Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5776

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5776 By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Audio for Day 1: "Hugging Hitler" -  click here for audio website

Audio for Day 2: "The Amalek Within" - click here for audio website

Rosh Hashanah 5776 Day 1 – Hugging Hitler
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Earlier this year, I received a message from a journalist friend of mine.  He wanted my take on an ethical dilemma that’s been making the rounds.  It goes something like this:

Suppose you could go back in time and you see Hitler as a two-year-old playing in the sandbox. You have two minutes  to decide what to do. You could go up to him and kill him by any means. If you do kill him, all of history will be changed.  There will be no World War II, no Holocaust, 50 million people and six million Jews will have been saved. The question is: is it morally right to kill him?

OK.  So what would you do?

So the first thing I thought when I received this was, naturally, “I just got my first high holiday sermon!”  But nah, that’s too easy.  How about four sermons?  So in my four High Holidays sermons, I will approach that ethical dilemma in four different ways.

So let’s begin.  Response number one.  There he is.  Baby Adolf in a sandbox.  Two years old.  Nap time for Hitler.  Looks totally normal.  Except for the mustache. 
And this is the answer I gave.  What would I do?

…I’d hug him. 

Now, if I had the chance to kill grown up Adolph, with blood already on his hands, maybe I can see myself killing him. It's hard for me to say that.  I can’t imagine myself ever killing anyone.  As a vegetarian, I can't even bring myself to slice a brisket.

But more to the point: the moral universe I inhabit would lead me to presume that my loving this child just a little bit more might give him just the nudge in the proper direction as to forestall the evil decree and change history.

So that’s what I told my friend.  I would hug Hitler. 

We don’t know much about Hitler’s childhood following his birth in 1889.  We do know that four out his five siblings died in early childhood, three of them before the age of two.  And it is said that his father had a terrible temper.  But my purpose here is not to play armchair psychologist and analyze the most evil figure of all time.  Nor is it to make excuses for his actions.  There are no excuses for what he did. 

It is only to state that if even that two year old should be hugged, all the more so, should we hug every other child.  In Talmudic study that’s called a “kal v’chomer” argument.

I truly believe that every act of unconditional love has redemptive power. Each of us has incredible power.  All we need to do is hug a child to save the world/

But instead, what are we doing to our children? 

We’re shooting them. We are stabbing them.  We are burning them.  We are sacrificing them on the altar of our ambitions.  We are humiliating them.  We are overindulging them.  We are ignoring them.  We are racing them to nowhere.  We are over-programming them.  We are infecting them with hate.   We are victimizing them because we hate.  We are enslaving them.  We are trafficking in them.   We’re allowing them to wallow in loneliness. We are casting them off.  We are burdening them with excessive educational debt.  We are poisoning their earth.   We are filling their bellies with sugary soft drinks. We’re numbing their minds with electronic distractions.  We are failing to show them the importance of service and seeing a world that is much larger than themselves.

Of course, not all of these are equally damaging.  And not all are being done by us.   But we are responsible for it all – and since so much if it is being done in the name of religious faith, we who find value in religion must apply our best religious values toward attacking this head on.   We need to fight fervor with fervor.

For while we focus all our attention what we might theoretically do to two-year-old Adolf, who knows what new and real two-year-old Adam Lanzas and Dylan Roofs are out there in the sandboxes of America.  Who knows which child is walking right now into the crossfire of the mass shooting du jour? And who knows which 13 year olds in Denver or Minneapolis are being recruited to ISIS as we speak?

For the nursery, the sandbox, the classroom and the movie theater have become the prime battlefields where the future of our civilization is being determined.  And we are losing that battle.  Some of our children might be the potentially tomorrow’s victimizers, but far, far too many have become today’s victims. 

As we welcome Pope Francis to our country next week (and if he is looking for a shul to come to for Yom Kippur, I’d be happy to send a ticket), we must consider his recent words:

“Every child who begs on the streets, who is denied an education or medical care, is a cry to God. Too often, these children become prey to criminals, who exploit them for commerce or violence. Even in wealthy countries, they suffer due to family crises and living conditions, which are at times inhumane. In every case, their childhood is violated in body and soul.” 

We need, most certainly, to teach every child the true nature of unconditional, all embracing love, the values of honesty and kindness, of discipline and hard work, of sharing and patience, of family and community.   But first and foremost, we need to make them safe.

It would be hard to explain unconditional love to 16-year old Shira Banki.  That’s because she is dead.  On July 30 she attended the Jerusalem Pride March to show her support for a friend.  As she marched, Yishai Schlissel, just released from custody days earlier for having tried to attack marchers in 2005, leapt from the crowd and stabbed Shira and five others.  It was a vicious act of loathing, his mind poisoned by the lethal combination of mental illness and pure, unadulterated, faith-based hate – a toxic mix of nature and nurture.

Shira was like everyone's daughter, (as Y-net reported). “She had ten turquoise tank tops in her closet. She watched Game of Thrones and “That '70s Show” on TV. Her preferred reading was Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter. She loved to eat sushi and go to parties. She was afraid of dogs, and loved singing.

