THE POWER OF WORDS

Sermon delivered at Beth Israel Congregation, Shabbat Nachamu, August 20, 2016

 

I have spoken from the bima recently about the power of words in comments on our Presidential election. After I posted one of my sermons on the issue on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends replied with a quotation by Sigmund Freud which read in part: “Words call forth effects and are the universal means of influencing human beings. Therefore let us not underestimate the use of words”.

 

Today, I want to speak about another use of words which has been terribly difficult for many of us. These words came in a recent statement of principles issued by the Black Lives Matter movement, whose cause I have spoken about previously from the bima, which included these words: “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” It goes on to say: “Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

 

The Black Lives Matter movement, whether  or not one agrees with all of the rhetoric, is raising very significant issues, concerning racial discrimination in law enforcement, in the justice system and resulting mass incarceration of people of color. These issues should be very important to us as Americans and as Jews given our tradition’s absolute commitment to justice as the first priority for building a sacred community.

But, these words hurt and they must be clearly condemned.

I completely and utterly reject the idea that Israel is engaged in genocide. This is a horrible mischaracterization of the situation. I also believe Israel’s policies can not be compared to apartheid in South Africa and reject the comparison.

We can’t ignore these words. They matter. Even if the positions are ancillary to the basic goals of the movement, the leaders felt they were important enough to be mentioned and that is of great concern. These words are hurtful and untrue and, sadly, they do affect how I and many of us will interact with the efforts of this group.

But, our community’s zeal to condemn statements of this kind leads me to a great concern which arises whenever words like these are used about Israel from whatever source.

Too often, we concentrate too much on the words expressed in virulently anti-Israel statements so much so that we allow them to divert our attention from the reality. Granted it is not genocide or apartheid, but Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people are gravely inconsistent with Jewish values and tradition. They must be radically changed and we as a Jewish community, dedicated as we are to justice, must continue to focus attention on these unjust policies.

No, Israel is not completely to blame. Violent terror and rejectionism is a big piece of the story. But, if we care about justice, if we care about ethics, if we care about doing what is right, we can not let the exaggerated words we hear from others divert us from our responsibility to raise our voices against policies in Israel which are unethical.

We are justified in being uncomfortable with how other groups talk about Israel and Palestine, and that includes the Black Lives Matter movement and the Boycott Divestment and Sanction groups. But, it is our critical responsibility to offer a serious, sincere and meaningful alternative to their language which will show that we are deeply concerned and sincerely committed to applying whatever pressure we can on the Israel government to move in a different direction.

I can’t ignore the language of the Black Lives Matter movement regarding Israel. But, in the end, the language doesn’t change the fact that we and every American need to stand up and speak out and take action against the biases which cause so much pain in the black community. We are one nation and this is our fight too.

And, similarly, as Jews the fight for justice for Palestinians in Israel is our fight too.

I believe that we need to dedicate ourselves to being unmistakably clear that, even as we appropriately care so deeply about Israel’s security and survival and reject extreme language, we too know that the Palestinian people are suffering. We must raise our voices clearly, using different, more accurate but serious and clear language. We must use words which convey our deep frustration and, to use an extreme word of my own, but one which I feel is totally appropriate, our heartbreak, at what we see.

 

 

                 

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THE WORDS WE HEAR

This is the sermon I delivered at Beth Israel Congregation Ann Arbor, MI this past Shabbat. Shabbat Balak, July 23, 2016

 

When we consider the blessing offered by Bilaam, we immediately think of the verse: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael: How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!

However, that is not the only thing that he said. In fact, Bilaam offers 3 blessings to the people, each quite lengthy. Balak keeps schlepping him from one place to the other in the hopes that he will eventually curse the people, something that he never does.

Some of the lines uttered by Bilaam are clear and could not be understood in any way but as a blessing. But, there is at least one line in his “blessings” which pose a difficulty for me. I hear in this line a negative rather than a positive.

