Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that your Lord God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Greetings from South Dakota. We are finally fulfilling my wife’s dream of visiting Mt. Rushmore. I was there many years ago, but seeing all the fascinating sites in the Black Hills has been inspiring. And to see the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt carved into a mountainside is amazing. We also visited the Crazy Horse monument, the image of an Indian warrior carved into a mountain, which when finished will be far larger than Mt. Rushmore.
Of course, as expected in this age of cancel culture, Mt. Rushmore is under attack. After all, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and Jefferson impregnated one of those slaves. Roosevelt was a war monger – “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And today, Lincoln is a particular focal point of the cancel culture. Students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison are calling for his statue on campus to be removed. Among his perceived sins was his treatment of Native-Americans in the aftermath of the United States – Dakota War. But many also blame him for starting the Civil War. One magazine article argued that he should have let the Southern States secede, avoiding all the violence.
I suppose there are people who believe we should knock down Mt. Rushmore. But looking at the mountain, Evelyn and I felt a deep love and appreciation for our country. I believe the problem is that people want to judge people of the past by the ethical standards of today. That strikes me as deeply unfair. As the philosopher Georg Hegel taught, ideas including ethical ideas develop over history. History gives us new ethical insights. Yes, slavery is evil. But it was practiced throughout the world through much of history. Even the Bible speaks of slavery. The key issue is which nation fought a war over freeing slaves.
This week’s portion speaks of justice. It contains the famous verse, “Justice, justice pursue.” Why does it mention justice twice? One traditional answer is that the first is perfect justice, people getting precisely what they deserve in every situation. The second is compromise, people getting partial justice while allowing other people also to get partial justice. As the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you what.” But sometimes you get what you need.
Perfect justice may exist in some perfect spiritual world. Plato envisions a World of the Forms where perfect justice rules. But in the real world we live in, there is not perfect justice. People do the best they can in this real world. And the four men on Mt. Rushmore, for all their shortcomings, did their best in difficult situations. In their day and their age, they pursued justice. Today we may do many things differently. Our ideas have evolved and developed. But these four former presidents deserve the accolades they received for the work they did in their generation.
There is a famous comment brought by the commentator Rashi about Noah. The Torah says he was “a righteous man in his generation.” Rashi admits that if he lived in a different generation, he might have been a nobody. But compared to the other people who lived in his generation, he stood out. We should not be looking for the perfect justice Plato sought. We should be looking at the best justice we can achieve in our generation.
I am glad we saw Mt. Rushmore. As one walks up to the pavilion overlooking the great carving in the mountain, there are flags of all fifty states and many American territories. It is a place to celebrate the greatness of America. Yes, injustice still exists in our country, and everywhere else in the world. But a little inspiration can help all of us work to make our country even more just.
May we pursue the perfect justice which our Torah portion envisions.


“When he [the king] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests.”  (Deuteronomy 17:18)

When I was in high school (long ago), I wrote for the school paper.  But first I had to take an introduction to journalism class.  One of the assignments for the class was to write a sports story.  Not having much ability nor interest in sports, I decided to write about a chess match.  My teacher refused to accept it at first, until I convinced him that it is a kind of sport.  Two opponents are on a battlefield of 64 squares, fighting to capture the other side’s king, so they can triumphantly call “checkmate!”  I convinced him.  I am sure it was the only sports story he ever received about chess.

In high school and college, I was an avid chess player.  Then I gave up the game for over 40 years.  I was too emotional, triumphant when I won and depressed when I lost.  But recently I decided to take up the game again.  I was inspired by the television show The Queen’s Gambit, about a young female (and emotionally unstable) chess prodigy.  I felt the game would sharpen my thinking.  I now play frequently on chess.com with opponents from around the world.   I lose more than I win, but I have learned greater equanimity.

Chess has a fascinating history in Judaism.  There is some debate whether the game is mentioned in the Talmud (there seems to be a reference in Ketubot 61b, but this may refer to another game.).  Some Orthodox rabbis argue whether it is permissible to play, since it takes away from studying Torah.  Bobby Fischer, the greatest American player ever (perhaps the greatest player ever), was born of a Jewish mother.  But later in life he became a vicious antisemite, even suing the Encyclopedia Judaica to have his name removed.   Gary Kasparov, one of the greatest living players, who lost a match against the Deep Blue computer, had a Jewish father and an Armenian mother.

For those unfamiliar, the object of the game is to trap the enemy king (checkmate.)  The king is extremely weak, able to move only one square at a time.  But the king has help, a strong queen that can move the length of the board, bishops, knights, rooks, and an army of pawns.

There is something quite Jewish about a king with limited powers.  This week’s portion permits the Israelites to appoint a king over the nation.  But he was a king with limited powers.  He could not have too many horses nor too much money.  In a time of polygamy, he could not have too many wives or concubines.  And perhaps most important, he had to always keep a copy of the Torah with him, referring to it for all decisions.  The power of the king was limited.  The Torah already understood the words of Lord Action from the 19th century, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Through much of history, monarchs claimed absolute power.  They ruled by the divine right of kings.  Shortly I will be seeing the first of the Broadway series Six, about the six wives of King Henry VIII.  I know in advance that to be married to the king was not a happy fate.  In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote regarding a ruler, “It is better to be feared than to be loved.”  It was finally the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke who wrote about the limit of the power of the king, and the right of the people to overthrow a monarch who abused power.  Locke’s thought was extremely influential in the American revolution against King George III.

Today there are political leaders throughout the world who seek unlimited, dictatorial powers.  The number of despotic rulers seem to be growing.  Perhaps the lesson of today, whether from the game of chess or the Torah, is that there must be a limit to a king, a leader, a dictator’s power.   It could not hurt if every political leader, everywhere in the world, kept a copy of the Torah next to their bed.  Perhaps it would make the world a safer place.



“When he [the king] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests.”  (Deuteronomy 17:18)

In the nineteenth century Lord Action famously taught, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Three centuries earlier in the sixteenth century, Niccolo Machiavelli gave advice to the ruling powers in Italy, “It is better to be feared than loved.”  (The Prince)  Two and half millennia before that, the Torah already warns of the possible corruption of a king when given too much power.  Monarchs and dictators blinded by power were not just a reality in ancient times, but a part of political life today in countries throughout the world.

The Torah reluctantly allows the people Israel to appoint a king.  Ideally there is only one king, the King of Kings.  But the Torah is aware that the nations around Israel were ruled by kings, and the Israelites would also desire a king.  Through most of history until the Enlightenment, most nations were ruled by monarchs, often coming to power through heredity.  Some were beneficent but many were despotic.  Among the people Israel, after the first King Saul, David became the king.  His descendants would remain on the throne of the kingdom of Judah, and later Judaism would teach that the Messiah would come from the Davidic line.  The monarchy was a key part of early Judaism and is echoed today.

This week’s portion speaks of the various laws of a king.  He must be a kinsman, not a foreigner.  This is similar to the United States Constitution which teaches that the President must be a natural born citizen and not a foreigner who has been naturalized.   The king may not have too many horses, nor may he go down to Egypt where the Israelites were slaves.  He may not have too many wives, a law broken by both David and Solomon.  He may not have too much gold and silver.  (What would be the implications today of limiting the wealth of those in political power?)  Perhaps most important, he must always have a copy of the Torah with him.  Later Talmudic sources would teach that he must write a Torah himself.  (Again, I want to thank Ilana Kurshan for this insight.)

This portion teaches us how easy it is for people in power to become corrupted by their own authority.  King Solomon thought he was too wise to be led astray from the Torah.  He had 300 wives and 700 concubines, clearly breaking the law in Deuteronomy.  He felt that the law did not apply to him, because his wisdom would keep him on the correct path.  But in the end, even the great Solomon went astray.  Nietzsche famously taught that human beings have a “will for power,” but as history shows, that will for power leads to corruption and sometimes evil.

Part of the wisdom of the United States constitution is that we have a president, not a king or queen.  The president’s powers are deliberately limited.  The president can veto a bill passed by congress, but congress can override that veto.  The Supreme Court can declare a president’s actions unconstitutional, but the president can appoint judges to the Supreme Court.  Of course, these judges must be approved by the Senate.  The founders of our Republic considered human nature, and deliberately limited the president’s power.

