Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Monday, December 10, 2012
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל-לִבֶּךָ, כַּחוֹתָם עַל-זְרוֹעֶךָ--כִּי-עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה,
“Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6)
(it has since migrated from the site, so I have posted it below).
A mother’s unveiling: the undoing of closure
Monday, November 12, 2012
Monday, October 29, 2012
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Saturday, September 15, 2012
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Pop Jewish: The Intersection of Judaism and Pop Culture: Wu Minxia, Tiger Mothers and Jewish Parenting
How far should a parent go in raising a child for excellence? are there limits? see this pop jewish post here
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
A powerful is the suggestion from Claude Salem to pressure NBC to do something. Shouldn't NBC at least run a public service announcement with the names of the Israeli athletes? Contact your congressman and senator as well; they should call NBC as well.
Please contact NBC here.
Please tune out the opening ceremonies, and remember the Israeli athletes, as mentioned here.
P.S. NBC's Bob Costas will be doing a moment of silence. Read about it here. He deserves our thanks.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Monday, July 16, 2012
".....If the IOC will not spare even one minute for their memories, we will do it ourselves. The opening ceremonies take place on Friday evening in London; instead of watching, we should shut off the Olympics, read the names of the 11 victims, and observe our own minute of silence....."
Sunday, July 08, 2012
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
Pop Jewish: Edon Pinchot, The Fourth of July, and the Jewish A...: Edon Pinchot, a 14 year old singing sensation from Chicago has triumphed on ABC’s hit show “America’s Got Talent”. I’m proud of Edon’s vic...
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
(my latest post on the Faithblender blog)
I’m a Rabbi, and I’ve spent a lifetime studying books about ethics and values. And don’t get me wrong, book learning is important; but that’s not the way we teach children about ethics. In the end, the most influential teaching about ethics comes from what children observe others doing, because without question, our children learn their values from their role models.
Good role models are hard to come by, and that’s a problem. Today’s heroes are a lot different than those of yesteryear. And that’s a tragedy.
Today’s role models are celebrities. Celebrities are trendsetters. Young girls dress in the style of their favorite pop divas, while their parents dream of a flashy and fancy Hollywood lifestyle.
Role models are important because they represent our highest aspirations. The Mishna tells us that everyone should have a teacher, a person they look up to as a role model of knowledge and character. You can tell a person’s character by who their heroes are.
But heroes aren’t what they used to be. Old fashioned heroes like the fireman, the soldier and the cop, people who risk their lives for the general good, now live anonymous and humble lives, forgotten by everyone else. Today’s hero wears sunglasses, drives a Ferrari, and is talking on a cellphone with his agent.
Celebrities, our new heroes, are poor role models. Many are often “in and out”; in and out of rehab, in and out of marriage, in and out of court. However, their sins are quickly dismissed by pliant doctors, judges, and therapists, all in time for them to return to their adoring fans. Honest redemption and sacrifice are for the movies; in real life, celebrity fame and fortune is all that matters.
A society follows its role models. If our heroes are shallow and superficial, then it won’t be long before the rest of are wearing designer shades, searching for a new car, a new look and a new spouse.
That’s why it’s our job, as parents and teachers, to be true role models. When we cut in line at the supermarket, young eyes are watching; when we curse on the phone, little ears are taking note. In a world without role models, it’s time that we become role models, and show our children the right way.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
What are we celebrating on Yom Yerushalayim?
Perhaps let’s answer the question with a question. How do you determine the meaning of any person, place or thing in the Tanach? One way is to look at the first time that noun is mentioned in the Tanach. As a new place is introduced, telltale signs indicate its future significance.
So what type of introduction is given to Jerusalem in the Tanach? One is hidden, and one is open. The hidden introduction takes place at the end of Parshat Vayera. We are told the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, takes place on Mount Moriah. Here, we see the depth of Abraham’s faith, a faith that could withstand any sacrifice. Only later, in Sefer Divrei Hayamim, are we told that Mount Moriah is in Jerusalem.
The open introduction is told slowly, through Yehoshua and Shoftim, and finally culminates in the arrival of King David. The Jews are unable to conquer Jerusalem from the Jebusites. For over 400 years, the Jebusites remain entrenched in Jerusalem. Then David becomes King. According to some commentaries, he is willing to accept the status quo, and comes to visit to Jerusalem in order to negotiate a treaty; but the Jebusites mock David severely, saying “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” David is mocked and threatened by the sneering Jebusites, who treat him like a weak leader of a weaker nation; David can only wonder what will come next. After this provocation, David captures Jerusalem, and makes it his capital.