Bilaam says: Kee mayrosh tzurim erenu umigivaot ashurenu: As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights. Hen am livadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashav: There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly what Bilaam intended by this statement but reading it as a blessing would lead one to, as the Etz Hayim hummash says, conclude that he meant that they were a people who lived in a secure place with a fate not subject to the whim of other nations.

The midrashic commentary in Etz Hayim delves into this verse a bit further and considers the relationship of the Jewish people with others in the world. The commentary points out that some Jews see our survival as a people stemming from our ability to set ourselves apart from those who were around us. In fact, there are those who believe that rejection of our equality in society is sometimes a positive development, keeping us separate from others. If we were to become too accepted, we would lose our uniqueness and our reason for existence.

The commentary then goes on to refer to Zionism and points out that many anti-Zionists based their opposition to a Jewish state on the idea that we would become too much like the other nations if we had to engage in politics on a world stage. The lack of a state enabled Jews to remain separate.

And yet, many Zionists believe exactly the opposite. Many believe the creation of a state in fact allows Jews to do what Bilaam suggested: to be a nation apart. Surrounding ourselves with other Jews and not having to be concerned about others is for some the goal of the state. I have on occasion shared with you my experience at Bet Hatefutsot, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv in 1979 when I heard in a recording explaining one of the exhibits: “Here was a people who were redeemed from Egypt only wanting to be left alone”. I cringed at that because it wasn’t my experience growing up and not what I envision Judaism to be. I don’t see separation from the rest of the world as a blessing but rather as an inappropriate goal for our people. I still believe that without question.

The point is that what sounds like a blessing to one person: “a people remaining separate” can sound like a curse to another based upon his or her experience.

Words have power and they are not always heard the way we intend them to be heard.

In everyday conversation, we must try as diligently as possible to anticipate how others around us will hear our words and we must take care to be sensitive to how we speak. This isn’t a matter of being “politically correct”. It is a matter of proper, respectful behavior.

We don’t always get it right. God only knows how many times I have said things that were not heard the way I intended them because I was either insensitive to or ignorant of the way that people reacted to those words. We have to try but we can’t expect to be perfect.

But, in situations where the audience is larger than the average, when people are hanging on every word, and where words are considered far in advance, it is absolutely incumbent on an individual to do everything he or she can to choose words carefully. If the wrong words are used, words which are insensitive or divisive, it is legitimate to wonder whether that meaning was intentional.

What you heard on Thursday night is wrong. We absolutely can talk about political issues from the pulpit. We just can’t endorse a particular candidate.

We can’t endorse candidates but we can certainly talk about words that are said and there Were plenty of words said in Cleveland that beg to be commented on. I could speak about the exclusively Christian rhetoric of the invocation and how I, as a Jew felt excluded. I could speak about the excessive name calling which, while it has always been part of our presidential campaigns, seems to have gone far over the top.

Instead, I want to speak about one simple three word phrase which caused me to gasp when I heard it, and I thought I had heard it all over the past few months. It’s just one example to be sure but as it was emphasized over and over again on Thursday evening, I believe it is critical to point out the impact of these words.

In introducing his vice presidential choice and several times on Thursday evening, Donald Trump boasted that his campaign would be about law and order. Law and Order.

On the surface, these words are positive. We all want to live in a country where people observe the laws of the land and where there is order rather than chaos. And, we understand where this is coming from. The horrendous assaults on law enforcement officers in this country are unspeakably horrible and totally and completely unjustifiable. Those who protect our safety deserve our support, our protection and our concern. Yes, law and order sounds like a blessing.

But, when viewed in historical context, the words “law and order” carry ominous weight for many.

 

In her outstanding and groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow the author Michelle Alexander writes: ““The rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights activists used direct-action tactics in an effort to force reluctant Southern States to desegregate public facilities. Southern governors and law enforcement officials often characterized these tactics as criminal and argued that the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was indicative of a breakdown of law and order. Support of civil rights legislation was derided by Southern conservatives as merely ‘rewarding lawbreakers.’ For more than a decade – from the mid 1950s until the late 1960s – conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime.”

