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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Veetchanan

PARSHAT VAETCHANAN
(5776)
LOVE MEANS ACTION
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
This portion contains the paragraph known to Jews as the Sh’ma. Beginning with the words “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” the Sh’ma is often called the watchword of the Jewish faith. Jews traditionally say it each morning and each evening in their prayers, as well as before they go to bed. It is the first Jewish prayer a child learns, and the last words a person says before he or she dies. (Technically it is not a prayer at all but a statement of faith.) Often I will visit a hospice patient in a coma in the last days of their life, and recite the Sh’ma. Even if unresponsive, I can feel them squeeze my hand. These words are at the center of the Jewish view of the world.
Following the first line, the Sh’ma continues with the words, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This is a call for absolute love of God. But the paragraph continues with a number of practices. Say these words when you lie down and when you rise up. Teach them diligently to your children. Bind them upon your hands and let them be a frontlet between your eyes. (We Jews tend to be quite literal about this by wearing tefillin, leather boxes containing the Sh’ma and several other verses on our arms and foreheads.) Write them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. (This is the basis of placing a mezuzah, a little case containing the Sh’ma and another passage on our doorposts.)
What is noteworthy is that we are commanded to love God, and this is followed by a series of actions. We show our love not by our feelings, not by some inner workings of our heart, but rather by our actions. To love God, or to love our neighbor, or to love the stranger, or even to love our family, means acting in a certain way. Love means action.
This is so different from our secular culture. When we speak about love, we speak about feelings. Love is about how we feel and think about another, not about what we do. A good example is the 1970 novel Love Story by Erich Segal, which spent months on the best seller list. It was made into an extremely popular movie that same year, staring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neil. The central line of the story, still often quoted, is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In other words, if two people truly love each other, what they do does not really matter. If they hurt each other, they do not need to say they are sorry. Love will bring people to forgive one another. Love is about feelings, not actions.
I see this attitude from many people when they talk about their love of God. “I love God. Love is something you feel in your heart. God does not need me to behave in a certain way. God does not need my rituals nor my prayers. God only needs to know how I feel.” I hear this from the people who prefer spirituality over religion. Spirituality is about feelings, what is going in the heart. Religion is about action, what we do as part of a community of worshippers. If our feelings are proper, actions are not important.
I see this attitude in romantic relationships. I will never forget a time I met with a couple before their wedding. I noticed the woman was not wearing a diamond. The man said, “We love each other. We do not need a silly ring to show our feelings.” The man stepped out momentarily, and the woman said, “I know he loves me, but I wish he bought me a ring.” Love is shown by what we do, not what we feel.
I see this attitude in parental love. I speak to a parent who does not spend time with his or her child, or even a divorced parent who does not pay child support. The parent will tell me, “It does not matter. I love my child.” I want to shake such parents, “If you love your child, you need to act in a loving way.”
One of the great insights of saying the Sh’ma every day is to drive home the point, love is about actions rather than feelings. In fact, people sometimes tell me that they do not want to act loving because they do not feel loving. I answer that they need to act in a loving way, and the feelings will follow from the actions. And one way to act loving is to realize that “love means always having to say you are sorry.”

