Monthly Archives: November 2015

Being God’s Angels During Difficult Times

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, MI last Shabbat.



This morning, I want to talk with you about angels. Then, we’ll turn to the real world.

Whether you regard angels in a literary or metaphoric or mythic sense, their role as messengers of God is worthy of serious consideration. And, angels play a major role in the life of Jacob, beginning in this parasha with the story of our patriarch’s dream of a ladder reaching up to the heavens with angels ascending and descending.

A prominent traditional rabbinic interpretation of Jacob’s dream is that he is witnessing the “changing of the guard”. The angels who have protected him within the land of Canaan are returning to the heavens while those who will protect him outside the land are taking their positions. The dream is seen as an assurance by God that Jacob will be protected in his travels outside of Canaan as he was inside the land.

In the dream, the angels are ascending and descending and this brings up a question:  Was there any overlap? Was there ever any moment when both sets of angels were directly accompanying Jacob? I would assume that there would have to be such an overlap even for only a short moment as otherwise, there would have been the possibility that Jacob would have been left defenseless even only for a moment.

This question of “overlapping angels” may be reflected in the song Shalom Aleichem. This song is based on the tradition that angels accompany us in our homes on erev Shabbat and therefore we must greet them properly with words of greeting. But, it is odd that in the second verse we welcome the angles with boachem lishalom, “come in peace” and then, in the third verse, we say tzeitchem lishalom, “go in peace”. Why would we give the angels the traditional greeting of farewell when they have just arrived?

There are several answers to this question but the one that I prefer is that we are in fact saying goodbye to different angels: the angels who have been with us through the week who now are returning to the heavens after the long 6 days of work. We say, “go in peace”, have a good rest and come back after Shabbat. Note though that we do not say goodbye to them until we have welcomed the Shabbat angels. There is overlap. We are never left without angels. Messengers of God are always around us.

This idea of two different sets of angels is found in another rabbinic context as well. There is a lovely legend that when God sought to create the human being, two sets of angels argued about the plan. One group said that God should create the human being because we would be capable of doing acts of kindness and justice. The other group said God should not create human beings because of the evil that would arise from our actions. God, chooses to creat the human being in hopes that the good will outweigh the bad.

There is another piece to the argument of the angels against creating the human being. The role of the angel was to do on earth what God can not do: to be messengers of God on earth. Therefore, the angels did not want the human being to be created because they sensed their role would be diminished. And, they were correct. It has been diminished Whatever you believe about angles, the fact is that we are God’s angels. Human beings are the ones who are to do God’s work. We are God’s messengers on earth. But, as was pointed out in one of the recent lectures in our Hartman Institute series on Dilemmas of Faith, the difference between human beings and angels is that human beings can say “no”. We can refuse to do God’s work while angels had no choice.

The debate between the angels about whether God should or should not create human beings is a reflection of the tension between what we call the yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and the yetzer hara , the bad inclination, a struggle that our tradition believes goes on inside each of us. This struggle accompanies us always and the strong person, according to Pirke Avot, is the one who conquers his or her evil inclination.

But, according to at least one rabbinic text, the yetzer hara is not necessarily the inclination to do evil. It is rather seen as the self-centered inclination, the self-protecting inclination. We read in Bereshit Rabbah that even the yetzer hare  has its place for it not for the yetzer hara, no one would build a home or choose a profession which would provide them their needs. Yetzer hatov becomes the altruistic inclination and yetzer hara becomes the self-protecting inclination and both are needed in a life. There needs to be overlap of altruism and concern for self.

And now let us turn away from angels and turn to the real world.

I am sympathetic to the persepctive that led Governor Snyder and many other governors, politicians and private citizens to decide that this is not the time to welcome Syrian refugees into our country. I understand their fears and I do not say that lightly.  Their concern that our security structures are not proficient enough to weed out any individuals or groups capable of performing the kind of horrific terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris or Beirut or Turkey or so many other places in our world is worth consideration. It didn’t take the attacks in Paris to prove that adherents of this horribly perverse way of thinking and acting are a threat to our communities and our nation as well. And, it is natural and reasonable for a Governor to see his or her role as protecting our self-interest, to listen to his or her yetzer hara rather than the yetzer hatov.

