Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
One of the most important verses in all of Torah appears in this week’s Torah portion B’reishit: “And God said: Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness” (Vayomer Elohim, naaseh Adam b’tzalmeinu kidmuteinu…” (Genesis 1:26).
Notice that God seems to be speaking to others, but who?
The Midrash imagines this conversation between God and the only other beings with whom the Divine could possibly be talking - the heavenly host, or angels:
“Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be God, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, ‘Let the human be created,’ while others urged, Let the human not be created.’ Thus it is written, ‘Love (Chesed) and Truth (Emet) fought each other, ‘Righteousness’ (Tzedek) and ‘Peace’ (Shalom) combated each other’ (Ps. 85:11). Love said, ‘Let [Adam] be created, because he will dispense acts of love (g’milut chassadim)’; Truth said, ‘Let [Adam] not be created, because he is filled through and through with lies’ (sh'karim); ‘Righteousness’ said, ' Let [Adam] be created, because he will perform righteous deeds’ (tz’dakot); ‘Peace’ said, ‘Let [Adam] not be created, because he is full of strife (k’tatah)"’ … Rabbi Huna the Elder of Sepphoris, said: While the ministering angels were arguing … the Holy One, blessed be God, created [Adam]. Said God: ‘What can you do? The human has already been made!’” (B’reishit Rabbah 8:5)
To review - the angels of “Truth” and “Peace” were against the creation of the human being because they knew that we mortals would lie and fight each other in battles large and small.
The angels of “Love” and “Righteousness” favored our creation because they knew that we would perform deeds of loving-kindness (g’milut chassadim) and acts of righteousness (tzedek).
In the end, God sided with “Love” and “Righteousness” and Adam Harishon (i.e. the First Human) was created.
“Truth” and “Peace” were right, however, because we are prone to lying and fighting, to intolerance of the “other,” hard-heartedness, self-centeredness and small-mindedness. And “Love” and “Righteousness” were also right because we can be compassionate, empathic, generous, humble, and kind.
The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov summoned Sammael, the Lord of demons, because of some important matter that he wished to command Sammael to do, but Sammael resisted. So the BESHT told his disciples to bare their foreheads to Sammael, and on every forehead, the Lord of demons saw inscribed the sign of the image in which God creates the human being – B’tzelem Elohim.
Sammael was disarmed, and then agreed to do the BESHT’s bidding, but asked humbly and beseechingly before departing, “Oh children of the living God, permit me to stay here just a little longer and gaze upon your foreheads.” (Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber, Book 1, p. 77).
I encounter people every day, some with open and kind hearts, and some self-centered and mean-spirited. This story and the verse upon which it is based (Genesis 1:26) remind us who we are and before Whom we stand. When those before me are kind, generous, inclusive, and loving, I see the words B’tzelem Elohim flowing from their every pore. When they are not, still I search for the sign of God on their foreheads, strive to treat them as if those sacred words are apparent, and I imagine what kind of world we would have if we looked for that sign in everyone we meet.
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October 11, 2012 | 7:12 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Mitt Romney's constant rewriting of his history and the story about Lance Armstrong’s massive cheating scandal (see New York Times, “Details of Doping Scheme Paint Armstrong as Leader”) both demonstrate the truth of Mark Twain’s quip: “Of all the animals, man is the only one that lies.”
Of Armstrong, the Times says “…the evidence put forth by the antidoping agency drew a picture of Armstrong as an infamous cheat, a defiant liar and a bully who pushed others to cheat with him so he could succeed...”
Given Romney’s history (recall his bullying of his college classmate and his behavior as the head of Bain Capital in firing thousands of people from their jobs after deceiving them that he had come to save their companies), the statement about Armstrong could just as easily be made about Romney.
Despite some good that both men have done (Armstrong’s cancer research advocacy and Romney’s Massachusetts health care legislation) they both lack character.
