Friday, November 11, 2011

The Tower of Football

It is difficult as a sports fan to respond to the events surrounding Penn. State’s football program. To ask the obvious questions, “How could this happen?” “How could no one have reported the accusations?” “How could university employees who profess to care about the students in their charge go on with their lives without a care for children being abused?” The rabbis long ago understood how. They understood how people’s priorities could get so screwed up, so skewed.

They saw the answer in the story of the Tower of Babel.

The rabbis say that what was wrong with the building of the Tower of Babel was not that people had the same language or that they were “on the same page” so to speak, but that building the Tower became more important than the lives of the workers. We find in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 24 that, "If a person were to fall and die, no one would notice him; but if even a single brick were to fall, they would sit and cry, 'Woe unto us, for when will another brick be brought up in its stead'!"

When we are united in common cause, speaking a common language, acting as one, things can be wonderful! We can truly accomplish amazing things. Yet when the cause becomes an idol, a tower, and we lose sight of what is important, our common cause can easily lead us astray. At Penn State, for some there, not for all, for some in the football program, not for all, the Tower had become all important. “If a child were to be harmed, no one would notice him; but should a coach fall and potentially harm the Tower? Woe unto us!!!”

And so we have it, “Woe unto us that misfortune could threaten the idol, the Tower of Football!” It wasn’t about the people. It was about the Tower. The Tower has fallen and the common language, the common support for the long storied football program has ended in chaos, confounded speech, a scattering to the winds.

It will take time, but Penn State will recover. The children harmed because the Tower of Football became all important never will.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It is Not Across the Sea – Yom Kippur Morning 5772-2011

Your soul and my soul,

How often do you sit

with someone you love

in the next room

in the next chair

and what is it

that prevents your soul

from leaping up

leaping up to say

Your soul and my soul,

aren’t they one?

aren’t we one?

that’s how I feel.

What is it that prevents you?

Instead you sit

in your own room

in your own chair

filled with longing and loneliness

and the moment passes.

From A Spiritual Life, by Merle Feld (SUNY Press) 1999, pg. 97.

Loneliness. I came across this quote by John Corry, which I think is all too true. He said that:

Loneliness seems to have become the great American disease.

I think that it is indeed. It is far too easy for us to isolate ourselves these days though we can pretend that having a thousand friends on Facebook is the equivalent of having them where we live in our daily lives. Where once we at least had to go to the local video rental place to rent a movie, already a step removed from actually attending a movie, and where we might actually run into people whom we know in the process, now we can visit sites such as Netflix through our televisions and with a simple press of a button have many more movies than were once available at any movie rental store streamed live to our television sets without ever having to leave the couch. And because many families have multiple television sets, we need not necessarily bother to agree on which movie to choose. The disagreeing party could just go into a different room and watch a different movie. Same house, separate lives.

Where once conversations were had in person or at least over the phone, now young adults simply send text messages, interacting with each other speedily for certain, but in a medium that is less personal than the now seemingly lost form of communication known as the letter. The bigger problem, and what I would like to talk about today, is that this search for ease, for things to come to us without effort and without sacrifice of any kind on our part, is rampant, not only in our use of technology, but in our personal interactions as well.

Longing for connection, it is too easy to take the easy way out. While the easy way may be to text instead of call, it can also be to sit and wait for the other to act as well. I know that I too often ask others to contact me, to email me first. Yes, I am busy and yes it is far easier to respond to an email than to remember an email address. However, being passive, not acting, may mean that I miss out on interaction with someone with whom I would love to interact, because they do not take their time to contact me. Ultimately, while we may keep this discussion at an abstract level, talking about reaching out or waiting to be reached by another, the issue is really one that is much simpler.

It is a matter of giving and receiving and our society has become one in which we expect everything to be given to us. Not only do we expect more for less expense of time, money, or effort, we may even expect that others will provide it for us entirely. We like to receive, but giving? What may not be readily apparent is that we may well like giving even more!

Which actually feels better to us? Which is more satisfying?

I think that the answer to this question is directly related to the loneliness that we feel in our lives and I am going to show you how.

Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser asked the following question in a sermon he shared with me and with other colleagues about giving:

Think about the best gift you ever got—the one you had to wait a long time to get. The one that you had really craved, and then you got it. What was it for you?

Take a moment and remember.

When I was a child, I’m sure it was some sort of action figure, perhaps a Star Wars figurine. I remember being very excited to receive an X-wing fighter and a Tie fighter from the Star Wars set for my birthday. My best friend had the Millennium Falcon and I really wanted the X-wing and Tie fighter so that we could re-enact the battle scenes from the movie. Yes, it is collectable, but a bit more than well used. A year or two later, I had moved beyond that stuff and it went into storage.

I remember, in 1984, a bit older, having a Members Only jacket and some awful pants with zippers all over them because I wanted to be cool like Michael Jackson. Have you ever seen those clothes? They had fake zippers. Fake. They were not cargo pants with useful pockets. Fake zippers. I can’t even imagine wearing those clothes today and no, not just because they would be way too small on me! Even at the time, I probably only wore them a handful of times. Why did I even want them?

