Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Judaism's Ups and Downs

I knew that being Jewish had its ups and downs, but the "ups" are about to become very painful if a new rabbinical ban on Sabbath elevators is allowed to stand. This Ha'aretz article points out that the ban has elicited much criticism from within the ultra Orthodox world. If the ban holds, it will create havoc among those living in high rises in Jerusalem and Manhattan. Jerusalem hotels could conceivably lose their kashrut certification for having such elevators. Being a stiff necked people wasn't supposed to also involve stiff backs. But on the bright side, Israel might well rival Kenya as the preeminent world marathon power by the 2012 London Olympics.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yom Kippur Sermons 5770, and Follow Up Comments

You can find the complete text of my Kol Nidre Sermon below. Rosh Hashanah audio here. Kol Nidre Sermon: "Mitzvah, Money and Madoff" Stream Yom Kippur Day: "Mitzvah and Mindfulness: God's Tweets" Stream Regarding the Kol Nidre sermon, I received an e-mail from a congregant yesterday expressing concern about my comments regarding Hadassah. Since undoubtedly there are others out there sharing that concern, it would be worthwhile to reprint here what I replied to that congregant: Thanks for your input and I can see how my comments regarding Hadassah might have been construed as being harsh. I tried to make clear my love and admiration for the work Hadassah does, which only compounded my disappointment in how they’ve handled this entire matter (the affair between their former CFO and Bernard Madoff) – a disappointment that I’ve heard from a number of Hadassah members. In setting Hadassah as an example for many other organizations, I do see how it could be perceived that I was singling it out unfairly, and apologize if that impression came through more forcefully than was intended. I stand behind the facts of what I said, though, and think I tried to make it clear they were not directed toward any particular members of Hadassah, (which would include my mother in law and Mara, who are life members), but to the organization’s leadership. Let’s hope this will be a better year for Hadassah and for all Jewish organizations. Again, thanks for your comments. More generally: I consider that Kol Nidre sermon to be one of the most important I've ever given and am pleased at the many positive comments I've received, both in person and in writing. Some people have been struggling with these issues for years. Here's an excerpt from an e-mail received yesterday (slightly edited for clarity), from a congregant who, as he put it, was speaking from the heart: I was so touched with your speech regarding the today's Jews... especially here in America, that are ruining the name of Judaism, the way they are conducting themselves in the eyes of all the nations. My long lasting hopes have been to see someone standing up and admitting it, which your speech did very professionally, and I am so happy that you have. The reason I was so surprised was that for over 20 years I have been thinking about all the points you had made and was so frustrated all along, that I could not bring any awareness on the surface. I have been debating the topic with many people in Israel regarding this issues, all these years but have never been successful in having any American Jews to listen to me, not even once. But I feel at peace with myself now that I know there is this rabbi in Stamford Ct. who thinks the same as I have for many years. I thank you for setting my feelings straight so that I do not have to fight my inner soul any longer. My ultimate hope is to see more voices on this topic all across the country in order to awaken the awareness in most people where our prioroties need to be. After all, all of your efforts as one voice will or can be an uphill battle and lead to more frustration. We as a Jew, must live a careful life in every society we live in, to go through life under the radar.... Thank you for listening to me, and for all of your efforts to set our nation on the right path.


Kol Nidre

Mitzvah and Money

Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” has a new book that is being published in a few weeks, in which he talks about his childhood rabbi and mentor, Albert Lewis of blessed memory.  In it, Lewis talks of a Yom Kippur sermon where the subject is death, and he informs the congregation that everyone is going to die.  After the service, a man comes up to him all excited.  The rabbi asks, “Why are you so excited?  I just told the entire congregation that they are going to die.”  “Yes,” said the man, “and THAT’S why I’m so excited.  I belong to another congregation!  I’m just visiting!”

On the day of Ted Kennedy’s death, I was speaking to one of the kids here after services and she said something very wise.  “He was very lucky to have lived until he died.”  She meant, of course, that he was fortunate to not have had his life cut short unnaturally, like his brothers.  He made it all the way to 77.  But in a real way he also lived until he died by making the most of each day, knowing, more than most of us, that every day actually could be his last. 

