Thursday, September 17, 2015

1st day RH sermon – Saying Yes - Sept. 15, 2015 – 1 tishrei 5776

As I settled into my seat on the Chicago subway this past summer, I figured it was so late that we should just head back to our hotel and call it a night.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.
     We had just had an incredible time watching the Toronto Blue Jays fight it out with the Chicago White Sox.  It was fun watching Chris Sale up against our team’s Mark Buherle, both of them on their game, and both teams tied one to one going into the 9th. A pitching masterpiece.  And being with my son and his entire Thornhill Reds baseball team at the tail end of an epic 7 day road trip through the Midwest was true baseball heaven, not to mention our little side trip to the Field of Dreams in Iowa.  The Jays game was especially fun as we met RA Dickey before the game and heard from friends and family back in Ontario that they kept seeing us on TV cheering for the Jays. 
     As the skies darkened and it began to rain, the game also turned dark for me as the White Sox scraped out a late run and beat our Blue Jays.  This didn’t dampen our enthusiasm though as we headed out of the stadium and ran for the subway to escape the downpour.  We found our way into the last subway car and sat down exhausted.  The man across from us, noticing our Blue Jay hats, asked if we were Jays fan from Toronto and added , “I bet you like Josh Donaldson”.  We all replied, “Of course”! “Well”, he said, “Josh is an old friend of mine from high school”.  “No way” we hollered. Then he brought us in closer. “Josh is a good friend and in fact I’m going to meet him right now at the hotel where the Jays are staying”. 
“And what hotel is that”, I quietly asked. 
“The Peninsula, right down on magnificent mile”,  he replied.
     We continued discussing baseball while I kept that nugget of information to myself. When the team met up in the lobby of the hotel half an hour later, I told everyone that the Jays were staying not too far from us.  “Who wants to go see if we can meet some players,” I asked them.
By now it was around 10:30 pm and most of the dads were tired and not planning to walk out in the rain to go see if some Jays might possibly be in that hotel.  I however am not most people.  I learned from my father a long time ago to always say yes, especially to an adventure like this.  Great things can happen when you go out and try new things and take what we in the clergy call “a leap of faith”.  As Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.  So I said I’m going.  Then about 8 kids said they would go too.  The remaining dads said “Hey if you want to go, go ahead”.  So I did. Guess what? We did find the Jays at the hotel just as the guy on the subway said. We got some autographs, some hugs, and some high fives and went back to the hotel with some great stories for the remaining dads.  So what do we learn from this?
    In life there is always a balance between risks and regret.  Speaking personally I usually lean toward the risk side, leaving my comfort zone even if I’m not sure what the future will bring.  Each person has to find their own way. But as we approach the high holydays we are each forced to take a look at our life. 
Were there times when you wanted to take a chance and didn’t?
 What held you back? 
How might you be open to new possibilities in the coming year?
The Yamim Noraim force us to examine the promises we made but didn’t fulfill.  We get a clean slate to try again, get out of our comfort zone and drink fully from the cup of life.  As the old cliché reminds us, if you don’t try, you can’t achieve.  It might not work out perfectly the way you hoped but there is so much upside to trying.  If you miss the mark, then adjust and keep trying.  Failure is just a step to getting it right. You definitely can’t succeed if you never even take the first shot. Whether its aiming for a new career, a new school, a new company, a new home, a new partner – aim to do what you love and go for it. There’s only one way to find out.  Take the leap of faith. Try saying yes whenever you can. 
     Being here today is a Jewish leap of faith. Whether you believe in God or a higher power or something beyond our understanding, we are here today because we are following the traditions of our people. We are following God’s commandments.  Why do we follow them when there is no hard evidence that God is watching.  It’s because we are saying yes. We’re taking a risk. We’re taking the day off work or school for a higher purpose.  There are many  things in our mahzor that we pray about that are hard to accept and hard to believe but we take the risk. We say yes.
 I remember once my son Jacob asked me about Jesus and how he died and came back to life 3 days later.  He seemed skeptical that Jesus rose from the dead.  I said, “Well, our founding story is that God split the Red Sea in two, I bet people are skeptical of that moment, but we Jews believe it”.  He nodded his head slowly.
