Friday, December 22, 2017

Vayiggash, Everything for a Reason

Parshat Vayiggash, "Everything for a Reason" - Joseph's journey has been a very difficult one, with a great deal of suffering for him and many others.  Finally, in this week, Jacob and all his family come to Egypt, thus fulfilling God's words to Abraham, "Know that your offspring will be strangers in a foreign land." (Gen. 15:13)
If God's plan was to get everyone down to Egypt anyway, why go through all the challenges and suffering?
This question was asked by Rabbi K
s Kal
​in his Esh Kodsh, "Holy Fire" a collection of commentary on the Torah he wrote while in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.  
He says, 
nothing can ever be revealed if it does not entail replacing something which already exists. 
​Or it could be said, improving oneself or anything else means replacing or changing the level you were at to begin with.  Sometimes, this may involve great difficulty.  Esh Kodesh gives several examples including: giving birth, the creation of the world, and the giving of the Torah, which he adds to the story of Joseph.
​This answer should not be confused with the simple notion, "everything happens for a reason."  It is not only saying that.  ​It speaks to those times when we can see, after our challenges and difficulties, that the changed circumstances in which we find ourselves can also contain something valuable.  If we remain imprisoned by grievances and regrets for what is no more, we cannot, like Joseph, achieve God's plan.  It is only, Esh Kodesh is telling us, when, we are able to see there is still meaning in our lives after even difficult changes, that we can really say what has happened has happened for a reason.  Like the Esh Kodesh, like Joseph, this is not something another person can decide for you, you must learn it for yourself.
​Shabbat Shalom!​

Friday, December 15, 2017

Careful Split-Second Thinking, Parshat Mikketz

Parshat Mikketz, “Careful Split-Thinking” - The essence of charitzut, decisiveness, is carrying through on a decision made while considering the needs of others, in all the various ways that can be meant.  Our deliberations and our follow-through on a decision must include consideration of the others to be impacted, and ideally, should include ways in which we lift up their burdens at the same time as we act in accordance with the best we have the potential to be.

We see perhaps the finest example of this in Joseph's response to his brothers’ appearance before him in this parshah.  Encapsulated in the verse, 'vayaker Yosef et echav v'hem lo hikiruhu' - 'Joseph recognized his brothers but they didn't recognize him' is the birth of Joseph's decision as to how to act towards his brothers.

We can posit that years of refining and improving his character, years of imagining all the ways in which he might deal with such an encounter, years of deliberating, as it were, resulted in Joseph's being able, in that instance, to set upon a plan by which he might act, over time, to lift up his brothers' burden of guilt and help them on the path to teshuvah, and finally to the ultimate redemption for the Jewish People as well.

And we see the fruits of this decision on Joseph's part when he finally does reveal himself and says, 'ki l'michyah sh'lachani Elohim lifneichem', 'for to save life did God send me before you,'  Joseph's decision is shown to have no enmity and no vengeance to it, but only a spirit of true concern and understanding for his family and how to help them.

May we all grow to be as able as Joseph was, to maintain ourselves and our way of thinking and being, so that, seemingly instantly, we can make the decisions that help and lift up others, and in so doing, achieve God's purpose for our lives and the world as well.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon on Jerusalem Decision

Statement of the Rabbinical Assembly on Jerusalem Decision:   
Thursday December 7, 2017
The Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the entire worldwide Masorti/Conservative Movement listed below, issued the following statement today following President Trump’s announcement that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and take initial steps to relocate the American diplomatic mission in Israel to Jerusalem:
Jerusalem is Judaism’s holiest city and the capital of the state of Israel, as the Conservative movement has long maintained in resolutions and public statements. We are pleased, at the President's initiative, that the United States government will now recognize Jerusalem as Israels capital and begin the process of moving the American diplomatic mission there from Tel Aviv.
The status of Jerusalem is a matter to be settled in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and planning to move the American embassy to a location under uncontested Israeli sovereignty, the U.S. government acknowledges the age-old connection that Israel and the Jewish people maintain with the holy city.
We urge the U.S., Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community to take the bold steps needed to advance a two-state solution and a regional accord between Israel and its neighbors. Now more than ever, Israelis and Palestinians deserve a just and durable peace that protects the security of Israelis and grants to Palestinians an independent state in which to realize their national aspirations.
Rabbinical Assembly
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Cantors Assembly
Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs
Jewish Educators Assembly
Jewish Theological Seminary
Masorti Foundation
Masorti Israel
Masorti Olami 
Mercaz Olami
North American Association of Synagogue Executives
Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano  
Women’s League for Conservative Judaism 