Most of us, in our day-to-day lives, do not interact with kings or presidents.  But we do interact with people in power, whether our boss, the chairperson of our homeowners’ association, or the president of an organization we have joined.  Many of us have been in positions of power, with other people answerable to us.  It is human nature to allow that power to take control of us, to treat other people poorly.  I remember many years ago, before I moved to Florida, telling a synagogue president, “You will not yell at me!”  Power is a dangerous tool that must be kept under control.

It took the Enlightenment for the world to realize that kings serve at the will of the people.  It is a lesson from the Torah, but the world needs to hear it today.


“Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the people with just judgment.”        (Deuteronomy 16:18)

This week I celebrated living seven decades on this earth.  It is a birthday worthy of celebration.  People ask me if I feel old.  Not at all.  I am younger than either of the two major candidates running for president.  And my tradition teaches that when we speak about our age, we should say “until one hundred twenty.”  That is the number given in the Bible.  I still have fifty years to go, plenty of time to finish my work on this earth.

In truth, the book of Psalms has a more realistic number.  “The days of our lives are three score and ten, or if given the strength, four score” (Psalms 90:10).  I made it to the three score and ten, I feel healthy, and to tell the truth, a sense of fulfillment.  That brings me to one of my favorite passages from Pirkei Avot (5:21).  Judah ben Tema described what we should accomplish throughout the stages of life.  He says ben sheviim l’seva, “the age of seventy is for seva.”  The term seva means “fulfillment” or “satisfaction.”  It is the same Hebrew word that describes the birkat mazon “grace after meals.”  “You shall eat and be satisfied and bless God.”  At seventy years we should feel that sense of fulfillment or satisfaction, that we accomplished something with our lives.

I found a wonderful insight from this week’s portion.  Moses commands God to appoint judges that can judge the people with fairness.  Is there a maximum age for those judges?  In other places in the Torah there is a maximum age.  For example, when Moses does a census at the beginning of the book of Numbers, counting the tribe of Levi who were to be religious leaders, the maximum age is fifty.  But there is no number given regarding appointing judges.  I am inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is still going strong at 87 years old.

Maimonides mentions a number of qualifications for becoming a judge.  These include a vast secular knowledge and good moral character.  But first he mentions three factors regarding such judges.  They must be baalei seva, baalei koma, u’baalei marei – “people who are fulfilled (seva), tall, and good looking.”  (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:6)   I certainly can fulfill the tall part, being over six feet (but not quite as tall as I was when I was younger.)  Regarding the good-looking part, much less so. (I think that if resurrection is true, next time I want to come back looking like George Clooney.)   But I am fascinated that Maimonides includes seva, a sense of fulfillment.  A judge should feel good about what he accomplished with his life (in Maimonides’ time there were only male judges.)

I think that this is the heart of what it feels like to be seventy.  One should feel an inner fulfillment or satisfaction with one’s life.  One should feel a sense of completeness.  It does not mean that one’s life is finished.  Personally, there are still many uncompleted projects I am working on.  And I need more time to spend with my wife, my children, my grandson, and other family members.  But seventy is for fulfillment.  And to answer the question, I feel fulfilled.    Perhaps that is the meaning of the three score and ten years of the book of Psalms.  When one reaches that age, one ought to feel fulfilled.

I want to thank the hundreds of people who shared birthday wishes with me.  I had a lovely day.  But now I begin the eighth decade of my life.  I look forward to what I will accomplish over the coming decade.   And so life should go on, until one hundred and twenty years.

“And they [the elders of the city] shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it.” (Deuteronomy 21:7)
Hurricane Dorian has passed our immediate area, turning north before becoming a threat to us. Our hearts and prayers go out to the poor people of the northern Bahamas, and we pray for the people along Dorian’s future path north of us. On Sunday I hired someone for the four-hour exhausting job of putting up my hurricane shutters. (If I had done it alone, it would have been closer to seven hours and I would not be able to move afterwards.) I waited for a government announcement whether shutters were necessary in my area (north Broward County). I received a definite “maybe.” So, I decided that it is better to be safe than sorry. Now I have to take them down, another huge job.
In this week’s portion we see the primary role of government – public safety. The portion ends with a rather strange law. If a body is found in an open place, the elders of the nearest city are called together. They sacrifice a heifer that has never known a yoke, hold their hands over the body, and declare, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it.” The great commentator Rashi makes the comment on this verse, “But would it enter anyone’s mind that the elders of the court are suspect of blood-shedding?! But the meaning of the declaration is: We never saw him and knowingly let him depart without food or escort. “ Rashi is saying that government leaders are responsible for the safety of travelers, and by extension, all public safety.
I am glad that the government spends billions of dollars on agencies to track hurricanes and issue watches and warnings. But there are so many other areas where the government can do more for public safety. A month ago, we heard about horrific shootings in El Paso and Dayton. My thoughts at the time were, what community will be next? This week we learned the horror happened again in Odessa, TX. When will the government take action to limit accessibility of military style weapons to those whose past behavior raises red flags? This country cannot outlaw guns altogether, but it can do much more to make sure that dangerous people do not get guns.
There is a huge political debate in our country as to whether we should build a wall along our border with Mexico to protect us. Most people on the right say we need such a wall, while most people on the left are opposed to such a wall. Both sides compare it to the wall built by Israel to protect Israeli citizens from terrorists entering from the occupied territories. But the situations are totally different. Before the wall in Israel, thousands of Israelis were killed during the second intifada in bombings of busses, cafes, and other public places. Those killings have stopped after Israel built the wall. Those who are attacking Israel for the wall need to understand, the most important role of governments is to protect its citizens.
Of course, there is a world of difference between protecting us from acts of nature (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis) and acts of humans (mass murder and terrorism). Some would say that human evil is as natural as hurricanes and tsunamis. Human nature is such that people on a regular basis will kill other people. In the summer of 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted the famous Stanford prison experiment. Students were randomly assigned role playing either guards or prisoners. After a few days, those playing guards became so abusive that Zimbardo had to end the experiment. He proved that evil lurks in the heart of even good people.
The potential of human evil should be no surprise for those of us raised in the Jewish tradition. Judaism has long spoken of the yetzer hara “evil inclination” and the need to control it. God told Cain even before he killed his brother Abel, “Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master” (Genesis 4:7). We need government to protect us from hurricanes, and sadly, we need government to protect us from each other.

