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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Nitzavim-vayelech

PARSHAT NITZAVIM
(5776)
WHAT IS LIFE?
“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
It has been a week of funerals for me, with two in the last two days. That is not unusual for a rabbi in south Florida, which I sometimes call “God’s Waiting Room.” I deal with life and death. Fortunately, for every funeral I perform I also have a wedding or bris, baby naming or bar/bat mitzvah. I live my professional life on the nexus of life and death.
Yesterday at the shiva home, I spoke to the family about how Jews reaffirm life. When we leave a cemetery we wash our hands, water being a symbol of life. We ask the mourners to light a large candle, the flickering flame symbolizing the living soul. We require the mourners to eat a meal, food being the strongest symbol of life. And we gather a minyan in the home to say kaddish, a prayer which has nothing to do with death, but reaffirms the God of life. This week’s portion says it very well, “I set before you life and death … therefore choose life.”
Other traditions celebrate death. The ancient Egyptians used their priests to prepare bodies for deaths, building the elaborate pyramids as ancient tombs. Creating mummies to preserve dead bodies was a science for the Egyptians. Among the Greeks, Socrates willingly drank the hemlock to enter what he considered a better world. In contrast, Jewish tradition does not even allow its priests (kohanim) to go into a cemetery. At the funeral yesterday, a gentleman asked, “Can I be a pallbearer. My family tells me that I am a kohen (priest).” I told him that not only could he not be a pallbearer, he should stand out on the sidewalk and not go over to graveside. I do not know if he was happy, but he followed my instructions.
One of the central features of Judaism is this absolute separation between life and death. A simple example will make the point. Jewish tradition forbids the eating of milk and meat together, or even eating them off the same dishes. Milk is a symbol of life, it gives life to the baby animal. Meat is the symbol of death, the flesh of an animal properly slaughtered. The two realms should never meet. (Sorry to those of you who love cheeseburgers.)
This brings me to the High Holidays which begin this week. We speak about sefer hayim, the Book of Life. We ask God to write us in the Book of Life. Our tradition that God has a Book of Life and on Rosh Hashana our fate is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. But the proper behavior can reverse the severe decree. Over and over as we pray on these holidays, we declare that God is a God of Life. How do we understand these ideas?
Death is the fate of everything that exists. All living things will one day die, the earth and the sun will die. The universe itself will die one day. Scientists have a name for it – entropy. Entropy is the natural tendency of all things to wear down, become more chaotic, to eventually break down. When your cell phone or your car begins to break down and stop working, that is entropy. When our bodies begin to break down, no matter how healthy we eat or how often we go to the gym, that is entropy. As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem The Second Coming, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Entropy is the way of the world.
But there is an anti-entropy force at work in the world. It is the force that goes from chaos to order, from death to life. It is the force in the universe that went from hydrogen atoms to carbon atoms, then to organic molecules, then to proteins and D.N.A., then to metabolism and to life. We live in a world where there is a force for life at work. Evolution points towards the fact that over time higher and higher, more complex forms of life develop. I believe that evolution is the greatest proof for the existence of God. Whenever entropy is overcome, when chaos moves towards order and randomness moves towards organization, that is the hand of God at work in the world. That is the God of life.
The major theme of these High Holidays is that we can choose between death and life, between bringing more chaos and entropy into the world, or bringing order and enhancing life. God is a God of life. We humans are called to reaffirm life. Whenever we work to reaffirm life, we become God’s partners in the creation of this world.

