Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:16)
I admit it. In response to the ongoing popular culture phenomenon, I went to see Barbie this week. The movie was clever, colorful, and fun. I understand why it surpassed one billion dollars in earnings. Congratulations to director Greta Gerwig and her entire creative crew.
The movie was meant to be fun, but it was also meant to be more than fun. It was meant to convey an important message. Some of that was pure cognitive dissonance, pro- and anti-capitalism at the same time. The movie clearly portrayed Mattel, Inc., the toy manufacturer of the Barbie doll, as the villain. And it did it while making millions of dollars for Mattel.
The seriousness of the movie came out in the first scene. It was an imitation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the primitive men in the Kubrick movie, little girls are smashing baby dolls on the ground. One throws a doll into the air as Richard Strauss’s powerful classic tone poem “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” plays. It is the opening theme of both movies. Then suddenly, we are in Barbie Land.
Imagine Barbie Land as patriarchy stood on its head. Women (all named Barbie) control everything while men are mostly meant to look pretty while remaining in the background. Ken is literally a “boy-toy.” It is a vision of the world before the feminist revolution, only in reverse. It is pure matriarchy. But the most popular of the Barbies (Margot Robbie) is having dark thoughts and decides to leave Barbie Land and visit the real world, my hometown of Los Angeles. Ken (Ryan Gosling) comes along for the ride. When he arrives in Los Angeles, Ken discovers the joys of patriarchy, a world where men run everything. And we soon discover that the most patriarchal institution of them all is Mattel, run by a misogynist C.E.O. (Will Ferrell). Ken decides to go back and introduce patriarchy to Barbie Land.
Will Barbie be able to stop him? What will win, matriarchy or patriarchy? I will not give away the ending, but I am intrigued by this binary choice. It is matriarchy versus patriarchy. Men versus women. There are only two choices. It reminds me of the first verse of this week’s portion, “I set before you the blessing and the curse.” One or the other. It is like the words I heard during the anti-Vietnam protests of my college days, “You are either part of the solution or part of the problem.” More recently, it reminds me of the words of Ibram X. Kendi in his book How to be an Antiracist, “You are either a racist or an antiracist.”
We live in a world where people feel forced to make binary choices. Patriarchy or matriarchy. Pro-life or pro-choice. Pro-immigration or anti-immigration. Democrat or Republican. Left or right. Zionist or anti-Zionist. Computers work by binary codes, long lists of ones and zeros. If a zero becomes a one or a one becomes a zero, the computer crashes. As I watched Barbie, I kept thinking about these binary choices, would women or men run Barbie Land?
What I love about Jewish tradition is it rejects binary thinking. There is a nuanced middle ground, a way to find a balance. There is truth on both sides. The world needs both men and women. In fact, kabbalah is based on the idea that the masculine and feminine aspects of God are out of balance. Our job as human beings is to bring them back into balance.
As I watched the movie, I wondered whether my seven-year-old grandson would enjoy it. I think he would. It is filled with humor and joyous scenes. But it is not a children’s movie. It is a strongly adult movie that tries to develop a message. Should we live in a world ruled by women, or a world ruled by men? Do we have to make such a binary choice? Or is there a middle ground of balance between men and women? I hope we can find such a middle ground.
Perhaps Barbie can marry Ken and they can live happily ever after.


“Only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you.”  (Deuteronomy 12:14)

Those who read my weekly messages know that I love quoting Broadway shows.  Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s haunting melody in West Side Story, “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.”  This week’s portion introduces the idea of a special place, a place where God allows God’s holy Name to dwell.

Both in our secular lives and our religious lives, the idea of a special place resonates with the human spirit.  In the secular world, art lovers speak of the Louvre in Paris, France.  Theater lovers speak of Broadway in New York City.  Country music lovers speak about the joys of visiting Nashville.  Elvis lovers speak of Graceland in Memphis.  Baseball lovers speak of visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.   I am a movie lover.  This summer, while visiting my hometown of Los Angeles, my wife and I visited the Grauman’s Chinese Theater and walked along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Sure it is schlock, but it is my kind of schlock.

If special places are important in the secular world, how much more so in the world of religion.  Many faiths have places that are holy.  When I was young and beginning to explore religion, I was deeply moved by The Autobiography of Malcolm X (published in 1965).  The civil rights leader, soon to be assassinated, described his trip to Mecca after his conversion to Islam.  One of the pillars of the Muslim faith is for every Muslim who is able to participate in the Hajj, a once in a lifetime trip to Mecca.  He passionately describes his emotions of participating with those who shared his faith from all over the world.

Catholics speak of the power of visiting the Vatican in Rome. Most Protestants, with a very individualistic approach to religion, have no such holy places.  Hindus purify themselves in the Ganges River, the holiest body of water in the world.  In Japan, followers of the Shinto faith make a pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji.  Allow me to quote one more Broadway show, the hilarious if irreverent The Book of Mormon.  A young woman in Uganda, seeking to convert to the Mormon faith, sings a moving ballad about her image of a perfect place Sal Tlay Ka Siti (Salt Lake City).

In this week’s portion we introduce the idea of a holy place in Judaism.  It is the only place where holy offerings will be allowed.  The portion commands every able-bodied person making a pilgrimage to this holy place three times a year, on Pesach (the feast of Passover), Shavuot (the feast of weeks), and Sukkot (the feast of Tabernacles.)  These three festivals have a special name in Judaism, shalosh regalim, literally “three feet.”  Jews would make a pilgrimage to the holy place by foot.

The Torah does not specify where this place is.  But eventually it was King David who established the city of Jerusalem as the holy place.  His son Solomon built the great Temple there, and after that Temple was destroyed, it was rebuilt.  The rebuilt Temple was also destroyed, but Jews throughout the world pray for the day when it will be rebuilt.  Meanwhile, the remaining wall of that Temple, the Western Wall, is the holiest place in the world for Jews.  It almost like a magnet in the draw it has for Jewish souls.

Allow me to share a memory.  My mother was never the most religious person.  But she and my father came to visit me in Israel while I was studying there my junior year in college.  It was their first trip.  I took them to the Kotel (the Western Wall), and my mother immediately burst into tears.  I asked her why she was crying and she answered, “The stones are so old!”  Something about those old stones touched my mother’s soul.

As human beings, we need special places, or if we are religious, holy places.  Not every place on earth is equal.  When I say my daily prayers, I face towards Jerusalem.  When I am in Jerusalem, I face the Wall.  For me, it will always be a holy place.


“See this day I set before you blessing and curse.”  (Deuteronomy 11:26)

This portion always comes about one month before the Jewish High Holidays, the time when we stand in judgment before God.  It begins with a worthy theme, that we have free will.  We make choices in life and must live with the consequences of those choices.  This theme hearkens back to the Cain and Abel story in Genesis.  There God says to Cain, “Surely if you do right there is uplift.  But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door” (Genesis 4:7).

The High Holidays only make sense if we have free will.  There is another opinion about human behavior, one that is prominent today, called determinism.  It teaches that everything we do has causes beyond our control.  We do not choose, but our moved by our genes, our environment, and our upbringing to behave in a certain way.  This opinion is becoming more and more popular.  Supporters of determinism give religious, philosophical, and scientific arguments for their point of view.  As Samuel Johnson once said, “All theory is against the experience of free will, all experience is for it.”

There are religious arguments against free will.   The classic theism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that God is omniscient – all-knowing.  If God knows everything, then God knows the future.  God knows what I will eat for breakfast tomorrow.  But if God knows what I will do in the future, do I really have free will?  Or am I like a character in a movie that is bound by a script already written?  The Torah teaches that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and then God punished Pharaoh for his actions.  But if Pharaoh had no choice, then why was he punished?  If our actions are determined, then why should we ever be punished for what we do?

There are philosophical arguments against free will.  Most philosophers today are materialists, believing everything is matter in motion.  Matter moves by the inexorable laws of science.  Even our brains, which affect our behavior, are subjects of these scientific laws.  The naturalist Simon-Pierre Laplace once said that if a brilliant demon knew the location and momentum of every particle in the universe, that demon could predict the entire future.  According to one famous story, Laplace gave a copy of his book on astronomy to Napoleon, who said there is no mention of God in the book.  Laplace replied, “I have no need for such a hypothesis.”   According to this materialistic view of the universe, all our behavior is the result of physical brain activity beyond our control.

