Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sermon: "The blood of my brother's blood cries out to me from the ground"

On Wednesday night my daughter Gabby, sick and in pain, couldn’t sleep. It goes without saying that I couldn’t sleep either. From about 1:30 until 5 in the morning, I watched the minutes and the hours tick by as I tried to help her get comfortable and get the rest that she needed. And I don’t know about you, but when I find myself awake during the night, my mind seems to race overtime, and I think, I think about all of those things that I don’t have time to think about during the day. And as a Rabbi, I think about the sermon that I am going to deliver on Shabbat. During those hours, as I comforted and held my precious daughter, I realized that I could not offer you the sermon I had originally planned.

I could not stand up here and talk to you about Chanukah and heroism, because to do that would be to avoid the subject that has been avoided for far too long. The words from our Torah echo in my ears: “The voice of my brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”[1] And this voice has been crying out in this great nation for far too long. And until this moment I have remained silent. I had hoped that I would not need to speak, that saner heads would prevail, and that our leaders would intervene to stop this epidemic. But I can no longer hold my tongue, I can no longer be silent, because as we are told in the holiness code, the series of laws challenging us to emulate God: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”[2]

I am not yet an American citizen, but as a Green card holder I am now a permanent resident. One who has thrown his lot in with this country, and more than this, I am married to a citizen, and most importantly, I am father to a citizen with another on the way. I may not yet be able to vote, but I have a voice, and today I feel compelled to raise it.

Fort Hood, Texas – 13; Aurora, Colorado – 12; Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut – 27; Washington DC – 12; Charleston, South Carolina – 9; San Bernardino, California – 14.

These are just some of the deadliest shootings since 2009; the names of places that will live in infamy for the tragedies that took place there. As I sat down to write this sermon, there had been 355 mass shootings in the United States of America this calendar year. That means that we average more than one mass shooting every day. Every day, more lives are needlessly lost. Every day, more families are forced to bury their loved ones. And every day, we hear the same excuses.

On Wednesday I had spent most of the afternoon interviewing candidates for rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, and as such my phone was switched off and I was out of contact with the outside world. When I finally checked my phone and logged on to Facebook, though I didn’t know any of the details, all it took was a cursory glance at my newsfeed to understand immediately what had happened. I had seen these posts before with different place names, details, and numbers but the posts were unfortunately all too familiar. I didn’t know exactly what had happened in San Bernardino, but I immediately knew that there had been another mass shooting.

On Wednesday evening, in the aftermath of the murder of 14 innocent victims, social media and the traditional media responded. And this time, more than others, religion was brought into the debate. I don’t know exactly how it started, but I imagine that somewhere, someone had grown exasperated with politicians whose only response to these incidents was to say that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims, their families, and the first responders. Chris Murphy, the Senator from Connecticut, who represents the people affected by Sandy Hook tweeted to the world: “Your "thoughts" should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your "prayers" should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again.”[3] With over 20,000 retweets and favorites it is clear that his words touched a nerve for people who were following the news. And then on Thursday morning, the New York Daily News’ front page read quite simply: “God isn’t fixing this”; challenging us to do something more than pray in light of the latest loss of innocent life.

The voice of my brother’s and sister’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

In our Jewish tradition, we know that prayer and action have always gone hand in hand. In the shema, the central prayer of our liturgy, we are told v’ahvta et Adonai Elohecha bechol levavcha, bechol nafshecha, uvechol meodecha – You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. We could imagine that loving Adonai with our hearts and souls is about praying to God, but I think the idea of loving God with all of our might is about taking those prayers and converting them into action. We as Jews have never simply prayed; we have always complemented our prayers with actions. Just last week in our Torah, as Jacob prepared for the reunion with his brother, he prayed. He prayed to God for help and support but he also acted. He made sure that his people were ready for the meeting with Esau and recognized that his prayers without action would be incomplete.

We have unfortunately had to say too many prayers for too many innocent victims, and now the time has come for us to accompany our prayers with action.

