Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

V’zot habracha

“For all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:12)

I am sure everyone knows the haunting song “The Circle of Life,” composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice. It was the opening and closing number of Disney’s The Lion King, both the original movie and the hit Broadway show. “It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all, Through despair and hope, through faith and love. ‘Til we find our place, on the path unwinding, In the circle, the circle of life.”
We see the circle in the show. In the beginning the baby lion is held up before the animals, and then at the end the lion of the next generation is held up. The cycle continues. And yet, is this image of unending, unchanging cycles a good thing? The pagan view of the world is one of unending cycles, where reality is repeated over and over.
This view of unending cycles is the pessimistic view of the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, which we read in synagogue this week for Shmini Atzeret. To quote part of the book, “One generation goes, another comes. The sun rises, the sun sets, and glides back to where it rises. .. Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:4, 5, 9). The poetry is beautiful but also exceedingly pessimistic. Life is a cycle that repeats itself without getting better.
The notion of an unending cycle is also found in our Torah reading. On Simchat Torah (the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret, in Israel the same day), we finish reading the Torah. We read the end of Deuteronomy. But immediately we begin reading the Torah once again, starting Genesis. The last word of the Torah is Yisrael “Israel,” ending with the Hebrew letter lamed. The first word of the Torah is Bereishit “In the Beginning,” start with the Hebrew letter beit. Since the Torah is an unending cycle, we can put the last and first letter together, spelling the Hebrew word Lev “Heart.” Heart is at the center of the ongoing cycle of Torah.
But is an unending cycle negative, as hinted in Ecclesiastes? People sometimes ask me whether I get bored with the repetition of the Torah readings year in and year out. Is the unending cycle of Torah readings tedious? The answer is that the Torah reading is never the same. Every year I have new thoughts and new insights. I have grown and changed, I have read more, and there is always something new to learn. Each year I try to come up with new insights as I write and speak about the weekly Torah portion.
This is also true for the Circle of Life. It is not an unending cycle as the pagans taught. It is probably much closer to a spiral, circling around but also rising up. Each year we learn and grow. That is where the Bible breaks with paganism; it speaks of growth and change. As Ecclesiastes teaches, a generation may come and a generation may go. But each generation has learned a bit more. Perhaps in The Lion King, the new generation will be a little better than the old generation. Perhaps it is the spiral of life.
Life is a circle as the pagans taught. But life is also linear, as we grow and change. Perhaps Elton John and Tim Rice should have written “The Spiral of Life.” May we continue to grow as we begin a cycle of Torah readings once again.



“Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)

In my Yom Kippur sermon I delivered before Yizkor, I spoke about the five questions I ask myself. The question that motivated me to write the sermon was, “Am I a good father?” I spoke about the importance of parents raising the child they actually have, not the child they wish they had. Parenting means seeing the real child that has come into one’s life, listening to that child, and raising that particular child. Behind this idea is that the children we raise are not in our lives by random chance; they are the children we were meant to raise.
I continued the sermon with the following words. “In my new book The Kabbala of Love I introduced a strange and fascinating kabbalistic idea. Before your child’s soul ever came into this world, he or she chose you as a parent. Imagine saying that the next time your child says to you, `You are the world’s worst mom. You are the world’s worst dad.’ You can answer, ‘It’s your fault. You chose me to be your parent.’”
One of my members was upset by the idea that our children chose us as parents. She told me, “Rabbi, that is fine if parents give birth to children. But what about parents who adopt children? How can you say that adopted children choose their parents?”
It is a great question. As the parent of three adopted children, I do not think that I was being insensitive to adopted children. On the contrary, I often imagine that before they were conceived, my children chose my wife and myself to be their parents. If God can perform miracles, why can God not lead a particular child to a particular adoptive family? Over many years of adoptive counseling, I have told many couples searching to adopt, “God will lead the right child to you.”
Perhaps the best example is right out of the Torah. This week we read of the death of Moses the greatest prophet and leader of the people Israel. Moses was an adopted child. He was not adopted in the formal legal sense; such adoption is the product of Roman law. But Moses was born into an Israelite household but raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in the palace of Pharaoh himself. His birthmother, who came into Pharaoh’s home as a wet nurse, nursed him. But he was inculcated with the values of leadership that came from growing up in a royal home. And it is through that leadership that Moses was able to lead his people from slavery to freedom.
Moses had a unique mission in life. He was chosen by God to lead his people out of Egypt, give them the law, and guide them through the desert. His particular upbringing in an adoptive home prepared him for the mission. Perhaps God guided his soul into a basket, down the Nile River, and into the hands of the daughter of Pharaoh. Perhaps his upbringing as an adopted child, torn between his genetic background and his environment, between nature and nurture, uniquely prepared him for his life mission.
My words on Yom Kippur were meant for all parents whether they are raising their own biological children, adopted children, foster children, step children, or other significant children in their lives. The Jewish mystical tradition hints that the soul of a child picks the parents best able to prepare that child for his or her unique mission in life. Moses had the right parents. All of our children have the right parents. May God help us in the world’s toughest job, raising our children to be the kind of people God put them on this earth to become.