 It takes a lot courage and conviction to embrace our faith.  It’s easy to say there’s no evidence, it’s easy to not believe.  It takes more of an effort to say yes, I do believe, to embrace this day.  And when you put in the effort you get a lot more out of it, whether it’s because you were forced to come here by a family member, or you just feel comfortable surrounded by your community, or you just like the music. Whatever it was, you made the choice to come here.  And when we all sing the prayers and say the words together – it has power and it has meaning.  It’s part of saying yes, I’m part of the Jewish people. 
 Every Jew around the world is in shul today, just like you.  We’re all  saying the same words, perhaps in different languages. Perhaps the men are sitting separately from the women, maybe some are in fancy pews, or on kitchen chairs or on a sandy floor.  But we’re all doing it together.  And once you start saying the prayers and singing the music, everything comes together. 
     Just sitting here and thinking about our actions over this past year can make us better people.  This self-reflective guilt trip can lead to more positive actions in the coming year, whether consciously or unconsciously.
The Rabbis of the past knew what they were doing when they created the customs of our high holydays.  They used various methods to get us here and to help us find God in our own way.  One way is fasting.  When you’re hungry you ask yourself, why am I punishing myself like this. Then you remember, it’s because I did something this past year where I hurt another person.  Everyone has done it.  Maybe I could apologize and do better next year.
    Another way is a blast from the shofar, a jarring loud sound that forces you to sit up and think, why are we blowing a rams horn.  It’s waking us up and reminding us to look at our behaviour.  Another way is our reading the Torah scroll.  It’s wonderful to see our scroll taken from the ark and read aloud.  It’s the same words year after year, but guess what, it’s different every year.  We hear it differently, and respond to it in new ways.
    It’s funny to look at our customs from an outsider’s point of view.  Other people throw a party on the New Year. But look at us. We sit here in a room all day thinking, saying the same words and hearing the same songs, blowing a rams horn and starving.  Not very exciting but certainly spiritually fulfilling.  The easier way would be not to follow these customs.  But we say Yes. We take the leap of faith.
       Jews have been doing it for centuries.  We have fought and died for the right to follow our rituals. As a people, when we say yes, we really mean it.  Look at our prophets. They said yes when they were called knowing that theirs would be a difficult life. 
    In the book of Kings chapter 20, Elijah the prophet is told to anoint Elisha as his successor.  Elijah comes upon Elisha plowing the field. He walks up to him and throws his mantle over Elisha’s shoulders.  Elisha simply walks away from the field saying “let me kiss my mother and father goodbye and I will follow you”.  Talk about taking a leap of faith.  Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, each are called in a similar fashion and say yes, some without fully understanding the consequences.  Moses understood the gravity of God’s request to lead the people from slavery and needed more convincing.  But at some point he also had to stand up and take the risk, whether sure of the outcome or not. 
    Our biblical figures set a great example. But there are also more modern instances where Jewish men and women took a leap of faith and said yes to the challenge when asked of them.  When an Air France airplane was captured by terrorists and flown to Entebbe, the Israeli government had the audacity to ask Yoni Netanyahu to take his team and  fly to an enemy country. His job was to pretend he was the president of Uganda, sneak into the airport terminal, kill the terrorists and save the hostages. An unprecedented act.  And he said yes. 
    Ilan Ramon was told to fly from Israel to Iraq to destroy their nuclear power plants. He was to do this without permission from any other country. He said yes.  They asked Golda Meir, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin  to visit every synagogue in the United States to ask for money needed by Israel when it became a country in 1948.  She said yes.  Eliezer Ben Yehudah, told that the new Jewish state needed a unifying language, was asked to update the ancient language of Hebrew so that modern-day Israel could use it.  He said yes. He wrote the first Hebrew dictionary and, from that day on, Hebrew became the language of the country of Israel.  This summer I was asking Jill Anne about a possible trip to Israel.  She said, “What do I need in order to go”.  I said, “a passport and a dream”.  She said, “I’ve never been on a plane before. In fact I’ve never even been out of Ontario before”.  But she said, “Yes, I’ll go”. 
    I love it when people say Yes.  It was something ingrained in me in my childhood and something I try to pass on to my children.  It’s something I encourage each and every one of you to try, as we begin this new year of 5776.  You never know when you might walk a hotel in Chicago and meet MVP Candidate Josh Donaldson in the lobby.  You never know when someone might invite you to go to Israel.  You never know when you might invent something that changes the world.  And you’ll never know until you say that one magic word…“Yes”. 