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin said, "Shira joined the parade in the name of the values ​​in which she believed – tolerance, equality, hope, and love,".

She was secular but proudly Jewish and proudly Israeli, living in Jerusalem’s Ramat Bet Hakerem neighborhood.  She was the face of Israel that so few of us get to see.  She was the face we need to see.

But we didn’t need to see it in a coffin. 

Now she joins the ranks of all those Jewish children martyred in the name of some fanatic ideal, among them the many killed by Palestinians in the suicide bombings of the second intifada; we can now add to this list Yoav Hattab and Yoham Cohen, barely out of their teens.  The two of them happened to be in the kosher market in Paris on that fateful day last January.  And now they are dead, victims of the attack that followed the Charlie Hebdo murders.  Yoham died at the hands of an ISIS-inspired terrorist  trying to save the life of a three-year-old.

A million and a half children were killed in the Holocaust, among them Franta Bass, a poet who was murdered in Auschwitz at age 14.  He left behind this haunting poem, called “The Garden.”

A little garden,
fragrant and full of roses.
The path the little boy trudges
is exceedingly narrow.

A small boy,
tender like a budding blossom ...
but when the blossoms bloom,
The little boy will be no more

But Shira Banki was not killed by ISIS or the Nazis.  She was killed by a Jew, a Jew who killed her in God’s name.  In 2005, Schlissel told police that at the Gay Pride parade he was planning “to kill in the name of God” and that “such abomination cannot exist in Israel.”

Memo from God – Stop killing in My name! 

Where oh where did Schlissel learn to hate so? In his Yeshiva?  Where does the Talmud speak of killing in such cold blood?  The Talmud was in fact written as the antidote to some of the archaic excesses of the Torah.  “Eye for an eye,” the Torah states?  To which the Talmud replies, “OH THAT…   Just kidding!!!  What the Torah really means is that we compensate monetarily for lost income and pain caused.  The Talmud has its objectionable parts too, but Judaism is constantly evolving.  With Schlissel, it has evolved unfortunately into a destructive mutation that has been gaining a foothold among some Jews, a messianic metastasis that clouds the eyes from basic human decency and infects the soul with hate. 

And Shira Banki was murdered.

The very next day, July 31, two masked men smashed windows and threw Molotov cocktails into home of the Dawabsha family in the West Bank village of Duma, setting it on fire. Ali Dawabsha, age 18 months, was burned to death and his father Sa’ad, a man of peace who just wanted to build a life for his family, died of his wounds a week later. His mother succumbed to her wounds just last week.  Israeli authorities are convinced that this was an act of terror perpetrated by Jews.

"Flames have engulfed our country," President Reuven Rivlin said at the rally in Jerusalem's Zion Square following the Dawabsheh arson.  "Flames of violence, flames of hatred, flames of false, distorted and twisted beliefs.  Flames which permit bloodshed in the name of the Torah, in the name of the law, in the name of morality, in the name of a love for the land of Israel."

We can ignore this danger no longer.

A few weeks later, I watched a riveting interview on Israeli television with a person who recently left this dangerous gang of radicalized Jewish terrorists, whose goal is nothing less than the elimination of the democratic state of Israel and the creation of a “religious” Jewish state in its place.  In this religious war, the targets are often mosques and churches – nearly 50 over the past five years since 2009.   In June they attacked and heavily damaged the famous church in the Galilee where Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

In the interview, the young former terrorist asserted that the perpetrators must have known that a small baby lived there and that the family was home that night. 

Nonetheless they decided to do the deed.  Young minds poisoned by hate, using as a guide a horrific instruction manual, entitled “Kingdom of Evil,” a which provides advice for attacks on non-Jews, including murder.

 A young victim incinerated.  A baby.

What could drive teenagers to burn babies? What kind of hatred drives them?

“You feel as though you can connect to this certain purpose,” he said, adding that only about 10- 20 percent of the Hilltop Youth come from the territories.  The vast majority are kids from broken homes, kids from all over the country.  Some have been kicked out of institutions.  There are drugs involved.  The age of entry is as young as 13.  They really feel they are saving the country, that all Israel will thank them some day. And very few of these Jewish terrorists have been arrested. 

Israelis are now seeing that this has to change.

There are similarities to what we see of kids being recruited by ISIS.  Young teens and even 'tweens.  Not just boys.  Girls too.  All looking for an adventure.  All looking for deeper meaning.  Structure.  Love.  To go where they are wanted.  It is unimaginable that girls would voluntarily sign up for the group that is actually enslaving, raping and trafficking in Yazidi girls their age.  But they do.  This is madness, but it is sold to them as summer camp.

There is a war going on right now for the minds of our kids.  And a very real war for the lives of our young people 

This is our battlefield.   And it seems like religion keeps ending up on the wrong side of this equation, as the cause, rather than the solution.

In mid summer, we were shocked when Faigy Mayer, a young woman who had left the Brooklyn-based Belz Hasidic sect, killed herself in Manhattan.   Many people who have left ultra-Orthodoxy have faced enormous strain. 