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5775)
WHAT HAPPENED AT SINAI?
“I stood between the Lord and you at that time to convey the Lord’s words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up to the mountain.” (Deuteronomy 5:5)
What happened at Mt. Sinai? Did the Israelites literally hear the words of God pronouncing the Ten Commandments? Was God’s revelation in actual words and letters? Or did the Israelites hear Moses interpretation of what he heard from God? Or perhaps it was some combination; the Israelites heard some of the Commandments and some were given to Moses to interpret.
I am reading a fascinating book recommended by one of my professors – Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition by Benjamin D. Sommer. The book is part Bible study, part theology. Sommer claims that there are two very different ways to understand the events at Mt. Sinai. One is the stenographic point of view, with Moses acting as a secretary taking dictation of actual words and letters spoken by the Holy One. The other, the view Sommer defends, is the participatory point of view. Something happened at Sinai but the actual words and letters came from Moses, and perhaps other human beings.
Most of us grew up with the stenographic point of view. God spoke in actual words and letters, which are exactly the words and letters of the Torah that we have today. Let me give a well-known example of this point of view. This week we read the Ten Commandments for the second time; we also read them in the book of Exodus. This week, in the book of Deuteronomy, the precise wording is slightly different. We are told to guard (shamor) the Sabbath. In Exodus we are told to remember (zachor) the Sabbath. If God spoke in literal words and letters, which is it?
Those who come to Friday night services know the answer. “Guard and Remember were spoken with one voice.” (Shamor v’Zachor b’Dibur Ehad). It is the first verse of Lecha Dodi. If God gave the Ten Commandments word by word, then God can speak two words at once. If Moses gave the Ten Commandments after an encounter with God, then Moses at two times might have used two different sets of words.
Sommer argues for a more participatory view of revelation. Even the Bible sometimes indicates that the people did not actually hear the voice of God. Moses heard it and passed it on to the people. For example, in the quote at the beginning of this message, the people are too frightened to approach the mountain where God is going to speak. Moses has to convey the words. Sommer brings numerous other examples from Rabbinic literature, Jewish philosophy, and Jewish mysticism where the people only see God’s presence; the actually words are man-made.
Let me share one famous quote from the influential twentieth century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (my favorite modern Jewish philosopher.) In a letter to Martin Buber, Rosenzweig wrote, “The primary content of revelation is revelation itself. `He came down [on Sinai]’ – this already concludes the revelation; `He spoke’ is the beginning of interpretation.” (On Jewish Learning, p. 118) The written Torah is a human interpretation of a momentous event at Mt. Sinai. It is an extremely participatory view of revelation.
So what do I believe? I love the teaching of one of the great Hasidic rebbes Menachim Mendel of Rymanov. He taught that when God started to give the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, all the people heard was the first letter of the first word – the aleph at the beginning of Anochi. In Hebrew aleph is a silent letter. All they heard was that first silent letter. They heard The Sounds of Silence to quote Simon and Garfunkel. According to Menachim Mendel, everything else, the entire Ten Commandments, the entire Torah, were contained in that first silent letter. The people at Mt. Sinai had an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. And from that, they knew that they were commanded and they knew what they needed to do.
The Torah is a human attempt to put in writing an overwhelming encounter with God. It is an encounter that has changed the history of the world.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5774)
ETHICS EVOLVING
“The seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God, you shall do no work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female servant, your ox or your ass or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that you male and female servant shall rest as you do.” (Deuteronomy 5:14)
As many of you know, for the past three years I have been teaching Ethics for the philosophy department at Broward College. And of course, for the past thirty-five years I have taught Jewish Ethics in sermons and classes as a rabbi. I am fascinated by questions of ethics. How should we treat other people? What is good and what is bad? And why?
One of the conclusions I have seen is that Ethics is constantly evolving. What was right or acceptable for one generation becomes wrong or unacceptable for later generations. There is a simple example in the Ten Commandments, which is part of this week’s Torah reading. Actually the Ten Commandments is repeated twice in the Torah, once in Exodus when the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai, and once a generation later in Deuteronomy when Moses retells the events of Mt. Sinai. Mostly the two versions are the same, with minor changes in wording. But regarding the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath, the two versions are totally different.
In Exodus, the Torah uses the word zachor meaning “remember” – remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. In this week’s portion the Torah uses the word shamor meaning “guard” – guard the Sabbath and keep it holy. Jewish tradition teaches that God said both words at the same time. That is why we sing in Lecha Dodi on Friday night, shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad – “guard and remember with one word.” But the rest of the commandment also uses different language.
In Exodus, we are told to keep the Sabbath for purely theological purposes, to remember that God created the world in sixth days and rested on the seventh. In Deuteronomy the reason changes. We are told to keep the Sabbath for social action purposes. It is to allow our servants or slaves, our animals, even strangers in our household, to have a day of rest. After all, we were slaves in Egypt, forced to work seven days without rest. The commandment reflects a greater social awareness in Deuteronomy than in Exodus.
There are countless other examples. Deuteronomy is very concerned with the treatment of the poor and those who cannot provide for themselves. In Exodus, an indentured servant is let free in the seventh year. (Exodus 21:2) In Deuteronomy, the same law is repeated, but this time the master has to provide for his servant, not sending him out empty handed. (Deuteronomy 15:13) Ethics have evolved from the laws given in Exodus to the laws repeated a generation later in Deuteronomy.
Of course, there is a long history of the evolution of ethics. In Biblical times, slavery was permitted. Women were often subjugated and children could be put to death by their parents. These laws have long passed out of practice. In a similar way, our secular view of ethics has evolved. I think about the movie popular a few years ago The Help. It takes place in Jackson, MS within the past sixty years. Black women were hired by wealthy families to serve as nannies for white babies. Families would leave their children in the care of these women, but they were not allowed to use the family bathroom. They had to go outside to an outhouse. Here is an unethical practice in the United States in the lifetimes of many of us. Fortunately, our ethics have evolved.
Our ethics are continuing to evolve. Consider the treatment of homosexuals just a few years ago, when even the military had a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” Now more and more states are legalizing same sex marriage. Through time, more and more people are included in what philosophers call “the moral community,” those deserving of moral consideration. But of course, the roots of this consideration goes back to the Ten Commandments; even the stranger, the other, the one not part of the community, was told to rest on the Sabbath.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5773)
GOD IS ONE?
“Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Ask the average person raised in the Jewish faith what the central tenet of Judaism is, and they will probably answer, “Judaism is the belief that God is One.” This is true to a point. Jews believe God is One, but so do Moslems and so do Unitarians. Christians accept a trinity, a God of three persons, but Christian theologians would say that they are manifestations of the one God.
For the religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a central tenet is monotheism, the belief that God is One. (Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism take a different approach.) Jews reaffirm this belief twice a day by reciting the Sh’ma, a passage from this week’s portion. The Sh’ma is also one of the first prayers a Jewish child learns, and it is traditionally said at the end of one’s life as the last words before a person dies. Throughout their lives, Jews proclaim the words, “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
But there is another prayer Jews recite three times a day – Aleinu. This ends with a quote from the Prophet Zechariah, “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; In that day shall the Lord be One and his name One.” (Zechariah 14:9) According to this prayer, which Jews sing loudly at the end of every service Beyom Hahu Yehiye Adonai Echad u’Shmo Echad, God will be One sometime in the future. Which is it? Is God One today as the Sh’ma proclaims? Or will God be One in the future as Aleinu proclaims? Our prayer services, and as a result our theology, contain a clear contradiction.
The simple answer is, as Jews proclaim, God is One today. But in the future all nations will come to recognize the Oneness of God. It is a prayer about the Messianic hope. This solves the problem. But I believe there is another answer, one taught by Jewish mystics, that is far more compelling.
According to the kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) God did not create the universe outside God’s self. Rather the universe flowed out of God’s very being (emanation). In the Zohar, after this act of emanation, parts of this universe became separated from others and conflict ensued. In fact, the Zohar speaks of this conflict taking place on the second day of creation. According to the Torah, this was the day that God separated the upper and lower waters. The Zohar quotes the Midrash about how, when this separation took place, the waters cried out for each other. (Genesis Rabbah 13:13) The second day of creation is the only one that the Torah does not say, God saw that it was good. It was not good because separation and conflict entered the universe on the second day.
This mystical idea was further developed by the brilliant kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572). According to Luria, God shrunk God’s very self to create a space into which the universe flowed (tzimtzum). Little sparks of God’s presence were collected in vessels throughout this space. But these vessels could not hold the divine sparks and were shattered (sh’virat hakelim). The sparks scattered and became hidden everywhere. Our job as humans is to return these holy sparks to their source and repair what is been shattered (tikkun). We often use the Hebrew word tikkun to speak about repairing the world. But in actually, it originally meant repairing God.
So we come to a mystical understanding of the idea that God is One. Originally God was One. But while emanating into the world, God became broken. The Oneness of God has been marred in this world. Our job as human beings is to repair what has been broken, to make God One again. In the future, in the Messianic times foreseen by Zechariah, God will once again become One. The primordial unity will be reestablished. But it will only happen through the work of us humans, when we return the divine sparks back to God.
I find this a compelling vision of what it means to be a human on this earth. We actually have the ability to repair God. God needs us to do this holy work, to make God One once again.

