Shedding New Light on Jewish Traditions

Rabbi's Writings

Here are samples of the writings of Rabbi Joshua Waxman
 
"remembering a warrior for peace"
"who will live, and who will die?"
 
 
"remembering a warrior for peace"
 
  Tomorrow, November 4, marks the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory.  It is hard to imagine that twenty years have passed since that tragic night when Rabin was murdered by Jewish extremist Yigal Amir, an opponent of the Oslo peace process which Rabin had championed and which had led to a preliminary agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
  Rabin was just leaving a Tel Aviv rally that night in 1995 in support of that effort when he was murdered, dashing the momentum toward a two-state solution which at the time seemed inevitable and today seems almost unattainable.  A few months ago I stood with fellow congregants at a memorial marking the place where both Rabin and any hopes for an imminent end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were struck down.  Choking back tears, I led us in El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer, in remembrance of a fierce warrior for Israel's founding and safety in the
War of Independence and the Six-Day War - and then a different sort of soldier, a warrior for peace who recognized that Israel's ultimate security and stability depend on a resolution to the conflict.  Our group visited the remarkable Yitzhak Rabin Center, dedicated to his life and legacy - and reflected on how Israeli politics since that fateful day has only become more hateful and divisive.
  Tomorrow I will be fasting to mark the twentieth anniversary of Rabin's assassination
- a mark of my sorrow at the death of a great leader, murdered by a fellow Jew; of my prayers for what might have been and what might yet be; and of my commitment to continue working toward the goals that Yitzhak Rabin upheld in life and in death
- a state of Israel, free and secure, living in peace with its neighbors.  I invite you to join me in fasting tomorrow as well, and to make a donation in Rabin's memory to an organization of your choice that supports these goals.  I have included a list below, and also highly recommend listening to a recent episode of public radio's program This American Life that was devoted to the assassination and its impact on contemporary Israeli society.  And I invite you to join me at services this Friday evening when we will recall and acknowledge Rabin's legacy (in an age-appropriate manner for our second and third graders who will be attending the service!) and rededicate ourselves to hoping and working for peace for Israel.
 
Yehi zichro baruch - may the memory of Yitzhak Rabin ever be for a blessing.
B'tikvat shalom / With prayers for peace,
 
Rabbi Joshua Waxman
organizations to continue the work of Yitzhak Rabin:
- The Yitzhak Rabin Center
- J Street
- AIPAC

 

"who will live, and who will die?"

The latest round of violence gripping Israel is leaving those who deeply love the country and care for its future feeling shaken and hopeless.  In the past days, there has been an escalating series of attacks and counter-attacks, a vicious and deadly cycle of recrimination and revenge that is leaving both Israeli and Palestinian families broken and mourning.  The seemingly improvisational nature of the latest round of attacks - apparently individuals acting on their own initiative rather than the work of any organized groups - only adds to the feelings of chaos and uncertainty, recalling the existential anxiety with which we begin the year just a few weeks ago asking, "mi yichyeh, umi yamut - who will live and who will die?"

 

We pray that the majorities on both sides of the conflict who hope for a peaceful and sustainable solution will not give in to despair or to the all-too-easy temptation to dismiss and demonize the "other."  We who are looking and worrying from afar must affirm as a core principle the dignity and humanity of both Jews and Palestinians - a shared humanity that only makes the recent bloodshed and loss of life all the more tragic.  In that spirit, I want to encourage you to read a blog post responding to recent events by Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, an Israeli settler who helps lead a dialogue group that brings together Israeli settlers and Palestinians who have both suffered violence within their families.  The difficult and sometimes painful work of Roots and similar organizations is often lost behind the bloody headlines, but the critical work of maintaining and building connections, acknowledging shared suffering, and making room for hope in the face of despair is crucial if Israelis and Palestinians will find their way out of this latest cycle of violence and to the lasting and sustainable resolution we all yearn for.

 

May the One who makes peace in the high places send peace to us, to Israel, and to all who dwell on earth, and may all the peoples of the land we call holy know tranquility and peace.

 

B'tikvat shalom / With prayers for peace

 

9-14-2015

5776 Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon

The best-known tale of ambition in the Bible is the account of the Tower of Babel.  The people of the world, the Torah tells us, begin to build an enormous tower that they intend to reach up to the very heavens.  They seek to create a massive monument: in the words of the Torah, to make a name for themselves.  The project, as we know, comes to an abrupt end when God causes the world’s peoples to speak different languages, sowing confusion and making further cooperation impossible.   Unable to communicate with each other the people abandon the enterprise and are scattered across the earth.

