Same Outside, Different Inside! – Shabbat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5778(2018)

The titles of two recent kids’ books describe the current mindset of our diverse society. “We’re All the Same on the Inside” calls out one, while the other reminds us of this essential truth – “Same Inside, Different Outside.” I get the point and agree that in this moment of division and conflict it is crucial to focus on what connects and unites people. Things like race and ethnicity are only visible from the outside. On the inside we’re all simply human. As Shylock famously puts in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

Still, I wonder if we don’t have it exactly backward. What if, on a deeper, more spiritual and emotional level, we’re actually not all the same on the inside? What, in other words, if we classify all of the items on Shylock’s list – hands, organs, passions, food, diseases, seasons – as ‘outside’ and save such things as soul, spirit, individuality, creativity for our ‘inside’ list? Yes, each of us ‘possesses’ those qualities or aspects; at the same time no two of us has precisely the same mix of them. A statement widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln succinctly gets at that idea: “Every man is born an original, but sadly, most men die copies”.

The Torah pursues the question of difference and distinctiveness in its characteristic way. Just before rattling off a rather lengthy list of mainly sexual prohibitions, Leviticus offers up this general rule: “… You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” (Leviticus 18:3) The Torah’s words raise many questions. What are practices? Do they differ from laws? Why Egypt? Why Canaan? And more. As one ancient midrash, Sifra, articulates it, “Is it possible that one should not build buildings or plant plants as they do?” How, in other words, do we go about being ourselves, and not operating as mere copies of someone else?


The Torah promotes what is known in family systems theory as differentiation of self. “Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we’… Differentiation means the capacity to be an ‘I’ while remaining connected.” (Edwin Friedman, “Generation to Generation” p. 27) The measures of differentiation, it seems to me, are entirely internal. Where one is on the “scale of differentiation” will determine how one responds to all of the externals on both Shylock’s and the Sifra’s lists. Differentiation, in other words, is about an individual’s soul, spirit, individuality, and creativity. It is wholly an inside game.

The Sefat Emet, the great 19th century Hasidic master, serves up the punch line. “Every deed has an inner and an outer side; the (inner) root of all things is surely in holiness, since all was created for God’s glory.” In contrast, some actions “have no relationship to the inner meaning of all things.” These deeds – habits, customs, actions – are labeled by the Sefat Emet as “mere externals.” Here’s how it works. “The mitzvot set aright the inner image of the human being…they give us access again to our original garment…by ‘doing’ them you fulfill your true image as a person!” Live inside the mitzvot. Be the original you. Stay well differentiated. That’s the path to holiness. Everything else is merely external.

Shabbat Shalom.

So Far Away from Me – Shabbat Tazria-Metzora 5778(2018) – Yom Ha-atzma’ut!

N & D Jerusalem 1987 from Israel 50 Years (Magnum)

This week I’m feeling the distance. Thanks to Israel’s 70th, my emotions feel much sharper and more raw. To compensate for not being there for the commemorations and sirens of Yom Ha-zikkaron (Memorial Day) and the celebrations and parties of Yom Ha-atzmaut (Independence Day) I’ve resorted to a steady diet of Israeli media – radio mostly, and also the news and television websites – the past few days. Hearing, seeing, reading through my blue tooth speakers and onscreen has simultaneously (and ironically) enabled me to feel closer and has also highlighted the distance. Yehudah ha-Levi’s most famous words resonate powerfully for me right now. Libi v’mizrah v’anochi b’sof ma’arav – My heart in the East, But the rest of me far in the West (in Hillel Halkin’s creative and lovely translation).

Distance is physical and temporal, and also emotional and spiritual. Even with Israel’s Reshet Gimel blaring, my internal sound system has been playing an old Dire Straits song on a continuous loop. “You’re so far away from me, So far I just can’t see…And I get so tired when I have to explain, When you’re so far away from me. See you’ve been in the sun and I’ve been in the rain, And you’re so far away from me…” Judging from the avalanche of essays and articles in recent months describing, diagnosing and prescribing the ever widening gulf that separates Israel and American Jewry (not to mention the seemingly unending population studies and attitudinal surveys whose results routinely fill my inbox), I’m not alone in feeling that Israel is ‘so far away from me.’

Distance takes many forms. Mine is very particular, rooted in my personal experience, my philosophical commitments, my temperament. I feel deeply connected to Israel, in love really, and so for me distance is coupled with longing. My distance aches and it’s a rather complex web of emotions – pride, disappointment, joy, worry, desire, and more all rolled into one. For others, distance means a (nearly) complete absence of connection. Israel’s there, I’m here, nothing more to say. For others still, distance takes the form of distaste, even disdain. Those varieties of distance are also rooted in individual commitments and experience. We American Jews are all over the map, but in one way or another, we’re all distant.

A rather extraordinary teaching from the Sefat Emet – R Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (late 19th-early 20th century Poland) – explores the dynamic of distance and closeness. Rooted in the Torah’s insistence that an individual suffering from scale disease, a significant source of impurity in ancient Israel, be removed from the encampment (mi’hutz la’mahane moshavo), the Sefat Emet reflects on the possibility that “there are some who attain wholeness by drawing near and others who do so by distance.” For some, our teacher daringly suggests, “distance is redemption (takanato)!”

“Learn from your distance”, might be another way to express the Sefat Emet’s idea. Seek out the tikkun – the repair or redemption – present within. There is much to be learned from American Jewry’s distance – physical, temporal, emotional, spiritual – from Israel. Our work as a community, it seems to me, is to engage in that exploration in a deep and serious way. What is redemptive about our distance? How might we locate the inner tikkun, the divinity and redemption, that is assuredly there? Those questions, and queries like them, feel meaningful and worthwhile to me. We who dwell outside of the camp called the Land/State of Israel have much to consider this Yom Ha-atzma’ut.

