10:30 AM – Shacharit Service Please join us for a Shabbat morning service led by John Jones.
Service followed by an Oneg lunch. Temple Shalom will provide an entree. Please bring a vegetable, salad or dessert to share. No meat please.
10:30 AM – Shacharit Service Please join us for a Shabbat morning service led by John Jones.
Service followed by an Oneg lunch. Temple Shalom will provide an entree. Please bring a vegetable, salad or dessert to share. No meat please.
(This speech was given at the vigil in Yakima Washington shortly after the attack on Chabad of Poway)
We have come together again and sorrow. I see many of the same faces. Getting the best of ways, we have to stop meeting like this. B’Ezrat HaShem, In Sh’Allah, G-d willing, this should be the last time.
We are here to grieve for the dead, and pray for the injured. May their recoveries be swift, and their memories be a blessing to those who knew the departed in life.
As I had stated last time I was asked to speak, I am a practical and pragmatically minded person. I find solace in analyzing the problem and searching for solutions. In such I have no more time for handwringing and cheap moralizing. So I pray you will forgive the analysis of an angry young man, and perhaps take to heart a call to action, derived from cooler reflection.
This last week, two moments of terror ripped into the world. Easter Sunday saw Sri Lankan churches under direct and active attack. 500 bombs killed 253 worshippers on one of the holiest days for the Christian faith. Two days ago, a white nationalist terrorist walked into a shul in Poway California and killed 1 woman, and injured 4 more, including the Rabbi, who despite having his fingers shot off, had the presence of mind during the crisis to evacuate the children, then braving the fire again to face the terrorist, went back inside the building to evacuate all of the other congregants.
Before that, an even deadlier attack shattered the muslim community of christchurch NZ. It is with great regret, that I admit I let my own feelings of awkwardness prevent me from speaking publicly at that event. And for that I sincerely apologize for failing to lend my voice in support and condemnation.
And even before that, we gathered in rememberance of the shooting at ther Tree of Live Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I have lost my patience. We gather in remembrance, a good thing. We sit, and we moralize, and we speak of love and tolerance. I am tired of tolerance. I will no longer be tolerant of hate. And I will no longer be tolerant of what we Jews call Avoda Zarah, or idolatry.
I mean that in a very specific way. I consider all of these terrorists idolaters. They deify their own wills and desires over the will of the Holy One. When he calls for peace, they offer violence. When He demands justice, they offer oppression. And where he requires love, all they offer is hate.
There is a statement in the Talmud, that if one is kind to the cruel, that person will eventually be cruel to the kind. I ask you to decrease your tolerance for hate. That is not cruelty. That is justice. Those who choose not to live by the 3 tenants of behavior listed above are outside civilization, and are not welcome in my presence in my congregation and in my community. I hope you feel the same. I ask you, counter to the direction we usually seek, to be less tolerant.
In this time of what we consider heightened religious violence, I ask you something in my second call to action that also seems counterintuitive. Be more religious. Here’s what I mean.
All of our faiths gathered here today hold as precious the practice of love, justice, and peace. I ask you to embrace these tenants of faith. Most of all within our community itself. Forget the world, the world is a concept beyond us, something we will never touch. We can touch our neighbors though. The Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Righteous Memory stated
“The Torah recognizes that it is often harder to love our neighbor, the flesh-and-blood person who lives near us and whose faults and annoying characteristics we are well aware of, than to love mankind, consisting of people whom we have never met and never will meet. It is wise to be guided by the words of Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700–1760), the founder of Chasidism: “Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so we should love our fellows despite the faults we see in them.”
I expect this of myself. And just as the Rebbe asked others to be his messengers, I ask you to be my messengers with this one mission, to show the obligations of peace, justice, and love placed upon us by the Holy One Blessed be He in your house, your friends, your work and your neighborhood. Thank you for your time.
This week I want to talk about words, and how they affect both us, and the world around us.
וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכָּל־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם׃
“And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”
Rashi says that this is to their credit, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, I am seeing a problem with this assumption and mindset. We seem to be in a world of increasingly concealed kindness. In fact, it often gets so concealed that we might assume it’s not even there. Not only are we seeing increasing hate in the world, which is certainly in itself a problem, we are seeing a decrease in the language of love.
According to the authors in a study in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2012,
“Words like “love,” “patience,” and “faithfulness,” for example, as well as words like “humility,” “modesty,” and “kindness” have each declined in use by some 50 percent or more in the modern age, researchers have found as they survey the millions of books and written records that have become digitized. “Moral ideals and virtues have largely waned from the public conversation,”
Is there a connection between the decrease in these words and the increase of hate? I think there is. As in our Parsha, his brothers don’t start with wanting to kill Yosef, they start by not being able to speak nicely to him. We know from psychology that the words we speak alter how we view and interact with the world. In a phrase; if we speak of good, we feel good. When we feel good, we do good. And the inverse goes without saying. We have, with good intentions, muzzled our language away from a good path. In an effort to prevent religious zealots from controlling minorities, we pushed moral discourse out of the public sphere along with religious discourse. The article I read was from the perspective of a secular humanist chaplain (we can discuss that later) who has noticed himself that as we increasingly discourage religious language, we are losing those words that it encouraged. We also have the odd phenomenon of the religious becoming more and more indifferent to suffering.
Judaism’s contribution to the world has been ethical monotheism. We introduced many concepts four thousand years ago that led to our humanistic virtues today. Many Jews turned to idealistic political movements because of our values. Many of the foundations of communism for instance are directly taken from Torah. Even the consummate atheist Nietzsche stated in his book, The Joyful Science “Do not think that once you have eliminated religion, that reason alone will be a foundation for morality. Morals only have import from the religious skeleton of society.” To this effect, in 2014 a study was conducted on engagement with a religious community and the kindness of that person’s actions. THey found that regardless of belief, a person who engages with a local house of worship was 35% more likely to give to charity, more likely to find someone a job who needs it, more likely to help a stranger in need. One of the amusing conclusions of Rabbi Sacks on this study is that, “An atheist who attends synagogue will end up being kinder than a deeply believing person who does not.” But according to a 2016 pew survey what drives most people away from a synagogue or a church? It’s not belief, it’s harsh words. As the vocabulary of our society loses the language of love and morality, we see the replacements are from the language of hate and severity. The Talmud itself censors harsh speech stating that not only should we not murder, but anyone who uses unnecessary harsh language that causes a person to blush, has shed his blood and is a murderer!
In Bereishit, the Torah states that the world was created with words. Everything was dark until “Vayomer Elokhim, yehi or.” HaShem said “Let there be light”. And there was. Words are of supreme importance to us. The Talmud itself describes Torah as “black fire on white fire”. If we take this analogy literally, words are fire. If we harness fire properly, it is still, in our age, our most influential and important technology. However, as we know in our area, and with the recent instances in California, unharnessed, uncontrolled, fire is amongst the most destructive forces in the world. We also value fire in Judaism. We light candles for the start of Shabbat, for the end of Shabbat, for Yom Tov, we have a ner tamid in every shul. If, as the Hasidim illustrate, our souls are divine sparks, our words are our flickering flames. As we come into the festival of lights, may we remember that every word we speak lights the world around us. Will it be positive, providing light and warmth? Or will we burn, reckless and damaging. There is no middle ground. You will speak. What will you say?
Shabbat Shalom. Hanukkah Sameach.
Vayishlach is in a word, huge. At 153 verses it covers an extremely wide field of events. It recounts Yaakov’s return to Eretz Israel, his wrestling match with an angel, his interaction with Esav, the story of Dinah bat Leah (the only recorded daughter of the Patriarchs), and the death of Rachel.
