Monday, March 14, 2011

Teach us to Count Our Days Rightly: An Account of the Sharing of an Ethical Will

"Teach us to count our days rightly,

That we may obtain a wise heart."

Psalm 90:12


Recently my extended family gathered for a Bar Mitzvah on the East Coast. About a month before the simchah I sat with my parents and suggested that they consider gathering with the family after Shabbat to have a conversation with family members about end of life issues. This had never been discussed by my parents in any organized way. I thought that this could be an occasion to bring the family closer and to also give them an opportunity to begin preparing an ethical will-Tzeva'ot.


An ethical will is a Jewish tradition that goes all the way back to the patriarch Jacob. In Egypt as he was approaching death, he gathered his children to pronounce his blessings over them and his final wishes. (Genesis 49:1-33). In the middle ages and into modern times, the ethical will has been a feature of Jewish life. In recent years there have appeared a number of books about the writing of ethical wills. In "Let Your Values Live On" by Reimer and Stampfer, we find the will of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon, the translator and friend of Maimonides (about 1190). He writes to his children, "Avoid bad society, make thy books thy companions, let thy book-cases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh. If thy soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from sight to sight. Then will thy desire renew itself, and thy soul be satisfied with delight."


An ethical will is a very special gift a parent can give to children and grandchildren. To prepare one takes a certain degree of courage and a commitment to making time with family to discuss "end of life" issues. I know from rabbinical experience that families can have great difficulty focusing on this discussion. Like other families in America, our family members are widely dispersed and lead very busy lives. But my parents agreed to begin preparing an ethical will and to put their affairs in order to be able to share with all of us essential information. We decided that the family gathering at my nephew's Bar Mitzvah would be a good occasion to start a conversation.


We gathered on Sunday morning in my brother's living room. The three brothers were there with their spouses. Three grandchildren also joined the conversation. My parents began by sharing with us their medical directives, their wills, and other documents. They brought to the gathering a wonderful sense of humor and a certain fearlessness. Much laughter was heard and many tears were shed. The morning culminated with my mother's first draft of her ethical will. She briefly went over our family history including joyful milestones and sorrowful benchmarks. She offered a very moving narrative of her life and ended with these words.


"But the words I want to leave you with are those of gratefulness, appreciation and thankfulness for all that my boys, their wives and children have given me.  I am filled with awe at their accomplishments, their good deeds, their charitable natures to others in need, their awareness of the world around them and their concern for us. And to my love, I can only say there has never been a man to equal you in your tenderness, your thoughtfulness and your caring for me.  You have taught me so much, and for that, I am eternally grateful.  I am so lucky to have found you when I did.  


You all are a blessing in my life and a celebration in my heart."


It was such a special moment, a great gift was given to all of us and we hugged each other for what seemed an eternity. I would ask all my readers to consider doing this process with your family. To some this is very frightening, because it involves imagining the conclusion of our lives. But it is also a time in which to celebrate the enduring ties and legacies of families. During my parent's presentation I looked over at my son and saw the smile on his face and the tear in his eyes. I was so grateful to my parents for giving him this gift and to inspiring me to give this gift to my children at a future time.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Reflections on the Tensions of Rabbinic Leadership




Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers this week on Ki Tisa an wonderful reflection on the nature of rabbinic leadership in his study of Aaron and Moses. I share a paraphrased version of his observations followed by a personal response to his insights.  RDG



Ki Tissa tells of one of the most shocking moments of the forty years in the wilderness when – less than six weeks after the greatest revelation in the history of religion, Israel's encounter with God at Mount Sinai – they made a golden calf. Either this was idolatry or perilously close to it, and it caused God to say to Moses, who was with him on the mountain, "Now do not try to stop Me when I unleash my wrath against them to destroy them" (32: 10).


What is the role played by Aaron in this incident? He who was the de facto leader of the people in the absence of Moses, and it is he whom the Israelites approached with their proposal:


The people began to realize that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, 'Make us a god [or an oracle] to lead us. We have no idea what happened to Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt.' (32: 1)


It was Aaron who should have seen the danger, Aaron who should have stopped them, Aaron who should have told them to wait, have patience and trust. Instead this is what happened:


Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf. Then they said, "'This, Israel, is your god, who brought you out of Egypt,' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord." So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented peace offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. (32: 2-6)


The Torah itself seems to blame Aaron, if not for what he did then at least for what he allowed to happen:


Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. (32: 25)


Keep in mind that Aaron was not an insignificant figure in the Torah. He had shared the burden of leadership with Moses ever since God promised him to help a reluctant Moses back at the burning bush. He had either already become or was about to be appointed High Priest. What then was in his mind while this drama was being enacted?


Essentially there are three lines of defence in the Midrash, the Zohar and the medieval commentators. According to the first, Aaron was playing for time. His actions were a series of delaying tactics. He told the people to take the gold earrings their wives, sons and daughters were wearing, reasoning to himself: "While they are quarrelling with their children and wives about the gold, there will be a delay and Moses will come" (Zohar).


The second defence is to be found in the Talmud and is based on the fact that when Moses departed to ascend the mountain he left not just Aaron but also Hur in charge of the people (Ex. 24: 14). Yet Hur does not figure in the narrative of the golden calf. According to the Talmud, Hur had opposed the people, telling them that what they were about to do was wrong, and was then killed by them. Aaron saw this and decided that proceeding with the making of the calf was the lesser of two evils:


Aaron saw Hur lying slain before him and said to himself: If I do not obey them, they will do to me what they did to Hur, and so will be fulfilled [the fear of] the prophet, "Shall the priest [=Aaron] and the prophet [=Hur] be slain in the Sanctuary of God?" (Lamentations 2: 20). If that happens, they will never be forgiven. Better let them worship the golden calf, for which they may yet find forgiveness through repentance. (Sanhedrin 7a)


The third, argued by Ibn Ezra, is that the calf was not an idol at all, and what the Israelites did was, in Aaron's view, permissible. After all, their initial complaint was, "We have no idea what happened to Moses." They did not want a god-substitute but a Moses-substitute, an oracle, something through which they could discern God's instructions – not unlike the function of the Urim and Tummim that were later given to the High Priest. Ibn Ezra explains the verse that says, , "This is your god who brought you out of Egypt," as the claims of a small minority – – and for them Aaron could not be blamed.


So there is a systematic attempt in the history of interpretation to mitigate or minimise Aaron's culpability – inevitably so, since we do not find explicitly that Aaron was punished for the golden calf. But we come away from these apologetics with the definite impression that Aaron was weak.


"Do not be angry, my lord," Aaron answered. "You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, 'Make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.' So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (32: 22-24)


Aaron blames the people. He suggests he had no choice. He was passive. Things happened. He minimizes the significance of what has transpired. This is weakness, not leadership.


This depiction in the Torah does not square with the way later tradition made Aaron a hero, most famously in the words of Rabbi Hillel quoted in Pirkei Avot:


Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to the Torah. (Avot 1: 12)


There are famous aggadic traditions about Aaron and how he was able to turn enemies into friends and sinners into observers of the law. The Sifra says that Aaron never said to anyone, "You have sinned" – all the more remarkable since one of the tasks of the High Priest was, once a year on Yom Kippur, to atone for the sins of the nation.


Yet these Midrashic flourishes are explicitly absent in the Humash.


We may get more insight from this observation in Talmud Sanhedrin 6b on the topic of the preferability of mediation as opposed to litigation in disputes. The Talmud presents this as a conflict between two role models, Moses and Aaron:


Moses's motto was: Let the law pierce the mountain. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man.


Moses was a man of law, Aaron of mediation . Moses was a man of truth, Aaron of peace. Moses sought justice, Aaron sought conflict resolution. There is a real difference between these two approaches. Truth, justice, law: these are zero-sum equations. If X is true, Y is false. If X is in the right, Y is in the wrong. Mediation, conflict resolution, compromise, the Aaron-type virtues, are all attempts at a non-zero outcome in which both sides feel that they have been heard and their claim has, at least in part, been honoured. The Talmud puts it brilliantly by way of a comment on the phrase:


אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם:

"Judge truth and the justice of peace in your gates" (Zechariah 8: 16):


On this the Talmud asks what the phrase "the justice of peace" can possibly mean. "If there is justice, there is no peace. If there is peace, there is no justice. What is the 'justice of peace'? This means mediation."


Now let's go back to Moses, Aaron and the golden calf. Although it is clear that God and Moses regarded the calf as a major sin, Aaron's willingness to pacify the people – trying to delay them, sensing that if he simply said No they would kill him and make it anyway – was not wholly wrong. To be sure, at that moment the people needed a Moses, not an Aaron. But under other circumstances and in the long run they needed both: Moses as the voice of truth and justice, Aaron with the people-skills to conciliate and make peace.