PARSHAT VAETCHANAN
(5771)

ADDING TO THE TORAH
“You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.”
(Deuteronomy 4:2)
In this week’s portion God tells Moses that it is forbidden to add anything to the Torah and it is forbidden to subtract anything from the Torah. Israel must observe the Torah as it is given. I remember once someone telling me, “Rabbi, I know God wants me to fast on Yom Kippur. But perhaps God would like it better if I also fast on the day before Yom Kippur.” I tried to explain that it is as much forbidden by Jewish law to fast on the day before Yom Kippur as to eat on Yom Kippur. We cannot add to the Torah.
Having said that, it is clear that over the course of Jewish history the Jewish community has added to the Torah. The list of traditions added since the time of the Torah is endless – to name a few: Hanukkah, Purim, Tisha B’Av, most of the rituals of the Passover Seder, Kol Nidre, Yizkor, Simhat Torah, Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, Kabbalat Shabbat, kaddish, yizkor, etc. The list of traditions subtracted from the Torah is almost as long – animal sacrifices, most of the laws of purity, tithes, the Jubilee, the Hebrew servant, the betrothed maiden, the laws of leprosy, etc. On a regular basis the Jewish people have subtracted laws and added laws.
What gives us the right to add and subtract laws to a Torah that is unchangeable? Here we get one of the wonderful insights of the Rabbinic tradition. We are not really adding or subtracting from the Torah. On the contrary, everything we say is already part of the Torah. “All that a brilliant student will in the future expound in front of his teacher was already given to Moses at Sinai. (Yer. Peah 6:2). Everything that we teach and do in every generation is already in the Torah. We are not adding nor subtracting, but simply uncovering what is already there. The Torah has seventy faces, and in each generation we uncover new faces.
I love the idea of a malleable Torah, so open to interpretation that we can always find new insights and interpretations. The rabbis were constantly seeking new ways to understand the Torah. For example, they spoke about a pardes – literally an orchard. But the word really is an acronym for four kinds of interpretations – peshat or simple meaning of a sentence, remez or philosophical and allegorical interpretations, drash or rabbinic interpretation, and sod or secret mystical interpretations. All of these are used, even if they sometime contradict one another.
Although Jews and Christians read the same Bible (at least the part that Christians call the Old Testament and Jews simply call Tanach), the two faiths went in very different directions. For Christians, the ultimate spiritual reality is incarnation. The word became flesh. Jews do not accept that. Jews believe that the ultimate spiritual reality is interpretation. To quote Professor Susan Handelman of Bar Ilan University from her bookThe Slayers of Moses, “The central doctrine of the Church – Incarnation – celebrates not the exaltation of the word, but is transformation from the linguistic order into the material realm, its conversion into the flesh. For the Rabbis, however, the primary reality was linguistic; true being was a God who speaks and creates texts.”
The Torah text is the ultimate reality. But the Torah is not a text that was set down in one time and one place. We cannot speak about what the Torah really means. Rather the Torah is a text that invites a multitude of interpretations and understandings. Those interpretations may change from community to community and generation to generation. But Jewish tradition teaches that all such interpretations were there from the beginning, hidden in the original text. It is the responsibility of rabbis and teachers in every generation to uncover the hidden meetings. Or as Ben Bag Bag said in the Talmud, “Turn it over and turn it over for everything is in it.” (Avot 5:22)

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5770)

THE END OF DAYS

“In your distress when all of these things have befallen you, in the end of days you shall return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice.” (Deuteronomy 4:30)

