Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Rosh Hashanah is but days away, and this week we read the double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, that’s always read on the Shabbat before the New Year. Due to its timing, there’s an urgency about its message it on the one hand, and a tone of encouragement on the other:
“Surely this Instruction (i.e. mitzvah) that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it too us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:1)
The rabbis debated what specifically this “instruction” or “mitzvah” is.
Most commentators say that the mitzvah is t’shuvah, repentance, which explains why the Torah portion Nitzavim might come just before Rosh Hashanah.
Each of us begins this High Holiday season in a state of chet (sin), which the great Rav Kook taught is a state of alienation and separation from our true tasks and true identity. Only through t’shuvah (repentance/return) is a corrective possible, and only through t’shuvah can we come back whole-heartedly to ourselves, families, friends and colleagues, community, Torah and God.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that sin isn’t just limited to our lack of observance of some ritual and ethical law. It includes our obligation to 'get right' with our own souls, to focus more on the life of our higher intuitive purposes.
Soloveitchik teaches that “Returning to the heart” is the first necessary step in that spiritual process.
Most of us wait to do t’shuvah until this season, if we do it at all. Intrinsic to the process, however, isn’t just recognizing that we’ve done some specific wrong, but that chet means that we’re out of relationship with the Torah itself.
This Yemenite Midrash explains:
“They say to a person: ‘Go to a certain town and learn Torah there.’ But the person answers: ‘I’m afraid of the lions that I’ll encounter on the way.’ So they say: ‘You can go and learn in another town that’s closer.’ But the person replies: ‘I’m afraid of the thieves.’ So they suggest: ‘There’s a sage in your own city. Go and learn from him.’ But the person replies: ‘What if I find the door locked, and I have to return to where I am?’ So they say: ‘There’s a teacher sitting and teaching right here in the chair next to you.’ But the person replies: ‘You know what? What I really want to do is go back to sleep!’ This is what the Book of Proverbs (26:14, 16) refers to when it says, ‘The door is turning upon its hinges, and the sluggard (i.e. lazy one) is still upon his bed…the sluggard is wiser in his own eyes that seven that give wise counsel.’” (Yalkut Midreshei Teiman)
Do we recognize ourselves here, not just in relationship to Torah but to what is truest about ourselves? Do we see that perhaps we’ve been negligent or lacking in will in making necessary changes, that we may wish to do things differently but always find a way to rationalize why we don’t.
Change is always difficult, often threatening, sometimes destabilizing, and frequently disruptive. Changing the way we eat or neglect our health, how we control our passions and anger, refuse to leave relationships that are destructive or change from a job that’s killing us, or take charge of our addictions that enslave us, or control an expense account that’s bankrupting us – all change relative to these destructive parts of our lives require enormous acts of clear-thinking and will.
So often we just don’t want to do what we know we have to do, to acknowledge that what we’re doing is destructive both to us and to the people we love, and that it’s high time for us to get help and support from family, friends, professionals, and clergy.
It’s time, however, to make those changes. No one is stopping us except ourselves.
We know it won’t be easy, but if we can change one thing this year about ourselves, the effort will be worth it.
Chazak v’eimatz - strength and courage.
L’shanah tovah u’m’tukah.
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August 26, 2013 | 7:32 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I am a member of a closed list-serve called RAVKAV that includes all Reform Rabbis. There everything under the sun is discussed on a daily basis. The agreement is that all communications are confidential.
That being said, there has been some confusion of late about J Street and JStreetPAC that I and several other colleagues cleared up, and since we rabbis were confused I must assume that many in the Jewish community beyond rabbinic circles are likewise confused. Hence, the purpose of this blog-post.
The matter was raised concerning the Denver JCRC’s exclusion of J Street as a member organization in May of this year. One of my colleagues pointed to JStreetPAC’s endorsement of candidates for national political office (i.e. the House and Senate) as justification for the Denver JCRC excluding J Street from membership.
The Denver JCRC is a coalition of nearly 40 organizations, synagogues and at-large members in the Denver area and acts as a service provided to the community by the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado. The purpose of this JCRC is to convene the ‘common table’ around which member organizations can engage in civil discourse through open dialogue to address issues and design strategies on issues of concern to the Jewish community. Included in the list is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The nearly 40 member organizations can be found here http://www.jewishcolorado.org/page.aspx?id=241337.