A few apt thoughts to ponder:
“If you want to see what a person is made of, see how he behaves in a position of authority.” (Yugoslavian folk saying) “The measure of a person’s character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” (Thomas Macauley)
“Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wing, and only character endures.” (Horace Greeley)
For us who yearn for heroes to emulate good leadership and good character, a warning:
“Show me the person you honor, and I will know what kind of person you are.” (Thomas Carlyle)
October 7, 2012 | 6:54 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
It isn’t often that the Torah portion of the week and my getting a haircut coincide, but it did last week.
For years Susie Polin has cut my hair. She has a huge heart, is a artist who cuts hair for a living and a Sephardic Jew whose family origins are from Greece.
Last week’s Shabbat Torah portion included Exodus 34:6-7 (for Chol Hamoed Sukkot):
“Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet: notzeir chesed la-alaphim nose avon vafesha, v’chataah v’nakeh...”
“Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…”
Susie has lived in the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles for many years. Once a Jewish neighborhood, by the time she moved there it was African-American and she was “the only white Jewish girl” in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, she became close to her neighbors, especially the people next door. Five months ago the elderly woman who lived there died leaving her husband Johnny alone. Johnny had worked for many years for the LA Unified School District and had come into contact with asbestos, which sealed his fate.
After his wife died, Susie asked if she could do anything for him as he too was infirm. “Thanks Susie – I’m alright!”
“Do you have enough food in the house,” she asked.
“I’m good every day except Tuesday.”
“You can count on me, Johnny, to bring you dinner each Tuesday,” she generously offered.
So every Tuesday for the past four months Susie brought Johnny dinner that she bought at the local Gelsons take-out stand. When she explained to the Gelsons' workers that she’d be back every week to buy dinner for Johnny, they gave her double the food at the same price, food that lasted Johnny for days.
One day, Johnny asked, “Susie – is ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ the same?”
“Yes!” she said.
Susie explained that to be Jewish means to follow the Bible's commandments and to do deeds of loving-kindness for others. It’s all about love,” she explained, “because God wants us to love each other.”
“I love you, Susie.”
“I love you too, Johnny!”
Johnny died two weeks ago. When the day of his funeral arrived, Susie drove to the black church in South LA and was the first to arrive. She entered the church and sat down. As his family, many friends and care-takers arrived, those who knew her greeted her like a she was a member of their family. Soon everyone heard what Susie had done for Johnny, and that she was a Jew.
When she told me about her experience I was reminded of the famous story in the Midrash (D’varim Rabba 3:3):
“Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach one day commissioned his disciples to buy him a camel from an Arab. When they brought him the animal, they gleefully announced that they had found a precious stone in its collar. ‘Did the seller know of this gem?’ asked the Master. On being answered in the negative, he called out angrily, ‘Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Arab immediately.’ When the Arab received it back, he exclaimed: ‘Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel.”
I told this story about Susie and Johnny on Friday night to my congregation. There were many children present including our 6th grade Day School students and their Israeli exchange student friends from the Tzahalah Elementary School in north Tel Aviv.
I explained to them that we are all more than just individuals. We are part of a family, a people and a religious tradition, and what we say and do outside our homes and immediate communities not only reflect back on us, but also on our families and the Jewish people.
The way we treat others, whoever they are, Jews, Christians, Muslims, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Palestinians, immigrants, the poor, the powerless, strangers, the people with whom we work, the people who work for us, tells more about who we are and what we value than anything we say we believe.
Susie Polin is a special woman who gives of her heart and soul continually to others. Through her loving deeds the good name of the Jewish people and the God of Israel were enhanced in Johnny’s community, for Susie may have been the only Jew that Johnny and many in his community ever knew up close.
Torah can come to us at any time and in any place, even the barber’s chair.
October 4, 2012 | 7:32 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In the past year President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have conferred continuously about when Iran’s nuclear bomb program should be “disrupted” by military action should economic and political sanctions not succeed in halting Iran’s march to build a bomb.
They agree that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. They disagree when action should be taken.