As I held Gabby through that Wednesday night, I kept thinking about how we as a community have responded to mass shootings. In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, when children in a school were attacked, there was understandable concern from our parents about the security measures here in the synagogue for the Religious School and especially the ECC. We are in the final stages of a security review in which we have consulted with an external company to put regulations in place to keep our children safe. We now keep our doors locked whenever the children are in the building for school. And in this past week or so, we have finally finished the installation of a new security system so that we can check more clearly each and every person who attempts to gain entry to the building while school is in session.

Our unfortunate and necessary response to the Newtown shooting was essentially to build bigger and higher walls around ourselves, and our community, to ensure our safety. And today children across America know that if a certain alarm sounds while they are at school then they need to go to the cupboard in the classroom and play statues. These are all necessary precautions to ensure our children’s safety. But this is not the type of world in which I want to be raising our children.

Our response to Newtown was wrong because we acted to treat only the symptom, and did nothing to address the problem. We accepted the situation of mass shootings as inevitable and we failed to tackle the real problem. Our prayers after Newtown should have been accompanied by action to introduce laws to reduce gun violence. Our prayers should have been accompanied by actions to try and make this country a place where mass shootings are not a daily occurrence. Our prayers should have been accompanied by actions to ensure that no more families have to bury their loved ones after such senseless violence.

But this was not our action, and we know that after the prayers were recited no significant action took place to change the situation in this great nation. Gun violence has continued, mass shootings have continued, and so many more innocent victims have been buried into the ground.  

The voice of my brother’s and sister’s blood cries out to me from this ground.

I have always been taken by the idea of American exceptionalism. In so many ways this country is unique and a beacon of light to the rest of the world. With a Declaration of Independence that asserts the equality of all people, promising the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; this country has foundations that are different from any other. This country has clearly been blessed and it has been a blessing to its citizens and the rest of the world. American exceptionalism has always been a source of pride and admiration from the rest of the world. Unfortunately today I am concerned that America is being viewed as exceptional for the fact that it is the only developed country that suffers from mass shootings with such terrible regularity.

In this case, perhaps we should look to emulate Australian exceptionalism. In April 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in Port Arthur, Tasmania; he killed 35 people and wounded 23. Twelve days later, in a bipartisan deal, sweeping gun control measures were enacted; primarily centered on a buyback of semi-automatic weapons and new laws prohibiting private sales and requiring individual registration of all guns. Twelve days later. This did not lead to a complete end to gun violence, but in the following decade homicides by firearms plunged 59%, suicide by guns declined by 65% and there has not been a single mass shooting in Australia since Port Arthur. A 2011 Harvard summary of the research into the laws passed in 1996 said; “it would have been difficult to imagine more compelling future evidence of a beneficial effect.”[4]

I can no longer stand idly by the blood of my neighbor.

In Judaism it is clear that our highest value is that of pikuach nefesh – the saving of a life; almost every other commandment can be broken to fulfill this highest ideal. We believe that every life is sacred and in the Talmud we read that the person who saves a single life it is as though that person has saved the entire world. And the inverse is also true. The person who destroys a single life, it is as though that person has destroyed the entire world.[5] How many worlds have been destroyed through mass shootings and senseless gun violence? And by standing idly by, what is our responsibility in this destruction?

We could spend hours debating the rights and wrongs and the intended meaning of the Second Amendment. However, I would argue that the individual’s right to bear arms should not come at the expense of the people’s right to life, as laid down in the Declaration of Independence. While Judaism ensures the rights of the individual it was always done in the context of the wider group and guaranteeing that the community as a whole is safe and protected. People were allowed to own swords, but the Talmud discusses to whom you may and may not sell a sword. Dangerous dogs could be kept as a way of defending one’s property, but there were important laws about how and when the dog must be tied up. Self-defense was understood and accepted, but it was always done in a way that ensured the safety and security of the wider community.[6]

I am not an expert on what should be done to reduce gun crime and eliminate mass shootings from our nation’s future. There are people far wiser than I who have spent years researching this subject and offering suggestions for what might be done. I look to Australia, and other countries around the world, to see what is possible and I turn to others who have dedicated their lives to this cause. Jim Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary was shot and paralyzed during an assassination attempt on the President in 1981. Since then the Brady Campaign has worked to prevent gun violence. They suggest three areas for action: changing the culture by educating people about the risks of guns in the home; changing laws by calling on our elected officials to enact laws to counter gun violence; and by changing the gun industry by holding the manufacturers of these weapons accountable.

