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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Ekev

PARSHAT EKEV
(5776)
REWARD AND PUNISHMENT
“It shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, and your wine, and your oil.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14)

Every morning and every evening Jews traditionally recite three paragraphs known as the Sh’ma. On Friday night and Saturday morning we chant through the first and the third of these paragraphs out loud. The second paragraph is said quietly and quickly. In Reform synagogues they leave this second paragraph out altogether, chanting just the final line. A Reform rabbi once told me that there is no difference between our two synagogues regarding the second paragraph of the Sh’ma. H said that we Reform Jews do not say it at all, and you Conservative Jews say it so quickly that nobody notices.
What is this second paragraph that raises so many questions? It basically deals with reward and punishment. If we follow God’s commandments then God will give us rain in our season; our grain, wine, and oil will prosper. If we do not follow God’s commandments then God will withhold the rain and our crops will wither. It is a simple statement of reward and punishment. Do the right thing and God will reward us in this world, do the wrong thing and God will punish us in this world. How can this paragraph possibly make sense today? And if it does not make sense, why do we continue to say it?
Some would answer that there is reward and punishment for our deeds, but only in the next world. In the Talmud Rabbi Elisha ben Abulya gave up his faith after he saw a young boy fall to his death from a tree while obeying his father’s command to send away the mother bird when taking the egg. Both the laws of obeying one’s parents and sending away the mother bird claim that these will lead to long life. Why did this child die? Rabbi Elisha ben Abulya became a heretic, crying out that there is no judge and no judgment. Rabbi Akiba answered that there is a judge and judgment, but it takes place in the next world.
The second paragraph of the Sh’ma is not talking about the next world. The rain in its season comes in this world. The idea that our soul goes to another world for judgment, powerful in Rabbinic thinking, is not in the Bible. It entered both Christianity and Judaism by way of the Greeks. But the authentic Biblical view is that the reward and punishment are in this world.
Let me propose an answer to the relationship between keeping the commandments and reward in this world. I consider it a statement of ecology. Many of the laws in the Bible are meant to teach us that we do not own the world. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1) On the Sabbath, once every seven days, we leave God’s world alone. We are not even allowed to pick a flower. When we grow grain, we must leave some for the poor. We cannot muzzle an ox on the threshing floor. Once every seven years we must let the land lie fallow. The earth is not ours. We are given use of the earth only if we use it properly.
If we use the earth properly and remember that it is on loan to us, that we are stewards of the earth, then the earth will treat us properly. There may be years of draught, but in general the cycles of rain and dew will be a blessing. But if we misuse the earth, we will experience global warning, the loss of the ozone layer, the loss of the rain forest, the extinction of animal species, and all the other blights on the earth today.
In 1967 Lynn White wrote an extremely influential article called “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” He claimed that the Bible was an anthropocentric document and that the call for humanity to rule over nature is the driving force behind our ecological crisis. Religion and particularly Christianity has led us down the path towards not having rain in its season. To quote his article, “Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions … not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”
I believe that there is an alternative way to understand religion. Religion teaches that we do not own the earth, and must always remember not to exploit it. Perhaps we should slow down a bit when we come to the second paragraph, and use it as a reminder to become stewards rather than exploiters of the earth.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5775)
ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
“Therefore it shall come to pass, if you give heed to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that
the Lord your God shall keep with you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your fathers.” (Deuteronomy 7:12)
I have often said that the Hebrew language is the key to Judaism. There are insights in Hebrew that lose their meaning in translation. For an example, let us look at the title of this portion Ekev. Here they translate the term “it shall come to pass.” But the word ekev literally means “heel”, like the heel on our foot.
In the Bible Jacob is born holding onto the heel of his brother Esau. Therefore he is called Jacob (Ya-akov) from the root of the word heel. But the word has a double meaning; it also means crooked. After all, our heels are crooked. Esau later says of his Jacob after Jacob steals his first born blessing, “Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times; he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Genesis 27:36) The same Hebrew word means “heel” and “crooked.” Even in English we say that someone is a heel.
There is a third meaning of the term as used in this portion. Ekev means that something will be the cause of something else. In English we say that things follow “on the heels” of something else. Causation is part of the how the universe works. (The great philosopher David Hume denied the presence of causation in the universe. It was this ruling that made Immanuel Kant declare that “Hume woke me from my dogmatic slumber” and come up with a revolutionary philosophy that includes causation. To Kant the human brain is built in a way that sees causation in the universe.)
Judaism has always seen the universe as a place of causation. Events have consequences. Whatever we do can affect other people and the world itself. In fact the kabbalah teaches that what we do can actually affect God. When we act in a certain way, we cannot simply take it back as if it never happened.
There is a famous story about a man who slanders a rabbi. Realizing that he is wrong, he goes up to the rabbi to apologize. The rabbi responds, “I will accept your apology. But first you must do something.” The man agrees. “Go bring me a feathered pillow.” Confused, the man follows the rabbi’s instruction. “Now cut up the feathered pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind.” The man is even more confused. Finally the rabbi says, “Now gather all the feathers.” “That’s impossible,” says the man. The rabbi says, “So it is with slander, once you let it out you cannot gather it back in.”
The central theme of this portion is that actions have consequences. What we do affects other people. That is why I have often taught that, before any action, first do an ethical impact statement. Who will be hurt but what we do? And who will be helped by what we do? Carefully consider the consequences of our actions.
This idea is brought home in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, found in this week’s portion and recited by Jews every morning and every night. It speaks about how the commandments we follow will bring rain to our fields and excellent crop yields. As I leave this week to visit my home in Los Angeles, I like to hope that by saying my prayers out there, I will help end the draught. But I do not take the paragraph that literally. However, I do think that if the overall purpose of the commandments of Judaism are to remind us that “the earth is the Lord’s”, maybe the commandments will make us treat the earth a little better. And as a result, maybe the earth will treat us a little better.
If you are a follower of the kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), you can take these ideas a bit further. Let me teach a new word – theurgy. Often the word is confused with magic. But the word really means that human actions can affect the divine. For the mystics what we do in this physical world can actually make changes in the spiritual world. God literally needs our actions.
