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Is it JUST about being Jewish?...

Every year at this time, I just can’t get over it.  I am amazed at the incredible success of Hanukah in American culture.  It’s amazing how many shops and restaurants and homes proudly display menorahs, dreidles, and blue and white decorations right alongside Christmas cheer.  And I no longer buy into the Jewish angst about the inauthenticity of Hanukah—that it’s only hyped up because of Christmas.  I have come to see that, while there is partial truth in this fear, it’s also true that Hanukah has evolved into a truly American Jewish holiday, one where Jews assert their pride in being Jewish especially in the face of Christmas.  We’re proudly Jewish, and we have nothing to hide—that’s the brilliant light in the darkness of the American Jewish experience that Hanukah has become all about, and I’m all for it!  I love Hanukah because it works:  we American Jews find personal meaning and significance in a truly Jewish ritual expression!             I love the subject of what …

The Eyes of God

Think of any problem in the human condition. Anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. Any war. The Holocaust. The economic crisis. Terrorism. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Global warming. Crime--any crime at all. Any man-made tzuris you can think of. The ultimate solution to the problems of humanity arises out of Parashat Vayera. I know that sounds like a rather over-blown claim. But I mean it. The implications of the story we encounter are that big. I am going to take you through some well-known biblical stories, stories that many of us have strong feelings about. I’m going to ask you to set aside your previous conclusions and judgments of these stories for the next few minutes, and listen to me tell them as if you have never heard them before. I will show us how the great trials of Abraham actually present us with a solution to our deepest human problems, if only we see how it all fits together. I’m going to present a radical re-reading of our texts, an approac…

The Safest Place in the World

Take a moment and go inside and ask yourself a question: When was the last time you really felt safe? I don’t mean ‘safe’ in the sense of ‘not in a war zone.’ I mean, when did you feel totally safe. Ultimately safe. Existentially safe in this life? Can you think of a time at all? Try as hard as you can to find a place, a time, a memory, when you knew that kind of safety, that kind of blissful security. If you’re anything like me, you might have a hard time locating a specific memory. Some of us may not be able to think of a single memory at all that fits this criteria. It’s a funny thing to contemplate, because somewhere inside, we feel like we must have had an experience of being cosmically safe, but it’s hard to find a memory that directly points to one experience of it. I can tell you that when I think about this question, I can’t find a particular story in my life like that; it’s more of a feeling about my relationships through my life. I’m particularly drawn back to my…

The Pursuit of Longing

I remember when I was a very little boy, around the age of three, my parents did a big mitzvah: they took in a woman who didn’t have a home of her own, and gave her room and board, and in exchange, she kept up the house and helped take care of me. The woman’s name was Ruthie. My parents tell me that Ruthie liked to keep to herself, with a sad, wistful, faraway look in her eye. Ruthie apparently had had a son once, a son whom she had lost, but she never spoke of him. Whenever my mother asked her about what happened with her son, she never wanted to discuss it. But one thing drove away her sadness: she loved me! I mean, she adored little three-year-old me. The sad, quiet Ruthie whom my parents describe doesn’t match my memories. All I remember is her unreserved smile, her laughter, her hugs, her loving touch, her carrying me and taking me everywhere with her. I remember feeling so safe and loved whenever I was around her. And my parents confirm this memory: she was a differ…

God Doesn't Give Us More Than We Can Handle

It has been two and half years since my little girl, my youngest, Meirav, was diagnosed with Type 1 “Juvenile” Diabetes. In some ways, it seems like centuries ago, since that terrible day when she was rushed to the hospital, having trouble breathing, her skin, ashen. It seems like another lifetime now, the moment the doctors told us that our beautiful, perfect little girl had an incurable disease; a disease that would require insulin dependence and constant monitoring to keep her alive—for the rest of her life. I’ll never forget those images of those early moments and days in the hospital: my little one hooked up to all those tubes and wires in intensive care; her cries in fear and pain; the doctors, nurses, technicians frantically working around her; the look in my wife’s eyes as she steeled herself to be strong for her and for us all; my wife’s hand holding Meirav’s little limp hand in her palm. The ensuing days, trying to get my mind around this sudden new reality; the nurses…

The Chosen People?

