Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2022 High Holiday Sermons

Coming Soon.1ST DAY ROSH HASHANA 5783 – 2022
A little girl is sitting on her grandfather’s lap. She feels his cheek, old, rough, and filled with wrinkles. She asks, “Who made you, grandpa?” “God did..” Then she feels her own cheek, soft and smooth. “Who made me grandpa?” “God did.” She pauses for a second. “God is getting better at it, isn’t He.”
Younger people may have softer, smoother cheeks. We may all seek to look young, whether it is joining a gym or getting plastic surgery. But I have always liked the words of Eleanor Roosevelt. “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” How to become a work of art as we grow older is the subject I want to speak of today. In particular, I want to speak about a change in my own life this past year. For 43 years I have served as a full-time rabbi, first in Nyack NY, then in Pittsburgh, PA, and for the last 32 years in Tamarac, FL. Finally, I decided it was time to retire, time to transition to the next stage of my life. As Adam said to Eve as they were leaving the Garden of Eden, “Honey, we are living in an age of transition.” I was about to enter a period of transition.
So what should I do with my life once I retired from this big, busy synagogue. The head of placement for the Rabbinical Assembly recommended I read a book called Transitions. The book said that every transition has three stages, the ending of the old, the in-between period, and the beginning of the new. Mine was the strangest three-part transition ever. It took place over three days. Thursday was the ending, my last day at the old synagogue; I treated the staff to lunch, turned in my keys, and walked out the door. I felt a sense of both sadness and relief. Friday was my in-between day, I spent it doing a funeral. There was no rest on that day. Saturday was the beginning of the new, conducting services here, a retired rabbi serving a retirement community. It was a quick, but a real transition.
When I announced my plans to retire, the local Chabad rabbi and a friend stopped by to see me. He told me point blank, “Rabbis do not retire!” He was describing the world of Chabad, where a rabbi goes into a community and works forever, as long as his health holds out. In Chabad it is always a man. I appreciate the Chabad approach, but it is not my approach. I knew it was time to pass on the baton to a younger rabbi, who could better serve the young families there. In my case, a married Rabbinic couple took over. I told the Chabad rabbi, “I am retiring from a job at a synagogue, I am not retiring from life.” For me, the ideal was to find a synagogue of mostly retirees looking for a retired rabbi. So, what brought me to Beth Shalom?
I remember the first day I came into your building to learn about the congregation. I saw an office filled with people working. I was amazed. I asked, “How big is your staff?” Howard Rosenhouse, your president, answered me. “They are not staff. They are all volunteers.” That is when I realized that, if there are that many volunteers, I want to become part of this place. These are people who found meaning and purpose in life by working for a synagogue. Many have retired from jobs. But they have not retired from life.
Let me share with you one of the most frequent counseling questions I face, particularly since I moved to Florida. Someone comes to see me. “Rabbi, I retired from my job. My kids have left home. My health is not what it used to me. I wake up and have no purpose. I do not want to watch tv all day. I do not know what to do with myself. Why should I go on living?” Sometimes they tell me, “Rabbi, I lost my spouse. My kids live out of town. What should I do?” I have a standard answer. “If you have no purpose for living, you would not be living any longer. You are still in this world because God is not yet ready to take you. There must be something God still wants you to do in this world. You need to figure out what that something is.” To quote Rabbi Nachman of Braslev, “The day you were born is the day God decided the world could not exist without you.”
The psychologist Abraham Maslow built a pyramid of human needs. At the bottom are physical needs like food, then security needs like safety, then belonging needs like love. Finally towards the top, Maslow mentions self-achievement and a sense of purpose. If our basic needs are met, if we have food on our table and a safe place to live, if we have people in our lives who care about us, we still need something else. We need a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. With my retirement, I knew that I had to find a sense of purpose. That is why I teach college. That is why I am publishing a new book. And that is why I came to work at Beth Shalom. We are a synagogue filled with people who have made the transition from retirement to a renewed sense of purpose. I am proud of our synagogue.