Most of us don’t have a bullet proof vest hanging in the closet, as he did. Most of us choose not to live with such intensity.   We shove death to the farthest reaches of our closets and our minds.  

True, a preoccupation with death and suffering can paralyze us, rendering us cynical and hopeless.  But most often it is denial that is the enemy.  And denial feeds on itself – we build a huge scaffolding of lies and masks and excuses until it ultimately collapses all around us.  Inertia develops its own strange momentum.  It’s a momentum that won’t let us move.  It’s a refusal to believe in the urgency of the moment, that change is possible and that our lives can have an impact.  To confront an ultimate reality, death, we need to cultivate the ultimate degree of honesty.

But Yom Kippur clears away the scaffolding and the masks.   Yom Kippur provides us with the glimpse of mortality – we stare death in the eye by fasting and the denial of all bodily pleasures, and then, at the end of the 25 hour day, it shepherds us gently back into the realm of the living. 

So let’s not fear looking closely at ourselves.   Yom Kippur is a time for hard truths.  And folks, we’ve been needing to do this for quite some time. We’ve been talking about mitzvot this week.  On Rosh Hashanah I focused on how they are instruments of connection and obligation.  Tonight we look at the mitzvot of Yom Kippur as agents of change in the public sphere. 

In 1937 in Crakow, the Yiddish songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig composed what was to become his most well-known song: Es Brent, “It Burns.” It spoke about the looming dangers of the Nazis, just across the border.  But it really was a call to his fellow Jews to rise up and respond to the growing threat:

Es Brent!

It is burning, brothers, it is burning.

Our poor little town, a pity, burns!

Furious winds blow,

Breaking, burning and scattering,

And you stand around

With folded arms.

O, you stand and look

While our town burns.

         And today, we are doing the same.  There are dangers abounding and we are stuck in a state of paralysis. 

         There are external threats to be sure, as there were in Crakow in 1937.  As Professor Ruth Wisse said at a Hillel conference last year, speaking of the many existential threats Israel now faces, “Ultimately, history is going to ask us only one question, ‘Did you or did you not secure the Jewish homeland.'”

         And indeed, we all must search our souls and ask what we are doing to make sure that a precious gift of a Jewish state, 2,000 years in the making, will be with us for generations to come (Hoffman lecture – Bret Stephens).

         But ES BRENT, it burns, not because of the Iranian nuclear program or Islamic extremism.  We burn because when we take a moral inventory, we come up lacking.  The list of al chets we’ve just begun reciting – it is only the beginning.  We’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves.

         As one congregant, writing to me recently about the Madoff affair, the Syrian rabbis of Brooklyn and Deal and the indictment of Ehud Olmert, said: “I guess the "game is on" about Jewish business ethics throughout the, don't get me wrong, we still probably represent a small percentage, though, the impact of the Madoff affair will be felt for generations, I truly believe we should start to reevaluating our beliefs and who / what we think we are... I think we might be a bit misguided in our personal evaluation of the Jewish people.”

These revelations have been humiliating to all of us.  You can throw in any number of other recent scandals that have Jewish connections, including the Agriprocessors fiasco in Postville Iowa.  Earlier this month, on the very day that school began both in Israeli and Stamford, which children attend to learn right from wrong, here’s what happened in Israel: Shas Knesset member Shlomo Ben Ezri began a four year prison term for corruption charges, former  Former Finance Minister Hirschson arrived at the Hermon prison to begin serving a five year sentence for embezzlement, and the trial of former President Moshe Katzav began, on charges of sexual harassment. And former Prime Minister Olmert was indicted.  Four corruption cases, four major public figures, all in one day.   Who knew that the expression “Chosen People,” would be meant in terms of a police lineup?

Something is wrong with this picture.   If you Google “Jewish” plus “Scandal” you’ll come up with 2,980,000 hits.  Even assuming some of them come from anti-Semitic sites, that’s a lot of hits.  Yes, there may be a lot of anti-Semites too, but that’s a lot of hits!  Narrow it a little, by adding the term “Madoff” and the number is 868,000.  In other words, almost one third of the Jewish scandal hits have to do with Madoff.  It’s humiliating.