Does human history have a direction? The ancient pagans believed that history is a great cycle – whatever was will be again. This became a central teaching of the 19th century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, who spoke of the “eternal recurrence.” Nietzsche was trying to move away from the ethics of Jewish and Christian thinking to return to the ancient Greek myths of passion. He wanted Europe to become pagan once again.
Many moderns believe that history is merely a series of random events with no purpose and no direction. Others say that history is a move downhill, away from the ideal time of the past towards dissolution and chaos. But none of these are the Biblical view of history.
The Bible often speaks of “the end of days.” The perfect time is yet to come. History has a direction towards what Jews refer to as the Messianic Age. In that time, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) In that time, “Your house shall become a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56:7) Jewish thinkers have disagreed whether this future age shall be qualitatively different from the current age, or whether it shall simply be an age that all people shall live in peace. Either way, as the poet Robert Browning wrote, “the best is yet to be.”
We Jews have a powerful symbol for that perfect age that will come some day in the future. An anointed one, a descendent of King David, will lead us to that age. The Hebrew word for anointed one is mashiach, translated into English as messiah. In Biblical times many people were anointed with oil before fulfilling public functions, including kings and high priests. There is nothing unique about being anointed. But this anointed one will have a special role; bringing about the perfect age in the future.
Christians refer to the messiah by the Greek word for anointed one – Christ. Jesus was not the son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ. The name Jesus Christ means Jesus the anointed one or Jesus the messiah. Of course for Jews, Jesus was not the messiah; we have not yet achieved that perfect age of peace and harmony. That is why Jews never say “Jesus Christ.”
Throughout Jewish history there have been numerous people who either claimed to be the messiah, or others proclaimed them as the messiah. The great Rabbi Akiba proclaimed that Bar Kochba was the messiah. His false claim led the rabbi to support a hopeless revolt against the Romans, and ultimately led to his martyrdom. In the seventeenth century much of Jewish Europe was prepared to follow Shabbatai Tsvi, who claimed to be the messiah. Only when he converted to Islam under threat from the Turkish sultan did European Jews realize that they were mislead. (Some were convinced even after the conversion that he was the messiah.) In our own day many Lubavitcher Hasidim claim that the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the messiah. He was a great man, but he has been dead since 1994 and the messiah still has not come.
For traditional Jews, the messiah is an actual man who will come and bring redemption to the world. More liberal Jews prefer to speak of a messianic age to come, redemption rather than a redeemer. The Reform Movement has actually changed the language of their prayerbook to reflect this change. But from orthodox Hasidim to the most liberal Reform, religion Jews of all stripes agree that the ideal time is in the future. History has a purpose and a direction.
Next Wednesday night (July 28) I will be holding a public debate with a messianic Jew on whether Jesus was the messiah. He will argue that Jesus was the messiah and he will come a second time; I will argue that the messiah has not yet come. Perhaps the best answer was given by Martin Buber, “Wait until the messiah comes and ask him, have you been here before?” I invite you to join me that evening for what should be a lively debate.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5769)

DOUBLE THE COMFORT AND THEN SOME
“For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not forsake you, nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which he swore to them.”
(Deuteronomy 4:31)
On this Shabbat we not only read the Ten Commandments and the basic faith statement of Judaism, the Sh’ma. This portion also has wonderful words of comfort, that God will never forsake His people. In fact this Shabbat, immediately following the fast day of Tisha B’Av, is known as Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. The first words of the haftarah, the prophetic portion chanted on this day, are the beautiful words of Isaiah: “Comfort my people, comfort them, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)
For three weeks leading into Tisha B’Av, all of the themes of Shabbat are words of warning. Destruction will descend on the people if they do not change their ways. Then for the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av right up to Rosh Hashana, all of the themes of Shabbat are words of comfort. It is as if tradition is teaching us that there should be twice as much comfort as warning, and then some. Seven weeks as opposed to three – far more comfort than tragedy. The entire liturgical calendar is built around hope.
Even Tisha B’Av, the most tragic day of the Jewish year, is filled with signs of hope. (Note – I am writing these words a few hours before the fast of Tisha B’Av begins.) If we sit on the floor and sing mournful melodies in the morning, in the afternoon we get back up onto chairs and chant the service in the normal mode. If we do not wear a tallit nor tefillin in the mourning because they are signs of splendor, we put them back on in the afternoon. But perhaps most beautiful is an ancient tradition of hope – the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. Even our most mournful occasion already contains seeds of hope.
I recently had a discussion with our local Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Yossi Denburg, a man I highly respect. We were talking about the economic tragedies that have hit so many families in both our synagogues – people losing their jobs, some losing their homes, people unable to afford an education for their children, some unable to afford groceries. How do we respond to such difficulties?
Just then he shared a nice insight with me. In Hebrew there is no word for tragedy. In modern Israel they simply use the word “tragedia,” a Hebrew version of the English, originally
Greek word. The reason is that tragedy is not a Jewish idea. The Greeks wrote tragedy; only they could write the story of Oedipus Rex, a man fated to kill his father and marry his mother. To the Greeks, fate traps humans in a hopeless situation. To the Hebrews there was no such thing as fate. Bad things may happen, but God was always present. Even in tragedy there is always hope, an opportunity to turn things around. Sadness always contains the roots of hope; the Messiah will be born on the saddest day of the year.
We all face crises and sadness in our lives. But sadness is not tragedy, and warning is always followed by comfort. As I wrote a few weeks ago, shortly after fire destroys the hillside, vegetation starts to sprout again. The universe is built in a way that creativity flows out of destruction. As Jews, we know that out of the flames of the holocaust sprouted the founding of the state of Israel. Words of destruction are always followed by words of comfort.
It is sometimes hard to see the words of hope in the sadness of the moment. So it is important to remember, even as you fast on Tisha B’Av to remember the past suffering of our people, somewhere in the world, the Messiah is being born on this day.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5768)

WILL TECHNOLOGY BRING US TOGETHER?