That is how Aaron eventually emerged in the long hindsight of tradition, as the peace-maker. Peace is not the only virtue, and peacemaking not the only task of leadership. We must never forget that when Aaron was left to lead, the people made a golden calf. But never think, either, that a passion for truth and justice is sufficient. Moses needed an Aaron to hold the people together. In short, leadership is the capacity to hold together different temperaments, conflicting voices and clashing values.


Jonathan Sacks makes a lovely observation to conclude his commentary,


Every leadership team needs both a Moses and an Aaron, a voice of truth and a force for peace.


Rabbi Gartenberg's Conclusion (Mah Nafka Mina)


Rabbi Sacks observations are very pertinent to any congregation seeking rabbinic leadership. The problem is that congregations can't hire both Moshe and Aaron. While every rabbi ought to strive to be a splendid integration of Moshe and Aaron, the truth is that every rabbi leans toward one or the other approach. Rabbis take these roles seriously and try to integrate the two as best as possible. But it is very hard even though congregants expect a lot out of their rabbis; perhaps more than is reasonable.


As TBS searches for a new Rabbi it might be good to ask yourselves whether you need a more priestly Rabbi in the tradition of Aaron, or a prophetic Rabbi in the tradition of Moshe. It is very had to have both in one person. That is a hard question to answer, but worth thinking about to make the best choice possible moving forward.



Rabbi Dov Gartenberg









Wednesday, February 16, 2011

2011-02-11 Catch Me I'm Falling: Judaism and Mental Illness

This sermon is dedicated in memory of Scott Peck who passed away last year and struggled his adult life with serious mental illness. May he be remembered for a blessing.

This is an excerpt from a song from the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Next to Normal called Catch Me, I'm Falling.

Maybe I'll let myself fall

Watch me I'm falling


Maybe the falling

Isn't so bad after all

Isn't so bad after all

Watch me I'm falling

Watch me I'm flying

Somehow surviving

DR. MADDEN (spoken, overlapping)

We may need to look at

A new drug regimen

You have to continue taking medicine


If you leave it untreated, it may be catastrophic.

Diana (spoken)

I've had this lovely and fascinating relationship with you doctors

and your treatments for 16 years but now I think

I'm done.

DR. MADDEN (spoken)

Diana, medicine isn't perfect, but it's what we have.

DIANA (spoken)

Goodbye Dr. Madden.

Diana is a mother who refuses to let go of the illusion that her dead son is still alive after 16 years. She suffers from delusions and depression. They are a very vivid example of our popular culture confronting the impact of mental illness on families.

Our tradition acknowledges the pain and impact of mental illness. As Rabbi Jeffrey Rosen writes,

"All the gates are locked except for the gates of ona'ah [a person crying out in pain]

Baba Metziah 59B

This statement from Baba Metziah poignantly highlights the anguish which is so often felt by

both families and individuals who experience mental illness. Because of the stigma and fears

associated with mental illness, both the person with the disease and their family feel isolated and

shamed. Those who suffer from mental illness often speak of the feeling of being a pariah, of feeling excluded. Of all the parts of the body, the mind is the one least well known – almost as if a line has been drawn across the neck and everything below is researched and the mind is left alone. Only at the end of the twentieth century has any significant money has been applied to brain research." (For a sterling example of education on this matter, see Charlie Rose's The Brain Series)

According to Rabbi Jeffrey Rosen who is also a mental health researcher, mental illness is an equal-opportunity disease knowing no distinction according to wealth, social class or education. One in four families knows the pain when someone in their family experiences serious and prolonged mental illness. One in ten people experiences some form of mental illness in their lives, the most pronounced form being clinical depression, which is a biological disease like diabetes.

If it is true that one in four families are affected by prolonged mental illness, it must be the case that of our 165 households at least 40 would be affected by mental illness. Yet very few people disclose this unique challenge to their rabbis. Many of my colleagues corroborate my experience in synagogues. We generally know when someone has cancer or heart disease or one of many physical ailments, but we hardly hear of congregants suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or the variety of serious mental ailments that can afflict us.

The first onset of mental illness is on average at the age of 18 to 19. In contrast to when a family has a child affected by autism or down syndrome, the condition is identified early in the child's life. Families make painful adjustments in the expectations they have for that child. It is vastly different for the family who experiences mental illness. The child has often travelled through the normal stages of

development with perhaps some minor hiccups. The parents develop dreams – and what good

Jewish parent does not have dreams for their child?

Then suddenly or over time a disabling condition emerges. Their child struggles for years which often includes failure in school, difficulties with peers, or maladaptive behavior. These require seeking the right medical help, trying to find the right medications, treatment, or even special programs that deal with the illness. Families spend years living on the treatment roller coaster as a family member goes in and out of hospitals and treatment facilities. This also places enormous financial strain on families which discover that mental illness is not covered in the way that physical illness is.

Meanwhile the mentally ill person struggles to live a normal life, or even pursue ambitious goals, but is often waylaid by a depression or psychosis. In unfortunately many cases the mental illness are so debilitating that a person's dreams are shattered and he is unable to live a normal life.

Next to Normal gives testimony to the long struggle that a family faces as the mother goes up and down while the father and the daughter struggle to maintain.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a term used to describe a group of disorders causing severe disturbances in

thinking, feeling and/or relating. Often the result is a substantially diminished capacity for

coping with the ordinary demands of life. The causes of mental illness are not fully understood.

The evidence shows that the brain's neurotransmitters do not function properly due to a

chemical imbalance in the brain. This is comparable to other imbalances that cause illnesses in

other parts of the body. Other factors which may contribute in vulnerable people include

heredity and stress, and the use of 'recreational drugs', alcohol, or tramua of various kinds.

There are different types of mental illness. They differ in their symptoms, their degree of

severity, and their effects on each person's life. The effect is not only on the person but those

around them, the family as well as the work environment. Schizophrenia is not multiple

personality disorder but rather a situation where the person has delusions and hallucinations

and is often coupled with paranoia. One person in a hundred experiences schizophrenia. The

mood disorders include mania, manic depression and clinical depression (which is different from

episodal depression). One in ten people experiences clinical depression in their lifetime. Among

all psychiatric disorders, people suffering depression are most prone to suicide, Anxiety

disorders cover a wide range of mental illnesses and include phobias, general anxiety disorder,

panic disorders, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress. Approximately one

in twelve people are affected by one of the anxiety disorders.

Adding together these proportions, we discern that approximately one in every five people

experiences one form of mental illness or another. The cost to society due to lost wages,

demands on health care systems, social service needs, etc. are enormous, and in the United States

have been estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Since the causes of mental illness are not fully known, there is little effective prevention.

As with diabetes and many other physical diseases, many symptoms of mental illness can be

controlled with medication, and there is an ever-widening array of medications available for

mental illness. While drugs are not cures, they markedly reduce symptoms for most people.

Research to determine the causes and to plan strategies for prevention and rehabilitation are

progressing. Proper treatment may substantially improve the functioning of persons with these

illnesses, and in some cases the patient may completely recover.

A Jewish Understanding of Mental Illness

Rabbi Rosen helps us to understand the challenge of mental illness in his retelling of the famous Talmudic story of the four rabbis who enter 'pardes'. Just as Ben Azzai, Ben Zomma, Elisha ben Abuya and Rabbi Akiba experienced different outcomes in paradise; there are different possible outcomes for the person experiencing mental illness. Rabbi Akiba represents those who recover completely (about one-third of people who experience schizophrenia only have one episode); Ben Zoma may symbolize those who can be part of society with the help of medication while suffering periodic breakdowns and disruptions to their lives. Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuye symbolizes those who live, but suffer chronically and whose outlook on life has changed permanently from their illness. Ben Azzai who died upon reaching paradise represents those who and some never return from their own

world to be part of ours.

Theologically we all struggle when these diseases occur. It is obviously not a struggle between

the Yetzer Hara [evil inclination] and the Yetzer Tov [good inclination]. The biological process

which leads to mental illness is something over which the person has no control. We think of the

world as something created by God, but left in human hands. Chemical imbalances and genetic

predisposition to mental illness are unfortunate realities of this imperfect world. Maimonides understood this reality of the world as" kminhago ha'olam nohag. - The world continues according to its way." While God created the Universe and watches over it, God lets things progress, including genetic change.

How then should we be sensitive to mental illness in our congregation and in communal Jewish life? Our tradition challenges us to bring all Jews into the community of Israel. The Jewish community has made improvements in supporting people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. But we have not been so effective with persons with mental illness. It is only when we confront the stigmas of our society that we will enable the days of the messiah to approach, for our congregations will be a 'house of prayer for all peoples'7 without discrimination and open to Klal Yisrael.

As someone who has experienced severe mental illness in my family, I have as a rabbi tried to model a specific rabbinic response to mental illness. These insights I share with Rabbi Rosen.