         But I really don’t care what anti-Semites think about us.  I care what we think about us.  And I can only imagine what Jews in their 20s and 30s are thinking right now.  They are the ones who need to choose to embrace a Jewish vision for themselves and their families if there is to be any Jewish destiny at all. If they don’t then I will have failed and all my sermons will be like that proverbial tree falling in the forest.  No one will hear it.  It won’t matter.

         But how in the world can I expect people to embark on a Jewish journey when our most venerated institutions have been devastated by greed and corruption and denial, and all the little people have suffered, and even some big people, but no one seems to care!  And it just gets worse and worse and worse and no one cares!

         The margin for error is so small.  One moral slip up in Gaza, or not even, and the world comes crashing down on Israel with accusations of crimes against humanity.  And again, I don’t really care what the world thinks.  But what the world thinks has a lasting impression on what Jews think, until Jews don’t know what to believe.  And they do what is most logical in a free society.  They opt out. 

         While accusations against Israel are damaging for the Jewish self image, the accusations involving Jews and the Wall Street scandals are simply devastating, feeding into every anti-Semitic stereotype that has haunted Jews since the middle ages, when transient and landless, Jews took up the only field open to them, finance. And now we have scandal after scandal, from Bear Sterns to Bank of America, and everyone is obsessed with looking for Jewish names.  And there are plenty to be found. 

When American Jewish Committee director David Harris wrote in the Times that the media should not focus so much Barnard Madoff’s Jewishness, he was reacting in panic and anger, but his anger was misdirected.  He claimed correctly that no one was speaking of Rod Blagojevich’s religion, or Kenneth Lay’s.  But that begged the point.  It’s not that the New York Times and others in the media were preoccupied with Madoff’s Jewishness.  It’s that we were.

         The Madoff scandal tapped into the deepest veins of anti-semitic mythology.  Journalist JJ Goldberg commented, “His being Jewish is relevant in some way that I think most people can't put their finger on. It's exactly what everybody has in the back of their minds… Jews and polite gentiles don't want to talk about it because it reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

It's relevant because his story seems to be an anti-Semite’s fairy tale come true.  It confirms all the horrible, hateful things we’ve been told since childhood.  How do you get two Jews into a taxi?  You know, throw a penny in.  Remember hearing that for the first time and either running home crying or pretending to smile, or, if you were really brave, saying, “Uh, Joey?  Guess what.  I’m Jewish.”

“Well of course it’s not about YOU!  Can’t you get a joke?”

         Well now you don’t even have to throw in a penny!  Just throw in 10% annual return – or even less, a letter promising that 10% signed by “Smilin’ Bernie!”

         And these sentiments were suddenly released in a torrent of rumination.  That’s what we do best.  Ruminate.  The YIVO institute sponsored a public bull session a few weeks after the story broke, and Pandora ’s Box was opened widely before hundreds of people.

Martin Peretz talked about the materialism in the American Jewish subculture, “with the million dollar Bar Mitzvahs and the lavish Viennese table,” he said, “there's something built in-even the fact that lower middle class Jews feel compelled to bankrupt themselves on these elaborate Bar Mitzvahs.”  He was booed lustily by the crowd, Just like Philip Roth was berated when he wrote “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”  Such is the punishment of those who reveal uncomfortable truths.

Moses Pava, a Professor of Business Ethics, writing in an op-ed in the Forward, went even further in calling out the Jewish community. 

“Perhaps the biggest enabler …is the prevailing ethos of the business world. We live in a world that has become increasingly oriented toward a bottom-line mentality. Ours is a culture of money first. In every business school I know of, we teach our students to maximize profits. Good enough is never enough.

Our Jewish communities, which once honored rabbis and scholars, now almost exclusively honor those with the biggest bank accounts. Our students and children surely take note of this.

Bernie Madoff should be punished for his wrong-doing, but we simply fool ourselves if we think that jailing Madoff will solve the deeper problem of which he is just the most recent symptom.”

