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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Lech lecha

“Throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.” (Genesis 17:12)
Why is circumcision so important to Judaism, and why must it be done on the eighth day. Allow me to share a passage from my most recent book, Three Creation Stories.

When my daughter gave birth to my grandson, a lactation nurse met with her in the hospital. This woman was passionate about the centrality of breast feeding as the most natural and therefore healthiest way to nourish a baby. I enjoyed talking with this young nurse, and I appreciated her passion. In fact, I shared with her a Talmudic passage (Shabbat 53b) on miracles, about the man who miraculously began to breastfeed his baby. There was only one problem. To this young woman, the natural way was the only way. Nature trumped everything else.
My daughter tried to nurse. Like so many women, she had difficulty, and after a brief time switched to formula. If I had known how expensive formula is, I might have pushed her to try nursing longer. But when my grandson switched to formula rather than mother’s milk, he flourished. He was able to get the nutrition he needed. Sometimes the natural way is not the best way; sometimes we need to move beyond nature.
There is a movement today to prevent vaccinations. Many of the people involved with that movement are the same people who are pushing nursing as the only natural way. Vaccinations are not natural, and at least from the point of view of this group, dangerous. Many claim that vaccinations cause autism, something that has never been scientifically proven. But there is a philosophy behind this movement, one that teaches that what is natural is what is important, and we ought not to play with natural.
I can certainly understand the desire to eat natural foods, or to eat meat that has been raised in a more natural setting, free range rather than locked in a stockade. Avoiding cruelty to animals is a fundamental ethical value. Having said that, natural foods are often much more subject to natural diseases that occur, and pesticides can make our food disease free. Obviously, the pesticides must be used wisely. But this points to an important issue. Natural is not necessarily better. Nature is not good, in fact nature can be quite maleficent. After all diseases are natural, curing disease is the most unnatural thing in the world.
On the eighth day after my grandson’s birth, we celebrated his brit milah – ritual circumcision. We did not do it for health reasons, although I believe there are health benefits to being circumcised. Rather we did it for religious reasons. It is probably the oldest tradition in Judaism, leading back to Abraham circumcising himself and his son Isaac in the Bible. The Torah never gives the reason why it takes place on the eighth day. But I believe there is a powerful message related to this idea of moving beyond nature.
Seven days symbolizes the completion of nature. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Seven has always been a sign of completeness in Judaism. So we wait until seven days have passed, but on the eighth day we make a mark in the flesh. The message is that the world of nature is incomplete. Our job is to complete God’s work.

The above passage from my book demonstrates the deep symbolic meaning of circumcision. The pagans, both ancient and modern, worship nature. The Bible teaches, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalms 19:2). Nature can be beautiful; I love a sunset on the beach as much as anyone. But nature can also be ugly. The corona virus is natural. Our job is not simply to worship nature but to transform nature. Such transformation begins on the eighth day after birth.

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every male child among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10)
Why is circumcision the symbol of the covenant between God and Abraham? And why on the eighth day? The Torah never gives a reason. Allow me to speculate. Circumcision on the eighth day teaches us something profound about our relationship with nature.
There are three ways we can approach the world of nature. The first is by worshipping nature. In the ancient pagan world, nature was sacred and everything from the sun to mountains to trees were objects of worship. The first religions practiced animism, where the entire natural world was infused with spirit. As I have mentioned in the past, the cycles of the seasons gave the ancient pagans a cyclical view of reality. The Bible rejected this view of nature being holy. God is holy and nature is God’s creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalms 19:2)
Nonetheless, this idea of nature being sacred has never really disappeared from Western thought. It was a central part of the Romantic movement which grew as a reaction to the pragmatic thinking of the Enlightenment. The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712 – 1778) believed that children ought to be raised in nature, that society and culture corrupt them. And this worship of nature has become a central part of modern deep ecology. For example, the Gaia hypothesis teaches that the earth is an organism which has rights. This worship of nature is behind such modern ideas as the anti-vaccine movement, the anti-baby formula movement, and of course, the anti-circumcision movement.
The second approach is the opposite, exploiting nature for human ends. Nature has no intrinsic value, but rather instrumental value. The early Enlightenment thinker Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) invented the modern scientific method. He believed that the purpose of science was to give humanity power over nature, power which they had lost in their “fall from grace.” (Bacon was a Christian.) Humanity had to return to the ideal expressed in Genesis 1:28, to “fill the earth and conquer it.”
Many thinkers blame Western religion, particularly Christianity, for our modern ecological crisis. In a seminal 1966 essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Lynn Townsend White Jr. (1907 – 1987), wrote, “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. … Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions … not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” If we are to save our planet, we must stop exploiting nature. And so, the dialectic between worshipping and exploiting nature continues.
Judaism offers a third approach, one the world needs to hear – transforming nature. Nature is God’s creation and worthy of respect. Nature is also imperfect, in constant flux, and in need of transformation. Humans are God’s partners in transforming nature. When God created the world, God saw that it was “very good,” very good but not perfect. The role of human beings is to “perfect the world as a kingdom of God,” as we say every day in the Alenu prayer. Perfecting nature is the message of the ancient rite of circumcision.
Seven days symbolizes the completion of nature, reflecting the week of creation. On the eighth day we recognize that nature is incomplete. As a powerful symbol of this fact, we circumcise every Jewish baby boy on the eighth day (unless there is a medical reason to delay circumcision.) We are giving a vital message to this baby as he begins his life. Do not worship nature. Only God is worthy of worship. Do not exploit nature. That will lead to destroying our world. Rather, seek to understand and if necessary, transform nature. Become God’s partner in the creation of the world.


“The Lord had said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”  (Genesis 12:1)

Max Planck, the German physicist who was the founder of quantum mechanics, famously said that science advances “funeral by funeral.”  What he meant is that, when a scientist has a brilliant new idea, the scientific community is not immediately convinced.  It takes a generation or more for a new idea to be accepted.  Scientists, like all other humans, are resistant to change.  When there is a brilliant scientific insight it is often not accepted until the old generation dies off and a new generation grows up.  So, science advances funeral by funeral.

What is true for science is true for all great ideas.  New ideas often take generations to be accepted.  Think about how long it took for the world to accept the idea that slavery is morally wrong, or that women deserve the same rights as men.  Ideas advance slowly over the course of generations.  It is true today.  And it was equally true in the Biblical world.

That brings us to Abraham, introduced in this week’s portion.  He was the father of the Jewish people.  The great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are known as the Abrahamic religions.  He was the founder of monotheism, the core idea of the great religions of the West.  Abraham’s greatness is not that he was the most successful family man.  He had difficult relations with his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, his son through Hagar Ishmael, and even his son of old age Isaac.  But Abraham gave the world an idea that changed the world.  It took generations to be accepted, but Abraham’s idea transformed the world.

Until Abraham came along, the religious norm was polytheism.  There were multiple gods; think of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  And with those multiple gods came multiple ethical systems.  Each god had its own idea of right and wrong.  With  the belief in one God came the expectation that humans would be ethical.  Abraham puts it very well in next week’s portion when he challenges God, “Should not the judge of all the earth not do justly” (Genesis 18:25).  There is one God with ethical expectations for all humanity.

The Torah never explicitly says that Abraham founded ethical monotheism.  But Rabbinic Midrash fills in the blanks.  According to one Midrash, as a young child Abraham saw the beautiful night sky, the moon and the stars, and began to worship them.  Then the sun rose, and he said there is something more powerful than the night sky, so he started worshipping the sun.  Then when the sun set, he finally realized that there is something more powerful than the sun, the moon, or the stars.  There must be a God Who created them all.  Many other Rabbinic Midrashim share how Abraham was the first to discover ethical monotheism.

