Sunday, March 29, 2015

#blogExodus: Bitter



According to scientific research, our tongues can sense at least five tastes: sour, sweet, salty, umami or glutamate and bitter. However, unlike previous arguments, the tongue does not have designated areas for taste, and instead can sense all of these various tastes wherever there are taste receptors.

In this way, the tongue is also a great metaphor for the human condition. We are capable of making the most or the worst of just about any possible situation. How we choose to frame our psychological understanding of events impacts greatly how we perceive and navigate the world.

This is why, I think, the Passover seder chooses to incorporate all of these various tastes into the experience. Freedom is sweet, like the Passover wine, especially Manischewitz. However, enslavement is bitter like the maror, bitter herbs usually represented with horseradish. Tasting the bitterness does not embitter us, but it does overwhelm all the other senses of taste, at least for a time. Thus it reminds us not just of our ancestor's enslavement, but the continued enslavement and suffering of peoples throughout the world.

In this way our tradition balances celebration with sadness just as life is filled both with moments of joy and sorrow. The question is: do we heed the call of the bitterness to act, or do we simply let the taste fade so we can enjoy something more sweet?

Sermon on The Recent Elections in Israel



Below is my sermon from Friday March 27th:

Let me start off by stating that I am happy to discuss this conversation on AIPAC and the recent elections in Israel following our service this evening. I will be right here happy to speak with you after we finish our worship service. Secondly, I am working with what information we know for the moment, but as the political landscape continues to shift and change, much of what I offer may have already changed even before our service is over. And thirdly, there are many pundits and experts who can speak to the tachlis, the details of the various personalities and parties involved in the election. Rather than dive into all of those details, I am pursuing a broader approach to look at some general themes and possible outcomes as a result of these most recent elections.
All that being said, one of the most partisan, vicious, and difficult elections in Israel’s history, if not THE most partisan election in Israel’s history, something curious happened Wednesday March 18th, absolutely nothing. People went to work. Netanyahu began the process of attempting to form a coalition government. People, being either happy or unhappy with the election results, continued to demonstrate their love of the only enduring democracy in the Middle East. There were no riots. There was no coup. Life kept moving ever forward. This is what democracies do, especially when an estimated 72.3% of the electorate[1] (nearly three quarters of all available voters) showed up at the polls.
Israel, lest we forget is only sixty-six years old (sixty-seven this coming May). When the United States was sixty-six years old John Tyler was president, following the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler, among other things while in office, worked to annex the then sovereign nation of Texas, angering abolitionists. Himself, an ardent supporter of Southern rights and slavery, Tyler helped to sow the seeds for what would become the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, the Civil War.
            I mention all of this because, as difficult as this election was, Israel is not on the precipice of a Civil War, so I would encourage everyone to take a deep breath.
            So here is what we know. First off, I actually lived in Israel in 1999, which was the last time Benyamin Netanyahu lost an election. I remember the sense of jubilation when Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak. That being said, in many ways Bibi is Israel’s first true politician. He is part of that second generation, who were not instrumental in the founding of Israel or in securing the nation from the precipice of destruction. He will also soon be the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, assuming he is able to form a coalition government. In this sense Netanyahu represents a different type of politician for a different type of Israel.
Netanyahu’s main focus for the past decade has been Iran and Iran’s nuclear program. That has been his singular focus. That was the main topic of conversation at AIPAC and at his two speeches a few weeks ago here in the United States.
With regards to AIPAC, as I mentioned in a blog post, “it was wonderful to gather together with 16,000 lovers of Israel across all sorts of spectrums be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Christian, Evangelical, Republican, Conservative, and even a few independents. Also, as great as it was to see that there were over 500 hundred rabbis in attendance, even more exciting were the over 3,000 high school and college students, fighting the fight for Israel on the ground of our academic institutions.
However there were two central themes that dominated the experience: Iran and Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, both of which I will admit, I am conflicted about.
With regards to Netanyahu’s speech, there are those who accuse him of acting for purely political reasons. I do not believe this is an entirely fair accusation. Netanyahu has made it a singular focus of his political career to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability. He has spoken out at the UN and just about anywhere else to make this point. He has focused on it so much that many Israelis are frustrated because they feel like he has ignored internal Israeli challenges like the dominant issue of the affordable housing crises. At the same time, Netanyahu spoke at Congress during the middle of the day, which is prime time viewing in Israel. His speech may have been focused on Iran, but it was also very much a campaign speech, he is a politician after all.
I also believe that there are many in the House and Senate, on both sides, who are very much concerned with the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and they very much wanted to hear from Netanyahu. At the same time, by giving him a platform, they were lobbing a direct insult against the President, which in turn has created a mini-political firestorm in Washington. The President is the head of the Democratic Party, and many in Congress chose to forgo this speech in public because they support their leader. This in turn is simply bad news for Israel and AIPAC, as the goal of AIPAC is to garner bipartisan support for Israel. A divided Congress when it comes to the question of Israel is never a good sign.
The President for his part has also handled this badly as well. Israel is a true ally of the United States, and that partnership should be unshakable. All criticisms should be done quietly and behind the scenes. I am sure there were ways to better handle this speech, but instead it became not just a battle, but it is a distraction to the greater issue, which is a potential nuclear Iran.
Obama and Netanyahu have to very different approaches to solving this problem. Obama’s administration is working to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, whereas Netanyahu wants to eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a bomb all together. Now I am not saying which one is the right approach, as I am not a diplomat, or even which one would work, but my wish is that the two of them could sit down and figure it out. Partners talk to one another and not at each other. I believe all sides, including the players in Congress are to blame for making this central security issue into a political one.
North Korea has taught us that any nation that is truly determined to acquire a nuclear weapon can do so. Sanctions will not prevent it. North Korea is the most isolated nation in the world, and yet, it has a nuclear bomb.
