Happy Thanksgiving!

My remarks at the New Providence – Berkeley Heights Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Monday evening at Faith Lutheran Church.

As I was preparing for this moment in this place, I have to admit that I was feeling a little….. ambidextrous.  What exactly do I mean by that? I mean that I feel like speaking with both of my hands.

On the one hand, it is very strange to be standing here in the pulpit of Faith Lutheran Church without Pastor Mac here.  But, on the other hand, it is the most logical, natural thing in the world for us to come together this evening in song, in prayer, in laughter and in community, as we all prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday.  After all, this Interfaith Thanksgiving service is yet one more piece of the legacy that Pastor Mac left behind for all of us – regardless of our faith tradition.

Along those lines…. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that this is our 11th annual Thanksgiving Service.  On the other hand, it seems so natural.  Haven’t we always come together for Thanksgiving?  I’m not sure what took us all so long to figure out that we could celebrate Thanksgiving together.  The truth is that being thankful is central to every religious system I’ve come across.

We are grateful to some higher power or powers.  We are grateful to our fellow human beings. We are grateful for all that the bounty and beauty of the earth.  The language of our prayers and the images that we create either through words or art might be different, but the basic concept is the same.  And for those of us who find ourselves in this country – either because we ourselves made the journey or some ancestor had the foresight to do so – we certainly have a lot for which to be thankful.  This country – despite any of the imperfections that we could all identify – is a source of tremendous blessing to those of us who live here.

In one of the two primary sources about what we call the first Thanksgiving in 1621, Edward Winslow wrote: “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”  That is still true today.  Perhaps, things could be a little better, but we should always be thankful for what we have.

Over two centuries later, in designating (at that time) the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Who among us doesn’t need a reminder every once in a while to be grateful for things that we take for granted?  Which parent, grandparent, aunt, uncles or teacher has not had to say to a child “what did you forget to say?” in order to elicit a “Thank you.”  So, we join together to tonight – on the one hand – because all of our faith traditions implore us to be grateful and – on the other hand – because it’s human nature to forget to offer thanks.

Any of you who have seen Fiddler on the Roof probably know that when we Jews start talking with our hands, we pretty quickly run out of hands.

So, on the one hand, it’s so easy and wonderful to come together tonight for thanksgiving – As the Psalmist wrote so many years ago, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters sit together.”  On the other hand, it’s much harder next month, when our practices diverge and contrasts come into focus instead of our similarities.

Those of you who are NOT Jewish – and I am assuming that some of you here tonight are not, in fact, Jewish – may not know this, but over the years, there has been a conversation – a debate, really – about what to say when someone you don’t know – like a cashier or a waitress – says “Merry Christmas” to you.

Now, I’m going to have to use my fingers.  There’s one school of thought that says it’s okay to let them know that you don’t celebrate Christmas and, therefore, they shouldn’t assume that everyone does.  When I was young, I was inclined to be in that first school.  After all, it’s hard to be on the outside looking in – as Evan Hansen would say, waving through the window and tap, tap tapping on the glass.  No one likes the feeling of knowing that there’s something great and exciting going on, but it’s not for you.

There’s a second school of thought that says you should respond with something more neutral like “Happy Holidays” in order to show them that there is an alternative to Merry Christmas.  As I got older, I moved firmly into that second school.  I had grown to love my tradition.  I didn’t feel that I was missing anything, but I wanted others to think about the possibility that we’re not all the same.  And what gives the world meaning and structure for one person may NOT be what gives the world meaning and structure to another.

Then there’s a third school of thought that says the appropriate response to someone wishing you a Merry Christmas is: “Thanks.  You too!”  In order for me to fully understand this last possibility, I actually had to leave this country.  I had to go to Israel, where I spent a year as student living in Jerusalem.

On my first Friday, living in Jerusalem, I went to the bank to get some money and then I went to a series of stores and shops in order to buy the things I would need to celebrate the Sabbath.  Candles, wine, bread, meat, vegetables, flowers for the table.  And an amazing thing happened.  Every teller, cashier and vendor wished me a “Shabbat Shalom” —  the traditional Sabbath greeting exchanged by Jews.

