Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Kee tavo

“In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’—because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.” (Deuteronomy 28:67)

This week’s portion contains a long list of curses. It lists virtually every awful thing that can happen to a human being. These curses are the punishment if we forget God’s commandments. Traditionally, these are read quickly in a low tone of voice with no interruptions. If we say them in a low voice, perhaps they will not happen. The reading ends on an upbeat note. Even if bad things happen in the present, better times will come in the future.
It is easy not to focus on the details of the curses. Yet there is one that describes the situation of so many people I have known through the years. In the morning you will say, if only it were evening, and in the evening you will say, if only it were morning. It is a description of absolute sadness, where life is not worth living. It is depression at its worst. And too often, I have seen people who believed their lives were not worth living, and who took their own lives. Over the years I have buried too many people who have chosen suicide as a way out of their pain and sadness.
Traditional Jewish law forbids a person who commits suicide from being buried in the regular section of a Jewish cemetery. Like most rabbis including the Orthodox, I ignore this law. I see suicide as a death by an illness and treat it like any other illness. We know that clinical depression can be a debilitating illness that deserves treatment, not condemnation. Depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Fortunately, we have doctors who can treat such depression with medication. But people have to be willing to seek such treatment and take the medication.
Often, depression is created by life circumstances. The loss of a loved one, a physical illness, the breakup of a marriage or relationship, or the loss of a job, can send someone into a deep depression. Few of us get through life without experiencing some kind of loss. There is a Buddhist story of a woman who could not get past the loss of her son. She went to the Buddha for help. He said he wanted her to collect a mustard seed from every home in her neighborhood and bring them to him. But she can only collect from homes that have never known a loss. The woman thanked the Buddha and prepared to collect the mustard seeds. She soon returned to the Buddha empty handed. She has realized, there is no home that has not had a loss. She was finally able to find peace after the death of her son and become a devotee of the Buddha.
We all experience losses, sometimes terrible losses, in our lives. The goal is to find a way to mourn and then to move on. Moving on is not easy. But with time, often counseling, and perhaps finding a purpose for life once again, people move on. I have met too many Holocaust survivors who lost entire families in Europe, came to this country, and built new lives with new families. It can be done.
There is another kind of depression which is spoken of in these curses. Someone who says in the morning, I wish it were evening, and in the evening, I wish it were morning, is suffering from a lack of purpose in life. They have nothing to look forward to. Their lives have become a sad, endless routine. It reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s powerful lyrics in her song, The Circle Game, “And the seasons, they go round and round. And the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return we can only look, behind from where we came. And go round and round and round in the circle game.” The song strikes me as deeply sad.
We need a purpose for living, for arising in the morning. We need to know why we are here on this earth. To quote psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, paraphrasing Nietzsche, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”


“You shall betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, and you shall not live in it; you shall plant a vineyard and shall not gather its grapes.”  (Deuteronomy 28:30)

Much of this portion consists of a long list of curses which threaten the Israelites if they ignore God’s commandments.  Traditionally this is read quickly in a low tone of voice, with the hope that if they are not pronounced too loudly, they will not come true.  Sadly, most of these curses have come true in Jewish history.

One of the curses speaks of a man betrothing a wife and another man marrying her, building a house and another person living in it, planting a vineyard and another person harvesting the grapes.  This portion is a commentary on an earlier section of Deuteronomy, summarizing the laws of war.  (See Deuteronomy 20:5 -7.)  The order is somewhat different there.  A Priest addresses the soldiers and says, if there is someone who has built a house and not lived in it, let him go home from the war, lest he die in battle and someone else live in it.  If there is someone who has planted a vineyard and not harvested it, let him go home, lest he die in battle and someone else harvest it.  If there is someone who has betrothed a wife and not married her (betrothal and marriage were two separate ceremonies), let him go home, lest he die in battle and someone else marry her.

The Rabbis of the Talmud learn proper behavior from this order (Sotah 44a).  A man should first build a home (have a place to live), then plant a vineyard (have a way to eat), and only then get married.  (Once again, the Talmud tends to be men talking to men.)  Without a place to live, one cannot move forward with the most important decisions of life.  The first human need is for one to have a roof over their head, a place of shelter.  This brings me to one of the most vexing problems in our country – homelessness.

The issue is difficult in every major city.  But I find it particularly jarring when I visit my home city of Los Angeles.  Entire tent cities have popped up throughout the city.  Last summer my son and I visited Venice Beach, one of the liveliest places to visit in Los Angeles.  But to get from our car to the beach, we had to walk through a huge homeless encampment.  It was both scary and sad, people forced to live in tents in one of the wealthiest cities in the country.

The problem is, how ought we to deal with the problem?  The haftarah we chant Yom Kippur morning speaks of ethical action we are required to take.  God does not want our fasting without action to make this a better world.  The prophet Isaiah speaks explicitly about the homeless problem.  “Take the wretched poor into your home” (Isaiah 58:7).  Isaiah’s words are clearly unrealistic.  There is a fancy word, supererogatory, for behavior that may be a nice thing to do but go beyond the call of duty.

I claim no expertise on how to solve this difficult problem.  I am aware that many (but not all) homeless people suffer from drug addiction or mental problems.  I have spoken to a homeless woman who prefers life on the street and refuses to even seek help at a shelter.  I will leave it to the experts who work with the homeless every day to seek solutions.

Nonetheless, I have been influenced by the thinking of Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921 – 2002) and his book A Theory of Justice.  Rawls imagined what it would be like if we had to design an economic system from behind a veil of ignorance.  We would not know in advance if we would be born rich or poor, white or black, male or female, able-bodied or disabled.  What kind of society would we design?

Rawls teaches that there is nothing wrong with achieving great wealth, as long as that opportunity was opened to everyone.  However, there are certain basic social goods that everybody deserves.  We would design a society in which everyone has a roof over the head and enough food to eat.  The difficulty is how to implement Rawls’s theory of justice in our own country.


“Cursed be he who moves his fellow’s landmark.”  (Deuteronomy 27:17)

Our next-door neighbors just finished putting in a pool.  After months of heavy equipment which also tore up our lawn and sidewalk, they are now enjoying the addition to their home.  To protect children, they put a fence around the property.  The fence seemed too close to our home, so I looked for the property line.  There was the survey marker in the ground; the fence was done properly.

For a moment I was tempted to move the marker.  Then I thought about the curses in this week’s portion for moving a property marker.  The fence remains where it is.  But it made me think about the human need to divide up land into parcels of private property.  Private property is a “social construct,” not part of nature but a human invention.  So much of human life and culture is made up of social constructs.

I thought of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) who famously said, “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.”   He meant that humanity raised in nature is free.  But it is civilization including money and private property that enslaves human beings.  We would be much better off if we were raised like Tarzan or Mawgli in The Jungle Book, living in the wild.  In fact, Rousseau advocated an educational program where children were free to follow their natural desires to learn, with no curriculum forced upon them.  But we humans live in civilization, a world filled with social constructs.

A social construct can be defined as a human institution which is not part of nature but develops as a result of human interaction.  Many of the ideas were developed in the 1967 book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, considered one of the most important books on sociology in the twentieth century.   In the class I developed on Introduction to Religion, I quote Berger, who claims religion is a social construct.  I ask my students whether this makes religion untrue or unnecessary?

Private property is certainly a social construct, as is money.   Marriage is a social construct, not part of nature but an institution that we humans have developed.  There is much discussion today about gender as a social construct.  Sex is biological but gender was created by society.  Many individuals do not identify with the gender of their birth (transgender.)  More and more frequently, individuals are choosing to not be identified with any gender at all.  They choose to be called by the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she.”  Many conservatives respond that gender is not a social construct at all, but part of biology.

Another controversy today is whether race is a social construct.  Many claim that race was invented by those in power to control the powerless.  I like to believe that we are all simply human beings and that our race should be as irrelevant as our handedness.  But obviously much of our society is defined by race.  Everything from Black Lives Matter to Critical Race Theory to the 1619 Project puts race at the center of our human understanding of ourselves.  As much as I would love to see the issue of race disappear, it has become the focus of our culture.  I will have more to say about this in one of my High Holiday sermons.