When Mayer was 16, her mother — who had no medical license or training — allegedly had her hospitalized for several weeks, forcing her into a nearby psych ward to salvage the family’s reputation in the tight-knit community.  Why?  Because sometimes around the house, Faigy forgot to wear tights.  She didn’t always dress the part of a “nice Jewish girl.”

How I wish some more people had given Faigy a hug.  One of her last postings reminds us of her deep wounds: “IF PEOPLE WERE ALLOWED TO THINK, THEY WOULD NOT BE RELIGIOUS.”

What has religion done to our children?

Oliver Sacks wrote a memorable op-ed in the Times a few weeks ago, just before his passing, about the enduring power of the Sabbath.  But in it he reveals the moment he abandoned his Jewish community. He described his mother’s reaction when, as a teenager, he was compelled to admit to his father that he had feelings for boys.  He had said to his dad, “Don’t tell mom.” But his father did, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at Sacks, saying, “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born!”   Sacks then writes, “The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.” 

Like Abraham, he left his family, his community and his country and he nearly killed himself – before beginning a long climb back toward what was a most extraordinary life.
In the name of God - what have we done to our children, in the name of God?

Five hundred years ago in Peru, an Incan child was born.  We don’t know her name, but scholars later named her Juanita, the man who discovered her in 1995, Johan Reinhard.  Juanita was taken from her parents in infancy, marked for a unique purpose in life.
One day, when she was about 11 years old or a little older, she and her elders began a long trip on foot. 

It was a journey toward a high mountain, not unlike the journey taken in the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading by another child – Isaac.  Isaac was led by his father Abraham, who was heeding what he thought was the directive of his new God, to bring Isaac up to a different mountain, but to a similar fate, for he was also chosen for a unique purpose.
Abraham had always been protective of the child, even to a fault – but not this time.

“I see the wood and the fire for the sacrifice,” says Isaac…But where is the lamb?”

“God will show us the lamb,” says his father.

Juanita was brought up to one of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes, Mount Ampato, at 20,700 feet.

Now these mountains are imposing, and the earth beneath them pulsates with activity.  Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common.  In fact, when we were in Peru this summer, we could see smoke rising from a volcano that has been erupting since January.  And in places like Arequipa and Cusco, these volcanoes hover over the city like unwelcome relatives – or vengeful gods. 

So the gods demanded a child as their price for silence, their hush money, and Juanita was it.  She was the lamb. 

Scientists have learned a lot about Juanita’s last moments.  She was given a highly intoxicating drink made of maize, still a staple for the mountain people to this day.  At that high altitude, it was enough to put her to sleep.  But she was not simply left there, on the mountaintop.  No, scientists have shown that her death was caused by a harsh 
blow to the head from a blunt instrument, most likely wood. 

“I see the wood and fire for the sacrifice, but where is the lamb?”

Juanita was left up there, wrapped in blankets, in a fetal position, as a gift to the gods.  And there she remained for 500 years.

The gods evidently were not listening, because in the 16th century the Spanish invaders decimated the population and abruptly ended the Incan empire, bringing with them their “kinder and gentler” religion; you know the one with the Inquisition, which rather than schlepping victims up a mountain just simply burned them at the stake in the town square, as we Jews know all too well.

And here in America, we neither schlep them nor string them up.  No, we just mow ‘em down in a movie theater.  In the 18 days I was traveling in supposedly dangerous Peru, it was fine there. But there were 33 mass shootings here - in 18 days – and school wasn’t even in session - all because, as some have claimed, God wants Americans to own military assault weapons.  It is, we so often hear, a God-given right.

Who is this God?

What is it about religion that every faith seems to compete, devising ever more ingenious ways to kill our children?

Or maybe we don’t.

For although Abraham thought God was compelling him to kill his child, high on Mount Moriah, as he was about to lower his knife, an angelic voice called out and said, “Do not lay a finger on that lad!  That is NOT what God wants, Abraham!

That is NOT what religion is all about, Abraham!  That is NOT what Judaism is all about! We don’t kill children – we don’t abuse children!  We don’t abandon children!  We don’t teach children to hate!  We love them!  We protect them! We teach them to love their neighbors, that all children are children of God! That’s the punch line, Abraham!  I nearly had you fooled, didn’t I?” sayeth the Lord.

“And that is why this mountain, this place, this Moriah, this Jerusalem, will be for all time a symbol of that love, a symbol of brotherhood and peace, a place called Adonai Yir'eh – a place where Sanctity is seen.”

And if there were any leftover confusion in Genesis, the Torah clears things up in Deuteronomy chapter 18 when it states explicitly, “Lo Yimatze vcha, ma’avir  b’no u’vito ba’esh!” “Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire,” 
which was either a direct response to Abraham or a spoiler alert to “Game of Thrones.” 

Or a warning to the killers of Ali Saad Dawabsheh, Shira Banki and Yoham Cohen, who, like Abraham, thought they were doing something that God wanted them to do.