PARSHAT VAYELECH
(5777)
UNTIL 120
“And he [Moses said to them, I am one hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in.” (Deuteronomy 31:2)
Last week, having finished all my preparations for Rosh Hashana, I treated myself to a midweek matinee. Next to me in line at the movie was a man with his daughter, a girl about seven. He told me that his daughter had a particularly good week in school, and so he was treating her to a movie. Then the girl in the sweetest voice said hello and asked me, “How old will you be when you go to heaven?”
The man was very embarrassed. “I am really sorry. My daughter is autistic and sometimes says inappropriate things.” I simply smiled at her and said, “When I go to heaven I will be one hundred and twenty.” I told the man that I am a rabbi, and that is the correct Jewish answer. I do not know if the man was Jewish, but we had a nice conversation and his daughter turned out to be quite smart. She named a number of presidents. I am not sure whether she understood my answer, my hope that I will go to heaven at 120.
The number 120 years goes back to the book of Genesis. God had already sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden so they would not eat from the Tree of Life and be as gods, living forever. But God saw the sinfulness of man. “The Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for he also is flesh; yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3). When asked their age, Jews traditionally say, “I am ____ years old, until 120.” That is the upper limit.
In truth, I have never known anyone who made it to 120. I have known a handful of people who made it over 100; my beloved Uncle Max made it to 99. But realistically the Psalmist came closer to the reality. “The days of our lives are three score and ten, or if given the strength four score” (Psalms 90:10). The Psalmist says that we will live from seventy to eighty; with better health care most live a bit longer. But nobody lives forever.
This coming week we will celebrate the holiest day of the year Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur more than any other day, we confront our mortality. We wear white like the simple white shroud used to dress the dead. We avoid food, drink, sex, comfortable shoes, physical work, as we separate ourselves from the material world. We say yizkor for those loved ones who have died. And we speak about how “on the fast of Yom Kippur, it is sealed . . . who shall reach the measure of their days and who shall not reach the measure of their days.” On Yom Kippur we confront our deaths so that we can better know how to live our lives.
What does it mean to know our days are numbered? If we truly believe, as I do, that we are sent into this world with a mission, with a job to do, then knowing we have a time limit is a true incentive to get our work done. In my book The Ten Journeys of Life I shared a thought. Suppose you have a teenage son and you want him to clean up his room. If you say, clean up your room when you have some free time, it will never get done. But if you say, clean up your room by this Friday night or else, it puts a time limit on the work. Knowing that we are only given so much time to accomplish what we need to accomplish in this world focuses the mind, forces us to do what we need to do. And Rabbi Tarfon famously said, “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to avoid it altogether” (Avot 2:16).
Last week in my message I wrote that all things are destined to die. I called it entropy. That is why the Torah teaches that we should choose life. This week’s portion puts a limit on life. Yom Kippur teaches us to reenact our death. The purpose is not to be morose or send us into a depression. The purpose is to teach us to focus our lives so that we can accomplish what God sent us into this world to accomplish. Knowing we are given only a limited amount of time is the greatest incentive to begin doing what God has sent us into this world to do.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM
(5775)
WHO STOOD AT SINAI?
“I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God, and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14)
Many years ago, on one of my early trips to Israel, I was approached by a man on a bus. He wore the black hat, black suit, and fringes of a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew. The man greeted me warmly and said, “So nice to see you again.” I was a bit taken aback. “Do I know you?” “Of course, don’t you remember? Our souls were together at Mt. Sinai, when we received the Torah.” The man then asked me my name. I said Michael, and he replied, “No your real name.” I said my Hebrew name is Moshe, and he told me I should only use that name. That was my name when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. I am sure the next step would have been to invite me to study at some Yeshiva for Americans coming back to Judaism. Fortunately my bus reached my stop, and I was able to get off.
I share that story because it is based on a verse in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah teaches that God made a covenant at Sinai not only with those who were there, but “with those who are not with us here this day.” Who are the ones not present? According to the Midrash, all the souls of every future Jew to be born were present at Mt. Sinai on that day. Samuel bar Nachmani said, “Those who are not here. The souls were there but their bodies were not yet made.” (Tanhuma Nitzvavim 3) In fact, the Talmud takes this idea even further. Not only were the souls of every Jew still to be born present at Sinai. Even the souls of anyone who would some day convert to Judaism were present on that day when we received the Torah. (Talmud Shavuot 39a)
Every Jew throughout history was present at that moment. Every soul was bound by the covenant God made on that day. What does this fascinating, rather mystical idea really mean? I believe there are two ways to understand this teaching. One would be the way that the traditionalists such as the man on the bus would interpret this idea. The other would be the way religious liberals such as myself would interpret the idea.
A religious traditionalist would use this idea to prove that every law taught at Sinai is binding on every generation in the future. Not only did our ancestors make the commitment, but so did we all. It is the approach in Judaism that expects a fully traditional life style of everybody. It is the thinking that led the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel to rule that it is forbidden for Jews to use smart phones. And to mention another religious tradition, it is the thinking that brought county clerk Kim Davis to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. It is the thinking that says, this is what religion teaches and this is what we in every generation must do.
A religious liberal would have a very different understanding of the meaning that all our souls were at Mt. Sinai. Such a person would accept Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous statement that what happened at Mt. Sinai was “a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” The Torah from the beginning is filled with human interpretations. It is a human document reflecting on a divine event. From the very beginning, Moses sought to understand what God wants us to do based on the events of Sinai.
If all our souls were there, then all of us have the same right to interpretation of the Torah. The Torah must be read anew in each generation. Even the Rabbis of the Talmud told the story of Moses travelling forward in history to the study hall of the great Rabbi Akiba, who lived a millennium and a half later. Moses did not understand a word Akiba said, and began to feel weak. Only when Akiba told his students, “And this is the Torah that Moses gave us at Mt. Sinai” did Moses feel better. Akiba was interpreting the Torah for his generation.
If my soul was at Mt. Sinai, then the Torah was given to me. I have the same right to interpret the Torah as my ancestors did. In fact, in every generation each of the Abrahamic religions – Jews, Christians, and Moslems – have the right to reinterpret their religion. In each generation we can ask anew, “What did God mean by that? What does God expect of us?” Religion needs to be renewed in each generation.

