From ‘Ones’ to ‘One’ – Shabbat Vayigash 5778 (2017)

Prophecy and performance art enjoy a deep connection. In order to get her/his message across, the prophet needs the audience’s attention. The prophetic tool kit includes colorful and dramatic words and also colorful and dramatic acts.

Ezekiel, the prophet of this week’s haftarah, employs both. Ezekiel’s famous vision of a valley filled with dry bones occupies the first half of chapter 37 of his book. His stirring words paint a vivid picture, an image that communicates hope and possibility even in the face of despair. The second half of the same chapter presents Ezekiel as performance artist, detailing a brilliant piece of street theater that conveys to his audience the thought and belief that reconciliation and reunion might actually come to pass.

Ezekiel speaks to a particular despair, that of Judean exiles living in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple, AND he speaks to a larger, even universal, human experience of division and separation. Ezekiel’s claim that unity and intimacy are possible works on both levels. It also works when addressed to each of us individuals and  when applied to larger groups.


The rabbis who chose Ezekiel’s prophecy of two branches or sticks becoming one as the haftarah for this week, I suggest, meant for us to understand the message on all of those levels. Their starting point was the Torah’s narrative of reconciliation featuring Joseph and his brothers. It’s a personal drama that can be related to individually; we’ve all experienced ruptures and tears in our closest relationships, and hopefully we’ve also had the opportunity to bring about reconciliation. And it’s a larger national drama in which the two lead characters, Joseph and Judah, will also give rise to the two most important tribes of Israel and the two Biblical kingdoms of Judea and Israel.

Separation and division, while painful, may also be necessary. Rav Kook writes, “ideologies tend to be in conflict. One group at times reacts to another with total negation.” That separation, Kook continues, enables “each one to develop to its fullness, and for the distinctive characteristics of each to be formed in all its particularities.” “Excessive closeness,” he adds, “would have blurred and impaired them all.” We each need space and time to grow into ourselves. But separate-ness, Kook avers, isn’t forever. It’s stage one in a grand sequence. “One begins by separation and concludes by unification.”

Joseph and Judah need to develop, each on his own, in order to be able to engage one another. The same is true for the later tribes and kingdoms that bear their names. But prologue is not permanent; past need not equal future. Indeed, just a few pages later Rav Kook reminds of “the true nature of reality,” namely that “no spiritual phenomenon can stand independently; each is interpenetrated by all.” Ezekiel couldn’t have said it any better.  Shabbat Shalom.

Jerusalem – Israel’s Capital

A general view of Jerusalem shows the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount

There seems to be something about the city of Jerusalem and this season of the year. 2,181 years ago, according to 1 Maccabees, a victorious army of Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple and the holy city from the Syrian-Greeks, rededicated the altar, and established an eight day festival which we observe to this day. Big things happen in Jerusalem in December.

In the more recent past, exactly 100 years ago this week, the Ottoman army abandoned Jerusalem. Three days later, under the leadership of General Edmund Allenby, and accompanied by a small army of photographers and journalists, the British Army’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force entered Jerusalem on foot, parading through the Jaffa Gate. “Jerusalem is Rescued by British After 673 Years of Moslem Rule” read the headline in The New York Herald on December 11, 1917. The formal surrender decree also noted the shifted from Muslim to Christian rule. “Due to the severity of the siege of the city and the suffering that this peaceful country has endured from your heavy guns; and for fear that these deadly bombs will hit the holy places, we are forced to hand over to you the city through Hussein al-Husseini, the mayor of Jerusalem, hoping that you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years.” 

The story of world powers ‘liberating’, ‘occupying’, ‘rescuing’, and ‘conquering’ Jerusalem is an old one, stretching back to the city’s origins nearly three thousand years ago. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Persians (again!), Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Muslims (again!), and Ottomans, just to name some of Jerusalem’s more than forty conquerers. The context of those conquests has always been that of international politics and has frequently featured the great powers of the day. Indeed, at least six of world history’s greatest empires have entered into (and exited from) Jerusalem. International concern for Jerusalem has been a piece of the city’s story from the beginning.

