Friday, August 30, 2019

A Storm is Brewing ... But Not the One as Advertised

As an aside, contrary to several articles, Rockland is not an hour away from NYC (unless you're taking traffic into consideration. And we are certainly not Upstate. Rockland is a NW suburb of NYC about 25 min north as the crow flies. It It is also the southern most county of the state with the largest percentage of Jews of any county in the country.

On Wednesday the Rockland County Republican Party released the a deeply disturbing video on social media. Though it was taken down by Thursday though you can still find it on YouTube While showing images of the ultra-Orthodox community with ominous music in the background the video proclaims, “What’s at stake? Our homes, our families, our schools, our communities, our water[1], our way of life … if they win we lose … a storm is brewing in Rockland.” The video is filled with antisemitic tropes but defended under the guise of “overdevelopment.”

On Tuesday in Lincoln Terrace Park in Crown Heights, Abraham Gopin, a Chasid, was attacked while exercising. A young man approached him, shouted an antisemitic slur before hurling a large paving stone at Gopin. He knocked out Gopin’s front teeth and fractured his nose. 

As Eli Steinberg wrote for the Forward, “You’ve all heard the story: A Haredi Jew violently assaulted in broad daylight somewhere in New York City. It happens so often now, with what is almost a chilling regularity, it’s virtually impossible to miss. According to the NYPD, anti-Semitic hate crimes have skyrocketed in the past year; the 145 complaints so far in 2019 alone are sharply up from 88 in that same time frame a year earlier — a year which itself saw a 22% increase from 2017.”[2]

Thankfully the Rockland County video was condemned not only by New York’s Attorney General, but also by the Republican Jewish Coalition. Unfortunately this is not usually the case. The rise in antisemitic attacks in New York are called out by the Orthodox community, but rarely discussed in the non-Orthodox world. Trump’s questioning of Jewish loyalty is called out by the left, while Tlaib’s questioning of Jewish loyalty is called out by the right. 

Sadly, antisemitism is becoming an increasingly partisan issue, while being excused if one supports the politician or party of the person spewing the hate. Antisemitism is antisemitism, and it must be called out and condemned regardless of who is speaking it. To all politicians I say, stop using Jews and/or Israel to further your political ambitions. Your use of us, only further endangers us from those who would seek us harm. 

Back to the video, are there bad actors in the Orthodox community? Absolutely. Is overdevelopment a cause of major concern, certainly. However, these issues need to be challenged through all appropriate legal channels. Laws, regulations and rules must be enforced. Rockland Clergy for Social Justice is one such organization fighting on behalf of the students of East Ramapo School District. Among the members of this organization are a number of Rockland rabbis, myself included. 

In contrast to the video, there are ways to challenge frustrating developments in Rockland County without putting a target on the back of Jews writ large. It is one thing to challenge the actions of a person. It is another to indict a whole community. Anger towards Jews leads to violence towards all Jews. For as we know, when one Jew is assaulted simply for being Jewish, we all become targets to be assaulted. Lest we forget, the communities that were attacked in Pittsburgh and Poway were not, for the most part, Orthodox communities.

The Rockland Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education recently welcomed back to Rockland Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Dr. Lipstadt’s new book Antisemitism: Here and Now, confronts the reality of modern day antisemitism. I plan on speaking more about it at our upcoming High Holy Day services. Needless to say, there are ancient tropes being resurrected by all sides for political, social, educational, and geographic reasons, to name a few.

We have an obligation to ourselves and our brethren to call out antisemitism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. Or to borrow from that disturbing video, “if (anti-Semites) win, we lose.”

[1]The virulent accusation of Jews poisoning the wells dates back to the early middle ages. It is a trope that sadly has never gone away, and many Jews have been murdered after being accused of poisoning the water of a local community. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What's in a Name?

Each week one of the clergy team at our congregation sends out a brief D'var Torah to the congregation. Here is the one from this past Shabbat:

Much of the book of Genesis focuses on origin stories. This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is no different. It tells us of God commanding Abram to take his wife Sarai and leave behind all that he knows to go to a land that God will show him. Abram does this. The Torah does not tell us why God picked Abram. Instead we turn to the rabbis, who created a midrash which teaches us that when Abram was young, he worked in his father Terah’s idol shop. When left alone one day, Abram decided to destroy all of the idols because he believed only in one God. He found the whole notion of idolatry to be abhorrent,[1] and he explained as such when his furious father uncovered what had transpired.