The difference between the ancient polytheism and the new monotheism came up in our Bagels and Bible discussion last week.  We were comparing the Noah story with the ancient epic of Gilgamesh.  Both share very similar flood stories.  Both have the hero build an ark and rescue two of each kind of animals.  Both bring a flood to destroy humanity.  Both have the hero send out a raven and a dove.  But there is a huge difference.  In the Gilgamesh flood story, it is an arbitrary whim of one of the gods who brings the flood.  It has nothing to do with the ethical behavior of human beings.  In the Noah story, human evil is the reason God brings the flood.  In the end, God promises never to flood the earth again.  But God also gives Noah fundamental ethical laws for all humanity.

Abraham gave the world ethical monotheism.  There is one God and one universal ethics for all humanity.  As mentioned earlier, no great idea is immediately accepted.  The Torah itself sometimes hints of other gods.  “Who is like You among the gods” (Exodus 15:11).  It took generations, or as Planck taught, “funeral by funeral.”  But in the end, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all taught the centrality of ethical monotheism.  And this is the idea that won out in the West.  It was an idea of one man.  And it was an idea that was to transform the world.

“The Lord had said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
Jewish Communities throughout the world celebrate the Global Day of Jewish Learning on November 11. This program was conceived by Rabbi Adin Steinsalz, the great translator of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. Each year a theme is chosen. Our synagogue was invited to host the program but we had a conflict, so I do not know where the local program will take place. But as we begin to read the story of our father Abraham, I am intrigued with this year’s theme – journeys. The curriculum deals with journeys, of our forefathers and foremothers, of the Jewish people, and of each of us in our personal lives.
This week’s portion begins with a journey. Abraham (then called Abram), his wife Sarah (then called Sari), and Abraham’s nephew Lot, together with their household, begin a journey. They will travel from Haran to the Promised Land of Canaan. Then they will go down to Egypt before returning to Canaan. Later Abraham’s descendants will begin a forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. The story of the Jewish people is the story of journeys. My own grandparents fled Europe to come to America. Our peoples’ story is the story of leaving home on a journey.
I find this theme to be extremely powerful, for it goes to the heart of how the Biblical world-view differs from the ancient pagan world-view. In the pagan world, life was a great cycle. The scholar of ancient religions Mircea Eliade wrote a highly respected book on religion entitled The Myth of the Eternal Return. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche took off on this idea. He believed Europe had gone wrong with its emphasis on reason, and he longed to return to the ancient pagan idea of living a passionate life. He spoke about the law of eternal return. Each of us will be forced to live our life over and over in what he called eternal return. What kind of life should each of us live if we knew we would do it again and again? To the pagans, everything returns.
The Bible gives a radically different world view. Life is not cyclical but linear. This linear point of view begins with Abraham who leaves his home for a new place and a new life. We are not forced to relive the past. The Irish (non-Jewish) author Thomas Cahill made this point explicitly in his 1998 book The Gifts of the Jews; How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. The future is different from the past. This is certainly true of the story of Abraham as he journeys to a new land.
This is also the story of the exodus from Egypt and the movement from slavery to freedom. To give this a modern interpretation, this is the story of leaving Mitzrayim (Hebrew for Egypt but really meaning “a narrow place”) to a wider place, somewhere new. I have used this metaphor when I counsel people who feel trapped in their lives, whether through bad relationships, a poor paying job, or addiction. Life can be a journey from a narrow to a wider place.
Journeys is not just a Jewish theme but a very personal theme. Life for each of us is a journey. I have often quoted the wonderful poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine, “Birth is a beginning and death a destination, but life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage. Made stage by stage … to life everlasting.” As each of us goes through life, it is important to remember that it is not the destination but the journey itself that is important. We learn this from the Bible. And we learn from the words of Rabbi Fine, that our goal is to make each of our journeys a sacred pilgrimage.

“The Lord said to Avram, Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
I first saw The Sound of Music on the stage for my eleventh birthday. I was younger than several of the children in the show. Florence Henderson starred as Maria von Trapp in the touring company which came to the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Of course, I already knew all the songs from the Original Cast Album with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel. Then the movie came out starring Julie Andrews, which I have seen countless times. Recently I watched the live production of the stage show for television, starring Carrie Underwood. Last week, in honor of our thirty-eighth anniversary, Evelyn and I went to see the show at the Broward Center. Here is a show almost as old as me, and still as popular as ever.
In a great show, every time you see it you gain some new insight. In this performance one line jumped out at me. It was at the end of the first act, when the Mother Abbess is about to sing Climb Every Mountain. She speaks to Maria who had fled her governess job, fearing that she was falling in love with the captain. The Mother Abbess tries to convince her to go back and face her fears. She says, “You have to find the life you were born to live.” Of course, the life Maria was born to live was to marry Captain von Trapp, become mother to his seven children, and flee with the family from the Nazis. By the way, the play is based on a true story.
I realize how important that line is in my own understanding of reality. “You have to find the life you were born to live.” I use similar ideas in my Rabbinic counseling and when I speak at weddings and at funerals. We were put on this earth with a purpose, and our mission in life is to find that purpose and live it. It is a fundamental idea of western religion. That is why the Christian preacher Rick Warren could write a best-seller called The Purpose Driven Life. We are here for a purpose.
This idea is denied by many modern thinkers. In fact, an entire philosophical movement called existentialism claims that we are thrust into a purposeless and absurd universe. We must create our own purpose. One of the leading figures of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre defined the movement as “existence comes before essence.” We exist, but we have no purpose, no essence, no reason to be here. In order to survive, we must create our own essence. Sartre also famously said, “man is condemned to be free.” We find ourselves in a universe created by blind, random forces. We can make ourselves into who we went to be, but we should not look to God or faith or religion to give us a sense of purpose. This philosophy was extremely popular when I went to college. Among many scientists and philosophers, it is still popular. Thus, the Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg in his book The First Three Minutes famously wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
This week’s portion has a very strong hint that the existentialists are wrong, that Weinberg is wrong, that we do have a purpose. God tells Abraham, go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s home. The Hebrew for “go forth” is lech lecha. But the accurate Hebrew translation is “go to yourself.” God tells Abraham to leave his father’s home and go to himself. Become the person he was meant to be. Go forth and fulfill his divine purpose. Or as the Mother Abbess told Maria, “You have to find the life you were born to live.”
We were each born with a purpose or a mission. Our job in life is to find that purpose or mission and live the kind of life we are meant to live. We do not live in an absurd, meaningless universe as the existentialists taught. We live in a universe where we can fulfill a purpose driven life. That was the command to Abraham our father. God told him to go to himself. In doing so, Abraham changed the course of history.