Ekev comes to teach us that consequences come on the heel of our actions. What we do affects our fellow human beings, and also affects the earth we live on. And perhaps what we do actually affects God.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5774)
BY BREAD ALONE
“Man does not live by bread alone, but man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
We were all shocked and deeply saddened by the untimely death of Robin Williams this week. Williams was a wonderful comedian, a talented actor, and a gifted entertainer. Who would know that this famous personality was suffering from deep depression and struggles with addiction. According to the newspaper reports, he committed suicide. None of us can fully understand the demons that haunted him. Deep depression is often organic, and can be treated with medication. But as any psychiatrist will tell us, medication for mental problems is a very inexact science.
As a rabbi, I have often counseled people suffering from depression, a lack of purpose in life, and sometimes a desire not to go on living. I have sent some people to see a psychiatrist or to seek other professional help if they are willing. But sometimes I simply speak with them about finding a purpose in life. The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with a hierarchy of human needs necessary for psychological health and well-being. These needs are often printed in a pyramid. On the bottom are physical needs – food, clothing, and shelter. Above these are such needs as security and safety, and then family and friendship. Only if these needs are in place do people search for what gives true fulfillment, a sense of purpose, self-esteem, and accomplishment.
Before people can achieve psychological well-being, their physical needs must be met. If they are struggling to find food to eat, they have no time to search for a sense of purpose. There have been studies that have shown that suicide rates are much lower in very poor countries than in wealthier countries like the United States. Only when people’s basic physiological needs are met can we speak about greater psychological needs. The Talmud explicitly teaches this, “Without flour there can be no Torah.” (Avot 3:17)
People have physical needs. But they also have higher spiritual needs. This is best illustrated by a famous passage in this week’s Torah portion – “Man does not live by bread alone, but man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) Life, at least a successful life, needs more than material goods. It needs more than family, friends, and social intimacy. I have met too many people over too many years who are financially successful, have loving families, but believe that something is missing from their lives. Many try to ease the pain they feel through drinking, drugs, and other addictive behavior. Some are deeply depressed. Many turn to God and some kind of spirituality to them. But bread alone is never enough.
I am convinced that human beings not only need food, friends, and family – they need a sense of purpose for their lives. Man does not live by bread alone; humans need something more. Perhaps one of the greatest advocates of this point of view was psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. Frankl, having survived the camps, wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. He noted that there were certain prisoners the camps who seemed to have a higher chance of survival. Those who found some sense of meaning or purpose in their lives, even lives of horrible suffering, seemed to survive at a higher rate. To find meaning and purpose is essential for psychological well-being.
Obviously the search for meaning does not work for everyone. Millions of Robin Williams fans found great purpose in his life as an actor, comedian, and celebrity. Again we can never know what was inside his head. We can only pray that his memory be for a blessing. And we can hope that all of us find the sense of meaning and purpose for our own lives.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5773)
BOYCOTTS
“A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and honey [dates according to Rabbinic tradition.]” (Deuteronomy 8:8)
When you think of the products of Israel, what comes to mind? If you grew up when I did, you probably have this image of orange groves covering the land. Kibbutzniks would rise at the crack of dawn to pick oranges. I actually did this for a brief period of time. Then Jaffe oranges were shipped throughout Europe. All of Europe woke up to the taste of delicious Israeli oranges.
Of course, today this image is not quite accurate. It is more likely that high tech innovations are being shipped from Israel all over the world. Products from customer electronics to the newest medical techniques have their birth in Israel. To get a sense of why Israel has become a world center of innovation, I recommend the book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start Up Nation; The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. One only needs to walk the streets of Tel Aviv to see how the economy of Israel is flourishing.
Back in Biblical times, the land of Israel had a very different product base. This week’s Torah portion mentions the seven species that Israel was known for. They are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. These seven foods have an important place in the heart of Jews. There is a special blessing after eating them which mentions the land of Israel. We try to eat them on Tu B’Shvat and other special occasions. They came to represent flourishing on the land.
I do not know whether ancient Israel exported these products to other nations. But I do know that if we did, the enemies of Israel boycotted them. Boycotts have a long history as a weapon used against the Jews and against Israel. And today boycotts as a weapon are flourishing.
In recent weeks, the European Union announced a boycott against any Israeli product produced over the green line, in territories captured in the Six Day War. This includes much of Jerusalem. Of course, the Europeans would say that they are only boycotting certain products. But the public does not know the difference. Look at how European academic conferences have treated Israeli professors, often forbidding them to attend or speak. Many of these professors are most staunchly in the peace camp. And in a recent issue of The Forward, there was a list of performing artists, many from the United States, who refuse to perform in Israel. We should give hats off to Alicia Keys who defied the boycott and performed in Israel. The reports are that her July 4 concert in Tel Aviv rocked.
Of course, boycotts work both ways. I grew up in a home where it was forbidden to own or even drive a German car. I once commented naively that whoever invented the Volkswagen must have been very clever. I was told sternly that Hitler invented it. (I still do not know if that is true.) I wonder what would happen if people saw a Mercedes or BMW parked in the rabbi’s spot at the synagogue. (Don’t worry, I can’t afford one.) I would not buy one even today, but the roads of Israel are filled with German cars.
Boycotts are being used as a tactic not just in the Mideast but even closer to home. There has been a call to boycott my home state of Florida because George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. I am no fan of George Zimmerman, but I guarantee that Florida will not change its laws based on a boycott. My state is one of the most vocal in favor of maintaining the boycott of Cuba. It is clear that a boycott of Arizona did not convince the state to change its draconian immigration law, nor will a boycott of Texas get it to change its harsh anti-abortion law.
I question the use of boycotts to try to change others, whether internationally, interstate, or even within families. I think that far more positive change takes place when there is a healthy relationship, whether between nations or between individuals. It is time to boycott boycotts.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5771)

