Friday, December 7, 2018

Mikeitz (Shabbat Chanukah): From Judah to Judah to Jews

Origin stories are complicated. Rarely is it a case of "just the facts, ma'am." Objective details (if there even really are such mythical things...) get conflated with
romanticized accounts, wishful thinking, hero worship, political agendas, religious motivations, and, and, and... This is true for the myths surrounding holidays, nations, superheroes, you name it. Take, for example, our history as Jews. When were we first called Jews? By whom? Did we see ourselves as a small clan, a growing tribe, a priestly order, an aspiring empire? Where did all this occur, and how did everything shift and morph into what we see today? So many questions, so few definitive answers. And anyone who tells you they "know" is probably selling something. Just smile politely and walk away...

I don't traffic in answers; you probably figured that out already. But I do enjoy me some challenging questions! This week, we see emerging a POSSIBLE explanation for why we're called "Jews," and, in fact, we even get two origin stories
to choose from! The Torah spends a surprising amount of time highlighting one of Jacob's sons, namely Joseph. I say this is surprising, because we are not descended from him. Joseph is NOT our ancestor! Over several consecutive Torah portions, we learn about Joseph's life, and the challenges he overcomes. Then, FINALLY, our knight in shining armor rides in. You see, Joseph is bitter. His brothers sold him into slavery, and now they come crawling down to Egypt, looking for food, totally unaware that the Egyptian Grand Vizier before them is their scorned sibling. Joseph lays a trap. He engineers a recreation of the exact circumstances that led to his abandonment. He gives extra food and attention to just one brother, Benjamin. Then he hides a goblet in Benjamin's backpack and accuses the whole group of stealing. When it is revealed that Benjamin is the "culprit," he gives the brothers an out, saying he'll free them and only imprison Benjamin, whom they probably don't care for anyway, because he's pampered, entitled, and (apparently) also a thief. Then, it happens.

Judah steps in. He's not the oldest brother, or the noblest, the strongest, the most pious, or most passionate.
But he puts his life on the line for his brother, makes a clear, confident, compassionate case for why he cannot abandon Benjamin in Egypt, and refuses to back down. Joseph crumbles. At long last, he finally sees that his brothers have grown, and they have matured as people (and as siblings) to protect one another. It is a proud and emotional scene for them all, but really it's a moment of triumph and leadership for Judah. This speech solidifies his role as the new patriarch. It emboldens his descendants to become a powerful tribe, and later to maintain the Ancient Temple and its priests within their territory. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel eventually falls, Judah is all that is left, and its inhabitants - the Judeans (or Jews) - become the sole bearers of this heritage. Voila; an origin story.

Earlier, I told you I'd be sharing TWO tales. You see, this weekend is also the end of Chanukah, which includes another famous Judah. This one is a Hasmonean, a militant fighter; Judah the Hammer, the Maccabee. Occasionally, someone will
ask me if THIS guy is the reason we're called Jews. Does HE represent our origin story?? Thankfully (in my opinion), the answer is no. If you read the Books of the Maccabees, you'll discover that Judah was a violent dude. A brilliant tactician, to be sure. An inspirational general and a fierce warrior. But can you build a nation on violence and fundamentalism? The Hasmoneans were radicals who would not tolerate secularism. We see that behavior around us in the world today... and we do NOT like it. Religious extremism is a very scary reality. It often begins with a well-intentioned, zealous, truth-seeking individual... but soon gets corrupted into ruthless, brutal intolerance. In short, all Judahs are not created equal. The opportunity to see both stories side-by-side, as we do this weekend, affords us the insight to consider our origin as a people and contemplate the actions and principles of our ancestors. And then, perhaps, to give thanks... and breathe a sigh of relief.

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of pixabay
2. CC image courtesy of pixabay
3. CC image courtesy of Biscuit PNG on
4. CC image courtesy of Mount Pleasant Granary

L'Chaim - December, 2018: What If It Isn't Spam?

Rabbi’s Message, December, 2018: What If It Isn’t Spam?
“Sir, I want to serve GOD. I am searching [for] the kingdom of GOD. After my death, I want to see my LORD in heaven. I want to hear the voice of GOD like Samuel. I want to live [a] holy life.”

This was the message I recently received on Facebook. I didn’t know the sender, and - to be honest - I was pretty certain it was spam. We all get trash like this, and as a rabbi and clergy person, I am perhaps uniquely exposed to Jewishly-themed spam (wow, that phrase sounds weird...). But, for some reason, I responded. I figured I could give him two or three BRIEF replies, and if/when he indeed proved crazy - no harm, no foul. It’s not like I was giving him credit card info or anything!!

My new Facebook “friend” told me he was 29 years old and from India. He still lives in India, he’s married, and he has an infant daughter. He continued to reiterate his fervent desire to “each and every second” speak to, and hear the voice of, God. He wanted some reading recommendations, so I sent him some titles he could purchase on Then, our conversation shifted tone.

He asked for more information about the Ten Commandments, and then wrote: “Rabbi, detail[ed] explanation about 6th commandment??” (His English wasn’t too great...) He wanted to know more about the prohibition against adultery, and what specifically was forbidden. Then I discovered, to my surprise, why he was ACTUALLY reaching out to me: He was desperate for help! His wife could not risk getting pregnant again, and they “knew” the Bible said non-procreative sex was a sin. What followed was a series of detailed questions about relationships and relations, the graphic nature of which need not be repeated here. The main point is, he was not a scam artist at all; he was a stressed out young man who was worried that God was going to punish him. So why am I sharing all of this with you here? Well, I have two reasons.

Early in our conversation, this individual said he’d tried frantically to reach ANYONE who could help him: “I just search rabi and Jewish people and I gave request to so many but you only accept my request.” But with his broken English and his peculiar talk of “the Kingdom of GOD,” most people just assumed he was either spam or a scam. So it was a humbling reminder not to judge too quickly. We can be vigilant and careful, and we must protect ourselves, our families, and our privacy. BUT, it’s also ok to extend a hand and a compassionate ear, because you never know who needs help and has trouble asking for it.

The second reason I wanted to recount this experience relates to my theme this year of Radical Honesty. We don’t talk about sex. As Jews, as Americans, as grownups; we just avoid the topic all the time. It’s embarrassing, it’s private, it’s inappropriate. But this poor guy was carrying puritanical understandings of intimacy, sin, and shame, feeling lonely and judged, and no one was willing to help him. The things that others had taught him about the Bible were - in my opinion - wrong and harmful, and I said as much to him. I’m glad I was able to assist this one individual… but it also makes me wonder how many others are out there, people who “know” the Bible disapproves, and have just given up on asking a rabbi or priest. My guess is, many of them aren’t even as far away as India…

So I’ll state it explicitly: My door is open. I’m happy to challenge your views on what Judaism permits and forbids… and I would be honored and grateful for the opportunity to discuss ANY difficult subject that you’d like to share. If it’s easier, you can also text, e-mail, or write to me on Facebook Messenger. I hope you’ll take me up on this offer. Oh, and I promise I won’t dismiss your message as spam...