“It shall be, when he [the king] sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book from that which is before the priests the Levites.” (Deuteronomy 17:18)
Greetings from Los Angeles. I come out here every summer to visit my family. But this year was special. Evelyn and I attended my 50th high school reunion. Yes, I graduated from Taft High School in Woodland Hills, CA in 1968. I have kept in touch with a few people over the years, but it was great to see people I have not seen in 50 years. We all seem to have aged gracefully.
Several people, both Jewish and non-Jewish asked me about being a rabbi. I suppose that when I was in high school a career in the rabbinate was not even on my radar. I was a strong mathematics student planning for a career in math. But religion? Even at a high school reunion, one never stops being a rabbi. Several people asked me questions about my career, my training, and religion in general. They shared their own spiritual lives with me. And people had questions, including what I could eat at this reunion.
One thought-provoking conversation came up with someone I had never met. He spoke about his synagogue, one of the leading congregations in Los Angeles. The founding rabbi, who died several years ago, had a national reputation. And the current rabbi is also well-respected. He told me that the current leader is a rabbi, a very fine rabbi. But the founding rabbi was even more, a true spiritual leader. I asked him, what is the difference between a rabbi and a spiritual leader? He said that he could not answer that question, it is just one of those things you simply know.
What is the difference between a rabbi and a spiritual leader? This portion speaks about leadership – judges, priests, prophets (both true and false), and kings. For example, what makes the king a legitimate leader? He must have a copy of the Torah in front of him and consult it regularly. The Torah, not the king, is the ultimate authority. But what about rabbis? The portion does not even talk about rabbis because they did not exist until after the destruction of the Second Temple.
One scholar who had some great insights regarding religious leadership was the founder of modern sociology Max Weber (1864 – 1920). He spoke about three kinds of leadership – traditional, bureaucratic, and charismatic. Traditional leadership was usually hereditary. The Priesthood (kohenim) went from father to son. In modern times, certain Hasidic sects have such a hereditary leadership. Then there is bureaucratic leadership. Certain rules are in place to make one a leader. Rabbis had to go through a period of learning and a formal ordination called semicha. Today rabbis must graduate from a recognized seminary and then join a professional organization, which helps place them in jobs.
Weber speaks of a third kind of religious leadership, the charismatic leader. In ancient times, the prophets often (but not always) were such charismatic leaders. The early Hasidic Movement developed such charismatic leaders that gathered a group of followers around them. I remember I conversation long ago with a local Chabad rabbi. I asked him, “Why Chabad? Why not go to a seminary and become an Orthodox rabbi?” He answered, “An Orthodox rabbi has his teacher, also a rabbi. But I have someone more. I have a rebbe.” A rebbe is more than a rabbi, he is a true spiritual leader, at least in the eyes of his hasids.
So what is the difference between a rabbi and a spiritual leader? Chabad tell the story of the first rebbe of their movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who was imprisoned in 1798 by agents of the Czar. One of those agents decided to challenge the rebbe. “I don’t understand your God. When Adam sinned, He called out to him, `where are you?’ Did God not know where Adam was?” The rebbe answered, “Good question. But here you are a man in your forties, with a wife and children, who is spending his time jailing and questioning a rabbi. Where are you?” At that moment the agent realized the question was directed towards each of us, where are you? He changed his life.
A rabbi knows tradition and can answer a question. But a true spiritual leader can see the soul of the person asking the question.

“You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” (Deuteronomy 16:19)
Several years ago I was on jury duty, and became part of a panel for a criminal case. I did not think they would use a rabbi, but a few years before I had actually sat on a jury. Now it was time for the attorneys to question me. “Do you know anyone in this courtroom?” “Yes,” I replied. “Who?” “The judge.” They looked at me skeptically. “How do you know the judge?” I answered honestly, “I did his daughter’s bat mitzvah.” They dismissed me.
I suppose if justice is blind, that recognizing anyone in the courtroom would become a problem. The Torah reading teaches that a judge should show no partiality, as mentioned in the quote above. But that is somewhat of a mistranslation. The verse literally says, lo takir panim – “do not recognize a face.” A judge should not see the face of anybody there, not literally but figuratively. A judge cannot play favorites. The great Torah commentator Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanhuma about this verse, “When hearing a case, the judge must take care not to be soft with one and harsh with the other, make one stand and the other sit.” Other places in the Torah teach that a judge cannot favor either the rich or the poor. In a perfect world, if justice is to be truly blind, the judge ought not to see the face of any litigants.
It is worth exploring this idea in a bit more depth. The Torah says that a judge should not recognize a face. The Hebrew word for face is panim, a strange word that raises many questions. First, the word is in the plural – literally “faces.” None of us has a single face, but multiple faces. Second, even more interesting, Hebrew uses the same Hebrew word for “face” and for “inside.” Befanim from the same root as panim means “on the inside.” It seems to mean that when I look at someone’s face, I am really looking at their inside. The Hebrew itself seems to point to the face that “eyes are the window to the soul.” To recognize someone’s face is to recognize who they really are.
The great French Jewish existential philosopher Emmanuel Levinas built upon this wonderful idea. When I see the face of another, I know who they are and exactly what they need. Seeing the other puts obligations on me. According to Levinas, the other meets me in its alterity (a fancy word meaning otherness) and in doing so, places demands upon me. He built an entire philosophy of encounter and obligation, beginning with truly seeing the other.
Why is the judge not permitted to recognize the face of the other? It is the same reason that some professors grade final papers without the students’ names on them, not knowing the student allows for an impartiality. Justice must be blind. One cannot see or recognize the other, lest one play favorites with the other. It is a fascinating idea to which our portion gives a mere hint.
As we have shown, true tzedek or justice means we do not recognize the other. Tzedakah, often translated charity although meaning justice, comes from the same root. Does tzedakah also contain the same idea of not recognizing the other? The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught that there are eight levels of tzedakah. The highest level is helping someone set up a business or learn a skill so that they are not dependent on the generosity of others. But the second highest level is giving anonymously. This is where the person giving the tzedakah does not know who the recipient is, the recipient does not know who the giver is. When one person gives to another where each is a total stranger to the other is extremely praiseworthy.
Judaism, as Levinas has proven, is about seeing the other, truly seeing their inside. Seeing the other places obligations upon us. Judaism, as the portion proves, is also about not seeing the other in order to judge them fairly. If we can paraphrase the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to see the other, there is a time not to see the other.” May we have the wisdom to know when each is necessary.


“It shall be, when he [the king] sits upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book from that which is before the priests the Levites.” (Deuteronomy 17:18)
Two weeks ago I was honored to present a High Holiday sermon seminar to the Palm Beach Board of Rabbis. I shared thoughts on how I prepare my own sermons, a number of sermon ideas, and several complete sermons that I believe were successful in my own synagogue. I believe my colleagues enjoyed it. The only objection I received was the question, “How should we speak about the election?”
I did not speak to the rabbis about the election, and I told them why. In my own sermons this year I will refer to the election briefly in the most general terms. I believe that rabbi should not become embroiled in election politics. First, it is clearly against the law for a rabbi serving a non-profit organization to appear to endorse a candidate. Synagogues must remain neutral. Second, I have passionate supporters in my synagogue for both parties, each trying to convince me that their party is better for the Jewish people. As a lover of Israel, I believe Israel is stronger when it has the support of both major political parties. (This is the view of AIPAC). Finally, there is not one clear Jewish view on any of the major political issues from immigration to poverty, from religious rights to taxes, from gun runs to abortion rights. Judaism is far too subtle and complex to be a one issue religion. And God is neither Democratic nor Republican.
Of course, I do have opinions and thoughts about the election, the issues, and the candidates. I watched the conventions and I plan to watch the debates. I want to know where the candidates stand, not just on Israel but on everything. But having said that, there is one issue that is particularly important to me. It comes out of this week’s Torah reading.
This week’s Torah portion speaks about politics. It talks about the desire of the people to appoint a king over them. Ideally there should be no king; only God is the king. But the people want a king; eventually they would appoint Saul and then David as kings. David’s line would stay in power through the entire history of the southern kingdom of Judah. But there are rules for the appointment of this king. He should not multiply gold and silver, nor have too many horses, nor have too many wives. (King Solomon, considered the wisest of the kings, made mistakes in each of these areas.)
The central law regarding this king is that he shall have a copy of the Torah with him at all times. The Torah teaches that he shall read from the Torah in order to learn to revere the Lord and to observe the commandments. The Torah is well aware that power corrupts, and as Lord John Action so aptly taught, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The copy of the Torah served to limit the king’s power. It gave him a vision to better understand his role as political leader. And it gave him ethical laws to discipline every action.
That brings me to our election. Obviously I do not expect our president, our senators and congress people, our governors and cabinet members and commissioners, to keep a copy of the Torah with them. But I do expect them to have two things which the Torah requires. I expect them to have a vision. And I expect them to have ethics.
First, I want to know about a candidate’s vision for our country, our state, our municipality. The Bible teaches, “When there no vision the people perish, but he that keeps the law, happy is he.” (Proverbs 29:18) A king cannot simply rule because he wants to rule, he must have a vision of the direction to which he wants to lead the nation. As I listen to the candidates, I wait for the personal attacks to die down so they can articulate a vision.
Second, I want to know about a candidate’s ethics. Are they trustworthy? Are they careful about their words? Are they truthful? Are they kind? Do they uphold the dignity of all people, not just those who give them money? I look for examples of ethical and non-ethical behavior. I will be looking at both vision and ethics as I decide how to cast my vote. I will not endorse a candidate. But I will ask, how do I expect each candidate act if they had a holy scripture next to their bed and the knowledge that they were being judged by God.

