954-721-7660 Ext 123

Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Haazinu

PARSHAT HAAZINU – SUKKOT
NATURE PERSONIFIED
“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter.” (Deuteronomy 32:1)
Hurricane Matthew missed us. It was too far out to sea to do more than bring some wind and rain. On Friday night and Saturday at services, I asked our congregation to bench gomel, a prayer we say upon escaping a dangerous situation. My only regret is all the work I did putting up shutters for nothing. Unfortunately, Haiti, the Bahamas, and Cuba to the south of us were less lucky. The hurricane was devastating. And they are still assessing damage in communities north of us.
We give hurricanes names and in so doing, we like to give them personalities. We say things like, “Perhaps it will decide to turn north or east.” I remember vividly the claim made by some Chabad rabbis after Hurricane Andrew turned south towards Kendall and Homestead, missing the populated areas of Miami Beach. They said their prayers had actually turned the hurricane south. What about the prayers of the people in Kendall? Do hurricanes actually listen to prayer before they decide where to hit land. I heard some people say after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, that it was brought on by the sinfulness of that city. Perhaps if Mardi Gras were less wild, Katrina would have turned west.
Such thoughts are part of human nature. Ancient man looked out at the natural world and saw personalities in everything. We call this early religion animism. There was a spirit in the sun and in the moon, in the volcano and in old trees, even in the animals early man hunted. People would make an offering to the spirit of the animal asking forgiveness for killing it for food, and protection for the tribe. To see a spirit in a hurricane is a deep part of human nature, exacerbated by the tradition of giving hurricanes names. (I remember the time when only female names were used, a misogynist practice which was abandoned. Now hurricanes can be of either gender – Hugo and Wilma both wrought destruction.)
So do hurricanes have personalities? Perhaps the best answer is the Biblical story of Elijah the Prophet, being pursued by the wicked Jezebel, who flees to Mt. Sinai. There was a great and strong wind that shook the mountain, but God was not in the wind. There was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. There was a fire, but God was not in the fire. And finally God appeared to him as a still small voice. (see I Kings 19:11 – 12). God is not present in the huge manifestations of nature, not in hurricanes nor earthquakes nor tsunamis. Rather God is present in the still, small, voice we hear within our consciousness, the part of us that inspires us to help our neighbor when the hurricane hits. (Thank you to the neighbors who helped me with my shutters.)
A very deep religious question is the relationship between God and nature. This week’s Torah reading begins with a call to nature to be witnesses to a poem Moses will share. Heaven and earth are called forth as two witnesses to Moses words; Judaism requires two witnesses. In the poem Moses will speak of the wilderness as a “howling wasteland” (Deuteronomy 32:10) from which God rescued Israel. Nature is God’s creation but it is not a place of comfort. Certainly we return to nature on Sukkot, dwelling in a hut with branches on the roof, but the purpose is not to return to nature. Rather it is to remind us how God protected us in nature.
We humans personify nature. But the Talmud already teaches that nature runs according to its own laws. (Avoda Zara 54b) Nature has no will and no personality. God created nature and thus nature is good, in fact very good. Very good, but not perfect. Our job as human beings is to perfect nature as a kingdom of God. Or job is to find a way that humans can live in a world where there are hurricanes, and build building that will be safe. Our job is to forecast the directions of hurricanes to keep people safe. Our job is to help each other, protect each other, and when the storm is over, comfort each other. And as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in the musical Carousel, “When you walk through a storm hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark… Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.” God is not in the storm; as we walk through the storm,