“There has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Once again we finish the Torah. And once again we start the Torah from the beginning. This year begins my 25th cycle of Torah readings since I was ordained as a rabbi. For the 25th time I must come up with sermons, classes, and original thoughts on the weekly portions. And for the fifth year in a row, I will be writing a weekly spiritual message based on the portions.
People often ask me, how can I come up with something new and different each and every year. Does it not become repetitious, reading and saying the same thing year after year? Somehow I always come up with new insights. The reason is not that the Torah changed. The reason is that I have changed. I had one understanding of Torah as a newly ordained rabbi, just married, as a young father raising infants, as a more experienced rabbi planning my childrens’ bar and bat mitvahs, and now as a middle aged rabbi with children entering adulthood. And I am sure my understanding will change as I enter my retirement years, hopefully become a grandfather, and deal with old age.
This is true not only for me, but for the Jewish people as a whole. We have grown and changed; we are not the same people who stood at Mt. Sinai. Our insights have changed. Perhaps Moses knew God face to face. But we who have come after Moses stand on his shoulders, with insights and wisdom he never had. As we grow, so does the Torah grow.
Allow me to share some thoughts from my Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon: God did not reveal the Torah like a flow of data coming over a modem, flowing from heaven to earth with Moses as a secretary taking dictation. We do not passively receive God’s teachings. We humans are partners in interpreting God’s Torah.
There is a story of a group of rabbis arguing about some point of Jewish law. Three rabbis had one point of view, one rabbi had the other point of view. Back and forth the rabbis went, with the leading rabbi saying – the vote is three to one. Suddenly there was a crash of thunder and a heavenly voice proclaimed, “The law is as the single voice teaches, not the three.” It was God speaking. The rabbis were awestruck. They waited a moment and then the leading rabbi said, “Okay, now the vote is three to two. We still win.”
The Talmud itself teaches that past generations will not always understand the Torah as taught by future generations. The Rabbis tell the story of Moses going forward in history and sitting in the back of the saintly Rabbi Akiba’s classroom. Rabbi Akiba was teaching Torah, and Moses could not understand a word Akiba was saying. Moses was growing very faint. And then Akiba said, “This my students, is the Torah God gave to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” Suddenly Moses felt better.
Each generation must interpret the Torah, and apply to the real world they live in. The Judaism I teach, the Judaism we practice in this synagogue and in this country, is not the same as the Judaism our great grandparents practiced in the shtetls of Europe.
Our job is to interpret God’s Torah, God’s teachings, and apply them to the real world in which we live. The problems we face are real. Should Israel pull back from land God promised us in order to make peace? Should the United States go to war to prevent some future threat of terrorism? Should our synagogue modify its ritual, change the prayers, to make them more appealing to a younger generation? Should we ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis, or perform ceremonies of commitment? Should we be allowed to pull the plug and let a terminally ill person die? Should we do more to embrace intermarriage as a way of life? Should we approve of abortion, the sexual revolution, differences between men and women? In each generation the rabbis must apply the laws. Revelation was not a one time event, it continues into each generation. I believe with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might that God gave us the Torah and made us humans partners in writing that Torah.



“And the Lord said to him [Moses], This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will assign it to your offspring. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” (Deuteronomy 34:4)