“The Lord said to Abram, go to yourself.” (Genesis 12:1)
This Sunday I am beginning my Rap with the Rabbi discussions, dealing with the existence of souls. In preparing for this class, I came across a wonderful quote from the Zohar, the great work of Jewish mysticism. It is worth quoting it at length. “At the time when God desired to create the universe, a thought came up in His will before Him, and He formed all the souls which were destined to be allotted to the children of men. The souls were all before Him in the forms which they were afterwards destined to bear inside the human body. God looked at each one of them, and He saw that many of them would act corruptly in the world.
“When the time of each arrived, it was summoned before God, Who said to it: ‘Go to such and such part of the universe, enclose thyself in such and such a body.’ But the soul replied: ‘O sovereign of the universe, I am happy in my present world, and I desire not to leave it for some other place where I shall be enslaved and become soiled.’ Then the Holy One (blessed be He) replied: ‘From the day of thy creation thou hast had no other destiny than to go into the universe whither I send thee.’ The soul, seeing that it must obey, sorrowfully took the way to earth and came down to dwell in our midst.” (Mishpatim 2 96b)
The Zohar is saying that God creates each individual soul and against its will, sends it in the world to fulfill its particular purpose. That is why each soul was created to begin with. This idea is reflected in the beginning of this week’s portion. The phrase lech lecha is usually translated “go forth.” “The Lord said to Abram, go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But perhaps a more accurate translation grows out of the Jewish mystical tradition. God tells Abram, “go to yourself.” Become the person God created you to be.
This idea has been at the heart of my teaching and my counseling for much of my career. We human beings are not on this earth by random chance, the result of blind, impersonal forces, of molecules that crashed together in a certain way. Rather we human beings are on this earth because we are meant to be here, that we have a purpose and a mission to fulfill in our lives. It is as if the ancient words of Jeremiah came true in each of our lives. “Before I formed you in the belly I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Like Jeremiah, each of us was given a purpose while still in our mother’s womb.
This teaching fits perfectly with one of the most basic insights of Judaism. We humans are God’s partners in the perfection of God’s world. But if we are to be God’s partners, we must have a particular purpose and a particular mission. So how do we find our purpose in this world? How do we “go to ourselves?” This is the great question that each of us must ask ourselves as we go through life. Why did my soul come into this world and what does God expect of me? Sometimes I ask people, if you had one year to live, if you had all the money you need to survive, what would you do? What would you hope to accomplish in that year?
Perhaps the best way to understand this is that in the end, when our souls return to God, we should justify whether we fulfilled our mission. The Hasidic rebbe Zusya famously began crying in the last days of his life. His students ask him why he is crying; he has lived a wonderful life. Zusya answers, “When I leave this world I will not be asked why I was not Moses. I was not meant to be Moses. I will not be asked why I was not Rabbi Akiba. I was not meant to be Rabbi Akiba. When I leave this world, I will be asked, why was I not Zusya. I am crying because of the question, why was I not Zusya.”
May each of us be in this world the person God sent us into the world to be.

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every male child among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10)
Greetings from Maryland. I am up here celebrating the birth of our first grandchild, a baby boy. Judah was born last Sunday morning, two weeks early but over eight pounds. I am flying back to Florida later today to be there for Shabbat. Then I am flying back up here on Sunday morning for the bris (ritual circumcision).
People may ask – why circumcision? The basic answer is that the Torah commands it. In this week’s portion, God makes a covenant with Abraham and every generation afterwards. The symbol of the covenant is that every baby boy will be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Abraham circumcised himself at ninety-nine and his son Ishmael at thirteen. And when Isaac is born (part of next week’s portion), he is circumcised on the eighth day. And so it has been for every generation, right up to our new grandson.
Why circumcision? The Torah never really says. Many rabbis have speculated about the purpose of circumcision and various answers have been given. Of course when you have multiple answers, you are free to choose whichever you prefer. Allow me to share one answer I truly like. It sends a powerful message to anyone who gives birth.
For seven days the baby remains uncircumcised, remaining complete the way God made him. Seven always symbolizes completion in nature. God made a world in six days and then rested on the seventh. Seven therefore represents the natural world as created by God. Remember God made the world and looked at it, saying it was “very good.” Very good, but not perfect.
There is a powerful return to nature movement today that teaches that we should leave nature alone. Part of their agenda is an anti-circumcision movement, sadly often led by Jews. It is tied to a return to paganism and the belief that nature is holy and should not be tampered with. Who are we to tamper with a world that God made? I have heard these same arguments from those who are opposed to the vaccination of children. Leave nature alone. Circumcision is symbolic of the rejection of this view.
Nature as created by God created is very good but not perfect. So also we humans are very good but not perfect. After the complete week, on the eighth day, we begin the job of perfecting the world. It begins with the ancient ritual of removing the foreskin on a baby boy. The father is actually obligated to circumcise his son. (In most cases the father authorizes a professional, the mohel to do the job. Right before the circumcision, the father formally authorizes the mohel as his agent. Sometimes the mohel sets it up and the father does the actual cut.) The father is beginning the job of perfecting God’s creation. The prayer is that the little boy, when he comes of age, will continue the work of perfecting this imperfect world, what we call tikkun olam.
So ritual circumcision contains a powerful message. I pray our grandson will hear it as he grows up. He has been born into a world that is very good but far from perfect. He has a God-given role in the perfection of this world. He has his own particular part in making this a better world. He will have to find his particular role and his particular mission as he grows up, leaves home, and enters the world. But he was sent into this world for a purpose. My prayer for him is that he will take part in perfecting this world as a kingdom of God.
I come from a tradition that teaches that nature is God’s creation and is very good. But nature is not perfect. It is in need of perfection, and every human being has a role in making this a better world. Circumcision drives home that message in a powerful way. It tells Judah, God sent you into this world with a purpose. Grow up, do your part, and help make this a better world. My wife and I, my daughter and her husband, can only pray that God help him in this effort.

“Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12:5)
There is a scene in the wonderful novel by Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and also in the excellent movie based on the novel. The main character Piscine (Pi), raised and still practicing Hinduism, has also become a Christian and a Moslem. He is confronted by a pandit (Hindu spiritual leader), a priest, and an imam. They tell him that he cannot practice three religions at once. He must choose. Pi does not want to choose. He blurts out, “All religions are true. I just want to love God.”
Are all religions true? In this week’s portion we introduce Abraham, the father of Judaism but also of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Torah says that he travelled to Canaan with “the persons they had acquired in Haran.” Who were these persons? Jewish midrash (Rabbinic legend) teaches that these were the converts. Abram used to go out to convert the men while his wife Sarai used to convert the women. The midrash continues that “Whoever brings a Gentile near [to God] is as though he created him.” (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) This is the beginning of a long tradition of conversion in Judaism.
Through much of religious history, conversion meant embracing a new faith as true with the understanding that one’s former faith is false. A Christian converted to Judaism with the understanding that Judaism is true and Christianity is false. Usually this meant totally cutting one’s self off from one’s former family and community. A Christian who became a Jew no longer could be part of the family he or she grew up with. Their religion was false. But the same thing was true the other way around. In Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye’s daughter Chava converts to Christianity to marry her Christian boyfriend, she is totally rejected by her Jewish family. This is probably the most painful scene in the show.
There is an underlying assumption that if one religion is true, then another religion is false. If Judaism is true, Christianity and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are all false. Let us take it further. If Conservative Judaism is true, then Orthodox or Reform Judaism is false. And we can take it still further. If the traditionalist interpretation of Conservative Judaism is true -for example, no musical instruments on Shabbat – then the liberal interpretation of Conservative Judaism is false -for example, allowing musical instruments. Taking this all the way, if my understanding of religion is true, then everyone else’s interpretation is false.
Obviously this is absurd. I have converted hundreds of people to Judaism, and rarely have people cut themselves off from the family who raised them. I have seen converts who are truly observant of Judaism enjoy a Christmas dinner with their parents. They would never say that their parents’ religion is wrong. I have also seen converts out of Judaism, practicing Christians, who will come to synagogue for a family bar or bat mitzvah. We have embraced the idea that multiple religions can have a touch of truth to them and are worthy of respect.
The name for such this acceptance of multiple religions is “pluralism.” Often people who embrace pluralism use the metaphor “there are many paths up the same mountain.” Jews, Christians, and Moslems are all trying to get to the same place, just taking different paths to get there. Of course, the most fundamentalist religions reject pluralism. Ultra-Orthodox Jews will not participate in interfaith dialogues, and fundamentalist Christians think all non-Christians are condemned. But for most people, there is a sense that multiple faiths have a touch of truth.
How can I as a rabbi understand pluralism? Part of the modern view of the world is that there is room for multiple perspectives and multiple interpretations. The philosopher Immanuel Kant opened this door with what he called his Copernican revolution – there is no God’s Eye view of reality, just individual subjective views of reality. Einstein built on Kant by saying that people in different reference frames see the world differently.
Today we recognize that there can be more than one way to see reality. There can be more than one truth. Actually, the Rabbis of the Talmud spoke about multiple truths long ago. Two rabbis can totally disagree, but the Talmud says Elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayim – “these and these are both the words of the living God.” (Eruvim 13b)

