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Rosh Hashanah Morning 2018: “Daniel Tiger: Am I a Mistake?”

Fri, 2018-09-14 14:08

So, shana tova everybody! Here we are – at the start of a brand new year, with the opportunity for a clean slate. New challenges to face. New opportunities to overcome them. New ways to right past wrongs. That’s what we talk about most at this time of year, isn’t it? But that’s not the only conversation many of us are having with ourselves this morning. And it’s certainly not the conversation many of us have with ourselves every other morning of the year.

In a cosmic sense – looking at the really, really, big picture – we sit here, pondering the creation of the world, and we wonder, “Why am I here? How do I fit in to God’s plan for the world? How do I figure out what my role is supposed to be?”

But the question also nags at us on a very small, intimate level: “Why AM I here? Do I really belong? Where do I belong? Or is my very existence some kind of mistake?”

The need to belong is an ache that each of us feels deep within. The need for purpose. The need to fit in, and not to be different. The need for companionship, so that we are not alone.

Of all the lessons that Mr. Rogers taught us, perhaps the most important one of all was this: Each of us is beloved. Each of us is precious. Each of us belongs. It’s a lesson that Mr. Rogers himself took to heart – the answer to a question that seems to have nagged him personally all of his life.

Fred Rogers not only wrote most of the scripts for his program, but he also did the puppetry. And while he voiced most of the characters, one character also echoed Fred Rogers’ own voice.

Daniel Tiger was not just a character. He was the mouthpiece that allowed Fred Rogers to say things that he was afraid to say for himself, to ask questions or challenge ideas that he felt he couldn’t do on his own. One of his most poignant and important questions came in a conversation with Lady Aberlin, in which he shared his deepest fear:

“I’ve been wondering if I was a mistake. For one thing, I’ve never seen a tiger that looks like me. And I’ve never heard a tiger that talks like me. And I don’t know any other tiger who lives in a clock. Or loves people. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too tame. . . . I’m not like anyone else I know. I’m not like anyone else.

Daniel Tiger might have given voice to the childhood fears that Fred Rogers still had, the scars he still bore. But he also speaks for many of us, who feel different. A woman in a man’s world. A gay person in a straight world, or a transgender person who is in between worlds. An older worker passed over in favor of youth. An impoverished person in a sea of wealth. An abused spouse who is deliberately isolated. A person whose disability is sometimes doubted because it is invisible, be it a learning challenge, a phobia, or deep depression. Am I mad all the time? Am I sad all the time? Am I a mistake?

Hedda Sharapan, who has been a part of the Mister Rogers Company since 1966, said that this conversation was her favorite Daniel Tiger moment on the program. And apparently not hers alone.

“I used the video,” she said, “at a conference where I was speaking for therapists and mental health counselors. When I showed this particular video, the room just broke out into this warm, appreciative applause.”

Those in the room understood how important it was for Daniel Tiger – or anyone else – to be able to express their fears in a safe place. And how life-affirming it is to hear from another human being that, as Lady Aberlin sang back to Daniel: “I think you are just fine as you are.”

Fine doesn’t mean perfect – by some subjective standard. It doesn’t even mean totally healthy or healed. When the Torah says, in the book of Deuteronomy (18:13) תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ– “You shall be tamim –  perfect – before Adonai your God” – every single major commentator instead renders the phrase, “You must be wholehearted with God.”

“Follow God wholeheartedly and look expectantly to God,” says Rashi. Adds Nachmanides: “We must unify our hearts with God’s and believe that God alone does all and knows the reality of all that is to come.”

Tamim means treasured. It means loved. It means that being different – or even unique – is not a mistake. In fact, in the grand cosmic scheme of Jewish thought, it is the way God intended for us to be.

Think about the creation of the world that we celebrate today. God made everything else before human beings, the one creature described as being “made in God’s image.” But what is God’s image? Look around at humanity. Look at its vast array of skin colors, religious and faith traditions, sexual and gender identities, levels of cognitive ability, levels of physical ability, levels of emotional wellness. All of that has to be part of God. Nobody is a mistake. Everyone simply represents a different, unique facet of divinity in this world.

This isn’t some 21st-century new-age doctrine. It’s as ancient as our Jewish tradition.

It starts in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the first post-Biblical collection of Jewish law compiled almost two thousand years ago. There, the Rabbis teach us why – when all the other animals were created two by two – why all of us descend from only one original human being, Adam, a hermaphrodite who carried all the physical traits of what we all would become:

“Man was created singly . . .” they wrote, “to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God. For man stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike. But the Sovereign of all Sovereigns, blessed be God, stamped each man with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, ‘It was for my sake that the world was created.’”

God deliberately created each and every one of us unlike everyone else. When Daniel Tiger says, I must be a mistake because I’m not like everybody else – we say (and Judaism says), NO – you are not like everybody else because God made you that way. And I think you’re fine the way you are. Not perfect. Maybe not whole. Or entirely healthy – for now. But blessed. And treasured. And loved.

And anyone who attempts to abuse you, or belittle you, or reject you because of what you look like, or who you love, or how you pray, or how emotionally challenging it can be for you just to get through a single day – is rejecting God’s intent for this world.

As Mr. Rogers put it, “I think those who would try to make you less than you are . . . that is the greatest evil.”

Today, even more than in Mr. Rogers’ time, our world is full of people with a sense of superiority and entitlement, who seem to believe that God gave them and them alone the right to make the rules of society – rules that allow them to accrue most of the power and nearly all the wealth, because others are inherently less deserving.

We see them marching in Charlottesville, to the chant of “Jews will not replace us.” We hear them spewing racism at rallies and physically threatening people of dark skin. We witness countless attempts to deny basic public accommodation to people who are gay or trans. And even in an age of #Me Too, when men of power are being taken down by that sense of superiority, we see the institutions they have created perpetuating their misogyny.

They, in Mr. Rogers’ words, try to make the rest of us less than we are. And we must never let that happen.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the retired chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes about the essence of this goal:

“There is only one non-utopian way of creating the good without the harm, and that is to create programmes of what in Hebrew is called chessed, in Latin caritas, or in English, loving kindness, across boundaries. We must love strangers as well as neighbours, in the simple sense of love-as-deed, practical help. That imperative flows from the covenant of human solidarity.”

Chessed is the essence of what Mr. Rogers worked for, what Daniel Tiger was really asking for, and what all of us, on this first day of the new year, pray for.

Once, Mister Rogers challenged us: “Let’s make goodness attractive in the next millennium, people caring for each other in a myriad of ways and not knocking each other down.”

This morning I challenge you: “Let’s make goodness attractive in the next year. Seeing and treating each other as equals. Respecting each other’s differences.”

“Man was created alone,” say the rabbis of old, “for the sake of peace among peoples.” And true peace can only come from deep reverence for the majestic and intentional diversity and equality of God’s creation.

This is the way to sustain the world that God created for all of us.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.



©2018  Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Fri, 2018-09-14 14:06

It all begins with modulation. Fred Rodgers, his hands hovering softly over the piano keys, describes in musical terms the core idea for his iconic program, which put Pittsburgh and public television on the map and helped shape a generation of American children.

Modulation is the art of changing from one key to another, to give structure and tone to any piece of music. Some of these modulations, Mr. Rogers explains, are easy because they are natural progressions from one key to a similar one. But some modulations are more difficult. They might sound strange. They might be harder to play. My job, says Mr. Rogers, is to help children handle modulation in life.

This is the opening scene of the wonderful new biographical film about Fred Rogers entitled, appropriately enough, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

But “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is more than a well-worn theme song.

It’s the core of what Fred Rogers wanted to achieve by helping children navigate the modulations of life: creating a human being who was comfortable with himself and caring of others; a human being who presumed that life was meant to be lived in community; a human being who took it for granted – by the time of adulthood – that her neighborhood would be big, broad, diverse, inclusive, and, above all, loving.

For children to navigate modulation in life – the successes alongside the failures, the progressions along with the regressions, the atonal dissonance of anger and loss that accompanies the rich beauty of serenity and growth –

– for children to navigate those modulations, they need the assurance that they are loved and are worthy of love, and that they are capable of giving love to others, who are equally as worthy.

That’s a beautiful message for children to hear. But what about the rest of us? After all, here we all are, on the eve of this new year, eager to be reassured of God’s love for us, of feeling that we are worthy of receiving divine forgiveness and blessing for this new year. Don’t we need to hear that message, too?

Of course we do.

But we need to understand that the two parts of Mr. Rogers’ message must go together. One cannot exist without the other. If we are worthy of love, so is everyone else. V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, says the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as Mr. Rogers puts it: You shall love your neighbor and yourself. It is impossible to navigate the modulations of life until we acknowledge and fulfill both parts of that message.

We do it through time. We do it through space. We do it through others.


Time is one thing we never seem to have enough of. As grown-ups we exhaust ourselves trying to accomplish everything on our to-do list, flitting from one task to another as the little bell goes off on our cell phones, reminding us of yet another deadline. And because we think that’s the way life ought to be, we instill that in children at an early age, and they become slaves to schedules and deadlines.

If they play basketball, they have to practice every single day and be available for every single game or they get kicked off the team. If they take pride in learning, they become terrified of missing one single day of school, for fear that will put them perpetually behind.

Downtime is now looked at as mere idleness. Something to be avoided at all cost. It’s best to stay busy, we believe, because that’s how we better ourselves. That’s how we succeed.

Leave it to the Israelis to burst our bubble.

Not long ago, a team of researchers from Ben Gurion University studied the psychology of the soccer goalie. We all know that the outcome of a soccer match can often come down to what’s called a penalty kick. That’s when a team tries to shoot the ball past the goalie who’s standing directly in front of them, from just 12 yards away.

The goalie has to stop the ball while remaining on the horizontal of the goal line. Before the ball is kicked he has to choose which way to go – to the left or to the right. We’ve all seen when the goalie gets it right and literally saves the day. We’ve also witnessed what happens when he zigs while the ball zags. But at least he moved. At least he did something to try and help his team win, right?

Except that maybe he didn’t.

In reality, this study shows, if the goalie had just stayed put, he would have had as good a chance as if he’d moved one way or the other. Goalies never do that of course. They go to the left about 49 percent of the time and to the right about 44 percent of the time. Which means they stay in place less than seven percent of the time.

But kicks actually go to the left 32 percent of the time and to the right less than 29 percent of the time. They go down the center over 39 percent of the time. Goalies are actually more likely to stop a ball on a penalty kick if they just stay put.

So why don’t they? That’s the question that fascinated Professor Bradley Staats from the University of North Carolina’s business school. Recently, in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, he gave us the answer:

“The problem is that we have an action bias: We would rather be seen doing something than doing nothing. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? This idea is so deeply ingrained that we are afraid to give the appearance of doing nothing, even when it is the best strategy.”

The goalies, when asked, said they preferred to dive to the left or to the right – and that they’d be more regretful about missing the ball if they stayed still. In other words, says Professor Staats, “they wanted to be seen to be doing something, even if that something was wrong.”

I call this “compulsive action.” And compulsive action is quite different from actually getting something accomplished. Studies show that employees who get to work early and stay late are seen as more committed or more dedicated to their work. But they are not necessarily actually more productive. In one study of managers who thought their employees should spend more time at work – and who penalized those who didn’t – they actually could not tell the difference in the quality of work between the two groups.

Busy-ness – compulsive action – doesn’t make us better. It just makes us more busy. And more tired. And more stressed.

Professor Staats challenges our basic notion about the value of busy-ness this way:

“We live and work today in a learning economy. We can’t just be knowledge workers; we must also be learning workers. And learning requires recharging and reflection, not constant action. . .

“When we sit at our desks and debate whether to take a short walk or to brainstorm for five minutes on the problem at hand, we may think that the time spent not acting is wasted. But we need sufficient time to rejuvenate during the workday, between workdays, and on vacations, if we are to be able to learn successfully.”

Mr. Rogers understood the value of time. He once asked: “Want to see how long a minute is?” – and then he set an egg timer and watched and waited until the timer went off. It turns out a minute is a very long time. And we have a tendency to think that every minute has to be filled up.