No one asked me if I was Jewish.  No one asked me if I would be using any of the items I bought to observe the Sabbath.  They just assumed I was Jewish and wished me a Shabbat Shalom.  And you know what?  It felt pretty good.  I didn’t feel compelled to tell them that not everyone in Jerusalem is Jewish.  I didn’t simply reply, “Good day” or some other neutral greeting.  I said, “Shabbat Shalom” right back.

So, on the one hand, I know the feeling of exclusion when someone I don’t know assumes that everyone in the room or community is a part of the same group and I am not.  On the other hand, I also know that feeling of inclusion when someone I don’t know assumes that everyone in the room or community is a part of the same group and I really am a part of that group.

They are two very different experiences.  But, if we’ve only had one of them, it behooves us to try to understand what it’s like on the other side of the glass.

I have talked a great deal about hands this evening.  So, I’d like to ask everyone to take the hands of the people next to you.  Let’s remember how this feels.  Let’s enjoy the somewhat easier task of using our hands to reach out to one another during this Thanksgiving season when we all seem to agree.

However, as we flip the calendar from November to December, let us try to remember the feel of one another’s hands as we clasp them together tonight.  And then, let’s all reach out again, with both hands, with understanding and with inclusion.  Then, we’ll all be talking with our hands ambidextrously.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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Toss Your Hat

In his very last public speech, JFK chose to refer to a book entitled “An Only Child” which had been published just two years earlier. It is the memoir of an author by the name of Frank O’Connor who was best known for his short stories. President Kennedy said: “Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow them.”


Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center, November 21, 1963

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Twenty Years?!

Sometimes, I read news articles or social media posts and I am struck by how different I am from some people. It is hard for me to understand how someone can look at a public official who forcibly kissed and groped underage girls and see a fine, upstanding, religious man. I am baffled that there are people who look at Israel and see an evil colonial power. I’m at a loss to explain why there are people who think that having unfettered access to guns is more important than saving lives.

And those are just the small issues. Then, there are the people who listen to the wrong music and root for the wrong sports teams!

All joking aside, I really shouldn’t be surprised that there are such differences. Having lived in a bunch of different places in this country, I know how different the American experience can be in various parts of the same country. Depending upon where we grew up and where we’ve lived, we see the world very differently.

Our Torah portion makes this point more clearly than I can. In Genesis 25, we are introduced to the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. Despite living in the same home at the same time, the Bible tells us: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.” They were as different as two brothers could be.

As a result of being so different, they eventually chose to live apart rather than live in conflict. Jacob left his childhood home and didn’t return for twenty years. However, we know that the story has a happy ending (we just have to get through two more Torah portions!). The two brothers eventually were reunited and they embraced one another.

So, how do we Americans who seem to be living in two separate countries with two different worldviews proceed? We can’t leave each other for twenty years. Half of the country can’t just go live someplace else. How do we get to the part about reunion and reconciliation?

In the Biblical narrative, before Jacob confronted Esau, he wrestled with a “man” (see Gen. 32:22-33). It’s not exactly clear with whom or with what Jacob struggled. Some commentators think it was his own conscience. Others think it was a messenger from God. Still others suggest it was Esau’s guardian angel.

On some level, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Jacob was willing to struggle and was willing to face Esau.

As Americans, we have a period of struggling ahead of us. It’s inevitable. We all need to re-visit our own values and ideas. We must strive to understand those who seem to be different than we are. Then we have to find a way to see their humanity so we can embrace the person who seems to be so different than we are.

So, for me, that means learning more about the Evangelical community of the South, trying to understand what’s driving the BDS movement and searching for common ground with those who understand the Second Amendment differently than I do.
I just hope it doesn’t take twenty years.


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It’s Light

At this time of year, as the days grow ever shorter, we are reminded of the power of light. We may take for granted the artificial lights that stave off the darkness in our homes, on our streets, in stores and everywhere else. But, for our ancestors, this darkness could be quite frightening. To stave off that darkness, we use lights in many of the rituals that guide us through our lives – the Shabbat, the Festivals, the passing of a loved one and more.

According to our tradition, the custom of lighting Shabbat candles was started by our matriarch Sarah, whose death is described in this week’s portion – ironically named for her life, Chayei Sarah. If true, that would make this beautiful tradition somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 years old. The Midrash – rabbinic interpretation – of this week’s Torah portion mentions this tradition in connection with Sarah’s death.