By the start of next week we will have a page on our website with resources about what you can do to take action on gun violence.

In June of this year, I tweeted that my thoughts and prayers were with all those affected by the shooting at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. I realize now that my thoughts and prayers, while important, are simply not enough. As Jews we have never been a people who simply prays for changes in this world; we have always been a people who go out and make change happen.

One mass shooting is too many. 355 mass shootings in a single year is a tragedy and embarrassment to this country, to its citizens, and to the founding fathers who imagined a different type of society. 

The voice of our brother’s and sister’s blood cries out to us from the ground.

And as the newspaper headline made clear, God isn’t fixing this. But we, made in the image of God; we, God’s partners in the work of creation; we, God’s covenanted people charged to bring blessing into this world - we can fix this and we MUST fix this, for ourselves and for our children.

Thoughts and prayers can be helpful and are important, but today the time has come for action. I hope that you will join me in whatever way is right for each of you in saying no more, in calling for gun violence prevention, and in doing all that we can to ensure the safety of our society, our children, and our country.

Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will.


[1] Genesis 4:10.
[2] Leviticus 19:16.
[5] Talmud Sanhedrin 37a

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: Beyond one day of Thanksgiving

Yesterday, across America, people sat down at tables filled with food and expressed their thanks and gratitude for their good fortune, for the blessings in their lives, and for the people who surrounded them.

Growing up in Britain my knowledge of Thanksgiving was limited to what I had seen on TV, and as such I knew that this annual festival revolved around a parade, American football, time with the family, and a spectacularly big meal involving something called yams. That was pretty much all I knew about the holiday. But in the nine years since I celebrated my first Thanksgiving this holiday has become one that I look forward to.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful innovation of American society and it is an important day on our annual calendar. Far be it from me to tell you about the origins of your holiday, but it was interesting to note that it was in 1621 when English pilgrims, settling in this new land, celebrated their successful harvest. We Brits get everywhere. 

More importantly was George Washington’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation of 1789, when he declared that the 26th of November would be a day devoted to God to give thanks to God for “his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war [we don’t need to talk about that] --for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed … and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”[1]

When we think about how this country has developed in the last 200 plus years since George Washington stood up and gave his address it is clear that we have plenty to be grateful for. With all the riches and blessings that come from living in America a day of Thanksgiving is a fitting and appropriate celebration on the calendar.

As members of the Jewish community we should be especially grateful for the home that we have found in this country and the way in which we have been able to thrive in our new country. For many of our families fleeing persecution in Europe, the Middle East, and in other parts of the world America provided a safe haven and a place to which we could run and set down roots for ourselves, our families, our community, and our religion.  I have always found it to be more than a coincidence that 1492 was both the year of the Edict of expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the year in which Christopher Columbus set sail from that same country to discover this new land that would become our home. 

But I do have a problem with Thansgiving; it is over too soon. And rather than follow up the day with gratitude and blessing, it is followed by this ever so “Black Friday” where bargain hunting and shopping are the orders of the day. This is not the way that the day after Thanksgiving should be. Instead I want to suggest three ways in which we should follow Thanksgiving that would be good for us, good for our community, and good for our world.

