We live in seemingly dark times, which is why more than ever, we need to bring light into our world.
It is easy to be afraid of the dark, to fear things that go bump in the night, because we can't see our surroundings. Instead, our imagination takes over so that everything around us is transformed into "danger." Fear is a natural response to danger, and we have a primal urge to protect our ourselves and our families from the dangers we can see, and from those hidden by the dark.
Terrorism spreads darkness in our world.
Terror attacks do more than kill people. The despicable horror of the acts themselves, in combination with the stealth that sometimes makes them difficult to anticipate (and therefore prevent), gets inside of our heads and feeds the darkest part of our imaginations. When we begin to act out of fear rather than out of principle, we begin to forget who we are.
We begin to accept the darkness.
Consider the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness. Never mind that with their own eyes they saw the Ten Plagues that brought Egypt to its knees. Never mind that they witnessed the parting of the Sea and walked through on dry land, and then saw the waters close over Pharaoh's chariots. Never mind that they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and felt the ground shake, and heard with their own ears the voice of God speak from on high. The fear felt by the Israelites was so profound that despite the horrors they knew of Egyptian slavery, and the miracles they personally witnessed, they could not embrace the Promise of a new future. Instead, they complained and rebelled over and over again. They began to accept the darkness. The generation that was freed from Egypt would not, could not, reach the Promised Land. Over forty years of wandering, a new generation needed to be born and to grow up, a generation that was not enslaved by their fear.
Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to violence. Violence leads to fear.
It takes courage to break this cycle, courage and faith. We must be brave enough to take risks in the face of our fear, and have faith that we can ultimately prevail.
Since the attacks in Paris last week, a new wave of fear is sweeping through the West. Here in the United States, this has been expressed as a backlash against accepting Syrian refugees. Why? Because we are afraid that cells of sleeper terrorists might be embedded among them.
We are beginning to accept the dark.
More than thirty sitting governors said that no Syrian refugees will be welcome in their states. The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday to freeze any further Syrian refugees from being granted asylum until some time in the future when the refugee resettlement program can be reevaluated (whatever that means). In my own neighborhood, in Western New York, where for years we have helped refugee populations from all over the world, some of our political leaders now want to close the gates and the county legislature is even considering a public referendum on whether or not to admit any refugees fleeing from Syria.
They are beginning to accept the dark.
We Jews know what happens when refugees are turned away. We know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. Our Jewish values teach us to welcome the stranger, and to care for the most vulnerable in society. This principle is so important that it is repeated no fewer than thirty-three times in the Torah. It is at the heart of who we are:
We are commanded to bring light into the darkness.
Closing our borders to refugees plays right into the hands of the terrorists. It is exactly the kind of response they are hoping for, because it creates a sense of alienation and resentment among those who are desperate for relief. By closing our borders, we not only reject our own values and principles, but we turn the very people who need us against us. We are helping the terrorists to create a new fertile recruiting ground for future rounds of violence.
All of the evidence suggests that there is no real danger to the United States from refugees, because each candidate for asylum is rigorously vetted through a two to three year process. According to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ("They Are Us," Nov. 19, 2015) of the 785,000 refugees admitted the States since 9/11 only three have been arrested on charges related to terrorism (and apparently they were out of the country). Kristof goes on to note that embedding a terrorist in the refugee population is far more difficult and time consuming than just sending them over on student visas, or as tourists from Europe (where they may already have citizenship). He asked pointedly if we should close our borders to foreign students and tourists?
As Jews we are commanded to bring light into the darkness. As Americans, immigration is central to our history and to the ethos of our great nation. Providing safety to those who flee oppression is a cornerstone of who we aspire to be.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Let us fight terror not with fear but with strength and with faith. Let us fight terror not only with weapons of war, but with ideas and values. Let us remember who we are and live by the principles that make us great. Let us demonstrate to those who have suffered horribly and have fled for their very lives, that here things are different, that the United States is truly a land with justice and liberty for all.
Let us fight darkness not with more darkness, but with light.
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.
I am an unabashed Zionist. I love the State of Israel. I love its people, its multiculturalism, its place at the center of the Jewish world. I love the values that drive so many Israelis, who face constant existential threats, to pour their energy into education, research, arts and culture and into providing aid all around the world in times of need. I love the sacred history that connects us to our ancient homeland, and I love the hope symbolized by the State of Israel as a safe haven for Jews in an increasingly dangerous world.
So it breaks my heart to see the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continue and intensify, and to see the loss, suffering and pain of both peoples.
I pray for peace, and I hope you do as well: peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. I pray for a peace that will allow us to live next to each other, with mutual respect and security, prospering together as neighbors, embracing not only our similarities but our differences, and reflecting the image of the Divine to each other. I offer my prayer as an expression of hope and faith - even as I worry that we are farther than ever from achieving that peace
The latest round of violence started because of tensions over the status of the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sarif. The Temple Mount (as it is called by Jews) is the single holiest site in the world for Jews because it is the place where both the First and Second Temples once stood. Muslims call the site al-Haram al-Sarif (the Noble Sanctuary) and have built both the Dome of Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque on its grounds. For them it is the third holiest site in the world, after Mecca and Medina.