PARSHAT VAYELECH
(5776)
FACING OUR MORTALITY
“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them, I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” (Deuteronomy 31:1-2)
Moses lived the full Biblical one hundred and twenty years. According to the book of Genesis, God says, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3) From this came the tradition of saying after a birthday, “I am sixty five years old, until one hundred and twenty.” In Hebrew it is ad meah veesrim, in Yiddish biz hundret und tsvantsig.
Having said that, I have never met anybody blessed with a full one hundred and twenty years on this earth. I have met a few people who passed one hundred. But even in that case, the Talmud says that someone one hundred already has a foot in the next world. (See Avot 5:21) The book of Psalms is far less optimistic about our years on this earth. The Psalmist teaches, “The days of our lives three score and ten, or if for reason of strength four score.” (Psalms 90:10) A few verses later the Psalmist advises, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) Seventy years or perhaps with strength eighty years, seems far too short. With modern medicine it may stretch to ninety or more years. But no one is given forever.
Each of us as we go through life must face our own mortality. No matter how often we go to the gym, how carefully we eat, how regularly we visit the plastic surgeon, our bodies are material. All material things must eventually break down. Our sojourn on this earth is temporary. I am amazed how many people reach the end of their days without ever writing a will, without ever making any kind of plans for a burial. So many people feel that if they do not talk about it, it will never come. They feel that speaking about such things is tempting the Angel of Death.
I am currently reading a book by psychiatrist and novelist Irvin D. Yalom entitled Staring at the Sun. I have enjoyed reading Yalom’s novels in the past, but this book focuses much more on clinical issues. Yalom calls himself an existential psychiatrist He focusses on questions such as, how can people better deal with the existential crisis of facing their own mortality? Yalom has built much of his practice on helping people cope with the fear of death. His book is filled with wonderful advice for people who counsel other people such as clergy. Although not religious, Yalom raises a theme that I have often shared in my sermons and counseling. Facing our mortality is a great motivator to stop putting off what we need to do in this world, and to accomplish things that we need to accomplish. It forces us to face the question – what will we regret not doing after we are gone from this world?
Yalom does speak about religion, but he clearly is not a believer. He talks in the book about going to synagogue on the High Holidays as a child, saying endless prayers that had no meaning for him. He does not believe the soul will survive or that there is any world beyond this one. He does respect his patients who believe, but personally he does not accept those beliefs. But Yalom makes one fascinating comment in the book. He says that if he had met a rabbi when he was young who helped him make sense of God and religion, perhaps he would be more accepting of religious beliefs. He is nineteen years older than me, so I could not have been that rabbi. But perhaps I can help the holidays make sense for our young people.
In a few days it will be Yom Kippur. The deep meaning of Yom Kippur is the confrontation with our own mortality. The Torah reading begins with the deaths of the two sons of Aaron, taken in the prime of their lives. On Yom Kippur we remove ourselves from the physical world. We do not eat or drink, work or have sex, wash or anoint ourselves, wear comfortable shoes. We wear white, similar to the shrouds worn by the dead. We recite a prayer about the book where it is written, “who shall live and who shall die.” We become spiritual rather than physical creatures. And by confronting our mortality, we ask ourselves a deep question. How ought we to live our lives? What do we want to accomplish while we are still embodied creatures in this world?
Yom Kippur is a confrontation with death. As we finish Yom Kippur and break our fasts, we can begin living a more purposeful, meaningful life.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELECH
(5774)
THE HIDDEN THINGS
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:30)
The Torah tells us this week that some things are revealed to us and some things are kept secret from us. The secret things belong to God but the revealed things belong to us. At the center of Jewish theology is revelation, from the word “reveal.” God chose to reveal certain teachings to us. But God also chose to keep certain things secret. This raises a deep and fascinating question – are there things that we human beings are not supposed to know?
The Rabbis of old commented on the fact that the Torah begins with the letter bet shaped like a rectangle with one side open. Standing in the bet, one cannot see above nor below. One cannot see behind, only forward. There are certain things we cannot see – what is above and what is below, and what is behind. This Rabbinic teaching is almost a warning that there are some things we are not meant to know. The Mishna in Hagiga teaches that the mysteries of the creation (maaseh bereishit) may not be expounded even with two people. (Hagiga 2:1) To try to understand some things about the universe is simply too dangerous.
Later the Talmud tells the story of four rabbis who did participate in such mystical speculation, trying to uncover the hidden secrets of the universe. (Hagiga 14b) The exact words are that these four rabbis “entered the pardes (orchard).” But the Hebrew term pardes also stands for the four ways to pursue the study of Torah, including secret mystical speculation. Of the four rabbis involved in this speculation about the universe, Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went insane, and Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya became a heretic (I wrote my message about him a few weeks ago.) Only one – Rabbi Akiba, entered and left in peace. The message of this story in the Talmud is to teach that to speculate on certain things is dangerous, and beyond the reach of humans.
So are their questions we humans are simply not supposed to know. I have heard one philosopher say that trying to teach a human being all the secrets of the universe is like trying to teach a dog calculus. A dog’s brain cannot handle it. And so there are secrets that a human brain cannot know. As we study such arcane fields as quantum field theory, particle physics, and cosmology, we begin to understand that the more we learn, the greater the mystery. The great physicist Richard Feynman famously said that if you think you can make sense of quantum mechanics, you do not understand it. Perhaps our brains are not made to understand quantum mechanics.
To say there are secrets that we just cannot know does not simply apply to esoteric fields of science. Often I am asked very difficult questions by members of our congregation. “Rabbi, why did this happen to me?” “Why did the Holocaust happen?” “What will happen when I die?” “Will I be born again?” I say that I have no answer. Some things must remain a mystery. The scholar of religion Richard Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, wrote about the human encounter with God. He claimed that to understand religion, we must understand such encounters. Otto used the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum “tremendous mystery” to describe such an encounter. In other words, religion itself begins with a mystery. There are questions we are not meant to answer.
Those who have heard me teach over the years know that I love delving into that the mysteries of the creation (maaseh bereishit). I break the rule of the Mishna Hagiga by doing such speculation not only with more than one adult, but in a classroom full of students. I think there is a great challenge in unlocking the secrets of God’s universe. I ask God questions. But sometimes I feel that God is answering back, “Rabbi, this I will reveal but this will remain a secret.” Perhaps in the end there are some things that must remain a mystery.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM – VAYELECH
(5773)
WHAT IS LIFE?
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so you and your offspring will live.”
(Deuteronomy 30:19)
At the center of the Biblical view of the universe is life. The Torah teaches “therefore choose life.” Over and over during the High Holiday period we add to our prayers, “Remember us for life O God who loves life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, O God of life.” God is a God of life. The Hebrew word for life is chaim, and we love to toast lechaim “to life.” The shorter version of the same words is chai. Jews often wear the Hebrew letters that spell chai around the neck. The letters in gematria (Hebrew numerology) add up to eighteen, which is a lucky number in Judaism. That is why people will give charity in multiples of eighteen.
If we are going to identify God with life, it is worthy to ask the question “what is life?” Even biologists cannot agree on a definition. There are certain attributes shared by living things, from bacteria to plants to animals to humans. They take energy from the environment to survive and give waste back to the environment. They have some kind of metabolism to use that energy. They reproduce. And eventually they die, losing the life that holds them together. But with death, the molecules that make them up are available to form new life. That is why Elton John can sing of The Circle of Life.
All of these attributes may be important. But it is still sometimes hard to pin down what exactly is life. Is a virus alive? What about a coral reef? What about a computer virus? (It takes energy from your computer to do damage to your software, reproduces itself on other computers, and if you are lucky and have the right anti-virus software, it will die. Is it life?) Perhaps it is easiest to define it with the old Supreme Court adage regarding pornography, “I cannot define life, but I’ll know it when I see it.” We live in a world teeming with life.
How do I understand life? I see a world where more and more complex organisms have evolved over time. Carbon molecules formed chains of organic chemicals. These chains formed proteins and DNA. These proteins eventually formed cells, which then came together to form multi-celled organisms. These multi-cells eventually developed into various tissues that played different roles in metabolism. Plants were formed, then simple animals, then more complex animals, and eventually human beings. The human brain, with its billions of synapses all interconnected, became the most complex thing in the universe. (Note how closely this description of greater complexity seems to follow the creation story in Genesis, chapter 1.)
There seems to be a force at work in our world that generates greater and greater complexity, a force leading to life in all its miraculous forms. Henri Bergson called this force an élan vital. I see this evolution of life as the hand of God at work. It is important to note that nature, left to its own devices, does not become more and more complex. Things do not come together in complex ways. On the contrary, things fall apart. Scientists call it entropy, the tendency of all systems to fall into disorder over time. The poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote after World War I, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” It is the nature of things to fall apart, to die. It is the miracle of creation that things come together, that life evolves.
The Bible teaches that God is a God of life. God is the force of the universe that brings about life, and makes that life more and more complex. God is the ultimate anti-entropy force. Evolution in my mind is not anti-religious; on the contrary, it is proof of God. Life only evolves if there is a force at work leading to more and more complex forms of life. And we humans are told to choose life.
How do we choose life? Our actions can become a force for life. Or our actions can become a force for death. We can be a force for greater order in the universe. Or we can be a force for disorder. The call to be a force for life is at the center of the message for the Jewish High Holidays.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELECH
(5771)

DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)
Our portion speaks about the secret things and the revealed things. Secret things belong to the realm of God. But the revealed things belong to us and our children. The unanswered question is, what is secret and what is revealed?
Is sexual orientation a secret thing or a revealed thing? For most of history gays and lesbians kept their sexual orientation secret. To reveal was to become a victim of discrimination or worse, violence. Until yesterday sexual orientation was kept secret in the military. The official policy was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Many military personnel defended our country with dedication and courage, while keeping secret some of the most important facts about their lives. I listened yesterday to a marine officer interviewed on NPR. His commanding officer told him that if he revealed his homosexuality to his fellow marines, they would lose their morale and the camaraderie which allows them to function as a unit. He expressed his surprise. “These are marines after all, trained to fight the most vicious enemies under severe conditions. Do you mean a gay soldier in their midst would make them fall apart?” Good point.
I believe the removal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a good move for our military and our country. The policy always bothered me for deep, religious reasons. It judges people based on their sexual orientation, not on their sexual behavior. One is disqualified from military service based on who they are attracted to, whether they choose to act out on that orientation or not. I come from a tradition that judges people on their actions, not on their inner feelings. Therefore, any organization that disqualifies gays (or straights) because of who they are, not because of what they do, is mistaken. I believe this is true for any organization that prohibits gays from participating, whether the U.S. military, the Boy Scouts, or Rabbinical and Cantorial Schools.
I have often made the comment that one can be a totally observant Orthodox Jew and be gay. For Orthodoxy is about what one does, not about what one feels. In fact, there are a number of strictly Orthodox rabbis who are gay, including someone I know who has come out of the closet and written about his orientation (not somebody from South Florida). Numerous thinkers have struggled with the question of how to be an observant Jew and be gay. Where they all agree is that in an ultimate sense, we are not judged by our actions, not our orientation.
What about action? Judaism is about the quest for holiness. How does a person rise above his or her animal nature to live a life that is holy to God? The quest for holiness affects all areas of life, from money to food to sex. And regarding sexual behavior, it affects straights and gays. I know straights who have no qualms about casual recreational sex, nor about cheating on their sexual partner. And I know who gays who have made a commitment, whether privately or in a public ceremony, to a long term relationship of fidelity and commitment. The latter is far more holy than the former.
I can imagine sexual behavior that would be inappropriate for military personnel, like I can imagine sexual behavior inappropriate for rabbis and cantors, or lawyers and doctors for that matter. And I can imagine military personnel involved in a long term, faithful, loving relationship with a gay partner. Such people can serve their country with dignity while publicly celebrating their love.
I applaud President Obama and the United States military for finally removing the discriminatory ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And I hope our nation can now turn to the truly important question regarding human sexuality – how can we reintroduce a sense of holiness into all intimate relations?

PARSHAT NITZAVIM – VAYELECH
(5770)

READING THE TORAH
“When all Israel has come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which he shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing.” (Deuteronomy 31:11)
This portion contains the fundamental law requiring the public reading of the Torah. Once every seven years at the festival of Sukkot, as the entire community gathered in Jerusalem, there was to be a public reading of the Torah. It was to be read in a way that men, women, and children could all hear (and this was before microphones.) Eventually the practice developed to read a portion of the Torah every Shabbat morning and afternoon, on festivals, new moons and fast days, and each Monday and Thursday morning.
Eventually the practice developed for a public reading of all five books of Moses on Shabbat. In Babylonia the Torah was read in its entirety over the course of a year; in Palestine it was read over three years. Over the years the entire Jewish world followed the Babylonian practice, with a portion read each Shabbat covering the whole Torah in a year. This was the practice in our synagogue until one year ago.
In recent years the majority of Conservative synagogues returned to the Palestinian practice of reading the Torah over a three year period. The reasoning behind that decision is that it made the reading shorter and easier for lay people to follow. Shorter readings made it easier to find Torah readers. And perhaps most important, with less time actually reading through the Hebrew text, more time could be spent learning what the Torah has to say. Every one of our neighboring Conservative synagogues made this change to a triennial reading; we were the last traditional hold out. Then last year we chose to do something unique.
For the past year each Shabbat morning our members have been given a choice. In the main sanctuary, we offer fifteen to twenty minutes of Torah learning followed by the public reading of one third of the portion. In the chapel we offer a full traditional reading. Some have complained that we are dividing the congregation, but most of our members seem pleased with the fact that they can select which room to go into. We join back together for the haftarah, the sermon, and musaf.
For me as a rabbi, this fulfills an important goal. Although on a personal level I prefer a full reading, I am not convinced that listening to a long Torah reading is the best way to reach most American Jews. Jews need to open the text in English translation, study together, and wrestle with the actually words. Not just Torah reading but Torah learning is now at the heart of our Shabbat morning services. Certainly we have always provided adult education Torah learning classes. But they reach far less people than our weekly learning sessions in the middle of services.
This brings me to the heart of the message of this week’s Torah reading. The Torah is not simply a scroll kept in the ark, respected but unknown. I know that Jews rise when the Torah is carried through the sanctuary, they bend over and kiss it, and they want the highest respect for these sacred scrolls. But the key issue is for Jews to struggle with what is actually written in the Torah. For the word “Torah” means teaching. At the heart of the Torah is the most profound question a Jew can ask – what is God’s teaching? What does God want us to do under the covenant? To be a Jew is to learn Torah.
I am searching for opportunities to teach Torah to our congregation. This will involve a variety of different classes in various venues at various times. But at the center of Torah learning in our new building will be the continuation of offering two choices each Shabbat morning. May we Jews continue to be a people who wrestle with Torah, not just on Shabbat but throughout the week.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM – VAYELECH
(5769)

READING THE TORAH

“And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel.”
(Deuteronomy 31:10 – 11)

