“For Jews Despair Is Not An Option” – Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5775

On Rosh Hashanah morning I spoke to my congregation about the current state of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Israel-Hamas War, in light of the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and Scandinavia, the rise in extremism and intolerance in Israel and in the American Jewish community, and how we American Jews are relating to the State of Israel today.

For those interested, the direct link to the sermon will take you to the Temple Israel of Hollywood website —


G’mar chatimah tovah!

“A Wider Bridge” Connects American Jewish LGBTs with Israel’s LGBT Community

“At Temple Israel of Hollywood, a true Reform congregation, I am blessed to say that a gay, pregnant, female rabbi is no more out of place on the bima than any of my colleagues!”

So declared my colleague, Rabbi Jocee Hudson, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in a sermon in which she described both the changes that Reform Judaism has undergone that have opened the door to a wider diversity of Jews, and the challenges facing Jewish life anew in the 21st century. Rabbi Hudson noted that going forward the American Jewish community will need to open its doors even wider and be even more inclusive than we have ever been before to welcome Jews and their families, and to continue to rethink how we pray, how we learn and think about Torah, about the meaning of “community”, how we engage with the people and state of Israel, and about how we recommit ourselves to social justice work here and abroad.

Rabbi Hudson was quick to say that despite the need for ongoing change, such “revolutionary challenges” are, truth to tell, nothing really new in Jewish history and tradition.

That being said, our community has, indeed, changed dramatically in the last fifty years of American Jewish history. One of the most significant changes is the leadership role women have taken as rabbis, cantors, scholars, thinkers, and communal leaders. A second significant change involves the ever-emerging presence of LGBT Jews and Jewish leaders in our congregations thus helping us redefine the meaning of “family” in contemporary Jewish life.

Before Rosh Hashanah, I had the privilege to meet with Tyler (Tye) Gregory, a member of the national staff of “A Wider Bridge,” a relatively new pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between LGBT Israelis and LGBT North American Jews. Arthur Slepian, the organization’s founder has written:

“I am a gay man, an American, and a Jew. I am passionate about Israel, devoted to its well-being, and I want to see a resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that will enable both to live in peace and security. My love for Israel and my commitment to LGBT equality led me to create ‘A Wider Bridge,’ an organization dedicated to strengthening the bonds between the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities in Israel and America. I believe LGBT Jews have been a transformative force for good in the Jewish world and that LGBT Israelis have been and will continue to be a vital force in creating a stronger and better Israel.”

“A Wider Bridge” is a non-political movement based in San Francisco with offices forming in other major American cities. It includes Jews of all political positions relative to American and Israeli political life.

Israel is arguably the most open Middle Eastern nation to homosexual men and women. Recent LGBT pride parades in Jerusalem (2000 participants) and Tel Aviv (100,000 participants) were organized by Israeli LGBT organizations such as Jerusalem’s “Open House for Pride and Tolerance,” “The Aguda: The Israeli National LGBT Task Force,” “Israel Gay Youth,” “Havruta Religious Homosexuals in Israel” and “Bat Kol,” among others.

Mr. Slepian also writes:

“Israel is the most important project of the Jewish people. And we believe in K’lal Yisrael …[but] We are struck by how little the American Jewish and LGBT communities know about Israel’s LGBT communities (and vice versa), and we aim to change that….we believe that Israel is a country worthy of more engagement, more dialogue, more exchange of culture and travel, and should not be the object of boycotts and sanctions. Israel has [not] become some kind of gay paradise: no country in the world qualifies for that title. It is still very hard to be gay in many parts of Israel, there are still many rights battles to be fought and won, and there have been some tragic incidents of anti-gay violence….Our aim was to enable Israeli LGBT activists to meet with and exchange ideas with organizations in the United States facing similar challenges. …Among these are the efforts to enact civil marriage, including same-sex marriage, and the recent initiative in the Knesset to bolster protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. And we support those who are working to persuade the government to develop more compassionate policies regarding gay Palestinians who flee the West Bank and seek refuge in Israel because their lives are in imminent danger either from their families or the Palestinian police.”