Thursday was the one-day of the calendar when we intentionally stop to appreciate what we have. Many of us would need multiple hands to count our many blessings, but while we may only need a hand or two to count the challenges and the frustrations in our lives, all too often it is these that we focus on. I know that I am blessed; with a job that I enjoy, a roof over my head, and a family that I love beyond words I am one of the very lucky ones. Add to that the fact that I live in this country of freedom and democracy, I know that there are many millions of people who would gladly swap places with me. And yet all too often it is the niggling challenges, the areas of frustration, and the one or two difficulties that I face which command my focus and attention.

I think that part of the problem comes from the fact that rather than appreciate what we have, we choose to focus on what we don’t have. We look at our neighbor with the bigger house, more expensive car, newer phone, and we fail to appreciate that our house is big enough, our car is good enough, and their phone will be out of date in a couple of weeks anyway.

When God gave us the Ten Commandments most of them make sense as a sort of “Top Ten”, but I have always felt that commandment number ten of do not covet, seemed slightly out of place when following on from do not steal, do not murder, etc. But perhaps this simple instruction, which is so difficult to follow, is actually the secret to a happy life. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors Ben Zoma asks: Who is rich? And he answers, the person who is happy with their portion in life. There is no specific amount of money that makes us rich, it is an attitude of appreciating what we have and realizing that it is enough that makes us rich.

Recently a photograph has been circulating on Facebook, challenging us to look at our lot in life, and see the challenges for the blessings that underlie them.  This list says:
I am grateful for early wake ups, because it means I have children to love;
For house to clean, because I have a safe place to live;
For laundry to do, as I have clothes to wear;
For dishes to wash, because I have food to eat;
For crumbs under the table, as we have family meals together;
For grocery shopping to do, as I have money to provide for us;
For toilets to clean, because it means we have indoor plumbing;
For lots of noise, because there are people in my life;
For endless questions about homework, because my kids brains are growing;
And for being sore and tired in bed, as it means that I am still alive.

The first step for ourselves is to appreciate what we have.

And then from the Jewish perspective we need to recognize that Thanksgiving is not an annual day in our calendar, instead it should be a daily part of our lives. As Jews every day is Thanksgiving. The first words that we are supposed to recite, every day, are: Modeh ani lefanecha, melech chay vekayam, shehechezarta binishmati, bechemla raba emunatecha – Thank you God, the ever living Sovereign for restoring my soul to me in mercy. How great is Your trust. We begin our day by thanking God for the fact that we have once again woken up. Judaism stops us taking for granted the new day that stretches our before us, and instead makes us pause and say thank you for the gift of another day. We begin our Jewish day with what some have called an attitude of gratitude, offering thanks simply to be alive and awake.

And three times a day we recite the Amidah, which includes the passage: Modim anachnu lach – we acknowledge with thanks that you are Adonai our God. In this prayer we remind ourselves that there is a lot for which we as Jews should be grateful. We thank God for the daily miracles which we experience and for the kindness which emanates from God. Our liturgy reminds us throughout the day that as a community and as individuals there is a lot for which we should be thankful.

And on this day of Shabbat, the Psalm, which we add to our service, Psalm 92, tells us Tov lehodot l’Adonai – that it is good to give thanks to Adonai. This Psalm essentially begins by recognizing the positivity of giving thanks to God. But with the beautifully ambiguous phrase “it is good to give thanks to Adonai”, we are uncertain as to whom it is good for. Is it good for God to receive our words of thanks and songs of praise? Or is there something positive for us when we give thanks? I doubt that God needs our words of thanks as much as we do.

And so the second step, for ourselves and those around us, is to make every day a day of Thanksgiving, an opportunity to say thank you to God, and to the people who surround us, enriching our lives.

Finally, Thanksgiving should be a call to action. On this day when we appreciate all that we have it is important to recognize all of the people in this world who have not been blessed in the same way as ourselves.

I am always proud that a week or so before Thanksgiving we partner with UJA Federation of New York to participate in the annual Families helping families program. So that on this past Veteran’s Day our Congregational Hall was filled with hundreds of parents and children packing Thanksgiving baskets to share with the needy and less fortunate in our own community. For everyone who participated in this day it was a way of sharing the bounty of our lives with others.

