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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Yitro

PARSHAT YITRO
(5777)
VISION
“All the people saw the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it they were shaken and stood from afar.” (Exodus 20:15)
The world became clearer and brighter yesterday. I had a cataract (a cloudy lens) removed from my right eye. As soon as it heals, I will have one removed from my left eye, and the world will be even clearer. (Thank you, Dr. Leonard.) When I said my morning prayers yesterday before the surgery, I said one of the blessings with particular kavannah (focus). Thank you God, Who opens the eyes of the blind (pokech ivrim.) Although I have worn glasses since I was a teen, I am fortunate to have sight, but all of us can ask God to make our sight a bit clearer.
Vision is a miracle. Light bounces off objects and enters our eyes where the optic nerve turns that light into electrical signals. Then somehow our mind is able to interpret these electrical signals and see the world. One of the issues I speak about in my philosophy class is how something physical like light becomes something mental like vision. I certainly do not have the answer. But there is a verse in this week’s Torah reading that already raises this question.
This week we read about the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The people gather at the mountain, there is a thunder and lightning and the voice of God. The people cower in fright. According to one midrash, the people did not want to receive the Ten Commandments directly from God, but asked Moses to receive them on their behalf. But one verse stands out after the Ten Commandments. “The people saw the thunder and the lightning.” How can people see thunder?
The Midrash provides an answer (Mikhillta BaHodesh Parshat 9). Rabbi Ishmael taught that they saw what could be seen and heard what could be heard. He gave a rather prosaic interpretation of the verse. But I prefer Rabbi Akiba’s approach. Rabbi Akiba was always a mystic. He taught that they saw and heard what could be seen. In other words, they literally saw the words of Ten Commandments being delivered. It is as if the words contain light.
There is a psychological condition studied by scientists called synesthesia where people literally see sounds. Different musical notes appear as different colors. But this condition is relatively rare; it is unlikely that six hundred thousand people encamped at Mt. Sinai suffered from it. Yet we learn that they saw the words of the Torah. Perhaps they were fulfilling the thoughts of Leonard Cohen, the great poet – song writer who died this past year, also a mystic. In his song that became a standard Hallelujah he wrote, “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen agreed with Rabbi Akiba, and with the mystics of Jewish tradition, that the words of Torah blaze with light.
How can we understand this idea of seeing the words of the Torah? Since the days of Plato light has been a metaphor for mind. The Torah is in the mind of God. In a moment of revelation, symbolized by what happened at Mt. Sinai, God communicated that Torah from the Divine mind to our limited human minds. We suddenly could see with our mind’s eye what God wants us to do and understand. Vision is the metaphor for what happened at Mt. Sinai. God’s vision became our vision. We saw the thunder, the sounds, the words of the Torah. They enterer our field of vision.
Now let me build on that metaphor. Yesterday I had something removed from my eye that was partially blocking my vision. Sometimes we all have partially blocked vision of what God wants us to do. We have prejudices (meaning to “pre-judge”) that keep us from seeing clearly what God wants us to see. Our vision of the Torah becomes cloudy with negative thoughts, anger, or perhaps improper teachings. Perhaps we ought to consider the blessing that “God opens the eyes of the blind” to refer to those blind to the vision that God has given us. Perhaps the reading of the Ten Commandments is the perfect time to clear our own vision, and rethink the question, what does God want us to do?

PARSHAT YITRO
(5776)
THE CHANGING SABBATH
“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8)
One of my favorite themes in many of my messages and sermons is that everything changes. In a controversial High Holiday sermon, I even said that the Torah changes. Certainly fundamental ideas of the Torah such as resting on the Sabbath do not change. But the meaning of the day and the way it is observed has always changed.
One can see one such change in the Torah itself. This week’s portion contains the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment speaks of the Sabbath, that the people Israel should “remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” The Torah continues with some details about the meaning of the Sabbath. Later in Deuteronomy, delivered to the people a generation later, we also have a repetition of the Ten Commandments. But here the wording is different. In Deuteronomy the fourth commandment begins with the words, “Observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. “ (Deuteronomy 5:12) The Torah continues with different details about the meaning of the Sabbath. When the details change, the meaning changes.
Of course, Rabbinic tradition says that God spoke both versions of the Sabbath commandment at the same time. God said “remember” and “observe” in one act of speech. The Friday night hymn Lecha Dodi contains the verse Shamor v’Zachor b’dibur echad – “Observe and remember with one word.” This Rabbinic tradition claims that there is no difference in essence between the Sabbath commandment the first time it is given and the second time. But I believe there is a powerful message in the development of the Sabbath between Exodus and Deuteronomy.
In Exodus, the version of the Ten Commandments we read this week, what is the purpose of the Sabbath? It is to remember God’s creation. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11) The Sabbath is a ritual tied to the ancient story of creation. We keep the Sabbath to recognize that God created the universe. The world of nature belongs not to us to use and often abuse, but rather belongs to God. The Sabbath teaches us that we need to guard this world that God made. It is a profound spiritual message.
A generation later the Ten Commandments teaches a totally different message for the Sabbath. The concern is with social justice. We remember that we were slaves in Egypt and God led us from slavery to freedom. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15) Slaves work seven days ago. Every day is like every other. People with dignity have a day of rest at least once every seven days. Through much of Deuteronomy there is a concern with the welfare of those who labor, as well as the poor, the widow, and the orphan.
The meaning of the Sabbath has changed from Exodus to Deuteronomy. In Exodus it is about the spiritual message of God’s creation. In Deuteronomy it is about the social justice message of how to treat workers. In truth, when we chant the Kiddush to sanctify the Sabbath on Friday night, we include both messages. We say that the Sabbath is zicharon lemaaseh bereishit – “memory of the works of creation.” Then immediately afterward we say zecher litziat mitzrayim – “memory of the exodus from Egypt.” But one can see how the idea of the Sabbath developed over the course of one generation as we wandered in the wilderness.
What can this teach us for today? The laws of the Sabbath as they are practiced by traditional Jews are built on avoiding the kind of work people did two millennia ago. One is forbidden to do any work involved with growing food, creating clothing, preparing animal skins, building a home, or making a fire. Few of these are how most of us earn our living today. We work much more with computers and smart phones; we buy and sell, teach, act as lawyers, doctors, and accountants, and yes, even rabbis. What ought to be the laws of rest today for an ever changing Sabbath?