Shana Tova

Political rhetoric and the holocaust – Sept. 5 2015

As the election cycle takes up more traction, I am noticing a trend of using Holocaust references in campaigning.    How do we campaign with dignity and class.  In other words, is it ever right to invoke the holocaust in politics. 
There was a recent backlash against York Centre Conservative MP Mark Adler for noting in campaign literature and on his website that he’s the son of a Holocaust survivor. He posted it on a large sidewalk billboard in his neighborhood, Bathurst street and Sheppard, declaring his qualifications as an MP. 
I didn’t think he needs to use the Holocaust as a way to get votes, but I am sure that works on the Bathurst corridor.  Apparently others felt he had crossed the line and tweeted how inappropriate it was to link his campaign to the holocaust.  A social media war was launched, each proving their side.  His side said he wasn’t using the Holocaust for votes, just putting out his biography.  In fact they said he is the only MP who is a holocaust survivor.  The opposing side said he was using it for personal gain and besides he is not the first holocaust survivor to be an MP.  That honour resides with Raymonde Folco, a Liberal who served as a Montreal-area MP from 1997 to 2011, preceded Adler in that distinction, and that Folco was herself a child survivor of the Holocaust, not just the son of a survivor. A recent CJN article by Paul Lungen commented that it wasn’t the first incident of late in which a Canadian politician invoked the Holocaust and was swiftly condemned for it. Is it ever appropriate to reference the Shoah in political and campaign rhetoric. 
Raymonde Folco, was asked and criticized Adler for, as she put it, “us[ing] the Holocaust in this way, for personal ends.”
In March, federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney testified before a parlimentary committee in support of his government’s anti-terror bill, C-51.
Defending a part of the bill that would ban the spread of terrorist propaganda online, he said, “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers. It began with words.”
NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said the comment trivialized the Holocaust and accused Blaney of using “inflated rhetoric.”
The night before, in a speech to alumni at McGill University, federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had attacked the Conservative government’s immigration policies, saying it had stirred up anti-Muslim sentiment.
After adding that “we should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a ‘none is too many’ immigration policy towards Jews in the ’30s and ’40s being used to raise fears against Muslims today,” Trudeau faced criticism that the reference was offensive and the historical parallel inaccurate.
And then last weekend in a twitter war, our own Mayor Burton wrote that Harper was wasting tax payer money by hiring Canadian veterans as his personal bodyguards.  He added that there were others who needed extra bodyguards, citing Hitler and Mussolini.  The backlash was quick, asking why Burton was comparing Veterans to Nazi’s, which he didn’t actually do, but our Mayor had to quickly apologize. 
The question of whether citing the Holocaust is ever acceptable in politics divides even those who are close to the issue.
Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the child of Holocaust survivors himself, said he doesn’t consider either Adler’s or Blaney’s Holocaust references to be in poor taste. 
“Is it in poor taste for an Aboriginal to say, ‘I’m a survivor of the residential school system’? Is it in poor taste to say ‘My relative starved to death in Cambodia’” he asked.
“To me, Adler made a pitch for the Jewish vote… That’s perfectly OK. Chinese politicians will pitch for the Chinese vote. Sikhs will pitch for the Sikh vote. A lot of people identify with those running for political office with the same heritage as them… Every politician, by definition, has a political agenda… They say something they think will resonate with people.” 
Wiseman added that Blaney’s claim about the Holocaust beginning with words was hardly irrelevant. 
“Should we discount Mein Kampf?” he asked. “Many people did.”
Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University whose parents also survived the Shoah, argued that political parties and candidates can best honour the Holocaust by combating racism and protecting human rights, not by exploiting it for “personal electoral advantage,” as he believes Adler did.
“This debases the catastrophic Holocaust experience of the Jewish People into crass partisan marketing,” he added. 
Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus magazine, drew national attention to Adler’s Holocaust reference by tweeting a picture of it on Adler’s campaign office poster Aug. 16.
Kay told The CJN it was the way Adler presented his heritage that he objects to. “It’s completely legitimate to say, ‘This tragedy is part of my family history and it’s given me a special appreciation for the universal lessons that came from it,’” Kay said. “But the context people see here is that the Conservative party has made a very special, and sometimes slightly obsessive, push to convince voters Harper is committed to the survival of the Jewish State… So it’s reasonable to interpret [Adler] as saying, “I’m more sensitive to the needs of Israel and world Jewry because of this one thing’… To my mind, he was exploiting his family history to reinforce Conservative talking points about foreign policy.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said it’s a given that politicians will mention their family heritage or involvement in a tragic historical event.
He pointed to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who “in pretty much every national debate and public arena wants to make sure it’s known he’s the son of Cuban refugees who fled Castro,” and retired U.S. senator Joe Lieberman, who “made a big deal of the fact he’s shomer Shabbat.”Rabbi Cooper stressed, “For many political candidates nowadays, every moment of their background is anyways vetted, debated, put on social media… Why should one never mention their family or history? I believe people who don’t do this are in the minority.” 

Eli Rubenstein, national director of March of the Living Canada, said because the Holocaust is widely known as an epic human tragedy, with extremely graphic imagery attached to it, people often invoke it to make a point. 
Sometimes that’s appropriate, sometimes it isn’t, he said
For instance, in 1979, Canada’s then-minister of employment and immigration Ron Atkey invoked the Holocaust appropriately, Rubenstein said. In making the case to grant tens of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” asylum in Canada, Atkey referred to Canada’s infamous “none is too many” policy of barring Jews from immigrating to Canada during World War II.