“A Wider Bridge” has grown dramatically since its founding. Currently, 25,000 people visit regularly its Face Book Page with 1000 daily views. This movement is a great contribution to contemporary American Jewish and Israeli life, and I support them with a full heart.

For more information, visit http://www.awiderbridge.org. Rabbi Hudson’s sermon will be posted in the next two weeks on our synagogue’s website – http://www.tioh.org.

My Brother – The Universe – Henry Miller – And New Year Hopes

My brother, Michael, is a scientist (i.e. hematologist-oncologist on faculty at UCLA Medical Center). He accepts truth when empirical evidence is clear. However, he also knows that no matter how much we may think we know, we never have all the information necessary to make categorical statements about objective truth.

He recently wrote the following to me:

“I often marvel at how improbable we all are as humans. There had to be the creation of the universe, then the stars and planets. There had to be an Earth with perfect conditions ripe for life, then enough time for natural selection to create the diversity of life we know. As humankind, we are merely one invention of this process. And as individuals, who are so dependent on both nature and nurture for who we are, each of us is the improbable union of one particular egg and one particular sperm raised in a particular environment by two particular parents. How improbable and unique can you get? Mind boggling!”

Henry Miller wrote the following relative to the truth my brother articulated above:

“Let each one turn his gaze inward and regard himself with awe and wonder, with mystery and reverence; let each one work her own influence, her own havoc, her own miracles.”

This is the nature of this High Holiday season. We are dynamic beings, just as the natural world is dynamic, and we are capable of changing and climbing out of and moving from the holes into which we’ve fallen and become stuck, if only we have the will and the clarity of mind, heart, and spirit to do so.

May it be such for each of us in this New Year 5775.

May Israel and the Palestinians strive to find a better way to live side by side in mutual respect, in peace and in security.

May the forces for good destroy ISIS and defeat all those who would destroy innocent human life and thereby save human lives (I pray specifically in these days for the well-being of Kurdish Muslims of Syria).

These are my most fervent New Year’s hopes. To attain them, it will take us all, decent people who regard every human being as the infinite embodiment of God’s creative and loving will.

L’shanah tovah u-m’tu-kah u-v’ri-yah l’chul’chem u-l’mish’patch’chem u-l’chol y’di-dei-chem!

“”Now that I am old I admire kind people.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I am a collector of quotations on every conceivable theme. During the month of Elul each year I revisit my ever-expanding collection with particular focus on the midot, the moral and ethical virtues that are Judaism’s foundational values.

The virtue of loving-kindness (Hebrew – chesed) is one such midah, and one I learned early in my life by example from my father (z’l) who taught my brother and me to “always be kind.” When our father died so long ago, this was a lesson I took deeply to heart not only for its own sake, but because by being kind (I like to think) I become worthy to be his son. I try and emulate his kindness in everyone I encounter.

I have in my collection pages and pages of quotations on the theme of kindness. I offer below a few of them:

When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.
-Henry James

A thoughtful act or a kind word may pass in a moment, but the warmth and care behind it stay in the heart forever.
-Marjolein Bastin

Always be kind!
-Leon Rosove

The best portions of a good person’s life are little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.
-William Wordsworth

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
-Philo Judaeus

It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than to try to be a little kinder.
-Aldous Huxley

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
-Leo Buscaglia

Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.
-Robert Brault

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.
–Oscar Wilde

Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.
-Samuel Johnson

I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
-Étienne de Grellet du Mabillier

For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.
-Audrey Hepburn

The Rider and the Elephant – Truth Telling During Elul


“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” So it is written in The Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha.

Was the Buddha right, that the mind can determine the nature and direction of our lives?

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, if I have read him correctly, believes that it can, but it isn’t so easy. He writes that the conscious, reasoning part of our mind has only limited control on what we think, feel and do, and that the mind is actually divided into two parts that so often conflict. He uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider to explain.