A couple of years ago, I was excited to receive the Get Smart DVD set as a present from my wife, something that I had wanted for a long time. Growing up, I loved that show. One weekend soon after I got the set, I watched the first couple of DVDs full of shows, not all of them. Since then, the DVDs have pretty much been sitting on a shelf. Someday, I will have time to watch them.

Most of us can probably relate to this. There are things that we want so badly that our hearts ache. We crave them. We go out of our way to get them. And then, we lose interest or perhaps realize that we should not have wanted what we desired in the first place. Receiving something we wanted often does not feel as good as we thought that it would feel. Sometimes, as Rabbi Goldwasser notes, it may actually make us feel badly when we realize how foolish our desire had been.

Is it the same with giving? How do we feel when we give to another something that they have wanted or needed? I can tell you that as a Rabbi, I have the opportunity to offer prayers and blessings and that while it certainly feels good to receive them from others, there is nothing like seeing the impact that a little bit of caring, a few words, a hug, holding a hand, can have on someone in need of such a gift.

But I agree with my friend, Rabbi Goldwasser, who talked about giving his daughter the brand new American Girl doll she had been talking about for weeks.

He noted that, “for a parent, it’s a great feeling. It’s almost intoxicating.” Even going back to when I was little, I remember gifts and remember how I felt.

Giving really can feel better than receiving. The experience is deeper, longer, and much more satisfying. Receiving just reminds us how banal most of our desires really are. Giving lifts us up and opens our hearts. It makes us feel connected to others and connected to the best that is within us.

Waiting and hoping that the other will give and that we will receive is a problem, my friends. Not only will our receiving be less fulfilling than our giving, but we have to wait. Why wait for something upon which you may improve with a little effort?

Not only does the joy of giving most often supersede the joy of receiving, but through giving gifts, we are more likely to receive them as well. Show that you care about others and most of the time they will show they care about you. Offer love and you are more likely to receive love. It is too easy for someone who is aching for love and affection from the one she or he seeks it from to say, “If he loved me”, “If she loved me,” “she would reach out to me,” “he would give of himself to me,” “she or he would come to be with me.” So we wait to receive.

Your soul and my soul,

How often do you sit

with someone you love

in the next room

in the next chair

and what is it

that prevents your soul

from leaping up

leaping up to say

Your soul and my soul,

aren’t they one?

aren’t we one?

that’s how I feel.

What is it that prevents you?

Instead you sit

in your own room

in your own chair

filled with longing and loneliness

and the moment passes.

If we give instead of waiting to first receive, life will be better.

This Merle Feld poem was included among the texts that I studied as part of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality’s rabbinical cohort. It was not offered as advice for building relationships, nor as an argument for why we should give, though I think that it can make us think about both. It was instead offered as a way to help us think about our connection to the divine.

Many of us would like to feel a stronger connection to God, to the Jewish community, to the Jewish tradition. We, to use the symbolism of the prayer, sit in our own room, in our own chair, filled with longing and loneliness. We could, if we wished, reach out, give of ourselves, and perhaps would then receive.

Our Tradition tells us that God is waiting. In fact, we read it every year in the Yom Kippur liturgy.

On this Yom Kippur day, we read:

This is Your Glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive…Until the last day, You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to you.

Tradition tells us that on this day especially, we have an opportunity, that God is waiting. It would certainly be wonderful if God reached out and said “Hi,” first. Maybe, even gave us a big hug. It would probably be a bit startling. But we don’t need to take this analogy literally. The simple fact is that you get out of your spiritual life in proportion to what you invest of yourself in it. If we turn, God will turn. We reach out, God will reach out. That is what our text is saying.

If you want to feel that spiritual connection, seek it, don’t wait for it. If you want to feel a part of the community, seek that connection. If you want to connect to the divine, to reach out to God, do it. Don’t wait. Don’t just sit there in your chair letting loneliness engulf you.

Sometimes we wish for connection but we feel that a barrier exists. Perhaps our feelings were hurt in the past when we reached out, our giving was not received as we would have liked. Perhaps, we have felt that we were even pushed away, rejected. Perhaps, we felt misunderstood when we approached and the response was not what we wanted. There are many more things that could follow the word “perhaps” all of which could be our justification for why we do not now try to connect, try to give, try to care, try to love. Many reasons. But the result is that longing and loneliness are with us.

Whether we are talking about personal relationships, about our spiritual journey and connections to our religious Traditions, or about our own happiness, waiting to receive is not as much fun as receiving and receiving is not as good as giving.

This lesson is not a new one. In fact, is based upon two very ancient Jewish directives, “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you.” We should give to others because we want others to give to us, not to wait to receive. To use the words of Hillel, “All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

But there are no words better than those in today’s Torah portion:

“It is not across the sea.”

We can reach it. We can do it. We can combat the loneliness in our lives by reaching out our hands, our voice, our prayers, our souls—and giving of ourselves.

Shanah Tovah.