PARSHAT YITRO
(5775)
ANSWERING ATHEISTS
“I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)
This week we read the Ten Commandments. The Israelites gather at the mountain, called alternatively Mt. Sinai and Mt. Horeb, to hear the fundamental rules of living. There is thunder and lightning, and according to the Midrash, a voice heard throughout the world. Later in the book of Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments will be recited a second time, reminding the next generation of this critical moment in history.
Actually the phrase “Ten Commandments” is not quite accurate. In Hebrew they are called aseret hadibrot, literally “the ten sayings.” This meaning makes more sense. For the first of these ten sayings is not really a commandment. “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” It is a commandment to believe in God. If someone already believes in God, they do not need the commandment. And if they do not believe in God, then who is doing the commanding? Perhaps we should simply state that the first of the ten sayings is to believe in a God Who brought us out of Egypt.
I am confronted on a regular basis by people who claim not to believe in God. Often it is a young person, perhaps a college student, who says that he or she is an atheist. Perhaps they are under the influence of college professors they have met. Therefore, they tell me that they see no reason to join their family for a Passover seder or come to synagogue on Yom Kippur. There is no God and therefore any participation in any Jewish tradition or ritual is wrong. Sometimes they are simply trying to be provocative. But other times they really have doubts.
How do I respond to these regular claims of atheism I hear? I start with a question. “Tell me about this God you do not believe in.” They usually say something like, “I cannot believe in this old man sitting in heaven, writing in a big book who will live and who will die, answering prayers, and changing the laws of nature to perform miracles.” I listen carefully and tell them, “We agree on something. I don’t believe in such a God either.” They will usually go on, “That is how the prayerbook describes God.” I answer, “Do you know what a metaphor is? The prayerbook uses metaphors to speak about the world.”
Then they will say something like, “What about Adam and Eve? I believe in evolution.” This is where I shock them. “I agree with you. I agree with scientists that evolution is the best explanation for the development of life on earth. Adam and Eve is a myth, but a myth meant to teach us profound truths about the universe. You do not need to believe that the Adam and Eve story is literally true to see its importance.”
Finally they ask me what I believe. Here is my usual answer to people who claim to be atheists. “I see two possibilities. Possibility one – we are here by random chance. Molecules crashed together in a certain one, simply by happenstance, and somehow we humans appeared. Someday we will disappear. But there is no plan and no meaning behind it. Possibility two – we are here because something or someone willed that we be here. The universe was put together in a way that we would emerge. Evolution may explain a good deal, but there is a direction to that evolution. There is a plan and a meaning behind the universe.” I continue, “If we are here because someone or something willed that we be here, call that someone or something God. God is the will or desire that brought us here.”
The idea that there is a will behind human existence runs against modern science. Science deals with the laws of nature and has no room for beliefs in entities that go beyond nature. The idea that there is a will behind human existence runs against modern philosophy. Most philosophers are materialists; the world consists of matter in motion and nothing else. College campuses are filled with scientists and philosophers who teach that religion is silly at best, destructive at worse. But despite these challenges, I look out into the world and see a divine will behind everything. I choose to call that divine will God.
PARSHAT YITRO
(5774)
LEARNING FROM EVERYONE
“But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, the thing you are doing is not right.” (Exodus 18:17)
A number of years ago, after one of my books was published, I was invited by a New York radio station to do a phone interview. We scheduled a time, and then the station called me back. They needed to cancel. It seems that the sponsor of this radio program was a Jewish bookstore in Brooklyn that only carried books written by Orthodox rabbis. They did not approve of an interview with a rabbi who did not meet their religious criteria.
Fortunately for me, the radio station went ahead with the interview anyway. Unfortunately for the customers of this particular bookstore, my book was not available for them. It was not kosher enough. I cannot imagine boycotting books because of the religious views of the author. I have read books written by rabbis from the most Orthodox to the most liberal. I have read books written by Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, and strident atheists. The greatest thinkers in history have learned from people who totally disagree with them. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides learned from Aristotle and his Moslem interpreter Avicenna. The great Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas learned from Maimonides. Maimonides said, “Accept the truth whatever the source.”
This idea is played out in the first part of this week’s Torah portion. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is a Midianite priest, not a member of the Israelite community. As a foreigner, he watches Moses sitting in judgment from early morning to late at night. Finally he tells his son-in-law that what he was doing was wrong. Moses should appoint levels of judges, and only hear the most difficult and complicated cases. Moses obeys his father-in-law. (Perhaps his motivation for making these suggestions to Moses was to free him up so he could spend more time with his daughter.)
One of the problems with our contemporary society is that people tend to talk only with people who agree with them. Jews talk to Jews and Christians talk to Christians. Democrats talk to Democrats and Republicans talk to Republicans. Even in the academic world, where freedom of expression is an accepted value, only certain political and religious points of view tend to be heard. The biology professor who expresses a belief that God guides the evolutionary process would have difficulty finding a voice. And the economics professor who expresses a faith in the conservative idea of trickle-down economics would probably not receive tenure. Certain views are kosher and certain views are suppressed, whether in colleges, in religious circles, or among friends.
There is a value in hearing all voices, particularly those who disagree with us. The Chief Executive Officer of a corporation will admit that the worst mistake a leader can make is surrounding oneself only with yes-people, people who agree with him or her. We need to hear a variety of voices, particularly those that disagree with us. It is through contrary voices that we sharpen our own thinking.
A great rabbi named Ben Zoma once taught, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” (Avot 4:1) It is vital to listen to all people, but most importantly, those who are coming from a different point of view, a different religious tradition, or a different political persuasion. Perhaps it is worthy whenever listening to the voice of another, what can I learn from this person? If Moses can learn from a Midianite priest and Maimonides can learn from a Moslem philosopher, then certainly we can all learn from those who disagree with us.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5773)
WHAT HAPPENED AT SINAI?
“I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)
What actually happened at Mt. Sinai? According to tradition God literally gave the Ten Commandments, letter by letter and word by word. Many would broaden that idea. At Mt. Sinai God not only gave Moses the entire written Torah but also the oral Torah. According to the maximalist view, one Rabbinic passage teaches that everything that any student says to his teacher in every generation was already given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It must have been a huge amount of information.
Many take a more minimalist view. They notice that only the first two of the Ten Commandment are written in the first person, as if God is speaking. The other eight are written in the third person. God only gave the first two; Moses gave the rest. Some say God only gave the first word of the first commandment – Anochi “I”. After one word the people could not tolerate hearing the voice of God, and asked Moses to continue. And then there is my favorite teaching. Mendl of Rymanoff, an eighteenth century mystic, taught that the only thing God communicated to the entire people was the first letter of the first word, the silent aleph. The people heard silence. And when they heard it, they became too frightened to listen to anything else.
God communicating through The Sounds of Silence is not just an old Simon and Garfunkel song. It is a profound religious idea. Later in the Bible the prophet Elijah will return to Mt. Sinai to try to find God’s presence. He will hear a wind, feel an earthquake, see a fire, but God will not be in the wind nor in the earthquake nor in the fire. Finally he will hear a still small voice. (I Kings 19:12) God is in the still small voice. God speaks to us not through dramatic pyrotechnics but in moments of silence. In such moments of stillness can people hear the voice of God.
Let us bring this forward to today. Often I counsel people who are looking for spiritual answers in their lives. They are lost. They do not have a sense of purpose. Often they are depressed. I tell them that they are not on this earth by random chance. God has a purpose for them. They can find that sense of purpose if they listen for that still small voice. Often God speaks to them in moments of solitude. The voice may come when they are in synagogue in prayer. It may come when enjoying nature, sitting on a beach or looking at a mountain. It may come late at night, when they are trying to sleep or even when they are dreaming. We all have moments when God seems to call to us.
Many of you know that I have been deeply influence by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead speaks of a God of persuasion rather than a God of coercion. God does not force us to do anything. Rather God calls to us, acts as a lure, giving us a direction in our lives. We are free to listen to that voice or ignore that voice. But if we reach deep within our souls, we will find those moments where God calls out to us. Our tradition teaches that we should answer the call as Abraham answered, hineni “here I am.”
This week we read about the events of Mt. Sinai. A cursory reading stresses the drama and public nature of these events. But the Midrash takes a different approach. Each person heard God in a different way, according to their own needs. The tribal leader heard one voice of God and the maidservant another. God spoke in multiple voices to the multiple people who were present at that great event. What is true in ancient times is equally true today. God speaks to us in multiple voices. Each of us hears God in our own way. All we have to do is listen for the still, small voice in our own heads.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5771)

