Archive for the ‘Old City of Jerusalem’ category

Sacrificial Offerings

September 17, 2013

As those of you who have shared Rosh Hashanah with us over the years know, every Rosh Hashanah morning I dedicate my sermon to a theme born of this morning’s Torah portion – the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac.  Over the years, I have drawn many lessons from various aspects of this text.  I have found meaningful messages in the roles of Abraham and Isaac, the roles of the servants who accompanied them, whom are tradition identifies as Ishmael and Eliezer; I even have found meaningful messages in the roles of the donkey and the mountain.  My Akeda sermons have been finessed and nuanced in numerous ways.  However, this morning I want to do something just a little different; a little different yet something old and classical.

I want to turn to one of the primary interpretations of this Torah text, as found in our tradition.  For the ancient rabbis were quick to see this strange story of Abraham and Isaac on top of Mount Moriah as being first and foremost a story about sacrifice.  That is what I want to talk about this morning – sacrifice.

There are those who say that this account was included in the Torah as a polemic against human sacrifice; a practice that was very common among many Near Eastern religions in Abraham’s day, and throughout the biblical period.  In fact, just beyond the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is Gei-Hinnom – the Valley of Hinnom.  As testified to by such great prophets as Jeremiah and Isaiah, it was in that place that Canaanite idol worshipers offered up their children to Moloch, the god of fire.  For the ancient Israelites, it was a place of fear because of the horrors that took place there.  It is even said that one of the ways Israelite parents would discipline their children was by telling them, “If you’re not good, I’m going to send you to Gei-Hinnom!”  It is spoken of in the Talmud as Gehenna, and there it is considered a frightening place of fire and death.  Indeed, Christ­ianity would draw heavily upon these images of Gehenna as it fashioned its own concept of Hell.

Therefore according  to some interpreters, this morning’s Torah text is meant to serve as a powerful Jewish rejection of those sacrificial practices.  For there is Abraham, willing to serve his God by physically sacrificing his child just as so many around him actually did sacrifice their children in the service of their gods.  Yet, at the very last moment, as the knife is about to fall, God’s angel shouts out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy nor do the least thing to him!” in a crystal clear statement that God is not interested in human sacrifice; that such an act is abhorrent to God.  For God, animal sacrifice is quite sufficient as Abraham finds a ram to offer in place of his son.

That is one interpretation of this story.

Yet for many of the ancient rabbis, this text was so much more than a proof text as to why Jews don’t prac­tice human sacrifice.  For understanding, they ask an all important question:  If God did not want human sacrifice, why did God ask it of Abraham in the first place?  God simply could have said to Abraham:  “I forbid you and those who follow after you from sacrificing children.  It is abhorrent to me, even worse than bacon!”  For these rabbis, there had to be more to the story than just a rejection of a religious practice which was common among Abraham’s neighbors.

For these rabbis, the heart of the story rests squarely on God’s request and Abraham’s response.  God asked of Abraham to surrender that which was most precious to him – “Take your son, your only child, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on a mountain that I will show you” – and Abraham was willing to do it without question or doubt because he believed in God so completely that even in this he would obey.  For these rabbis, this text challenges us, asking, “Look what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in the service of God.  What are we willing to sacrifice – not only to God, but also generally in the name of those ideas, or principles, or causes, in which we claim to believe and to which we claim to be committed?  Indeed, are we willing to give to anything until it hurts?  Even more simply, are we willing to give as well as to take, and if so, are we willing to give as much as we take, or even more?

These questions remain as pertinent today as they did when the ancient rabbis first posed them; perhaps even more so.  We are Jews who live in a time and a place of extreme blessings, and not just as Jews but as Americans.  No matter how much we complain about the state of the economy and taxes and the cost of gas at the pump, our lives are far more comfortable than the vast majority of people on our planet.  They are also far more comfortable than most of those of the generations that came before us.  I think of my own parents, of blessed memory.  It was only toward the end of their lives that they were able to enjoy such luxuries as an air conditioned home or a microwave.  Going out to a restaurant was a real treat for them while admittedly, I eat more meals in restaurants than I do at home.  For them, a vacation was going camping in the woods while for me, a vacation usually involves getting on an airplane.  I can only speculate as to how amazed they would be if they were around today to witness the marvels of dishwashers and K cups and computers and printers and cell phones and I Pads and cable or satellite tv – My father loved to watch tv.

