Friday, March 30, 2012

A Night of Vigil: Why We Need to Keep Our Eyes Open - Shabbat Hagadol, 5772

I will never forget a piece of advice that my childhood rabbi, Arthur Rulnick, gave at my Hebrew School graduation, before advancing to Hebrew High School.  He said that as we grow up and move through the teen years and into adulthood, to keep our eyes open, to watch for trends, things to pursue, things to avoid, and so forth.  Looking back, I don’t think I had any idea what he was talking about.

But hindsight, as they say, is not as astigmatic as I am, and I think I have a better sense today of what he meant.  Vigilance is a Jewish value, one that we invoke on Pesah in particular.  And Jewish history is filled with reasons to be vigilant.

There are few Jewish traditions that extend deep into the night; the Pesah seder is the most notable one.  Pesah is meant to be a night of vigil -- in Hebrew, “leil shimmurim”.  The Torah (Ex. 12:42) describes the night of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, the first night Pesah, as follows:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם.
That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.

The Hebrew term, “leil shimmurim,” a night of vigil, is a curious construction, since the shoresh shin-mem-resh appears in this type of conjugation (Pi’el) in only one other place, and it’s not entirely clear what it means.  Lishmor, to guard or keep, is a common verb.  The form here is leshammer, which in modern Hebrew means to preserve or watch, suggests something more active, in accordance with our translation of “being vigilant”.  “Watching,” a fairly passive verb in English, does not quite cover it; “shimmur” suggests a component of action, or at least readiness to act.

But language aside, what is this “leil shimmurim,” this “night of vigil” about?  What did it mean in the context of the Exodus, and what does it mean to us?  

Rashi sees this night as an example of God’s vigilantly protecting us, both at that time and on an ongoing basis.  Ibn Ezra and Ramban say that this night was about the Jewish requirement to keep this night vigilantly throughout the ages to recall God’s works.  Some stay up all night on Pesah, says Ibn Ezra, to demonstrate this vigilance.  

The original night of vigil was about being ready to act, being ready to pick up and move, which is of course what the Israelites had to do when the signal came.  And Jews throughout history have drawn on this vigilance.  We are a watchful people, primarily due to our historically precarious position as strangers residing in strange lands.

And it is only in America, and particularly the last third of the 20th century, that Jews have begun to feel comfortable enough to lose their sense of watchfulness.  In the wake of the Shoah / Holocaust, there was heightened uncertainty among Jews worldwide - a palpable precariousness that infused Jewish life.  The goal was to blend in, not to call attention to ourselves.  Religious Jewish men rarely wore their kippot in public.  Anti-Semitism was present and visible.

Today, we are well-integrated, well-established, unafraid.  And with that we have grown, I think, less vigilant.  Hence the disengagement from Israel that some see among younger American Jews.  Hence the decline of the American synagogue, and the rise of post-Modern Orthodoxy, with its growing rejection of modernity and integration with the wider society.

Add to that the many distractions of pop culture, and you can see that there are myriad reasons why we have let our guard down.  But Pesah, the holiday that 80% of American Jews show up for -- is the one time of the year that most of us are paying attention.  For many, it is the ONLY opportunity of the year that we engage with Jewish life.  This is the time to talk about what we should be looking out for.  Pesah reminds us that we have to watch our step as we walk through the Sea of Reeds on the way to freedom on the other side.

Here are three examples of things to which we should be paying attention today:

First: the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, affectionately known as BDS.  I have mentioned this before as one of “existential threats” to the State of Israel, to use the language of Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.  BDS has targeted Israel with economic actions for the purposes of (according to their website) ending the occupation of the West Bank, promoting the rights of Israeli Arabs, and allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.  

Whatever their actual goals are, the most infamous and outspoken Jewish critic of Israel, Prof. Norman Finkelstein, recently blasted BDS for being deceptive, in a video interview that went viral.  Their ultimate goal is not peaceful co-existence, said Dr. Finkelstein, but rather destruction of the Jewish state, and they should say so.