If this is an inclusive organization, why did the Denver’s JCRC exclude J Street? I do not have an answer, but I do believe it is important to clear up confusions about what J Street is.
J Street’s mission is simple – “We believe in the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland in Israel, in the Jewish and democratic values on which Israel was founded, and in the necessity of a two-state solution.” See www.jstreet.org
J Street includes an Educational Fund and has a division within it called JStreetPAC. One colleague confused the two divisions of J Street, their functions and the legal distinctions, and on that basis stated that the Denver JCRC’s position vis a vis J Street is correct and appropriate.
The J Street Education Fund is a 501c3 entity and is legally independent of the JStreetPAC that does the political work.
For the record, J Street is a member of other JCRCs including in Boston, Westchester, Atlanta, and Baltimore that all recognize that J Street’s community based work is done by the J Street Educational Fund.
With regards to the Denver JCRC, an overwhelming majority of those voting yay and nay on J Street’s application voted in favor. The final vote was 18 in favor, 12 opposed, and 8 abstentions. J Street did not attain the needed votes because of arcane rules for JCRC membership that require a two-thirds majority (a super-majority!).
For the record, the litmus test is not whether a candidate is Republican, Democrat or Independent for an endorsement by JStreetPAC. The litmus test is whether said candidate supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and advocates an activist American involvement in mediating between the parties, as the United States is currently doing.
JStreetPAC has supported two Republicans in the past on this basis. The fact that all 71 candidates that JStreetPAC endorsed in the last election cycle, of whom 70 won their elections in the House and Senate, were Democrats is a reflection not of JStreetPAC’s partisan orientation at all (it is not partisan in the sense of supporting one American political party over another), but rather because the two-state issue was not embraced according to J Street’s principles openly by Republicans, nor did Republicans welcome JStreetPAC’s endorsement in the last cycle.
JStreetPAC would be delighted to work with any Republican or Independent that embraces openly the principle of the two-state solution.
One colleague justified excluding J Street from the JCRC based on the fact that the JCRC then would have to include the Republican Jewish Coalition. But would the RJC be open to Democratic candidates for office? Obviously not, as it is purely partisan whereas JStreetPAC endorses candidates based on a clear policy position not party affiliation. This is a distinction with a clear difference.
I suspect that as time progresses Republicans may be open to JStreetPAC endorsements given that even the Israeli ruling coalition (or that part of it that is not against a two-state solution) and a significant majority of members of the Knesset are in favor of an end-of-conflict two-state solution with a state of Israel sitting securely side by side with a state of Palestine.
August 23, 2013 | 7:22 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Israel and, in response to a question, acknowledged that the UN was not always treating Israel fairly. Then, a short while later, he reversed himself and said it was.
The Secretary-General is a good man, and he was right the first time. In fact, one might conclude after observing the United Nations' debates, reading its resolutions and walking its halls (especially since 1967) that a principal purpose of the world body is to censure Israel.
The campaign to demonize and delegitimize Israel in every UN and international forum was initiated by the Arab states together with the Soviet Union after the 1967 Six Day War, and supported by what became known as an "automatic majority" of Third World member states. UN bias against Israel is overt in bodies such as the General Assembly, which each year passes numerous resolutions against Israel and almost none against most other member states, including the world's most repressive regimes.
While Israel has been the target of disproportional UN attention, a mere handful of the UN’s other 191 countries have been cited only once. Since its creation in June 2006 the UN Human Rights Council has criticized Israel on more than 30 occasions in resolutions that grant effective immunity to Hamas and Hezbollah, and their state sponsors Iran and Syria.
In the first year of its existence, the Council failed to condemn human rights violations occurring in any of the world’s other 191 countries.
In its second year, the Council criticized one other country when it “deplored” the situation in Burma, but only after it censored out initial language containing the word “condemn.” It even praised Sudan for its "cooperation" while it was conducting a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur.
The UNHRC’s fixation with Israel is not limited to resolutions. Israel is the only country listed on the Council’s permanent agenda. Moreover, Israel is the only country subjected to an investigatory mandate that examines the actions of only one side, and presumes those actions to be violations and therefore not subject to standard review.
