Do It Today!

The esteemed second- century Sage, Rabbi Eliezer taught, “Repent one day before your death!” (Pirke Avot 2:15)

When he heard this teaching, one of his disciples asked: “But how do I know when I shall die?”  

“That’s just the point,” the Sage responded.  “You do not.  So, you had better repent today before it is too late.”

To repent is to ponder the times we have failed to live up to our best selves and then to atone as best we can for the times we said or did the wrong thing and for the times we failed to say or do the right thing.

Rabbi Jack Riemer recalls a particularly sad funeral. The grieving widower remained standing next to his dead wife’s grave for a long time after the service ended. After he watched him patiently for some time, the Rabbi put his arm around the man’s shoulder and gently said to him, “It has been a long and stressful day, Jacob. I think it is time for you to go home and get some rest.”

  “I loved my wife,” the man responded.

“Yes,” the Rabbi answered, “I know you loved her. She was a fine woman, but you have been here for some time now.  Don’t you think it’s time to leave?”

“You don’t understand, Rabbi, the man insisted.  ‘I really loved my wife, and once …I almost told her.”

Once I ALMOST told her! 

How many times have we failed to say the things we needed to say? Or how many times have we said or done things we shouldn’t?

Rabbi Eliezer tried to teach us that God does not guarantee us tomorrow. Life can end for any of us in an instant.  

So, if you have someone to love, or someone you can help, or someone with whom you have quarreled and with whom you hope to reconcile, better do it today. Tomorrow may be too late.

Jerome Hantman, MD

There was an aura of dignity about Jerry Hantman. When he walked down the corridor of Howard County General with his white coat flowing behind him, I thought of him as “St. Jerome of the Patuxent.”

When as a neophyte rabbi I sat on the Ethics Committee of the hospital, I would occasionally pick the brain of the Chief of Cardiology about an issue that had come up. Many years later when the issue on the table was my second and quite complex open-heart surgery, I called him from the Cleveland Clinic to map out the proposed course of action the doctors there proposed for me. Only after Jerry told me, “The plan seems prudent,” did I feel confident going ahead with the procedure I underwent.

Jerry and I bonded over our mutual love for tennis.  We played often, and, when we would compete, my strategy was to avoid at all costs the hammer-like left-handed forehand around which he built his game. 

When Jerry decided to build his beloved court at his home, he shared with me all the details about the construction process. When it was finished, we played there so often that Danny Singer and I dubbed it “The Hantman Training Center.” There, we practiced more than we would compete, and in those sessions, I wanted him to blister that forehand over and over to my backhand which became a lot stronger as a result.

After we played, we often spent almost an equal amount of time talking about the game, about how much we each learned from it about life, about Bud Collins, his tennis coach at Brandeis before he became a famous commentator, and countless other topics.

There was one phone call from Jerry I can never forget. In 1985 at age 39 I somehow managed to reach the semifinals of the Annual Columbia Labor Day Tournament. I was going to give it my all, but logically the odds were very long that I would defeat my younger, stronger and faster opponent. So, I was more than surprised when Jerry called to tell me, “You’re going to be in the finals.”

“Do you really think I can beat that guy,” I asked?

“You won’t have to,” Jerry answered. “I examined him today, and there is no way I can allow him to play a competitive tennis match.”

Jerry was also a regular at services. He sat in the congregation, seemingly without blinking, listening to and processing every word I would say. I can still see his beatific half-smile in the congregation before me. Afterwards, often at the side of his court, he would ask probing questions that led to productive and, for me, enlightening conversations, often about God.

I confess I am angry at God for allowing Jerry to endure the horrible illness that marked his final years. When I think about it, I remind myself that God is ultimately a mystery. We answer to God, and God has no obligation to answer to us.

But if I was angry at God for Jerry’s affliction, I was and will always be grateful to God for sending Jerry Irene, who knowingly, willingly, lovingly and with inspiring dedication, shared the journey with him through the very difficult last chapter of Jerry’s life. 

In one of our last meetings, when he could still drive, Jerry took me out to the long-shuttered and by then forlorn looking tennis court where we had spent so many happy hours. There we sat and talked once again about the experiences we shared. Toward the end of our conversation, Jerry said wistfully, “Gosh I miss those days!”

So do I, Jerry! So do I!