According to the rabbis, Sarah would light the candles on Friday and her lights would last all week until it was time for the next Sabbath to begin. When Sarah passed away, and Eliezer returned with Rebekah as a potential wife for Isaac, Isaac knew that Rebekah was the woman for him when she lit Shabbat candles and they lasted all week as they had for his mother (B’reisheet Rabbah 60:16).

Despite this beautiful Midrash, there is no mention of Sabbath candles anywhere in the Torah. The rules of Sabbath lights were not codified until the Mishnah which was put down on paper in the year 200 CE.

Our tradition does not take the concept of “light” lightly. We refer to ourselves as an “Or La-Goyim – a Light unto the Nations.” Through our actions and words, we are supposed to bring light where there would otherwise be darkness.

Maybe it’s merely the result of the short days and the changed clocks, but I have felt a great sense of darkness this past week – the kind of darkness that artificial lights and fires cannot illuminate.

It’s the kind of darkness that comes when a mentally ill gunman enters a sanctuary and kills at least 26 worshippers. It’s the kind of darkness that comes when more and more stories emerge of powerful men sexually abusing the vulnerable. It’s the kind of darkness that comes when social media (like Twitter) continue to give a platform to neo-Nazis (like Jason Kessler).

It would be easy to give in to the darkness, but our tradition challenges us to be a source of light. We do that by coming together as a community and preserving our Tradition.


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Was That So Hard?

When Gen. John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, referred to Gen. Robert E. Lee as an “honorable man” and the “men and women of good faith” on both sides of the US Civil War, it clearly rubbed some people the wrong way. After all, most of us would agree that leading a military effort against the legitimate government of the United States is less than honorable. Further, most of us would agree that people of good faith do not fight in order to protect the right of some human beings to own other human beings as if they were inanimate objects. We have an obligation to call out those who are (or were) in the wrong.

It is similarly disturbing to hear some media outlets (appropriately!) refer to the attack in New York City on Halloween as terrorism. Why is it disturbing? Because if that man had done the exact same thing in Jerusalem instead of New York City, no one would be using the term “terrorism.” It is frustrating when individuals will not call out evil just because it’s politically inconvenient. It shouldn’t matter what cause the terrorists were trying to further through their actions. Even if an act of terror were perpetrated in support of some noble cause, we have an obligation to label it as wrong.

Twenty two years ago, a young man by the name of Yigal Amir shot and murdered the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. During his trial, Amir tried to argue that he was acting accordance with Jewish law for the benefit of the Jewish people. Obviously, even if one was opposed to the Oslo Accords into which Israel entered under the leadership of Rabin, we all have to agree that this was not the way to stop it. Sadly, it was a successful strategy. However, that does not make Yigal Amir “honorable” or a person “of good faith.” It makes him a terrorist.

I know it’s a silly comparison, but I can’t stop thinking about participation trophies. We are afraid to label winners and losers in children’s sports leagues so everybody gets a trophy. Similarly, we are afraid to label individuals as right or wrong as good or evil. Everyone is equivalent. Slave-owners are people of good faith. Traitors are honorable. Terrorists are freedom fighters.

While it may be okay for little league, it’s not okay when it comes to these other stories.

In this week’s Torah portion, God notices a couple of cities by the names of Sodom and Gemorra. God said: “The outcry in Sodom and Gemorra – how great it is! And their sin – how exceedingly heavily it weighs! Now let me go down and see: if they have done according to its cry that has come to me – destruction! And if not – I wish to know (Gen. 18:20-21).”

Avraham – rightly! – wanted to be sure that no innocents were punished along with the guilty. However, neither God nor Avraham was afraid to call out those who were wrong, wicked and guilty. And we should not be either.

Robert E. Lee was a traitor. The Confederacy was wrong. Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov is a terrorist. Yigal Amir is a cold-blooded killer.

There. Was that so hard?


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Listen to Her Voice

I keep thinking that I’m ready to move on to a new subject, but there’s a subject that doesn’t seem to want me to move on.  In the last few days, there have been more accusations leveled at Harvey Weinstein, it was disclosed that Bill O’Reilly – formerly of Fox News – entered into a $32M settlement with a co-worker and now Mark Halperin of NBC stands accused of sexually harassing five female co-workers.