Juanita was discovered by accident … when a volcanic eruption shook her loose from her frozen tomb and she rolled partway down the mountain, still in that fetal position.  Since then, about 20 other child sacrifices have been discovered on various peaks in the Andes.  Juanita spends most of her time in a museum in Arequipa, where I saw her, though I hear she will be visiting the US later this year.  She is encased in a cube of what is essentially dry ice, but I was as close to her as I am to this microphone. 

And as I stared into her face, I thought of Isaac. 

I wondered whether she ever asked, where is the llama for the sacrifice?  Did she know why she was taken from her parents?  Did she believe that her death was really what the gods wanted?  This girl, at an age where she should have been preparing for the Incan equivalent of Bat Mitzvah and picking out a dress for an awesome party, instead she was forced to drink the Kool Aid, the opiate of a vengeful volcanic god, and she died, only to come alive again centuries later, and call out to us from her wan, vacant, frozen face.

If an Incan child falls in an Andean forest and no one hears, did she really fall?  Yes. But do we hear her scream?

If a three year-old Syrian child washes up dead on a beach in Turkey, did he drown?  Yes, but do we hear his muffled, final scream?

A small boy,
tender like a budding blossom ...
but when the blossoms bloom,
The little boy will be no more.

And do we hear the muffled cry of Isaac too?  And do we hear that angel, the first time God really speaks to Abraham in the entire Torah, saying – DO NOT LAY A HAND ON THE CHILD.

For the response to all the hate, to all the violence, must be love. 

If religion is so much of the problem, it can also be part of the solution.

So many of us were shocked when we saw the families of the Charleston victims look the killer right in the eye in court and forgive him.  But that act opened the floodgates leading to the lowering of the Confederate flag.  And the months and years and decades and centuries of struggle against racism and discrimination and fear – it all turned around in an instant.  People who had been yelling at one another across the aisle forever suddenly looked at what was happening and they saw the victims being buried and the families refusing to hate – and suddenly, it all clicked.  Love won.  Because of religion

And in Israel too, love has won.  The Elijah Interfaith Institute initiated a crowd funding campaign that raised over $17,000 to rebuild the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha. "If in the name of Judaism one could destroy, in the name of Judaism one should also rebuild," said Alon Goshen-Gottstein, an Orthodox rabbi and the founder of the Institute.  This is the true Israel.  The Israel and the Judaism that responds to hate with love.

Thousands of French marched through the streets of Paris in support of the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher market victims.  Thousands of Americans congregated in Charleston and around the country – including an interfaith gathering here in Stamford – to respond to hate with love.  And thousands of Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims, rallied in Israel on behalf of the 18 month-old Arab baby and the 16 year old Jewish girl. 

Shira Banki’s family released a statement: ”We want to say that we have no argument with people with kippot or beards and we are aware just how many prayers were recited in private for her recovery…Our fight is about the lack of tolerance, the hate and the sanctification of one’s cause at the expense and pain of others.” 

In Charleston and in Jerusalem, the survivors refused to hate.  They are our hope, our deliverance. 

And the children, shall lead us.

Brendan Aronin is the grandchild of our congregant Judy Aronin, and Meryl of blessed memory, who turns nine in a couple of weeks.  Nine, going on 30.

So it was bedtime and Brendan’s dad Ruben was tucking him in, and Brendan said he had just one quick question before he went to sleep.  This occurred just after Charleston.

Brendan: Who invented slavery and when was it invented?

Ruben: I don't know, but it has been around a very long time. 

Brendan: I'm not sure if it's true or not, but I think every bad person has a story in their life that made them bad. Instead of putting them in jail, we should find out the story of why they became bad and then we could fix that story and make them good. Also, maybe adults who have been bad a long time can't be turned good, but certainly a bad 5 year old can be made good.


Brendan: Why did people have slaves? Why didn't the Presidents before Abraham Lincoln end slavery?

Ruben: A lot of people who had big farms in the South used slaves to make money and couldn't do that without them and some of our first presidents even had slaves. 

Brendan: Why did Lincoln want to end slavery?

Ruben: He thought it was wrong and unfair that anyone should own another person

Brendan: Which # President was Lincoln?

Ruben: 16.

Brendan: which number President is Obama?

Ruben: 44

Brendan: So there have been so many Presidents after African Americans were freed and none were African American? Did any other African Americans run for President before Obama?

Ruben: Yes.

Brendan: I hope we get a girl President next.  (clearly an endorsement of Carly Fiorina).

Brendan: I'm white because you and mom are white, but if I was born black for some reason I wouldn't be any different. African Americans are just born with black skin naturally, but there's no other difference.

Ruben: Yup. It's time for bed.

“Love you. Good night!”

Knowing the Aronins, I’ll bet that was followed by hugs.

As Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

We pledge to our children these four things; 1) that we will protect them from all external dangers 2) that we will guide them toward lives of meaning and service with the gentle wisdom of our nurturing faith, 3) that we will never fail to love them and to hug them and 4) we will not poison their minds with hate.

On this week of the Pope’s visit, I echo a recent statement from an international interfaith conclave:  “Children are one third of our population - and all of our future.”

For it's not about the mustachioed child we didn't hug in 1891, but the cherubic, innocent child we can hug today.  For that hug could save a life, or ten, or, who knows… millions. 