There is much left unexplained in what may be the world’s earliest, and most cryptic, story of human hubris.  Clearly the people’s actions anger God – a response that one of our Bat Mitzvah students several years ago admitted was mystifying to her: “My parents are always telling me to cooperate with my brothers.  Here, the people are all cooperating… and God gets angry about it!”  She had a point!  The relative virtues of cooperation for its own sake notwithstanding, however, the more interesting question to me that the story raises is the one of ambition: what does it mean that the people decide to erect this tower in the first place, what does it mean to make a name for yourself, and what’s wrong with that anyway?

Ambition is a tricky thing.  As the drive to accomplish and achieve, it is tremendously powerful in ways that can be both incredibly constructive and incredibly destructive.  As I read and thought about ambition, two distinct schools of thought emerged – one that views ambition as fundamentally good but needing to be tempered because it can become bad, and one that thinks it’s fundamentally bad (or, at least, suspect) and has to be carefully monitored and checked so it has the possibility of bringing about something good.  Our story, I would argue, doesn’t give us enough information to get a clear take on the Torah’s view of this issue.  God, obviously, is angered by the project to the point of undoing it, but is it because the people’s ambition was bad in and of itself or because they expressed their legitimate ambitions in a bad way?  Given how effective the people are in acting on their ambition, there seems to be a core of ambiguity about the issue at the heart of the story that I think reflects the ambivalence we feel about ambition today.

On the plus side, ambition involves a refusal to accept conventional limitations and boundaries.  Ambition can cause us to look at a situation and seek to transform it.  Ambition creates new possibilities – new life-saving medications, new useful technologies, new companies, new social movements.  Martin Luther King, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Theodore Herzl: the great good they engendered was a function of their talent, their passion, their vision and, yes, their ambition: the drive to get out in front and make things happen without which all of the rest would be merely clever ideas and noble impulses.  In the marketplace ambition is celebrated: the drive to create something new, or make something old work better, or to produce it more efficiently is the engine that drives our economy and innovation, and we are the beneficiaries of the results.  The builders of the Tower of Babel didn’t just sit around on their tucheses in their parents’ living rooms and wish for a big tower: they were entrepreneurial disruptors who envisioned it and then took the initiative and set out to make it happen!  What parents wouldn’t want their children to be ambitious?

At the same time, we’re well aware of the ways and reasons in which ambition can be corrosive and destructive.  Ambition often involves trying to put yourself ahead and can be damaging both for you and for anyone who stands between you and your goal.  We all know people who are always trying to get ahead, who prize advancement and climbing the ladder above all else, pushing aside coworkers, or engaging in ethically dubious practices, or simply ignoring the needs of their spouses and children in the quest to work longer and harder hours.  We all know parents who push their kids to take seventeen AP classes, make three travel teams, and take test prep after test prep in an attempt to get into the best schools and have the best shot at getting ahead.  We turn on the news and are bombarded with the stories of the twenty-two (and counting ) men and women who are competing to be their respective parties’ presidential nominees next fall – one of whom is taking the Babel story a step further by not only putting his name on several towers, but on casinos and golf courses as well.  Many of these candidates are good people who genuinely want to make a positive contribution to this country.  But their ambition drives them to stake out positions they don’t genuinely believe in, chase after campaign cash from wealthy donors to whom they’ll be beholden after the election, and generally embarrass themselves and the office to which they aspire in their quest for attention and momentum in the polls.  Turn on the news and look at the jockeying and sniping at debates and on Sunday morning talk shows: this is what raw ambition looks like.

It’s no wonder, incidentally, that while Jewish tradition deeply values and acknowledges the importance of leaders and leadership, it is also often suspicious of those who actively seek out leadership positions.  As our tradition puts it, “A person should not on his own place a crown on his head, but others may do so for him.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 11)  Our classic model for this, of course, is Moses who resists God’s call several times, begging God to send someone else as messenger to Pharaoh and, at various points through the forty years of wandering, asking God to lift the burden of leadership from him.  The ideal of the reluctant leader is one way to solve our ambivalence about ambition by reconciling the importance of strong leadership with the lack of seeking glory or personal advancement.  In practice, of course, the attributes that propel people into leadership positions are precisely those that can lead them to abuse those positions, that make it hard to exercise authority fairly and make it difficult to relinquish power.  So the ideal, sadly, remains the rather rare exception and a survey of history and our own experience often serves both as a caution against ambition and a reinforcement of its seductive dangers.