THE EARTH
“And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16)
As God gave the Ten Commandments in this week’s portion, nature herself participated in the great moment of revelation. There was thunder and lightning, a great cloud and a loud voice, even an earthquake. It is as if the earth itself is literally keeping the words of the Psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalms 19:2) “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that fills it; the world, and those who dwell in it.” (Psalms 24:1) The earth itself declares God’s glory, nature prays to God.
This week our congregation celebrates Earth Shabbat. Our celebration is tied to Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish festival of the trees, which falls this Thursday. (Thursday evening our sisterhood is hosting a Tu B’Shevat seder, a Sefardic custom becoming more and more popular among many synagogues.) We recognize that the earth itself is not merely stuff spinning in space, it is an organism precisely built in a way that allows life to evolve and flourish. We look at the earth and see the hand of God. If the earth is more than mere material stuff, then we humans have deep obligations towards the earth. It is a perfect Shabbat to consider the earth’s ecology and our religious responsibilities.
As a religious Jew, I look out at the earth and see the glory of God. Let me give some examples. Life needs water in order to evolve and flourish. Water has unique properties that are missing in almost every other substance. For example, water expands when it freezes; most other materials contract. That is why pipes burst in the winter. But that is also why ice forms on top of a lake or pond on a cold day, leaving liquid water down below. If the ice was on the bottom most forms of life would have been destroyed long ago.
For life to flourish, water must be found in liquid form. But there is only a tiny temperature range where water stays liquid. If the earth were a tiny bit closer to the sun, the water would all be steam. If the earth were a tiny bit farther from the sun, water would all be ice. By happenstance, the earth happens to be at precisely the right distance. (Of course, from a religious perspective, nothing is pure happenstance.)
For animal life and eventually intelligent life to evolve, there must be a way to burn oxygen for fuel (respiration). But free oxygen does not last; it is highly reactive. That is why we have forest fires. So a way had to develop to fill the atmosphere with oxygen and constantly renew this life giving gas. That is why we need plants. Plants, through photosynthesis, combine sunlight and carbon dioxide to create oxygen. It is worthy that we celebrate the birthday of the trees this week; without them we humans would never have evolved. And if the green covering of the earth such as the tropical rain forest disappears, we humans will be in deep trouble.
Scientists can mention countless other examples of how the earth is finely tuned to allow life to evolve. Of course, for atheists and materialists, all this is mere happenstance. Atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins claim that with billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, many containing multiple planets, somewhere there had to be a planet that supports life. We happen to live in the right place. Some scientists say that we live in a multiverse, one of billions of universes that have come and gone. By pure chance, life would have to evolve on one of them. This scientific insight reminds me of the well-known Rabbinic statement, “God created and destroyed many universes before settling on this one. God then said, the others did not please me. This one pleases me.”
In my mind, the atheistic materialistic view is a stretch. There are too many coincidences, the earth is too finely tuned for life. I must believe that there is a mind and intelligence behind the earth. But this means the earth has a deep value. It is not merely a rocky object hurling through space. The earth is our home. As such, it deserves our attention and our care.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5770)