There are scientific arguments against free will.   In the early 1980’s, Benjamin Libet did a famous experiment where he hooked electrodes to someone’s brain and then had them make a conscious decision to flick their wrist.  They watched a clock and recorded the exact moment they made the decision to move their wrist.  Libet discovered that almost half a second before they made the decision, there was electric activity in the brain.  The unconscious brain had decided before the conscious will decided.  The experiment which has been repeated numerous times seems to point to the fact that we do not have free will, the neurons in our brains decide for us.

As Johnson said, all theory is against free will, all experience is for it.  If we are to speak intelligently about right or wrong behavior, we must assume that people make choices.  The great philosopher Immanuel Kant who taught brilliant insights about ethics famously said, “ought implies can.”  If there is something we have an ethical obligation to do, then we must have a choice whether or not to do it.   Choices are placed before us, and we must choose.  Those choices have consequences.

Personally, I accept that we have free will.  I believe there is a fundamental error in all the religious, philosophical, and scientific arguments against free will.  If we do not have free will, then we might as well skip the High Holidays.  If teshuva, the choice to go on the right path does not exist, why is it the central theme of our holiest days?


“Then there shall be a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there; there shall you bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which you vow to the Lord.”  (Deuteronomy 12:11)

This week’s Torah reading raises an issue at the heart of the book of Deuteronomy.  God establishes one central place of worship.  All other places of worship, many of which began as pagan altars, are to be destroyed.  Most Biblical scholars believe that Deuteronomy was written in the days of King Josiah, the king of Judah who destroyed these pagan altars and reestablished the Temple in Jerusalem as the only holy place.  Of course, by that time two centers of worship had been built in the northern kingdom of Israel.

For traditionalists, Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy as a revelation from God.  But that does create a contradiction.  Leviticus allows sacrifices in multiple sites.  Deuteronomy says there must be a central site.  That is part of the reason that modern scholarship puts the book of Deuteronomy later than Leviticus (some scholars say earlier.)  Whoever wrote it, the emphasis is on one central site.  At the end of this portion every able-bodied Jew is commanded on the three pilgrimage festivals to journey to this site.  It is possible that the Muslims learned the idea of the Hajj, the once in a lifetime journey to Mecca, from this thrice yearly journey to Jerusalem.

The Israelites built their great Temple on the site, a hill in Jerusalem.  Tradition teaches that this is the same hill where Abraham almost offered his son Isaac to God as a sacrifice.  The Temple was built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt in the days of Ezra and destroyed by the Romans.  Only one retaining wall, the Western Wall, still stands.  It is the holiest site in the world to Jews.  Jews (and non-Jews) visit the Wall and place scraps of paper containing prayers in the cracks, believing that God will hear those prayers.  It is the true definition of a holy place.

But what if our holy place is no longer available.  The Jewish people made thousands of small holy places, building synagogues in every city in the world.  The great Temple in Jerusalem was called the Mikdash, from the root k-d-sh meaning holy.  Our synagogues became known as a mikdash m’at, literally a “small Temple.”  If we cannot worship at a holy place in Jerusalem, we can worship at smaller holy places in every city where we live.  That is why Jews build synagogues wherever their wandering takes them.

This leads me to the problem today.  We need holy places.  The Temple in Jerusalem, except for the Wall, is gone.  And today, in a world of COVID, our synagogues have become off limits.  We worship from our homes, sitting in front of our computers, tablets, and smart phones.  Our home has become our place.  I asked one person why she did not regularly attend our Zoom worship services.  She answered that her computer is her office where she works from home.  To worship in front of that same computer in the same place is like worshipping from her office.  A work office is not a holy place.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has written that in this age of Zoom, we need to create a mikdash m’at in our homes.  We need to set aside a place for worship that is different from where we work, eat meals, or watch entertainment.  To quote Rabbi Goldstein, “Choose your prayer space carefully… Once you have chosen your space, say a blessing or kavannah (“intention”) over it to mark it as a mikdash m’at…What chair will you sit in?  Put a cushion or special pillow on it, or drape it with a tallit, special piece of fabric, or scarf.”  She continues with numerous other suggestions to create a “holy place” in our own homes.

Every tradition has places that are designated as holy.  As an American, I was deeply moved touring Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  As a Jew, the Western Wall draws me like a magnet when I visit Israel.  At home, I love the sanctuary of our synagogue.  But during this pandemic, perhaps I can create a holy place in my own home.

“To the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, to his habitation shall you seek, and there you shall come.” (Deuteronomy 12:5)
Ages ago, when I was in college, I spent my junior year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That is where I first considered becoming a rabbi. My parents came to visit me, making their first trip to Israel. And of course, I took them to the Western Wall, which Israel had reconquered a few years earlier. Immediately my mother broke out into tears. My mother was never the religious one of my parents; my father was more traditional. I asked my mother why she was crying. She answered, “The stones are so old.”
I am sure it was not simply the age of the stones. I do not think she cried when she visited the Parthenon in Athens, every bit as old. I think she cried because she was a Jew, and something draws the Jewish heart to these ancient stones. On my most recent trip to Israel, for a wedding in Tel Aviv, I told the father of the bride that I must go to the Wall. We piled into his car and drove to Jerusalem for the day. I put a note in the cracks between the stones, even as I saw that a maintenance man was gathering and throwing away hundreds of such notes. My mind knows that the stones were simply a retaining wall built by King Herod, a rather corrupt king. But my heart believes that God reads every note.
There is something about that Wall that draws the Jewish soul. I think of the classic Israeli song composed by Ofra Haza HaKotel (“The Wall”), “There are human beings with hearts of stones, and there are stones with human hearts.” This is a holy place. It is the last remnant of the Holy Temple, first built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians, then rebuilt in the days of Ezra and destroyed by the Romans. Jews still pray that one day the Holy Temple will be rebuilt, although it is a distant dream and not a reality. Today two Muslim mosques stand on the site, the spot where traditionally Muhammed ascended on his trip to heaven. Near by is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was crucified. It is a center of worship for the three Abrahamic faiths.
This week’s portion is built around the idea that there should be a center of worship for the Israelites, a place where God will cause His Name to dwell. In the previous books of the Bible God could be worshipped anywhere. For example, in Leviticus, in order to eat meat, one had offer it up as a sacrifice at a holy place. In our portion, there is only one place to offer meat for a sacrifice. One would have to travel to Jerusalem in order to enjoy a steak. Therefore, in this portion the Torah allows secular slaughter, so one could eat meat anywhere. But still, three times a year, every able-bodied Israelite must make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That is why Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are known in Jewish tradition as the three pilgrimage festivals.
Admittingly, this portion also gets rather violent. All other centers of worship must be torn down and utterly destroyed. There were many such centers of worship among the ancient Canaanites. According to the Bible, King Josiah discovered a book and immediately began destroying all the other places of worship. Most scholars believe that he either found the book of Deuteronomy, or the book was written in his day. We like to believe that our religion is tolerant. But Deuteronomy is certainly not tolerant of other places of worship.
Having said that, other centers of worship did not simply disappear. The ancient Israelites did maintain other holy places, and often practiced a kind of syncretistic worship, including sacrifices to Baal and other Canaanite gods. When the northern kingdom of Israel broke away from the southern kingdom of Judah, King Jeroboam established two cultic centers at Dan and Bethel. They were to be alternatives to Solomon’s Temple. Jeroboam even placed golden calves in these sanctuaries. The centralization of worship did not come quickly nor smoothly.
Nonetheless, today we Jews have a Holy Wall, the last remains of a Holy Temple. I believe it is a mitzvah for every Jew to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime.