However, there is a hint as to why Abram may have been chosen that can be found directly in the Torah. A little later in Lech Lecha there is a description of an ongoing war of five kings against four (Genesis 14). Suffice it to say, without getting into all of the specifics, Abram becomes involved in this battle because the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah kidnap his nephew Lot. 

“A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew (ivri).”[2] Scholars have been unable to ascertain the origins of the word ivri, though there is a scholarly theory that it is related to the word Habiru. As the Plaut Torah Commentary notes, “During the 19th to 14th centuries B.C.E., a class of people known as Habiru lived in the Fertile Crescent. They may originally have come from Arabia and may have been related by family ties; they became prominent in Mesopotamia and after spread out all the way to Egypt.”[3]

In this sense, being identified as an ivri meant one was an outsider but an outsider of significance. This would explain why people like Jonah introduced himself as an ivri to the sailors when they asked him to identify himself.[4]

The term Ivri could also be related to the name Ever, Noah’s grandson of whom Abram is related. But my favorite explanation is that “the word ivri is said to be derived from ever, meaning ‘on the other side of,’ or ‘beyond.’ According to Rabbi Judah, the words ‘Abraham the Ivri’ meant that the whole world stood on one side and he on the other, that is, Abrahams’ faith ran counter to what all others believed.”[5]

Judaism is often maligned as a tradition of conformism. However, I would disagree. As we are all inheritors of being Hebrews, ivri; we are reminded that our heritage is based on the notion of not being like everyone else. Being an ivri means not accepting things simply because that is the way they are. Being an ivri means standing up for values rooted in our tradition of fairness, righteousness and justice. To be an ivri will often mark us as an outsider, just like Abram. But as we learn more about Abram’s journey and Sarai’s journey and the journeys of so many of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

[1] Genesis Rabbah 38
[2] Genesis 14:13
[3] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 106
[4] Jonah 1:9
[5] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 114

