Monday, June 19, 2017

Davar Torah: We need a little of Caleb in us! Parashat Shelach L'chah Book of Number

Tonight is the final rite of passage for the congregation’s leadership by passing the baton to the next line of Temple  board members. Each new board faces the responsibility of overseeing programs, fiscal budgetary constraints, personnel and communicating with the congregation. We wish b’hatzlachah- success to these new board members and with gratitude that we say Todah Rabbah thank you to the outgoing board as well. New opportunities and challenges always exist  in moving forward in the life of our Congregation’s journey.

In our Torah portion we return to an ancient journey of our people who faced opportunities and challenges for the future generations of the Jewish people. In  the book of Numbers,Parashat  Shelah L’chah, Moses directs his leadership to  appoint ten representatives to scout out the Promised Land. The leadership team goes out on a reconnaissance mission and comes back with a divided report. Eight of the ten say that the indigenous population are too powerful for the Israelites. The Israelites call them giants and fear there will be a catastrophe if they try to invade. The minority report of two, submitted by Joshua and Caleb, take the opposite view urging the leadership to go for it. The end result was that the Israelite leadership followed the majority report and refused to move forward. 

God was furious and Moses devastated. God punished the entire generation of the people by saying that none of them except Joshua and Caleb would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. That faithless decision based upon the failure to act and the fear to move forward, resulted in forty years of wanderings without that generation seeing the fruit of their hopes fulfilled.

Some of the  Jewish mystics commented on this disappointment and said that the people who feared to take the risks were actually not ready spiritually to make this ascent to the Promised Land. In this parashah from the 13th chapter of Numbers it is written, They spoke to him,saying. “We came into the land where you sent us. It indeed flows with milk and honey and this is its fruit. But the people dwelling there is strong… But Caleb silenced the people for Moses, saying, “We will indeed go up and inherit  it for we are able.”

Caleb’s determination to prevail earned him that opportunity to enter the promised land years later.  God said that Caleb was special because “he had a different spirit within him.”  Faith and courage are critical elements in making important decisions then and today.

Do  the challenges we address today in our congregation regarding the issues mentioned above, especially the financial ones, represent the adversaries that appear to be too big for us to handle as well? Will we shy away or face head on the challenges that we as a congregation must deal with if we are to enter and preserve our place in that promised land?

We learn from the Torah portion that the generation of the Exodus did great things but they fell shy of  believing in themselves enough at a critical moment. At CBY our journey requires us to make hard decisions in the upcoming year and we are approaching a critical moment too. We too are making our best effort to create a funding mechanism that will enable us to keep the talented and valuable professional staff who are making such a positive contribution to our Jewish identity and our congregation’s well being. A special committee has been appointed by our President Pennie Meiselman  and chaired by Ted David to explore how we are going to meet these challenges as well. The leadership realizes that now is the time  to lead and to believe like Caleb that we can achieve our goals and overcome our legitimate fears for whether or not we can develop the funding to carry on with our mission.

I am thankful and appreciative of our leadership who in the spirit of Caleb said, “Let us go up” to the Promised Land  which will motivate us to do the same with our financial challenges. Our challenges are good ones because we have a steady and growing membership and a lot of enthusiasm at the same time that there are financial concerns about the future. Is there a can-do attitude and faith in our congregation’s willingness to fund the future? Will we move forward? Or will we stagnate? This is our future just like the Israelites. I believe we can do it for whatever CBY puts its heart and soul into it has in the past led to success. Our faith in ourselves is key.

When Moses told the reconnaissance team by saying, Get you up this way in the south and go up into the mountain”(13:17). Rabbi Akiva Eiger commented, “Moses told them to look at the land in terms of future generations and eternity, from the top of the mountain. Their mistake was they couldn’t see the panorama of  a future vision. We at CBY with a new board will carry on with previous board’s vision and move forward to the future and prove to us all the we can realize our vision for future generations at CBY.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The religious community is being heard on the Health Care Issue.

While the nation obsesses over the politics of FBI investigations, the Senate is quietly in secret crafting a bill on Health Care. The Religious Community along with all other sorts of communities in this country should contribute to the debate about the future of Health Care and Health Insurance in America. Have a good read and let me know what you think?
Rabbi Bloom

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Keep the Johnson Amendment in place and no to any new executive order to change it.

My most recent newspaper column addressed President Trump's recent executive order to loosen the enforcement on the time honored Johnson Amendment that preserved peace in the pews since 1954. Take a read and tell me what you think.
Rabbi Bloom

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A message of ecumenicism today from World War Two.

Three American Chaplains gave up their lives for their crew on a US Ship attacked by the Germans.
Their amazing and heroic story sets an example of ecumenicism at its highest level. I wrote this column last weekend in honor of the US Memorial Day. Have a good read and let me know your reactions.
All the best.

Rabbi Bloom

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Jewish Ethos for helping the poor: A hand out vs a helping hand?

I stood on the porch at a dedication ceremony of a brand new Habitat for Humanity House. The recipients were a mother and two daughters. She works full time at Publics on Hilton Head. People like myself offered prayers and gave brief remarks. One individual, a well known leader in the business community, spoke and remarked; ‘This kind of project is an example of a hand up rather than a hand out.’