Another relevant topic is whether ethics are a social construct.  Most philosophers believe that ethics do not occur naturally in nature but are human inventions.  Aristotle disagreed, and Thomas Aquinas built an entire philosophy of natural law from Aristotle, trying to learn ethics from nature.  Catholic Canon law is built on Aquinas.  But Judaism rejects the idea of natural law.  But if ethics does not come from nature, where does it come from?  It is a difficult and profound question.

As human beings we live in a world of social constructs – property, money, marriage, religion, gender, race, ethics, etc.  The list goes on.  We are not going back to Rousseau’s world of living in nature.  But because something is a social construct, does that make it bad or unnecessary?  I will return to this question next week.


“You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name there.”  (Deuteronomy 26:2)

The High Holidays are approaching.  Summer is drawing to a close.  And with the end of summer comes the end of those wonderful summer fruits – peaches, plums, nectarines.  Fruit is a delightful gift that trees give us.  Small wonder that the Torah says when we go to war, we should not cut down the fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19).  One thinks of Shel Silverstein’s wonderful book The Giving Tree.

This week’s portion begins with the laws of the first fruits of trees.  They belong to God, or at least to the Priests serving in God’s stead.  For three years the Israelites did not eat the fruit.  In the fourth year the fruit was put in a basket and taken to Jerusalem, where a special formula was recited.  (The Rabbis made that formula into the heart of the Passover Seder.)  The fruit was then given to the Priests.  Finally, in the fifth year the Israelites could enjoy the fruits of their trees.

When we speak about the third and fourth year, how do we know how old a tree is? Jewish tradition celebrates a birthday of the trees each winter.  The school of Shammai teaches the first of the month of Sh’vat, the school of Hillel teaches the fifteenth of the month of Sh’vat.  We follow Hillel and celebrate the fifteenth of Sh’vat (Tu B’Sh’vat) as the birthday of the trees.  Mystics developed this relatively minor festival into a major celebration of our relationship with trees, and the entire earth.   They celebrated what became known as a Tu B’Sh’vat Seder, eating various fruits, drinking four cups of different colored wines, and sharing readings about nature.

When I teach my philosophy class, I share Aristotle’s idea that everything has a final cause or purpose.  I ask them, what is the purpose of a tree?  Sometimes I will get naïve answers – trees are there to give us fruit, give us shade, serve as a nesting place for animals, or hold the soil in its place.  I tell them that their answers are extremely anthropocentric, centered on humans rather than trees.  They are saying that trees exist to serve us.  A slightly more sophisticated answer I often hear is that trees give off oxygen, the chemical that animals need to survive.  Without trees there would be no animals, hence no humans.  They are correct, but still a bit too anthropocentric.

The question is whether trees have their own intrinsic value, beyond their utility for humans.  Sometimes I like to ask a thought question.  Suppose there was one human and one tree left on earth.  When the human is gone, that would be the end of humanity.  Would that human be justified in cutting down the last tree?  The answer one gives will indicate whether they believe that trees simply exist to serve humans, or whether trees have their own intrinsic value.

One of the great insights of modern ecology is the understanding that all of creation has its own intrinsic value.  Trees, all plants, all animals, the earth itself, each has its own intrinsic value and its own purpose for being.  The world does not simply exist to serve the needs of humans.  An awareness of this fact will help us deal with the ecological crises that our planet is facing.

Several years ago I heard a radio interview with a German forester named Peter Wohlleben.  I was so fascinated by his words that I bought his book, The Hidden Life of Trees; What They Feel, How They Communicate.  Let me simply say that life in the forest is far more complex than we can image.  For example, trees have ways of protecting each other and helping each other grow.  Trees are not simply individuals but a caring community.  And if trees can care for one another, how much more can humans care for one another.  There are many lessons to learn from trees.

“These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which he made with them in Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 28:69)
Monty Python used to sing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” The song is deeply humorous, but it reflects an ancient Jewish idea. One must always see the cup as half full. One must always follow the mitzvah of hakarat tov “searching for the good.” For a people who have suffered so much in history, Judaism remains strangely upbeat and optimistic. That is why the national anthem of the newly founded State of Israel is Hatikva, a song that means “the hope.”
I have been reading Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s wonderful book Rebbe, the story of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I often disagree with Chabad’s approach to Judaism, but I admire the man. Telushkin shared one fascinating insight. The Rebbe would never speak words that have any negative connotation. He brings the example of the Hebrew word for hospital, Beit Holim, literally “House of the Sick. He would not use that term. Instead he called it Beit Refuah, “House of Healing. The former name has negative connotations, the latter positive.
This optimistic attitude is reflected in Jewish law. For example, if a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet at a crossroads, the wedding always takes precedent. Later the Rabbis would teach that we do not cancel a wedding for a funeral. This hit home in my own family. My wife’s grandmother died a week before our wedding. My wife’s mother got up from shiva to celebrate our special day. We would not postpone our celebration. In a similar way, the joyous festivals of the Jewish year cut off shiva, the traditional week of mourning. The cup is always half-full, not half-empty.
There is a powerful hint of this idea in the portion we read this week. The portion contains a long list of horrible curses that will befall the people Israel if they do not obey God’s covenant. The list contains every tragic event that could occur in the ancient days when the Torah was written. Traditionally, when this part of the Torah is read outloud in the synagogue, it is read in a subdued voice very quickly. But the fascinating law is that one is not permitted to end this reading in middle. One is not allowed to end a Torah reading on a negative note. One finishes the entire section (54 verses) then ends with an upbeat verse about God’s covenant.
By Jewish law, it is never permitted to end a reading on a negative note. Often at the end of a reading, we will go backwards and end with the last upbeat, positive verse. One must always walk away looking at the bright side of life, even after reading the long list of curses this week. That is why I have never been a rabbi who dwells on Jewish suffering. We need to observe the sadness of Holocaust Memorial Day and Tisha B’Av. But even more important, we need to celebrate the happiness of Purim and Simchat Torah.
I have often met two kinds of people as I go through life. Some see the negative in everything. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Such people remind me of Eeyore the donkey in the Winnie the Pooh books. He always looks gloomy and depressed. On the other hand, I meet people who are upbeat and positive. The Rabbis of the Talmud tell stories about Nachum Gam Zu. He was called that name became whatever happens, he would respond, gam zu l’tova “this too is for the good.” I love Eeyore, but it is much more pleasant to hang out with Nachum Gam Zu. It is important to be around positive, upbeat people.
This week we read multiple curses. And yet, we do not become bogged down in those curses. We get through them and end in an upbeat note, that this is for the good. As Monty Python teaches, “Always look on the bright side of life.”

“In the morning you shall say, if only it were evening, and in the evening you shall say, if only it were morning.” (Deuteronomy 28:67)
Last Saturday night after Shabbat, I went to see the movie Christopher Robin. It had been recommended to me as something light and hopeful during these serious pre-High Holiday weeks. The movie was fun. It is built on A.A. Milne’s popular Winnie the Pooh books, and the main character Christopher Robin. Christopher had long ago left his childhood friends, was now a grown-up, married with a daughter, working unhappily at a dead-end job for a heartless boss. He had long forgotten how to be a child.
The heart of the story is that his childhood friends, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, and the rest reconnect with him and teach him to love life again. Part of the reason I enjoyed the movie is that it brought back memories of my high school days. I was a math major (for those from Great Britain, a maths major) in both high school and college. My toughest high school math teacher was demanding, at least four days a week. But if we did a good job, every Friday he read us a Winnie the Pooh story. The movie brought back memories of a younger time in my life.
Of course, one of the more memorable characters of these stories is the gray donkey Eeyore. Eeyore lives as if a black cloud hangs above his head. He is constantly depressed. He constantly feels as if the world is out to get him, and whatever can go wrong does go wrong. From the beginning of the movie, he hangs his head low. It is a perfect example of the description of depression among the long set of curses in this week’s portion, “In the morning you shall say, if only it were evening, and in the evening you shall say, if only it were morning.” There is no joy in the present; one constantly hopes for some change in the future.
Unfortunately, I have met too many people like Eeyore in real life. I have also met too many people like the adult Christopher Robin. These are people who are depressed and unhappy, who find life bitter and without meaning, who speak of doom and gloom. They are people in pain. Sometimes there is a chemical reason why they suffer from such depression. Often medication can help, if they are willing to commit to taking medication. But for many, life is simply unhappy.
Many people simply learn to live with the pain of such depression. They just keep moving forward, day in and day out. Some turn to drinking or narcotics to try to ease the pain. But sadly, I have seen the tragedy of overdoses on opioids or the destructive power of alcohol. And far too often, people feel that there is no solution except ending their lives. Suicide rates, especially among young people, is rising. There is no easy escape when one feels that a black cloud hangs over one’s life.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this week’s Torah reading. It is built around blessings and curses. And sadly, the list of curses if far longer than the list of blessings. The curses take up several columns in the Torah. But Jewish law has a fascinating insight. Once you start reading the curses, you cannot stop in the middle. You cannot stop until you reach the blessings at the end. You can never end a Torah reading on a negative note. No matter how dark things seem now, in the future it will become better. Or to quote Annie, “the sun will come out tomorrow.”
Perhaps the lesson of the Torah is that through faith, one can rise out of a depression. Of course, the movie I saw has a happy ending. The animals rescue Christopher Robin and teach him to be a child once again. Even Eeyore smiles, if barely. A joy of living finally surfaces at the end. I believe that this is the lesson, whether of Winnie the Pooh or of this week’s Torah reading. Curses will pass. The dark cloud will move away. Life is a precious gift that deserves to be lived to the fullest. We human beings do not need to become victims of depression. We can move beyond it.