Take our tower builders, for instance.  In the Torah’s account they say to one another: “Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens that we may make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (Gen. 11:4)  So, first it’s striking that the initial impulse to take up this project comes not from a place of hope, but of fear: “Let us build up this tower lest we be scattered over all the earth.”  The endeavor springs directly from the people’s anxiety that they are powerless and inconsequential.  And this point gives us insight into the phrase, “Let us make ourselves a name.”  The “name” they seek  is connected with the idea of creating something permanent, a bulwark against impotence and oblivion.  The “name” is an attempt to transcend the limitations and finitude which are inherent in what it means to be human, which are the lot of flesh and blood.  And this insight in turn yields another: that their desire to build this tower “with its top in the heavens” is a bid for eternity by supplanting God, a drive to displace God in both a literal and symbolic sense.   This view is embraced by the midrash, which imagines the construction of the tower as an act of rebellion and the builders planning to ascend with bows and spears in an assault on heaven.  No wonder God such takes stern action in the story.

Obviously the idea of trying to defeat God in armed combat is ridiculous, strikes us as absurd.  But the core anxiety at the heart of the story about obliteration, about being reduced to nothingness and being forgotten, and the resulting desperate drive to assert our own power and make a name for ourselves – this is something that is tragically all too believable.  The idea of displacing God because God is a terrifying reminder of our own fragility and mortality, of trying to build up with our own hands faster than we imagine God can tear down – these can be a powerful and dangerous engine for human ambition.  It’s also an idea that stands in stark opposition to what Rosh ha-Shanah is about, since this day calls us to acknowledge our limitations in the face of God and the unknown future.  Rather than ignore or deny this reality by seeking to make a name for ourselves, rather than attempting to wrest control from God over our own names and fates, on this day we humbly ask God to care for us, to inscribe our names in the Book of Life – to entrust our names and fates to God’s embrace and acknowledge that we are not the masters of our own destinies.

Two years ago, following our visit by Rabbi Arthur Green as our scholar in residence, I decided to focus a year of Shabbat morning Torah study on early Hasidic commentaries and insights to our weekly portions.  One of the passages I discovered, exploring the vessels of the Mishkan, came from the Maggid of Mezritch, the renowned 18th century teacher and disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut.  He points out that the word for “blood” in Hebrew is “dam,” spelled ‘dalet, mem,’ as in “creatures of flesh and blood” – a standard Jewish turn of phrase for people.  This word is one letter shy of the Hebrew word for “human,” adam.  What’s the difference, the Maggid asks, between being a person, dam, and being human, adam?  It’s an aleph, the silent first letter of the Hebrew alphabet which in Jewish mystical thought represents God and the ultimate oneness of all existence.  It is only by incorporating God’s will into our own and joining ourselves to God’s transcendent purposes that we can become most fully human.

And this teaching, to me, casts the story of the Tower of Babel and the idea of making a name for ourselves in a whole new light.  The people in the story are trying to make a name for themselves.  They do this from a place of fear, resentment, and despair and they do it by trying to usurp God’s place.  But they don’t understand that they and God are already deeply intertwined as dam and adam: that you can’t usurp the one without doing indescribable damage to the other.  The people of Babel refused to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and, by extension, refused to acknowledge the Divine image in which all people are created.  The midrash tells us that workers routinely plummeted to their deaths in the course of building the Tower and this did not upset the builders at all since there were so many to replace them, but if a brick were to fall this would be treated as a calamity since it would slow the progress of the tower.  This, of course, is an extreme example.  And yet ambition – at least, the sort of ambition we should be concerned about – has the capacity to treat other people as stepping stones, obstacles to be overcome, resources to be ground up, or ‘sacrifices that must be made.’  Ambition tends to treat people as means to fulfill your all-consuming goals, rather than as Divinely created ends.  We deny the aleph of people’s ultimate meaning and infinite worth, seeking to make a name for ourselves that is alienated from its Divine source because it denies and distorts it in others.