We are a people whose pantries are filled, whose refrigerators and freezers are filled, whose closets are filled, whose garages are filled, whose lives are filled with a bounty of plenty.  Yet when it comes down to it, how much of that plenty are we willing to give up in support of those causes which we claim to be important to us?  How much are we willing to sacrifice?  Abraham was willing to give up his beloved – his only – son because God was important to him.  What are we, who have so much, willing to give up be­cause anything is so important to us?

In this day and age, that is an uncomfortable question for many.  We have so much, but we have grown so accustomed to having so much that we resist letting any of it go.  We do not wish to impair our comfort or even take the risk of impairing it.  While we are willing to give, how many among us are willing to give until it hurts?  How many are willing to give of their bounty to such an extent that it will actually alter, even if just a little, their lifestyle?  How many of us are willing to make such a sacrifice that as a result we would need to deny ourselves one less meal in a restaurant each week or each month, or we would need to hold on to that car for another year or so, or take one less vacation every few years, or find ourselves needing to wear some of last year’s fashions this year?

Now do not think that this whole question of sacrifice is about surrendering material possessions.  Of course that can be part of it but it is far from the whole.  In fact, many find that giving materially is far easier and far less demanding than giving in other ways.

I remember one year when Shira was in college and it was time for the students to move out of their summer apartments and into their winter ones.  Now in Madison, Wisconsin, where Shira went to school, every student moved out on the same day and every student moved in on the next.  So I went up to Madison to help her move.  It was chaos and it was exhausting.  On the second day, as we were moving Shira into her winter quarters, I took a break outside of her apartment building.  Soon I was joined by a set of parents of another student who was moving in as well.  In shared agony, we struck up a conversation in which that student’s father commented, “These two moving days make paying tuition seem relatively painless!”  And he was right!  For while giving away or spending money may be momentarily painful, chances are good that we will be earning more money and the pain will quickly fade.

Giving time.  That’s a whole other story, for our time is not a renewable resource.  When we spend it, it is gone and it is not coming back.  Trust me.  When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder where it all went, and how did it fly by so quickly.  Time is a precious commodity, so it stands to reason that many would prefer to give money than to give time.  But even as our time is precious to us, it is also precious to others.

Our time is most certainly precious to our family.  So many of us claim that our family is the most important thing in our lives.  But is it really?  A good measure is to be found in how much of our time do we devote to them, and how much do we spend in other pursuits.  It is a source of a certain amount of embarrassment to me that when Shira was young, there were too many occasions when she had some special event, and I missed it because I was here at the Temple teaching a class or attending a meeting, or whatever.  What do you think about a dad who lets his neighbor from across the street escort his daughter to a Dad-Daughter Date Night at school?  That dad was me.  However by the time it was Helene’s turn,  I came to recognize how incongruous that was with my values.  I discovered that I could say, “I’m sorry, I cannot attend that meeting because Helene has such-&-such an event” or “I’m sorry but we will not be holding class on this or that date because I need to be with Helene for a program.”

Not only is our time precious to our family but it is precious to others as well.  Worthy organizations with noble goals are always starving for volunteers.  Whether or not people step forward to fill those spots can make all the difference in the success or failure of those organizations, and more importantly, whether or not those noble goals are met.  Just think about our own efforts when it comes to addressing world hunger.  Is there anyone here who would say that they do not give a hoot or a holler about all those people starving across the world?  Of course not.  We all think that it is a shame; a travesty.  We all wish that everyone had enough food to eat.  Yet how many of us are willing to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon in October to walk in the CROP Walk?  The more people who walk, the more money we raise.  The more money we raise, the more lives we save.  It is all a matter of sacrificing a little time in order to make a great difference in the lives of many people.  And yes, pledging some money as well.

We can give of our money.  We can give of our time.  But what about giving of ourselves?  That, perhaps, is the hardest sacrifice of all, save literally giving of our lives.    To give of ourselves means to truly care about something or someone other than ourselves.  It means being willing at times to put them first, before us and our wants and our needs.  It means being willing to step forward, be counted, and even take risks on their behalf.  It means stepping off the sidelines, stop being an observer, and start being a participant in the quest to bring about righteous change in the world.