“My father was a fugitive Aramean, he went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, but there he became a great and very populous nation.” (Deuteronomy 26:5)
Sometimes, particularly when I am in a cynical mood, I will say that Judaism is “the chutzpah of the Rabbis.” The Rabbis were happy to interpret and reinterpret verses from the Torah if it met their needs. One of the most blatant examples of rabbinic interpretation comes from this week’s portion.
This week we have the laws of the first fruits. The fruits were brought to Jerusalem and presented to the priest. The owner of the fruits said a series of verses, beginning with the words “my father was a fugitive Aramean, he went down to Egypt …” These verses became the heart of the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah is built around a series of interpretations of these verses, which tells our history of our redemption from Egypt. The verse never says who the wandering Aramean is, although it is likely Jacob who went down to Egypt with his family. But the words “wandering Aramean” better fits Abraham, who travelled from the country of the Arameans and went down to Egypt.
Here is where we see the chutzpah of the Rabbis. They quote this verse, but totally change its meaning. Rather than “my father was a wandering Aramean,” the Haggadah understands the verse as “an Aramean tried to kill my father.” The Hebrew words are vague and can be translated either way. Who is this Aramean who tried to kill our father? The Haggadah sees it Laban, who tried to kill his son-in-law Jacob. To quote the Haggadah, “Come and learn what Laban the Aramean tried to do to our father Jacob. For Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but Laban tries to uproot everybody, as it says, an Aramean tried to kill my father.”
There is much that is strange about this passage. First, the Rabbis change the very meaning of the verse. Second, nowhere in the Torah does Laban try to kill Jacob, let alone his family. After all, his family was Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. Laban was not a very nice man. He tricked Jacob and constantly changed his wages. But there is not accusation of murder. In fact, Jacob and Laban made a covenant not to attack each other.
Why did the Haggadah make Laban into a murderer worse than Pharaoh? I do not have a simple answer. Perhaps the Haggadah was formulated during a period of time when the Aramean people formed a particular threat to Israel. This would be a marvelous topic for some history student’s doctoral dissertation. But obviously the Arameans were the bad guys in the second century of the common era when the Haggadah was formulated.
There are many later rabbis who tried to interpret why Laban is considered worse than Pharaoh. One fascinating interpretation I found came from the Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat in Israel. He is still one of my favorite contemporary thinkers. He mentions that Jews have always had enemies like Pharaoh, a foreigner who distrusted the Jews. But Laban was family, one of our own. Sometimes the destructive force of one’s own family is worse than the destructive force of the stranger. We hurt our own relatives in ways that we would not hurt the stranger. In Jewish history, it was apostate Jews who were o ften our worse enemies. Unfortunately, this is a phenomenon I see far too often. Strangers can be destructive but our own families can be far more destructive.
This is one example of how the Rabbis gave an entirely new meaning to a verse of the Torah. Jews have always been open to multiple interpretations of the Biblical text. In fact, there is a tradition that every verse of the Torah has seventy different interpretations. In a sense, the early Rabbis were close to the early Catholic Church, which also allowed multiple interpretations of text. Part of the Protestant Reformation was the insistence on returning to the actual, original meaning of texts. That is what Martin Luther spoke about when he said Sola Scriptura “Scripture Alone.” What was the actual meaning of scripture? To the Rabbis, the actual scripture was a jumping off point for multiple interpretations.

“These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which he made with them in Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 28:69).
I saw the new Natalie Portman movie A Tale of Love and Darkness. A true story, it is based on Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s memoirs of growing up in Jerusalem at the end of the British mandate and the beginning of the Jewish state. Much of the movie is haunting. Portman not only adapted Oz’s story and stars as his mother Fania, she made her directorial debut. It was lovely hearing this beautiful actress speaking in her native Hebrew language.
The love in the story was between the young boy Amos and his mother Fania. It seemed that taking care of her son was the only thing that gave light to Fania’s life. The darkness was in the mother’s soul, a deep depression she could not escape. She was still haunted by memories of her girlhood in Europe, where everyone she knew was lost in the Holocaust. She came from wealth and struggled with the difficult life of Jerusalem, a city under siege during the War of Independence. She suffered from the violence all around her. But she also suffered from her family. One of the most difficult scenes shows Fania carefully preparing borscht and serving it to her husband’s parents, only to have her mother-in-law rip apart her cooking. Portman’s face during this scene tells the entire story.
In real life, Oz’s mother committed suicide shortly after the War of Independence. Oz himself left his home, changed his name, and went to live on a kibbutz. For years Oz could never write about his mother’s suicide, until he wrote his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. How wonderful that an actress with the talent of Portman acquired the rights and made the movie.
What struck me is how Oz’s mother allowed the darkness to overwhelm her. This week’s portion clearly portrays the darkness of human life. Verse after verse describes a series of curses that will overwhelm the people Israel if they fail to obey the provisions of God’s punishment. Famine, disease, war, suffering, verse after verse without letting up displays the darkness. This portion alone can destroy any sense of joy in life. And yet Jewish tradition teaches some powerful lessons when we read this portion.
The portion of curses is read very quickly in a low voice, giving a sense that if you say the curses quietly they will not come true. One is not allowed to divide this reading up into smaller parts but must read the entire section in one fell swoop. But the important point is one is not permitted to end it with a curse. All the curses are read through and the reading ends in a normal voice, with a blessing. We are reminded of the covenant that God made with the people Israel. Even going through the sadness, the reading must end on a joyous note. The Psalmist says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” We walk through the valley of death and come out the other side.
There is a more general rule regarding the liturgy of Judaism. One is never allowed to end a reading on a depressing note. If the last verse is sad, one goes back and repeats a happy verse at the ending. One never allows the darkness to overwhelm us. If only people who lived through the terrible siege of Jerusalem in 1948 knew that someday their city would be a booming center of Israeli life. The dark cloud will pass and the sun will shine again. We cannot let the darkness overwhelm us.
There are some people who go through life looking for the negative. My colleague Rabbi Mark Gross tells the story of a man whose car gets a flat tire on a back country road, and he realizes that he has no jack to change the tire. He walks to a nearby farmhouse to borrow a jack. But as he walks, he starts to think about what could happen. The farmer will not open the door, or if he opens the door, he will refuse to loan him the jack. Probably he will be carrying a shotgun. He gets more and more agitated thinking what could go wrong. Finally he rings the doorbell and a farmer answers the door. He screams, “You can keep your old jack.”
We can go through life assuming the worst, being swallowed up by the darkness. Or we can go through life with hope, knowing that the light will push away the darkness. The latter is the message of our tradition.