BY BREAD ALONE
“He humbled you, and let you hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
This portion contains a verse that everybody knows. While speaking of the manna which God fed the Israelites in the wilderness, the Torah teaches, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Life has to be about something besides bread. A few verses later the Torah drives this point home with the requirement to say a grace after meals. “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 8:10) Eating is not simply a physical act but a spiritual act.
This is not to deny the importance of bread. There are places in the world today beset by terrible famine. One looks at the pictures of starvation in Somalia with a sense of overwhelming helplessness, tied to a deep anger. Why is the government allowing its people to starve? Why is it so difficult to get food past the warlords to feed starving children? When faced with a lack of bread, man does live by bread alone. The rabbis taught, “Without bread there can be no Torah.” (Avot 3:21)
Before we can deal with the spiritual dimension of life, we must deal with the physical dimension. A person cannot worship God on an empty stomach. A person without food on their table, without clothes on their back, or without a roof over the head, cannot think about God or spirit. The material comes first. Or as a wise person taught, “Don’t worry about your own body and someone else’s soul. Rather, worry about your own soul and someone else’s body.” As God fed the hungry in the wilderness, first we must feed the hungry.
The problem is, after material needs are met, then what? We do not live in Somalia, and most of us do not live in impoverished areas. Most of us have enough food to eat (perhaps too much food to eat), most of us have roofs over our heads and clothing to wear, most of us have cars to drive and more toys, from computers to cell phones, than any time in history. In general we are awash in material goods. We ought to be able to eat and be satisfied, enjoy our material goodies, and then bless God, find spiritual meaning.
Over thirty years of serving has a rabbi has taught me a sad truth. There are too many people filled with material wealth but feeling spiritually empty. There are people who live in beautiful homes who have found that their lives lack meaning. There are people whose bank accounts are full but who feel no sense of purpose. There are lost souls. There are people who wander from one spiritual tradition to another – from the Buddhist Temple to the Kabbalah Center to Messianic Judaism – searching for spiritual answers. They know that material goodies are not enough. “Man does not live by bread alone.” But what do they need?
After the Torah speaks about not living by bread alone, it continues that man shall live by what proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. I believe this means that God put each of us on this earth with a purpose. If we search deep within our souls, we can find our calling. If we look at ourselves, we can discover why we are here. Some of us may be here to cure hunger in Somalia or Haiti, or the ghettoes of our own great cities. Some of us may be here to write poetry or create art or play music. Some of us may be here to teach children – perhaps our own or perhaps someone else’s. And some of us are here to create a Jewish community, to make places for prayer and study, to learn and to teach Torah.
Some people look at modern science and see it as proof that we live in a material world. All that exists is physical objects in space and time. Perhaps this portion is here to teach us that there are dimensions of the world that go beyond the material. There is a spiritual dimension to life. Eating bread is but one step. Just as our body needs food and drink, our soul longs to connect to that spiritual dimension. We all need a sense of purpose.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5770)

UNCOVERING THE HEART
“Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.” (Deuteronomy 10:16)
Many of you have seen the Broadway musical Wicked – if not, I recommend it. It is the story of the wicked witch of the west during her younger days. Towards the beginning they ask the very pertinent question – “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them.”
Judaism asks the same question. Of course, Judaism speaks of the evil inclination which needs to be controlled. But a more profound image appears in this week’s portion. Some people actually grow a thickening around their hearts. Repentance really is the uncovering of that thick growth of wickedness to reveal the pure heart below. Augustine, the early Church father, taught that the free will always wants to do God’s will; but it is prevented by the sin that gathers around it. Cut away a thick layer of sin and bad habits, and we can reveal the free will once again.
In Jewish tradition, the same idea is developed in a very powerful way by the great Jewish philosopher and scholar of Jewish law Maimonides. To understand Maimonides regarding free will, we first must explain the Jewish laws of divorce. By Jewish law, a man can only divorce his wife by handing her a legal document called a gett. He must hand the gett to her by his free will; he cannot be coerced into giving a divorce. What happens if the court orders a man to divorce his wife but he refuses? The Talmud rules, “Thus also is it the case with a document of divorce. They coerce him until he says, I agree.”
If a gett can only be given by free will, why do they permit the court to coerce him? Maimonides gives an answer that goes into the heart of the Jewish view of free will. People want to do the right thing, but sometimes an evil inclination covers up their desire and they do what they do not really want to do. So according to Jewish law, we beat them until we remove the covering of their heart and they do what they really want to do anyways.
Maimonides follows the same logic as Augustine. People want to do the right thing. But sometimes an evil growth covers their heart, takes over, and prevents them from doing what they really want to do. The idea of free will has radically changed from the simple idea of freedom to choose. It now means freedom to choose what we should be doing anyway, if only the evil inclination would stay out of the way.
One modern writer has used this same argument. In a recent newspaper column in the Jewish paper The Forward, Jay Michaelson speaks of the importance of spiritual practices. Most of us would gladly get started with such practices, if only our evil inclination did not hold us back. He writes,
“So next time your heart tells you, on a small scale or a large one, that it would rather have another beer, click another link, or otherwise postpone and delude and equivocate, tell your inner selfish child to get lost. It’s not `you’ – it is a set of mental patterns, many of which probably have long outlived their usefulness. Don’t believe it! The part that appears to be doing all the controlling is itself not under your control. And it has no idea what it is missing because that is precisely what needs to be transformed.”
For Augustine, Maimonides, and Michaelson, people are not naturally wicked. They do the wrong thing because a growth surrounds their heart. Cut away that growth and people do what they really wanted to do in the first place. This is a beautifully optimistic view of human nature. As Anne Frank said while hiding in an attic from the Nazis, deep down people are basically good. If only we can remove the growth on the heart that seems to prevent that goodness from coming out. That is an appropriate theme as the Jewish High Holidays loom closer.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5769)