Mr. Rogers showed us that time is too valuable to fill up with busy-ness, just as we are. As film reviewer Joe Morgenstern wrote, “Rogers chose to let time slide at whatever pace suited him as he looked little kids in the eye and told them with steadfast conviction that they were loved, and lovable just as they were.”

Think about how you feel when someone you’re trying to have an important conversation with is busy looking around for five other things to do at the same time, or checking her phone for text messages – not making eye contact, not spending those valuable seconds focused only on you what you are trying to say. Now think if you’ve done the same thing to someone else. I’d guess it’s happened, and more than once.

A minute is a very powerful thing. A minute of your time is precious. But a minute of someone else’s life is just as important.

We adults sometimes forget that. When Mr. Rogers ended his children’s show the first time around, he tried to translate that to an adult program – where he would slow down time and ask his guests to explain or explore something patiently and quietly. And the show did not succeed.

My theory is – that’s because we, as adults, have become slaves to compulsive action. We won’t allow ourselves to stop. We think of it as leisure time we don’t have, that a precious minute would just be wasted. In radio, we call it ‘dead air’ – when someone just stops talking. Dead air is bad. Every second has to be filled with someone’s voice, even if he or she isn’t saying anything of value.

Adults teach children to hate dead air. Mr. Rogers became an anomaly, even in children’s programming. Watch any children’s television show or any film that’s geared to kids. They are loud and fast. That’s the way children consume everything now, and the way they learn to repeat it. They grow into adults who consume movie sequels where the second film, and the third, has to be bigger, and louder, and faster than the original.

Why can’t we simply take the time to learn something fully, and to grow from that knowledge? Why can’t we learn to stop acting for the sake of being busy?

That’s a skill that would help us in this world of non-stop sensory stimuli.

In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, he could just slow things down to talk fully through one important feeling or event or problem. In our neighborhoods, we are constantly bombarded by information and allegations and half-baked conspiracy theories – much of it perpetuated by those who rely on the fact that we won’t slow down and won’t take stock, and won’t investigate what’s true and what’s not, or what’s fair and what’s not, or what’s helpful and what’s not.

Or what’s kind and what’s not.

What a nicer neighborhood we would have to live in, if we took that precious minute to really sort out life’s modulations. We’ll return to that minute shortly.


If time is a gift to be cherished second by second, then space is one to be explored inch by inch. In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, space was always divided into the “real world” and the Neighborhood of Make Believe, with a little toy trolley ferrying us between the two.

In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, things pretty much stayed the same from one day to the next. It was status quo. But on the other end of the train tracks, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, anything could happen.

Its space was not limited by norms or expectations. The colors and the shapes and the inhabitants of the land of make-believe taught children that anything was possible. Im tirtsu ein zo agadah, as Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, once declared. If you will it, it is not a dream.

But the space that most of us inhabit today is status quo to the ‘nth’ degree. We have created neighborhoods that are static, that feed on themselves, that expand but do not grow. We live with people who look like us, and work like us, and talk like us. Instead of thinking and dreaming of what is possible, we settle for what already exists.

How many of you have one of those voice-controlled devices at home, like Amazon Echo or Google Home? Echo is an ironically perfect name for it, right? There’s a built-in interface that makes it seem like you’re communicating with a sentient being when you’re really just talking to yourself:

Here’s how the Amazon web site promotes Alexa:

“Using Alexa is as simple as asking a question. Just ask to play music, read the news, control your smart home, tell a joke, and more—Alexa will respond instantly. Whether you are at home or on the go, Alexa is designed to make your life easier by letting you voice-control your world.”

“By letting you voice-control your world.” Exactly. You tell the system what you want, how you want it, when you want it. Voice-activation is all about control, not about exploration. Compare that to, say, one of those old fashioned television remote controls. In the old days, when cable tv was new and exciting, we would spend so much time channel surfing – moving from one channel to the next to the next to the next – in search of something that caught our attention. We’d find programs or films or sporting events we never thought about before, or never thought we would like, or never even knew existed. We discovered enjoyment outside of our preconceived notions about what we thought we wanted.

When we use voice commands, we’re really talking to ourselves. It’s just an echo back. So we shut off all possibility of something new. We ask Alexa to start our playlist of choice. We command the Xfinity controller to switch to a familiar movie or TV program. Our world becomes smaller and samer.

I still use the clicker. And when I do, my point of reference about the world grows. Sometimes it’s the “Great British Baking Show.” Sometimes it’s a documentary about victims of war in Syria. But I always learn more, and appreciate more, and am in awe more, about the world when space expands around me.

In a way, when we use those clickers to expand instead of demand, we become like the children Mr. Rogers had such faith in. The ones who pay attention to, and learn from, everything in the space around them.

A few years ago, Alison Gopnik wrote a book called “The Philosophical Baby,” in which she speculated that children might actually be more aware of their surroundings than adults are. And adults wrote to her in agreement.

“A store detective,” she says, “described how he would perch on an upper balcony surveying the shop floor. The grown-ups, including the shoplifters, were so focused on what they were doing that they never noticed him. But the little children, trailing behind their oblivious parents, would glance up and wave.”

Psychological tests seemed to confirm Gopnik’s suspicions. In tests that involved a group of adults and a group of 4 and 5 year olds, everyone was asked to watch a colored panel for changes in green objects and ignore the red ones.

The adults were great at noticing changes in the green objects, as they’d been directed to. But the children were better at spotting changes in the red ones in the background.

“We often say,” writes Gopnik, “that young children are bad at paying attention. But what we really mean is that they’re bad at not paying attention, that they don’t screen out the world as grown-ups do. Children learn as much as they can about the world around them, even if it means that they get distracted by the distant airplane in the sky or the speck of paper on the floor when you’re trying to get them out the door to pre-school.”

The lesson that Gopnik takes from her studies is really a lesson for grown-ups: to take the time to explore the space around us. As she writes, “We are so often focused on our immediate goals that we miss unexpected developments and opportunities. Sometimes by focusing less, we can actually see more.”

Mr. Rogers counted on children being more open to time and space, more adaptable to change. He cultivated it, knowing that they had not yet been caught up in the echo chamber of voice commands and selected news feeds, and compulsive action. They did not yet bear the imprint of narrowed vision, lowered expectations, and acceptance of the status quo.

Mister Rogers hoped that their neighborhood could be the land of make-believe, even when they grew up. Tonight is the night we might start to make his hopes come true.


But we cannot do that alone. Just as we, as Jews, do not pray alone and do not pray for ourselves alone – just as there’s a reason all of you are in the pews tonight, all together, side by side, sharing this sacred time, your spaces intertwining with each other’s – just as we do this as Jews, we must do this as human beings. We live in neighborhood. We live with, and learn from, and learn to cherish, one another.

Professor Staats – the guy from the University of North Carolina – tells this story from the early days of the career of Thomas J. Watson, who would go on to be the head of IBM. Meeting with a group of sales managers, Watson was frustrated that his employees simply were not coming up with good ideas to grow and expand and advance the business. Said Watson: “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough.”

And here’s why that was happening: Thinking requires communication. Thrashing out ideas with other people. Giving people the time to be creative, and sharing that energetic space with them.

In rabbinical school, we learn to study in hevruta, in partnership, with another student. I’ll confess, I hated that. I just like to be by myself, working on my own thing at my own pace. But the world of hevruta is the lifeline to growth. If we become stuck in one mindset – or one way to understand a text – we close ourselves off to all the myriad possibilities that other people might come up with.

The rabbis say that Torah has seventy faces. I could never think of 70 different ways to understand a verse of Scripture on my own.

But in my hevruta – whether it’s in class, or at a convention, or during an on-line learning program – I am astonished and awed by what my colleagues show me. Continuing education is now considered a requirement for members of my rabbinical organization. As it should be for everyone.

Because of hevruta, my intellectual neighborhood is bigger – in space and in time – than it ever was. It is more exciting. It is more inclusive. It is more fulfilling.

But we have to find a way to translate that into our physical neighborhoods, the space where we live and work and play and eat and pray. And we must consider: What, exactly is our neighborhood? Where is it? Who’s in it? How do you get in? And who decides who our neighbors will be?

There was a fascinating – and troubling — article in The Atlantic monthly this summer, in which Matthew Stewart wrote about what he called “the birth of a new aristocracy.” Not the upper point-one percent – but the nine-point-nine percent just below it – which prosper because of opportunities that the other 90 percent do not have.

That 9.9 percent is where Matthew Stewart grew up. “We are,” he wrote, “the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs.” All things considered, that’s also where most of us fall.

Now, that’s not to say our story of our good fortune is the same as his. Unlike Matthew Stewart, whose great-great grandfather made his millions as the chairman of Standard Oil of Indiana, our grandparents and great-grandparents came here penniless from Russia and Poland and the Ukraine.

They escaped poverty and pogroms, in the hope that their children – all of us – would have a better and happier and more prosperous life.

They toiled away as cobblers and dressmakers and dry-goods salesmen and civil servants. Their children got a free public education and earned enough to go to college.

We are the beneficiaries of their backbreaking dedication to this country and to all of us. They knew the world was not a land of make-believe. Their time and space were impacted by the limits of their education, and their language skills. But they spent their lives toiling away so that we would not be held back by those limits -that the world would be, for us, a place where anything was possible.

So of course we pass whatever advantages we have down to our children and grandchildren. Of course we do. That’s what we have to offer them. And we should not be ashamed that we are able to do that for them. But neither should we ignore the fact that others who have striven just as hard are not succeeding as we have. Neither should we accept the general stereotype that those who remain mired in poverty or in ignorance or in danger in their neighborhoods are less worthy, or have all brought it upon themselves.

Matthew Stewart points to a myriad of reasons why other neighborhoods are not like ours: The expense of parenting and the physical dangers of motherhood; the attacks on family planning and reproductive rights; regressive tax laws that increasingly allow the wealthy to keep more and the rest to pay more; law and order policing that divides families for a generation.

But there is also, he writes, “some garden-variety self-centeredness, enabled by the usual cognitive lapses. Human beings are very good at keeping track of their own struggles; they are less likely to know that individuals on the other side of town are working two minimum-wage jobs to stay afloat, not watching Simpsons reruns all day”

From this self-centeredness has arisen fear, stress, and – most of all – resentment. Resentment of what other people have and how they got it. Resentment that, somehow, life is unfair. Resentment that other people are scooping up the goodies and leaving us with less. “Other” people – that is, people not of our neighborhood. People of a different color, or ethnic background, or religion, or social status. It is this resentment – stoked by ever-present social-media feeds and self-serving information bubbles – that creates the polarization of Amercian life today.

But as Stewart keenly observes, “resentment is a solution to nothing.”

Resentment does not alleviate the inequality that is growing between neighborhoods in American life today. In fact, it’s designed to perpetuate inequality – by convincing some people that the only way they can keep what they have, is to prevent other people from getting more. By propagating the notion that the space we inhabit is not big enough for others – that it cannot be made big enough for others. Even though Mr. Rogers taught us all as children that space – like time – is bigger than we think.

As Matthew Stewart writes: “It’s going to take something from each of us. . . we need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbors.”

Over the course of the High Holy Days, we will explore the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the opportunities it offers us to break down the walls we build around ourselves and invite in those who make our lives richer than they could ever have been, had we closed them out. Alongside our prayers for ourselves and those we love, we will be reminded to pray for others. Alongside our voices pleading for God’s compassion and mercy, we will hear the voice of God from Scripture calling us to accept and assist the stranger, the other, the vulnerable and the troubled.

For now, I want to try Mr. Rogers’ experiment in time, with a little twist. How long do you think a minute is? Let’s find out.

Right now, I’d like you to close your eyes and remember someone who has made a difference in your life. Not just anyone. Pick someone who isn’t just like you. Someone of a different color, or a different ethnicity, or a different religion, or a different economic or social standing. How did you meet. How did they change you? How did they became your neighbor?

I’ll give you a whole minute. The egg-timer will be running . . . .

(the egg timer clicks after a minute)

Tonight, of all nights, as we look out at the expanse of space and time that is our New Year, we owe it to ourselves acknowledge that the world that God has given us is more spacious and diverse and generous than the tiny little bit of eternity that we inhabit. This world is our neighborhood. And it is our God-given responsibility to sustain it for all our neighbors.