“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

This is not a good week to speak to me about the wonders of technology. Last Thursday, after I sent out my weekly message, my hard drive crashed. Last Sunday (Tisha B’Av) my friend and computer expert David Feingersh declared my hard drive dead. (To quote him, “It will make a great paperweight.”) I had backed up most of my data. But a beautifully crafted Rosh Hashana sermon, which I had worked on while on vacation, is now gone forever. (Word to the wise – back up your work. Actually I have been told data recovery people can probably retrieve it if I have hundreds of dollars to spend. I think I will rewrite the sermon.)
Technology can be a great blessing. For the first time in my career I am learning to podcast. (My first podcast called The Four Worlds of Love is in the i-tunes store.) I should have more podcasts uploaded as soon as I figure out what I am doing. Sometimes I am amazed that for the first ten years of my career as a rabbi, I managed without a computer, cellphone, or any internet access.
My newest technology toy is a GPS unit for my car. I had debated buying one for about a year; I enjoy studying maps and felt I could get along without it. But when my son moved to Boston and I flew up to help him out, I realized how difficult that city is to find your way around. One of the first things my wife and I did with our brand new GPS – we used it to find the nearest Wal-Mart. We went to Wal-Mart to buy a road atlas. I still like maps.
I think about the joys and difficulties of modern technology as we prepare to read this week’s portion. First of all the portion contains the Ten Commandments, including the laws of the Sabbath. Orthodox Jews separate themselves totally from any technology on the Sabbath – no telephones, no computers, no television, no cars, they will not even ride an elevator unless it is preset to stop at every floor. Although I do not observe the Sabbath in this Orthodox manner, I do understand and admire it. There is something spiritually liberating about separation from all technology for a day.
This portion also contains the words of the Sh’ma, central to the Jewish faith. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” We Jews proclaim God is One. And yet, at the end of every service we also proclaim that the day will come in the future that “in that day shall the Lord be One and His name One.” (Zechariah 14:9) Is God One now, or will God become One sometime in the future? If you believe as the kabbalists did that God is within the world, then God’s oneness is pure potential. Our job on earth is to create a world where God is One.
Does technology help make the world one? There was a time when people had contact with people in a very limited geographic area. People had little interaction with strangers. Each technological advance expanded our human horizons. Writing allowed us to communicate to those beyond our immediate community. Printing allowed us to share ideas with a broader audience. The steam engine, automobiles, airplanes, radio, the telephone television, the computer, the internet – each helped make the world smaller. Today I can send audio or video messages instantaneously anywhere in the world.
The Olympics are a wonderful example of how the world can become one. Athletes have come together in China from over 200 nations to compete. China put together an opening ceremony that was a technological marvel. There is a thrill in watching this great sports undertaking. And yet humanity is still humanity – the Olympics was marred by the attack of the sovereign nation of Georgia by Russian troops. Technology may bring us together but it can also make us far more destructive.
Still I hope that technology will be the key to make us one. Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud was the first Arab astronaut. After seeing earth from the space station he said, “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.”

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5767)

DOES GOD CARE?

“For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; he will not fail you nor will He let you perish; He will not forget the covenant which he made on oath with your fathers.”
(Deuteronomy 4:31)

I write these words shortly after breaking the fast of Tisha B’Av. This coming Shabbat is known in Jewish tradition as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. Our observances are based on the deep belief that God cares, God can make a difference, God is a source of comfort.
This afternoon, while in the midst of the fast, I visited a member of my congregation in a rehabilitation hospital. He had been through a difficult illness and was on the way to recovery. He asked me to pray for him and afterwards told me, “I really believe that helps. I really believe God hears our prayers and they make a difference.” I shared with him the fact that never in my career has someone turned down an offer to pray on their behalf. Even non-believers, when confronted with an illness or crisis, will accept a prayer. After all, what if they are wrong?
I have been thinking over the past few weeks about God and the universe. I spent two weeks in California visiting family and traveling around, listening to a book on CD, Einstein; His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. I also spent time studying Einstein’s theory of relativity. One thing I learned was that Einstein originally wanted to call his theory “invariance.” He was interested not in what is relative in the universe like space and time, but what is invariant in the universe like spacetime and the speed of light. Einstein deeply believed in absolutes in the universe, beliefs that caused him to question the uncertainties of quantum mechanics until the end of his life.
Einstein also believed in God. He could not study the laws of the universe without a deep belief that there was a logic and consistency behind those laws. One of Einstein’s most famous quotes was “God is subtle but he is not malicious.”
Einstein believed in God, but when questioned by a rabbi whether he believed in a personal God, he replied, “I believe in the God of Spinoza.” Although a proud Jew (at least later in his life), Einstein was not religious in any classical sense. He did not believe in a God Who interferes with the laws of the universe. He did not believe in a God who answers prayers or changes the course of history for the sake of His people. Einstein’s God was much closer to the God of the deists, a Creator who is not involved in the day to day happenings of the universe. It is interesting to speculate whether Einstein would allow a rabbi to pray for him at a time of illness? Possibly not, although he was probably too much a gentleman to turn down the offer.
I believe that Einstein was right about relativity, not quite right about quantum mechanics, and wrong about God. I come from a tradition of a God who is involved in the day to day operations of the universe; a God who answers prayers and can change the course of nature. The world is not totally deterministic. There is a spiritual dimension to the universe and ways to understand reality beyond the laws of nature. That is why I fast on Tisha B’Av and more important, on Yom Kippur. And that is why I continue to say prayers for people who are sick or in need.
The Bible does not simply teach that God exists and that God created the world. It teaches that God cares. God is not like the parents who give birth to a baby and send it out into the world without concern for the fate of that baby. God is like the parent who cares. That is the profound belief of my tradition. These are beliefs worthy to remember as we approach Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5766)

EVEREST AND MOSES

“Get up to the top of Pisgah, and lift up your eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 3:27)