MY BAR MITZVAH

“And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made an oath with your fathers.”
(Deuteronomy 7:12)

Most years I chant the haftarah for this week’s portion, whether I am at home or traveling. First, my mother’s yahrzeit falls on or around this portion (this year it actually falls on Shabbat. She is gone fifteen years.) The other reason I chant this haftarah is that it was my bar mitzvah portion – too many years ago.
I became a bar mitzvah at a very small Conservative synagogue in West Los Angeles. I doubt that it still exists. At the time I was told that I did a good job chanting my portion. A few people even said, “You are going to grow up to be a rabbi.” I had no interest in being a rabbi and dismissed their words. Who knows where life will take us?
During the next several years I was far from the ideal candidate for any kind of Jewish leadership. I dropped out of Confirmation class and only went to USY if there was a dance. I was active in a teenage folk dance group, an activity that brought me to Yugoslavia for a folk dance festival when I was nineteen. My involvement with ethnic dances also taught me to love Israeli dancing, leading to a visit to Israel, a year study in Israel, and eventually after much soul-searching, rabbinical school. But during my bar mitzvah year being a rabbi was far from my thoughts.
Looking back, I wonder whether there was anything during that year that may have pointed me towards the rabbinate. I remember one thing. During much of the following year, my tiny Conservative synagogue struggled to keep a minyan going Saturday mornings. Often they would call my dad and me to come down and help make a minyan. We went when they needed us, until at the age of fourteen our family moved out of the neighborhood.
Looking back, I realized that I began an interest in Judaism because I was needed. They needed a body in synagogue to help make ten. No one asked whether I enjoyed the prayers, followed the prayers, could learn to read the prayers. Going on Saturday was not about me and my needs. Rather it was about what the synagogue needed. When someone feels needed, they begin to see that something is important.
I think about these memories as I serve as a rabbi of my own synagogue, much larger and more successful than the little Conservative synagogue of my youth. We often try to sell people on the synagogue by how it will meet their needs. It is a place to connect spiritually. It is a place to educate your children, and yourself. It is a place of comfort during difficult times and a place to share your joy during happy times. It is important for socializing with other Jews. All of these are true. But perhaps the most important point we ought to make in selling the synagogue is a simple one – we need you.
Jews need other Jews to be Jewish. When people feel needed, they can start to connect. When people feel needed, they become important. One of the great pieces of wisdom of Jewish tradition is that you need ten Jews to properly conduct worship services. Our tradition forces Jews, who otherwise might not be there, to make a commitment and come join in. It makes people feel needed.
This week’s portion is called ekev, which literally means “heel.” Things follow on the heel of other things. Actions have consequences. Perhaps the best translation of this portion is that there are consequences to actions. Sometimes we do not know the consequences of our actions until years later.
Over forty years ago, a struggling synagogue called a thirteen-year-old boy to come down on Saturday morning and help make a minyan. That boy grew up to be a rabbi in a prominent suburban synagogue across the country. Perhaps the beginning of being drawn towards this career was that sense of being needed.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5768)

REFLECTIONS FROM CALIFORNIA

“When you eat and are sated, you must bless the Lord your God for the good land that He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