PM Netanyahu has urged that the “red line” for attack against Iran's nuclear facilities be when Iran has the capacity to make a nuclear bomb. The United States' “red line” will be crossed when Iran actually decides to make a bomb.
J Street (a pro-Israel pro-peace political and educational organization in Washington, D.C.) has made a video in which Director of Government Affairs Dylan Williams explains what it takes to make a bomb and the details of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “red line.”
I urge you to take 3 minutes to watch it.
October 1, 2012 | 5:15 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
As we enter the last weeks of the presidential election campaign I confess to being confounded by the intensity of hatred felt and expressed by many Republicans towards President Obama.
Yes, there are policy differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Yes, people blame (wrongly!) this President for the nation’s economic woes.
Yes, millions actually believe the “Birther” claims that Obama is “foreign,” Muslim and “other.”
And yes, there is racism.
Here is yet another possibility originally noted by H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) more than fifty years ago: “Jealousy of the superior man is a constant corrosive element in society.”
What else except jealousy joined with ignorance, stupidity, fear, anger, bigotry, selfishness, myopic thinking, and God knows what else could account for the depth of animus directed at this President?
Obama, truth to tell, is far more centrist than left. He is not an ideologue. Rather, he is pragmatic and conciliatory as an analysis clearly shows in Sunday’s New York Times of the ways in which The Affordable Care Act (i.e. “Obamacare”) is based on conservative values (see “The Conservative Case for Obamacare” by J.D. Kelinke, September 30, 2012, “Sunday Review,” p.4).
After reading the article, no reasonable person can come to any conclusion except that Republican haters of Obama and Obamacare (fed by Republican Senate and Congressional leadership) have gone off the deep end, cannot analyze policy options without a serious overlay of emotional/political bias, could actually care less about policy and are consumed with the need for self-aggrandizement and moral self-justification. Many of these same folks hated Bill Clinton with equal intensity when he was President and, I assume, will spare nothing against Hilary should she toss her hat in the ring for the 2016 presidential race.
What do Obama and Clinton have in common (other than being male and Democratic Presidents) that inspires such hatred?
Mencken put it deftly; “Jealousy of the superior man.”
Though not without their flaws few politicians are as smart, clear-thinking, knowledgeable, thick-skinned, eloquent, skilled, and talented as are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Their charisma and excellence must drive the Republicans to distraction as they have no one of equal talent in this race or on the horizon!
I pray that the haters don’t succeed in corroding the inner moral character of this country further and are turned back handsomely on November 6 in the presidential race and Congress.
September 29, 2012 | 7:49 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
You can read each of my High Holiday sermons on the Temple Israel of Hollywood Website – www.tioh.org (Go to “About Us” and click “Clergy” then “From the Clergy Study”). Or click http://www.tioh.org/about-us/clergy/aboutus-clergy-clergystudy
“For a Good and Happy New Year” (Erev Rosh Hashanah) –- I contrast the primary life goals of happiness and goodness and discuss why I believe that happiness is a by-product of the pursuit of goodness. It’s my view that our attitude about our life circumstances and the choices we make are the prerequisites to attaining both a good and happy life.
“Intermarriage and the Survival of Judaism and the Jewish People” (Shacharit Rosh Hashanah) - After more than three decades serving congregations in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles I announced, to the shock and surprise of my congregation, my decision to officiate at some intermarriage ceremonies going forward. I described my struggle that led me to this change, and include at the end a post-delivery reflection on the response this sermon inspired. The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles wrote about my decision in the September 28-October 4, 2012 print edition “Rabbi Reverses Interfaith Marriage Policy” (by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, pages 27, 42) http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/rabbi_reverses_interfaith_marriage_policy
“The Blessing of Being Wrong” (Kol Nidre) – We are wrong far more often than most people admit thus preventing us from make necessary changes and doing t’shuvah (repentance). I discuss why I believe acknowledging wrongness is a sign of inner strength, courage and good character.
“I wish You Enough” (Yizkor) – This is a touching and insightful story about a father saying goodbye to his daughter for the last time, as first told by the motivational speaker Bob Perk.