PARSHAT HAAZINU and SUKKOT
(5776)
NATURE
“He found him in a desert region, in an empty howling waste.” (Deuteronomy 32:10)
In one of my Rosh Hashana sermons I spoke about the difference between animals and humans. To quote my sermon: “Animals live their lives in nature. Humans live their lives in culture. Animals are far more attuned to the ebb and flow of nature than humans. But more important than nature is culture, the great collection of art, music, theater, religion, politics, sports, and all the other institutions that give human life value.”
I spoke in my sermon about culture, and what Richard Dawkins called memes – the way culture passes ideas from person to person. But what about nature? How does our tradition view nature? Certainly the Bible celebrates nature as God’s creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalms 19:2) Nonetheless, at least within Jewish tradition, an appreciation of nature was absent. This week’s portion reflects the Israelite view of the wilderness as “an empty howling waste.” The Talmud teaches that one who is studying Torah and stops to say, “What a beautiful tree, what a beautiful field” is worthy of death. (Avot 3:7) The Talmud is trying to say that we connect to God through the study of Torah, and not through nature.
In the history of early Israel, one of the great Zionist ideals was a return to nature, particularly a return to the land. Jews had not worked the land for generations. Most Jews lived in cities and towns rather than out in the country. But now a return to working the soil and reclaiming the land became a major part of the new spiritual growth of the Jewish people. It is ironic that the return to the land ideal of early Israel has been somewhat lost. Today in Israel, agriculture is big business similar to the United States. Most kibbutzim earn their money not from working the land but from factories and businesses.
It is clear from a study of Jewish history that Jews were not immersed in the ebb and flow of the natural world. Perhaps that is the importance and power of the festival of Sukkot, beginning this week. It is a holiday built around a return to nature. The festival begins under full moon – the fall full harvest moon. We eat our meals under the stars, in a hut with branches on the roof. Some Jews actually move into the sukkah for the seven days of the festival (not recommended in the heat of Florida.) We take a palm branch, willow and myrtle branches, and an etrog (citron), wave them in all directions, and march around the synagogue with them. We celebrate the abundance of water, and on the eighth day of the festival we pray for rain. It is the one time a year that we truly try to live at one with nature.
Nonetheless, Sukkot is a good time to ask why there is not a greater appreciation of nature in our tradition. The ancient pagans were much more attuned to the cycles of the natural world than the ancient Israelites. Today Wiccans and other religions based on ancient pagan practices are filled with rituals relating to the ebb and flow of nature. Jews, with the exception of Sukkot, celebrate our festivals inside, in our homes and synagogues, detached from nature. Why?
Allow me to suggest an answer. Nature is God’s handiwork. Nature is beautiful. I loved the day I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, put on my tallit and tefillin, and said my daily prayers. But nature is also amoral. We cannot learn right and wrong from nature. Nature does not teach us how to behave, or how to live lives of ethics and holiness. Philosophers call any attempt to learn right or wrong from nature “the naturalistic fallacy.” The great Scottish philosopher David Hume perhaps put it best. “You cannot learn an ought from an is.”
We are given certain appetites by nature. But part of our job as human beings is to rise above our appetites. For example, I have heard too often that monogamy is not natural, not in keeping with nature. But the Bible says we should move beyond our nature and make that commitment to monogamy. Animals live their lives within nature. On Sukkot we return to nature for a week of celebration. But ultimately our goal is to rise above our nature.