Truthfully I cringed as I stood by respectfully.  Implicit biases about the poor underlie his comments. The idea that only a hand up is valid and that a hand out is wrong is a part of the American ethos. 
I subscribe to the principle that helping the poor is a hand up even though it may come as a grant. No doubt that poor people game the system just as rich people and institutions, for example, commit medicare fraud. Yet, Judaism tells us that helping the poor is a central ethic of our religious system.

I address this subject tonight as a prelude to tomorrow morning’s hot topics discussion entitled: “A Hand Up Rather than a Handout: What should be a Jewish ethos for helping the poor.” This Shabbat we have two Torah portions Behar-Behukotai which take us to the end of our reading from the book of Leviticus. Is there one idea about helping the poor or are there differing opinions concerning the extent of our obligation to help the poor?

 At least in theory the Torah tells us to help “your brother who is poor.” In Leviticus it is referring to Jews who cannot support themselves and who will become indentured to other Israelites. The  texts say, “strengthen him (the poor).”
Our beloved commentator Rashi clarifies by saying, “Don’t let him fall and become impoverished so that it will be hard for him to recover, but, to strengthen him the moment his “hand faileth.” Rashi compares this moral principle to a parable of a burden on an ass’s back.  While it is still on the ass, one man can get a hold of it and right it.  But once it has fallen to the ground, five men cannot lift it up.” The upshot is help him out now while we can do something about or let him starve and the burden on us or society is that much harder to lift him up.

On the other hand in the prophets, the Haphtarah for this week, which comes from Jeremiah, saying, “Cursed is the person who trusts in human beings
who makes flesh his arm,
and whose heart departs from the Eternal One,
and whose trust the Eternal One is.” (17:5-7) 
Commentating on the passage by Jeremiah, the great Moses Maimonides says, “A person should make himself suffer rather than making himself a charge on the public charity.” “The greatest sages in the world were hewers of wood, porters, drawers of water for gardens, smiths, and charcoal burners and never begged for charity nor accepted it when offered.” In other words they trusted in themselves for sustenance and God for faith.
 Maimonides is talking several  kinds of persons who take advantage of their being poor, even one who refuses help even though he is poor especially one who trusts in God only and not in man.

Maimonides wants to find a balance between self help and trust in God, between human industry and the belief that everything belongs to God. Maimonides is saying that we cannot loose the idea that all resources belong to God and we cannot forget that human self reliance is important. So if one is poor then ideally we have a duty to help them, yet, each of us has a duty ourselves to not depend to heavily on human beings or God as the source of taking care of our physical needs.
This is a relevant message particularly in Israel today related to that society’s problem in which Israelis want the ultra Orthodox hasidic Jews to resolve. Many in Israel resent that ultra black hat Hasidic Jews feel that their duty and job is to study Torah and that God will provide.That means the state will provide welfare so that they do not have to work. Needless to say this problem has vexed many Israelis who pay notoriously high taxes so that Hasidic Jews can study Torah while the rest of the people fight and defend the nation.
This issue also speaks to us in America and our obligation as a society to support the poor when it comes to AFDC, the Affordable Health Care Act  and Medicaid and tax reform as examples of society’s support of the poor. Many Americans resent helping the poor believing that they too should help themselves first before ever thinking about asking for help. They believe that the poor take advantage of our tax dollars rather than going out to find a job.
Judaism has tried to say that being poor is no honor but it is also not a sin. It is how we live with what we have that counts. It is the measure of a society’s commitment to its fellow citizens who are legitimately poor that springs out of the prophets and the Torah itself that matters most.

After Hurricane Mathew, we gave money to people who we thought needed the money and that would not have been able to survive without it. My view is that it is a privilege to help those in need. Shall we make such people whether in our own community or in the community at large feel inadequate just because they can’t afford the basics in life? Project Safe, for example, in Hilton Head is trying to raise money to supply sewer line hookups for the poor. They cost $6000 a person to make the connection.  Back pack buddies does this for kids who need food over the weekend after school. We are all about helping financially those who truly need our support. Yet must we frame such help as a handout when the truth is that a hand up and a hand out often perform the same mitzvah for the poor?
Baba Batra 11a (Talmud)
A story is told of Binyamin HaTzaddik, who was the supervisor of the community's tzedakah funds. Once, when food was scarce, a woman came to him and said, "Rabbi, feed me!" He replied, "I swear there is nothing in the tzedakah fund."  She said, "If you do not feed me, a woman and her seven children will die."  So he fed her from his own money.
 The ethos of providing financial contributions to the poor may be clear. Yet, that does not mean it is easy to fulfill. Is it not our duty to do so even if a hand up feels like a hand out? It is still our mitzvah.
shabbat shalom

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Does a college or advanced to degree diminish religious faith?

I wrote this column after the survey from the Pew Center came out with the results claiming that college and advanced degrees might very well contribute to less religious commitment in American society. Is this so? I hope you read this piece from my newspaper column and let me know your reaction to the subject.
Thanks and best to you.
Rabbi Brad Bloom

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The national anthem of Israel-HaTikvah-The Hope. What does it mean to the Jewish people?