Israeli law guarantees freedom of religion for all peoples, however, as a goodwill gesture towards Muslims, Israeli law also states that only Muslims may pray at the top of the Mount. This law has been scrupulously enforced since 1967, when Israel gained control over the Old City of Jerusalem. Please note that although it allows people of all faiths to visit, the law - passed by the Jewish State - prevents Jews from praying at our holiest of holy sites. It is an extraordinary concession that continues to be ignored not only by the Palestinians, but by the world.
Tensions increased over the summer, as the number of Jewish visitors to the site began to increase. Two groups of Palestinians organized separate campaigns on the Temple Mount to harass Jewish visitors. As a result, Israeli security forces banned those groups from entry to the Temple Mount.
Almost immediately, Palestinian leaders accused Israel of trying to take al-Haram al-Sarif away from the Muslims. According to one commentator, this is equivalent to walking into a movie theater and yelling "fire!". Never mind a proven history of Israel's commitment to the exact opposite, and a constant stream of assurances that the Israeli government remains committed to maintaining the status quo. The result has been a series of violent and often deadly attacks by Palestinians incited against Israelis. Israelis have, in turn, used force, sometimes lethal force, to defend against the attacks. Both sides continue to mourn their dead.
Here in Buffalo I mourn as well, and offer my prayer, feeble as it may be, in the hope that one day it will be answered:
For a Palestinian perspective on how to achieve peace, here a powerful article recently written by peace activist Bassem Eid:
For sixteen years, I've been using the same 2x4s to build our family sukkah. Over time they have weathered and warped, so much so that for the past few years our sukkah has started to bend and list. When the wind blows,. we know it, and this has been a particularly windy Sukkot! The rabbis call Sukkot 'zeman simchateinu' - the time of our rejoicing. We are supposed to enjoy our time in the sukkah, sharing the experience with friends and family. When the weather gets too wet we are required to go back inside our homes, because who likes being cold and wet?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches two things that we can learn from our time in the sukkah . First, the sukkah is a temporary and fragile structure. When we are in it, we are far more exposed to the elements than when we are inside our homes. The sukkah reminds us of the precious fragility of life. Second, we are to specifically make this a time of joy, because while this life may be fragile, it is all we have and it won't last forever. So why not make the best of it?
I love his insight. We spend most of our time living as if we are anything but fragile, and it's easy to understand why. Everything we have, everything we are, can disappear in a moment - even our very lives. If we dwell on our fragility, then we might be overcome with terrible anxiety. Yet, we have a choice. We can react to our many vulnerabilities with fear, or by trying to ignore them; or we can accept our fragility and celebrate the miracles that each new moment brings.
Here in Buffalo, we had an unusually cold and rainy week, and it severely limited our ability to spend time in our sukkah. There was a little window for a short visit on Friday and today, thank God, is beautiful! No matter how we might plan, we are not always in control, and with our wood warping a little more from each day in the rain, we have to make the most of what we have, both material and time.
Tonight we will celebrate Simchat Torah - the joy of Torah. On Simchat Torah we end and begin the annual cycle of reading Torah with dancing and with exuberant joy. Why is Simchat Torah attached to the conclusion of Sukkot? What possible connection could there be between living in a sukkah and celebrating the annual cycle of Torah? The sukkah is temporary, but the Torah is enduring. As we celebrate Simchat Torah let's remember that the sukkah may disappear, our lives may be fragile, but Torah (and God) are always with us, providing us with support and guiding us along the way. I like the sound of that, don't you?
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.
What is the meaning of the Shofar's blast?
Over the years I have encountered dozens and dozens of answers. Saadia Gaon, the 10th century head of the great rabbinic academy in Sura, actually gives ten separate authoritative meanings! In my estimation, the more answers we have to a question, the less we really know.
That said there is wisdom in these many answers, and each year we can discover something new. Today, I'd like share an interpretation that comes from the 16th century kabbalistic rabbi Isaac Horowitz, and I really love his teaching. Rabbi Horowitz observes that the shofar calls begin and end with a tekiah - a single whole blast. In the middle are the shevarim and teruah calls, both blasts broken into several separate notes. Rabbi Horowitz writes:
The theme of Rosh HaShanah: We begin whole. Along the path of life we become broken (through pain, mistakes, loss, failure, illness, weakness, etc). The end is whole - we will be whole again. There is hope. (Shnei Luchot HaBrit - the Two Tablets of the Covenant)
This is the purpose of the High Holy Days - to renew ourselves, to make ourselves whole again, and to learn from our past so that in the year to come, with God's help, will be better than the year that has passed. The final blast, the tekiah gedolah, is a single long note often held for as long as the shofar blower is able to sustain it. For me, this is a reminder that every little break we repair leads us one step closer to the messianic age, - the entire world as God envisioned it should be, unbroken and whole again.