“You shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him, and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 13:5)
When I turned eighteen my parents gave me a birthday card that I will always remember. It was Rudolph Kipling’s famous poem If. Most of us know the opening line: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” The poem speaks about how a man (and a woman, although Kipling lived in a pre-feminist time) should live his life. And it ends with the words, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run. Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” Now 47 years later, I still get choked up when I read the poem.
The synagogue will be celebrating my 65th birthday this week. Actually the birthday was on August 17 when I turned 65. It used to be a significant birthday thanks to Social Security Laws. Now they raised the age to 66. But Medicare does begin. Does this mean I am old? No – I still feel young. While I am finishing up my PhD at Florida Atlantic University, I still have a student card. I have a choice whether to get into the movies as a student or a senior.
Traditionally Judaism does not overemphasize birthdays. The only birthday mentioned in the Torah is Pharaoh’s, whose life was set out for him before he was born. Judaism sees the day we are born as mere potential. It is what we accomplish by the end of our lives that is truly important. That is why, unlike the secular world, Jews commemorate the yahrzeit of someone after they have passed on, not their birthday. So as Americans we keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, but we remember Moses’ yahrzeit (7 Adar).
Judaism may not emphasize birthdays. But there is a teaching of Rabbi Judah ben Tema in the Mishnah that lays out an entire life. “At five years the study of Scripture, at ten years the Mishnah, at thirteen years the commandments, at fifteen years the Talmud, at eighteen years the marriage canopy, at twenty years the pursuit (of a vocation), at thirty years strength, at forty years understanding, at fifty years advice, at sixty years the grey beard, at seventy years the hoary head, at eighty years special strength, at ninety years bent over, and at one hundred … “ Never mind what it says about one hundred years. (Avot 5:21) I plan to go on until 120.
Based on the Mishna, I suppose I am halfway between the grey beard and the hoary head. Actually my beard has been grey for quite awhile. And the hoary head requires some hair to be white. But the key issue is that as long as you have a sense of purpose, you can feel young at any age. Many of you know that I love to quote Broadway shows. Here is a lyric from Pippin which played at the Broward Center this past year, sung by the grandmother Berthe, “I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die.” In the show she sings the song from a trapeze.
What words are appropriate for a special birthday? Kipling’s words still ring true. Take a moment and look up the poem If on the internet. But I like the simple verse from the middle of this week’s Torah reading. “You shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him, and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 13:5) If life is a gift from God, then I suppose the goal of life is to live one’s life as God would want you to live it.
Thank you to everyone for the wonderful birthday wishes. Thank you to the synagogue for the celebration this Shabbat. May we all use our birthday to celebrate God’s gift of life.

“And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book from that which is before the priests the Levites.”
(Deuteronomy 17:18)
When Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews study the five books of Moses (the Written Torah), they understand it in very different ways. Orthodox Jews see the Written Torah as a-historical, written outside of time, literally handed down by God. To say that the Torah was written by people who lived in a particular historical time, spoke a particular language, or had a particular worldview, is a kind of heresy. To those of us who identify with non-Orthodox movements such as Conservative or Reform, the Torah reflects the historical period in which it was written. Real human beings wrote it, perhaps inspired by God, but clearly reflecting the time in which they lived. Even the Rabbis of classical tradition would admit this, saying that “The Torah is written in the language of man.”
By accepting this non-Orthodox view towards the writing of the Torah, we can understand why there are sections of Holy Scripture which do not resonate with us today. The permission to own slaves, the treatment of women, or the brutal wars against the Canaanites reflected the historical reality of a different time. That is why, in each generation, scholars must re-interpret the words of the Torah to better reflect the ethos of their times. If we say the Torah is historical, then we can say that history has changed how we interpret the Torah.
Having said that, I must admit that often the Torah surprises me. It says something so radically progressive that one wonders whether it was written in historic time. It teaches something that seems to come from a different era all together. A perfect example is how the Torah talks about kings.
The Torah commands the Israelites to appoint a king over themselves. (Deuteronomy 17:15) Later in the Biblical book of Samuel the prophet Samuel discourages appointing a king lest he become corrupt. But a king would become the norm amongst the early Israelites. But he was to be a king very different from the other kings in that time and place.
Until the Enlightenment period, kings ruled with absolute power. Kings saw themselves as chosen by God; in ancient Egypt, the people saw Pharaoh as a god. A king with limited power was unheard of until modern times. It was not until the nineteenth century that Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It was the end of the seventeenth century that John Locke wrote about the natural rights of man and the permission to stand up against a despot who threatened those rights. Until modern times, everyone saw the monarch as a ruler with absolute rights. Everyone, that is, except the Torah.
The Torah, with insights most humanity would not achieve until the Enlightenment, taught the rights of a king were to be severely limited. The king was forbidden to multiply horses or to return to Egypt. Perhaps we could see this as a limitation on the police power of kings. A king could not have too many wives, lest they lead his heart astray. King Solomon tried to ignore this law, thinking that he had the willpower to not turn astray despite multiple wives. But even the wise King Solomon could not resist the temptation to follow other gods.
Perhaps most important, the king had to keep a scroll of the law with him at all times. He should read it and learn how to fear the Lord. In other words, echoing a Hebrew National Commercial, the king had to answer to a higher authority. And when a king abused his power, he was confronted and scolded by a prophet. Perhaps the most famous example was King David tempted by the beautiful Batsheva as she bathed on a roof. David committed adultery with her and then arranged for the murder of her husband. The prophet Nathan confronted David with a parable of a rich man who steals a poor man’s sheep. David is outraged by the rich man’s action. And then Nathan tells David, “You are the man.” To be a prophet is to speak truth to power.
It would take human civilization millennia to discover what the Torah already knew. The power of a king must be limited. Sometimes the Torah speaks with words wise beyond its age.

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Justice is at the center of the Torah’s vision for society. This week’s portion, which speaks of judges and courts, includes the cry to pursue justice. Amos the prophet exhorts the people with the words “Let justice well up as waters, righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) But what is justice. The Talmud comments on the double use of the word “justice” in the verse quoted above, “Sometimes we need pure justice and sometimes we need compromise.” (Sanhedrin 32b)
The Etz Hayim (Conservative) commentary on the Torah raises a different understanding of the double use of the word “justice.” “The verse is the classical source of the Jewish tradition’s demand that we advocate and practice both formal and distributive justice in our interpersonal relations and in society at large.” This comment introduces a new idea – distributive justice. Such justice is concerned that the social goods of society be more equally distributed. It is concerned with the huge gaps of wealth between the rich and the poor. But where does such a concern come from?
I teach a philosophy class at the downtown campus of Broward College, located on Las Olas Blvd. (For those out of town, this is the street with all the fancy shops and restaurants in the heart of Fort Lauderdale.) Each semester I throw out a question to my class. If you go from our classroom three miles east towards the beach, there are multi-million dollar homes, many of them right on the waterways with yachts parked near their doorways. If you go from our classrooms three miles west you hit some of the poorest neighborhoods in the area, often with huge crime rates. Perhaps we ought to take some of the money from the rich people to the east and share it with the poor people to the west. Each semester my class, which is racially and ethnically mixed, is horrified by the idea. They almost all say that such a redistribution of wealth would be unfair.
Let us look at how various thinkers view such distributive justice. The ideas cover the full political spectrum. On the left wing are Karl Marx and his followers, many of whom are still prevalent today, especially on college campuses. Marx had no use for private property. He rejected John Locke’s idea that humans have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. To Marx there is no right to property. Property is how the rich exploit the poor. Rather we did to build a society based on the idea that “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” His vision requires an absolute redistribution of wealth..
To the left but not as extreme are the ideas of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice. Rawls imagined if we had to build a society behind a veil of ignorance, if we did not know whether we will be born rich or poor, black or white, male or female, what kind of society would we build? In such a society certain basic social goods would be made available to everyone. Inequality of wealth would be tolerated, as long as it benefited the least wealthy in society, perhaps by creating opportunities for the poor to become wealthy. Obviously such a society would require some redistribution of goods.
To the right would be Rawl’s fellow Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick, in the tradition of Locke, was a staunch defender of property rights. The state had no right to take away people’s property except for the most fundamental public services such as the military and police protection. Beyond that, property rights are sacrosanct. To take from the rich to help the poor is a kind of theft. Many of my philosophy students seem to agree with Nozick.
To the extreme right is the popular novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. She believed that even altruistic behavior is a kind of weakness, that undermines people’s willingness to help themselves. Society works best when everyone looks out for their rational self interest without feeling guilty about helping the less fortunate. Ayn Rand societies are extremely popular to those with a conservative outlook.
Where does the Torah stand in all this? Is it closer to Marx, Rawls, Nozick, or Rand? There is no clear answer. I have heard rabbis who sound like Rawls and others who sound like Nozick, both quoting the Torah. Distributive justice is a vexing issue with no simple answers. But it is an important issue worthy of serious discussion.