We are nearing the end of Deuteronomy. In one of the final laws of the Torah, Moses set down the procedure for a public reading of the Torah. Once every seven years, on the festival of Sukkot when the entire people Israel was gathered in Jerusalem, there was to be a public gathering to read the Torah. This public ritual was called hekhal. It was the Torah’s belief belief that the drama of such a public reading every seven years was enough to keep the Torah alive forever.
It was soon clear that once every seven years was not enough. When synagogues began to grow, the custom started of reading a portion of the Torah every Shabbat. Ezra ruled that the Torah should also be read on the market days of Monday and Thursday, as well as Shabbat afternoon. That way no person should go three days without reading Torah.
How much of the Torah is read? Two different traditions developed in Rabbinic times. In Babylonia, the custom was to read the entire Torah over the course of one year (an annual reading.) In Palestine (modern Israel), the custom was to read the entire Torah over three years (a triennial reading.) But the key idea was the public reading of the Torah. Eventually, the entire Jewish world starting following the Babylonian custom of an annual Torah reading, which is the traditional Jewish practice in our own day.
There was also a concern that Jews understand what was being read. The Talmud teaches that every person should read the Hebrew text twice and a translation once. (Berachot 8a. The Talmud is referring to the Aramaic translation Onkeles, which most Jews understood in Talmudic times.) It is unclear from the Talmudic passage whether this reading was done privately or publicly. I am not a scholar of the history of Jewish practice, but there seems to be some tradition of a public translator accompanying the public reading, translating and explaining to the people.
This brings me to today. Should the emphasis be on the public ritual of reading the Torah, even when the vast majority of Jews are unable to follow the reading? Or should the emphasis be on the translation, explanation, and interpretation? Most Conservative synagogues have abandoned the traditional practice of a full annual reading, preferring to return to the custom in ancient Palestine of reading the Torah over three years. They follow a modified triennial reading. They prefer to put the time and effort into Torah learning rather than the formalities of Torah reading.
Until now, our synagogue was the only Conservative synagogue in south Florida that has followed the traditional pattern of a full reading of the Torah. Many of our members loved it, feeling that maintaining this tradition made us unique. Others of our members disliked it, saying that time should be spent learning rather than reading. After much debate, our synagogue has chosen to change our ritual, follow the lead of other Conservative synagogues, and go to a shortened Torah reading. The hope is that more time will be spent actually learning Torah, of critical importance for American Jews.
I was truly ambivalent about the decision. On one hand, I was proud of the fact that we maintained a full reading. On the other hand, I felt that most of the Jews who attend our services were not following the reading, and that more time ought to be spent teaching Torah. That is why, after much soul-searching, I supported this change.
When it comes to a decision of synagogue ritual such as this one, there is no right way or wrong way. Is the public ritual more important? Or is the learning more important? One could easily say, quoting the Talmud again, elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayim – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Eruvim 13b). My hope is that as more Jews understand the Torah and learn how to apply it to their lives, they will find greater meaning and holiness in the traditions of our people.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELECH
(5767)

CAN PEOPLE CHANGE?

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live.”
(Deuteronomy 30:19)

I love the Broadway musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The score is one of the first albums I downloaded onto my new ipod, a toy I bought myself this summer. There is one line that jumps out at me as we approach the Jewish High Holidays. Inspector Javert of the Paris police has spent a lifetime pursuing Jean Valjean, who had gone to prison for breaking into a home to steal a loaf of bread. Valjean had transformed himself, becoming a factory owner and the mayor the town. But to Javert none of that mattered. In a powerful duet, he sings, “Men like you can never change!”
Can people change? This question is at the heart of the High Holidays. We Jews spend the holiday season worrying about so many things that are relatively minor. We worry about family and food, tickets and honors, where will we sit at services and how will we dress. Rabbis, myself included, have one major worry. Will I come up with High Holiday sermons that are enjoyable and inspiring, worthy for the biggest crowd of the year? Cantors have one major worry. What music will I include in this year’s service to uplift the congregation, and will my voice hold out to sing it? All of these questions ignore the one question that is at the heart of the holy days. Can people change?
The theme of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is transformation – human beings who have been walking down one path can switch direction and find another. We can change our ways. The Hebrew word isteshuva – literally return, we can return to the correct path. The term for the period from the beginning of Rosh Hashana until the end of Yom Kippur is the Ten Days of Teshuva. From a Jewish perspective Javert was wrong; people can change. The tragedy of Les Miserables was that Javert never understood that Valjean had become a new man.
The question whether people can change has vexed thinkers throughout history. In the Middle Ages theologians grappled with the question whether free will can be reconciled with God’s omniscience. If God knows everything then God knows what are future behavior will be. And if God knows our future behavior, then we are not free to change. Medieval thinkers did various mental gymnastics to find a way out of this quandary. For example, they taught that God is outside of time and therefore sees the future as well as the past. But we humans live within time and therefore we have free will. I will leave it to readers to untangle that one.
Moderns are less concerned with God’s knowledge, mostly because God has stepped back in our consciousness. We see a world that is more mechanical than our ancestors. If we are humans are machines who are programmed by our genes, how can we say that humans can change? From this perspective, the strands of DNA that are the heart of our genetic make-up determine our behavior. And even if we acknowledge some free will, we are certainly the products of environment, our upbringing, and numerous forces beyond our control.
Add to this the Freudian view that it is unconscious drives that ultimately determines who we are and what we do. The whole modern outlook seems to point towards the conclusion that we humans cannot change. Or to quote the biggest song in another hit Broadway musical with a French name La Cage aux Folles, “I am what I am.” We are who we are; we are powerless before the forces that created us. And in some ultimate way we cannot change.
If humans are unchangeable, then we really do not need the Jewish High Holidays. For there is only one question that a Jew who attends High Holiday services ought to ask – “how am I going to be a different person when this holiday season is over than I am now?” God gave us humans the ability to transform ourselves. How we do so is the only truly important question that should concern us during this season.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM – VAYELECH
(5766)

WHAT IS LIFE?

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, if you and your offspring would live.”
(Deuteronomy 30:19)