Ambition is, at its root, transformative – an unwillingness to accept the world as we find it and a desire to change or remake it.  How we do that, I think, is the best indicator of whether our ambitions will be dangerous and damaging, or positive and productive.  Ambition that holds firmly on to the idea of all people being in God’s image, that is to say, of human value, dignity, and purpose has the capacity to transform in marvelous ways – clearing away slums, creating new medicines, lifting people out of poverty, creating vibrant works of art.  But it’s not the goals alone that have to be worthy – it’s also the means we use to accomplish our ends that have to uphold these efforts if our ambition will extol rather than distort our humanity.  Our ambition should not be for the sake of our own ego or gratification, or flow from a place of fear and desperation.  Unlike the builders of Babel we cannot seek merely to build up our own names because these efforts will founder as surely as the crumbling of the Tower.  Instead, we have to fully embrace the Divinity and infinite worth in each and every person, adding the aleph to our own dam and realizing our collective divinely-infused human name.

And so as we enter this New Year I want to urge us all to be profoundly ambitious.  I want us to strive, and build, and transform.  I want us to pursue our dreams.  But I also want us to ask ourselves: What are those things that are truly worth being ambitious about?  How do we make sure the goals we are pursuing are ones that promote the good and dignity of all people, and not just our own personal gain?  How can we put energy not only into advancing our careers but also into advancing our families?  How can we aspire to excel not only in school, in sports, and at work, but also in kindness, patience and gratitude?  How can we set and achieve lofty goals for teshuvah, the work we hope to do on ourselves in the coming days and in this New Year, pushing ourselves to examine and evaluate the way we live our lives, the priorities we set, the way we live in this world.   Let us be ambitious.  But let us act from a place of hope and humility, not from a place of fear or arrogance.  This year, let us strive to make our lives into towers that reach up to the heavens – towers built tall with compassion, made of bricks of generosity and constructed with humility and awe, all resting on an unwavering foundation of love.  And let us make a name for ourselves, a name that exalts the deepest realization of what it means to be created in God’s image.

9-13-2015

5776 Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Five months ago I had the privilege of leading Or Hadash’s second-ever congregational visit to Israel.  Our first trip was seven years ago and was a huge success, and another visit was long past due.  And so in April, after a lengthy planning process, twenty-one of us set out for an opportunity to travel to Israel on a journey of discovery, engagement, and encounter.  I was personally so excited about this trip not only because it’s always terrific to be in Israel but also because I had crafted the itinerary with a vision of visiting places and connecting to specific moments and people that I thought were most important for our group to experience.  And then leading the trip itself: having the honor to present, frame, and mediate the experiences of our Or Hadash group.  This journey was an opportunity to share a place I love with people I love – with all its complexities, challenges, frustrations, and joys.

The same is true with these Holidays – because at this time of year we are also engaged in a journey, not to a faraway country but into our often-faraway selves.  This journey, like our Israel trip, is also at its core experiential: we understand not by observing but by doing.  Like our Israel trip, there are certain key can’t-miss landmarks along the way but also opportunities for enriching detours and exploration.  Like our visit, it is a journey that we must make for ourselves but surrounded by, and in the midst of, community.  And like our visit, I have the daunting honor and privilege of helping to present, shape, and lead us through the experience – to be your guide.  Which is why I’m happy to present, as we step through customs and passport control of this new year of 5776, the top ten things I have learned about doing teshuvah from leading Or Hadash’s second congregational trip to Israel.

Number 10: Prioritize.  Israel is such a rich country: there is so much to see, do, and learn and there was no way we could cover more than a small portion of it in the time we had.  Putting together an itinerary was often excruciating: everything we chose to include meant something else we couldn’t do.  I had to do my best to select the things I felt were most important not simply in and of themselves (although obviously some things couldn’t be missed under any circumstances) but within the context of what we had already seen and what we were trying to accomplish with our visit.  We may face the terrain of teshuvah – the intimidating list of qualities we need to work on in ourselves and relationships we need to seek to repair with others – with less enthusiasm, but there is no denying that there is an awful lot to see and do.  Like Israel, it’s important that we visit; and like Israel, we can’t possibly hope to take in everything at once.  We have to think about and realistically select what we think is both most important and most feasible to work on.  We should seek out new places to explore, even as we realize that it might be most important to revisit a place we have already been a number of times.