“As he [Abram] was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, I know what a beautiful woman you are.” (Genesis 12:11)
It is the Shabbat before my daughter’s wedding. As I prepare for a wonderful weekend, I am thinking about what insights I can learn from the stories of Abraham and Sarah in this week’s portion. There is one insight I have always loved, based on a Midrash in Genesis Rabbah. It teaches about the moment when Abraham (then called Abram) realizes how valuable his wife Sarah (then called Sarai) is. Let me quote a passage from my book The Ten Journeys of Life which discusses this moment in Abraham’s life.
Abraham had been married a number of years, but until he went down to Egypt he and his wife Sarah did not interact much. She came along on their journey, but he hardly seemed to notice her. The Torah records no conversation between them. We do not know how she felt about their travels. All we know about Sarah until she arrived in Egypt is that she was unable to conceive children.
Abraham was concerned about how the Egyptians would treat him and Sarah. Abraham was also concerned that if the Egyptians learned Sarah was his wife, they might kill him in order to have her. So he asked her to pretend that she was his sister. Unfortunately, the plan backfired, and she was kidnapped into Pharaoh’s harem, where she was held until her true identity became known.
The story relates that as Abraham and Sarah approached the border with Egypt, Abraham seemed to see his wife for the first time. The Rabbinic Midrash asks why did he first mention her beauty then, after all their travels? In general, traveling takes a toll on one’s beauty, yet Sarah seemed to grow more beautiful throughout her travels. Nowhere during his journey did Abraham find a woman as beautiful as Sarah (Genesis Rabbah 40:4)
The Midrash also states that Abraham tried to hide Sarah as they approached the Egyptian border. He placed her in a box, but the customs inspector stopped him. “You have garments in the box?” He asked.
“I will pay the customs on garments,” Abraham replied.
“Perhaps you have silks in the box?”
“I will pay the customs on silks.”
“Perhaps you have precious stones in the box?”
“I will pay the customs on precious stones.”
Abraham kept upping the price, realizing that what he had in the box was more valuable even than precious stones. “A good wife, who can find, her price is above rubies.” (Proverbs 31:10). Finally, Abraham opened the box, and Sarah’s beauty shone throughout Egypt (Genesis Rabbah 40:5) For the first time, Abraham truly saw the beauty of his wife and realized what was valuable in his life.

As my daughter Aliza prepares to marry Darren, I hope that each one will look at the other and say, I have found the most valuable thing in my life.

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every male child among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10
A couple of days ago I was privileged to go to a bris (a ritual circumcision). It was a joyous occasion; the grandparents were long time members of my synagogue and I had been at the parents’ wedding. Now I would be there as they brought their first child into the covenant between God and the people Israel.
The mohel was well known in our community. We had officiated together at many brises and I knew his routine well. He likes to speak about the mystical idea that three veils descend on a baby boy when he is born. There is a veil over his body, a veil over his mind, and a veil over his heart. When the foreskin is removed at the bris, this removes the veil over his body. When the Torah is uncovered at his bar mitzvah, this removes the veil over his mind. And when he removes the veil over his bride at the wedding ceremony, this removes the veil over his heart. These are beautiful ideas.
The circumcision of a Jewish boy on the eighth day is one of the oldest and most important in Judaism. Its source is this week’s portion, when God makes a covenant with Abraham. Circumcision is the symbol of that covenant. We Jews have been bringing our baby boys into the covenant through this ritual for almost four thousand years. A ritual this old and this important ought to be beyond controversy. Unfortunately, this ritual has become a center of controversy today.
There is a movement today to outlaw circumcision. Behind this movement is the belief that baby boys have a right to keep their bodies intact, without having a foreskin removed before they are old enough to consent. In San Francisco there was an attempt to put a measure on the ballot outlawing circumcision in the city. It was overturned in court. But it will come up again. In Germany a local court recently placed a ban on circumcision. After an outcry from Jews and Moslems, German parliament overturned this. But it will also come up again, if not in Germany then in other parts of Europe. Remember that much of Europe has already outlawed shechita, the ritual slaughter of meat.
What is sad is that much of this anti-circ moment has been led by Jews. I have heard of an adult Jewish man who sued the mohel for circumcising him as an infant. A prominent Jewish magazine carried articles showing both sides of the “circumcision debate.” We Jews can argue about many things – who to vote for in the election. Whether a woman can wear a tallit at the Western Wall. Whether musical instruments should be played in synagogue. But circumcision should be beyond argument.
Why was circumcision chosen as the symbol of the covenant? The Torah never says. I can think of various reasons. But let me share one of my favorites. God did not create a perfect world. God saw the world and said it was good, in fact very good. But it was not perfect. God made human beings in order to perfect this world. God made a covenant with the Jews so they can teach humanity that life is not about getting into heaven. Life is about perfecting this world.
Every Jewish boy who is born is left alone for seven days, symbolic of the first seven days of creation. The child is part of God’s creation. But on the eighth day we say that something is incomplete. The child needs to be perfected. It is the first step in driving home one of the deepest lessons of being human – we need to perfect God’s world. Every Jewish boy wears that symbol right on his flesh. And so we say, “May he grow up to a life of Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds.”
At the end of the bris I was given the honor of blessing the baby boy. I prayed that this bris was the first step in a lifetime of perfecting this world as a kingdom of God.