 

The author explains that these three words: law and order, are easily heard as an expression in opposition to those who have gathered, largely peacefully, to express justified concern about the shooting of African American men by police in so many instances in recent years and other examples of racism.

I hear these words not only as a call opposing such protests but as a dismissal of the legitimate concerns of so many.

These words have been used as code words for racism and division in our nation. Perhaps Mr. Trump did not intend to imply this just as perhaps he didn’t intend to imply anti-Semitism with his use of the phrase “America First” or the tweet featuring a 6 pointed star and lots of money. But, words have power and unlike in everyday conversation, there is no excuse for a presidential candidate to use words and images which are heard or seen by many in a negative light. And, when combined with other statements such as a call for a ban on Muslims entering the country or the statements about Mexican-Americans and immigrants, the choice of words seems more intentional.

Words have power. This past Thursday night, at a gathering at Eastern Michigan University, hundreds of community members stood shoulder to shoulder and face to face with law enforcement officials to reaffirm the commitment in this community to work together to address racial issues involved in law enforcement. It was a healthy, frank and productive gathering with many critical issues and many different points of view expressed. I was honored to speak at this program and to experience an open and honest discussion on the serious issues of race and law enforcement.

The words we use matter and are heard differently by different people.

We, as Americans, must make every effort to use words which inspire us to come together, not be inspired to live as a “people apart”, hiding behind walls as our divisions increase in our community and our world.

We must use words which unite not divide.

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In Memory

It has been just over 24 hours, but so many eloquent and inspiring words have been written in memory of Elie Wiesel. There is little to add to the many eulogies and essays that have appeared everywhere but I will try to add my own words, inadequate as they may be.

After a period of silence, Elie Wiesel dared to present to the world his theological and philosophical struggles in light of his horrifying experience during the Shoah. By doing so, he told us all that it is reasonable, in fact, it is obligatory for us to wrestle with this world- and with God.

He came out of the Shoah believing that Never Again meant not only that we had to protect ourselves as a people but that Never Again meant Never Anywhere to Anybody and he tirelessly worked for human rights for those suffering throughout the world while always remembering his own people and our struggles.

Elie Wiesel awakened us to many suffering communities and nations including the Jews of the former Soviet Union. In his book: “The Jews of Silence”, he let us all know about what he had seen in the U.S.S.R. and that book was a major factor in launching the Soviet Jewry movement which eventually celebrated the release of hundreds of thousands of Jews from modern day slavery.

There is one other point that I want to add. Elie Wiesel was able to smile.

In spite of so much oppression that he suffered and that he witnessed, Elie Wiesel was able to appreciate the beauty of the world and the importance of relationships with others. He did not give up on his faith in humanity.

While it is perhaps one of the least important accomplishment in his life, Elie Wiesel did something that most people do not remember. But, I certainly do. He threw out the first ball in the 2nd game of the World Series in 1986 between the Mets and the Red Sox. There is a whole story about that that you can read on line. I mention it only because it shows a person who was able to inspire us with the loftiest dreams and remind us of our greatest obligations while remaining always a mentsch.

Usually we say: “May his memory be for a blessing”. This time we don’t have to say that. It always will be. May he rest in peace and may we continue to be inspired by this giant of a man.

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The Responsibility that Lies Before Us

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation on June 18, 2016, Parashat Naso.

 

Chapter 7 of Bemidbar is the longest chapter in the entire Torah.

It goes on and on and on.

And, to add to that, it is so repetitive. Twelve of the Paragraphs present in detail the gifts brought by each of the tribal chieftains for the dedication of the tabernacle. These lengthy paragraphs are exactly the same except for the name of the chieftain and the tribe.

The chapter is so long and very quickly, we realize that we’ve heard these words already.

It is a challenge to listen to.

You wouldn’t think Torah commentators would have anything to say of interest about this repetitive portion. But, in fact, they do.