Number 9: Each journey is its own process.  I had thought, perhaps naively, that because I had already led an Or Hadash Israel trip once before, this one would be much easier.  And there were some small ways in which it was, some pitfalls I discovered last time around that I learned to avoid.  But, to be honest, it wasn’t as much easier as I would have thought.  Maybe pieces of the planning – but once you’re actually underway, once you’re engaged in the process, the journey demands your full self because you have to be present to whatever is actually in front of you.  As leader, I couldn’t be blasé about, say, the Kotel – a place I have been dozens of times before this trip.  I couldn’t skip floating in the Dead Sea, even though it’s cold and it stings.  It was important for me to re-experience everything I had done and seen before, to look at it with fresh eyes so I could be open to the reactions and needs of the people there with me, not to my expectations or assumptions.  This wasn’t some trip where I stood out on the sidelines; this was a journey I needed to take along with the people I was accompanying.

And the same is true with teshuvah – there’s no phoning it in, no such thing as doing it halfway or of undertaking the work without fully engaging in the process.   Yes, we might have been to any number of the places we’re seeking to make changes in our lives before, perhaps many times.  But if we want to make meaningful change, we have to allow ourselves to truly be there again.

Number 8: Your guide is really important.  I led the trip, but I wasn’t the guide – that was Francis, the Kiwi-Israeli who charmed us instantly, irritated us occasionally, and loved us unconditionally.  For me she was a great partner – responsive to what I asked and what I felt the group needed, but also unafraid to offer her own take and opinions (oh, did she offer her opinions!).  We chart our own itinerary when we set out to do our teshuvah, but having someone who’s on our side, who’s been there before, and who knows the terrain is indispensable.

Number 7: Don’t let this group near a winery, especially if you want to get some quiet time on the bus.

Number 6: Communication is really important.  Before we left for Israel, our group met a number of times to talk about our hopes and dreams for the trip.  And during the trip I was constantly checking in with everyone to see how they were, and we scheduled a formal group check-in for partway through the trip to take the temperature and see how we were responding to some of the particularly challenging things we’d heard and seen.  I was listening for what I heard – and for what I didn’t hear.  All of this was vital to my role, including knowing when to step back and let others take the lead.  Whether we’re seeking to improve our connection with someone else, renewing a strained relationship, or even working on our own shortcomings, check-ins, clarity, and lots of communication truly are essential.

Number 5: Set a demanding pace… but not too demanding.  Look, we only had so many days in Israel and there was so much to see and do.  We talked at our first meeting about how this trip wasn’t a vacation – we weren’t going to fly all the way to Israel to kick up our heels and sleep in.  At the same time it wouldn’t be good for anyone to run ourselves into the ground.  The work of teshuvah is emotionally and spiritually exhausting.  Like the limited duration of our Israel visit we have to take advantage of the time we have – the thirty days of Elul leading up to Rosh ha-Shanah and especially these next ten days through Yom Kippur – because it’s too important to let slide.  But we can’t push ourselves past the breaking point either or we won’t be able to pull back and get the broader perspective and energy necessary to reengage.  Yes, we might have six important places to get to and people to hear from before lunch time.  But it’s important that we also have the chance to take that opportunity to enjoy lunch, and ice cream, and a bathroom break, and shopping (you know who you are!).

Related to this is Number 4: Preparation and intention are important when it comes either to trip planning or teshuvah – but you have to be open to what arises in the process.  There were certainly places in our itinerary where I had specific things planned; and I really had put a lot of thought and effort into the planning because I wanted us to get the most out of our time there.  But then we might be running late, or people were tired, or an event we planned to attend was rescheduled.  Or, sometimes, there was simply something serendipitous that fell into our laps, like the opportunity to hear from a truly gifted and inspiring speaker like Anat Hoffman or Gershon Baskin, even if the timing wasn’t great.  So by all means, go into your process of teshuvah prepared and with intention.  Be thoughtful about what you hope to accomplish and what you hope to have happen.  But also be open to unexpected detours and opportunities along the way, because being open and receptive might bring you spiritual insights you never could have planned finding.

