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.


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.

Savvy Women; Clueless Men in the Bible

Too often, over the years, I have heard people say, “The Bible is a book about men in which women receive short shrift.” But as I read Scripture, it is the woman who repeatedly ‘gets it’ and the man who is often ‘clueless.’

It started with Eve

For example, Eve, has been maligned for generations for the “fall of man” when in fact; she is – in my view –the heroine of “the elevation of humanity.” In the Garden of Eden, she had the courage to seek knowledge and trade immortality for a life with the potential to have meaning and purpose. 


Rebecca was another earth shaker. One may certainly question the way she went about things, but she certainly had greater insight into what God needed in terms of an heir to the Covenant of Abraham than did her husband Isaac. She acted decisively on her instinct.


Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law deserves credit for his transformation from one who sold his brother as a slave into one who would not let his other brother become a slave.  

Zelophehad’s Daughters

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters. In the Book of Numbers marks a vital first step in establishing a woman’s right to inherit her family’s property.

The Women of the Exodus

Then there are the six women who made it possible for Moses to stand before Pharaoh to demand the liberation of our people: the two Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter, and Moses’ wife Zipporah.


Deborah in the book of Judges successfully united the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali to thwart foreign invaders. She summoned Barak, a leading General, but he refused to lead the troops unless Deborah went with him into battle. She was a judge, military leader, prophet and poet, one of the Bile’s strongest characters of either gender.

Samson’s Mother

In that same book Samson’s unnamed mother received God’s vision that she would bear a son who would begin to redeem the Israelites from the Philistines, but when she told her husband, he was sure they would die. But Manoah’s wife knew better. She was another example of a savvy woman with a clueless husband.


Hannah, Samuel’s mother is another pivotal figure in the Bible. Compared to her, Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh was a bumbling fool.

The Megillot

There are five books of the Bible designated as Megillot (scrolls), Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations Ecclesiastes and Esther, and these are associated with Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Sukkot and Purim respectively.

Three of the five Megillot are about very strong women. Purim celebrates the courage of Vashti and Esther. Song of Songs tells of a woman strong enough to resist the blandishments of King Solomon’s harem to follow her shepherd lover.

Then there is Ruth. The story tells of Naomi’s faithfulness and Ruth’s loyalty and the reward she receives to become the great grandmother of King David, who, according to both Jewish and Christian traditions, is to be the ancestor of the Messiah.

I hope the examples of Eve, Rebecca, the six woman who saved Moses’ life, Deborah, Hannah, Samson’s mother, Vashti, Esther, the heroine of Song of Songs, Naomi and Ruth are sufficient to convince everyone that far from being unimportant, many biblical women outshine the men around them in terms of leadership ability and perception of what it was God needed them to do. They are important role models for young women today and an inspiration to all of us.

It is an important that more people learn about these heroic women.