May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a happy and healthy year.

Prayers of the Heart – Kol Nidrei 5772-2011

This summer, the educational curriculum at Goldman Union Camp focused on prayer. In the first educational program of the session for the older students, the students were asked the following question. “Why do you pray?” And given four possible answers, hoping to elicit from them discussions including other possible answers—and there are many. So to the question, “Why do you pray?” The students were offered the following four answers:

-Because it makes me feel closer to the people I am with.

-Because it makes me feel closer to God.

-Because I feel obligated as a Jew.

-Because it is tradition.

The kids had to choose the one of these four with which they most agreed and then go on to discuss it. Think about your answer for a moment. With these four choices, which would you choose? What questions and concerns would you have about the choice itself? I will repeat the question and answers.

Why do you pray?

And here are your options:

-Because it makes me feel closer to the people I am with.

-Because it makes me feel closer to God.

-Because I feel obligated as a Jew.

-Because it is tradition.

Right off the bat, it was clear that this was going to be a challenge. First, many of the students told us that they prayed because they were told to do so by people in authority, their parents, their rabbi, their camp counselors, etc… None of the choices fit that response, so this group of students had to consider why they would pray IF they had a choice.

Another large group of kids considered themselves to be agnostics or atheists and wanted to choose, “I do not pray” as a response to the question, “Why do you pray?” The absence of this option ended up creating a substantial amount of discussion among the kids, some on the point, “Do you have to believe in God to pray?” The answer, which may be surprising to some, is “no” and for a number of reasons, some of which I will discuss in the next few minutes.

One of the most important things that became clear to the kids in discussing prayer this Summer is that the concept of prayer as simply saying traditional blessings or offering some sort of plea to a greater being is not inclusive of many forms of prayer, nor of many of the most important reasons to pray. Many of the kids who believed that they only prayed when forced to do so by those in authority found out that they actually pray at other times, some of them quite often, and do so when not forced at all.

First off, think about what happens when you find yourself amid a community at prayer, even if you do not yourself offer prayers.

In being with a community and hearing others pray, we become more aware of our obligations to others and our ability to help others, by seeing and hearing the words of prayers. Hearing their prayers seeking healing of a loved one, for example, we may realize that our joining in the prayer may make the person whose loved one is ill feel better, more cared for, even if we do not believe that our prayer may have any effect upon the person who is ill.

If our thought may offer support and comfort to those in need, so too may the thoughts of others offer support and comfort to us. As our prayers may be directed toward them, so may their prayers be directed toward us. And if you have ever been in a time of real need and found yourself engaged in prayer, you know just how powerful it can be to know that others are praying with you and even on your behalf.

In that vein, Debbie Friedman said that:

We can never know what happens to the prayers we utter. We do not know what happens to the words we speak with one another. The words we pray might feel useless, and we may feel that they simply dissipate into thin air, gone forever. Once we let them go, they are airborne, out of our control. It is the same with every step and every breath and every movement we make. But we never know. They may be the very thing that is life-giving and healing to another person.

And our prayers need not have words!

Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery, said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of his participation in the 1965 Civil Rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that:

For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.

Those who have participated in efforts to feed the hungry, who have taken hammer to nail building a home for someone without one, who have tended a garden, who have cared for those who are ill, who have worked with those in pain, who have helped to bring new life into the world, who have sat for long hours holding a hand… You know that actions may be like prayers, that an offering of our hands and feet may be no less powerful, and often will be much more powerful, than any words that we might offer.

The phrase in the pastoral care community is, “Don’t just say something, stand there.” Sometimes just being there is more powerful than any words we might say, more appreciated than any prayers that we might offer. If you have ever given or received a hug from a loved one or a friend at a really difficult moment, you have experienced perhaps the most powerful kind of a prayer, a caring embrace, which often allows tears and emotions to flow forth.

How far beyond the four options for why we pray are we now?

Remember them?

-Because it makes me feel closer to the people I am with.

-Because it makes me feel closer to God.

-Because I feel obligated as a Jew.

-Because it is tradition.

Yet, the act of praying is not just about offering of ourselves or for those with whom we happen to be praying.

Prayer helps us to be more aware of things in our world. When we recite fixed prayers, such as Shalom Rav, the song for peace that we sing during an evening service or the G’vurot – the prayer that notes that God helps those who are in need, our thoughts are focused on the needs of others who may not be in our midst. We may realize that our thoughts had been too focused, or perhaps only focused, on ourselves or our immediate circle. Thus, the act of praying may result in our being more mindful of our actions in relation to the broader world and thereby altering our behavior toward others.

But while the repair of the world and the betterment of the lives of others is certainly a big part of our regular prayers, prayer may help us understand and improve ourselves.

When we take a few moments to focus our thoughts on our feelings, our hopes, and our desires, we become more aware of ourselves, more mindful of what is going on within us, as well as perhaps seeing more clearly what is around us. This can result in our desiring to change ourselves. Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

In many ways, prayer is a kind of conversation with us sometimes speaking, offering our hopes and desires and sometimes listening, not just to others’ prayers uttered aloud, but to those words passing through our lips or even to the murmurs of our hearts uttered in silence.