Ken Yehi Ratson: Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin







Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Beyond Seventy – on Israel’s Birthday       Friday, May 4, 2018

Mon, 2018-05-07 11:27

Yossi Klein Halevi just wants his Arab neighbors to understand what Israel, Jews and Zionism are all about. That, he says, is the purpose behind his new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which comes out in about ten days. In previous books, he’s reflected on the stories, ambitions and personal histories that his neighbors have shared with him. Now, he says, it’s his turn. And he’s made sure his neighbors have the opportunity to understand where he’s coming from: the book is available in Arabic, for free, on line.

“This book isn’t about optimism or pessimism,” he says, “but an attempt to explain the Jewish and Israeli story to our neighbors – why the Jewish people never game up its claim to this land even from afar, why I left my home in New York City in 1982 to move here. . . . We defend our story to the whole world, but we don’t bother explaining ourselves to our neighbors. We’re rightly outraged by the daily attacks on our history and legitimacy that fill the Palestinian media and the Arab world’s media. But we’ve never tried to tell them our story.”

Klein Halevi says the book is not about optimism or pessimism – but maybe it’s about both. And maybe that’s a good way to explain Israel and Jews and Zionism to the Arab world. An Arab world where, on one hand, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and the PLO continue to refuse to recognize the Jewish nation’s right to self-determination; and on the other, where Israel is finding allies in Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia that fear the power of Iran. Optimism that the shifting landscape throughout the Middle East gives Israel an opening to tell its story; pessimism that, after decades of lies and false narratives in the Arab world, the Jew hatred is entrenched so deeply that our story might not be hold.

And that has never been truer than it is this week, when the current Palestinian powers in both Gaza and the West Bank showed that they truly do not want – and will not seek – peace and recognition of the State of Israel as it approaches its 70th birthday.

In Gaza, Hamas has once again chosen to use the destitute population as a human shield for its attacks – encouraging men, women and children to riot along the border fence with Israel, setting fire to piles of tires to camouflage the terrorists who are trying to shoot and bomb their way across the border. Molotov cocktails have been hurled. Kites are now being set alight and landing with devastating effect in Israel’s tinder-dry wilderness.

Week after week, Israeli troops have pushed back, sometimes with deadly force. Week after week, western media outlets like the New York Times have put the blame squarely on Israel’s shoulders, without an acknowledgement that Hamas – which once promoted itself as a charitable agency – has been sacrificing its own people like this for years, while it wastes the vast resources the West has provided, smuggling weapons and digging tunnels instead building infrastructure and creating a functional civil society.

Hamas faces no dilemma here because it has no desire for peace, no plan for creating civil society. It is a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel. When it talks about the “occupation” it is talking about the whole of the State of Israel, which it has vowed to wipe off the face of the earth.

On the other hand, Israel, at 70, does face many of these dilemmas and is struggling to make sense of them.

“My public life,” writes Klein Halevi, “has been devoted to upholding what I consider an essential realism about Israel’s dilemma – that we can’t permanently rule another people but also can’t make peace with a Palestinian national movement that denies our right to exist as a sovereign nation.”

That continuing denial was brought into sharp focus this week when Mahmoud Abbas gave a long speech in Ramallah to the Palestine Liberation Organization – a speech that included just about every anti-semitic trope in the book. The Jews of Europe, he said, brought the Holocaust on themselves. It didn’t happen because of European antisemitism, he insisted, but because of the Jews’ usury, banking, and what he called their “social function.”

He reiterated the old canards that Jews have no place and no history in the Middle East, that Jews are not originally from the Middle East, and that Israel was a World War Two Colonialist project that had nothing to do with Jewish history or aspirations.

He brought up the lie he began perpetrating some 30 years ago – that Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis to move more Jews into what would become Israel. A lie that is clearly contrary to the facts and the record of the partnership between Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. At their meeting in 1941, Hitler promised the Mufti that, as soon as German forces had broken through from the Caucasus into the Middle East – and this is a quote from the minutes of their meeting – “Germany’s goal will be the extermination of the Jews who reside in Arab territories under British rule.”

Such lies been pervasive in the PLO’s self-promotion for decades. Lies that are, in part, designed to distract from the incompetence, corruption, and avarice of a Palestinian leadership that has walked away from multiple offers of peace from Israel, and that has instead responded to those offers with violent uprisings and calculated, targeted killings.

Abbas’ language was roundly condemned even by organizations that have not been friendly to Israel. The United Nations special coordinator for peace in the Middle East called it “unacceptable, deeply disturbing.” And even the New York Times, whose coverage of the violence at the Gaza border has been stridently anti-Israel, apparently has enough. “Even in this gloomy climate,” wrote the Times Editorial board on Wednesday, “Mr. Abbas’ vile speech was a new low. . . . Palestinians need a leader with energy, integrity and vision, one who might have a better chance of achieving Palestinian independence and enabling both peoples to live in peace.”

I have said before that I do not agree with many of the policies of various Israeli governments, including this one. I do think there have been missed opportunities in Jerusalem. But the Times is absolutely correct that the Palestinian leadership has failed – failed to unify the West Bank and Gaza, failed to alleviate the desperate circumstances of its people.

Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has reached the limit of his. He has publicly scolded the Palestinian leadership, told them to shut up, stop complaining, and stop rejecting Israeli offers for peace.

So, yes, maybe Klein Halevi’s book is coming at the right time to be heard in the Arab world. But there’s another important opportunity here – not just for his Palestinian neighbors but for all of us. Because it’s not just the Arab Palestinian national narrative that has flaws in it. Some aspects of the modern Zionist story, too, are problematic. Because if it only starts from 1948, if we are only celebrating 70 years, then we are doing ourselves and our cause a disservice.

Just focusing on the founding of the modern state of Israel plays into the lie that Jews were plunked down in the middle of the Arab world to assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. It’s a lie that is promoted deliberately by people like Abbas and by the anti-Semitic leadership of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, who rely on the sheer ignorance of most of the population of the world about the origins and history of the Jewish people in their land.

As Liel Leibovitz wrote just today in Tablet magazine:

“When everyone from Mahmoud Abbas to Natalie Portman speaks of Israel as a direct outcome of the Holocaust – one with malice, the other out of ignorance – it may be refreshing for the passionate and the progressive to hear about the millennia that preceded Auschwitz, about the Temples and the exiles, about the deep and immovable roots that bind us to the land and from which Jewish self-determination had bloomed for thousands of years.”

If we are going to try get others to see us as something beyond colonialists and interlopers, we need to make sure that our own narrative is clear and strong. Not just 70 years but thousands of years. Not just refugees but rightful heirs. Not just particularists but universalists.

This is, I think, what Klein Halevi is striving for here, when he asks his Arab neighbors not just to hear with an open ear, but with an open mind and a willing heart. He writes:

“Dear Neighbor . . .

“. . . We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless cycle. Not a “cycle of violence” — a lazy formulation that tells us nothing about why our conflict exists, let alone how to end it. Instead, we’re trapped in what may be called a ‘cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.

“That is the cycle we can only break together.”

I do not know if either side has the courage, or the leadership, or the willingness right now to break this cycle of denial. But I know that, like a good 12-step program, the first step is acknowledging the problem. And here, both sides have to do that. If not, we cannot move forward, step by step, to the future of peaceful coexistence many of us envision.

At the end of his book, Klein Halevi reflects on the celebration of Sukkot in Israel, and building and living in his sukkah. This is, he writes, “an expression of defiance against despair. This open and vulnerable structure is the antithesis of the fortified concrete room in my basement, which every Israeli family is required by law to build, against possible missile attacks. We live with that threat as a constant reality. But the sukkah is our spiritual air raid shelter, promise of a world without fear.”

As we prepare to celebrate the modern state of Israel’s 70th birthday, we must remind ourselves not only of the thousands of years of our history on the land, but also of the important and sacred times that cycle around each and every year, which have sustained our people for these thousands of years, in Israel and outside of it. Feast days and fast days; days when we recite Psalms of rejoicing and of remembering; days coming up soon, like Shavuot, when we celebrate the creation of our people in ancient times, bound by the covenant made at Sinai; days we farther along in the calendar, like Sukkot, when a temporary hut can be turned into a symbol of permanence and peace.

Let us look back on our history as stepping stones that take us, not just to how far we have come today, but where we want and need to be tomorrow. And let us say together: Amen.


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin




Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

If Jews Controlled the Weather – At Friday, April 6, 2018

Wed, 2018-04-11 13:43

Tonight, our long and difficult journey comes to an end. I speak, of course, of the end of Passover – with its week of matzah, maror, and indigestion. I think we did okay, though it was touch and go at the beginning of the week when an April Fools Day snowstorm threatened Monday night’s congregational Seder. Fortunately it wasn’t as bad as it could have been – the storm, I mean; not the Seder – and a good time was had by all. At the Seder, not the storm.

But boy, wouldn’t it be nice if Jews could control the weather, and we could make sure that our special holy days were always beautiful?

Wait – is it possible that we do?

At least one person thinks so. Trayon White, Senior, a Democratic member of the D.C. City Council, posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that “the Rothschilds” control the climate, and that a snowfall that day in Washington reflected their ability to change weather to profit off of poor people.

Here’s what he said in that 20-second video clip:

“Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation. And D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”

The Rothschilds were prominent 18th-century Jewish bankers who have for centuries been targets of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world’s money supply – paranoid rants that more recently have also targeted Jewish financier George Soros.

But controlling the climate? Oh yes, according to the Times of Israel:

“Internet conspiracy theorists have stated the belief that the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities initiative, which provides grants to cities, including Washington, to address environmental and economic problems, is part of a plot to control and reduce the population of North America. And some conspiracy theorists also think the Rothschilds, working together with the Rockefellers, have technology to control the weather.”

White did apologize for the snowstorm remarks. He claimed he wasn’t anti-Semitic, just uninformed. He “ran with false information,” he said. And we might have been content to accept that apology. That is, until we found out that just a few weeks before, during a Mayor’s Council breakfast, White went on a similar rant based on internet conspiracy theories about “resilient cities”:

“The Rothschilds control the World Bank, as we all know – infusing dollars into major cities. They really pretty much control the federal government, and now they have this concept called resilient cities in which they are using their money and influence into local cities.”

“As we all know.” Yeah, we all know that. At least, we all know what that means. We all know that you are deliberately targeting Jews and blaming us for the bad things that befall your community. Even an unexpected snowstorm.

To be fair, Trayon White traffics in lots of weird and paranoid conspiracy theories, not all of them targeting Jews. And, to be fair, his supporters in Washington’s 8th Ward say that White was simply repeating in public what many blacks say in private – an outgrowth of generations of powerlessness and despair.

But you would think that your job as a public official is to tamp down what used to be fringe theories and denounce them. Educate your constituents, rather than fanning the flames of such hatred. But you can’t claim that you don’t know what you’re saying – when you keep on saying it.

We might brush off rantings like this. Except that what was once fringe lunacy has taken a terrifying leap into general public discourse, where it is repeated, transmitted, and normalized through social contacts, social networking, and even major media. We have seen it most recently in the hateful tropes attacking the surviving children of the Parkland school massacre. But much of the venom is reserved for Jews.

The fact is that these conspiracy theories are just one corner of a massive increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the past year – not just here but all over the world. A year ago, Yair Rosenberg of Tablet Magazine, writing in the Washington Post, pointed out that “according to the FBI, Jews in the United States are annually subject to the most hate crimes of any religious group, despite constituting only two percent of the American population.”

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League identified 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in this country in 2017. That’s an increase of fifty-seven percent over 2016, which also saw a huge increase over the year before.

It was the largest year-to-year increase since the ADL began its reporting 1979. Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL cited three likely factors: the increasingly divisive state of American politics, the emboldening of extremists, and the effects of social media.

“The diminishment of civility in society creates an environment in which intolerance really can flourish,” Greenblatt said. Social-media platforms, he added, have “allowed the kind of poison of prejudice to grow at a velocity and to expand in ways that really are unprecedented.”

We’ve seen all of this unfolding right in front of our eyes. The rise in attacks on Jews has accompanied an invigorated radical right, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And if their hatred was generally targeted at blacks, or Muslims, or other minorities – it seemed always to circle back to the Jews. Last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, their hateful chants of “You will not replace us” soon morphed into the terrifying, “Jews will not replace us.” Armed right-wing militias patrolled in front of one of Charlottesville’s synagogues, while terrified congregants who had come for Shabbat prayer huddled inside.