That hug could avert the evil decree.  That hug could redeem us all.                               

Rosh Hashanah  5776 Day 2  – The Amalek Within 
by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

I began yesterday’s sermon with an ethical dilemma, one that’s been making the rounds a lot lately.  Given the opportunity to go back in time and kill a two-year-old Adolf Hitler, would I do it?  So yesterday I gave my first response - that I would hug the kid. 

This dilemma has been around for a long time, but a big public conversation was inspired last spring with the publication of a study asserting that women would be less likely than men to do the deed, even if they knew that doing it would ultimately save more lives, while men were more likely to kill the one to save many more later on.

The presumption of the report is that there is something about being a woman that restrains you from any act of murder, no matter how justified it may be.

Generalizations are almost always misleading.  But the survey interested me. 

Abraham was, by all accounts, a man.  Though again, I am not going to make any presumptions.  After all, Abraham and Caitlin Jenner have a lot in common. Tradition has it that Abraham had to pass ten trials – that’s the Jewish version of the decathlon. And, also like Caitlin Jenner, Abraham’s life involved many identity transitions, including a name change. Also, like Caitlin, Abraham’s family was very complex: he called his wife his sister and he kicked out his other wife, who doubled as his first wife’s handmaid.  It all sounds like reality TV.  On top of it all, the Kardashians just bought an apartment in Tel Aviv.

So it’s complicated.  But here’s the main point.  Abraham, macho man that he was, raised his knife to kill Isaac without so much as batting an eyelash.  But at that moment, that instant when the knife was about to come down, he channeled his inner Sarah, and the result was a watershed moment in regard to our human ability to transcend gender-based proclivities.   

At that moment, when his son Isaac lay before him, something new was seen in human behavior for the first time.  


No one before him had shown it.  No one.  Not, Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Lot's wife - up until that moment, Genesis had been a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah of impulsive behavior.  

What makes us human, what makes us holy, the Torah teaches, is self-control. And for Abraham, that restraint led to compassion.  

At that moment, when Abraham did not lay a hand on his son Isaac, by transcending his DNA, by overcoming habit, by not succumbing to conventional wisdom, stock responses and the command of what might have been an imagined, vengeful God, as I asserted yesterday – in that moment, all of history changed. 

By not killing Isaac, Abraham killed the baby Hitler – in himself.

So that's my second response to the ethical dilemma.

In traditional Jewish terms, Abraham slew his inner Amalek.

In the book of Exodus, after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Torah describes an epic battle in the Wilderness, between Israel and a unique enemy.  The Amalekites, who in fact were distant cousins of the Israelites, attacked them from behind, killing women and children, terrifying the weakest among them.  They were the biblical version of modern day terrorists who strike the young and defenseless and embed themselves within civilian populations. 

And Israel was commanded to wipe them out. 

Not simply to wipe them out, but to wipe out the memory that they ever existed.  The commandment that came down to us is “ZACHOR,” remember what Amalek did to you

Tradition has it that all enemies of the Jewish people can trace their lineage back to Amalek.  And the command to wipe out Amalek is seen as a commandment to defeat all our enemies, those who seek to destroy us in every generation.

But there is another way of looking at that commandment, one preferred especially by the early Hasidic commentators. 

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev wrote:

Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek, who is the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart. When the power of evil in each of us arises, Amalek is present in the world.

What is our inner Amalek? 

It is that part us that succumbs to the impulse to take advantage of people’s weaknesses, that is cruel and hateful and angry and derisive and out of control; that force within us that sees every encounter as a means to an end, that objectifies other human beings as if they were pieces on a game board, instead of fellow living, breathing souls created in God’s image.

We’ve got to wipe out THAT Amalek, while it is still playing in the sandbox, before it gets so strong that it takes control of our souls, before we fall victim to our lack of restraint and lower that knife on Isaac.

We need set the bar very high.  Not being a racist is fairly easy - for most people, at least.  Rooting out all anger from our souls, or the impulse to ridicule others, or the temptation to press send when you should think about it first, that’s hard.

So this year, let’s subdue our inner Amalek by vanquishing our vitriol and scuttling our scorn.  And as with Abraham, that begins with restraint.

Ben Zoma in tractate Avot says, “Who is powerful? (AYZEHU GIBOR? HAKOVESH ET YITZRO). The one who conquers his evil inclination.  A Yiddish version of this adds, interestingly, “One who suppresses a wisecrack.” 

We’ve got to develop - a filter.

I’ll tell you why.  Because two diametrically opposing things are happening in our culture right now. 1) A single individual’s anger or carelessness now has the power to do exponentially more damage than ever before.  And 2) despite this, or perhaps because of it, our society has become kinder and gentler.  We have done more to slay Amalek than any prior generation and we may be nearing a tipping point.  I really do believe that.  And yet, Amalek has become more dangerous than ever.  I believe that too.  It’s a paradox that we need to understand.

We all have our moments during a given day when our restraint is tested.  Anyone who has ever been to the Department of Motor Vehicles knows exactly what I mean.  In fact, I recently had an experience at the DMV that was very positive.  So I must apologize once again for generalizing.