“When he (the king) is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.” (Deuteronomy 17:18)
My son Ben had his wisdom teeth out last week. He is doing okay, thank you. It is one of those rites of passage that most young adults need to go through (at least those young adults who can afford it or have good insurance.) But the issue of wisdom teeth raises a fascinating religious question. Why did God make our mouths too small for the number of teeth we have?
It strikes me that if we believe in intelligent design, God would have designed a mouth for 28 teeth. 32 teeth just do not fit. They become impacted and create lots of business for oral surgeons. Why?
Evolution does give an answer. If we evolved from lower primates, these primates have much bigger jaws. Their teeth easily fit. I have never heard of a chimpanzee needing its wisdom teeth removed. But as humans evolved, we needed a bigger and bigger brain. It takes more space to handle language, reason, and all the other wonderful things human brains can do. But if the skull grew bigger to allow more room for the brain, something else had to grow smaller. The head still needs to fit through the birth canal. (This is another interesting biological question. Why are we humans born at such a late age when it is difficult for the baby’s head to fit, creating a risk to both the baby and the mother? That is a question for another time.)
Biologists believe that if our brains were to become bigger, something had to give. Our jaws became smaller. Human beings evolved in a way that made it more difficult for all the teeth to fit in. So we are born with the potential to grow more teeth than can fit in our jaw. As I have often said, God created a world which is very good, but not perfect. The oral surgeons help to perfect the world. (And hopefully they will also volunteer to help the poor who do not carry insurance and cannot afford such surgery.)
Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides a partial answer to one of the oldest religious problems in history. Why is the world imperfect? Natural selection claims that life evolved not by design but by trial and error, minute changes over eons of time, allowing survival only of the fittest. So we humans received through natural selection big brains and little jaws.
Where is God in this process? A thought occurred to me this week . This portion gives the laws of a king. A king, even if all powerful, must always keep a copy of the Torah in front of him. The king could not arbitrarily pass rulings; he must consult some ultimate teaching. Even kings were responsible to a higher law.
God is a King. Or so the liturgy of the High Holidays says over and over. Perhaps God also must constantly refer to a copy of the Torah. Perhaps God created the world with a copy of the Torah as a blueprint. If you think this idea is a little absurd, I did not make it up. It came from the Rabbis of Jewish tradition, straight out of the Midrash on the creation story. “The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus, God consulted the Torah and created the world.” (Genesis Rabbah 1:1) Perhaps the whole process of evolution has a direction and a design.
It is a radical but fascinating idea. Darwin’s evolution by natural selection is a random process. Yet perhaps it is not totally random. Perhaps there is a direction to evolution. Perhaps there is a goal towards which life is progressing. Perhaps there is a lure that serves as an attractor for the development of life. Many mystics and philosophers have written that this is precisely how biology works.
Wisdom teeth gives us an opportunity to speculate on why our bodies are built they way they are. Perhaps they point towards a profound mystical idea, the image of God holding the Torah while setting the entire process of evolution into motion.



“I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself; I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him.”
(Deuteronomy 18:18)

Are there prophets today? Rabbi Johanan taught in the Talmud, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” (Baba Batra 12b) Of course, like every Talmudic passage, not everyone agrees with Rabbi Johanan. This week’s portion does speak of a prophet like Moses who will speak to future generations. Was the Torah speaking about men like Isaiah, Amos, or Jeremiah, who lived in ancient times? Or is prophecy still alive today?
The answer depends on how we define prophecy. Most people believe a prophet is a kind of seer or augur, someone who can predict the future. Certainly there are plenty of people writing plenty of words on the future; read the opinion pages of any newspaper or look at almost any blog. Such people may be opinionated, but none would claim to be prophets. If we believe that the future is open ended and that we have free will, anyone who claims to predict the future is treading in unstable waters.
Perhaps there is another definition of prophecy. I prefer to see a prophet as someone who speaks in the name of God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The prophet is a person who sees the world with the eyes of God.” A prophet is God’s messenger, somebody with a unique wisdom and insight who can answer the question, “O Man, what does God require of you.” And if we believe in God, it makes sense to believe that God endows certain people with the gift of insight.
In the Bible, God chose certain people for prophecy. Jeremiah wrote, “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you, before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Amos declared that when God has spoken the prophet has no choice but to declare God’s will. “The Lord has spoken, who can but prophecy?” (Amos 3:8) Jonah was the reluctant prophet who tried to run away, and ended up in the belly of a fish. When one hears the call to speak in the name of God, one needs to act.
The medieval Jewish philosophy Maimonides was the consummate rationalist. He believed in Aristotle’s God, an unmoved mover. For Maimonides, one could prepare oneself for prophecy through intense study of philosophy and other ancient subjects. One could choose to be a prophet, although such a choice meant intense learning. The mystics on the other hand were the ultimate anti-rationalists. They believed God’s very Being flowed into certain people who prepared themselves properly. Fasting, prayer, ritual ablutions, meditation, or manipulating the letters in the divine name were all means to achieve the gift of prophecy. Again certain people, through intense personal preparations, could prepare themselves to speak in the name of God.
What about today? False prophecy abounds and can be dangerous. We all remember the mass suicide among the followers of Jim Jones in Guyana. We ought to have skepticism towards anyone who claims to have insights into God’s will. Having said that, I still believe that there are people given the gift of insight and wisdom that flows from God. Just as Mozart was given the gift of music and Van Gogh was given the gift of art, so certain people are given the gift of understanding the divine. They seem to understand what it is to speak in the name of God. Or perhaps a better way to put it, God chooses people with the unique ability to communicate God’s will to the rest of us.
There are still prophets among us. We can hear certain people speak or read what they wrote, and have an aha moment; this person is speaking in the name of God. All it takes is wisdom and discernment to understand what God is trying to tell us.



“You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”
(Deuteronomy 16:19)

I recently had to appear in court to testify on behalf of someone. The judge was quite serious; a middle-aged woman of color who I could tell would take no guff. She also had a great sense of humor; at one point she asked me if I would pray for her. When she ruled as I hoped she would, she turned to me again and said, “Rabbi, you better leave now while I am in a good mood.”
In my career I have been in court a number of times testifying before a number of judges. My funniest experience was when I was impaneled for a possible jury in a drunk driving case. The judge asked me if I knew anybody in the court. I answered yes. Who do you know? “I know you, your honor?” “How do you know me?” I replied to the judge, “I officiated at your daughter’s bat mitzvah.” He dismissed me.
Along the way I realized that beneath their robes, judges are human. They see the world like any other human beings. I think about that as I consider the recent senate hearing for the new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. There was much controversy over words she used in a speech she gave in 2001 at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. In that speech she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” That quote alone was the impetus for many Republicans to vote against her.
Those words did not bother me. Of course as a judge she sees the world through the eyes of a Latina woman born in a certain age with a certain background. As a rabbi I see the world as a middle aged Jewish man who came of age in the sixties and early seventies. My father saw the world differently, as the son of immigrants who came of age during World War II. And my children who came of age in an entirely different time will see the world through their own eyes. Each human being has his or her own unique perspective on the world.
Many people like to throw the phrase “post-modern” around regarding our age. Yet it is a difficult phrase to define. Let me try – The term “modern” meant there was a universal perspective that everyone can share. Most modernists see the world through scientific, rationalist, objective eyes – a God’s- eye view if you will. Post-modernism stands in sharp contrast to the modern. There is no universal objective reality. There is an emphasis on difference. Different people see the world differently, based on their particular background, their language, and their life experiences. (A simple example – people whose native language is French or Hebrew, languages where every word has a gender, may be more gender conscious than people whose native language is English, a language that is gender free.)
Judges come from a particular background and see the world through their own particular eyes. This is not something I made up. The Talmud says it. “Judges should know whom it is they are judging, before whom they are judging, and who will call them to account [if they pervert justice.] … What if the judge says, why have all this trouble and responsibility. … The judge is to be concerned only with that he actually sees with his own eyes.” (Sanhedrin 6b) There is no universal God’s eye perspective on justice. A judge can only judge what he or she actually sees.
Of course judges need to be fair, avoid playing favorites, not take bribes, know and apply the law. But then a judge must come up with a ruling. A judge is not an automaton, a computer that automatically spits out rulings. Judges are human beings that see the world with a perspective. That is the challenge of every society that longs to pursue justice.