“When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was.”
(Genesis 12:14)
Did Abraham love Sarah? We know from the Torah that Isaac loved Rebecca, at least after they married. We know that Jacob loved Rachel, and did not love Leah. (The Torah never considers whether the wives loved their husbands, but that is a question for another time.) Nowhere does the Torah say that Abraham loved Sarah. It simply says that Abraham travelled with Sarah, including a dangerous trip down to Egypt.
Here the Midrash (Rabbinic tales based on the Bible) weaves a wonderful story. Abraham was worried about his wife, so he hid her in a box and tried to sneak her across the border. There he was confronted by customs agents. “Do you carry garments in the box?” “I will pay the duty on garments.” “Perhaps you carry precious silks in the box.” “I will pay the duty on precious silks.” “Perhaps you carry precious stones in the box.” “I will pay the duty on precious stones.” The customs agents realized that there must be something in the box more valuable even than precious stones. They forced him to open the box, and “the whole land of Egypt was irradiated by her beauty.” (Genesis Rabbah 40:5)
I included this Midrash in my book The Ten Journeys of Life in the chapter on love. It is the story of a man who for the first time actually sees the beauty and the value of his wife. My interpretation of the story is that until now Sarah had been his wife and travelling companion, but nowhere does it say that Abraham sees who she really is. Now that the Egyptians want him to pay customs, he realizes the value of the woman he married. In the end he could not protect her from Pharaoh. Sarah was taken into the harem of Pharaoh. But that also is another story.
Did Abraham love Sarah? Let me try to define love. Love means truly seeing another human being, his or her value and his or her needs. And love means putting one’s self aside to serve the needs of that other human being. Love means service. Christians like to use the Greek word agape – love as total giving of one’s self to the other. It is a hard ideal to carry out in practice, but it is what love demands.
In our overly romantic, overly sexual culture, we speak a great deal about love. Young people want nothing more than “to fall in love.” But when you ask them what they mean by love, they inevitably answer – “I want someone who makes me happy.” “I want someone who will take care of me.” “I want someone who turns me on.” When people fall in love, they are focused on themselves and their own needs. But is that really love? Avot teaches that any love that has conditions attached is destined not to last. (Avot 5:16) If I love someone for what they do for me, that love is destined to fail.
True love begins when we stop focusing on ourselves and start focusing on the other. What makes this person beautiful? What makes this person valuable? What can I do to serve this person’s needs? Love begins with service.
There is a famous Hasidic story of Rabbi Moses of Sasov, who claimed he learned how to love from a peasant in a tavern. He saw one peasant put his arm around another and say, “Ivan, do you love me?” “Of course I love you.” “Ivan, do you know what causes me pain?” “How could I know what causes you pain?” “If you do not know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me?” To love someone is to see them and know what causes them pain.
So, did Abraham love Sarah? The Torah does not say explicitly. But I like to think that at the moment when they crossed the border into Egypt, Abraham saw how precious his wife really was. He saw what she really needed. And perhaps at that moment, he grew to love her.



“All the families of the earth will bless themselves through you.” (Genesis 12:3)

Let me speak of two movies I saw and a book I read this week. The first movie was the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. The directors of such comic-tragic hits as Raising Arizona, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men, this was Joel and Ethan Coen’s most Jewish movie. It begins with a scene entirely in Yiddish in the old country, then moves to suburban Minneapolis in 1967, where the brothers grew up. Much of the movie is centered in a synagogue.
The movie tells the story of a modern day Job, a poor Shlimazel named Larry Gopnick (played by Michael Stuhlbarg). Larry is a professor of physics who is having marital problems, job problems, kid problems, brother problems, neighbor problems, etc. Overwhelmed with trouble, he simply wants to talk to his rabbi for advice. The movie is filled with scenes of suburban Jewish life from a bar mitzvah to a funeral. And yet the movie deeply troubled me.
What most bothered me was the portrayal of the rabbi, or rather three different rabbis. Larry first sees the young junior rabbi, who offers him meaningless platitudes that are no help him at all. He then sees the dignified, experienced senior rabbi who tells him an insipid story but once again has nothing useful to say. Finally, he tries to see the elderly retired rabbi, who refuses to see him altogether. “The rabbi is thinking,” says his belligerent secretary. Three rabbis with no wisdom to share. For the Coen brothers, Judaism is nostalgic memories but has nothing useful to say to modern life.
I also saw the movie Tuesdays with Morrie, based on the best seller. (I read the book several years ago.) I assume everybody has read the book or seen the movie, but if you have not, it is the true story of an overworked love-phobic sports writer named Mitch Albom (played by Hank Azaria). When Mitch learns that his beloved sociology professor Morrie Schwartz (played by Jack Lemmon) is dying of Lou Gehrig’ disease, he decides to fly to Boston every Tuesday and visit with his professor. Morrie gives Mitch lessons in life, love, and how to die.
Mitch is Jewish as is Morrie. Flashback scenes show Morrie’s parents speaking Yiddish, and in the end kaddish is recited at his funeral. Yet there is nothing Jewish at all about the movie. None of Morrie’s wisdom is attributed to any Jewish source nor any rabbi. It is the story of one secular Jew teaching another secular Jew how to live, with no references to Jewish tradition or Jewish wisdom.
After seeing both movies within a few days of each other, I came away with an image. If you want wisdom about life, do not go to your rabbi. Rather, go to a secular Jew who has given up all ties to religion. What happened to our people, who (as it says in this week’s portion) are supposed to be a blessing to all the nations? Does Judaism have any wisdom for modern people?
Then I read a book sent to all the rabbis in the country. It was Mitch Albom’s newest book Have a Little Faith. In this book, Mitch returns to his Jewish roots. He speaks of growing up in a suburban synagogue in south New Jersey, but not practicing Judaism and marrying out of the faith. He goes home each year to be with his parents on the High Holidays. As a non-practicing Jew, he is deeply surprised when his childhood rabbi asks him to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.
Rabbi Albert Lewis was an extremely successful rabbi for over sixty years. (I spent a wonderful Shabbat with him years ago and I am still friendly with his son.) Rabbi Lewis and Mitch have a series of meetings over eight years, as the rabbi shares his wisdom and insights. The book is a Jewish Tuesdays with Morrie. The book ends with the eulogy Mitch spoke at Rabbi Lewis’s funeral. I believe that Mitch Albom, a wonderful author, rediscovered his Judaism in this book. And I believe it proves that Jews and even non-Jews can turn to our tradition for wisdom on how to live.


“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every male child among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10)
The presidential election is over. For the first time a person of color has been elected to the highest office in the land. Although I did not endorse either candidate, there is much that impresses me about Barack Obama. I pray that God gives him wisdom as he begins his administration. However one may feel about his victory, it is clear that his candidacy energized a younger generation of voters. The young people I know spoke more about the election, worked for their candidate, and had an excitement that I have not seen since my college days when I went door-to-door for McGovern. There was outreach to a younger generation that was sorely needed by our nation.
Reaching the next generation is fundamental to this week’s portion. On Rosh Hashana I spoke about bringing children into the covenant and teaching them to be responsible adults. Allow me to share part of my first day Rosh Hashana sermon:
I love the Talmud, but sometimes it is very strange. I am going to give you the Michael Gold spin on one such strange teaching. According to the Talmud, if your father is carrying a heavy load and your teacher is carrying a heavy load, you help your teacher first and only then help your father. If your father is drowning and your teacher is drowning, you rescue your teacher first and then you rescue your father. For your father only brings you into this world, your teacher brings you into the World to Come. But if your father is also your teacher, then he comes first. What is the Talmud saying? It is not enough to bring children into the world, they have to be taught.
This summer I studied philosophy with a professor at FAU. We were looking at the philosophy known as deism, the idea that God created the world, started everything off, but since then has ignored the world. Deism was popular during the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson was a deist. My professor did not like deism very much. She had a great description for it. She called it “God as deadbeat dad.”
“God as deadbeat dad.” Even God has to teach children. It is not enough to give birth to children. Children need to be taught. The Talmud describes a parent’s obligations towards a child. (Actually, it uses the usual male language to describe a father’s obligations towards his son.) He must give him a bris, give him a pidyon haben when necessary, teach him Torah, teach him a trade, find him a wife, and some say teach him to swim. Six obligations – the bris and the pidyon haben, today we would include a babynaming for a daughter. Some people tell me today they do not want to give their child any religion. Let them decide their religion for themselves when they grow up. My answer is, “Great idea. I think you should also not teach your child any language. Let him or her decide what language to speak as an adult.” Children deserve a religion, even if they choose to reject it when they grow up. I tell parents, at least give them something to reject.
Most of the obligations of a parent towards a child deal with teaching. Teach your child Torah – the values and stories he or she needs to function in the world. Teach your child a trade – the secular learning he or she needs to someday earn a living. Teach your child to swim – in other words, how to function safely and successfully in the world. Finally, the Talmud says find a husband or wife for your child. As one of Tevye’s daughters says in Fiddler on the Roof, “Somebody has to make the matches. Young people cannot decide these things for themselves.” I am prepared to arrange matches for my children if they are interested. So far they have said no.
Children need to be taught. And you do not need to be a biological parent to be a teacher. We all have a role in teaching the younger generation. Even those without children can play a role in teaching. But now we come to one of the key insights of the Jewish way of being human. There is no generic way of teaching children. The book of Proverbs says (again using male language), “Teach a son according to his way, even when he grows he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) “According to his way, according to her way.” Every child is unique. That makes sense for every child has a unique gift to give to the world.
How are we to teach our children? We cannot teach any child until we see that particular child, really see him or her. We must see what makes each of our children unique. The Talmud teaches that “A person stamps many coins with one stamp and each coin is exactly like every other coin. But God stamps many people with one stamp, and each person is totally unique.” Every one of us is different from every other one of us. Every one of us has unique gifts to help perfect this world. And every one of us must be taught in our own unique way. That is why I disagree with the state of Florida when it requires every child to pass the same FCAT tests. And that is why I have told our religious school to make special learning arrangements with particular children unable to learn through our regular program. As every child is unique, every child learns in a unique way.



