Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2020 High Holiday Sermons

1st Day Rosh Hashana – 2020 – 5781
A man is caught outside not wearing a mask during the height of the Corona Virus shutdown. The policeman tells him, “You are disobeying a direct order from the governor. You have two choices: A. You can shelter at home for the next three weeks with your wife and children. Or B…” Before the policemen finishes, the man says, “I’ll take B.”
We Jews deal with pain and tragedy with a wonderful sense of humor. We have learned to laugh at ourselves. There was nothing particularly Jewish about that story. Here is a more Jewish one. A woman calls her lawyer. “You have to help me.” “What’s wrong”? “My entire life I have been attending Passover seders, learning about the ten plagues, taking a drop of wine from my cup for each one. The worst plague was the killing of every first born Egyptian. How did the Jews escape? They put blood on the door. So during the corona plague, I went and smeared blood all over the door of my home.” The lawyer replies, “Did it work?” “Yes,” said the woman, “Nobody in my household was sick.” “So why are you calling me?” “I was cited by my Home Owners Association.”
There is only one topic to talk about this Rosh Hashana. It is a topic that turned all of our lives upside down this past Spring and Summer, this High Holidays, and on into the foreseeable future. We are suffering from a plague. And Covid-19 not only brought hundreds of thousands of deaths, not only did it devastate our economy, but it turned our personal lives and our synagogue life upside down. What does it all mean? Why did this happen to us? When can I go out again? And the question I want to deal with today – what is God trying to tell us?
One answer is in the most well-known prayer of these High Holiday services, one we will be chanting shortly – untaneh tokef. In this prayer, God is seen as a judge holding open the big Sefer HaHayim – Book of Life. We pass before God like sheep. BeRosh Hashana yikatvu u’v’Yom Tzom Kippur yechatemu. “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will pass away and how many will be created? Who will live and who will die? The prayer continues, mee va’ra-ash u’mee b’magefa. “Who by earthquake and who by plague?” The message of the prayer is clear – Covid-19 is a punishment by God for our sins. But is it? Is Covid-19 a punishment from God? Allow me to share three different answers.
Answer 1 – the answer of the atheists. There is no judgment because there is no judge. There is no God. It is all an unhealthy myth. The great sage of the Talmud Elisha ben Abuya who witnessed the death of an innocent child and became an atheist, cried out, leit din v’leit dayan. “There is no justice and there is no judge.” You can read the story of Elisha ben Abuya, the rabbi who abandoned Judaism, in Milton Steinberg’s wonderful novel, As a Driven Leaf.
The first reaction to evil in the world such as a plaque is to cry out leit din v’leit dayan. “There is no judgment and there is no judge.” There is no God. Perhaps no one expressed this more elegantly than the French – Algerian philosopher and novelist Albert Camus. Camus was a brilliant writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature. Sadly, he died at too young an age in a car accident. He taught that we live in an absurd, meaningless universe without a God. When I was in college, I read his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by the gods and forced to roll a huge stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again. Over and over, for all eternity, Sisyphus rolls the stone up and watches it roll down. Could he possibly find any meaning in such an absurd existence? Yet Camus ends the essay with the words, “One can imagine Sisyphus happy.” To Camus, this is human life, doing meaningless tasks in a Godless world, and yet somehow finding happiness.
I decided during the height of the “stay at home” period to read one of Camus’s great novels – The Plague. It is the story of a bubonic plague that strikes a small beach city in Algeria, sometime after World War II. Although published in 1947, it seemed to come from today’s newspapers. The people of the town react as many of us are reacting to corona. They speak of being “exiled in their own homes.” That ought to resonate with all of us. One of the main characters, Father Paneloux, gives a powerful sermon that the plague is punishment for the people’s sins. People must change their ways. The priest gets sick but refuses to call a doctor. He dies with the belief that one must trust in God alone. The hero of the novel, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exhausts himself treating patients. He does not talk about theology but thinks about his duty. In the face of evil one must simply do one’s duty. But my favorite line in the book comes from another character Jean Tarrou, who also heroically helps the dying. He becomes one of the last victims of the plague. To quote the book, “’It comes to this,’ Tarrou said almost casually, ‘what interests me is learning to become a saint.’ ‘But you don’t believe in God.’ ‘Exactly! Can one be a saint without God?’”
Can one be a saint without believing in God? Can one find happiness without believing in God? Can one find meaning in a cold, absurd universe? Those are the questions Camus asks. If we react to Corona by saying there is no God, those are the questions we must ask ourselves.
Answer 2 – There is a God, and God is sending us a message. And it is a doozy. God is trying to tell us something. We better listen. What is the message of the pandemic?” I have heard the same answer from numerous people. “God is trying to tell us something about our relationship to the earth, and our relationship to nature. Stop!” If we stop going out, stop driving so much, stop working the earth, then nature will reclaim her rightful place.