This is my most recent newspaper column. It compares the Star Spangled Banner with HaTikvah or the Hope which is Israel's national anthem. They both have different messages but they speak to the spiritual core of each nation. Thanks for taking the time to read it and for any comments.
Rabbi Bloom

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Davar Torah on Tazria MItzora for the Shabbat. Will our powers be used for blessing or curse?

Free will is both a blessing and sometimes a curse. We cherish our ability to exercise our freedoms to act out how we choose to live and behave in the world.  The world sees how people use free will to save lives and perform acts of heroism as well as those of cruelty. It is a gift that God gave us from the beginning of the garden of Eden and we saw how Adam and Eve made their choices to reject God’s warning to not eat from the tree of knowledge and the results we all know from the rest of human history. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and humankind was on its own to shape its destiny. We as a species have always contended with the great gifts we have had to innovate and control our environment. Our use of power has demonstrated the complexity of human civilization Was it for the best after all?

One rabbinic sags Moses Schriber otherwise known in rabbinic parlance as the  Hatam sofer who lived in the middle of the 18th through the mid nineteenth century in Hungary discussed this issue. He became a rabbi in Bratislava which is the capital of Slovakia. He was Orthodox and he was an opponent of Reform but he had some big ideas about human nature.

He commented on this week’s Torah portion which is called Tazria Metzora otherwise known as the Torah portion about leprosy or skin afflictions. In chapter 12 verse 2 The Torah talks about a woman who has conceived and born a child. The Torah says she is ritually unclean for seven days just like during the time of her menstrual cycle. He is going to focus on the theme of ritual impurity after a woman gives birth  as a jumping off point to discuss the bigger issue of how we as a species utilize our great powers for blessing or transgression. The ritual impurity is connected to the moral impurity.

The Hatam Sofer begins his comment on this verse by quoting from the famous commentator Rashi from the 10th century. “Rabbi Simlai said, Just as man was created (on the fifth day of creation) after the cattle, beasts and fowl, so the laws governing human beings follow after the laws governing these animals.” The idea here is that animals came before humans and that their priority was greater than human beings.The Hatam Sofer asks, is it true that creation of human beings is the apex of creation referring to Pslam six which says, “You made human beings little lower than God, so shouldn’t human beings think of themselves as above all other creatures and equal to God?

The Hatam sofer goes on to say that the Torah listed the laws of treating animals before humans to teach us that the select righteous saintly people are even superior to angels in heaven and that human beings in general can attain the greatest heights. Yet those who have been afflicted with this so-called ailment or skin affliction which we call in the Torah as t’zraat are indeed less than cattle in the divine hierarchy. He adds that we should remember that no animal can make a human ritually impure, but, a human being can make another human being be ritually impure. So he concluded that just as a person can reach the greatest heights of human achievement by mean of his free will so can he use that power to descend into the lowest depths.

The difficult aspect of this portion is the idea that having a disease like the skin ailment referred to in the Torah portion was consistently viewed by the sages as a result of a moral transgression such as gossip or slandering another human being. We have come along way in our thinking about disease. Yet, even today we saw those same attitudes attributing a moral transgression AIDS infected people who contracted AIDS particularly back in the 1980s and nineties. We have evolved in our understanding about contagious diseases today even if there are still prejudices and fears about potential pandemic diseases that frighten us probably just as biblical skin ailments did in ancient Israelite society.
Granted that the  Hatam Sofer is a product of that old styled thinking about disease and morality.  Yet his idea of how human beings use their god-given powers in a godly way versus using them in a destructive manner to measure our value as a species is valid today. Too many examples of human society today demonstrate that we still abuse our powers as much as we use them for great achievements to better our world. That is what the Hatam Sofer was referring to in his commentary. So his observations resonate today as they did over two hundred years ago in another time and place.

Whether we are discussing nuclear weapons in North Korea, Iran, or chemical warfare in Syria today, we see that human achievement in science is still a mixed blessing. When it comes to literature and the power of the written word spreading hatred, anti-Semitic tractates against the Jews, for example, we see that human power swings both ways as compared to the great works of Shakespeare, Whitman, the bible and the great works of music over the centuries.

Free will is a fragile gift that God bequeathed us at the dawn of creation and that humility in humankind is not to be taken lightly. It must balance our technological prowess with an overarching commitment to preserve human life not destroy entire peoples let alone individuals. Aren’t we suppose to use our powers to raise the quality of life and not threaten it? Yet that is exactly what happens today as it has for the entirety of human history.

Defining human skin ailments as ritually impure and associating them with moral transgressions is not how we should think about disease today. I suppose that in ancient times this is how they understood such diseases but today we can do better. Today we are still mandated to remember that our value and worth as human beings is not how high we build a sky scraper or how big a bomb we build but how we heal the suffering of the oppressed and the sick. It is about how we strive to be little less than God in how we treat ourselves, animal life and the planet.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Final Reposting on Yom HaShoah speech.

Elie Wiesel: ‘We all were students in his classroom.’
Yom HaShoah April 23, 2017
Elie Wiesel never taught me in a classroom but his knowledge and experience, expressed through the pages of his writings, made him one of the most powerful teachers I ever had in my life. It is for the life he led and the way he taught us all to engage the tradition and wellspring of Judaism that we decided to honor him for this year’s Yom HaShoah observance. His passing last gives us the opportunity to commemorate this Nobel Peace Prize winning scholar, activist, conscience and witness for humanity. In a way he used the planet and wherever he spoke to teach us whether by reading his books, or watching a documentary that he made or inside the incredible Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. which he inspired. All these venues were his various classrooms and so we may have all become students.