         The Madoff disease did not just infect one person.  He was evil.  No doubt a special circle of Hell – if only we Jews had hell – has been reserved for him.  But he was not alone and he was part of a culture that is trying very hard not to go away.  And what is the proof of that?  The deafening silence that followed the Madoff revelations from those very organizations – from our institutions and leaders.

         The paralysis stemmed from the fact that Madoff was not merely a thief who crashed the party.  He was the party’s host.  He was the toast of New York’s Jewish elite, especially among the modern Orthodox, although he was not Orthodox himself.  As the Times’ Samuel Freedman wrote of that community, “Their leaders and members overlap like a sequence of Venn diagrams. They are bound by religious praxis, social connection, philanthropic causes. Yet what may be the community’s greatest virtue — its thick mesh of personal relations, its abundance of social capital — appears to have been the very trait that Mr. Madoff exploited.”

         So when all these institutions were so shamelessly exploited by one of their own, someone so enmeshed in their social circles, what was lost was not merely trust.  “The currency is not so much trust;” said Princeton professor Jenna Weissman-Joselit. “The currency is community.”

         Communal ties were shaken to the core.  But something else was lost as well.  The moral voice.  The sense of outrage.

         Es brent!!!

         Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “we are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.”  And if that was not the case back in Heschel’s day, with Vietnam and racial injustice - and it has certainly become the case now.

         Witness Hadassah.  And I love Hadassah.  My wife is a life member.  I’ve often spoken about how moving it was to spend time in the new pediatric unit in Ein Karem and see how Hadassah is the place where Arabs and Jews not only coexist, but care for one another.  From out of Zion will come forth the Torah, and from Ein Karem and Mt Scopus will come Middle East peace.

         I really believe that!

         But what do I say to those 20 and 30-somethings about an organization that not only betrayed its investors by figuratively cohabiting with the creep Madoff, it betrayed its investors by literally sleeping with the creep Madoff.  Go to Hadassah’s site and you won’t see anything about the current scandal involving their ex-CFO’s affair with Madoff.  Their leadership has told the press they knew nothing about it.  Fair enough.  Except that while she was CFO and before she became a best selling tell-all author, Sheryl Weinstein WAS Haddasah. 

         "Hadassah was shocked to hear the news reports of Mrs. Weinstein's personal admissions regarding this relationship," Hadassah president Nancy Falchuk wrote in a memorandum to board members in mid August. "We knew nothing of her relationship with Mr. Madoff until today, and her departure was unrelated to Mr. Madoff."

Not good enough.  Yes, Sheryl was in some ways a victim too, and yes, Hadassah’s current leaders can’t be blamed for the sins of their predecessors.  And yes, I still love Hadassah. 

But we needed Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu and instead we got a publicists’ idea of damage control.

What they needed to say was this:

This is horrible.  We have betrayed your trust, our dear members and investors.  We have betrayed the values of the Torah we hold so dear.  We have betrayed the cause of holiness and the destiny of the Jewish people.  We’ve betrayed the very people whose lives we are trying to save.  We were taken in but we are not blameless.  There are no excuses.  Please forgive us.

There is redemption in such a statement.  There is the beginning of a possibility - the possibility of change.  Without it, there is nothing but blame and excuses and the scapegoating of Madoff.   Excuses are what creates the momentum of inertia.  And not since Flip Wilson has “The devil made me do it” worked as an excuse.

This is the perfect time to talk of scapegoats – we’ll read about it tomorrow.  The scapegoat was invented for this holiday.   But my advocacy of excommunication for Madoff was not so that he would be our sacrificial lamb to exonerate us from all sin. No, it was to do precisely the opposite.  The goal was to isolate the evil and identify it clearly, to explain to ourselves and the world why his deeds were so alien to all the values we stand for and to proclaim with great clarity that for such a person there is no redemption.  Not to set an example, because this was to be a unique case – for such a person there can be no redemption because the damage he did was so great as to be beyond measure.

I consider the title Jew to be something to be proud of, and I wanted to rob him of that honor.  Like Haman, Madoff was completely absorbed in ego and honor, able to cultivate the trust of the powerful through the manipulation of truth and half truth until, ultimately, the end result was a lie.  I wanted him to bear the full burden of the truth of what he had done.  In the end, no mask was big enough to hide it.