Let me quote an article that appeared in the Sun-Sentinel. “As people across the globe stay home to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the air has cleaned up, albeit temporarily. Smog stopped choking New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India’s getting views of sights not visible in decades. People also noticed animals in places and at times they don’t usually. Coyotes have meandered along downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.” The article goes on to quote one scientist, “It is giving us this quite extraordinary insight into just how much a mess we humans are making of our beautiful planet.” According to this view, the virus is a punishment God sent us to get us to change our ways.
This quote is somewhat benign. There have been harsher quotes of what we humans are doing to the planet. In my book Three Creation Stories I quote an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1989. The author claims we humans have become a cancer on the earth. He writes, “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” “The right virus!” Untaneh Tokef says, “who by earthquake and who by plague.” In this point of view, we deserve the earthquake and we deserve the plague. Until we change our ways, God will keep punishing us.
There is an ecological crisis, and perhaps we are not taking it seriously enough. We cannot destroy the earth. There is the story of the man whose wife calls him, “Can you pick up some organic vegetables for dinner?” He goes to the market looking for organic produce. He asks the store clerk about organic vegetables, but the clerk does not understand. “What does organic mean?” Finally. the man says, “I am getting these for my wife. Have they been sprayed with poisonous chemicals?” The clerk responds, “No sir, you will have to do that yourself.”
We can laugh, but the virus is not funny business. According to this approach, God is sending us a message. God is punishing us for our behavior. Wisdom is that we need to change our ways. I know this is the message of our tradition. But although I believe in God, deep in my heart I cannot believe that God now and again decides to zap us with a horrible virus. I reject the idea that we live in a God-less absurd universe. And I reject the idea that God is punishing us for our sins. I believe there is a third approach to understanding this pandemic.
Answer 3 – the answer I accept. Nature goes about her business according to her own laws. Nature is neither good nor bad, it is not out to reward us nor to punish us. Nature is not there to teach us morality. Nature simply is. To quote the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b), “One who stole a se’a of wheat and went and planted it in the ground. By right it should not grow. But the world goes along and follows its course.” Olam keminhago noheg v’holech. “The world goes along and follows its course.” The late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a truly great Conservative rabbi, pointed out this source to me. Christianity teaches something similar (Matthew 5:45) “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is a totally natural event. It is not there to punish us nor to teach us a lesson. It just is. Like earthquakes, plagues, tsunamis, and every other natural disaster, nature simply happens. Nature is not malevolent. Hurricane Katrina did not hit New Orleans because of unethical behavior during Mardi Gras. The 2004 tsunami did not kill hundreds of thousands in Indonesia because these poor people deserved it. The horrible Spanish flu in 1918, which did not come from Spain and which killed far more people than the corona virus, was not a punishment for World War I. And the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which struck on All Saints Day when thousands were killed in church, was not a punishment from God. It was this earthquake that caused many Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire to rethink their understanding of nature. Nature is not out to punish us. Nature simply is.
The corona virus pandemic is a totally natural event. The virus is a living thing, and like every living thing, it wants to “be fruitful and multiply.” How does a virus “be fruitful and multiply?” It takes over the DNA in a host cell. We humans have the host cells that help it multiply. And sadly, sometimes in the act of multiplying, it makes its hosts extremely sick or it even kills its host. So what can we do? Protect ourselves as best we can. Our bodies have a way of fighting off viruses and other invaders. It is called antibodies. Since this is a new virus, we humans do not have the antibodies to fight it. But eventually enough of us will develop the antibodies. At that point, the virus we will not go away but it will be far less a threat. It is called herd immunity. How do we develop the antibodies? In the worst case scenario, enough of us will get sick. In the best case scenario, we will develop a vaccine. And when we use human ingenuity to develop a vaccine, we will stop the virus.
That is the lesson of the corona virus. It is a call to human ingenuity, to the best creative minds in our scientific and medical communities. That is the lesson in all the destructive forces of nature. How can we build better buildings to protect us from hurricanes and tornados? How can we better predict and warn people of earthquakes and tsunamis? How can we fight cancer cells and birth defects? And how can we develop a vaccine against this virus? The destructive forces of nature are not a punishment, but they are a call to human ingenuity.
Human ingenuity to build a better world is not just for scientists, doctors, and engineers. It is for all of us. What can each of us do in the face of the destructive forces of nature? Can we help feed the hungry? Support the elderly? Teach the young? Or in the case of many of us including myself, can we learn to use technology we have never used before to stay connected with one another. I used Zoom once or twice in the past to attend a meeting, but never dreamed I would learn to handle my own account and host meetings at least twice a day. Technology is a Godsend. Anne Frank, hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam for two years, could very occasionally listen to the radio. The members of our synagogue, stuck at home since last March, can connect daily using technology. That is human ingenuity.
There are three ways to understand the events of these past six months, and all the similar destructive events in human history. Approach #1 – the pandemic is proof that there is no God. All we can do is try to find meaning and happiness, do our duty, and if possible, become saints, in an absurd, meaningless world. Approach #2 – God is sending us a message and we better listen. If we do not want to bring ecological disaster, we better change our ways. Or approach #3 – nature goes about its business, which is often destructive. But it is these destructive forces that bring about progress. Our job is to use human ingenuity, to use these events as an opportunity to make this a better world.