“And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:9)
I am writing these words from Israel. In a few hours I will be on an airplane headed back to the United States. Like all such trips, it was far too short. But I had a chance to celebrate the wedding of the daughter of my oldest friend. And we celebrated the wedding in an outdoor venue on a kibbutz, surrounded by the beautiful land of Israel. It was truly a holy moment.
This week’s portion speaks about a ceremony of first fruits. The farmer would gather the fruit in a basket, travel to Jerusalem to give the priest the fruit, and recite a traditional formula. The formula is a brief summary of the history of Israel from the slavery in Egypt. And it ends with the words that God brought us to this land, a land that flows with milk and honey. These are words that appear over and over in the Torah beginning with the Burning Bush. But what is a land flowing with milk and honey?
We picture a land with cow’s milk and bee’s honey. But that is probably not what the phrase originally meant. The milk was much more likely to be goat’s milk, the animal that was the majority of the herds. And the honey was probably not bee’s honey; there is no record of bee keeping in ancient Israel. According to Rabbinic tradition, the phrase means nectar from a sweet fruit, most likely dates. So milk and honey means goat’s milk and date nectar.
What does this mean? I read a nice commentary written by Rabbi Julie Zupen of the Reform Jewish Outreach Center in Boston. She mentions that the milk is a delicious and healthful product from the animal kingdom. The honey is a delicious and healthful product from the plant kingdom. In the land of Israel, the animals and the plants will work together to nourish our bodies and souls. Milk and honey represent completeness, the entire natural world coming together for our benefit. It is part of the joy of the holy land.
I love Rabbi Zupen’s idea. In general in Jewish tradition we separate animals and plants. For example, it is forbidden to wear linen and wool together in our clothing. Linen comes from plants; wool comes from animals. We need to practice separation to remind us that God made the universe through acts of separation. But the land of Israel is so holy that it does not need to practice separation. The plants and animals will work together. Goats milk and date nectar will come together to sustain us.
Milk and honey symbolizes the completeness and wholeness of the land of Israel. It is a phrase we use all the time to refer to this holy land. Jerry Herman, who composed such Broadway hits as Hello Dolly, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles wrote his first Broadway musical about Israel called Milk and Honey. One of the wonderful songs from that musical is Shalom. “Shalom shalom you’ll find shalom, the nicest greeting I know. It means bonjour, salud, and skoal, and twice as much as hello.” Of course Shalom means peace. But the real Hebrew root of the word shalom means completeness or wholeness.
It is sad that so many of us associate Israel with war and disharmony. Israel certainly has its problems, both with external enemies and internal conflicts. But when one actually comes here and walks the streets of the cities, when one visits the holy sites, or when one watches a bride and groom standing under a canopy under the stars on a kibbutz, one feels a peacefulness and a wholeness. The farmer who brought his fruit to Jerusalem thanked God for bringing him to a land flowing with milk and money. As a visitor, I must also thank God for the chance to be in the land of milk and honey.
My visit to Israel was a celebration of peacefulness and wholeness. That peacefulness and wholeness seems to flow, like milk and honey, from this holy land.


“A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous; And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery; And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression; And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders. (Deuteronomy 26:5 – 8)

This week’s portion ends the long legal section of the book of Deuteronomy. The final law involves eating the first fruit of the fruit trees in the land. A basket of fruit must be brought to the city of Jerusalem and given to the priest. Then the carrier of the fruits would say the long passage quoted above. He would tell how his father was a wandering Aramean, he went to Egypt, grew in numbers, the Egyptians oppressed him, and God brought him out of Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” This is the central narrative of the Jewish people.
This passage was taken in its entirety from Deuteronomy and made the heart of the Passover haggada. At Passover we must retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. The actually telling in the haggada is built around these exact words along with various Rabbinic interpretations (Midrashim) on them. Sometimes the Rabbis changed the meaning of words. For example, in the haggada instead of reading that “a wandering Aramean was my father,” the haggada reads “an Aramean tried to kill my father.” It goes on to tell in negative language how the Biblical Laban, an Aramean, treated his son-in-law Jacob. Rabbinic tradition takes a narrative and reinterprets it according to the needs of the times.
All religions and cultures are built around narratives. These are stories, sometimes myths or sometimes sacred histories, that help a people understand who they are and what is their place in the universe. Narratives sometimes deal with a hero’s sacred journey (Abraham journeying from the land of Ur), sometimes deal with the very structure of the universe (the Genesis creation story), and sometimes deal with the beginnings of a people (this narrative on the exodus from Egypt.) Joseph Campbell, a scholar of sacred stories and the author with Bill Moyers of The Power of Myth, speaks of the centrality of such narratives for every culture. Sometimes I believe the problem with contemporary America is that we no longer have any narrative, any sacred story.
One of the fascinating questions is whether such narratives or sacred stories are true. One of the greatest Conservative rabbis in the country, David Wolpe, shocked his Los Angeles congregation by saying that perhaps the exodus story was not exactly true. He was viciously attacked in the Jewish newspapers. People asked me at the time whether I agreed or disagreed with Rabbi Wolpe. Is the narrative of the exodus true or not true? I responded at the time that the question was irrelevant to me. Narratives are not meant to give us literally or scientific truth. Rather they tell a story that gives our lives meaning and points to a sense of purpose for our community. Those who study religion will often point to the fact that narratives are not logos – literal scientific truths, but rather mythos – stories packed with meaning and purpose. I guarantee that whatever Rabbi Wolpe believes about the exodus story, he sat down with his family at a Passover seder and read the haggada.
The central narrative or story, call it a myth if you will, of the Jewish people is that a group of slaves can become free at the hands of God. Slaves are not fated to be slaves forever. Change, rebirth, redemption are all possible. Compare this with the central narrative or story, call it myth if you will, or the ancient pagans. It is what the philosopher Nietzsche called “eternal return.” However you live, you are fated to live it over and over again. Nothing can really change. If you were born a slave, you are fated to die a slave. If you were born in poverty, you are fated to live in poverty. (Think about how important fate is to the ancient pagans, particularly the Greeks.)
This week’s portion mentions an ancient story that was moved in its entirety to the Passover haggada. It is the fundamental Jewish story, and that makes its literal truth irrelevant. Jewish tradition is filled with such narratives. The question is not whether they are true, but do they help us as human beings better understand our place in the world.

“But if you do not obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect.”
(Deuteronomy 28:15)
This portion has always created a problem for synagogues. It contains a long list of curses – basically every calamity that can possibly befall a nation. These curses are the result of the refusal to obey God’s commandments and live according to the covenant. The portion also contains a far shorter list of blessings. But how should a synagogue handle the public reading of such awful curses, most of which have come true in Jewish history?
First, traditionally the curses are read in a low voice and quickly, perhaps with the hope that the “Evil Eye” will not hear them read and get some ideas. But the difficult question is, someone needs to be called up to say the blessing over the Torah for these readings. People traditionally refuse this honor, considering it bad luck. In the old country the synagogue would pay someone to take it. Here in modern suburban America, I will never give it to member of the bar mitzvah family or the family of a bride and groom. Usually I simply give it to the Torah reader. And this year that Torah reader is going to be me.
The reluctance to be called up to the Torah when curses are being read is a very old, yet an understandable superstition. But I come from a tradition that is filled with superstitions. We do not have baby showers, for such showers before a baby is born will tempt the evil eye. Many Jews believe that a woman who is pregnant should not go to a cemetery. We do not publicly announce the name of a baby before the naming or the bris. And over and over, Jews use the Yiddish phrase keina hora “prevent the evil eye.”
Perhaps one of the most prevalent superstitions is that people whose parents are living should leave the synagogue during Yizkor, the memorial prayers said on the various festivals including Yom Kippur. I often announce that everyone is welcome to stay; say the prayer for deceased grandparents or for the martyrs of the Holocaust. But invariably, a third of my congregation walks out during these prayers. It is a deep and powerful superstition.
Why is superstition so powerful in Jewish tradition, and I am sure in Christianity and other religious traditions? After all, “knock on wood” comes from Christianity, as does the fact that thirteen is an unlucky number. (There were thirteen at the last supper.) The Torah itself forbids superstitious and occult practices, teaching, “Let no one be found among you … who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, or a sorcerer.” (Deuteronomy 18:10) Nonetheless, religions have often believed in the presence of demonic forces that pose a threat. The Zohar and other sources of Jewish mysticism are filled with stories of such demons.
Certainly in our rational modern age it seems silly to accept superstitious practices. Yet we all know baseball players who must wear a certain article of clothing or writers who must carry a certain pen. Superstition seems built into the human approach to the world. Why?
Let me for a moment turn to the most modern of sciences – quantum theory. A deep part of quantum theory teaches that there is no objective reality beyond what the mind sees. The mind organizes reality. Whether light is a wave or a particle depends entirely on who is looking and what they are looking for. The mind affects what we see and what happens. Until a mind perceives reality, it is mere potential.
Here we see the role of superstition. Certain things can affect our mind in a negative or positive way. To wear a particular piece of clothing at an athletic event can have a positive affect towards our attitude. And to be called to the Torah when a long list of curses is being read can have a negative effect. One walks away somewhat unsettled. So does anyone want the honor of being called to the Torah for the curses this Saturday?