Walter Friedlieb was Susie Rothbardt’s father, Greg Rothbardt’s grandfather.  Walter was also one of those German Jews who was able to escape Nazi Germany before it was too late.  He knew first hand what it meant to be on the receiving end of prejudice.  I remember so well his telling me with great pride about how he and his Chicago rabbi, David Polish, went down South to participate in a civil rights demonstration, and how, as a result, they wound up in jail.  He could have stayed home in Chicago, reading the newspapers and watching the news, sharing with others his disdain for racial discrimination in conversations over cups of coffee but he chose to act instead of just talk.  He chose to put himself on the line in the cause of racial justice.  He chose to help make change happen rather than just hope for it to happen.  He chose to give of himself, willing to accept the consequences of his sacrifice.  And he did help to bring about a positive change in his world.  How many of us can say of ourselves, we have done the same?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything – and believe you me, Isaac was everything to him – because he believed it was the right thing to do.  To this day, the story of Abraham and Isaac which we read from the Torah just a short while ago, challenges us to ask of ourselves, “What sacrifices would I be willing to make in the name of those people and ideas and values and causes which I hold to be near and dear?  What sacrifices would I be willing to make in order to do my part in making this world a better place for all who live here?”

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Rockets, Bombs, & Blood: Reflections on the Gaza Conflict

November 24, 2012

I have done some traveling in my time.  I am by no stretch of the imagination as well-traveled as some, but still I have set my foot on the soil of several foreign lands.  From these journeys, I have not only learned much about those individual nations and their cultures but I have also come to receive some very important insights into people in general and the world in which we live.

The first, and most important, of these insights is that it matters not where you go, whether it be in the land of friends or the land of foes, in general, people are good and decent.  They may speak different languages and dress differently, they may pray in very different ways or not pray at all, but when it comes down to fundamental human character, they are not really any different from us.  Like us, just as we have some very good people and some very bad ones in our society, so do they in theirs.

I first came to this realization during a frigid December while walking the streets of Moscow, when it was the capitol of the U.S.S.R., or as Ronald Reagan liked to call it, “The Evil Empire.”  I learned it while watching these blood enemies of the American way as they stood in long lines waiting for a bus in the freezing cold, yet they automatically welcomed pregnant women and women with small children to the front of the line.  I learned it while watching a Soviet father, in the midst of winter, pushing his child on a swing in a snow covered playground.

I learned it in Israel, particularly in the Old City of Jerusalem, as I sat, drinking Turkish coffee, schmoozing and laughing with Palestinian storekeepers as we cordially bandied over the price of possible purchases.  I learned it there as I watched one Palestinian merchant playfully haggle with 8 year old Helene over the price of a tee shirt, and letting her get the better of him.  I learned it there while on a UJA – now United Jewish Communities – mission with Dick & Harriet Gottlieb and their children.  After hearing stern warnings by our tour guide to protect our wallets and purses from the thieving Palestinians, one Palestinian teenager walked up to Jason Gottlieb and warned him that his backpack was open.

The second of these insights is born of the first.  That insight is that we cannot confuse a people with their government.  We are blessed to live in a true democracy where here, maybe more than in any other country on the planet, our government does accurately reflect the will of our people, for we express that will through the choices we make in the polling booth every election day.  Yet it is easy for us to forget that we are in the minority; that most people on this planet are not so blessed; that the positions and policies of their government may not accurately reflect their own values and desires.  While their governments may be evil, doing evil things, the majority of the people may actually be good at heart.  If the politics did not get in the way, we might find the we could be good friends.

I share this with you because these are important things to remember especially when missiles are being fired and bombs are being dropped, and blood is being spilled on both sides of the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Good people, on both sides, suffered.

It is easy for us as Jews to demonize the Palestinian people, especially when hundreds of rockets have been intentionally aimed and fired at Israel civilians – our brothers and sisters, from infants to the elderly – by Hamas and related terrorist groups in Gaza.  But to do so would be an injustice, not only to the Palestinian people as a whole, and not even only to the possibility of forging a future peace, but also to our very souls.  For when we demonize a whole people on account of the actions of an evil few who may possess inordinate power, we bring ourselves down to the level of all those who throughout history have mindlessly hated all Jews, for ills, real or imagined, that they felt some Jews may have inflicted upon them.  I don’t know about you, but as a Jew, I do not want to be held accountable for the misdeeds of someone like Bernie Madoff.  So why should we hold all Palestinians responsible for the misdeeds of Hamas?