Rabbi Gerber

Friday, November 30, 2018

Va-Yeishev: Caught Between Waffles and Chains

History sometimes turns on a dime. By which I mean, you can look back at some earth-shattering, culture-defining, movement-shifting event, and find something arbitrary, minor, or seemingly insignificant that set everything in motion. It's not ALWAYS the
case, but it happens often enough that it's worth pointing out. I want to name one such moment in the Torah, found in this week's Torah portion, but before I tell you about that "dime," I want to say a word about how the text of our Torah is read, or perhaps more importantly for our purposes, how it is chanted. In case you weren't familiar with this, the Hebrew in our Torah scrolls is written without vowels OR musical notes. There is, however, a ubiquitous tradition about how the text should be vocalized, and a relatively pervasive tradition about how to sing the words and verses. I want to share with you a rare phenomenon in these musical notes, and how - in one particular instance - it is meant to highlight a split-second decision that changed the entire world.

The system that we use to chant the Torah text is called "cantillation" or "trope." There are trope-marks on essentially every word in the Bible, and not only do these marks
help us sing the text, but they indicate where commas, periods, and even exclamation points are meant to be inserted. Most of the trope are run-of-the-mill patterns that repeat, and repeat, and repeat. And then, every once in a while, we get a cantillation note that is extremely rare. Each one only appears a handful of times in the text, and they are meant to make us stop, take notice, and ideally ask "why?" The most exciting of the unusual trope-notes is called "shalshelet," which means "the chain." The longest 'ordinary' trope is called "pazer," and the shalshelet is THREE TIMES as long as the pazer! This drawn-out note only appears in FOUR instances across the Five Books of Moses, and there is a good case to be made that ours, in Genesis 39:8, is the most interesting and pivotal of them all.

Some background in a nutshell: This week, we're learning about Jacob's son, Joseph. He is a spoiled brat and a tattletale, who always gets what he wants and flaunts it in front of his brothers. (I mean no disrespect...) Not surprisingly, they turn against him
and ultimately sell him to slave traders (!). It's not a feel-good story, I'll admit, but I also maintain that Joseph grows. He learns from his mistakes and he matures over the course of time, which isn't always something we see happening in the Bible. Joseph is sold to a courtier of Pharaoh's in Egypt, and then quickly becomes a trusted servant. But then, Joseph finds himself at a crossroads: The courtier, Potiphar, has a wife who begins to make advances on Joseph. What should he do? She could be a powerful ally. Joseph could return to his old ways, take what he wants, ignore the feelings of others, and disregard the honorable thing to do. Brilliantly, the text highlights in an instant the fulcrum that appears before Joseph. An excruciatingly long, drawn-out, and rare trope mark is placed right there, on the word "Va-yee-ma-ayn" (v. 8), meaning "But he [Joseph] refused." It is almost as if you can hear him waffling back and forth. "Should I?" "Shouldn't I?" His life flashes before his eyes; he sees his past, he sees the crucial nature of this moment, and he sees the potential futures that may play out depending on what he does... ... ... ... and then, he spurns her.

Now look, this "history turning on a dime" idea is a bit tenuous. We could point to ANY moment in Joseph's life and say, "If x hadn't happened, the whole story would have been different!" If the brothers had sold him to DIFFERENT slave traders or if Pharaoh hadn't punished the cup bearer; any one change might also have shifted all of world history!! And yet, the Torah chooses to highlight this
particular moment. The writers of our text, and then the Masoretic scholars who established THE authoritative system of vocalizations and trope, wanted us to pause here, at THIS word. It is perhaps Joseph's first moral decision, his first adult determination to do what is right; and our ancestors wanted us all to praise him for it. It is a reminder to every generation of readers that sure, any decision could change the outcome of our lives. Many may even appear arbitrary or devoid of consequence. But every once in a while, a moment arises that we KNOW has greater significance. We can just FEEL that there's more meaning here, and that the implications of our choices, our statements, and our actions right now, in THIS instant, will echo far beyond the here and now. Be mindful of those opportunities. Listen for the shalshelet, the rattling chain reverberating in the background, reminding us all that standing up for what is good and right has lasting and far-reaching ramifications. Do not simply let that moment pass by; it might be more rare and fleeting than you realize.

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Robert Fairchild on Flickr
2. Image of Genesis 39:8 (highlights mine) courtesy of
3. CC image courtesy of Max Pixel
4. CC image courtesy of Max Pixel

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Va-Yishlach: These Hypocrites Keep Attacking Rachel

Every so often, I dedicate a blog post to a particular subject. Sadly, I have to keep reiterating this message over and over again, because the world hasn't really become any kinder to the victims of this abuse.
Especially when our Torah portion is SO relevant to this debate, I simply have to take the bait. I'm talking about abortion. Let's begin this as bluntly as I can: The Torah does NOT oppose abortions. The Bible is NOT a pro-life document. Proof texts that are offered in abortion debates are tenuous and circumstantial AT BEST. Religious groups that oppose abortion hijack the Bible for their own purposes, and they twist and contort the ancient words to justify their behavior. But there is a hypocrisy underlying their behavior. It is blatant, and it is outrageous. Now, our parashah this week doesn't speak directly to this issue, but it's pretty close. Does that mean I'm manipulating the text to fit MY agenda? Well, I'll let you be the judge of that...

Our ancestor, Jacob, has four wives. Each wife has been able to produce offspring, so by the time we get to our reading, Jacob's got quite the little clan building.
Leah has six sons and a daughter, Bilhah has a couple of boys and so does Zilpah... and after many agonizing years of trying, Rachel FINALLY has a single son, Joseph. Then, as our reading begins, she is once again pregnant, but things are not going so smoothly. This pregnancy has complications, and we're told she has "hard labor" (Gen. 35:16). Luckily (I suppose...), she has a midwife with her, who is helping her through the pain. I cannot even imagine what she is enduring, and as the agony reaches its height, this "helpful" midwife decides to offer Rachel a nugget of wisdom and encouragement: "Have no fear, for you are having another son!" (v. 17) Maybe it's just me, but I find it hard to imagine Rachel's excruciating misery was alleviated by this "joyous" news.