STEALING A SOUL

“You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20:13)

In the middle of the Ten Commandments, squeezed between murder and adultery, is the law against stealing. This surprised the Rabbis who formulated classical Judaism. Murder and adultery are fundamental transgressions against other humans; both are capital crimes in Jewish tradition. Stealing is a crime against property. It lacks the level of harm of the other two laws. Besides, laws against stealing appear in numerous other places in the Torah.
Based on this, the Rabbis claim that the Ten Commandments is not speaking about stealing money. Rather it is a prohibition against stealing a soul. It is a law against kidnapping, holding another human being against their will. The great commentator Rashi writes, “Scripture here is speaking about a case of one who steals human beings, while the command `thou shall not steal’ (Lev. 19:11) speaks about a case of one who steals money.”
The idea of stealing a soul deserves further exploration. The Rabbis speak at length of the idea of genevat daat – stealing someone’s mind. Any act that leads a person astray is called genevat daat. The classic example in Jewish law is bargaining with a shopkeeper when one has no intention of buying the item. Deliberately leading someone on with the hope of making a sale is forbidden by our tradition. Similarly, inviting someone you do not like to a meal in your home when you know they cannot attend is an example of leading someone astray. The Rabbis bring numerous other examples of stealing one’s mind.
What about stealing one’s soul? Most of us are not kidnappers. But many of us do act in ways that steal someone else’s soul. We are controlling. We try to force people to behave in ways that are not in their best interest. We are more concerned about our welfare than their welfare. We make demands of people that they cannot fairly meet. We get angry with people for things beyond their control. All of these are examples of trying to steal someone’s soul.
It is a standard Jewish joke that Jewish parents use guilt to control their children. (I heard a new version of this recently. Why is it so difficult for Jews who become Buddhists? Now their parents can make them feel guilty in multiple lifetimes.) We laugh at our own foibles. But like all stereotypic humor, there is a touch of truth. Some parents are so controlling of their children that they steal their children’s souls. Some parents have not learned to let go and let their children be who God meant them to be.
God gave each of us free will, the ability to control our own soul. No one has the right to try to control our soul. No one can force us to be who we are not. I have often spoken that a key aspect of love is the art of letting go. Allowing our children, our spouse, our friends, our co-workers, even our employees, to control their own souls is vital to healthy relationships.
The modern lesson of the Ten Commandments is that there are many ways we can steal from our fellow human being. We can steal their money or their property. We can steal their mind, leading them astray. Or we can steal their souls, trying to control them. Perhaps the Ten Commandments is a reminder that every person has the right of ownership to his or her own soul.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5769)

DEMOCRACY AND RELIGION
“And Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled greatly.”
(Exodus 19:18)
Greetings from Jerusalem. I am in Israel for the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention. Just walking the streets of this ancient – modern city is an experience of holiness. On top of it, today is a big day for Israel – Election Day. Everywhere talk of the candidates is in the air. Even the cab driver who drove me to my hotel had strong feelings who I should vote for. (I am not an Israeli and cannot vote.) He wanted to know whom Americans support. (I did not have the heart to tell him that most Americans are oblivious to Israeli elections.)
For us moderns, democracy and democratic elections are a fundamental value. But being in Jerusalem, I realize how foreign democracy is to all three ancient Western faiths. For traditional Judaism, God’s authority is the basis of all life including government policy. When God speaks from Mount Sinai in this week’s portion, the Ten Commandments are not put to a vote. Through Jewish history, God’s prophets and then kings anointed by God maintained authority. Eventually the Rabbis became the authoritative figures in Jewish life. The Rabbis may vote among themselves but it was an authority of the elite. Democracy of the masses was unheard of.
Modern Israel of course is a democracy, but that does not mix easily with traditional Judaism. First, how do you maintain both a Jewish and a democratic state, particularly when a high percentage of Israeli voters are not Jewish? And what is the role of religion, in particular Orthodoxy, in this Jewish state? Orthodox political parties have power well beyond their numbers in the general population. The reason is that Israelis vote not for individual candidates but for political parties. And no party has ever received a majority of votes and the ability to form a government. Parties must scramble to build a governing coalition, thus ceding powers to various Orthodox political parties who make numerous demands of the government. It is a system in desperate need of overhaul, but no such restructuring of the Israeli political system will happen any time soon.
Democracy also did not fit easily with the Christian world in the West. Authority had always been in the hands of church leaders and kings, not in the hands of the people. It took centuries of Enlightenment thinking for democracy to become the norm in Europe and eventually in America. Sadly, it also took centuries of war over religion to realize that there must be an alternative path other than religion to government leadership. Democracy and classical Christianity is as difficult a match as democracy and classical Judaism.
The difficulty of fitting democracy and Christianity was clear in America in recent decades with the growth of such groups as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Suddenly there were organizations using the electoral process to push certain “Christian” values, often in opposition to the values of many non-Christians and more liberal Christians. Democracy, the very movement which was to overturn religious authority, suddenly became a hand tool of religious authority in an attempt to give more political power to evangelical Christians. Again Christianity and democracy do not fit easily together.
What about democracy and Islam? America was proud of the election a few weeks ago in Iraq; it was considered a triumph of American foreign policy in spite of the light voter turnout and ongoing violence. And yet, like Christianity and Judaism, democracy and Islam do not fit neatly together. To make it more difficult, the Islamic world has not had three hundred years of Enlightenment to rethink the role of government authority.
I believe one of the mistakes of American foreign policy is to use the language of democracy – voting and human rights in our diplomacy with the Islamic world. Democracy is not part of their language. Perhaps we ought to be speaking the language of religion (“literally what is Allah’s will?”) in dialogue with the Islamic world.
I love democracy and I love religion. But it is not always easy to fit them together. Watching them both in action is part of the joy of being in a Jewish state on this Election Day.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5768)