Last week I spoke about the beginning of Moses’ life, put into a basket as a baby and growing up to become a reluctant superhero. This week I want to speak about the end of Moses life, up on a mountain seeing the Promised Land, but forbidden from ever setting foot in it. Moses begged God to allow him to reach the Holy Land. But God would not change his mind. Moses’ journey was cut short of his destination. And there are profound insights for today from Moses’ life.
First, let me turn to a much higher mountain than the one Moses climbed, the highest in the world – Mt. Everest. Last May an inspirational event happened near the summit of Everest. Australian climber Lincoln Hall reached the summit, but on the descent was overcome by altitude sickness. As he sat frozen in the snow, a number of other climbers passed him and left him, assuming he was dead. Climbers leave a body on the mountain for eternity; it is hard enough getting the living down the mountain. The next morning an American climber named Dan Mazur was on his way to the summit. He spotted Hall, delusional, frostbitten, having slipped off several layers of clothing, but alive.
Mazur immediately abandoned his quest for the summit. He gave Hall oxygen, covered him with more clothing, and helped haul him down the mountain. When asked how he could give up his summit quest, Mazur said, “How could you sleep a good sleep at night thinking that you passed somebody who needed your help? I mean, that’s just the way I was raised.” Still, the summit was in sight. It was an act of overwhelming kindness and self-sacrifice to give up his own quest for the summit to rescue a fellow climber.
Perhaps there is a profound lesson in this. When on a journey, the key is not reaching the final destination, but what we actually accomplish on that journey. It is more important to do the right thing along the way than to set foot on the final destination. Mazur never reached the summit of Everest like Moses never reached the Promised Land. The end was in sight. But what was important was what each man accomplished on the way to their destination. The journey, not the destination, is the key to a successful life.
These words rang true as I enjoyed a much needed but too short summer vacation. I was out in Los Angeles, my hometown, visiting family and friends. One day I felt the need to get into my rental car and go. I drove up to Wrightwood, a small mountain resort I used to visit as a child. I needed to see pine trees and smell mountain air, pleasures lacking on the flat, muggy landscape of Florida. I arrived in Wrightwood, spent a few hours wandering around, then turned around and drove back. It dawned on me that what I most enjoyed was not the arrival but the drive itself. The journey was truly relaxing. Often the journey is more important than the destination.
This is a clear metaphor for life itself. In my book The Ten Journeys of Life, I quoted a wise poet who wrote “Life is a journey and death a destination.” It is the journey which is important. Moses never reached his destination, although he begged God to allow him to set foot in the Promised Land. And yet Moses, in leading a forty year journey through the wilderness, changed the course of human history. So it is true for each of us. What is important is not whether we reach our final destination. What is important is what we are able to accomplish along the way.
Dan Mazur cut short a journey to the top of Everest in order to save a life. Moses would certainly understand his actions. May Mazur’s act become an inspiration for all of us as we go along our individual journeys of life.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5764)

WHEN GOD ANSWERS YES

“But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, Enough, never speak to Me of this matter again.”
(Deuteronomy 3:26)

I know a man who will never set foot in synagogue. He is willing to send his child to religious school, but claims that he has no use for religion. When each of his parents was sick, he prayed for their full recovery. And each time his prayers went unanswered. Both parents passed away. The man told me that if God is going to answer “no,” then he has no use for such a God. So this man decided to boycott God.
He is not the first to be answered by a “no” by God. Long ago Moses prayed to God, and actually begged God to let him into the promise land. God’s answer was a clear “no.” “Never speak to Me of this matter again.” If God answered our greatest prophet with a clear, uncompromising “no,” why should we feel that we always deserve a “yes?’ As a pundit once remarks, “God always answers our prayers. But sometimes God answers no.”
Too many of us have a mistaken view about prayer. We believe that God is like a giant vending machine; put in the right change and you get the right result. Say the right prayers and God will respond in the appropriate way. That is one reason people request me to pray for them. They believe that as a rabbi, I know the right words to elicit the right response from God. Prayer is a kind of magic, a way that we can control the universe. So many of us believe that by saying the right words, we can control God.
Perhaps it is time to explore the real meaning of prayer. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefilah, comes from the root, lehitpalel, literally “to judge yourself.” Prayer is not something we do to God, but something we do to ourselves. Prayer connects us to the spiritual dimension of life. And through that spiritual connection, we can change ourselves. In other words, prayer is a way to change us. And when we change for the better, it is as if God answered “yes.”
When we are going through a difficult time and we pray to God for the serenity to cope with adversity, then God answers “yes.”
When we are coping with difficult people in our lives and we pray for understanding and patience, then God answers “yes.”
When we face a challenge in our lives and pray for courage to confront whatever we may face, then God answers “yes.”
When we must make a difficult decision and pray for wisdom to make the correct choice, then God answers “yes.”
When we face temptation and pray for the self-discipline to say no to ourselves, then God answers “yes.”
When we must make an ethical choice and pray for the strength of character to do the right thing, then God answers “yes.”
When we have a God given talent and we pray for the ability to develop that talent, then God answers “yes.”
When life has been good to us and we pray for a sense of gratitude and appreciation, then God answers “yes.”
When life has been difficult and we pray for the inner strength to keep going, then God answers “yes.”
When sadness envelops us, and we pray for the ability to walk calmly through the valley of the shadow of death, then God answers “yes.”
God does answer yes. But we need to know how to pray, and what prayer really is supposed to accomplish. If we pray to try to change God, then there is a good chance that God will answer “no.” If we pray to change ourselves, then there is a good chance that God will answer “yes.” We humans have the unique ability to touch the spiritual dimension of existence and walk away transformed. Prayer is a means to renew ourselves.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5763)