So the real question is: why is Iran pursuing nuclear ambitions? As far as I can tell, is once you have nuclear capability, you are treated differently by the rest of the world. Iran wants to be the dominant country in the region. It funds terror as a means to undermine its enemies and further its stature in the Muslim world. By getting rid of Saddam Hussein, we effectively curbed a regional ability to counterbalance Iran’s growing ambitions. Iran wants to be on the biggest stage and wants to have a seat at the table, and it wants to be taken seriously. This does not mean we have to take it seriously. In order to defeat Iran’s nuclear ambitions, we have to understand them.
The other problem is that by framing the nuclear issue around Israel, which many in the world already hate, there are many who do not understand that a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Saudi Arabia, a major rival to Iran, will most likely begin to pursue their own nuclear program, along with many other countries in the region. This is not Israel’s problem alone; this is a problem for the whole Middle East, and by extension, the whole world.”[2]
            All that being said, a nuclear Iran is one of many issues that came up during this latest election. There were also a great number of social issues, many relating to the growing economic disparity in Israel as well as the lack of affordable housing and economic opportunities for young people that helped fuel the large voter turnout.
            Here is what else we know: Netanyhu won what appears to be a decisive victory. But when you add up the number of seats in the Knesset, he actually only won one from the left. All the other additional seats he picked up from parties further to the right than his own. And yet, he remains in power for a few critical demographic reasons. The first is the growing numbers in the Ultra-Orthodox world. They are growing at a rate of over 5% whereas the general “secular” population is growing at a rate less than half that.[3] So simply in terms of numbers there are more people voting on the right. Secondly, remember that large influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union? They tend to also vote against anything they perceive as left leaning.
A third factor in all of this is that as Israel feels increasing pressure from the larger world, especially Europe, its most significant trading partner, and as Israel feels more isolated, the electorate tends to rally around the government rather than for the opposition as a sign of strength and solidarity.
We also know that Netanyahu in several desperate attempts to get his voters to the polls made two statements that angered many. The first is that he stated there would be no Two-State solution. He has since retracted part of his statement, but the damage has been done. Many of his critics rightly or wrongly in Israel, Europe and even among Americans feel that Netanyahu has no interest in peace with the Palestinians.
The cardinal sin Netanyahu committed was to express either an outright unwillingness to engage in negotiations or a general reluctance depending upon how you read his words. I think we can agree that finding a partner in negotiations is a difficult if not impossible prospect to say the least. Abbas has been in power well past his allotted term as head of the P.A. Yet, Israel always, always has to be interested in the possibility, no matter whether it works or not. Politics is 90% perception 10% results. If Israel does not look willing or eager, it only emboldens her enemies and her critics.
Also Netanyahu warned his people of the surge in Israeli-Arab votes. I am reluctant to read this as racism, as some have, but by calling out a specific group in the electorate, Netanyahu certainly has many fences to mend.
And then there is the potential changing nature of US-Israel relationship. Now let’s not kid ourselves, Truman, was known to on occasion offer up an anti-Semitic slur or two. Kissinger during negotiations threatened to change the relationship with Israel, and even Reagan condemned and called out Israel for some of her actions. Needless to say, Obama is not the first president, nor will he be the last who is going to be frustrated with this strategic ally.
However we should also note that Obama is the first president, other than maybe George W. Bush, for whom 1967 is not part of his collective memory and experience. He, like so many Generation X-ers and millienials and so on, only remember Israel when she is strong and not when she was fighting for her existence.
So what does this mean for Israel? Well first off, lest we forget, it was not the doves who have made peace, it was the hawks like Begin and Sharon. So no matter what Netanyahu might say, he might be, and I stress, might be, the man to ultimately offer up a true and enduring peace. But of course he needs a partner to dance with.
Secondly, it means we need, in the words of our Reform leaders, “continue to work with all those who share our commitment to an Israel in which the government does not dictate religious practices and offers a pluralistic and open approach to religious expression … as we continue to work to prevent a nuclear Iran, the Israeli government will need more than ever to focus on restored relations with the United States. The threat Iran poses to Israel, to American interests, and to global stability must remain at the top of our agenda… we also (must) recognize the work ahead of us in reaching out to those, especially younger Jews, who are more critical of Israeli politics, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.”[4]
But what can we do? Well first off, if you like the way the elections turned out, keep supporting Israel. There are great causes like AIPAC, Israel Bonds, and FIDF that can continue to use your generosity. If you are upset by the results you can give to groups like J-Street and Rabbis without borders.
And in either case, I also encourage you to support the Israel Religious Action Center which fights for causes related to religious pluralism in Israel and groups like the Women of the Wall. And of course, please vote in the World Zionist Congress Elections. The greater number of us who vote, the greater say we have in how money is distributed in the land we all care so deeply about. There are many links to these various organizations in our Shabbat Supplement.
I also encourage you to join us this Sunday at 9:30 for our Annual Brotherhood-ARZA breakfast where Sophie Felder, Director of Regional Affairs from the Embassy of Israel will be speaking to us more about the current geopolitical landscape in which Israel currently resides.
            When people ask me my thoughts on the recent elections, my straightforward, al regal achat response is, it’s complicated. It is continuing to play out. Yet it is also a single moment in time. Parties in power do not remain in power forever, and that is even more true of those individuals in power. Yet at the end of the day, it was a fair and open democratic election in an area devoid of any sense of human rights or equality. Israel lives in an increasingly dangerous and unsettled region to say the least. Sometimes we may even be tempted to ask, why does the media focus so much on in Israel when there are so many more important events transpiring in the region like in Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and of course in Iran.
            Yet Israel is the only true democracy. And because of it we do have higher expectations of her, rightly or wrongly. There is much work to be done in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. I know some of you are heartened by the results and some of you are disheartened by the results, and yet, as Jews we are commanded to always have hope. Continue to support those causes that give you hope as we all strive to help Israel fulfill the destiny we have all dreamed for her since the days of her inception. Amen.