Which approach is correct? I believe in the third, but you will have to decide for yourselves. Meanwhile, what can we do in the wake of this pandemic to improve this world? The untaneh tokef prayer which I quoted at the beginning of this sermon, does contain an answer. But to hear it, you must come back tomorrow. Meanwhile, may God not only keep us safe but give us wisdom during these difficult times, and let us say

2nd Day Rosh Hashana – 2020 – 5781
A man was driving by the Dead Sea in Israel when he saw someone casting a fishing rod into the water. He approached the man. “This is the Dead Sea. There are no fish here.” The fisherman answered, “You are wrong. For $10 you can sit here and watch me.” He paid the $10 and sat for a half hour watching. Finally he asked, “So how many fish did you catch today?” He replied, “You are number six.”
There are no fish in the Dead Sea. But there are fish in the Sea of Galilee. I have eaten them at Kibbutz Ein Gev. I remember my first trip to Israel when I was a college student. I stayed at a youth hostel on the edge of the Sea of Galilee (the places you stay when you are young) and remember waking up in the morning and diving into the Sea of Galilee. The water was so refreshing. On that same trip I decided to float in the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, I had a small cut on my leg. One minute in that salt water and I jumped out of there so fast.
Albert Einstein once said, “Education is what you remember when you forget everything you learned in school.” I do not remember very much of what I learned in Hebrew School as a child. But I remember one vivid lesson. There are two seas, the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee takes in water but also give water away. So, it is brimming with life. The Dead Sea takes in water but gives nothing away. So, it is dead. The same is true for people. There are two kinds of seas, and there are two kinds of people. For some reason, particularly as I make my tzedakah pledges, this teaching sticks in my head.
Today there are people who warn that the Sea of Galilee will no longer continue as a source of life. Someday it will be as dead as the Dead Sea. Someday all the seas will be dead. There are constant warnings that we are ruining the earth. And as I said yesterday, many believe the corona virus is such a warning. The virus is a message from God. “Stop what we are doing!” God is trying to tell us something, and God is using a virus to do so. Corona means “crown,” in Hebrew keter, and the highest of the God’s sephirot is crown, Keter. Mystics say the sephirot are manifestations of God, and so, as some have said, the corona virus is a manifestation of God.
We read in the untaneh tokef prayer which we will be chanting shortly, mee b’rash u’mee bemagefa “who by earthquake and who by plague?” God judges us and God writes in the Book of Life, “Who shall live and who shall die.” This is God’s judgment. Corona is our punishment for what we are doing to the earth. According to the Midrash, God had already warned us when we were in the Garden of Eden. “At the time when the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, he took him and led him around all the trees in the Garden of Eden. Look how beautiful and praiseworthy every one is. And everything I created, I created for you. Be careful not to corrupt or destroy my world. For if you destroy it, there is none to repair it after you.” And so, God sent us a virus as a warning.
We humans often have a naïve view of God. God is the parent in the sky Who rewards us when we are good and punishes when we are bad. This was Sigmund Freud’s view of religion. Religion is naïve wish-fulfillment; it is an attempt to create a father figure in the sky to deal with what Freud called a “mass neurosis.” God rewards us or punishes us. It reminds of the story of the little boy walking on the beach with his mother when he comes across a dead seagull. The boy asks, “What is that?” The mother replied, “It was a seagull. It died and went up to God.” “Oh,” said the boy, “And did God throw it back?” How many of us believe that God gets angry at us and throws us back? That seems to be the message of the untaneh tokef prayer.
Yesterday I mentioned that there are three different approaches to the virus which has turned our lives upset down. The first approach is that the virus is proof that there is no God. We live in a meaningless, absurd world where we must find our own purpose. This was the approach of Albert Camus in his novel The Plague. The second approach is the one I just mentioned. God is punishing us for destroying His earth. God decided to teach us a lesson. And we better listen, or the Sea of Galilee will turn into a second dead sea. Personally, I reject both of those approaches. The third approach is that nature goes about its business. Viruses develop, often through mutations of earlier viruses. They survive by taking over hosts, often causing severe illness or even death. And we humans develop antibodies to fight off those viruses. It is simply nature going about its business. But in this case, the virus is too new. We have not yet developed the antibodies we need. It might take a year or more to develop a vaccine for this virus. Meanwhile, we suffer through the pandemic.
So, what is the answer? Is there no God, and do we live in an absurd, meaningless universe? Is there a God Who is punishing us, or at least trying to get us to change our ways? Or is nature simply going about its business, and the virus is part of a natural process? I believe that nature often needs to be destructive. That is why poet Alfred Lord Tennyson could describe nature as, “red in tooth and claw.” We live in a material world which is constantly in motion, constantly progressing. But it is the brokenness that allows this process to take place. Scientists speak of broken symmetry as vital for progress in the universe.