What do I tell people going through a transition, looking for a purpose in life? I remember one such counseling session, a retired professional, bored, wondering what to do with his life. I asked him what he really loved. He did not know what to say. Then he shared that when he was young, he loved theater. He acted in school plays as a teen. Together we looked up community theater groups. Perhaps he could go as a volunteer.. Perhaps he could do what I did in high school. I was supposed to be in a school play. But my acting skills were not so great, so the director turned to me and said, “Maybe you should work the lights.” The man might not make it to Broadway. But perhaps he can work the lights. Perhaps even ushering at a community theater can give a sense of purpose. And such groups need volunteers.
What can one do who is looking for a purpose in life? There are countless organizations that need volunteers, from nursing homes to animal shelters to Jewish organizations, the federation, the Jewish community center, the Jewish National Fund, and of course, the synagogue. There are ongoing adult learning opportunities, including an excellent one here in Boca at Florida Atlantic University. I spoke for them this summer. One can finally learn to play the piano, or garden, or bake, or crochet, or maybe learn a foreign language – Spanish, French, or maybe Hebrew? One can learn to lead some of the Hebrew prayers, like the ashrei, or even chant a haftarah.
Some of us are blessed to have grandchildren in the area we can care for. My grandson lives in South Carolina, so I treasure the moments we visit in person. If we are fortunate enough to have the means, we can travel. If we cannot travel to far away places, we can read about them. There are countless book clubs. We can learn to play golf or tennis, or even pickle ball, the fastest growing sport in America. What is important is that we have a reason to get up in the morning. We were put on this earth to do something. Never say one is too old. Tom Brady is still playing professional football at 45. Jay Haas made the cut in a PGA tournament at 68. Grandma Moses started painting at 78, Helen Hoover Santmyer published her bestselling novel And the Ladies of the Club at 87.
I truly believe that each of us has the ability to do something to make this a better world. It could be as complex as participating in Volunteers for Israel or as simple as visiting a shut-in neighbor. There is a story of a man who, at the end of his life, enters the next world. He asks to confront God directly and is led before God’s holy throne. There he expresses his anger. “God, look at the world You created. Filled with poverty and illness and hatred. God, why do You not do something about it.” God answers, “I did do something about it.” “What was that ?” says the man, still angry. God answers, “I sent you.”
Jewish mysticism teaches that when God created the world, God filled the world with netzitzot “holy sparks” of light encased in kelipot “coverings.” Our job as humans is to uncover and release those holy sparks. Every action, no matter how minor, that improves this world, releases some of those holy sparks. That is what the phrase tikkun olam means, perfecting this world. That is what we need to do.
Perhaps you are thinking, why should I start something new? I am too old. I remember once talking to a woman debating whether to start a graduate program in college. “How can I? In four years when I finish, I will be 72.” I responded, “And how old will you be in four years if you do not go into the program?” Even if we do not finish what we start, we need to begin. Let me share one of my favorite teachings from the Talmud. Lo aleica hamelacha ligmore v’lo ata ben horin l’hebatel minena. “You are not obligated to finish the task, but nor are you free to avoid it altogether.” One of my favorite TV shows is Blue Bloods. It is about a family of New York police, all of them Irish Catholics. In every episode they have a family dinner. Perhaps that is why I like the show. At one such dinner, the father Police Commissioner Frank Reagan quotes this passage. “You are not obligated to finish the task, but nor are you free to avoid it altogether.” His son asks him, where did you hear that? He calmly answers, “The Talmud.” I suppose the show has a Jewish writer. I love hearing an Irish Catholic character on a tv show quote the Talmud.
Let me tell you something about me. I love Broadway musicals. I often quote them in my sermons. Let me start right now. There is a wonderful show called Pippin that won numerous Tony awards, including one for director Bob Fosse. The composer, Stephen Schwartz, was also the composer of Godspell and a show that should be familiar, Wicked. Schwartz obviously knows how to write excellent music. Pippin takes place in the Middle Ages where the young son of the King Charlemagne is searching for the meaning of life. He approaches his grandmother Berthe who sings a show-stopping number. Let me share some of her lyrics, “Here is a secret I never have told, Maybe you’ll understand why. I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die.” Refuse to grow old, and you can stay young till you die. That is the secret of a successful life, refuse to grow old so you can stay young till you die.
For me, this is a year of transition. The book I read said transitions involve an end, an in-between time, and a beginning. I retired from a long career. But for me, I do not want to focus on the end nor the in-between time. I want to focus on the beginning. This is a wonderful beginning of a new period of my life. Shehechiyanu v’kiyanum v’higiyanu lazman haze. I feel blessed that God kept me alive, sustained me, and allowed me to reach this period.