But as frustrating as it might be to deal with bureaucracy here, even the DMV can’t hold a candle to Israeli bureaucracy. 

So here’s a story. My Dan, as many of you know, is heading to Israel this Thursday for a yearlong post college program where he will be working with disadvantaged youth in Lod, a mixed Arab and Jewish community.  It’s really meaningful work and we are so proud of him.  

He needed to get a special visa, so he got all the information and went to the Israeli embassy in Washington with all his documents in hand.  But they sent him home, saying that he needed yet another letter, this one from the Jewish Agency proving that he is eligible for the special visa. 

So he contacts the Jewish Agency and they say, sorry, we can’t do that unless you get us another letter.    

They told him: 

You need a letter from your rabbi proving that you are Jewish.

So Dan calls me and says “I need a letter from you stating that I’m Jewish.”

So I tried to think of what I would write, seething that they were making it so difficult for my kid to volunteer to help the state of Israel. 

So here’s the letter I was soooo tempted to send:

“To whom it may concern.  I am Dan’s rabbi - and his father.  I am married to his mother, the very same mother who gave birth to him. We were also married at the time, by the way.  Dan is Jewish, his mother is Jewish, his father is Jewish, his grandparents are all Jewish, and as far as I know, except for the odd Cossack about 17 generations ago, I think we’re OK.  

I was at his bris.  In fact, I did his bris.  The foreskin is enclosed.  

Attached also are the results of a recent DNA test.  You’ll notice that he possesses the gene for preferring fluffy kneidelch and small, chewy bagels, a common trait among Jews of Bostonian descent.  

Please see to it that my son can help the state of Israel.”

You know.  This obsession with ethnic purity combined with the apparent desire to make it as complicated as possible for our children to help Israel – it’s enough to pickle my herring.  I mean, it’s easier to enlist with ISIS than to get a visa to help Israel!
But I thought of Proverbs 25:28.

“Like a city broken down and without a wall, so is he whose spirit is without restraint.”

So I restrained myself.  I didn’t fire off the vindictive missive to the Jewish Agency.  I didn’t succumb to the temptation to plaster this all over Facebook and make a big public tzimmis about this – (OK until now).   I did not press send! I held it all back and saved the roundhouse punch for my inner Amalek.

And I feel pretty good about it!

So I wrote a very simple, stock letter and Dan heard back. They told him he needed to get a letter from another rabbi.  Someone who is not his father.  

Evidently someone who is also not his rabbi. 

Deep breathsFilter.

The best biblical example of someone who impulsively pressed send, by the way, is none other than Moses.   Remember when he hit the rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to it?  He had had it up to here with the people for kvetching so much, he was also still grieving for his sister Miriam.  In short, he didn’t listen, he didn’t think, and he acted on impulse, guided by anger and force of habit - after all, hitting the rock was the way it had always been. This time, God had told him to use his indoor voice, and he instead threw a rock.  That would have earned a two year old a well-deserved time out.  Which is exactly what Moses got – a time out from entering the Promised Land.

But unlike Moses, I held back, thankfully, from a potentially destructive, impulsive act. 
That unfortunately did not happen earlier this year at the immigration authority office in Tel Aviv.

A woman of African descent came in for a new passport and had a contentious encounter with the manager, who asked her to go to the back of the line.  The mother of three shared her frustrating encounter in a tirade that was subsequently shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook and on other platforms too.  In the post, the woman accused the manager, whom she named, of being a racist.

“Each “like” was a sharpened arrow piercing my skin,” the manager wrote on Facebook two days later. “Up until two days ago, my life looked like it was taken from a lovely movie script.”

 “Me? A racist? All my work has been erased with one stroke…I cannot overcome it!”
Shortly after writing the post, he left his door open and apparently shot himself with a gun in his possession. A friend found the body and called the police and emergency medical services, who pronounced the manager dead at the scene.

Now there is undoubtedly much more to the story than we know.  The woman’s children were making it very difficult to wait.  Others probably were allowed to pass her in line.  It was the end of a long day.  And this woman had no idea that the clerk in fact had a long history of activism for social justice and equality.

We must be so careful when we verbalize things publicly.  The rabbis said that gossip is so dangerous because the arrow that is fired in Rome can kill in Syria (Gen. Rabbah 98:23).  Now, all the more so.

Joseph Telushkin, whose Code of Ethics we’ll be studying in adult ed this year, tells a story about the novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who was haunted by a malicious review of one of her novels that appeared in an influential newspaper.  A decade later, she met the reviewer and recalls, “He approached me nervously, and said, “I actually liked your book, but I was a young writer hungry to make a name for myself.”  Goldstein says she stood there in shock. “Legitimate criticism is fine,” she said, “but to selfishly exploit someone who slaved over a novel for years is beyond words.”

No wonder the Jerusalem Talmud states that one who elevates himself at the expense of another’s degradation will have no share in the World-to-come.

There is an epidemic of cruelty in social media, but at the same time, a growing series of articles, scientific studies and books is claiming that people are getting nicer. 