We need to be vigilant, because there is a segment of the world that is hearing the BDS message and responding to it.  It is a seductive humanitarian message that appeals to our most fundamental Jewish values:  freeing the bound, feeding the hungry, and so forth, the very themes that we invoke on Pesah.  They have successfully wooed pro-Israel leftists like the well-intentioned, if misguided, City University professor Peter Beinart to promote boycotts, as he did in the pages of the New York Times last week.

But it seems that we have turned a corner here.  Last week, the largest urban food co-operative in America, the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, voted against considering a boycott of Israeli products, by a tally of 1005 to 653.  John Ruskay, head of UJA - Federation, released the following statement about this yesterday:

“[T]he diverse community of the co-op — Jews and non-Jews, young and not so young, liberals and not so liberal — came together to reject the de-legitimization of Israel taking place on its turf. I take this as but the latest indication that despite the hyped rhetoric, Americans affirm the right of the Jewish people to a Jewish state. The victory in Park Slope follows many others, for notwithstanding years of organized efforts, the so-called BDS movement... has consistently been defeated. Not one university, corporation, or community has voted to sanction, divest, or boycott Israeli products or the Jewish state. Not one.”

BDS has not succeeded this time, but its voice is still ringing in Brooklyn and elsewhere.  We need to be vigilant.  Tell our children on college campuses to watch and listen carefully.  Be wary of those who seek to exploit our devotion to Jewish values to turn our fellow Jews against each other.  We cannot let this happen.  There are signs that this movement may have passed its peak of influence; nonetheless, let’s keep watching.

The second point of vigilance is of concern to us both as Jews and as Americans, and that is the Iranian nuclear threat.  I reported in this space a few weeks back about the AIPAC Policy Conference that I attended in Washington, along with a select group of members of this community.  The message from AIPAC, and indeed from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and all the other politicians who addressed the conference was, “Be vigilant regarding Iran.  They are almost nuclear, and we need to keep all options on the table.”  By “all options,” they meant, we reserve the right to bomb; some speakers stated this more clearly than others.

If Rashi were here to interpret this, I would like to think that he would tell us that “all options” should really mean, let’s exhaust all other options before we resort to war.  And I have a powerful ally in Rashi’s corner: His Imperial Highness, Crown Prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah and heir to the Peacock Throne, who spoke here at Temple Israel on Tuesday night as the keynote speaker for the 20th anniversary gala of the Sephardic Heritage Alliance, Inc., also known as SHAI.  Mr. Pahlavi spoke passionately and eloquently on behalf of the people of Iran, for whom he cares deeply.  And, by the way, he is not positioning himself to be reinstated as Shah; he is working to help establish a secular democracy in Iran.

The Main Ballroom was packed wall-to-wall, standing room only, with members of this community, Jews who mostly emigrated from Iran in the wake of the 1979 Revolution.  To this adoring crowd of ardent Zionists, Reza Pahlavi said, unequivocally, please don’t bomb Iran.  Try every other avenue first -- diplomacy, sanctions, and so forth -- and let’s give the Iranian people the support they need to throw off the yoke of their oppression.  Bombing will alienate the Iranian people, strengthen the regime, and make Israel’s neighborhood that much more hostile.

(And, by the way, I encountered something fascinating this week.  You should check this out:  It’s a website where ordinary Israelis, Iranians in Iran and in their diaspora, and other supportive people from around the world are placing friendly messages to each other.  It’s genuine, and it’s beautiful.  After Shabbat, take a look.)

Vigilance is called for here because although a nuclear bomb in the hands of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a very real and a very serious threat, the long-term price that Israel and America would pay is much higher if we chase after war before giving all of the alternatives time to work.  Let’s keep our eyes open, and pursue that middle path.

There is one final area in which I want to urge vigilance, and this one is closer to home.  Rabbi Stecker and I taught an evening class this week that touched on the question of helping our children maintain a Jewish identity in a world that is increasingly secular and increasingly polarized between fundamentalists and everybody else.

We all want our children to be happy, well-adjusted, integrated, engaged, and of course successful.  We also want them to be Jewish -- committed to Jewish values and Jewish tradition and willing to impart those things to THEIR children.  So how do we accomplish all of these things, especially given that everybody’s free time to devote to Jewish pursuits seems to be on the wane?