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Lessons from the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder(1563)
This week we will be reading from parashat Noah. It is probably one of the most well-known portions in the entire Torah. This is in part because we love to teach it to our children. It involves cute animals, an ocean cruise, a raven and a dove, the redemption of humanity through Noah and his progeny, and Noah’s wife: Joan of Ark. Of course, we spend little time on the darker side of the story like the destruction of humanity, Noah’s predilection for drunkenness, and that unicorns completely failed to show up on time.
But in all seriousness, the Torah portion, though often dismissed as a metaphor or allegory at best and a fairytale at worst, there are some serious implications and lessons for us that can be found in this week’s parasha.
However, instead of looking at the story of Noah, we are going to take a deeper dive into another section of this Torah portion, the Tower of Babel. As we learn in Genesis chapter 11: “All the earth had the same language and the same words. As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. Then people said to one another: ‘Come let us make bricks and fire them hard.’ So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower (Migdal) that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!’ Then God came down to look at the city and tower the people had built. And God said, ‘Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings now, no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying. So it came about that God scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Bavel, because there God confused (ba’lal) the speech of all the earth and from there God scattered them over the face of the earth.”[1]
There is a lot going on in these nine verses. Upon initial examination one might think the pashatinterpretation is: The Migdal Bavelis a story to explain why people are scattered over all the earth and why we speak so many different languages. According to Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell…”[2]So in a way, the story of the Tower of Babel accidentally, unintentionally or perhaps deliberately supports current scientific thinking when it comes to the evolution of language in human beings. 
However, there is more at play in this story than just an explanation for the human condition. Like the story of Noah, the story of Babel is also a morality tale. According to ChumashEtz Hayim, the Conservative Movement’s Torah commentary, “Commanded to disperse and settle the earth, Noah’s descendants insist on clustering in one area. Commanded to submit to the will of God, they set out to make a name for themselves. The story of the Tower of Babel seems inspired by the Babylonian temple towers (ziggurats). Can we sense here the Torah’s ambivalence about large cities, with the anonymity, crime, and lack of neighborliness they represent? Or its suspicion that technology, the celebration of human ingenuity, will often lead to idolatry, people worshipping the work of their own hands. 
One writer distinguishes between ‘mountain cultures,’ which see the heart of the world in wilderness, revering nature and adapting to it, and ‘tower cultures,’ for whom the essence of the world is the city and the human-made environment, stripping the sense of awe from nature and attaching it to the social and technological order. Egypt, land of pyramids and treasure cities, will be a tower culture. Israel, from Mount Sinai to the Temple Mount, will be largely a mountain culture. The people of the Tower of Babel are a pre-eminent example of a tower culture. Although human beings have done many wonderful things to reshape their environment, there is always the danger of becoming so enamored of technology that human values are lost.”[3]
Or to put it another way, according to this interpretation, the story is reminding us of how the Torah is gravely concerned about the implications of becoming a settled society. This is why the wilderness is idealized in our tradition over and over again. And even today, we often talk about returning to nature or becoming one with nature. That there is something inherently evil or at least distressing or dangerous about societies. 
As was mentioned by Harari, in another sermon, “The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks (meaning agriculture). It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”[4]
So perhaps the story is a cautionary tale against domestication. That by becoming settled, we are paying a physical price.
Another possibility is there is a different moral element at play. According to Etz Hayim, “A rabbinic legend relates that people paid no mind if a worker on the tower fell to his death. If a brick fell, however, they lamented the delay in their building project.”[5]It’s not just about becoming enamored with the work of our hands but becoming so focused on our endeavors that we forget or overlook the human cost. 