Number 3: Some things can’t be understood by being talked about, they have to be experienced.  We had a number of people on our trip who had spent time in Israel before, but also a high number of first-timers, or people who hadn’t been in a very long while.  Everyone who went on the trip was knowledgeable and thoughtful when it came to Israel.  But it’s one thing being knowledgeable and another thing experiencing for ourselves.   Whether it was seeing the light in Jerusalem as day turns to dusk, whether it was seeing with our own eyes the separation barrier between Israelis and Palestinians outside the hills of Jerusalem, or whether it was sitting down with Israelis, Jewish and Arab, to enter into conversation and dialogue about shared fears, hopes, and dreams – there is literally no substitute for being and doing.  The idea here is one of encounter: we don’t really begin to know or understand something until we have really and truly brought ourselves there.  Looking at a picture or reading a guidebook just doesn’t give you the experience of being there.

And I say that because we are all holding guidebooks right now, the machzor with the liturgy that will take us through these next ten days that open the year.  The machzor is a wonderful guidebook, with many beautiful and moving ancient and modern words.  But we need to do more than read those words: we need to actually experience the ideas and emotions they lay open for us, recognize the power and dread of the unknown.  And we must be open to sincerely and frankly assessing and considering ourselvesour fears, our hopes, our dreams – not in some abstract, theoretical fashion but through honestly and openly encountering our deepest selves.

Number 2: We have to grapple with the people and places we love.  Our trip was complex and nuanced; it involved some frank and unblinking looks at the realities and complexities of today’s Israel, things that can be really hard to face or acknowledge.  In leading this trip, it was vital for me that we use our time not merely to paint a pretty picture or have a feel-good experience.  Why?  Because if we want to deepen our appreciation of and love for Israel we need to understand it more fully and have to acknowledge its shortcomings and the work that still needs to happen for Israel to be the country we all hope it can be.  Grappling is an act of true love – apologetics or denials serve our own needs, and indifference is just a sign of resignation.  To love we must be in relationship – with the good, with the bad and, yes, with the ugly.  Doing teshuvah involves lots of grappling – with the people who are part of our lives and with ourselves.  Sometimes we need to seek a change in ourselves or in someone else and It’s hard, it’s painful, and sometimes we might prefer to avoid it all together.  But we can’t duck out on our relationships with – and our responsibilities to – those we love: to do that hard work, to honestly engage, to try to make things better.

And the Number 1 thing I learned about doing teshuvah from leading our congregational trip to Israel: It’s so much better with other people.  When we first met as a group and I asked people why they wanted to be a part of this trip, most people explained that they wanted to visit Israel as part of this congregation.  Which is interesting because so much of the work of encounter, of going deep and trying to truly explore something and understand what it means, is profoundly personal.  No one can do it for us; we have to show up to do it ourselves.  But while an encounter with something significant – with a person, an idea, with a place, or with ourselves – is a highly individual experience we are carried and supported by the knowledge that we are not alone in taking that journey, that others around us are taking their own distinct journeys alongside us.  This is the power of travelling as a congregation, and this is the power of entering the New Year as a community.  We all have journeys we need to undertake over the next ten days – highly personal and intensely individual journeys.  No one can do it for us.  But people can do it with us, and knowing that we are surrounded by a loving and supportive community that shares our values, and knowing that Jews around the world are engaged in the same process of teshuvah at this very same moment, can be a profoundly powerful boost to our own interior work.  Because it’s hard, and there aren’t shortcuts.   But standing on our own, yet held in this community’s loving embrace, we can travel deeply and travel well.

Nesiyah tovah – travel safely on your journeys wherever they take you this coming year, and know you are not alone.

7-31-2015

hate in the land of hope

It's just over a week since our family returned from Israel and while it is wonderful to be back (in Elkins Park for Aimee and me; at Camp JRF for Tzvi, Yael, and Adir) it was a tremendous privilege to spend three weeks in Jerusalem reconnecting with the people, places, tastes, and sounds that made our Sabbatical year so rich and meaningful.  Toward the end of our time, news emerged of the proposed nuclear agreement that President Obama negotiated with Iran and conversations all around us were full of opposition or support, pros and cons of the proposal which has great potential implications for Israel's future security. 