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5775)
THE NFL
“So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked, You grew fat and gross and coarse.” (Deuteronomy 32:15)
This portion is mostly a poem recited by Moses to the people Israel at the end of Moses’ life. He recalls the history of the people, how God found them in a howling desert and protected them as an eagle protects its young under its wings. But this loving relationship would not last. Israel grew fat and kicked away the God Who loved him. Israel reacted to God’s love with violence. And so would begin a period of estrangement between God and the people Israel.
I read this poem and this image resonates. First there was love. But then Israel, like a large animal, grows fat and angrily kicks the very source of that love. This image of a man who grows very big and strong, who becomes powerful, suddenly losing his temper and turning violent, is so familiar. It has been all over the news these past weeks.
A large controversy has been brewing in professional football. A number of players have been punished for acts of violence against love ones. Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens has an indefinite suspension for beating up his then fiancée, now wife, in a casino elevator. Arian Peterson was temporarily deactivated by the Minnesota Vikings following allegations of seriously beating his child. The NFL and its Commissioner Roger Goodell has been under fire for not reacted strongly enough to these and other similar cases. There have been accusations of a long history of looking the other way when professional football players become abusive.
This entire story has me thinking about the Jewish meaning of football. I will admit that I am very much a part time fan; watching some games while cheering for my home team Miami Dolphins. I also will cheer for the Steelers after living in Pittsburgh six years, and since my daughter married into a Redskins family, they are on my radar. But I often will joke that I am a football fan like most Jews are synagogue goers. They attend on Yom Kippur and I watch every minute of the Superbowl. But still I have thoughts about football, the most popular sport in America.
Judaism teaches that all human beings, but men in particular, are born with aggressive often violent tendencies. Freud built part of his psychoanalytic theories of the id and the drive for violence on these classical Jewish ideas. Watch chimpanzees and other primates in the wild. There will be alpha males who will dominate the group, keep the females to themselves, and viciously fight off challengers. This is the nature of the beast in each of us. Of course, the whole goal of Judaism is to control these inclinations. “Who is strong? Someone who controls their evil inclination.” (Avot 4:1) That brings me to football.
The game of football takes that violent tendency in men and puts rules around it, controlling it. It is an extremely rough violent game. Men are trained to attack the other team with a ferocity perhaps only matched by soldiers at war. Injuries are common. We have very large, strong, athletic men violently blocking, pushing, and trying to tackle other very large, strong, athletic men. And a huge audience in the stands, at sports bars, and watching from home vicariously participates in this event. It is a way to channel and control our violent tendencies. Even with the complaints about possible concussions, football is not going anywhere.
The question is – what happens to these large and often violent men when they leave the field and go home with their wives and families. Part of civilization is training men to control their tempers and channel their anger, not to abuse family and loved ones. Fortunately, most professional athletes are patient and gentle husbands and fathers. And yet, when a man has been trained to be a vicious attacker at the stadium, how do we train him to be a loving, patient husband and father at home? How do we teach self-control and self-discipline to these professional athletes?
Jewish tradition teaches that we must rise above our animal selves. This is even true for NFL players. The League must find a way to train men to be tough on the field and gentlemen off the field. During this time of public scrutiny, let us hope that the League makes such training happen.