Elie Wiesel suggested that the best punishment would be to sit him in front of a computer screen all day, with photos of his victims flashing before him.  But I don’t think that suffices.  He saw those victims every day for decades and it never moved him.  No, for a person so corrupt and sociopathic, the only punishment that would suffice would not be a life sentence, but one taking him beyond this life: for him to know that no rabbi will eulogize him and no synagogue or Jewish cemetery will welcome his corpse and no minyan will say amen to his wife’s kaddish.  For him to know that those circles of connection that fed his insatiable greed were now going to exclude him entirely.

Only then would he realize that there is no redemption in this case.  Otherwise he might expect to get the treatment of other supposedly reformed crooks.  Jailed terrorists the world over know that it’s only a matter of time before they are freed, either through the extortion of a prisoner exchange or, in the case of the Scottish leaders last month with the terrorist from Lockerbie, a lack of moral backbone. 

It burns!  Es brent!   

But while the Jewish organizational elite fiddled, the Jew on the street burned with anger.  And that’s the voice that helped me to see the danger of doing nothing.  Thank God I have a congregation to keep me grounded, because I would likely have fallen into the crusty doublespeak of equivocation that has infested our institutions, religious and secular.  I wrote that we needed to take a strong stand to affirm the values of our Torah, and sent it out, but the organized Jewish world did very little, preferring to pass the buck while counting up their losses.  There was no excommunication, no joint statement, little outrage, just a few choice press releases and a prayer that I would all soon blow over.

I heard from many, many non machers, from all over the world, some of them Madoff’s victims, people with heartbreaking stories to tell. The damage was Katrina-esque.  Never minimize it.  Our moral levees broke and thousands of lives were shattered.  Many homes were lost.  People lost their livelihoods, their scholarships, their life dreams, their retirement and in some cases their lives.  When Katrina happened, President Bush paid a steep price for being asleep at the wheel.  People lost faith in him and that faith was never regained.  The Madoff affair has smashed the levees of American Jewish life and it has caused us to lose faith in the very principles of philanthropy that have been our lifeblood as Jews and as Americans.  Whether we regain that trust remains to be seen.

People were waiting for action but the powers-that-be said, “Let the legal system do the work.”  OK so now it has.  He’s in jail, but still there has been no kapparah, no cleansing. 

As novelist Thane Rosenbaum wrote, “Among the 11 counts of criminal activity, Madoff will not end up serving any jail time for reinforcing an ugly stereotype — the pernicious connection between Jews and money. He admitted his guilt for committing fraud, but not for defaming Jews, for resurrecting a blood libel with a grotesquely contemporary twist: the commingling of Christian and Jewish blood not for the making of matzo, but for the losing of money.”

As a result, the old canard that Jews are crooks has been allowed to stand.  And grow.  And Jews have come to believe it.  It’s a little like that case that we heard about a few weeks ago, of Jaycee Dugard, the girl who was kidnapped and held hostage so long that she began to relate to her oppressors, the Stockholm Syndrome. 

Well, have we heard these Big Lies so much that now we’ve come to believe them and relate to them, and because of it, have we begun to hate ourselves?  Must we wake up each day staring into the mirror and repeating, Nixon-like, “I am not a crook?”

So how do respond to all this, constructively?  By writing letters and angry blogs?  Nah.  Been there.  Excommunication was a nice trial balloon that became a water balloon.  It helped me and others to express outrage, but that’s about it.  So what else is there to do? Throw up our hands up walk away?  So where will we go to?  We are at the edge of a moral abyss.  There aren’t too many directions we can walk.

Perhaps we can take some comfort in that Madoff went to jail utterly friendless.  Not one letter was written in support of him.  Not one of his circle of friends wrote in attesting to his good deeds and fine character.  He also spared us a trial, probably knowing that no jury in the world would fail to convict him.

But we are still left feeling uneasy.  On this Yom Kippur, we ask, how can we achieve kappara, a real cleansing?