Let me share with you two commentaries.

First, from a commentary called otzar hamachshavah, a treasury of thoughts on the Torah from the Hasidic masters, we read the following thought: why is it that the Torah repeats these sacrificial gifts over and over again in all their detail even though they are all the same? After all, says the commentary, and rightly so, we believe that the Torah contains not even a superfluous, unnecessary letter. So, why would the Torah waste 11 paragraphs in such detail when it could have recorded the first gift and then just said the other chieftains brought the same gifts?

Dayenu, it would have been enough.

The commentary’s interesting answer to that question is that each of the chieftains was not looking at what was brought before them in order to know what to bring. Rather, each one brought what their heart told them to bring. Each was a personal gift that just looked the same but really was different because of the spiritual motivation each one felt. And that each was called: “the sacrifice of Nachshon” or “the sacrifice of Nitanel” supports that point. Each one really was a personal gift even though it was the same as the one before and that is why the Torah repeats each one.

Then we have another commentary from the 18th century rabbi Pinchas of Koretz. He notes that the entire list of sacrifices begins with the word Vayihee. “And it came to pass”. As in: “And it came to pass that the first one to bring a sacrifice was Nachshon ben Aminadav”

Rabbi Pinchas notes that there is an ancient rabbinic tradition that the word vayihee at the beginning of a section of the Tanach always means “trouble is coming” as in Vayihee biyamay Ahasveraus. And it came to pass in the days of Ahasveraus, the beginning of the story of the near annihilation of the Jews of Shushan at the hands of Haman.

So, asks Rabbi Pinchas, what is the trouble that is anticipated in this chapter of gifts to the sanctuary?

He says, the trouble is that Nachshon, the first one to make an offering didn’t really feel he was ready to be the first. “Mee Anee u’mah anee”, he says according to legend: “Who am I and what am I that I merit this responsibility”?

But Moses says: “God has chosen you”. We can picture Moses saying: “Your humility will help you. But, you must do your job.”

I had an idea to teach some Torah lishmah, some “Torah for its own sake this morning. There is a verse that is very moving to me regarding the importance and significance of studying Torah but that will have to wait for another year. We can’t just teach Torah for its own sake this morning. We have to learn something to help us through this horribly difficult time.

And so, on this first Shabbat after the terrible attack in Orlando, let us learn from each of these commentaries.

First, and permit me to take a positive commentary and use it to describe a horribly negative situation, we can use the commentary about the repetitive nature of this section to remind ourselves of a critical fact about the violent attacks we have seen all too often in our country.

They may seem the same. But they are not. Even if they appear similar, they are not.

Any attempt to lump all such attacks together is misleading, futile and wrong.

We need to accept the fact that there is no simple answer to stopping attacks that are really different, one from the next. First of all, the targets differ.

This time it was the LGBT community which was the target, a community which, despite significant and positive legal advances in recent years still suffers from bigotry and threats of violence. I only hope and pray that members of the LGBT community know that this and many synagogues and other house of worship are places not just of inclusion but places of safety and sanctuary for you. We recognize the threats and stand by you and with you.

But, on this very weekend last year, it was an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina which was targeted.

No group, it seems, is safe.

And the profiles of the perpetrators differ as well.

Yes, we need to confront the danger that supporters of ISIS or other extremist groups present. That danger is real and significant. But as these attacks are carried out by perpetrators with different horrific agendas, we can’t assume that responding to this particular threat  will end violence.

There is, however, one as the Talmud would call it: “tzad hashaveh”, one aspect which links each of these tragic actions and that is, of course, the relatively easy availability of horrendous weapons of mass slaughter.

And, that brings us to the second commentary.

Our hearts are broken. Our pain is so great. We may wonder whether we are truly capable of doing what needs to be done to address this horrible plague in our society.

But, this is our job. We can not let fear get in the way. We can not let our pain paralyze us. We need to pray. We need to speak out. Most importantly, we need to act. And congress must act. And act now to address the access to weapons of mass slaughter in this nation.