A way to translate this to our modern situation is that though we have much greater concerns and regulations for safety in our country today, there are human costs to our economic endeavors. In her book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, author Ellen Shell explains through scientific and economic inquiry the tremendous impact on our landscapes, environment, and people paid for the pursuit of low prices. As is stated, “It has fueled an excess of consumerism that blights our landscapes, raises personal debt, lowers our standard of living and even skews our concept of time.”[6]Perhaps the story of the Tower of Bavelis a cautionary tale to remind us to pay close attention to the cost and impacts of human endeavors. Everything we do and everything we pursue for our own glory impacts ourselves, those around us, the environment, and countless peoples we may never know. We need to strive to be more cognizant of the price we pay for the choices we make.
However, the interpretation I find most fascinating comes to us from the WRJ’s – The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Here the authors wrote, “contrary to some expectations, God prefers diversity to unity and uniformity and, in this story, actively promotes it.”[7]
“According to, there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken across the world today. Only a fraction of these languages (359) are truly global, spoken by millions of people. These include Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Hindi. The remaining 6,550 languages have a much more limited scope, and many are in danger of being lost entirely. To put the dichotomy in perspective, 94% of the world's population speaks 6% of its languages, while 6% of the world's population speaks 94% of its languages.”[8]
What this means is that even if the Tower of Babel is a metaphor or a myth, it does remind us that we, as human beings, are an incredibly diverse group of people, especially when it comes to communication. But this makes sense, because communicating via the spoken language is at the heart of the human endeavor. And according to our ancient author or authors, this diversity of language is something to be celebrated rather than condemned. 
It reminds me of the old joke: Two guys decide to try out a new Jewish deli in their neighborhood. A Chinese waiter approaches their table and takes their order in perfect Yiddish. The two men are utterly amazed that this Chinese waiter can speak to them in absolutely impeccable Yiddish. 
The waiter returns with their food and bids them a hearty appetite, in Yiddish of course. The men eat their meal as they continue to discuss this unbelievable Chinese waiter. Finally, they call the waiter over and ask him for their check. The waiter gives it to them and in Yiddish bids them farewell. As they are paying for their meal, one of the men asks the owner, “where did you find this incredible Chinese waiter?”
The owner looks around to make sure no one else is listening and he says to them, “Sha, he thinks I’m teaching him English!!!”
According to Shlomo Weber, an economics professor in Russia, “Religion and language [are the] two most important factors in identifying, people identify their selves. People’s attachment to the language is a symbol of their identity and a desire for independence. Everywhere and every case the importance of the language, attachment to language, and importance of education of language of your own children and this language is very difficult to overestimate.”[9]
This means that to try to remove one’s language for another may very well have the unintended consequence of destroying their sense of self and community. Which doesn’t mean people should be encouraged to learn other languages, but it should not be at the expense of their primary language.
Perhaps then, one of the primary lessons of the Tower of Babel, where humanity all spoke the same language and engaged in a building process to celebrate their own hubris, we are being reminded instead that diversity of language and thought celebrates not only a wide variety of cultures but also of differing perspectives. If we were all uniform, it would make it that much more difficult for the human endeavor to be creative and dynamic. Or to put it another way, the Torah is teaching us that diversity and diversity of language, as God said about creation, is good. 
Needless to say, this is a lot to digest out of a mere nine verses of Torah. Whether we look at the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel as an explanation for the multiplicity of languages, a cautionary tale about urbanization and domestication, a reminder of the costs to human endeavors, or a celebration of the diversity of language, all of it is Torah. So rather than simply dismissparashatNoah as simply a fairy tale, we can see that there is a lot to be reflected upon when it comes to the human condition. Through the study of Torah, we can learn a lot about ourselves. And isn’t that one of the greatest journeys we can take?
Shabbat Shalom

