“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him….”

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lady-liberty-cryingIt has been ten days since our 45th president has been sworn into office, and already he has enacted many executive orders. One of his first ones was his pledge to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. In another he ordered punishments for cities shielding illegal immigrants, and in a third an order to block entry of refugees from war-torn Syria and suspend the entry of any immigrants from Muslim-majority  Middle Eastern and African countries Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen. These and other directives have led to mass protests, fear, and sleepless nights for many Americans.

Surely, the safety and security of our nation must be ensured. But what are our obligations to society’s most vulnerable members? The book of Exodus has this to say: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. The Bible appreciates how common it is for people to take advantage of society’s weakest, most marginal members, and fears that an appeal to sympathy alone would be insufficient to motivate people to act sensitively. It thus adds a “kicker” to the second of these commandments, warning those who mistreat widows and orphans that “your own wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:23)  Concerning strangers, the Bible claims that they are the sole category of people whom God is identified as loving. “And God loves the stranger.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

Because Jews have historically been subjected to frequent expulsions, we are all too familiar with the need for help getting settled in a new community and with the reciprocal imperative to provide aid to others. Ample precedent in our historical experience make many Americans feel sympathetic to those in need of a new home due to persecution. We need to look no further than the tragedy of the Holocaust to understand that peoples’ lives are lost when refugees who are fleeing for their lives are refused sanctuary –and that every day counts. Who can remain silent at the images of Jewish and other men, women and children who were turned away while attempting to flee Nazi Germany?  Whose heart does not stir when we read or song Emma Lazarus’ poem affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” For us Americans, the sentiment in favor of immigration also grows from the undeniable fact that the United States, the greatest experiment in pluralism in history, has gained tremendously and continues to benefit from the economic and cultural contributions of immigrants from all over the world.

There are more than thirty references in the Bible related to loving the strangers. The frequency of the command suggests that strangers and foreigners must have had a difficult time finding acceptance in society, as is often the case today. The Bible gives an explicitly stated reason for the commandment to love the stranger, calling on the Israelite’s compassion: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In this way, the Israelites are told to be empathetic to all strangers, since they themselves were strangers in Egypt for many centuries.

I am proud to be a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, an organization that has advocated that our government maintain its proud legacy of welcoming refugees and provide meaningful opportunity to all who seek asylum. In addition, it calls on our government to reject policy proposals that would halt or limit or curtail funding for refugee resettlement in the U.S or prioritize certain refugees over others.

One of the most eloquent statements about the value of human life comes from a very odd source: the admonition administered by ancient Jewish courts to witnesses testifying in capital cases. In addition to the expected warnings against perjury, the judges offered a commentary on why God originally populated the world with only one person, Adam. “To teach you,” the witnesses were warned, that “whoever destroys one life is considered by the Torah as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Each human life has infinite value, and we cannot stand idly by when we see something that we know is just not right. The long and historical Jewish involvement in human rights and civil rights movements—even in those societies where Jews already have had equal rights—is an outgrowth of this 3000 year old reminder from the Bible, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We cannot stand idly by. We must lift our voices against injustice and in support of our core Jewish and American values.  We must financially support the organizations and individuals who stand up for these core values and for justice.  As Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

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“REMEMBER THE PAST, LIVE THE PRESENT, TRUST THE FUTURE”

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As we approach the threshold of the New Year, I have been reading many predictions about what 2017 may have in store for us and the world. But is it really wise to try to predict the future?  The future has been defined as something that everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever one does, whoever one is. But there has always been a vast curiosity to know the future before we get there.

Every day millions of Americans read their astrological horoscopes in the newspaper to learn what the planets have in store for them. Astrology is a popular occupation in America today, in which thousands of people are employed full time. We consult the stars, palm readers and crystal balls in an effort to part the curtain that veils the future.  I once saw a cartoon in which a young girl was reading her diary to her friend.  The girl commented: “This is one book where I wish it were possible to peek in the back and see how it all comes out.”

Even Jacob in the Bible, third patriarch of the Jewish people, attempted for a fleeting moment to unravel the secrets that are hidden in the womb of time. As he lay on his deathbed, he gathered his children and said to them: “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” (Genesis 49:1)

As we read further into the story, however, there are no predictions of things to come. And the rabbinic sages point out that although Jacob wanted to foretell the future, the Divine Presence departed from him. God apparently did not want the future to be revealed. But what was God’s reasoning?

If you and I knew what was going to happen tomorrow and the day after and on all the days to come, wouldn’t life lose much of its zest and excitement? A terrible boredom might even set in as we mechanically play out the roles that have been predetermined and foretold for us. And if we knew in advance the disappointments and broken dreams and sorrows that awaited us, could we find the courage to even venture into the future at all?