Today I would say the biggest refugee crisis is in Syria and seeing the image of a young boy washed up dead on the shores of Turkey is horrifying.  And we can invoke the lessons of the 1930’s when Jews were prevented from emigrating because each country closed their doors.  We should push our government to open our doors to Syrian Refugees because it is a humanitarian crisis and we knew what it was like to have no where to go.
But citing the Holocaust in a way that trivializes it, or when it has no bearing on the subject at hand, is not OK, Rubenstein said. “For example, bullying is wrong, but one shouldn’t invoke the Holocaust to make that point.”

I would say, why bring up the holocaust, I can’t really think of a proper political moment to use it.  Instead focus on the issues at hand because you are simply playing with fire.  Lets talk about Israel, about the refugee crisis in Syria and the struggling world economy.  Lets talk about aboriginal issues  and poverty and infrastructure.  Lets talk about the issues that matter today and lets elect a party that will make change and make all our lives better.  

Ltaken seminar and Iran and Washington Saturday March 7th at SBE

This past weekend I was in Washington DC with our youth on a wonderful social justice weekend.  While we have been doing youth group trips to various cities over the years, this trip was unique.  First we joined a program called L’taken, which means “to fix”, sponsored by the Religious Action Centre. For more than 50 years, "the RAC" has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, they educate and mobilize the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more.  The L’taken program brings  around 300 teenagers from around north American to take an in depth look at social concerns and then learn how to take action on those issues.  For example, we talked about homelessness and poverty and heard from a former homeless man named Steve who was abused and lived on a bench for two years about a block from the white house. He is now able to find work and a home but talked about his struggles.  We then learned about the root causes of poverty – mental illness, homelessness, abuse, drug and alcohol etc. then we talked about how to take action on poverty. We studied Jewish texts on the mitzvoth that require us to help the needy.  We talked about how we can do food drives and volunteers at soup kitchens.  But these address the symptoms, not solve the problem.  The government can have a much bigger role in legislating towards alleviating poverty such as raising the minimum wage or better health care or federal job training.  As Canadians we were lucky to learn about how Canada has taken a much more progressive role in these issues, but while we have accomplished a lot the work is far from done.  So we learned how to lobby the government to make effective change through new and better laws. 
After poverty we focused on Israel, women’s’ rights, climate change, worldwide malaria and more.  Each time doing the same thing, examining the issues, learning the root causes, studying Jewish values that correspond and finding out ways to take action to solve the problems.  Of course we had time to hang out with other teenagers, have great meals, see the sights of Washington like the monuments, museums and shopping and stay up late eating pizza.  But we also learned a lot and the culmination was our visit Monday morning to the Canadian Embassy.  Throughout Sunday, we focused on how to write a speech and present it to legislators and other government representatives.  Monday was the time to put our work into action. Each student put on his or her best professional attire, wrote a speech about an issue they felt strongly about and entered the embassy board room to meet with our Canadian ambassadors’ representatives.  We spoke mainly on three issues – a strong relationship between Canada and Israel, Canada’s role in addressing climate change and women’s’ rights.  For two of these issues, we were preaching to the choir.  Canada has led the way on fighting for women’s rights on a global scale.  Canada has also been a great friend to Israel with economic and military trade and support.  On climate change we felt Canada could do more by donating more to the worldwide green fund, curbing greenhouse gases and switching to renewable energy.  I sat back with amazement as our teenagers delivered their words with great emotion and seriousness, forcing the embassy officials to take notes and answer how our government can do better.  It was a great weekend and hopefully we can continue to build on the work by meeting with our MP and MPP’s here in Oakville. 
In the discussion on Israel it was hard not to notice events happening around us in Washington.  Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu had arrived to speak at the AIPAC conference on Sunday and Monday and then was going to address the US house of representatives on Tuesday, one of just a handful of foreign leaders to ever have that opportunity.  It was all over the news and seemingly all everyone could talk about. 
The topic of Netanyahu’s speech as we all know was about the current round of negotiations between The P5+1, a group of six world powers[1] which in 2006 joined the diplomatic efforts with Iran with regard to its nuclear program. P5 are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany
Israel is clearly not on that list and I am amazed that our little tiny country has such a voice in world affairs.  This issue is of particular importance because while no country in the world seems to be happy that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, there is only one country that is a target, and this is Israel.  And not just hints, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for the annihilation of IsraelThe former PM of Iran Amhanejiad denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel’s destruction time and time again.  Not of the p plus 1 countries have been called out for obliteration like Israel, which also happens to be within firing distance of Iran’s new rockets.  Those rockets were just tested over the past few months and can hit our entire homeland with ease.  What if they carried nuclear war heads?  We are not at war with Iran but it is clear that Iran sponsor terrorism by Hezbollah and Hamas to attack Israel.  They are involved in supplying money and arms to the regimes in Syria and Lebanon and support all anti-Israel activity.  They walk the walk and talk the talk.  So why would Israel want a country that calls for its destruction to be in possession of nuclear weapons, of course we are doing everything we can to halt their progress.  The UN in 2006 upon heard of Iran’s plans to develop the bomb imposed a halt, to no avail.  For years they passed sanctions and demanded inspections, some worked for a little while, some were merely window dressing but Iran continued.  They build bunkers underground, they have over 10,000 centrifuges, and they brought in experts from Russia.  They are going full speed ahead.  Israel tried other options such as computer viruses which set back their work for a few years but nothing has worked.  It is possible there is a bombing option but it presents many problems.  The sites are spread out, hard to find and extremely difficult to neutralize effectively.  Iran would bomb Israel in retaliation, perhaps other Arab countries would join, and that could be disaster. 

