Veteran Israeli Commentator Takes on Bibi, Adelson and Israel’s Political and Media Establishment

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I love Uri Avnery. I don’t always agree with him, but you have to give this 91 year-old Israeli veteran journalist, peace-activist, former member of the Knesset, and Irgun fighter during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence credit for doing so well what Jews have always done – criticize themselves, take on the powers that be, smash sacred cows, and speak honestly about the direction of Jewish society and values.

As Avnery has always been, he is one of Israel’s greatest critics. I am eager to hear what he says because the old man’s wisdom and historic perspective frequently keeps me from slipping into mindlessly supporting positions that “experts” and leaders advocate.

This week, Avnery has done it again in his provocative op-ed that he calls “Sheldon’s Stooges” published by Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace organization that Avnery founded (July 25). http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/avnery/1437736410

Do read the article. It is not long.

Here are Avnery’s main points and my brief reflection about them in CAPS:

1. Bibi, after failing in his “declared war on the President of the United States” should resign, but doesn’t for all kinds of nefarious reasons – I AGREE

2. Bibi is neither insane, nor a fool – I AGREE

3. Sheldon Adelson has no real interest in Israel at all. Rather, he is using Bibi to personally gain control of the White House in 2016 – INTERESTING, BUT I HAVE NO IDEA IF THIS IS RIGHT!!!!

4. Adelson is a caricature of the Jew that the Zionist movement was established to reject and excise from Jewish society – I AGREE

5. The Israeli opposition has caved to Bibi’s fixation on the Iranian move towards a nuclear bomb – THIS DEPENDS, OBVIOUSLY, ON ONE’S PERSPECTIVE. I CREDIT BIBI WITH RAISING THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR ISSUE TO THE WORLD’S ATTENTION. THAT BEING SAID, MANY IN ISRAELI POLITICS AND IN THE ISRAELI SECURITY ESTABLISHMENT BELIEVE THIS AGREEMENT IS THE BEST ONE AVAILABLE AND THAT IT IS NOT IN ISRAEL’S BEST INTEREST TO DO WHAT BIBI IS PLANNING TO DO WITH THE AID OF AIPAC, TO LOBBY CONGRESS TO DEFEAT THE AGREEMENT – SEE MY FORMER BLOG “MANY BELIEVE THE IRAN AGREEMENT IS SUPPORTABLE DESPITE ITS FLAWS” https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/400228/759611871

6. Bibi’s arguments that the P5+1 agreement with Iran is bad and catastrophic are shallow, and that the Prime Minister’s fear-mongering has succeeded in producing what Avnery calls “total unanimity, …total absence of doubting and questioning.” JUDGE FOR YOURSELVES

7. No one in Israeli politics and the Israeli media is seriously debating the meaning of what Bibi has characterized as an “historic disaster” and “that the price of cottage cheese evokes more emotion” – I ACTUALLY AM HEARING DEBATE, BUT I AM NOT AN ISRAELI AND I DEFER TO THEM TO EVALUATE WHETHER AVNERY IS RIGHT OR NOT. THERE IS CERTAINLY A LOT OF DEBATE GOING ON IN THE AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY ABOUT THE MEANING OF THIS AGREEMENT, ABOUT WHICH I FEEL GRATIFIED. AFTER ALL, DEBATE IS WHAT JEWS DO BEST – WE ARGUE AS A PEOPLE ABOUT VALUES, ETHICS, REAL POLITIC, CONSEQUENCES, AND LIFE ITSELF.

You can learn more about Uri Avnery here https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Uri+Avnery.

May he live to 120 and continue to act as the grand provocateur of the Jewish people and the state of Israel!

Many Israeli Experts Believe the Iran Deal is a Supportable Deal Despite its Flaws

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On July 21 the Los Angeles Jewish Federation Board sent an appeal to our community to urge Congress to oppose the joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program saying the following:

“The proposed agreement with Iran is not a partisan issue; it impacts the security of the United States, the stability of the Middle East, the future of the State of Israel and the safety of every Jewish family and community around the world. This Iran deal threatens the mission of our Federation as we exist to assure the continuity of the Jewish people. Support a secure State of Israel, care for Jews in need here and abroad and mobilize on issues of concerns.”

The letter calls upon our community members “to raise their voices in opposition to this agreement by contacting their elected representatives to urge them to oppose this deal.”

There is an impression being promoted by many in the organized American Jewish community as well as many in the American and Israeli media that there is unanimity in Israel that this Iran deal fundamentally undermines Israel’s security.

This is not true.

The following are statements from leading Israeli security experts who offer a more nuanced view of the Iran agreement, and while acknowledging that there are imperfections, have come to the conclusion that this Iran deal is an important step forward in enhancing Israel’s security.

Ami Ayalon: Former head of the Shin Bet and former Navy commander-in-chief:

“[The Agreement] is the best possible alternative from Israel’s point of view, given the other available alternatives…In the Middle East, 10 to 15 years is an eternity, and I don’t believe that 10 or 15 years from now the world will stand by and watch Iran acquire nuclear weapons.”

The Peace and Security Association representing hundreds of Israeli security experts, IDF veterans, Mossad, Shin Bet and Police:

“Although the agreement signed in Vienna between the world powers and Iran is not optimal, it should remove the immediate threat of an Iranian breakthrough leading to a nuclear military capability within a few months.”

Efraim Halevy: Former Mossad Director and former Head of the National Security Council:

“Without an agreement, Iran will be free to act as it wishes, whereas the sanctions regime against it will crumble in any case…if the nuclear issue is of cardinal existential importance, what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances Iran from the bomb?”

Chuck Freilich: Former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor:

“This is the agreement that was reached – and despite its faults, it is not a bad one. Crucially, it will contribute to Israel’s security.”

Yitzhak Ben-Israel: Chair of Israel’s Space Agency and a former IDF general:

“The agreement is not bad at all, it is even good for Israel…It prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for 15 years.”

Uzi Even: Former lead scientist at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor:

“I am sure the deal that was signed is preferable to the current situation because it delays Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear bomb by at least 15 years and in practice ends it nuclear aspirations.”

Eran Etzion: Former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council and a former Head of Policy Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“The agreement prevents Israel from obtaining a nuclear weapon for 10-15 years. Obama says and he is right—this agreement is not about trust, it’s about verification. No agreement can be perfect. We live in the real world and it is the best agreement that they could reach.”

Israel Ziv: Former Israeli Major General:

“This agreement is the best among all other alternatives, and any military strike – as successful as it may be – would not have delayed even 20% of what the agreement will delay.”

Eli Levite: Former Deputy Director General of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission:

“In the next 15 years, if Iran will respect its obligations, Iran’ won’t be a nuclear country. Period. They won’t have the materials. The question is whether they will respect their obligation, and that is the hard question.”

Good and intelligent people will disagree. However, the LA Jewish Federation cannot speak for all Jews and ought to account for other legitimate American Jewish community views on this deal.

As a long-time contributor to the LA Jewish Federation, I take exception to the insinuation that if one really cares about Israeli security then there is only one responsible choice – to oppose this agreement.

As a Zionist and ohev m’dinat Yisrael, I support this agreement, even with its flaws.

Should this deal fail now as a result of a veto-proof congressional vote, not only would sanctions immediately fall apart, but Iran will have nothing to stop its forward march to nuclear capability in short order. Many political and diplomatic experts agree that realistically, no other deal is possible.

Consequently, if the deal fails, the only way to stop Iran’s march to a nuclear bomb would be to bomb all its sites. Should that happen Israel will likely be the recipient of thousands of Hezbollah rockets aimed at Tel Aviv, Haifa and everything in between sparking a regional war the likes of which we may have never witnessed before.

I am disappointed and confused by our Federation Board that claims to represent all the Jews of Los Angeles when it is clearly not so. If you agree with the position articulated by the Israeli experts above, then I suggest that you write to and call your Congressional Representatives today and let them know of your approval of the Iran agreement. Also, I suggest that you express to the Federation Board your dismay with its letter and its presumption that it represents your views.

Comedy Secrets to Sustain Long-Term Marriages – A Book Review

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“Take My Spouse — PLEASE”, Dani Klein Modisett’s second book (the first was “Afterbirth: Stories You Won’t Read in a Parenting Magazine”), is a unique view of two of civilization’s oldest institutions – comedy and marriage.