Perhaps, it’s not that the story isn’t going away.  Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that we are finally opening our eyes to what’s always been there.  And, just like when we drive by a major car crash, it’s hard to look away.

One of the questions that gets asked a lot in order to get us to move on to a different story is something like: if it was so terrible, why didn’t the victim speak up sooner?  That question completely ignores the power imbalance that typically exists between the perpetrator and the victim, not to mention the sense of shock felt by many victims.

But, there’s another piece of this puzzle as well.  Victims typically feel diminished, as if their voices don’t matter and their accusations will be ignored.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sarah expresses a similar sentiment.  We probably cannot completely comprehend the dynamic among Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.  However, after years of infertility, Sarah arranged for Abraham to take her servant Hagar as a second wife.  Hagar became pregnant almost immediately.  Sarah’s response was to say, “I am lowered in her eyes – ואקל בעיניה.”  She somehow felt as if she were less of a person.  And, again, we don’t know exactly what caused this reaction, but in the very same verse, she blamed Abraham (Gen. 16:5).  Sarah would carry this pain with her for many years as she watched Hagar’s son grow until she eventually became a mother herself.  And then the situation came to a head.

Abraham did not know what to do about Sarah’s pain, but God’s response was both succinct and remarkable.  In response to Sarah’s anguish, God told Avraham, “Listen to her voice – שמע בקולה.”  And that’s exactly what Abraham did.

As women are beginning to feel more comfortable sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault, it seems to me that men would do well to heed the advice of God and follow the example of Abraham: “Listen to her voice – שמע בקולה.”


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Oy, The Headlines!

In general, I love reading about Jews in the news.  Whenever I see a local news item about a member of our community, I read it with pride and then (of course) I share it in our FB group.

Sometimes, however, it’s not so great to see some of my co-religionists in the news.  Last week, Harvey Weinstein joined the ranks Anthony Weiner, Bernie Madoff, “Rabbi” Barry Freundel among other Jews who bring shame to our community.  I’m not suggesting that their religion had anything to do with their abhorrent behavior and I’m not suggesting that they somehow represent Judaism.  However, I’d prefer not to see those stories in the news.

If this week’s Torah portion were a newspaper article, there would probably be some salacious headlines (though nothing can compare to the headlines related to Anthony Weiner’s crimes).  After surviving the flood on an ark with his family and a whole lot of animals, Noah made land and planted a vineyard.  Upon harvesting the grapes, he made wine.  Then, finally, he drank the wine until he was in a drunken stupor.

We read:  “He became drunk and exposed himself in the middle of his tent.  [Noah’s son] Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside (Genesis 9:21-22).”

It’s not clear what the Torah means by “saw his father’s nakedness.”  Is it a euphemism for some sexual act?  Or did he simply see his father in a diminished state?  It doesn’t really matter.  Two verses later, we read: “Now when Noah awoke from his wine, it became known to him what his littlest son had done to him.”  Presumably, Noah’s other sons – Shem and Yefet – told him what they knew.  They did not sit by silently.

Ham’s brothers knew and now Noah knew.  Everybody knew what Ham did.  But, again, they didn’t stay silent.  Noah cursed Ham.  Ham lost status.  There was a consequence for his behavior.

Unfortunately, in our world today, victims of sexual assault and harassment do not feel empowered to follow Noah’s example and speak out.  Even when everyone knows what’s going on, victims are afraid to speak out.  They recognize that the assailants and harassers typically have more power than their victims.  So, we shame victims for wearing the wrong clothes or being in the wrong place “asking for it” while forgiving perpetrators because “boys will be boys.”  We’ve got it completely backwards.

The #metoo social media phenomenon in which millions of women acknowledged that they have been assaulted and/or harassed by men was a good first step.  It gave victims a safe way to acknowledge their painful experiences without having to name a name and risk some sort of reprisal.  But, it’s only a first step.

Now, we need to follow the examples of Shem, Yefet and Noah.  We need to support the victims and curse the perpetrators.  As a colleague of mine posted online, the response to #metoo ought to be #ibelieveyou.  If, as a society, we commit ourselves to calling out the perpetrators and supporting the victims then perhaps, one day we won’t have to read any more painful and embarrassing headlines.


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