Filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand has spent almost forty years photographing the world to better understand our planet. Recently, he dedicated three years to create a new project: "Human." The scope of "Human" is breathtaking. He and his team traveled to sixty countries and spoke with 2000 different people, recording their stories on film. Each story is a precious gift, a window into the meaning of human life and death: our struggles, our loves, our pain, our triumphs.
Francine Cristophe is a French Jew who, as a child in 1944, was interred in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Do yourself a favor, watch and listen as she tells her story.
She's worth it,
and so are you.
For more stories
and information on "Human"
please click on the photo
The story is legendary, and seemingly simple. Cain and Abel are brothers, the children of Adam and Eve. They offer sacrifices to God, but because Abel offers his best to God and Cain does not, God only accepts Abel's sacrifice. In a fit of anger or jealousy (we're not sure which) Cain kills his brother and then lies to God about it, famously asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9)
Look more closely at the story, however, and another frame emerges. "In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to God from the fruit of the soil; and Abel for his part brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock." (Genesis 4:3-4)
God doesn't ask for a sacrifice, but after a period of time, Cain decides to show some gratitude and respect. There are no instructions, there is no established practice of rights and wrongs, just the idea - and Cain decides to invent a new thing we now call 'offering a sacrifice.' Abel, possibly seeing what Cain is doing is moved to do the same, but improves upon Cain's idea by choosing to offer not just anything, but his very best.
I can imagine Cain's indignation. It was his idea! Abel stole it and then beat Cain at his own game!
God speaks directly to Cain, to reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. If Cain tries again and offers his best, then God will accept his sacrifice as well, but, if he instead chooses to not do his best, then "sin will crouch at the door" (Gen. 4:7).
Perhaps Cain was too upset, but regardless of his reason, he ignores God's advice. Instead of making a second, better offering (not to be confused with offering his second-best), he chose to kill his brother. In other words, he put the blame on his brother, not on himself, and acted to eliminate his competition. He was wrong, even if we can sympathize with his pain, and he paid a terrible price..
We can derive two lessons from this. First, life is not a race, and success is predicated, at least in part, on learning from each other. We don't need to be first to succeed. Second, and I think more importantly, we have the ability to choose how we respond to adversity. We can do as Cain did, and blame (or even harm) others when we don't bring our best; or we can learn from Cain's tragic mistake and strive to always bring our best.
Reading this story seemed strangely and uncomfortably familiar. Far too many of us act more like Cain than Abel, and this seems especially true in politics - where it is common practice to be say little and do less, and make sure to blame the other guy (or gal) for what is wrong in the world. Imagine what would happen if, in our personal lives and in our political discourse, we all tried to be less like Cain and more like Abel.
A new symbolism for the lulav and etrog: what if these four species of Israel represented the four largest streams of Judaism? If so, then on Sukkot all Jews - Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist - all are symbolically gathered together as one family. Why not? We all worship the same God and study the same Torah - we are all b'nei Yisrael. Sure we each understand and live Judaism in our own different ways, but wouldn't be great if on Sukkot we were reminded with every shake of the lulav that, in the end, we are all in the same booth?
(Based on my Erev Shabbat sermon about parashat Ha'azinu delivered on 9/25/15)
This Shabbat, poised as we are between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we read Ha'azinu, Moses' final speech before he dies. Ha'azinu is Biblical poetry at its best, and in the fourth verse Moses triumphantly proclaims:
The Rock! - His deeds are perfect,
The poetry, especially in the original Hebrew, is sublime; yet the content of this verse is challenging. If God's deeds are perfect and God's ways are just, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? How can a just God tolerate such injustice! Rabbinic commentators provide a number of possible answers, most of which fall into one of two 'buckets.' The first group takes the approach of theological humility: how could mere humans understand what God understands? We cannot but have a narrower view, and what may seem unjust in the moment may be necessary for the ultimate establishment of some greater justice. It's very hard to argue against this position, because we don't know what we don't know, no matter how much we may think otherwise.
That said, a significant number of commentators take a very different approach. They ask, why blame God for our troubles? The world is broken because we, humanity, have broken it! So it is up to us, not to God, to set things right.
I don't usually do this, but for some reason I logged onto Facebook just before heading down to the synagogue this evening. And what did I find? A post from a colleague and classmate of mine, Rabbi Joseph Meszler, who serves a congregation not far from Boston. What caught my eye was a photograph he shared unlike any I had seen before. Apparently, Rabbi Meszler went into Boston and purchased some signs from homeless people. You know, the kind that ask for help. He purchased them so that he could bring them back and hang them in their congregational sukkah.
Wow! This really took my breath away.
During Sukkot we are commanded to live in our sukkah, a fragile, temporary structure that evokes our wandering through the Wilderness. It is simultaneously a time of joy (Yom Kippur is behind us and we are on our way to the Promised Land), and a reminder of the fragility of life. Until this year, I framed sukkot as a farming or nature holiday, our chance to reconnect with Creation. I also focused on how generous God is to give us a world with absolutely everything we need not only to live, but to thrive. I continue to understand sukkot in both of these ways, but this year we can add another beautiful layer of understanding - one with practical implications!