No, the best thing we can do now… is to change the system one person at a time, one deed at a time.  They used to say that Jews should have an extra child to replace the 6 million.  I never bought into that.  No one should be considered an “extra child.”  But maybe we all need to be extra honest.  Maybe our business practices should be extra fair?  Extra transparent?  As good as we try to be, maybe this year we need to try to be just a little bit better.  If we have the means, maybe we give more tzedakkah to restore faith in our system of philanthropy.  We give our normal amount for ourselves, and another 50%  to counteract Madoff.  If we have oversight over a nonprofit, maybe we are extra vigilant to restore that trust.  If we are paying our taxes, maybe we go the extra mile to make sure we’re not cutting corners.  If we know of someone who is doing something wrong, maybe we take responsibility to make sure it stops.

At Harvard Business School they’ve taken a first step.  According to the New York Times, nearly 20 percent of the graduating class signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.

Will that really happen?  There’s a Talmudic expression, “halavai,” “It should only happen.”  But it’s a nice idea and worthy goal.  But the Daily Show gathered some of those students and they collectively stuck a fork in that idea.  One Harvard MBA said: "It's impossible to uphold the oath and still be responsible to your shareholders." And another:  "I feel that ethics is a really fuzzy subject."

Maybe the best way to blot out the name of Madoff is to blot out his impact, by setting on the other side of the scale so many acts of goodness and kindness and justice and charity and honesty and transparency that it might outweigh even the massive damage he has caused.  Maybe we force ourselves to believe again in the goodness of people and the promise and hope embedded in the Jewish message.   Maybe that way – that is the ONLY way, to assure that my children and grandchildren – and yours – will choose to have a Jewish destiny and won’t hate themselves.

For our collective future rests on that choice.  It is the choice of mitzvah.  For the traditional approach of Judaism to money is about as far from Bernard Madoff as you can get.  To leave a corner of your field for the poor, that’s mitzvah #44 on the list I’ve linked to our website.  Not to commit fraud – that’s #181.  Not to cheat in weights and measures, that’s number 182.  Not to collect excessive interest, that’s #173.  Not to delay the payment of wages, # 184.

These are mitzvot of justice and conscience.  These are what we need to put out the fires.  Es Brent!

But that requires a restructuring of priorities in Jewish education.  Brooklyn College professor of marketing and business Heshy Friedman told the Jewish Week:

 I feel that the yeshiva system is partially to blame. There is an obsession in the yeshiva world with the legalistic aspects of the Talmud, without focusing on the practical law. More than 100 of the 613 precepts in the Torah deal with economics and business, yet so little time in yeshiva is spent on this area.

         Elie Wiesel now suffers the irony of being once again a victim of a crime of unprecedented proportions, though the destruction of his foundation cannot compare to the crimes of 70 years ago.  Still, he picked up on this theme of victimhood running through his life in an interview a few months back, telling the USA Today, "All my life has been about learning and teaching and building on ruins," he says. "That will not change."

He will rebuild - and already is doing that.  And while his resolve won’t change, as we’ll see when we hear him at the 92nd St Y next month, his life is living proof that things can change.  Society can change.

In the end, as I often say, American Jews are exactly the same as all Americans, only more so.  The issues we face in self perception are the same issues confronted by our all Americans following the Wall Street meltdown.  If we Jews can find our way out of the morass, we can help lead the rest of America to a future that will truly be enriching, in ways that go far beyond money and material possessions.

So who will lead us from this dark place and toward an era of moral renewal in business ethics, who will restore our pride in who we are and help us dream again about what we can become?

Religious leaders need to play a role, for Jews and for Americans in general.  But rabbis long since ceased being moral authorities for Jews.  That stopped as soon as we stepped onto these shores.  Did you know that at the time of the founding of the oldest synagogue in New York, Shearith Yisrael, they established a rule that if you violated the Sabbath, you got fined?  It didn’t work, and rabbinic moral authority that had held sway in the shtetls was a thing of the past. 

We need to create a new model now, a partnership between religious and business leaders and elected officials, one that can restore a sense of moral purpose.  We’ve seen again and again that the business world cannot regulate itself, nor has Congress been very effective.  Only the leaders of the business world themselves can get us out of this mess, but they need moral guidance and support.  This rebirth can begin with anyone, so it might as well begin with the Jewish community.   