Tragically, our story does not end well. Rachel dies in childbirth. This should surely be the worst part of the saga, but I am also infuriated by the next two verses. First, the Torah tells us that with her dying breath she named her son "Ben-Oni," which means "son of my sorrow." Ok, I'll admit, it isn't
a great name, but surely it's understandable. In that very same verse, Jacob overrides her selection, changes his name, and he is forever known as Benjamin. So much for last wishes... Then, to add final insult to continuous injury, Rachel is buried on the side of the road; the only matriarch left out of the family tomb, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob AND Leah are buried. My point in sharing all of these details is to highlight how insignificant the mother was in ancient society. She's the one producing human life out of her body, but she doesn't get to name him AND she's buried along the highway. Even her supportive midwife exclaims: "You may be dying, but cheer up; you're having a boy!"

Dear readers, I hope this story outrages you. Please, please tell me you hate what happens to Rachel! Because women are being treated like her throughout the world, and most definitely here in the United States. Women are having their rights stolen from them constantly. Pro-life groups seem to have absolutely NO regard for what these women are going through; the pain, emotional stress, guilt, and shame.
Not only is it callous and cruel, it's actually hypocritical as well. Just yesterday, a federal judge in Mississippi struck down a law that would have restricted women's rights even more. In his ruling, the judge cited the state's high infant mortality statistics and noted that Mississippi has not expanded Medicaid. In other words, if these legislators and advocacy groups are SO concerned about preserving life, what are they doing about infant deaths or women's access to healthcare??? Why expend all their efforts attacking these vulnerable women, rather than dedicating time to helping, healing, and comforting?!? It truly boggles my mind. If a story like the one in Genesis bothers us AT ALL, we have to act. Because Rachel's plight is sadly not unique. It isn't an ancient predicament either; it is very real today. As a religious professional, I cannot abide by someone co-opting my Scripture and abusing people with it. They are wrong, plain and simple. We cannot let Rachel's memory continue to be trampled on; we all must do our part to reject this damaging narrative. I hope you will join me.

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of daihung on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Pexels
3. CC image courtesy of Jim Champion on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Fibonacci Blue on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 16, 2018

Va-Yeitzei: It's All About the Destination... Right?

It’s funny to me how we disregard clichés. I know they can seem trite, hokey, or overused… but often the whole reason they ARE clichés is because their sentiments
ring true! Yet, even when we acknowledge their wisdom, we just do NOT want to learn their essential lessons. Take, for example, the phrase (stated in a myriad different ways): It’s not the destination that counts, it's the journey. A Bat Mitzvah student at Ohev recently focused her whole (terrific) D’var Torah on this concept. We’ve heard it countless times, it makes a lot of sense… and yet, we often struggle to live by it anyway. Why?

Our Torah portion, Va-Yeitzei, is essentially one, drawn-out, decades-long, dramatic odyssey. To really ensure that you, the reader, know this, the Torah includes a subtle, clever bookend on either side of
the journey. The second verse of our entire parashah states, "He [Jacob, fleeing from his brother, Esau] came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set." (Gen. 28:11) Then, in the very next verse, he has his famous dream, in which angels are going up and down a ladder that reaches from earth all the way up to heaven. Jacob begins his long journey to find his uncle, Laban. He arrives, becomes a successful sheep herder, acquires four wives, has twelve children, and eventually escapes Laban's greedy clutches and makes his way back to his birthplace. There, as the Torah portion ends, we read: "Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and daughters farewell, and he blessed them; then Laban left on his journey homeward. Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him." (32:1-2) Do you see it? Did you catch the bookends?

As the central adventure of his life begins, Jacob experiences the presence of angels, and then, when he's ready to return home, there they are again! Furthermore, the narrative mentions night falling at the start of our reading. One might say, Jacob is
entering a "dark" period in his life, where he's trapped under the glum shadow of Laban and his heretical family. The proverbial "sun" only rises again when Jacob returns home, stepping once more into the "light" of his safe, trustworthy, monotheistic, loving family (leaving aside, for now, all the drama that forced Jacob to flee in the first place...). My point in highlighting all of this is that we sometimes see the "bad" times in Jacob's life as unfortunate, wishing he could have avoided them entirely. But would he be the same guy without all those experiences? Are hardships and challenges something we try to avoid, or do they perhaps form us and make us more resilient, appreciative of the good times, and better situated to survive and thrive?

I imagine Jacob felt pretty alone when he began this excursion. Yet the Torah reminds us that angels were there accompanying him at the start AND the end of his journey, and likely throughout as well.
Sometimes when we struggle, we actually feel GREATER spiritual connection, and certainly many of us feel MORE love and caring from those around us. Often, in life, we look at the result of something to determine if it was good or bad, worthwhile or ultimately pointless. Take, for instance, an election. Is the only metric for determining success whether a candidate won? Or might the journey - the motivation, the enthusiasm, the activism, and all the OTHER things that were generated as well - have been meaningful regardless of the end result? I know it's a cliché. And if we think about it, we probably believe we already know its words to be true. But I think in our lived experience, we often still obsess about the end result, the final verdict, and the ultimate outcome. So just keep it in mind, and spend a little time appreciating the journey too, ok? You're welcome. :-)

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of nagarajan_kanna on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Sean Loyless on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of pennstatenews on Flickr

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Chayei Sarah: It's Time to Water Some Camels

My, my, what a week we have had. It seems like a LONG time ago that I last wrote a post, even though it has only been seven days. The world looks different on the
other side of the tragic attack on Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. According to the ADL, this was the deadliest assault on the Jewish community in America's history. So now what? How do we make sense of what is happening in our country; the proliferation of guns without serious regulation, the increasingly racist rhetoric that is not denounced at the highest levels of government, and a divisive national discourse where each side sees the other as The Enemy, jeopardizing the future of our way of life? What do we do now? Honestly, I do not hold answers. I don't know either. I simply offer a few thoughts.

There is a strong Jewish tradition of looking to our heritage and our texts, when we are otherwise at a loss for words. Again, not for answers - at least not of the "yes" or "no" variety - but to see how others handled adversity and challenge in the past,
to give us strength and courage to face our own predicaments today. Our parashah is all about one, long journey. Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac, because he doesn't want Isaac to marry one of the idolatrous Canaanites living around them. When the servant arrives in Abraham's home town, a young woman by a well offers him a drink of water. Then, she also rushes to water the servant's many camels, which (if you know anything about camels...) is actually an exhaustive task!! (P.s. ONE camel can drink 53 gallons of water in three minutes!!!) The servant realizes this girl, Rebecca, is the one he's looking for, and he convinces her family to let her return to Canaan to marry Isaac. Sooo, why am I telling you all this?