While I look forward to many years of pouring over and interpreting/re-interpreting this parsha; I’d like to focus on one aspect, the interaction between Yaakov and Esav. Their interaction begins long before they say a single word to each other.
וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּוֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּאן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת׃
“Yaakov was greatly frightened; in his distress, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps”,
Rashi interprets that verse ויירא…ויצר HE FEARED GREATLY AND WAS DISTRESSED — He was afraid lest he be killed, and he was distressed that he might have to kill someone (Genesis Rabbah 76:2).
My goal in my drashim this year is largely to see what real life connections we can pull out of each week’s parsha. And when I read this passage this year, it reminded me of the fear and distress facing the Jewish community today. Esav is often the “bogeyman” of Rabbinic literature, standing in symbolically for any enemy of the Jewish people. The Rabbis link him to Rome, and Targum Sheni lists him as the progenitor of Haman. In Talmud Bava Batra he is listed as a murderer and a rapist. Modern Rabbis often call Esav a “terrorist”. We see ample reason for Yaakov to be afraid. However we see some extraordinary care taken by Yaakov that seems to go beyond merely fear. Let’s explore this interaction.
Yes, Yaakov has reason to fear Esav, however, we see in his wrestling an angel and winning that the yeshiva boy is no slouch physically either. Yaakov however makes every attempt to avoid killing. He sends his brother gifts in waves thinking if Esav’s anger can be abated we can avoid bloodshed. This is not an endorsement of appeasement or a condemnation of self-defense, but a reiteration that all of humanity are made in b’tzelem Elokhim, and as such any reasonable effort to avoid ending a life must be made.
Thankfully the reunion between the twins is a peaceful one. Esav even acceding that the blessing belongs to Yaakov (at least in Rashi’s interpretation). However, even with the reconciliation, Yaakov still remains cognizant of who Esav is. He does not want to follow to Seir fearing both the violence and negative influence of his brother on his children. As stated in Pirkei Avot 1:7, “Nittai Ha’arbeli says: Distance yourself from an evil neighbor, [so that you not learn from his deeds, and, also, so that you not share in his downfall, for “Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor!”], a…”. So what does he do? He gives the first recorded instance of the “Seattle no”. For those who have never heard of this, it’s when you see someone you have not seen for awhile, they say you should get together sometime, and you answer, “Yes, we should do that sometime.” Without giving any firm answer on a when or what.
Before he distances himself though, he starts by testing Esav. My interpretation is that this is a gauge of if/how Esav has changed, and where his priorities lie. As we can see from both Talmud and Halacha, we want to distance from an evil neighbor, but the condemnation of a person relies on the testimony of at least 2 witnesses. So Yaakov makes 3 arguments. That he cannot go fast on account of the children, then on behalf of the animals, then he implies a material loss
First we talk about the children. If Esav has become a true mensch, that should be enough to explain why he can’t go faster. Children can only walk so fast. THere should be no argument from a caring person to Yaakov’s statement. However, children can be carried. This is the first level of testing because while a developed sensitivity to human suffering would quell any objections, there is a practical solution that can be acceptable to those with lower sensitivity. We can extrapolate from Yaakov’s need to continue that this argument did not work.
Next he brings up the animals. “The flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. (Gen 33:14 JPS) Yaakov first implores on an emotional level for the animals. Often psychologically, even if a person shows sociopathic tendencies towards people, they may still show compassion to animals. On top of that there is no immediate retort for this, you can carry the children, but you can’t carry the animals. THis is our second test, because though human suffering is a higher sensitivity than animal, the lack of solution to this should be self evident, and be sufficient reason to accept Yaakov’s objections. Yet, again, Yaakov needs to go on, showing that Esav fails again.
His final step, materialism. “If I push them (the animals) they will all die.”. Esav accepts. Materialism is what moves Esav. The children? Tough. Cruel to the animals? Tough. You’ll suffer a material loss? Well, that’s different. Only this loss moves Esav to accept Yaakov’s suggestion. One only needs to see the chaos caused by black friday to see the effects of concentrated materialism on the mind and the soul.