DAY OF REST

“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.”
(Exodus 20:8)

I had a fascinating flight home from New York to Fort Lauderdale this week. I sat next to a gentleman who works as an investment banker, coming down to Florida for a conference. He was Jewish, with young children, somewhat involved with Jewish life. For two hours we spoke about parenting, being a rabbi, and being a banker. And I learned some real insights on what he does for a living.
I used to believe one of the best career paths for our young people who get a college education is investment banking. Now I am not sure. The man described to me how his company trains young future investment bankers. (At the early stage they are called analysts.) They are forced to work nearly impossible hours, over eighty a week. After a few weeks they are forced to do a few all nighters, just to see if they have what it takes. They are free to leave if they cannot handle the pressure, but are told not to come back. He described a job with impossible hours and impossible demands. Many drop out. Others stick it out with the hope of serious financial rewards at the end.
When he was done describing the life of a young, future investment banker, I said, “It sounds like boot camp in the military.” He replied, “It is the same idea. You have to teach them to work. Many of them end up divorced. There is no personal life; maybe a few drinks at midnight before going to work at seven the next day. Many drop out. But those who stick it out and learn to perform do very well.”
I am glad I am a rabbi and not an investment banker. Certainly being a rabbi is a demanding, time-consuming job. But after this conversation, I decided I would rather deal with people’s personal problems than with corporations’ money. At least my job allows me to stop occasionally, spend time with my wife and my children. At least my job is built around one of the central ideas of Judaism – a Sabbath of rest each week. (Actually for rabbis, it is hard to totally rest on the Sabbath when you have to conduct services. But I have always tried to eat with my family Friday night, take a nap Saturday afternoon, and avoid the stress of conducting life’s business for 25 hours. I avoid paying bills, doing work, shopping, even laundry. It is day for God, for family and for myself.)
I was tempted to ask my airplane mate, can one be a successful New York investment banker and observe the Sabbath. Somehow I doubt it. But many of us in many different professions work the same kind of long difficult hours. Even if we are not sitting at a computer analyzing corporate finances, we have demands on us that take us from early morning to late at night seven days a week. We work. We have appointments. Our children have lessons and sports, scouts and dance and too many other activities. We have household chores and yard work. The car needs gas, a washing, an oil change. We need to go to the gym, to the market, to the mall. And then there are all those unpaid bills. And if there is a little bit of extra time, we can go the computer, read the hundreds of emails and reply to some of them. We go to bed, wake up the next day, and it starts all over again.
The Sabbath is a way of telling ourselves – Stop! Instead of doing, simply be. Enjoy a good meal with family members. Take a long walk. Come to services and commune with God for a period of time. Or simply rest, and do not feel guilty about unfinished work. The work will still be there, unfinished, when the sun sets on Saturday night.
One of my goals as a rabbi is to convince Jews to rediscover the Sabbath. I am not looking for them necessarily to become Orthodox in practice. Many of the Orthodox Sabbath prohibitions are based on what Jews used to do for a living – farming, grinding grain, baking bread, making thread, weaving clothing, preparing skins for parchment, writing on that parchment, building a shelter, or creating a fire. Most of us do not do these things for a living. We work with computers and information, we practice law and medicine, we buy and sell and teach, or we analyze corporate finances. Can we stop these activities for a day?
As you read the Ten Commandments this week including “Remember the Sabbath,” can you think of one thing you are willing to give up doing one day a week in order to make that day special. It will add holiness to your life.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5767)

LEARNING FROM ALL FAITHS

“When Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, `what is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening.’” (Exodus 18:14)

This portion begins with Moses learning a valuable lesson from his father-in-law. Moses should appoint judges to handle the burden of judging the people from morning until night, taking only the most difficult cases for himself. Moses learns from his non-Israelite father-in-law Yitro, a Midianite, a people who would later become the bitter enemies of Israel. As Ben Zoma taught in the Mishnah, “Who is Wise? Whoever learns from all people.” (Avot 4:1)
One of the great mistakes many religious people make is thinking that wisdom is only found in their own tradition. Jews read the writings of other Jews, Christians read the writings of other Christians, Buddhists read the writings of other Buddhists. In fact, sometimes within a faith, people limit their study to those who agree with them. Orthodox Jews and liberal Jews will not read each other’s teachings, evangelical Christians and liberal Christians feel they have nothing to teach one another. There are bookstores, both those run by Orthodox Jews and those run by Christians, which refuse to carry my books because I am not an Orthodox Jew and not a Christian. If we limit our reading to our own we are closing our minds.
As a rabbi, what can I learn from other faiths? My beliefs are strongly built on the Jewish idea of covenant (humans as partners with God) and Israel (humans wrestling with God.) These beliefs have given us Jews our passion for struggling with the world and trying to perfect it, for arguing with God when necessary, for an emphasis on action rather than simply faith. But what can I learn from other religious traditions?
From the Christians I have met, I have learned about faith. If Jews speak of a leap of action, Christians speak of a leap of faith. (It was the Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who coined the phrase.) Perhaps this faith, or trust in God goes back to Paul’s idea of justification by faith alone. It gives Christians serenity and an acceptance of adversity, which I admire. As a Jew, I am always ready to argue with God. But maybe there is a time simply to say, I believe in God and I trust in God. I have learned that from Christians.
From the Moslems I have met, I have learned about surrender. After all, the very name Islam means surrender to God. Judaism tends to emphasize the power of humans as God’s partners; Islam the limitations of humans in the face of God’s presence. Again there is a time for arguing with God and a time to surrender to God’s will. Even the twelve step programs are built on the idea that there are things in life we cannot control. There are times when we must surrender to a force greater than ourselves.
I have even tried to learn from the great religions of the Far East, Buddhism and Hinduism. If Judaism has emphasized how to live in this world, the religions of the East have seen this world as a place of suffering and ultimately non-reality. They have developed pathways to connect with the world of the spirit, whether through meditation, yoga, or other spiritual practices. They have developed an entire science of the inner self and inner mind that has become influential in the West, including Kabbala. The East has powerful insights to teach Judaism.
I have even learned from atheism. I am reminded of a well-known story told in Jewish circles. A rabbi tells his students that we can learn valuable lessons from everything God put on the earth. One student challenges the rabbi. “What can we learn from atheism?” The rabbi replies, “We can learn a great deal from atheism. When you see your brother or sister in trouble, do not say `God will take care of you.’ Act as if there is no God, and everything is in your hands.”
I believe in Judaism. But I can learn from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism, and many other worldviews. Wisdom is the ability to learn from all humans and all approaches. Such open mindedness can only make our religion stronger.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5766)