Perhaps most important, Rosh Hashana is a day of transition. We chant Hayom Harat Olam “Today is the birthday of the world.” On every birthday we thank God for having survived another year of life, and we think, how do we want to transition in the coming year? Rosh Hashana is the perfect time to ask the question, what do we want to accomplish in 5783? Rosh Hashana is the time to sing Happy Birthday to the world. What can we do to make that world a better place? What transitions await us this coming year?
Life is filled with transitions. Birth is a transition. A bar or bat mitzvah is a transition.
Going off to college is a transition. Our first job is a transition. Getting married is a transition. Having a baby is a transition. Losing someone we love is a transition. Today I spoke of a transition I went through this past year – retirement. Retirement is a transition. But there is, for many of us, the most difficult transition of all. It is the transition of growing older, of our bodies no longer doing what they used to, of realizing that we can no longer do the things we loved doing when we were younger. I want to talk about that transition, but to hear more, you have to come back tomorrow. As we enter the new year, may God help us as we make all the transitions of our life.
And let us say, Amen.

2nd DAY ROSH HASHANA 5783 – 2022
Sidney was called into court to testify. The attorney asked him his age. “84 until 120,” he answered.” “Please just answer the question, how old are you? “84 until 120.” The judge jumped in. “Sir, please give us a simple answer. How old are you?” “84 until 120.” Finally, the opposing attorney stepped forward. “Perhaps I can help. Until 120, how old are you? “84,” answered Sidney.
Biz hundert un tsvantsig. Ad meah v’esrim. Until 120. Jewish tradition teaches that we should live 120 years. That is how long Moses lived. In all of my years doing funerals, I have never buried anyone who made it to 120. I have performed a few funerals for people who came close to 110. Last year I buried a woman who lived till 109. The amazing thing is that, until near the end, I used to run into her at a kosher restaurant at Sunrise. Her caretaker did not drive her to the restaurant. She walked. Until 106 she walked to that restaurant.
The number 120 comes from the Torah. God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and plants an angel to keep them out. They had already eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. They should not eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. They should not become as gods. “God said, “My breath shall not abide in humankind forever, since it too is flesh; let the days allowed them be one hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3). That is the Jewish dream, 120 years.
Perhaps a more realistic number is found in the book of Psalms. Y’mei sh’noteinu bahem shivim shana, v’im b’giborot shmonim shana “The days of our years are seventy, if given the strength eighty” (Psalms 90:10). Thank God I have been given the strength, because I have passed seventy. With God’s help, I plan to pass eighty. But I know that no one is given forever. Our bodies, like everything else in the universe, are subject to the laws of entropy. All things break down eventually. The universe itself will eventually burn out. Or as William Butler Yeats wrote in his wonderful poem, The Second Coming, “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.”
I realized this recently when going out to dinner with friends. In my college days, when I was young, going out with friends, we talked about dating, careers, and the philosophy of life. When I was married and raising a family, we talked about kids, sports, and politics. Recently, when going out, we talked about doctors, hospitals, and medical issues. It suddenly dawned on me. I have become my parents.
Perhaps the idea of aging is best reflected in the words of Yehuda ben Tema in the Talmud, “At five years of age the study of Scripture; At ten the study of Mishnah; At thirteen subject to the commandments; At fifteen the study of Talmud; At eighteen the bridal canopy; At twenty for pursuit [of livelihood]; At thirty the peak of strength; At forty wisdom; At fifty giving counsel; At sixty old age; At seventy fullness of years; At eighty strength; At ninety a bent body; At one hundred,” never mind what it says about one hundred.
Yesterday I spoke about the book I was told to read as I planned my retirement, Transitions. One of the themes of the book is the riddle of the Sphinx. “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening.” Oedipus solved the riddle, the Sphinx is speaking about a human. A baby crawls on four legs and arms, an adult walks on two legs, an older person needs a cane, walking on three. Of course, today many of us have walkers instead of canes. We walk on five or six legs, perhaps with wheels on two of them.