Now what does this teach us? On the surface, the quote from Pirkei Avot seems exclusive, and against our welcoming nature and mitzvot. However, when viewed through a halachic lense, we should remember that we welcome anyone, but we must also be safe, and determine if this person matches our values. Not necessarily observance, but values. If a person’s concern is about people, if they care for animals, if they value family, you can join to build that which cannot be built alone, community. If their only concern is the material, you may contribute, you may be the best friend in the world, but once you no longer present a material benefit, they will lose interest, and despite your best efforts, community will not thrive.
Eileh toldot Yitzchak. These are the generations of Isaac. We’ve already seen Parshas Noach start the same way. Eileh toldot Noach. Rashi, amongst other commentators interpret the word toldot, generally meaning descendants, 3 ways.
There is the surface meaning, their physical children. Eileh toldot Yitzchak…Esav v’Yaakov. On the surface, these are the descendants of Isaac, Esav and Yaakov. The Parsha goes on to talk about the story of their birth and the conflict between them. I am struck again by the normal human lives led by our patriarchs. Compared to his father and his sons, Yitzchak lives a peaceful, uneventful, nearly perfect home life. He lives in Southern Eretz Israel his whole life. Rather than being a bedouin he appears to adopt what we might call a “ranching lifestyle” farming in one place and rotating his herds around a central home or camp. Any tears with his brother are mended, at least nominally, by the time of his father’s death. At 180, he lives the longest of the Patriarchs, and Unlike his father or his sons, he has one wife and no recorded marital problems. But we see that Isaac is still an imperfect father, favoring Esav over Yaakov to the point of ignoring Esav’s increasingly visible troublesome behavior. My own personal thought that I read into the story, is that Yitzchak, mostly shown as an introvert, is drawn to his extroverted son, possibly because he reminded him in some ways of his very extroverted father. Whereas Yaakov, seems to be more similar in personality to Yitzchak. THe Torah states that Yitzchak’s eyes were “dim”, which Rashi implies means that he either was blind to, or willingly overlooked the behavior of his older son because of his affection for him. In this way, even though we see Yitzchak as the archetype of gevurah, meaning restraint or severity, we see that he was lenient, perhaps in a way that was detrimental to his favored son.
The second meaning, and the first of the interpreted meanings of Toldot is that the souls who are brought to Torah are counted as one’s children. On this subject, the Torah expounds upon Yitzchak’s career, namely well digging. THe sages compare his digging for water to his digging for spirituality. He is unlike Avraham, who actively sought converts wherever he went, (in the Torah we see this described as “creating souls”). From this we understand that he was a gregarious and active proselytiser. Yitzchak on the other hand, preferred to bloom where he was planted. He calls upon the name of HaShem the same way Avraham does, But less frequently and we do not read of the souls he created in those words, but rather that his crops produced 100 times the expected amount. THe sages interpret that Yitzchak never preached to anyone, but his life and actions drew others to him, to the point where there were so many followers, and Yitzchak grew so wealthy and influencial that King Avimelech became afraid of him, using a phrase “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” later echoed by PHaroah and antisemites throughout history, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” Though for Yitzchak, Avimelech eventually made a covenant..
THe third interpretation of toldot is deeds. THe good deeds of a person are considered equal to their offspring. Yitzchak as we mentioned earlier dug wells and farmed the land. THis is an action that makes the land around you better for everyone. Avraham was a bedouin, he wandered, constantly in search of new pastures, but Yitzchak stayed, he improved, and he did things to benefit the world around him. And when Yitzchak is presented with contention over his wells? He is obviously powerful enough to fight over them, but he moves on, he digs another well. He is more interested in providing water than he is about the wells.