But the most compelling reason no one can predict the future is that the future does not actually exist. According to Judaism, we all have the freedom of will to determine the shape of tomorrow by what we do today.

The American historian James Truslow Adams put his finger on the truth when he said that while an astronomer can predict precisely where every star will be at 11:30 tonight, he can make no such predication about his young daughter.

What the future has in store for us depends largely on what we place in store for the future. Only our actions — not the stars nor the cards — will determine the shape of things to come.

Several years ago, I read a quote on a wall in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv that has greatly influenced the way I live my life. The quote was attributed to an anonymous survivor of a World War II German concentration camp.

“REMEMBER THE PAST, LIVE THE PRESENT, TRUST THE FUTURE”

Our lives are enriched when we recall and honor the past and those who came before us, when we live each day to its fullest and do as much good as we can, and when we have faith in the future.

 May the coming year bring you happiness and fulfillment, health and well-being, tranquility and peace.

Nurturing dew

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leaf-with-dewdropsEmphasis on the importance of education dates back to Bible times. The Israelites were commanded again and again to study all of the laws and commandments, and by the rabbinic era learning and study had come to be regarded as so important that the injunction to study came be regarded as more important than all of the other commandments. Scholars were considered the elite of society, exercising authority in many community activities.

The teacher-student relationship always has been sacred. Students may bring out the best in teachers, just as teachers bring out the best in students. Each owes the other respect and loyalty. The ancient rabbis considered a teacher the most exalted person in a student’s life, worthy of even greater honor than a parent. The rabbis advised people that one of the most important life tasks is to acquire a master teacher (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6).

Teaching is central to my rabbinate. One of my major goals as a rabbi (the word actually means “my teacher” in Hebrew) is to seek and take advantage of “teachable moments” in all of my interactions – in all places and with all people. From preschoolers to seniors, from classroom to conversations at the supermarket, there are always opportunities for me to learn and to teach.

Learning together has resulted in strong enduring relationships with many of my students, which are among the most meaningful connections in my life.  This past weekend two women who had been my students since they were in preschool at our synagogue planned a vacation weekend down the Jersey shore in Wildwood, NJ where I now serve as part-time rabbi – just to spend time with me and my wife!  They joined us for worship services on Friday evening and Saturday morning and for Sabbath dinner at our house, where we reminisced about our nearly three decades of learning together.  They amazed and touched us with their many memories of shared learning experiences, specific exchanges in Hebrew High classes, and the impact of small interactions during class trips and other shared experiences.

There is a Yiddish song that I often sing with my music therapy patients at Stein Jewish Hospice. It is sometimes known as “Der Rebbe haute geheisen freilach zein.” The song prescribes the way to make a rabbi happy — including a recipe for the kind of beverage to serve him. This weekend our students offered us a different recipe for happiness – the gift of a very special Shabbat filled with joy, laughter, memories and new learning together!

A Talmudic rabbi and teacher once wrote that the teaching of a competent teacher is dispersed like the dew, nurturing and rejuvenating all that it touches. May you all experience the joy of special connections with your teachers and students – and thereby spreading mutual learning like the nourishing dew.

Go Cubs, Go!

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Although I am a long-time Yankee fan, I am very pleased the two teams in this year’s World Series are giving their fans something they have not seen in many decades. For the Cubs, it has been 108 years since they last won a World Series, and for Cleveland a mere 68 years.   Admittedly I am rooting for the Cubs for a number of personal reasons. My son-in-law’s dad was a successful congregational rabbi in a Chicago suburb for 25 years, and everyone in the family (including my two grandkids) are staunch Cubbie fans.  My son and daughter-in-law who now live in Chicago are surely fans.  In fact, they attended Game 5 of the series!

Two interesting newspaper articles about the Cubs recently caught my eye – because they put an interesting Jewish spin on the Cubs story and contained important life lessons.  In his New York Times article entitled “The Cubs Reach the Promised Land” Rich Cohen, who attended his first Cubs game in 1975, compared the Cubs to the Hebrews, wandering for decades in the wilderness. Moses understood that it would take a new generation to claim the Promised Land.  For the Cubs, that new generation has finally arrived with the team making its first World Series appearance in 71 years.

Ardent Cubs fans have continued to support their team year after year, even though it meant faithfully choosing a constant loser over a winner. Rich Cohen writes of a Cubs female fan as being Ecclesiastical.  “Among all other spectators, only she understood the truth: Life is vanity; Come October we’ll be watching the Bears.” Like Moses, Rich Cohen has waited 40 years, and is hoping not only to reach the Promised Land, but to enter into its holy space.