This is not the time to be overly humble and to question whether we can make the changes that are necessary. We must.

Yet, some humility is necessary. We must not resort to generalizations and stereotypes, using bellicose words of hatred or suspicion. We need calm, reasoned, united, determined actions to seek sensible ways to prevent such tragedies and protect our citizens.

The problem is huge. The stakes are the highest they could be. Our responsibility is enormous.

Each and every one of us, in our own way, must do our part by raising our voices

And, even as we mourn the victims and pledge ourselves to action, we must do something else as well. We must embrace life, with concern but not fear. We need to show, as we discussed last Saturday evening at our tikkun leil Shavuot, gratitude for the blessings we have in this beautiful world. We need to teach our children who hear of these attacks that life is still a blessing and the world can be a place of beauty and joy.

In the words of a song which we will sing in a few moments, the world may be a narrow bridge but the essential part of life is that we not be afraid.

Let us do our work.

For the chapter before us is too long and we must stop allowing it to repeat itself on and on.

Please rise for a memorial prayer for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and for all who victims of violence.

 

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In Memory of A Giant

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation Ann Arbor  Shabbat morning, June 11, 2016

 

IN MEMORY OF A GIANT

 

In today’s haftarah, Hosea prophesies that the day will come, says God, when you will call me ishi and no longer call me ba’ali. The words ish and ba’al both are words that can mean “husband”. But there is a significant difference in the words.

Ba’al, in addition to being the name of the Canaanite God, can be construed to mean “owner” while ish, meaning man, seems to reflect a more loving, perhaps a bit more equal relationship between a married couple.

God, in essence, is saying that I want you to call me by a name which does not imply idolatry but a direct, loving, monogamous, so to speak, relationship with one God.

It also seems to reflect, especially when viewed in retrospect through a contemporary lens, a relationship based more on love than on awe and fear, a relationship in which both parties can prosper and grow.

So God says: “this is what I want you to call me”. And, the implication is: “you will respect me by calling me as I wish to be called”.

L’havdeel, to make the separation between talking about God and talking about human beings, we often say the same thing to the world. This is how I want to be called. At one point or another in our lives, we say: “this is how I want to be called”. Names may be changed for any number of reasons, one nickname may surface over another and wee tell the world what we want to be called and it is an act of respect for others to address one as he or she wishes to be named.

It is no small thing and we were reminded of that this past week as we remembered a larger than life American hero.

Muhammad Ali was not perfect and certainly some of the things he said could certainly be disagreed with. But what Muhammad Ali did positively for our nation and our world, with his truly unique combination of strength and gentleness will never be forgotten.

Throughout his public life, Muhammad Ali made a great difference in our world. He raised issues that had to be addressed and this man who was, as some claim, the most recognizable individual on the planet influenced our world in real, tangible and significantly positive ways and he deserves the memorial accolades he has been receiving.

It occurred to me as I considered Ali this past week that while I would never call him a “prophet”, he lived a life that reflected in so many ways the prophetic tradition.

First, there was that voice, the cadence, with the spontaneous poetry. We don’t know what Hosea or Jeremiah or Eziekiel sounded like but their voices must have been something special. With so much technology around us, we have in many ways lost the appreciation for the human voice. But, Muhammad Ali, when his body allowed him to, spoke with clarity, a musical quality, a humorous, captivating voice that made you pay attention. Agree or disagree, charmed or angered, you listened to what he had to say.

But more important than his voice was what he used his voice for. Ali demanded that he be treated as more than just an athlete for the enjoyment of people who watched him fight. He demanded respect as a man. He demanded that he be called as he wished to be called, and while his brashness and his bluntness ruffled more than a few feathers at first, people began to understand that what he was trying to do not only for himself but also for all African Americans and for all people was to remind everyone that they must build pride and self-respect for themselves as a human being.