Greetings from Los Angeles, the city where I grew up. I am here for the annual meeting of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Communities. We had rabbis from all over the country for our meeting; then we joined the Southern California Board of Rabbis for their annual High Holiday Sermon Seminar. (Yes, the secret is out. Rabbis have High Holiday sermon seminars; I even led one for the Miami Board of Rabbis a few years ago.)
Our keynote speaker, a wonderful Reform rabbi from California, shared a number of stories. Allow me to share one – The Town that Did Not Know the Time. In a small town isolated in the mountains, all the clocks and watches had stopped. Nobody knew what time it was, and since there were rarely visitors to the town, there was no way to find the proper time. About half the people just let their clocks and watches run down; they were no good anyway. But the other half decided to keep winding and oiling their clocks and watches. Perhaps they would need them again soon.
One day much later a wanderer came into town. He had a watch with the proper time. Everyone was thrilled; they could set their clocks and watches once again. Those who had kept them wound and oiled found they worked perfectly. But those who had given up and not kept them wound and oiled found that they no longer worked.
The rabbi who shared this story then gave us the rule he uses when he speaks. He never explains a story or parable. He lets people ponder what it means. Out of respect for him, I will not explain the parable but let you ponder the meaning. How does it relate to the rest of my message?
This week we read Ekev which was my bar mitzvah portion (45 years ago- you do the math. I will be back in synagogue for my bar mitzvah anniversary.) The number one theme of this portion is a deep sense of appreciation for all the goodness we receive in the world. We should eat and be sated and thank God. Being out in California has filled me with memories and given me a deep sense of appreciation for what I have. I was able to the cemetery where my parents are buried right on my mother’s yahrzeit. Then I was able to visit my aunt and uncle. (My uncle just turned 95. He had to give up his golf game a couple of years ago but is still in amazing shape.)
I have to give thanks for growing up in a wonderful family which is still very close. I have to give thanks for my fabulous marriage, going on 29 years. I have to give thanks for my three occasionally frustrating but deeply good-hearted children. I have to give thanks for being allowed to serve a congregation I enjoy. I have to give thanks for the roof over my head, and a working car that keeps me going. (With 140,000 miles, I must also give thanks for the mechanic who keeps it running.)
People often ask me how to bring spirituality into their lives. The answer I always give is spirituality begins with gratitude. Give thanks for the universe. If gravity was a little stronger or a little weaker, if any of the constants of the universe were off by the tiniest fracture, humans never would have evolved. We are here because the universe (call it God or nature or karma or whatever word you want) desired that we be here. We need to turn to the universe daily and say, “thank you.”
But what if we feel there is nothing to give thanks for. What if we are in pain and suffering? Allow me to answer with another Hasidic story. A man came to his rebbe to complain about the suffering in his life. The rebbe told him to go ask Shmuelke. So he went to Shmuelke who lived in absolute poverty in a little unheated shack. He saw Shmuelke bundled up against the cold with little to eat. So he asked Shmuelke why there is so much pain and suffering in life. Shmuelke answered, “I don’t know. I have never suffered.”

PARSHAT EKEV
(5767)

CONSEQUENCES

“Therefore it shall come to pass, if you give heed to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord your God shall keep with you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your fathers.” (Deuteronomy 7:12)

This portion is entitled Ekev, a Hebrew word which is difficult to translate. Here it is translated “if” – if you give heed to God’s commandments, then God will keep the covenant. It is a word that deals with consequences of actions.
The word ekev actually means “heel.” Something comes on the heel of something else. When Jacob was born he was holding onto the heel of his brother Esau, hoping to be the first born. (He would later take both the birthright and the blessing from his brother.) His Hebrew name is Yakov, a word with the same root as ekev – heel. His very name implies that actions follow actions, events come on the heel of other events.
Jacob’s name has a second meaning. The word ekev also means to be crooked or deceitful. Perhaps the Hebrew term recognizes that heels tend to be crooked. Esau recognizes this trait in his brother. He says, “Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times; he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Genesis 27:36) Jacob’s actions have consequences. He takes the blessing of the first born, and later his father-in-law tricks him by giving him the first born Leah rather than his beloved Rachel as a wife. The story of Jacob is the story that actions have consequences. Or as the popular saying goes, “What goes around comes around.”
In our modern secular world, the notion of causation and consequences has been called into question. Many see events as random and unpredictable, with neither cause nor effect. The great eighteenth century philosopher and skeptic David Hume raised the issue whether causation really exists in the world. He wrote how we humans see a billiard ball hit another billiard ball and the second will ball start to roll, so we assume that the first causes the second. But does causation really exist in the world, or is it a mere interpretation. After all, we will see lightning and then hear thunder, but does the light cause the noise? Perhaps there is no causation, merely random events.
The issue is raised in modern physics. (For those who hate it when I talk about science, skip this paragraph.) Physicists ask whether tachyons exist, particles that travel faster than the speed of light. Thus far no one has ever detected such a particle. But based on current theories, there is nothing to prevent such a particle from existing. But if they do exist, in certain reference frames time would run backwards. For tachyons the event might occur before its cause. A person could die of a shotgun wound and in a particular reference frame the shot could be fired afterwards. For this reason, many physicists, particularly if they see the world with a more religious outlook, reject the very notion of tachyons.
The major theme of this week’s Torah reading is that causation exists in the world. Events come on the heel of other events. This portion contains the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which traditional Jews say every morning and every evening. This paragraph deals with the consequences of actions. If we obey God’s commandments the weather will be benevolent and our crops will prosper. If we disobey God’s commandments God will withhold rain and our crops will fail. We cannot take the paragraph too literally. But in this time of concern regarding the environment, global warming, the ozone layer, waste disposal, and the disappearing rain forest, perhaps we ought to look at this paragraph more carefully. How do our actions affect events in the universe?
The Bible teaches that actions have consequences. What goes around comes around. What we do affects who we are, and who we are affects what happens to us? This teaching is as vital for us today as it was in Biblical times.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5766)

STRAW MAN, GOLDEN CALF

“I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God, you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you.” (Deuteronomy 9:16)