Just today, The Jewish Forward featured an article about the team’s theme song “Go Cubs Go,” which has been played at Wrigley Field after every home victory since 2007, as the grounds crew raises the white “W” (WIN!) flag. The song was composed by Steven Goodman, a Chicago singer and songwriter who died of leukemia in 1984 at age 36, just a few days before he was scheduled to sing the national anthem at the Cub’s first-ever appearance in the National League playoffs. Goodman grew up in Chicago and was a high school classmate of fellow Cubs fan Hillary Clinton.

Four years after Goodman’s death, his brother David and friend Harry Waller snuck into Wrigley Field (bribing a groundskeeper with a $20 bill) and scattered his ashes over left field, just as Goodman had written in the song: “Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow/From the prevailing 30-mile-an-hour southwest wind… and I will come to my final resting place, out on Waveland Avenue.” Goodman’s wife Nancy and their three daughters scattered the rest of his ashes in Doubleday Field outside the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The Cubs never made it to the World Series in Goodman’s lifetime, but he never lost faith that someday it would happen. In 1981 he wrote “A Dying Cub’s Fan’s last Request.” Ever optimistic, he always introduced the song by telling the audience: “The Cubs are liable to screw it up and win so I can’t sing this song anymore.”

My big take-away from these articles:  If not this year in the Promised Land, there’s always next year.  You’ve just gotta have faith!   Go Cubs!!!

May your merits be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate…

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pomegranateThe pomegranate, known for its health benefits, is one of my wife’s favorite fruits.  She not only enjoys eating them raw, but also has some amazing recipes for cooking with them, including pomegranate chicken, one of her signature dishes. Over the years we have amassed a collection of over 100 pomegranates and pomegranate-related objects, including framed Rosh Hashanah New Year’s cards, ceramics  and plaques, bowls of dried pomegranates,  and even U.S. stamps depicting pomegranates. My wife has pomegranate-shaped jewelry including a beautiful pomegranate necklace that I bought in Safed and a copper pomegranate bracelet from our children. Once, we came upon a pomegranate coffee table in a furniture store with unique items – but felt it might be “over the top” even for us!

One custom associated with the Jewish New Year is eating symbolic foods.  The most well-known custom is eating apples dipped in honey, demonstrating our wishes for a sweet new year.  Many practice the custom of eating foods that serve as good omens or hints of blessing as we end one year and enter into the next one. A Talmudic rabbi named Abaye suggested that serving these symbolic foods as we begin the new year will bring about a positive judgment in God’s court on high., Foods that either have a quick growth cycle or a particularly sweet taste (such as leeks, gourds, beets and dates) are particularly popular. The ancient rabbis added other symbols, including the head of an animal or a fish, implying that we should be at the head of the line for good merits, and sweet beverages. Some people eat carrots (mehren in Yiddish which is similar to the Yiddish word mehr or more) connoting that we hope to receive more blessings.

But for me, the most evocative symbol of the new year is the pomegranate, with its tough red outer skin and spongy web of inner pulp with many seeds. As a child in Religious School I was taught that each pomegranate contains 613 seeds — which just happens to be the exact number of mitzvot/commandments we count in the Torah.  [Surprisingly, there is actually scientific data supporting the finding that on average, pomegranates actually DO have 613 seeds.]

According to The Code of Jewish Law “we are accustomed to eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah and we recite: May our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate.”  Further, a verse in the Song of Songs (4:43) states “your cheek is like a pomegranate.” This is a play on words. The Hebrew word for cheek, rakateich has a root similar to the Hebrew word rake which means empty. The analogy implies that even empty ones (i.e. people who might otherwise be considered to have no merits at all) are truly filled with virtues, just as a pomegranate is filled with seeds, but those virtues are merely hidden behind a tough skin.  This reminds us to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  How often do we rush to judge others based on their outward appearance?  How often do we miss the opportunity to gain benefits from taking the time to get to know their inner nature?

As we enter the New Year of 5777, may our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate, and may we learn to focus on the sweetness and goodness that lies beneath the surface in every living being.  Wishing you a New Year of peace, prosperity and sweetness!

Stepping Forward into the New Year

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A02JAAWhen I was young I enjoyed taking long walks. It all started in High School when I had a four mile round trip trek to my school. There was something special about walking one mile to my close friend’s home and then continuing to walk together with him to school. I also enjoyed taking walks along a trail in a forest near my home.  My journey to becoming more Jewishly observant began around the age of 13 prior to my Bar Mitzvah, when I began to walk to my synagogue rather than drive to synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath.  Over the past 12 years, after I moved into my “new” home about a mile from the synagogue, I have genuinely enjoyed walking to services with my wife. The aerobic exercise left me exhilarated and inhaling the clear air gave me added strength and vitality. I and my golden retriever enjoy our daily walks, and the opportunity to check out the neighborhood and all the new sights and smells.  I even prefer to take the steps rather than the elevator when I make my pastoral ronds at hospitals and nursing homes.