Jerry Hantman: physician, confidante, coach and friend 

זכר צדיק לברכה

Your righteous memory will always endure!

The Sad but Vital Contemporary Lesson of Nadav and Abihu

“And Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, … offered strange fire before the Eternal one, which God had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Eternal One and devoured them, and they died before God. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

We wring our hands over the sad fate of Nadav and Abihu.

Our hearts break for Aaron, their father.

Rabbis and Commentators of all religious stripes turn themselves into pretzels trying to interpret this sad story. It is easy to get caught up in their esoteric explanations of how they crossed the line in their striving for holiness so that they left their mundane bodies behind, and they died.

But what do we have to say to the kid or adult reading this story and asking, “Does it have a message for me?

Indeed it does.

The account of their death is followed by this strong command: “Drink no wine nor strong drink, you or your children with you when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you do not die.” (Leviticus 10:9)

An automobile is similar to the Tent of Meeting where Nadav and Abihu died suddenly because a motor vehicle is a place where one wrong move on your part or on the part of another can end your life in an instant.

Sometimes things happen on the road that we cannot control. For instance, a foolish decision by another driver can take your life. That is a risk we take every time we get behind the wheel. It is a calculated risk whose odds we choose to accept.

But there is another risk that we should never choose to accept. Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Some commentaries, noting the proximity of the death of Aaron and Elisheva’s sons with the warning not to drink in the holy precinct assume that Nadav and Abihu were drinking and that caused their fatal accident. If we allow this possibility, and I think we should, then the passage, far from being a comment on God’s capricious cruelty, as some would have it, is a vital warning to all of us.

Don’t drink and drive!

Sometimes in our search for clever interpretations of biblical texts, we overlook a lesson staring us right in the face. The sad story of Nadav and Abihu offers us such a lesson. We fail to heed it at our own peril.

63 Years Ago Today

63 years ago today, March 21, 1959, the Cantor chanted my Hebrew name and, on legs that felt like rubber, I climbed the steps to the bima at Temple Sharey Tefilo in my native East Orange, NJ to read from the Torah for the very first time as a Bar Mitzvah.

It was an overpoweringly scary and yet very spiritual moment for me. Rabbi Avraham Soltes, of blessed memory, stood on my right and placed his strong left hand on my shoulder. I read and translated each line as I went along, Leviticus 5:17-26.

Back then B’nai Mitzvah students in our congregation did not give speeches, they did not conduct the whole service, they did not read the entire Torah portion. The focus of the ceremony was on reading and understanding the message of the Torah portion, I only read my Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah in English.

When I finished both readings and their accompanying blessings, the rabbi and I stood at his lectern, and he asked me questions. He asked me to recite the Ten Commandments, and then he asked me to share my favorite Psalm. I chose Psalm 61 and especially the aspiration of the verse, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61, verse 3).

The lessons of my Torah portion remain with me to this day. The seemingly esoteric portion about sacrifices teaches me and all of us two vital contemporary lessons:

  1. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it.
  2. In crimes that do not involve violence, victim compensation is the best form of redress.

Without question, kids today “do more” at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies than I did, but I wonder, do they remember the lessons of their Torah portion years later? Do they even know what a Psalm is let alone have a favorite? More importantly, will they look back on their big day as I do on mine, as one of the most important days in my entire life?

Secular it is, but …

New Year’s Eve 2022

“Secular it is,” were the words which often began the last Bulletin column in December by my Rabbi during my teenage years, Charles Akiba Annes, of blessed memory, “but I wish all of you fulfillment, joy and meaning in the New Year.”

His point was that for Jews the real New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurred sometime in September, but that the beginning of a new secular year could also have significance.

Rosh Hashanah begins a period of intense self -scrutiny culminating ten days later, on Yom Kippur. During that time our tradition implores us to engage in serious soul-searching with an eye toward improving ourselves in the New Year.

For me, Rabbi Annes’ message and the arrival of the new secular year spark a question:

 “That Rosh Hashanah stuff, how are you doing with that?”

In our weekly Torah reading we transitioned from the Book of Genesis with its “happily ever after,” ending to the beginning of Exodus, the story of our enslavement and suffering.