Thanksgiving is our American holiday where we sit around a full table of food and in this way it may be paralleled with Pesach in our Jewish calendar, when we sit around a full table of food. Significantly, towards the beginning of our Passover Seder we declare “let all who are hungry come and eat”. As we celebrate our day of food, we welcome others to share in that gift. This year I loved seeing the sign on the door of Bada Bing Pizzeria in Ohio. It read: “We will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. However, we will be having dinner here around 2pm with our family, employees, and friends. If you are hungry or don’t have any money, please come in. We will welcome you and make sure you get plenty to eat. This is what Thanksgiving should be about.

And this year as we see millions of people displaced by violence and war in various corners of our world I cannot celebrate Thanksgiving without thinking of the refugees who no longer have a home, let alone a table around which to sit. These people have no country to call their own, and their experience is not so far removed from our own experiences one or two generations ago. As Jews our own refugee experience should be a spur to action, but as Americans Thanksgiving is that holiday where, in its origins, we celebrate our arrival and settlement of this land; recognizing that we should be grateful to live here and share that blessing with others.

Today we are 365 days away from our next Thanksgiving, but if we can be inspired by this day to appreciate what we have, to give thanks for what we have, and to help those less fortunate than ourselves then we can take the spirit of Thanksgiving and infuse it throughout the year. And this will surely be something that will be good for us, good for our community, and good for our world. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Hodia Sameach and Happy Thanksgiving.

[1] George Washington’s full proclamation is available at

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayetzei - Divine Karma

It would be nice to imagine that our world works according to the principles of karma; that people's good actions would be rewarded, and people's negative actions would be punished.  But, all too often, unfortunately we see that the good are not rewarded, and the wicked are not punished.  And so it's hard to believe that the world really works according to those principles of you get what you deserve; and yet in this week's Torah portion we see an important example of divine karma.  

The main character of this week is Jacob.  Last week we read about how Jacob deceived his father Isaac to steal his brother Esau's birthright.  Jacob essentially pretended to be his brother, and played on the fact that Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see.  Following this deception he fled and seems to have got away with his crime, having received the birthright and made it to Haran at the beginning of this week's Torah portion.  But the story does not end there.  

Jacob meets Rachel the daughter of Laban, his uncle, and falls in love with her.  We also learn that Rachel had an older sister Leah, and we read that "Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful."  At this moment, having read previously about Isaac's eyesight, we cannot fail to see a connection between Isaac and Leah.  As the story continues Jacob works seven years in order to receive Rachel's hand in marriage.  And after seven years of work there is indeed a wedding; but the following morning when Jacob wakes up he discovers that rather than marrying Rachel, it was Leah whom he married.  

In this way Laban tricked his nephew and switched the sisters beneath the veil.  Considering the fact that Jacob had tricked his father, pretending to be his brother, this seems an appropriate response that Laban, in turn, tricks Jacob by having Leah pretend to be Rachel.  

The text does not suggest that Laban knew of Jacob's earlier deception, and it seems unlikely that he was concerned with "punishing" his nephew, and so in the background we might see an example of divine karma.  While God intended for Jacob to receive the birthright, and did not intervene at the moment of deception, there is still a need for there to be some form of punishment, some retribution for what he did.  

Rather than leave this in the hands of Esau, where the conflict would have been resolved brother against brother, God takes the matter into God's own hands and through this divine karma ensures that Jacob receives an appropriate punishment for what he did.  In this case, and perhaps only in this case, in our Torah we really see that what goes around does come around, and we see that sometimes there can be divine karma with a clear punishment for the crime that was committed.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Toldot - Peace with our Enemies

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being a delegate at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem representing the Arzenu faction (as an ARZA delegate from the USA).  This trip was challenging, thought provoking, inspiring, uplifting, and depressing all in one.  While it was wonderful to be together with Jews from around the world at this historic gathering; at the same time it was very difficult to hear from Members of Knesset and Israelis, both on the right and on the left, who saw little hope for optimism and little prospect of peace.  