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5774)
THE TEEN YEARS
“So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked, you grew fat and gross and coarse. He forsook the God who made him, and spurned the Rock of his support.” (Deuteronomy 32:15)
As Moses nears the end of his life, he shares a poem with the people Israel. It tells in verse the future of their relationship with God. They are as a foundling in a howling desert, picked up by God and carried beneath God’s wings. But as they grow up they begin to rebel. They grow fat and kick, spurning the one who cares for them. And God reacts to the rebellion with anger. But in the end God will embrace them once again. The people who sought faith elsewhere will return to their God.
It is worthy that we read this passage on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known in Jewish tradition as Shabbat Shuva – The Shabbat of Return. It is about a people who forsake their God, and as a result a God Who forsakes that people. But in the end the people and God return to one another. “For the Lord will vindicate His people, and take revenge for His servants.” (Deuteronomy 32:36) Here is all Jewish history in one brief poem.
As I read these passages this year, I see another image. It is not simply the story of a God and a people. It is also the story of parents and their child. The parents raise their child, taking him or her under their wings. The child sees the parents as perfect; they can do no wrong. There is absolute love. And then suddenly, around the age of bar/bat mitzvah, things begin to go wrong. Suddenly the child becomes moody and uncommunicative. There is anger between parents and child. The child rebels. The parents who were so perfect before now can do nothing right. Parents tell me it is as if an alien has moved into their home.
When parents speak with me about their teenage children, I tell them imagine they are floating down a smooth river. Then suddenly they hit the rapids. Everything seems out of control as you are pulled along. It is thrilling but scary. But I tell them to hang on. In most cases there is calm water at the end of the rapids. There will be a relationship between parents and a child once again. It may happen when the child is 17 or 18, although some children seem to wait until their late 20’s. But eventually parents and children do embrace once again.
Why are the teen years so difficult? Scientists and psychologists give multiple reasons. Huge hormonal changes have kicked in. The brain is not yet fully developed. The sleep cycles of young people have been set askew. All of these are probably true, and yet I believe there is a more spiritual reason. It is the role of children to break away from their parents. The Torah teaches that “a man shall leave his father and his mother …” (Genesis 2:24) Children want to leave but cannot leave. They cannot leave physically, financially, nor psychologically. So they leave in whatever way they can. This means rebelling against their parents.
Wise parents will give their children something to rebel against. I remember the words of the Jewish lecturer and radio commentator Dennis Prager. He said in the traditional home he grew up in, when youngsters want to rebel they sneak out and ate a cheese burger. But children who grow up in homes with few values and no rules had great difficulty finding a way to rebel. Often their rebellion includes drugs and gangs and crime. Prager compared it to a swimmer in a lake kicking off from a pier. If the pier is solid the swimmer can get a strong start. But if there is no solid pier, what will the swimmer kick off from?
Teens preparing for adulthood need to rebel. In breaking away from their parents they turn elsewhere for guidance. Too often it is their friends. That is why I find youth groups, sports teams, and other activities supervised by adults to be so important during the teen years. The teen who cannot talk to their parents can talk to their youth advisor or their coach. I am proud to say that often over the years teens have come to speak with me as their rabbi.
The growing up years are difficult. Even God realized that; God’s own children rebelled against God. Why should we have it any easier? If you have teenage children, the only words of comfort I can share are, “This too shall pass.”

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5769)

HAVING A VISION
“You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.” (Deuteronomy 32:52)

The end of Moses’ life had arrived. God called him to the top of the mountain to look over the Promised Land. He can view it, but he will never enter it. Moses would leave behind a powerful vision of a new nation living in a new land. He himself would never live there. But his great vision will sustain the people.
To be a leader is to have a vision. The great men and women of history have inspired us with their vision of what the future holds. Who can forget FDR’s words, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” or Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I have a dream.” Ronald Reagan, whatever you may think of his particular policies, inspired the nation with his “City upon a Hill” image. (Actually the phrase was first used in 1630 by John Winthrop in a famous sermon.) And Eleanor Roosevelt inspired us with the line, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature but beautiful old people are works of art.”
The key to leadership is vision. King Solomon already stated this in the Bible where he said, “When there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) People need and desire a vision, and it is vision which will lead us into the future. This idea was made into a hit contemporary Jewish folksong by the talented composer Debbie Friedman, using words from the prophet Joel. “Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.” (Joel 3:1) Like Moses, we may not be able to arrive in the Promised Land. But we need people who can articulate a vision of that land. Humans need a powerful vision of the future and need leaders who can articulate that vision.
That brings me to the upcoming election, particularly the election for President of the United States. I am following the debates, looking at the candidates’ backgrounds, and trying to follow their ongoing discussions of issues. What do they have to say about the economy, the war in Iraq, the fight against terrorism, the protection of Israel, taxes and welfare? How do they feel about abortion and gay marriage, pornography and prayer in the schools? Who are their advisors and how does their faith illuminate their moral values? These are all important questions. But ultimately I will not decide who to vote for based on any of these questions.
In my mind, the central task for anybody who wishes to be President of the United States is to articulate a vision. Where are we going as a nation? What will our future be like? Will the president use the Oval Office as a bully pulpit to encourage American to follow that vision? Does the person seeking office truly have a vision of where he or she wants to go? Or does the person merely bend with the shifting wind, following the polls and letting popular opinion sway them? To put it another way, does the dog wag the tail or does the tail wag the dog? Is the person truly a leader? For without a visionary leadership, as King Solomon said above, without such a vision the people fail.
Such a vision is essential for anyone who wishes the office of President. But it is also true for anyone who desires to be a leader of any organization. If one desires to be the CEO of a major corporation, the president of a small business, the captain of a football team or the rabbi of a synagogue, a leader must articulate a vision. Where is our organization going and how are we going to get there? What are the values that sustain this organization? How will the organization overcome its obstacles in its quest to realize the vision? That is leadership.
So how will I vote? I will not share my decision; I do not believe it is appropriate for clergy of a congregation to endorse any candidate. Besides it could jeopardize our tax exempt status. I have not told you who I will vote for, but you now know my number one criterion. I will vote for the candidate who, like Moses, can stand on the mountain and best articulate a vision of the Promised Land.