The elephant, Dr. Haidt says, represents our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions. The rider is the elephant’s ‘presidential press agent’ whose job it is to rationalize and explain whatever the president (i.e. the elephant) believes, says and does.

The elephant and rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together they reveal the brilliance of human beings. It is then that the individual is integrated in body, intellect, heart, soul, and spirit. However, these five classic dimensions of the human being do not usually work so easily or smoothly together despite that being a goal.

This month, preceding the High Holidays, is the season in which we Jews strive to make sense of why the ‘elephant’ and ‘rider’ within us are of different minds and not well-integrated together. It’s our time to seek greater understanding about who we are. It’s our opportunity to assess the nature of our thoughts, assumptions, feelings, intuitions, and beliefs and what impact they all have on our lives and relationships with others, with Judaism and with God.

Dr. Haidt suggests that when the rider and elephant are at cross purposes, and we wish to change one or the other to go in a different direction, we need to look first at the elephant and retrain the beast within and not the intellect. That is not so easy to do.

The elephant, after all, is wired by its nature, by how it was raised and by patterns long-since established upon which the conscious mind and reason (i.e. the rider) have little influence.

Dr. Haidt urges us to address directly the elephant and suggests three different means of doing so for maximum impact and productive effect:

The first is meditation or prayer, the goal of which is to quiet the mind, to detach from that which drives us towards dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, to be able to glimpse ourselves in a much larger context in which we are not the center of the universe but an integral part conscious of all the other parts.

The second is cognitive therapy, the goal of which is to dig into our deepest emotional and psychological motivations, our unconscious impulses and hidden agendas, and to “unpack” all the baggage that we carry around with us, the memories, joys and injuries of childhood, our life’s successes and misfortunes, all of which taught us early on (for better and worse) how the world works and how we need to behave and think in order to survive in it.

And the third is biochemical support. I am not a psychiatrist nor a licensed therapist, though I have been a pastor for many in my role as a congregational rabbi and teacher for forty years. I have learned enough to know that in some cases medication for depression, anxiety and a lack of impulse control can enable individuals so overwhelmed and afflicted to more effectively address the dysfunction and unhappiness in their lives that they otherwise would be unable to do. Such individuals should consult with qualified mental health professionals to determine if such treatment is warranted.

The elephant operates from a powerful subterranean unconscious mishmash of forces, and given the beast’s size and weight, rational argument is mostly ineffective in addressing deeper non-rational forces except to better understand them. What is necessary for each of us is to retrain the elephant within that we might effectively break from repeating destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that alienate us from those we love, from community, tradition and God.

Yes, life is what we deem it to be, an essential truth affirmed during the High Holiday season, and change is necessary because life is dynamic. But change and growth are never easy. That being said, we can indeed redeem ourselves – and that is precisely what we are meant to do.

Chazak v’eimatz – Be strong and courageous.
L’shanah tovah u-m’tukah – A good and sweet New Year.

Note: Jonathan Haidt is the author of two excellent works – The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Apologies that are NOT Apologies


Too many people think that they have done their duty by apologizing for their insensitive remarks to and about others, wrongs committed against others and acts of omission towards family, friends and co-workers when they say “If I hurt you, I am sorry.

THAT is NOT an apology. Full apologies are not conditional, especially when it is clear that we have actually hurt another human being deliberately or even by accident.

A full apology sounds like this –

“I hurt you when I did such and such. I know it. I am truly sorry because I should not have done it. Please accept my apology. I hope you can and will forgive me. What else can I do to make it up to you, to wipe the slate clean and to begin again together to restore your trust in me?”

THAT is an apology because it is unconditional, direct, specific, full hearted, and humble.

The often-used “if I hurt you” does not do a number of critically important things. Those who want to fulfill the mitzvah of making amends and going to people they have not hurt, just to cover themselves and seem to be pious, saying, “If I did anything this year to hurt you, I apologize” are acting in a silly and unnecessary manner. I encourage people not to do this.