Elie Wiesel was unique  not only because he suffered but also because he did not give up on Judaism. He did not shield us from the hard questions he asked of humanity and of God. At the same time he dived into the sources of Judaism when he could have, like others did after the War, given up on Jewish life. In the case of Wiesel, it was the opposite. He continued his learning from childhood and used it to redefine his understanding of the horrors he faced and lived through while at the same time not allowing those years to destroy his memory. 
He taught us to rediscover the meaning of memory in Judaism. He showed us how remembrance and the meaning of the past was absolutely critical towards how we as a people and as the world would live our lives in the future. 

He also taught us that being a witness to all that we see and preserve of the past was essential to Jewish belief. Our teens today are observing this value while they March into the Gates of Auschwitz concentration Camp. Their trip to Poland and then to Israel is part of the international Program called the March of the Living. They are all witnesses now to what the Nazis did and to how the Jews faced the genocidal campaign of the Nazis to destroy us. What I find so inspiring is that Wiesel used the tradition to help him frame the unfathomable and he found so much in the tradition whether it was from the Bible, the Talmud, the Hasidic Teachings of his own background or the Kabbalah. These were his sources and he mined them for insight, salvation and pathways to return back to humanity with a message that would one day spread throughout the world.

Wiesel did something else that I found to be helpful when struggling with the meaning of not just the Holocaust but with humanity’s inhumanity to itself. He taught us that mystery of evil and that there may not be one answer as to why people feel the compulsion to destroy entire peoples. His point was to ask the question and that was more important than the answers. Maybe it was that we all have different responses as to why evil of this nature exists and continues but questions can be shared by us all and from that perspective we would have a better chance to prevail in a better world by sharing the hardest questions.
Moreover he taught us:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
He knew oh so well how indifference infected an entire world. Indifference led to the silence of the world when Hitler and the Nazis saw that no one would challenge their effort to take over Europe and destroy the Jewish people. He saw then and later on in the years that followed how people are indifferent, even at times Jews, when it comes to human suffering. Wiesel came to teach us that we must care not just about our own lives but those of the world. Just think about how we react when we watch television and listen to the stories of death and destruction in Syria, Somalia and terrorist attacks against folks around the world. If it does not move us to feel anything, if we are emotionless, if we simply change the channel because we choose not see it then we know the feeling of indifference because ultimately it does not matter to us. That is exactly what Elie Wiesel was trying to teach. Life, Art, Faith and Love must matter to us.

Finally Elie Wiesel taught us about the importance of speaking truth to power. In that speech when he received the President’s medal of honor he spoke to President Reagan in a very respectful way of his forthcoming trip to Bitburg Cemetery in Germany where many SS officers were buried. The President was trying to show respect for Germans and improve relations with the German chancellor Helmut Kohl. In that famous speech he said.

“I belong to a traumatized generation. Symbols are important. And furthermore,
following our ancient tradition, and we are speaking about Jewish heritage
our tradition commands us "to speak truth to power."
So may I speak to you, Mr. President, with respect and admiration, of the events that happened?
We have met four of five times. And each time I came away enriched, for I know of your commitment to humanity.
And therefore I am convinced, as you have told us earlier when we spoke, that 
you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we all are aware.

May I, Mr. President, if it's possible at all, to implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site? That place, Mr. President, is not your place. You place is with the victims of the SS.
Oh, we know there are political and strategic reasons, but this issue, as all issues related to that awesome event, transcends politics and diplomacy. 
The issue here is not politics, but good and evil. And we must never confuse them.
For I have seen the SS at work. And I have seen their victims. They were my friends. They were my parents.
Mr. President, there was a degree of suffering and loneliness in the concentration camps that defies imagination. Cut off from the world with no refuge anywhere; sons watched helplessly their fathers being beaten to death. Mothers watched their children die of hunger.And then there was Mengele and his selections. 
Terror, fear, isolation, torture, gas chambers and flames rising to the heavens.
But, Mr. President, I know and I understand, we all do, that you seek reconciliation. And so do I, so do we. And I too wish to attain true reconciliation with the German people.

I do not believe in collective guilt, more in collective responsibility. Only the killers were guilty. Their sons and daughters are not.
And I believe, Mr. President, that we can and we must work together with them and with all people. 
And we must work to bring peace and understanding
to a tormented world that, as you know, is still awaiting redemption.
I thank you, Mr. President.”

I pray that the voice, teachings and lessons that Elie Wiesel taught us in the classroom of his life will resonate for our youth and for generations to come. May his memory be for a blessing to all humanity and may we continue to be witnesses from the past to the future.

Monday, April 17, 2017

March of the Living: A Davar Torah for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Passover

March of the Living. Shabbat Chol HaMoed Passover

Will this Shabbat signal a new custom in this congregation with regard to the youth? Shortly three of our teens, Elaina Urato, Ariel Shatz and Alex Wynne, will commence a journey that will lead them to the gates of Auschwitz Concentration Camp and then to the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem. March of the Living is an international program of Jewish youth who will experience the modern day exodus from the Holocaust to the redemption of the Jewish people in the founding of the State of Israel. This program has been in existence for over thirty years.And now Congregation Beth Yam’s students have the privilege of participating in this great adventure. So tonight we will give them a blessing before their journey.