Back to Netanyahu, he was called by the Congress speaker of the house Rp. John Boehner to come speak.  Here is the political side.  While it does seem appropriate for a representative from Israel to provide information to congress on how they view the negotiations with Iran, there are so many problems here.  One is that Boehner did not consult the white house on this invitation, and skipped protocol.  The white house does not want Netanyahu to speak in the middle of these negotiations.  Moreover the house is controlled by republicans and the white house by democrats, it’s making Israel into a partisan issue.  The greatest fear would be that Israel’s best ally America, will be driven by politics on supporting Israel.  So it becomes a wedge issue.  AIPAC gives equal support to both major parties in America, because no matter who is in power in which office, the best case scenario would be to support Israel, economically and militarily and diplomatically.  But this might drive a wedge into that relationship. 

The other part is that Netanyahu himself is in election mode as Israeli’s go to the polls in two weeks to elect a prime minister.  Is it just a coincidence that he goes to Washington now?  Of course its politics, he wants to show how great a leader he is that he can go to Washington and speak in front of the entire nation on Israel’s behalf to stop Iran from going nuclear. 

Everyone believes that Iran should not have the bomb the real question is how to go about stopping them.  Forget all the politics, Bibi is right that they must be stopped, that is his strong advice, no more negotiations and freezes and maybes and pleases.  Full sanctions, no negotiations no bomb.

The other side, preferred by the UN, the p-5 and the white house, would be to negotiate because what other options are there. 


So here we are in Washington, visiting the embassy and then walking by the congressional buildings where the Israeli PM is about to speak. Our small group from Oakville witnessing history.  And then our teens spoke up about how much we support the strong connections between Canada and Israel, despite the lunacy that is Washington. 

While I do not claim to have any answers, as always it is vital to keep engaged in what is going on, to show our support for Israel, and to teach our young people about the issues of the day and how they can make a difference.  Because god needs us to take an active role in making the world a better place for us all.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The legacy of Robin Williams

The legacy of Robin Williams –by Rabbi Stephen Wise

August 16, 2014 – 20 Av 5774

The modern Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik put it this way:

There was a man -- and see: he is no more!
Before his time did this man depart
And the song of his life in its midst was stilled
And alas! One more tune did he have
And now that tune is forever lost
Forever lost!

I was shocked when I heard Robin Williams died.  He is probably one of the most loved comedians and entertainers, hysterically funny, zany and brilliant.  We will miss him, I already do. 

People of my generation grew up with Robin Williams. His frenetic humor, the dizzying runs of free-association, resonated across all ages; as children, we didn’t get all his jokes but we knew it was amazing.  He had the ability to make us laugh and cry.  At the end of Mrs. Doubtfire, after making us laugh as he acts like an old Scottish Nanny for half the movie, he moves us to tears about how much he loves his children.  He was a genie in the bottle for the Aladdin movie, the first time I really remember a funny Disney character whose voice made the film come alive for me.  He was Peter Pan in Hook able to re imagine what Peter might be like as an adult trying to recapture his childhood.  I loved his genius in Patch Adams as a doctor healing through laughter.  And his Oscar winning role as a psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting helping the Matt Damon character overcome his inner demons and finally breaking free into a life filled with love and purpose.   The first war movie I remember seeing was Good Morning Vietnam, and he was so funny, I bought the album and memorized all his lines.   Dead poet’s society moved me in profound ways, and the way he reached his students actually influenced the way I wanted to be a teacher when I did my masters of education degree. 

