt Romney (and, by extension, Jon Huntsman) are not qualified to be President because they are Mormons.

Some conservative Christians would discriminate against Mormons because of their religious beliefs.  And some would discriminate against Catholics as well.

JFK's Catholicism has long been documented as an important component of the 1960 Presidential Campaign.  But in 2011...we're still talking about this?  Are people really going to cast their vote because they are suspicious of a candidate's religious affiliation?

I know...I'm naive.  But it is so hard for me to believe that Americans are fixated on some one's religion in this day and age.  Yes: I get that a person's religion informs their politics (my Judaism informs my politics, anyway).  But - if I were ever to run for office - I don't think I would ever want someone to vote for or against me, just because I was Jewish.  Voters should back the candidate that shares their overall values, and has a vision for the future of our country that they agree with.

So: my hope and prayer on this Sukkot is that the lessons of the holiday reach all of those in this country who would seek to use religion to divide us.  Sukkot is a holiday that teaches us that our world will be better, and stronger, if we can find occasions when we can all join together: celebrating that which unites us...rather than that which pulls us apart.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yom Kippur Sermon 5772: The time to forgive with compassion is Now.

It wasn’t a good year for Masataka Shimizu.  He earned terrible marks for his leadership of the Tokyo Power Company, as the March nuclear disaster engulfed the Fukushima Dai’ichi reactor in Japan.

In short order, experts concluded that Shimizu’s faulty leadership was responsible: for the accident’s environmental impact, which will equal that of Chernobyl; for the tainted food and water, which even resulted in the detection of plutonium in Tokyo’s tap water…and for the human impact - whereby 50,000 families permanently evacuated their homes.  They all must now start over again, because TEPCO couldn’t fulfill its obligations to the Japanese public.

Japan might be half a world away.  But surely all of us have survived nuclear disasters of one kind or another in our personal lives.
For example, I am still grappling, years later, with unanswered questions about the friend who repeatedly lied to me, and about the family member who callously said horrible things about me to my face.  Both individuals’ words ruptured my relationships with them…in one case, permanently.
The Fukushima Dai’ichi incident is a sad analogy for our personal lives.  All of us are haunted by disasters in our past.  They begin as moments of anguish.  But they turn into seasons that stretch on, in which the hurt of being wounded prevents us from picking up the pieces, and going on with the rest of our lives.
Today is Yom Kippur: a day on which forgiveness is sought and granted.  

The Torah describes today as the Sabbath of Sabbaths: a day of rest in which time stands still.  When we forget the other obligations of our lives, and concentrate instead on seeking forgiveness for ourselves, and – as we shall specifically explore tonight: granting forgiveness to others as well. 

We will confront hard questions…questions about whether there are sins that are unforgivable.  And how it is that we are supposed to “move on”, when we have been hurt so deeply that we can barely get out of bed, let alone turn the page on a painful chapter of our life.
But before all of that, I want to begin by acknowledging what Judaism takes for granted: that none of us is perfect.  All of us have made mistakes.  And according to the Jewish value of teshuvah – of repentance – we must seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.

Yet our rabbis cautioned that forgiveness is a two way street.  We seek forgiveness for that which we have done wrong…and at the same time, we forgive those who have wronged us. 

Thus we read in the Talmud: “Whose sin is forgiven?  The sin of the one who forgives others.”  Our tradition believes that our ability to attain forgiveness is contingent on our willingness to absolve others.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells the story of Linda Kenney, a woman who almost died at the hands of her anesthesiologist after he made a mistake during a procedure.  Upon leaving the hospital, her husband immediately engaged a lawyer to sue the anesthesiologist for everything he had.  But Linda and her husband were caught off guard by the handwritten apology that they soon received.  In the letter (and you can just hear the hospital’s lawyers groaning in the background), the doctor takes full responsibility for the errors that he made!