I must say that I have covered this portion for several years now, and I’ve always viewed Yitzhak as merely sitting in the historical and spiritual waiting room. THat perhaps he is merely a placeholder between Avraham and Yaakov. But I think, that our community can learn a lot from this waiting patriarch.
Temple Shalom’s Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting. This speech was delivered by our Temple President at the interfaith Memorial Service- 11/8/18
Good evening everyone. Thank you for coming.
Saturday, October 27th, 2018, marks the worst attack on on American Jewry in US history. Eleven congregants were shot by a man, who made a choice to kill, based only on the fact that they were Jews. The incident is a stern reminder of the dangers of hate, that within living memory of the Holocaust, we are fielding homegrown anti Semitic terrorists. Our hearts and minds are with the families of the victims in solidarity and mourning.
We as the Jewish People have faced many such calamities in our 40 century history, and have come from them saying in the words of Our Father Jacob, “I will not let go until you bless me.” Or in my interpretation, until we have learned that which there is to be learned.
I hope that we in our community of Yakima, Jews and Non-Jews, can learn 3 things from this.
First: Baseless hatred requires constant vigilance. An age old hatred that had been relegated to the shameful fringes of society has donned new masks and crept out of the shadows under new names, but whispering the same arguments. I was recently forced to end a friendship over a post on Facebook, featuring a cartoon blaming the Rothschilds for our social woes, drawn in the same style as the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s. To exacerbate the issue, he was forcefully unaware of how this could possibly be antisemitic. And then again this week, I had a conversation with someone who was earnestly stating that mainstream Christianity is also the recipient of antisemitism. America has lived in the privilege of ebbing hatred so long we are forgetting what it looks like, and what it is not. As such, we must be extra careful in our dealings with our neighbors, coworkers, and family members to say no, we will not allow hateful speech to progress unchecked in our families, in our communal organizations, and in our media. Everyone has the right to free speech, but we also have the right to contradict.
Second: In the often quoted words made most famous by Martin Luther King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” This is appropriate as we in the Jewish Community approach Hanukkah, the festival of lights. Though I would like to change the quote from love, to compassion. Being a pragmatic person, and coming from a religious tradition with a strong pragmatic streak, I find it impractical to ask you to love everyone. I do not love, and will never ask you to love, the terrorist who shoots up a synagogue, a school, bombs a railway, stabs a family in their own neighborhood, or preaches that others should do so. However, like the Jewish Doctor who treated the wounds received by the terrorist in Pittsburgh, I expect of myself, and ask of all of you, senseless acts of compassion. The world is poisoned by acts of baseless hatred. Perhaps we together can save it, through acts of baseless compassion. Even and especially, to those we don’t love. As in our homes, the menorah sheds its light more brightly as the world gets darker, may we fill the world with light, even as darkness seems to close in around us.
Third: One quote that stood out to me in the myriad of news articles concerning the shooting, came from the terrorist’s neighbor. “I wish I would have known.” We cannot stop what we do not know. On top of my request to you for senseless acts of compassion, I would ask that you don’t forget the sensible relationships around you. Sometimes all it can take is one interaction to save one or more lives. One person you see every day, who knows who you are, and what you stand for, could make the difference between routine and disaster. One night at your dinner table, at a shared activity, at a communal event could change the course of a life whether you know it or not. We are all subject to the butterfly effect, may we remember what effect we have, and hope that the choices we make are able to build and maintain the kind of community we want to live in.
Again on behalf of the Jewish Community of Yakima, Thank you for your support, and thank you for being present her tonight.
We have finished another year of Torah, another year in our Jewish Community. This Shabbat we begin the Torah again with Parashat Bereishit. Our first sentence in the whole Torah is Bereishit bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et haaretz. This is commonly translated as “In the Beginning HaShem created the heavens and the earth.” Rashi believed it was to be interpreted differently. His wording was, “In the beginning of HaShem’s creating.” This is an important distinction. The phrase implies that while being early in the process, these entities were part of an ongoing creation or creative sequence, rather than the beginning and end of a 1 time event. A creation that was before, and a creation that continues.