There are no easy answers here.  One approach that we discussed is to make Judaism part of the conversation at home -- Jewish learning, Jewish values, the desire to raise Jewishly-knowledgeable grandchildren.  Our willingness as Jewish adults to commit to participation in Jewish life and model that involvement for our children and talk about it at home will pay off in subsequent generations.  

And here is the thing to watch: there is a slippery slope here.  On the one hand, we in the Conservative world in particular want to be engaged with secular America, but we need to balance that with deeper commitment to Judaism.  If we do not, our children will learn that it is not important, and each following generation will be less anchored in the Jewish values that we endorse.  

To circle back around to Pesah, this night of vigilance is prime time to talk about being Jewish -- our relationships with tradition, with community, with history, with Israel, and with the future.  Don’t let this leil shimmurim pass without addressing why we need to watch carefully!  Ask more questions, enjoy the meal, and keep your eyes open.

Shabbat shalom, and hag kasher ve-sameah.  

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 3/31/2012.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why Is This New Year Different From All Other New Years? - Tuesday Kavvanah, 3/27/2012

On Shabbat afternoon at minhah / the afternoon service, I had just concluded my private recitation of the Amidah when I looked over my shoulder and noticed the tree outside the chapel in full spring bloom.  Having just passed one of the four New Years of the Jewish year — the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) calls the first day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar, "Rosh Hashanah limlakhim velirgalim," the New Year for kings and festivals* — I am reminded that this is the more sensible choice for the beginning of the year.  Spring is the time of renewal: cleansing rain, cheery flowers, the scents of wet sod and decaying leaves.

There is a berakhah / blessing to be recited upon seeing trees in bloom for the first time in the spring:

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם, שלא חסר בעולמו דבר, וברא בו בריות טובות ואילנות טובים להנות בהם בני אדם
Barukh attah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha'olam, shelo hissar be'olamo davar, uvara vo beriyot tovot ve'ilanot tovim lehanot bahem benei adam.
Praised are You, Adonai, our God, who rules the universe, which lacks nothing; for God created fine creatures and pleasant trees in order that humans might enjoy them.

As we recited this berakhah together, my thoughts returned to the coming festival.  Pesah is heralded by the Earth's return to life, like the royal trumpets that would have been sounded long ago at this time.  The trees explode in colorful harmony, and a new year has begun.  Happy spring!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

* So called because for Jewish kings, the next year of their reign always begins on Nisan 1, even if they ascended to the throne a day earlier, and it is also the deadline for fulfilling a vow to bring a dedicated item to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Neither reason is applicable today, of course; there has been no functioning Temple since 70 CE, when the second one was destroyed by the Romans, and there has not been an Israelite king for nearly 2600 years.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What's Your Path? Four New Questions for the Seder - Thursday Kavvanah, 3/22/2012

Every one of us has a different path through life in general, and through Jewish life in particular. Sometimes, it's a good idea to perform a quick self-check, to remind ourselves: Where am I going? Why am I here? How do I connect?

Admittedly, finding an interesting homiletic point buried in the Torah's graphic details of sacrificial offerings, which have not taken place for two millennia, is a challenge. Parashat Vayyiqra identifies the five major types of offerings that the Israelites could bring to the Temple when it stood in Jerusalem:

עֹלָה - olah, the burnt offering
מִנְחָה - minhah, the grain offering
זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים - zevah shelamim, the well-being offering
חַטָּאת - hattat, the sin offering
אָשָׁם - asham, the guilt offering

Each of these sacrifices was brought to the kohanim / priests by an individual who had a specific reason for bringing it.  Likewise today, we each have our own individual reasons for participating in Jewish life: some come to the synagogue to remember deceased loved ones, some want to teach their children about Judaism, some are committed to a ritual routine, and so forth.