I understand the need for a walker. I had to use one for six weeks after surgery on my hip. I had cracked it and the doctor pinned me back together. But I was forbidden to put weight on it. I could drive, I even had a temporary handicapped parking permit, but if I wanted to carry my computer, I had a problem. I could not use the walker and carry it. I realized the meaning of Blanche Dubois’s words in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” If I was going into a restaurant, I had a stranger carry my computer in for me. Luckily, none of those strangers ran away with my computer. I could not have chased them with my walker.
Judaism has some fascinating teachings about our bodies. First, each morning a Jew says a prayer for the miracle of his or her body. We say that if one of the organs of our body is open when it should be closed or closed when it should be open, we could not exist in the world. Baruch Ata Adonai, Rofei Kol Basar u’Mafli Laasot. “Praised are You O Lord, Who heals all flesh and performs many wonders.”
Second, our bodies do not belong to us. According to the Talmud, if I tell someone to break my arm and they will not be liable, if they break my arm they are liable. Why? My arm does not belong to me. It belongs to God. God gave it to me to do God’s work. That is why in Judaism, if I abuse my body, whether with alcohol or drugs or unhealthy eating, I am sinning against God. In Judaism, the book by the Boston Women’s Health Collective Our Bodies, Ourselves, does not quite fit. The Jewish title should be Our Bodies, Our God. And bodies, following the laws of entropy, grow older.
But what if our bodies cannot do what they used to? We should thank God for what they can do. If we cannot hit the golf ball 300 yards, maybe we can still hit it 300 feet. Or maybe we can play miniature golf, a great activity with grandchildren, And if we can no longer play golf, at least we can watch it on TV. After all, we are still alive. And perhaps if I can quote another musical, Gigi. It was originally a movie with music by Lerner and Lowe; in 1959 it won Best Picture.. Do you remember the wonderful Maurice Chevalier singing, “The fountain of youth is dull as paint, Methuselah is my patron saint, I’ve never been so comfortable before. Oh, I’m so glad that I’m not young anymore.”
Jewish tradition sees something positive in our bodies growing older. It prefers the wisdom of age to the flexibility of youth. You are probably familiar with the words in the Passover Haggadah. “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, Behold I am like a man of seventy years and I have not merited [to understand why] the exodus from Egypt should be said at night.” He was like a man of seventy. In truth, he was only eighteen when he said these words. He believed he was too young to become head of the academy. God performed a miracle. God made him appear as a man of seventy so he would fit the role. He thanked God for the miracle of making him look old.
Judaism has always respected the wisdom of age. The Torah teaches, “Rise up before the hoary head” (Leviticus 19:32). Nonetheless, Judaism also recognizes the pain of aging. One of the most poignant prayers in Judaism is repeated over and over on Yom Kippur, whenever we open the ark for Sh’ma Kolenu. Al Tashlichenu L’et Zikna, Kekhlot Kocheinu al Taazveinu. “Do not cast us aside in our old age, as we lose our strength do not abandon us.” As the cliché goes, growing old is not for sissies. So why did God make a world this way? Why could we not live forever? I think of the words of Woody Allen, “I do not want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”
I want to share some thoughts from my book The Ten Journeys of Life. The last of the journeys in the book is mortality, a journey we each must take. In the book, I asked why not live forever? I gave an example. Imagine having a teenage son and telling him to clean up his room. He can do it whenever he gets around to it. Will he ever clean up that room? Of course not. Now imagine telling that teenage son, if you want to go out this weekend, your room better be cleaned up by Friday. Now there is a time limit. And nothing focuses the mind like a time limit. When you only have so much time, when you have a deadline, you get things done.
I teach college. I give my students a series of deadlines when each assignment and quiz is due. Regularly I receive emails, “Professor, I missed the deadline.” “I lost track of time.” “I could not get off work.” “My dog ate my computer.” Usually I will ignore such requests, unless there is a real excuse. “My grandfather died.” “I had Covid.” “I had a baby.” Then I may give an extension. But if it is the end of the semester and grades are due, there are no longer excuses. If they do not get the work done, they do not pass the course. I have had some students furious with me. But part of growing up is learning to work within deadlines.
When we go to work, our boss may give us a project to work on. There is always a time limit. “This report must be done by next Tuesday.” “This mailing must be done by next Friday.” If we tell our boss, I did not get it done, there is a good chance we will lose our job. Jobs come with expectations and with deadlines. And bosses do not like missed deadlines.