• be an information and referral source;

• let the family know they are not alone;

• avoid being judgmental;

• refrain from offering simplistic solutions to complex problems;

• be supportive of the entire family, including those members who infrequently come to

services, as these are the people who may feel the most isolated;

• encourage the family to continue to be a part of congregational life.

On a congregational level, we need to be compassionate. That is why it is important that we have a Hevrat Hesed in the congregation to help families facing both physical and mental illness. One example in mental illness cases is providing meals for a family in which a family member is hospitalized for a mental illness. Oftentimes these stays are longer than hospital stays for other types of illnesses, thus the strain on families is greater.

Congregants should encourage fellow congregants who suffer from mental illness or their families to come to speak to the Rabbi and to come to worship and other gatherings at the synagogue. Be a companion, offer an ear, discourage isolation and negativity.

In the Book of Genesis, we read the story of the three angels visiting Abraham and Sarah. The

story is poignant and we think more about the message that the messengers brought to this

couple. Perhaps more important is what was going on with Sarah and Abraham. According to

the Rabbis, Abraham is recovering from his recent circumcision. Abraham is sitting at the tent

door in the heat of the day when he looks up and sees three strangers. He welcomes the

travellers without preconditions and does not ask their yichus [a Yiddish expression implying a

mixture of social status, wealth and genealogy]. We are challenged to open the doors of our

synagogues to all and offer a place ''at the table' just as Abraham did.

Also in Genesis we read: 'Shall not the Judge of all the world, judge justly?' The story revolves

around how the people of Sodom and Gomorrah treated strangers or visitors. The Rabbis

suggest that the punishment of destructions was meted out because there was no hospitality

shown by those who lived there. Hospitality takes many forms. The most obvious is that given to

the wayfarer. So many of those who experience mental illness are also 'strangers within your

gates', for even if we once knew them they are strangers to us now. Some of that change is due to

their experiences with mental illness; some is just the normal growing process each of us

experiences. Our challenge is not to be like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah but to offer

hospitality and openness to each person who enters our doors.

Mental Illness is not just a lack of willpower but rather something which demands justice as well

as a just response.

I end with the poignant cry of the mother, Diana, in Next to Normal. Her cry is the cry of the mentally ill. We need to heighten our awareness of their suffering and work together to reduce this unique type of pain.

Catch me I'm falling

Catch me I'm falling

Flying head first into fate

Catch me I'm falling

Please hear me calling

Catch me before it's too late

Catch me before it's too late

Catch me before it's too late

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt's Revolution: It is Not about Us

Posted on Facebook by an Israeli:
“Dear Egyptian rioters, please don't damage the pyramids. We will not rebuild. Thank you.”

This brief message went viral, at least in Israel and the Jewish world. I had a good laugh, but after a few days something gnawed at me. First, the reference to Egyptian rioters seemed way off base. The protests in Egypt have been markedly devoid of rioting and violence up to this point. The massive gatherings at Tahrir square have been unusual in the commitment to non violence by the protesters and in the clarity of their demands for democracy and the end of dictatorship.

Second, and noted by many reporters, Israel is not in the forefront of the protesters consciousness, far overshadowed by the demonstrators' concerns about the state of their own country. Yes, there will be implications for Israel down for the line if there is regime change, but it appears that these outpourings originate in the internal politics and social realities of Egyptians and their relationship to their government.

Third, the viral message is striking in its Jewish ethnocentrism. We are taught from childhood that the Jew will not go back down to Egypt to become a slave to Pharoah again. It is completely understandable why a Jew would say this because our central narrative is about gaining our freedom from Egyptian enslavement through God's liberating miracles. God brought us out of Egypt, the ancient embodiment of tyranny and cruelty, to become a free people serving only the God of Israel.

Every national culture has it's own narrative, its story of origin and uniqueness. It is so often the case that our national narratives do not mesh, This is a source of great misunderstanding between cultures. Egyptians have trouble understanding Americans, or Americans cannot 'get' Chinese and so forth.

I think the fascinating issue for Jews in light of the Egyptian revolution is that we have no place in our own narrative for Egyptians rising up for their own freedom in the face of their autocrats. This does not make sense given our own narrative of the passivity of the Egyptian people before Pharaoh. Our narrative is dependent on the memory of an Egyptian ruler, cruel and powerful, who is ultimately humiliated by God and who is forced to let the people of Israel go. Can you imagine Egyptians singing in Tahrir square, "Let my people go!"

My observations are not geopolitical, but cultural. But they are important for understanding the Israeli and widespread Jewish distrust of the popular uprising against Mubarak. We don't have in our narrative a place for an Egyptian lover of democracy and freedom. We assume that Egyptians are all Islamicists and seek an Islamic Republic. Or we would prefer for the sake of the peace treaty that the regime remain stable and in full control.

But what I think is necessary is some empathy for the huge crowds of peaceful protesters who come from every sector of Egyptian society. Today Mubarak stepped down as the new narrative of the Egyptian revolution continues to evolve right before the world's eye. A new narrative is being born, one we hope leads Egypt and its people to true freedom, democracy, tolerance, and rights.

Jews have valued freedom for over 3000 years and have through our narrative refined the gifts of freedom which are deeply embedded in our culture. We should take a moment to step out of our narrative and our understandable anxiety about the future to appreciate the momentous and hopefully lasting narrative of freedom emerging from the people of Egypt.

In the Torah we read the instructions of freedom .
You shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow's raiment to pledge. (Deut. 24:17

But the Torah then refers back to the narrative of the Jewish people
But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. (Deut 24:18)

May the new Egyptian narrative of freedom, just as our own narrative, serve as a touchstone for a more just, fair, and free society.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jacob's Bucket List

Jacob's Bucket List

In this week's portion, Vayigash, Jacob is told by his sons, "Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt." (Gen 45:26). Jacob, who thought Joseph was dead for years, is transformed. He says to his sons, 'Enough!' (rav)said Israel. 'My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.'"

Robert Alter in his commentary on the Torah writes, "The brief seizure that Jacob has just undergone is of course evidence of his physical frailty. Jacob's story, like David's is virtually unique in ancient literature in its searching representation of the radical transformation a person undergoes in the slow course of time. The powerful young man who made his way across the Jordan to Mesopotamia with only his walking staff, who wrestled with stones and men and divine beings, is now an old man tottering on the brink of the grave, bearing the deep wounds of a long life."

In Jacob's advanced age he discovers a lost treasure. When presented with the revelation of his son's existence, he does not hesitate to make a move. He must make the long dangerous journey to Egypt to see his son before he dies. This is astounding coming from Jacob who is failing in health, who knows he will die soon.

The Torah teaches us to value special moments when we can recover lost objects, rediscover hidden treasures, find yearned for concealments. This is Torah's teaching about spiritual alertness. Growing older affords us the opportunity to more readily know what is important, what is lost and what is found. We modern Americans call this "a bucket list" as if the we have a bucket full of diminishing opportunities to experience before our ends. . But the Torah spells out this moment with the word "rav". One commentary translate it as "Enough". Another translater suggests "So much". Rav means in Hebrew great or much. Jacob is saying to all. "So many feelings at this moment. So much lost and squandered time, so many hopeless seasons."

In a moments notice we can understand the necessities of our lives. One of my teachers said spiritual awareness is not like a crossing a bridge, but walking through a shattered wall. It is sudden, shocking, and the moment requires our full attention and decisiveness.

May we be worthy to have such moments in our lives and have the courage to move forward with determination as Jacob/Israel does in our portion.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Friday, November 12, 2010

Past Good Deeds Reappear
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Genesis 12:8. And he (Abraham) moved from there to a mountain in the east of Beth-El, and pitched his tent, having Beth-El on the west, and Hai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord.

Genesis 28:10. And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.
11. And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; 14. And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you.
16. And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. 17. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. 18. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon its top. 19. And he called the name of that place Beth-El; but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.

Midrashic tradition claims that Jacob revisited the place where Abraham pitched his tent, built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord. In this week's portion Jacob stays in Beth El for the night and sleeps on one of the stones and dreams a momentous dream. He was not aware of God's presence and apparently he was unaware of Abraham's previous act. Sometimes the good that we do reappears later in unforeseen ways. That happened this week to me.

When I was a seventeen in Redlands, California I heard about a "Big Brother" program for teens to mentor younger boys who did not have fathers in their lives. I signed up for the program and was assigned to mentor a 5 year old Hispanic boy in the projects. I saw him every week and played with him and took him on trips with my family and friends. I stayed in touch with him when I went to college, but lost contact after a few years.

My time with William was very important to me because it made me realize many of my ideals and passions in life. I discovered my love of teaching, mentoring, and fathering. My experience with him also had a direct influence on my eventual choice to become a rabbi.

On Wednesday of this week I was in Seattle taking my son, Moriel on a day trip. I had come up to help a family with the funeral of their beloved father/husband. Rob Bernstein died too young at 57. He was a tremendous father and husband. I admired his fathering, especially for his wonderful playfulness with and attention to his children who have grown into fine human beings.