That being said, the situation facing Israel makes it all but unavoidable that there will continue to be many Palestinian people – Palestinians who are not members of Hamas, nor who wish to be – who will suffer and even die as a result of Israeli military operations against the terrorists.  We cannot forget that the death of the innocent is the greatest tragedy born of war.  This is not something to celebrate, as members of Hamas did upon learning of the Tel Aviv bus bombing, but rather it should be something over which to anguish; something that stabs at our conscience as we lament the fact that when we choose war, we should always be choosing it as the lesser of two or more evils.  For in war, there really is no glory.  Just human suffering which is part of the price we pay when we are convinced that we have been left with no other options but victory.

This is the place in which Israel has found itself; not just in this war but in all its wars, especially in its wars against the Palestinians.  There is no question but that Israel cannot ignore or tolerate malicious attacks upon its citizens.  No other nation would ever be expected to do so, so why are there those who expect it of Israel?  Look at the United States.  We experienced one day of attack – September 11, 2001 – and we wound up going to war in two countries; a war which if it ended tomorrow would have lasted for 11 years.  Israel was left with no choice but to go to war in Gaza.

There are those who claim that there is always an alternative to war but there are times when that is simply not the case, no matter how much we wish it otherwise.  Those folks are so ever ready to condemn Israel for what they call its “aggression.”  But in their condemnations, they are being, to say the least, less than honest.  Less than honest because they choose to ignore a long history of all of Israel’s serious offers to make peace with its enemies; offers that have been turned down flat.  Less than honest because while they are so ready to take up on Hamas’ complaints about the Israeli occupation, they conveniently choose to forget that Israel elected to totally withdraw from Gaza 7 years ago; that Gaza is not occupied – blockaded, yes, but not occupied.  Less than honest because they continually turn a blind eye to the true acts of aggression of Hamas against Israeli civilians and then treat the conflict as if the acts of hostility are one-sided.  Less than honest in that they ignore the fundamental fact that just as it takes two to tango, so does it take two sides to make peace.  When it comes to Israel and Hamas, there is only one side that is interested in talking about peace, and that side is Israel.  At best, Hamas is only willing to talk about a cease fire, and then, only when its military resources are depleted and it needs time to regroup and rearm.

When I originally penned these words, a cease fire agreement had just been announced.  At that time, I had no idea if it would actually take place or survive by the time I shared these words with you.  Now I know that it has taken place.  I still am unsure how long it will survive.  While a cease fire is preferable to active combat, it is definitely not the answer.  The Israelis call such conflicts which end in a cease fire “mowing the lawn.”  No matter how nice a job you do when mowing your lawn, and how good it looks right after you are done, you know that the grass is already starting to grow back and the lawn will soon once again need mowing.  A cease fire is not the answer because it does not put an end to the violence.  It only postpones its continuation.  Indeed, it only assures its continuation for it provides both sides with the breathing room to better prepare for the next confrontation, guaranteeing that the next confrontation will be more brutal and bloody than the last.  No.  Cease fire is not the answer.

So what is Israel to do?  As long as Hamas refuses to consider any long term solution, this cycle of violence will continue.  Not because Israel wants it to, but because Israel has been left with no other choice.

Of course, there is one obvious choice, other than giving Hamas carte blanche to attack Israeli civilians without repercussions.  That choice is an all out war and total victory; going against Hamas with the total might of Israel’s military and not stopping until they are either completely destroyed or unconditionally surrender.  Is that not what the Allies did with Germany and Japan in the Second World War?  That is an option, but it is an option that even Israel, in the heat of its anger, finds too terrible to consider.  And that is to the credit of the Israelis.

Even in the heat of battle, Israel has striven not to forget the price of human suffering that innocent Palestinians pay as a result of the terrorism of Hamas.  It has been out of that consciousness that Israel went out of its way in its efforts to minimize civilian casualties, which was just the opposite of the choices made by Hamas.  Food and medical supplies still flowed from Israel into Gaza.  Neither electricity nor fresh water were cut off.  Injured Palestinians were admitted into Israel and treated in Israeli hospitals.  Palestinian civilians received advance warning to evacuate areas that were targeted by the Israelis.  Israeli surgical strikes were, on occasion, delayed in order to permit civilians to clear the targeted area.

As Jews, we should be very proud of Israel for all its efforts to protect life at a time when it was being forced to take life.  As Jews, we should be Israel’s greatest advocates, spreading the word of all the good Israel attempts to do, even in the darkest of times; sharing with our neighbors that information which, somehow or other, the news media either tends to ignore or deems not to be newsworthy.

Most of all, let us pray for peace  – a true and lasting peace.  Let us pray with all our hearts and souls.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when Israeli and Palestinian will cease to view each other as enemy and choose to view each other as friend and neighbor.