David Rand is lead author of a new study showing that, in the workplace and other social environments, people are shunning the shamers.

Psychology Today claims that evidence suggests that the phenomenon of “being nice” seems to be growing.  We’re no longer speaking about survival of the fittest, but survival of the nicest.

Nathan Heller in New York Magazine, says “Life online has become friendly, well mannered, oversweet.  Everyone is his or her very best behavior—and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation…it has become the way the Internet lives now.”

He writes that the Internet has become a place of do-goodism, social activism and upbeat entrepreneurialism.  There’s less and less patience with anything else.  The web has not just started championing the good; it has begun policing it.”

I’m not sure which Internet he’s looking at, because I still see lots of nasty stuff, especially regarding American politics.  But I do sense that things are getting better outside the Beltway. For one thing, new tools are becoming available to enable people to recall text messages sent within a certain time span after the user presses “send.”  Americans send more than 6 billion texts every day, so it's no wonder that incidents of text regret are on the rise.   That’s helpful, but the best option is still not to have pressed send in the first place.

I do see some hope that our cultural Amalek is being slain.

This year, there was no better example that the tide is turning, than the saga of “Left Shark."

During last February’s Super Bowl halftime show, Katy Perry was surrounded by a dancers dressed as palm trees, beach balls and surfboards.  And there were two very cute and unthreatening light blue sharks, one on the left and one to the right.

While the one on the right had no problem performing the routine, the left shark struggled with the choreography, with movements that in no way resembled the crisp motions of the other shark.  As the Washington Post described it, “Left Shark began to do his own thing frenetically on national television.”

His timing was, what we might call, a little off.

That part of the routine only took a few seconds, but within minutes, social media was abuzz with Left Shark.  Over 120 million people had seen it live - in America alone - the most watched television program of all time (a game won by the Patriots, in case you hadn’t heard). :)

In ages past, the dancer would have become a laughing stock.  Like anyone who has ever been a little off, a little slower than the rest.

So, would Left Shark’s fate follow in the sordid path of other laughing stocks, the village idiots, the dumb and dumbest of our popular culture?

Would we lower the knife as usual in full humiliation mode?  Or would an angel stay our ridiculing hand?

And then, something amazing happened – a sudden, unexpected burst of sympathy.  A wave of niceness broke out from unexpected places. Gawker editor Max Read tweeted: 

“Tonight we are all Left Shark.”  Someone else tweeted: “We’ve all been that left shark before – just not in front of a hundred million people.”  Left shark became a folk hero.  He was interviewed on CBS’s “Late, Late Show.” The New Yorker gave us fictional excerpts from the “Diary of Left Shark.”

A professional dance critic weighed in, saying that there are plenty of professional, classically trained dancing duos who have strayed from their choreography.  He said “Even the choreographer George Balanchine didn’t obsess about his dancers’ arms – or fins - he famously cared more about the emotion behind the moves. Take it from Balanchine,” he said: “We should leave Left Shark alone.”

One commentator said afterward: “Left Shark is such an unstoppable force of goodness that the Internet needed to put him everywhere.”

Maybe our embrace of Left Shark was a sign that we have turned a corner, even in the forbidding world of social media.  Maybe we are getting nicer! 

Maybe we can be a world where it’s OK to mess up in front of a 120 million people.  

Maybe we live in a world where we don’t always have to be in lockstep.  Maybe in this new world people who are a little different can be celebrated rather than ostracized. 

Last June we were honored to see that at the Bar Mitzvah of Jewels Harrison, a child with severe autism who is virtually unable to communicate verbally, but who also happens also to be a brilliant musician.

Jewels was welcomed warmly in our congregation, literally his bris, which took place during a Shabbat service.  We reveled in his accomplishments, grateful for the precious gift he gave us, by allowing us to peer into his deep, melodic and joyous soul.

His mother Mary said, “Jewels from an early age seem to naturally connect to God.  I believe God made us and has placed in each person a desire for truth and justice, for love and compassion.  It’s like we are all born with a missing part that only God can fill.”   Here, Jewels was able to feel that compassion – we were that missing part for him, and he was the same for us.

Not too long ago, children who are different were routinely bullied and laughed at by cruel, filter-less non-thinkers.  But not now.

There’s a lot more kindness out there than we could ever imagine.

In England last June, thoughtless thugs sprayed a homeless man with a fire extinguisher and laughed and put it all on video.  People were appalled.

But contrast that to this story.

Blogger Avi Noam Taub wrote recently about a man who begs for spare change at the corner of Ben Yehuda and King George in the center of town in Jerusalem.

I’ve seen him there for years. Today I gave him a smile as I waited to cross the street to get where I was going. He calls to me and says hey, do you read English? I say yes, I do. He shows me a box, clearly containing a brand new laptop. Written on the side are the words “Lenovo.” He tells me he found this box on the street, saw it fall off a push-cart from across the ways from a man bringing a few items from the warehouse to his store. He called out, but the man didn’t hear him.