The author happens to be both a comedian and married, and so she speaks with a certain authority in each arena. Klein Modisett is also an actress of more than twenty years on stage and in television. She enjoys friendship with lots of comedians and is a former decade’s long teacher of stand-up comedy at UCLA.

Early on in her marriage Klein Modisett realized that the rules and skills she learned in becoming a successful stand-up comic are the same rules and skills that sustain happy, healthy and thriving marriages. That is what her book is about – following the rules of comedy to make better marriages.

I loved the book, but before I say anything more a disclaimer is appropriate.

The author is a congregant and friend. She interviewed me and included our conversation in the final chapter “Get Help to Get Better” (pages 233-237). However, even if I had nothing to do with the book or the author, I would recommend “Take My Spouse — PLEASE” because it is a wise and funny guide for both comics on stage and spouses who want stronger, happier and healthier marriages.

After officiating at more than 600 weddings in my 36 years as a congregational rabbi, celebrating hundreds of milestone wedding anniversaries, counseling many couples suffering marital distress, and being married myself for 33 years, I believe that Dani’s insights about what makes a good marriage are spot-on correct. I assume she is also right about what makes for good stand-up comedy, but I have no professional expertise to judge except to say that I enjoy good comedy writing and comedians who know what they are doing.

Dani writes as she is – smart, edgy, funny, honest, warmhearted, self-deprecating, and self-revelatory. The best part of the book is when she herself is reflecting about comedy and marriage, connecting dots and sharing insights. Though the many couples she interviewed support well the points she makes and their stories draw the reader in, Dani is the star of this volume. Her insights, crisp writing, willingness to self-disclose, to lay bare her vulnerabilities, and to discuss candidly her own marriage with her husband Tod make for an engaging and compelling read.

Tod, by the way, deserves a huge shout-out for his generosity and courage in giving his wife permission to write about him and their marriage.

Dani discusses the many rules and skills that comedians need to be successful on stage and spouses need to thrive in their marriages. Here are but a few of them:

• “Show up,” be present, listen, and respond

• Be daring and go for the element of surprise – Doing the unexpected keeps everyone interested

• Laugh it up – laughter diffuses tension, draws everyone close and can be an aphrodisiac

• Be tough, persevere and “don’t let one or two bad experiences take you out”

• Accept constructive criticism, be self-critical and strive to do it better next time

• “Sex is to marriage what jokes are to an audience; without it, the natives get restless”

• Having an extra-marital affair is a very-very-very bad idea! (I don’t know if there is an equivalent no-no-no in comedy [Note to self: Ask Dani about this when I see her next])

• “Pay attention to your physical appearance – how you look matters”

• Stay clear of incessant complainers, toxic and overly critical and negative individuals and couples – especially befriend and hang with those who share your positive and hopeful outlook

• “Timing is everything – Pick your moments and watch what you say and do”

• Relax – nothing works when you are tense

• Be honest, but don’t be unkind – Restraint is a virtue (in other words: keep your mouth shut before you say things you will forever regret!)

• Get help if you are in trouble – and don’t give up

• “Be patient – everything worthwhile takes time”

Dani Klein Modisett has written an important, entertaining and very serious book that can help comedians become better at their craft and couples sustain happier, healthier and thriving marriages – and I recommend it heartily.

“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” – A Book Review

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This second moving novel by Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a love story that catches the two protagonists in a clash of cultures and religious identities that reveals how powerfully the past plays upon the present and future.

Cleo is a beautiful African American left-wing feminist talk-show host in New York City and the daughter of a mid-20th century black Baptist preacher who had been mentored and supported by a Jew in the racist south. Upon her father’s untimely death, another kindhearted Jewish family gives Cleo’s mother a desperately needed job and her family a place to live. Cleo consequently has a warm spot in her heart for Jews despite the experiences of many of her African American radio listeners who bear anti-Semitic animus against the Jews they have known as slum-lords.

Zach is a politically liberal Bronx yeshiva-educated atheist child of Holocaust survivors, becomes an ACLU lawyer and does pro-Bono legal work for a nonprofit called “Families of Holocaust Survivors.” Zach’s only sibling was an older brother he never met who, as a toddler, was shot in the head by a Nazi as his parents watched in horror. He feels empathy with the African American situation and is a solid liberal thinker, but he feels duty-bound to honor the promise he made to his dying mother that he would marry a Jew and bring Jewish children into the world not only to assure Jewish continuity but to help replace the 6 million and avenge his brother’s murder.

Cleo and Zach encounter one another in the early 1980s when a Black Preacher and a Rabbi invite them with other New York black and Jewish leaders to restore the Black-Jewish alliance that once existed during the civil rights movement. This occurs as Black-Jewish relations fray in the aftermath of the anti-Semitic rants of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Jessie Jackson’s “Hymietown” remark.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a veteran writer of eleven books. She is a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, a journalist, political activist, wife, mother, grandmother, and a serious Jew who has spent years participating in dialogue groups with African American, Jewish, Israeli, and Palestinian women. Feminism, liberalism and positive Jewish identification permeate the novel.

Pogrebin’s prose can be deeply moving, such as the novel’s opening paragraph:

“ZACHARIAH ISAAC LEVY grew up in a family of secrets, of conversations cut short by his entrance into a room, of thick-tongued speech and guttural names and the whisper of weeping. His parents spoke in short, stubby sentences, as if words could be used up, and often in a language they refused to translate. From the grammar of their sighs, he came to understand that Yiddish was reserved for matters unspeakable in English and memories too grim for a child’s ear.”

As I neared the end of the novel, I visited a congregant struggling with metastasized cancer who herself is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, a serious Jew, a fluent Hebrew speaker with strong family ties in Israel, who has devoted her life to furthering justice and enriching Jewish community. Her son is in love with a non-Jewish woman and, though the young woman is wonderful, my friend is tortured by the very issues that are at the core of Pogrebin’s novel. I recommended that she read it because Pogrebin’s perspective could well offer my friend a measure of insight and comfort.

This book raises many questions: ‘What is Judaism?’ ‘Who is a Jew?’ ‘What ought a Jew know and do to enrich one’s own Jewish life and to assure that Judaism, Jewish practice, culture, ethics, and faith carry forward into the next generation?’ ‘What are the challenges that intermarriage brings to Jewish families?’

The book addresses as well the situation of children of survivors and, in light of the present, challenges their obligations to deceased parents who suffered the indignities of the Shoah.

Though Pogrebin does not deal with the question of how one justifies faith in the God of Jewish tradition in light of evil and the suffering of the innocent, nor does she offer a way to affirm Jewish faith in a liberal non-Orthodox context after the Holocaust, she does effectively present the tension between prophetic humanism and tribal particularism as it plays out in Zach’s inner conflict.

At the novel’s conclusion, Pogrebin brings everything together in a n’chemta (i.e. a hopeful and comforting series of teachings presented by Zach’s Orthodox childhood rabbi).

Rabbi Eleazar Goldfarb is a wise, loving and visionary mentor who lives comfortably between the two worlds of Jewish tradition and modernity primarily because he knows exactly who he is and what he believes. He deftly brings essential Jewish teachings to a tortured Zach.

This book is a wonderful read and provocatively challenges past Jewish assumptions in light of contemporary circumstances.

Community note: Letty Cottin Pogrebin will be the guest speaker at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles on Friday evening, October 30 during a community Shabbat dinner following Kabbalat Shabbat services. She will discuss the many issues she raises in this novel. The community is invited.

 

I’m Waiting! It’s Time for Bibi and Ruvi to say to Religious Bigotry – Enough! You’re Fired!

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It’s enough already. Prime Minister Netanyahu ought to do more than simply condemn the words of the Israeli Minister of the Interior, David Azoulay, who said recently that “there’s a problem” with Reform Jews: “As soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel […] I can’t allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew.”

Mr. Azoulay (MK – Shas) is a minister in the government of the state of Israel. The state of Israel, as PM Netanyahu has said clearly is “home to all Jews.” Not only is Bibi right, but 59% of Israel’s Jews agree. They did not intend to elect a religious bigot into the government, and therefore any minister that deliberately does harm to the people of Israel ought not to serve and be dismissed from such service.

I appreciate both PM Netanyahu’s  and President Rivlin’s efforts to affirm the best that is the democratic state of Israel, but neither (in my view) has done enough.

As I indicated in a former blog, Ruvi Rivlin is my 2nd cousin once-removed through his father’s side of the family, the late Yosef Rivlin. He has another cousin who is a Reform Rabbi as well, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer also on his father’s side of the family. But having two Reform Rabbis in the President’s family does not limit this issue to simply being a family affair.

This is a national peoplehood affair, and I would hope that what my cousin President Rivlin has done so wonderfully on behalf of democracy and equal rights for all Arab citizens of Israel, that he will do for the Jewish people as well. We deserve nothing less, and I know that he has the heart and mind to understand and do what is right.

I believe that PM Netanyahu does as well – and so, it is time for him to put the people of Israel first and ahead of the interests of Israel’s right wing ultra-Orthodox movements.

I’m waiting!!!!

See the following two articles in Haaretz and the New York Times on this issue:

1. “Netanyahu rejects minister’s ‘hurtful’ claim Reform Jews can’t be called Jews: Prime Minister summons ultra-Orthodox religious affairs minister following remarks, says they do not reflect position of government and that ‘Israel is home to all Jews.’” By Haaretz | Jul. 7, 2015 | 6:33 PM – http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/1.664876

2. Israeli Minister Says Reform Jews Are Not Really Jewish – By ISABEL KERSHNER JULY 7, 2015 – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/08/world/middleeast/israeli-minister-says-reform-jews-are-not-really-jewish.html?_r=0

Note to Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito – from Thomas Jefferson

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Since Thomas Jefferson is considered by most Americans as an authority on the original intent of the framers of the US Constitution, the conservative wing of the current US Supreme Court and all those fine Republican candidates for President who have claimed in the last week that the majority opinion in the equal marriage decision got it really wrong, I recommend for their consideration this statement of our 3rd President and author of the Declaration of Independence signed exactly 239 years ago today. Perhaps the four justices and Republican candidates will change their minds!?

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
-Thomas Jefferson

Source: Wordsmith.org – A thought for the day

The complete letter in which the above passage is found can be accessed here:

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-samuel-kercheval/

The Iran Nuclear Negotiations – Why I Am Ambivalent

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Much is at stake as the June 30 deadline approaches for the P5+1 nations and Iran to conclude nuclear weapons negotiations, and as Tuesday approaches I am uncomfortably ambivalent. Here are my reasons why.

The Iranian leadership, without question, is a tough, stubborn, brutal, dishonest, and ideologically driven group that seeks hegemony over the entirety of the Middle East, the acquisition of a nuclear bomb being but one element important in its strategy of intimidation and domination of the region.

The economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the P5+1 nations to force it to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons program have been effective in at least bringing the Iranian leadership to the negotiating table as it seeks relief from the economic stranglehold in which it finds itself.

Both sides have much to lose if an agreement does not emerge from these talks, but I do not believe that time is on the west’s side. If no agreement can be reached, even with an extension of the talks by a few days or weeks, the P5+1 coalition could unravel given Russia’s and China’s fading-away act.

The alternative to an agreement is dire whether it be Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon or a western military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities that sparks a wider war.

Western experts believe that should the US and its coalition partners initiate a military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, not only would complete destruction be impossible, but military action won’t make a substantial difference. Iran’s current break-out time to produce a bomb of a few months would be delayed only two to four years, and then we’ll find ourselves back where we are now.

The military option is most probably not a real possibility anyway given the P5+1’s war weariness and reluctance to open another theater of violence in the Middle East.

That being said, let’s imagine for a moment the consequences of a military strike on Iran, should it occur.

Both Hezbollah and Hamas (Iranian proxies) could well join together in a coordinated counter-attack on the Jewish state. It is estimated that there are 100,000 Iranian supplied Hezbollah missiles sitting in launchers on the Lebanese border with far greater navigational accuracy than anything Hamas has had, and they are all pointed at Israel with the capacity to strike Kiryat Shemona, Haifa, Tiberius, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Petach Tikvah, Holon, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ariel and all  the major contested settlements, as well as cities and towns leading up to and including Jerusalem. Though Israel’s Iron Dome would intersect and destroy many incoming missiles, many other missiles will find their mark and kill hundreds or thousands of Israelis. Israel would bomb the daylights out of southern Lebanon with a likely ground invasion, and many innocent Lebanese and Israeli soldiers would be killed.