“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.”
(Deuteronomy 16:18)

I was called downtown for jury duty and was part of a panel on a driving under the influence case. The judge walked in and asked each of us if we knew anybody in the courtroom. When he came to me and asked, I had to answer yes. “Who do you know in this courtroom?” I responded to the judge, “I know you, your honor.” “How do you know me?” “I officiated at your daughter’s bat mitzvah.” I was dismissed from the case.
I do not know if knowing the judge would prejudice me in a court of law. But certainly knowing the defendant or any of the attorneys could prevent a person on the jury from being impartial. Juries who are put in a position of judging their fellow citizens must be impartial. How much more so, at the heart of this week’s portion we learn that a judge must be totally impartial. As the cliché teaches us, justice is blind.
This is true in a courtroom. But what about in our day-to-day lives? If we ever interact with other human beings, we are placed in a position of judging. Parents must judge their children. And sometimes children must judge their parents. Employers must judge their employees. And sometimes employees must judge their employers. Teachers must judge their students. And sometimes students must judge their teachers. (I learned that our college students all go on a website to “rate their professors” before signing up for class. I wonder if there is a community website “rate your rabbis.”)
We all must judge the people we encounter in life. We must judge our doctors, our lawyers, our accountants, our photographers, our jewelers, and our shopkeepers. And sometimes we must judge our neighbors. Perhaps most difficult of all, sometimes we must judge our family. Was our brother or sister, uncle or aunt, nephew or niece fair in the way they behaved towards us? And if our judgment is negative, it often puts a huge damper on family events and interactions. How often have I seen family members boycott other family member’s joyous events – weddings, b’nai mitzvah, graduations – out of a sense of severe judgment.
How do we judge our fellow human beings? Jewish tradition is clear. “Joshua ben Perachiah said, …judge all people on the scale of merit.” (Avot 1:6) Find a way to judge people favorably. Jewish law has a fascinating insight. In order to convict someone of a capital crime, they must come before a court of twenty-three judges. What if all twenty-three find them guilty? If so, the guilty party goes free. There must be at least one judge who finds some merit for the defendant, some way of judging in their favor. Perhaps this ancient Jewish law is the template for the modern idea that every defendant deserves the right of counsel, someone to argue in his or her defense.
How much more so, in our daily interactions with others, must we find a way to judge favorably. There has to be some merit, some purpose on their side. Even the person whose behavior is totally out of line may be affected be something within themselves that might mitigate the situation. I have often written on the importance of individuals learning to control their appetites. But I am well aware that some people never learn the self-control necessary to do the right thing. We can judge such people unfavorably. Or we can say, this is a person who cannot control their appetite. Perhaps this is the best that this person can do.
The great sage Hillel taught, “Do not judge your fellow until you stand in his place.” (Avot 2:5) There is a Native American saying, “Do not judge your fellow until you walk two moons in his moccasins.” How much gentler this world would be if we all withheld judgment and simply gave each other the benefit of the doubt.



“In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive.” (Deuteronomy 20:16)

My thoughts this week were inspired by a discussion with our bat mitzvah Rachel Dannick. She was troubled by the many verses in the Torah which seem to be unjust and unethical. For example, in this week’s Torah reading we read the laws of war. Some are beautiful laws (seek peace with a city before attacking, send back from the front a newly married man who has not yet lived with his wife, do not destroy the fruit trees.) Yet some of the laws are highly difficult, such as the commandment to leave no soul alive among the Canaanites.
If the Torah is God’s word, why did God not outlaw war altogether? And even if war is a necessary evil, why does the Torah permit genocide? Why does it say to kill all the men and take all the women as booty? Certainly this is not the way of a holy people. How do we deal with difficult texts?
Some would claim that we have no right to judge God’s word. God commanded it and God must have His reasons, even if we have difficulty accepting it. If God commanded something in the Torah, it is ethical. If it seems unethical to us, it is because our knowledge is incomplete. Perhaps God has us destroy the Canaanites because there was a greater good preventing their negative influence on the newly settled Israelites. It may be beyond our comprehension, but God has His reasons which we dare not question.
I must respectfully disagree with this view. The truth is that we have the right to hold God accountable to ethics. Abraham confronted God with the famous words, “Should the judge of all the earth not do justly?” (Genesis 18:25) We hold God – and God’s Torah – accountable to a high ethical standard. So how can the Torah condone genocide, slavery, cruelty, and murder?
There is an insight I first heard in a speech by Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg. He explained that the Torah is the beginning of revelation, not the end. God’s will was not given once for all time. The Torah’s ideas about ethics evolved through history. Rabbis for generations have struggled with the Torah’s law, sometimes limiting their application or reinterpreting them. In order to understand God’s will, we cannot look at the Torah alone, but at the long history of Rabbinic insight and interpretation. The Torah is an evolving document.
The Torah was given to real people who lived in a particular time and place. It was a time when slavery, war, and sad to say, genocide were normal human behaviors. (Today genocide is still a normal human behavior in parts of the world, but at least most of us recognize it as wrong.) People interpreted God’s word according to their best understanding from their limited perspective. But morality evolves. And so the Torah evolves. Our ideas of right and wrong change, and the Torah changes with it. That is why no responsible scholar of the Torah today would say that the Torah condones genocide.
I will examine this issue further on the holidays. I will show how the Torah was given to real people who lived in a particular place and time, who tried to interpret it according to their best understanding. The Torah had a vision of humans as holy, created in the image of God. The people who received the Torah tried to apply it to the reality of life in their own time. And so began an evolving understanding of human ethics.
Let us look at difficult texts as the beginning of revelation. That revelation is an ongoing, evolving process. If we are troubled by words in the Torah, it is because our own sense of right and wrong continues to develop. And we should know that the Torah will continue to develop in the future, until we human beings reach the maximum in ethics and holiness. Only then will the Messiah come.



“When he (the king) is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests.” (Deuteronomy 17:18)
There is a story of a man who wandered through the streets of wicked Sodom crying out to the people, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the stranger. Do not wrong one another.” Unfortunately no one would listen. But he continued to speak out. One day someone asked him, “Why do you keep crying out for the people to be good. It is obvious that they are not listening.” He replied, “I don’t cry out so they will listen. I know they will not listen. I cry out so that I will listen and not become like them.”
A person needs to constantly remind himself or herself of the proper way he or she should go. This is particularly true for someone in a position of power – a king or ruler. That is why the Torah commands the king to always keep a copy of the book of the Torah with him and to constantly refer to it. It is a cliché to say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is why the king needs a constant reminder of the limit of his power. Those in positions of leadership need a constant reminder of the way they ought to go.
There is much talk about leadership in the news these days. The government of Israel is under fire for poor leadership in the war against Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Critics claim that the Israel Defense Forces were poorly prepared and poorly supplied for battles that turned out to be far more difficult than expected. In the United States, many claim that President Bush has shown poor leadership in embroiling us in a war in Iraq. They claim he lacks the vision to foresee where our military adventure, or misadventure would lead.
My purpose here is not to comment on the truth or falsity of these claims against the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the United States. These will be decided by history. Rather it is to emphasize the importance of leaders having a clear vision. As the Bible teaches, “When there is no vision the people fail.” (Proverbs 29:18) It is up to leaders to provide that vision.
What is true for leaders of an entire nation is true for leaders of much smaller groups of people – a business, an organization, a synagogue, or for that matter, a family. Leaders need a vision. And leaders need a code of conduct as to how to pursue their leadership. Without vision, leadership becomes a matter of people simply following their passions. Without vision, leadership becomes mere ego gratification. If the ancient kings of Israel, anointed by God, had to keep a copy of the Torah as a guide, how much more so do our modern leaders need a guide. What are they trying to accomplish in their leadership and how do they intend to get there?
As a rabbi, I am expected to take a leadership role in the life of the synagogue. It is a unique kind of leadership, because it focuses on spiritual and educational goals. The financial and business leadership is in the hands of others. It is vital that as a rabbi, I have a vision of where the synagogue ought to go and the ability to articulate that vision to our members. Without such a vision, we are lost. It is like the tail wagging the dog. Or as Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said in the Midrash, “The tail of the serpent said to the head, how much longer will you walk first? Let me go first. The head replied, go. The tail went forward and coming to a ditch of water dragged the head into it; it encountered a fire and pulled the head into it; coming to thorns it dragged the head amongst them. What was the cause of all of this? Because the head followed the tail. ” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10) This is the fate of organizations whose leaders lack vision and become mere followers.
I plan on Yom Kippur to articulate a vision for our synagogue. All of us who aspire to lead first acquire a vision of where we wish to go. The king in ancient Israel had a clear sense of direction. We can do no less.



“Is there anyone who has betrothed a wife and who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.” (Deuteronomy 20:7)

My children are on the cusp of adulthood. As I listen to them and their friends speak, I recall memories of decisions I nade when I was young. What education do I need? What shall I do for a career? Where shall I live? Will I fall in love? Whom will I marry? When I was young, my mother used to sing to me the beautiful Doris Day song, Que Sera Sera, Whatever will be will be. But I am not sure I agree with the lyrics. We have a great deal of choice over what will be.
For example, I hear young people talk about love and marriage. “First you fall in love and then you get married.” I ask the question, “Are you marrying someone who can help support a household?” Young people seem to answer, “Money does not matter. What is important is that we love each other.” Years of counseling couples have convinced me that they are so wrong.
There is a very interesting insight about love and marriage in this week’s Torah reading. The portion deals with the laws of war, and preparing to fight against our enemies. Before going into battle, a special priest is appointed to address the troops. He asks a series of questions. “Is there anyone who has built a home and not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it.” “Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it.” “Is there anyone who has betrothed a wife and who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.” (Deuteronomy 20:5-7)
The Rabbis of the Talmud interpreted this passage far more broadly, saying that it deals with an issue beyond going to war. “A man should first build a house, then plant a vineyard, and only after that take a wife.” (Sota 44a) Of course, the Talmud is speaking from a masculine point of view. It is telling a man that before he marries, he needs to have a place to live and a way to eat. In our more egalitarian age, particularly with the high divorce rate, a woman should have a way to support herself before she seeks a marriage partner. It sounds very unromantic, but any couple seeking to commit to one another for a lifetime needs to have a place to live and a way to earn a living.
Our young people have been taught upon love and marriage from the media, the music industry, romance novels, and from their friends. They have been taught that love is a matter of pure chance. Que Sera Sera, Whatever will be will be. When they fall in love, they can get married, raise a family, and love will keep them together. Economics are irrelevant. To think about how they will afford a place to live, put food on the table, and take on family obligations is unromantic. To quote too many movies, “The only important thing is that we love each other.”
That is the reason I admonish every young person searching for a life partner to “look with your head, not with your heart.” Is this person husband or wife material? Will this marriage be economically feasible? Is this person responsible? Are you ready to finish college first. Pursue a career first. Think about how you will earn a living before you think about whom you wish to love.
One of the problems with life is that by the time we have the wisdom to make appropriate decisions, we are too old to benefit from those decisions. On the other hand, at the age when we make most of our major decisions, we lack the wisdom and experience to choose wisely. That is why it is important for young people making key life choices to learn the wisdom of tradition. To our young people I say, find a place to live and how you will support yourself, and only then look for an appropriate marriage partner. Hopefully, this advice will help you build a much stronger marriage.



“When you approach a town to attack it you shall offer it terms of peace.”
(Deuteronomy 20:10)

An entire chapter of this week’s portion deals with the laws of war. On the surface this is surprising. If the Torah is God=s word and if peace is God’s dream for humanity, why does the Torah not outlaw war altogether? Why does the Torah not simply command peace?
The answer is that the Torah was not given to angels, but to real human beings. It is guidance for living in this real world today, not some perfect world of the future. We are not pacifists, and war is sometimes an evil necessity. Yet even before going to war, the Torah teaches that we should offer terms of peace. Later Rabbinic law teaches that the attacker should hold the peace offer out for at least three days, giving the enemy time to consider. War is sometimes necessary, but peace is always the dream. Isaiah contains a vision of a future where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where even the animal world shall live at peace.
As the headlines scream at us daily, that is not the real world we live in today. The prophet Jeremiah cried out, “Peace, peace, but there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14) So the Torah teaches us how to conduct war in as ethical a way as possible, considering the cruelties and tragedies any war brings. And any war has to begin with peace overtures.
What is peace? Most basically peace is a cessation of hostilities. Peace on its most basic level is a cease-fire, perhaps followed by a truce or an armistice. Peace can exist on the most basic level when two combatants stop fighting. They can ignore each other, but at least they are not killing each other. So far even this kind of peace between Israel and the Palestinians seems a distant dream.
Non-combat is the first step, yet it is not the true meaning of peace. President John F. Kennedy said in his State of the Union message the year he was assassinated, “The mere absence of war is not peace.” The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, has a far deeper meaning. It comes from the Hebrew root sh-l-m, which means “wholeness” or “completeness.” The best image of peace perhaps is a completed jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces in the proper place. There is completeness, a fitting together. Real peace is more than a cease-fire; it is a sense of wholeness, as if two parties, once enemies, no have found how to fit together in a way that maintains the dignity of each.
From the root sh-l-m comes the Hebrew verb leshalem, which means “to pay.” When I purchase goods or services and have not yet paid, there is a sense of incompleteness, of tension, between me and the other party. Will I make good on my debt? After I pay, the transaction is complete; there is a balance in the relationship. The same is true when speaking of relationships between nations, and relationships between human beings. Real peace is more than a cessation of hostilities; it is a sense of wholeness.
How will real peace, defined as wholeness, ever happen between Israel and the Palestinians? It will happen when both sides see the other and recognize both their humanity and their legitimate aspirations. It will happen when both sides learn to live with the other, fitting together as smoothly as two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Sadly, we are probably decades if not centuries from such a true peace. Perhaps the most we can work towards now is a cessation of hostilities, allowing future generations to build relationships that will bring us true wholeness.
What is true between nations is also true between individuals. In my counseling I meet many people at war with other people B their parents, their spouse, their children, their neighbors, fellow members of the congregation. We talk about making peace. The first step of course is a ceasing of hostilities. This is an armistice, but still not peace. Peace comes with wholeness in a relationship, when two parties recognize the dignity of the other, when each truly sees the other and finds a way to live with one another.
Peace begins with recognition of the other. As we all sang as youngsters in camp, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” The verse from this week’s portion, “you shall offer terms of peace,” speaks not just of nations, but also of each of us in our relationships with others.