A word about the photo at the top of this page. The picture was taken on Ben Yehudah Street in central Jerusalem in 1987 or 1988. The juxtaposition of a religious Jewish man and a woman in her IDF uniform walking past one another caught the photographer’s eye as it catches ours. Look a little deeper into the picture and you’ll spot the top of Nomi’s head just above the religious man’s black hat and my profile just over the top of the soldier’s head. I happened upon this photo in a very beautiful album published in honor of Israel’s 50th. I now understand that it conveys one piece of my own distance in a particularly striking way. I’m happy to share it with you in honor of Israel’s 70th!

Shabbat Shalom & Hag Atzma’ut Sameah!

Urgently Inquire – Shabbat Sh’mini 5778(2018)

The Torah – Genesis through Deuteronomy – contains close to 80,000 words. According to one Talmudic tradition (Bavli Kiddushin 30a) a two word emphatic verb – darosh darash (he – Moses – urgently inquired) stands at the geographic center of the Torah’s words. Now the root d,r,sh means ‘to seek out, to care for, to investigate, to search, to be intent on’. And as one 20th century interpreter puts it, there is ‘one darash for the first half of the Torah, and one for the second half.’ Think of it as an invitation to inquire urgently, to care for and about, to search out deep meaning, in both directions, forward and back, past and future, at the same time.
This year we encounter those central words of Torah on the Shabbat between Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day – and Yom haZikaron/Yom Ha’Atzma’ut – Israel’s Memorial/Independence Day. Israelis refer to this cluster of observances, commemorations, and celebrations as the yamim – the ‘days’ or the ‘Yoms’. This Shabbat we stand between the yamim, Yom Hashoah and our reflection on the painful horrors of the Holocaust just behind us, Yom Ha’Atzma’ut and our celebration of renewed Jewish sovereignty in our historic homeland just ahead. The Torah’s invitation to seek out meaning lovingly and urgently in both directions couldn’t be better placed.



The ‘lessons’ of the Shoah are many and varied. This year yields a striking learning for us to ponder. According to a new survey conducted by the Claims Conference – – awareness of and real knowledge about the Holocaust are on the decline. For example, nearly one-third of all Americans (31 percent) and more than 4-in-10 Millennials (41 percent) believe that substantially fewer than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust. And, while there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one – and this percentage is even higher amongst Millennials. On this 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we have a great deal of work to do.
A deep and caring inquiry into the Yom that lies ahead this week also yields many and varied learnings. At this 70th anniversary of its establishment as an independent Jewish state, Israel is strong and prosperous, and also a country facing serious, sometimes excruciating, challenges. Direct threats to Israel’s security remain in both the north and south. How to address and respond to them is highly contested territory; as ever, it’s complicated. The same is true of a series of internal dilemmas. Can Jewish and Arab citizens of the State of Israel build a shared society together? Can Jewish religious pluralism be nurtured and encouraged in the Jewish state? Can Israel welcome refugees from Africa or is it best to find homes for asylum seekers elsewhere? Can democracy continue to thrive in a country built on democratic practice and also pulled and motivated by ethnic and nationalist concerns and demands?
The Torah’s insistent demand of darosh darash calls on us to search deeply and lovingly in the direction of all of this week’s yamim. Knowing our past and charting our future is the holy work – the avodat kodesh – of this Shabbat Sh’mini.


Shabbat Shalom!

MLK and Crossing the Sea – 7th Day of Pesah 5778(2018)

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Tonight marks the anniversary of the crossing of the Red Sea by the ancient Israelites. I’m hardly the first to connect Dr King’s life and legacy with the Biblical telling of the Exodus from Egypt. Dr King himself often alluded to the Exodus in his sermons and talks, most famously in his last recorded remarks offered the night before his death in Memphis, Tennessee. That final sermon began with a recollection of “God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land…” and it concluded, famously and hauntingly, with these words: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Taylor Branch‘s celebrated three volume biography of King and history of the Civil Rights Movement makes the same analogy. Just follow the titles of his books: ‘Parting the Waters,’ Pillar of Fire,’ and ‘At Canaan’s Edge.’ And my teacher, Michael Walzer’s brilliant study ‘Exodus and Revolution’ charts the ways in which western revolutionary movements, including Civil Rights in America in the 20th century, frequently adopt the language of, and actually follow the trajectory of the Bible’s tale of suffering, struggle and redemption. Walzer concludes his essay with a description of ‘what the Exodus first taught…about the meaning and possibility of politics’ – ‘first, that where you live, it is probably Egypt; – second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; – and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.’
[ Dura Europos Synagogue, fresco, 2nd Century C.E. ]
Crossing the Sea happened just days after the Exodus itself. In Jewish practice we commemorate the Exodus at Seder and the Sea on the 7th (and biblically speaking final) day of the Festival. The trek ‘through the wilderness on toward the promised land’ takes much longer. That’s what Dr King, even on his last night on earth, understood and meant to convey. Fifty years later we remain ‘At Canaan’s Edge’ still ‘joining together and marching’ in search of, in hope of, in anticipation of the promised land. Dr King, like Moses, saw it; and like Moses, he didn’t get there. Neither have we. The need to join together and march remains; the struggle, of necessity, continues. Dr King’s assurance – that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! – also remains and continues.
Tonight, as we cross the Sea, we honor the memory of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. remembering together that next year we will sit down to Seder to reenact the Exodus and will, seven days later, trek through/across the Red Sea yet again. The journey toward the Promised Land continues, and will continue, until we, as a people, finally get there. Something tells me that on that day, Dr King, and Moses our Teacher, and many others besides, will be there to welcome us.
[ Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, Italy, fresco, completed 1356 ]