Second, the above “apology” is not real until full unconditional verbal confession is made.

Third, such “faux-apologies” (i.e. “If I hurt you”) leave in the mind of the recipient an unsatisfied feeling that the apology was never in fact made because it wasn’t. Consequently, there is no possibility from these words of a true reconciliation.

In a true apology, the act itself must be acknowledged and verbalized – such as:

“I did not call you when you were very ill. I know that as family/friend/colleague/co-worker that hurt you. I am sorry and apologize.”

Or – “I spoke ill of you to others, and it got back to you. I should not have succumbed to l’shon ha-ra (evil speech) and I know I did a terrible wrong. I also know that I hurt you and destroyed the trust we had built up together, and I deeply regret it. I want to make this right and I am willing to go to those to whom I said those things and take them back, and when I do I hope you will forgive me so we can restore trust between us.”

Or – “I flirted with another man and I know that I violated our relationship, and that I wounded you. I regret the flirting and I regret hurting you. I want to restore our relationship of trust. Please forgive me and help me do this.”

Those are full hearted and complete apologies because they include acknowledgement of the bad act and its emotional impact on the victim, verbal confession to the individual, a desire to give compensation of some kind, and a willfulness to restore the relationship.

To do all this requires that the doer feel vulnerable and a measure of shame and then demonstrate courage in owning up. Those who have persuaded themselves that they are always in the right have the greatest challenge before them, and those who live with such people are often frustrated because though they know the truth, the person who thinks he/she is always right and always the victim when it is not the case rarely takes responsibility for him/herself. I suggest that such people need effective psychological counseling to help them gain greater self-insight, of which they are sorely lacking.

This is the season for us to pause and examine what we do (cheshbon hanefesh) and how what we do impacts others for better and worse.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (i.e. Maimonides; RAMBAM), in the Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance) wrote the following:

“What is teshuvah? It is when a wrong-doer abandons his sin and removes it from his thoughts, and resolves in his heart not to do that deed again… And he must confess in words these things that he has resolved in his heart.” (2:2)

“It is very praiseworthy for the penitent to confess publicly and announce her sins, and reveal to others the transgressions she committed against her fellow… Everyone who is arrogant and does not reveal but rather conceals her sins – her teshuvah is not complete…” (2:5)

“Even if one only injured the other in words [and not in deed], he must pacify him and approach him until he forgives him.” (2:9-10)

“What is complete teshuvah? When one comes upon a situation in which she once transgressed, and it is possible to do so again, but she refrains and does not transgress on account of her repentance.” (2:1)

Very few people have mastered their yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”). Jewish legend relates that there are only 36 completely righteous people in the world (the lamed vavniks). Everyone else – i.e. all of us – struggles to do right and to return to those we love and care about, to Torah, to Judaism, and to God.

I wish for everyone well and success this year in your self-examination during the remaining days of Elul and during this coming High Holiday season.

4 Articles About Hamas, Netanyahu, Settlements , and Fear among American Rabbis to speak about Israel

Now that the fighting has stopped, sober analysis of the most recent war has begun. Here are four articles I believe worth reading, among many.

1. Failure in Gaza, By Assaf Sharon – New York Review of Books

Assaf Sharon is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He is the academic director of Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.


“Understanding how we got to this point—and, more importantly, how we can move beyond it—calls for an examination of the political events that led up to the operation and the political context in which it took place.”

“False assumptions, miscalculations, and obsolete conceptions robbed Israel of initiative. Lacking clear aims, Israel was dragged, by its own actions, into a confrontation it did not seek and did not control. Israel was merely stumbling along, with no strategy, chasing events instead of dictating them. What emerged as the operative aim was simply “to hit Hamas,” which for the troops translates as a license for extensive and unchecked use of force.”

2. Israel’s Lessons From the Gaza Wars, by Ali Jarbawi – NY Times, September 4, 2014

Ali Jarbawi is a political scientist and a former minister of the Palestinian Authority. This article was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.