Anyways, so there he is; a beggar with a brand new Lenovo laptop computer and he asks me if I can read what it is. He tells me, please be my messenger. I know of three computer stores in the area so I take a picture of the serial number and I’m on my way. I walk into the first store and say hey, can I ask you a strange question? He plugs in the number, it’s not his. He says try the store around the corner and he says it’s worth about $1,400.

I go to the next store and ask hey, did you lose a computer today? He says oh my God, I did! It fell off this pushcart when I was bringing in inventory I received today and I’m going to have to pay for this computer myself now. I say to him; really? Tell me, what’s the serial number? He pulls up the inventory list and sure enough, the numbers match perfectly. I tell him wait just a minute.

I go back to this righteous fellow with a smile, and he is smiling back as bright as the sun. I walk with him to the store and he tells the story and returns the brand new computer. He refuses to take any money as a reward from the store employee. He is grateful to have done the mitzvah of “hashavat aveidah” (returning a lost object), a commandment from the Torah. The store employee puts the money in my hands and tells me to stuff it in his bag when he’s not looking and say it’s from me.

Our righteous friend returns to his corner and continues, as if nothing happened. He tells me he’s returned about 20 such valuable items through his history sitting at his spot.

So, my friends, next time you’re at King George and Hillel Street at the top of Ben Yehuda, know that this man is truly righteous, and give him your spare change with a bright beautiful smile. How many of us in such dire straits would go to such an extent to return a $1,400 computer?

Only in Jerusalem.

What the homeless man did was remarkable, but what I want to focus on is the blogger, the guy who told the story.  For the most important part of the story was the part where the blogger smiles to the homeless man, the man calls him over – and the blogger did not run the other way!  His impulse might have been to smirk and turn his head.  But he didn’t. He slew his inner Amalek.

In the midrashic literature, there is a discussion about whether to shun or treat with compassion individuals who have become marginalized through no fault of their own - in other words, whether to follow the letter of the law, which in these cases is to shun them, or to show kindness.  The example given is someone born out of wedlock, who is supposed to be shunned for ten generations. The Talmudic rabbis would have loved Hollywood!

Hanina looks at a verse written in the book of Ecclesiastes, which states, “behold the tears of…the oppressed, and they have no comforter.”  Hanina then states: “It is written: ‘and they have no comforter’ – and thus God declares: I must be their comforter.”

What a brilliant line.  GOD will be their comforter!  Comforter from what?  According to this subversive rabbinic story, the oppression being discussed in the verse, is the law itself.  The oppressors are those who cling to the letter of the law rather than to the spirit. 

This midrash gets it. (See another commentary here) The ancient rabbis got it: Don’t use law to oppress!  The law is supposed to make us a more caring society, not a more obedient one.  Don’t fall into the knee-jerk response of following a practice that goes against your moral instincts, simply because it’s the way it’s always been done; it’s the stock answer, the command of someone you think is God. “Remember,” the midrash is telling us:  “God loves the outcasts!”

The expression “laughing stock” is derived from the idea that the laughter is often an unfiltered, “stock” response, like a “stock answer.”  But the last laugh is on the laugher – because the laugher is the one whose whole life has become “stock”- and stuck.

When we laugh at left shark, or mock the homeless man in Jerusalem, or shun the challenged child, or turn our back on the recent immigrant, or ignore those who are different in any way, or discriminate, or profile, or mindlessly follow the letter of the law, or hit the rock out of anger, we are nurturing our inner Amalek.

When we giggled and gasped at the Vanity Fair cover photo of Caitlin Jenner, we were doing the same.  Though it was understandable that it made so many uncomfortable. 

When people feel uncomfortable, they tend to marginalize and to objectify.  So a serious matter became a circus sideshow and in this country, another name for “side show” is “reality TV.”  Eventually, though, we have to take out the “TV” part, hold up a mirror to ourselves and deal with the reality. 

And the reality is this: All people deserve to be loved, because all are created in God’s image. 

That angel waits to call you from heaven.  Don’t let that knife drop.

After Abraham’s knife was stayed, he saw a ram “caught up in the thicket,” “ne’echaz bas’vach.”  The word s’vach (“thicket”) has connections to the Hebrew word m’subach - “complicated.”   This experience taught Abraham that life is complicated.   And we need strong principles to guide us. The ram’s horn reminds us that human dignity is one of those principles – the dignity of every single human life – that’s what matters.  And so Abraham channeled his inner Sarah, in order to save Isaac and begin the process of slaying of our inner Amalek, for now and forever.   

For, it was that most villainous embodiment of Amalek who himself wrote, in a Munich jail in 1925, long after he outgrew the sandbox, “Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, like circumcision….I am freeing men from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge; from the dirty and degrading modifications of a falsehood called conscience and morality." 

I’ve never quoted “Mein Kampf” in a sermon before.  I guess there is a first for everything.  But I quote him – to kill him.

Since it was Hitler’s struggle to release the world from the “burdens” of morality and restraint, all the more so is it our crusade to reinforce those so-called burdens.  It is our task to champion conscience.  Our struggle – our Kampf – is to subdue that inclination to follow the crowd, to succumb to our first whim and to mindlessly obey the orders of impulse. 

In that way, God willing, may we vanquish Amalek forever from within our hearts.


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