Let me share a story told by Rabbi Elchonen Wasserman, who traveled from America back to Europe, only to die in the Holocaust. This story truly touched me. Shortly before he died, Rabbi Wasserman spoke of a boy who asked his parents where bread comes from. His parents took him to an empty field, and he noted how beautiful it was. Then the field was plowed under, and the boy was upset that it was destroyed. But soon wheat was growing in the field, and the boy was excited by how beautiful the stalks of grain were. But then the grain was harvested destroying the stalks, and again the boy was upset. But soon he saw the bag of seeds, and he was excited by their beauty. Then the beautiful seeds were ground into a mush to be kneaded. Only then could bread be baked. Finally. the boy realized that bread comes from an ongoing process of destruction and construction. (Thank you to Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz for sharing this story.)
There is brokenness in the world; broken symmetry is part of nature. But to quote physicist Marcelo Gleiser, “From asymmetry comes imbalance, from imbalance comes change, from change comes becoming, the emergence of structure.” The universe needs brokenness to progress.
We have mentioned three approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic. If this were Talmudic times someone would have asked, what is the nafka mina? What is the practical teaching? What can we learn from this virus to make our lives better? To answer that question, let me return to the untaneh tokef prayer. The prayer not only raises the question. It also gives the answer. And the answer is a powerful one.
The prayer ends with the words u’teshuva u’tefila u’tzedaka maavirin et roa hagezera. The usual translation is that “three things, repentance, prayer, and charity, can avert the severe decree.” But that is not exactly what the Hebrew says. These three things lessen the severity of the decree. In other words, there are three things we can do to lessen our suffering during these difficult times. The three things will not change nature. They will not make the virus go away. But they will change us. They will make us better able to cope with the severity of the decree.
The first value that can lessen the severity of the decree is teshuva, usually translated “repentance.” In Judaism it is understood as “return.” How do we return to our true selves? How can we use this difficult time to make ourselves into the kind of people we ought to be? Victor Frankl, a psychologist who survived the Nazi death camps, wrote his most famous book after the War, Man’s Search for Meaning. He found the people most likely to survive the horrors he experienced were those who found meaning in their lives. Frankl famously wrote, “Those who have a `why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
The same idea was expressed by David Kessler who collaborated with Elizabeth Kubler- Ross on her famous five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. His 2019 book is entitled Finding Meaning; The Sixth Stage of Grief. In the book he writes, “Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift, or a blessing. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.” If we are sheltering at home, what can we do to give our lives more meaning? Can we learn a new skill or language, read some of the great books, become a better chef or gardener, start journaling or writing, play a musical instrument, or perhaps, use technology to connect to more people in our lives. Without the distractions of going out, we can find new meaning and purpose in our lives.
The second value that can lessen the severity of the decree is tefilla, “prayer.” But the term actually means “self-judgment.” We pray not to change God but to change ourselves. When we connect to the spiritual dimension of existence, we walk away restored and refreshed. That is what prayer, at its best, should accomplish. In prayer, we not only connect with God, we connect with each other. There is a wonderful irony during these difficult times. We have decided to conduct prayer services every morning and every evening on Zoom. And the attendance is higher at our daily Zoom services than when we conducted daily services in our chapel. People want to connect. Some may ask, how do you pray if you do not believe in God. I have visited many people in the hospital through my career. I always offer to say a prayer with those who are sick. I have never been turned down. I once visited a man in hospice who I knew to be a confirmed atheist. I asked him if I could say a prayer. He answered, “Rabbi, if it makes you happy.” During the Covid pandemic, we need to connect to that higher spiritual reality.
The third value that can lessen the severity of the decree is tzedaka, usually translated as “charity.” But the term comes from a Hebrew root meaning “justice.” It means acting for other people and giving them their due. It is amazing how acts of loving kindness towards other people help us forgot our own troubles and our own needs. There is so much we can do, even if we are sheltering at home. We can call those who are elderly or alone, so they can hear a friendly voice. We can deliver groceries and food, or arrange to have it delivered, to those who need it. We can thank those who put their own lives on the line for us, the health care workers in our clinics and hospitals, the police, firefighters, and others who work for public safety, the workers in essential industries, even those people in the supermarket who wipe off and disinfect our shopping carts. And of course, we can see our wealth as a bounty from God and give to worthy causes. Remember the parable of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. If our own synagogue, which is a second home to so many of us, is to continue to serve us, we need to give tzedakah.
In Camus’s novel The Plague, Jean Tarrou wanted to be a saint although he did not believe in God. Most of us do not hope to become saints. Besides, sainthood is not part of Jewish tradition. But we can do three things to help us survive this plague. Teshiuva – we can use this as an opportunity to pursue personal growth and find meaning for our lives in the midst of suffering. Tefila – we can connect to the spiritual dimension of life, with God or if we are not sure we believe in God, with each other. Tzedaka – we can act to touch the lives of other people and help make this a better world.
Do any of these make the corona pandemic less severe? Do all of these and we will come out of these troubling times better and stronger than before. Let me end with a quote you have heard me use before. It comes from Kenny Rogers’ classic hit The Gambler. You know the song, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” We mourned the loss of Kenny Rogers this year, and in thinking about him, the lyrics came back to me. “Cause every hand’s a winner, And every hand’s a loser.” Life is about learning to play the hand life deals us. We can learn to play that hand as a winner.