In two short weeks (whose idea was it to put Pesah the week before tax day?), the single most popular Jewish ritual of the year will take place.  The seder is something like the Superbowl of Judaism: with upwards of 80% of American Jews participating, there are more of us around the table than at any other time.  As such, it's an opportunity to help each other re-connect, and to that end, I'd like to suggest four questions to ask at your seder, perhaps as a supplement to the traditional Four Questions, or even in place of:

1.  What are the ideas or principles or relationships that bring us back to the seder, year after year?

2.  What are the memories of Jewish life, from Passover or otherwise, that keep us connected?

3.  What are the Jewish values that we regularly call upon, particularly in secular contexts?

4.  What can we all do to help each other re-connect, or deepen our connections?

Now discuss!  You might be surprised to hear the range of paths of those around the table.  Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Redemption Time - Tuesday Kavvanah, 3/20/2012

When I heard the news yesterday of the killings at a Jewish school in France, I cried.  And then it occurred to me that one reason that Pesah still speaks to us is that despite our successes, despite our integration into the wider community, despite our widespread acceptance as citizens of the world, despite the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, total redemption has eluded us.  We were redeemed from slavery and oppression in Egypt, but we still await the completion of God's work.

Twice a day, when we recite the Shema in its liturgical framework, we invoke the themes of creation, revelation, and redemption: the first theme refers to the creation of the universe; "revelation" to the gift of the Torah; and "redemption" recalls the Exodus from Egypt, which we will explore more extensively during the upcoming festival of Pesah.  

Reciting these berakhot every morning, we are reminded that God's work is ongoing.  The world continues to be re-fashioned every day.  Our understanding and relationship to the Torah continuously unfolds, as we use the lens of our ancient stories and laws to engage with modernity.  And even though the words of the Haggadah that we recite at the Passover seder assure us that we are no longer slaves, our redemption is far from complete.

Let us hope that this Hag haHerut, Festival of Freedom, will bring us just a bit closer to the time when the need for security guards in schools and synagogues, for bomb shelters and car searches, and for saber-rattling over any nation's nuclear program, will be a distant memory.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tyler Clementi, Dharun Ravi, and Pesah

I just purchased this afternoon a new haggadah, one that was published just in time for this Pesah. It’s called the New American Haggadah, put together by the authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander.  I have not had much time to review it yet, but I am struck by the cover art, which features the following quote:
בכל דור ודור, חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים, שנאמר

וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר:  בַּעֲבוּר זֶה, עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם
In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5), as it is written, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'Because of what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8)
This is, truly, the organizing principle of the Passover seder.  Today we are free, but each of us individually was once enslaved.

On the way to the bookstore to pick this up, I heard on NPR that 20-year-old Dharun Ravi was convicted of hate crimes against his former freshman roommate at Rutgers, Tyler Clementi.  You may recall that Mr. Clementi killed himself by jumping from the George Washington bridge a year and a half ago, after he found that Mr. Ravi had used a webcam to spy on him in a compromising position.  Mr. Clementi was gay, and when he found out about the spying and what his fellow students were saying about him, he committed suicide.

The seder is not just a meal; in the fashion of the Greek symposium, it is food and discussion.  While most of us spend lots of time on the food, it is the discussion that is far more important.  

What we must tell our children on Pesah is the following: because we were slaves, we understand what it means to be oppressed by others due only to the unchangeable realities of who we are.  We may never take our freedom for granted, and where there is injustice, we are obligated to set other oppressed people free.

In every generation, each of us as individuals must acknowledge that slavery and oppression take many forms; these are as much personal as they are national, and they range from religious oppression to racism to the various forms of discrimination against women, other ethnicities, and of course those who are gay.  Dharun Ravi and his friends surely could not have predicted what happened.  But had they seen themselves as having personally come forth from Egypt, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Making a Divine Space Within Ourselves - Thursday Kavvanah, 3/15/2012

This Shabbat we conclude the book of Shemot / Exodus with one of those film-quality special effects moments: the Israelites finish building the mishkan / tabernacle, and the Shekhinah (God's presence) moves in.

וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Ex. 40:34)
This is after many, many chapters of extensive description: the array of top-shelf materials, colors, craftsmen and careful design that make up God's instructions to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary and altar for use while wandering in the desert.  It's not really a surprise that it works out well, but the five-verses account of the Shekhinah's taking up residence is staggering in its abruptness.  Pages and pages of seemingly small details are followed by a simple, matter-of-fact event.