“For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a special people to himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. You shall not eat any abominable thing.” (Deuteronomy 14:2 – 3)

Let me share one of my favorite stories about the Jewish dietary laws. There was a man who was very strict about keeping kosher. He never ate a morsel of food unless it was prepared under Rabbinic supervision in a strictly kosher kitchen. Finally, his time came to leave this world. When he arrived in the next world, the angels welcomed him with the words, “We are so impressed with your religious devotion. We have prepared a special banquet to welcome you to the next world.” The man asked, “That is wonderful, but who is supervising the food at the banquet.” The angels answered, “God Himself is supervising the banquet.” The man paused and thought for a minute. Then he said, “I think I will just have a fruit plate.” (For the non-Jews reading this, people who are strictly kosher often will eat nothing but a fruit plate if they are not sure if the food was prepared properly.)
In this week’s portion we repeat the dietary laws, already delivered by Moses in the book of Leviticus. Only certain animals, certain birds, and certain fish can be eaten. They must be slaughtered in a certain way. And elsewhere in the Torah we learn, there must be a total separation of milk and meat. Milk symbolizes life and meat symbolizes death, and Judaism teaches that we separate the realm of life from the realm of death. Nonetheless, more and more Jews are ignoring these laws, or only keeping parts of them. I hear people say, it is not what goes into your mouth that is important but what comes out of your mouth.
Here are some thoughts I will share on Rosh Hashana. If someone says, what goes out of your mouth is more important than what goes in, they are quoting Jesus. That is Christian teaching, not a Jewish one. Judaism is concerned with what goes into our mouths. Similarly, all the world’s great religions are concerned with what goes into our mouths. Eating is something we share with animals. Disciplining the act of eating is how we rise above the animals. That is why we Jews have dietary laws. We Jews have strict laws about food. But Moslems also have laws, against eating pork or drinking alcohol. Buddhists are mostly vegetarian to prevent suffering to animals. Many Hindus are also vegetarian, but those who eat meat will not eat cows. Even our Christian neighbors have their own dietary laws. When I was growing up, Catholics did not eat meat on Friday; it took me years to understand why school cafeteria always served fish on Fridays.
Let me share a true story I have shared with my congregation. When I was working on my PhD, I took a seminar with a professor who was a former ambassador from Switzerland. He invited the entire class to his home for an authentic Swiss dinner. I told him that I would love to come, but could not eat the non-kosher meat. Everyone else had Swiss steak and I had a piece of salmon – delicious. Then it was time for dessert. He brought out delicious Swiss chocolates. One of my classmates sadly admitted, “I can’t eat it. I took a vow against chocolate during Lent.” It was one of the few times I enjoyed a food while a Christian friend had to refrain.
I know that fewer and fewer Jews are observing the dietary laws. The irony is that we are becoming more food conscious than ever before. Even McDonald’s is struggling to serve healthier foods. French fries may be delicious but many of us are avoiding them. There is the story of the lady taking all the neighborhood children trick-or-treating on Halloween. She approaches a house with her group of children, and says, “Before you give them anything, this one is vegetarian and this one is vegan. This one is lactose intolerant and this one is gluten free. This one is on a raw food diet and this one can eat no process foods. As for my son, give him anything, as long as it has no sugar.” We are more food conscious than ever before.
Of course, these practices are meant to make eating healthier. Whenever the Torah speaks of dietary laws, it does not say “you shall be healthy.” It says, “you shall be holy.” Animals eat. But humans sanctify the act of eating through disciplines. We share that with virtually every other faith. That is the message of the Torah.

“You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree.” (Deuteronomy 12:2)
This past weekend was a sad one for our nation. In Charlottesville, VA on the University of Virginia, a group of white supremacists marched, carrying symbols of hatred. They were protesting the removal of a statue of a Confederate general, which for so many is a symbol of oppression. They carried Confederate and Nazi flags and chanted slogans against blacks and Jews. They were met by a group of counter-protesters marching against hatred and intolerance. One of the white supremacists, with a history of Nazi sympathy, drove his car into the counter-protesters, killing a young woman and injuring scores of others. Two policemen were also killed in a helicopter crash.
The white supremacists were denounced by virtually every legitimate group including the religious leadership of Conservative Judaism. Political leaders of both parties also denounced them. They deserve to be denounced. Nonetheless, such hate groups, sensing changes in the political landscape, are becoming more brazen in their public displays of intolerance. One of the leaders of this group has even been invited to speak at the University of Florida. Because a university believes in free speech does not mean that they need to invite someone spewing hate speech. But there seems to be a greater and greater toleration of hate speech.
How should we react to these horrible events? The message of our tradition is clear. Every human being on earth, regardless of race or religion or nationality or sexual orientation, is created in God’s image and deserves a fundamental dignity. The Bible teaches, “Have we not one father, did not one God create us all” (Malachi 2:10). Any action that undermines the dignity of another human being deserves to be denounced. There is no room for intolerance.
Unfortunately, religion including our own has a checkered history of intolerance. A good example is this week’s portion, which speaks of the centralization of worship in one sanctuary. Of course, this central sanctuary would eventually become the great Temple in Jerusalem. All other places of worship, particularly those of the Canaanite gods, were to be destroyed. The Bible teaches how King Josiah, when he discovers the book most scholars consider to be Deuteronomy, relentless destroys all foreign places of worship. The Bible praises Josiah for his actions.
Historically, Biblical Judaism could be as intolerant as any other religion. The religious scholar Karen Armstrong wrote, “But the Deuteronomists had no doubt that they knew exactly what Yahweh desired and felt it a sacred duty to destroy anything that seemed to oppose his/their interests.” (The Case for God, p. 38) But Armstrong went on to write that this destruction was not the final word, even in the Bible. A far more tolerant philosophy eventually prevailed.
Perhaps this is best represented by a verse from Isaiah, written after the Babylonian exile. Isaiah could have said that his religion is right and all the other religions are wrong. But he chose a different approach. One day the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt. When that day happens, “My house will become a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). This verse has become part of our liturgy, spoken over and over during Yom Kippur services. It is a beautiful moment, that everybody can come up to the Temple and worship God in their own way.
Many of you know that I developed the Introduction to Religion course at our local college. This is a secular course taught to students of all faiths and no faith. Some of my students have asked me, how can I be a rabbi, believing in the truth of my religion, and teach about the legitimacy of all religions. Perhaps the best answer is a metaphor I like to quote. There is one mountain, but there are many paths up that mountain. My way is one such path. It is not the only path, and I have much to learn from the other paths. If my religion is true, it teaches that I must respect worshippers of every other religion.

“If there is among you a poor man of one of your brothers inside any of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother.” (Deuteronomy 15:7)
We are now beginning the legal section of the book of Deuteronomy. Moses shortly before his death, after summarizing the history of forty years wandering, now reminds the people Israel of their legal obligations. Over the next few weeks we will read countless laws. Perhaps what is most prominent in this week’s portion is a deep concern to eliminate poverty. There are two important messages that grow out of this portion about poverty.
The first message is that we have an obligation to lift people out of poverty. For example, the book of Exodus speaks of freeing a Hebrew servant after six years. But this week’s portion goes even further in its treatment of such a Hebrew servant. When setting him free one must give him what he needs financially to establish himself. The Bible wants to avoid what happened in the old American south, where freed slaves became sharecroppers and lived in abject poverty. This poverty continue to our days.
This Torah reading is also concerned with releasing debts. Every seven years debts were cancelled. Of course, this created other problems such as the refusal of people to loan money. The great sage Hillel would later develop the prosbol, (not a football game) but a kind of legal fiction that would allow debts to be transferred to the courts. Through Hillel’s innovation people would continue to loan to the poor. This week’s portion also forbids the charging of interest for such loans. This became the basis of Hebrew Free Loan societies which became a fundamental institution throughout the established Jewish world.
Helping those in need became a central obligation of the community of Israel. The Hebrew word for such help is tzedakah, often mistranslated as charity but really meaning justice. Helping the poor is not something we do because our hearts move us to charity. Rather it is an obligation, one of the mitzvoth or commandments in the Torah. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides would later develop eight levels of tzedakah which has long been a guideline for Jews. The highest of the eight levels is giving someone a job or helping them establish a business so they are no longer dependent on the help of others. It is the Jewish equivalent of the ancient saying, “Give a man a fish and he can eat a meal, teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.”
In reading these various laws, one begins to see the overall thrust of the tradition. No one should remain dependent on the largess of others for a lifetime. No one should ever see themselves as unable to provide for themselves and their families. The idea of giving, whether the released servant, the person in debt, or the impoverished family, should be a temporary fix. The goal is to climb out of poverty.
There is a second message that is equally important. The Torah makes a strange statement. “There shall be no poor among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) How can the Torah speak about “no poor” in a chapter which speaks about helping the poor? Let me suggest an answer. Nobody should ever see themselves as poor. No one should ever see themselves as a victim unable to remove themselves from the cycle of poverty. The Torah is saying that no one should ever see themselves as poor.. The author Anais Nin once said, “We see the world not as it is but as we are.” (She claimed she was quoting the Talmud when she said this, but this exact quote is not in the Talmud.) If we see ourselves as poor, we will be poor. If we do not see ourselves as poor, there will be no poor among us.
There is a victim mentality in our society. Too many people see themselves as victims of economic forces beyond their control. Perhaps by changing one’s mind set, one can truly change one’s circumstances. Perhaps fighting poverty begins with changing how people view themselves.