Some of you may know that I have spent four weeks over the past two years attending the Institute of Jewish Spirituality’s program with rabbinical colleagues from around the country. The primary focus of the Institute’s program is a mindfulness curriculum that includes meditation and yoga in addition to text study and regular daily prayer services. All of these are actually forms of prayer.

Mindfulness meditation is, as I described prayer to be a few moments ago, a kind of conversation with us sometimes speaking, consciously creating thoughts, and sometimes listening, being mindful of the thoughts running through our minds.

Yoga is also a kind of conversation, an interaction of body and mind. Some consider yoga practice to be a kind of offering, a kind of prayer. But even if one only considers it to be exercise, it is exercise that requires the mind to pay attention to what is going on with the body. In doing that, one becomes more aware of the needs of the self. If you have ever found yourself in the midst of a more intense yoga practice, you could easily have found yourself at prayer. “Let me be able to do that today. Maybe today it will work for me.” To whom are you speaking? For those who are saying to themselves that this happens when I run, bike, climb mountains or even just climb the stairs as part of rehabilitation, you are absolutely right. This is a form of prayer.

Prayer is not just a way to communicate with something beyond the self, but is a way to commune with our own spirits, to be mindful of our thoughts, and even to converse with ourselves, perhaps sorting through our own thoughts and feelings. Let me feel better, let me do better, let me be better. It does not take, an “O God in heaven” before these statements for them to be forms of prayer.

And how many of us, have stood in awe of a wonder of nature? How many of us have felt connected to creation when we’ve walked upon a beautiful forest trail or looked out from upon a high vista and looked down upon the valleys? Perhaps we saw ourselves in the context of human existence of one generation leading to the next, of our ephemeral nature compared with mountains, our smallness compared with the vastness of the ocean. Perhaps, just perhaps, we thought to praise creation and perhaps a creator.

Prayer, ultimately, may then indeed help us to understand ourselves better, to connect ourselves to something greater than ourselves alone, to bind ourselves with the traditions of our ancestors, to connect us with others in our community, to elevate our spirits unto God or even to help us feel at one with the whole of creation.

If you had asked the campers at the beginning of camp this past Summer about their feelings concerning prayer—and we did—many would surely have told you that they found prayer awkward, difficult, strange, foreign or any number of other adjectives implying a level of discomfort with or even outright rejection of the practice of prayer. I do not suppose for a moment that this is substantially different from how many of their parents and grandparents view it. In fact, I would say that a substantial majority of the world’s Jews feel this way.

Over the course of the two weeks that I was at camp, and I am certain over the following two weeks as well, many of the students came to understand prayer differently and felt much more comfortable engaging in it. It was not because they became Baalei T’shuva, suddenly turned piously religious, nor because their beliefs about God changed radically. This change occurred because they came to understand what prayer could be about, especially in a modern Reform Jewish context.

I hope that I have opened up for you pathways of prayer that you may have never explored or perhaps, having explored them and currently practicing them, never thought of them as ways of praying. To the question “Why do we pray?” then, the answers are as manifold as the ways.

It is told of the Baal Shem Tov that one Yom Kippur day a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where the Baal Shem Tov was praying. The boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers.

So he started to whistle, the one thing he knew he could do beautifully. The boy wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God.

The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out.

The Ba'al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. "Until now," he said, "I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd's whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God."

May all our prayers reach their home.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a Good Year.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Abraham's Journey - Rosh Hashanah Morning 2011-5772

This morning, we read the story of one of several journeys in the life of Avraham avinu, our ancestor Abraham. He was told in younger days to “Lekh Lekha,” to “Go forth from the land of his ancestors, to go forth from what he knew, from the old places and the old ways to the new, from constricting despair to freeing hope: all to find a better life.

But think about this for a moment. Our forefather Abraham had a wonderful family and tremendous wealth including a large number of animals and no few servants to help him care for his family’s needs. Abraham was blessed mightily by God long before the incident in today’s Torah portion, the result of which was that he would be blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars.

Every year, we talk of the journey of Abraham, his trials, his successes and his failures. Yet, we do not often hear of the stories of our more immediate ancestors, their journeys and their trials. We all too easily hear and then disconnect ourselves from distant paradigmatic stories of the journeys of the patriarchs of our people, while forgetting the sometimes even more amazing and perhaps more trying narratives of the people whose journeys in more recent generations have enabled us to be here today.

In my mind, my Great Grandfather Abraham’s story is one of the narratives that need to be remembered by modern Jews, narratives of the shtetl life lived by many of our Jewish ancestors, a life which still resonates in Jewish soul today.

Abraham was my father’s grandfather, born in 1881 in the shtetl of Dombrovich, Bessarabia, the sixth child born to Baruch Benedict Shapiro and his wife Chaya Batya.

Like the patriarch Abraham, who was called “Abram” in his youth, so too my great-grandfather was called “Avrum” in his youth and later came to be called “Abraham.”