Over time, the doctor’s wish to apologize to Linda in person had the desired effect: the Kenney’s decided to forgive him.  And from that forgiveness came the joint establishment, with the doctor, of a new organization devoted to helping doctors and patients deal with trauma resulting from medical errors.

In telling Linda’s story, Telushkin teaches us that her capacity to forgive made her more righteous…and thus more deserving of being forgiven by the ones that she had wronged in her own life.  

There are certainly situations in which Judaism advises against forgiving: like when a murder has been committed.  Murder is unforgivable because the victim cannot do the forgiving.

Gossip is also unforgivable, because, like murder, it is not un-do-able.  Our reputation can be assassinated when an evil gossiper spreads terrible lies about us.

And of course there are pre-meditated violent crimes that are considered unforgivable too: violations like rape, other kinds of sexual and physical abuse, kidnapping, and even mugging.  When a criminal commits these heinous acts, he obliterates the innate and precious trust we have of our fellow human beings. 

But putting those exceptions aside…on this Yom Kippur we come to terms with our own shortcomings.  And as we do so, we can channel that awareness into the realization that everyone else is also flawed.  Even as we seek to accept our own shortcomings, I would challenge you to take this season to become more accepting, and forgiving, of the flaws in others as well.

Forgiveness, of course, is not something that should be offered automatically!  Even when we consider a situation that doesn’t involve an extreme example like rape or murder, Jewish law dictates that forgiveness should only be granted after the offender has done teshuvah, or fully repented. 
There are three basic steps to doing teshuvah, and we should be familiar with them – so that we ourselves can repent, and so that we can judge whether others should be forgiven.

The first step towards Jewish repentance is cheshbon nefesh: an accounting of our soul, that enables us to be self-reflective about our actions.  This is the critical first step of repentance because without it, we would never even REALIZE that we had done something wrong!

Consider two of this year’s most public sinners, and the way they handled their chesbon nefesh.
First, we have former baseball superstar Roger Clemensample evidence to the contrary.  Clemens continues to maintain his innocence, and thus he has never apologized.  He does not seem to have received the memo about cheshbon nefesh!

And on the other hand, we have former congressman Anthony Weiner.  The congressman does not deserve any rewards for his wildly inappropriate use of Twitter.  But give him an ounce of credit: at least he resigned and apologized.  He took responsibility for his mistakes by doing a cheshbon nefesh, even though the damage of his transgressions had already been done.  

Maimonides emphasized the criticality of an apology, and so it is the second necessary ingredient for repentance.  Maimonides wrote that: “It is…praiseworthy for the penitent to confess…and announce his sins, and reveal…the transgressions he committed against his neighbor.  He should say to them: ‘Truly I have sinned ….But now I am turning, and repenting.”

Anthony Weiner apologized.  And so did our friend Masataka Shimizu, who even went on an apology tour…visiting several shelters throughout Japan to meet with, and apologize to, displaced families impacted by TEPCO’s mismanagement of the nuclear disaster.   

Nonetheless, teshuvah is not fulfilled simply by doing cheshbon nefesh, and apologizing.  Real teshuvah happens when the penitent proves she’ll never repeat the same mistake again.

The staff at Fukushima Dai’ichi won’t have the ability to do this teshuvah because their plant will never come back online.  We’ll be cleaning up there for decades to come.

But consider another Japanese example: Toyota made a number of manufacturing errors over the last year or two.  It did cheshbon nefesh, and offered its apologies.  Only time will tell if the company has really changed…whether it is taking its responsibility for safety seriously, or whether it will cut corners again to make more money by producing cars on an ever larger scale.

On this Day of Repentance, like God, we sit as Judges against the ones who have harmed us.  As they ask for forgiveness, we must discern whether they have been self reflective, offered apologies, and truly changed.  And if they have: we must re-embrace and forgive them.  Our tradition is clear.  So long as we have not been the victim of an unforgivable sin, and so long as the offender has done teshuvah: then we are obligated to forgive.