“Look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there.” (Deuteronomy 12:5)
Last week I had a very different kind of Shabbat experience. We had a family reunion in Lake Arrowhead, CA, a mountain resort about two hours east of Los Angeles. My wife and children, my brother and his family, all my first cousins and their families were there. There is no synagogue in town, so I said my prayers in my room. Then I went down to the beach on the lake, enjoying the company and even going into the water (briefly. Mountain water is cold for my Florida blood.) Saturday night 21 of us gathered for havdallah, dinner, and an early celebration of my birthday.
Lake Arrowhead is a special place for my family. When I was a child my parents, brothers, and I would often go up there. (At that time the mountain road was, or at least in my memory seemed, much more treacherous.) But for all my cousins it is even more special. They have gone up every summer for decades. It became an annual pilgrimage for my late aunt and uncle and their children. And now those children, with families of their own, are continuing that family tradition.
I deliberately used the religious term “pilgrimage.” Families need special places, places set apart from everywhere else, places filled with memories and traditions. The same is true for religions. Most religions of the world have a place which is holy, which inspire overwhelming feelings of awe amongst religious believers. Moslems are obligated to face Mecca for their prayers and to participate at least once in their lifetime in a pilgrimage to that holy city. Catholics tell me how inspired they are visiting the Vatican. Hindus bathe in the Ganges River. Japanese who follow the Shinto faith see Mt. Fuji almost as a deity.
Of course for Jews there is one central holy place. We Jews turn to Jerusalem whenever we say our daily prayers. We end our Passover Seder and our Yom Kippur services with the words LeShana Habaah Beerushalyim. “Next year in Jerusalem.” We speak in the book of Psalms, “If I forget you O Jerusalem may my right hand forget its cunning; may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not put Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” (Psalms 137:5-6) Jerusalem, and the Western Wall in the heart of Jerusalem, have always been central to the Jewish faith.
The idea of a central holy place where God chooses to have His name dwell is introduced in this week’s portion. Until this point in the Torah, the Israelites could bring sacrifices anywhere. There were numerous holy shrines set up as the people travelled. Now one place would become the center of worship. The great Temple would be built twice on a hill in Jerusalem. Three times a year, on the three pilgrimage festivals, those able were supposed to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate in the sacred place.
Today Jerusalem is holy to Christians and Moslems as well as Jews. One can walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Dome of the Rock Mosque to the Western Wall. God’s presence seems to dwell in the sacred stones. Let me share another family memory. My parents only visited Israel once in their lifetimes. My mother was not the most religious individual. (For a description of my mother and religion, see the story I wrote in Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul.) I remember only one time a religious experience brought my mother to tears. It happened as she stood by the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When I asked her why she cried, she answered, “The stones are so old.”
Central to my understanding of religion is the idea of holiness. Religion is built on the notion of holy time, holy relationships, holy rituals, and important for the reading this week, holy places. We need a place where we feel that God’s presence dwells here. My trip to Lake Arrowhead brought me closer to my family. Later in the summer I am making a brief trip to Israel. I plan to spend a day in Jerusalem. I know that visiting such a holy place will bring me closer to God.

“See this day I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26)
This portion begins a long, legal section of the Torah. Moses retells many of the laws and rituals which the people Israel must obey. If they obey them, they will receive a blessing; if they do not obey them, they will receive a curse. The people have a choice. This leads to one of the most fundamental principles not simply of Judaism but of almost all religions – people have free will. They are absolutely free to choose, and the future is open to them. Philosophers call this “libertarian free will.” (The word “libertarian” is not a political term like the Libertarian Party, but rather a philosophical term about free choices.)
The notion of free will raises numerous questions, even among religious thinkers. For example, classical theism teaches that God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient). If God knows everything, that God even knows the future. God knows what I will eat for breakfast tomorrow. And God knows whether somebody will commit murder, steal, or practice adultery. In a similar way in the Torah, God knew that Pharaoh would harden his heart and not let the Israelites go. Therefore God chastised Egypt with the plagues, punishing them for a choice that God knew they were going to make anyway.
There are answers to this problem given in Jewish tradition which are beyond the scope of this brief message. But at times Judaism simply leaves it as a paradox. The Ethics of the Fathers quotes the words of Rabbi Akiba, hekol tzapui v’harishut n’tuna – “All is foreseen yet freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15) It is a paradox, an unanswered question.
Setting aside the religious question, most philosophers and scientists claim that free will is an illusion. Most philosophers are materialists, teaching that only matter exists. Mind is simply a function of matter. Our mind is simply our brain at work. When we think we are making a decision, it is simply the neurons in our brain firing. And those neurons, being matter, work according to the laws of physics. Every state of the brain is pre-determined by earlier states of the brain. We may think we are deciding but our brain chemistry is actually making the decision. Free will does not enter into the decision.
These materialist philosophers use modern science to support these conclusions. They love to quote a famous experiment by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in 1964. Libet hooked up his subjects to electrodes and asked them to record the exact moment in time when they made a decision to move a finger. He then measured when brain activity began regarding that decision. He found that in virtually every case, the brain activity began about 350 milliseconds before the actual conscious decision was made. The brain has decided before the person’s conscious free will has decided. What we think of as free will is simply brain activity, predetermined by chemical states in our brain.
If the philosophers and the scientists are correct, if everything is pre-determined, then we can question the whole point of religion. Religion is about making choices how we choose to live our life. It is about ethical choices regarding how we choose to treat other people. And it is about spiritual choices such as do we fast on Yom Kippur. The High Holiday liturgy writes that even if God has written our fate in a book, teshuva (repentance or returning to the right path), tefila (prayer or opening our hearts to God) , and tzedaka (charity or acts of loving kindness) can avert the severe decree. Religion is based on libertarian free will; we have a choice.
How do we solve this question of free will? Today there exists a great interest in an approach to the universe called process philosophy, founded by Alfred North Whitehead and others. Rabbi Brad Artson, the head of the Conservative Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, has written extensively about it. And it is the center of my own dissertation, which looks at Jewish mysticism through the eyes of Whitehead. At the center of process philosophy is an open ended view of the universe; free will is not only a gift to humans but permeates everything in the universe.

“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26)
One of the longest and most intractable debates among philosophers, scientists, and theologians is the determinism versus free will debate. Do we humans have free will? That is the point of view of this Torah portion, where God places before each of us choices. The choices we make can be a blessing or a curse. Or is human decision making an illusion? Has it all been determined in advance? This is the point of view of many, if not the majority, of modern thinkers.
Determinism teaches that all of our choices have been pre-determined, that there is no free will. Let me bring one example of deterministic thinking. Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winning co-discover of D.N.A., has famously written, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” According to Crick, our free will is but an illusion created by the deterministic rules of brain synapses.
Philosophers going back to the ancient Greek atomists have argued for determinism. Most such philosophers are materialists, saying that everything is simply bits of matter moving in empty space. This matter follows certain natural and immutable laws. All has been pre-determined by those laws. The French cosmologist Pierre-Simon Laplace famously argued that if there was a powerful intellect that knew the location and momentum of every particle in the universe, this intellect could predict the entire future. Everything has been determined by the laws of the universe. If everything is determined, there is no free will.
Theologians have also argued that free will raises problems. After all, God is omniscient. God knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen in the future. God knew that Pharaoh would harden his heart, and therefore God brought plagues on Egypt. God knows what I will eat for lunch tomorrow. So do I truly have free will as to my lunch menu? Many thinkers beginning with Augustine have tried to argue their way out of this dilemma, usually saying something like God is outside time and we are in time. In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba admits that it is a dilemma. “All is forseen but people have free will.” (Avot 3:15) Nonetheless, it seems that if God is omniscient, there is no free will.
Scientists have raised some of the most difficult challenges to free will. Perhaps the most famous experiment was that of Benjamin Libet in the 1980’s. Libet had subjects note when they made a conscious decision to flex their fingers. Meanwhile he measured when brain activity began. According to his findings, the brain was at work about three tenths of a second before the mind decided. In other words, unconscious brain activity was making the decision long before free will kicked in. We think we have free will but our brain, an object working by physical laws, has begun the decision making process. If our unconscious brain is deciding, there is no free will.
There are several other arguments towards determinism. One of the most famous is Clarence Darrow’s defense of Leopold and Loeb. The two young men murdered a boy for the thrill of it. Darrow argued that Leopold and Loeb had not chosen murder of their own free will. They were victims of their background, upbringing, and brain activity. Darrow actually convinced the judge to avoid the death penalty. If criminals are victims of their heredity and upbringing, there is no free will.
These are the arguments that are popular today. But if these arguments are correct, we Jews may as well abandon our High Holidays. The whole season is about changing our ways, making new choices with our lives. The High Holidays, like this portion, assumes we have free will. The Torah, particularly this week’s portion, stands before the determinists and proclaims – we have choices. And those choices have consequences. We come from a religious tradition that would agree with the atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “We are condemned to be free.”


