Monthly Archives: December 2012

I Love This Story

I am looking forward to tomorrow morning. I teach the  5th grade class at the Hebrew Day School in Ann Arbor for one hour each Friday morning and tomorrow I plan to teach one of my favorite stories from Jewish tradition.

The class is in Mishna and we’ve been talking about the Jewish calendar over the past few weeks and studying the sections of the Mishna in Masechet Rosh Hodesh which deal with the sighting of the New Moon marking the beginning of the new month. The Mishna discusses in detail the process by which witnesses would come to Jerusalem to testify that they had seen the new moon. If the testimony was accepted, the new month was declared.

The Mishna goes on to tell this wonderful story:

Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Rabbinic court, was approached by two witnesses who claimed they saw the new moon at one point but then subsequently did not see it. Rabban Gamliel, who was apparently somewhat lenient in his acceptance of testimony accepted their statement as proof that the New Moon had arrived. Rabbi Dosa ben Herkanas scoffed at this and rejected their testimony and Rabbi Yehoshua, a prominent Rabbi, agreed with his hesitation.

There now was a serious problem among the Jewish people. There could be only one calendar if the people were to be united. So, Rabban Gamliel needed to put a stop to this disagreement. So,  he ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to come to him on the day that Rabbi Yehoshua thought was Yom Kippur carrying his walking stick and money with him (I always add in teaching this story to kids that he probably told him to eat an apple as well), all things which are forbidden on Yom Kippur in order to prove that Rabban Gamliel’s calendar was correct.

Rabbi Yehoshua is stuck in a bad situation. He seeks the advice of other Rabbis and Rabbi Akiva says to him that he must accept Rabban Gamliel’s decision or else we would always question the decisions made by any Rabbinic Court.

So, Rabbi Yehoshua, reluctantly perhaps, gives in and goes to Rabban Gamliel with his walking stick and money in his hand on the day that Yom Kippur would have fallen if his calendar was accepted.

And, here is the beautiful part of the story.

As he comes to him, Rabban Gamliel stands up,  kisses Rabbi Yehoshua and says to him: Bo bishalom, come in peace, my teacher and my student. My teacher in wisdom and my student in that you accepted my words.

Once he had made his decision it was impossible for Rabban Gamliel to admit he was wrong. Perhaps he learned to make better decisions in the future. But, at this moment, he had to go along with what he had begun. Rabbi Yehoshua got very good advice from Rabbi Akiva: avoid the confrontation, accept the decision.

This is a story about the way Jewish law works and how important both authority and sensitivity are to the process of making halachic decisions. Rabban Gamliel had to do what he did but he did it in the gentlest way possible, publicly thanking his student for accepting his word and avoiding the temptation to humiliate him, acknowledging that he had learned something very important from him. What did he learn from him? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Come in peace my teacher and my student. I love that last line because I, like any teacher, have learned so much from my students and that really comes first.

I wonder what I’ll learn from my students tomorrow morning.

May God bless all school children and all students everywhere.



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There Are No Words

In this era of instant and constant communication, we rush to fill the silence with words.

But, this time, I can’t find sufficient words.

Instead, I will just offer a prayer that the families of the children and teachers who were killed will find some comfort and some peace in the months and years to come.
May those children who survived the massacre be granted the ability to trust in the world again.

And, May we, in this nation, find the courage to confront the horror of this terrible moment in our history and make wise decisions to address the issue of guns and violence, the needs of those who suffer from mental illness and the right that we and our children have to live our lives in safety.

May  we never forget.

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Is it Wrong to Hope?

I know that one of the purposes of a blog is to get something out in cyberspace as quickly as possible. And, sometimes I write blog posts in a few minutes, press “publish” and get on with my life.

But, I’ve been working on this particular posting for two or three weeks now and still am not sure that I have come up with just the right words to say.

In the weeks since the conflict in Gaza, there have been many debates in many different media between knowledgeable, respectable members of the Jewish community in which people who proudly call themselves Zionists and who have demonstrated concern for the State of Israel have been called naive at best, traitors at worst, for continuing to believe in the possibility of the two state solution.

It is unclear to me precisely what has changed over the past few months that would have caused this development. After all, the government of Israel still professes a belief in the two state solution, even as it claims that there is no partner for negotiations. Yes, the past few days have seen a recurrence of rhetoric from Hamas leaders claiming to seek the destruction of Israel. But, that has always been their claim and despite that claim, Israel continued to claim that it would seek negotiations with the Palestinian Authority regarding the future of the West Bank.

I find these accusations of disloyalty or naivete to be unfair and feel that they present, for all of us, a very serious challenge.

First, let me say without question that I take Hamas at their word. I believe that there are many within the Palestinian people who do desire the destruction of Israel. I do not believe that a peace settlement would immediately silence those voices. I would like to believe that a peace settlement would strengthen those with a more moderate view towards Israel and clearly many in Israel feel the same way.

But, the decision by Israel to proceed with settlement expansion in the “E1 area” between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim and within East Jerusalem itself, is so terribly troubling. These two plans, especially at this moment, would appear to signify a major roadblock towards the possibility of a viable Palestinian state and to any compromise concerning the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Certainly the “1967 borders- or cease fire lines- with land swaps” would presume that Maaleh Adumim would remain in Israel and that would require some kind of creative solution which would not cut off a future Palestinian state from Jerusalem or have a state which is essentially bisected by Israeli territory. But, it would appear that such building plans sends the wrong message at the wrong time (as Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Hartman Institute discussed in his latest posting which you can find through the website at, it is entitled “Red Light Green Light”).

If it is true that Israel has given up on the 2 state solution, I would ask the following question: what then is the vision that Israel would like leaders of the American Jewish community to put before American Jews? What will the future of the State of Israel be? Will Israel annex the West Bank and either expel all non-Jews (God forbid) or deny citizenship (God forbid)? Or, will Israel say, the vision is maintaining the status quo. Well, for thirty years as a Rabbi, I have been struggling with the fact that the status quo is unacceptable. While I don’t question for a moment that the Palestinians have undermined the peace process many times, I believe Israel’s latest decisions have done the same at a time when it seems the possibilities of a negotiated settlement are dimming. I would not expect Israel to sign a peace agreement if it believed it would seriously weaken its security. But, I do expect Israel to continue to hope for peace and, in the context of the past few weeks, I believe those of us who tell our congregants that as Jews, we continue to believe that the future can be better than the present should be honored, rather than disparaged and mocked.

I do not believe that those of us who dare to talk about hopes for peace and who expressed heartbreaking sadness at deepening conflicts are being traitors or are necessarily being naive. I believe that it is part of our life as Jews to hope, to continue to believe in a better time. No, it will not be easy and yes, we need to listen to voices within Israel who face the threats more directly than we do. But, I believe we can’t give up on these dreams and these hopes.


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