What is true for teenagers, what is true for college students, what is true for workers, is true for life in general. Life gives us a deadline. We have things we need to accomplish in life. And we are given a time limit. As I mentioned in my sermon yesterday, the Talmud teaches, “Our job is not to finish the task, but nor are we free to avoid it altogether.” God puts us in the world with a job to do, a mission to complete. And God gives us a time limit. Growing older, having our body not work as it used to, is a sign that we need to become focused. We need to make sure the job is complete.
One of my favorite Hasidic stories speaks of the great rebbe Susya, at the end of his life. His students gather around him praying. They see Susya broken out in tears. “Why are you crying, our teacher. Don’t you know you live a full life, gathering many students, teaching Torah, doing good deeds.” Susya answered, “I am crying because I see what will happen when I arrive in the next world. They will not ask me why I was not Moses. I was not meant to be Moses. They will not ask me why I was not Rabbi Akiba. I was not meant to be Rabbi Akiba. I am crying because I know they will ask me, why was I not Susya? I am asking, why was I not Susya?” The meaning of the story is the belief, when we go to the next world, we will be asked, were we the person God sent us into the world to be. Did we do the mission we were sent to do? Did we accomplish what we needed to accomplish?
Our bodies breaking down sends us a clear message. Time is limited. We are not given forever. What do we need to do while we are still in this world? God gives a body to do God’s work in this world. We need our bodies. But our bodies will not last forever. Perhaps a few lucky people live to 120. Most of us live to 70, 80, 90, maybe 100. It is God’s way of telling us we have a time limit. It is time to get focused. It is time to do what God sent you into this world to do.
As I said yesterday, on Rosh Hashana we sing Hayom Harat Olam, “Today is the birthday of the world.” Birthdays focus the mind. Whether it is the birthday of the world, or our own personal birthdays, it is the time to ask, what do I need to accomplish in the coming year. What does God want me to do to make this a better world. As Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot, “The day is short and the work is plenty, the laborers are lazy but the work is great, and the Master of the House is insistent.”
We need to thank God for our bodies. We need to take care of our bodies. But we need to take care of our bodies because they house our souls. And our souls have jobs to do in this world. May each of us use this New Year to find our sense of purpose, the reason God sent us into this world. May God help us with that effort, and let us say

KOL NIDRE 2022 – 5783
Two Corona viruses are speaking. One says, “I have to find someone to infect. 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 over two years, 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 manifested 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, the late 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.”
I could speak about antisemitism in Europe or the Middle East. But tonight, 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 once served 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, synagogue security has become a major issue. 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. My former synagogue has an armed guard outside the door. 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. 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. Jews are the enemy and must be stopped, using guns if necessary. To quote Bari Weiss, author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, 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. Recently 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.
Let me give you a taste of the danger of this radical leftist thinking. In my home state of California, there is a new law that every school must offer ethnic studies as a requirement of graduation. Many school districts are contracting with a group who put out the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. Here is the goal of that curriculum, taken directly from their webpage – to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy [note – those who oppose transgender people], capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism [note – those who favor humans over animals], and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.” This is what they are teaching our children. If you think that curriculum includes Zionism in that list of evils, you are correct. Zionism is a form of oppression, according to this curriculum.
So, antisemitism is growing on the right and antisemitism is growing on the left. Both have an oversimplified, binary view of the world. The world is divided into good guys and bad guys. On the right, the good guys are white Christians, and the bad guys are blacks and immigrants and those seeking to replace them, with the help of the Jews. On the left, the good guys are the oppressed and the bad guys are the oppressors, in other words, the Jews. In both cases, the Jews are the bad guys and deserve the hate. Both the right and the left see the world as black and white, with no shades of gray. But reality is far more complex.
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 every policy of the current Israeli government. Many Israelis disagree with these 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 5783 – 2022
It was the height of the Covid pandemic. Masks were required everywhere. A man went out to the mall refusing to wear a mask. A policeman stopped him, “Sir, you must put on a mask.” “No!” said the man. “If you refuse, I am afraid that I can give you one of two choices. Choice A, you must go home, not leave your house, stay with your wife and family. Or Choice B.” Before the policeman could say anything else, the man responded, “I will take Choice B.”