This isn't spelled out in the text, but I think Rebecca desperately wanted to leave. Her brother, Laban, was the head of her household, and he was kind of a scoundrel. Many things in the text hint at her desire to flee, and she was able to achieve this through acts of genuine kindness and consideration. She took
great care of this traveler, when she had NO obligation to do so for a stranger, an outsider, a servant. In the context of our lives today, I suggest that we learn from Rebecca's example that if we want to affect REAL change, we have to do so with REAL acts of altruism for other people. This can be counter-intuitive. When we feel scared and attacked, something inside us wants to just curl up or bolt the door; care for our own and abandon any project that was for someone else's benefit. But we must RESIST that urge!! Now is precisely the time to care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow in our society; perhaps today we might extend those same kindnesses to the refugees, the undocumented immigrants, the Muslims, the LGBTQ (and perhaps most specifically the transgender community), African-Americans, and all others who face oppression. Our heads may say we need to care for our own... but our hearts know the answer lies in the exact opposite behavior.

Our Torah portion ends with an inconspicuous scene, easily missed if one isn't reading carefully. After Abraham dies, his sons come together to bury their father (Gen. 25:9). Seems simple enough, right? But Ishmael was banished YEARS earlier, together with his mother, Hagar! Somewhere along the way, Ishmael and Isaac reunited, and they were able to share this precious moment of togetherness
and peace with their father. The text doesn't tell us when, but here we see the fruits of their labor. And the proof is in a tangible, physical, lasting act that they perform as one; the burying of a loved one. We are often tempted to offer condolences, a hug, a word of support, a tear, or a demonstrative gesture of solidarity. That is not enough. It is greatly appreciated, but more is needed. This situation is too urgent, the stakes too high. A simple, subtle gesture won't suffice. We need to act. We need to extend ourselves beyond what is comfortable, as Rebecca did watering all those thirsty camels. Our actions will speak volumes beyond mere words, and now more than ever before, we Jews must unite with others in our shared community and work to manifest the change we so desperately need. The ADL used to employ a powerful slogan, "Never Again!" Right now, on their website, they have shifted to something even more crucial, directed at each and every one of us: "Never is Now."

Images in this blog post:
1. Image from Tree of Life * Or L'Simchah Congregation
2. CC image courtesy of
3. CC image courtesy of Stemya on
4. CC image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

L'Chaim - November, 2018: Take Israel OFF Your Bucket List!

By the time you read this, I will have returned from our latest synagogue trip to Israel, so I’d like to tell you about it… the only problem is, I wrote this article back in early October. So I can’t yet tell you much (right now) about how the trip went, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it was amazing. If you were on the trip with me, and you’re thinking of one day/memory/experience that was your favorite, believe it or not, that was my favorite too! Wow, what are the odds, huh? Weird…

This latest odyssey was my THIRD trip with Ohev Shalom. I feel so, so blessed to have led three separate Israel-experiences, and to have created a sense of community and shared memories with three different groups of wonderful people. I especially want to thank Alan Schapire, Karen Stesis, and Louis Stesis for doing nearly ALL the planning for this trip. It truly, truly would not have happened without them. THANK YOU!!!

I also want to highlight the theme of our itinerary, “Into the Desert.” We began our tour in Tel Aviv, then went south into the Negev and Arava deserts, across the border into Petra in Jordan (which is considered one of the Ancient Wonders of The World), back north to Masada, then finishing up in Jerusalem. My goal was very simple: To convey to both the participants AND to the whole congregation that Israel is more than just a bucket-list destination. If you’ve never been; I’d LOVE for your first time to be with Ohev Shalom! But if you’ve been once, or even several times, I STILL hope you’ll consider going again. It really shouldn’t just be a bucket-list kind of destination…

Israel is so central to us as Jews; historically, culturally, theologically, and emotionally. Do we also struggle with its current government and the oppressive practices of the orthodox rabbinate? Many of us do. If you were at Ohev during the High Holidays (or read my sermon online), you know already that I, personally, very much grapple with these issues. But I implore you to separate the State of Israel from the Land of Israel, and even from the People of Israel. If/when we disagree with politics here in the US, we certainly don’t want the world to judge us by our government; so why should we behave that way towards Israel?

I have been to Israel many, many times. And I don’t ever plan to stop going. Even as the politics get more divisive, my certainty about that point will not waver. That is, in large part, why I craft itineraries with a special focus. To remind us all that Israel has many dimensions, facets, complexities, and layers. We’ve done a family trip, a food tour, and now a desert excursion. I also want to do a tour with the theme, “The Ten Places You’ve Never Been To, but Which Every Tour Guide Wishes You’d See.” I also wonder if there is enough interest for a trip centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where we visit both sides of the Green Line? I’ve also discussed the possibility of joint trips with my colleagues in our local Interfaith Council. So yeah, I haven’t run out of ideas just yet…

I truly feel blessed to have done this three times, and I hope that many more visits to Israel await us. Please check out our pictures from the trip, our daily blog, and ask participants how it went. And then… start thinking about what you’re doing in another three years (or six or nine or…), and let’s start planning!

Nesiah Ha-bah Birushalayim - Next Trip [see you] in Jerusalem!

Rabbi Gerber

Friday, October 26, 2018

Va-Yeira: A Most Terrifying Conversation Before Halloween

We’re back, baby! Our latest trip to Israel has concluded, and all 38 of us have returned stateside (more or less). It was an absolutely fabulous experience, and while I’m tempted to talk endlessly about our travels here, I’m not going to do so. Instead, I invite you to read our trip blog, dedicated specifically to everything we did in Israel. You can find it at: Furthermore, in a couple of days I am going to post my synagogue newsletter article for November, where I ALSO talk about my feelings on traveling to Israel, so I don't feel a need to harp on the subject here. Instead, let's look at the Torah portion and an important upcoming program at Ohev.

I've often written about on the blog, and discussed in sermons, different ways that one can read our Biblical texts. If you pick a theme - say who names whom in the text;
when does water appear and why; when are women present or absent, etc. - and read the text with a singular focus on THAT theme, you see new and interesting phenomena rise to the surface of the text. One such device is death. How is death treated in the text? When does the Torah seem urgently concerned about someone committing a murder, and when is life treated with shocking disregard? What do we make of the Biblical allusions to an afterlife, e.g. Sheol? And perhaps more interestingly, what are we to do with the Torah's frequent (and glaring) LACK of interest in explaining to the reader what happens after we die? Our parashah this week gives us an excellent opportunity to employ this device... and feel utterly bewildered.

The Torah portion of Va-Yeira includes the infamous story of the Binding of Isaac, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son as a sign of his true and complete devotion to the Divine. Abraham doesn't even flinch,
but sets about preparing to commit the heinous act. At the last second, an angel stops Abraham from going through with it, and the text insists that we have our happy ending; Abraham passed the test, no one was harmed, and we should all be inspired when we read this story of flawless faith. And yet, we feel terrible. Along with perhaps EVERYONE in this story, we too are shocked, traumatized, and left questioning what the hell religion is trying to pull here anyway?!?! Most of the time, our distress is directed at the concept of blind faith, the purpose of such atrocious tests, and the cruelty towards parent(s) and child alike. But let's set all that aside for a minute. Let's put on our "special" glasses, and view our story through the lens of considering how the text treats death. You ready?

Not long before our story, God allowed Abraham to talk God out of killing the people of Sodom and Gomorrah IF some righteous individuals could be found in these settlements. Abraham was adamant and indignant; doesn't innocent life matter???
So context makes our chapter even MORE disturbing. Is the Torah trying to tell us that a mass of lives matter, but a single life does not? Whether it's an innocent child or a modern-day journalist? How can we understand the Torah's portrayal of God as asking the unimaginable of Abraham, and neither of them seemingly even ACKNOWLEDGING what an impossible price Abraham is being asked to pay? For me, the answer is simple: We can't. We cannot justify this, we cannot defend this, and I am honestly not even sure the text wants us to. It is trying to push us and provoke us. I believe, wholeheartedly, that the real question - for BOTH our ancient ancestors and for us today - is how we handle the topic of death in our society.

Which leads me to encourage your attendance at our second installment of a program we're calling Death Cafe. Rabbi Miller and I didn't coin the term; Death Cafes are organized all across the globe. And yet, most people today are still uncomfortable with, and HIGHLY reluctant to confront, death.
In part, I would say, it's because we only ever encounter death at funerals and shiva houses, so it's always gut-wrenching, tragic, and filled with wailing. But what if, instead, we came together on a Monday evening (October 29th), with refreshments, fancy table cloths, and a relaxed atmosphere (and possibly Steve Smith's Halloween-themed table decorations...)? No, it's not coincidental that it's being held at the end of October; I think the only other way we seem to handle death is with horror and trick-or-treating, and that isn't healthy either! We CAN talk about this subject in a different way, and I would argue that we NEED to do this. Our tradition is actually FILLED with interesting stories of "good" and... "less-good" deaths, and we want to look at all of them with you. Death is really just another part of life, though I of course understand why it's so hard for many of us to face. And yet, we need to face it and learn to grapple with it. So come join our Death Cafe, and maybe by the time you leave, death won't seem quite so scaaaaaaaary!!

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of B Rosen on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Hans on Pixabay
3. CC image courtesy of Wikipedia
4. CC image courtesy of pxhere

Thursday, October 4, 2018

B'reisheet: It's Time to Change the Rules...

Of all the parshiot in the Torah, I think the one that has done the most damage to all of human civilization is probably this one, at the start of Genesis. Sadly, that's a bold statement, because there are MANY other portions and sentiments that are trying to compete... Nevertheless, I think this one
beats out all the rest. As God begins to form our world, Gen. 1:28 tells us that the earth is ours over which to have dominion. We own it, and we can do what we want with it. Oy... We also have, in that same verse, the very first commandment, namely to "be fruitful and multiply," which is used as a proof text against abortion, as well as any relationship between two individuals that does not yield progeny. Later on, in Genesis 3:16, as punishment for having eaten of the infamous Forbidden Fruit, the first Woman is told, "your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” So in this one Torah portion, we can see the "permission slips" for environmental pollution, extinction of animals, sexism, extremism, and several other destructive forces. Not to mention the Christian notion of Original Sin, and the world's first murder. Yay, B'reisheet...

Right now, at this moment in our national (and international) discourse, I feel I have to focus on one of these issues in particular - how men have ruined everything. I doubt this will surprise any of you: I am a man. And while I DO sometimes enjoy
my Y chromosome, I have to admit that it's been a source of real embarrassment over the last few months (or years...). Instances of sexual harassment and assault seem never-ending. Worse still, they have ALWAYS been happening; they're just coming to light now. For a while, we can blame the assailants, but eventually we have to realize it's a systemic (and maybe even biological) problem. As a society, we think of men as more capable, worth higher salaries, more even-tempered, better leaders/doctors/lawyers/rabbis, more responsible with money, and the list goes on, and on, and ON. When in reality, men have caused more wars, more economic chaos and recessions, and greater abuses by major corporations and business leaders than women ever could!!

In an article on the International Monetary Fund's website, entitled "Empowering Women is Smart Economics," the following point (which should be totally unsurprising) is made: "Evidence from countries
as varied as Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom shows that when women control more household income—either through their own earnings or through cash transfers—children benefit as a result of more spending on food and education (World Bank, 2011)." I probably don't need to reiterate this, but I am a man. And yet, it is abundantly clear to me that the wrong gender was given "dominion" over the other; to EVERYONE'S detriment! But here we are, and the point isn't that we should flip roles, if we even could. Power, however, needs to be shared, and we ALL need to push for greater equality in EVERY aspect of society. What would be the possible downsides?!?! The research is clear; men, women, young, and old - all would benefit.

Recently, I have heard a number of women say that they feel alone and angry. Men aren't doing enough to stand behind the #MeToo and #Time'sUp movements, and not calling other men out on bad behavior. They are right. This is not only
THEIR battle to fight, just as the assault on abortion affects everyone, not only women. So guys, it's time to put our egos aside and take a step back. I'm as big a culprit as anyone; I post my thoughts and opinions online (right here) EVERY WEEK!! I literally pontificate; it's in my job description. But we need to listen. On the High Holidays, I told our congregation, "If you aren't aware of a disadvantage, you are probably the beneficiary of it." We've been complacent too long. This is clearly not a case of a few "bad apples," but a culture of discrimination and violence. Change needs to happen right now. We can't wait any longer, and we can't hide behind the texts of our tradition to justify behaviors we KNOW are wrong. No more. I'm done with that, and you should be too. Time IS indeed up.

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of
2. CC image courtesy of NIH Image Gallery on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Diksha41 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Craig on Flickr

Friday, September 28, 2018

Haftarat Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: Prophecy - A Self-Portrait

We are not a short-sighted people. Jews have been called many things - stiff-necked, cynical, skeptical, full of chutzpah, and, of course, many horrible things - but never short-sighted. Ours is a tradition of prophets and predictions, of constant
awareness of past, present, AND future, of repeatedly emphasizing l'Dor va'Dor, "From Generation to Generation." So here's a thought: Are we therefore more mindful of our own behaviors? That is to say, as a people, a community, of long-term thinkers, who maintain an awareness of what our ancestors did millenia ago, and what we hope and pray our descendants will do millenia hence, are we more likely to retain an awareness of the consequences of our actions? Are we better positioned to say, "Hey, what I do impacts others. My choices today may have ramifications for tomorrow AND for future generations"? Gee, I sure hope so...

This week, I've been thinking a lot about self-perception and the outcomes of our behaviors. At every Jewish holiday, we reference our history AND gaze out into the future. In this week's Haftarah, specific to
the Shabbat that falls in the middle of the festival of Sukkot, the prophet Ezekiel describes a future battle, set on "that distant day" (38:16), when Israel's enemies will fall and peace shall reign. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Purim, and on Pesach; at all these services, our liturgy tells us to look back AND look ahead. We constantly refer to ourselves as the children of Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and Jacob, because our text keeps reminding us that their actions, their faith and loyalty, are the reasons we are still here. And if we want Judaism to remain, we need to provide that same foundation for all future generations.

Look, this can be daunting. We don't envision ourselves as the next matriarchs or patriarchs of all of Judaism. I get it. And yet, too often today, we see examples in media and politics of people with no self-awareness. They have just one
narrative about themselves, and they cannot and will not allow anyone to change their minds. Even as evidence mounts that totally REFUTES that perception, they are indignant. And it is most hurtful when their behaviors cause life-long trauma in others. Not only is it completely unacceptable to say "I don't remember doing that" or "that was never my intention," but it's actually much WORSE, because something that was incredibly damaging and devastating for one person wasn't even significant enough to recall for the other. Looking again at the texts of our tradition, you might argue that the common thread that runs through EVERY prophet's vision, through ALL of Biblical prophecy as a whole, is the impact that one generation has on another. What they did eons ago affects us now, and what we do today will transform those who come after us.

This is a crucial lesson for us all; be aware of how you influence others around you. None of us exists in a vacuum. We are always part of a larger society AND a longer chain of history. At every Jewish holiday, and especially now at Sukkot, our Sages remind us that we are always the weakest link in the chain of Jewish history.
Not because of anything we did (or are doing) wrong, but because we are here RIGHT NOW, and we could break that chain and end our Jewish story TODAY! So please, take this seriously. Be humble enough to know that your self-perception is NOT the only way that you are perceived. Be perhaps a bit more awed (as in fearful...) of how you can build up or tear down others around you. Your speech, your actions, and your physical presence can leave long-lasting impressions, either traumatic or inspiring, and you should hold on to that knowledge EVERY day with the full weight of the gravitas it deserves. Never forget that when we stomp along through life, oblivious to the consequences, we can do ENORMOUS harm. We don't get to just ignore that, or plead ignorance or amnesia. Not ever. It is a permanent standard to which we should hold ourselves, as well as our elected and selected leaders. We simply cannot be short-sighted about these kinds of things; their impact is too great.

Thus endeth my year of commenting on the Haftarah texts instead of the Torah portions. Starting next week, I'm going to change the name of this blog back to "Take on Torah" instead of "... Haftarah." I hope you've enjoyed this year-long departure. I anticipate doing this again in a few years; it was great fun, and a nice change of pace! If you have any feedback/thoughts/comments, either in support or critique of the series, please let me know. Thanks so much!

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of jim simonson on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of
3. CC image courtesy of justgrimes on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of

Friday, September 21, 2018

High Holidays 5779 - Main Sermon, Yom Kippur Morning

Posted below is my main sermon for the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Day Two. To read additional sermons from this year's holidays, go to the drop-down list on the right hand side of the screen. Or from the main page, you can keep scrolling down. Thanks!

YK Main Sermon 5779
Shanah Tovah!

My last two years in rabbinical school, I had the tremendous pleasure of serving as the rabbinic intern for a small congregation outside Charlotte, NC, in the town of Davidson (You may be familiar with Davidson College; Go Steph Curry!). I would fly down to Beth Shalom of Lake Norman, based in Davidson, once a month or so, as well as write a weekly Torah commentary (of course), answer e-mail questions, and work to help them grow their membership and engagement. I loved that congregation, and the terrific people there, and I am pleased to say I am still friends with some of my former congregants... AND, I once did something very dumb in that community.

After having completed a full year as their rabbi, I decided we knew each other well enough; it was time for some radical honesty (though I didn’t use that term back then). I was twenty-seven, I hadn’t even graduated rabbinical school yet, and I’d had twelve successful months in a quasi-pulpit; so yeah, I was basically an idiot. Therefore, on Yom Kippur of only my SECOND High Holidays with them, I talked about a very personal topic. I shared with them that I have been in a life-long battle with eating and with my weight. I told them I was doing Weight Watchers, that it was going quite well, and that it was important to be able to talk about challenging issues like these.

Well, for the next full year, just about every single person in that congregation would come up to me when I’d arrive for my monthly visits and ask, “How’s it going? How much have you lost? Have you been sticking with your plan? What’s your current weight? I shouldn’t offer you any food, should I? Ha, ha, ha! Hilarious…” When the year finally came to a close - and I really DID love all those people and we had a wonderful rapport - I vowed NEVER to speak about weight and eating ever, ever, EVER again.

So, today, I would like to talk to you about my weight. I lasted a decade, ok? I think that’s pretty good. In a way, this feels like an unnecessarily stupid risk, in part because I will NOT be finished with you people twelve, short months from now, and I have no real reason to believe that people here will be more respectful of my privacy. Nevertheless, I am going to do this, because I am a firm believer in radical honesty. It is my focus for these High Holiday sermons, indeed it is my theme for the entire year, and honestly, the more I think about it, it may be a new pervasive thread that will permeate my entire rabbinate. (Unless this backfires horribly…)

I must admit, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t dieting. As a kid, I remember trying those horrible soup diets, where you eat the same soup for seven days in a row, for one or maybe even two meals EVERY day. That didn’t go too well. I’ve done Weight Watchers four or five times, dating back to my teen years, I’ve tried Atkins and South Beach, I’ve worked with nutritionists, therapists, and psychiatrists. I’ve probably fluctuated 60 or so pounds, up and down, in the past twenty years, and I am incredibly afraid of the repercussions if I cannot get a handle on this before I turn 40. If we’re being really, REALLY honest here - and no point in holding back now, right? - my therapist, whom I’ve now seen essentially since I moved here, recently said that looking at my anxiety around eating, my constant struggles, my overeating, my fears around it, my obsessions; at this point, we should probably consider this an eating disorder. Wow, I just said that, didn’t I?

“Eating disorder”??? That’s kind of ludicrous, don’t you think? I mean, eating disorders are typically bulimia or anorexia, no? Not this! And don’t they mainly affect women and girls, usually in their teens? But those are kind of stereotypes; one-dimensional stories we tell ourselves, and that actually do more harm than good. It took a while for it to sink in, for me to own it, but it is true; my eating is VERY disordered. Food is never NOT on my mind. It’s rumbling around constantly, like a white noise machine whooshing constantly in the background. You think it’s just fine, you tune it out, it’s no big deal… but then if and when someone actually shuts the darn whoosher off, your whole body relaxes, and you realize how annoying it was. I’m still waiting for someone to hit the off-switch…

Now, I don’t want to pretend that I’ve reached some peace with this, some equilibrium, and that’s why I’m talking about it. Sadly, that’s not it. I am quite terrified speaking about this right now. I haven’t won this fight; I’m wrestling with it RIGHT NOW - Remember, Yisrael, means “one who wrestles with God.” I’m not sure it’s EVER meant to end… I feel overweight all the time. I am not ready to say “fat” just yet; it feels too mean, too unkind, too judgmental. But I have tremendous awe and respect for public figures who own that word, who wear it proudly. Like Lindy West, an incredible journalist, activist, and comedian, who is a contributor to This American Life, a feminist, and a leader in the fat acceptance movement. West speaks bluntly about a struggle that is VERY real for me, and I was recently reading an incredible article of hers in The Guardian from 2017, entitled “I’m not going to answerthe same question about being fat any more.”