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5767)

THE WILDERNESS

“He found him in a desert region, in an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye.” (Deuteronomy 32:10)

When I was young I used to enjoy backpacking in the mountains of California. We would hike to a campsite in the woods, build a fire and cook food we had carried in, often freeze dried, sleep under the stars, and be at one with nature. Somewhere along the line I lost my interest in camping. Perhaps it had to do with my becoming more observant Jewishly (freeze dried kosher food is hard to come by.) Or perhaps as I began studying Judaism, I started to assimilate the classical Jewish view towards the wilderness.
The way Judaism traditionally pictured the wilderness is reflected in one verse in this week’s portion. The wilderness is “an empty howling waste.” The desert is a scary place and God rescued us and brought us out like an eagle brings its young on its wings. We Jews tend to be an urban people. Our laws require us to live in a community with certain necessities of communal life – a minyan, a synagogue, a Jewish school, for the more traditional a kosher butcher and a mikvah. These amenities are not found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the deserts of the southeast, nor even in the swamps of the Everglades.
The Biblical vision gives a view of the wilderness as a place to escape from and a place to be tamed. We transform the wilderness. Even in modern Israel we grew up with images of how the early pioneers drained the swamps and made the desert bloom. We learn about how the city of Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes. The notion of preserving some wilderness areas has recently begun to take hold in modern Israel. There are nature trails and some wilderness preserves. But wilderness in general is a place to be transformed and built up, not a place to be savored and appreciated.
This view towards the wilderness fits in with the overall Jewish view that nature is imperfect, and the job of humanity is to perfect nature for God. I have often told the story of a king with two sons. He could not decide which son was worthy to inherit his kingdom. So he gave both sons wheat, and told them to take care of it properly and come back in thirty days to show what they have done. The first son came and handed back the wheat, AI guarded your precious wheat carefully, no water touched it, no one stole it. Here it is just as you handed it to me.@ The second son came and handed his dad a loaf of bread. AI have perfected your wheat.@ Guess which one inherited the kingdom.
The pagans saw God as manifest in nature, but Judaism rejected paganism. The great philosopher Spinoza was a pantheist, identifying God with nature, and the Jewish community excommunicated him. There is a powerful strand in Jewish tradition of escape from nature, transforming nature, nature as a “howling waste.”
And yet, in this time of environmental sensitivity, a new message is beginning to be heard in some Jewish circles. The new message teaches that perhaps there is some truth in paganism and perhaps Spinoza was right. Perhaps nature is not simply God’s creation but an actual manifestation of God very being. Perhaps God is immanent in nature. Perhaps the Torah was given at a mountain in the middle of the wilderness to teach that we can sense God’s presence in the midst of nature.
We need to ask whether the classical view of nature as a scary place has resulted in many of our environmental problems. If our job as humans is to transform nature, have we been less than responsible in our approach to the natural world. Have we seen nature as existing to serve human needs, rather than humans as a precious part of nature itself? Perhaps if we see God as manifest in nature, we can treat the natural world with more respect. Perhaps it is time for me to go camping again. Anyone know where I can find kosher freeze dried food?