Imagine being Moses. All your life you have dreamed of entering the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. You go to the edge of the land and look out onto it. But you will die without setting foot in the land. Your progeny will carry on the task.
In a sense, we all are Moses. We have dreams and take on tasks in our lifetimes. Often we finish our lives before the tasks are totally completed. We must depend on a younger generation to continue the task. As Rabbi Tarfon so aptly taught, “It is not your job to finish the task, nor are you free to avoid it all together.” (Avot 2:21)
We have reached the end of our Torah reading, which also speaks of the end of Moses’ life. We also read the book of Ecclesiastes in synagogue at this time. The book was written by King Solomon as he approached the final years of his life. Much of Ecclesiastes speaks of the vanity and hopelessness of life. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has man of all his labor which he labors under the sun. One generation passes away and another generation comes, but the earth abides forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4)
As one reaches the end of life, it is easy to say that life seems hopeless and meaningless. We labor in vain, and die before we see the fruits of our labor. We pass away on the far side of the mountain, never entering the promised land. A generation goes and a new generation comes, but nothing ever changes. It is so easy to fall into cynicism and depression, to lose our taste for life. As a rabbi in a community with a large senior population, I often see this attitude. And it saddens me deeply.
The ancient pagan world saw life as an endless cycle. Nothing ever changes. Whatever was will be, and the labor that we do is in vain. We die as we were born, and the whole thing has no purpose. Life is filled is cynicism and despair.
The gift of the Bible is to teach the world that there is another way to look at life. Life is not an unending, changeless cycle. Rather it is a chain, and each generation contributes to the chain. Each of us has a task to do; each of us has a mission. We may not complete the mission in our lifetime, but there is always a new generation to carry on where we left off. Over the course of generations, we can enter the promise land, perfect the world. We are part of something far greater than ourselves.
On Yom Kippur I spoke about having a God’s eye view of the world. From God’s point of view a thousand generations pass in the blink of an eye. It is over the course of generations that we perfect this world, each of us doing a small part. I used the metaphor of two bricklayers. A passerby asks the two workers, “What are you doing?” The first replies, “I am laying bricks. Row by row, brick by brick. It is tedious, boring work. I cannot wait for the day to end so I can go home.” The second one answers, “What am I doing? I am building a skyscraper.” Which bricklayer finds more meaning in the work?
As we go through life, we ought to see ourselves as building a skyscraper. We may not see the finished building, just as Moses did not enter the promised land. But we are part of a project far greater than ourselves. We do our task, and then the next generation builds on our work to continue the task. This view will make life not “vanity of vanities,” but rather a great and joyous adventure.



“And there has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)

I saw clever greeting card perfect for the festival of Simchat Torah. There is an open ark filled with scrolls of the Torah, a rabbi is putting the Torah away, and on the bottom is a big sign reminiscent of Blockbuster Video: “Be Kind, Please Rewind.” The card brought me a chuckle. It also is a perfect thought as we end the formal reading of the Torah.
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah reading never ends. We finish the book of Deuteronomy and then immediately reroll the Torah and start Genesis all over. It is a never ending cycle.
The rereading of the Torah year in and year out reflects its wisdom and power. With most books, even the great classics, when we read them once, we are finished. Perhaps someday we will reread them, but there is a sense that the reading is finished. In contrast, reading the Torah is an unfinished task. It never ends.
This past year, beginning with Genesis, I wrote a weekly spiritual message that I sent to hundreds of people: members of my congregation, college students, fellow rabbis and clergy of other faiths, and a variety of interested people all over the world. Many of you responded to my messages with kind words, with questions, with your own thoughts and insights. Sometimes you disagreed with me. Occasionally I even sparked real hostility. However, most often people found comfort with my insights. And often my study of the weekly portion helped me find comfort and meaning in my own faith.
Now the cycle has ended and I need to start all over. My first question is whether I can find something new and different this coming year? I hope the answer is yes. I know that each year I see the Torah in a new light. I have insights and understandings that I did not have the year before. That is why I continue to write these messages.
I once met a rabbi who was fired from his congregation. He told me that when people came to see him, they found him studying Torah. They told him that they did not want a rabbi who still needed to study; they wanted a rabbi who already knew his material. I tell this story half in jest because it is so far fetched, and yet it is absolutely true. Some people do not understand the notion of ongoing learning and unearthing new insights out of our ancient texts.
A rabbi with a strange name, Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it over and turn it over for everything is in it.” (Avot 5:22) Every rabbi who preaches year in and year out on the weekly portion wonders whether he or she will come up with some new insight, some new teaching, something new to inspire a congregation.
If the text does not change, how can we come up with something new? The answer is that we change each year. We have new insights, new experiences, new knowledge, new questions. There is an apocryphal story of the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstruction Judaism. He was teaching a class in homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A student nervously presented a sermon to the class. Rabbi Kaplan responded, “Very good.” The next day Rabbi Kaplan proceeded to deeply critique the sermon. The stunned student responded, “Professor Kaplan, yesterday you liked it.” Rabbi Kaplan looked sharply at him, “I changed since yesterday.”
We have all changed as we begin the Torah anew. As we finish Deuteronomy and begin Genesis, let us turn to the Torah for fresh insights on how to live our lives.