The message here is as follows: if we want to court the Divine Presence in our own lives, we have to work very hard to create an appropriate space.  Our commitment to serious introspection and spiritual excavation on an ongoing basis opens us up.  As we approach Pesah, the festival that mandates physical and spiritual cleansing, perhaps this is a good time to focus on making that space available.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Not-Exclusively-Spiritual Cleanse - Tuesday Kavvanah, 3/13/2012

I do not wish to alarm you, but I began shopping for Pesah yesterday, purchasing some basic items that I'm pretty sure I'll need in a month.  No matter that my house is still infested with hametz - we'll be taking care of that in short order.

Situated directly across the Jewish year from Yom Kippur, Pesah is something like a second shower on a humid summer day.  While the former holiday focuses entirely on cleansing the spirit, Pesah is as much about physical purification.  This is a time to eliminate the veteran products moldering in the back of the fridge, the sticky substances hanging out in the microwave and corrupting the shelves, and the crumbs that have multiplied under seat cushions and taken up residence in corners.

But the deeper item here is that, just as many other Jewish rituals require some sort of re-enactment of an ancient event, this cleaning is representative of something else.  Just as we clean our homes, so too do we purify our spirits.  With the renewal of spring comes the renewal of our souls.

There are only 24 more cleaning days until Pesah.  Get a move on!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Israel Needs Your Perspective - Ki Tissa 5772

Earlier this week, I was at the annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and I heard United States Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, tell the following story:

Adlai Stevenson II, who was the American ambassador to the UN in 1961, defended the Bay of Pigs operation before the UN General Assembly, but during his speech delivered the following malapropism: “Castro has circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba.” This, the story went, prompted an Israeli diplomat to whisper to his Irish colleague, “I always knew that somehow we would be blamed for this.”

Ambassador Rice was one of a handful of high-level speakers that I heard in Washington.  Others included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and of course Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.  I missed President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, because I was teaching tefillah in the Religious School here at Temple Israel on Sunday morning, certainly an acceptable excuse, since the mitzvah of veshinantam levanekha, teaching your children the words of Torah, surely takes precedence over listening to politicians.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that any of the headline presentations that I heard were particularly enlightening, of for that matter, at all interesting.  And here’s why: they all delivered slight variations on the same theme:

1.  Iran must be prevented from building a nuclear weapon.
2.  All options are “on the table” to prevent Iran from doing so, including the use of force by the US.

It is true that Iran has nuclear capability and is most likely working on building nuclear missiles.  It is true that such weapons pose the gravest existential threat to the Jewish state.  It is true that Iran supports anti-Israel terrorism on multiple fronts, and of course it is true that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it a stated goal to “wipe Israel off the map,” and this should not be taken lightly.  As British neoconservative author Douglas Murray put it in a YouTube video that I saw yesterday morning, Iran is controlled by “leaders who deny one Holocaust while saying they want the next.”

Nobody believes that Prime Minister Netanyahu is crying wolf over the dangers that Iran poses. However, after hearing it for the second or third time, I began to wonder if  we are doing Israel any favors by presenting such a monolithic image of the threats facing Israel.


There are at least two instances in the Torah where God stands corrected.  That is, God is about to do something rash, and a human being challenges God to see things a different way.  One of them is in Parashat Ki Tissa, which we read this morning.  God is so angry about the molten calf that He tells Moshe that he is going to destroy all the Israelites and make a new nation from Moshe alone.  

But Moshe counters with the broader picture.  “Are You telling me, O Lord,” says Moshe (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “that You brought all these people out of Egypt just to schmeist them in the desert?  What will the Egyptians say?  What about Your promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, for that matter, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah?”  And God backs down, thanks to Moshe’s wider perspective.

If I had one single wish for the American Jewish community, it would be to have a wider perspective on the Jewish State.


Every now and then, I hear from a student or a parent that he or she is afraid of going to Israel, because of terrorism.  I always respond by pointing out that I have lived in Israel, and I go there regularly, and I have never had any reason to fear for my safety.  Israel is not a war zone; it is, in fact, much safer to be in Israel than it is in, let’s say, New York City, because in Israel, everybody is watching for suspicious activity or packages.  Statistically speaking, you are, in fact, safer in Israel than when you get into your car and drive on American streets.  Our perception of Israel as a dangerous place is clearly fed by the media, which zealously follow the maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  And that is exactly what terrorists want; that’s why they are called “terrorists.”