[1]Genesis 11:1-9
[2]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins, 2015, pg. 21
[3]Lieber, David L., ed., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 1999, pg. 58
[4]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins, 2015, pgs. 80-81
[5]Lieber, David L., ed., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 1999, pg. 59
[6]Shell, Ellen Ruppel, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Penguin Books, 2009.
[7]Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Adrea L. Weiss, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Women of Reform Judaism, New York, 2008, pg. 49

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Can You Hear Dinah's Voice? Erev Shabbat 09-28-18

The Abuduction of Dinah by James Tissot
Tonight, I’ll be doing something I rarely do, which is actually be quoting from today’s D’var Torah. However, I do expand upon the original text sent out earlier today. But before we begin, tonight’s D’var Torah is reflective of recent events, and discussions and conversations many of us are having with each other and through Social Media, I thought it important to take a look at what Judaism has to say about sexual assault. This is very difficult topic and conversation. For some your wounds are fresh, while for others, the pain is seared into your memories. If you need to step out from our service at any time, please feel free to do so. 
First, a few staggering statistics from the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

·      1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).[1]
·      About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.[2]
·      From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse.[3]
·      A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.[4]

Clearly sexual assault is happening. Of that, there can be no doubt. And if there is one ray of light in today’s troubled times, even as wounds are being re-opened, it is also reminding us to engage in these vital conversations, and to listen to the heartbreaking stories of our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends, and so many others. 
Tonight and tomorrow, we will be reading from a selection in Exodus found in Ki Tisa. It has to do with the aftermath of the destruction of the first set of tablets following the incident of the Golden Calf. In it, Moses pleads with God’s merciful nature. Then he offers up the words that have become known as the 13 attributes of God, which we recite every High Holy Day and festival. And then Moses goes up to receive a second set of tablets. Either in those tablets or in addition to the ten, he receives instructions to command the observance of the three pilgrimage festivals, including Sukkot. 
However, for our purposes, we start at Exodus 33:12 where it says, “Moses said to God, ‘See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor. Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too that this nation is Your people” (Exodus 33:12-13).
What Moses is seeking here are really two things. 1. A partner in the journey to lead a people destined to become the nation of Israel. And 2. Guidance towards through the right path in the wilderness. Though one can expand upon this as to know God’s ways as a guide for personal and national behavior in order to be God’s partner.
Which is why it is frustrating that the Hebrew Bible, not just the Torah is ambiguous at best when it comes to sexual assault and abuse of power. For example, there are the stories of Lot’s daughters[5], the rape of Tamar[6], the story of the Levite’s concubine[7], David and Batsheva, and the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by Shechem.[8]
Each one of these stories is troubling. Lot’s daughters were almost cast out to appease an angry mob. Tamar had to prostitute herself to get what she was due from Judah. The Levite’s concubine, who is never named, dies as a result of neglect and abuse because of her infidelity. David used his position of authority to have Batsheva’s husband Uriah the Hittite, and one of his generals killed in battle, so that he could ‘acquire’ Batsheva, the beautiful woman he observed bathing in her courtyard from his balcony. And Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter listed in the Torah, was raped by Shechem.
In the story of Dinah, her father Jacob says nothing when the heinous act is revealed, and Dinah is never consulted by her brothers who ultimately slaughter Shechem and his whole tribe in retaliation. As is noted in the Plaut Torah Commentary, “The story also sheds light on the status of women in the ancient Near East. The rape was seen as damage inflicted upon the family rather than on the woman.”[9]If there is one saving grace to this passage it is, “Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter’s rape as their dishonor, their punishment. Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her.”[10]
It is the Rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations who begin to take on rape in a slightly more substantive and compassionate manner. For example, the Talmud prohibits marital rape.[11]Another section of Talmud teaching that bad sex produces bad children condemns several sexual circumstances that the Rabbis believed resulted in offspring who rebel and transgress. These circumstances include: (1) the woman feared the man, (2) he forced her, (3) one of them hated the other, (4) they were fighting, (5) they were drunk, and (6) one of them was asleep.”[12]Meaning, there are consequences. In this case the Talmud is equating sexual assault with rebellious offspring. Or to put it another way: don’t do it, otherwise your kids will have behavioral issues. The reality is, even the Talmud, which does take a more nuanced approach, nonetheless, does not provide us with all the answers we are looking for. It is a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be said and done. 
Only recently, has our contemporary understanding of tradition today universally condemns sexual assault, but it has taken a long time to get to this point. Reform Judaism really only began to address these issues openly in the 1970s. Since then we have been on the forefront of acknowledging and speaking out against sexual violence and domestic assault. 
What can we do? One of the most important lessons we can learn from our tradition is to hear the voice of Dinah. Sadly, what she felt and what she had to say were never written down. But it no longer has to be that way. Instead of sitting in judgment or ignoring the cries of victims, it is time we combine the story of Dinah with the most important mitzvah in our tradition: Shema,listen! Listen to the cries of victims. Genuinely hear their stories. If we wish to walk in God’s paths and to truly know God’s ways, and gain God’s favor, we need to hear the voices from all of God’s creation. Not just those of a specific gender. Not just those who are in positions of power, but from all. Moses was looking for a partner in his journey. Now God is looking to us to partner once again in a journey to acknowledge and call out all instances of sexual abuse and assault.
Until the scourge of sexual violence is ended once and for all, we have to unite and stand up and hold all who commit such crimes accountable and not dismiss the testimony of those who suffer at their hands simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Shema, Listen!

A Prayer for the Victims of Sexual Violence
Bless all who have suffered the trauma of sexual assault and rape
Bless those who are reliving their experiences
through the words of the pain of and suffering of others
Support all them with your abounding love
at all times 
Grant them comfort
as they wrestle with the challenges
of each day.
Sustain them in hope
as they prepare for the days ahead.
And God, through your guidance help us to genuinely hear and believe the words of the victims
And to also be understanding and supportive to those who make the choice not to share their stories
Remind us not to discount their voices, their memories
Remind us to listen and not judge
Grant us the strength to raise up our voices and actions in solidarity,
And the courage to hold all who commit such heinous deeds accountable now and forevermore 

[1]National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[2]National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[3]United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. Child Maltreatment Survey, 2012 (2013).
[4]Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sex Offenses and Offenders (1997).
[5]Genesis 19
[6]Genesis 38:1-30
[7]Judges 19–20
[8]Genesis 34
[9]Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 218
[10]Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pg. 204
[11]Babylonian Talmud Eruvim 100b