This portion has a special place in my heart. First, it is my bar mitzvah portion. My bar mitzvah took place at a little synagogue in Los Angeles; I won’t give my age, but it happened in the Hebrew calendar on parshat ekev in the Hebrew year 5723. My mother’s yahrzeit also falls near this portion; this year it falls right on Shabbat. My mother passed away a few months before my oldest son’s bar mitzvah. So this Saturday morning I will be chanting the haftarah in honor of my bar mitzvah and saying kaddish in memory of my mother. Happy and sad memories intermingle on this Shabbat.
The portion also raises some vital issues. The word ekev literally means heel; on the heel of certain behavior good things will happen and on the heel of other behavior bad things will happen. The key idea of this portion is reward and punishment. God will reward us when we are good and punish us when we are bad.
The theology of reward and punishment worked well in the childhood of the Jewish people. But it is painfully simplistic for Jews today. It is almost as if God is some kind of divine Santa Claus, keeping a list who is naughty and who is nice. Unfortunately, I hear such simplistic views of God today. The words vary but the idea is the same, “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God. I always tried to be a good person, and so I prayed to God when my mother became sick. I was sure God would reward my prayers. But my mother did not get better. How can I worship such a God?”
How often do we set up a straw man and call him “God?” We come up with this overly simplistic theology of a God who sits in the clouds with a long, white beard, doling out rewards and punishments based on our behavior. It is simplistic and sadly not true. Unfortunately, when we set up such a straw man, it is easy to tear him down. God and the universe work in a far more sophisticated way than a God of simple rewards and punishments. But it took humanity many centuries to learn that.
This portion contains another attempt to build a false God. Moses repeats to the people the story of the Golden Calf. When Moses delayed coming down from Mt. Sinai, the people sought a way to feel God’s presence in their midst. They took their gold and built a calf, dancing and celebrating in front of it while proclaiming, “This is the god who took us out of Egypt.” Did the people even in that day and age actually believe that a statue of a calf was god? Probably not. But people build false gods because it is so difficult to conceive of the true God.
God is not a calf. Nor is God a man with a white beard giving out rewards and punishments. God is not a king sitting on a throne in the sky. God has no physical reality at all. God does not occupy space nor is God made of atoms and molecules. The Torah, for all its anthropomorphic language, points toward an image of God beyond space and time, a God that cannot be pinned down by us mere mortals. It is a difficult concept for moderns let alone ancient people; that is why the Israelites built a Golden Calf.
Why do I believe in God? I have a simple answer. Either everything in the universe is here by random chance, or everything in the universe is here because there was a will or a force, whatever language you want to use, which desired it to be here. When I look out at the universe, I cannot believe it is here by random chance. I believe there is a will behind the creation of the universe.
With that in mind, I remember my mother on this Shabbat with a belief that her life on this earth was not simply a random event. I look at my son with the belief that his life is also not a random event. And finally, on this anniversary of my bar mitzvah, I look at my own life with a belief that someone willed me to be here. And that idea has profound consequences for how I live my life.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5764)

BY BREAD ALONE

“He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”
(Deuteronomy 8:3)

This portion contains one of the most famous lines in the book of Deuteronomy, if not in the entire Torah. “Man does not live by bread alone.” Of course, bread refers to the material stuff of life – the food, clothing, homes, cars, electronics, the things we all acquire in life. There must be something more than things.
It is fascinating to watch my own generation grow older. I was born in the middle of the baby boom which began after World War II. In the eighties, I was in my thirties. I watched the Reagan years, the me generation, the best-seller Looking Out for Number One, the words from the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good.” Our generation was concerned about our careers, making a living, buying the material things we needed for a comfortable life. We were focused on our bread. That was fine, as Rabbi Elezar ben Azaria once taught, ein kemach ein Torah. “Without bread there is no Torah.” (Avot 3:17) There is a time when we must focus on the material aspects of life.
In the new millennium, my generation is in our fifties. Most of us are comfortable if not rich. Suddenly there is a new interest in the non-material or the spiritual aspects of life. Almost weekly someone asks me about Kabbala, the mystical tradition within Judaism. People are exploring New Age religion and Eastern Spiritual traditions. There is greater talk about what happens after death, and the greater purpose of life. We are realizing that a life full of material goodies is not necessarily a life of satisfaction or fulfillment. The well-known bumper sticker, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins” is not necessarily true.
This idea has hit home on a very personal level these past weeks. My family is searching for a new home in a neighborhood where most of our friends and our children’s friends live. We have discovered that there are two kinds of homes in this area. On the one hand, there are beautiful, spacious homes with all the amenities for a comfortable life, that are out of our price range. Then there are modest homes, less spacious and comfortable, that fall within our price range. Finally, after much searching, we have found the right home – not too big and not too small, not too expensive and not too cheap..
When I become frustrated with our search for housing, I think about a recent episode of Seventh Heaven, one of my favorite television shows. It is the story about a minister, Eric Camden, his wife Annie, and their seven children, and I have found that they deal with many of my issues. In this particular episode, Rev. Camden and Annie decided to buy the church owned home that they had lived in for a number of years. They were thrilled by the prospect of finally being home owners. Then reality hit. The Camdens sat down with the church leadership to work out a price. Much to their regret, they discovered that even with a modest inheritance, they could not afford the home. (The show takes place in my home state of California, where I wonder how anyone can afford a home.)
In the end, Eric and Annie Camden spoke about their purpose in life. They were not put into the world to be home owners, but to serve their community. God had always given them a roof over their head, and they felt extremely blessed. In the end, they realized that from a spiritual perspective, life is not about what you own but about what you give. As I watched this simple television show and listened to this conversation, I realized the profound truth of their words. Life is not about what we have but what we do, not about what we acquire but what we give away.
Mohandas Gandhi, one of the great spiritual teachers of the twentieth century, eschewed virtually all possessions during his lifetime. He never expected others to live by such an extreme asceticism. But perhaps his example can make us consider what is truly important in life. There is a Hasidic story about a man who travels to visit a great rabbi at his home. The man is surprised to see how modest the home is and how few possessions the great rabbi owns. The rabbi replies to the traveler, “All you have is that small suitcase.” The traveler says, “I am just passing through.” The rabbi says, “I am also just passing through.”
We are all just passing through. There is nothing wrong with nice possessions or a beautiful home. But if that is all we care about, we will live very empty lives. It is time to remember once again that “man does not live by bread alone.”