What brought this all about here at Beth Yam? A few members of the congregation suggested this program and have generously funded it for the next few years along with the participation and financial support from their parents. These individuals, in the spirit of Maimonides, seek no recognition. All they want is that our teens see first hand the remnants of genocide of the Jewish people in Europe and the rebirth of our people in the land of Israel. It is a journey that reminds me of the Haggadah’s message which describes the narrative of the Exodus as a story that begins by referring to Israel’s degradation but ends in the joy and praise of our redemption especially when we conclude the Seder with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

This Shabbat’s Torah portion,Shabbat Chol HaMoed Passover, in other words, refers to the intermediary Sabbath in the week of Passover. We read in Exodus 33,about the dialogue between Moses and God right after the Golden Calf incident.  Moses is appealing to God to accompany the people upward towards the Promised Land from the Sinai desert.  Moses says to God,  “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other peoples on the face of the earth?”

Our youth will consider this question of whether God was with us not only in the desert but at Auschwitz as well? They will ask questions they never considered before as they walk the terrain of this notorious concentration camp. They will grapple with the theological consequences of such hard questions. They will learn that being a victim did not mean that Jews did not resist. Just to survive was a means of resistance every day. They will soon learn that what distinguished us in this horrible chapter of our history was that we did prevail in the end and those who survived were distinguished not only with the tattooed numbers from their taskmasters but that they did not give up the journey to their freedom. Next Year in Jerusalem- Not so different from the ancient story of the Exodus?

After a visit to a Concentration Camp one typically emerges with more questions than answers that they can share with their fellow travelers. They will take those questions with them as they fly to Israel to celebrate Independence Day.  

The Torah goes on to say in this special Torah reading for Passover that God will not let Moses see his face but will cause God’s glory to pass by him and will show compassion to the people. Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
I like to imagine that the land of Israel is that rock which all would one day feel God’s presence.  Most of Israel today call themselves secular which does not necessarily mean that they don’t believe in God, although many will say that, but it may mean an awareness of how God’s presence flows through the waves of history and that is exactly what we hope our kids will sense by the time they are about to return. That realization of Jewish history, the exile in modern times from the Holocaust and the return to Israel, is what we seek for our teens.

Finally, as we drink the last cup of wine at the Passover Seder we say quoting from Exodus 6:7-
I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” Whether it was the Egyptians or the Nazis we found our way to the Promised Land. And to witness it with our own eyes and our hearts, our students will, hopefully, return with a renewed belief and commitment to the enterprise called the drama of Jewish history. My prayer is that  history will run through their veins and in their souls. This program  hopefully will solidify our Jewish future. Is that not one of this congregation’s main purposes-to educate our community’s youth?
(Call up the students)

Dear God,
We beseech you to send your blessings upon our students who shortly will begin this pilgrimage into the Kingdom of Night and who will conclude their mission by arriving into the Kingdom of Light. Be with them  and let their eyes behold the history of our people, embrace it and ultimately to cherish it in their lives as Jews in the modern world. See them through this journey to safety and return them to us safely with a renewed spirit and commitment to the values and vision of Judaism and the Jewish people who have fought against injustice and prejudice. As they shall sing the songs of mourning let them raise their voices to the hope, HaTikvah, of Israel’s mission to the world as a light to the nations. Inspire them and teach them to know and understand the privilege of being a Jew today. Enable them to share their experiences here upon their return and to inspire us as well. May God be with them in all the works of their hands and their spirits.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Are Animals created in the image of God too?

You probably already know the answer to this question. I decided to discuss our relationship to the animal world. This recent newspaper column is not just about pets but all animals as well. Have a good read and let me know what you think?
Hag Sameah
Happy Passover and Shavua Tov A good week.
Rabbi Brad Bloom

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Passover: The Seder, The Last Supper and the meaning of the Exodus

This newspaper column represents a kind of fusion of history in so far as the exodus has, of course, created the holiday of Passover in Judaism. It has also played a role in the critical moments Christianity's narrative of the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Take a good read whether you are prepping for pesach or Easter.
God Bless
Rabbi Brad Bloom

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Should children attend a funeral service? Helping children find a pathway to grieve.

This is an issue that comes to me from parents especially when it comes to grandparents who pass away. It is a spiritual issue as well as a mental health topic. Tell me what you think?
Thanks for taking the time to read this newspaper column.
Rabbi Bloom

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What are we trying to do with our undocumented workers and families in our community?

I attended a rally to express support for urging our county sheriff to not convert police into ICE squads. Here is  my take on leadership and building bridges not walls with the immigrant undocumented law abiding community.

Let me know what you think.
Rabbi Bloom

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Anti-Semitism today in America.

My most recent column in the newspaper is about the recent cemetery desecrations and the phone calls to Jewish institution around the country. Here are some thoughts and reactions. I hope they prompt you to react and think about what other Jewish communities are experiencing.
Let me also add that I look forward to any comments you might have from reading this column.
Rabbi Bloom

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Capital Punishment: A religious perspective.