But even Jewish schoolchildren are under direct attack: swastikas painted on school property or on Jewish students’ belongings; a doubling of reports of anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools, and an 89 percent increase on college campuses, where Jewish students often report being afraid to even talk about Judaism or Israel in public. That’s a terrifying sign that young people are embracing these conspiracy theories and acting on them, even while they attend school with students of all races and backgrounds.

And the rampant growth of anti-Semitism is even more evident in Europe. Yair Rosenberg reported that Jews in France – who make up less than one percent of the population – were the target of 51 percent of France’s racist attacks in 2014. Jews have been attacked in Denmark, in Belgium, and in Sweden. Forty percent of Europe’s Jews, according to one survey, are terrified to publicly identify as Jewish. And no wonder, when they witness the recent horrific murder of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, who was stabbed 11 times in her Paris apartment.

But we should not presume that anti-Semitism is a disease of the right. Jew hatred knows no social or political boundaries. At decidedly liberal Oberlin College, writes Yair Rosenberg, “a writing instructor named Joy Karega shared Facebook memes about Jewish control of the global economy and the media, alongside posts asserting Israeli responsibility for the Islamic State and 9/11.” When she came in for criticism from the school and others, he points out, the Oberlin Student Council rejected the criticism as a “witch hunt.” Indeed, he notes, TV comedian Samantha Bee, after reporting on an anti-Semitic rant at a Donald Trump political rally, noted – “To find anti-Semitism that rabid, you’d have to go to, well, any left-leaning American college campus.”

Or, well, any left-leaning American feminist movement.

Anti-semitism has long been a disturbing element of feminism – since the 1970s, when many feminist groups took up the anti-Israel trope that equated Zionism with racism and insisted that Jewish women who supported Israel could not be true feminists.

That notion has infected many contemporary civil-rights groups, including elements of Black Lives Matter – which has rejected partnership with Jews who also support Israel.

But it’s at its worst, I think, in the leadership circles of the Women’s March, which includes several women who have publicly supported the avowed Jew-hating leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan.

One of them, Tamika Mallory, was given a shout-out by Farrakhan in February during a Nation of Islam speech in Chicago that was typically replete with anti-Semitism and homophobia: ““White folks are going down,” declared Farrakhan, “and Satan is going down, and Farrakhan by God’s grace has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew—and I’m here to say, your time is up.”

Both Mallory and fellow Women’s March leader Carmen Perez have publicly promoted Farrakhan. Their co-leader, Linda Sarsour, proclaimed Farrakhan as “too blessed.” Sarsour – a well-known Muslim and Palestinian activist – has publicly thrown her lot in with Palestinian terrorist murders and denies that Jews have a right to self-determination.

For many of us, the leadership of the Women’s March is tainted, even poisoned, and should be denounced and replaced.

As John-Paul Pagano so eloquently wrote in The Atlantic:

“That there appears to be no desire on the part of the Women’s March to confront Jew-hatred specifically and substantively, even as most religious hate crimes target Jews and anti-Semitism stats rise, is something that should trouble anyone of genuine antiracist sentiment.

“That the group refuses to be accountable for a high-level alliance with an open anti-Semite disqualifies it from ranking among today’s movements for social justice.”

Anti-Semites from across the political, social and religious spectrum seem to have found common ground in their hatred of Jews, which is all too often rooted in lies that go back generations – sometimes centuries. That even young people are all too eager to believe the rotten stereotypes points to a sickness in our nation that has infected our public discourse and even our public servants.

And that’s what is so sad, in the end, about DC City Councilman Trayon White, Senior. He could have made some important points about how little the government has done to help revitalize many black communities. He could have reached out to his community’s Jewish neighbors – instead of waiting for them to reach out to him.

Instead, he became a joke, the brunt of a whole slew of on-line memes. Here are a few of the jokes I found easily on Twitter about Jews controlling the weather:

  • Insanity of this conspiracy theory aside, I am genuinely confused about the alleged motive here for making it snow. If Jews controlled the weather I’m pretty sure most places would feel like Florida
  • If Jews controlled the weather it would always be cold so our mothers could tell us to wear a jacket, and we’d never complain about shvitzing.
  • Dude if Jews controlled the weather why would we EVER make it humid, that’s DEATH for our hair.
  • If Jews controlled the weather there would be no Winter, so Jewish mothers wouldn’t fret about their kids wearing their hats, mittens &scarves. The existence of both Winter AND Jewish mothers shows that, alas, the former is more in control of the latter than the other way ’round.
  • Why am I just learning now that Jews control the weather?? Shouldn’t someone have mentioned that at my Bar Mitzvah? ‘Congratulations on becoming a man. Also, you can make it rain now’.

Yeah, the tweets are really funny. Because, typical of Jews, we laugh where we might cry at the anti-Semitic tropes that never seem to go away but just morph into such utter stupidity. From evil money lenders and bleeders of Christian children’s bodies to nefarious controllers of black neighborhoods in “resilient cities.” Because, in the end, we still have got to trust that our country – and its citizens – will be better than this. Smarter than this. More decent and honorable than this.

This week’s Haftarah, from Second Samuel, depicts King David dancing and celebrating and sharing food with the masses as the Ark of the Covenant is carried into Jerusalem. It is a reminder during our Zman cheiroteinu, our season of freedom – of the gift that the Jews brought to the world.

A people unified by faith in God and Torah, the first such document in the ancient world to demand equal treatment for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger. A people inspired by prophets who, in God’s name, called for a community guided by social justice and individual dignity. A people which, like any other, is entitled to self-determination.

It is a reminder, not to us alone but, perhaps, most importantly, to all non-Jews – including those whose own faith traditions stand on the foundations laid by Judaism.

And is a reminder to us of our thousands of years of resilience – in the face of unspeakable evils – and the role we must play in the redemption, not just of our own people, but of all of humanity. And that is no joking matter.

Ken yehi ratson. May we join together to build a world of redemption  –  if not in our time then in our children’s time. And let us say together: Amen.


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem” – Friday, December 8th, 2017

Sun, 2017-12-10 19:46

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,

Let my right hand forget her cunning.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,

If I remember thee not;

If I set not Jerusalem

Above my chiefest joy.        (Psalm 137:1-6, 1917 JPS Tanakh)


The Psalmist wrote these words from the point of view of exile 25-hundred years ago, describing the Jewish people sitting, weeping, by the rivers of Babylon and vowing never to forget Zion, never to forget Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the beating heart of our nation. From the day, some three thousand years ago, that the Bible says King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought to the city and set up in the Tabernacle that he had constructed for it, Jerusalem has been both the temporal and the religious capital of the Jews. Since that time, Jerusalem has been a national capital city ONLY for Jews. Not for any of its conquerors in the past two thousand years, be they Greek, Roman, Christian, Ottoman, or Arab.

One hundred years ago, Lord Balfour declared England’s support for a modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land – a declaration supported by the League of Nations in 1922 and by its successor, the United Nations, in 1947. Not, as detractors and anti-semites later would insist, as a post-World War Two colonialist enterprise to grab land from Arabs and assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. But rather to put right a historical wrong.

This week, President Trump sought to redress another historical wrong – by recognizing that Jerusalem IS, in fact, the capital of the modern State of Israel. And I think that is a really, really good thing.

There is no other example that I can think of – certainly not in modern history – where a sovereign nation did not get to choose where its capital would be. And no other example where that decision was ignored or even condemned by the rest of the world. The State of Israel operates out of Jerusalem: the president’s residence, the prime minister’s residence, the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and government agencies all are located in Jerusalem. And diplomats from other nations waste hours on the road every week, making the trek from their embassies in Tel Aviv to the seat of power in Jerusalem.

The president was just stating a fact, acknowledging reality. And that, unfortunately, is something that seems to be an alien concept in other parts of the world. I actually wish this had happened sooner. Maybe 70 years ago, certainly 50 years ago. I wish the western nations that all supported the creation of the modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land had done the same. Because it would, I believe, have forced the nations of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, as well as the self-described Palestinian people, to acknowledge reality, instead of dealing in false narratives.

It is a message long overdue: Start negotiating based on facts on the ground, not the fantasy of a past that really never was.

The delusion goes back all the way to the UN partition plan of 1947 that envisioned a Jewish state and an Arab state carved out of the land, living side by side, with Jerusalem as an open, international city.

The Jews said yes to that plan. But the Arab nations, in unity, said no. No to it all. No to a Jewish state. No to an internationally supervised Jerusalem. Instead they attempted to engage in genocide. And they lost.   They – the aggresors – lost in 1947 and in 1953 in the Suez Canal zone and in 1967 when Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem away from Jordan. They said no. They don’t get rewrite history now: Well, we still don’t want a single Jew on the land, but we’ll take an international Jerusalem. No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. You said no back then. And you walked away from prospects for a negotiated peace at least half a dozen times in the last thirty years. So, no.

I am no fan of the current Israeli government. Not a surprise there. They, too, have squandered opportunities and engaged in deliberately provocative building campaigns over the green line. With a current cabinet that is solidly right-wing, there’s little incentive, and little appetite, for anything else. But, historically, Israel has been open to negotiation.

Everybody has ‘known’ for decades what the parameters of a peace plan would look like: both sides acknowledging the validity of the other and providing security assurances. Land swaps to compensate the Arabs for Jewish settlements – 85 percent of which are on only 8 percent of the West Bank and hug the green line. Acknowledgement of the Jewish capital in West Jerusalem while accommodating an Arab capital in East Jerusalem – even if that meant extending the city’s eastern boundary to achieve it.

Everybody “knows” this is what needs to happen. But it has never happened. And it never will happen as long as Jewish historical ties to the land and the city are disputed, and the right to Jewish sovereignty is denied.

This is probably why even some left-wing Laborites in Israel, who would never push for such a declaration from Washington, are reportedly delighted now that it’s happened. Maybe this announcement will be just the kick in the pants that the Arab world needs to get real.

That’s definitely not happening yet in Gaza, where Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, yesterday called for yet another violent uprising. “The only way to deal with the Zionist policy,” he declared, “is sparking a new intifada against the occupation and welcome resistance to this occupation.” By occupation, he’s not talking about the Old City or the West Bank. He’s talking about the entire state of Israel, which he is still committed to wiping off the map. And so are the leaders of Iran, who echoed these same sentiments. Violent protests are breaking out in Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem as a result.

Interestingly, we’re hearing very little from Arab capitals. Another truth of the current Middle East is that the Palestinian issue – which has long been used as a red herring by Arab autocrats to deflect anger away from their own oppressive policies – is not so important to them anymore, what with Iran’s bold ambitions, the bloody Syrian civil war, and the remnants of ISIS still at large. The Saudis are clearly re-thinking their alliances, and my colleague Rabbi David Kaufman of the group We Are For Israel writes that they are not alone: “Several Arab nations have come to realize that establishing more significant relations with Israel would be substantially in their best interest . . .  If the Palestinians and Israelis do not make peace soon, several Arab nations may establish peace agreements on their own without that happening first.”

I was on a conference call yesterday with David Makovsky, a former State Department official who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he pointed out that there’s a duality here that the Arab world seems to be ignoring. Yes, President Trump did correct an historic anomaly – some would say an historic injustice – in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But he also said: “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” Rather than closing the doors to a possible peace plan, the declaration is designed to go along with it.

Makovsky’s advice was that the White House should make that duality clear – not just in English in Washington, but in Arabic in the Middle Eastern media as well. Most of the Arab world is not told the truth by state-controlled media. A majority of Palestinians think that Israel wants 100 percent of the West Bank, which is both absurd and untrue. So it should be the responsibility of the United States to tell the truth, in every place and in every language it can.

And that includes the fact that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem will take years, given the need for land and security. That gives everybody enough time to do what everybody “knows” they need to do. This is what our former Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, had to say about it:

“I supported all three presidents’ use of their national security waiver authority to delay the move in the interest of pursuing Middle East peace. But I have never believed that arguments for moving the embassy were groundless, or that it must await a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

“I’m influenced by my love of Jerusalem — an emotional attachment born of decades studying its history — and sense of justice for Jewish claims to the city that are far too often called into question. The presence of a U.S. Embassy in parts of Jerusalem no one disputes are Israeli territory is one way of acknowledging the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to the city, the questioning of which is closely linked to the denial of Israel’s very legitimacy.”