But to some extent, we, the Jewish community, reinforce that perception.

If you ask Israelis if the State of Israel is in imminent, mortal danger, they will say no.  If you ask if they are worried about terrorism, they will laugh at you, and then make insulting remarks about Americans to their friends.  My son is in Kitah Heh, fifth grade, in Nes Tziyyona, a half-hour south of Tel Aviv.  The State mandates that fifth graders receive training about what to do in case of various types of attacks, and some government folks came to his class last fall to do this training; most parents kept their kids home rather than subject their 10-year-olds to this.

Israelis are not living in bomb shelters, clutching rifles to their chests in trenches and eating their rations in the dark to avoid drawing enemy fire.  On the contrary, Israel is flourishing.  The economy is healthy; democracy is thriving; last summer’s tent protests notwithstanding, Israelis are living fairly well, especially when compared to most others in their geographic neighborhood.

There is no question that it is essential to prevent a nuclear Iran.  But the palette of Israel’s contemporary issues is far more complex.  Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, put it in his most recent blog post:
The matsav [the current political situation] is… not permitted to interfere with the joys, cares and satisfactions of daily life. Existential danger to the country, for everyone but soldiers on active duty, constitutes one more hassle one learns to handle. This is perhaps as it should be, or needs to be.
Israelis live with this matzav night and day, but they do not live according to it.  We in the Diaspora, by reinforcing the perception that Israel is besieged, be-bunkered and beleaugered, only strengthen the hands of those who seek to destroy it.


The AIPAC Policy Conference, held annually around this time in Washington, has grown tremendously in the past few years.  This was my fourth conference, and in the past few years the number of attendees has more than doubled.  There were over 13,000 people at this conference: older people and college students, religious and secular Jews, black and white Christians, clergy of all stripes, conservatives, liberals, and all of them proud Zionists.  In addition to the big-name political speeches, there are also many, many panel discussions and smaller presentations by journalists, academics, think-tank guys, and activists of all sorts.  It’s really an overwhelmingly impressive show of support for the Jewish state.

(Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the conference for me was a musical performance by the Israeli world-beat ensemble, the Idan Raichel Project.  If you are not familiar Mr. Raichel’s work, you should be; if you are interested, I will be glad to point out for you which albums to get.)

I truly feel that the work that AIPAC does is essential.  Israel needs the United States - for aid, for political and military support, for trade, and so forth.

Zealously protecting the alliance between the US and Israel is paramount to Israel’s future as the Jewish state.  AIPAC volunteer lobbyists work with every single member of the House of Representatives and Senate, and particularly with newly-elected members, to help them understand Israel’s history and matzav.  

But AIPAC’s mission by definition prevents it from addressing many other issues facing Israel.  In working hard to protect the US-Israel alliance, AIPAC follows the current Israeli government’s line, and Mr. Netanyahu seems to be only interested in Iran.  When the Prime Minister delivers a keynote address to 13,000 people and a fully-loaded press box and does not say the word “Palestinian” once, that is a lost opportunity.  What about the new realities on the ground in Syria and Egypt?  Yes, the breakout sessions addressed some of these things.  But there was no room in the major plenary sessions for anything other than Iran.

As such, we who are committed to the State of Israel have to look for other ways to discuss the issues facing Israel and the Israeli government, the ones that were absent in Washington.  The stalled negotiations with the Palestinians, for example.  And the following issues addressed by Chancellor Eisen further along in his blog post:
Will the State be ruled by the laws passed in the Knesset or by halakhah as interpreted by ultra-Orthodox “Torah sages”? Will soldiers wearing kippot obey orders from their commanders or their rabbis? Will Israeli public space be made to conform with Haredi convictions, a move that infringes particularly on the rights of women? (Buses segregated by gender with women forced to the back, streets divided down the middle like an Orthodox synagogue, women’s voices silenced within range of Haredi men’s hearing.)

These are all items with which we must be engaged.

A few weeks ago we hosted a program here at Temple Israel called Faces of Israel.  This was, in my opinion, one of the best Israel-related programs that we have had here.  The program featured a group of young Israeli adults from a variety of backgrounds speaking about their personal experiences, their struggles and successes, their challenges in the context of a vibrant, open society.  This was not meant to be a political program, although members of our community continuously tried to bring the guests back to political issues with leading questions.