“The road to peace is both clearly delineated and short: It is the public acceptance of the legitimate right of the Palestinians to end the occupation and establish a state.”

3. Israel’s land appropriation: Foolish, ill-timed and self-destructive – By Rabbi Eric Yoffie – Haaretz – Sep. 3, 2014

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and is now writes frequently in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post –


“Perhaps there could be a more foolish, ill-timed, and self-destructive decision than the one made by Israel’s cabinet this week, but it is hard to imagine what it might be.
Israel’s enemies in the Middle East and throughout the world are rejoicing. If you really despise the Jewish state, nothing makes you happier than a move by Israeli leaders to expand settlements. The move, in this case, was a decision by the cabinet to appropriate 1000 acres of West Bank land for settlement building in the Etzion settlement bloc, near Bethlehem. The land has been designated as “state land,” even though ownership is claimed by local Palestinians.”

“Nothing unites the world against Israel like settlement building. Even Israel’s staunchest supporters abroad, trying to make Israel’s case to a skeptical public after the Gaza war, are asking: Why undermine us now?

4. Muzzled by the Minority, By Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, Reform Judaism Magazine, Fall 2013


“Many rabbis don’t express their true views about Israel publicly for fear of clashing with a handful of congregants who might lash out against them. But there are ways to navigate this minefield of divided opinion.”

Rabbi Yoffie worries aloud about the lack of civility in the American Jewish community vis a vis Israel, and offers a five-fold approach to resolving this issue. He confronts, as well, a number of challenges facing American rabbis and American Jews generally in our relationship to the state of Israel, and sites a number of opinion surveys of American Jewish attitudes towards Israel, the occupation, settlements, and the rightful role that American Zionists have in expressing views publicly that may counter the policy positions of the government of Israel. He notes that according to the 2013 Pew Research Center poll, the majority of American Jews remain strongly devoted to Israel without necessarily agreeing with everything Israel’s leaders do, and that the majority opinion in the American Jewish community is dovish, not hawkish, contrary to what many organized American Jewish organizations say and would like us to believe.

When Egyptian Imams Study with American Rabbis

Sometimes light shines unexpectedly from unexpected places. Such was the case this week when I participated in a study seminar with a group of 10 American rabbis and 10 Egyptian imams.

The ten Muslim scholars are visiting the United States from Egypt’s Al Azhar University. They were brought to the United States through a grant from the American Embassy in Cairo as part of a program called “Muslims in America: Community, Democracy and Political Participation.”

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Sarah Bassin, the immediate past Executive Director of the LA-based NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, hosted us.

We began our two hours of learning and dialogue by coupling one rabbi with one imam, and introducing ourselves to each other by explaining the origins of our names. Then we studied in chevruta pairs the traditional story of Cain and Abel/Qabil and Habil as it appears in both the Torah (Genesis 4) and the Quran (Sura 5).

I paired with Saudi Arabian-born Sheikh Ahmed Wessam Abbas Khedhr, a scholar in the Department of Shari’ah Law at Al Azhar University, who is also a member of the Council of Egypt’s Fatwa House and an imam (prayer leader) and khateeb (deliverer of Friday sermons) at Al-Rahman Al-Raheem Mosque in Cairo.

Ahmed spoke no English, so a translator simultaneously translated as we spoke to each other. He is a gentle, kind, dignified, and intelligent man about half my age. As we read together the Torah and Quran stories of Cain and Abel/Qabil and Habil, as well as one rabbinic text from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that is based on the story of Cain, we found the following common message: “…anyone who destroys one human soul is considered as if he destroyed an entire world, and anyone who establishes one human soul is as if he has saved an entire world.” (see also Quran – Sura 5:32)

We then focused on the theme of compassion and its central place in each of our religious traditions. I shared with Ahmed the Talmudic statement that “One who shows no compassion, it is known that he is not of the seed of Abraham.” (Bavli, Beitzah 32b) He shared with me that one of Allah’s most significant other names is Rahman (“the Mercificul”) and I was able to share with him that in Jewish tradition the Hebrew cognate Rachamim (“Compassionate One”) is also one of God’s names.