David Makovsky, during yesterday’s conference call, acknowledged the short-term threat to a long-term solution: “I think it could get bumpier before it calms down,” he said. And I understand the concern of my friends and colleagues who live in Israel, many of them in Jerusalem. They fear for their safety and that of their children, some of whom serve in the IDF or in the reserves. Some think this was the wrong time to make the announcement, absent a detailed peace plan, and that the United States going it alone in the world – yet again – is not necessarily helpful.

And yes, I can say all of this because I have no skin in the game. I don’t live in Israel. I don’t have children who put their lives on the line there. But my colleague, Rabbi Mickey Boyden does. He picked up his family and moved them from England to Israel decades ago. And he lost his son Jonathan, an IDF soldier who was killed on a rescue mission in Southern Lebanon in 1993. Here’s what he wrote this week in the English-language newspaper Times of Israel:

“So the international community continues to play the charade of maintaining its embassies in Tel Aviv while its ambassadors and other officials travel up the winding highway to Jerusalem to do business at the Knesset and Israel’s government ministries. . . . Of course, there is still the issue of the Palestinians and reaching an accommodation with them. However, no one can seriously believe that Israel will relocate its seat of government to Tel Aviv even in the context of a peace agreement. Therefore, it is time to stop playing games.”

The work of peace is hard and long. And I agree with David Makovsky, who used a baseball analogy to describe a suggested path to negotiations. We have failed, he said, when we swing for the fences instead of hitting a solid single. Let’s start, not by trying to solve everything at once, but by dealing with the gut issues first – the ones that hit people in the kishkes. For the Palestinians it’s about land, and guaranteeing them a fair layout of the West bank. For the Israelis, it’s security, both now and in the future. What are the Palestinians teaching their children about Israel and the Jews? What is the message they send by providing lifetime incomes to the families of terrorists?

The president was right that the two sides need to step up to the plate and deal honestly and realistically. The United States cannot – and never has been able to – impose a solution. But if our acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can shake some sense into them, it is a step in the right direction.

The Psalmist (Psalm 126: 4-6) also wrote of the joy of returning from exile in Babylon all those centuries ago:

Bring back our captivity, O Lord, like the streams in the Negev.

Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.

He who goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.

Let this be the image of the city of David, the city of peace, the city of redemption. Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will. As we say together: Amen.



©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin









Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Abraham, Sarah, and ‘#MeToo’” – Shabbat Lech Lecha October 27, 2017

Mon, 2017-10-30 12:14

“Finally, Sarah had had enough[1]. After all the years of humiliation, after decades of isolation from her friends and her family – this was more than she could bear. Abraham had taken from her, her dignity, her sense of identity. But now he had taken her only son, her beloved Isaac. And that was more than she could bear.

        “Their marriage had, in the beginning, been one of love, companionship, trust and respect. Unlike so many women of her time, Sarah never felt in those days that she was merely an appendage, a piece of the household. Abraham had appreciated her talents, her warmth and kindness, and her home reflected her personality. Through their early travels together, when their work on behalf of their God was meaningful for both of them, she had great influence throughout the community. While Abraham brought many men to the worship of Adonai, Sarah had converted scores of women. Their household grew and was filled with love of one another that reflected their love of God.

        “But over the years, Abraham had changed – and so had his treatment of Sarah. As he became more obsessed with being the perfect servant of God, he began to treat Sarah as his servant. When famine in Canaan forced them to move to Egypt for a time, Abraham felt threatened by Sarah’s beauty and grace. “If the Egyptians see you, they’ll kill me to have you,” he had said to her. “So say you’re my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you.”[2]

       ” Just as Abraham predicted, Pharaoh’s servants were mesmerized by Sarah, and word of her beauty quickly reached the palace. Pretending to be Sarah’s brother, Abraham negotiated a bride price and sold his own wife into Pharaoh’s harem, in exchange for gold, silver, sheep and camels. Forced into sexual slavery, Sarah went about in a daze, trying to distance her mind from what her body was being forced to do. Abraham’s God finally took pity on her and revealed to Pharaoh that she was, in fact, Abraham’s wife, not his sister. Pharaoh sent for Abraham and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Here, take your wife and leave!”[3] And Pharaoh sent along an escort to make sure they left his country as soon as possible.

       “But when they returned to Canaan, it happened again. King Avimelech, who should have been an ally and friend, was suddenly seen as a threat by Abraham. “She’s my sister!” he insisted to the king’s servants – this time without consulting Sarah and without warning her.[4] As before, Abraham got the goods while Sarah was taken to the king’s bed. This time, though, God put a stop to the charade before any more harm could be done. Seeing that Sarah had not consented this time, God came to Avimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.” And God said to him in the dream, “I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me. That was why I did not let you touch her. Therefore, restore the man’s wife—since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you—to save your life.”[5]

        “The next morning, Avimelech had gone immediately to Abraham and confronted him: “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.”[6] Sarah, of course, had thought much the same thing. Avimelech paid Abraham off with sheep and oxen, male and female slaves, and a thousand pieces of silver, as he returned Sarah to him[7].

       “All of this Sarah bore with dignity – especially when she discovered soon after that she, at age ninety, was going to be blessed with the child she’d always hoped for. God had answered her prayers, and she bore her beloved Isaac, the light of her life. She kept Isaac close to her, and over the years taught him kindness, gentleness, and respect for men and women alike. She taught him that being a servant of God did not excuse neglect or abuse of the human beings around him – but that, in fact, the way he treated others reflected the way he felt about God.

        “And then he was gone. Sarah had noticed Abraham even more distant and distracted than usual. He refused to talk to her, ignored her pleas to share whatever distressed him. She arose one morning to discover he’d gotten up especially early, saddled his donkey, sent for a couple of his young lads, and taken Isaac away. For three days, she sat weeping in her tent, wandering around the household, praying for her son’s safe return.

“That night, in a dream, an old man came to her[8] and said to her: “Do you not know what your husband has done to your only son this day? He took Isaac, built an altar, slaughtered him, and brought him up as a sacrifice. Isaac cried out to his father, who refused to look at him and acted without compassion.” Sarah thought she would die, there and then. She fainted and felt the life force flowing out of her. Little did she know that, at that very instant, her beloved Isaac felt the same – as he looked up from the altar to see his father raising his hand against him, slaughtering knife in his grip, and beyond him – the angels in heaven openly weeping.

“Sarah came to. She refused to believe Isaac could be gone – it must be Satan, she thought, playing on her mind. Not even Abraham would do such a thing. Would he? Another three days, she searched the countryside around their home, making inquiries, but nobody had seen the father and son. That night, the same old man appeared in her dream. “I was wrong the first time,” he said. “Abraham did not kill your son after all. He’s alive, and he’s returning to you.”

        “Isaac returned alone, without his father, shaken, exhausted and traumatized by the events of the past few days. After a weepy reunion, during which Isaac told his mother every detail of what had happened on the mountain, Sarah knew what she had to do. She packed her things, loaded her camels, took her son and her most trusted servants, and left her husband’s house. She went to Hebron and there lived by herself – something no married woman ever did in that time. But the community knew her, accepted her and respected her. She never saw Abraham again. And neither did Isaac. When word reached Abraham of Sarah’s death, he came and he wept over her and he mourned for her – and for all he had done to drive her away. He bought a suitable burial ground and gave her a proper funeral.”


I created this modern midrash on the Torah portions we read this week and next in 2003, as part of a Jewish Women International program on domestic violence in the Jewish community. The events and dialogue are taken directly from Scripture. Sarah’s dream comes from rabbinic lore that attempted to more fully explain what happened while Abraham went to sacrifice his son. The only thing I added, really, was the overlay of Sarah’s own voice, of her own feelings. That’s something that Scripture doesn’t give us, and neither do the rabbis.

As I read it, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was startled into silence by the words and deeds they had read so many times in the Torah but perhaps never before actually seen. Afterward, I was accosted by an Orthodox Jewish woman: “How dare you say such things about Avraham Avinu!” she chastised me. “How dare you do such a thing.” She could not comprehend the fact that these events are in Scripture, and that these words do come from the Midrash, where the rabbis –in their own way – acknowledged that Sarah deserved to be heard. Certainly, from their perspective, they would not – and did not – think of her as an abused woman. But from a 21st-century perspective, that’s just what I was suggesting.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been inundated by news and accusations of sexual impropriety, sexual assault, and even rape, by prominent and important men in American culture. It started with the stories about Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and his abuse of  many young actresses who worked, or wanted to work, for his production company.

After he was fired, Jenni Konner, the executive producer of the HBO series “Girls” said: “I see this as a tipping point. This is the moment we look back on and say, ‘That’s when it all started to change.’”[9]

And she was right. Once the wall was breached, it came tumbling down quickly. Among those finally getting the ax: Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, which last January renewed his contract knowing full well he had just settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $32 million – the sixth such lawsuit against him. The Murdoch family, which owns Fox, made the calculated decision to hang onto O’Reilly even though the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, already had been fired for alleged sexual harassment himself – activity that had gone unchecked for years.

Also recently fired after multiple sexual harassment complaints: Chris Savino of the Nickelodeon network; Vox Media Editorial Director Lockhart Steele; and Hollywood agent Tyler Grasham. Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios, resigned after similar allegations were made against him. Prominent political journalist Mark Halperin was pulled from his current gig as a commentator at NBC and MSNBC, after five anonymous women from his time at ABC came forward. Women are also now coming forward to make accusations of harassment and inappropriate touching against President George H.W. Bush.

And perhaps most sadly for the Jewish community: Leon Wieselthier, long-time literary editor of The New Republic and an important voice in modern Jewish literature….and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who allegedly copped a feel at a public event.

All of these men are powerful leaders in their fields, opinion shapers, and trend setters. All allegedly felt that their power and positions gave them the right to inflict themselves on women who depended on them or looked up to them. I’ve mentioned the word power twice here, and for good reason. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not, at base, about sex. They are about power – about men using sex as a tool to control women.

Some of these men deny the allegations, some have not answered them. Of those who have acknowledged at least some of the damage they caused, their excuses are pathetic. Harvey Weinstein said, in essence, well, that’s the way things were when I was growing up in the ‘70s and nobody thought anything of it. He’s headed for some kind of private therapy – as though that will make him no longer a brute and a bully.

As for Mark Halperin, he actually told CNN: “I did pursue relationships with women that I worked with, including some junior to me. I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain.”

Now? From these accounts? That’s how and why and when he gets that what he did was disgusting and disturbing? As Monica Hesse and Dan Zak, asked in their Washington Post article this week:


“Does the ‘now’ merely arise from the fact that his actions are now public? Does ‘now’ mean we’re watching an epoch of entitled masculinity finally end? Or is there something else going on ‘now’?”

Maybe there is. When I was growing up, we called these guys dirty old men and tried to ignore the patterns of behavior around us – the men who would wink at us at public events, eye us up and down, comment on our legs or hair, brush up against our backsides in the aisles the music store.

When I was a young reporter and the owner of a prominent sports team – obviously intoxicated – found me alone in the tunnel underneath the stadium and pinned me against the wall, I slipped out of his drunken grasp and sprinted out and never told anybody. I guarantee you that many, many of the women who are now coming forward did the same. Nobody would believe us. Or our young careers would be imperiled. Or our reputations would have been tarnished. Our reputations, not theirs. Because in a patriarchal society – whether in 21st –century America or in ancient Mesopotamia – that’s what happens.

In Sarah’s day, wives belonged to their husbands. They were part of the household, like a chair or a goat. Do you think ownership of women does not exist today?  Why else do you think girls throughout Africa are married off so young, or Saudi women are forbidden from driving, or Haredi women in Israel are ordered to cover up and move to the other side of the road?

Oh, but don’t think that America is going to get off that easy. That we are still debating whether women should have access to birth control – much less abortion – shows the lengths to which men will go to control our bodies, make our decisions, and limit our opportunities for education and financial independence.