Rabbi Netaniel Cadle offered a very different but equally intriguing explanation during our Selichot panel discussion. He observed that the shofar is really nothing special. It is the horn of an animal, either a ram or any other kosher animal except for bovines. We hollow it out and that's really it. Yet when we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah we experience holiness. Rabbi Cadle sees this (and also the Torah itself which is really nothing more than animal skin and ink from vegetable products) as emblematic of our ability to take anything in the world and make it holy. The blast of the shofar is a reminder to us of what we can do, and inspires us to build more holiness into this world.
For at least five years, our Western New York Jewish community has gathered on the evening of Selichot to worship and study together. The study section consists of a panel of rabbis, led by a moderator, who asks a series of questions based on a theme selected for that year. This year, I was honored to sit on a panel with Rabbi Perry Netter (conservative) and Rabbi Netaniel Cadle (orthodox) moderated by Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein (reconstructionist). Our theme was the sound of the shofar, and we were asked to describe what the shofar means to us, and if the sound changes as we move through the different sections of the shofar service.
These are incredibly thoughtful questions, and they provoked us to dig deep. I was moved by what my colleagues shared, and want to share some of their insights with you (along with a few of my own). However, that will come later. First I would ask you the question: What does the sound of the shofar mean to you? What do you hear when the shofar blasts?
A week ago I was privileged to march with the NAACP in rural South Carolina with my daughter Stephanie, a journey that took three days in all with travel time factored in. After a one day break, we left for another three-day trip -- this one to Canyon Ranch, a luxurious health spa in the Berkshires where I occasionally teach Mussar.
The contrast could not have been more stark. On the march I became part of a no-frills community walking in formation over a combined 867-miles. We marched peacefully to bring attention to the profound racial injustices that still permeate our nation. Most participants slept in churches or army barracks, and we were supported with food, water, medical care and police escorts to help us get through the day, Raising awareness of the problem can lead to a national change in mindset, and then we hope, to the change in policies we need to effectively make race-based economic, educational and political injustices things of the past.
At the far more exclusive Canyon Ranch I experienced the polar opposite. The guests, who were overwhelmingly white, were pampered (us included) and presented with an amazing array services and classes carefully designed to promote physical health and spiritual wellness. The focus was on the self rather than the community, and no effort was spared to provide a comfortable and relaxing stay.
Truth be told, both of these experiences are well outside the norms of my daily suburban life. I am sheltered from racial tensions and the plight of many American minorities. It's not a lack of caring, but rather, a lack of experience and awareness - I have not directly encountered the kinds of injustices that can define growing up black in America. I have benefited, without even knowing it, from white privilege.
Luxurious spa living is equally outside the realm of my middle-class suburban life. This kind of treatment is generally reserved for those with far greater means than my own! Moving from one end of the spectrum to the other in just a few days generated a real dissonance of perspective.
Yet oddly enough, these two seeming opposites may actually have something in common: they both seek to correct imbalances. The march seeks to correct a horrible imbalance on a national level while the spa focuses on a personal level outside the realm of politics. In an ideal world, we would have no need to seek for either kind of balance, because we would already be nationally, culturally, communally, socially and personally balanced. In the real world, we would do well to recognize that these different kinds of balance are interconnected, and that we cannot succeed in creating balance in any one of them without cultivating all of them. In an ideal world, we would not need justice marches, nor would there be a market for spas. In the real world, we need to reach out to each other, hold each other close, support each other and care for each other. We also need to care for ourselves, and let others reach out to us, hold us close and support us. The more we give and receive, the more balance we restore to our world, to our homes and to ourselves.
Co-Authored with Rabbis Judy Schindler and Ken Carr
The shofar was sounded, summoning us to join America's Journey for Justice sponsored by the NAACP -- a 40-day 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC. After a summer of racial tensions, church burnings in the South and murders in Charleston, close to 200 rabbis responded from all over the nation, each committed to march a one day leg of the journey.
We were privileged to be among the ten rabbis who joined today's march. We would march side by side with our congregants and with our partners from the NAACP both lay and professional. At the front was the American flag, the Torah (which each of us took turns carrying) and today the president of the NAACP Cornell William Brooks. We were escorted on both sides by police as we journeyed towards justice through rural South Carolina.
We encountered various reactions along our way. The march drew some opposition including a group of people gathered around the gas station to boo and catcall us. One man flew a confederate flag from his truck and drove back-and-forth following us through the day. However, for the most part those views were overshadowed by the smiles, support, waves, welcomes and warmth with which we were greeted.
One shop owner, Cody Weaver, was so distressed by the Confederate flags that were brought out just for us that she rushed ahead to her supermarket to chop up some salad and cook some hot dogs so that we would all be well fed. She nourished not only our bodies but our spirits.
As we shared meals and miles, we strengthened our bonds and our commitment to our common cause. We listened to each other's struggles and shared our stories. Now we return to our respective cities inspired and determined to bring the journey for justice home.
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