Hezbollah’s tunnel system in the north is said to be far more extensive than anything Hamas built in the south, and we could expect an invasion into Israel itself with deadly results.

And so, a war involving Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas can be expected to be more destructive and costly than anything Israel has experienced before.

Contemplating a scenario like this with a full Israeli military response is a nightmare of epic proportions. Yet, the bottom line in negotiations has to be that there can be no agreement that directly or indirectly recognizes Iran moving towards nuclear military capability.

One has to consider whether some kind of P5+1 control over Iranian nuclear ambitions is better than no control at all, and that some agreement that achieves many of the goals of the western powers is better than no deal.

All this is why I find myself ambivalent about what is the right course should negotiations fail. On the one hand, it is almost always a mistake to allow our actions to be influenced inordinately by our fears. Yet on the other, our leaders are going to have to choose what the better course is between two bad choices – all-out war or a partial agreement.

In an effort to clarify the important issues involved, a document called “Public Statement on U.S. Policy toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations” was recently published under the auspices of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The group assembled to discuss the Iran nuclear issue that produced this document included an impressive non-partisan group of American military, security, diplomatic, nuclear arms, and Middle East experts. The names of participants are listed. The 4-page document is worth reading and can be accessed here:

http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/StatementWeb2.pdf

The politics driving the right and the left, unfortunately, have obfuscated many of the most important issues at stake. Most of us cannot claim to understand the physics of nuclear technology and weaponry and so we have to rely on the experts, and some of them disagree with each other.

For now, we will have to wait and see what transpires this week between the two parties and, if there is an extension of the talks, what will be the final outcome?

Iran and the Bomb – Moses and the Rock – Sinai and the Rod

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This week the Torah recounts Miriam’s death and the people’s complaints of thirst during the period of wandering. God tells Moses to take his rod and order a rock to produce water. Old and weary of the people’s incessant complaining, instead of ordering the rock to produce water Moses strikes it with his rod. Though the people drink their fill, God punishes the prophet for his defiance and bars him from entering the Promised Land (Chukat – Numbers 20:1-13).

Talmudic sages explain the severity of God’s punishment by charging that Moses’ faith wasn’t strong enough, that because he failed to sanctify God before the people the Eternal deemed him unworthy to lead them into Canaan.

Maimonides explains that Moses lacked compassion and that he should have spoken kindly to the people instead of with words of rebuke.

Others say that in losing his temper Moses lost his moral authority to be the leader.

One opines that because Moses claimed credit for the miracle of the water without acknowledging God, the Almighty denied him what he dreamed of most.

There’s yet another explanation. Earlier at Massah and Meribah the people also complained of debilitating thirst, and similar to our portion God told Moses to take his rod and hit the rock instead of speaking to it (Exodus 17).

What’s the difference?

The answer is that Sinai intervened between the two events. God intended the second time to usher in a new way of being in the world for the former slaves, to erase their humiliating experience of suffering from their hearts and souls, to create a new free people worthy of a higher order of being, to yield from force to reason, violence to dialogue, brutish despotism to moral law, might to right, and intolerance to compassion.

God wanted a new age to begin, the ‘messianic age,’ and Moses was to be the Messiah.

However, when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, he showed the people that Sinai had changed nothing at all, that God was merely a more powerful Pharaoh with better magic and greater violence.

Rabbi Marc Gelman writes of what God may have intended for the people (“The Waters of Meribah,” Learn Torah with…Vol. 5, Number 16, January 30, 1999, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver and Rabbi Stuart Kelman):

“When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, but neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of my presence to enter the land with them. The abundance of my presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part shall be called my Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile. I too am a divided presence in the world, and that I shall only be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever from the world. Only on that day will I be one. Only on that day will my name be one. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the flowing waters of justice and the everlasting stream of righteousness gushing forth from my holy mountain where all people shall come and be free at last.”

Sinai teaches that the restrictive, oppressive and terrifying power of might must give way to a greater vision of Oneness if God’s word is to prevail and draw humankind together in mutual respect and dignity, in security and peace.

The most difficult challenge of our era, indeed of any era, is how we are to attain oneness in our interpersonal relationships, our communities, amongst different peoples, ethnicities, religions, and nations.