Particularly moving was the story that one of the participants told, about the day that he had to choose between attending the wedding of a good friend and the funeral of another, who was killed in an operation on the border with Lebanon.  Such are the choices that Israelis face every day, between school, work, family, and service to the State.

This program was so human, so personal; it tapped into the nuances of daily existence, the same spectrum of human emotions that we all face.  When urged by the audience to speak about the matzav, one of the participants said, “You can’t achieve peace without talking to the other side.  At some point, they will have to trust us, and we will have to trust them.”

I support AIPAC, because it serves an essential role, one which no other pro-Israel organization can fulfill.  But our discussion of Israel must be much wider.

The State of Israel and the people of Israel (that is, us) must continue to be Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations.  If we allow any single threat to eclipse all other issues pertinent to the world stage, then we are committing a grave error of omission.  We are not merely Hitler’s victims or Haman’s would-be victims; we have a mandate from God to lead, to cast light where there is none, and to, in the words of the Psalmist, “baqesh shalom verodfehu,” seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15).

Perhaps the most poignant moment at the conference came at the end of Ambassador Rice’s address, when a roomful of rabbis and cantors from across American Jewry sang together the words of Psalm 133: Hineh mah tov umah na’im, shevet ahim gam yahad.  How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.

Next year, I hope that many of you will join me in Washington for the AIPAC Policy Conference.  But in the coming year, I hope that we will also seek out other ways to widen our perspectives on Israel, and engage with the complexity of Israeli life.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 3/10/2012.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

This is your Talmud. This is your Talmud on Purim. Any questions?

A wee bit of ancient Purim humor, courtesy of the Talmud (Megillah 7b):

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי 
Raba said: It is the duty of a man to cheer himself [with alcohol] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai."    
OK, so that's not the funny part, although it is notable as the original, classic example of a rabbi encouraging drunkenness.  Furthermore, it sets the stage for the following vignette:
רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי איבסום קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא
Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira joined together in a Purim feast. They became drunk, and Rabbah arose and cut Rabbi Zeira's throat.  On the next day, Rabbah prayed on his colleague's behalf and revived him.
The next year, Rabbah said, "Join me again for the Purim feast together."

Rabbi Zeira replied, "[No thanks, big guy.] A miracle may not take place every time."
We don't rely on miracles, especially when knives are involved.  Happy Purim!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Old-Fashioned RAM

Last week, at the suggestion of a friend, I deleted my Google search history (not that there was anything inappropriate there - only keywords under strict rabbinic supervision).  I had not even known that this record existed, but digging deeply into my account, I found that everything that I had electronically sought since August of 2007 was just sitting there in this history file.  It was a wee bit scary and vaguely fascinating, and then it was gone.  Perhaps.

We are witnesses to a paradigm shift with respect to memory.  Whereas our "permanent records" once contained only a few bytes of information, in the near future virtually everything about us will be readily available - where we were, who we were with, what we were thinking at the time, and so forth.

Judaism is essentially all about memory.  We read and study the Torah over and over, recalling stories that go back 3000 years and more, and making them come alive for the present day.  We celebrate holidays that invoke collective, national memory - tales of creation, revelation, and redemption.  We name our children after deceased relatives, renewing personal memories in the circle of life.  We endlessly recall the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, gone since 70 CE*, in liturgy and ritual.  And on and on.

The Shabbat right before Purim is called Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of "Remember!".  On it we read a passage from Deuteronomy that includes the commandment to remember Amaleq, the tribe from which Shushan's bad boy Haman descended, specifically to erase this tribe from global memory.  This is ironic, particularly since the book of Esther tells us that Haman and all of his sons were destroyed.  There have been no Amaleqites for perhaps 2500 years, and yet we continually remember to blot them out.

As technology redefines memory, we Jews will sail into this curious, unforgettable future using the same approach that we have always taken.  Our memories have kept us alive and sustained us for millennia, even when we remember so that the world may forget.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday evening, 3/2/2012.)

* CE = "Common era" - Jews prefer not to use the Christian formulation AD, or "anno domini," Latin for "in the year of our lord," i.e. Jesus.