[1] http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Voter-turnout-at-10-am-higher-than-in-2013-election-394166
[2] http://rhythmguitarrabbi.blogspot.com/2015/03/some-thoughts-on-aipac-2015.html
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Israel
[4] http://urj.org/about/union/pr/2015/?syspage=article&item_id=116921

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

#blogExodus - 4 Nisan - Grow


As human beings, we tend to grow up and then we tend to grow out. But not everyone grows up, and certainly not everyone grows out. That being said, growth appears to be part of the natural condition. If we are not growing, we are stagnating. Therefore the emphasis is that we should always strive to grow not just in our physical presence, but also in our intellect and in our spiritual selves as well. The constant acquisition of knowledge along with new experiences help us grow as individuals. But it is only when we share what we have learned, that we help the world surrounding us to grow.

The Exodus was about taking a disparate group of people and helping them grow into a nation. This was facilitated by Moses and by the giving of structure and Torah, knowledge. They could not enter into the land of Canaan until God felt they had grown enough to begin to stand on their own two feet, metaphorically speaking. Until then, Moses was with them every step of the way, no matter how much the Israelites may have kvetched.

As Jews, we are commanded to share the knowledge given to the Israelites with our children, with their children, and with the world. Acquisition of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is viewed as a wasted endeavor. Instead with every step of growing, we should also be sharing. In this way we can all grow together.

Monday, March 23, 2015

#blogExodus 3 Nisan - Cleanse



The phrase, "Cleanliness is next to godliness" is an often mentioned phrase sometimes attributed to the Bible. Though the real source was John Wesley an 18th century evangelist credited with founding what would become the Methodist Church. 