We Jews have a lot to be proud of. We have a long and ancient history. We have been beacons of justice and ethical teachings for countless generations. We have survived more attempts at annihilation than we care to number. And despite everything—exile, civilizations rising and falling, ever-shifting politics and locales—we have survived and have been successful beyond anyone’s imagination. There’s a very special feeling that we have about our identity as Jews. Yes, it’s pride. But it’s also gratitude and wonder, and a deep feeling of a collective heritage and destiny in this world that we share. And there’s also a phrase that often gets quoted and bandied about: we’re the “Chosen People.” Many of us associate our special feeling of Jewishness with that “chosenness.” How could we not—there is so much that feels special about being Jewish. But for obvious reasons, the “Chosen People” expression also engenders a lot of resentment from other peoples, both non-Jewish and Jew…

Never Lie To Yourself

This is a very special weekend here at Adas Israel. This is the weekend where we will have our Garden of the Righteous ceremony, which honors the memory of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. This year, we honor the memory of Jose Arturo Casstellanos, an El Salvadoran diplomat, who used his influence to issue visas to Jews imperiled by the Third Reich. Castellanos, incredibly, is credited with saving 40,000 Jews from almost certain death from the Nazis. We are, of course, so honored that his daughter, Frieda and granddaughter, are with us. And we are so awed by his amazing story. Once again, we can marvel at this quality we call ‘righteousness,’ this unbelievable courage to risk everything, even one’s own life, for the sake of strangers. The purpose of our event is not just to tell the story of a hero, but to inspire us all, to impart the message that this kind of righteousness is, in fact, something that we are all—as Jews, as human beings—called to in this…

Gold in the Walls

It never ceases to amaze me how deeply passions run about Israel. And I don’t mean just among members of this congregation. I don’t even mean among Jews alone. It’s amazing how the whole world seems always so impassioned, so hyper vigilant, so ready to scream and yell and battle over the fate of Israel, the Jewish State. Why is that? Why is the media so focused on it? Why do so many people, everywhere it seems, have such definite, absolute opinions about who is right and who is wrong in Israel? Why is the whole world so quick to polarize over this place? At times, it really seems as if there’s something supernatural going on, something particularly energizing about the Land of Israel in the collective human unconscious. And maybe this really is so. If you read the Torah, there’s no doubt about the particular spiritual power of the Land of Israel. It really is a unique focal point of the world. According to our ancient tradition, things happen in that particular place that do…

Ice Cream Breakfast

My grandmother had a good death. One that any of us would hope for. She was 99 years old. She had seen her children, her grandchildren, and great grandchildren grow and flourish. She never lost her mental abilities, or her wicked sense of humor. She lived her life devoted to her family and her people. One of the greatest lessons of her amazing century of life came at the very end itself. My Grandma lived her life with great simplicity. She neither had riches nor required them. She never craved extravagance. Whenever a milestone, an accomplishment or a special event came up through the years, she and my grandfather always marked the occasion in one special way. They would sit down together and have a little vanilla ice cream in a glass of ginger ale . By the time Grandma died, she hadn’t had this treat in many years, maybe not since Grandpa died 20 years ago. But that final day of her life, she told the woman caring for her that she was having a craving: could…

Mobs and the Potential for Good

Last week, President Obama delivered a message when President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down from his place of power. Obama said “while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history -- echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.” These are beautiful and inspiring words of our president in the face of extraordinary change in the middle east. As Jews, we have watched the images on television, read the reports in the newspapers, and we heard Obama’s remarks. And we can’t help but have a terribly ambivalent reaction. This isn’t just any popular uprising for the sake of democrac…