Emergency Special Sessions of the United Nations General Assembly are rare. Between 1983 and 1998 no such session was ever convened with respect to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the slaughters in Rwanda, the disappearances in Zaire or the horrors of Bosnia.
Israel is the only member nation of the UN that is prohibited from serving on the UN Security Council.
As anyone reading my blog knows, I am hopeful that the current Israeli-Palestinian talks bear fruit and result in an end-of-conflict two-state solution with the creation of a state of Palestine sitting side by side with the state of Israel. I pray that both sides do everything possible to make this happen and that the people of Israel and the people of Palestine vote in separate referendums by majorities to affirm the peace agreement. A two-state solution is the only way Israel will preserve its democracy and remain Jewish.
That being said, the interest of truth requires the world to characterize the consistent demonization of Israel in the United Nations as a “rogue” nation as an assault not only on truth, but on common decency and simple fairness. The hate of the “automatic majority” in their ongoing war on the state of Israel is a cancer in body politic of the world body, and should be treated as such.
This past week, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee wrote an open letter to the UN Secretary-General in articles in the Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post, which continues the list of discriminatory practices against Israel.
August 22, 2013 | 6:30 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
One of Judaism’s greatest poets, Yehuda HaLevi, said words that became in time the spiritual underpinning of political, cultural and religious Zionism:
Gu-fi b’ki-tzei ma-arav v’li-bi b’miz’rach!
“My body is in the west, but my heart is in the east!”
Halevi’s central life pre-occupation was fulfilling his longing for oneness with God and doing God’s will. The following poem is particularly beautiful for that spiritual message and touches a central theme during this month of Elul and in the upcoming Days of Awe.
B’chol li-bi k’ra-ti-cha
“I have sought Your nearness,
With all my heart have I called You,
And going out to meet You
I found You coming toward me.”
(From Selected Poems of Yehuda HaLevi, translated by Nina Salaman)
Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141 CE) was born in Spain and traveled to Egypt on his way to Eretz Yisrael ("The Land of Israel"). The Holy Land in those years, however, was a dangerous place for the lone traveler and Halevi’s friends urged him not to go. Rather, they begged him to remain in Egypt and live out his years there. Halevi’s dream, however, of living in Eretz Yisrael could not be denied, and so at last he made aliyah in 1140 at the age of 65. No one knows what were the circumstances surrounding his fate, but he died within that same year.
August 20, 2013 | 6:42 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I had a meeting last week with a young mother of a beautiful four month-old daughter to talk about the little girl’s Hebrew name and her naming ceremony. As we spoke, the Mom confided that whenever her baby cries she feels the overwhelming urge to go to her regardless of the hour and circumstances – “I just have to be there to hold her,” she said.
This little girl is still very small, a mere 14 pounds, and her mother’s instinct is not only natural but appropriate. I said, “Yes – your response is exactly right at this stage of your daughter’s life, and that instinct will likely be with you for decades to come. However, being a parent means that every day you will have to let go of her just a little bit for both your daughter’s sake and yours!”
Letting go of the people and things we treasure the most, be it our children, our youth and vitality, our professional life upon retirement, our spouse after separation and divorce or when illness and death come, our homes when we can no longer afford them nor manage to live in them, and in the end, our own health, is all part of the progression of our lives from birth to death.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote, “This then is the great truth of human existence. One must not hold life too precious. One must always be prepared to let it go.” (A Believing Jew, publ. 1951)
The High Holidays will be upon us shortly, and we will be reminded by rite, ritual, prayer, sacred text, and music of the quick passage of time and that we are merely sojourners in this life, not permanent residents. How we accept this truth and all that comes as a consequence is a central theme of the High Holidays season.
One of my favorite quotations is that of the theologian and philosopher Tailhard de Chardin, who said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Tailhard De Chardin offers us a true and critically important perspective about our lives that can enhance the meaning and precious character of everything we do, learn and experience even as we understand that releasing that which we are not entitled to hold indefinitely is not only natural but a necessary part of living.
August 18, 2013 | 7:08 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I am husband and father,
Brother, son, colleague, and friend.
I am a congregational rabbi,
And a Jew in the pews.
I am a cancer survivor,
And support those with cancer,
And heart disease,
And mental illness,
And people in bad marriages,
And with troubled kids,
And unsatisfying jobs,
And too little money,
And frustrated lives.