West writes: “The most salient thing I have learned over my past six years as a public fat woman... is that everybody is in pain. We all suffer from this hierarchy of bodies. The people lashing out and the people pleading for help exist on the same spectrum. So when fat activists fight to destroy that hierarchy, we are fighting for you, even if you hate us.” I must admit, it’s a fine line, accepting and loving yourself and STILL wanting to change. West has let go of that second half. I’m not there yet. I haven’t found a path down the middle, but I AM searching desperately. In the meantime, I’m in a lot of pain.

I don’t know if this topic resonates with you. Maybe this isn’t your issue at all, not even a little. But I began this sermon series, back on Rosh Hashanah, emphasizing the importance of seeing our privilege, and being sensitive to others who are disadvantaged by it. This IS actually a societal problem, as well as a personal one, so a little Radical Honesty is needed here too. Not too long ago, when Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was a public figure, he was often the target of A LOT of criticism. I’m not going to speak to whether I was a supporter or critic of his, but I DO want to say that perhaps AS often as people spoke about his politics, they talked about his weight. Maybe more than his politics. Jokes about overeating, size, clothing, restaurants, fitting, making room; it was painful to hear. Even as racist jokes and misogynist cracks and anti-Semitic slurs are publicly criticized (though we all know they DO, very much, still exist…), humor directed at fat people seems untouchable; still entirely socially acceptable.

And yet, this sermon is not actually meant to be all about weight and body image. It is, at its core, about vulnerability. I’ve tried to offer a sound byte from each of my sermons, either explicitly or just by repeating it a few times. We started with “If you aren’t aware of a disadvantage, you’re probably the beneficiary of it.” And I wonder how many people here were really, fully conscious of bias against people who are overweight? My Second Day sound byte was “Truth and Fact are not synonyms.” And last night, I didn’t specifically offer a quote to remember, but I might articulate it as, “We have to name our fears, AND tell our own stories.” Today, I simply want to say, “Being vulnerable is hard… but necessary.” Yom Kippur really tries to strip away our defences. We fast, and I think every year I’m amazed at how irritable, exhausted, sluggish, and lethargic all of us become… after not even ONE, whole day! It reminds us of our human frailty; we are not machines, we cannot push ourselves infinitely. Then we also pray for hours on end, not because we keep adding new sentiments, but really to wear away our resistance, and force us to be HONEST and real with ourselves and with one another.

As the day begins to wane, we add a pretty interesting ingredient to this mixture. If you come back after our midday break, around 3:45 p.m., we will not only conduct the Mincha, afternoon service, but we also read the Book of Jonah. If you know anything about that particular Biblical book, you probably recall the whale, or big fish, that swallows Jonah whole and then spits him back out. First of all, I firmly maintain that the big fish is the LEAST interesting thing in that whole book! Nearly everything else is worth discussing, has nuance and different levels, and the fish is just a special effect, and kind of a low-budget one at that. No, let’s talk about something else. When he’s first introduced to us, we learn that Jonah’s full name is Yonah ben Amitai. Which might, indeed, mean that his father’s name was Amitai; that’s how Hebrew names work. But, it is also perhaps interesting that the word “Amitai” comes from a Hebrew root you now know quite well, namely “Emet,” our theme word for the holidays. So we can also read his name as meaning “Jonah, the Truth Guy,” or perhaps more poetically, “Jonah, the Truth Seeker.” And indeed, that is just who we discover him to be.

In short, Jonah is sent to a great city, Nineve, capital of the Assyrian Empire, where God wants him to prophecy that the people should repent and change their ways, or the city will be annihilated in 3 days. Ok, now, spoiler alert (if you don’t want me to ruin the ending because you’re coming back this afternoon, just cover your ears for a second…): The people repent, and the city is saved. Then, a plot twist: Jonah is furious! He didn’t want them to be saved; he felt they were bad people who deserved what was coming to them. Remember, Jonah is a Truth Seeker.

When he challenges God for accepting their repentance, he quotes a line we just discussed last night. “Adonai, Adonai, Eil Rachum v’Chanun.” The Thirteen Attributes of God! A central part of our liturgy. They speak about God being compassionate, kind, and loving, and Jonah essentially says to God, “I knew that verse, and I KNEW you would be forgiving if I spoke on their behalf.” And when he quotes that verse, Jonah only refers to half of it, he stops short right before which word? Emet. Subtly, he is saying, “You may be kind and compassionate, but you are NOT being honest!” Jonah’s top priority is honesty, even if it has to be brutal honesty that is unkind and definitely not vulnerable; that is just who he is.

Jonah has a defender, by the way. He is not alone in espousing this opinion. A few centuries later, just after the year zero, two of our greatest teachers, Hillel and Shammai, were each the heads of a school. In the Babylonian Talmud, in a tractate (or volume) called Ketubot, a question is posed: “What do you say to a bride at her wedding?” Beit Hillel - the house or school of Hillel - responds, “You tell her she’s beautiful.” There’s no question about it. Every bride is beautiful on her wedding day; the most important Jewish value is to speak words of kindness and generosity, NO ONE wants to hear anything else at this moment. Beit Shammai, however, says: “You describe the bride as she is.” When Beit Hillel tries to protest, Beit Shammai retorts, “If she were lame or blind, would you still say of her, ‘she is a beautiful and graceful bride’?? Does it not say in Exodus 23:7: ‘Keep far from a false matter’?” Like the prophet Jonah, Shammai is a Truth Guy. What kind of a society would we have if we lied??? No white lies, no softened truths, just give it to me straight, doc. Just the facts, ma’am; just the facts.

Of course, you might say, “Well, Rabbi Gerber, surely you agree then! Your theme, after all, is ‘Radical Honesty’!” Are you not a “Truth Guy” as well?? But even in my first sermon, I made a distinction between Radical Honesty and Brutal Honesty. If you have to be unkind and cruel, that is NOT Radical Honesty. And I was also emphatic about the difference between Fact and Truth. Jonah wanted to list all the crimes of Nineve and let that determine whether they should be punished or not. JUST the facts. And Shammai wasn’t interested in anyone’s opinion, or whether it was a cruel thing to say; JUST the facts. I know it sounds like an extreme position, but I actually think we see it around us all the time. Rather than open our hearts, internalize someone else’s story, be vulnerable ourselves, and form deeper relationships, it’s easier to simply judge and stereotype. Tell one, simple story, and ignore the true complexity that may be just under the surface. Being vulnerable IS hard… but it is also extremely important.