I wrote this piece about capital punishment in light of the sentencing of Dylann Roof who murdered the folks in the AME Church in Charleston, SC. This is from a religious perspective. Thank you for taking th time to read it and for any comments.
Rabbi Bloom

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Inaugural Prayers have a rich history and shouldn't we pray for the well being of our president?

This is my most recent newspaper column and I try to outline some history of the tradition of the clergy offering prayers for the president at the Inaugural ceremony. I hope you read it and let me know what you think. Thanks and Shalom
Rabbi Bloom

A Sermon on the Immigration Issue in America and the ethos of welcoming the stranger and keeping us safe.

The Torah portion we read on this Shabbat B’shalach represents the beginning of a long history about Jews as the world’s quintessential refugee nation. I remember a book published a few years ago referring to the modern state of Israel as the start-up nation. It is a fascinating read for devotees of Israel’s technological and commercial successes. Yet the much longer and enduring narrative of our people is that of the refuge nation. In last week’s torah portion we began the exodus narrative. This week’s passages from Exodus describe the children of Israel actually crossing the Sea of Reeds and heading out to the Wilderness of Sin. 

They fight their own demons when it comes to facing the reality that leaving Egypt is going to be much more difficult than they first anticipated. Finally, we see the very beginnings of the military conflicts that the ancient Israelites will face against tribes who seek to prevent the birth of a new nation in the region.

If we are the definitive example of refugee nation for three millenni[a] then what does it mean for Jewish identity? The truth is that we have had to fight not only marauding desert tribes but also our own self doubts as to whether we could handle the transition from slavery to freedom.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that the birth of the refugee nation has always been a spiritual as well as a bodily struggle. We became not only strangers to the tribes but also at times we became strangers to ourselves.The fact that we see the Israelites repeatedly appealing, first to Moses and then to God, to return them to Egypt exemplifies this unresolved conflict in the psyche of the people. They desperately want freedom, but something inside holds them back from fully embracing their new found freedom.

What we learn about refugees then and today is that being a stranger in a strange land creates a push-pull tension for the refugee. People are connected to their native culture, even if they never feel a part of the majority culture. They realize that they must leave, but it is still home, whether they reject it or not. So those past bonds, born in an unwelcoming culture, never leave the refugee. And that fear of change is always part and parcel of the refugee dilemma.
I cannot help but believe that because we are the ultimate refugee nation, we have a history of resisting whichever dominant culture we found ourselves living in the midst of in an attempt to preserve our unique culture and theology of being connected to God and Torah. On the other hand, we have turned away at times from Torah, regressing into mainstream culture, denying our unique cultural and religious heritage.

So when we became the exemplary refugee nation what did we do about it? We created, in later chapters of Torah, laws and statues about how we are supposed to restrain ourselves, and, especially how we are to treat strangers who are not one of us but ask to be part of the Jewish people.  Furthermore the Torah mentions over 35 times the idea of our being a stranger nation, while, at the same time, recognizing that we were supposed to treat others better than we were treated during our years in the desert. Laws about treating the stranger with dignity and compassion and not oppressing them abound in the Torah. The genius of Judaism is that the texts bequeath us an ethos of compassion as to how we should treat other refugee peoples as well as ourselves.

That is part of the struggle which we Jews are dealing with these days with regard to immigration and national security issues today. We have embedded within us this time honored ethos to go out of our way to provide sanctuary for other refugee peoples, even if others did nothing for us. On the other side, the conflict that we fear from experience is that there were tribes like the Amalekites then and ISIS now who will, as they did in the Torah, strike us from behind. We are vulnerable that way and something about that vulnerability spooks us about letting refugees from parts of the Middle East into America. We know that sleeper cells from terrorist refugees already exist in our great land. We want to learn from history, and Amalek is a symbol of that betrayal and underhandedness that so many Americans are afraid of today.

We are going to explore this dichotomy tomorrow morning at our “Hot Topics Shabbat” when two of our congregants will present their perspectives on the meaning of being a stranger, in light of the pressures we face today about immigration to America. The exercise is not just to give their opinions on immigration but to explore Jewish sources and use them as a way of developing a position based upon their respective interpretations of those sources.  

I spoke about this topic on Rosh Hashanah outlining the tensions for the Jewish community on welcoming immigrants from the Middle East. I reiterate now that I support a vigorous vetting for such immigrants and at the same time oppose quotas based upon religion. It is absolutely crucial that we, as Americans, do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe. At the same time, should we completely abdicate our nation’s ethos by closing the doors on those who deservedly seek refuge as strangers in our midst? I do not expect everyone to agree with me, but I do insist on situating my views within a specifically Jewish frame of reference. I recognize that there are valid and heartfelt disagreements on this policy issue. Right now the courts will decide this current issue of limiting immigration from seven primarily muslim nations, for us, and we will live with the results of the judiciary’s decision. This is the way we solve problems in our great nation. 