In the first weekly portion in Exodus, God encounters Moses in a Burning Bush, and charts Moses’ course for the remainder of his life. After encountering God so directly, Moses is no longer content to be a shepherd in Midian.  He accepts God’s commission to return to Egypt and lead our people from slavery to freedom.

Our Sages comment that a burning bush is not such an unusual sight in the desert. Only a person of great sensitivity and insight would take time to notice that although the bush was burning, the flames did not consume it.  Only one such as Moses could have seen a life-changing message in that bush.

I think we all encounter “burning bushes” from time to time.  Will we see the potential in them for us to add purpose and significance tour lives as Moses did, or will we, like most people do, just pass them by?

This past week we began to read of the titanic struggle between God and Pharaoh over the fate of our ancestors in Egypt.

Did it really happen?  That is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate, but the “Truth” (capital T) of the story lies not in its historicity or lack thereof. It lies in the message we take away that can improve our lives.

To truly understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war between gods. On one side we have Pharaoh worshipped by building pyramids and other monuments to his glory.  If he needs slaves to build them, that is fine.  If taskmasters beat the slaves to make them work harder, that is OK too.  If the slave population grew too numerous, well, the simple solution is to throw their infant boys into the Nile to drown and be eaten by the crocodiles.

On the other side there is the one true God. We worship our God by studying Torah to learn more about the meaning of life and by performing acts of kindness and compassion. Our God is especially concerned with the disadvantaged elements in society, the poor, the elderly, the bereaved, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

These two conflicting gods with their totally opposite values systems imply could not coexist, and so in the Book of Exodus, they go to war with each other.  It is a hard and bitter battle, but our God wins, so we go forth from slavery to freedom.

But how does this story relate to my life in 2022?

Remember that Cherokee legend I have told you about the two wolves?  “A grandfather taught his granddaughter: ‘Two wolves battle inside each of us.  One is good, caring and kind, but the other is selfish, mean and greedy.’

‘Which one wins?’ The granddaughter asked.

‘The one you feed,’ her grandfather replied.”

Let’s put that legend in a Jewish context.  Pharaoh and the one true God battle within each of us.  Pharaoh exerts a strong pull encouraging us to “look out for number one,” and acquire as many material goods as possible.  If that means exploiting and hurting other people, that’s OK.  If that means paying those who work for us skinflint wages, that’s fine too, just so long as we get ours.

And did you notice how in the Torah after God sent frogs to cover the land of Egypt Pharaoh’s sorcerers did the same.  That symbolizes the self-destructive behavior we so often engage in.

But, hopefully, God’s influence on us is stronger than Pharaoh’s. Hopefully, we are moved by God’s instruction to try each day to be more just, caring and compassionate – to clothe the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless and pay special need to society’s disadvantaged, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

Over the years, many have asked me: “Why didn’t God simply soften Pharoah’s heart so that he would let the Israelites go the first time Moses approached him?  Why was the struggle so protracted that it took ten plagues and untold suffering and loss of life before Pharaoh relented?

Because the Torah is like real life.

In real life tyrants do not willingly and easily give up their power.  And in real life we simply cannot wish our internal struggles, conflicts and evil inclinations away.  We must battle against them constantly, and those battles will not be easy.

So, what we have is not just an ancient story whose historicity scholars sharply debate. We have a metaphor for the forces that try to influence our lives. As the struggle in Exodus indicates, Pharaoh’s pull is strong, but as God promised Cain at the very beginning of Genesis, “You can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7).

January 1, then, is like a booster shot for me.  It reminds me that I can control my base inclinations and be a better person than I was before. It is a good time to ask myself:

Have I become any kinder, more understanding, less judgmental, as I vowed I would try to be on Yom Kippur? Have I done anything to make someone’s life richer and more fulfilling?

Perhaps, but I can do better.

“Secular it is,” Rabbi Annes used to write, but the new calendar year can be a time to revisit our hopes and ideals.  Will we sleepwalk through our lives, or will we look each day for the unconsumed burning bush that can ignite in our soul the resolve to make a positive difference in our world?

AN END TO THE CHARADE

Joseph’s Brothers Bowing Before Him, original oil painting by Stefanie Steinberg

  “It might be the greatest, most moving address in all literature.”  That is the way my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s appeal to Joseph, which begins parashat Va-yigash.  