“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves through you.”
(Genesis 12:3)

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter has made millions through her books, columns, and television appearances. On a regular basis she says something outrageous, which has certainly contributed to her notoriety and pocketbook. She attacked 9/11 widows for “enjoying their celebrity status,” suggested that to confront Moslem terrorists, “we should invade their country, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” and called Al Gore gay. Now she has targeted the Jews.
Appearing with Jewish host Donny Deutsch on The Big Idea, she pictured an ideal America where everyone would be Christian. When questioned, she replied that “we just want Jews to be perfected.” She continued that Christianity is like Federal Express, the fast track to perfection, and Christians are simply perfected Jews. My first thoughts upon this interview were – any woman who could unite Jews and Moslems by her outrageous statements is amazing.
Were her words about Jews so outrageous? For centuries this is precisely what most Christians believed. The technical word is supersessionism – the belief that the ancient covenant God made with the Jewish people has been superceded by a new covenant. Often this has been called replacement theology. The Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament, has been replaced by a New Testament. And the Jews, by rejecting Jesus, have been rejected. This whole understanding has led to what Jules Isaac called The Teaching of Contempt, and led to centuries of anti-Semitism and persecution.
Today among most Christians there is a new theology and a new understanding of the role of the Jewish people in the world. Both the Catholic Church and most Protestant groups, particularly more conservative Evangelical Christians believe that God made a covenant with the Jewish people. They also believe in a new covenant with Christian believers. Nevertheless – this is the key point – the old covenant with the Jewish people still stands. The Jews still have a role to play in the world. Most modern Christians believe, as this week’s Torah portion teaches, those nations who bless the Jews will be blessed and those who curse the Jews will be cursed. The Jews are still at the center of God’s plan for humanity.
What do we Jews believe? All religious Jews – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – share a faith that God made a covenant with our people long ago. As it teaches in this week’s portion, God called on Abraham to be the father of a great nation, to live under the covenant, to circumcise himself and his sons as a symbol of the covenant, and to live in a way that the whole world was blessed. Religious Jews believe that through the centuries, by living according to this covenant, the Jewish people have been a blessing to the world. We Jews have had a major role in perfecting the world as a Kingdom of God. If we live by God’s covenant, we will continue to do so in the future.
Perhaps Ms. Coulter needs to go back and study contemporary Jewish and Christian theology. But I do not expect someone who writes a book entitled, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They Would Be Republicans, to show scholarly insight into the history of religion. She will continue to make her outrageous statements and make her millions.
Coulter claims that Christianity is about perfecting Jews. As a rabbi, I believe that Judaism is about perfecting the world. Perhaps most in need of perfecting is Ms. Coulter.



“Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house…”
(Genesis 12:1)

As a rabbi and like most clergy, I do a large amount of pastoral counseling. I meet with people who are going through crises in their lives, helping them cope with spiritual and family problems. I know the limits of my competency; often I recommend that people find a professional therapist or psychologist. What is intriguing is that sometimes therapists will recommend a patient to me to discuss a spiritual issue. We can work together.
There is a difference between secular therapy and pastoral counseling. There are issues I can discuss that a secular therapist usually cannot or will not raise. Those issues deal with the spiritual dimension of existence and Biblical and religious insights into family relationships. As a rabbi, I see people as far more than Sigmund Freud’s image of the id, ego, and superego. People contain a spiritual dimension, the neshama or breath of God, to use the traditional Biblical language. My goal is to help people connect to that spiritual dimension.
Let me share one question I frequently ask people who come to me for counseling. After listening to their issues, sometimes about their families but often about the lack of meaning and direction in their lives, I tell them that I want to ask a question. As a rabbi I can ask this question; a secular therapist probably cannot. “Why do you think God put you on this earth? What purpose did God have to bring you here and to keep you alive? What is your mission?” The question assumes something profound about human life. We are not placed on this earth by random chance. There is a reason and a sense of purpose to our lives, and there is an intelligence in the universe that caused us to be here. Call that intelligence God, or a Ein Sof as Kabbalists do, or a Higher Power as they do in the recovery community. The name is not important. What is important is that we are not here by random chance.
Modern thinkers have rejected the idea that we humans are on earth to fulfill some higher purpose. Many take a secular, materialistic view of humanity. To many followers of Charles Darwin, humans are here as a result of accidental forces, mutations, and natural selection. We are here by happenstance, not through any divine purpose. To Marx and his followers, we are victims of dialectic materialism. Our role in life is pre-ordained by economic forces beyond our control. For Freud, we are made up of unconscious drives deep within our psyche. To most modern existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre, we exist in an indifferent or even absurd universe, and we create our own reality. Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Sartre all have wisdom to teach us. But each denies the central vision of the Biblical tradition – we humans are here because a divine force working in the universe chose us to be here. We need to find why God put us on this earth.
In this week’s Torah reading God gives a call to Abraham to leave his home, go forth, and found a new nation. It becomes the classic calling. There is insight in the Hebrew. The title of the portion, Lech Lecha, was translated “go forth.” A more accurate translation is “go to yourself.” Part of life’s journey is a journey inwards, to find ourselves and our life’s purpose. Each of us, particularly at times of transition, need to ask the question, “who am I and why did God put me on this earth?” “What is my life’s purpose?” We have to look deep inward to find our sense of self.
There is a classic Hassidic story I shared in my book The Ten Journeys of Life. A man named Isaac lived in a little house in a small town way out in the country. Isaac had a wife and children, and he worked hard to provide for them. There never seemed to be enough money to meet his family’s needs.
One night Isaac had a strange dream: If he traveled to a distant city and found a famous bridge in the center of the city, he would find a buried treasure. When he woke up, he wondered about the dream but soon dismissed it as he went about his work. The next night he had the same dream again, and again for several more nights. Finally, he knew what he had to do. He had to travel to the distant city and search for the treasure.
In those days travel was not easy. The journey to the distant city would take many days and be filled with perils. Isaac had never traveled far from home before. He kissed his wife and children goodbye and left on the long journey. After many days and many adventures, he arrived in the big city.
Isaac was overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of city life. Never had he seen so many people in one place before. He found the bridge in the center of the city and began to dig under it. Though he dug a number of holes, he could not find the treasure. Soon a police officer approached and asked, “What are you doing?”
Isaac was frightened. “Please, Officer, I can explain. I had a dream that if I traveled to this distant city and dug under the bridge, I would find a treasure. I have been digging, but so far I have found nothing.”
The police officer stared at Isaac, as if debating whether to arrest him. “This is very strange. I also had a dream. In my dream, it shows a small home far away in the country belonging to someone named Isaac. In my dream, if I dig under Isaac’s fireplace, there will be a treasure.” Isaac was dumbfounded. How did the officer know his name, and of his little house in the country?
Isaac traveled home as quickly as possible and immediately started digging under the fireplace. There he found a great treasure that provided for him and his family the rest of his days. That is the irony of our life’s search for a mission. The journey begins when we leave home. Yet ultimately we must return home, go deep within ourselves, and explore our gifts, our dreams, our passions, our mentors and our deepest desires to know why God chose to put us on this earth.