The patriarch Abraham’s life was a journey from the land of his father to the promised land, from a place of ignorance to a place of enlightenment, from a place where his descendants would perhaps struggle to find success to a place where they were to be as numerous as the sands of the sea. My ancestor, Abraham, no doubt like many of your ancestors, too came from a land where his family had lived for generations, a place of ignorance, a place where getting through the day, much less the week or the year, could be a challenge. We are indebted to these men and women whose courage enabled us to be here today, celebrating the sweetness of the Jewish New Year.

What was life like in the Shtetl?

Too often, when we think of ancestors’ lives, we simply say that they had it tough. Sometimes we joke about our parents or grandparents, “Yes, we know, you had to walk for miles to school through the snow, uphill, both ways!” All the while thinking to ourselves, “It couldn’t really have been that bad.”

After getting a chance to read my Great Grandfather Abraham’s living will, which was recently translated from the Yiddish by my mother and a cousin, I came to believe that to have had to walk to school through the snow uphill both ways would have been seen as a blessing, not as a hardship.

For our ancestors, serious illness could strike at a moment’s notice. They saw loved ones suffer and die with ailments that would be easily cured today. They lived on the brink of starvation at times, shivered from the cold, and sweltered in the heat. Those hardships, and others, reinforced what was most important in their lives, the values and hopes that led them through times of challenge. I see some of those important values very clearly evidenced in my great grandfather’s life and which I maintain in my own life today. I would like to talk about three of these values as evidenced in Abraham’s life in the shtetl: the importance of Shabbat, education both Jewish and secular, and Zionism.

My Abraham may not be everyman, but I think that his story is somewhat representative of Jews in generations past, certainly of Jews in the shtetls. The shtetl story, turned into a comedy by Sholem Aleichem and then into a Broadway hit, Fiddler on the Roof, is a story that reverberates in our Jewish souls. Though certainly reminding us how far we’ve come in the century since, also reminds us what is most important.

In Tevye’s words [IRA READS]:

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! [Sing – Tradition! Tradition!]

My great grandfather Abraham was born, 130 years ago, a fiddler on the roof in his own version of Anatevka. His family was very poor. They rarely had enough to eat. His father, Baruch, arranged business deals between people who had very little to begin with and his share of the transactions, when he received a share, was generally small. He barely made a living. Abraham’s mother, Chaia, plucked chickens to earn a few kopeks a week. His five older sisters took whatever work they could find, like helping with sewing to prepare girls for their weddings. The younger two sisters served as maids in Abraham’s significantly wealthier uncle’s home. Chaia’s brother evidently had some sort of factory and actually made a decent living.

When Abraham was three or four years old, the family home was destroyed when a fire raged out of control and their home along with several others burned down.

The family eventually built a new house with a store, hoping to make a living from it. The new house, like the old, had an earthen floor and the small wood burning oven was in the middle of the main room so that the heat could radiate out. Abraham’s family ended up having to rent out one of the few rooms in the home for use as a school room during the week. This brings me to Shabbat.

In his memoir, Abraham noted that:

All week long, we lived with the hope to have enough for Shabbat, that mother would be able to bless the Shabbat candles, and we would be able to wear appropriate Sabbath clothes. Ours had already seen better days.

Achad Ha’am said that “More than the Jewish people has preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath has preserved the Jewish people.” For my great-grandfather, it was the hope of the Sabbath, a longed for goal, that sustained him and his family through trying times.

On Shabbat, his father would go to the synagogue. Abraham said that he would go in order to “forget the bad weekdays.” During the week, he would save enough money so that the family could have challah, a piece of meat, a little soup, tsimmes, a vegetable dish, and Kiddush. He made Kiddush over the wine and if there wasn’t wine, he made Kiddush over the challah. The family always sang songs for Shabbat. They lived with the belief that things would get better and that the Jewish Sabbath and the belief in God would help.

The family literally lived for Shabbat. Shabbat was the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Shabbat brought renewed hope each week. Abraham said that his father was a first class optimist: every week speaking of how things would be better the next week.

This brings me to a joke that described much of life in Czarist controlled Bessarabia and eventually described Abraham’s own life. The joke goes:

You know the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist? The Jewish pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse!” The Jewish optimist says, “Sure they can!”

Shabbat not only made life tolerable for the Jews in the shtetl, it gave them a vision of a better life, a vision that eventually led many to leave the shtetl for distant lands such as America or Zion. But we are not yet to that point in the narrative, first there was much to learn.

It didn’t matter that the family had very little, one had to study Torah. When Abraham was four, his father wrapped him in a tallit and took him to cheder to study. If he learned well, he was told, God would reward him. He studied ten to twelve hours a day, except for Shabbat, until he was nine years old in all kinds of weather. They walked through deep snow in sub-freezing temperatures. Friday afternoons, he learned Russian and math.