But, while it may be reasonable to be concerned, the proposal to close the doors on Syrian refugees is shortsighted, inappropriate and wrong. It is based on misleading claims and exaggerated fears concerning the refugee population. And, as this proposal has gained momentum, the rhetoric has turned increasingly racist and cruel and that is shameful.

We should care about protecting ourselves but we need to listen to our yetzer hatov, to our good and altruistic inclination as well. We need to be God’s angels on earth, doing the work of saving and enhancing lives. We need to find a way, even given our fears, to respect and continue our commitment to those in need. We cannot look into the eyes of these people who have been so horribly victimized and just close our doors. It is wrong for a country which speaks of being a source of good in the world. And, here, I want to commend our local Jewish Family Service and HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society which has rescued so many people, Jews and non-Jews in the past for committing to continuing to support and welcome, after proper security checks, Syrian refugees to this country.

Our angels must overlap. We can honor the inclination to self-protection while not dismissing the inclination that inspires us to care for the huddled masses who have been through such horrors. We need to listen to our better angels and continue to find a way, despite our fears, to reach out our hand to those whom we can help.

We all have concerns about the state of the world but those fears can not undermine our basic sense of humanity.

We can not close our hearts. We can not close our doors.


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The Day the Lights Went Out

I am convinced that one of the best usages of the Internet for people of a certain age is nostalgia. With one click, we can find videos or photos or stories that bring back memories from childhood, images that jump out at us and remind us of things we might have forgotten over the years.

I often find that I write about those images on this blog, as an opportunity to pay tribute or just remember the formative or not so important experiences of the 60s and 70s. Often, the moments I choose to write about are somewhat trivial in the long run. But, today’s is not trivial at all. It was one of the most memorable moments of my childhood.

50 years ago today, November 9, 1965, at a little after 5, I was sitting in my Hebrew School class, when the lights in the room flickered for a moment and then went out. We sat for a moment in the dark wondering what was wrong with the electricity in the building when the principal came down the hallway saying: “the lights are out all over town”.

This was the beginning of the great power blackout in the North east with the electricity remaining out until after 9 that night.

It was a night that still leaves me with intense memories.

Our Hebrew school teacher was terribly afraid as it seemed to bring back memories of World War II blackouts she had experienced in Europe. I’ve written about the impact that experience had on me in the book that I’m writing and in other places. For here, I’ll just say that it was a horrilbly scary experience to watch her wrestle with the memories of her past.

When my parents did pick me up from school, we drove through the streets of Brookline and Brighton without traffic lights. I distinctly remember college students standing in the middle of the intersection of Harvard St. and Commonwealth Avenue directing traffic with flashlights. That was a harrowing intersection under the best of circumstnaces. That night, it was a nightmare.

I remember sitting at home eating dinner by candlelight with the transistor radio tuned to the news, hearing the stories of those trapped in subways and in elevators and of emergency surgeries taking place with makeshift generators.

Mostly, I remember my parents reassuring us that all would be well.

But, how did they know? How did anyone know?

This was an era where adults were trying to come to grips with new technology, new dependence on forms of media they didn’t remember from their youth, watching the world change in ways they would never have predicted with astronauts orbiting the earth and so many other changes. For us, as kids, we were used to everything and would never remember times without TV or when landing on the moon was a plan rather than a fantasy. I remember asking my parents over and over again: “Did this ever happen before?” And, never receiving an answer.

It may not seem like much now. But, then it was just plain scary.

Sometimes, these days, as much as I do email and write this blog and do my banking on line and text (grudingly) with my family and occasionally for work, I know the whole world is moving faster than I can deal with. But, I’m part of it, I have to be part of it and I recognize the good that it does.  But, we are dependent and when the internet “goes down”, when we’re out of cell phone range,  we panic a bit and then try to reassure those younger than we are that: “it will be all right”.