“See this day, I sent before you blessing and curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26)
The major theme of this portion is free will. God sends before the people a blessing and a curse. If they obey God’s commandments they will have a blessing. If they disobey God’s commandments they will have a curse. Each of us has free will. As the Torah teaches Cain, “Surely if you do right there is uplift, but if you do not do right sin crouches at the door, its urge is towards you, yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7) People have the ability to choose.
But do we humans really have free will? Many have argued that there is no free will. All our actions are determined in advance and out of our control. Some say, “The devil made me do it.” There are malevolent forces in the universe that cause us to act in inappropriate ways. In ancient times people would blame their actions on the stars. That is why Shakespeare could write the words of Cassius planning the murder of Julius Caesar, “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.” Of course today we blame not the stars but our genes. If Shakespeare lived today, he might have written that “the fault lies in our genes.”
Some claim there is a natural, chemical cause for everything we do. Most egregious is the famous Twinkie Defense of Dan White, former San Francisco city supervisor. In 1978 White murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone and fellow supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk. White used the defense that too much sugar had caused his brain and impulses to work improperly. Therefore he was not responsible for his actions. This defense helped convince the jury to convict him not on premeditated murder but rather on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. In this case, “the sugar made me do it.” (A well-received 2008 movieMilk was based on this case, winning Sean Penn a Best Actor Academy Award.)
Today many continue to argue that free will is an illusion. They use scientific, philosophical, and religious arguments to teach that we have no choice. Let me give a brief example of each:
Science – In a famous experiment in the 1970’s, Benjamin Libet tested whether a conscious decision or neural activity comes first. He found that motor actions begin within the body 350 milliseconds before the subject made the conscious decision to take such actions. In other words, before we even consciously decide to act, our body is already in motion taking the action. It is as if our body acts before our will even comes into play; what we think of as free will is an afterthought, a mere illusion. Our body decides of its own accord.
Philosophy – Many great philosophers have denied the existence of free will. Perhaps the most influential was the Jewish born Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza argued that there is no real difference between the body and the soul, both are part of one reality – God or nature. Spinoza also argued that God equals nature and nature equals God; his most famous quote is Deus sive Natura – God, or nature. He was a pure pantheist. Therefore when we act, it is really God, or nature acting. Again free will is but an illusion. For his radical views, Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
Religion – If God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing), then nothing happens without God’s knowledge. Everything we do has already been pre-determined in the mind of God. This creates one of the great paradoxes of religion. Rabbi Akiba taught, “Everything is foreseen yet freedom is granted.” (Avot 3:19) The Bible is filled with references to God taking away free will. The most famous was God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. The Rabbis of the Midrash teach that if someone does the wrong thing enough times, God takes away the ability ever to do the right thing. “Resh Lakish said … God gives a person one, two, and three opportunities to do repentance. If he does not repent, God locks his heart from repentance to punish him for his sin.” (Exodus Rabbah 13:3)
People who do the wrong thing can blame science, religion, and philosophy; they can blame the devil, their genes, or sugary snacks. But this week’s portion stands up to all these ideas and proclaims, human beings have free will. And having free will, we are responsible for our actions.



“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” (Deuteronomy 15:7)

The book of Deuteronomy, and this portion in particular, is the one most concerned with what is often termed “social justice.” How do we help the poor? How do we remove poverty from the land? How do we reach the dream also in this portion that “there shall be no needy among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) Can we ever win the war on poverty, to quote former President Lyndon Johnson’s famous phrase.
The Torah is filled with obligations towards the poor. We are obligated to give tzedakah, often translated as charity but a word meaning justice. The highest form of tzedakah is finding a way for a needy person to start a business or earn a living. If we loan someone money to survive, we are not allowed to charge interest. If our brother sells himself into indebted servitude to pay off a debt, we must redeem him. We cannot take as a pledge on a loan the tools someone needs to earn a living. The laws go on and on; someone else’s poverty places obligations on us.
So how far are we expected to go to help others? The Torah does not lay this out in detail. I have found insights from kabbalah to be extremely helpful. The kabbalah speaks of various sephirot, emanations or aspects of God’s existence in the material world. Let us explore three of the sephirot: hesed, gevurah, and teferet.
Hesed means kindness, and is the desire to give to others. It is an outflow of bounty without limit. Hesed is a wonderful quality, but without limit it is also a dangerous quality. How do we protect ourselves from too much hesed and not give everything away? How do we protect the recipient from becoming too dependent on hesed and unable to fend for himself or herself? Is there a limit to giving?
Gevurah means strength, but I like to translate it as restraint. Gevurah is saying enough is enough. I often see it as a protective wall around a person or family, guarding them and preventing them from giving everything away. Gevurah is the inner strength to tell the other “no, I can’t do anymore. Your are now on your own.” Without gevurah it is easy for others to take advantage of us. But too much gevurah and we become selfish.
And so we turn to teferet, the third of this triad of sefirot. There is a dialectic, to quote the nineteenth century idealist philosopher Hegel’s famous term – thesis, antithesis, synthesis. (In fact, many scholars believe Hegel studied kabbalah in Christian translation.) If hesed is the thesis and gevurah is the antithesis, then teferet is the synthesis. Teferet means beauty, but I like to translate it as balance or harmony. It is the middle ground, the balance between too much kindness and too much selfishness. The goal is to find the balance.
What is true for kabbalah is also true for the government? How much should the government take from the haves to give to the have-nots? It is a vexing question. I have spoken to extreme libertarians who claim the government has no obligation to help the poor. If people wish to be generous and give charity, that is a private decision. But the government cannot use the power of taxation to take from those who have to help those who have-not. On the other hand, I have spoken to extreme Marxists who claim that it is the role of government to redress economic inequalities. They dream of a classless society – or to quote Marx, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
Most people avoid the extremes. They agree that government must create a social safety net to help the poor, without raising the tax burden too much on the rich. In other words, they must find a balance – we are back to teferet. Economic fairness is about balance. Perhaps we could solve our poverty problems if our politicians studied kabbalah.