Until he was nine, on Saturday afternoons, his father would listen to Abraham recite the week’s Torah portion, half in Hebrew and half in Romanian. But by the time he was nine, there were simply too many mouths to feed in the house and he was sent to live with his older sister and her husband, Mendel, a common strategy for survival in the shtetl. Mendel was a teacher of Modern Hebrew and was much more educated than anyone whom Abraham had known before.

Mendel saw that everything that Abraham had studied before had been simply words without meaning. Abraham had learned by rote and repeated what he learned without really understanding the words. Mendel taught him the meaning.

My great-grandfather returned home once a year for Passover. Because he now wore a shorter coat and not the long traditional one, his friends would not interact with him and called him a “non-believer.” In his words, “The little town appeared darker than it was before I left it.” He no longer felt welcome.

Then at age 12, if things were not difficult enough, things did get worse. His father died of pneumonia, a month before the wedding of one of his older sisters. Now Abraham was a breadwinner for the family, the only male in a family of nine.

He ended up working in a store in a neighboring town until he was 15 years old for about 10 Rubles a year and a little food, but as he said, “not enough.” The bosses didn’t have enough for themselves to eat. He was given a kopek to buy himself a piece of herring and bread for dinner. Every night.

Abraham slept in the store under whatever covers were there. At night, it was 30-40 degrees below zero and there was no heat. By the light of a kerosene lamp, he studied when he could and whatever he could. Abraham taught himself Hebrew, then eventually Russian and German. Learning Hebrew was also another step in creating Abraham’s life-long love of Zionism. Knowing Hebrew, the language of the Zionists, he became more involved in the Socialist movement and specifically with the Zionists who were associated with it.

Abraham was ultimately able to use his knowledge of Russian to obtain a job that paid more money. Then he used that money to open his own dry goods store and then a grocery store that was finally relatively successful. In that time he became married to my great-grandmother Pearl and had three children. But while things had gotten better for Abraham personally, things had worsened for the Jews.

There were pogroms in nearby cities and the socialists were on the rise. Abraham was one of them. He was a Zionist Socialist who followed Hayim Greenberg, the famous Zionist leader who lived in a nearby village.

When Greenberg was arrested, fearing that the regime would find out that he was also a Socialist, Abraham began plans to come to America, clandestinely, against the Czar’s orders.

There were a few more trials and tribulations before they could leave and it wasn’t easy when they did. Crossing the border to freedom was a very dangerous enterprise. Abraham came to America first, traveling 3rd Class. He worked for his sister, who had a store in Philadelphia, and then paid passage for his family. They arrived in America at the end of August, 1911, one hundred years and a month ago. My grandmother, Hadassah, who came to be known as Sophie, and after whom my daughter Hanna Sophia is named, was only two years old.

Imagine. “Lekh lekha! Go! Leave your father’s house now! The only home your family has known for generations. Abandon almost all that you own. Take your wife, your four year old daughter, your two year old daughter, and your baby son to the land that I have shown you!” Abraham, no doubt like many of the ancestors of those here today, actually did that.

In July of 1934, Abraham Pearlmutter visited Zion and even purchased land in Pardes Hana, land on which one of his sisters and her family eventually came to live after World War II.

Abraham was a Zionist, not for himself, but for future generations. Seeing what life was like for Jews without freedom or security, Abraham wanted to make sure that there would be a place where Jews could live in freedom and security.

It struck me, as I wrote this, that his hope for a Jewish homeland in Zion was no different than his hope as a child to be able to celebrate the Sabbath. One had to do the work to make it happen, to save up and to plan. Abraham was never a wealthy man. He had a grocery store in St. Louis that made enough to support his family. Yet, he took a good portion of what little he had and invested it in a dream, buying a parcel of land in British Mandatory Palestine in 1934, in the hope that it would become a homeland for the Jews.

He came to see that dream come to fruition in 1948.

How much has changed for my family over the past one hundred years! From impoverished persecution in a shtetl in Bessarabia with dreams of a better life to generations later having seen those dreams come to pass.

The story in our Torah portion is about a trial that resulted in Abraham’s descendents being blessed, it included a journey, a commitment to follow the will of God, and perhaps a bit of luck. Admittedly, this is quite an abstract of the story of the Binding of Isaac, but it is also at this abstract level that our forefather Abraham’s story meets my Great-Grandfather Abraham’s story and the stories of generations of Jews whose courageous journeys and whose commitment to do the will of God helped our people to reach this day, along with a bit of help from God, rams caught in thickets.

When we look back at how previous generations lived, it is amazing that we have reached this day. Though a small minority of the world’s population, we Jews, the descendants of our father Abraham, are indeed, as in the blessing in our Torah portion, “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.”

Hope in Shabbat, a commitment to learning, and the pursuit of a better life made it happen.

My Great-Grandfather Abraham did not have a chance to escape persecution and flee to the safety and security of a Jewish state, an opportunity that persecuted Jews now do have, but he did have the opportunity to escape with his family to a land of freedom and security for which he was grateful beyond explanation. In 1950, on Thanksgiving Day, he tried to put into words that which we today all too often take for granted.