I am one human being,
And life moves through me,
And through you,
Except when it doesn’t.
Life is wondrous,
Most of the time,
But sometimes it hurts like hell!
There is a second me too,
And a second you –
The always-present Neshamah
That hovers and waits
To become one with Nefesh,
That keeps us alive.
The Neshamah connects us to Divinity,
And infuses us with Essence,
And inspires us
To think and know
That we come closest to God
When we know that we are no-thing
And part of the All.
When we are most receptive to Neshamah
Our lives work.
In Elul each morning I awake wondering –
What is my greatest challenge?
What troubles me about me?
What gives me heartache and grief?
What ruins enslave me?
Am I patient and kind enough,
Generous and respectful enough,
Understanding and wise enough,
Appreciative and grateful enough?
The Yamim Noraim are coming!
There is little time.
August 16, 2013 | 6:40 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Classic rabbinic tradition understands well the battle waged within every human being between the good inclination (yetzer tov) and the evil inclinations (yetzer hara), a theme upon which Jews particularly focus during the month of Elul leading to the High Holidays.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote eloquently of this dynamic as follows [note: Rabbi Heschel wrote his books before modern feminism influenced many writers to consider alternatives to gender exclusive language. Out of respect for Rabbi Heschel’s original work, I have left the language as he wrote it, though I suspect he would have written it differently so as to be more inclusive had he lived in a later period]:
Life is lived on a spiritual battlefield. Man must constantly struggles with “the evil drive,” “for man is like unto a rope, one end of which is pulled by God and the other end by Satan.” “Woe to me for my yotzer [Creator], woe to me for my yetzer [the evil drive],” says a Talmudic epigram. If a man yield to his lower impulses, he is accountable to his Creator; if he obeys his Creator, then he is plagued by sinful thoughts.
Should we, then, despair because of our being unable to retain perfect purity? We should, if perfection were our goal. However, we are not obliged to be perfect once and for all, but only to rise again and again beyond the level of the self. Perfection is divine, and to make it a goal of man is to call on man to be divine. All we can do is to try to write our hearts clean in contrition. Contrition begins with a feeling of shame at our being incapable of disentanglement from the self. To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection. (Between Man and God, p. 188)
August 15, 2013 | 8:01 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
David Harris is the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, and he recently wrote two pieces that appeared in The Jerusalem Post and The Huffington Post explaining why this is the time for the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace and find a two-state solution to their conflict.
David is what most would characterize as “middle-right” on the political spectrum when it comes to Israel. A staunch supporter of the Jewish state, he has always been deeply concerned for Israel’s security and a powerful American Jewish advocate for a close American-Israeli relationship.
In light of his long-standing public advocacy for Israel, the harsh criticism of him from both the political left and the political right in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds is of interest, and his response to these critics that appeared yesterday in both The Jerusalem Post and The Huffington Post is an important read (see links below).
I believe that David is correct in his arguments.
As I watched the Israeli government release long-time imprisoned terrorist murderers of innocent non-military Israeli citizens (men, women and children), I felt a certain horror for the families of the victims and real fear that these terrorists might return to repeat their crimes once released.
I have wondered, as well, that despite the fact that virtually all the newly announced building of settlements was not a surprise and that these building projects are in large settlement blocks that Israel fully expects to keep in any future peace deal, why the Netanyahu government did not promise to stop all that settlement building as long as negotiations were taking place instead of releasing murderers.
Having wondered this aloud I do not want to second guess PM Netanyahu, especially since the release of these murderers had to have been excruciatingly painful for him and for the majority of his cabinet who voted with him. I believe we have to give them the benefit of the doubt on the prisoner release.
Netanyahu must have felt that he had no political or diplomatic choice. No one knows the pressures he feels. No one knows what he is actually thinking, nor what is his strategy. I hope it is straight up and that an end-of-conflict peace agreement with all issues resolved is his true goal.
Time will tell and I wish PM Netanyahu, President Abbas and the negotiating teams of both Israel and the Palestinians God-speed.
Read David Harris here: Jerusalem Post - http://blogs.jpost.com/content/give-peace-process-chance-part-two?msource=DAH081513 ; Huffington Post - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-harris/give-the-peace-process-a-_1_b_3757913.html?msource=DAH081513