There is, of course, a specifically Jewish concern for, and a particular Jewish story about, Jerusalem. That story too goes back three thousand years to King David’s consolidation of the Kingdom of Israel and the establishment of Jerusalem as his and the kingdom’s capital. David’s son Solomon built the First Temple on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah and the building (and rebuilding) of Jerusalem has been a focus of Jewish longing ever since. The story of Hanukkah is one of the most famous and beloved scenes from that long running story of ‘Jewish Jerusalem.’ The best known statement of the goal of Zionism, the closing line of Hatikvah, draws on that religious legacy. “We have not yet lost our hope, the hope of two thousand years: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Sixty eight years ago this week, Israel’s newly formed Knesset, declared that Jerusalem would be the new country’s capital and seat of government. Hanukkah of 1949 marked the Knesset’s first meeting in Jerusalem. Over the year that followed, most of Israel’s governing bodies and institutions moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as well. The Knesset debates of December 5 and December 13 of 1949 make for fascinating reading. A few of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s and Opposition Leader Menahem Begin’s words resonate this December.

Here’s Ben-Gurion on 5 December 1949: “we see fit to state that Jewish Jerusalem is an organic, inseparable part of the State of Israel, just as it is an integral part of Jewish history and belief. Jerusalem is the heart of the State of Israel. We are proud of the fact that Jerusalem is also sacred to other religions, and will gladly provide access to their holy places and enable them to worship as and where they please, cooperating with the U.N. to guarantee this. We cannot imagine, however, that the U.N. would attempt to sever Jerusalem from the State of Israel or harm Israel’s sovereignty in its eternal capital.”

And here’s Begin in that same debate: “Foreign powers will not determine the borders of our state. The nation that dwells in Zion will decide what the extent of Israel’s sovereignty shall be…The world must be told that Jerusalem is ours, all of it–the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Jerusalem inside and outside the walls–and that it is our capital, both in practice and in theory. This is a decision which the Knesset must make…We are a state, a sovereign state, and Jerusalem is ours. Justice, history, emotions and faith favor undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel…We must make it clear to the world that all of Jerusalem is our capital.”

And, finally, Ben-Gurion a week later on 13 December 1949: “From the establishment of the Provisional Government we made the peace, the security and the economic consolidation of Jerusalem our principal care. In the stress of war, when Jerusalem was under siege, we were compelled to establish the seat of Government in Tel Aviv. But for the State of Israel there has always been and always will be one capital only – Jerusalem the Eternal. Thus it was 3,000 years ago – and thus it will be, we believe, until the end of time.”

This December, the President of the United States aligned American policy with Israel’s self-understanding. Here are President Trump’s words: “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital. Acknowledging that this is a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace. It was 70 years ago that the United States under President Truman recognized the state of Israel. Ever since then, Israel has made its capital in the city of Jerusalem, the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times…today we finally acknowledge the obvious. That Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.”

I simultaneously welcome and worry about President Trump’s declaration. It acknowledges our story and our claim as Jews and Zionists, and for that I’m grateful. At the same time, it fails to acknowledge the many questions of broader context that have always been part of Jerusalem’s story. As Ben-Gurion reminded the Knesset and the world in 1949, Jerusalem is both “the heart of the State of Israel” and “sacred to other religions.” For Israel’s first prime minister that broader context was a source of pride. It should be for us as well.

Actions in, and declarations about, Jerusalem often have unintended and unhappy consequences. As I write, violent demonstrations are taking place in Jerusalem and along Israel’s separation barrier and border fence in the West Bank and in Gaza. As a headline in today’s Haaretz puts it, “How Much Will Trump’s Gamble Cost and Will Israel Defuse It?” As one with a vested interest in that question, I wish more attention had been paid to potential consequences both in the President’s decision and in his words. When it comes to Jerusalem, quick escalation and bloody outcomes have too frequently been the norm.

Finally, there is the matter of the hope for peace between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. As troubled as the ‘peace process’ may be, I so far fail to understand the logic of further enflaming only one side in the dispute. Perhaps President Trump’s logic will become clear over the coming months. Right now, however, I don’t detect any strategic benefit from this week’s declaration.