Abraham wrote, “How much the inhabitants of this land should give thanks for their home! ...I have a lot to thank God for, that I was one of the fortunate people who had the luck to come here in time and to live the years in happiness and freedom… Long Live America!”

Shanah Tovah!

Peace and Loathing in the Middle East - Erev Rosh Hashanah 2011-5772

Earlier this month, we marked the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. A few days prior, I flew to Washington DC for the Midwest Rabbis Summit hosted by AIPAC, where about 40 rabbis of all denominations heard from leading experts on events in the Middle East. On my way there, my cuticles were saved from trimming by a TSA agent who found a little Swiss Army pen knife that went missing months ago, possibly on a drive to St. Louis, and my taste buds were secured when my coffee, which I purchased on the secured side of the TSA checkpoint, was deemed safe at the gate by an agent who swabbed the top of the cup. I’m not sure if they were testing to see if it was too hot or if it was not 100% pure Colombian.

I went to Washington to hear from experts on the Middle East because so much has been going on and even more would be going on in the weeks that followed, especially during past two weeks when the United Nations General Assembly would convene. It has been a hectic month. During the week that I went to Washington DC alone, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and threatened to send Turkish warships to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the Israeli embassy in Egypt was attacked by a mob and the ambassador and embassy staff were forced to flee the country, and the Palestinian Authority president pledged to go forward in the United Nations with plans to seek a vote on statehood in spite of objections by the President of the United States and threats to cut funding by a large bi-partisan majority of members of Congress. President Abbas submitted a request for full statehood this past week, seeking recognition of a Palestinian state based not upon the pre-1967 armistice lines, but upon the 1947 partition plan, something that has gone largely ignored in the media and which would put large swaths of what is recognized as Israel within Palestinian territory.

This all is occurring on the heels of the largest protests in Israel’s history, protests about the rising cost of housing due to the continued strength of the Israeli economy, as well as in the midst of tremendous upheaval in the Arab world in general. I cannot but think of the statement purported to be a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Tonight, I will address three questions as we begin this New Year. How did we get to this point? What stands in our way? And is there any light at the end of what appears to be a very dark tunnel filled with traps and hurdles? You’ll have to wait a few minutes for the explanation, but the answer to the last question is surprisingly, “Yes.”

First, how did we get to this point?

While, this month we marked the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attack, exactly eleven years ago today, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon walked onto the Temple Mount, an action that he believed symbolized his right as a Jew to access the holiest of Jewish holy sites and Israel’s reasonable claim to maintain control of it. The response to this action among the Palestinian people was extreme anger.

I would argue that the primary cause of the violence which came to be called the Second Intifada, and one that remains a concern today, is that it had become clear that the full goals of the Palestinian Authority were not going to be achieved through negotiations. Israel would not concede on several major issues, could not on others, and the United States was not going to pressure Israel to do so. Many Palestinians felt that the peace process had reached its end and it had failed them. I believe that the current Palestinian leadership feels exactly this way and it is taking an increasing amount of coaxing to even get the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, a majority of those Israelis who were supportive of pressing the peace process forward abandoned the idea that the Palestinians were ready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace and security for Israel. The political landscape in Israel shifted. Political parties on the left saw support begin to erode, something that has worsened in recent years with the rise of Hamas to power in Gaza.

Israelis across most of the political spectrum believe in a two states-for-two-peoples solution, but now insist on a security-for-statehood model for achieving that goal. Experience taught them that what succeeded with Egypt was not land for peace, not Sinai for peace, but security-for-peace. The Israeli-Egyptian Peace Agreement has lasted for 32 years and though threatened today, it has provided security for Israel and peace for Egypt. Israel’s peace with Jordan did not involve the ceding of any land at all. These peace agreements continue to be great sources of hope that peace is a real possibility for Israel and the Palestinians.

What stands in the way? Here are the four main stumbling blocks today as I see them:

1. Jerusalem.

In a land-for-peace model, the issues are whether or not to divide Jerusalem at all and how to divide Jerusalem if you are going to divide it. In the Camp David accords, the sides were clearly looking at a divided Jerusalem, discussing which areas would be under Israeli control and which would be under Palestinian control. This continued to be the model at work up until 2007 when Hamas took over Gaza.

The Israelis and Palestinians were amid peace negotiations under the administration of Ehud Olmert, even having produced detailed maps of divisions of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods.

Then Hamas took over Gaza. The Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas now had to deal with three major new problems: a sizable portion of the Palestinian population was no longer under their control, Hamas threatened to take over the West Bank as well as Gaza, and popular sentiment seemed opposed to compromise with the Israelis on the major issues of the peace process.

Meanwhile, Israelis began to think more about what would happen if those neighborhoods in Jerusalem granted to the Palestinians fell under Hamas’ authority.

To name a few concerns should Hamas and other militant groups be able to operate easily within the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem: secure access to holy sites would be impossible to maintain, mortars and other simple rockets could be fired with relative ease into Jewish areas of the city, sniper fire which plagued Jewish Jerusalem prior to 1967 would once again become a serious threat and the likelihood of conflict arising that might require massive Israeli military action would be extremely high. Thus sentiment among Israelis has shifted toward maintaining a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control.