No doubt he caused discomfort when he associated himself with the Nation of Islam but as time moved along, he distanced himself from that organization and aligned himself with more mainstream Islam. And, in later years, he took very strong stands for mutual respect between religious faiths and spoke out strongly against radical Islamic terror while further learning about and dedicating himself to his faith. It seemed that His smile, his warmth, his love of his fellow human being came out of this faith.

This past week, it seemed that everyone in the world had a personal Muhammad Ali story. I don’t. But, the stories that I read were so touching especially the absolutely exquisite essay written by Rosie Schaap, daughter of sports journalist Dick Schaap in the New York Times this past week. If you haven’t read it, please make it a point to do so.

Still, Ali will be most noted for what he was willing to give for what he believed.

His stance against the Vietnam War and his refusal to be drafted cost him the championship he had earned and more than 3 years of boxing in his prime and cost him so much more than any money could represent. But, he stood firm. While his words were so difficult for many Americans to hear at the time people began to understand and perhaps that understanding more than anything else brought an end to that horrible war. He said:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

 

I can never feel what an African American man or woman feels today let alone what they felt in the 1960s but we all can and must hear in that statement the pain, the frustration, the prophetic like voice calling out for change. And, while people listened and the situation for African Americans in this country has no doubt improved since the 1960s, the pain is still there and the words still need to be heard as equality still has not been achieved.

We need to address, as clergy in Ann Arbor have done recently, the issues that people of color face with law enforcement and mass incarceration. This situation has to change. It is wrong and it is denying so many young people especially a chance at a life of equality.

And, we need to repudiate in the strongest terms statements that reflect racism. And, here I must particularly include those made by the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Generalizations and bigoted statements against those of a particular ethnic background, race or religion have no place in our political discourse.

Despite his horrible illness, Ali was a man of hope, standing up against hatred. He shared these simple words in 1996: Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. “We just serve him in different ways. Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along.”

Muhammed Ali gave up so much to stand for what he believed and to use his fame to demand change. With that he joined the company of those precious few in our world who use their convictions as the guide for their actions to seek justice and truth.

 

No he wasn’t perfect. None of us are. But, what an example of a person warning, in the great prophetic tradition, that his nation and the world had to hold a mirror before themselves and ask themselves who they were and who they wanted to be.

While his physical voice had been stilled to a great extent for many years, he continued to smile and continued to be heard. And, we must allow it to speak much more loudly and clearly than some other voices we hear today.

I won’t conclude with Muhammad Ali’s famous statement about a butterfly and a bee but with the words of Pirke Avot which say something very similar: “Be strong like a lion to do the will of our father in heaven” and “Greet every person with a pleasant expression”. What a great lesson: let us always seek to combine strength and gentleness.

 

 

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In Memory of a Giant

As so many, I was deeply saddened this morning to hear the news of the death of Muhammad Ali. While I have not ever really been a boxing fan, I have always been a Muhammad Ali fan. I remember so clearly as a kid watching Ali’s fights on TV (often during “Wide World of Sports” time with Howard Cosell behind the microphone) and marveling at his moves and his strength.

But, Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxer of course. He was a man of courage who challenged our nation to recognize and respect African Americans for more than just athletic ability. He stood tall for what he believed in and never wavered in his convictions.

His eloquence, his sense of humor,  his wisdom and his passionate dedication to peace, civil rights and understanding among people are what remains in our minds as we mourn his death.

We occasionally use the term “larger than life” to refer to individuals. Sometimes it is deserved, sometimes it is an exaggeration. In Muhammad Ali’s case, it is no exaggeration. He was a giant. He will be missed but his memory will always be for a blessing as we recall the joy of watching him box and the respect that he earned inside and more importantly, outside of the ring.

May his family be comforted at this time of loss.

 

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Highways

I’ve posted several different kinds of pieces on this blog over the years. Sometimes, I post sermons or serious essays I’ve written and sometimes I just like to share one of my non-rabbinic interests. This post is of the latter type. It does not address any issue of lasting significance. But, it reflects a long standing interest of mine.