In the next week, we will learn whether the P5 + 1 nations and Iran will succeed in negotiating an agreement that brings about a dramatic reduction in Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear bomb, and whether the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel and the peoples of the Middle East will be stilled.

Based on what we have been told is included in this agreement, even as we hear the Ayatollah’s bellicose rhetoric and “red lines” on top of Israeli and Congressional criticism and suspicion of this deal or any deal at all, there is obviously a vast difference of opinion amongst good, concerned and intelligent people about whether a successfully negotiated agreement is possible. If it is, the central questions are two: will the agreement be a harbinger of a more peaceful world, or will it be a subterfuge giving cover to Iran as it continues its march towards nuclear weapons capability.

We can only hope that the P5 + 1 advocates for an agreement are right that the deal will have enough teeth, investigative power and snap-back provisions to assure compliance and eliminate the threat of an Iranian bomb, and whether the principles established at Sinai are within reach in the real world of increasingly sectarian and tribal warfare.

The Reawakening to Love Again – A Memorial to Moshe Tabak

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Moshe Tabak was 90 years old when he died last week. Originally from Sigid, Czechoslovakia, he was the descendent of a distinguished line of chassidic Dayanim (scholars and judges) and was one of eleven children.

Moshe’s father was a wealthy land-owner in Czechoslovakia before the war, and so when the Nazis took over the country in 1939, he felt resistant to leave despite his wife’s urgent pleas. He reasoned that the bad times would pass and they should wait it out.

Tragically, he and almost all the family were murdered in Auschwitz, except Moshe, one older brother and a younger sister who survived work camps.

After the war at a port in Rumania, Moshe was waiting to board a Haganah boat that would take him and hundreds of refugees to Palestine. He was standing in a bread line when he spotted Miriam, a girl two years younger than him. Charmed, he reached out and offered her chocolate. Miriam remembers that Moshe was wearing a hat, had beautiful blue eyes and curly hair.

Once on board the ship, Moshe became sea-sick, and Miriam nursed him. They fell in love quickly and two years later, in 1947, they married in Palestine.

Theirs was a love-match from the beginning. Jewish legend relates that at creation each soul was split in two into what is called a palga gufa, a half-soul, and then each half moves through time and multiple lives in a sea of souls seeking its other half to become whole again.

Moshe and Miriam believed they had originally been one soul and that each was the other’s beshert, intended one – soul-mate. Their love was so deep and sustaining, they couldn’t imagine it otherwise.

Together Moshe and Miriam parented four children who in turn brought them nine grandchildren and then six great-grandchildren – L’dor vador.

Last summer, Moshe and Miriam, now living in Los Angeles and together for 70 years, aging and frail, moved in with their youngest daughter and son-in law, Debi and Ofer, and their four children Orly, Danielle, Aleeza, and Bradley, members of our congregation for many years. Their youngest two, twins, had been preparing to become bar and bat mitzvah yesterday on Shabbat Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32).

Sadly, we buried Moshe at 3 PM on Friday just before Shabbat. The family attended Kabbalat Shabbat services to say Kaddish. Tradition discourages public mourning on the Sabbath.

Yesterday morning, despite the family’s loss of its loving and gentle patriarch, convened to celebrate Aleeza’s and Bradley’s b’nai mitzvah.

My teacher and friend, Rabbi Larry Hoffman of HUC-JIR in NY, wrote a moving d’var Torah this week about the juxtaposition of death and life and how that theme played itself out in the rebellion of Korach and the subsequent sprouting of Aaron’s staff:

“Moses placed the staffs before God in the tent of the covenant law. The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” (Numbers 17:7-8)

Rabbi Hoffman explained that the great shoot of promise exemplified in the buds, blossoms and almonds of Aaron’s priestly staff, is regenerative and always bends towards the sun. “Judaism elects that image,” Larry wrote as its preferred image, not the image of destruction, bitterness and negativity.

How true this has been in Moshe’s and Miriam’s family experience.

Moshe was a positive thinking man. He mourned the destruction of his family quietly, deeply, with reverence, and dignity, but he looked forward, started his life over (as did so many survivors of the Shoah), sought continually every day to rediscover the good in life and to celebrate it, showing love and being generous in spirit to all, taking sustenance from Jewish tradition and Jewish faith, and delighting in the joy of family.