The world has dealt everybody a cruel hand this year. Let us learn to play it as a winner. May God help us with that effort, and let us say AMEN.

Kol Nidre 2020 – 5781
The World’s Oldest Virus
Two Corona viruses are speaking. One says, “I have to find someone to infect so I can be fruitful and multiply. I need to make copies of myself.” The second says, “How about that man?” The first answers, “He is not available. He has stayed home for the last four months, having his groceries delivered to his front porch, never going outside and having no one visit.” The virus says, “How about that woman?” The first answers, “She is not available. She has been social distancing, wearing a mask, using Purell, and washing her hands constantly.” The second finally says, “How about that man? He is out demonstrating with the crowds, not wearing a mask and not socially distancing. He is speaking out against immigrants, against blacks, and most vocally, against Jews. Look, he is carrying a sign saying, ‘Jews will not replace us.’” “I cannot infect him.” “Why not?” “He already has a virus.”
Tonight I want to talk about the world’s oldest virus. It has been around longer than corona, longer than Ebola, longer than HIV. It has killed more people than the black death and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. It has its roots in ancient Egypt and was first manifest when Amalek attacked the Israelites from the rear as they were leaving Egypt. It was perhaps best articulated by the Persian villain Haman who said, “There is a people who dwell apart, and do not follow the laws of the king.” There are periods of time when this virus lies dormant, and other periods when it becomes virulent. And we are in the midst of one of those virulent times.
Of course, the virus I am speaking of is antisemitism. At different times it manifests itself in different ways. To quote the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom Lord Jonathan Sacks, “In the Middle Ages Jews were hated for their religion. In the nineteenth and twentieth century they were hated for their race. Today they are hated for their nation state, Israel. All three types of hate insist on the same thing. Jews have no right to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as other human beings.”
This past year I was privileged to hear two marvelous speakers on the virus of antisemitism. At the annual Jewish federation meeting I heard Deborah Lipstadt speak of her new book Antisemitism: Here and Now. Lipstadt is an expert on the history of the Holocaust and is well-known for defeating in court the infamous Holocaust denier David Irving. Irving had sued her for libel. Later in Boston at the United Synagogue convention, I heard Bari Weiss, author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism. A generation younger and the product of a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh, Weiss recently resigned from the New York Times, complaining of bias against her pro-Zionist, centrist views. Both Lipstadt and Weiss shared similar stories and statistics. And they were scary. The virus of antisemitism, dormant after the Holocaust was becoming virulent once again.
I cannot repeat everything they each said. I would have to speak for hours. I could speak of antisemitism among Muslims and the terrible antisemitism in Europe. For example, on March 23, 2018 Mareille Knoll, an 85 year old Holocaust survivor, was murdered by two men in Paris. Their claim, “she is a Jew, she must have money.” Muslim antisemitism is a severe problem, particularly in Europe. But I also see signs of hope. Jews in the Middle Ages flourished in the Muslim world much more than the Christian world. The great Maimonides, living in Egypt, often quoted Muslim philosophers in his writing. And today there are breaks in the hatred. The United Arab Emirates, and now Bahrain, has established full diplomatic relations with Israel. You can fly directly from Tel Aviv to Dubai, and then attend a minyan in Dubai. But I do not want to look at Europe. I want to look at our own home, the growing antisemitism in the United States. Therefore, let me focus on two growing problems right here at home – antisemitism on the right and antisemitism on the left.
Antisemitism on the right – On October 27, 2018 on a Shabbat morning, Robert Gregory Brown entered Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. It is a synagogue not far from where I used to serve as a rabbi, a synagogue I often visited for meetings and programs. Brown opened fire on worshippers in prayer, killing 11 and wounding 6 more. He expressed his hatred of Jews, and mentioned in particular HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. He hated Jews because Jews were aiding immigrants, foreigners entering this country.
Since that terrible day in Pittsburgh we have arranged security in our synagogue for all services, programs, and children’s activities. I used to think that only in Europe and South America did you need armed security guards in front of synagogues. I used to think that synagogues in the United States were open and welcoming to all. No longer. I have a key to unlock the synagogue door, but I have not used it since Pittsburgh. There is a growing group of people who not only hate Jews but feel justified in killing them.
A few months later, April 27. 2019, an armed gunman named John Timothy Earnest entered Chabad of Poway, CA on the last day of Passover and opened fire. The synagogue is around the corner from where my brother used to live. When my brother worked in San Diego, he chose Poway because it was a safe place to live. The gunman killed one woman and gravely wounded three others including the rabbi. Fortunately, an armed security guard was there, and he was stopped before more could be killed.
Almost two years earlier, on August 12, 2017, there was a “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, VA, near the University of Virginia. It brought neo-Nazis, Klansmen, skinheads, and other haters together. One of the haters drove a car into a crowd of counter demonstrators killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. One could hear the marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
What is the world view of the radical right? They believe America is a white, Christian nation. Minorities such as blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and immigrants need to know their place. But Jews are the most dangerous. Most Jews can pass as whites. But they are not really white, and certainly are not white Christians. Jews are the ones working for the blacks, working for the minorities, working for the immigrants. That is why the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is such a threat. Jews are the enemy and must be stopped, using guns if necessary. To quote Bari Weiss, these people “are fueled by a belief in white supremacy… They are gripped by a fear of whiteness being muddied and diluted and eventually washed away by waves of non-white, non-Christian Americans and immigrants – a takeover engineered, of course, by devious Jews, who manipulate governments, through their control of the banks, Hollywood, the media, and even the borders themselves.” That is the virus on the right, and it is growing.