We can never know beyond a doubt that God exists. But we can know beyond a doubt that life exists. And our tradition at its most profound identifies God with life. That is why we repeat over and over in the Amida prayers during the High Holidays, “Remember us for life, O Sovereign Who delights in life. Inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, O God of life.”
What is life? Life is a force at work in the universe, which certainly can be seen and measured on our tiny planet in our corner of the solar system. Life is a force, which goes from simplicity to complexity, and from chaos to order. Life is a force, which even scientists have difficulty describing without reverting to the theologically charged term miracle. Let us look at a quick overview of this force we call life.
In the beginning the universe was so hot only quarks and leptons could exist. But the universe was expanding, and with expansion came cooling. Eventually it was cool enough that the fundamental particles could join together to form atoms. At first there were only the simplest of atoms – hydrogen, one proton surrounded by one electron. Hydrogen atoms clumped together to form stars, and eventually gravity caused these clumps of atoms to contract and heat to build up, until the process of nuclear fusion began. Two hydrogen atoms fused into helium, setting off gigantic amounts of energy. (This is how hydrogen bombs work.) Eventually bigger and more complex atoms fused together, including the atom, which is the backbone of all life as we know it – carbon. The stars exploded, sending carbon and other elements out into the universe.
So it continued through generations of stars, forming more and more complex atoms. We are literally made of stardust. Eventually, in one unlikely planet in one tiny corner of a galaxy, around one rather mediocre star, molecules came together that were just right for the emergence of life. This planet was covered with water, a unique chemical just right to allow molecules to dissolve, form a solution, and eventually create organic chemicals. Somehow in this water long chains of carbon formed. Eventually there developed molecules able to reproduce themselves and also metabolize energy. Did RNA, DNA, or proteins come first? Scientists do not know. But somehow, the most primitive form of life had begun.
Charles Darwin saw natural selection as the engine which ran life. Some see Darwin’s theory as a challenge to God. I see it as a tool used by God in the evolution of life. Life grew more and more complex, with only those forms of life best adapted to the environment surviving. First there were one celled creatures, then plants able to capture the energy from the sun, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. Oxygen was poison to most life. But creatures developed able to metabolize oxygen for energy, eating lower forms of life for food. Animals and plants evolved in an interlocking, biotic community. But the miracle was not over.
A form of animal developed with a complicated network of nerve cells, growing more and more complex. The first brain had developed. With the development of the brain, consciousness entered the world. Even today scientists cannot explain consciousness; theologians see it as a part of divinity attached to living cells. Consciousness became more complex through lower and then higher animals, eventually leading to a unique kind of animal. For the first time, an animal existed with the ability to choose life, to live in a way that enhances the flow of life or live in a way which goes against the flow of life. Humanity has a choice to act in accordance with life or act in accordance with death.
So this week, on the last Sabbath before Rosh Hashana, we read the words “Therefore choose life.” Each of us can work against God’s purpose and be a force for death in the world. Or each of us can work with God’s purpose and be a force for life in this world. The choice is up to us.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELECH
(5764)

CAN WE CHANGE?

AI call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed.@
(Deuteronomy 30:19)

I watched one of my all time favorite movies the other day – Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. Many synagogues show this movie the evening of Selichot, the late Saturday night prayer service where we ask for forgiveness and prepare for the Jewish High Holidays. The movie is a comedy, but the theme is extremely serious. It contains wonderful discussion material to set the mood for a pre-High Holiday service.
In the movie, Bill Murray plays a newscaster who travels to Punxsutawney, PA for the February 2 Groundhog Day celebration. The whole town gathers to watch the groundhog check to see his shadow, thus guaranteeing six more weeks of winter. By a fluke, Murray keeps waking up over and over again on the same day, being forced to relive the same events over and over. He makes countless mistakes until he finally learns to live the day right. Only then is he privileged to see the next day.
The fantasy rings true. What if we were given an opportunity to live our lives over and over again until we finally get it right? Would we eventually learn to make the right choices? Would we learn to love the people in our lives who need and deserve our love? Would we learn to develop the raw talents God gave us to develop? Would we learn to be a bit more patient, a bit kinder, a bit less judgmental? If give enough chances, could we learn to live our lives the way they ought to be lived?
In the real world, we do not wake up over and over on the same day. The days slip by one after another, whether we live properly or not. And yet, we are constantly given opportunities to look at our lives and ask, are we living correctly? Are we making the right choices? We are allowed to make constant adjustments in our lives. We always have the ability to change.
The High Holidays come each and every year. The theme of the High Holidays is to awaken again prepared to do better this coming year. It is a time of serious soul searching. How can we be different people than we were? How can we change for the better?
Often people tell me, ARabbi, it is too late for me. I already have spent too much time going down the wrong path. My life is hopeless. I can never change.@ Certainly, we must live with the consequences of past actions. But that does not mean that we are unchangeable. History is filled with stories of people who redirected their life paths in their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, even eighties. I remember a letter to one of the advice columnist sisters, Dear Abby or Ann Landers; I do not remember which one. The letter said, AHow can I go to medical school? I will be in my fifties when I finish in five years.@ The columnist answered, AAnd how old will you be in five years if you do not go to medical school.@ Of course, the theme is that, it is never to late to pursue the path we were meant to pursue.
The theme of this week=s reading and the theme of the holidays is, there are always choices. It is never too late. We can choose to go down a different path than we have in the past. God sets before us life and death, the blessing and the curse, the correct path and the wrong path. Therefore choose life. And if you make the wrong choice today, there is always tomorrow. There is always next year. The High Holidays will come again.
The joy of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day was the number of choices he had, the number of mistakes he make, before he got it right. In the end, he became the man he was destined to be. In the end, if we make the right choices, we can become the people God meant us to be. The choice is always ours.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM – VAYELECH
(5763)

LIFE AND DEATH

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so you and your offspring will live.”
(Deuteronomy 30:19)