Ahmed raised the issue of terrorism, and wished to emphasize with me that Islam utterly rejects terrorism and violence against innocents. I shared with Ahmed that the same holds true in Judaism.

Very quickly we found that we share many common religious values and that they are central to our respective faith traditions despite vast differences between Judaism and Islam. From there, each of us palpably relaxed and settled into a wonderful exchange of ideas.

Our conversation ended all too quickly as we were drawn back into a larger conversation with the complete group of 10 imams and 10 rabbis. Rabbi Firestone reminded us how important it is for Jews and Muslims to respect each other’s religious faith traditions, not simply to tolerate each other, but to come to understand and then accept each other as exponents of a true expression of God’s revelation.

I had earlier shared with Ahmed the idea that God’s light is so brilliant that it cannot be seen by any human being, and that the Divine light is refracted as if through a prism into many colors of the rainbow each of which represents a particular religious path and tradition. Only when all peoples’ faith traditions are taken together as one can humankind begin to glimpse a small portion of God’s light.

I was exhilarated to be a part of this study session, and we agreed that there is too little of this kind of dialogue taking place here and in the Middle East.

Our ignorance of each other’s traditions is substantial, and that ignorance inevitably leads to distrust, the creation of negative stereotypes and simplistic absolutist thinking about each other.

Reuven concluded by sharing the hope that when our guests return to Cairo they would speak more to the international media on behalf of moderate Islam, because the world needs to hear from them and not Islamic extremists.

As we parted, Imam Ahmed Wessam bid me farewell as “Brother John,” and I returned the compliment saying, “Brother Ahmed – Assalamu Alaikum.”

A Podcast I Highly Recommend Coming out of Israel

For those who want, crave, need to be engaged with all things Israel, I have recently become a huge fan of a year-old podcast produced in Tel Aviv that I listen to daily.

After I listened for two weeks, I emailed the station TLV1 to offer my complements and gratitude, and their Sales and Marketing Manager, Itai Shelem, contacted me. He told me the following about the station’s mission:

TLV1 is an English-language internet radio station broadcasting from Tel Aviv – the heart of Israel and cultural barometer of the Middle East. Reflecting Tel Aviv’s vibrant fusion of East with West and traditional with modern, TLV1 interweaves Israel’s rich cultural history with an exhilarating future embodied by the hi-tech industry.

Whether from street-level or the hallways of government, in earnest or in jest, TLV1 has its finger on the pulse: From breaking news to culinary trends, from musical pioneers to game-changing entrepreneurs, we don’t miss a beat.

Then Itai, said:

We’ve got over 20 different shows ranging from music, culture, sports, and food – all available via podcast and on-demand on our site. We supply radio content to Haaretz.com. We are working on putting on radio plays and taking our radio shows on the road, in front of a live audience. I’ve very excited about that.

The Tel Aviv Table, The Promised Podcast, StreetWise Hebrew, and So Much to Say are our most popular programs. We’ve got two music editors that select music for shows, often based on the content at hand.

I have found the show “So Much to Say” particularly enlightening. It is a 5-day a week hour news broadcast of stories making the Israeli headlines made up mostly of interviews with Israeli experts on a wide range of issues including the recent war in Gaza, PTSD among Israeli children in the south, growing racism in certain sectors of Israeli society and the Ministry of Education’s efforts to combat it in the schools, Israel’s targeted killing of Hamas terrorists and its relationship to international law (see my earlier blog on this issue), and the recent re-opening of the Chabad house in Mumbai after a terrorist strike three years ago. Interspersed between every story is Israeli or international popular music. The hosts are smart, well-spoken and well-informed. Their agenda is simply good, thoughtful and probing journalism.