I love to travel, especially by car and I am fascinated by all things geographical. I particularly find highway signs to be fascinating. This can easily be traced to my childhood growing up in Massachusetts where the state highways feature what we fondly refer to as “entering signs”. You can find an interesting blog about those signs here: https://neckpickup.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/five-for-the-record-massachusetts-town-line-signs/   and at the end of this piece, you can read a sermon I wrote about the entering signs.

But, the entering signs were only the beginning for me. I have many pictures of state line signs that I have taken in travels across the country and I have a small photo album full of pictures that Ellen or one of the kids have taken of me standing pointing to state highway signs in many of the 5o states.

For now, though, I want to share two brief thoughts about highway signs that have been bothering me over the years.

First, Ohio. Anyone who has traveled in Ohio has noticed that the state highway signs feature an outline of the state surrounding the number of the route. It is easy to find an example on line if you’re not familiar with it. What fascinates- and bothers- me about these signs is that when there is a state highway number with 3 digits, the map of Ohio is elongated to insure that the numbers fit into the state borders.

This has always bothered me terribly. I understand that the digits need to be read clearly when traveling, especially at a distance, but it would seem to me that the geographic integrity of the state borders should take precedence over any matter of convenience. Obviously, the powers that be disagree. In fact, it was noted in one discussion on line (clearly, I’m not the only one interested in this issue) that even on two digit signs, the borders aren’t precise but are altered to insure visual clarity. I’m not satisfied.

I would much prefer that Ohio did something like Idaho or Minnesota or several other states do, including the outline of the state separately from the numbers so that it can retain its proper borders. That’s not going to happen though so I assume that any travel I undertake in the lovely state of Ohio is going to cause at least some sense of frustration.

OK, that’s one off my chest.

Now, one last story. For many years, there has been a standing joke in our family that has now been threatened. If you take US 23 out of Ann Arbor, heading south towards Ohio, you come upon a sign at one of the exit ramps which points the way to two towns. The sign simply says:

IDA

PETERSBURG

Every time we drove past that sign, I always tell the kids that my grandmother used to play cards with Ida Petersburg and now she has her own sign. Actually it was Ida Goldberg that my grandmother played cards with but that’s not the point. We always laughed.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed that heading northbound, the sign has been changed, it now reads

IMG_1630-2

It is all that I can do to restrain myself from pulling off the road and painting a comma after Petersburg. I would never do this and would never advocate it, of course. But, I’d love to know if anyone else had that same temptation. Probably not. Still, the joke lives on.

That’s all for now. Just some thoughts after a long drive from Atlanta over the past two days. It may not be much but thinking about these two issues kept me awake over many miles.

And, by the way, here is the serious sermon I gave on this subject back several years ago. Happy traveling!

Rabbi’s Message – Parashat Masei 5768: The Signs on the Road

I want to confess publicly to an obsession. Up to this point, only my family and a small group of anonymous people on the internet who have the same obsession know about this. My obsession is harmless, I guarantee. It has to do with road signs.
Not any road signs, mind you, although I find websites that have collections of road signs fascinating. But my obsession is with one particular type of road sign: the signs I refer to are what I grew up calling “entering signs.” These are uniformly shaped signs which you see on every state highway in Massachusetts when you leave one town and enter another.

By the way, the way things work in Massachusetts and much of New England, the state is divided into cities and towns and every square inch of Massachusetts belongs to one town or another. You can’t be “between two towns” unless you’re standing with one foot on one side of the sign and the other foot on the other side. It confused me no end when I traveled in Israel for the first time. We left Jerusalem and headed towards Mevasseret Tzion on the bus, and I asked somebody where we were and they said: “Between Jerusalem and Mevasseret.” And I said, “Yeah, but where are we?” And they repeated the “between this and that” line again, and I finally gave up and realized most places in the world aren’t like Massachusetts where you go from one town to another. In some places in the world, you can really be between this and that place.