Friday, September 21, 2018

Yom Kippur Morning - When the Laughter Dies

Before we begin the sermon, I would like to preface it by stating that it will be dealing with issues relating to mental health and suicide and Jewish responses to these critical issues. I know for some, this is a very sensitive issue, and if you choose that this sermon hits a too little close to home, I completely understand. 
It is undeniable that Jews have had an incredible impact on American culture beginning in the early days of the 20thcentury. One could argue that our fellow landsmen were instrumental in the invention of Hollywood and the comic book superhero. We were also heavily involved in the development of Jazz, the musical comedy on Broadway, the arts, poetry, and cuisine, just to name a few. But for our purposes today, it was also Jews also helped bring to maturity the art of the stand-up comic.
The antecedents to stand-up comedy in our country date back to the wandering minstrel shows whose origins date back to before the Civil War. That being said, the stand-up comedian as we know it, really traces its lineage back to the days of Vaudeville. As author Kliph Nesteroff notes in his book The Comedians, “at the start of the twentieth century, the United States had close to five thousand vaudeville theaters. There were small houses with less than five hundred seats, medium theaters seating a thousand and large palaces that accommodated anywhere from fifteen hundred to five thousand people. The result was an immense working-class circuit, an underbelly where future stars learned their craft.”[1]
The number of famous names who honed their craft working in conditions that were dreadful at best and horrific at worst, are almost too many to recite. They include Abbott and Costello, Fatty Arbuckle, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, the Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, and the list goes on and on. Some of them went on to fame and fortune by appearing in radio and later in the movies. 
Others worked the comedy circuit which moved on from Vaudeville first to night clubs, then to Vegas, then to the Borscht Belt, followed by the boom with the rise of the comedy clubs in the 60s and 70s.
Most of the early stand-up performers were not much more than joke tellers. In Nesteroff’s words, “prior to the 1950s the vocation of stand-up comic was not far removed from being a door-to-door salesman. One learned the basics, memorized some routines, found an agent at 1650 Broadway and called himself a comic … A 1946 book called From Gages to Richespraised comedians who used lines like “I know there’s an audience out there, I can hear you breathing” and “Is this an audience or a jury?” It’s amazing anyone earnestly used lines now associated with Fozzie Bear, but the Willy Loman approach worked for decades.”[2]
It was not really until the 1950s when comedians “like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters came along … (who) led a revolution by developing their own material, derived from their actual personalities,”[3]that modern stand-up comedy, as we know it today, came into existence.”
With the rise of the modern comedian also came the stereotype of the sad-clown. As was noted in a recent CNN article, “Legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized that comedians often tell jokes as a kind of relief system from some kind of anxiety.”[4]
Not all comedians buy into this theory. As Nesteroff notes, “The ‘tears of a clown’ idea has dominated comedy discourse even as giants like Johnny Carson and Jerry Seinfeld rejected this idea. ‘There are a lot of unhappy people driving bread trucks, but when it’s a comedian people find it very poignant,’ said Seinfeld. ‘Some of them are in pain but I don’t see that as a thread.’ Carson said, ‘There have been volumes written about why comedians are lonely, depressed, rejected, hostile, within themselves. They say you must be suffering. I don’t adhere to that philosophy.’”[5]Carson went on to explain further. 
All that being said, many Jewish comics embody the themes of the neurotic and troubled individual. And we, as an audience, eat it up. There is something about witnessing a person open themselves up completely and fully in such a raw and powerful way that makes us laugh and helps us to navigate our own worlds. As Richard Lewis, whom Mel Brooks once described as the “Franz Kafka of modern-day comedy” said, “I read somewhere that when I go on stage, people realize that they’re not me and they feel better.” But at the same time, these comedians are also making a huge sacrifice for our benefit, that sometimes ends in tragedy.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this comedian filled with inner turmoil was the late-great, Robin Williams. Though not Jewish, Robin incorporated many Jewish imitations and Yiddishisms in his routines. At a dinner for the Shoah Foundation, Robin started his routine by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen … welcome to Temple Beth Prada. This evening’s meal will be milchidik, fleishadik, and sushidik.”[6]
Robin was also close friends with Steven Spielberg and Billy Crystal. And Robin and others even referred to him as an “honorary Jew.” Following his death, Steve Martin referred to Williams as a ‘mensch.’ 
Recently author Dave Itzkoff wrote a fascinating and in-depth biography on him simply entitled, “Robin.” Itzkoff tells the story of Robin’s childhood as the only child of divorcees. How he grew up, upper-middle class, and developed his imagination playing with, among other things, toy soldiers. How he really did not come to improv or comedy until college, and how he was inspired by Jonathan Winters, whose improvisational stand-up would become the basis for Robin’s own manic energy that awed so many of his fellow comedians during the 70s and 80s. And how his tragic death by suicide left the world bewildered, a little more sad, and a little less funny. 