But, all of us know the truth. With the vast improvements in technology which have changed our world, mostly for the better, there is always that sense inside of us that we are not in control. That’s what it felt like in 1965. Sometimes, I think that today, even when the lights don’t go out.

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E.T. remembered

Earlier today, I read of the death of Melissa Mathison who wrote the screenplay for the movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. That movie has great significance to me as I used a quote  and some of themes from the film, as the basis for the first Rosh Hashana sermon that I delivered as a Rabbi.

Reading one’s own words from more than 30 years ago is always eye-opening but as I read through that sermon this morning, I realized that even though I write much differently  today, the message of the sermon is still one I am more than comfortable with.

So, here is a link to the sermon, typed on my old standard typewriter, from 1982. Shabbat Shalom.

Click to access First-Day-of-Rosh-Hashana-Sept.-18-1982.pdf

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Twenty Years

As you have read on this blog, I am still fascinated more than 50 years later by the assassination of President Kennedy. In addition to the many books and magazines that I have, I also have several clippings of poignant pieces that have appeared in various places over the years. One of those clippings is of a comic strip from the “Arlo and Janis” series. In this comic, which appeared on November 22, 1988, Arlo walks through the house with a sad look on his face, wandering from room to room in silence, ending up on the back porch stairs saying the simple words: “twenty five years”.

For all of us who remember the JFK assassination, watching the years go by reminds us that we are, in fact, that many years older. We perhaps speculate a bit as to how the world might have changed had President Kennedy lived but I think that for most of us, the assassination’s impact is one of the horror of a particular day in our lives, the desire to know for sure what really happened in Dallas, and the number of years that have passed since that moment.

Tomorrow, November 4, is the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin Z’L. While, like with our reaction to the JFK assassination, it is hard to believe that 20 years have passed and to think of how quickly the years have flown by, the “speculation” piece is perhaps much more vital to the observance of the anniversary. Twenty years ago, we seemed to be on the verge of an agreement to bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. Now, twenty years later, we still see terror, we still see oppression, we still see the conflict and see little hope for the peace for which Rabin gave his life. It is hard not to imagine where we would be had Rabin lived.

As I have said from the bima twice during the past few weeks, I recognize without question that many people thought that the entire process of Oslo and the thoughts of a “two state solution” were misguided from the beginning. Many criticized Rabin for the steps that he took and it is possible that had he lived, the peace process would have collapsed or led to even more tension and danger for Israel. I accept that that would have been a possibility.

But, it is also possible that it would have worked. It is possible that had Rabin lived, Israelis and Palestinians would have found a way to live in peace with each other. It is possible that economic and cultural ties would have developed. It is possible that we would now be seeing an entirely different reality in Israel and Palestine.

There is no way to know which of these scenarios would have taken place. But, what we do know is that the horrendous, obscene act of one man inspired by teachers who preached violence in the name of Torah and in the name of God diminished the possibilities of peace.

I have heard from both Jews and Palestinians here in this country and from Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East that they feel the 2 state solution is dead. For many on both sides, this is good news as they feel that such a solution would have been dangerous as it would have required them to trust the other side  and to believe that compromise was worthwhile.

If it is true that the 2 state solution is dead, I would ask: what is the option? Is what we are seeing now: indiscriminate, unjustified and uncivilized violence against innocent Israelis and retaliation and further restrictions on an already frustrated Palestinian people devoid of hope the way of the future? If the 2 state solution is dead, what solution is there?

For now, I pray that israel will protect its citizens and respond in a measured way to violence. For now, I pray that the Palestinian leadership would refrain from preaching hatred and revenge. That might calm the situation to an extent in the weeks and months to come.

But, I see nothing happening now which makes me think that 5 years from now, we won’t be sitting and shaking our heads at the fact that 25 years have passed and Yitzchak Rabin’s dream, a dream shared by so many of us, will still not have been achieved.

I pray I am wrong.

May the memory of Yitzchak Rabin be for a blessing and may Israelis and Palestinians find a way to a real, lasting, strong peace.

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