I was doing my own fathering up in Seattle. Everytime I visit I spend a day with my son, who lives in a group home. He is autistic and needs full time attention. I love to be with him and give him my full attention. Here is a picture from our trip to Whidbey island taken by a friend, Mayim Nickerson.

On the way back to Seattle with Mori I noticed an email on my Iphone from a William Garcia. I recognized the name as the 5 year old boy who I mentored as a Big Brother when I was 17. I called him immediately and had a most amazing 1/2 an hour conversation. I learned about his life, his family. He told me the huge impact I had played in his life, providing a father figure at a vulnerable time. I told him how my time with him had inspired me to later become a father and Rabbi. William told me that he had found me on Facebook. There was a 36 year hiatus in our relationship, but thanks to Facebook, we were able to reconnect. Despite my recent critical High Holiday sermon about Facebook, there are amazing ways it can reconcile and reconnect people in ways unimaginable years ago.

As Mori and I got on the Cathlamet Ferry back to Edmonds I sat with him as the sun set over the Olympics in the West and reflected about fathering, being a rabbi, and the beautiful fatherhood of Rob Bernstein. I thanked God for bringing William back into my life and keeping Mori in mine and the hidden and revealed legacies of good fatherhood in the world. I thought about Rob's beautiful legacy. I thought about Yakov returning to Beth El and sleeping in the place where Abraham pitched his tent, made an altar, and called on the name of the Lord. Past good deeds do reappear when you least expect them and remind you where you started.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On the 15th Anniversary of the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

On the 15th Anniversary of the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

"You don't make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies." (Yitzhak Rabin)

This next week Israel marks the 15th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's (za'l) assassination at the hands of an Israeli nationalist settler. This was a tragedy and trauma for the entire Jewish people. Even if one did not support Rabin's policies as prime minister, the use of violence to alter a democratic form of government is an extremist anti-democratic act. Israeli democracy has survived the trauma, but it has left lots of scars and even a few festering sores.

I bring Rabin's well known quote because I think it is still true. Peace remains elusive in the Middle East. Rabin, in my opinion, demonstrated the courage to forge the prospects of peace despite years of bitter war and terror. He did foster a dialogue with the Palestinians, which while badly frayed, continues to this day. Rabin was credible because he was a warrior. He was a leading general of the IDF and had fought in all of Israel's wars of its first two decades. He was a tough leader, but as a peace maker he commanded credibility.

He also aroused harsh venom of his Israeli enemies, especially the extremist Jewish settlers and the National Religious right. In 1994, the year after the Oslo accords and the year before his assassination, I had a sabbatical in Israel with my family. I recall the incendiary posters in every Jerusalem neighborhood depicting Rabin, the prime minister, in Nazi uniform or wearing the kafiyeh of a Palestinian terrorist. Settler Rabbis and extremists were calling for violent resistance and dramatic acts. I remember the vitriolic and irresponsible statements of various politicians during this period. When Rabin was assassinated the next year, I was beside myself, but not surprised given the ominous political atmosphere that I witnessed in Israel in the months prior to the tragic event.

Democracies are vulnerable when the political dialogue become poisonous, venomous, and demagogic. I see some worrisome signs in our own political culture, especially in the extreme and outlandish characterizations of President Obama. It is one thing to oppose his policies, it is another to call him a Muslim in order to manipulate prejudices, to gain votes, or to create general hysteria.

We still do not fully appreciate the historical legacy of Yitzhak Rabin and his unfortunate end. His death was a national and historic tragedy. It will take years to fathom all the implications of his assassination as dramatic events continue to unfold in Israel and the Middle East. We can only hope that the trauma of his last day will be an eternal warning to the Jewish people not to resort to a violence between Jew and Jew. We can only hope that Israel will be fortunate to be led by courageous and wise leaders who can negotiate the tricky and complicated paths to maintain its security and well being.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Friday, October 22, 2010

God Will Wait!

Greater is Hospitality to Wayfarers than Receiving the Divine Presence.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Parshat Vayera 10/22/10
14 Heshvan, 5771

This week we are living with Parshat Vaera, one of the great portions of the Torah. It includes the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the trials of Hagar and Yishmael, and the promise, birth, and the binding of Isaac. These chapters have received the attention of scholars, poets, musicians, and artists for centuries. I will add my small contribution by focusing this week on the beginning chapter, 18. Here are the first four verses.

1. And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground, 3. And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I beseech you, from your servant;4. Let a little water, I beseech you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree;

In this text, we see Abraham getting up (he was actually hobbled from his circumcision according to Rashi) to greet the guests who we learn later are angels sent by God. The bolded "My Lord" is the word in Hebrew, "Adonai", not spelled with the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God, but the Hebrew word alef dalet nun, yud, which actually means "my Lords" or "my Sirs". In Tractate Shevu'ot in the Talmud there is a debate on how to read this word. I bring the passage with footnotes from the Soncino translation of the Talmud.

"All the Names mentioned in Scripture in connection with Abraham are sacred, except this which is secular: it is said; And he said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sigh.8 Hanina, the son of R. Joshua's brother, and R. Eleazar b. Azariah in the name of R. Eliezer of Modin, said, this also is sacred.9 With whom will [the following] agree? Rab Judah said that Rab said: Greater is hospitality to wayfarers than receiving the Divine Presence. With whom [will this agree]? With this pair.10"
 (8) Gen. XVIII, 3; Abraham was addressing the chief of the three men who came towards him: according to midrash they were the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
(9) He was addressing the Lord.
(10) R. Hanina and R. Eleazar who say that Abraham addressed the Lord, asking Him not to withdraw His Presence while he entertained the angels.

One view in the Talmud text sees "Adonai" as 'my sirs', which means that Abraham is talking to the men (angels). The other view is that Adonai is actually God, the same God who appeared to Abraham is being addressed by Abraham. Those who hold this view come up with a famous Talmudic and Jewish saying, " "Greater is hospitality to wayfarers than receiving the Divine Presence." Abraham has the Hutzpah to ask God who appeared to him to wait while he entertains his guests (who ironically are angels sent by God).

As many of you know, hospitality is my signature mitzvah, my most beloved mitzvah. I have emphasized this mitzvah in encouraging our members to host Shabbat dinners at home and at synagogue. I believe that this mitzvah is our "holy entertainment", our way of receiving people and sharing the holiness of Shabbat. God so loves this mitzvah, that he waits for Abraham to fulfill it.

My philosophy of community is centered on fostering a welcoming and inviting atmosphere that emphasizes the joy of Judaism and the joy of Shabbat. I think this one of the core teachings and practices of what it means to be a Jew. Without it our synagogues and homes lose the spark that make Judaism distinctive, beautiful, and attractive as a religious tradition. Consider making your home and our shul more welcoming. Make your table a place for celebration and welcoming guests. God will wait and actually if you notice carefully, will be in the room as you celebrate.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Learn with Me: Two Worthy Torah Commentaries

Two Rich Sources of Torah Insight for 5771/2010-11
Rabbi Gartenberg

Each year, as the Torah reading cycle starts anew I try to set aside time to study at least a commentary on the Torah I have not yet studied. This year I have chosen two commentaries, both modern, but very different. The first are the current writings of the brilliant Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. He has a weekly commentary on the Torah portion called "Covenant and Conversation" and a recent hard cover book with essays of his weekly commentaries on the Book of Genesis. I will be sharing insights from Rabbi Sacks on Shabbat mornings. You can directly access his illuminating writings on the weekly Torah portion at: You can follow his writings portion by portion. I encourage you to read along with me. I am also glad to sit with anyone to study these lovely writings filled with insight.

For this week I will be referring to a beautiful presentation on Noach. Look at this one by clicking on the link:

The second commentary I am studying is by a great and recently deceased Hasidic master,
R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000) who wrote Netivot Shalom (Paths of Peace). Here is a brief description of R. Shalom Noach's approach to illuminating the Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Slater,

I bring you a sample of R. Shalom Noach's insight on this week's portion, Noah. You may recall my Yom Kippur sermon on surfing. I think Reb Shalom Noach has some great insight about getting through hard times. I also point your attention to the underlined section below. On Sunday, Nov. 17th we begin the Mitzvah Initiative which will focus on the notion of Signature Mitzvah-what Reb Shalom Noach calls being fully devoted to one thing. This is a particularly striking description of what it means to be devoted to one Mitzvah that can define our lives. For more information about the Mitzvah Initiative go to:

"There is yet another matter that we are to learn from the story of Noah’s Ark. The Torah is instruction for life, teaching each individual how to live. We might fall to a degree that we are like the generation of the Flood (in which the earth had become corrupt before God). We look at ourselves and see that we have sunk to the lowest depths, and are completely disfigured, the corruption surrounding our little world completely. Similarly, it may be that the whole of the Jewish people have fallen to such a low state. The response to this: “make yourself an ark”. Understand this in light of the teaching of my master, the tzaddik, the author of Birkat Avraham, on the verse (Ps. 37:10): “A little longer and there will be no wicked man (od me’at ve’ein rasha); [you will look at where he was— he will be gone]”. In every Jew there is some small bit that is still not bad (od me’at ve’ein rasha), a small portion of vitality due through which one is able to turn back and build one’s spiritual world once again. How loving of God to have planted in us even one spark from above from which we gain incomparable powers. No matter how coarse we may have become, it is in our power to rise up due to that spark in us.