The single most important thing to know and to build your thoughts on the week’s news around is the following.  Do you believe Jerusalem is the capital of Israel?  Or more precisely, had it ever really crossed your mind that Jerusalem wasn’t the capital of Israel?  Even if you were aware of the details of the situation prior to today – if you were going to Israel, what’s in your mind about what Jerusalem is vs. what Tel Aviv is?  And when you were in Jerusalem, what was the meaning of seeing the Knesset building, the Supreme Court building, the President’s residence or walking down the street in front of the Prime Minister’s house?  Were you not in the capital city of the country? 
And so if you were, if you knew that already, as I did, my first statement is what difference did it make to you that “officially” the US did not, prior to Wednesday, acknowledge what you already knew and had experienced?  (Although technically, it has been US law since 1995 that an “undivided” Jerusalem should be considered capital of Israel, and Trump, notably, didn’t even say that.) 
See for me, as much as I love the United States, it is my country, and it almost feels preposterous to have declare that out loud as if there were any doubt, I don’t need Trump or anyone else to tell me what is right and correct, and in this case, it is that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people.  In much the same way as when the Pope endorses the position Jerusalem should be a corpus separatum, an international city, or when Iran declares that Jerusalem is not the capital because there shouldn’t even be a State of Israel at all – not only do those statements, unlike what the US said on Wednesday, not only do such statements completely ignore the reality of what is on the ground, but more, they are, more than even being wrong, they are irrelevant.
This is the lesson of our parshah this morning, when we are told, after all that Joseph has endured, the pit, servitude, foreign lands, כִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה אִתּ֑וֹ וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא עֹשֶׂ֔ה יְהוָ֖ה מַצְלִ֥יחַ בְּיָדֽוֹ׃Lord was with him, and the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.”  We Jews have our purpose and calling in life and it is not defined by others, who, more often than not in history and even in the world today, would just as soon see us fail as help us anyway.
Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean that any of these statements, Trump’s, the Pope’s, the Ayatollah’s, are completely “irrelevant,” of course they all matter a tremendously as their words and opinions shape the world in which we live.  So too, do the words of fellow Conservative rabbis, of many Jews I know, of the Reform Movement, that have expressed varying levels of concern or disagreement or suspicion about this policy endorsement, they all shape the world we live in and must be taken seriously as part of our reality when dealing with this issue.  Just as the calls of Palestinian Arabs to have autonomy in a land of their own must also too factor into how we measure reality and be taken seriously. 
But consider the following.  For me, my formative development came in the 1990s.  The world and the Judaism of that period still linger in my mind as a sort of “baseline.”  What synagogue was like then – Carlebach music was coming into vogue, the sense was Judaism and Conservative Judaism were doing okay generally, and the spirit in the country was similar.  Sure, there were challenges.  And the looming question of what was then called “Middle East Peace” was one of them. 
But in the 20 years since that era, the world has changed tremendously, as I don’t need to tell you.  The country no longer feels as optimistic and hopeful.  Conservative Judaism certainly isn’t anymore.  A real and serious question about the place of even the melodies let-alone the reputation of Shlomo Carlebach is rightfully being had given his misdeeds.  
…And, the question of “Middle East Peace,” and whether that statement can rightfully even be applied to the Israel-Palestinians question, when Iraq is torn apart by war, when Shiites and Christians are murdered in Egypt, when Syria is torn apart by war and genocide, when Yemen is torn apart by war and genocide, when not only countries like Egypt and Jordan but Saudi Arabia have increasingly decent relations with Israel, you must question whether you, and the news you consume, and the opinions that you’ve had are as equally outdated as the Palm Pilot I also finally got in about 2000.   (Incidentally, the notion that “Evangelicals” shape much of the platform and beliefs of political right in this country stems from this period too, but is, like the rest equally outdated.)
For the world in which we live, has a very different Middle East, and thus the decision the Congress took back in the 1990s and that was too controversial for any president to act on until now, regardless of party, doesn’t seem so challenging anymore when one considers the threats felt by ISIS and Iran for much of the Sunni, Arab, and Turkish worlds, the Palestinian-Israeli Question is increasingly becoming an unnecessary side-show.  While certainly no Arab or Muslim world leader has, to my knowledge, come out endorsing the decision, equally noteworthy is it that most of the Arab countries that do deal on some level with Israel seem as if they are going to continue to do so, and while there have certainly been protests and even loss of life, the called for Days of Rage do not, as of yet anyway, seem to be as violent and virulent as one might have expected  were this decision as meaningfully significant as some would claim it to be.  Also note, most of the protests have not been calls of “We object to the American Embassy being in Jerusalem” but rather, “free, free, Palestine” or similar chants – which seem to be protesting some issue different from, more fundamental than, what Trump said on Wednesday…
What’s more, Trump’s statement, which, I think it is fair to say without being partisan, is typically negotiable as his statements seem to be, intentionally or not, good or bad or otherwise.  It sounds quite strong, quite definitive, quite a break with convention, but it is none of those things.  As I’ve already said, it really only endorses the 1995 act of Congress regarding Jerusalem, so it’s not even his idea really.  It is short of specifics, I suspect he hadn’t consulted the Iriya to ask exactly where the municipality borders are.  It notably doesn’t refer to “a unified Jerusalem” which even if it did, it still more than allows for some piece or corner of eastern Jerusalem to eventually be labeled the capital of a Palestinian state.  Even the notion of “moving” or “building” an embassy in Jerusalem is, at least to me, questionable as to what that will really entail, as the consulate in Jerusalem that’s down the street from Super-Sal, really could just have a different sign put on the front for all that matters.  Therefore, the statement, apart from not shaping Jewish beliefs in the slightest, doesn’t even do that much, I think, to change American ones. 
We say in Psalm 122:6:  אֲלוּ שְׁלֹ֣ום יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love you.”
I doubt you all feel the same as I do, exactly, on this subject.  You may mostly agree, you may think I’m an idiot.  I respect that and welcome it.  For that verse is really the guiding sentiment here.  We all, I suspect, love Jerusalem dearly.  And increasingly this topic makes me sad, that Jerusalem, God’s City of Peace, should be a source of more strife and discord, particularly among those who love it.  That is really the way I hope you’ll take these words I’ve shared today, as a chance for us to get together as Lovers of Jerusalem and reflect on what it should mean and what form our love should take, so that it and all of us, should Prosper.

Shabbat Shalom!