People say we should avoid politics and religion. What does that mean? For a reform congregation and a movement that is dedicated to social justice it has meant, in my humble opinion, speaking out on major issues of the day. It also means not framing the issue in a partisan way, especially from the pulpit. I believe I have done so responsibly over the years I have served as Rabbi here and in the congregations I have served in my career.  So I completely believe in not mixing partisan politics and religion. What I do not believe, however, is that we should ignore serious  policy and social issues that go to the heart of Judaism’s ethical teachings about how we treat people in our society.

The exodus is our faith’s central narrative and it provides us with the platform to share Judaism’s ethos of humanity with the world. I respect the diversity of opinions about what our priorities should be in the case of opening the doors of immigration and welcoming the strangers in our midst. Can’t we have this discussion from a Torah perspective without it dividing us as a congregation?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sermonette or Davar Torah on Parashat Bo and the meaning of being hard hearted in life.

When someone refers to another person as hard hearted we generally understand the underlying idea which is that that individual is cold, unfeeling, unconcerned, unsympathetic mean-spirited. There are many other words to describe a person like this. Yet, when it comes to the Torah portion in describing the attitude of Pharaoh as hard hearted and, secondly, that God caused him to be that way, we have to think a bit more carefully about what the Torah meant.

In the previous chapter Pharaoh asks Moses and Aaron, “ I have sinned this time, the Lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked.Please beseech the Lord for it is enough (the plagues) that their be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go and you shall stay no longer.”  It appears clear enough that Pharaoh realizes that his language not that he is a bad person but what he may have meant was that Moses god prevailed over his power and that he is acknowledging defeat.

By the time we get to chapter 10 Pharaoh reverses himself and it takes until later on in the chapter for God to bring down the final plague of the death of Egypt’s first born to finally break the will and grip Pharaoh had upon his own power let alone Israel. The opening verse of Chapter ten says, “God tells Moses to go unto Pharaoh,”for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants that I might show these signs before him.”(10:1).

I choose to focus on what it means to be hard hearted and how that played out for Pharaoh and for us as well. The entire drama between Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron is a kind of negotiation. I am not thinking about this as making a deal, but, it is a kind of power negotiation in order to make a deal. The question is who has the leverage? The one who has the greatest leverage gets the best part of the deal. Moses is the returned Jew leading a slave rebellion with no army or weapons. Pharaoh may have been the most powerful man in the world who bends to Moses at the end and leads the Israelites to freedom. With God’s help, therefore, Moses had the greatest leverage over Pharaoh.

Was Pharaoh’s flaw was his own emotions and his deep-seated jealously of Moses from the time they grew up together? Yes, his pride as the reigning monarch of Egypt adds pressure to his stubbornness. I come back each time to the point that even though he realized Moses had the power of God over him and knew it would be best to let them go something inside Pharaoh said no. I maintain we are now talking about the inner relations going back to childhood between both leaders. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers and Moses and Pharaoh. All these brothers deal with rivalries that lead to conflict and, in one case, murder.Isn’t it reasonable to postulate that the underlying aspect of this power struggle reported in Exodus comes from those unresolved conflicts stemming back to their childhood?

How can brothers hurt each other this way? How can sisters do it as well? Why do we become so hard hearted with family that we are willing to risk and destroy relationships? Is this what religion and Judaism, in particular, teaches us? Yet this is exactly what we see so often in the Patriarchal narratives of Genesis and now in this week’s Torah portion. Notice in the previously mentioned narratives in Genesis, only Joseph was able to rise above his anger at his brothers to reconcile. The rest of them never do. At best Jacob and Esau go their own way.

It is true that the Torah never reveals this idea and I am projecting my own thoughts onto the story even though I have no evidence to buttress my point. Yet, we all know the nature of people and most of us have probably experienced at some point of our lives a parting of the ways with a relative. Have we ever had or witnessed that feeling of such deep seated hostility and desire to hurt inside another person regardless of the consequences? My impression is that his embedded hostility towards Moses overtook his real politique intuition or strategy to expel the Israelites because it was in Egypt’s interest to do so after the devastating effects of the plagues. 

I wonder if it is too convenient for us to identify with Moses and forget that we have Pharaoh in us as well. I interpret the verse that “God hardened the heart of Pharaoh” not literally but as a way of simply describing that entrenched resentment, anger, and jealousy of his exiled adoptive brother. 
When we have a lifetime of built up or pent up hostility towards a family member, it is, admittedly, difficult to change the direction of those emotions. Surely Pharaoh cared deeply about his relationship with his adopted brother while at the same time despising him. That dichotomy is the core conflict, in my estimation, between the two leaders. It is also the same tension that people since time in-memorial have experienced because it is part of being human.

The challenge for us all is how to manage those emotions and to see how self destructive those emotions are and how others in the family suffer because of our inability to cope with them. That is the real tragedy of the story of Pharaoh because of his hard heartedness so many in Egypt unnecessarily died from a plague or the soldiers from chasing the people into the Sea of Reeds.

Whether we are talking about national leaders who demonstrate that kind of uncaring and cold feeling to a nation or just the members of a family the lesson of the story of Pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion send us a message of the consequences of unbridled anger. It is a lesson we can all heed no matter what age.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Inaugural Prayers and Praying for the President

Here is a column on the prayers clergy offer at a President's Inauguration.  Is there a message that the President listens?
Shalom and have a good read.
Rabbi Bloom

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Issues that that the faith community will face in 2017

In my most recent column I identify issues in the public square that the faith communities in America will likely have a strong interest in advocating for or against regardless of being liberal or conservative.  Have a good read and let me know what you think.
Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Rabbi Brad Bloom

Torah Portion of the Week. Vayigash Genesis Chapter 45:2 Why did Joseph Cry?