PARSHAT EKEV
(5763)

REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

“If you shall hearken unto my commandments which I command you on this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I shall give you rain in its season.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14)

The Sh’ma, three paragraphs from the Torah, are chanting every morning and evening. In my synagogue we chant the first and third paragraph out loud. The second paragraph, taken from this week’s portion, is chanted silently.
A Reform rabbi once told me, “There is no difference between our Reform liturgy and your more traditional liturgy. We skip the second paragraph altogether. You say it so fast, that nobody notices it.” There is a touch of truth in the rabbi’s comment. We say the second paragraph quickly, without much thought, because it is the most theologically difficult paragraph in our liturgy. It speaks of God’s reward and punishment.
According to the paragraph, if we keep God’s laws and practices, and love God with all our heart and all our soul, God will reward us. We will have rain in its season, our crops as well as our cattle will prosper. But if we do not obey God’s commandments, God will withhold rain and our crops will die. The weather depends on our behavior. No wonder we mumble through the paragraph so quickly.
The belief in God’s reward and punishment has been a fundamental part of religion from earliest time. On a regular basis, someone comes to me with sadness and adversity in their life. Their first question, “Why is God punishing me? What did I do to deserve this? God is not fair.” People truly believe that they will receive divine goodness if they behave in the right way, and divine retribution if they do not. Even in the Bible, Job’s friends argue that Job’s sufferings are caused by his sins. They tell him, “Confess your sins and God will remove your suffering.”
How many of us do good to try to receive some kind of reward from God? How many of us would still do good if we did not believe God is a divine parent, ready to mete out punishment for every transgression? How many of us love God with the hope of receiving rain in due season? (What happens if two farmers live next door to each other, and one does good while the other does evil? Will it rain on one farm and not the other?)
The answer of course is that there is no direct correlation between our behavior and our material reward or punishment in this world. We will always find righteous people who suffer greatly. We will find evil people who seem to prosper. The second paragraph of the Sh’ma, if taken too literally, simply is not true. Or as the Talmud teaches, “It is not in our power to understand the rewards of the wicked or the punishment of the righteous.” Life does not work in such a simplistic way.
So why bother being good if we do not expect a reward. The answer is clear from Avot, “The reward of a good deed is simply the good deed.” (Avot 4:2) Or as we say in English, “Virtue is its own reward.” We do the right thing because a life of virtue is a worthy life. We do it with no expectation of reward, but simply because it is the right thing. This has real consequences for our family life. We do not give our kids presents because they return a lost object, visit their grandparents, or behave nicely in a restaurant. Kids need to do the right thing for its own sake.
So maybe we should follow the lead of that Reform rabbi and remove the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, and all talk of divine reward and punishment. I prefer to keep the paragraph in our liturgy. For the paragraph still rings true, although not literally. When a whole society does the right thing, behaves in the right way, learns to love God and love their neighbors, the overall quality of life for everybody gets better. The rain may not be a literal rain, but rather the soft gentle rain of living in a virtuous society. A good life becomes a life of quality. If everybody lived such a life, we would all feel the reward.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5762)

CIRCUMCISED HEART

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no more stiffnecked.” (Deuteronomy 10:16)

The Bible speaks of two types of circumcision. Of course, there is circumcision of the foreskin of a baby boy on the eighth day after birth. This is the symbol of the covenant which God made with the people Israel. Such circumcision is central to the Jewish faith.
However, Moses and then the later prophets spoke about a second kind of circumcision, the circumcision of the heart. This does not replace circumcision of the flesh. Rather, circumcising our hearts becomes an ongoing process throughout our adult lives.
As we go through life, we interact with all kinds of people. And many of those people wound us along the way. There is a life time of pain and of people who have hurt us – lovers and sometimes spouses who left us, bosses who fired us, friends who critiqued us, people who abandoned us. We all have a life time of harsh words and insensitive behavior. Or, as a sign said that I saw on someone’s desk many years ago, “Friends may come and friends may go, but enemies accumulate.”
Most of us build up a wall around our hearts to protect ourselves. We create a barrier that keeps us from being hurt. We distance ourselves from people. Or we interact with people on the most superficial level, what Martin Buber called an I-it relationship. As the years go by, the wall around our hearts becomes taller and harder. Breaking through is more difficult.
As we go through life, we build up a wall in our relationship with God. We have been injured and felt pain. We all have felt abandoned by God. Again we protect ourselves by building up a wall. We become an island onto ourselves – or to quote the lyric from the great Simon and Garfinkel song I am a Rock, “I touch no one and no one touches me.” We build a wall around our heart to protect us from being hurt, whether by God or by each other.
That is why Moses teaches that we must circumcise our hearts. We must cut away that protective skin we have built up to protect ourselves. Only then will we be open to other people. Only then will we be open to God. Only then can we relate to our fellow as an I-Thou, again to use Martin Buber=s term. Only when we open ourselves up can we touch and be touched by our fellow human beings. And only when we open ourselves up can we touch and be touched by God.
We human beings are vulnerable. Others can hurt us. It is easiest to build a wall and protect ourselves from being hurt. Many people go through life with a huge wall around their heart. They feel no pain. But they also feel no joy.
To be human is to connect to other humans, and to connect to God. Such connection requires us to circumcise the foreskin that we have built up around our hearts. That is why the prophets speak about the mitzvah of circumcising our hearts. The Musar movement in Judaism, which is concerned with perfecting our ethical behavior, speaks of ongoing self-examination. Part of that means knocking down the walls which isolate us from others. Circumcising our hearts makes us more vulnerable. But circumcising our hearts also makes us human.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5761)