LOVE: FEELINGS OR ACTION?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

One of the biggest mistakes too many of us make is the belief that love is about feelings. I see it all the time in my counseling. One human being acts in a cruel way towards another human being, usually a “beloved”family member. It may be a husband who abuses a wife, a parent who neglects a child, a son or daughter who is cruel towards a parent. We will speak about the cruel behavior, and the person will admit, “Rabbi, I really love my wife, my son, my daughter, my mom, my dad.”
Often I reply, “You are not acting very loving.” They will tell me, “I can’t help my actions. They know how I really feel.”
The truth is that love must be more than feelings, love without action is not love. That is a profound truth that grows out of this week’s Torah portion. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. How can we be commanded to love God? The Torah continues with a series of actions to show our love of God. We are to teach these words to our children. We are to recite them when we lie down and when we rise up, morning and evening. We are to bind them upon our hands and on our heads (the mitzvah of tefillin). We are to write them on the doorposts of our house and upon our gates (the mitzvah of mezuzah). Love is in the realm of action.
What if we do not feel like doing one of these actions? The Torah is clear, act anyway. The Israelites, when they received the Torah said, “We will do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7) Action comes before understanding; action comes before feelings. The hand comes before the heart. In fact, action often leads to feelings. If you act loving, you will start to feel loving. If you want to love God, act as if you love God. Usually the feeling, the faith, the trust will follow. That is why the Torah commands a series of actions to inculcate certain inner feelings.
If in our relationship with God, love is defined by our actions rather than our feelings, how much more so in our relationship with our family. The Torah never commands us explicitly to love anyone in our family. Rather, we are commanded to act in a certain way towards our family. We must honor our father and mother. We must be our brother and our sister’s keeper. We must teach our children diligently. And perhaps most vital, as the Talmud puts it, “A man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself.” We show our love through our actions.
How we act affects the people with whom we come in contact. Unless we live on an isolated island somewhere, all of our actions affect others. Our words can hurt or help others. Even things we do that seem innocuous have an affect on other people, including our children. (I have spoken to children who have taken up bad habits such as smoking, drinking, or using dope. Often they tell me, “I watched my parents do it and so it seemed all right.” To quote the song from Stephen Soundheim’s play Into the Woods, “Children are Watching.”)
Before every action we take, we need to do an “action impact statement.” How will this particular action affect the people around us, particularly the people we claim to love? How will this affect our spouse, our parents, our siblings, and perhaps most important, our children? How will this action affect our co-workers, our boss, our subordinates, our customers or clients? How will this action affect our neighbors, our friends, even distant strangers? The Torah commands us to “love our neighbor.” Love is manifested by our actions.
According to kabbala, there are four worlds, each lower world affecting the higher ones. The lowest world is called olam haasiya, the world of action. It is the world that affects all the others. What we do affects who we are? Kabbala teaches that our actions have cosmic consequences. And in the end, love can only be judged by how we act.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5762)

HONORING PARENTS, HONORING GOD

“Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you, that you may long endure and that you fare well in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.”
(Deuteronomy 5:16)

Once again we read the Ten Commandments. According to the traditional Jewish understanding, half the commandments speak of our relationship with God, half of the commandments speak of our relationship with our fellow humans.
Certainly the second five commandments speak of human relationships – “do not murder;” “do no commit adultery;” “do not steal;” “do not bear false witness;” “do not covet our neighbor’s possessions.” The first four deal with God B AI am the Lord Who took you out of Egypt;” “Have no false Gods besides me;” “Do not take God’s name in vain;” “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” In order to maintain a balance of five and five, the fifth commandment should also speak of our relationship to God. What does honoring parents have to do with God?
The Talmud teaches, “There are three partners in creating a human, the Holy One, the father and the mother. When a person honors their father and mother, the Holy One says, I ascribe merit as if I dwelt among them and they honored me.” (Kiddushin 30b) “When Rabbi Joseph heard his mother’s footsteps he would say, I will arise before the approaching shekina (presence of God in this world.” (Kiddushin 31b) When we honor our parents, it is as if we are honoring God?
Why? The Hebrew word for parents is horim, from a Hebrew root meaning teach. The Hebrew word Torah or God’s teaching comes from the same Hebrew root. God is a teacher. God has taught us humans how to live on this earth and how to do the right thing and be successful. But God needs agents to teach us. Our parents are those agents.
This week’s portion also emphasizes the role of parents in this world. “You shall teach them to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:7) Parents are God’s agents in teaching God’s message to their children. Parents become God’s messengers. It is as if a diplomat representing a king is sent to visit a foreign country. That country will honor that diplomat, and by doing so will honor the king. When children honor their parents, they are honoring God’s representative who taught them. We honor God by honoring our parents.
What if parents have not done the job? What if they see their role as merely biological, providing genetic material and giving birth without mentoring or guiding the children they sire. Must we still honor such parents? Are children obligated to honor the parents who gave birth to them if those parents have not taken on the obligation of teaching them? This is a question I am asked all the time. “Rabbi, my father gave birth to me but was not part of my life growing up. Now I am getting married. Do I need to honor him?” “Rabbi, I have a birth mother, but the woman who really raised me and whom I call mother is my stepmother. Should I honor her?”
As a counselor, I handle these questions on a case by case basis. I often refer to a Talmudic passage. It speaks of the priority between a father and a teacher. The teacher comes before the father because “the father brought him into this world, but the teacher brings him into the world to come.” (Baba Metzia 2:11) However, if the father is also a teacher, the father takes priority. In other words, if the father’s role is simply progenitor, sperm donor, without taking any role in mentoring or teaching, the honor is secondary. The fullest honor goes to the one who teaches.
Children are commanded to honor their parents. The reason is because parents are commanded to teach their children. When parents teach their children, they are acting as God’s agents. And when children honor their parents, they are honoring God.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5761)

IS GOD ONE?