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5764)

GOD IN NATURE

“He found them in a desert, a waste and howling wilderness.”
(Deuteronomy 32:10)

It is common wisdom that we can find God in beautiful natural settings. I have said my early morning prayers as the sun is rising over the Grand Canyon, or from Massada overlooking the Dead Sea. I have said my evening prayers as the sun is setting at Key West or over the mountains of Colorado. I have beautiful memories as a child, going to a non-sectarian summer camp, of weekly vespers on a meadow overlooking the mountains. If the weather is nice, many synagogues will hold services outdoors in a natural setting.
Having said that, God is not in nature. Jewish tradition has not always loved naturals surroundings. Perhaps most pressing, the Israelites hated the desert. This week’s portion tells how God found us in a howling wilderness, a scary and evil place. God protected us as an eagle protects its young, until we were able to move out of the wilderness into a settled community. Godliness is found in the community, in a village, in a minyan (ten Jews necessary for prayers), not out in the wilderness.
The ancient pagans worshiped nature. God was found in the sun and moon, in mountains and trees, in oceans and rivers. There was a spark of divinity everywhere. Today there is a return to this pagan viewpoint among many new age worshipers. The earth is Gaia, the great goddess, worthy of worship, and pantheism (the belief that God is really just nature) has returned.
Nature can be beautiful and inspiring. It can also be dangerous and scary. Nature is not God, but a creation of God. God is beyond nature.
Allow me to share some thoughts from my Yom Kippur sermon this year:
If a wise, loving, omnipotent God designed the universe, why do such awful things happen? Why are there mosquitos, why are there cancer cells, why are there birth defects, why are there hurricanes, why do airplanes fall from the sky, why do terrorist bombs explode on busses? What kind of God would make such a world?
To grope towards an answer, I want to tell you about a bris I went to recently. The mother was quite nervous. “Look at my baby, he is so perfect. Ten perfect fingers, ten perfect toes, this is how God made him. Rabbi, how can you cut the foreskin of this perfect baby?” I tried to soothe her, “That is the point. Nothing God made is quite perfect. Circumcision symbolizes our responsibility to perfect the world.” When God made the world, God looked at it and saw that “It was very good,” but not perfect. So God created humans to perfect God’s world. We call it tikkun olam, the perfection of the world.
Jewish tradition tells the story of a king with two sons. He could not decide which son was worthy to inherit his kingdom. So he gave both sons wheat, and told them to take care of it properly and come back in thirty days to show what they have done. The first son came and handed back the wheat, “I guarded your precious wheat carefully, no water touched it, no one stole it. Here it is just as you handed it to me.” The second son came and handed his dad a loaf of bread. “I have perfected your wheat.” Guess which one inherited the kingdom.
A couple of weeks ago, when hurricane Isabel was bearing down on the United States and we were wondering whether it would hit here, I asked myself a question. If we could find a way, an environmentally safe way, to sprinkle some chemical on the hurricane and make it go away, should we do it? My answer is absolutely – that is why God created us. When God made the world, God looked at it and said it was tov meod – very good. Very good, but not perfect. God created us humans to perfect the world. Nature is not God. God created the world, and we humans are partners in creation.

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5763)

LEAP OF ACTION

“The Rock, His deeds are perfect; Yea, all His ways are just.”
(Deuteronomy 32:4)