The intersection of Ha'azinu and Rabbi Meszler's sukkah post reminds us that there are many people in our midst for whom life in a sukkah would represent a step up. Each sukkah we enter should serve as a reminder that we are not secure until all of us are secure, and that the Promised Land is not just about geography.
Here in Buffalo, I can think of a half-dozen organizations that provide support to the homeless, all within walking distance of our synagogue. Jewish Family Services, right here in this building, operates a refugee resettlement program and needs help setting up apartments. Wherever we live, we are surrounded by opportunities to make a difference, and we are all capable of more than we realize. This sukkot as we shake the lulav in our sukkah we will symbolically orient our hearts, backbones, lips and eyes towards God. May we be shaken as well. Let's take on one additional commitment to help fight homelessness or hunger or poverty, or to help settle a refugee. Let's start this week. before the end of sukkot, but let's continue after the festival ends. Let's not just symbolically orient ourselves towards God, let's live our values.
Hag Sameach! May this sukkot be filled with meaningful acts of loving kindness, so that we can truly celebrate with joy.
Today is Tu B’Av, a day for lovers in Jewish tradition, a day filled with weddings! Tomorrow morning for Shabbat we will chant the Shema and V’ahavta from parashat Va’Etchanan, the quintessential passage from Torah about our love for God.
It makes sense that both of these happen soon after Tisha B’Av, our painful commemoration of many of the worst tragedies that our people have faced throughout our history, and survived. We must acknowledge our pain, andlet ourselves grieve, but then we must pick ourselves up and embrace life. Grief, anger and pain cannot be the building blocks of our lives, or of our civilization. Rather, light should follow darkness, and our response to our suffering should be love. For us, that is the purpose of this time, the cultivation of love for each other and for our God.
We were heartbroken by the news from our beloved Israel this morning of several heinous acts of hatred and murder committed by extremists who are also Jews. Yesterday, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem. This very same man attacked marchers at the 2005 Pride parade, and was just released from prison.
Then, at four o’clock the next morning, two Palestinian homes were firebombed in the West Bank village of Douma. The words “Long live Messiah the King” and “Revenge” were painted on the walls. An 18-month old baby was burned to death, and his 4-year old brother and both parents are in the hospital, his mother in critical condition, burns covering most of their bodies. The language on the wall makes it clear that people who claim to be religious also committed these crimes.
We condemn these senseless acts of violence and terror, and repudiate their perpetrators. They have cultivated hatred in place of love, and have chosen destruction, assault and murder as a result. We are outraged by their twisted acts, mourn for the dead, and sit in solidarity with the victims. They DO NOT represent Judaism or the Jewish people, and in committing these crimes they have violated us all.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded to love God, but just before that we are commanded to listen, with the Shema. Love begins with listening, with allowing room for another (whether it is God or a person or group of people) in our lives. We cannot commit violence against anyone we love; violence requires disassociation, the separation of ourselves from the other. We all have been suffering for far too long, and the cycle of hate and violence is only repeating and intensifying. And it is not just in Israel – racial tensions continue to grow here in the United States.
Without listening to each other, we will never be able to heal. Without healing, we will never be able to love. Without love, we will have no future.
Shema Yisrael! Listen O Israel! Let us love God with all of our hearts, our strength and our souls! And let us begin today – not tomorrow – with love for each other.
Yesterday I received a synagogue voice message from a woman named Rose, who found a Starbucks card in front of a supermarket with my name on it. She explained that she knew how valuable these cards are, because she has one herself. As I was the only Gary Pokras she could find, she asked me to let her know if the card was indeed mine.
What a wonderful act of kindness! This lovely human being went way out of her way to help a total stranger.
As it turns out, the card was mine. I called her back, and left her a message of gratitude, letting her know that I would be happy to meet at her workplace so that she would not have to go any further effort to return it to me. This morning I received another message from her. It was already in the mail. You see, she was leaving for a week's vacation and did not want me to have to wait.
There was a time when is was fashionable to talk about random acts of kindness. A whole movement developed out of this concept, encouraging us to look for random and unexpected opportunities to do a kind deed. It felt great to perform these random acts, but do you know what feels even better? Daily acts of kindness. Do we really think that "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is about occasional or random behavior?
Rose was not doing a random act. She was clearly operating from a deeper place. If we could all do the same, if we could all go out of our way to act with kindness and compassion every single day, then we would truly be bringing the Levitical commandment to life, loving each other as ourselves. Compared to most of our experience, THAT would be ... unexpected.
Va'Etchanan is a real 'block buster' Torah portion, in that it contains both the reprise of the Ten Commandments and the Shema - our most profound statement of faith. In this video for Rosner's Domain, Shmuel Rosner asks a wonderful question from the parasha: can we really be commanded to love God?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras