“Don’t Try Suicide”

This past week, two different friends in two different cities posted on Facebook about going to see the band Queen perform.  Of all the memorable Queen songs that could pop into my head upon reading this news – Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are the Champions, Somebody to Love, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, etc. – I kept coming back to one song that never got much play time because of some racy lyrics: Don’t Try Suicide.

In his own inimitable way, Freddie Mercury challenged his listeners to remember that life is a good thing and to seek out the attention and affection they need.  If only it were so simple.

Suicide keeps coming back for more.  This past week, Chester Bennington, lead singer of the band Linkin Park, committed suicide on what would have been Chris Cornell’s 53rd birthday.  Cornell, lead singer of the band Soundgarden, committed suicide two months ago.  Just yesterday, medical examiners issued a report that the death of Sheila Abdus-Salaam – the first African-American woman to sit on the New York State Supreme Court – was a suicide.  Combined with stories of suicide by some less famous people, it’s been a rough time.

It was with all of this swimming around in my brain that I turned to this week’s Torah portion and read the words of Moses, who was reflecting on his long career as the leader of the Israelite people.  In thinking about his time as leader, he said, “I cannot lift you up myself (Deut. 1:9).”  Think about it: the person whom Judaism reveres as the ideal leader admitted that he couldn’t do it all himself.  He needed help.

It should be obvious that everyone needs help in life and yet we celebrate the ability to make it on one’s own.  We admire independence.  We would do well to remember Moses’ words.

We don’t tell people to just get over a heart attack.  We don’t blame people for getting cancer.  We make sure our loved ones get the care that they need.  We get angry at the disease.  However, when it comes to mental illness and depression, we expect people to just get over it and we blame them when they don’t.

We all have to remember that our loved ones cannot lift themselves up by themselves.  Instead of blaming or castigating, let’s all resolve to give them the help that they need.  Not sure what to look for or what to do?  Click here.  Not everyone can state their needs as clearly as Moses did all those years ago.


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Setting the Scene

As some of you surely know by now, I am a big fan of “Game of Thrones.”  I started reading (and re-reading) the series years ago, and now that one can only find out what happens via the TV series, I’m addicted to the TV series.  So, needless to say, I was very excited to watch the first episode of the new season last Sunday.

And because I’ve become a fan of the TV series, I was read with interest the announcement that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – they are called the “showrunners” of “Game of Thrones” – have already lined up their next project called “Confederate.”  The idea behind this new series is that the South successfully seceded from the Union back in the 1860’s and, as a result, there are presently two rival countries between Canada and Mexico.

I have no idea whether or not the show will be any good.  However, I am intrigued by the idea of going back to a critical moment in history and taking an alternative path.  Philip Roth did it in his book “The Plot Against America,” starting with the 1940 presidential election.  Stephen King tried to undo the Kennedy assassination in “11/22/63.”  And there are countless other examples in film and literature.

The truth is that we can probably all identify a moment in time to which we’d like to return and make a different decision in our personal lives.  Very rare is the person who has absolutely no regrets.  However, outside of these works of fiction, we know that it is impossible.

Instead, what IS possible is to face a similar set of circumstances later in life and make a different decision.  In other words, we may not get a “do-over,” but we can learn from our mistakes.

We see an example of this idea in our Torah portion this week.  As the Israelites were preparing to conquer the Promised Land, two tribes and half of a third one approached Moses about not wanting to settle on the western side of the Jordan River.  They were content to stay on the eastern side.  Moses must have been thinking, “Here we go again!”

It had been forty years since the twelve scouts returned from their mission and convinced the Israelites that it would be impossible to conquer the Promised Land.  Moses thought that these tribal leaders would once again spook the Israelites.  It was history repeating itself.  He asked:  “Why would you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that Adonai has given them (Numbers 32:7)?”

However, these leaders had clearly learned from the missteps of the previous generation.  Although they wanted to stay east of the Jordan River, they offered to be part of the conquest of the Promised Land on the western side.

Like the Israelites all those years ago, we may not be able to write an alternative plot line for scenes that have already played out.  However, we can always learn from those scenes and create a different narrative for the upcoming new season.