In some ways, I think of Robin Williams as an honourary Jew. 

He could effortlessly drop Yiddishisms into any conversation, he could perfectly articulate the accent of an old Jewish man and he had countless close friends and colleagues who were members of the tribe. Apparently his affection and support for Judaism ran deeper as the New York Jewish Week reported, Williams attended 13 Bar Mitzvahs in the eighth grade while growing up in Detroit. Williams provided the comedy at the 2005 annual banquet of the Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, leaving everyone in stitches; offending no one and remained at the banquet long after the headliners left. When Spielberg was filming “Schindler’s List,” Williams called him every day during the production to “brighten the director’s mood.” Indeed the Jewish Federations of North America noted on their facebook page “We mourn the loss of the great actor, comedian Robin Williams, zichrono li-veracha, “may his memory be a blessing.

A few years ago on “Inside the Actors Studio,” host James Lipton asked Williams the final question on the Proust Questionnaire: “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear at the pearly gates?”  “First, I’d like to have a front row seat,” he smiled. “It would be nice to know that there’s laughter. And it would be nice to hear G-d say, ‘Two Jews go into a bar . . . ’”

I think there some things to take from his life that can guide our lives today.

The first is that he brought laughter and joy to so many.  His used so many tones of traditional Jewish comedy.  As Rabbi Evan Moffic wrote,

He used Humor to undermine pretension and pomposity: Robin Williams managed to be lovable and irreverent at the same time. He did not fear offending anyone.

As one of his obituaries reported, he once called out from a London Stage,“Chuck, Cam, great to see you.” Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Lady Camilla Bowles were in the audience. He continued, “Yo yo, wussup Wales, House of Windsor, keepin’ it real!”

He used comedy to heal.  Jewish history is filled with destruction. Hatred and persecution have plagued us for so long, and they continue to do so in the Middle East and Europe.

One of the great healing balms of Jewish life has been humor. It has helped us maintain perspective, seeing possibilities for joy amidst pain, for sweetness amidst the harshness of life.

Robin Williams’ humor—along with his many acting roles—helped heal so many. His life mirrored the role he played so beautifully of Patch Adams, the doctor who used humor to heal his patients.

He used Comedy as a way of poking fun at ourselves: Robin Williams knew his own foibles. He did not shy away from admitting his struggles with addiction and relationships.

And he would turn those struggles into brilliant one-liners. Indeed, he once described cocaine as “God’s way of saying you make too much money.”  


 The second lesson was can take away from his death is knowing that he was a mensch, in the sense that he was one who struggles.   We know now that this was an internal struggle behind closed doors, that Robin Williams struggled with mental health and addiction issues for many many years and to which he eventually succumbed.  Perhaps it will prompt us in the Jewish community and the wider community, to deal more seriously with mental illness.  This includes depression but also bi-polar, schizophrenia, PTSD and addiction.  We as Ashkenazic Jews are more prone and clinical trials have shown its in our DNA. 

Rabbi Jeff Salkin wrote a brilliant piece this week in the Jewish news about William’s struggle with mental illness and showed that in our history there are many Jewish heroes who suffered similarly.  Moses seemed to have struggled with a kind of depression – and anxiety, about representing God, constantly feeling that he was letting them or God down, and weighed down by the immense task of leading the people to freedom.  The prophet Elijah seems to have suffered from depression. He flees from the homicidal wrath of Queen Jezebel, finds himself at Horeb (Mount Sinai), and crawls into a cave -- either crawling back into the womb or looking forward to the tomb (I Kings 19). Some say that the prophet Ezekiel struggled with mental illness. The Psalmist had his demons. Just one example: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? (Psalms 42:11)

Many Hasidic rebbes struggled with depression. Elie Wiesel devoted his book Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy to their storiesReb Nachman of Breslov famously battled the forces of depression, and his prayers and meditations are “gentle weapons” in that struggle. It appears that the great Zionist Theodor Herzl was given to bouts of inner darkness, and he passed on this tragic legacy to his children and grandchildren. Moshe Dayan struggled with depression; when he was Army Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin suffered a nervous breakdown.

We know there is a veil of secrecy, shame and stigma when it comes to mental illness.  If someone breaks a foot playing hockey there is no shame we sign their cast.  When someone breaks their soul having put too much strain on it, let there be no shame there as well.  We want our synagogue to be a place of healing.  One way is in our liturgy when we offer the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing, we ask God to grant healing of the body, and the mind and the soul. 

When thinking of Robin Williams, he had to hide his inner demons and be a comedian on the outside.  He loved to make others happy even if he was not always happy on the inside. 

The Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) tells the story that, one day, when Rabbi Baroka was in the marketplace, he encountered Elijah and asked him: “Who among these people will have a share in the world to come?” Elijah pointed to two men, and replied: “Those two.” Baroka asked them: “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are clowns. When we see someone who is sad, we cheer him up. When we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”

Maybe right about now, Robin Williams is sitting in the World To Come entertaining The Holy One, “who in enthroned in the heavens and laughs” (Psalm 2:4).

Williams’ apparent suicide is a tragedy. We can never know the pain he felt and struggles he underwent. What we do know, however, is that his life was a blessing.

He fulfilled the definition of a successful life captured so brilliantly by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Zichrono livracha, may his name always be remembered as a blessing. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

a way to look at the current situation in Israel and the Gaza Strip

As the hostilities continue in Israel and the Gaza Strip, now for a third week, its quite painful to watch and hear about war and death and struggle in the Jewish holy land.  There are too many opinions on who started it, who is to blame and who should end, to put it all here.  I think what is more helpful is to ask thoughtful questions about what is happening, so the conflict is not reduced to simple one word or one line sentences that don’t really delve into the deeper understanding of the context of the events and how to perhaps resolve some of the issues. had a great way to see the conflict through looking at Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, where four values are extolled in the penultimate line, “To be a free people in our land”.  This summarizes what Israeli’s want. 


First “To be”, that is Jews have known for centuries what it was like not to have a homeland, not to have a safe place to live and suffered through attacks none worse than the Holocaust.  At what point will the Jewish state be allowed to simply live in peace without the constant threat of war and destruction? 


Second, a “people” relates to the understanding that Israel stands for more than the sum of its parts.  Israel represents the Jewish people as a whole, who live there and in all corners of the world. It is the Jewish homeland, and every Jew tries to visit and faces her when he or she prays.  Jews are connected to the country in a visceral and emotional way, that traces back through our history and very soul. 


Third,  “in our land” is perhaps the most controversial part.  This land was promised to the Jewish people by God as written in the Bible, and we began our journey as a people in Israel.  The Romans exiled us from the land around 70 CE and we yearned to return and finally did officially in 1948 when the United Nations voted to create the modern state of Israel, as it exists today.  However it is obvious that when the UN made that vote, it was not a perfect situation as many other peoples lived on that land over those years and through until today.   How are borders established when many people lay claim to one piece of land?  What about when wars happen and people move from one part of the land to another?


Fourth, “free”  - how do we understand freedom?  Is one free to do anything or are there some limits, in terms of violence or speech that can hurt others?  If one is attacked, how should one respond? 


As one addresses these questions in light of the conflict, we can see that there are no easy solutions.  Jewish traditions maintains that we are a peaceful people who pursue peace and value life above all.  However we also have sources that allow us to defend life when someone rises up to kill.  Here lies the major issue.  Today Israel is in a state of defense, to protect its citizens and borders from terrorist attacks and hand held rockets fired from Gaza and landing in Israel.  To properly defend the country, Israel must prevent these attacks from where they originate in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization that in its charter that they are struggling against the Jews and call for the creation of an Islamic state in place of Israel and the obliteration of Israel.  This is why Israelis planes target missile launching sites in Gaza and why the army has moved into Gaza to root out terrorists, close up weapon smuggling tunnels and prevent more attacks.   I hope and pray each day for an end to the hostilities and that the two people can come to some sort of agreement to share the land, without resorting to violence.  I am realistic to know that peace is hard to achieve and may not be at hand, but I am also optimistic enough to say that looking back at history, there have been longer conflicts and that hopefully the time will come when we shall lay down our swords and shields and turn them into pruning hooks. 


Friday, May 30, 2014

The pope's visit to Israel


Rabbi Stephen Wise – May 31 2014 –  2 Sivan 5774 
featuring quotes and content from Israeli columnist Haviv Rettig Gur of the “Times of Israel”.  original article at

It is a memorable moment when the Pope visits Israel.  In some ways it’s a pilgrimage for a leader of faith to visit the birthplace of his religion, a chance to walk in the path of his prophet and lord, Jesus Christ.  But we all know its so much more that simply a religious journey for the Pope.  As the leader of 1.3 billion adherents, his visit is always political and strategic.  This newest leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has been a source of humility and hope for not just Catholics but all faiths.  In fact for this particular trip to Israel, he brought along two of his close friends from Argentina, a Rabbi and an Imam.  This was remarkable alone for his strong attachment to improving interfaith relations.  A few days have passed now since the visit and everyone has had a chance to examine it. 