“Look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you will go.”
(Deuteronomy 12:5)

When I was in college I studied for a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My parents came to visit me, the only time they ever visited Israel. My mother was a pragmatic woman who was not particularly religious. Nonetheless, when I took my parents to see the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest spot in the world to Jews, she broke out in tears. Jerusalem has a kind of spiritual aura that affects even the most secular Jews.
The central theme of this week’s Torah reading is the idea that God will chose a place to become the center of worship. Only at the place where God will cause His name to dwell can the Israelites offer up sacrifices. This is the place where Jews must gather at the three pilgrimage festivals. Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot became major religious happenings as Jews from throughout the world encamped in Jerusalem.
The portion does not mention where this holy place is to be. Later King David captures Jerusalem and makes it into the center of Jewish worship. His son King Solomon builds the holy Temple on a mound in Jerusalem, a Temple that will be rebuilt after the Babylonian exile. Today Jews pray for a third Temple to be rebuilt on the same holy spot. Meanwhile, Jews flock to the one part of the Temple still standing (actually part of a retaining wall), the Western Wall. Even the President of the United States wrote a prayer on a piece of paper and put it in the cracks of the wall, an old tradition that this is a place closer to God, where God hears prayers.
The Rabbis speak about two Jerusalems. There is the Yerushalyim shel Maaleh, literally “the Upper Jerusalem,” the spiritual place that is close to heaven. Then there is the Yerushalyim shel Maateh, literally “the lower Jerusalem,” the actual physical place where people live and work. That real Jerusalem is a place filled with issues.
Perhaps most pressing is the population of Jerusalem. About a third of the population are modern Israeli Jews, some secular, some more traditional, some Orthodox in practice, but people who serve in the Israeli army and live modern lives. Israeli authorities worry that this population is shrinking as a percentage of the city. Another third are Jews known as Haredim, extremely Orthodox. They live in their own enclaves of the city (enclaves I enjoy walking through. It is like walking into my own past.) They zealously guard their traditions and lifestyle. Many do not recognize the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel.
The third part of the population is Arabs living in the eastern parts of the city, including the old city of Jerusalem. Years ago I used to love walking into the Arab parts of the city to shop or eat. Today I would not feel safe in many of these sections of the city. (In truth, I don’t feel safe in sections of Miami either.) The Arab population longs for their own Palestinian state with Jerusalem, or at least east Jerusalem as its capitol. Israelis on the other hand say that Jerusalem will never be divided again.
Wiser minds than my own are going to have to untangle these complex issues if there is ever to be peace in Jerusalem. But meanwhile, life goes on. The main street in Jerusalem, Jaffa Road, is torn apart as they put in a light rail system. A new – some say beautiful and some say an eyesore – bridge, greets drivers as they enter Jerusalem. And even as people go about daily lives, they breathe an air of holiness.
Part of what makes religions so special is the notion of a holy place. Catholics have their Vatican, Moslems do a hajj to Mecca, Mormons have their temple in Salt Lake City, and Hindus bathe in the Ganges River. For Jews, there is only one place where God allowed His name to dwell. In my book, I called Jerusalem “a spa for the soul.” May we all be privileged to visit there.


“See this day I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26)
Who or what determines our behavior? Do we live in a universe where everything has been set and determined from the beginning of time? Or as this week’s portion clearly states, have we been given free will and the ability to choose?
Simone-Pierre Laplace was one of the great astronomer mathematicians at the beginning of the nineteenth century. When Laplace wrote his book on celestial mechanics, he sent a copy to Napoleon. Napoleon questioned him that God was missing from the book. And Laplace famously replied, “I have no need for such a hypothesis.” God was no longer part of the picture; the universe was made of mere material stuff which followed the laws of physics. The universe was a machine, and we humans were simply cogs in that machine.
Laplace is also known for the statement that if he knew the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, he could in theory calculate the entire future. According to Laplace, and many scientists right up to our own day, everything that happens in the universe is forever fixed according to the laws of physics. There are no surprises; it is all foreseen. Of course, modern quantum mechanics teaches that it is impossible to know both the position and velocity of every particle. Uncertainty is built into the universe, at least at the particle level. But groups of particles such as stones, trees, and humans beings follow statistical laws. According to this view, our actions and our behaviors are given and unchangeable from the beginning of the universe.
This idea is known as determinism and the ancient rabbis of the Talmud had already struggled with it. “All is foreseen [by God], yet freedom of choice is granted.” (Avot 3:15) It is a difficult paradox which medieval scholastic philosophers debated endlessly. If everything is set and given, why should people be punished for wrong choices? They had no choice; the universe itself made them behave that way.
Today many people still argue that there is no true freedom of choice. Our behavior is determined by forces beyond our control. Karl Marx taught that our behavior is determined by economic forces and class conflict. Sigmund Freud taught that our behavior is determined by powerful inner drives hidden deep within our unconscious. Atheistic interpreters of Charles Darwin such as Richard Dawkins teach that our behavior is determined by the “selfish gene” seeking to survive and reproduce itself.
In counseling situations, many people tell me that they have no choice about their behavior; it is simply in their nature. “Rabbi, it is in my nature to drink, I cannot control myself.” “Rabbi, genetically I seem to be unable to control my temper.” “Rabbi, I am victim of poverty that prevents me from ever being able to earn a living.” Shakespeare said “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” Perhaps today Shakespeare would have said the fault is not in our genes nor in our upbringing nor in our nature, but in ourselves.
Central to the Biblical view of the world is the notion of free will. God has given us a choice, set before us a blessing and a curse. And we have the absolute freedom to choose which way we will act. We are therefore liable, responsible for the consequences of our choices. We are not, as Laplace would teach, simply groups of particles set into motion from the beginning of time. Somewhere within us is a human soul, with the ability to decide how to behave.
It is this idea of free will and human choice which gives us our human dignity. When the Nazis wanted to destroy the entire Jewish people, they began by taking away their ability to choose – Jews could no longer choose where to live, what professions to practice, who to hire for business, even how to dress. First they took away our choices, and then it became easier to take away our lives. Psychologist and Nazi survivor Victor Frankl’s wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that humans always have choices. To quote him, “Everything can be taken from a man but …the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”



“Look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there.”
(Deuteronomy 12:5)

There is an old memory I have shared in the past. I was walking the wintry streets of Jerusalem on the way to the movies when I ran into an Orthodox man I knew from London. I invited him to join me and he responded with surprise. “You are in Jerusalem the holiest city on earth, and you’re going to movie!” I never made it to the movies that night; we wandered the city talking.
The sages say that there are actually two Jerusalems. One is the earthly Jerusalem, of businesses and traffic jams and garbage collection and movies. Two summers ago for the first time in my life I drove a rented car throughout the city, dealing with parking and dare I say it, Israeli drivers. On the other hand, there is the heavenly Jerusalem, the place where according to this week’s portion God caused His name to dwell. When I am there I am living in both places at once – a little bit of heaven and a little bit of earth.
A central theme of this week’s portion is God’s choice of a holy place where God’s name will dwell. There are many implications to this law. For example, sacrificial offerings can only be made in Jerusalem; the eating of meat in any other place involves secular slaughter. (This directly contradicts the book of Leviticus where sacrificial meat could be eaten throughout the country. This contradiction is part of the reason modern Biblical scholars teach that Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written by different authors at different times.) Also, three times a year every Jew must make a sacred pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the three festivals. (In Hebrew, the festivals Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are called regalim, from the Hebrew word meaning feet. Everyone went by foot to Jerusalem.)
How does a city become holy? Later commentators would argue about this point. Many Jews, particularly the mystics, felt that there is an intrinsic holiness that can actually be felt. Sometimes I wish there was a Geiger counter type instrument that I would call a “holiness meter” that would give off a signal as we approach a holy place. The closer we came to Jerusalem, and in particular the Western Wall, the more intense a signal it would give off. This view says that the holiness is present whether or not human beings recognize it or celebrate it.
There is a second view that can be attributed to Maimonides, the extreme rationalist philosopher. He taught that intrinsic holiness does not exist in the world. God and holiness are totally separate from the world. A place becomes holy because we humans, following God’s command, choose to imbue that place with holiness. In a similar way, the Sabbath is astronomically like any other day; it only becomes holy when we humans choose to make it holy. This argument between the mystics and the rationalists continues until our own day. Is the world enchanted with God’s presence or is the world a mere physical place that we humans by our actions fill with God’s presence? (An invitation – I will explore this issue in my rap with the rabbi this coming year – “How did the universe lose its soul?”)
The idea of a holy place where God’s name dwells applies outside Jerusalem. We Jews imbue certain places with sanctity. Every faith builds holy places. But what is intriguing about Judaism is how often we have been forced to move and relocate our holy places. Two generations ago Europe was filled with holy places where our ancestors worshipped; now due to the Nazis most of them are gone. In America Jews built beautiful houses of worship in city neighborhoods that later became churches when Jews moved to newer neighborhoods. As the Jewish community moves from place to place, we are building new sanctuaries where God’s name can dwell.
For Jews, the holiness of place is portable. Nonetheless, wherever Jews dwell, we face Jerusalem for our prayers. Jerusalem will always be the place God chose for His name to dwell.