Sexual assault does not just occur in Silicon Valley or New York media or Washington power circles. It is not found just in the lurid front-page stories of our newspapers and magazines. It is part and parcel of life – here and around the world. The use of sex as a control device may be more subtle or more overt, illegal or just gross – but it is a constant. At least it has been. Maybe the halls of power are finally closing in on the offenders. Maybe the walls of shame are finally cracking around their victims.

Dozens and dozens of women I know have come out of the shadows to post their #MeToo notes on social media. Amazingly, it has been eye-opening even for forward-thinking male colleagues and friends. They are having their own #YouToo moments.  And that can only be for the good.

But it will take more than individual epiphanies, in a nation that knowingly elected a Groper-in-Chief. The New York Times’ Jodi Kator, who broke the Weinstein story, notes: “Ailes, O’Relly, Weinstein, Halperin were some of our culture’s key storytellers, shaping our ideas of gender authority, power, and much more.” And there’s the real challenge. Because unless and until women achieve equality as shapers of our ideas and voices of our culture – and political leaders of our nation – very little is likely to change.

But making everything public that we have kept so private for so long, is a start. As Hesse and Zak wrote, “It used to be in private, between women alone, or behind closed doors between and woman and the man who was making her life miserable. Now it’s in public. Which might be what Halperin meant in his use of ‘now’: The discussion has gotten really loud. It’s pretty hard to ignore.”

The story of Sarah, as told by Sarah, teaches us that sexual control of women by men is as old as the Bible itself. The #MeToo stories of dozens and hundreds and thousands of women today, as told by them, teaches us that naming it, and sharing it without shame or self-blame, are the first steps to fixing it. We are all created in God’s image. We are all equal in God’s eyes. We are all equally worthy of respect in the eyes of others. We must demand no less.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] This midrash was originally written for a Jewish Women International program in Chicago on domestic abuse in the Jewish community, “Peace in the Homes: The Voice of Sarah,” delivered February 9, 2003.

[2] Genesis 12:12-13.

[3] Genesis 12:18-19.

[4] Genesis 20:2.

[5] Genesis 20:6.

[6] Genesis 20:9.

[7] Genesis 20:14.

[8] Versions of this midrash appear in Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer and Sefer HaYashar. Another variant has Satan appearing as Isaac himself to tell Sarah what is transpiring. See Tanhuma, Va-yera, 23; Ecclesiastes Rabbah. 9:7, 1.

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/08/business/harvey-weinstein-fired.html

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

When Prayers are Not Enough: A Response to Las Vegas

Mon, 2017-10-02 14:29

Another beautiful High Holy Days season with my congregation has just come to an end, and we immediately are turning toward Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Yesterday, we put up the sukkah in the Temple rose garden. This morning, I’d planned to work on my programming and prayers for this Shabbat.

And then….

And then I was awakened to the news from Las Vegas. More than 50 killed, 200 wounded, by a single man with unclear motivation but lots and lots of military-grade weaponry and a clear shot from his hotel room at a crowd of 20,000 at a music festival across the street. Once again, we are using the phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history.” Once again, our nation is in shock. Once again, our leaders ask for prayers.

I’m a rabbi. I’m in the business of prayers. And I’m telling you – no.

No to empty rhetoric. No to the shock, when our recent history tells us we shouldn’t be. No to the call for prayers when you won’t do anything to prevent this from happening again. And again. And again.

How long has it been since Orlando? Or Sandy Hook? Or Columbine? How many more times do we have to use that phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history”? How many times do politicians have to kowtow to gun manufacturers who use the National Rifle Association as a front for their madness and their mendacity, and the politicians use the Constitution as an excuse for taking their money? When do you grow a backbone and decide that the lives of your constituents are more important than the blood money in your campaign chest?

Just Saturday, on our fasting and atonement day of Yom Kippur, we read from Isaiah 58, in which the prophet chastised the people for false piety.

““Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist!“[1]

If God has no patience with words with no action, why should we?

At this writing, I have no idea what the motivation of the shooter was, or his mental state. All I know is that Americans have once again been victimized by a cult of death that has infected our nation with the evil notion that a man (or a boy, and generally mass shooters are male) should reach for a gun as a first resort to settle his scores, or soothe his pain, or make a political point. All I know is that I was brought to tears by Tom Brokaw on the Today Show this morning, when he talked about how parents all over the country would now be worried to let their children go to concerts, and what a sad commentary that is on our nation today. All I know is that, once again this Shabbat, I will be asking my congregation to remember the victims of Las Vegas as they did those of Orlando, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook. And nobody should be asked to do that. Ever.

So I’m as done with false piety and empty promises as Isaiah was:

“Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.”[2]

I’m an American and I demand more. I demand safety when I go to concerts, or to school, or to the movies. Or even when I’m at home (since there is a proven connection among many mass shooters between gun violence and domestic violence). I demand that we support our police and our other first-responders, whose Kevlar vests do not protect them against military-grade weaponry.

I demand that we have national laws that, once and for all, require that all gun sellers – including private dealers – run background checks on buyers, and that the checks be completed (see Dylan Roof) before a sale is made. I demand a waiting period of at least three days before that sale can be concluded – so that someone does not buy a gun while in the throes of anger or distress. I demand that anyone who buys multiple weapons and/or large rounds of ammunition in a limited amount of time be reported to authorities – because chances are that such a person is either buying to re-sell illegally, or is planning something very, very bad.

And I demand that we have national laws that make it illegal for private citizens to own military-grade weaponry such as the semi-automatic weapons that have caused such mass carnage – a ban that even Justice Antonin Scalia allowed for in his majority opinion in the District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment affirmed an individual right to bear arms:

“[L]ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. . . . [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose . . .  Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Justice Scalia wrote that the Constitution protects weapons that can be carried and are in common use.  And while a million AR-15’s and the like are in the hands and homes of private citizens in this nation, they should not be considered “common.” There is nothing common – that is, ordinary – about a weapon that can cause such carnage, instill such fear, shed such much blood in such a short period of time.

Have you watched the videos taken by concert attendees, as the bullets were fired so fast, so long, and with such deadly power, that people didn’t have time to hide? Can you watch this – and listen to shot after shot after shot – without feeling anger and revulsion as well as fear and pity?

And can we expect our prayers to be answered by God, unless the Eternal sees that we mean it when we pray with awe and reverence?

“Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am. If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech, And you offer your compassion to the hungry And satisfy the famished creature— Then shall your light shine in darkness, And your gloom shall be like noonday.”[3]

Our nation will not see the light of salvation unless we remove the “menacing hand and evil speech” from our midst. Until we as a citizenry demand that our nation’s leaders stop engaging in platitudes and start engaging in the work for which we have elected them: protecting our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We cannot sustain these rights when we fear going into public places. We cannot be free when guns have such a stranglehold on our elected leaders, and on our peoples’ psyche. We cannot be happy when we see the sorrow that gun violence brings.

So, yes, I will ask for healing prayers for the survivors and the families and I will offer a memorial prayer for the dead. I’m a rabbi, so that’s what I do. But as a rabbi, I cannot and will not be silent in the face of this cult of darkness and death. Let there be light.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin



[1] Isaiah 58:3-4

[2] Isaiah 58:5-6

[3] Isaiah 58:9-10

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Yom Kippur Morning 2017: Finding Faith at the Mall

Mon, 2017-10-02 12:04

Since Yom Kippur is about taking stock of important things, I’d like to take a moment for a brief survey. How many of you – say, in the last two weeks – have spent a considerable amount of time buying stuff at the shopping mall. Clothes, housewares, appliances. Things like that. How many of you have hung out there recently?

Okay now, how many of you have spent a considerable amount of time doing the same thing on your computer. Amazon, other on-line purchasing options?

Yep, that’s what I thought.

We are, as you might have noticed, in the middle of what some have called a retail meltdown. On-line shopping has taken the place of a lot of the time we used to spend at the mall. It’s easier. It’s quicker. And Amazon Prime – now a fixture in half of all American households — gives us two-day free shipping. What’s not to love?

As a result, of course, a lot of malls are half-empty these days. Major retailers are going bankrupt, or selling off stores, or not paying enough attention to stocking the shelves and having enough salespeople. The Macy’s where I’ve been shopping for several years down in Columbia, South Carolina, is in a dead mall, but it was a great store until this year, when it got dingy and the ladies who always helped me pick out my outfits were gone. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sector in this country lost about 30-thousand jobs in March alone.

So: Bricks and mortar are out. And not just when it comes to retail. The same is happening in the world of religion.

Not a few congregants comment to me about people missing from the pews on Shabbat and even on these days of awe. And it’s true. But it’s not just us. All over the country, large urban and suburban synagogues built in the heady days after World War Two are struggling to stay open and have folded or merged their religious schools in response to the aging of their populations. Even in places with large concentrations of Jews like Philadelphia, offering daycare or early-childhood centers isn’t translating into membership. Younger people these days are less likely to join up anywhere, which implies a long-term commitment. And others have married outside the faith and are not raising children as Jews – or as anything else, religiously.

Every summer, we find out in our interfaith clergy groups who has chosen to move or has been reassigned, whose congregation is closing its doors, and who will be serving two or even three congregations that are merging or sharing a minister. So it’s not just us. But it’s disturbing and discouraging nonetheless, for those of you who love this congregation and honor its history.

As you know, we are on “hiatus” for a plan to bring our community’s two congregations closer together. For many people, the plan was moving way too fast for comfort, and they didn’t see the value in the direction the project was going. But change is inevitable and necessary. So while we re-think what it means to assure a future for the Altoona Jewish community, we can take a look at some suggestions being made to re-think retail and re-use those half-empty shopping malls. These three points come from The Atlantic magazine’s City Lab – a free email newsletter, of course — in a Nolan Gray essay from this past spring called “How to Survive a Retail Meltdown.”

Let’s start with an understanding that dead and dying malls are more than just blights on the landscape. These so-called “greyfields” are a financial drain on cities that used to rely on retailers for a lot of revenue. Cities don’t benefit from Amazon Prime purchases like they did from having a Macy’s or a Sears in town. Not only that, they take up a lot of real estate that potentially could be used for other things, but the infrastructure and the legal requirements – the roads, the parking, the set-backs – make it hard to do so.

In Jewish terms, it’s a way to think of teshuvah, the process of return and renewal in which we engage during these Days of Awe. It’s about getting rid of what doesn’t work in our lives and embracing a different model of living. It requires us to be strong and brave about leaving behind what is comfortable and familiar, for the sake of a life that is more fruitful and fulfilling.

So the first suggestion that Nolan Gray makes is to ease land-use restrictions.

“If you are a local policymaker concerned about greyfields,” writes Gray, “ask yourself: Can an enterprising developer turn that empty big box into a co-working space? Can food trucks turn that parking lot into a lunchtime market? If you answered ‘no’ to either question, it’s time for regulatory reform.”

So what does regulatory reform mean for this congregation? Turn away from what worked in the past but doesn’t anymore. Turn toward other models for using the space we have for other purposes, or re-imagine the concept of sacred space completely.

Release ourselves from preconceived notions about how life should be in our Jewish community – such as the idea that one or the other of our large buildings is essential to our Jewish survival. Because, the fact is, neither may be viable in fewer years than we’d care to think.

A congregation is people, not buildings. Our ancestors who left Egypt survived decades in the wilderness without a permanent address. What they had was each other, faith in God, and faith in their community. They followed God’s instructions to build a portable tabernacle that was beautiful and luxurious – but which could be taken apart and packed up and carried anywhere they went. The Mishkan assured them of something that was inconceivable in ancient times – that a God could be omnipresent and go with the people wherever they traveled.

God is always reminding the Israelites: Do what I say because I’m the one who saved you from bondage. But in today’s Torah reading, God through Moses – in his farewell sermon – challenges the people to think of the future, rather than fixating on the past:

יג וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת: יד כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם:

“Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, this pledge. Rather, this covenant is with those who are among you today, standing before Adonai our God, and also with those who are not with us today.”[1]

Community endures. God’s promise endures. Edifices do not. If we are truly a kehilat kedoshah, a holy congregation, we must engage in teshuvah today not merely to make ourselves right with God but to make ourselves right with those who will come after us, who will sustain this Jewish community despite demographic and financial challenges.