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What’s in the News?

There’s so much going on in the world today, it’s hard to decide what to talk about. Healthcare, the Israel-Diaspora relationship and Donald Trump Jr.’s tweets seem to be on the minds of lots of people. If you want a distraction from that, you could focus on Wimbledon, the Emmys or the new Game of Thrones season.

However, for me, there were two stories – perhaps further down on the new feed – that grabbed my attention and held it tight. The first was the disappearance of four young men – ages 19 to 22 – in Bucks County just outside of Philadelphia. Police have found the body of one of them and continue to look for the others (more details here).

The second story was the death of an 11 year old boy at a Jewish camp here in New Jersey. He got sick Sunday night. After a night in the infirmary, he went to the hospital Monday morning and was dead later that day. The results of the autopsy are not yet available (more details here).

Perhaps, these stories hit me particularly hard because on Monday, I eulogized a long-time member of our community who, sadly, buried two of her children during her life. We all intuitively know that it is simply not the way it’s supposed to be – parents burying children. Furthermore, for those of us who are parents, it’s a stark reminder of how we THINK we’re in control, but we don’t have nearly as much control as we think we do. It’s true for all of us – whether we are parents or not.

I am sorry if I have dragged you down with these opening paragraphs. I recognize that they are a bit dark and gloomy, but that really was not my intent. Instead, I hope that we read these stories and remind ourselves to spend more time with our loved ones creating memories that we can then hold onto one day when we need them. It’s one of those win-win situations: we have a better time today AND we have better memories tomorrow.

In contrast, in this week’s Torah portion, we read of a man named Tzelophchad, who died, leaving behind five daughters. Those daughters objected to the tradition at the time which allowed only sons to inherit their father’s property. Tzelophchad’s property would revert to his brothers or the elders of his tribe in order to assure that it remained in the tribe. The daughters convinced Moses that THEY should inherit that property and he changed the law as of that moment. Nonetheless, Tzelophchad is a remarkable character because the only thing we really know about him is that he died. We don’t know his trade. We don’t know if he was humble or arrogant. We don’t know if was righteous or evil (though the text does mention that he was not a part of the Korach rebellion). We only know that he died.
The property was all those daughters had by which to remember their father – and that was the real tragedy. No memories.

So, of course, I pray that we are all spared tragic and unexpected losses in our family lives. However, we know that these things happen to real people. And when they do, hopefully, we will find some comfort in the knowledge that we spent as much time as possible together, creating memories.


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Let Me Tell You a Story

A week ago Sunday, Jodi and I were in NYC for dinner. We picked that date because it was the closest Sunday to her birthday that we could go. By coincidence, it happened to be the day of the Pride Parade.

While I am proud to be a supporter and ally for the LGBTQ community and specifically Jewish members of the LGBTQ community, I had never been to a Pride Parade. Although we only watched for a short while on the way to dinner, it was a powerful experience to see the marchers and spectators basically taking over a huge swath of the city.

It was with this experience in mind that I was so disappointed to read about what happened in Chicago at virtually the exact same time. Three women marching in a similar parade were asked to leave because the rainbow flags that they were carrying had Jewish stars. Apparently, those Jewish stars made other marchers feel “unsafe” (more details here). Then, just a few days later, the organizers of the Pride March in North Carolina announced that their next march would take place this coming September 30th, which just happens to be Yom Kippur (more details here) and they have no intention of moving it.

As I joked on Facebook when I read about these stories, apparently one needs to be anti-Israel and to renounce one’s Judaism in order to advocate for LGBTQ rights.

These are two more examples of what is known in academic circles as intersectionality. The scholar who coined the term, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, explains it this way: “inequities are never the result of single, distinct factors. Rather, they are the outcome of intersections of different social locations, power relations, and experiences.”

That makes sense – as far as theories go. I think we all intuitively recognize that a black, Muslim woman has a very different experience in this country than a white, Christian man. That is not to say that a black, Muslim woman cannot find success in our country. However, it would be naïve to think that it would be as easy for her as it would be for someone who does not “check” those “boxes.”