The trouble is….that’s easier said than done.

I return, once again, to the imagery of a nuclear explosion.  Think about the word “meltdown.”  Doesn’t that word convey the whole range of emotions that we experience when the people we care about most do terrible things…that don’t just hurt us, but actually call into question the future viability of the relationship?  There is the pent up blast of anger and rage that is eventually released in a furious confrontation!  And then…the disturbingly quiet aftermath that is as depressing as nuclear winter.

Our upset doesn’t go away after a single day, week, or year.  For some of us, the hurt is so deep that we become convinced that we will never be able to get over it.

The question is: what are we supposed to do if the person that we are really, really, angry with comes and seeks forgiveness before we’ve cooled down?

Rabbi Harold Kushner, writes, that during the months, years, or even decades that we remain angry – it is as if we are holding a white hot club in our hands…always waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike back against the one who wronged us.  But of course, Kushner writes, those moments never come.  The only thing that comes of all that anger is that we wind up metaphorically burning ourselves, by holding onto the anger for so long.

Seneca, of ancient Rome, suggested that “anger will cease and become more controllable if it finds that it must appear before a judge every day.”

He notes that one we way can cope with our anger, and ultimately find the strength to forgive, is by acknowledging the pain that lies within us, and talk about it.

Some of us do that in therapy, or in a private conversation with clergy.  Others do it by practicing the Jewish art of musar in a casual support group, where we can learn how to be self reflective by listening to one another.

Sometimes, forgiving becomes easier if we just practice saying the words “I forgive you” out loud.

One Jewish tradition suggests that we take on the spiritual practice of reciting the following meditation each night, just before saying the Shema and going to bed: “Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me, or who sinned against me – whether they did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely.”

What a beautiful practice: naming our anger out loud…and then letting it go.

Even if we don’t actually mean it: by getting into the habit of offering forgiveness each day, we prepare ourselves for the moment when it will actually count.  When another person will approach us.  When we hold the power in our hands to release them from the guilt they suffer for what they once did to us.   

Our obligation to forgive is a serious one.  And yet Jewish Law allows that if a person comes to us the first time begging for forgiveness: we can ignore them!  After all…they hurt us so deeply – it can’t possibly be reasonable to expect that we’ll forgive them the first time they come apologizing.

And even if we brush them off a second time a few weeks later…our tradition is compassionate.  The pain we carry around is real.  Letting go is not easy.

But if the person comes to us a third time…we have no choice.  We must forgive.  However much it hurts us.  However impossible it seems.  As long as they haven’t raped, murdered, mugged, or lied about us to others…then we must forgive.  And if we don’t, then we are in the wrong.  For we have shamed the one who has come to us in authentic repentance.  And now, we must go to them, and beg forgiveness for being stubborn.

It is fitting that on Yom Kippur afternoon we read from the Book of Jonah.  In that story, God discovers abundant compassion to forgive the people of Nineveh for their transgressions, for they repented, and changed the way that they lived.

In contrast: it was Jonah who was stubborn, for he could not find it within himself to forgive.  He was convinced that the Ninevites were monsters.  He could not open his eyes to see that they were just flawed and imperfect – not unlike himself.

Jonah failed God’s test, not because Jonah didn’t trust God.  But because he was so stubborn that he couldn’t trust in the possibility of good within others.

This is the very task that lies before us today, and in our lives.  It is the task that the people of Japan must confront, as Masataka Shimizu continues his tour of repentance.  And it is what you and I are called to do at this very hour as well.

Yehuda Amichai wrote:

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

Would that we were immortal!  Would that time stood still every day of our lives as it does on this Sabbath of Sabbaths!  Would that the length of our days was unending, so that we could put off the task of forgiving others until tomorrow.

But the sun will set on this day, and Yom Kippur will be over.  And we will be left with the unavoidable realization that our presence on this earth is finite.  The clock is ticking.  The time to forgive with compassion is: Now.