“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
(Deuteronomy 6:4)

Sometimes we Jews contradict ourselves within our own liturgy.
The Sh’ma, taken from this week’s portion, is the central prayer of Jewish faith. It is the first prayer a child learns, saying it each night before going to sleep. It is the last prayer a person says before death. The Sh’ma is at the center of the morning and the evening service. Day in and day out the Jew proclaims that the Lord is our God and the Lord is One.
Alenu, a beautiful prayer borrowed from the Rosh Hashana liturgy, is recited at the end of every service, three times a day. It speaks of a day in the future when all humanity will come to worship one God. It speaks of that glorious day in the future when, according to the prophet Zechariah, “On that day the Lord shall be One and His name will be One.” (Zechariah 14:9)
According to the Sh’ma, God is One. According to Alenu, God will one day be One. Which is it? Rashi in his commentary tries to reconcile the contradiction by saying that to Jews God is One today. To non-Jews God will only be One when the Messiah comes someday in the future. With due respect to Rashi’s brilliance, I am very uncomfortable with any explanation that says that Jews have found God while gentiles are still searching. I find many of the non-Jews I meet far closer to religiosity than many Jews.
The question stands: Is God One now today? Or will God be One someday in the Messianic future? Is the Sh=ma true, or is Alenu? Perhaps the answer lies with the Kabbala, the great tradition of Jewish mysticism.
Kabbala, at least as taught by the medieval mystic Isaac Luria, proclaims that before the creation of the world God was a unified whole. In order for the world to exist, God had to contract within God=s self, leaving room for the world. God left behind holy sparks in vessels, but the vessels could not hold the sparks. They shattered, scattering sparks throughout the universe. By the very act of creation, God was somehow broken. Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, our job as humans is to put God back together again.
In other word, in the ideal world God was One. In the beginning God was One. Our job as human beings is to make God One once again. We proclaim the Sh’ma speaking of God’s Oneness to inspire us to make God One. Our task is to unify God=s name and return to that primordial Oneness.
Jews and non-Jews have expressed a large interest in Kabbala. Countless books have been written attempting to explain the Jewish mystical tradition to an English speaking audience. Kabbala Centers have sprung up around the nation. Such prominent non-Jews as Rosie O=Donnell and Madonna have studied Kabbala. As a rabbi I am constantly asked, “What is Kabbala and do you teach it?”
The essence of Kabbala is that our actions in this material world have consequences beyond this world. We can affect the spiritual world by what we do. Mitzvot (commandments) have cosmic consequences if done with the right attitude and the right intention. We humans, through certain actions, have the ability to make God One.
All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. But we humans, Jews and non Jews, can put God together again. God needs us as much as we need God.

PARSHAT VEETCHANAN
(5760)

TAKING FAITH SERIOUSLY

“I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” (Deuteronomy 5:6)

This portion repeats the Ten Commandments, which were first given in the book of Exodus. The first of the “Ten Commandments” speaks of God Who took us out of Egypt out of the house of bondage. The question is, what precisely is being commanded? If the commandment is to believe in God, if we already believe in God, we do not need the commandment. If we do not believe in God, who is doing the commanding?
The Hebrew term for the Ten Commandments is aseret hadibrot, which literally means “The Ten Sayings.” They are ten basic words of faith that go beyond mere commandments. The first is to live a life based on a faith in God. The first commandment implies there is a God. It is to ask the question that the prophet Micah asked centuries later, “What does God demand of you?” (Micah 6:8) The first commandment is to live life with an awareness of God’s presence. It is a commandment to take religion seriously.
As a rabbi, I find of all the major faiths in America, Jews are least likely to be serious about their faith. Statistically, Jews are far less likely than Catholics, Protestants, or Moslems to attend their house of worship in any particular week . I meet many Jews who tell me, “Rabbi, I am a cultural Jew. I am proud to be Jewish. But I have no use for the religion.”
I meet Jews who are passionate about many issues. They are passionate about church-state separation, about abortion rights, about Israel, about remembering the holocaust, about fighting antisemitism, about social justice. However, I meet far fewer Jews who are passionate about God, religion, Jewish observance. I meet far fewer Jews who ask, what are my obligations to my faith? What must I do to take the Jewish religion seriously?
This leads us into the biggest news story of the week, the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate. Many of you have asked for my reactions. Without endorsing a candidate or hinting how I will vote, let me share some brief thoughts.
I was not surprised that Vice President Gore chose a Jewish running mate. Sooner or later, I knew that a Jew would be on a major party ticket. However, I always expected that the first such Jewish candidate would be relatively assimilated, perhaps intermarried, perhaps a cultural Jew but not “religious.” What surprised and delighted me is that he chose an observant Jew. He chose a man who keeps kosher, keeps Shabbat, and perhaps most important, asks the question “what does God demand of me as a Jew?”
I believe it was Lieberman’s commitment to Jewish tradition that made him the most outspoken critic of President Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky. He has joined with staunch Republican moralist William Bennett to speak about ethics and values. Bennett, while probably voting for his opponent, praised Lieberman’s values and integrity.
Some worry that the choice of Lieberman will cost votes, because antisemitism is still present in our nation. There is some truth to that concern. However, most Christian Americans are deeply serious about their religion. I believe they will respect a Jew who is serious about his religion, and who uses it as a source of values and morals as well as day to day practice
I do not know if the Gore-Lieberman ticket will win the election. However, my prayer is that Senator Lieberman will serve as a role model for Jews to begin to take their own religion seriously. Whether a Jew is Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, I believe the key question each Jew ought to ask is, “What does God want me to do under the covenant?” To live our lives in the presence of God is the essence of the first of the Ten Commandments.