That spark, that little bit that has still not become bad, can be a Noah’s Ark to save us from a generation like that of the Flood. This is the quality of being fully devoted to one thing (chasid ledavar echad), where we have one particular practice that we uphold and preserve no matter what, even in the worst possible circumstances, never turning back…. This can be likened to someone who is drowning in the sea, and a plank from the sunken ship floats by, which saves him. If we have even one thing that we keep with all of our might, no matter what, we can be saved from even the worst possible situations…. God gave us the power to choose and thereby implanted incomparable power in us, so that even in the worst situations (even when “The earth becomes corrupt before God”), we have the power to return to our root-source, which serves as our “Noah’s Ark”…. (Translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Anti Social

Followup about Facebook

I came across this new computer application yesterday which caused me to laugh.

"Anti-Social is a neat little productivity application for Macs that turns off the social parts of the internet. When Anti-Social is running, you’re locked away from hundreds of distracting social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and other sites you specify. With Anti-Social, you’ll be amazed how much work you get done when you turn off your friends."

Please read my High Holiday sermon about Too Many Friends on the theme of Facebook and Jewish notions of friendship. "Turn off your friends" used to have different connotations, but I sounds like social networks are getting out to control. As someone who writes a lot, I have had to learn some anti-social behavior. It used to be turning off the phone. Now it is turning off social network sites so I don't have to see what my "friends" are doing every minute of their days.

Speaking of Facebook, I saw Social Network on Sunday night. The film conveys the irony that the Facebook revolution was brought about by the genius and anti-social behavior of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Even though the movie is fictional, it entertains by depicting the Facebook creator as a jerk who is self-serving, who runs through relationships like an icebreaker in the Arctic. The essential value that triumphs is the instrumental use of others for one's purposes. See below for a Jewish view that refuses to countenance instrumentality in relationships.

Recent sermon on Facebook

Too Many Friends

First Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 5771/2010

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

The other day I looked at my Facebook page. Facebook, for those who do not use computers, is an internet social network website with 500 million users. Facebook users can add people as friends and send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves. On a Facebook page you receive suggestions about people, using the parlance of our time, that you can ‘friend’.

The singer-songwriter, Debbie Friedman, appeared on my Facebook page as a prospective friend. Debbie and I have many ‘Facebook Friends’ in common. Since I have known Debbie since the 80s, I clicked on her photo to add her as a friend and got this message from Facebook. “Debbie Friedman has too many friends.”

It certainly is a milestone in the internet era when Facebook decides you have too many friends. That means you have 5000 friends, the trigger for the “too many friends” message. While social scientists tell us that the human brain can only sustain approximately 150 stable social relationships, friendship in the Facebook age has been totally redefined. One feature of the Facebook age is the rise of the social network of friends, a group of dozens, hundreds, or thousands who you communicate and share information with over the internet on a regular basis.

This change in the way people see social relations is aided by the ease in which we can maintain social relations with modern technology. Consider these advances.

I can skype my family and friends across continents. The limit of voice only communication has been overcome with the widely available technology to see and hear the person on your computer screen wherever she is. Connections are instantaneous, virtual, and visible and soon coming to your cellphone. (Imagine if Yosef and Yaakov had Skype during those 21 years of separation)
I can meet, befriend, and even establish relationships on the internet with its unique power of sites to filter and organize information. Most of the weddings I do these days are with couples who met on internet dating sites like Jdate or Sites like Jdate create a virtual social gathering where you meet people with likeminded interests. (Imagine if Samson had Jdate. He would have not had to date hostile Phillistine femme fatales.)
I can send tweets of 140 words about anything I want to my followers. This is why we had such a large counter rally earlier this year when we were picketed by a virulently anti-Semitic group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The hundred plus counter demonstrators used Twitter and Facebook to notify people of the picketing. Text messaging enables instantaneous organizing which explains why repressive governments make this technology illegal. (What would have happened if Moshe could tweet during his confrontations with Pharoah. “Frogs hopping, stay inside!”)
Speed Friending: It easy to make friends and to make them fast. The Facebook age is the quickened process for meeting, friending, and relating to others. Previous impediments of place, social circles, age hardly matter.
Friendship as a commodity. With Facebook we have the ability to quantify our friendships. Like anything quantifiable, people attach prestige and the aura of success based on accumulations like we do with money and things. Therefore a person who has 3000 friends is somehow better than someone who has 25.
Friendship can even become a fantasy. I can create a new identity on sites like Second Life in the form of an avatar and seek out virtual relationships with other avatars. We can now have fantasy friendships.

Even with all the social benefits that come with the Facebook Age, our tradition teaches us to be skeptical of the false gods that are promoted in every generation. Our generation is no different. Jewish teachings on friendship question the promises and allure of connection in the Facebook age. The Jewish understanding does not stem from a Luddite hatred of technology, but a wise view on the nature and limits of true friendship.

Consider this passage in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages), “Get yourself a friend.” Kneh Lecha Haver.

Pirkei Avot is a compendium of the moral and spiritual wisdom from the Rabbis of antiquity. It establishes a fact about friendship. You have to make an effort to make and sustain friendships. The attachment of friendship is a good. But how do we acquire a friend?

A commentary to Pirkei Avot elaborates. To acquire a friend “implies that a person is to get himself a companion who will eat with him, drink with him, read Scripture with him, study Mishnah with him, sleep next to him, and disclose all his secrets to him, secrets of Torah and secrets of worldly matters. Thus, when the two sit and occupy themselves with Torah, if one errs in Halakhah or in the substance of a chapter……his companion will bring him back [to right thinking], as is said, ‘Two are better than one, in that they have greater benefit from their labor’ (Eccles. 4:9). Avot 1:6; ARN 8.

The first on the list is eating and drinking together. That’s hard to do on the internet. What it means is face time. This seems obvious to us Neanderthals who lived before cyber reality, but no champion of virtual relationships can convince me that you can really befriend someone without face time. Physical presence is necessary for friendship to blossom.

This is how we can understand our text’s comment about the need to sleep next to one another. I don’t understand this in the erotic sense, but rather that friendship develops only after significant time, not just high moments, but of long hours of low energy, or simply being around each other in the unfolding of daily life.

Friending takes time. You can’t get around this. This text suggests that friending is a slow process of accumulated time spent getting to know another. Perhaps you have heard of the ‘Slow Eating’ Movement. The idea is to create an alternative to the fast food culture with the intention of restoring relaxed, healthy, and social gathering to the act of eating. Judaism offers the way of slow friending as an alternative to the contemporary culture’s embrace of fast friending or instantaneous social networking.

A friend according to the text is someone who sharpens my understanding. Thus the Havruta, the study partner, has the role of correcting his or her partner. But this correcting is face to face. One of the unfortunate features of the internet age is the ease, in which we can criticize, berate, and flame people without seeing their faces.

I read a story recently about the decline of social amity among college freshman roommates. It appears that the internet generation has lost the ability to resolve roommate conflicts through face to face discussion. The article reports that more often than not roommates in conflict resort to email or Facebook page confrontations. College officials note that this reliance on internet communications leads to higher rates of conflict in which dorm RAs are forced to intervene to resolve.

The power of internet communications to create havoc and destroy relationships is all around us, even in synagogue life in which I have seen all too many times relationships torn asunder by nasty and accusatory emails. The Internet is as destabilizing of relationships and communities as it is constructive in speeding communications and collaboration.

People use the internet to express anger or criticism, because it is easier to communicate this way than face to face. But real friendship or resolution of conflict is best resolved face to face as the commentary to Pirkei Avot points out. Face to face correction allows people in strained relationships to take in all emotional and sensory inputs and to apply some self-restraint in the delivery of criticism and the response to it.

What have we learned about Jewish views of friendship?

Friendship doesn’t just happen. It requires effort, significant together time, and physical presence. Friendship requires periods of unrushed, non-instrumental time, the suspension of the regular marketplace and working conditions we live in during most of our week and most of our lives. Jewish tradition teaches that when we alter our pace of life on a regular basis we create the conditions for true friendship to flourish.