At this time we might think back to this week's Torah portion about the challenges of making peace in the land of Israel.  Isaac is the one patriarch who never leaves the land.  Despite the fact that there was a famine in the land God appeared to Isaac and said "Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. 3 Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you."  Isaac knows that his destiny is to stay in the land of Israel and he does this throughout his life.  But it is not always easy.  

We read that Isaac grew rich until he was very wealthy acquiring flocks, herds, and a large household.  His success comes at a price as we read that the Philistines envied him and so they "stopped up all the wells which his father's servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham."   Rather than seeking conflict Isaac moves on to another place; but again the Philistines come and they dispute with him and block up his wells.  So he moves again, trying to avoid conflict.  

Eventually we reach the point where Avimelech comes to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath, his councilor, and Phicol, the chief of his troops.  Understandably Isaac appears skeptical and says to them: "Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from you?"  Their responses show that something has changed: "We now see plainly that Adonai has been with you, and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of Adonai!"

Having read the previous passages we know that this is not necessarily an accurate retelling of what has happened and we know that there has been tension and enmity between Isaac and Avimelech.  And yet, at this moment, as Avimelech comes seeking peace they are able to make peace together and exchange oaths, departing from one another in peace.  Both sides need to recognize that the other is going nowhere.  And only then, sitting down as enemies, were they able to make a pact and make peace; allowing each other to live in the land side by side.

In advance of Avimelech coming to visit him I doubt Isaac envisaged that peace would ever be possible.  And yet somehow they found a way to make peace - a challenge which still eludes us today.  Hopefully we can follow in their footsteps.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Chayeih Sarah - Making our Peace

When people deal with a difficult event or something traumatic in their lives we on the outside often feel that there should be a timetable for when they're ready to get back into their normal routine.  A point when they should be able to put the thing behind them.  But, we know that really there is no set timetable for dealing with difficult events in our lives.  

While Judaism does lay down a schedule for mourning we know that some people need longer.  Some people need less time because we all mourn in our own ways, and we all come to terms with things on different schedules.

In this week's Torah portion we see just how long it takes for Isaac to come to terms with a few traumatic events in his life.  Last week, when we left off, Abraham had almost sacrificed his son Isaac on top of Mount Moriah, and this week we begin with the death of Sarah; as we read of his mother's death, Isaac is conspicuous by his absence.  

We might imagine that Isaac would be there to help with the burial of his mother and yet as we read the account of Sarah's death and then her burial we see that Abraham was very much alone.  In many ways the text emphasizes his loneliness and solitude amidst the Hittites.  As Abraham negotiates for the Cave of Machpelah, to have a place to bury his wife, Isaac is absent, still coming to terms with the events that have taken place. 

And then, after the burial, as Abraham prepares to find a wife for his son, Isaac is still absent.  Rather than speaking to his son and telling him that it is time for him to take a wife himself, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find his son a wife.  It is Eliezer who journeys back to the land of Abraham's birth to find Rebecca rather.  And it is only once Rebecca is with Eliezer that we finally read about Isaac again.

As Eliezer brings Rebecca back to meet his master we read that Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beerlecharoi, for he was settled in the region of the Negev, and it is then that Isaac sees Rebecca.  As we read in the text  "Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife, Isaac loved her and found comfort after his mother's death".  Only with Rebecca by his side was he able to find comfort in the aftermath of his mother's death.  It took that amount of time and that event for him to make his peace with the fact that his mother had died.  

And then in making his peace with his mother's death he appears able to make peace with his father.  Although we do not read of the reconciliation between Isaac and Abraham we do read that Abraham died and his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah.  In this way we can read into the text that Isaac made his peace with his father and with his brother.  And for us reading the text perhaps Isaac and Ishmael making peace with one another can serve as a model for their children today to find a way to make peace.