An unknown poet has written:

“Four things are beautiful beyond belief:
The pleasant weakness that comes after pain,
The radiant greenness that comes after rain,
The deepened faith that follows after grief,
And the re-awakening to love again.”

Zecher tzadik livracha. May the memory of this righteous man, Moshe Tabak, be a blessing.

On “d”emocrats and Demagogues, Servant-leaders and Hubris – D’var Torah Korach

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According to the latest Rasmussen Report national telephone survey of American voters, just 12% of likely U.S. voters rate the job Congress does as good or excellent. That is little different from a month ago but slightly better than the 8% approval measured a year ago. Most voters (58%) think Congress is doing a poor job.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this is so. The US Congress is dysfunctional because too many of our representatives refuse to compromise and find solutions to the nation’s many problems. They act instead according to the laws of the jungle and abide by the philosophy that ends justify means, might makes right, cynicism trumps hope, and power is an ultimate “good.”

There are, of course, many decent servant-leaders in Washington, D.C. and around the country who, despite formidable obstacles, seek to do well and work diligently on behalf of the common good.

This week’s Torah portion Korach considers both kinds of leaders as it tells the story of a major rebellion led by Korach and 250 Israelite leaders against Moses and Aaron.

Korach was Moses’ and Aaron’s first cousin (Exodus 6:18-21), a member of the priestly class and part of the ruling elite. The leaders around him are described as “Princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.” (Numbers 16:2) The Talmud says of them “that they had a name recognized in the whole world.” (Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a). These were not outside agitators or riff-raff. They were the ruling establishment.

Despite his elevated status, however, Korach and his close familial relationship with the Prophet Moses and High Priest Aaron, Korach wasn’t at all satisfied with his station. He challenged Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood, and his cohorts Dathan and Abiram questioned Moses’ leadership. Korach’s goal was to unseat the divinely chosen leaders, and he appealed to the people to overthrow them using religious language and espousing the importance of rotating leaders in office, all of whom he said were equally worthy.

“And they assembled themselves together against Moses and … Aaron, and said, ‘You [Moses and Aaron] take too much upon yourself, seeing that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them.’”

In actuality, tradition says of Korach that he and his minions weren’t “democrats” (small “d”) at all; they were demagogues who manipulated and incited the masses for their narrow self-interests.

Rabbi Moshe Weiler, the founder of liberal Judaism in South Africa, has written:“Theirs [i.e. Korach and his cohorts] was the pursuit of kavod, honor and power, in the guise of sanctity and love of the masses.”

Onkolos (2nd century C.E.), in his Aramaic translation of the two opening words of the portion, Vayikach Korach (“And Korach took”) wrote It’peleg Korach (“And Korach separated himself”), suggesting that he didn’t consider himself to be one with the people nor was he interested in serving their interests.

Korach sought power for power’s sake and he ignited a controversy based on ignoble motivations and nefarious goals leading to the devastation of the community. In the end, the earth swallowed Korach and his rebel comrades alive and sent them to Sheol in a spectacular inferno. (Numbers 16:31-35)

Korach’s eish ha-mach’loket (“fire of controversy”) became an eish o-che-lah (“a devouring fire”) that augured doom.

“The Sayings of the Sages” (5:21) reflects upon Korach’s rebellion and distinguishes between two very different kinds of controversy. The first is healthy and useful, pursued for the sake of heaven (l’shem sha-ma-yim) that brings about blessing and a stronger community. The second is a pernicious fight not based on lasting values that brings about disunity and destruction. Hillel and Shammai (1st century BCE) embodied the former, and Korach and his legions the latter.

Korach was essentially a cynic. Moses was the opposite, the humble servant-leader.

Who are we? Do we resonate with the voice of Korach or the spirit of Moses?

Who are our leaders? Are they interested only in power or in the common good?

Rabbi Rachel Cowan opines that though every individual may, indeed, aspire to be like Moses, Korach lives within our hearts too.

In thinking about ourselves and our leaders, the words of Maimonides remind us of the importance of pursuing higher virtue: “The ideal public leader is one who holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name.” (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7)

Upon reading this my brother once asked me, “Do you know anyone in public service who measures up to this high standard?”

I responded, “Not quite – but every public servant ought to aspire to do so.”

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