Unlike the man in that story, for two years I behaved. I wore a mask when I went out. I wore it to Publix and when restaurants opened, in the restaurant until my food was served. I wore it to the theater and on airplanes. The result. I did not get my annual winter cold and cough. However, after two shots and two boosters, I did get Covid. I got it while on vacation in California. That was no fun.
The other place I wore a mask was in my previous synagogue. They had a mask mandate until last month. I wore one, but I was allowed to take it off to give my sermons and read Torah. Our cantor could take it off to chant the service. However, part of the problem was that I became the mask policeman. I used to walk into the congregation if a man was sitting without a yarmulke. Now I had to walk into the congregation if someone was sitting without a mask. And that mask better cover both their mouth and nose. When a man said to me, “I am here for my niece’s bat mitzvah and you cannot make me wear a mask,” I had to say, “Either put on a mask or leave.”
This issue became part of the politics of the synagogue. I remember a call from one person, “If the synagogue lifts the mask mandate, I will no longer attend services.” Then I received a call from another person, “Until the synagogue lifts the mask mandate, I will not attend services.” So is the life of a rabbi. I remember the first wedding I performed during Covid. I am used to the family passing out yarmulkes with the name of the bride and groom. Now they also passed out masks with the name of the bride and groom. On that occasion I was allowed to take off the mask to perform the ceremony. But I did perform a few other weddings with a mask on.
It is not just me as a rabbi. This issue tore our state apart. Here in South Florida, when students returned to school, the local school boards passed a mask mandate for students. The governor in Tallahassee said that such policies are forbidden by state law; schools must follow a mask optional policy. The school boards were fined. To the best of my knowledge, the issue is in litigation. This was a big part of the fact that masks became a political issue. I will admit that when I came to our synagogue with its masks optional policy, it was refreshing.
Why did I wear a mask, even when it was optional? Because Jewish law is clear, when it comes to a question of health, we follow the medical experts. If the Center for Disease Control says that masks are necessary to protect my health and that of others, I will wear it. The Torah says v’chai bahem “you shall live by them.” We do what is necessary for life and health. Health trumps everything else. But then after two years, I decided to stop wearing a mask, unless it is required. Enough.
I remember the Joni Mitchell song Both Sides Now, one of my all-time favorite songs. There is a lyric in the song, “Something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.” I know what was gained by wearing masks. We protected each other’s health. But something equally important was lost. We could no longer see each other’s faces. Let us explore what Judaism says about wearing masks.
There is one Jewish holiday where it is traditional to wear masks – Purim. We sing Hag Purim, Hag Purim, Hag Gadol le’Yehudim. Masecchot, Raashanim, Zemirot, Rikudim. “The festival of Purim, the festival of Purim, a great festival for Jews. Masks, noisemakers, songs, and dance.” We sing about masechot – masks. On Purim we cover up. The very name Esther comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to hide.” Esther hid her true self, her Jewish identity. Even God hides on Purim. The book of Esther is the one book of the Bible where God’s name never appears. Purim is a holiday of covering up.
But Purim is one day a year. It means that every other day, we uncover, reveal our true selves. We literally show our face. We face the world as we really are. Costumes are great for Purim, but not for year around. By the way, go shopping for masks and other costumes the day after Halloween when the price is discounted, and put it away until Purim.
There is one other example in the Torah where someone wears a mask. When Moses come down from the mountain after encountering God for forty days and forty nights, his face shone with rays of light. If was too difficult for people to look at him; the light was too bright. So Moses put on a mask to cover his face when he saw the people. The Torah uses the phrase karan or p’nai Moshe “Moses’ face radiated rays of light.’ The word karan means “ray”, but it can also mean “horn.” This is the basis of the tradition that Jews have horns.
The Torah teaches that Moses spoke to God face-to-face, something unique. Small wonder his face gave off a light. He took off the mask when he spoke to God. The commentator Abarbanel makes a fascinating comment about this. “He should not use the divine light when he was eating, drinking, sleeping, or when he spoke with his wife and family about matters unrelated to Torah.” Moses should remain masked for unholy, secular moments and only unmask for the holiest moments. To uncover one’s face, at least for Moses, was a moment of holiness.