September 27, 2012 | 7:51 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
So much of Torah is metaphor. Indeed, if we read this classic Jewish text only according to its plane meaning we miss the greater truths and the richer opportunities for understanding and transcendence.
The poetry of Ha-a-zinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) is as fine an example of metaphor as there is in Torah. It begins this way:
Ha-a-zinu ha-sha-ma-yim v’a-da-bei-rah / v’tish’ma ha-a-retz im’rei fi: / Ya-a-rof k’ma-tar lik’chi / ti-zal katal im’ra-ti / kis’i-rim alei deshe / v’kir’vi-vim alei esev. (vs 1-2)
“Give ear, O heavens, that I may speak, / hear, O earth, the utterance of my mouth. / Let my teaching drip like rain, / let my words flow like dew, / like droplets on new-growth, / like showers on grass. (Translation by Everett Fox, “The Five Books of Moses,” pps. 1001-1002)
Most sages interpret this verse as “hyperbole for the study of Torah,” that the more Torah we learn the deeper will be our understanding.
“The earth requires heavy rainfall to promote plant growth. Once such plant life exists, relatively small amounts of rain or moisture ensure the ongoing process of vegetation. Matar (“drip like rain”) is the initial precipitation, a downpour. R’vivim (“like showers on grass”) are the minimal amount of moisture required to maintain grass in prime condition. Deshe (“new-growth”) is the initial growth. Esev (“grass”) is the growth when it has matured already.” (Rabbi Moshe ben Chayim Alshich, 1508-1600)
Possibly, the lesson of these verses is that Torah learning is progressive. When we begin to study Torah it appears as if a tremendous input (matar - “drip”) produces relatively little output, (deshe - “new-growth”), that is, we acquire only a coarse primitive knowledge of Torah. But, in the course of time and with the advantage of the infusion of a steady gentle input (r’rivim - “showers”) of learning there will be produced a refined mature output (esev - “grass”) of deeper Torah knowledge.
“The more Torah [we] learn the less burdensome and more rewarding such study appears to the student.” (“Midrash of Rabbi Moshe Alshich,” transl. Eliyahu Munk, vol. 3, page 1132)
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827) reflects on the benefits of Torah learning this way:
“The hallowed words of the Torah may be likened to rain. While the rain falls we still cannot see the benefit it brings to the trees, the plants and the soil. It is only later, when the sun shines again, that we can see what the rain has wrought. We find the same to be true with regard to the words of the Law. While they are uttered we still cannot see what they will accomplish on earth, but in the end all will know what they have wrought.” (“Wellsprings of Torah,” Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, p. 432).
People (adults and children alike) often ask what I love so much that I am consistently engaged with learning Torah over many years. I explain that I love the cumulative effect of gaining in Torah knowledge because this kind of learning opens my heart and soul ever-wider thus revealing intuitively to me the wonders of the heavens and the earth on a level that I experience in no other way.
The Hebrew for the revelation of God at Mount Sinai is Matan Torah, the “giving of Torah.” The uniqueness of this “giving” is that it is ongoing. Truths buried within each of our souls are necessarily hidden because of our physical creaturely identity. Only by continuous Torah learning do the deeper truths about who we really are in relationship to God become evident.
One of those truths was inspiringly articulated by the theologian Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955): “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
In other words, our souls are much greater, much older, and much richer than we realize. It is through this kind of learning that I have discovered this truth.
Shabbat shalom and L’shanah tovah u-m’tukah!
September 25, 2012 | 5:45 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, immediate past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, is one of the most articulate advocates for Israel in America today. He writes regularly for Huffington Post, Haaretz, and the Jerusalem Post, and his most recent piece on Prime Minister Netanyahu and American-Israeli relations has received wide exposure. It is, in my view, a “must-read” not only for American Jews but for Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. I hope he reads it and takes Eric’s counsel seriously.
Tzom kal ug'mar chatimah tovah. An easy fast and may you be inscribed for goodness.