This week’s portion sets before us the choice between life and death. Over and over on the High Holidays, which start next week, we call God the “God of life.” What is life and what is death, and what is the role of God? Allow me to share some words from a Yom Kippur sermon I delivered several years ago:
To find the answer, we must look at one more fundamental scientific law of the universe. It is known as the second law of thermodynamics, but the more popular name is the law of entropy. By looking at entropy, we get our first glimpse beyond the physical world, and begin to see the finger of God.
What is entropy? It begins with a question – Is the universe a perpetual motion machine? Does it keep going and going, like the Energizer bunny? Or will the universe eventually wear down and grind to a halt? The answer is an absolute scientific law, discovered by nineteenth century German scientist Rudolf Clausius. All systems eventually wear down. Or as the poet W.B. Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” All things, rocks and mountains, humans beings, planets and suns, the universe itself, eventually wears down and dies. The natural world is a dying world. The prophet Isaiah already said it thousands of years ago. “…All the heavens shall wither like a leaf withering on the vine, or the shriveled fruit on a fig tree.” (Isaiah 34:4)
How does entropy work? If I hold my cold hand over a hot cup of coffee, my hand warms up and the coffee cools down. Eventually they will be the same temperature. (When I was in high school, I loved this law. If I was on a date and I wanted to hold hands with the young lady, I would tell her, by the laws of entropy I could warm up her cold hand. Heat flows from the warm to the cold.)
We can always make hot things hotter. That is how stoves work, but they require a huge influx of energy. We can always make cold things colder. That is how refrigerators work, but they require a huge influx of energy. Without the influx of energy, all things wear down, fall apart, die. That is the way the universe works.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Seattle gives one of the best examples of entropy I have heard. Leave a brand new car out in the woods for 200 years. In the end you will have a pile of rusted metal, paint, plastic, and other materials. But leave rusted metal, paint, and plastic in the woods 200 years and return, you will never have a new car. Things spontaneously fall apart, they do not spontaneous come together.
The universe, and everything in it is dying. Entropy is increasing. Given enough time, energy will dissipate, matter will fall apart, all things will become more random and disorganized, the world will go back to the description in the first lines of Genesis tohu vavohu – void and without form. That is an inexorable law of science, like gravity and the speed of light. The world of material things is a world that is dying. We live in an ever dying universe, and because we are flesh and bones, we too must die.
But, is there more? Is there anything that goes beyond the natural world, is there a spiritual dimension? I can’t prove that God exists, if I could God would be measurable in a laboratory. If I could prove God exists, God Himself would be subject to the laws of entropy. God Himself would die. I cannot prove God exists. So how do I know God is there?
Let us look one more time at what science says about the universe. The universe started with a big bang. Cosmic dust exploded outwards. Hydrogen atoms were formed, and eventually these combined to make more complex atoms, including carbon. Carbon atoms joined together to make nuclei, and proteins. Eventually cells formed, first single celled creatures, then more complex creatures. Eventually higher organisms were formed, and these ultimately evolved into the highest form of all, human beings. It is the precise opposite of entropy! There is a force at work in the universe that seems to be directed towards the creation of life. According to every scientific law, it should never have happened. The universe should become more random, not more complex. If the material world is a world dying, the spiritual world is that which gives life.
The Bible contains a powerful metaphor that describes this life sustaining force. The prophet Ezekiel saw a valley filled with bones, a valley of death, the natural result of entropy. God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3) Ezekiel prophesied to the bones and they grew flesh and sinews. He prophesied again, and a wind came “and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host.” (Ezekiel 37:10) It is anti-entropy at work, a spiritual force that overcomes death. I cannot prove that there is a God, but I see a universe teeming with life. And that points to a life sustaining force beyond nature. If the physical universe is about death, the spiritual universe is about life.
Is there a God? Because there is life in the universe and life in each one of us, we answer yes. We say over and over on Yom Kippur, zacrenu lechaim, melech hafetz bechaim vekatveinu besefer chaim lemaancha elohim chaim. “Remember us for Life, King Who loves Life and write us in the Book of Life for Your sake, God of Life.”

PARSHAT NITZAVIM – VAYELECH
(5762)

EVIL, PART 2

“See I have set before you on this day life and good, death and evil.”
(Deuteronomy 30:15)

This Saturday we will be commemorating the first yahrzeit (anniversary on the Hebrew calendar) of 9/11. It is a year since we saw first hand the evil that one human being can do to another. It is appropriate for me to continue the thoughts I began last week – why is there evil in the world?
I use the word evil to refer to human beings deliberately destroying other human beings. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, cancer cells, genetic abnormalities, natural disasters, accidents, may be tragic, frightening, sad, but they are not evil. Hurricane Andrew, which struck here ten years ago, was an overwhelming disaster, but not an act of evil. Even a rabid pitbull is not evil. Nature may seem indifferent to human endeavors. But nature is not evil.
It takes a human being to be evil to another human being. God realized this sad fact when God said, “All the inclinations of man’s heart are evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21) What gives us humans the capacity for such evil? Last week I spoke about the evil inclination. This is our animal appetites out of control, in need of discipline towards the good. Yet the evil inclination is not enough to create the kind of havoc we have witnessed.
Last week I spoke about how dehumanizing others can create an excuse of evil. The Nazis were able to carry out their evil decree by making the Jews far less than human. Laws were passed that slowly stripped Jews (and others) of their humanity. Then when the death camps were being built, Nazis and their collaborators could send Jews there without guilt.
Nationality and religion too often serve to strip others of their humanity. To many in the Moslem world, non-Moslems are dar al-harb, the house of war. When we are seen as less than humans, there is no guilt in blowing up people on a commuter bus or crashing an airplane into a building. Yet, even as we speak out against terrorism, we ought to ask ourselves, how often do we ourselves demonize or remove the humanity from others. How often do we fail to see the humanity in people of another race, another ethnic group, another religion, another political viewpoint? How do those of us who are Jewish view blacks, conservative Southern Christians, Palestinian Moslems? Do we truly see their humanity?
Evil begins with the evil inclination out of control. It continues others are viewed as less than human. Yet it takes even more to create the kind of evil we have seen in the world. It requires a mob mentality. We tend to do things to go along with the mob, even when we know they are wrong.
There is a brilliant insight in the Torah reading from a couple of weeks ago. A soldier in the midst of battle who saw a beautiful woman was not allowed to have his way with her (as soldiers throughout history including today are wont to do.) If he desired her, he must bring her back to his home, allow her to mourn for her family, wait thirty days, and only after that could he have his way with her. What can we learn from this strange, seemingly immoral law? The Torah knew that soldiers, caught up in a gang mentality, will often act in a way that is immoral. Thirty days later, after the soldier has returned to his home and family, away from the passion of the moment, when wisdom and reflection begin, suddenly the immoral behavior is no longer desirable. He would probably let the woman go home.
People will act evil when they are part of a group and acting in the passion of the moment. If they took the time to separate from the gang, let their passions cool, and reflect on their behavior, they will think twice about committing evil. This is why the Torah teaches, “Do not follow after the majority to do evil.” (Exodus 23:2) To separate oneself from evildoers is one of the most difficult, yet necessary paths, if one to live a proper life.
There is evil in the world. Our first job is to understand why such evil exists. Only then can we fight evil, and answer acts of great evil with acts of great goodness.