Jerusalem needs two introductions because it has two stories to tell. To use Rav Soloveitchik’s terminology, it is a story of gevurah and koach. Gevurah is the ability to control yourself; the ability to withstand tests and continue with faith. Koach is pure power, the ability to dominate and determine one’s own destiny. There have been those blessed with koach (power), who have been laid low by their own lack of gevurah, of self control and self discipline; at the same time, there are those who have been blessed with gevurah, and been courageous and tenacious, yet were always lacking in koach, in personal and political power.
The story of the akeidah is a story of pure gevurah. It is a story of sacrifice and self control in the extreme; Avraham retains his faith, even when tested by the ultimate test. Avraham’s courage becomes the inspiration for generations of Jews who show enormous gevurah, and retain their faith in face of challenges.
Indeed, the akeidah represents an aspect of Jerusalem that is oft forgotten; it was the centerpiece of Jewish hopes in exile. Jews struggled and strained, yet all the while were sustained by their memories of Jerusalem; they lived in ghettos, yet never stopped talking about Jerusalem, praying towards Jerusalem, and dreaming of Jerusalem. (Indeed, it is Daniel in the Babylonian exile who begins the practice of praying towards Jerusalem). Jews in exile, lacking in koach but full of gevurah, hung on to their faith and their people while turning their faces towards Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem of Gevurah, the Jerusalem of exile, is Abraham’s Jerusalem, a place where Jews turn to demonstrate their unwavering faith.
But there’s another Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of Koach. David makes Jerusalem his capital because it symbolizes his worthiness to be a king; he is someone who can protect and keep Israel strong. Instead of being a loose group of shepherds, the Jews were now on their way to being a nation with a king and a capital, a country that can hold its own in the face of its enemies.
Those of us who are more familiar with the Jerusalem of exile sometimes forget the need for power, for koach. We have survived and even thrived just with our inner strength, and we’ve become cynical about real power. But 45 years ago, we were reminded once again that Jews ideally possess both gevurah and koach. In the days before to the Six Day War in 1967, people around the world worried that the Arab States were going to attack and destroy Israel; that only 30 years after the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jews would be slaughtered again. Instead, the opposite occurred. And as the soldiers entered the Lion’s Gate, Jewish sovereignty returned back to David’s city. Once again, the dispossessed of exile could return home, to David’s home, to his capital and to his Temple. It took much gevurah and courage, and there were many sacrifices along the way; through 1,900 years of exile, and through decades of war, where thousands of young men gave their lives to build a State. But thankfully we had the gift of koach and the power to prevail.
Thankfully, after 1,900 years, no one would laugh at Jewish self determination anymore. Both David, and Avraham, would be proud.
Please look at the following links
Monday, May 14, 2012
Monday, April 09, 2012
How Should We Treat Our Seniors?
(my newest piece in the Faithblender blog)
It’s a lot harder for the elderly to get respect in the 21st century. We live in the era of the cutting edge; technology rules, and technology changes daily. To be up to date, you need the latest gizmo, something that is often uninteresting or even confusing for older Canadians. In addition, our video driven culture is all about what you can see: videos, pictures, images. Our society is driven by the visual; and superficial qualities like youthful attractiveness have become far more important than in previous generations. In a culture of technology and youth, the elderly are the odd man out.
Sadly, as we forget our elderly, we forget our souls. A Jewish attitude to the elderly would recognize both society's need for wisdom as well as the imperative of gratitude.
The Talmud remarks that the Hebrew word for elder (zaken) is an acronym for “one who has wisdom” (zeh shekanah chachmah). The elder may not know the minutiae of technology, but life experience has given him wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to see the critical aspects of any decision; wisdom is the maturity to avoid getting caught up in hype. Wisdom reminds us that good values never go out of style. Sadly, in a society enamored with the new, wisdom is forgotten; this loss of wisdom is noticeable everywhere, from bank lending practices to marriage breakups.
But some of our elderly have declined, and are no longer wise. Age has taken its toll, and those who were once caregivers now need caretakers. How do we relate to the elderly who are infirm, who are no longer what they once were?
The Talmud has a beautiful note on this topic. The Bible tells us about the tablets with the Ten Commandments that were brought by Moses from Mt. Sinai; not once, but actually twice, because the first set were smashed by Moses during the episode of the Golden Calf. The two intact tablets were kept in the Ark of the Covenant, and housed in the center of the Temple.
But what about the first set of tablets, which were broken by Moses? Where were they housed? The Talmud tells us they were housed in the Ark as well. The lesson of this, says the Talmud, is even when a wise man loses his wisdom, he is still worthy of the same respect.
The Talmud is teaching us a profound lesson. There are times when we must show respect because of awe, out of an awareness that this person is far greater than I am. But there are times that we show respect out of gratitude. We need to consider the person’s past contributions to our family and community. I need to respect the old World War II vet, even if he longer remembers my name, or his. I need to show gratitude for accomplishments past, because without them, I would not be here today.
Monday, April 02, 2012
Did Religion Inspire Mohamed Merah to Kill?
(my newest piece in the Faithblender blog)
Religion can inspire man in many ways; sadly, it can also inspire murder. The Bible says that the first murder was inspired by a religious dispute; Cain murders Abel because he is jealous of Abel’s sacrifice. Indeed, the Midrash (an ancient Jewish commentary) says Cain learned to kill from observing his father offering sacrifices; the Midrash seems to emphasize that in this murder, religion is the inspiration. Right at the outset of human history, religious fanaticism erupts on the scene.
Religion is filled with enormous passion; we desperately want closeness to God, and are willing to do anything to achieve that closeness. But like anything valuable in life, religious passion is a double-edged sword. Religious violence is inspired by that very passion, a passion that is often manipulated by groups like Al Qaeda in pursuit of a political agenda.
Mohamed Merah, a follower of Al-Qaeda, went into the Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse and brutally murder three young children along with a young father. This murder truly frightens me, as my own children attend a school similar to the Otzar Hatorah school. It truly frightens me that there are Muslims being taught to hate Jews, all in the name of religion. It frightens me that the spirit of Cain still walks the earth, in all faiths and all walks of life.
The only way to prevent religious violence is by ensuring that both our minds and our hearts are engaged in religion. We need to make sure that the ethical demands of the mind never get overwhelmed by the ferocious passion of the heart.
We need to reaffirm our love for Abel, even before we pray to God.
Monday, March 26, 2012
A Rabbi’s Advice to Pope Benedict in Cuba
Religious leadership requires a great deal of courage.
Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Cuba. For most of us, Cuba is a charming tourist destination; but for Cubans, Cuba is a repressive Communist dictatorship, with a government that routinely jails its opponents and on occasion murders its critics.
It’s easy for a pundit like me to advise Pope Benedict to use his visit to oppose the Castro regime. But protest is a very difficult choice. Pope Benedict knows that the Castro regime will respond to his words and exact retribution from Cuban Catholics after he leaves. While the principles of human rights push him to defy the regime, on a practical level, he has to deal with the Communists. Pragmatically, he needs to make sure not to enrage the dictatorship of a country with millions of Catholics.
Pragmatism is a double edged sword; it can help you survive in turbulent times, but at the same time it can cut your principles into shreds. In the Talmud, a story is told about negotiations that took place before the destruction of the Temple. Jerusalem was besieged, but a leading Rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, defied the political leadership to left to meet with the Romans. He was taken to meet with the Roman general, where he negotiated a deal. But the deal was very modest; instead of asking for an end to the siege, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai requested that the main Rabbinic academy be saved. He felt he would not be able to get the Romans to end their siege, and it was best for him to take something smaller, but valuable, that he would be certain to get in the negotiations.
For years since, a debate has raged about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s actions; was his pragmatism a practical yet wise move, or was it a failure, an act of abandoning principle?
This question is not easily answered. But Communism is different. It is not just a government; it is an ideology, one that is hostile to both religion and freedom. With Communism, there can be no compromises. The Pope’s predecessor, John Paul II knew this, and he courageously fought Communism throughout his tenure.
Sadly, Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba has gotten off to a poor start. Human rights activists have been removed from a church by the Cuban Cardinal, Jaime Ortega. The Pope needs now to find the courage to stand up to Cuba, and to insist that it give freedom to all its citizens.
During the years of Communism in the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Jews defied the regime, and insisted on retaining their Jewish identity. One of the great inspirations for these freedom fighters was the Passover Seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The remarkable thing about the Exodus is that Moses, even before he became the great lawgiver of the Bible, was a freedom fighter. To be a true religious authority like Moses, you need to first stand up for freedom.
Pope Benedict XVI is having his Moses moment today. I hope he remembers that the first task of a religious authority is to defy the Pharaohs of the world, and stand up for human rights.
Monday, February 06, 2012
Between Syria and the Super Bowl
After two weeks of waiting, it was finally here. Like millions of football fans, I couldn’t wait for the 6:29 P.M. on Sunday night, when the Patriots and the Giants finally took the field. And the game did not disappoint. It was a true classic, and my heart raced until the last play of the game. Ecstatic that the underdog Giants had won, I rushed to Twitter to tweet about the game. It was then that I discovered the following message from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “My twitter feed is half Super Bowl, half Syrian slaughter. Seems obscene.”