GOD TALKS TO HUMANITY

“And when the voice of the shofar sounded long, and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.” (Exodus 19:19)

For believers, the events of this week’s portion changed the course of history. God, creator of heaven and earth, at one moment in history, communicated to humanity. At Mt. Sinai, the great moment of revelation occurred. The people Israel, and ultimately all humanity, walked away from these events with an overwhelming knowledge – this is what God wants us to do.
What did God actually communicate on Mt. Sinai? Was it the actual Ten Commandments? The entire Torah? Or just an overwhelming sense of God’s presence? If you read through the portion, the events are less than clear. This has allowed the human imagination to take over. There are opinions than range from a minimalist position to a maximalist position, and everything in between. (The following insights came from Professor Arthur Green’s wonderful book Seek My Face; A Jewish Mystical Theology published by Jewish Lights.)
What is the maximalist position? According to Green, “The Bible’s claim in this regard is fairly obvious, `Y-H-W-H spoke all these words, saying’ is followed by the Ten Commandments. But some of the early rabbis expand this claim vastly and include the entire Torah within the scope of revelation at the moment of Sinai.” Later rabbis would expand it even further. The entire oral law, set down in the Mishnah and the Talmud, was already revealed to the people Israel at Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught, `Everything a faithful student is ever to say was already given to Moses at Sinai.’ … The final maximalist view is that of the Zohar, `There is nothing that has not been hinted at in the Torah.’ Everything was revealed in the Torah.
Does this view make sense? It is doubtful that even in Rabbinic times anybody took this view literally. The Rabbis tell a story of Moses visiting the academy of the great Talmudic Rabbi Akiba, seeing him explaining all the little crowns on the letters of the Torah, and not understanding a word he is saying. Moses began to feel weak. Only when Akiba said, “This is the law which Moses taught us at Mt. Sinai” did Moses feel better. The future teachings were not literally given at Mt. Sinai. They were only locked up in the Torah potentially, just as a future oak tree is locked up in an acorn potentially. The job of future teachers, each of us in every generation, is to uncover the potential teachings which are locked up in words of Torah.
In a way, this view is like the strict constructionists of the Constitution. They try to uncover what our founding fathers actually meant when they drafted the words of the Constitution, and what rulings are hidden in potential. It is as if they are uncovering secrets that are already there.
On the other extreme is the minimalist position. It teaches that only the first two commandments were given directly by God. (They are the only two where God speaks in the first person; the rest of the commandments are in the third person.) The rest came from Moses. Green continues, “The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig apparently at one point considered a more restricted formulation, whether God had spoken even the first word of the commandments. (`I am’). All the rest is Israel’s commentary, elaboration, and response. Another radically minimalist view is to be found in the teachings of a Hasidic master. This view has God speaking only the first letter of the first word. That letter, aleph, is by itself silent.”
What God spoke was silence, an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. The Torah grows out of a human interpretation of that moment. The great mystic and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel developed this idea in his book God in Search of Man. “Thus Judaism is based upon a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” This is similar to the loose constructionist view of the Constitution. The document is merely the starting point; human reason and insights must apply it in every generation.
So what are modern humans to believe about revelation? Whether you accept the minimalist or maximalist position, it is clear that humans have a role in interpreting and applying the Torah. We humans did not passively receive and write down the Torah, like a secretary taking dictation. Ultimately, we are God’s partners in revelation.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5764)

CAN FEELINGS BE COMMANDED

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:14)

Last week I spoke about the world of action. Jewish tradition seeks a leap of action. Most of the Ten Commandments speak of actions – no false gods, honoring parents, keeping the Sabbath, the prohibition of bloodshed, no stealing, adultery, bearing false witness, etc. But when we reach the tenth commandment, the mood changes. We are commanded not to covet, not to desire anything that belongs to our neighbor.
Can feelings be commanded? Early in my Rabbinic studies in pastoral counseling classes, I learned that a feeling is a fact. It is neither good nor bad, it simply is. If someone says to me, “Rabbi, I may be wrong but I feel very angry at my parents,” I reply, “Feelings are not right or wrong. They simply are.” We cannot help our feelings, we can only help how we act on our feelings. We can feel anger or sadness or love or attraction or jealousy, but we need to control our actions. Yet, this commandment seems to ask us to control our feelings.
The Biblical Commentator Ibn Ezra tried to explain this commandment. Imagine a lowly peasant who sees the king=s daughter, a young, beautiful woman. He would never desire her, because he would know that she is far beyond his reach. Today we would speak of the common person who would never lust for the famous movie star, the super model or star athlete, knowing he or she is beyond reach. In the same way, people should accustom themselves to see their neighbor=s property to be out of reach like the king’s daughter. Only in that way can we fulfill the Talmudic injunction, “Who is rich? Whoever is satisfied with their lot.”
Perhaps the Bible is teaching that we do have a certain amount of control of our feelings. We can train ourselves to see things we desire like the peasant looking at the king’s daughter, something out of reach and therefore not worth becoming distressed about. Perhaps we can train ourselves in the art of serenity, the ability to accept what we have with quietude and a deep sense of gratitude. Perhaps while I am driving around in my old Ford, I could look at my neighbor’s new Jaguar with a sense of thanksgiving for what I have, at least I have transportation. So many in the world do not. It means training the mind and the emotions.
The issue of controlling feelings often comes up in my discussion with the teens in my synagogue. I ask high school kids, “Do you have any control over who you fall in love with?” They often reply, “No, that is what falling in love means. It is as if gravity grabs you and you lose all control.” I then ask, “What if they person you fall in love with is totally wrong for you?” Now the kids become uncomfortable. “A person cannot help how they feel.” But that is the point; we can control our feelings. We can decide not to fall in love with a particular individual, because such love is not in our own best self interest. We can control our feelings, rather than having our feelings control us.
In Kabbala, the second world is Olam HaYitzira, the World of Formation, what I sometimes call the world of passion. In this world we function with the animal level of our soul. We feel anger, love, sadness, jealousy, excitement, joy, frustration, the full range of human emotions. Mr. Spock in Star Trek lived a life beyond emotion; there is something non-human about that. Emotions are real, part of what makes us human. Nonetheless, part of what makes us human is also the ability to control emotions, to accept with serenity what life sends our way. A good place to begin is by not coveting our neighbor’s possessions, but thanking God for our own gifts. That is the message of the tenth commandment.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5763)