GRATITUDE

“You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God on the good land which He has given you.”
(Deuteronomy 8:10)

There is a large quest for spirituality today. Perhaps it is due to the baby boomer generation hitting middle age and realizing there is more to life than the material quest. The words of this week=s portion have hit home when it says that “man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) Perhaps people realize by the tragedies of the last century, that human rationality does not provide all the answers.
The following is taken from my new book The Ten Journeys of Life, newly published by Simcha Press. It is part of the chapter entitled Spirituality: The Journey from Doubt to Faith.
Over twenty years of service in the rabbinate have convinced me of a profound truth: Spirituality begins with gratitude. Abraham began his quest to bring people to one God by telling them to say grace after meals. Jewish tradition teaches that everyone should offer one hundred blessings of gratitude per day. We should each look at the universe and say “Thank-you.”
Materialists see the universe as a cold, heartless place, indifferent to human beings and our dreams and desires. We exist by chance, the result of blind material forces. When we die we go into a black void. There is no room for gratitude in such a world view. The materialists would say that since the universe is apathetic to human needs and desires we ought to be indifferent to the universe.
Those who reject the materialist mind-set see a universe that not only has permitted us to exist but allows us to succeed and flourish. Some scientists speak of the anthropic principle, which states that the universe is fine-tuned in such a way that humans can exist. For example, if gravity were a bit stronger, the stars would burn out without enough time for elements like carbon, the building block of life, to form and develop. If gravity were a bit weaker, the stars would become diffuse hydrogen gas, without the reactor power that energizes life. Scientists have noted that gravity, and other cosmological constants, are precisely set so that we humans can exist.
To the religious mind, not only does the universe allow humanity as a whole to flourish. There is a force at work that has allowed each of us to be born and to exist. We were each chosen by God and given a mission on earth. Jews say a prayer each morning when they arise: “I thank you, living Sovereign of the Universe, for returning my soul to me in kindness. How great is Your faithfulness.” There are three partners in the creation of every human being: a mother, a father and God.
Spirituality begins for each of us when we say “Thank-you” to the universe. As the Talmud teaches, it begins by our saying “The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 4:5). It begins by seeing the universe not as a cold, indifferent place but as a place fine-tuned for each of us to exist and flourish. Saying “Thank-you” develops the mind-set of inner peace, appreciation and gratitude necessary for a spiritual life.

PARSHAT EKEV
(5760)

ON TURNING FIFTY

“You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

Judah ben Tema, in the Talmudic tractate Avot speaks of the various ages of human life. The word for reaching age fifty is etza, translated as advice. (Avot 5:21) This is based on the commandment to the tribe of Levi to carry the parts of the tabernacle until age fifty. (Numbers 8:25) Afterwards, the younger men did the carrying, while those fifty and up were there for advice.
I suppose Rabbi Judah is trying to teach us that until we reach age fifty, we do not have enough of life’s experience under our belt to give advice. At fifty, we are ready to share our wisdom with others. Perhaps it means, as we learn from the tribe of Levi, that the younger generation does the heavy work, while we older generation watch and provide the insights.
I reflect on these thoughts as I turn fifty this week. It is hard to believe that thirty seven years ago I chanted parshat ekev at my bar mitzvah. It is hard to imagine the number of life experiences I have had since that day. For twenty years as a rabbi, I have been giving people advice. Now, the Talmud says that I am finally ready.
How do I really feel about turning fifty? My AARP (American Association of Retired People) application came in the mail, and I immediately threw it out. (That may have been a mistake; I hear that they have great insurance premiums.) I talk to the seniors in my congregation and they share with me the oft repeated bit of humor, “Each morning I get up and read the obituaries, and if I am not listed, I thank God for another day.”
That is my strongest emotion, a deep sense of gratitude that I have made it to fifty. My brother, and too many of my friends did not make it. Parshat Ekev is about gratitude. It teaches us that we should bless God not when we are hungry but rather after we are sated with a meal. It teaches that when we live on the land, we should enjoy its riches while remembering that these are God’s blessing. It teaches that we ought to thank God for every precious day and year we are given in this world.
God blessed me with fifty good years, and as the blessing says, “until one hundred and twenty.” That leaves me seventy to go. I am just getting started, and I still have a lot to do.
There are two ways to look at life. Too many of us see the world in purely material terms. We are our physical selves and no more. My favorite example of this materialism is the classic scene in City Slickers where Billy Crystal, perhaps forty, looked in the mirror and said, “This is the best I will look for the rest of my life.”
On the material level, I know that I am not as strong nor as fast at fifty as I was at twenty five. I know that there are a few more aches and pains, a lot less hair, a need for bifocals, and other physical changes normal for a man. I know that my doctor warns me that I cannot enjoy all the foods I freely ate when I was twenty. Time takes its toll. Entropy has an effect. I also know that whatever physical shape I am in now, I am stronger than I will be at seventy five. The material view of the world seems extremely pessimistic.
Fortunately, we humans are not simply physical but spiritual beings. We do not simply live in a material world; we share God’s eternity in our soul. Over time we may diminish physically, but we can grow spiritually. I know that for each year God gives me on this earth, I experience more of what life sends my way. As the years accumulate, I read more books, travel to more places, meet more people, learn more about the universe, see and hear and do things that make me a better human being. Reaching fifty says that I have lived long enough and grown enough spiritually to offer advice. But I am not where I want to be yet. Deep in my heart, I know that I still have a lot of living to do.