“Look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name.” (Deuteronomy 12:5)

Last summer I brought a group from my synagogue to Israel. One of the highlights of our trip was going up (both literally and spiritually) to Jerusalem. When we first arrived in the city, we drove to the top of the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view. We took out some food and wine and toasted a lechaim, to life, as many in our group caught their first glimpse of the city. There were tears in the eyes of many, particularly first timers to Jerusalem. We were overlooking what three Western faiths consider one of the holiest spots on earth.
The beginning of the holiness of Jerusalem is found in this week’s portion. No longer would God allow the Israelites to set up altars and worship Him throughout the nation. There was too much room for idolatry with multiple places of worship. Rather God picked one place to allow His name to be established. The portion does not mention Jerusalem by name; later King David would conquer the city and make it the holy place. From that point forward, Jerusalem would be the place Jews face when they pray. It would become a center of pilgrimage on the various festivals. And today it would be the highlight of synagogue trips to Israel. That is the reason, when I planned our synagogue trip, I asked our tour operator to spend nearly half our time in Jerusalem.
Is God more present in Jerusalem than, for example, in India, on the slopes of the Grand Canyon, or on the beaches of Hawaii (twelve time zones away. When it is noon in Jerusalem it is midnight in Honolulu.) Obviously God can be found everywhere on earth. But for God seekers, God’s seems more present in the streets of Jerusalem.
The word “Jerusalem” means City of Peace. Unfortunately, the history of the city is anything but peaceful. War after war has bloodied its history. Today Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, although most countries do not recognize it. (The United States keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv.) If God’s presence is felt more strongly in Jerusalem, war seems to be a reality for Jerusalem and the rest of Israel.
As I write these words, the fierce battles between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran supported terrorists who kidnapped soldiers and lobbed rockets into civilian areas of Israel, has finally come to a halt. There is a cease fire, sponsored by the United Nations and hopefully held together by its peace keeping troops. There may be a temporary cessation of hostilities, but there is no real peace. It seems that the closer we get to God’s presence on this piece of land, the more we seem to invite war and conflict.
Why is there so much war in the land where God caused His name to dwell? Reasonable people can argue about various political and military policies of Israel. Was Israel wise going after Hezbollah in south Lebanon at this time? But Israel is fighting a battle far deeper and more difficult. For her enemies, the question is not whether Israel should change its policies towards the Palestinians and the Arab world. The question is whether Israel should exist.
Israel is the only nation on the face of the earth whose very existence is open to argument. There are regular debates at the United Nations about various Israeli policies, and she has been condemned by the world body more often than any other nation of earth, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. The essence of the debate is whether Israel has a right to exist.
On college campuses, Jewish students are often intimidated by pro-Moslem, pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Often at such demonstrations, students will hold up signs saying “End the Occupation.” They are not talking about the occupation of cities on the West Bank; they are talking about the occupation of Tel Aviv.
God’s presence may reside in the Holy Land, but the presence of the people with whom God made a covenant is still open to debate. The world continues to question whether Israel is allowed to exist. Israel, and all those who love her, need to tell the world, “Our existence is a given!” The sooner the world accepts this fact, the sooner there will be peace in the place where God chose to have His



“See this day I set before you blessing and curse.”
(Deuteronomy 11:26)

This week’s message is far more personal than most I have written over the past five years.
This portion deals with the choices we make. Some choices are a blessing and some choices are a curse. But our Torah teaches that God gave us free will to choose. And we must live with the consequences of the choices we make.
I made a choice beginning this week. Before I share this choice with you, I must share another choice I made when I first became a rabbi twenty-five years ago. At that time I chose to observe the Sabbath in a traditional manner, including not driving to synagogue. For Orthodox Jews, it is clear that driving is forbidden. We are not allowed to burn a fire on the Sabbath, and driving a car inevitably involves burning gasoline (plus various other forbidden activities.) The Conservative Movement permitted Jews to drive to synagogue and back only, but I chose not to take advantage of that dispensation. I would live within walking distance from the synagogue.
There were some wonderful advantages to observing the Sabbath in this manner. It forced me to be in a location by sundown Friday night and not leave until nightfall Saturday night. It limited geographic movement. The Confirmation class would walk to my home for our monthly luncheons, and observant scholars-in-residence would spend Shabbat with me and my family. Around an Orthodox synagogue, not driving creates a community of people with shared values who walk to each other’s homes; children who play together. In a perfect world, I would continue to live by this decision I made while still in my twenties, before I was married or had children. But the reality is that the world has changed. In particular, my world has changed.
Observing Shabbat in this traditional manner, I found myself living in a changing neighborhood. I was serving a congregation of members, most of whom lived several miles to the north. Everybody in the congregation drove to synagogue. My son was going to a high school with few Jewish children, while all his friends went to a better high school in a different neighborhood. The time to come to consider the question – was my religious observance hurting my own family? Would it be worth moving into a more Jewish neighborhood, where most of our friends and all my children’s friends live? I consulted my family and spoke with other rabbis. And then I made a decision.
We have bought a new home several miles north of the synagogue. It is in a Jewish neighborhood. The reality is I will have to drive to synagogue and back on the Sabbath and festivals. (This is not permission to drive to parties, the mall, or other places on the Sabbath.) This is certainly a change in my past practice, but I believe it is the right decision for me and my family at this particular time.
I mentioned that this week’s portion is about choices and free will. We must choose between a blessing and a curse. Too many people view choices as black and white. You either follow God=s law or you do not, you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem, you are either with me or against me. In particular, young people see choices as clearly either-or. However, with maturity, I have discovered that choices are never that clear-cut. There are often shades of gray in any choice we make. There are pluses and minuses, and one must balance the good and the bad. Real choices are never simple, and one must look at both sides. One must live with complexity.
By driving to synagogue, I have made a choice that affects how our membership views me as their rabbi. I will continue to observe the Sabbath in keeping with the rulings of the Committee of Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. I pray our congregation will respect my decision.



“There shall be no needy among you, since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.” (Deuteronomy 15:4)

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

What do you do when two verses in the Torah, one a few passages after the other, totally contradict one another? Which is the truth? One verse teaches that there will no longer be poverty in the land. The other verse teaches that there will always be poor in the land. How can both be true?
Allow me to suggest a solution to this contradiction. It is a solution that I have not found in any commentaries. In my solution, the first verse deals with our own poverty, the second verse deals with other people’s poverty. With this interpretation, we can discover some profound insights into poverty.
Let us start with the second verse – “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” This is speaking to those who have means, who are able to earn a living. When we earn money, we must never hide our heads from those who have less than us. We need to see the poor, and then give to the poor. The Hebrew word for charity is tzedaka, a word which actually means “justice” or “righteousness.” We should never say, “I earned it, it is mine, let the poor earn their own money.”
No matter how affluent a society, there will always be the needy in the land. We must always have our eyes open and put our hands out to the needy. The second verse is how we look at other people. It is a call to give, a call that will never cease. Only in a perfect world can we stop thinking about tzedaka.
There is a Hasidic story about a very righteous man who always gave a huge amount to the poor. He passed away and people gathered from far and wide to pay tribute to his righteousness. About one month later the righteous man appeared in a dream of the rabbi. The dream was vivid. The rabbi asked him, “Tell me, you must be in heaven, a perfect place. What is it like?” The righteous man answered, “It is beautiful, but I don’t like it.” The rabbi was surprised, “How can you not like it?” The man answered, “In heaven, there is no poverty, and so there is no chance to give tzedaka.” There may be no poverty in heaven, but in this world the poor will never cease and there will always be opportunities to give.
So what about the first verse, the one that teaches, “there shall be no needy among you.” This verse speaks of how people view themselves. No one should see themselves as poor, as unable to provide for themselves. In particular, no one should see himself or herself as a victim of poverty. If a person does not have means to provide for their needs or their family’s needs, that person should not be cursing the rich, society, racism, or some other malevolent force out there. They should say, “I am not poor and I am not a victim.”
One of our primary responsibilities in life is to be a provider. The world does not owe us a living. Each of us has to find a way to develop the skills, find a job, start a business, or find some other legitimate way to move beyond poverty. To see oneself as poor can easily lead to seeing oneself as a victim, helpless before economic trends. Helplessness and victimhood are not healthy for self-esteem.
I do a large amount of counseling of people in economic straits. Many have lost their job during these years of recession. Some are struggling, and some are living in absolute poverty. I encourage them to stop seeing themselves as victims. What can they do to bring themselves a living, lifting themselves out of poverty? How can they make themselves more valuable in the job market? What kind of education can they receive? What special skills can they acquire? Nobody ought to view themselves as needy.
So we have two verses. One says there shall be no more needy among you. This is how people ought to view themselves. The other says that will always be needy among you. This is how people ought to view others. In these two verses is the beginning of the solution to poverty.