Antisemitism on the left – If you go to synagogue on a Shabbat morning in Ann Arbor, MI, near the University of Michigan, you will be met each week by protestors holding signs. I know this synagogue – the rabbi is a colleague and I once spoke there as a scholar-in-residence. The signs say things like “Resist Jewish Power” and “End the Palestinian Holocaust.” A federal court recently ruled that the demonstrators had a right to stand outside the synagogue holding signs, as long as they did not prevent people from entering. Perhaps most sad, the ringleader of this weekly demonstration is a Jew – Henry Herskowitz.
The University of Southern California USC is an academically rigorous college in Los Angeles. My nephew is a graduate from there. This summer a student from San Francisco, Rose Ritch, was forced to resign her position as vice president of the student government. Her crime – she was accused of being pro-Zionist. She wrote in her letter of resignation, “an attack on my Zionist identity is an attack on my Jewish identity.” If only this was an isolated incident. But it is happening at college campuses all over the country. For example, in 2018 Professor John Chenev-Lippold refused to write a letter of recommendation for a Jewish student Abigail Ingber to study in Israel. The professor, in denying this student the right to study in Israel, claimed that the campus was maintaining an academic boycott of an apartheid country.
The problem is not simply on college campuses. In the 2017 Dyke March in Chicago, several marchers were turned away because they were carrying rainbow flags with Jewish stars. Two years later in Washington D.C., the organizers banned all Jewish stars as symbols of nationalism. Palestinian flags were prominent. The progressive movement claims that it is not anti-Jewish, just anti-Zionist. To quote Weiss once again, “Whereas Jews once had to convert to Christianity, now Jews have to convert to anti-Zionism.” Do not be fooled, this hatred of Zionism quickly turns into a hatred of Jews.
What is the world view of the radical left? They see the world as divided into the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressors and the oppressed, the victimizers and the victims. To their mindset, whites are the haves and blacks are the have-nots. Men are the powerful and women are the powerless. Straights are the oppressors and gays are the oppressed. And Israel is the victimizer while the Palestinians are the victims. Never mind that Jews were the victims for thousands of years. Suddenly we are the victimizers. I want to make it clear – this is not about Israeli government policy. We are speaking of people who are opposed to Israel’s very existence. When someone holds up a sign that reads, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free,” they are calling for another Holocaust. That is the virus on the left, and it is growing. In fact, Professor Alan Dershowitz has written that he fears the antisemitism of the left much more than the antisemitism of the right.
So, antisemitism is growing on the right and antisemitism is growing on the left. What are we to do? There is the old story of the Jewish man in pre-World War II Europe who sat on the train every day reading Der Sturmer- the Nazi newspaper. Another Jew finally asked him, why do you read that garbage? Why don’t you read a good Yiddish paper? The man answered, when I read the Yiddish paper, I read about another pogrom, another antisemitic incident, how Jews are suffering. But when I read this paper, I read how we Jews control the banks, how we control the media, how we control the government. Why shouldn’t I read this paper?
What should we do about antisemitism? What we should not do is let the anti-Semites define us. After World War II, the well-known French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book called Anti-Semite and Jew. In the book he claimed that Jews exist because anti-Semites exist. According to Sartre, anti-Semites define who Jews are. If Jews did not exist, anti-Semites would have to invent them. They need someone to hate.
We must not allow the haters to define us. As Bari Weiss claims in her book, if someone calls you a pig, you do not march outside claiming “I am not a pig.” Weiss claims the way to react to antisemitism is not to grovel, but to live as proud self-identifying Jews. We need to live our Jewish lives in a very public way. And we should proclaim not simply our love of Judaism, but our love of Zionism. Zionism does not mean that we agree with all the policies of the Netanyahu government. Many Israelis disagree with his policies. Zionism means the belief that the Jewish people deserve a state of their own.
Antisemitism is a virus, the world’s oldest virus. As medical experts will tell you, viruses do not go away. They s become dormant for a while, then become virulent. When do viruses become dormant? When herd immunity sets in, enough people develop the antibody to the virus so that it does not spread. What is the antibody to the virus of hate? It is love. Let us love God, love our neighbor, perhaps most important, love the stranger. And let us love our ancient and beautiful religion. Let us fight antisemitism by becoming proud and active Jews. May God help us with that effort, and let us say

YIZKOR 5781 – 2020
“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” This is the big moment in the 1956 Broadway hit My Fair Lady. If you saw it in Israel with a Hebrew translation, the line is barad yarad b’drom Sfarad haerev. And the version we used to say at our Passover seder was, “The khrane is red or plain but it will stain.”