This tweet punctured my good mood; I immediately felt guilty. After all, while civilians were being massacred in Syria, I was celebrating the triumph of a group of hulking millionaires in a child’s game. China and Russia had vetoed a resolution that might have stopped the carnage in Syria, but I sat comfortably in my den, watching 22 grown men chase after a pigskin. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I am well aware of how American Jewish leaders had looked away while their brethren in Europe were massacred. When members of the Polish underground tried to pass on information about the Holocaust in an attempt to rouse Jewish leaders to action, they were often met with indifference. One of them described the experience of speaking to Jewish leaders this way: "Jewish leaders abroad won't be interested. At eleven in the morning, you will begin telling them about the anguish of the Jews in Poland, but at one o'clock they will ask you to halt the narrative so they can have lunch. This is a difference which cannot be bridged. They will go on lunching at the regular hour at their favorite restaurant, so they cannot understand what is happening in Poland." Yet amidst all the suffering in Syria, I sat down in front of a flat screen TV to watch football. Was I any different than those feckless, lunch-eating Jewish leaders?
My guilt feelings aside, it’s overwhelming to live a life of constant sensitivity. There have always been hot spots of oppression and brutality. If we’re obligated to be perpetually conscious of suffering around the world, we’d never drink a beer or laugh at a joke. Life would become an unremitting loop of earnest seriousness. Must we be forced to choose between laughter and compassion, between caring about Syria and caring about the Super Bowl?
Clearly, a happy medium must be found. The Talmud (Taanit 11a) makes it clear that there are times when joy must be put aside, because we need to participate in the pain of the community. It is simply distasteful to go on with life as usual when the rest of the community is grieving. And of course, if you can actually make a difference in the battle against genocide, don’t break for lunch.
But there also times when we must put sad news aside as well. As much as we might like to, we simply cannot feel the pain of every victim; otherwise we’d fall victim to “empathy fatigue”, and we’d burn out before we could be of help to anyone else. The Talmud (Ketubot 50a) wisely places limits on one’s generosity, saying that charitable donations cannot exceed a fifth of one’s income. Otherwise, people could potentially become victims of their own generosity. Compassion too must have its limits, otherwise we’ll end up traumatized and heartbroken.
Yes, it’s o.k. to watch the Super Bowl, even when there is so much tragedy in the world. Yet I’m glad that Goldberg’s harsh tweet made me feel guilty.
The custom at Jewish weddings is to break a glass during the ceremony. This purpose of this custom is to remind the young couple that the even as they celebrate, the world is still broken and in need of fixing. We want the couple to pause their personal joy for a moment and reflect on their obligation to make the world a better place. This lesson is necessary all the time, at every celebration. Even if we want to party, we need to pause for a moment and remember how broken this world is, from Syria to North Korea to the homeless on the streets of Montreal.
Even the Super Bowl needs a moment of “broken glass”, a reminder that what’s happening in Syria is obscene, and we have to do something about it.
Freedom is always noisy, always filled with a cacophony of voices. That’s why the Seder features conversation; we celebrate the evening by asserting our freedom of speech.
Slavery, on the other hand, is about silence. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik puts it: “Before Moses came there was not even a single sound…..The slaves were gloomy, voiceless and mute”. A slave keeps his mouth shut; he forever in perpetual fear of his master. And silence suits the slave, who sees no point in complaining and cannot imagine any possibility of change.
We can see a reflection of the slave mentality in today’s totalitarian governments. Citizens may speak, but only what’s approved by the regime; their own thoughts must be silenced. Nicholas Kristoff describes a visit to North Korea he took in 1989: “I stopped in a rural area to interview two high school girls at random. They were friendly, if startled. So was I when they started speaking simultaneously and repeating political lines in perfect unison. They could have been robots.”
The Zohar says that when Moshe arrived in Egypt, the voice of the Jewish people emerged. Moses, at first too frightened to talk himself, eventually finds his voice; and when he does, he begins the fight for freedom. And since Moses, Jews have never lost their voice. And as we sit around the Passover Seder, we should remember that a direct line connects Moses’ call of “let my people go” to the words of Isaiah, and on to the words of Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin.
Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Jewish history is how the Jews never lost a sense of self-determination in years of crushing exile. Unquestionably, the Passover Seder kept the minds of the Jews free, even when their bodies remained in chains. Even during the Holocaust, Jews could speak to each other of freedom, and remain free in their hearts. Yaffa Eliach recounts an improvised Seder in Bergen Belsen. Rabbi Israel Spira, the Bluzhover Rebbe, spoke to the children and said “We, who are witnessing the darkest night in history….. will also witness the great light of redemption”, and he quoted Isaiah's messianic vision: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned". Rabbi Spira told the children they too could hope for redemption, and dream of the day they would walk out of darkness into light.
At many Seders, the Haggadah is an impediment, something that gets between us and the brisket. But when you feel the urge to ask “how long will it take to finish the Haggadah?”, remember that it’s words, and in particular the words of the Haggadah, that have brought freedom to the world.