To some of you, it may seem crazy that I talked about being overweight, about having an eating disorder. It may even seem cruel, even though I’m doing it to myself... because we certainly CAN be cruel to ourselves. Sometimes even MORE ruthless than anyone else ever would. You might say, I’m being TOO honest, perhaps even brutally honest! We don’t need to know this! It’s ok!! Well, I am sorry if this is uncomfortable, but it IS my truth, and I am trying to challenge you to share yours as well. I told you on Rosh Hashanah that I was going to push you; well, this is it! Not just for these High Holiday sermons, not just until the final shofar blast this evening, but all the time. To paraphrase Lindy West, when I’m trying to tear down these barriers, I’m fighting for you, even if you don’t want to hear it. These conversations cannot stop here, cannot end when we’ve got food back in our stomachs. This year, Rabbi Miller and I are going to hold a second Death Cafe, an evening of discussion around a topic that is SO hard for many people to talk about. Death is a paralyzing fear for a lot of you, but we need to NAME it, and form more stories around it to process those fears.

I also hope to invite Men’s Club members to join me for yet another conversation about our role in the #MeToo movement and the changing way society views masculinity. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, or don’t agree a change is coming, please Google a commercial for a company called Bonobos, that uses the hashtag #EvolveTheDefinition, or the shaving company Harry’s that has a commercial called “A Man Like You,” which insists there’s no one way to be a man. This is no longer your grandfather’s masculinity…. I was also watching Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, and he was speaking to another writer and activist, Darnell Moore, who said, “society has to let go of our deep, deep, deep, deep desire - attraction! - to the toxicity that is masculinity... get rid of that!” I hope we are ready to discuss this toxicity with Ohev’s Men’s Club…

So what do YOU want to talk about? These tough subjects shouldn’t all begin with me. Do we need another conversation about addiction in the Jewish community? Focusing, perhaps, on how we all are affected by the opioid crisis in this country? Or maybe we need to revisit our conversations with the Presbyterian churches about Israel and Palestine? I want to have these conversations with you, and so many more, just as long as we are talking, and as long as we are being Radically Honest.

Let me share one other reflection with you: Some of you may be familiar with the writer and journalist, Malcolm Gladwell. He’s written books like “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” and “David and Goliath.” He also hosts a podcast, an audio show you can download to your smartphone, called “Revisionist History.” I LOVE “Revisionist History.” It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, blunt, and sometimes radically honest… possibly bordering on brutally honest. Let’s just say, he has an episode about golf that I know a lot of people here would not like. Malcolm Gladwell hates golf… Anyway, Gladwell’s latest episode, the finale of Season Three, is called “Analysis, Parapraxis,Elvis.” Again, I’m going to ask for a little trust here; you may not see where I’m going with this.

Gladwell begins by talking about a phenomenon called “parapraxis.” You might know it by another name, The Freudian Slip. This occurs when you accidentally say the wrong word, but on a deeper level, subconsciously, it’s actually precisely what you MEANT to say. Like a man who has had a lot of health issues, and the doctor prescribes him yet another expensive medication, and the man says, “Please, doctor, don’t give me any more BILLS, I can’t swallow them!” Or the famous quip: “A Freudian Slip is when you meant to say one thing, but you accidentally say ‘your mother.’” That’s parapraxis. Malcolm Gladwell then talks about Elvis Presley, and his song “AreYou Lonesome Tonight.” It’s one of his most famous songs, but it’s also a fascinating example of parapraxis. Apparently, Elvis could never quite get through the song without messing up. I mean, like, EVER! He couldn’t get the words right.

There are versions where he’s laughing hysterically, almost maniacally, then other times he’s crying or just speaking gibberish. And Elvis Presley was otherwise known for recalling massive amounts of music by heart. It was a block, a mental barrier. Gladwell talks about Elvis’ mother, his wife, Priscilla, and a lot of his struggles, and somehow this song, “Are you Lonesome Tonight,” became a symbol of all of that. His inability to remember the words was another form of parapraxis. The subconscious is just too overpowering… Gladwell then interviews a country singer named Casey Bowls who wrote a song about HER mother, and sure enough, she too can never quite get through it without making mistakes. I’m not doing the episode justice; it’s worth listening to, if you’re interested. But ultimately, Malcolm Gladwell gets to his crescendo, and it will help me arrive at mine:

These mistakes appear embarrassing. They seem like disastrous errors, and surely the ideal would be to get through a performance flawlessly, perfectly. No, says Gladwell. “Parapraxis is a gift. It is a window on our pain. Mistakes reveal our vulnerabilities. They are the way the world understands us; the way performers make their performances real.” Our entire society is geared towards NOT making mistakes, NOT crying, NOT breaking down, and certainly NOT showing vulnerability. But as a result, we have addictions, we have anger issues, we struggle in relationships with family, spouses, and friends, AND we have eating disorders. It’s NOT all fine. We are NOT fine.

Something needs to give… but again, it’s a fine line, a tough and narrow path to walk. We should be kind to ourselves, compassionate, and forgiving, BUT we also need to be Radically Honest. Gladwell concludes by pointing out how we judge one another for mistakes. We criticize any public mistakes really, but for our purposes we might mention being overweight, or being blind to our privilege, or not being religious or observant enough. Says Gladwell: “The easiest thing in the world is to look at those mistakes and condemn. The much harder thing is to look at those mistakes and understand.” My dear Ohev Shalom family, do not obsess over the facts. It’s easy to put two and two together and let the facts guide your opinion. But that will blind you; it’s too extreme! It might lead you to say some pretty harsh things to a bride or condemn an entire city - or perhaps, these days, an entire religion - without really seeing a deeper truth.

A new year is beginning. Do not miss this opportunity. This is OUR “Torat Emet,” our Torah of Truth; our Instruction, Teaching, Heritage, and Creed. hThe easiest thing in the world is to nod your head, beat your chest, and then, tonight, go have a bagel and forget the whole thing. It is much harder to resolve to change, and then stay committed to it. Our Torat Emet reminds us to examine our privilege, search for genuine truths hiding behind endless facts, and strive to be more vulnerable, more kind, and radically (but not brutally!) honest. To me, THAT is what it means to genuinely and lovingly search for truth. That is how we can all become ben, or bat, or mi’beit Amitai - Seekers of Truth. The search continues, our journey continues. But I feel blessed and honored to share this journey with all of you.

Shanah Tovah!