“And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God, A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” (Deuteronomy 28:5)
When the time comes to eat the first fruits of a tree, the owner would place them in a basket and carry them to Jerusalem. There he would present the fruits to the Priest. He would then recite a story, the story that would become the central narrative of the people Israel.
The owner of the fruit would say, “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous; And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery; And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression; And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders; And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 28:5 – 9)
This story was literally moved into the Passover haggadah. The heart of the haggadah is a Rabbinic midrash on the first four verses of this narrative. This tells the fundamental story of being a Jew. We wandered down to Egypt, and there became a great nation. But the Egyptians mistreated us, and forced us to be slaves. We cried out to God and God heard our cry, bringing us out from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. God brought us to the land of Israel to be a free people in our own land. To be a Jew is to accept this narrative about our people.
But is the narrative true? Were we really slaves in Egypt? Did God really hear our cry? Did God bring us out? A number of years ago Rabbi David Wolpe, one of the finest rabbis in the country, created a stir in his congregation in Los Angeles by saying that perhaps the story is not totally true. Maybe it did not happen precisely as the story tells it. Rabbi Wolpe found himself castigated by members of his congregation as well as the press. “Rabbi denies the Torah.”
At the time I raised the question, does a narrative have to be literally true to be true? Does it need to correspond with historical reality to make a difference in our lives? Are all of the great narratives of the Bible – the Garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, the binding of Isaac, the Golden Calf, the story of David and Goliath, Elijah going to heaven in a chariot, or the exodus from Egypt literally true? Don’t they contain profound truths about the reality of our lives, whether they literally happened or not.
Karen Armstrong, the British scholar of religion, speaks of two kinds of truth in her wonderful book The Case for God. First there is logos, what we often call scientific truth. Then there is mythos, narratives, allegories, and insights that help us understand our place in the world. According to Armstrong, our culture tends to overplay logos and downplay mythos. Yet it is mythos that often has the more important insights into how we are to live our lives.
The story of the exodus is mythos. It is the story of a universe that allows people to go out of a narrow place (the literally meaning of mitzrayim – Egypt) into a wide place. It is the story of redemption, not just the redemption of the people Israel long ago, but the redemption of each of us every day. We are all slaves to something in our own lives, we all can cry out to the universe, and the universe is made in a way that people can change. The story gives a profound truth.
This truth is particularly relevant as we approach the High Holidays, now just two weeks away. The central theme of the holidays is change, turning our live around, getting on a different path. We are not slave to our past. This is worth proclaiming, not just when we bring first fruits to the priest, but when we walk into synagogue to welcome the New Year.


“All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 28:2)

My new desk arrived in my new office yesterday. (Thank you Adam and Rivkah who donated it in honor of their parents.) Actually, it might be more accurate to say that a box with hundreds of pieces arrived in my office. I laid them out, looked at them, saw pure chaos, read the 70+ page instruction manual for putting it together, and thought about working off a card table. But fortunately, God also provides a few handy people who know how to create order out of chaos. (Thank you Harold and Luis.) As Stephen Soundheim wrote in Sunday in the Park with George, “bit by bit putting it together. Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art.”
Making order out of chaos is a work of art. I look at our beautiful new building and thought about the empty lot that was there just six months ago. I saw all the piles of materials and supplies even a few weeks ago. Would this ever come together? But by a miracle, and the hands of some very talented people, order pushes away the chaos.
But there is a flip side to this. I look at our old building stripped of furniture and plaques, the walls bare and warn away. It is returning back to chaos. And within the next several months, I am sure the city will help knock it down. They do not want a dangerous building still standing. And so it is with all things, order returns to chaos. We even have a name for it – entropy. Entropy always increases with time. Or as William Butler Yeats wrote in his famous poem The Second Coming, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”
There are two forces at work in the world at all times. There is the force that brings order out of chaos, that builds and creates, the force behind evolution, complexity, and dare we say life. And there is the force that returns order back to chaos, that causes decay and destruction, that returns everything to the primordial confusion and dare we say, death. The universe is the tension between these two forces, the force of life and the force of death. Our job as humans is to be partners in the force of life. Like the people putting my desk together, our job is to create order out of chaos.
Most of this week’s portion lays out a series of blessings and a series of curses. If we follow God’s commandments, blessings will come into the world. If we do not follow God’s commandments, curses will come into the world. This long litany of blessings and curses are difficult for modern people to comprehend. Does God really bring blessings and curses on us based on our actions?
Allow me to suggest an interpretation. Perhaps the blessings are the forces that bring order out of chaos. Perhaps the curses are the forces that return the world back to chaos. If we follow God’s commandments we are serving as God’s partners in creating order in the world. If we ignore God’s commandments we are allowing the world to break down and return to chaos. Our actions can either create greater order or create greater disorder. When one reads through the long list of curses in this chapter (and traditionally they are read quickly in a low tone of voice), one sees how war has brought chaos onto the world. One sees the continuation of Yeats poem, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
There is a phrase in the Hebrew Bible for the chaos in the world – tohu v’vohu, usually translated “unformed and void.” The Biblical creation story is really a story of going from tohu v’vohu to greater and greater complexity. And the midrash teaches that whenever God wants to, God could return the world to tohu v’vohu. In fact, the midrash teaches that God made many worlds and then destroyed them before making this one. God said, “This one pleases me, the others did not please me.”
Before the High Holidays, it is the perfect time to think how we can be a blessing by bringing order out of chaos.



“If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it.”
(Deuteronomy 28:30)

This Torah portion is one of the most painful to read. The second half is a series of curses afflicting the Israelites if they disobey God’s commandments. Traditionally this section is read very quickly in a low tone of voice, with the hope that the curses will quickly pass.
Among the curses is the sadness of unfinished business. Someone will betroth a wife and not have a chance to marry her; someone will build a house and not have the chance to live in it; someone will plant a vineyard and not have a chance to harvest it. These curses are a rewording of an earlier law regarding warfare. (See Deuteronomy 20:5-7) Before soldiers go into battle, a priest speaks to them. If any soldier has built a house and not dedicated it, planted a field and not harvested it, or betrothed a wife and not married her, he is allowed to go home. There is a deep sense of tragedy for work left undone.
I used this portion for a sad eulogy this week. I spoke at the funeral of a young mother in our congregation taken before her time. Her soul was taken from this world before she had a chance to finish the work God sent her into the world to do. I tried to give comfort to her family and friends with the idea that when someone is taken before their work is done, it is up to the rest of us to continue doing what they started. But there is an overwhelming sense of sadness. Another rabbi spoke, and asked the question we all ask – where is God at this time? He answered that God is also deeply saddened by a life cut short. After all, it is God’s work that is left undone.
The notion that we have work to do in this world that God wants us to complete is powerful, particularly in the Jewish mystical tradition. I have been listening to a series of lectures on CD by a teacher of Kabbalah in Jerusalem, Rabbi David Aaron. Rabbi Aaron gives a fascinating perspective on the whole issue of unfinished work. He says that we should never use the language “I have a soul.” Rather we should say, “I am a soul.” Each of us is a soul sent to this world to take on various roles. We may be a doctor or lawyer, a teacher or rabbi. We may be a husband or wife, mom or dad. We may be an athlete or artist, writer or scholar. But these are all roles our soul takes on in this world. In an ultimate sense, we are like an actor playing a role. We can identify with the role, but the role in some ultimate sense is not who we are. Sometimes in life we finish one role, and take on another. And sadly, sometimes in life we must leave before we finish our role.
Rabbi Aaron used the example of a basketball player he knew. This man lived for basketball. Then one day he was badly injured in a game. His basketball days were over. He was deeply depressed. He could have stopped living, finding no further purpose in life. Fortunately, this man realized that basketball was only one stage of his life, one role he had to play. He was able to find another role in Jewish learning and scholarship, and a renewed sense of purpose.
What happens when we leave this world before we finish our role? What happens when we leave this world with unfinished work? Others must take over where we left off. Others must continue God’s work in the world. But there is always a sense of sadness for the business that was left unfinished.
Long ago Rabbi Tarfon taught, “Our job is not to complete the task. Nor are we free from doing it altogether.” (Avot 2:16) We each have tasks to do and roles to play in this world. We can only pray that we are given the time on this earth to finish those tasks, to play out those roles.