True friendship involves the ability to lovingly disagree or criticize our friends. Jewish sources see friendship as more than sharing information or personal chemistry. Friendship develops from time spent together engaged in a mutually shared common pursuit in which two persons acquire wisdom, pursue a common cause, or share a common life. To really live we must be open to challenging and questioning each other in the pursuit of truth and understanding.

The internet technologies of the 21st century are truly amazing and bring many benefits. Many of us love our gadgets and the amazing things they do. But I am a great believer in the Jewish teaching of slow and honest friendship remains true despite all the allure of new social technologies.

Jewish notions of friendship should instill in us wariness about the claims and promises of technologically driven relationships. Our tradition wisely identifies the conditions for establishing enduring, deep, and meaningful relationships and friendships.

On this Rosh Hashannah we begin the effort to make Teshuvah-to repair the most important relationships in our lives. This is the time when we should also give attention to our dearest friends. Perhaps we have neglected them. Perhaps we have been unkind. Perhaps we have taken them for granted. Make Teshuvah with your friends, not by email or Facebook, but face to face if you can, or at least with a phone or a skype call. This is no idle matter. The Rabbis were fond of saying. Havruta or Mituta. Friendship or Death. Without true friendship it is as if we are dead.

It is therefore not surprising to understand that Jewish tradition conceives of the human and divine relationship as a friendship. True, on the Days of Awe we depict God as a King or a Father, but on Shabbat we sing to God as a Yedid Nefesh-the friend of our soul. Can we indeed ‘friend’ God? Not on Facebook and not in the impoverished way our age understands friendship. Rather to friend God is to know that God desires true and enduring human fellowship and friendship. By cultivating authentic friendship we imitate God and also create the opportunity to friend God in our quest for the most enduring relationship possible.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Apikorus of Vilna: The Middle Ground for Religious and Cultural Jews

The Apikorus of Vilna: The Middle Ground for Religious and Cultural Jews
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, 12/13/08, Temple Beth Shalom of Long Beach

In our portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure at night. In his victorious struggle, Jacob receives a new name: Yisrael. “For you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:29) Many commentators have pointed out the implications of this name. Jews carry on Jacob’s heritage of God wrestling. God is at the center of our religion and our tradition, yet our collective and individual relationships with God are not characterized by a blind or unquestioning faith. Jewish wrestling with God takes many forms and has many results.
Last Shabbat as a Shabbat animator, I was asked to wrestle and lead a conversation with this question: Can you be a good Jew and not believe in God? There were people at the table struggling with this question. It is a good Jewish question. Why? Jews are more concerned about goodness than belief in God. Being good is crucial in a world more than the belief in God’s goodness. The Talmud has a famous passage to suggest that it is better spurn God than to spurn his commandments. This is because doing the commandments produces concrete good in the world, but belief in God does not necessarily lead to this.
The Jewish preoccupation with good behavior over proper belief is illustrated in this story from the old country.
An apikorus (a blasphemer) from Yennesvelt had heard of the great Apikorus of Vilna. Like all good Jews he wanted to ‘kaneh lecha rav’-acquire a master teacher for himself. He decided to travel to Vilna to learn from the great Apikorus of Vilna. He chose to visit him on the holiest day of the year when he imagined his heroic master would be engaged in the most astonishing apikorsus imaginable. So he packed his wagon and traveled to Vilna, spending most of Yom Kippur on the road. He ate his pork sandwiches on the way reveling in his anticipated encounter with the great apikorus.
When he reached Vilna, he kept asking the irritated religious Jews on his way where he could find the Apikorus of Vilna. They curtly pointed toward the city center, wishing to avoid contact with this small town apikorus who gleefully showed contempt for them and their holy day. When he reached city center, he was directed toward the Grand Synagogue of Vilna. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt was perplexed what his hero would be doing at the Grand Synagogue, but he thought it must be completely outrageous.
When he walked into the Grand Synagogue at the hour of Neilah he discovered that the Apikorus of Vilna was in front of the congregation, draped in Tallit, serving as Shaliah Tzibbur for the holiest service of the year. The scene was astonishing: The Apikorus of Vilna chanted the prayers with fervor, the congregation wept in prayer, and the room was filled with yearning and hope. Our Apikorus of Yennesvelt was completely stunned, unable to comprehend why the most famous Jewish blasphemer was leading the holiest service of the year.
When the service ended with the dramatic Shofar blasts and people with shining faces left extending greetings of Shanah Tovah, our apikorus made his way to the Bimah to confront his hero. He reached the Apikorus of Vilna as he was folding his beautiful tallis into his bag and eating a morsel to end his fast. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt confronted him: “How can you, an apikorus’ lead the Neilah service at Yom Kippur?” The Apikorus of Vilna smiled and gave his pupil the first lesson in apikorsus. “The difference between you and me is simple. I am an apikorus. You are an am Haaretz (an ignoramus). “
This old story from the late 19th century Eastern Europe helps to answer our question. Yes, you can be a good Jew and not believe in God. The reason is that Judaism does not focus on proper belief, but on mitzvot and actions that improve the human condition. Moreover, an apikorus despite his doubt in God can see in certain aspects of religious life specific goods and needs that should be honored. Does he think his prayers will be heard by God? Maybe not. But the Neilah service helps people to be hopeful about their lives and to feel connected to each other. So it is a good to be honored and supported.
Upon deeper reflection on our story suggests a couple of things about the tradition of skepticism in Judaism. A skeptical (apikorus) Jews could be both a learned and practicing Jew. At the very least the skeptical apikorus had a profound respect for the religious traditions and behaviors and often could be an exemplary practitioner, an observant Jew in every respect.
Another revealing side of the story is that the Apikorus of Vilna was given the honor of leading the holiest service of the year in a religious community. The implication is that this religious community held this man in the highest esteem, since traditionally the person chosen to be Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) for the Days of Awe was chosen from among the most respected persons in the community (He was not necessarily a professional Hazzan as is contemporary practice.) The religious community depicted in our story is also tolerant and lives by a broader standard of what a good person is.
There was a rich middle ground in Jewish life recalled by this story which seems harder to achieve, in our own times, but is a worthy goal. One of the sad realities of contemporary synagogue life is the loss of this middle ground in which religious and cultural Jews interacted and shared a common way of life. But I believe that recreating this rich middle ground is critical for Conservative synagogues and the spiritual life they aspire to. Let me share with you briefly a number of approaches how we might help create and sustain this middle ground in our congregation.
1. Emphasize within the congregation Judaism’s imperative to pursue the good and to practice Hesed-kindness regardless of whether you believe in God or not.
2. The life of mitzvot is the Jewish way of focusing on individual and collective practice on living a good life and finding a common language for doing so. Can we restore to centrality the life of mitzvah as the common language and way of Jews regardless of whether we are ‘religious or cultural’?
3. Give reasons for doing mitzvot that integrate religious and humane motivations. People who do not believe can be moved by cultural, psychological and humanistic reasons for doing mitzvot. We can encourage people to do Shabbat to respect the environment, make quality time for friends and family, avoid enslavement to our working lives, and express gratitude to those we love as well as to frame this holy day as a Day for the Lord.
4. Help people to gain depth and knowledge of practices that reduce embarrassment and increase meaningful participation and a sense of the broad commitment to goodness central to Judaism. I do believe that when people have some mastery of Jewish practice and language they feel a strong attraction to our Jewish way of life.
5. Work with our knowledgeable and traditional members to cultivate a tolerant, non judgmental, flexible, encouraging, and generous stance with others who are not religiously inclined or Jewishly knowledgeable. I have worked on myself to embrace these characteristics throughout my rabbinate. I understand this as “Torah and Derech Eretz”.
6. Encourage younger parents to learn, try practice, and model devotion to practice with their children. At the same time parents need to encourage questions their children raise. Modeling the Jewish middle ground for our children is a very deep, challenging, and rewarding way of parenting.
7. Make it safe to talk about God where people can express skepticism, doubt, disbelief, and faith and encourage all parties to listen to each other with respect. Also when talking about God, we must learn about and share the remarkable diversity and depth of approaches to God in Judaism.
At the dinner we held last week the discussion we had about God and goodness was long and engaging. I don’t know if the skeptical persons around the table were moved, but I do know that they were relieved not to have been judged harshly for their skepticism. One of the lessons I learn from doing lots of Shabbatot at people’s homes is that the table conversation about Judaism, God, and the purpose of life is a precious opportunity to explore these questions interactively. This sermon that emerged from that conversation is a by product to the all important conversation that I hope continues with those who joined me at their table that night.
Our conversations about God and living a good life has a direct ancestor in our God wrestling ancestor, Yisrael who we read about in this week’s portion. The name of our people comes out of this wrestling. When we wrestle with these issues we encourage our loved ones and friends to join us, we carry on the authentic tradition of our people and our relationship to God. The Apikorus of Vilna lived in this tradition and whether we are filled with faith and filled with doubt, we all can participate in being Bnai Yisrael.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time: Summary-Jews are the most secular "religious community" in America. Jews pray less than any other religious grouping. Why are Jews so Secular and how does it impact communal religious life? How then do synagogues which are religious institutions by definition connect with a largely secular Jewish public?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach, CA
Sermon Given: 12/6/08
Copies are at the synagogue website:
Our portion, Vayetze opens with a collision of sorts. “Vayifga bamakom-Jacob collided with this place.” It is on his hurried journey to escape the wrath of his brother Esau who wants to kill him. The Torah proceeds to describe Jacob’s unexpected night encounter with God. The Rabbi’s interpreted the phrase: Vayifga Bamakom as a proof text that Jacob introduced the evening prayer (Maariv). No one, according to the Rabbis, had ever tried praying at night. According to the rabbinic imagination, Jacob’s grandfather had introduced Morning Prayer (Shahrit) and his father, Isaac, fathered the Afternoon Prayer (Minchah). But Jacob completed the triad of Jewish prayer by praying in darkness.