Robin was a constant in my childhood. From his days on Mork and Mindy, to Popeye, which the critics hated, but I enjoyed, to his standup specials and Comic Relief, and later to his movies like Good Morning Vietnam, which was his first major critical success, and later to one of my favorites growing up, Dead Poets Society and later Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire and so many more, and his late night show appearances, I knew I could count on him for a laugh, a respite from my own feelings. 
So of course, his sudden death came as a shock. Why would someone so beloved, so famous, so funny, want to take their own life? It was later revealed that, Robin suffered from Lewy Body Disease. In the words of Izkoff, “Lewy Body Disease, a dementia believed to affect more than 1.3 million people in America – and far more men than women – results from a buildup of protein deposits in the brain.”[7]As Izkoff goes on to explain, “It is also a disease with an associated risk of suicide, particularly when patients are younger and before its most severe effects have set in. ‘If you’re young, if you have insight into what’s happening, and you have some of the associated symptoms – like depression and the hallucinations … that’s when we think the risk of suicide is highest…” Or as his friend and fellow comedian Billy Crystal stated, “My heart breaks that he suffered and only saw one way out.”[8]For some, the diagnosis of Lewy Body Disease is comforting because it provides, and explanation, a reason for why Robin did what he did. But in reading the narrative of his life, this rational explanation is far too simple for such an irrational act. 
Robin battled with demons throughout much of his adult life. When not on stage, he was described often as being quiet, lonely, and reclusive. It was the audience and the laughter and applause that he lived for. More often than not, Robin would rather portray a character rather than be his genuine self. The question being, what happens when the applause and the laughter stops?
Suicide is often described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But this description is problematic because it puts the blame solely on the shoulders of the person who commits the act. 
Judaism has had a complex relationship with mental health. As an article in My Jewish Learning explains, “There is little direct discussion of mental illness in the Bible, though some have suggested that various biblical figures, most notably King David, may have suffered from depression. In the Bible, “madness” is described in several places as a form of divine punishment. In Deuteronomy, shigaon — an antecedent term for the common Yiddish expression meshuggeneh, or crazy — is one of the forms of divine retribution for those who don’t heed the word of God. Later in that section, God says that the Jewish people will become “m’shuga” after a foreign people steals their crops and abuses them.”[9]
The rabbis of the Talmud deal with mental illness mostly in terms of competency and ability to fulfill religious obligations. As is stated in tractate the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chagigah 3b Our Rabbis have taught: What is a "shoteh" [translated until now as a mentally ill person]? He who goes out alone at night, and he who sleeps in a cemetery, and he who tears his clothes. It is stated: R. Hunna said, so long as they all take place at one time.”[10]Basically what the rabbis are doing here is giving examples of behaviors they feel a person of sound mind would not perform.
Or as My Jewish Learning goes on to explain, “According to traditional Jewish law, someone who is mentally incompetent — a category known as a shoteh, derived from the Hebrew word for wanderer or vagrant — is exempt from most religious obligations and cannot get married or bear witness. The Talmud describes such a person as someone who goes out alone at night (despite the dangers) or sleeps in a cemetery — signs of his or her detachment from reality. Maimonides said the shoteh is someone who runs around naked or throws rocks.”[11]
Nowadays, we know mental health to be a much more complicated issue and rather than stigmatize it, we should strive to better understand it. 
Recently Johann Hari, an insightful, but problematic writer composed the book – Lost Connections. Now before we dive into some of his insights, a note on Hari. He has been exposed to plagiarism, and his arguments against the use of anti-depressants are very much up for debate. Also, his examination of the bio-psychosocial model are not his own creation. The reason why I am referencing him is because he does provide a good and accessible summation relating to the issues we are discussing this evening. Or to put it another way, the causes of mental health issues are not exclusively in our heads.
Hari goes on to explain that there are nine causes of depression and anxiety: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from childhood trauma, disconnection from status and respect, disconnection from the natural world, disconnection from a hopeful or secure future, and from issues relating to genes and brain changes.[12]
Rather than dive into each one of his causes, we can simply note that there is a central theme running through his book. As Hari goes on to explain, “You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values you’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things. You need to release any shame you might feel for having been mistreated. 