PARSHAT NITZAVIM
(5761)

CHOOSE LIFE

“Therefore Choose Life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

What can one say? Sometimes you look at events in the world and the only intelligent reaction is silence. My prayers go out to all the victims of the terrorist attacks that occurred yesterday and to their families, including several from our synagogue. We pray that God gives them comfort.
People argue about the details of the Torah’s message. But this week’s portion says it all. “I set before you life and death, therefore choose life.” The Torah was given to a pagan world that had no respect for human life. The message shone through like a light, every human being is of infinite value and worth, created by God, and every human being deserves life. Our job is to send that message to the world.
Long ago a potential convert went before the great sage Hillel and said, “I will become a Jew, but only if you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel said, “Do not do onto others what you do not want done to you. All the rest is commentary, now go study.” In other words, the essential message of the Torah is the worth, dignity, and life of every single human being. Everything else is but commentary on how to apply this idea.
In Judaism, God is called a God of life. On the days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, we say at every prayer service, “Remember us for life, O God Who loves Life; and Write us in the book of Life, for Your sake O God of Life.” God is identified with life, particularly human life, created in God’s image. When we kill or mar any human life, we are killing or marring God’s image.
This is our message to the world. Obviously there are people in the world who have not yet heard the message. There are people in the world for whom mayhem and destruction, particularly of innocent victims, is their goal. The events were not single individuals working alone, but an organized human effort to destroy. The perpetrators were using their human ability to speak, plan, organize, and carry out these acts in order to wreak havoc on the world. The forces of life are fighting the forces of death, and this week the forces of death won.
However, if our tradition teaches anything, it is the fact that in the end life will win. At the end of our song chad gadya, sung at our Passover seder, God slays the angel of death. The war is a long one, but in the end a love of life will win. All humanity will recognize the value of every human. That is the dream of our tradition. Unfortunately, that dream seems so far away today.
So what do we do? We mourn for those whose lives have been lost, and we pray for comfort for those who lost love ones. And we remember the words of King David in the twenty third Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me.” (Psalms 23:4) We must walk through the valley, but in the end we will get through it. In the end life will triumph.

PARSHAT VAYELECH
(5761)

HOW LONG SHOULD WE LIVE?

“I am now one hundred twenty years old and I can no longer come and go.” (Deuteronomy 31:2)

The time had come for Moses to die. He had lived the Biblical length of one hundred twenty years, and now he must pass on his leadership to a new generation.
According to the book of Genesis, the Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh – let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.” That is our maximum allotted time on this planet. From this grows the Jewish tradition of always saying “until 120″ after giving one’s age. I am fifty one, until one hundred and twenty, God willing.” I guess there is comfort in that I am not even half way there yet.
The book of Psalms is a bit more realistic about human longevity. “The days of our years are three score and ten years, if granted the strength four score years. Their pride is but travail and vanity, for it is speedily gone and we fly away.”
(Psalms 90:10) We are granted between seventy and eighty years, unless we have some unique strength and luck. My father made it until 76, my mother only until 67. My brother only made it until 37.
Our time is limited on this earth. The Bible does speak of a tree of life; whoever eats of it will win immortality. However, God has sent a special angel to guard that tree, Cherubim with a fiery turning sword. The gods may live forever, but we humans are but mortal. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Whether long or short, each of us is granted a limited amount of time on this earth.
The issue of our mortality is always difficult. But it is particularly painful this week when we have lost so many of our young people in the September 11th terrorist attack. It reminds us how fragile life is, how no one knows his or her appointed time to leave the world, and how important it is to live a worthy life while we are here.
On Yom Kippur which takes place this coming week, we reenact our deaths. We avoid living in the material world, going twenty five hours without food, drink, washing, comfortable shoes, marital relations, and physical work. We wear white, just as a body is dressed in white for burial. We say Yizkor prayers in memory of those no longer with us. We become spiritual beings, speaking of who shall live and who shall die. The power of Yom Kippur is that it forces us to confront our mortality.
In my new book The Ten Journeys of Life, in the chapter on mortality, I wrote: So God takes each eternal soul and gives it an embodied existence, places it in a material world where, due to the laws of physics, it must age, break down and eventually die. If God wanted our souls to do a task in this world, why did God not arrange for us to live forever? Why must we age?
Let me suggest one answer. Imagine telling your child, “Clean your room, but you have as much time as you want.” The child will never clean the room. If we have forever, our tasks will never be completed. It is a different matter when you tell your child, “Clean your room by this weekend, or you cannot play outside with your friends.” Given a time limit, the task is completed.
The same scenario takes place on a cosmic level. We are given a task, and a limited time to complete it. Aging is the sign that our time is not forever. We are mortal, and our bodies wear out. We must use our aging to refocus ourselves on our tasks in this world. What do we want to accomplish while we still have our mortal existence?

PARSHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELECH
(5760)

CHOOSE LIFE

“Therefore choose life.”
(Deuteronomy 30:19)

In my state of Florida there was a huge controversy over the verse “choose life” from this week’s portion. For a small fee, a person can have these words on their automobile license plate. The words put the state into the passionate politics of abortion. Pro-choice advocates fought to prevent the license plates from being issued. As far as I know, the case is still in court.
Certainly one can use this quote in the abortion argument. The Rabbis taught that when there is a doubt about a case involving life and death, we always lean towards life. If we are not sure how to decide a case and we are weighing issues of life and death, we always choose life. Nonetheless, the words Choose Life go far beyond abortion.
The Torah teaches that God is the source of life in the universe. On the High Holidays, which begins next week, we chant in each service “Remember us for life, King of life, and write us in the book of life for Your sake, O God of life.” Life is mentioned four times in this little verse, which is chanted over and over on the holiest days of our year. God and life go together.
The Torah teaches that we humans can never know God’s essence. All we can know is what God does in the universe. When we see life, we see the hand of God. And when we choose life, we are partners with God in creation.
There is something mysterious about the appearance of life on our planet. Life does not simply occur spontaneously. In nature, the laws of entropy teach that systems fall apart, become more random and less complex over time. And yet, we see life developing on earth, becoming more complex over time, more specialized. From random molecules emerge living cells, and from more and more complex organisms emerge consciousness. To the religious soul, the evolution of life on earth reflects the hand of God.
We humans have the ability to be God’s partners in allowing life to flourish. Every time we use our medical resources to save a life, to extend life, to improve the quality of life, we are helping God. But we do not need to be medical professionals to choose life in our day to day actions.
Whenever we enhance the soul of another human being, we are choosing life. Something as simple as an act of kindness, a compliment, a helping hand to a fellow human being, becomes a way of choosing life. The Rabbis taught that visiting a sick person removes one sixtieth of their illness. When we stop someone from gossiping, we are adding to life. When we recognize the dignity of another, whether through acts of charity or kind words, we are choosing life. On the other hand, whenever we act in a way that removes the dignity of any human being, we are choosing death. When we let our neighbor go hungry, when we refuse to honor our parents, when we gossip or cheat, we are acting against the God of life. The Rabbis taught that to publicly humiliate another human being is the equivalent of murder. Even ethnic jokes, or acts that denigrate another race or people, undermines life.
God gave us the ability to act as partners in creation. The High Holidays are the perfect time to think about our relationship with others humans beings. It is a time to remember God’s words Choose Life not simply on our license plates but in our day to day lives.