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph –so moved by Judah’s words- reveals himself to his brothers.         We wonder though, why Joseph treated his brothers so harshly? Why did he accuse them of being spies? Why did he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why did he instruct his steward to put his special goblet into Benjamin’s bag?          

Some commentators suggest that Joseph’s motive was revenge. The brothers sold Joseph as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes, “At first and understandably, Joseph thought of revenge . . . He still wants revenge more than he wants love . . .” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 271).  Later, (P. 284) Plaut writes, “Joseph first faces his brothers in bitterness and devises a cat-and-mouse game in order to have his revenge . . .” 

If, however, revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused. If Joseph wanted revenge, he would not have said, “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you . . . So it was not you who sent me her, but God.” (Genesis 45: 5,8)

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive.  Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.          

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone.  As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. 

With Joseph gone, Benjamin, the only remaining son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son.          

Judah knows what is at stake.   Although he was in no way responsible for Benjamin’s plight (in contrast to his pivotal role in the sale of Joseph as a slave years ago) Judah steps forward (Genesis 44:18-34) and stirringly describes the events that have transpired.  He then tells his disguised brother that Benjamin’s imprisonment in Egypt will be too much for their aged father to bear, and he will die.  Then, Judah offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph –who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence– needs to hear in order to end the charade.  

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’ alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)]. 

 In Parashat Va-yigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story discusses his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” are derived from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past. 

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.

I’m Afraid

In Rocky III, the once down and out fighter, Rocky Balboa, who miraculously became Heavyweight Champion of the World, breaks down before his rematch with Clubber Lang and with an anguished cry admits to his wife Adrian, “I’m afraid.” 

“When I had nothing,” he continues, “I didn’t care if I got beat or cut up, I had nothing to lose. Now, I’ve got you, I’ve got the kid, and I don’t want to lose what I got. I’m afraid.”

In this week’s Torah portion as he crosses the River Jabbok. Jacob also admits, “I’m afraid.”  

He recalls that with his staff alone he came to the land of Aram. Now, twenty years later he has a large family and vast livestock holdings. He knows he has twice cheated his brother Esau, who is marching toward him with a regiment of 400 men. Like Rocky Jacob, who left home with nothing proclaims in effect, “I don’t want to lose what I got. I’m afraid.”

I am afraid too.  One of the things that helps me push aside my fears for the world in which we live is to correspond with adults who studied with me for Bar or Bat Mitzvah. When I wish a former student a happy birthday on Facebook, I often end my message with, “Now Tell me what your Torah portion was about.”

Thank you Elaina

The latest response I received from Attorney Elaina Cohen Werner warmed my heart. About her Torah portion from nearly 40 years ago, she wrote: “When Jacob wrestles with the angel and becomes Israel (“one who struggles with God.”) But really it was an internal struggle to step up and become the best version of himself.”  And then she added to my delight, “We just celebrated my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah 2 ½ weeks ago.

In “Rabbi-land,” ladies and gentlemen, it does not get any better than that

Nevertheless, the “nachas” I received from Elaina’s note, could not change the fact that like Jacob in tonight’s Torah reading, and like the fictional Rocky Balboa, I too admit, “I’m afraid.”  I am afraid for the direction of our country. I am afraid for the breakdown of barriers and limits. I am afraid for the impact of the internet that allows anyone to make any proclamation, promote any cause, spew out racism and antisemitism and use any imagery to broadcast those hateful ideas instantly around the world.

Yes, I’m afraid.

I like to think – some would say naively – that Jacob’s fear was not just for his physical safety. But for the knowledge that he had cheated his brother so brazenly and worried he could not earn forgiveness.

In his own words, during the twenty years Jacob served Laban, scorching heat ravished him by day and frost by night frost by night. Long sleepless nights were normal for him. Those twenty difficult years gave Jacob ample time to realize how grievously he had wronged his brother Esau. 

After a titanic struggle, a struggle as Elaina Cohen Werner noted, was really an internal struggle to step up and become the best version of himself, Jacob resolves that come what may he will do all he can to make things right with his brother.

And as Yisrael, he does just that. He responds to his fear of “losing what he’s got” by giving much of it to his brother. The size of the gift Jacob sends to Esau in Chapter 32 of Genesis is enormously generous. He is paying back with interest the value of the birthright he extorted for a mess of pottage.