During what I like to call the “active phase” of creation, there are 3 stages listed by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The Torah actually contains instruction on how to be creative. The first is the stage of saying yehi, “Let there be.” The second is the stage of vayehi, “and there was.” The third is the stage of seeing “that it is good.” vayarei zeh et ki-tov.
What is unique about the Jewish perspective in the world is that we see ourselves as partners in the divine creative process. As such we are the only creatures who speak of our own free will. Even the angels only have a limited free will. They exist to serve HaShem, and so in reality may only speak with His permission and intention. Humans can conceive, develop, refine and make use of wondrous technologies and ideas. There is no doubt that these advances, particularly in information technology and medicine, reflect areas that were left for us to build, as stated in my favorite and often quoted Lubavitcher saying “The world was left incomplete so that you could have a hand in building it.”
And we must build it on good concepts. The founding text of the Mussar movement, Mesilat Yesharim, states directly,
“But, behold man stands on a great balance. For if he is drawn after the world and distances from his Creator, behold, he corrupts himself and corrupts the world with him. But if he rules over himself and clings to his Creator, and uses the world only as an aid to serve his Creator – then he elevates himself and elevates the world with him.”
This brings us back to our creative steps. Step 2, there was. As a person who has made a living in a creative field, I can attest to the hardest part of any endeavor being the step after conception being the obvious, actually doing the thing you thought up.
Judaism holds that though creation is difficult, laborious and fraught with setbacks, we are summoned to it as our essential human vocation: “It is not for you to complete the work,” said Rabbi Tarfon, “but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Mishna, Avot 2:16). There is a lovely rabbinic phrase: maĥashva tova HaKadosh barukh Hu meztarfah lema’aseh (Tosefta, Pe’ah 1:4)
This is usually translated as “HaShem considers a good intention as if it were the deed.” Rabbi Sacks translates it differently: “When a human being has a good intention, HaShem joins in helping it become a deed,” meaning – He gives us the strength, if not now, then eventually, to turn it into achievement. To bring us back to the quote from Mesilat Yesharim, when we cling to HaShem, when we build the Jewish people, build the goyim around us, we “step up” to our role as partners in creation and ‘tip the scales’ of our world to positivity.
Our need to follow through with action is perfectly summed up by Rav Soloveitchik in The Lonely Man of Faith;
“The brute’s existence is an undignified one because it is a helpless existence. Human existence is a dignified one because it is a glorious, majestic, powerful existence…Man of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques, and saves lives is blessed with dignity…Civilised man has gained limited control of nature and has become, in certain respects, her master, and with his mastery he has attained dignity as well. His mastery has made it possible for him to act in accordance with his responsibility”
This brings us to stage 3, vayarei zeh et ki tov. To see that it is good. We have a creative gift that allows great positivity. We can also use this gift in horribly destructive and evil ways. Through the prophet Yeshayahu HaShem says
“יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע…(Isa 45:7)”
Yotzeir or uvoreh choshech. Oseh shalom uvorei ra. “I make light, and fashion darkness. I make peace, and create evil.”
We, as partners in creation, also have this ability. We can create evil in copious amounts. The holocaust was nothing if not a damning indictment of humanism at its core. Nietzsche himself, the very author of the will to power stated in his book “The Joyful Science, “Do not think that once religion has perished that science will be enough to establish and maintain morality” Scientific progress deals in results, not principles. If I can lie and get away with it, I am winning the survivalist lottery. I remember my Chabad Rabbi in college, Rabbi Yossi, saying I believe on this same Parsha, “Science is here to tell us how, Torah is here to tell us why.” Or my own interpretation, “Science is here to give us fact. Torah is here to give us truth
So today, as we study Bereishit, what will we create? What will we prevent? And how will we tip our global scales? For good? Or bad? Shabbat Shalom.