In traditional Jewish practice, cleanliness is often associated with the practice of ritual purification, taharat hamishpacha, family purity. These in turn deal with the complicated laws associated with the niddah or a woman who is menstruating. However the laws of ritual purification also deal with men as well. And in both cases, male an female, if a person is considered ritually impure, they are supposed to go to the mikveh and ritually purify themselves in the mayim chayyim, the living waters.

There are also laws and customs for the chevrei kaddisha, the Jewish Burial Society, that among their other holy responsibilities are to wash and prepare the body for burial. 

However none of these are specifically related to cleanliness, or at least the modern sense of cleanliness. So how then is cleanliness next to godliness, at least in Jewish tradition?

One possibility is that the act of washing oneself both physically can be a great way to start the day. What a great feeling to stand in a hot shower and just feel clean. Everything just feels better. So too when one cleanses their soul by laying it bare and scrubbing it, metaphorically speaking. In this way, to be cleansed means one is ready to take on the day or take on something new. 

The Israelites had to cleanse themselves following the Exodus, for three days, in order to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. What then can we do to spiritually cleanse ourselves for those critical moments in our lives?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

#blogExodus 1 Nisan - Begin



"Courage is never to let your actions be influence by your fears" - Arthur Koestler

"In the beginning ..." (Genesis 1:1) We never really think about creation as the embodiment of the meaning of courage. In a way, it was a leap of faith by God that in creating this world, everything would work out for the best. Yet, as our tradition teaches, not everything did work out for the best. God quickly "regretted" how the earth became filled with violence, and God tried again by creating a covenant with Noah while wiping the slate clean through a great flood. God later created a covenant with Avram and with his descendants before giving the Torah to Moses. Each step meant a new approach, a new way to begin again.

Whether we are beginning a new journey, creating something new, or simply trying something old again, each step can be scary. We tend to be afraid of failure much more than we are excited by the possibility of success. Yet what the Torah is teaching us is that God tried over and over and over again to get things right. And now it is our turn to keep trying.

All we need is a little courage to begin ...

Friday, March 6, 2015

Purim 5775

Having failed now at multiple attempts to win the nomination to be the next President of the United States of Maryland, I have decided to forgo putting together an exploratory committee to pursue any further attempt at creating a winning campaign in lieu of forming a group to investigate the preponderance of run-on sentences in numerous rabbinic publications.
Following that, I plan to look into the issue of why so many vowels have fled Eastern Europe from places like Ljubljana, Slovenia and Dubrovnik, Croatia to settle in Hawaii. It may be an extensive and costly trip, but I assure you, I will get to the bottom of it, especially if it requires immersive interviews in Kauai.
My itinerary is already set, and I have booked my tickets. Nothing you say can change my mind. I have already heard all of the arguments. I know my campaign promises of giant cellphones and free mortgages for tickets to Walt Disney World have struck a chord. Though that chord was most likely an Am chord, which is owned by us Jews, as opposed to G, which is a wholly owned chordal subsidiary of the aforementioned Walt Disney World Corporation.
I know my immigration policy of everyone in the Northeast moving to Tahiti has played well, well in the Northeast, especially this winter. And my continued battle against low-flow toilets has become one of legend and even immortalized in song in my famous duet entitled, “Flush” with Taylor Swift. It’s in the key of Am, in case you are wondering, and we are on the short-list to perform at next year’s Super Bowl. Which if it is made a regular-flow bowl that would be super indeed!
Yes, I do know that the field is wide open, which is why so many people will be shocked by this announcement. So many of you have expressed surprise that I was ever running, but that is neither here nor there. I will have you know that my core supporters have been encouraging me and even demanding that I reconsider, but I refuse to flip-flop on the issue of my candidacy. And to show how serious I am, I have even refuse to wear flip-flops, lest I send out a mixed message.
Today’s tough times demand a candidate who is thoughtful, reasonable, and a visionary with the oratory skills necessary to convey the message in a succinct, articulate, and relatable fashion. It should also be someone who can work on both sides of the aisle, while staying true to their core passions. Since no such person exists, I have decided to reconsider my candidacy to be the next President of the United States of Maryland.
I promise you, the voters, that my campaign will be honest and full of integrity. And barring that, it will be full of something. In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be on the beach of Kauai wearing some flip-flops and interviewing the letter “A” as to why it fled from Koycegiz, Turkey. And I will return with findings because you demand nothing less. It just might take me awhile. So don’t wait up.