“Justice Justice shall you pursue.”
(Deuteronomy 16:20)

Divorce is the number one counseling issue I deal with as a rabbi. Allow me to share a short selection from my book God, Love, Sex, and Family.
Once people are married, they have shared a connection to one another that a government decree cannot simply erase. They have a shared past. There are family pictures that cannot be erased, and family memories that are difficult to throw away. Each spouse has given a part of their life to the another, something they can never retrieve. Like two balls that carom off one another and change trajectories, they are each intimately affected by the fact that they were once married to one another.
I have met so many divorcees who passionately hate their ex-spouse. It is a hate that can only be explained by the fact that they still feel a connection, even a love. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. And it is rare to find a divorced person who is totally indifferent about the fate of their ex-spouse.
Part of the strong emotions tied to divorce are due to the adversarial nature of most divorce proceedings. Our legal system does not encourage a husband and a wife to simply go their separate ways, they must hire attorneys, decide child custody and visitation, divide property, work out alimony and child support, and take care of countless details. Usually this is accomplished in court through litigation; in the end, it is the attorneys who grow rich through this adversarial approach to breaking up a marriage.
That is the reason more and more couples are turning to family mediation as a more civil way to end a marriage. Many religious groups recommend mediation. A mediator is a neutral party, usually an attorney but sometimes a psychologist or even a clergyperson, who tries to facilitate an agreement. I personally have taken mediation training offered through the courts to help me deal with issues of divorce. The mediator is not an arbitrator; he or she has no right to force an agreement on the parties. The role of the mediator is to help the parties speak to one another and come to their own agreement.
In my pursuit of divorce mediation, I look once again to the Biblical Aaron as a role model. According to a rabbinic tradition, Aaron raised a question about the biblical verse “Justice justice shall you pursue” (Deuterono¬my 16:20). Why the double usage of the word “justice?” One is pure justice, which is decided by a judge through litigation. The other is mediation, finding a fair middle ground that both sides can agree on. (Sanhedrin 32b.) In a divorce, the second type of justice seems far closer to God’s ideal. I tell a couple when we begin mediation, “We can come to a settlement right now that you both can agree on. Or we can let a judge impose a settlement.” Fortunately, divorce mediation is becoming more and more popular as a way to dissolve a marriage.
I emphasize the importance of following the Biblical commandment, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” (Leviticus 19:17) What is true for a stranger is doubly true for one’s ex-spouse. It is a religious mandate to walk away from a marriage without thoughts of hatred or revenge. It is also extremely difficult. That is why I think it is vital that there be a religious ritual linked to divorce just as there is for marriage.
When a man and woman get married, the change in status is a major religious moment conducted by a clergyperson. When they divorce, the change in status usually takes place in a courtroom out of sight of the synagogue or church. Often the couple is embarrassed to share their change in status with the rabbi, priest, or minister who performed the wedding. I am often the last to know about the divorce. (In fact, divorcees often quietly leave our synagogue, feeling it is a place for couples, not singles.)
I would like to see other religious traditions formulate parallel rituals of separation. Such rituals would state that divorce is not simply a civil matter to be decided by the courts. If marriage is a way of achieving God’s will, the breakup of a marriage has profound religious significance. Marriage is the dream, and divorce is the death of a dream. Like any other death, it needs to be mourned in a religious setting.



“And they shall make a declaration, Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.”
(Deuteronomy 21:7)

In a few weeks I will be flying to New York to tape a television program. I will be landing at LaGuardia airport.
New York City has seen many mayors, but only one who was considered great enough to have an airport named after him. Fiorello LaGuardia was know for his outreach to all people in his city, the rich and the poor. According to one apocryphal story, on a cold winter evening in 1935 LaGuardia went to the poorest neighborhood of the Bronx to sit in the courtroom as a municipal judge.
A woman was brought before him for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her family. LaGuardia asked her why she stole the bread, and she replied that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and the children were hungry. The owner of the bakery replied that his business was constantly robbed, and he could not tolerate theft. He asked LaGuardia to set an example and punish the woman.
LaGuardia looked at the woman and ruled, “You must pay a $10 fine for stealing the bread.” (That was at a time when $10 was more serious money.) He then reached into his pocket and handed the woman $10 to pay the fine. LaGuardia continued, “I now fine every person in this courtroom 50 cents.” Everybody, spectators, attorneys, even the bailiff, had to pay the fine. “I fine you for living in a city where a woman has to steal bread to support her family.” $47.50 was raised in the courtroom and handed to this bewildered grandmother.
All of us, as part of a community, are responsible for the well-being of everyone else. We cannot be comfortable while our fellow humans are suffering; we cannot eat while our fellows are starving. On Passover we open our doors and say “All who are hungry come and eat.” The Torah teaches that we should not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood. LaGuardia knew that if a woman cannot feed her family, all New Yorkers must share responsibility.
This deep Biblical teaching is clear from a very strange law at the end of this week’s portion. If a murder victim is found in the countryside and no one knows who is responsible for the death, the elders of the nearest community are brought to the spot where the body was found. They lay their hand on the head of a heifer who has never worked or been pulled by a yoke. The heifer was then sacrificed in a rugged wadi, which has never been tilled or sowed. The elders of the town must wash their hands over the heifer and declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.”
Who would possibly think the elders and the leaders of the town were responsible for this murder? The classical Rabbinic Midrash explains the elders words, “He did not come to us hungry and we failed to feed him, he did not come to us friendless and we failed to befriend him.” The Biblical commentator Rashi wrote, “The elders declare that they did not allow him to travel without food, or if the route was dangerous, without an escort.” In other words, the elders must take some responsibility for people who pass through their community. As leaders, the well-being of everybody in the community falls on them.
We are all responsible for one another. Whether our fellow human is hungry and in need of bread, in danger and in need of an escort, or simply lonely and in need of a friend, we need to be there. We may not have an airport named after us. But we will do our part to make this a better world.



“Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
(Deuteronomy 16:20)

The Torah teaches us to pursue justice. The United States Constitution teaches that the first role of government is to establish justice. God is called a God of justice. But what is justice? And why is the word repeated twice in this verse?
Justice is one of those ideals that everyone pays tribute to, but it remains difficult to pin down. I will attempt to define justice. And the definition will lead us to the double use of the term in this week’s portion.
Justice – tzedek in Hebrew – means absolute fairness. Justice means people getting precisely what they deserve, whether in a court of law, or by society as a whole. Justice means, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, having “the punishment fit the crime.” Justice means that in a civil case, a person receives precisely the damages that are appropriate. Justice means that in society, everybody has a fair chance.
True justice is impartial. It favors neither the rich nor the poor. Jewish tradition is filled with stories of judges who remain absolutely impartial, blindly applying the law as appropriate. I think particularly of the judge who ruled against the poor man in a case, because that is what the facts demanded. But then he paid the poor man’s fine out of his own pocket.
The Prophet Amos spoke the words, “Let justice pour forth like water, righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) He went on to say, “And establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5:15) Amos was speaking to a society where unfairness reigned, where the rich and powerful took advantage of the poor and helpless. Whether in the courts or in society, people did not receive what was fairly coming to them. Amos’s words ring even today in his call for absolute justice.
Still, the term “justice” is repeated twice in the verse. What does the second use of the word “justice” mean? Are there times when absolute justice is – not just? Are there times when a fair punishment for a wrongdoing is – not fair? According to the Talmud, the second use of the word justice is for mediation and compromise. It is used when we need to seek an alternative to pure justice.
The easiest example is when one partner in a marriage has wronged the other, perhaps through committing adultery or some other improper act. The other partner seeks revenge through the courts, hiring an attorney to destroy the partner who did the wrongdoing. I have had a man come into my office for counseling, and tell me, “I will not pay my wife one penny; she does not deserve it.” And perhaps justice is on his side. Yet, there are children involved, and ultimately they become the victims of strict justice.
When I pursue divorce mediation, I look to the Biblical Aaron as a role model. According to a rabbinic tradition, Aaron raised a question about the biblical verse “Justice justice shall you pursue” (Deuterono¬my 16:20). Why the double usage of the word “justice?” One is pure justice, which is decided by a judge through litigation. The other is mediation, finding a fair middle ground that both sides can agree on. (Sanhedrin 32b) In a divorce, the second type of justice seems far closer to God’s ideal.
There is a passage in the midrash that teaches that God originally wanted to create the world with absolute justice. However, he realized that such a world could not exist. The justice has to be tempered with mercy, the absolute fairness had to be replaced with compromise, litigation sometimes must give way to mediation.
Sometimes justice demands that we do not seek justice. Afterall, on Yom Kippur we Jews gather throughout the world and ask God to move from His seat of justice to his seat of mercy. Even justice has its limits.