I truly am obsessed with these signs. I loved them as a kid and I used to keep a record on a clipboard of all the towns we went through; I can’t possibly quantify the excitement I felt when I saw a sign for a town I had never been in before.

And they’re very serious about them in Massachusetts. Even if you only briefly leave one town and enter another because of a bend in the road, you’ll see the sign ushering you out of one town and into the other. So, in what is known as the “hairpin turn” — a u-shaped turn on Route 2 in the Berkshires — you go out of one town, into another, and then back into the first one within about 25 feet; and there are two entering signs that help you track your progress out of North Adams into Clarksburg and back to North Adams. The two signs are right there on the curve, practically touching each other side by side. But you have to be precise. You have to know where you are.

Who are the Internet people by the way? A group which is putting together a slide show of entering signs contributed by similarly obsessed people. I added a significant number of photos during my recent trip to Massachusetts.

I did what I always had wanted to do. I got out on the shoulder of the road and took pictures of entering signs. Very soon after I started, I realized something critical: I didn’t have to take a picture of each sign. I only had to stop at every other one because I could take the picture of the sign from both sides and get both towns, the one I was leaving and the one I was entering. There were two sides to each sign: where I came from and where I was going.

Now that that’s off my chest, let me tell you what this has to do with the parsha.

There is a fascinating verse in this Torah portion, Numbers 33:2 — “And Moses recorded the starting points of their journeys as directed by God. Their journeys and their starting points are as follows…”

It is interesting that the first part of the verse mentions starting points and journeys, the second part mentions journeys and starting points. Why the change in sequence? You could explain it away as literary structure: a-b-b-a. But that is not enough for most commentators.

One Hassidic commentary explains it this way. For Moses, who could see the big picture, what was important was the destination, Eretz Canaan; even if he wasn’t going to get there, he knew the people would. For the people, the important point — since they didn’t have this deep love of the land — was getting out of Egypt. The Rabbi says that Moses wanted them to ask: “How close are we to Israel?” But they kept asking: “How far away are we from Egypt?”

So to Moses, the journey was more important than the starting point. For the people, the starting point was still more important than the ultimate destination.

It’s easy to criticize the attitudes of the people, not fixing their eyes on their destination. But I think that in certain situations, recognizing that you are still part of where you came from until the time you arrive at where you’re going is a healthy attitude. Looking forward is great in many ways. Seeing the sign down the road is critical. But it is just as critical to know that in the real world, things work like they do in Massachusetts: you’re not between two places, you are still where you are. And recognizing that until you reach the border you are still in the place you started is not such a bad idea.

My vacation is over. Rarely do I finish my vacation this early but, for a lot of reasons, I have finished my vacation. Summer, while it goes on for my kids, is effectively over for me. That means, of course, that the holidays are right on the horizon. I’m already thinking about next year’s programs and writing the High Holy Day sermons.

But that’s a necessity of my profession, it is not reality. We are observing today Rosh Hodesh Av and there are two full months to go before 5769, and one full month before the month of Elul, the month of Teshuva, of repentance and planning for next year.

It is not next year yet. It is still 5768 and I urge you to think of the midrash on that verse and my entering signs. It’s not time yet to think about the destination, it’s time to think about where you came from. It is not time yet to plan for 5769. It is not time yet to give up on 5768 because this year is still very much a reality. Please take the time this month and next month, as well, to realize we are still on this side of the signpost. With most of an entire book of the Torah to read, with the fast day of Tisha B’av and the time of redemption that follows, with time to enjoy the warmth and the long days, and with time to work on last year’s promises, you can still make this year the best of all years. And the world still can be redeemed before we cross the line into new territory.

Sometimes, planning too early for next year is a way of avoiding this year’s responsibilities.

The road to 5769 winds on. We may see the sign on the horizon but we’re not there yet. Don’t rush it. Don’t wait for it to come. Make this year the year of our dreams.

Robert Dobrusin, Rabbi
Copyright © 2008, Robert Dobrusin.

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