Transforming from self-centered Jacob to magnanimous Yisrael was not easy.

Nevertheless, his struggle is one we all can and should model. If we are willing, we can all face the reality that there is a gap between who we are and the best selves we can be.

It is a struggle our country also does well to model, but I am afraid we are not, in Elaina’s words, “stepping up.”.

Representative Paul Gosar

This week, for only the 24th time in the history of the United States, Congress voted to censure one of their own.

This week, the House of Representatives voted to strip Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona of his committee assignments because he posted an anime video showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and physically attacking President Joe Biden.

Censuring him to me was clearly the right decision. So why am I afraid? I am afraid because with two exceptions the censor vote divided along party lines. 

.To me, this is not a question of party loyalty. It is a moral issue. It is not a question of politics or party allegiance. It is a simple question of right and wrong.

And make no mistake. What Rep. Gosar did has nothing to do with free speech.

 Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States more than 100 years ago (1919) established an important standard when he proscribed, “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic,” is not protected free speech.

In March of 1978, the Washington Post published an op ed in which I argued Nazis marching through Skokie, Illinois, a community populated by many Holocaust survivors, should not fall under the rubric of protected free speech because it presented a clear and present danger, akin to shouting “fire” in a theatre to the health and well-being of many Skokie residents.

Incitement to physical or emotional violence cannot be protected speech. And that is what Gosar’s anime might well have done.

But it is all too easy for us to point our finger of moral outrage at Washington or at other political hotspots around the world. We must also point it at ourselves. Like Jacob we must continue to struggle with our own moral compass. 

Almost every day offers us opportunities to help someone or to turn a blind eye, to become the Yisrael of this week’s Torah portion or to remain the self-centered Jacob we met two weeks ago. 

Tipping extra

Tipping extra is one way to help food servers whose earning power suffered enormously during the pandemic. Do we want to get out of the restaurant with the least damage to our checkbook? Or do we allow our hearts to open to the hungry child waiting at home and hoping his waitress-mother will be able to put food on the table or maybe – if he is fortunate — buy him something for Christmas?

Being Alert to Mitzvah opportunities

A few days ago, in a drug store, a sad-looking older woman ahead of me in the checkout line was putting a few supplies including a small cake on the counter. My heart broke as she said to the clerk, “It’s my birthday, but I am celebrating alone.”  Quickly, I pulled out my credit card and told her, “Happy birthday! Please let me help you celebrate,” And to the clerk, I said, “Please put her items on my card.” 

In this instance, I had no reason to be afraid. By giving, like Jacob turned Yisrael, I gained. The woman could not stop thanking me. For $11.95, I made someone’s day. 

To be sure this was no great act of heroism. All it took was being alert to the opportunity to make a small difference in someone’s life. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, let us put the emphasis on the last two syllables: Giving.

After 20 years of anguish and one particularly horrific night, Jacob earned the name Yisrael,” One who struggles with God.” It is a title that we as a nation, we as individuals, and we as Jews must still strive continually to earn.

Art Perlman

Art Perlman was a fun-loving man with a ready smile and a great sense of humor. I could count on and looked forward to seeing him, Judy, Hal, Eddie and Joel every Shabbat Eve except when he was out of town.

He was a proud Jew and so proud of his boys. He and Judy made certain that they not only “went to Hebrew school,” but that they lived active Jewish lives. He relished his family “stats:’  Hal’s was one of the earliest B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies I conducted at TI, and he was the very first person for whom I officiated at his Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation and wedding.

Art also took pride in the fact that his was my first “hat trick family”.  Because I played ice hockey in high school and college where scoring three goals in one game was known as a “hat trick,” I began and continued throughout my career, the practice of giving either a hat, creatively decorated by Vickie, or individual hats to each member of a family when the family celebrated the third of three B’nai Mitzvah for their children. 

Joel’s Bar Mitzvah became the first occasion at which a family celebrated a Temple Isaiah hat trick, and I can still see Art’s beaming face when it happened.

When Judy, like her three sons read from the Torah and Haftarah, spoke beautifully, answered the rabbi’s tough questions and masterfully taught the congregation at her Adult Bat Mitzvah Ceremony, the Perlmans became not only a hat trick family, but our first “Grand Slam,” a four B’nai Mitzvah family. Art could not have been prouder.