As ever, the enduring words and sentiment of Psalm 122, which describes Jerusalem as “a town that is joined fast together,” are on my mind and in my heart.

“Pray for Jerusalem’s weal (shalom). May your lovers rest tranquil! May there be well-being within your ramparts, tranquility in your palaces. For the sake of my brothers and my companions, let me speak, pray, of your weal. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, let me seek your good.”



Just Acknowledge It! – Shabbat Vayeshev 5778 (2017)

Sefer Orhot Tzaddikim – ‘Paths of the Righteous’ – one of the masterworks of the Jewish ethical tradition, presents the story of Judah and Tamar as a case study. From their story at the heart of Parashat Vayeshev, the author of Orhot Tzaddikim derives a cluster of essential ethical principles. It’s worth quoting at length.

“And, of course, if people credit him with good deeds he did not do, he should not rejoice at this but on the contrary feel great pain in his heart that he should have gotten credit for something he did not do. Also, in the case where somebody told evil tales concerning him — if these are true — he should not seek to twist the truth and thus clear himself, but do as Judah who said: ‘She is more in the right than I’ (Gen. 38:26). And he should not try to contradict the man that told these tales, nor should he hate him because he revealed the matter, but he should bow humbly before the Creator, Blessed be He, that he has revealed a little of much that could have been revealed, in order to rebuke him and correct him that he might return to God.” [Orhot Tzaddikim 2:15]


[Horace Vernet, ‘Judah and Tamar’ 1840]


Judah and Tamar, then, teach (at least) three major middot – ethical attributes – each of them achingly in need in our current time and place.

Middah #1 – Don’t take or claim credit for good things that you yourself have not done. Even more, receiving credit for another’s good work should bring you pain.

Middah #2 – Acknowledge what is true when others share that truth, even if, perhaps especially if, that truth about your behavior is unpleasant. And, by all means, don’t “twist the truth” in order to clear yourself.

Middah #3 – Neither hate nor contradict one who shares unflattering truths about you. Instead, be thankful that only a percentage of that truth has seen the light of day.

The point of this according to Orhot Tzaddikim? To motivate and jump start your path of teshuva – repentance.

Orhot Tzaddikim and Parashat Vayeshev have more than a little to teach us about ourselves, about the current moment in our culture, and about our tradition’s understanding of what God wants from us as human beings created in the Divine image. I wonder what it would look like if Orhot Tzaddikim became required reading? 

‘And Dinah Went Out…’ – Shabbat Vayishlach 5778 (2017)

Parashat Vayishlach is best known for its tale of Jacob’s wrestling contest with an angel and his subsequent change of name. A few chapters later, at the parashah’s geographic center, we encounter a wrestling match of a different sort and it doesn’t end nearly as well. Here are the Torah’s words:

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force. Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife.” [Genesis 34:1-4]

Dinah’s rape is shocking and appalling. And yet, many traditional commentators and interpreters explain it away in language that will be uncomfortably familiar to all of us. Noticing the Torah’s description of Dinah’s “going out to visit the daughters of the land,” the early rabbis suggest that Dinah is “out there,” not unlike her mother Leah. Another line of rabbinic thinking blames Jacob for the rape arguing that his withholding of Dinah from his brother Esau along with his arrogance led directly to Dinah’s “going out” which in turn led to her rape. 2017’s headlines are filled with all the same excuses, denials, and shiftings of blame. On one level, then, there really is nothing new under the sun.

What is new – and critically important, just, and righteous – is the willingness of women to speak out, to name names, and to provide details. This year, let’s add Dinah to the #metoo list; in fact, I’d make her the honorary chairwoman. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Annie Lewis puts it all together poetically and brilliantly. Hear her words:

Me too, Dinah
me too.
If only you could
see us now,
all the great men falling
like the idols of your
great, great grandfather,
egos slain
like the men of Shechem.
If only you could
see us now,
your sisters
taught to make nice,
take care –
me too.
No more.
All your sisters trained
to harbor shame
for going out,
claiming space,
craving more.
Because we asked for it
so we deserved it.
If only you could
see us now, Dinah,
our truth
rising up like song.

Let’s just say ‘Amen.’

Shabbat Shalom.