I grew up listening to My Fair Lady. It was my parents’ favorite Broadway musical. Anyone remember the old 33 1/3 record albums? On the cover was the picture of a man manipulating a woman like a marionette on strings, but the man himself was being manipulated by God. Of course, the man was the late Rex Harrison playing Professor Henry Higgins. The woman was a very young Julie Andrews playing Eliza Doolittle. The 1964 movie version starring Rex Harrison won the Best Picture Oscar. The producer did not think Julie Andrews was famous enough for the lead in the movie, so they chose Audrey Hepburn instead, with Marni Nixon doing the singing. But do not feel bad for Julie Andrews. Shortly afterwards she starred in a small Disney movie called Mary Poppins, winning the Best Actress Oscar. She then went on to star in The Sound of Music.
You all know that I love Broadway musicals. Most years I quote one of them in my High Holiday sermons. Today I want to speak about three different Broadway musicals from three different eras. What is the Jewish message of each? Let me begin with My Fair Lady. It is the story of a professor who makes a bet, that he can turn a cockney girl into a lady by transforming her speech. Professor Higgins is an arrogant misogynist, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” And Eliza, the former cockney who sold flowers in the street, passes as a lady at the royal ball. But the professor discovers that the lady is not his puppet but has a fierce independent streak. In the end, he must admit “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.” In trying to transform her, he ends up transforming himself.
The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which is based on an ancient Greek myth. Pygmalion was a sculptor who had no interest in women, until he sculpted a statue of one. He fell madly in love with her, and Aphrodite turned her into a real woman so he could marry her. The question is, can one human being create another human being? Do we have the power to create another person to meet our desires? The Talmud teaches that Rava created a man and sent him over to Rav Zeira. When the man could not speak, Rav Zeira told him to go back to the dust. Humans should not be creating other humans.
Out of this story grew the classic Jewish tale of the Golem, created by Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague. Made of dust with God’s name on his forehead, he protected the Jewish people. But when Rabbi Lowe could not control his own creation, he removed God’s name and the Golem returned to the dust. This story was recreated in the 1818 novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. And Pinocchio tells the story of a man who makes a puppet that turns into a little boy. By the way, Pinocchio was not the first person swallowed by a whale. That is the story of Jonah, that we will read this afternoon. But in real life, can one human being create another human being? Can one human being change another human being?
I have met people who marry believing that they can change their marital partner. Let me warn those considering marriage that this does not work. It is rare that people can change their spouse in a substantial way. In fact, as hard as it is to admit as a parent, it is exceedingly difficult to change our children. As poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.” Human beings cannot create other human beings. You love someone for whom they are, not for whom you wish to make them.
There is one exception, one person we can create. The great Hasidic Rebbe Zusya said that when he was young, he thought he could change the world. As he grew older, he thought he could change his country. Then he thought he could change his community. Still older, he thought he could change his family. Finally in his old age, he realized, there is only one person he could change – himself. On Yom Kippur the issue is, how can we change ourselves? How can we create ourselves? How can we become better people, the kind of people God meant us to become?
Can we really change the world by changing ourselves? I came across an old John Denver song on the radio that spoke to me. It is called The Potter’s Wheel. “Take a little clay, put it on the wheel, give a little hint how God must feel. Give a little turn make a little spin, make it in the shape you want it in.” The song reminded me of the prayer we said last night – “as clay we are in the hands of the potter.” We are clay in the hands of God, but we are also clay in our own hands. We change the world by creating ourselves.
A second musical. When I rent a car, if it has Sirius radio, I love to listen to the Broadway channel. On one trip I heard an interview with Sheldon Harnick. lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof. The show opened in 1964 and become a major hit, both on the stage and on film. But Harnick was telling the story of trying to find investors for his new musical. No one wanted to invest in a depressing story about antisemitism in a small Shtetl town. Finally, one investor asked him and composer Jerry Bock, tell me in one word what this show is really about? They paused, and then answered “Tradition.” The investor answered, “That has to be your theme.” They composed the first song of the show and the words stuck, “Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” The show became a major hit, not only in America but in multiple languages around the world. A Japanese version has been revised many times. The Japanese word for tradition is Dento.
Tradition is a major part of what makes us human. We cherish our traditions. Imagine going to a baseball game – remember baseball games – and being told the “seventh inning stretch” is now the “sixth inning stretch.” We would be disturbed. I have my own traditions. Now that so many stadiums sell kosher hot dogs, how long does one wait after eating a hot dog before buying ice cream? I follow an old Talmudic tradition that if I finish the hotdog before the first pitch, I wait seven innings. We love our traditions. But now this pandemic has totally disrupted almost all of our traditions.
It is not only the lesser traditions that have been disrupted – sports, theater, concerts, going out to eat with friends. Big traditions have also been disrupted – graduations, weddings, funerals. Thank God for zoom. But seeing one another in little square boxes on a computer is certainly not traditional. Corona has affected our own sacred traditions. Who would have dreamed I would be conducting yizkor services by camera into people’s televisions and computers? Remember the scenes in Fiddler on the Roof as each of Tevye’s daughters got married – Tevye weighing tradition versus change, “on this hand, on that hand.” In the fifties Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, a leader in the Conservative Movement, wrote a book about our movement called Tradition and Change.