Deciphering the language of the agreement and trying to guess at the Iranians' true intentions is difficult, and that uncertainty is plainly at the heart of so many  people's fears and concerns about the proposal.  What is absolutely certain, however, is that Israel faces as great a threat from within as it does from without, in the form of the hatred and division that mark segments of Israeli society today.  Yesterday, as you may have seen, an Ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six marchers at a Gay Pride  Parade in Jerusalem, leaving two in critical condition.  The attacker had just been let out of jail three weeks earlier following a ten-year sentence for a similar  attack at the 2005 Pride Parade.  That same evening, a sickening attack took place in the Northern West Bank town of Duma, when Jewish extremists set fire to a Palestinian home, killing a 1 1/2-year old boy and critically injuring his parents and four-year old brother.  Graffiti at the site of the home labelled the act as a "price tag"  attack - vigilante retaliation by Jewish right-wing extremists. 

Both attacks have been roundly condemned across the Israeli political spectrum,  including by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who visited the Palestinian victims in this hospital.  But they both point out the terrible destruction that can occur when  racism, hatred, and indifference to human suffering become an accepted feature of portions of Israeli society, as in increasingly common as government ministers demonize asylum seekers and a Knesset member called for the Supreme Court to be bulldozed  for ordering the demolition of two illegally built Jewish settlement homes. 

On Saturday night at Or Hadash we commemorated Tisha b'Av, marking the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and so many other tragic events in Jewish history that fell on that date.  The rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of the sin of sin'at chinam, baseless hatred which took hold when residents of the land of Israel turned against each other.  I fear we are now witnessing the rise  of a similar baseless hatred in right-wing Israeli society, with scorn and vitriol leading to exactly the sorts of divisions that most seriously threaten a society  and its institutions. As we move to Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation  following Tisha b'Av, yes let us be concerned about the threats to Israel's safety and well-being from external enemies, but let us also be equally concerned about  the threats to the land we love that come from within. 

4-1-15

passover message from Rabbi Josh

On Friday evening, Jews around the world will gather around our Seder tables to celebrate our freedom and declare "Let all who are hungry come and eat."  Last Thursday, a group of congregants joined together at Or Hadash to help make this sentiment more than just words.  With the help of Janet Karp and Alisa Belzer, we hosted the heads of three organizations that fight hunger in our area - the Mitzvah Food Project, Jewish Relief Agency, and Aid for Friends.  After learning more about each of their organizations we held a Hunger Seder where we used readings and the Passover rituals to commit ourselves to work against hunger and then we packed meals to be delivered to homebound elderly through Aid for Friends.

In keeping with the spirit of the Hunger Seder and our congregation's efforts to help feed those who are hungry, I've put our Haggadah - adapted from materials created by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Mazon - on our website in hopes that you may incorporate some of its readings and messages into your own celebration.  I also want to encourage you to take a stand against hunger by signing a petition in support of the Farm Bill - which funds crucial nutritional programs such as SNAP and is facing steep cuts - writing to your congress person, and making a donation to one of the above organizations or to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger as a way to help the 1 in 6 Americans - and 1 in 4 residents across the greater Philadelphia area - who are affected daily by hunger and food insecurity.

And in the words of our Hunger Seder Haggadah:

One day, God, may it be Your will that we live in a world perfected, in which food comes to the hungry as from heaven and water will flow to the thirsty as a stream. But in the meantime, while the world is filled with hunger, empower us to stand on Your behalf and fulfill the words of your prophet: "to all who are thirsty bring water," and "greet those who wander with food."  This Passover, bless us that we should sustain the hungry.

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2-25-15

Purim Message from Rabbi Josh

Next week, Wednesday, March 4, we celebrate Purim, starting with pizza at 6:00, our children's costume parade and adult costume competition at 6:30, service and Megillah reading at 7:00, and Spiel at 8:00.

Purim, of course, celebrates the victory of Esther, Mordechai, and the Jews of Persia over the plans of the wicked Haman who sought to destroy them.  Haman convinces King Achashverosh to agree to his plan by saying, "There is a certain nation scattered and spread out among the nations in all the countries of your kingdom.  Their laws are different from the laws of every other nation.  They do not even follow the King's laws; so it does not pay for the King to let them stay alive. If it please the King, let a law be written that they should be destroyed..." (3: 8-9) The words of the Book of Esther capture in a nutshell the Jewish diaspora experience of being marginalized, labelled as 'other' and accordingly made radically vulnerable in so many of the lands of our dispersion.  Even in recent weeks we have seen Jews specifically targeted in the streets of Paris and Copenhagen, murdered by those who hate values of tolerance and freedom, seventy years after the end of World War II and the greatest tragedy any people has ever known.