“Abram said to Sarai, your maid is in your hands, deal with her as you think right. Then Sarai treated her harshly and she ran away.” (Genesis 16:6)

Last week a group of clergy and lay people gathered in my synagogue, together with a number of women who had been the victims of domestic violence. Our purpose was a prayer service to give emotional support to the victims and work to end domestic abuse. Two women told their stories of abusive husbands, stories which were hair raising. Several clergy spoke including another rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a representative of Islam. By the end, it was clear that domestic violence is not limited to one faith and one social economic grouping. It is a human problem.
Domestic abuse is as ancient as the Bible. An example is in this week’s portion. With Abraham’s permission Sarah behaved abusively towards Hagar, the surrogate mother chosen to have Abraham’s child. Hagar fled from before Sarah’s hand. In next week’s portion, Sarah and Abraham will throw Hagar out of their home. In the Rabbinic Midrash, Abraham would express regret for these actions.
In my book God, Love, Sex, and Family, I wrote an entire chapter on abuse. Here is a little piece of what I wrote: The woman, newly divorced, came to see me about enrolling her three children in our synagogue religious school. She had relocated across the coun¬try, had no money, and was trying to put her life back together. I asked if her ex-husband could pay for the religious education.
She told me that her ex-husband had been abusive to her and the children, once actually putting her in the hospital. One evening, after a particularly vicious incident, she had fled to a woman’s shelter with the children. However, her husband had pleaded with her for forgiveness; if only she would come back he would never hit her again. She went to see her rabbi, who told her, “your husband is a good man, who just lost control. I’m sure he will not do it again. A wife belongs with her husband and children belong with their father. For the sake of shalom bayit (peace in the home), go back.”
She followed the rabbi’s advice and went back to her husband, but the abuse continued. He would grow angry and violent, then become apologetic. Finally, when she could stand no more, she and the children fled. Today there is a court order preventing the man from having any contact with either her or the children. Obviously he pays no spousal or child support and she expects none. She felt fortunate to get out of the marriage alive and intact, and desperate¬ly wanted to put her life together. My synagogue school swallowed its financial losses and gave the children full scholarships.
The woman’s story is not unique today. My wife used to work each summer in the office of a large religious children’s camp in New England. Each year there are several restraining orders kept on file to prevent certain fathers or mothers from seeing or contacting their children. Such orders are taken with great seriousness. The camp would be held liable for severe damages should such a parent succeed in contacting a child.
I recall a trip to the city jail to visit a member of my congre¬gation arrested for severely injuring his wife. She was in the hospital. I was hoping that the man would show some remorse, and a willingness to seek counseling and try to change his ways. But he acted as if this was a trivial incident. “Rabbi, I know that you believe marriage is important. You have influence with her. Tell her I love her. Tell her to come back to me.” I tried to tell him that we do not show love by hurting someone. Unfortunately, we often treat such strife as domestic disputes, a relatively minor inconvenience. The same act that would result in an assault or rape conviction if perpetrated on a stranger is considered a minor event if done to one’s spouse.
We can define abuse as any action towards other family members which mars the image of God in them. This includes embarrassment, for as the rabbis have taught, to embarrass one’s fellow is the equivalent of murder. This certainly includes any kind physical violence. The Torah forbids striking one’s parents – “If a man smites his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:15) (However, the Torah and later rabbinic tradition is unfortunately far more tolerant of striking a child, an issue we must deal with at another time.) Certain¬ly, striking one’s spouse is considered abusive behavior and should never be tolerated. Finally, any kind of inappropriate sexual contact between family members, far more prevalent in our society than we like to imagine, is abuse at its worse.
This is a book that celebrates the joys of family life. It sees home and hearth as a place of respite and comfort. To recall the famous quote of Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” How sad, when home becomes a place of fear and terror?



“Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, shall Sarah bear a child at ninety.”
(Genesis 17:17)

Allow me to share a wonderful memory. In my first pulpit, an elderly couple named Harry and Sarah came every Shabbat morning. They were already great grandparents. One Saturday we had the naming of a new baby in synagogue. After services, I jokingly said to Sarah, “You may be next.” She looked at me with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. “Rabbi, my name may be Sarah. But my husband is no Abraham.”
Of course, they were referring to the story of Abraham and Sarah, old without children. In this week’s portion, when God predicted the birth of a son, Abraham laughed. In next week’s portion, Sarah will laugh. The son they eventually bore, Isaac (Yitzchak), comes from the Hebrew word tzchak which means “to laugh.” It must have been exceedingly painful to go into their old age without having children. Yet, both Sarah and Abraham were able to grow old with laughter.
Serving a large synagogue in south Florida, I have many seniors in my community. Many of them grow old with laughter, finding humor and joy in their lives. Unfortunately, many also grow old with anger, finding discontentment and bitterness, and too often loneliness and sadness. One of our goals ought to be to turn that anger into laughter during the senior years of our lives.
I am well aware that the golden years are not always so golden. Life is filled with disappointments. We realize that dreams we had in our younger years may never be fulfilled, at least in this lifetime. Health begins to fail. Even those of us who are healthy cannot do what they once did. (I sometimes paraphrase the comic songwriter Tom Lehrer who quipped, “It is very sobering to know that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead twenty years.”) How easy it is to feel like a victim during our latter years, to allow anger to pervade our souls.
I often witness this anger and bitterness, and sometimes it is directed at me. “Rabbi, you walked through the synagogue and shook hands with everybody but me!” “Rabbi, I missed services three weeks in a row and you did not even notice.” (On both these issues, we get over 500 people in our synagogue every Saturday. I try, but I will admit that I cannot shake hands or notice everybody.) “Rabbi, I did not get the honor I was expecting.” Sometimes I do make legitimate mistakes, but the anger is out of proportion to the wrong done. Often I hear people who hate visiting their elderly parents, because all they hear is bitterness and complaints. My daughter, who serves as a hostess at a popular local restaurant where a lot of seniors eat, speaks of the anger often directed at her by some customers.
On the other hand, I witness seniors in my congregation who embrace life with laughter and joy. They speak of the many gifts they have. “Rabbi, I cannot do what I used to do physically, but at least I am still here.” “Rabbi, I have children, grandchildren, great grandchildren who fill my life with joy.” “Rabbi, I woke up this morning, turned to the obituary page, and I wasn’t there. God gave me another day. That alone is cause to celebrate. ” When I am around such seniors, my mood is lightened and the day seems brighter.
Life is a precious gift from God. Every day is a new possibility to embrace God’s world. There is always work to be done, good deeds to do, blessings to enjoy, people to help, things to learn, books to read, experiences to savor. Even if our bodies grow more frail, our souls grow more vigorous. In Jewish tradition we are taught to “Stand before the hoary head.” (Leviticus 19:32), respect our elders, because they have grown in wisdom and experience.
I direct my words this week to those who have reached the latter years of their lives. (We are all getting closer.) God has given you a gift that is denied to many, length of days and years. It is too precious a gift to waste in anger and bitterness. Sure life is sometimes unfair, but who promised it would be fair. Life ought to be embraced with laughter and joy. Like Sarah and Abraham, we all ought to laugh. Our laughter makes the world grow brighter.