Maybe it will mean keeping some of our current buildings and maybe it will not. Maybe it will mean sharing our space with other congregations, renting it out for other purposes, investing in enough infrastructure to draw community groups in as renters, who will appreciate and enjoy this beautiful space as much as we do.

Or maybe it will mean moving into a smaller, sustainable space. Maybe it will mean moving around like our ancestors did, from space to space or home to home – a model that other congregations in other cities are now embracing, in which they put their money into people and programing, inspiring younger Jews – those non-joiners – to take ownership of a concept and a faith rather than a building.

And this brings us to Nolan Gray’s second suggestion: Re-think economic incentives.

In the past, shiny new shopping malls were not just a point of pride but also a great way to generate attention and jobs. But that meant cities and towns giving away millions in tax breaks and free land, and building out roads and infrastructure on the edges of town, not in the core. And that cost a lot of money that now is gone for good. For Gray, the lesson of the retail meltdown is, as he puts it,

“not that we should switch from subsidizing brick and mortar retail to subsidizing e-commerce with the same old mixture of property tax abatement and free infrastructure. Rather, the lesson is that cities should be very cautious about plowing public resources into attracting specific firms. Today’s Amazon distribution center could easily be tomorrow’s dead mall.”

Similarly this congregation often finds its resources strained, stretched way too thin. Are we subsidizing what no longer works for us? Are we thinking both short-term and long-term about not only the members we have but potential new members as well, and where they want their investment to go? New speakers? Or guest speakers? A community focused primarily on Shabbat in the sanctuary, or one that thinks, physically and philosophically, outside the walls? This is not an either-or concept, and meeting the needs of the people in the pews is of paramount concern – because you have put your blood, sweat and tears into this building and this congregation. But our future depends less on short-term patches and more on a future created out of well-spun cloth.

But there’s good news in the third of Nolan Gray’s three steps: Think corner stores, not big boxes. “In dynamic urban economies,” he writes, “smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience are more important” than large-scale retail development. And if there’s anyone who has done small well, it’s us.

Let’s face it: Like the retail landscape, religious observance in America is changing rapidly, and that’s true in Altoona and Tyrone and Hollidaysburg as much as anywhere else. Pop-up churches are filling up empty retail space on downtown street corners and in suburban strip malls.

It’s a far cry from the “if you build it, they will come” church-building philosophy of the early 20th century downtown and of the 1950s and 60s in the suburbs. Like the half-empty mall on the edge of town, the heyday of institutional Judaism as we have known it is long gone. But we should not be looking back, bemoaning the loss, still trying to duplicate the past. Like retail, making use of the space that already exists, and being prepared to move, shift and adapt more quickly, is now the model.

We have gotten really good at maximizing the resources we do have. And our greatest resource – our greatest strength – is our people. And if religion, like retail, now thrives on smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience, then we are in a position to shine.

When we hear of an illness or loss, we come together to share the burdens. When we have a simcha, it’s a celebration for us all. Sisterhood can pull together a joyous reception or a shiva meal like nobody’s business, even on short notice. When Don and I were on Sabbatical last winter, everybody pitched in to help with services and check on congregants who needed to hear a cheerful voice or see a friendly face. While some bigger, wealthier congregations see so many students disappear after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, our students stay through Confirmation, and many teach our younger students Hebrew.

That’s what it means to be in a small congregation in a small community. We’re all in this together, in a sacred cause that does not go unnoticed during these Days of Awe:

ב רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הַנָּשִׂיא אוֹמֵר. . ..[ וְ]כָל הָעֲמֵלִים עִם הַצִּבּוּר, יִהְיוּ עֲמֵלִים עִמָּהֶם לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, שֶׁזְּכוּת אֲבוֹתָם מְסַיְּעָתַן וְצִדְקָתָם עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד. וְאַתֶּם, מַעֲלֶה אֲנִי עֲלֵיכֶם שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה כְּאִלּוּ עֲשִׂיתֶם:

Rabban Gamaliel son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch said: “All who labor for the community, let them labor with them for Heaven’s sake, for then the merit of the community’s forebears will sustain them, and their beneficence will endure forever. And as for you [who labor thus], I regard you as deserving great reward, as though you had accomplished it all [on your own].” [2]

One generation sustains the next, a gift that is particularly true here at Temple Beth Israel, where the photos in our center hallway depict the grandparents, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and cousins of those who gather here today. You are their gift to us.

But even if you don’t carry a familiar last name, it is absolutely impossible to be anonymous in this congregation. Don and I found that out the first time we walked in the door. But it’s also absolutely impossible to be inactive. Or at least it should be. And if you are now, you won’t be for long. Those yellow interest cards we handed out at Rosh Hashanah will be out for break-the-fast too.

We need you. Every one of you. Not just today, but throughout the year. We need your talents, your ideas, your time and attention. Small can be successful, if we, together, our whole congregation, pitches in.

People want attention. They want a place where they feel welcome, where they feel at home, where they feel that they matter, where they have a sense that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves. All of us feel that way – and so do all the people who have not yet discovered us. So let’s share the best of what we are, and together plan for what we can become.

“Smallness, accessible, and a high-quality experience.” We make Judaism come alive in a way that is both highly personal and communally fulfilling – just like the prayers we recite throughout these days of awe. Each of us is responsible for our own teshuvah. But each of us here today gives strength to everybody else making teshuvah for themselves.

Let this not be just for today. We control our own destiny. We are in a position to move this congregation into a future that meets both the expectations and the needs of Jews and their families – both those who are with us today, and those who are not yet with us.

יד כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ

“For this thing is very near to you, on your lips and in your heart, and you can do it.”[3]

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deut. 29:13-14

[2] Mishnah Avot 2:2

[3] Deut. 30:14

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Yom Kippur 2017: When There Is No Other Hand

Mon, 2017-10-02 11:59

It is the iconic shtick of Tevye the dairyman in “Fiddler On the Roof.” Faced with difficult choices, the mild-mannered shtetl-dweller ponders his choices carefully. On the one hand…..on the other hand….on the other hand….until he comes to a decision he can live with, one that balances life in the real world with the need to sustain his small, poor, and often-threatened Jewish community.

Until he reaches his limit. And then Tevye, suddenly and movingly, cries out: “No! There is no other hand!”

Tevye reaches his limit when he is asked to bless the marriage of his third daughter to a non-Jew – something he firmly believes is not only wrong but dangerous. We might not feel that way about interfaith marriages these days. But each of us confronts situations in our lives when we simply reach our limit, when we are asked to betray our basic moral principles. We still have times when we too must cry out: “NO! There is no other hand!”

We reached our limit this summer.

All of us watched with horror the images on television as hate groups of all kinds gathered in a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally under the banner “Unite the Right.”

“Unite the Right” did not represent the traditional right wing of American politics.

Instead, it was a reflection of  the fascist right of Europe, the so-called “alt-right” as it is called in America – a rancid mixture of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racists, anti-semites, anti-Muslims, and misogynists, all committed to opposing multi-culturalism and preserving what they see as an embattled white race.

They marched carrying lit torches. They marched without masking their identities, as the Klan once did. They marched on a city that had been thoughtfully and carefully examining its racist past, and had decided to remove a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee from a public area, which was now to be known as Emancipation Park. They contended they chose the setting to preserve and protect the Lee statue and “southern culture.” But the statue was an excuse. What they were really doing was asserting their inherent right, as white people, to both control and to denigrate anyone who is not.

The sheer ferocity of their expressions of hatred made us all shudder.  The ugliness was shocking. But just as disturbing was the response we heard from the highest level of our national government:  “I think there is blame on both sides.”

Let’s be clear. Among the peaceful protesters who opposed the white supremacist march was a small group that pitched a violent battle with the Nazis in the park before the rally was even was supposed to start. That’s why the city decided to cancel the rally. And that’s when the Nazis and bigots attacked those who were marching peacefully, one of them ramming his car deliberately into a crowd and killing a young woman, Heather Heyer.

But the white supremacists all came spoiling for a fight. Many of them were clad in camo and helmets, wielding bats, and more than a few brandished handguns and even semi-automatic weapons. They were out to hurt people.

The phrase “I think there is blame on both sides” – which was perpetrated on us again, just within the last couple of weeks – this phrase presents a moral equivalency between Nazis and racists, and the people who oppose them. The excuse that, oh not everyone at that rally was a neo-Nazi, not everybody who marched was a white supremacist, presents a moral equivalency between the people who stand side by side with bigots, and those who stand up against them.

So let’s be very, very clear about this. There is NEVER a moral equivalency here. Ever. Nazis and skinheads and white supremacists do not get a pass. Ever.

On the one hand, you have people who spew hatred. And on the other hand: There IS NO OTHER HAND.

And let’s be very, very clear about this: Standing up to Nazis has nothing to do with party politics. If you want to read a classic denunciation of moral equivalency in the cold-war context, read the 1986 essay by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Or listen to the words of William F. Buckley, the founding editor of the National Review, who once explained moral equivalency using this cold-war analogy:

“To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”

Yet that seems to be the argument here.

And it cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. “Mere rhetoric” (air quotes) is what got us from Nazi rallies in the 1930s to Nazi genocide in the 1940s. Avowed racists – including rally speakers David Duke of the KKK and white supremacist Richard Spencer — were overjoyed by that “mere rhetoric.” David Duke and Richard Spencer? Is that who you want in your corner? Is that whose message you are equating with people who are demanding justice and dignity?

It shouldn’t be so hard. Nazis = BAD. That’s it. This is the moral standard that we must demand of ALL of our national leaders. And as American Jews, we have two fundamental reasons why it’s so important. First, because our tradition tells us so. Second, because our history tells us what happens when the world fails to do so.

Let’s get to the crux of this so-called “Unite the Right” rally. What is it that unites the alt-right? The Anti-Defamation League narrows it down to two things: Hate and violence. That is what unites all those identified by the ADL as having been present in Charlottesville:

The Ku Klux Klan, the National Socialist Movement, Identity Evropa, League of the South, Vanguard America, the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Hammerskin Nation, Blood & Honour Social Club, Daily Stormer, and The Right Wing Death Squad. All of them, reports the ADL, are founded on various strains of white supremacist ideology, and all of them seem to be attracting the same demographic: young, white men.

This variety of white supremacist ideology encompasses anti-black racism, hatred of Jews, hatred of Muslims, homophobia, and misogyny. In other words, one type of hate is easily meshed with another. One target of their hate is interchangeable with another. The symbols they wear, and the chants they repeat, cover the gamut of this anti-white conspiracy they see usurping their rightful place atop the food chain. And there’s clearly a thread linking African Americans and Jews.

That’s not new, of course. If you remember back when Rahm Emanuel was chosen as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, the alt-right howled that the Jews were controlling the blacks, who were going to oppress the whites, who rightly should be running the country.

As for the purported purpose of the rally, to defend “southern tradition” and protect the Robert E. Lee statue from removal, Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL summed it up this way:

“This is an agenda about celebrating the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and celebrating those that then fought to preserve that terrible machine of white supremacy and human enslavement. And yet, somehow, they’re all wearing shirts that talk about Adolph Hitler.”

And so you had young white men carrying tiki torches, in a re-enactment of the Hitler Youth marches of the 1930s. Chants that segued from “You will not replace us!” to “Jews will not replace us!” On-line threats on Nazi chat rooms to bomb Congregation Beth Israel, where the Temple president described men in fatigues carrying semi-automatic weapons across the street during Shabbat morning worship. Klan leader David Duke telling the crowd: “The extreme right considers many people their threat. But it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”

And quotes like this one, recorded for posterity by Vice News’s documentary: “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers.” Said Vice producer Elle Reeve, “Once they started marching, they didn’t talk about Robert E. Lee being a brilliant military tactician. They chanted about Jews. Like, they wanted to be menacing.”

And that makes sense – because the forces of hatred are a menace, to our society and to our nation. As much as we would like to believe that our nation’s institutions of democracy and liberty are too powerful to be subverted, our experience as Jews tells us otherwise. Demagogues powerful enough to bring the hate mongers together the way they did in Charlottesville are a threat. This is what Jeane Kirkpatrick warned in that essay from the mid 80s:

“To destroy a society it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions so as to detach the identifications and affections of its citizens from the institutions and authorities of the society marked for destruction. This delegitimization may be achieved by attacking a society’s practices in terms of its own deeply held values, or it may be achieved by attacking the values themselves.