Every human being has these needs, and in our culture, we’re relatively good at meeting physical needs … but we’ve become quite bad at meeting these psychological needs.”[13]
Now this is not to dismiss chemical issues in the brain. But to recognize that our brains and the way they function are also directly impacted by our environment, the world we live in and the worlds we build around us. 
Our sages knew intrinsically that community was essential to the health and well-being of the individual, just as the individual is essential to the vitality and progress of the community. This is in part why we pray together in minyan, in a group. This is why we mourn in minyan, so no one ever mourns alone. This is why we celebrate life cycle events in community, and this is also why no one should suffer alone.
So how can we, as a Jewish community, help to take on the issue of mental health? First off, we need to be more open. We need to stop stigmatizing people who suffer from depression and anxiety. We need to stop whispering in hushed tones as if depression and anxiety are a communicable disease. 
We need to be more open about our own experiences. I myself have struggled with issues of depression and loneliness. A big part of it has to do with the nature of the modern rabbinate. It can be a very demanding and isolating profession at times. It often takes me away from my family and being an exemplar for a community can be spiritually and physically exhausting. Mind you, thankfully my thoughts have never gone done that dark road, and I have not been tempted to turn to the paths of drugs or alcohol as a means of coping. But, like many I do turn to ineffective remedies like food and buying things like guitars to try to fill that empty feeling. 
However, this sermon is not about me nor is it about the rabbinate. Instead I am giving you a glimpse into my world because I know many of you are also struggling with similar feelings and emotions. I know this because we have had conversations about it. Not just about professions but also related to family disappointments and physical and emotional challenges of ageing. 
We also need to trust our friends, our family, our community, our support networks enough to be more honest with them. Unlike most illnesses, mental health is mostly internal, though there can be physical manifestations. That is why we are so shocked when an Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade take their lives. They seemingly had it all, but clearly were fighting their own inner demons. 
And perhaps, most importantly, we need to be ready, able and willing to listen and not judge. Our society is very much built on the superficial relationship. “I’m fine, you’re fine.” If you’re not fine, take a pill and feel better. Or the competitive, you think you’ve got problems, wait until you hear mine. Or the you think you’ve got it bad, so many others have it so much worse than you. In reality we know this is not helpful or constructive. 
Instead we can be inspired by our tradition and by the High Holy Days. In its purist form, the haunting melody and words of Kol Nidre, and really the entirety of the liturgy of the Yamim Noraiim, these High Holy Days, invite us to stand before God; raw and exposed. Our liturgy is set up to create a model of support. We confess, we open up not just with God, but also with each other. It is hard work. It is awkward. It is discomforting. But it is also honest, and it is necessary. We may not be able to solve of the societal ills that leave so many anxious and depressed. But within the framework of our tradition and our heritage we do have a roadmap to be able to help ourselves and those who are suffering both silently and openly in our orbits. 
In an interview with MTV in 1988 concerning his movie ‘What Dreams May Come,’ Robin Williams said, “My live now is extraordinary. It’s full of amazing people and such gifts, in terms of everything around me. I’m just so in awe of how I am right now … it makes me examine how precious the connections I have in this life [are]: family, friends. There are so many things that I really treasure. If anyone comes away with anything from the movie, if they look at their own life and really realize what they have or who is in their life. Then that’s interesting. Then I’ve accomplished something.”[14]
If you, or someone you love, is dealing with issues related to mental health, depression, and thoughts of suicide, please let us know. We have many wonderful mental health professionals in our congregation who can work with you directly and confidentially or can recommend someone for you. You don’t have to struggle alone. We, as a community, are here for you.
As we continue into the last day of the Yom Kippur, may we be reminded to build upon those most important connections in our lives. May we hear the voices crying out aloud or silently of those who are suffering. May we hear our own voices and be reminded to reach out to those who can help. May we remember that our lives are filled with blessings and with the potential for more blessings. May we be inspired by the legacies of those who have brought so much laughter and joy into our worlds and seek to do the same. And may we all know that we are not alone, but instead that we are part of a larger community and family that cares for us, that cares about us, and that is there for us. Amen.

[1]Nesteroff, Kliph, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, New York, Grove Press, 2015, pg. 1
[2]Ibid pgs. XIV-XV
[3]Ibid pg. XV
[5]Comedians, pg. XIV
[7]Itzkoff, Dave, Robin, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2018, Pg. 424
[8]Ibid pgs. 426-247

[10]BT Talmud Tractate Chagigah 3b
[12]Hari, Johann, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, New York, Bloomsbury, 2018
[13]Ibid. pgs. 256-257