Google “Jewish business ethics” and 487,000 hits will appear.  Not quite as many as “Jewish” and “scandal,” not by a long shot.  But we can build from that.  We can reaffirm a sense of Jewish Business Ethics in this age of scandal, and that can help lift us all out of the morass.

I’ve mentioned Ted Kennedy a couple of times in these sermons, but I want to close with a quote from his brother Bobby, whose words are as relevant today as they were in 1968 when he spoke them on the campaign trail in Lawrence, Kansas.

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts …the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

The true source of our wealth as Jews comes from the priceless legacy that we’ve been schlepping across the face of the earth for 3500 years.  We need to remind ourselves that we are the people of the Book, not the people that cooks the books.   We are driven to make the world better for our stakeholders, not our stockholders.  And our principle stakeholders are the next generation.

According to the Talmud, the first question a person is asked in the next world after death is:  “Nasata v’Natata b’emunah?”  (Shabbat 31a) Were you honest in your business dealings?

Let each of us be supremely honest in answering that question.  Let our signature mitzvah be that whenever we apply our signature to anything, we appoint God as our witness.  Let us repent today as if it is our final day, for it may yet be.  Let us rip aside the masks of denial and feel the wind whipping on our naked faces.

Furious winds blow,

Breaking, burning and scattering,

While our town burns.

It is time for us to put out the fire.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Matthew Katz on Nitzavim Vayelech

A few week’s ago, I had the chance to see a game at the new Yankee Stadium. It was amazing and reminded me of how it felt the first time I saw the old stadium, back when I was about 6. Everything was perfect. The manicured grass was a perfect shade of green. The infield dirt was raked perfectly, not a pebble in sight, smooth and nice. I was amazed seeing the huge monitors in the outfield. I loved the smell of the peanuts – the entire atmosphere was indescribable.

How green it is, how perfect the field looks, how peaceful. It was like a scene out of “Field of Dreams.” A baseball field can be the next closest thing to heaven.

Amazing though it may seem, that exact same vision is described by the prophet Isaiah in my Haftorah. He could have been talking about how I felt when I went through the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium when he said, “Pass through, pass through the gates! Clear the road for all the people; build up the highway, remove the rocks…”

Of course, Isaiah never saw Yankee Stadium. He was actually a Red Sox fan. (The rabbi told me to say that). Look at the bible, where in Isaiah, Chapter 1, verse 18, he states, “If they are as red as crimson, they shall be wool.” He was either talking about the sins of Israel, or about his pick for the AL Pennant.

But in our verse, Isaiah describes how the land of Israel will not longer be desolate and forsaken – how beautiful it will look. And from all the pictures I’ve seen, it certainly does.

One way to highlight the beauty of a place is to build baseball fields. In “Field of Dreams,” Kevin
Costner says ‘If you build it they will come,” The founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, said almost the exact same thing about a century ago, long before the State of Israel was born: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

My dream is to combine both of those dreams and to make the land of Israel even more beautiful by helping to build baseball fields there.

It’s called “project Baseball,” and it’s being organized the Jewish National Fund, which has helped build the land in so many ways. I’ve raised over $2,000 so far to build new diamonds cities and towns all over Israel.

So you might be asking, why and I doing this?

In my portion, Nitzavim, Moses begins his speech, saying, “Atem Nitzavim hayom,” “You who are standing here today.” But the word used for “standing” also means to “take a stand.” Moses is telling us how important it is to stand up for what’s important to you. That’s exactly what I’m doing. Baseball and Israel are both important to me.

So, now you may be asking. what can baseball bring to Israel, and what about baseball do I love so much that I want to help build fields over there?