There is the story about a man from a small town in Poland who went to the university in Germany. He received his doctorate in philosophy and became a freethinker and an articulate orator. He returned to his small town to deliver a lecture on “Why there is no God.”
All the Jews of the town gathered to hear him. He presented a powerful case on how modern science and philosophy proves that God could not exist and that religious observance was a waste of time. All the people seemed to be shaking their head in agreement. The man felt proud that he was getting through to these small town Jews. Then, one by one the Jews began to walk out of his lecture. Soon almost everybody had left, leaving him speaking to a near empty room. He turned to his sponsor, “I thought I was getting through to them. Where are they going?” The sponsor replied, “They love your lecture. They all left to daven mincha (pray the afternoon sevice.)”
A similar story tells how a group of Jews in a Nazi Concentration Camp put God on trial, and after hearing testimony, found God guilty. When the trial was finished, they went to daven mincha. Traditional Jews will immediately understand these stories. It does not matter whether we believe or do not believe in God, whether we understand or do not understand God, whether we are angry or not angry with God. Jews pray. Jews go to synagogue. The key is action.
On Rosh Hashana I spoke about love. The kabbalah teaches that the universe consists of four concentric worlds. This first world is the Olam HaAsiya, the world of action. Love in this world is manifested by our actions towards one another. The second world is the Olam HaYitzira, the world of formation. Love in this world is manifested by our passions. (For love in the higher two kabbalistic worlds, come on Yom Kippur to hear my sermons. Or ask me for copies.)
On the most basic level, love is about action. Before taking any action, we must do a personal human impact statement. Will this act lower the dignity of another human being? Will this act raise the dignity of that human being? We must act in a particular manner towards our fellow human beings, even if we do not feel like it. Feelings, passions, appetites, are in a higher world. But at the most basic level, our concern must be actions.
People say to me, how can I act in a certain way if the feelings are not there? How can I kiss my mother when I have no feelings towards her? How can I hold hands with my husband when I am so angry at him? How can I visit my sick neighbor in the hospital when his barking dog keeps me up at night? How can I greet this woman on the High Holidays when she ignored me last year? Am I not being a hypocrite if I act this way when the feelings are not there?
When the Israelites received the Torah, they said “We will do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7) We will act in a certain way, and then we will develop the proper feelings. The world of action is the first of the four worlds in kabbalah. Action always comes first.
The existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke about a “leap of faith” as fundamental to the Christian way. In response, the Jewish philosopher and spiritual teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke rather about a “leap of action.” Behave in a certain way, even if the heart is not quite there. Say the afternoon service, even if angry at God. Act lovingly towards a neighbor, even if the heart does not feel good about that neighbor.
On this Shabbat before Yom Kippur, it is appropriate to scrutinize our actions. According to this week’s Torah reading, God’s ways may be perfect. (Actually looking at the world, they are not so perfect. But that is a message for another time.) What we must do is look at our own ways. Let us take a leap of action, whether or not the feelings are there. Hopefully, the heart will follow.

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5762)

BUILDING AGAIN

“I deal death and give life, I wound and I heal, None can deliver from My hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39)

The great Hasidic master Rabbi Nathan of Breslov told a wonderful story. He once saw a man whose house had burnt down. The man had been crying terribly about his losses. Now he began looking through the rubble, finding bits and pieces of wood or metal to start rebuilding. One by one he made a pile of pieces. Rabbi Nathan said, “See how he is collecting pieces to rebuild. So it is with our spiritual lives. Even when we think there is no hope, we are already collecting pieces to rebuild.”
This story hit me in the aftermath of the terrible events of a few weeks ago. Buildings have been destroyed, lives lost, including some I knew and loved. Yet there is a rebuilding going on. It is a spiritual rebuilding, and soon there will be a physical rebuilding. The World Trade Center may not stand again precisely as they were. But something will be built there, perhaps a building, perhaps a memorial, probably some combination of both. The rebuilding will be testimony to our faith in God and the power of the human spirit.
The book of Psalms speaks of the power of God in creating a building. “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain to build it; Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman labors in vain.” (Psalms 127:1) God is there when we build and God is there when we rebuild.
On Rosh Hashana I spoke about humans who try to play God. The Biblical example is the Tower of Babel, which humanity built a tower to challenge God in order to make a name for themselves. God punished humanity by taking away their most Godly power, the ability to communicate with each other. I then spoke of humans who play God by destroying buildings, deciding “Who shall live and who shall die” to quote the High Holiday liturgy. Both are examples of how easily we humans forget God.
This week’s Torah portion consists of a poem spoken by Moses shortly before his death. It speaks about the Israelites becoming comfortable in the land, building their homes, growing rich, and spurning God. How easy it is to forget God when we become rich and comfortable. It takes a crisis, the destruction of a building, to remind us of our need for faith and a sense of purpose.
This is part of the logic behind Sukkot. The feast of tabernacles is also about a building. But it is a building exposed to the elements, with flimsy walls and branches for a roof. The branches must cover sufficiently so that there is more shade than sun, but not so much that the stars are blocked. When we sit in the Sukkah and eat, we are exposed to the wind and the rain. (Here in Florida, we are mostly exposed to the bugs.) We are at one with nature. We realize how dependent we are on God. It is a lesson that we take home as we return to eat in our comfortable homes and buildings when the festival is over.
Buildings show our human ingenuity, which is a gift from God. Buildings also show our dependence on God. When all seems hopeless, God will give us the strength to rebuild. When something terrible happens, we can rebuild not simply our buildings, but our souls and our faith.