Art Perlman was a salesman by profession, and he had an uncanny knack for making his customers feel important.  On Friday nights, he made me feel like I was his most important customer. Each week I could count on a personal greeting, a warm smile and eyes that locked right into mine when he spoke to me. After services, he would either reflect on or ask a question about the Torah portion or my sermon. He never failed to make me feel like my efforts were important and that they mattered to him.

Looking back over the many years since I was his rabbi, I have often felt, “If every rabbi had at least one congregant like Art Perlman our sacred calling would become easier to follow.”

In my mind’s eyes, Art Perlman remains forever young.  His eyes continue to twinkle, his smile is ever bright, and his memory continues to bless me.

Amen

November 19, 2021

Why I Did Havdalah Alone

Havdalah (the brief ceremony separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week) is not much fun when I am by myself, but I do it anyway. 

Vickie is in San Francisco caring for her 100-year-old mother and visiting our children and six grandchildren who live there.

My duties as Rabbi of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands kept me in Sanibel. We don’t like to be apart for three weeks, but given the realistic possibilities, we made the best choice. It is vital for Vickie to spend as much time with her mother as possible. And every time either of us sees our children and grandchildren it is a great joy.

I often say, “We have all been expelled from The Garden of Eden.

None of us has it perfect in life. There is no perfect, marriage, position or friendship. But our tradition urges us to make the best choices of those available to us that we can.

God in the Torah is an example. As Rabbi Samuel Karff, of blessed memory, taught, God had to choose between Esau on the one hand who cared so little for his birthright that he sold it for a bowl of stew, and Jacob on the other who wanted it so badly that he would cheat and lie to get it. Some choice! But if even God had to choose between imperfect alternatives, it should not surprise us that so must we.

I am frequently asked: Why do we study Genesis’ stories year after year because they are all about highly dysfunctional families and deeply flawed individuals?

 But it is their shortcomings that make them valuable object lessons for us. We are all flawed too. 

Jacob and Joseph were obnoxious punks in their youth. Neither becomes perfect, but each grows into a responsible adult to fulfill vital roles in keeping our people’s Covenant with God- a Covenant made for the purpose of creating a just, caring and compassionate society— vibrant and alive.

That brings me back to Havdalah 

In the reflection of the twisted candle’s flame, that we use in the ceremony, I see the days when our three children were young, and we all said goodbye to Shabbat together. Now they are busy adults, in San Francisco and Connecticut, each pursuing worthy careers that help further the Covenant’s original goal, to make a more just, caring and compassionate society.

If we can’t all be together, at least let there be Vickie and I. But at this time, she too is in pursuit of important Covenantal ideals by visiting her aging mother.

So, I am alone on Saturday night, and frankly, it would be easier to skip the ritual. But I don’t because even an imperfect Shabbat ritual holds meaning for me.

I laugh as I light the Havdalah candle because Vickie rarely lets me do it when we are together. Our Havdalah candle throws off a big, almost scary flame, and Vickie fears I will burn the house down. I thought of her and was extra careful

The bottom line reason I chose to do Havdalah this evening is because I still got to celebrate Shabbat. I had the privilege of co-leading worship with our wonderful Cantor, Murray Simon. I was blessed to read and teach Torah to a small but still interested and attentive congregation. So imperfect as it was, Shabbat was still different from the rest of my week in a sacred way.

And so, I marked its end and the beginning of a new week. 

And as I extinguished (without burning the house down) our Havdalah candle I contemplated the small steps I might take to bring closer to reality the ever-living hope of our people that — like our flawed biblical forbears — I too can become a better person, who can help in some small way to make the world a better place.

My Heart is Heavy

My heart is heavy this Shabbat Eve.

This week Morgan Lewis, a highly respected independent investigation firm, released its report of long-standing sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination at my Alma Mater, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

It is a devastating report that specifically names six individuals about whom reports of egregious misconduct were numerous and credible. The report was devastating to me.

When the report came out, Leo, our rabbinical student son, asked me, “What are you planning to say about this?”

“Nothing,” I replied.  I cannot imagine I responded, what interest a group of retired Jews in Sanibel would have in this scandal.  