These past months I feel like Tevye. On one hand, we need to provide a minyan so people can say kaddish. A minyan is ten Jews in the same room, seeing each other’s faces. That is not possible during Covid. We decided that if people see each other’s faces in a chat room, holding zoom services, it would be permissible to say kaddish. It is a break with tradition, but a necessary one. On the other hand, we need a minyan to read from the Torah. I was not comfortable bringing a Torah into my dining room and reading from it in front of my computer screen. We decided that the formal reading of the Torah would wait until we can bring ten Jews into the synagogue in person. There are rabbis who disagreed strongly with me on both of these positions. But during these difficult times, every rabbi must walk a tightrope between tradition and change.
Not every tradition is sacred. I think of the story of the young wife who would cut the ends off her brisket before roasting it. Her husband asked her why. “I don’t know, my mother did it that way.” They asked the mother why she cut off the ends of the brisket. “I don’t know, my mother, your grandmother did it that way. They went to the nursing home where the grandmother lived. “Why did you always cut the ends off the brisket.” The grandmother answered, “Because it would not fit in my baking pan.” We need our traditions, but sometimes we need to change our traditions. That is the lesson of Fiddler on the Roof.
A third musical. Let us move forward almost two generations, to 2015. That was the year Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical Hamilton opened, a rap-filled, energetic, picture of one of America’s founding fathers. Admittingly, the show is filled with anachronisms. I am sure the real Angelica Schulyer never said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ll compel him to include women in the sequel.” When someone complained about how he portrayed characters in the musical including slave owners, Miranda answered, “It is an imperfect play about imperfect people.”
I wanted to see Hamilton on Broadway with the original cast, but I did not have thousands of dollars for tickets. I would have to wait. Finally, I saw the touring company at the Broward Center. Then I watched the original cast version on television in my family room, downloading the Disney channel. If you do watch it, I recommend you listen to the cast album first and become familiar with the story.
Perhaps what stands out most in my mind is the casting. It was color-blind. In the original cast Hamilton was Hispanic, his nemesis Aaron Burr was black, his wife Eliza was Filipino, her sister Angelica was black, King George was white. played by a gay actor. In the version I saw at the Broward Center, George Washington was Asian. What was the point of this casting? It was an attempt to see past race and ethnicity, and simply to see people. It was a way of saying that the color of one’s skin should be no different than the color of one’s eyes. It was an attempt to fulfill Martin Luther King Jr’s dictum, that we should judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” For two and a half hours watching the play, race does not matter.
Would that this was true in America! We have learned over the past six months that race matters – and matters deeply. The first public meeting I attended after the Corona virus struck was a gathering of community leaders with Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony. After the terrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he wanted to know how the police can do better. I was surprised to find that I was the only rabbi there, and probably the only Jew. There were many people of color. And as they spoke, I learned something real and sad. They are truly scared about what will happen to their teenage or young adult sons if stopped by the police. They spoke about “the talk” they have with their sons and the fear was real. Certainly, most police are caring people who put their lives on the line each day. As one of the police chiefs said at the meeting, the worst enemy of a good policeman or policewoman is a bad policeman or policewoman. But at that meeting, I realized how the experience of being black in America is different from the experience of being white in America.
Racism is out there. It is even there among Jews, who often do not realize that the phrase schvartze is derogatory. Never mind that our Bible teaches, “Have we not one father, did not one God create us all?” (Malachi 2:10). Never mind that the Talmud says, “God made one man Adam as father to us all, so that no one may say, ‘My father is better than yours.’” Let me share a true story that happened to a black woman I know. She works in an office and a Jewish man came in to pay with a credit card. He took one look at the color of her skin and refused to hand her the credit card. He did not trust her because she was black. He went out at came back with cash. She was almost crying as she told me this story.
If the Corona virus is the number one news story this year, race is the number two story. Police shootings of blacks, riots, athletes kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner, black lives matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter, calls to defund police, calls for law and order, confrontations on the streets in our major cities – this is in the news. I do not wish to analyze all of these news stories before our yizkor sermon. I simply want to plead that we move towards a color-blind society. To quote another Broadway hit show Avenue Q, “everyone’s a little bit racist.” We must each fight the racism in our own souls, and learn to see every person, whatever the race, as created in the image of God.
I described three different Broadway shows and the lessons from each. My Fair Lady taught us that we cannot create other people, we can only create ourselves. Fiddler on the Roof taught us that tradition is important but sometimes we need to bend with the times. Hamilton taught us that we can create a society where we do not judge people by the color of their skin.
We are about to begin our Yizkor prayers. I think of the key line from Hamilton, “who lives, who dies, who tells our story.” How can I tell the story of those I love who are no longer with us? My parents have been gone over twenty years. I want to thank them for so many gifts. One of those gifts I received from my parents was my love for one of America’s great art forms, the Broadway musical. May we each think of the lessons we learned from those we remember today, may we tell their stories, and may we use those stories to make us better people. And let us say, Amen.