“In the morning you shall say, if only it were evening, and in the evening you shall say, if only it were morning.” (Deuteronomy 28:67)

I am studying Shakespeare and film this semester at Florida Atlantic University. In particular, I am preparing a seminar paper on the portrayal of Shylock in various film versions of The Merchant of Venice. I have already read the play and seen three film versions, with particular emphasis on Al Pacino’s Shylock in the 2004 film directed by Michael Radford. It is a wonderfully complex portrayal of an evil man who is also a victim, and who is Shakespeare’s most famous Jewish character.
In The Merchant of Venice, the very first line spoken comes from the merchant Antonio. “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.” He is extremely depressed, although we have not yet arrived at the scene where Shylock demands a pound of his flesh. He looks depressed. And at the end of each of the movie versions, when Shylock’s evil plans are thwarted, Antonio still looks depressed. In the 2004 movie, there is a hint that his depression is caused by a unrequited homosexual love for Bassanio, the male lead. But that is a modern director’s insight; it certainly is not in the original play.
Depression, an overwhelming sadness, this feeling of despair, is rampant in our culture. I see it regularly in my counseling. This week’s portion has the best portrayal of depression in the Bible, or perhaps anywhere. “In the morning you shall say, if only it were evening, and in the evening you shall say, if only it were morning.” In the morning a depressed person does not want to face the day. Often he and she will not get out of bed. They will wish for the evening. But in the evening they will be unable to sleep. They will say, if only it were morning. Anything is preferable to the sad present.
Sometimes there are legitimate reasons to be depressed. People suffer tragic losses – deaths, illnesses, bankruptcies, painful estrangements, and disappointments. When people have endured such suffering, they are effected in profound ways. But time is a healer. As the Bible teaches, “There is a time for everything … a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Judaism teaches that there is a limit to mourning. Even for the most tragic loss, we sit shiva for a week, we say kaddish for eleven months. Eventually we must “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and return to the land of the living. I am amazed how victims of the severest tragedies such as people who have survived the holocaust manage to get past mourning and start living life once again.
Sometimes there are medical reasons to be depressed. There is an imbalance in certain brain chemicals. When this happens, we live in fortunate times. Psychiatrists can prescribe wonderful medications to change the brain chemistry and overcome depression. Thanks to modern medicine, I have seen marvelous cures for clinical depression.
Sometimes, like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, there is no reason for the depression. People are burdened with an unrelenting sadness that will not go away. They see life as gloomy and lacking joy. The glass is never half full but always half empty. There find that life has lost its taam – its flavor, to use a good Yiddish word. It seems preferable to stay in bed and not have to face the world. What can we do when sadness seems overwhelming for no apparent reason?
There is a Jewish answer taught by our Rabbinic tradition. The answer is called hakarat hatov, recognizing the good. One must seek out what is good in the world each day, and even recognize it with a Hebrew blessing – “Praised are You Lord Our God King of the Universe, Who is good and causes good.” Jewish tradition is built on a constant search for goodness, for God’s blessings.
The Merchant of Venice shows how the Jews were hated in Elizabethan England, as they were hated through most of history. And yet, in a world filled with hate, most Jews through most of history were able to live lives filled with gratitude for God’s goodness. Judaism taught the world the need to constantly seek out the good. Hakarat Hatov ultimately is the only real solution to depression.



“Cursed by he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark – and all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27:17)

Among the curses in this week’s portion is a malediction against the removal of a neighbor’s landmark. To encroach on a neighbor’s land, particularly in an age when farming was how that neighbor earned a living, was a form of theft. The worst kind of theft is taking away one’s ability to earn a living.
Later the Rabbis greatly expanded this prohibition. To remove a landmark was defined as improperly taking away another’s ability to support oneself. The Rabbis even forbid a rabbi from teaching another rabbi’s insights in his own name; Torah learning became a kind of intellectual property. Any act that causes someone else to lose his or her ability to earn a living is considered hasgavat g’vul, the removal of a landmark.
Of course it is difficult to pin down precisely what is unfair competition. The Talmud contains the words of R. Huna, who taught that a resident of an alley may not set up a handmill next to another resident with a handmill. For the latter can say to him, “You are interfering with my livelihood.” (Baba Batra 21b) But others disagree with him. In a similar way, R. Judah taught “a shopkeeper should not give presents of parched corn and nuts to children, because he thus entices them to come back to him.” But the Sages allow this. The Sages claim it is not unfair competition, because the other shopkeeper can do the same. Today, if one store gives candy to children to draw their mothers in, another store can do the same.
The issue of what is fair competition and what is unfair competition is not easy to pin down. Is it fair for a Wal-Mart to come into a community and put small stores out of business? (Wal-Mart has helped decimate many downtown-shopping areas. But it has also helped lower prices providing real savings to working class people, as well as providing jobs.) Is the Wal-Mart business plan morally right or wrong? Closer to home, can a synagogue open up down the street from another synagogue, perhaps stealing members and threatening the first synagogue’s survival? Do we say it is unfair competition? Or do we say that nobody owes anybody a living, and people must compete on the open marketplace.
I remember when a physician I know trained to become a mohel, a specialist in ritual circumcision. There was an Orthodox mohel in town who performed most of the circumcisions. But there were many parents who would not use him, preferring a doctor. I was impressed that the first act of this physician was to call the established mohel to reassure him that he was not looking to take away his livelihood. He was seeking to provide ritual circumcisions to those who would not use the traditional mohel. This was the proper way to act by Jewish law.
According to the Torah, one of the gravest sins is to steal someone’s ability to earn a living. Parallel to this, Jewish law teaches that the highest form of charity is to help someone find a way to earn a living by training them, giving a business loan, hiring them for a job, etc. Sensitivity to how other people might be put out of business by our business decisions is important.
Having said that, the Torah also permits healthy competition for customers and clients. To earn a living one must keep oneself competitive in the open market. Imagine what it was like for those who earned a living manufacturing buggy whips when the automobile first entered the market. Closer to home for me, imagine what it is like to be a manufacturer of typewriters today. (When I went off to college I was very excited that my parents bought me a typewriter. This week I bought a computer for my youngest to take off to college. A typewriter would have been cheaper, but you can no longer buy one.)
People have a right to earn a living. We are warned to avoid any action that might unfairly takes away that right. At the same time, each of us must keep ourselves competitive on the open market.



“In the morning you will say if only it were evening, and in the evening you will say if only it were morning, because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.”
(Deuteronomy 28:67)

This portion contains a long, painful list of curses. Traditionally they are read quickly in a low voice, with the hope that if we do not say them too loud, perhaps they will go away. The curses seem to become worse and worse, until near the end, we hear the words quoted above: “In the morning you will say if only it were evening, and in the evening you will say if only it were morning.” This describes people I have met. In the morning they long for evening and in the evening they long for morning. Life becomes so miserable that they just want it to go away.
Clinicians have a name for this – depression. Depression is the climax of the curses. Life is overwhelmingly painful, sometimes for good reason and sometimes for no reason at all. What causes people to be so saddened by life that they simply want it to go away? There are physical reasons and there are spiritual reasons; after all, we humans are both physical and spiritual beings.
Sometimes the chemicals in the brain are out of whack. Thankfully, there are wonderful medications today that can truly help people affected by a chemical imbalance. Some are skeptical of using medication for something emotional. Who can forget Tom Cruise’s tirade against Brooke Shields for coming out publicly that she was taking medication for postpartum depression. I was pleased to hear that Mr. Cruise visited Ms. Shields to apologize and that his apology was accepted. In these weeks before the Jewish days of repentance, it is nice to know that even movie stars can say, “I’m sorry.”
What about when there is no chemical imbalance, when life is truly depressing? Part of being human is that bad things do happen. Financial woes, family problems, deaths of our dreams, illnesses, the death of love ones, and inevitably, our own mortality affect us all. Life can be sad and difficult, or as Thomas Hobbes wrote, the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” One of the biggest causes of depression is not chemicals, but life itself.
The rabbis tell the story of a woman who comes to her rabbi miserably depressed about her life. She is desperate for the rabbi’s help. The rabbi responds that he wants her to bake a cake, but using flour that she borrows from all her neighbors. Then the rabbi says she can only borrow flour from a home that has known no pain and suffering. The woman follows the rabbi’s advice and comes back saying, “I realize there is no home without pain and suffering.” Sadness affects all of us; it is a consequence of living.
One response of many Jews today is turning to Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Buddhism teaches a philosophy of letting go, not holding on to anything in this world. If we hold unto nothing, nothing can hurt us. Ultimate human meaning and joy is found in another place beyond the needs of this world; if only we can let go of the things of this world, we can reach nirvana.
This is not the Jewish way. Judaism teaches that life is lived in this world. The things of this world, the love of family and friends, the stability of community, even the sensual delights of good food and drink, are important. The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote a beautiful sermon that we need to hold tight to the things of this world, but to hold them with open arms.
There is a traditional teaching in Judaism known as hekarat tov, – seeking out the good. One should always look for what is good and joyous, grab it and celebrate it. We even say a blessing at such moments, “Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe, Who is good and causes goodness.” We need to strive to view the cup as half full rather than half empty. Moments of joy may be transitory and pain is sure to come. That is why we must grab every joyous moment and thank God for every gift God gives us in this world.
Medication may be a cure for depression that has a physical cause. A faith in God and in the goodness of the universe is a cure for depression that has a spiritual cause.