“The latter course was undertaken by the fascists and Nazi movements which rejected outright the basic values of Western liberal democratic civilization. They rejected democracy, liberty, equality, and forthrightly, frankly, embraced principles of leadership, obedience and hierarchy as alternatives to the basic values of democracy.”

Today we see the beginnings of this: The delegitimization of a free and fair press, by those who do not like to be questioned or unmasked. The demonizing of political opponents as the devil incarnate. Calls to violence against blacks. Denigration of women. Charges of rigged elections. Silencing of valid options and opinions. All of this plays directly into the hands of those who would seek to undermine our democracy.

Their cause is un-American and needs to be denounced, not abetted, at the highest levels. It is also anti-Jewish.

Tomorrow morning, we will read from the Book of Deuteronomy, as Moses delivers this charge, and this warning, to the people:

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.

We have a choice in how we behave in this world. Life or death, blessing or curse. We protect our land or we lose it. And we protect it by choosing life. Life and blessing, Moses tells us, requires that we follow God’s laws and commandments. And what do those laws and commandments teach us? The haftarah of the prophet Isaiah reminds us:

ו הֲלוֹא זֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים וְכָל־מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ: ז הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת כִּי־תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם:

“Is this not the fast that I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

On this Yom Kippur, we are reminded that our fasting and atonement count for nothing if we leave this sanctuary tomorrow night with hands unopened and hearts still chained. We will not be cleansed in God’s eyes if we still hold fast to sinat chinam, senseless hatred, or tolerate it in others. We know what bigotry can do, to a people and to a country. We have witnessed, first hand, what happens when ordinary people fail to stand up and say, clearly and powerfully: No! There is no other hand!

God has placed this responsibility within each of our grasp. Torah teaches us that this task is not impossible. But it is achievable only if we choose to do it. As Rabbi Bradley Artson has written:

“”Freedom and dignity are indivisible. Either they include all of us, or we are all in danger. Those who would judge or are judged by the color of their skin, by their gender, by their faith or their lack of faith, by their looks, by their orientation, by their abilities or by some people’s perception of disability, need to remember that we are already the way God would have us be, with one exception: God cannot force us to love ourselves or each other. We have to do that ourselves.”

Let us choose goodness, life, and blessing, as God calls on us to do – that we, and others – those of every race, religion, gender, and nation of origin – may live long in this magnificent country that has been granted to us as our possession, and our responsibility. There is no other way. There is no other hand.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin


Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2017: “Our Nation’s Attic”

Fri, 2017-09-22 09:27

My mother’s email was short and to the point. “I’ve sold the house and will be moving into an apartment,” she wrote to all her kids. “If there’s anything you want, you’d better come this week and get it.”

The email sent me into a bit of a panic. How in the world was I supposed to drop everything and sort through decades worth of possessions? My late father had been the pack rat in the family, and although mom had culled a lot of his belongings over the years and given us things she knew would be meaningful – there were an awful lot of drawers, closets, and storage areas to be investigated in the big townhouse with three full stories and an oversized garage.

In the end, we all ended up with a few things that we wanted before mom made herself comfortable in a nice apartment building with good neighbors and lots of amenities. And, truth be told, she made it easier for us than for others our age – because she didn’t insist on foisting things on us that we really didn’t want or need, but might end up taking out of a sense of family obligation.

It’s a near-epidemic these days. When we’ve talked before about dealing with a family’s ‘stuff,’ we usually talk about the psychological baggage in a person’s life that often traces back to childhood. But lately, as the eldest of the baby boomers age and downsize, family ‘stuff’ has taken on a physical manifestation that pits one generation’s trash against another one’s treasure.

A recent New York Times story carried the headline “Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It.” The author, Tom Verde, reminds us that our parents and grandparents were being good Americans, not just good providers. They were encouraged to accumulate lots of material goods in the economic boom after World War Two. No new home was complete without wedding china and sterling-silver flatware and cut crystal glassware. When the children came, so did big dining room sets and cushy den furniture and ritual objects and reels and reels of eight-millimeter home movies that never made it onto video tape, much less DVD.

But there’s more – much more – in the attics and basements and guest-room closets of many American homes, where parents have accumulated stacks and bags and boxes of stuffed animals, baby shoes, and seemingly every English essay, every report card, and every art project that every child ever made or received. The objects hold precious memories that many parents just can’t let go of – and they think those objects – as well as the memories they hold – should be as meaningful to their children and grandchildren as they are to them.

The trouble is, they’re not.

As Tom Verde writes “For a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.”

The Times then ran a follow up story of reader responses to the value – or the cost – of keepsakes, and the difficult conversations they’re having within the family about just what is valuable and what is not.

A lot of readers were downright disappointed that their kids and grandkids didn’t want their precious things, for which they often saved and sacrificed for years. One older person wrote: “My generation used to scrimp and resourcefully use everything. My 20-something children prefer to have kits from Ikea rather than castoffs I put aside.”

A younger person – part of a generation that lives smaller for longer than their parents did – summarized the quandary in this question: “Now we’re supposed to buy houses we can’t afford just to store your stuff?”

I happen to know of at least one congregational family here today that is downsizing right now and struggling with a huge houseful of stuff accumulated over 40 years, that the kids see mostly as a burden they don’t want. And another selling her house that the kids grew up in, who fears losing the memories, and the people, that those possessions represent. And yet another asking themselves: Do we stay in grandma’s house because it was grandma’s house, or do we find something new that suits the way we want to live?

There are no simple answers to these issues. Every family has to make its own choices, trying to respect both parental wishes and limits to what the children can take. It’s a mighty generational struggle – one that is reflected in the Torah portion we read this morning.

Just as our family’s attics are full to bursting with stuff and memories, so is the Jewish nation’s virtual attic.

The story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, is one of those possessions that makes us conflicted and uncomfortable about our heritage. Is it a story of child sacrifice that presumes our Israelite God would ask such a thing of a most faithful servant? Is it a story about a child’s self-sacrifice, an Isaac willing to accept and bear his father’s burden? Is it about a dysfunctional family where the mother is the last to know the fate of her beloved son? And why, if it’s so important, is the Akedah not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah?

This is not just a 21st century dilemma. The rabbis have struggled with these same questions for two thousand years. For them, it is absolutely crucial that Abraham’s reputation come out of this unscathed, and that the Torah, as the word of God, retain its literary perfection. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave enough to ask a lot of important – and sometimes impertinent – questions.

They have come up with a lot of possible answers – some more fanciful, and some more incredulous than others, many of which we studied in our adult-learning sessions this past year.

Maybe, they write in the Midrash, Abraham simply misunderstood God’s intention. After all, the angel stays his hand just as he raises up the slaughtering knife. In this scenario, God says to him – I just told you to bring him as if you were to offer him. Now that you brought him up, you can take him home.

Or maybe this test of Abraham was instigated by Ha-Satan, Satan, the trouble-making angel they would later see in the Book of Job. Maybe Satan taunted God into trying Abraham’s honor and faithfulness, and then proceeded to put every obstacle in his way, including turning himself into a raging river that stood between Abraham and Isaac, and Mount Moriah.

Or maybe this story is meant to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. Abraham and Isaac must have walked through the Valley of Gehinom, where pagan peoples around them sacrificed their own children, on the way to Mount Moriah. Abraham – and all of us – would understand the difference between our God and all of theirs, when God would not let Abraham go through with the offering.

For we 21st century Reform Jews, it’s not as important to us to see Abraham as a wholly righteous character, or that every bit of Torah is consistent with every other bit. Many of us see the Torah as divinely inspired but not the literal word of God. And yet, in some ways, our task is more challenging. Because, unlike the material possessions of our parents and grandparents, the literary inheritance of our people is not something we can give away, or discard completely, or just say “thank you, but no.” It is, quite literally, a keepsake.

This is the burden of what’s lurking in our people’s attic: child sacrifice, blind faith, capricious gods. The redactors of the Torah may have smoothed over a lot of its inconsistencies, but they retained the vestiges of an old religion that had all of this and more. And I think they did it on purpose, so that we would be forced to confront and understand our history in each and every generation.

And then the sages connected it to Rosh Hashanah so that we would be forced to confront and understand it at the beginning of each and every year.

In fact, I think that struggling with the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice is an essential rite of passage to the New Year, to the feeling of renewal we all seek. Because, like the entirety of our Torah-reading cycle, it not only forces us to confront what’s in the attic, but it also allows us to see our nation’s possessions in a new light. When Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught us about the Torah “turn it over and over again, for everything is in it,” he meant that year by year, as we get older, as we experience more of life, we gain new perspectives about our spiritual inheritance. Rather than rushing to “preach against the text,” so to speak, we begin to see the value that it has, even in its difficulties.

Not every big, hulking dining room set can be made useful again with new seat covers and a coat of paint. But the Akedah, like so many old things we have re-discovered in our peoples’ attic – mikvah, Hebrew, ritual objects like tallit and kippot – can be made into something new, fresh, and meaningful. Women are going to the mikvah to mark important events in their lives, from marriage to menopause. Hebrew is a living language that identifies us around the world. Wearing a tallit can feel like a big hug from God. But it’s up to each of us to find meaning for ourselves, this year, at our age, at this stage of our lives.

I can’t tell you what the Akedah could or should mean to you. I can only tell you what I see in it today, this year, at this stage in my life.

For me, right now, what draws me to this story is a huge question at the very end (Gen. 22:19):

יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל־בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע:

“Abraham then returned to his servant lads; they got up and traveled together to Beersheba, and Abraham settled in Beersheba.”

Abraham returned. But where was Isaac? What exactly happened between father and son that separated them, maybe forever? Because, as far as the Torah tells us, the two of them never saw each other again.

We could look at this as a terrible tragedy, a family torn apart by anger, guilt, and fear. But this time around, this year, this Rosh Hashanah, I prefer to see it as something quite different. Not as a trauma, but as a triumph. One small note in the Reform movement’s Plaut Torah commentary suggests:

“Is it possible . . . that Isaac now became a man who for the first time could let his father go and who would return later, at his own choosing and time? Isaac’s nature is not radically changed in the Akedah, nor can his early childhood be denied its formative influence, but in the binding Isaac becomes an individual in his own right. If Abraham was tested and purified in agony, Isaac was liberated by it.”

In this perspective, Isaac chooses what to accept and what to refuse of his father’s possessions. He will literally follow in his father’s footsteps, retracing Abraham’s steps and digging wells and settling down where Abraham lived.

But his concept of God, of the human-divine relationship, is different. He seems more sure of both sides of the covenant, and more comfortable in it. And because he – unlike his father – does not feel he has to choose between his faith and his family, he seems to enjoy a more peaceful life, freed from the angst and battles that he saw his father endure, culminating in that fateful trip to Mount Moriah where he found himself bound on the altar, his father knife above his throat.

After Abraham sacrifices the ram in place of his son, the text tells us:

יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְהוָֹה ׀ יִרְאֶה

“Abraham named that place Adonai yireh, God sees, or God will see.”

But the Torah doesn’t tell us just what God sees. Here’s my suggestion for this year: Adonai sees that Isaac is now a man, and will see him thrive and perpetuate the covenant of his father, but on his own terms.

Isaac was able to climb up into his family’s attic and sort carefully and thoughtfully through the inheritance that Abraham had prepared for him. What would he take on? What could he re-use? What needed to be recycled? He understood that one generation’s treasures can turn into the next generation’s burden – and if you feel it as a burden, you will never cherish it the way you might if you were able to choose it freely.

Each of us is here today, welcoming the New Year together, because we have chosen freely to be here. We are not here out of obligation, to carry a burden that has been foisted upon his against our will.

That is what it means to be a Reform Jew in 21st century America. Not to reject what’s in our peoples’ attic, and not to stuff it into our own homes beyond what we can bear. But to sort carefully, study thoughtfully, and create a Judaism for ourselves that we can live with dignity, share with joy, and save for future generations, who will make their own choices.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin




Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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