Thus according to tradition the template of worship was laid out by our forefathers. Our patriarchs are depicted as inventors of a sort, innovators of prayer. Their startup religion, the religion of Yahweh, centered on prayer-the human approach and encounter with God.

It is with great irony then that in 21st century America, Jews are the religious group least likely to be found in its houses of worship. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently published data on religion in America ( ) showing that Jews are closer in their behaviors to the unaffiliated Americans than to religiously defined Americans of Christian denominations. While Jewish identity tends to be relatively strong, religious practice is much weaker. This is also evident in Israel, where most Israeli Jews are decidedly secular, rarely attend synagogue, do not observe Shabbat and more and more do not observe dietary laws. Over my career I have probably converted over 500 people. The most common perplexity of almost every convert I ever mentored was why most of the Jews they knew were less religious than they aspired to be as new Jews. How curious this perplexity. How miraculous that these new Jews hear the music of Jewish religious insight, but so many born Jews are tone deaf, unmoved by the songs of their legacy.

What is the impact on a Jewish community in which most of its people are secular? What are the implications for synagogues as religious institutions? These questions are often not honestly faced in synagogues? We sweep them under the rug? Or we let the Rabbi serve as the lightning rod for these unresolved communal issues. The reason is that there is an uncomfortable accommodation, especially in Conservative Synagogues between those who are more on the so called religious spectrum and those who are more comfortable on the secular side. Orthodox synagogues don’t suffer from these tensions as much because they are unambiguously religious in orientation and demand more strict observance from their members. Reform also has less ambiguity since they assume the secularity of the great majority of their members. Conservative congregations wobble, built on shaky coalitions so called traditionally oriented persons, but in reality a very broad spectrum of culturally oriented secular Jews and traditionally leaning Jews who find Orthodoxy too stringent or closed minded.

Who are secular Jews? The term itself is broad. They are variously described as unaffiliated, but the truth is that many are affiliated. Sometimes secular are described as non-religious. But even the so called religious in a Conservative congregation are selective in their observance of commandments, like coming to services but not having a kosher home or only observing some Shabbat laws. The term ‘apikorus’ is rarely used but helped previous generations portray secular Jews as non-believers, open atheists who still maintained an ardent loyalty to their people. I prefer the nomenclature of ‘cultural Jew’. Cultural Jews have an affinity to many aspects of Judaism including many of its religious dimensions, but are not pious or meticulous in their commitment to the traditional commandments.

This in turn helps us to describe a religious person. There is no term for religious in classic Hebrew. Rather a person who was devoted to a religious life was described as Shomer Mitzvot-a guardian of the commandments. In Conservative synagogues the underlying tension is between those who shomer-guard certain communal commandments like the koshrut of the kitchen or the laws of the Shabbat services in contrast to the members who don’t guard those traditions with equal fervor. Thus there is often a tension in a Conservative synagogue between those who piously value attending services and those who don’t often attend or who casually attend based on reasons other than a sense of religious personal obligation.

As a congregational rabbi I have to mediate these often subterranean tensions. I have had 25 years to think through this problem and here are some principles I have arrived at.

1. There are many mitzvot in the Torah. The Torah does not generally prioritize them, so my role is to praise and validate whatever mitzvot a Jew has taken on to do.

2. I believe every Jew does some mitzvot. So called cultural Jews do mitzvot. Jews who attend synagogue do other mitzvot. Jews who work in social action do mitzvot. Jews who go to Israel do mitzvot. They all deserve praise.

3. While I think the mitzvot connected to communal synagogue life such as prayer are very important, I do not guilt trip, browbeat, and condescend to cultural Jews who do not focus on these mitzvot. I will also not function as a DGT (designated guilt tripper) on behalf of congregants who think the rabbi should do this. I encourage people to perform these mitzvot and teach people who are willing to listen why they are important.

4. I acknowledge that there is a lot of alienation from the synagogue by cultural Jews and realize that one of the ways to connect to them is in other places than synagogues: at their home tables, at their workplaces, in supermarkets, and at social justice events. Therefore I believe that rabbinic work involves serving as a rabbi in these contexts.

5. Most important, most Jews are agnostic and atheistic. Therefore they have often unarticulated or sometimes highly thought through opinon about prayer, God talk, and rituals that assume belief and affirmation of the God of Israel. Assuming that everyone has resolved this issue in their minds when we conduct public rituals strikes many Jews as either arrogant or pure obliviousness. I hate to be viewed as just another oblivious rabbi, so I try to work hard to acknowledge this ambivalence on the part of most Jews.

6. Our services should be places for people to express their faith and doubt. Jewish prayer has one great advantage over worship in other traditions. It is highly participatory and allows for people with different levels of faith to participate and to feel involved. This beautiful flexibility has led me to emphasize giving as many people as possible roles in public worship that overcome resistance to the religious ideas and expectations of the prayers. The more people participating the better. They become stakeholders and ‘spiritual citizens of the minyan’.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Larwence Kushner beautifully expressed how synagogues should accommodate and support different types of Jews. I believe his words are very important for Conservative synagogues and creating a climate of communal purpose, toleration, and collaboration.

“Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts which they should not and probably cannot, do alone. Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews. Consequently, it is also the only justification for the existence of a congregation. Everything else congregations do, Jews can always do cheaper, easier, and better somewhere else. “

“There are three ancient kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds, or in the classical language of Pirke Avot: Avodah, Torah, and G'milut Hasadim. This is not a capricious categorization. Prayer is emotional: song, candles, dance, meditation, and silence. A matter of the heart. Study is intellectual reading, questioning, discussion, rigorous logic and argument. A matter of the head. And good deeds are public acts: helping, repairing, matching, fighting, and doing. Matters of the hand. Only rare individuals are able to do all three with equal fervor and skill. And so our membership in a congregation and association with a broad spectrum of Jews will compensate for our personal deficiencies. “

In our portion, Jacob after his ‘collision’ with the places has a dream. He wakes up and says: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.” The challenge of modern synagogue is to create ‘collisions’ in which people end up saying Jacob’s words. Right now, many Jews don’t expect to find God in the synagogue, much less anywhere else. All we can do is open the many doors of Jewish life for our fellow Jews and hope that they have a Jacob-like collision. That is the holy work I have committed myself to and I hope you will join me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

America’s Days of Awe

America’s Days of Awe
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Delivered 10/9/08 on Yom Kippur, 5769