Why Did Joseph Cry when he revealed himself to his brothers?
Davar Torah-Vayigash Genesis Chapter 45:2
January 6, 2017

It is unfortunately true when folks say that there is so much violence in the Torah and the Bible as a whole. Yet, the story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers strikes an exceptional tone highlighting repentance and forgiveness as Jewish values. This is a story not about how violence was used by Joseph to seek revenge against his brothers who kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. The Torah goes into detail to provide the reader an exact sense of the emotional turmoil  that Joseph experiences as the brothers approach for the second trip to Egypt, this time with Joseph’s brother Benjamin (from the same mother Rachel). The narrative of Torah gives us the detail and nuance of Joseph internal spiritual struggle and the brother’s recognition of their evil deeds from the past. Unlike many stories in the Torah which describe the character’s external actions in a certain set of circumstances.  This story, on the contrary, is about the internal drama of Joseph emerging out of his shell and his hidden identity  into the open and demonstrating his maturity and, thus, according Elie Wiesel became a Tzaddik a righteous person by not taking revenge.

One of the most interesting and perplexing moments in this narrative is how Joseph burst out into tears when he was about to reveal himself. Wait a moment! I thought guys are supposed to suppress their emotions? Aren’t men expected to be in control of themselves and especially their emotions? Don’t we commonly hold to the stereotype that women cry and men stand stoically by their wives suffering?

Why did Joseph cry? What did it do for his relationship with his brothers? Did it enable them to reach out towards each other down the road? To begin with let’s take a look at the midrash. In chapter forty-five verse two the Torah tell us that Joseph cleared the hall of his palace except for this brothers. “He gave forth his voice in weeping  Egypt heard, and Pharaoh’s household heard.”He rises to identify himself and speak to his brothers about his past and his divinely inspired role to sustain life and why he will want to be with them as their brother and that they all should come down to Egypt. After he says all this he concludes when he sees his baby brother Benjamin. (Remember they were both from Rachel who had long since died giving birth to Benjamin.) The Torah says, Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck.  He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and afterwards his brothers spoke with him.”

 One midrash comments on the verse “He cried out loud.” Just as Joseph conciliated with  his bothers only through weeping, so the Holy One, blessed be he, will redeem Israel only though weeping”(Genesis Rabbah). Not rational discussion but a complete catharsis of tears, at least for Joseph, with his brothers. Not a sit down one on one conversation and gradual returning towards each other over the years. This time it was an explosion of emotion as if all their lives thy had held onto this secret. It was as if the hurt and the pain of the past was burned off like the morning fog and the expression of tears was what it took to transcend the past.

Sometimes it takes the releasing of that kind of emotion to bridge the divide that caused so much pain to Joseph. Maybe there is something to that for us as well in reconciling with old antagonisms with siblings and friends as well as relatives. I have seen moments when siblings who have not seen each other in decades were reunited. Sometimes it was because of the Holocaust and other times it was about the typical kinds of stuff that happens when one person allegedly hurts another years ago and the brothers or the sisters refuse to speak with other.

Yet the wisdom of the midrash says that only through the weeping can Israel find healing. Redemption moments are not always about the discussion, rather, those moments happen when both see past the petty things and recognize the bonds of family are enduring. Those redemption moments are often times intuitive.

In another modern commentary there are two other interpretations offered. One asks’ why did Joseph let loose? What was the trigger for him with his brothers? The answer was that he had spoken to them harshly before in order to have them realize the enormity of their sin and to repent so that they would atone for the sin of having sold him. This was the first moment, again an intuition, when Joseph realized that they had  regretted their actions. That was why he was no longer able to restrain himself.

The second moment was  that he could not tolerate to have the Egyptians stand by him and see how his brothers would be humiliated when he  revealed  himself to them.(Rashi).  Why did he even care about their humiliation after all those years given what his brothers had done to him? Doesn’t that mean he cared about them being his brothers and they were still a reflection upon him? Or maybe, the commentator suggests, Joseph did not want his staff to see that a vizier of Egypt would cry? What a sign of weakness! Maybe one more reason he cried was that  Joseph did not restrain his crying in order not to have others near him, and he was not worried about his own honor, but about that of his brothers. He was thinking about them not him. (Shem mi-Shmuel.)

“They shall come with weeping and with supplications will I lead them, I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters”(Jeremiah 31:9). This is a unique story because it gets to a place where a lot of men never go in their emotional lives. Men like Joseph show great strength and not weakness because they cry. They show that letting go of pain through tears is healthy and spiritually necessary. Joseph could not have been able to follow through the rest of the journey with his brothers had he not shared the length and breath of his emotions.

There is a lesson for us too when it comes not just towards reconciling with old antagonisms but embracing the fears and angers that we harbor over the years with relatives, spouses and children. Joseph is a great role model for men to take a step back and develop that intuition for moments that can make or break a life and its meaning.

Shabbat Shalom.