Besides, all of this took place long after I graduated. When I was there, there was only one female student, Sally Priesand, who became the only female rabbi in the world. I didn’t know her but from all I could observe, everyone treated her with admiration and respect bordering on awe. At the ceremony when her class was ordained, all her male classmates rose in unison as her name was called in tribute to her achievement and in acknowledgment of the historic moment in Jewish history those of us present were witnessing.

Then I added in response to my son that three of the six individuals named had had significant positive impact that helped push me forward as a rabbinical student.

Leo immediately responded, “Who?” I told him.

All three are deceased now, but when I began HUC my Hebrew background was very rudimentary.  Two of those named encouraged me, and I was very grateful.

The summer I met Vickie, when I was studying at the HUC School of Jewish Communal Service, the President of the College Institute invited me to stay in his family’s home for a month while they were in Israel.

Two years after I was ordained, Vickie and I and our infant son Leo spent a month on vacation in Jerusalem. While we were there, the same President called me to his apartment and asked me to consider leaving my congregation and joining the administration of the College-Institute as his Assistant. It was a heady offer for a young rabbi and certainly a fast trac opportunity to advancement in our movement.

Fortunately, I had the presence of mind, the honesty and the courage (and it took all of these) to tell him what in effect many of you have learned about me over the past four years, “I can’t administer my way out of a paper bag.”  I told him I was moved by his offer, but that my dream had always been to be a congregational rabbi.

Whew! Now I think I really dodged a bullet.

For certain, I did not see any of the well-documented abuses of the ensuing years. Women were treated differently. Female faculty were blocked in their quest for tenure for reasons that had nothing to do with their scholarship, research or teaching ability. Faculty members harassed and propositioned female students. Gay and lesbian students faced discrimination. The President to whom I have referred was one of the perpetrators. In my day there were no openly gay students enrolled although it is clear now that they chose, wisely at the time, to remain in the closet.

But as a student, I saw nothing of this.  It all happened, so to speak, after my time.

I share these sordid findings with you because it is all now in the public domain. I share it with you now because the institution that enabled me to become a rabbi almost half century ago and, is now enabling our son to do the same has been devastated by the fallout from these revelations.

For myself, the report is a shock and a disaster. 

But for Leo and those who study with him it must question the very calling to which they aspire, and the whole thing has me in turmoil.

But I find guidance in this week’s Torah portion.

It begins as you heard with a miraculous dream in which Jacob encounters God.  You remember last week that twice he cheated his brother Esau and was running away from home to escape his wrath.

In the dream of which I just read, though, he receives a promise of redemption and affirmation that he is the one to carry forward the Covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac.  Despite the horrible things he did he can still fulfill his destiny.

But it will not be easy. 

He has twenty hears ahead of him where he will suffer time and again for his misdeeds.  His Uncle Laban will trick him as he tricked his father, by taking advantage of the darkness to substitute Leah for Rachel in his wedding tent in the dark of night.

He will describe the twenty years with Laban as a living hell in which Laban abused and mistreated him and during which, “scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night, and sleep fled from my eyes.” (Genesis 31:40)

But at the end of his time at what I have called “The Laban Reformatory,” Jacob will be ready to both atone for what he stole from Esau and take his place as Israel, one who struggles with God for the purpose of making a more just caring and compassionate society in the future.

So, it is with HUC. It will need to atone. It will need to do what it can, as Jacob did with Esau, to redress the grievances of the many who suffered discrimination and academic and sexual abuse.  It will be a hard road ahead.

The Haftarah portion we will study tomorrow from Hosea holds out similar hope. Israel’s sins have been monstrous: idol worship, oppression of the poor and needy. You name it; they were guilty of it. God is all but ready to divorce them completely. 

But, the prophet teaches, if they repent and atone for their sins and return to the ways of God and abandon the ways of idolatry and all it represents, Israel can once again fulfill its destiny as a beacon of God’s teachings to the world.

And so, for the sake of my son and those who study with him and those who will study after them, I pray HUC, as did Jacob will find a way to atone for its institutional sins and the sins of those who led it.  I sense and I hope that HUC-JIR will embrace Hosea’s message, and after a meaningful process of Teshuvah, move forward into the future as a bastion of truth, learning, spirituality and the values of righteousness and justice that our Torah and prophets so eloquently teach.