The problem with this concept or theory comes with the application. First of all, no theory applies in 100% of the cases. Second, as we have seen with the two LGBTQ marches, this theory requires one to correctly identify who is an oppressor and who is oppressed. Obviously, asking supporters of the most LGBTQ-friendly country in the Middle East to leave a parade advocating for LGBTQ rights makes no sense. Similarly, excluding a minority religious group – especially one that has been targeted more frequently than any other religious group in this country – from a similar parade seems counter-intuitive.

So, what gives?

It’s easy to say it’s anti-Semitism. And while I am always cautious in making such an accusation, it’s hard to ignore it as a contributing factor. However, I think it is also the result of Jews and Israel supporters doing a poor job of telling our story. We take it for granted that people understand how Israel came into existence. We take it for granted that people recognize what an amazing country Israel is. We take it for granted that people see the rise in anti-Semitism as easily as we do. But, we should never take things for granted.

In order to tell our story, though, we have to know our story. We have to tell it and tell it again. So, if you consider yourself a part of the Jewish community or a supporter of Israel and you don’t know the story, it’s time to learn it.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Moabite King Balak asked a prophet named Bilaam to curse the Israelites. He offered to pay Bilaam for that curse. But, Bilaam knew that the Israelites were blessed by God and did not deserve a curse. Instead of a curse, he spoke the following words which have become a part of our liturgy: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha – How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”

We have to figure out how to transform the curses of our detractors into blessings. We can begin the process by telling them our story.


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Very Strange Indeed

As we celebrated twenty years of Harry Potter this past week, I couldn’t help but think about some of the magical and mysterious rituals created by JK Rowling. Whether it was Voldemort dividing his soul into multiple parts and hiding them in common objects or Professor Snape making an unbreakable vow or Harry giving a house-elf clothing in order to free him, ritual played an important role in Harry’s world.

But as strange as those rituals may seem, they’ve got nothing on this week’s Torah portion in which we learn about the Red Heifer ritual. A purely red female cow was slaughtered and then incinerated. Its ashes were mixed with fresh water to create a solution which had the power to purify those who had become ritually impure through contact with the dead.

In an ironic twist, though, all of the individuals involved in manufacturing this liquid became impure, but they could return to the community in the evening. In creating something so pure that it can purify people who have come into contact with death, the Priest and his assistants become impure themselves. How is that possible?

Albert Baumgarten – a scholar of Second Temple Judaism – wrote that purity is actually about equilibrium. Death is a source of defilement and must be countered by the purifying properties of the red heifer and ash solution in order to return a person to inner balance. However, too much contact with the solution in the absence of impurity takes one too far in the other direction, leading to imbalance and impurity. It is too powerful.

In other words, it is possible to be TOO pure and OVERLY sanctified.

I couldn’t help but think about this principle as I read about the crumbling of the compromise over worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Not sure what I’m talking about? Click here.) In their pursuit of purity in worship, the orthodox rabbinate and orthodox political parties in Israel have exerted monopolistic control over the Western Wall for the 50 years that it has been under the control of Israel. It is run like an orthodox synagogue instead of a gathering place for all of the world’s Jews.

As a result, most Jews cannot worship at the Wall in the kind of service to which they are accustomed. Families cannot stand together at the Wall after making a pilgrimage together – perhaps for the only time in their lives.

Our orthodox brothers have put purity ahead of treating their fellow Jews with love and respect. As a result, they are out of balance. They are no longer in a state of equilibrium. In their pursuit of purity, they have become impure.

Let us hope that they purify themselves and return to the community before too long. No matter how strange our rituals may, at times, seem, they are designed to unify us and not divide us.


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Get on the Train

This summer, my daughter Gabi is commuting from Summit, NJ, into NYC for her job each day. Anyone who lives around Summit knows that starting July 10th, her travel experience is going change dramatically for the worse when the trains from Summit will be diverted to Hoboken for construction.