“You shall surely tithe the increase of your seed, which is brought forth in your field year by year.”
(Deuteronomy 14:22)

As everyone knows, we are going through hard economic times. The stock market is down, corporations are under scrutiny, people’s retirement savings are cut in half, unemployment is rising. Let me express an idea, or perhaps a dream, to jump start our economy.
What would happen if every individual took 10% of their income and gave it away. If we earn $100 we would give away $10, if we earn $1000 we would give away $100, if we earn $100,000 we would give away $10,000. The money would go back out into the world and start rolling again. This is the ideal expressed in this week”s portion.
The word for giving away 10% of our income is “to tithe.” It was considered the religious ideal in Biblical times, and is still central to the religious view of the world today.
To whom do we share oura tithe? First, it is to the poor, to those struggling to people in need. And the most important thing we can do is to help them earn a living. Give them money to start a business or even to buy appropriate clothing for a job interview. Each of us would give to those most in need. But according to the Rabbinic ideal, even the poor person who receives charity would have to tithe, giving to those who are even poorer.
After helping the poor, the next step in tithing would be to give to those institutions that help make this a better world. Tithing includes supporting synagogues and other houses of worship, schools, hospitals, museums, the arts, and other worthy causes. We use our earnings to help perfect the world.
Tithing is also something we do at our job. What if every doctor treated one in ten patients, the poor and indigent, for free? What if every lawyer did free legal work for one in every ten clients, those unable to pay? What if every rabbi did one in ten life cycle events, weddings or funerals, for free to help those unable to pay? What if business owners would give away 10% of their merchandise to those most in need?
Most of us fall far short of this religious ideal. I admit that I personally have not reached this ideal. But I try to grow in my giving each and every year.
I do meet numerous people who strictly observe the laws of tithing in their financial life. They are as strict at giving away ten percent of their income as they are about other religious laws and observances. Many are Orthodox Jews. However, many more are deeply religious Christians or Mormons. All the people I have met who are strict about tithing share something in common. They are at peace with themselves and happy with their lives. It is as if giving away a tenth of what we own makes us feel at one with God.
Tithing develops an abundance mindset. It creates an attitude that the material wealth we give out into the world comes back to bless us. I remember speaking with a rabbi who was unemployed for several years. I asked him how he survived that difficult time. His answer was simple. “Everything I earned, I tithed. And it came back to bless me.”
Let us reconsider the ancient Biblical ideal of tithing. I can think of no better way to jump start the economy.



“Behold I place before you today the blessing and the curse.”
(Deuteronomy 11:26)

This week’s portion speaks of the choices we make. For a number of weeks I spoke about the good and the evil inclinations – yetzer hatov and yetzer hara. The following is taken from my new book The Ten Journeys of Life, newly published by Simcha Press.
Using Sigmund Freud’s terminology, I identify the yetzer hara or evil inclination with the id, the primitive appetites that need to be controlled and sublimated. I identify the yetzer hatov or good inclination with the superego, the conscience that is imparted to us by our parents or society and that teaches us self-control, altruism, and delayed gratification.
Freud also spoke of the ego, that part of us able to consciously make decisions. We humans have the ability to choose. We also must take responsibility for those choices. Free will is God’s greatest gift to us. It is the part of us that makes us most godlike and the essence of the teaching that “we were created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).
Remember some of the cartoons you watched as a child? A character frequently had to make a moral choice. On one shoulder stood a little devil, urging him or her in one direction. On the other shoulder stood a little angel, urging the opposite choice. It is a childish description of the profound struggle in each of us between our good and evil inclinations.
Our lives are filled with decisions. In fact, motivational speaker Anthony Robbins has built a very successful career lecturing that our lives are composed of the decisions we make day in and day out. Maturity is the ability to make the right decision, the one that will lead to the greater good. This often means delaying immediate gratification while maintaining a vision of that greater good. It means decisions based on our own community=s long-term interest, even if our appetites are screaming for us to do otherwise.
Unfortunately, in contemporary America we too often tend to pursue immediate gratification. Author and radio personality Dennis Prager has commented that we mistake fun for happiness and we search for immediate pleasure rather than the long-term achievement that will ultimately bring us happiness. In fact, in Happiness Is a Serious Problem, Prager teaches that fun and happiness are really opposites: “To understand why fun doesn’t create happiness and can even conflict with it, we must understand the major difference between fun and happiness: fun is temporary; happiness is ongoing. Or to put it another way, fun is during, happiness is during and after” (Dennis Prager, Happiness Is a Serious Problem, New York: Regan Books, 1998, p. 47).
He provides an illustration of an amusement park. Going to an amusement park might be fun, it’s a diversion, it’s relaxing, but after leaving the park, one’s happiness has not increased one iota. A lifetime of amusement parks is not a lifetime of happiness.



“See, this day I set before you the blessing and the curse.”
(Deuteronomy 11:26)

The media has announced the first completion of the human genome project. Certainly this is a rough draft, with much work still to be done to fill in the details. Nonetheless, as President Clinton taught, we are finally uncovering “the language of life.”
What are the religious implications of this project? Many would say that by uncovering and mapping out the human genetic code, we humans are trying to play God. I do not agree. Science and technology are neither good and evil. They can be used for great good, for us humans to join God as partners in the perfection of this world. Or, as the story of the Tower of Babel has taught us, they can be used to challenge God and destroy God’s creation.
Mapping human genes might give us the ability to cure such awful diseases as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, or tay sachs disease. On the other hand, mapping the human genome might be one step in cloning, or a eugenics program. There is certainly much that is both positive and negative about this project. There are wonderful insights we humans can learn. On the other hand, there is much to fear.
Perhaps the greatest insight is that we humans share 99.9% of our genes with the rest of humanity. The words of the prophet are true “Have we not one father, did not one God create us all?” (Malachi 2:10) As the Rabbis taught in the Mishna, God made us all descendants of one couple so that nobody can say “My father is greater than yours.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) Perhaps we can learn from this project that, at least genetically, we are all truly brothers and sisters.
We also share most of our genetic information with the animal kingdom. Some would see the Genome Project as proof that we humans are mere animals, qualitatively no different from the apes and the lesser animals. If we are mere animals, what does it mean to be created in the image of God? What does it mean to seek holiness? Is there any unique value to being human?
One of the great teachings of the Biblical tradition is that animals do not make moral choices. When a coyote attacks a farmer’s sheep, he is simply doing what coyotes are hard-wired to do. One would be hard-pressed to call the coyote evil, or ask the coyote to do repentance. Or, as I often say tongue in cheek, “Horses do not need to fast on Yom Kippur.”
What scares me about the human genome project is that many would say that we humans also do not make moral choices. We are the product of our genes, and our behavior is pre-determined and hard wired into us. Alcoholism, chemical addiction, a proclivity for violence, sexuality promiscuity, greed are no longer human vices. They are no longer moral choices. We are merely following our inner drives, doing what are genes tell us.
Even before this project, our society has moved from an emphasis on the moral to an emphasis on the therapeutic. Sin has become a dirty word. Instead, we speak about illness. The politician caught with his hand in the till, the clergyman who cheats on his wife, the woman who steals from the mall, when caught, will confess with the words, “I have an illness.” There is no moral culpability. It is easier to speak of illness and health rather than right and wrong.
I fear that the human genome project will be one more incentive to avoid responsibility for our behavior. Now we can blame it on our genes. We were hardwired to behave this way from conception.
This Torah portion teaches that we humans have a choice about our behavior. God has set before us a blessing and a curse, and we have the ability to pick which path we will take. Shakespeare wrote in his play Julius Caesar, “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.” Today we need to update Shakespeare’s words – the fault lies not in our genes, but in ourselves.