THE FIRST FIVE COMMANDMENTS

“I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

In this week’s portion the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. According to Rabbinic tradition, the first five commandments deal with our relationship with God. The second five commandments deal with our relationship with one another. The first five commandments build an entire theology on the relationship between God and human beings.
The First Commandment – Not only is there a God, but God brought us out of Egypt. God is an actor in the drama of human history. Deism, the view that God created a world, set it on its path, and has proceeded to ignore this world, is rejected. We look at human history, and we see the hand of God.
The Second Commandment – Even as God is involved in history, God has no physical body and no image. God may be involved in this physical world, but God is not of this physical world. We see the actions of God in this world, but we cannot see the body of God.
This idea is developed further. We humans become God’s agents, acting in the world. God needs us to complete God’s tasks in this world. That is the meaning of the phrase that if we love God we are rewarded for thousands of generations. Our work can perfect this world, but it takes thousands of generations. We each have a mission and must do our part. Ultimately, we humans are God=s partners in history.
The Third Commandment – God has given us His name. God has shared some of His essence or His power with us. We are not to use that God given power in vain.
We have been given God=s ability to create. Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, we can create technological marvels to challenge God and make a name for ourselves. We can make a golden calf to worship as a false god. We can clone babies, explode nuclear bombs, destroy the rain forest, and use our technology and our creativity to challenge God. Or we can use it to do God=s work in this world. We are warned against the misuse of God’s creative power.
The Fourth Commandment – How do we remember that we are God’s partners in creation, but that we are not gods? How do we keep our humanity and not misuse our power? Six days we do our creative work in the world. One day a week we stop all creative work, and leave the world alone. We cannot build a fire, pick a blade of grass, or change God’s world at all. One day a week we remember that the world does not belong to us. Rather, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1)
For six weeks we do all our work, and we become God’s partners in perfecting this world. One day a week we stop and simply be, remembering who we really are.
The Fifth Commandment – What does honoring parents have to do with God? If we are God’s partners in perfecting the world, then our parents are God’s agents in teaching us what to do. To be a parent is not simply something biological. It has to do with mentoring and coaching us, showing us the path and raising us to do our God appointed tasks. It means embracing our uniqueness and helping us find our mission.
God needs parents. And when we honor our parents, ultimately we are honoring God.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5762)

GOD AS TEACHER

“God spoke all of these words saying.” (Exodus 20:1)

In this week’s portion we reach the high point of the book of Exodus. The Israelites reached the foot of the mountain known as Sinai or Horeb. God revealed His will to them in a series of statements known as the Ten Commandments. We have already met God as creator of the universe and God as redeemer from slavery. Now we meet God in the vital role as revealer of His will, or as a teacher.
Most moderns can accept the belief that God created the world, even if it took billions of years and very slow evolution to do it. Much more difficult is the idea that the same God who created us also revealed His will and His teachings to us. It is easy to accept Deism, the notion that God created a universe but since then has allowed us humans to fend for ourselves. More difficult is the notion that God somehow communicated information to us humans on how to live our lives.
One of the central claims of our religious faith is that God is a teacher. Some understand the notion of God the teacher in a simplistic almost fundamentalist way. God gave information to us in a flow of words and letters, similar to how we download information through our modem unto our computer. This is the thinking of those who would search the written Torah for hidden codes. If God communicated precise words and letters which were written down by Moses and remain unchanged through the ages, there must be messages hidden in the text just waiting to be uncovered by our computers.
On the other extreme are those that believe the Torah was not communicated by God at all. It is merely literature, great literature to be sure, literature sanctified by millennia of study. But as literature, the Torah is still man made, and no different in essence from the great works of Shakespeare or the Declaration of Independence. Such literature may have much to teach us, as Aesop’s fables have much to teach us. But ultimately, this view sees the Torah as man-made. The Torah reflects humanity reaching up to God rather than God reaching down to humanity.
Between these two extremes there is a middle view that sees God as a teacher without reading the Torah in a literalist way. This view can understand the reality of revelation without rejecting modern Biblical criticism. We see hints of this view in the giving of the Ten Commandments.
What did God actually communicate to His people at Mt. Sinai? In the beginning God spoke in the first person, as if God was directly speaking to the people: “I am the Lord your God”, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Then suddenly the words switched to the third person: “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.” The people grew frightened of hearing God’s direct communication and asked Moses to take over and speak in God’s name. Based on this, some say God only publicly spoke the first two of the Ten Commandments. Moses spoke the rest.
Franz Rosensweig taught that the people grew frightened even more quickly, after hearing just the first word: Anochi or I am. After only one word, the direct voice of God became too much to bear. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov taught that the people grew frightened after the first letter, the aleph in Anochi. After but one letter the people asked Moses to communicate instead. But the first letter of the Ten Commandments, the aleph, is the only letter in the Hebrew alphabet that is silent. Perhaps there was but silence, and such an overwhelming sense of God=s presence that the people could not bear it. Moses communicated God’s will instead.
The events on Mt. Sinai come to teach me that God communicated with us humans. But the communication was intercepted, interpreted, made clear by Moses and later by the other prophets, and eventually by the great rabbis and teachers of our tradition. Torah reflects the will of God. But as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Torah is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.”
God is a teacher. But ultimately it is up to us humans to interpret, understand, and apply God=s teaching in our own lives.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5761)