PARSHAT HAAZINU
(5761)

GOD AND REPENTANCE

“See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no other god with Me. I kill and I make alive, I have wounded and I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of My hand.”
(Deuteronomy 32:39)

There is a classical Hasidic parable. A king had a son whom he loved very much. Unfortunately, as the son was growing up, the king began to see that he was heading on the wrong path. The son’s behavior became more and more difficult, and the king realized that he could not keep him in the palace.
The king sent his son to a far off village to be raised in the home of peasants. There his officers and spies were able to keep an eye on him and see how he was doing. The king’s son grew up in the village, but always maintained a memory of the palace where he was born.
One day the young man said, “I am the son of a king, and I must return to my father.” He began the long and difficult journey. Soon messengers came to tell the king, your son is on your way home.
The king immediately broke into tears. He told his servants, “I know it is a difficult journey. Go load up my carriage right away. I will travel and meet my son half way.”
The meaning of the parable is clear. The king is God, the son represent God’s children. There are times when we feel that God sends us away and is hidden from us. And there are times when we send ourselves away, hide ourselves from God, travel a long distance from the proper path.
The theme of these days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is teshuva, which literally means “return.” It is about returning to the path God wants us to travel. Teshuva teaches that we humans are not stuck; we have the ability to turn our lives around and change the path we are travelling. When we do teshuva, God in a sense also does teshuva. God also has the ability to turn around. Perhaps that is the meaning of the rather difficult poetic words in this portion “I kill and I make alive, I have wounded and I heal.” God can change.
One of the most profound teachings of Judaism is that there is a symmetry between what happens here on earth and what happens in the spiritual world. When we humans return to God, God also returns to us. God meets us half-way, if you will. We travel towards one another.
The twelve step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous speak of turning to a higher power on the road to sobriety. They recognize the key role God plays in changing our live style and our habits. Some secularists have recommended an eleven step program, leaving out the religious part. They quickly discovered that this never worked. God has a vital role in helping us humans change.
The Talmud has a wonderful lesson. “Resh Lakish said, if a person comes to defile himself, the doors are certainly open to him (but he is on his own). But if he comes to purify himself, he is helped from heaven. The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught, if a shopkeeper sells naptha (which has a bad smell) and balm (which has a beautiful smell), when a customer wants to measure the naptha, the shopkeeper says, Measure it on your own. But when a customer wants to measure balm, the shopkeeper says, let us measure it together, so that we both may become perfumed.” (Yoma 38b – 39a)
On Yom Kippur we strive to return to God. We do so with the confidence that God is also returning to us. The recovery movement understood human nature correctly when they stressed how we humans need a higher power to help us back onto the right path.