“You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”
(Deuteronomy 26:2)

My tradition teaches, “Who is wise? Someone who learns from every person.” (Avot 4:1) Not only can I learn something from every human being, I can learn something from every faith and spiritual tradition.
For example, there is much that is powerful and beautiful in the Moslem faith. Central to the faith are the five pillars of Moslem practice. These pillars are bearing witness to God’s oneness, praying five times a day, giving alms to the poor, fasting by daylight during the holy month of Ramadan, and the powerful tradition known as the Hajj or pilgrimage. Every Moslem who is physically able must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at some point during his or her life. There are various ways to keep the pillar of the Hajj, with certain purifications and rituals when one reaches Mecca. But most important, it is an overwhelming experience for Moslems to meet other Moslems from throughout the world who share the same spiritual quest.
I recall reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was in college, and being deeply moved by his description of joining his Moslem brothers and sisters in his holy city. He was able to identify with his faith on that moment in a profound way. He wanted to learn Arabic. Perhaps he influenced me more than I know; I wanted to have the same experience in my own faith. This led me on my own pilgrimage to Israel, my desire to learn Hebrew, and eventually to my decision to become a rabbi.
There is a hint regarding a religious pilgrimage in this week’s portion. All first fruits of every crop belong to God. The farmer (and in those days we were all farmers) wrapped the first of each crop in a special basket and traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem to present them to the priests. One could ask, why not simply give the first fruits to a local priest, or perhaps send them by post office to Jerusalem. But the key is the actual travel to the city. Harvesting a new crop was an excuse to make a pilgrimage. Traditionally, Israelites traveled three times a year to Jerusalem, on the three harvest festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. What was important was actually being physically present in the city. It was an intense spiritual experience.
Christianity also celebrates the fact that Jesus celebrated his Last Supper in the Holy City during the pilgrimage festival of Pesach. Today thousands of Christians flock to Jerusalem to reenact the last days of Jesus. One can see Christians carrying a cross up the Via Dolorosa toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, stopping at each of the fourteen stations along the way. Often their eyes break into tears as they reenact their savior’s suffering.
Such an intense religious moment is not simply for Christians or Moslems. I have a vivid memory of my parents’ first and only trip to Israel. They met me in Jerusalem where I was a student, and together we traveled to the Western Wall, the holiest spot on earth to Jews. As we arrived, my mother broke into tears. My mother was a staunchly secular lady who never had much interest in religion, so I asked her why the tears. She told me, “I don’t know. I guess because those stones are so old.” Even for secularists, there is something moving about a religious pilgrimage.
Most of the world’s classical faiths have holy places somewhere in the world. They may be a river, a mountain, a city, a church, a mosque, or for us Jews, a wall in the heart of an ancient city. Israeli composer Naomi Shemer, who passed away a few months ago, wrote a song that was to become almost the second national anthem of Israel. It speaks of Jerusalem of Gold, with a wall at its very heart. Jews from throughout the world will kiss the ground when they land at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Then when they arrive in Jerusalem, they will stream down to the Western Wall, often with tears in their eyes. It is a moment that is hard to describe in prose to those who have not felt it.
It is true that God is everywhere; that holiness does not occupy any particular place. We can practice our faiths all over the place. But we humans are people with a place. We have made certain places holy in our eyes, places where we can breathe in the presence of God. Even in the secular world, people speak about the importance of a pilgrimage to certain places to feel their historical importance. In America people travel to Washington to visit the seat of our government, or to Boston to relive the beginning of the American Revolution. Such trips are highly emotional experiences. There is a deep human need to travel to holy places.
For Jews, a trip to Israel is more than a mere vacation. Travel to Israel is different from travel to the Caribbean or to Hawaii. It is a sacred pilgrimage. And spending time walking through Jerusalem is the spiritual peak of this religious experience. Perhaps we should learn from our Moslem brothers and sisters and make a trip to Israel a sacred obligation of every Jew who is physically able. If we see it as an obligation equal in importance to fasting on Yom Kippur or eating matza on Passover, perhaps Jews will begin traveling once again to our most sacred place.
I would like to lead a group to Israel next summer. It would certainly include the elements of a nice vacation – comfortable hotels, tours, a chance to see the country and learn its history, visits with people I know personally. But the trip would be more than a vacation, it would be a sacred pilgrimage. Would you consider joining me?



“Until this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (Deuteronomy 29:3)

I learned something profound about the human mind last Saturday night.
I watched the football game on television between the University of Miami Hurricanes and the University of Florida Gators. (Watching an entire football game is something I rarely do.) This was an emotional game. My household is filled with Cane fanatics; my wife is an alumnus and my son’s room is painted Hurricane colors. On the other hand, many of my closest friends live for the Gators.
I watched something happen to the mind of the Hurricane quarterback Brock Berlin. The first half of the game he was unfocused, going through the motions without concentration. At one point he threw the football right into the arms of an opposing player. Early in the third quarter the Canes were down by 23 points and it looked as if they were going to bring in the second string quarterback. Then something mysterious happened. Berlin became focused. He started completing pass after pass. After three unanswered touchdowns, he had tied the game. In the end, the Canes won 38 to 33 in a huge come from behind victory.
Every sports coach in the world wishes they could bottle this change in focus of an athlete. Reporters asked Berlin how he had turned it around. “I asked God for peace: `Lord, just give me peace right now and help me lead my teammates and be able to do something here,'” Berlin said. “He did give me peace and I was able to stay comfortable the whole game.”
One of the most profound insights of religion is that our mind is not simply a mechanical device, working like a computer. Our mind can function at a variety of levels. My newest book, still to be published, will explore this idea from a kabbalistic view, looking at the four levels of the soul or the mind in this world.
Sometimes events can happen that focus the mind and raise us up to a higher level of our soul. This week=s portion contains a long list of curses and tragedies. Traditionally they are read quickly in a low tone of voice. When the reading is over, the Torah teaches “Until this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” In other words, sometimes it takes adversity and sadness to focus the mind and help us see on a higher level.
How often do we go through the motions of life, doing what we must do in an unfocused and unthoughtful manner? Then something happens that challenges our complacency – perhaps a crisis, an illness, financial problems, a conflict with a loved one, the death of someone dear to us. Or perhaps something joyous happens – a business windfall, a new love, a marriage, a new baby, an insight about life. Suddenly our mind seems to see the world at a different level. Colors become sharper, ideas become clearer, we know what we need to do. We see, hear, and understand things differently. It is as if we have grown our soul to a new level.
The High Holidays is also about growing our mind to a higher level. We have gone through the past year in a routine manner, going through the motions, unfocused, living life by rote. Then early each fall we stop and reflect on where we are going, who we are, and what God wants of us. The shofar is a wake up call. On Yom Kippur, we afflict our souls, giving up food, drink, and the other comforts of life, experiencing some bodily suffering. By the end of a Yom Kippur our soul has reached a higher level. We are focused and able to see, hear, and understand in a way we could not before.
Last Saturday I watched a quarterback play a football game on two different levels. So often sports is a metaphor for life. We all seem to live our lives at various levels. The High Holidays is a time to grow our soul to the highest level possible.