It is highly unlikely that the Palestinians would be willing to accept any agreement that does not include at least some of the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in the Palestinian state.

2. Right of Return.

The idea that not only must a future Palestinian state be allowed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from the 1967 conflict, but that Israel must accommodate millions of refugees from the 1949 conflict who are hostile to its very existence is so unreasonable a demand as to be laughable were it not a main goal of the Palestinian side. If Israel is to be a Jewish state, most, if not the vast majority, of refugees may only be afforded restitution and remain where they are or potentially to locate themselves in the Palestinian state. The latter option is also problematic because it is highly questionable as to whether or not the Palestinian state could accommodate more than a small percentage of those who are considered refugees.

3. Settlement Blocs.

Israel settled hundreds of thousands of people across the Green Line, most in suburbs of Jerusalem with the vast majority of the rest in settlement blocs along the 1949 armistice lines. Just yesterday, Israel announced the approval of the construction of 1,100 housing units in the Southern Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, which is South of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the 1949 armistice lines. I do not have all of the information yet, but it seems to me that if this construction expands the scope of Gilo, that it should not be done at this point even if there is an expectation that Gilo would be on the Israeli side after a peace agreement and if it does not expand the scope of Gilo, but only fills in empty space in its midst, that the timing of the announcement of this construction at a moment when Israel needs to convince other nations that it is serious about making concessions for peace is highly questionable in the least.

Territorial exchanges have been discussed in previous negotiations and could easily adjust the total land area in a future Palestinian state. Major settlement blocs including the aforementioned suburb of Jerusalem, Gilo, will almost certainly be included on the Israeli side, potentially with territories currently in Israel becoming part of a future Palestinian state. Settlements in the heart of the West Bank would almost certainly become part of a future Palestinian state and have been included on the Palestinian side in every peace proposal to this point.

For peace to work, the Palestinians must be granted territory that makes statehood realistic as well as having reasonable access to Jerusalem. The continued expansion of Jewish suburbs across the 1949 armistice lines around Jerusalem makes this more difficult.

4. Security.

Security is a hugely important issue, but it is also quite simple. No matter what the resolutions of the issues of borders and refugees might be, no matter what pressure Israel receives from other nations, if proposed solutions jeopardize the security of Israel to such an extent as to threaten its very existence, they are not viable. If you say, “lots of things could do that,” then you have seen the problem.

Direct negotiations are the only way to address all of these issues. As President Obama said at the United Nations last week:

I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.

So Rabbi, now that I’m really depressed, where is the light?

The light comes from several areas.

The first bit of light is a big one. Terrorism and violence have failed to achieve the radical goal of eliminating the Jewish state. Wars have failed. There are no troops massing on the borders of Israel set to invade. Neither are there frequent terror attacks occurring that kill or maim Israeli civilians, though admittedly this is as much because of the effectiveness of the security barrier as it is because of a reduced desire to attack.

A second bit of good news is that the Arab world is realizing that the existence of Israel, nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the root of their troubles. Instead, it is an absence of freedom, an absence of economic opportunity, and a sense that average people in the rest of the world are doing better. They are realizing in increasing numbers that dictatorships might make for stability, but they are not so good for prosperity or freedom. The Arab Spring is a good development.

Third, the thought process is changing. The Prime Minister of Turkey has certainly not been a good friend of Israel. In fact, he has been one of its fiercest critics of late, supporting Hamas and even threatening to use Turkey’s navy to defend ships trying to breech Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Yet, Prime Minister Erdogan noted in a speech to leaders of nations in the region that:

Freedom, democracy and human rights must be a unifying slogan for the future of our peoples. I urge all of you to protect the nations. It is right for everyone in the region – Israel too.

Many in the region have realized that not only is Israel not the primary cause of their problems, but that what Israel has done, making the desert flourish, is what they want to see in their countries. The question in the broader Arab world is changing from “How do we destroy Israel?” to “How can we be like Israel?” Not so much among the Palestinians, Syria, or Iran, the latter of which is working apace to acquire nuclear weapons with which to threaten Israel, America, and its Arab neighbors. But the common people, seeing the prosperity in Israel and wanting to see it in their own nations, are seeking democratic reforms.

It is a good thing that relatively fewer in the Arab world see Israel as the primary cause of their suffering, or even as a primary cause of their suffering, however, they have not yet come to accept Israel, much less to see it as a potential friend.

Ultimately, while we have a long way to our goal of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East and there are many obstacles in our path, there seems to be a burgeoning willingness to try to get there.

And so I offer this prayer for the New Year 5772:

May this new year be a year that sees Shalom increase in our world, a year that sees freedom enjoyed by many more people than enjoyed it this year, a year that sees economies flourish—bringing prosperity, a year that sees hope rise amid despair, light burst forth into darkness.

May this new year be the one when we may stop saying “maybe next year”, when Israeli children and Palestinian children will come to know what it is like to be at peace, real peace, enduring peace.

May this year be a year of blessings.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu.

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year.