In the meantime, plan on joining us on Sunday March 8th for our annual Purimspiel and Purim Carnival. My promise to you is that no campaign speeches will be made from Koycegiz on that day partly because I have no idea how to pronounce it. Chag Purim Sameach, and Happy Purim Everyone!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Some Thoughts on AIPAC 2015

I have recently returned from the 2015 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C. Sadly I missed both of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speeches, the first to AIPAC and the second to Congress due to travel considerations. I missed the first while traveling to conduct a funeral back in Baltimore and the second because of impending inclement weather.

That being said, I have taken a little time to process any number of things associated with these past several days, and I have a few thoughts:

First off, I am trying to see things through the lens of different perspectives, and because of that my comments may bother some of my readers. My apologies, that is not my intent. Also, I also registered for AIPAC 2016, which I hope demonstrates my commitment to this important organization.

With regards to AIPAC, it was wonderful to gather together with 16,000 lovers of Israel across all sorts of spectrums be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Christian, Evangelical, Republican, Conservative, and even a few independents. Also, as great as it was to see that there were over 500 hundred rabbis in attendance, even more exciting were the over 3,000 high school and college students, fighting the fight for Israel on the ground of our academic institutions.

However there were two central themes that dominated the experience: Iran and Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, both of which I will admit, I am conflicted about.

With regards to Netanyahu’s speech, there are those who accuse him of acting for purely political reasons. I do not believe this is an entirely fair accusation. Netanyahu has made it a singular focus of his political career to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability. He has spoken out at the UN and just about anywhere else to make this point. He has focused on it so much that many Israelis are frustrated because they feel like he has ignored internal Israeli challenges like the dominant issue of the affordable housing crises. At the same time, Netanyahu spoke at Congress during the middle of the day, which is prime time viewing in Israel. His speech may have been focused on Iran, but it was also very much a campaign speech, he is a politician after all.

I also believe that there are many in the House and Senate, on both sides, who are very much concerned with the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and they very much wanted to hear from Netanyahu. At the same time, by giving him a platform, they were lobbing a direct insult against the President, which in turn has created a mini-political firestorm in Washington. The President is the head of the Democratic Party, and many in Congress chose to forgo this speech in public because they support their leader. This in turn is simply bad news for Israel and AIPAC, as the goal of AIPAC is to garner bipartisan support for Israel. A divided Congress when it comes to the question of Israel is never a good sign.

The President for his part has also handled this badly as well. Israel is a true ally of the United States, and that partnership should be unshakable. All criticisms should be done quietly and behind the scenes. I am sure there were ways to better handle this speech, but instead it became not just a battle, but it is a distraction to the greater issue, which is a potential nuclear Iran.

Obama and Netanyahu have to very different approaches to solving this problem. Obama’s administration is working to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, whereas Netanyahu wants to eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a bomb all together. Now I am not saying which one is the right approach, as I am not a diplomat, or even which one would work, but my wish is that the two of them could sit down and figure it out. Partners talk to one another and not at each other. I believe all sides, including the players in Congress are to blame for making this central security issue into a political one.

North Korea has taught us that any nation that is truly determined to acquire a nuclear weapon can do so. Sanctions will not prevent it. North Korea is the most isolated nation in the world, and yet, it has a nuclear bomb.

So the real question is, why is Iran pursuing nuclear ambitions? As far as I can tell, is once you have nuclear capability, you are treated differently by the rest of the world. Iran wants to be the dominant country in the region. It funds terror as a means to undermine its enemies and further its stature in the Muslim world. By getting rid of Saddam Hussein, we effectively curbed a regional ability to counterbalance Iran’s growing ambitions. Iran wants to be on the biggest stage and wants to have a seat at the table, and it wants to be taken seriously. This does not mean we have to take it seriously. In order to defeat Iran’s nuclear ambitions, we have to understand them.

The other problem is that by framing the nuclear issue around Israel, which many in the world already hate, there are many who do not understand that a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Saudi Arabia, a major rival to Iran, will most likely begin to pursue their own nuclear program, along with many other countries in the region. This is not Israel’s problem alone, this a problem for the whole Middle East, and by extension, the whole world.


I stand with Israel, however I do not stand with the politicization of Israel. I support AIPAC because I want the relationship between the United States and Israel to stand the test of time regardless of political affiliation. Israel should be a non-political starter, and it should not be treated as a political football to win votes, support, or money. Israel is doing far too many important things in the world, and it means far too much to us as freedom loving Jews to not support. It is our people’s ancient and modern homeland, and my prayer is that it will always be there for all of us, flaws and all. And this is why I support AIPAC, even if I am sometimes conflicted by the conversations at AIPAC, because I am proud to be able to have those conversations.

Here's the link to learn more: AIPAC