Please understand that I offer the following words according to the traditional warning every responsible darshan must give to a congregation. I give these words, ‘lefi ani’ut daati’ according to the poverty of my opinion. Please accept it as heartfelt, and my best attempt to capture the momentous times we live in.
“On Rosh Hashannah it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will leave the world, and how may shall be born. “
These austere words come from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we chant on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. Unetaneh Tokef paints a vivid picture of a God sitting in judgment of His creation: “You review every living being, measuring the years and decreeing the destiny of every creature. “ Our fate hangs in the balance. Following a litany of couplets of opposing fates, life and death, health and sickness, serenity and depression, we respond with words of hope:
“But Repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness can remove the severity of the decree.”
This is the prayer that captures the mood this season of the year and gives it the gravity and solemnity we associate with the Days of Awe. The gravity flows from our tradition’s view that at least once a year we really need to take stock of our lives and make a serious effort to change our direction. The truth is that like anything else, this annual ritual can become rote and thoughtless. But not this year.
Not this year, because we are witnessing a strange and powerful convergence. Our annual season of Teshuvah corresponds to a national perhaps a worldwide crisis of Teshuvah. What do I mean? During this season Jews are supposed to review our actions, overcome denial of our wrongful behaviors, apologize to those we have hurt, confess to these behaviors to God , and begin the arduous process of internal and external change which we call Teshuvah. We are not the only ones trying to do this during this season. Our entire nation is engaged in a sort of Teshuvah as it comes to terms with the truth concerning our situation. We are now in a crisis that is forcing us to review our past actions. We are compelled to confront our national denial. New realities have placed before us the true weight of the challenges ahead of us.
So this is the American Unetaneh Tokef prayer of 2008:
Who shall grow rich, who shall sink into poverty; who shall sleep securely in her bed, who will find herself on the street; who will draw from his savings, who will find his savings are no more; who will go to work every morning, who will have no job go to; who will go to his medical specialist; who will not see the doctor to save expenses; who will go bankrupt, who will have money to invest at the bottom of the market; who will lose his house to a hurricane, who will benefit from a climate change ; who will fear a terror strike, who will feel secure from violence; who will feel let down by his country, who will find new hope in his country; who will be proud of his country, who will feel betrayed by his country; who will gain faith in humanity, who will lose his faith in humanity.
Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedaka avert the harshness of the decree.
Our tradition uses the terms Teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka as actions that will avert the harshness of the decree. We know what these mean in our Jewish cultural-religious framework. What do they mean for a country that is at such a critical fork in the road, at a decisive moment in our history?
Our country needs to strive for Teshuvah. What does national teshuvah mean?
Teshuvah means to turn or change. Everyone is calling for change. Real change comes after we overcome denial. We have been in the relentless grip of denial.
First, we have been in denial about the consequences of our indebtedness. The economy in a tailspin has brought this denial into sharp and scary focus. In 1980 the ratio of national debt to the gross national product stood at 31%, the lowest since 1931. By 2006 public debt topped nine trillion or 70% of the gross national product. Take our own personal debt. In the postwar years personal savings had averaged a robust 8-10% of disposable income. After 1985 that 10% collapsed to what it is today: Zero.
According to a report on national debt: Between 1989 and 2001, credit-card debt nearly tripled, soaring from $238 billion to $692 billion. By last year, it was up to $937 billion. As the foreclosure crisis and the credit crisis has brought home, we have been living in a house of cards built on debt. We cannot deny this as we witness millions of people falling out of the middle class. This irresponsibility starts at the top. When Vice President Cheney was asked if cutting taxes might be at odds with invading Iraq, he said: “Deficits don’t matter.”
Second, we have been in the grips of a long standing denial about the consequences of our dependence on foreign oil.
In World War II, America was able to fully supply its energy needs. That is not hard for us to imagine in Long Beach since we see the remnant of the oil industry still pumping up and down in our neighborhood. We can go to the 60’s era Petroleum club building across the street on Linden and reminisce about a time of an energy independent America. But in 1972 domestic oil production peaked. At the end of Reagan’s presidency foreign oil constituted 41% of oil consumed in the United States. In 2005 60% of our oil came from outside the country and we consume 25% of the world’s oil supply.
As we fight two wars, our dependence on foreign oil also fuels those who are fighting our soldiers in Iraq and. As Tom Friedman writes, “our purchases enrich conservative Islamic governments where portions of their profits find their way to charities, mosques, religious schools that help sustain anti- American terrorist groups, suicide bombers, preachers, and anti- Semitic textbooks and propaganda. --- purchase are helpings to strengthen the most intolerant, anti-modern, anti-Western, anti-women’s rights and anti pluralistic strain of Islam. Our oil purchases are helping to finance a reversal of the democratic trends in Russia, Latin America, and elsewhere that was set in motion by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism. Our growing dependence on oil is fueling an ugly global energy scramble which is exemplified by China’s propping up of a murderous and genocidal dictatorship in oil-rich Sudan.” (from Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Tom Friedman)
Our oil addiction is even more destructive than this for as Friedman argues, “it makes global warming warmer, petro-dictators stronger, clean air dirtier, poor people poorer, democratic countries weaker and radical terrorists richer.”
Listen to these words: “We must end this intolerable dependence on foreign oil. Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this Nation and it can also be the standard around which we rally. We can seize control again of our common destiny…. We need a federal agency to cut through the red tape, the delays and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects.” (President Carter as quoted in Bacevich, The Limits of Power.)
These were not said on the campaign trails of 2008, but from a president in a national address to the nation in 1979.
We are paying big time for 30 years of denial. We have been in denial about how our consumption is undermining our nation and altering the earth.
Tom Friedman, quoting an environmental scientist, writes. “People don’t seem to realize, that it is not like we are on the Titanic and we have to avoid the iceberg. We’ve already hit the iceberg. The water is rushing down below. But some people don’t want to leave the dance floor; others don’t want to give up on the buffet. But if we don’t make the hard choices, nature will make them for us. Right now. “ p. 216.
What is it that stands before us, which we cannot deny:
In his excellent new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman, identifies five big problems which we can no longer ignore.
The growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources; a massive transfer of wealth to oil rich countries and their petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty, which is sharply dividing the world into electricity haves and electricity have nots; and rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss, as plants and animals go extinct at record rates. These five problems define the Energy-Climate Era we have entered. “ p. 26.
Teshuvah is overcoming our denial to face reality. Our next president will be judged on his ability to lead us toward facing these problems squarely. We cannot afford to wait another 30 years.
After Teshuvah, we are called to engage in Tefilah-prayer. But will prayer really help us. Take for instance the prayers for rain of the former Prime Minister of Australia. On April 19, 2007, in the face of the Big Dry, a seven year drought, John Howard asked his countrymen to put their hands together and beseech the Good Lord for a gully washing downpour. His prayers did not save Howard from voter wrath.
The election held in Australia later that year was the first election in history in which climate change-specifically the government’s failure to respond to it with policies rather than prayers, was among one of the issues. Howard and his party were defeated. The new prime minister ratified the climate change protocols of Kyoto immediately after his election which the previous administration had refused to do.
Prayer cannot overcome bad policy. Desperate prayer and the yearning for a messianic solution is a sign of people coming under the grip of an apocalyptic world view. This is a real danger, because apocalyptically generated prayers produce a passivity which will further undermine our efforts to stem the global crisis we face. Rather the prayer that is called, appeals to God to give us the strength to be courageous, to overcome complacency and despair, to act, to find ways to join with others to live purposely to fight against the impacts of global warming.
Which brings us to the final action that averts the harsh decree, Tzedaka. Tzedaka is not only charity or the giving of gifts to the poor. Tzedaka means to act justly, to right a wrong, to balance something that is imbalanced.
First, to live according to tzedaka we must pay attention and confront what we have denied. We are called upon to engage in what we have ignored and act to correct our errors.
In the case of our dependencies on oil and our environmental impacts, we have a lot to do. We must try to live as environmentally sustainable life as we can. We must make sure our environmental awareness and behavior is always improving. We need to consider the products we consume, the cars we drive, the way we eat, the causes we support. This will not suffice.
Tzedaka means to act with others to bring about improvement to the world because acting as individuals is not sufficient. Do you support organizations that work to address the issues I have placed before you? If not, you need to learn about them and support them. Does our congregation provide a way for people to come together to learn about what we can do? It is not right that we have no active Tikun Olam group in our congregation that educates our membership and helps us to act more powerfully as a collective. Are there people willing to step up to help our community participate in the most important cause of our lifetimes?
Tzedaka involves scrutinizing the causes we support and the leaders we choose to lead us. As Friedman suggests, “it is much more important to change your leaders than your lightbulbs.
One of the great debates of our time has been the role of government in helping or hindering the confrontation with our indebtedness, our dependency on foreign oil, and our exacerbating climate change. We must hold our leaders accountable for they write the rules and regulations. The rules and regulations shape markets and change the behavior and incentives of millions of people at once.
We need to hold our leaders accountable. Do they take action to face the situation or do they give excuses or fail to lead?
Tzedaka carries with it a connotation which applies to the enormous challenge before us. In Genesis God decides to reveal to a human being his innermost thoughts about the fate of Sodom and Gemora. This part of our Torah is unique in all of ancient literature because it depicts a God who desires to consult with a human being. How does God justify this consultation?
“I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing just what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Avraham what he promised him.” (Genesis. 18:19)
Abraham is chosen by God because of what he will do for his children. He will teach them tzedek and mishpat. The sign of a Jew is to model and educate the next generation into a life committed to doing what is right and just.
What kind of world are we are giving to our children and grandchildren? Have we shown to them that we care, that we have tried our very best to give them a sustainable world?
A 12 year old spoke these words at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janero a few years ago.
“In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rain forests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see. Did you have to worry about these things when you were my age? All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. You don’t know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back the forest that once grew where there is now a dessert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.
At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to share-not to be greedy. Then why do you go out and do things you tell us not to do? -----Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying everything is going to be alright; it’s not the end of the world. We are doing the best we can. But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My dad always says, You are what you do, not what you say. Well what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you. Please make your actions reflect your words.” (P. 396 in Friedman)
God will avert the harshness of the decree when we act with all our energy to give a sustainable world to our children. I ask all of us? Are we doing enough?