ADULTERY

“You shall not commit adultery.”
(Exodus 20:13)

I recently asked a group of our teenagers a series of questions about marriage. “Do you think a rabbi should perform a wedding between a Jew and a Christian?” True liberals, they all said yes. “Do you think a rabbi should perform a `marriage= between two gay men?” About half the youngsters said yes. “Do you think a rabbi should perform a ceremony for a couple who wants an open marriage – the permission to have sexual affairs outside the marriage?” They all said the rabbi should refuse such a wedding. There is a deep sense even among teens that a marriage without a presumption of fidelity is not really a marriage.
The teens in my synagogue, struggling to find their footing after the sexual revolution, realize that adultery is wrong. After all, adultery is the only sexual transgression to make it into the Ten Commandments. The penalty for transgression is death. The rabbis taught that adultery (and incest) make up one of three commandments for which one should die rather than transgress. (The other two are murder and idolatry). It is one of seven fundamental laws given to the children of Noah.
A more careful reading of these laws proves that the Biblical prohibition against adultery is not so simple. Whenever the Torah speaks of adultery, it refers to a married woman having a sexual encounter with a man not her husband. There is nothing in the Torah to forbid a married man from having a series of affairs with other women (as long as they are single), frequenting prostitutes, or even maintaining a mistress on the side. Abraham had a wife and a concubine, Jacob had two wives and two concubines. David and Solomon each had numerous wives.
Certainly this double standard reflects the patriarchy of the age when they were written. Nonetheless, if we study the Garden of Eden story we see a far more egalitarian view of marriage. The Torah tells a man to “leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife.” Note that it says “wife”, not “wives” or “wife and concubine.” The Torah demands that a man limit himself to one woman. This is not something that comes naturally to men, with their powerful, often insatiable sexual drive. After all, consider the animal kingdom where males, concerned with genetic survival, try to spread their seed to as many females as possible.
Nonetheless, we humans are not animals, and monogamy is the Biblical ideal. If a man is to limit his sexual drive to one woman, he wants to know that the children she conceives are truly “his”. I believe that it was this concern about paternity that caused the Bible to deal so harshly with a wife’s adultery. Underneath it all is the presumption from the Garden of Eden of “one wife, one husband, and mutual faithfulness.”
Later the rabbis made this requirement of faithfulness by the man more explicit. Throughout Talmudic times there was a presumption that a man would limit himself to only one wife. (A second wife was called atzara, meaning trouble.) All the rabbis of the Talmud had but one wife. By the middle ages, Rabbenu Gershom outlawed polygamy altogether, at least for Ashkenazic Jews.
Therefore, the thrust of Jewish tradition is towards marital fidelity by both the husband and wife. The laws against adultery began as an attempt to insure paternity of any children she may have. However, the rabbis understood and eventually made explicit the fact that a man cannot expect faithfulness by the wife while he is unfaithful. We can say without equivocation from a Jewish perspective, for both men and women, adultery is wrong.

PARSHAT YITRO
(5760)

THE LIMITS OF PROVIDING

“Six days you shall labor and do all of your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest.”
(Exodus 20:9-10)

The wisdom of my parents’ generation was the importance of being a provider. My father considered himself a “good family man.” To my father, that meant that he provided for his family. For most men and many women of that generation, being a provider was an act of love.
The wisdom of my generation is finding the limits of providing. If providing is an act of love, perhaps the more we work and the more we provide, the more this shows our love. The Ten Commandments disagrees – it calls for a limit on providing. There is a cycle of work and rest. There is time spent at our place of employment balanced with time spent at home with our families. Or, as I often tell overstressed parents, “your children need your presence rather than your presents.”
Our family needs us in our lives. I am reminded of the wonderful story of a busy businessman who finally, at the urging of his wife, takes a day off of work to take their young son fishing. The father and son spend the entire day together, although the father frets about what he is missing at the office. At the end of the day, the father writes in his calendar, “Took my son fishing; wasted the whole day.” Meanwhile, the son writes in his diary, “My dad took me fishing; the greatest day of my life.”
Wisdom is the ability to draw limits. It is the ability to find a rhythm between work and rest, between job time and family time. Different people may understand the requirement of rest differently. However we choose to observe our Sabbath, we should remember that when we were slaves in Egypt we worked seven days per week. Every day was like every other. In freedom, we learn to draw a line and stop our work, to find rest and discover family time.
Rest also means leaving our work at work. Rabbi Jack Riemer tells a beautiful story of a man who stops at a tree in front of house each evening as he comes home from the office. He touches the branch¬es and walks into his home. Each morning he touches the branches again before leaving for work. His neighbor asks him, “What are you doing?” The man answers, “This is my worry tree. Each evening I hang all of my worries from work on the branches. I do not bring them into the house. The next morning I take them back to bring to work. But they seem so much lighter the next morning.”
We need to rest not simply for our family but for ourselves. At work, we are judged by our performance. We are valued not by who we are but by what we accomplish. Accomplishment and success are important to our ego. But it is so difficult to always be on call, always be judged by what we do. We need time simply to be.
At home we are not judged for what we do. True love is unconditional. We are loved simply for being, not for any of our accomplishments. When our children hug us after work, it is not because we received the promotion or reached performance expectations or brought in a new client or made the sale. At home we can simply be. The pattern of sacred rest gives us time to stop doing, but simply to be.