In just over a month I have the profound honor of leading a group of congregants to Israel, the state built on the ashes of the Holocaust and the one place where Jews will never be "scattered" and "different."  Read the entire article and learn how to vote in the World Zionist Congress here.

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7-8-14

working for peace in the face of violence

It is with mounting sadness and anxiety that I have been following news out of Israel, where it
seems that crisis is escalating by the hour. As I write, Israel has announced the initiation of Operation Protective Edge, designed to halt the barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel,hundreds of which have been launched over the past three weeks and which have the range to threaten more than one million Israeli citizens. The regular rocket fire and the routine of sirens and emergency evacuations are clearly unacceptable and I pray that Israel's actions can stop the rockets while causing as little destruction and as few injuries on both sides as possible. Israel's right to defend itself from constant aggression is unquestionable. At the same time, defense against hostility can never be confused with retribution and vengeance. Like all of you, I have been sickened to hear of the barbaric abduction and murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists - ostensibly in response to the horrifying murder of Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach. This is not our way, and I applaud the Israeli government for promptly tracking down and arresting the perpetrators whom theyhave rightly labelled "Jewish terrorists." Grief and mourning, however sincere, can never be used as a justification for acts of retribution - a point the rabbis make about this week's Torah portion when they condemn Pinchas and disavow his act of religious zealotry: lasting and sustainable peace can only be accomplished through difficult acts of engagement and reconciliation, in spite of the pain that might provoke us to lash out. We see this truth in the powerful model of Rachel Fraenkel, mother of Naftali, and Hussein Abu Khdeir, father of Muhammad, who have both spoken out about the need to stop violence and have reached out to one another from their shared pain and grief in powerful acts of compassion and consolation. As Yishai Fraenkel, Naftali's uncle, put it, "The life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew. Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab." It is vital that sane and reasonable people on all sides of the conflict recognize this truth: life is infinitely precious and nothing justifies the targeting of innocent civilians. Next Tuesday, July 15, I will be fasting for peace in observance of the traditional Jewish fast day of the 17th of Tammuz (marking the beginning of the period leading up to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) - and of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and penance. I invite you to join me in this fast, in calling for Peace, not Vengeance, and in redoubling our resolve to see a lasting peaceful solution for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
With prayers for Shalom,  Rabbi Joshua Waxman

6-30-14

with sorrow in our hearts

Like all of you, I am deeply saddened by the senseless deaths of Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah, whose bodies were found earlier this afternoon following their abduction nearly three weeks ago. Our prayers for consolation go out to their families at this time of heartbreak even as we hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice and calm will prevail throughout the region. A community-wide service of remembrance and solidarity will be held tomorrow evening, July 1, at 6:30 PM at Congregation Mikveh Israel, 44 North 4th Street in Philadelphia. May the Fraenkel, Shaar, and Yifrah families and all who held the three boys in their hearts throughout this long vigil be comforted among the mourners of our people and may their memories be for a blessing.
B'tza'ar / In sorrow,  Rabbi Joshua Waxman

Marriage Equality in Pennsylvania - A victory for love and justice

Like many of you, I was thrilled to open my browser this afternoon and read the words "U.S. Judge Strikes Down Same-Sex Marriage Ban in PA." I am so profoundly happy that U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III has recognized that there is no place for hate or discrimination in our state's laws, which since 1996 had included a ban on legal recognition for same-sex marriages, whether performed in Pennsylvania or in other states. Pennsylvania was the last state in the Northeast that did not grant the same recognition to all couples who wanted to have their love and commitment formalized through marriage - until today. There may very well be additional legal challenges and wrangling before today's victory for marriage equality in Pennsylvania is finalized and secure, but I will celebrate this decision knowing that today, our commonwealth is one step closer to enshrining justice and equality for all its citizens. 

B'simchah / In joy,  Rabbi Joshua Waxman

P.S. Please consider joining me in signing this petition from Equality PA urging Governor Corbett not to appeal today's decision and to let marriage equality stand in Pennsylvania.

 

 

Click on the attachments below to see Rabbi Waxman's High Holiday sermons.

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JEWISH EXPONENT APRIL 2013