We’ve had a number of conversations about the best way to deal with this most inconvenient decision on the part of NJ Transit. At the end of the day, though, I have had to tell her that as much as I would like to help her, I have never commuted from our home to NYC. Therefore, I have little to offer her in terms of practical knowledge or advice. She has my sympathy, but I’m pretty useless to her. (Fortunately, we know plenty of people who DO have the knowledge to help her!)

I was thinking about this situation as I read a troubling article in the Jerusalem Post about the declining support for Israel among college-age students (click here to read it yourself). It seems to me that we are sending a large swath of Jewish kids out to college campuses without the ability to counter the systematic attacks on Israel that are commonplace at virtually every university across the country. It’s like sending a kid to the train station without a schedule, without a ticket and without warning them about the massive construction that’s about to start.

If you’re like me and you don’t want to imagine a world without Israel and you recognize the importance of Israel to the future of Judaism, then we cannot let this continue. We have to give our kids the full story of Israel – not just the narrative that is being told by anti-Israel activists on college campuses.

I recognize that not everyone is able to do this – just like I can’t help my daughter navigate NJ Transit. That’s why Jewish teen programs – like the one we have at our synagogue – are so important. Through the Israeli teen emissaries – called “Rishonim” – that work in our school, through Ra’anana teen delegation that has visited our school (and stayed in our homes) each of the last four years and through passion of our teachers, our teens are introduced to the part of Israel that those activists don’t want our kids to know about.

Like the US – and any other western-style democracy – Israel is an imperfect country. As lovers and supporters of Israel, we should strive to help make Israel even better. But, Israel is already an amazing place. And when our kids hear the whole story, they fall in love with her. When they only hear the story being told on college campuses, they don’t.

So if you know of a teen – your child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor – who is NOT in a teen program where they can hear the whole story of Israel, it’s time to do something about it. If they live anywhere around Summit, I can’t help them with NJ Transit, but I’d love to help them get on the Israel train.


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Opinions Are Like….

I was a little surprised to read that the best-selling non-fiction book this week is “Giant of the Senate,” by Sen. Al Franken. After all, it seems pretty obvious that this book has a limited audience. In the New York Times review of this book, Molly Ball wrote: “This is a book your liberal aunt will love and your Republican neighbor will never pick up, much less enjoy.”

It should surprise no one that two different people could look at this book and see something completely different. After all, when it comes to art, everyone is entitled to one’s own opinion. How much the more so when said art is politically charged.

But what about a country? Can two people look at the same tract of land and see two different things? Some people love France, while others prefer Australia. Who’s right?

This week’s Torah portion offers another example of this phenomenon. Moses sent twelve scouts to check out the Land of Canaan, the Israelites’ future home.

Ten of these scouts agreed with one another. Upon returning from their tour of the land, they said in one voice: ““The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers (Numbers 13:32).” They recommended returning to Egypt.

However, the other two clearly saw something different. They stood up in front of their fellow Israelites and declared: “If Adonai will have us, then God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us (Numbers 14:8).” Joshua and Caleb were ready to proceed into the Promised Land.

So, who was right? Was it a land that devours its inhabitants or was it a land that nourished its people with milk and honey?

It seems to me that the answer is that the land was neither fantastic nor terrible. Rather, it had the potential to be either one. It would depend on the people who settled there. If they came in seeing the worst and expecting the worst, then that’s what they would find. If they came seeing the best and expecting the best, then THAT’s what they would find.

Apparently, this was how God saw the situation. This was when God decided that the Israelites would have to wait forty years to enter the land. God hoped that as the Israelites got further from the experience of slavery, their view of the land would be more optimistic.

And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened.

Last week, in our little community, we started discussing a change to our High Holiday service structure. Some people read about the changes and were thrilled with the new opportunity. Others, however, read the very same email announcement and felt that an important part of their High Holiday experience was being taken away from them.

Neither response is wrong. This change has the potential to be great and it has the potential to be a disaster. It’s up to us to decide how it’s going to play out. If, together, we can focus on the good that this change will bring while trying to minimize the imperfections in our plan, then I am confident that we can make our High Holidays even more meaningful than they have already been.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions regarding our new High Holiday plan, please be in touch. More details will be forthcoming soon.


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