Itai told me as well that the number of listeners is growing dramatically. He wrote:

“Last month (July), 74,000 unique listeners tuned in, consuming nearly 160,000 on-demand radio segments, which does not include listeners to our live audio stream. These listeners represent over 185 countries and territories, and more than 6,800 cities.”

Just to be certain you understand my motivation in recommending TLV1, and especially “So Much to Say” – I am not on their payroll and have no relationship to anyone at the station. I receive nothing in response to blogging about TLV1, just the satisfaction that some of you will download the podcast, listen and be as enlightened with accurate cutting-edge reporting as I am.

If you don’t trust my judgment, then listen in yourself and make up your own mind.

Deferments in Battle and Ultimate Purposes – D’var Torah Shoftim

There are three deferments allowed soldiers going into battle according to this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (see Deuteronomy 20:5-8).

If a person has built a new house and not yet dedicated it, planted a vineyard and not yet harvested it, or paid the bridal price for a wife and not yet married her, the individual may be excused from fighting a war.

I asked a former Israeli officer in the Navy Seals what deferments or accommodations the IDF allows its soldiers. He explained that even before young Israelis turn 18 years old, from about the age of 16, young people are tested to determine many things, including their intellectual aptitude, emotional disposition and physical capacities so that by the time they reach the draft age, the IDF is able to direct them appropriately, as soldiers destined for battle, as officers, as intelligence specialists, and a myriad of other duties that the IDF needs fulfilled. People with serious physical or emotional disabilities are excused. Religious students are also excused per agreement with the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, but that is beginning to change.

The question for us relative to the Torah portion this week is this – ‘What links the un-dedicated house, the non-harvested vineyard, and the not-yet-married groom? The answer includes both practical and religious concerns.

An effective soldier cannot be distracted while in battle, and both uncontrolled fear (see Deuteronomy 20:1-4) or distractions such as these three deferments were understood to limit the soldier’s effectiveness. Though every soldier, ancient and modern, is frightened when going into battle, Israeli soldiers understand that Israel cannot afford ever to lose a war. If it does, the soldier knows that his/her family and friends are in danger of losing their lives and everything that the Jewish people has worked so hard to build in the state of Israel will be destroyed.

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, in a JTS commentary (August 26, 2006), wrote that the religious concern at the basis for these deferments involves ways in which Jews sanctify life. Judaism calls one’s home a mik’dash m’at, a small sanctuary (reflective of the Beit haMik’dash – the Temple in Jerusalem), a sacred space in which God’s presence abides and the inhabitants are inspired to live lives of higher meaning and purpose.

One’s vineyard produces the wine or grape juice used to sanctify Shabbat and the holidays; in other words, the sanctification of time.

And one’s marriage reminds us of the first commandment in Torah, p’ru ur’vu (Genesis 1:28), to be fruitful and multiply; that is, our obligation to bring forward the next generation of Jews and sanctify the future.

Though family is defined in the Bible narrowly, it is important for modern Jews to embrace family in much larger and more expansive ways, that those who may not marry or have children of their own can nevertheless impact the future of our community in many significant ways; as teachers, health care workers, big brothers and sisters, favorite uncles and aunts. They can work on behalf of the elderly, act politically to assure the quality of life for the most vulnerable in our community, use one’s business and financial resources to bring comfort, solace, compassion, and justice into our community affairs.

The sanctification of space – the sanctification of time – the sanctification of the future – all are fundamental Jewish values brought forth through the generations since the earliest stages in Jewish history.

This is the first Shabbat in the Hebrew month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah, and so it is a time for us to begin to ask ourselves questions such as these:

How do we sanctify space, time and the future?

How do we define a life based in meaning and blessing?

In what ways are we sanctifying our lives and the lives of others?

What tasks have we completed that have brought a great sense of holiness into our lives, our families and friends, our community, people and nation?
These are all worth pondering now as we move closer to the High Holidays.

Shabbat shalom.


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