The face is extremely important in Judaism. In fact, let me give you a brief Hebrew lesson. Let us suppose you want to say “face” in Hebrew in the singular. One face. You cannot say it. The word for “face” is panim which is always written in the plural. One face always needs another face in Hebrew. God spoke to Moses panim el panim face-to-face. That is why Moses’ face shined with a light. Our face needs to be in the presence of other faces. Faces need one another.
I remember a story about the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He asked a student how he arrived at the seminary. The student answered that he walked. Heschel asked, “Did you see God as you walked?” The student answered, “I did not take the beautiful path, through Riverside Park along the Hudson River. I was late so I walked along Broadway.” Heschel responded, “You walked along Broadway, probably passing a few hundred people, and you did not see God?” The story is clear. In Judaism we see God when we encounter the face of another human being.
This idea is reflected in one of my favorite teachings from the Torah. The Israelites built a mishkan, a portable sanctuary to carry through the desert. God would speak to them from within the mishkan. From where in the sanctuary did God speak. One would think that it would be the holiest place, the kodesh kedoshim or Holy of Holies, where the tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept. This was covered by a curtain to preserve its holiness. But that is not the right place. God did not speak from the Holy of Holies.
Above the Holy of Holies were two Cherubim, liked winged angels with the faces of children. Their wings touched above their heads, but they sat face-to-face. God spoke from between the faces of the Cherubim. Let me say that again. God spoke from between the faces of the Cherubim. That is a profound Jewish teaching. When one human being encounters another human being face-to-face, God is present. We humans encounter God as we encounter each other.
Two great Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century built on this idea. The first was Martin Buber. When I was in college, everyone loved Martin Buber. Buber spoke about two kinds of relationships – I–It and I–Thou. An I-It relationship is when I meet another human being but do not truly see them, I am simply using them for my own purposes. An I-Thou relationship is a total encounter, where I am in the presence of another human being. Buber says that “Every Thou is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou.” The Eternal Thou is Buber’s name for God. When I am totally in the presence of another human being, that is where I meet God. With Buber we do not talk about God, we encounter God. But we encounter God when we are face-to-face with another human being.
Another great Jewish philosopher was the French existentialist Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas also built a philosophy of encounter. But he taught that when we encounter another human being, they still remain the other. We can never fully know them. But the encounter with the other lays ethical obligations on us. I cannot be in the presence of the other and not react. Ethics was at the heart of Levinas’s philosophy. He called it the “first philosophy.” And ethics begins with an encounter, with seeing the face of the other.
Buber and Levinas, both Jewish but two very different philosophers, both built their philosophy on moments of encounter. We encounter the other face-to-face, in their presence, without a mask. And that encounter transforms us and transforms them. In the encounter with the other, God is present. Does such a face-to-face encounter work using Zoom? I ran a minyan on Zoom for over two years, the daily minyan of my old synagogue is still on Zoom. Technology is great. But it is not as good as face-to-face. With masks we gained something but we also lost something. We gained better health; many of us avoided getting sick, or at least as sick. But we lost something, those moments of being face-to-face in the presence of the other. “Something’s lost but something’s gained in living everyday.”
We are about to begin our yizkor services. I think of the face-to-face moments I had with those for whom I am saying yizkor. I remember being in the presence of my parents, my brother, my wife’s parents, my aunt and uncle and other beloved relatives. I used to look forward to being in their presence. Now, if I cannot see them face-to-face, at least I can feel their presence heart-to-heart. I will always treasure the moments that I was in their presence.
But that brings me to an important message for today. I have family members who live far away. All three of my children, my son-in-law, my grandson, my brother and his family, all my cousins, live out of state. It is hard, and expensive, to get together face-to-face. But we need those face-to-face moments. When someone tells me that their daughter or son live in New York while they live in Florida, that they have not seen each other face-to-face because of Covid, I am deeply saddened. We need to be together, in each other’s presence. Yes, we need to do whatever is necessary to protect our health. Masks may be important. But we need to also do what is necessary to protect our spiritual health. We need to be in the presence of the people we love face-to-face. Remember that God dwells in those face-to-face encounters.
So are masks good or bad? The answer is that they are both. They are good if they prevent us and others from getting sick. They are bad if they prevent us from being in the presence of others, face-to-face. Let us remember that God dwells in those face-to-face moments. May we uncover our faces, be in the presence of others, and in doing so, be in the presence of God,
and let us say Amen.