Here are four explanations.

o First, baseball teaches the importance of INTER-DEPENDENCE, something I’ve learned all about at camp, in school and on the field. You can be the greatest pitcher ever, (I’m not, but I’m pretty good), but if the shortstop can’t field, it won’t matter. Israelis also know how important it is to work together as a team. I learned that especially from my soldier Eran, who stayed with us about five years ago. Just about every Israeli goes into the army, and that’s where they really learn about the importance of teamwork.

o Secondly, baseball teaches sportsmanship. Many of us will remember that story about the girls softball team, when Western Oregon’s Sara Tucholsky suffered a knee injury when she hit a home run and the players on the opposing team carried her around the bases.

o Third, baseball teaches how important it is to have a level playing field, both in and outside the stadium. In Israel, the new baseball league is a place where all people can come together and get along:, rich and poor, Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, all playing a game that they all have to learn at the same time. If people can learn a sport together, it will help them to live together in peace.

o Finally, a baseball game is a great place to relax and appreciate nature. Much less intense than other sports, like soccer, basketball -- or politics (unless the Yankees and Red Sox happen to be playing).

So now you can see why I’ve chosen to honor baseball as I become a Bar Mitzvah today.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

God Texts the Ten Commandments


1. no1 b4 me. srsly.
2. dnt wrshp pix/idols
3. no omg’s
4. no wrk on w/end (sat 4 now; sun l8r)
5. pos ok – ur m&d r cool
6. dnt kill ppl
7. :-X only w/ m8
8. dnt steal
9. dnt lie re: bf
10. dnt ogle ur bf’s m8. or ox. or dnkey. myob.
M, pls rite on tabs & giv 2 ppl.
ttyl, JHWH.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Hoffman Lecture: Will Israel Survive?"

Last night's Harold Hoffman Memorial Lecture, featuring Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, could not have been more timely. Coming on the heels of the UN appearances of world leaders, and with today's news of secret Iranian nuclear facilities, an audience of about 500 needed to understand better just what Israel is confronting and how (and whether) she can overcome these significant challenges. I invite you to listen to the lecture and the Q & A that followed (unfortunately, the last few minutes were cut off):

The Lecture: Stream

Q & A: Stream

MP3 files of the lecture can be downloaded from our website,

Netanyahu at the UN

Here are the main points and links to the entire text and video of Prime Minister Netanyahu's stirring speech at the UN yesterday.

Israel to the UN: The Jewish People Are Not Foreign Conquerors in the Land of Israel (Prime Minister's Office)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly on Thursday:

Nearly 62 years ago, the United Nations recognized the right of the Jews, an ancient people 3,500-years-old, to a state of their own in their ancestral homeland. Yesterday, the man [Ahmadinejad] who calls the Holocaust a lie spoke from this podium. To those who refused to come here and to those who left this room in protest, I commend you. You stood up for moral clarity and you brought honor to your countries.

The Iranian regime is fueled by an extreme fundamentalism that burst onto the world scene three decades ago. The struggle against this fanaticism pits civilization against barbarism, the 21st century against the 9th century, those who sanctify life against those who glorify death. If the most primitive fanaticism can acquire the most deadly weapons, the march of history could be reversed. The greatest threat facing the world today is the marriage between religious fanaticism and the weapons of mass destruction, and the most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

A recent UN report on Gaza falsely equated the terrorists with those they targeted. For eight long years, Hamas fired from Gaza thousands of missiles, mortars and rockets on nearby Israeli cities while not a single UN resolution was passed condemning those criminal attacks. In 2005, hoping to advance peace, Israel unilaterally withdrew from every inch of Gaza. We didn't get peace. Instead we got an Iranian-backed terror base fifty miles from Tel Aviv. Life in Israeli towns and cities next to Gaza became a nightmare.

All of Israel wants peace. If the Palestinians truly want peace, I and my government, and the people of Israel, will make peace. But we want a genuine peace, a defensible peace, a permanent peace. In 1947, this body voted to establish two states for two peoples - a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted that resolution. The Arabs rejected it. We ask the Palestinians to finally do what they have refused to do for 62 years: Say yes to a Jewish state. The Jewish people are not foreign conquerors in the Land of Israel. This is the land of our forefathers.

We recognize that the Palestinians also live there and want a home of their own. We want to live side by side with them, two free peoples living in peace, prosperity and dignity. But we don't want another Gaza, another Iranian-backed terror base, abutting Jerusalem and perched on the hills a few kilometers from Tel Aviv. The Palestinians should have all the powers to govern themselves except those handful of powers that could endanger Israel.

Video: View Netanyahu's UN Speech (YouTube)