“There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.”
(Genesis 12:10)

I was recently invited to deliver a lecture on the greatest ethical challenge of the new millennium. I spoke about what I consider one of our most serious ethical and social problems. the demand for instant gratification.
We live in the Nike age of “Just Do It.” Rather than preparing a quality dinner, we throw food into the microwave. Rather than developing the long term fitness plan to lose weight, we search for the magic pill that will take off twelve pounds in one weekend. Rather than working our way up the company ladder, we want to be the boss now. Rather than teaching our young people the almost archaic art of courtship and slowly building a relationship, we give them condoms when they jump into bed on the first or second date. Rather than the life long study of Torah that leads to true Jewish spirituality, we attend kabbala classes that feature “Judaism lite.” Rather than take the time necessary to remove terrorism from our midst, we want immediate military success or we are prepared to back down.
Anything in life that is worthwhile takes time, commitment, patience, and effort. This is true, whether developing a wonderful marriage, raising good children, developing our artistic or athletic ability, learning the skills to function as a literate Jew, or perfecting this world as a kingdom of God. A great rabbi once taught, “According to the effort is the reward.” (Avot 5:27)
Allow me to share a small piece of my newest book The Ten Journeys of Life:
Animals live by their appetites. Part of what makes us human is the realization that we cannot have whatever our appetites desire. We must learn to delay gratification, control our appetites and live with a greater purpose in mind. It is a difficult lesson for every young person to learn, but controlling one’s appetites is the road to maturity.
God had promised Abraham the entire land of Canaan. Abraham had left his home in Haran and traveled a long distance to finally set foot in the promised land. When he arrived, he explored the entire land, building altars and viewing the landscape. Abraham felt at home and was ready to live by God’s promise in his own land.
However, God had other plans for Abraham. God brought a famine to the land, causing Abraham to leave and flee to Egypt. His desire to live in the promised land would have to wait.
Perhaps God was simply testing Abraham’s faith. Trust in God was a keystone to the future covenant God would make with Abraham. Nonetheless, Abraham had to learn another lesson, the same one that every child must learn from his or her parents: Immediate gratification is not the path to maturity, and everything valuable in life is worth the wait. Abraham would not immediately possess the land. It would happen only after a long wait.



“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”
(Genesis 12:2)

This portion begins with the command for Abraham (still called Abram) to leave his land, his birthplace, the house of his father. A Rabbinic Midrash speaks of Abraham’s journey from home. When he was in his father’s house, Abraham resembled a vial of precious myrrh closed with a tight fitting lid. As long as he stayed within his parents’ home, nobody could smell the fragrance. However, once he began his journey, the lid was opened and fragrance was disseminated. (Genesis Rabbah 34:2)
The lesson of the Midrash is that we have a fragrance to disseminate to the world, a gift to give to humanity, our own individual mission to fulfill. However, before we can begin to give off our own particular fragrance, we first must leave home. Leaving home is not simply the act of physically moving out nor of achieving economic independence. Leaving home means separating from our parents and finding our own unique voice. It is a psychological leaving.
Three times a day, Jews pray a silent prayer known as the Amidah. The prayer begins with the words “Praised are You our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” (Today many more liberal synagogues also add the mothers to the prayer: God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, God of Leah.) The Rabbis asked why God is mentioned separately for each ancestor. Why not simply say “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Did they not worship the same God?
The response is that the path Abraham took to God is different from that of his son Isaac. The path Isaac took is different from that of his son Jacob. Sarah and Rebecca’s paths are different. Even the two sisters Rachel and Leah each approached God in their own way. Each of us must find our own path to God, and our own path on how to live our lives. We cannot simply relive our parents’ paths.
Children must leave home and find their own way if they are to succeed in the world. If their own particular perfume is to waft through the world, they must first uncork the vial by leaving home. We do not live in the world simply to imitate our parents’ lives.
This is extremely difficult for both parties. Parents find it very hard to let go and let their children find their own paths. And children find it very difficult to leave and establish their own identity, fulfill their own gifts, be their own person. Or, to use the modern slang, kids find it difficult to “find themselves.”
It may be difficult, but parents must let go. Like a kite, they must slowly let the string out. Of course, if they let the string out too quickly, the kite will simply fall limply to the ground. But if they let the string out too slowly, the kite will never find the wind and never fly. The art of parenting is to let the string out at the right rate for the kite to soar.
It is also difficult for children to leave. They are not clones of their parents. Every child is blessed with his or her unique genetic blueprint, his or her unique sets of experiences, his or her unique mission on this earth.
Abraham left home on a mission that changed the world. We may not all be Abraham. But we each must leave home, find our mission, choose our own path to God, and make our own difference in the world. And our parents, even if it is painful, have to let us go.



“Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house…”
(Genesis 12:1)1

This portion begins with God’s command to Abram “Go forth.” The Hebrew words lech lecha can probably better be translated “Go to yourself.” In this simple phrase, we learn a profound truth about human destiny. Each of us must not simply leave home; we must go to ourself, find the unique purpose why God put us on this earth.
Each of us has a destiny. Each of us has a mission. Each of us has a calling. In a powerful statement about the uniqueness of each and every human being, the rabbis taught, “A human being makes many coins with the same stamp, but each one is exactly like every other one. But God made many human beings with the same stamp, and each and every one is unique.” (Talmud – Sanhedrin 5:4) No two humans have precisely the same calling on this earth. Even identical twins, although they share genetic information, have a separate set of life experiences that contribute to their uniqueness. Every human being is totally irreplaceable, for nobody else was born according in the exact same circumstances. No one else can do the task that each of us was put on this earth to do.
The first great journey of life is not only leaving home, but finding our particular calling. Some of us know immediately, from the earliest days of childhood, why God put us on this earth. Others spend much of their lifetime in search. Some find it as young adults, some in their middle years, some not until they retire from the work force. Some never quite find it. We often speak of young people who are still “finding themselves.” Our very language reflects this sense that each of us has a unique mission.
There is a powerful story told of the great Hasidic Rabbi Zusya. When Rabbi Zusya was about to die, his students gathered around him. They saw Rabbi Zusya’s eyes break out into tears. “Our master,” they said with deep concern, “Why are you crying? You have lived a good, pious life, and left many students and disciples. Soon you are going on to the next world. Why cry?”
Rabbi Zusya responded, “I see what will happen when I enter the next world. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Moses? I am not expected to be Moses. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Rabbi Akiba? I am not expected to be Rabbi Akiba. They will ask me, Why was I not Zusya? That is why I am crying. I am asking, why was I not Zusya?”
The greatest tragedy of life is not death. The greatest tragedy is dying without having completed our mission, dying before we know why we lived. Each of us has a responsibility to search our own soul and ask the ultimate question – “why did God place me on this earth?”