In the area where I live there are few sidewalks, and therefore few walkers. Despite this lack, I marvel at several people in my neighborhood who over the years have continued to make walking part of their daily routines.  I see them at about the same time each day whenever I drive past them on a relatively busy street on my way to meetings or errands. There is a gentleman with a cane who takes a long walk to the local library, a husband and wife who walk each day (he with a long beard and pony tail and she dressed as if she were going to the Woodstock festival) and another couple who always don safari type hats as one walks behind the other.

Every parent knows that a child’s first step is a landmark event. After quite a number of months that halting step develops into a sturdier gait. Toddlers eventually become walkers, opening the door to more independence.

Strange as it seems, modern people (especially in the suburbs) seem to walk as little as possible. Few would choose to walk even a half mile to a friend’s house. Moving walkways now whisk us through airports and elevators and escalators lure us away from stairways. Walking still doesn’t get the respect it deserves, either for its health benefits or its role in recreation and mental health. There are lots of health benefits to walking, including improvement of mood, strengthening bones, improving balance, and affording time for contemplation and seeing the sites.

The first time that walking is mentioned in the Bible is with reference to Enoch and Noah. Both Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Noah (Genesis 6:9) “walked with God.” This phrase is often interpreted to mean that they were God’s partners and that both Noah and Enoch shared God’s values. The term is also expressive of a life that each spent in full accord with God’s will and in closest intimacy with God.

As I write my Thoughts we are less than one week away from celebrating our New Year of Rosh Hashanah. I wish you a year filled with joy, blessing, peace, fulfillment and good health. I hope that you will step forward into the New Year with hope and optimism, and that you will walk on paths that bring you exhilaration, strength and vitality.

Look what I found…

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I just got back from our annual August family vacation in Cape May – a tradition of more than two decades. One day on the beach this year I saw a distraught man who was searching in the surf.  He and a friend called out to anyone in earshot that he had just lost a $400 pair of glasses – and that he could barely see without them.  He stood knee deep with the waves crashing around him, hoping against hope for the glasses to appear.

I decided to take action, knowing how it feels to lose something valuable. My approach was to sit on the sand and wait for the waves to crash onto to the beach, and hopefully to wash his glasses to shore along with the seashells and other debris. About four minutes into my search a pair of glasses did wash ashore, but by the time I rose to retrieve them, they were sucked back into the water. I was determined to continue my search.  As I scanned the shore, the same pair of glasses washed up on the sand – but this time I was able to reach them in time to retrieve them. The gentleman could not believe his good fortune when I brought him the glasses.  He thanked me profusely, and I returned to my beach chair, smiling brightly to share the story with my family.

We learn from the book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 22: Verses 1-3) that if one comes upon another person’s animal who has gone lost you should try to find its rightful owner and return the animal. The Bible goes on to say that if you find someone’s garment or any lost article you must try to find its owner and return it to him or her.  Returning lost objects is one of the 613 mitzvot (religious obligations) in the Torah. Even if we find a bundle of money lying in the street, we are required to seek out the owner and return it. The Torah even admonishes: “You shall not hide yourself from it” – which means we do not the option of ignoring the situation and continuing on our merry way.

Jewish law even proclaims that if one finds an item and no one comes to claim the item and one cannot find the rightful owner, one must hold onto it “until Elijah the Prophet himself comes [to announce the coming of the Messiah]” and identifies the rightful owner. (i.e., you cannot give up trying to find that owner!)

There is a story in the Talmud (Taanit 25a) that tells the story of how chickens once strayed into the backyard of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Hanina thus became obligated to care for the chickens until an owner could be found. The chickens laid eggs which hatched into little baby chicks, and soon Rabbi Hanina had more chickens than he could handle. He decided to trade in the chickens for goat, and by the time a person did come to stake his claim, there was a goat herd.  Rabbi Hanina was obliged to give him the whole goat herd.

The story of the lost glasses reminds me of my days at Camp Ramah, a summer camp in the Poconos. At the end of the week the Camp Director would stand in the front of the dining room with a box all of the lost items of campers/ counselors.  She would say (in Hebrew) that she was prepared to fulfill the religious obligation of returning lost property. Then, she would hold up each lost item, piece by piece, and eventually a camper would stand and go forward to reclaim it. There would be roaring applause in the dining room for each retrieval.  This memory is forever imbued in my memory.

So the next time you find something, why not go the extra distance and try to see if you can return it to its rightful owner. Or if you come across someone who is searching, take time to join in their search.  I can assure you, it will make you feel so good.  And, it’s a mitzvah.