“Your life shall hang in doubt before you, and you shall be in terror night and day, you shall have no assurance of life.”
(Deuteronomy 28:66)

This week’s portion contains verse after verse of curses. As the curses move towards a climax, we hear that we shall know terror day and night. How true it is, not only in ancient times but in our own day.
We live in a world transformed by terror. Next week is the first yahrzeit (anniversary on the Hebrew calendar) of the evil of 9/11. (Those numbers are seared into our brains.) We have experienced the deliberate murder of thousands of innocent people, we have been traumatized and transformed. Here in America we now know what the Jewish people have learned through thousands of years of history. There is evil in the world.
Israel has been victimized by evil unknown through her violent and bloody history. Suicide (or should we rather say homicide) bombers have targeted the innocent; families in a pizza parlor, teenagers at a nightclub, worshipers at a Passover Seder, commuters on a bus, shoppers in a marketplace, students in a university cafeteria. Israel has seen the face of evil, and much of the world has remained passive.
Even as the pain of 9/11 fades into our memory, other evils have made the news. The media is filled with story after story of innocent children kidnaped, raped, murdered by total strangers. We have watched the funerals on television, and have asked, how could such evil exist? Over the next two weeks, in memory of all the victims of evil this past year, let us explore how evil came into the world.
We humans are born with a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. Jewish tradition has always understood the evil inclination as our passions, our appetites, out of control. We humans can learn to control our passion and direct it towards good. “Ben Zoma said, Who is strong? Whoever controls their inclination.” (Avot 4:1) How does the evil inclination, our animal passions out of control, become the kind of evil we have witnessed this past year?
Let us learn from the greatest evil of the twentieth century, the holocaust. How could the Germans calmly murder some six million Jews and millions of others, and then go home to their families, their pets, their music? The murders did not begin immediately. First, the Jews had to be dehumanized. Through a series of Nazi enactments, the very humanity of the victims was taken away. The Nazis began to see Jews not as human beings but as animals, mere vermin. Most of us have no second thoughts about bringing an exterminator into our homes, removing pests, and then going about our ordinary business.
The first step on the road to evil is to dehumanize the victims. Children are taught from the youngest age that certain people are less than human. To quote the words sung by Lieutenant Joseph Cable in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
We see the results of teaching such hatred among the Palestinians today. Children’s text books dehumanize Israeli Jews. (An arithmetic example: If you kill eight Jews, and then you kill seven more Jews, how many Jews have you killed altogether.) Eventually, when children and their grandparents are blown up in the street, Palestinians celebrate. The Jews have been totally demonized.
Unfortunately, too often it is religion that teaches its adherents to demonize the other. The Moslem faith, capable of great spiritual insights, also has strands that speak of the faithful versus the infidel. The Moslem faith, once the most progressive in the arts and philosophy, has strands that glorify Jihad (struggle) against non-believers. Sadly much of the evil has been committed in the name of Allah. It is time for other, more moderate Moslems, to speak of the compassionate lessons of their faith.
There is evil in the world. It starts with the evil inclination, basic animal passions out of control. Then religion and nationality are used to dehumanize the victims. Still, there must be more to bring about the evil we have seen in the world this past year. (We will continue these thoughts next week.)



“And you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that the Lord God has given you.”
(Deuteronomy 28:53)

Much of this portion is a long litany of curses. These include almost every tragedy a people can suffer. The curses would be the consequence of disobeying God’s covenant and ignoring God’s law. Traditionally these curses are read quickly, in a low voice, with the hope that they will never come true.
In the height of the curses is one verse that is particularly jarring. People’s hunger and pain will be so great that they will be forced to eat their own sons and daughters to survive. It is hard to conceive of anything more terrible than parents forced to sacrifice their own children to survive. No wonder we read over it swiftly in a low voice.
And yet, I find too often in our contemporary society that this curse has come true. Parents sacrifice their own children to meet their own needs. They are willing to destroy their own offspring to satisfy their own hunger.
Some of the most egregious examples are in divorce situations. Parents make decisions based on their own needs rather than their children’s needs. They allow the anger at their ex-spouse to blind them to their children’s relationship with that spouse. Regularly I must tell divorced parents planning a child’s bar/bat mitzvah or wedding, “Your child deserves and needs both a father and a mother. I will not prevent the child’s other parent from participating fully in this event.”
Sometimes parents hurt their children by dictating career choices, life goals, demanding they go to a particular college, insisting the child live out the parent=s dreams. I recently heard of a physician father who almost disowned his child because the child refused to go to medical school. To be a doctor was the parent’s dream, not the child’s. Our children are not our surrogates, forced to fulfill our broken dreams. Every child has his or her own calling.
One of the most common ways parents hurt their children is not being an ongoing presence in their lives. This is particularly important during the teen years, when children are trying to break away and are so easily swayed by peers. Our teens may never admit it, but they want parents who care about them, listen to them, and even talk to them. We have all seen the recent television commercial of the teens speaking about how awful their parents were, always talking about drugs and smoking and drinking, always wanting to know who their friends were. “I thought you were the worst parents in the world.” Then at the end, the teens all say, “Thank you, mom and dad.”
Too many parents are so involved with their career and professional lives that they give their children little time and attention. If you ask why they are working so hard, they invariably answer, I am doing it for my family. Yet, as I have often taught, “Our family needs our presence more than our presents.”
There is a story of a young teen who asks his father, “Dad, what do you earn an hour?” “Why do you need to know?” “Dad, I just want to know. What do you earn an hour?” The father finally replies, “It is nobody’s business outside the family, but it works out to about $50 per hour.”
The boy leaves the room and returns shortly afterwards with his piggy bank. “Dad, here is $50. I want to buy an hour of your time.”
The ancient curse of a parent destroying a child is as true today as it was in ancient times.



“These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab.”
(Deuteronomy 28:69)

This rather upbeat phrase follows 54 verses of curses. The curses contain virtually every tragedy that can happen to a people. Unfortunately, over the course of Jewish history they have all come true.
Reading these curses during the public reading of the Torah in synagogue is a difficult and painful moment for the congregation. Traditionally they are read quickly in a soft tone of voice; the psychology seems to be that if it is hard to hear them, maybe they will go away. Often the Torah reader must take this aliya (the blessings over the Torah) because no one else wants it.
However, after reading through the curses which seem interminable, the Torah reader finally raises his voice and chants about God’s covenant. The curses end, and the portion concludes with an upbeat note. “Observe the words of this covenant and do them, the you may prosper in all that you do.” (Deuteronomy 29:8) However difficult the curses are, they end.
So many of us feel cursed at various times in our lives. We feel that there is a black cloud hanging over us, that God is picking on us. We are burdened with tragedy and sadness, disappointment and suffering. People ask me what words I can give to help people who are coping with pain and trouble. Often the simplest words will suffice – “This too shall pass.”
Time is a healer. I see people who have suffered grievous losses. Often they wonder how they will ever cope, become whole, find healing. I see them a year or two later and they have begun to enjoy life once again. The wound may still be there, but time has meliorated the hurt.
There are Holocaust survivors in our congregation who have lost their entire family, everyone they knew, at the hands of the Nazis. They suffered horribly in the camps. Somehow, they have rebuilt their lives in this country, established new families, found faith, and learned to live lives of relative normalcy. In speaking with these survivors, I realize that their pain never completely goes away. Still, time becomes a healer.
The Bible, in once of its most famous passages, teaches:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die.
A time for planting and a time for uprooting.
A time for slaying and a time for healing.
A time for tearing down and a time for building up.
A time for weeping and a time for laughing.
A time for wailing and a time for dancing.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)
Time is a healer. Jewish tradition recognizes this when it teaches how to cope with the death of a loved one. There is shiva – seven days of intense mourning at home, shloshim – thirty days of less intense mourning where celebrations are avoided, avel – a year of mourning where memorial prayers are said each morning and evening. Then after a year, the mourning period ends. The mourner must enter the real world and begin living again. When people are still unable to cope with there loss after a year, I advise them to seek professional counseling.
A time of mourning is true for all kinds of adversity, all the deaths that life throws our way. As King David wrote in his most famous Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm for You are with me.” (Psalms 23:4) We must walk through the valley, a journey that takes time, but eventually we pass through. We need not dwell in the valley of the shadow of death forever. Time diminishes the pain.