He started by landing in the territories and meeting with Palestinian leaders and even praying at the separation fence between Israel and the territories.  Then he came into Israel and prayed at the Kotel.  He met with various political and religious leaders and at the end of the day, according to Israeli columnist Haviv Rettig Gur, the rhetoric and imagery produced by the visit have been assessed and reassessed from every imaginable perspective, and something close to a consensus has developed: the pope didn’t make any mistakes.

This might appear like an odd conclusion, as though his visit was a test.  But in many ways it was, his first visit to a volatile region, trying to bridge two warring sides and finding a middle ground where it appears he supports both sides and ultimately aspires for them both to achieve peace.  Indeed it might be hard to convey the scale of this achievement, but it must be attempted because it reveals much about the conflict, about leadership, about Israel and about the pope.

Much like a chief Rabbi, The Holy See has no hard power. As Gur writes, “The pope can’t tax or arrest the estimated 1.2 billion adherents of the Catholic Church. His only influence over them is voluntary, driven by powerful images and narratives of redemption and belonging. In an important sense, then, the pope is a symbol, a stand-in for a higher reality, and all his statements and actions are consciously undertaken as part of his symbolic role.”

So when the Palestinian Authority brought the pope to a concrete-walled portion of Israel’s West Bank security fence, the pope was hardly confused by the intentions of his hosts. They wanted to create a symbol, and he, a master of symbolism, gave it to them willingly.  And then he proceeded to offer prayers there. According to the Huffington Post, the wall just happened to be on the path of his itinerary through Bethlehem, but the PA revealed that their plan all along was to create the image of the Pope at the separation wall.  This was hard to watch for Israeli’s, especially hard line right wingers, but I think a moment of clarity that the Pope was literally straddling the fence on the issues that separate Israeli’s and Palestinians. 

The pope’s visit to the PA together with the repeated mention of the “State of Palestine” in Vatican press releases and in the pontiff’s own speeches, quickly set people off with the predictable cheering and hand-wringing. Yet while the Palestinians claimed victory that the Pope was on their side, the Israeli’s could quickly point out that in the same press release and speeches, the Pope for the very first time explicitly recognized the justice of Zionism and made the first papal visit to the tomb of Theodor Herzl. 

The Pope also followed his visit to the Palestinian side of the separation fence with a visit to the Israeli national memorial for terror victims — with Israeli leaders noting that over 1,000 Israelis were killed in Palestinian suicide bombings by the time the government decided to build fences and walls between Israelis and Palestinians.  The Pope delivered on live Israeli TV a brief but strident rejection of terrorism.  How he managed to deliver for both sides, and all able to say that the Pope was on their side is a matter of excellent diplomacy and spiritual strength. 

As Gur wrote in the Times of Israel, as Pope Francis left the region he had gone out of his way to accept both sides’ narrative. Unlike previous popes or more junior Vatican officials, Francis did not hedge or equivocate for a moment. He signaled without hesitation his belief that the Palestinians are traumatized by occupation and deserving of long-denied national freedom, and simultaneously that the Jews of Israel are victims of indiscriminate violence who also deserve to live as a free people in their land.  This is something many Jews  - from Israel and the Diaspora - have been saying for years, this Rabbi included, but it comes across loud and clear when an impartial leader with great weight behind him, such as the Pope, says it.

What more could a Jew, or anyone, ask of the Pope.  Tens of thousands of articles, if not more, have been written about the new ideology that Pope Francis has brought to the papacy. While he has not compromised on any aspect of dogma or ethics — he is as intransigent on contraception, homosexuality and abortion as his two famously conservative predecessors — he has brought a new “style” and a new rhetoric to the post.

Last July, Francis gave a remarkable interview to journalists aboard his flight back to Rome from Brazil.  In talking about homosexuality he said, “When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The [homosexual] tendency is not the problem…they’re our brothers.”  He brilliantly moved it from dogma to a personal approach.  Indeed, who are you, who is anyone, to judge someone based on their sexuality or gender or orientation.  It’s the most incredible line I have heard from a Pope since 1964 when the Pope officially said the Jews did not kill Jesus.

The Pope has railed again the troubled global financial system, called for a new theology for women, and brought new standards to the pomp and circumstance of the Vatican, himself moving into a humble guesthouse instead of the papal residence. Non-Catholics have also started talking about him, even the American pro-gay magazine The Advocate named Francis their “Man of the Year” on the grounds that his acceptance of gays as human beings is the most important thing to happen to gays last year. “Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics all over the world,” the magazine noted. “There are three times as many Catholics in the world than there are citizens in the United States. Like it or not, what he says makes a difference.”

Thus the man who vociferously opposed the introduction of gay marriage in his native Argentina became a hero of the gay community in the United States simply for stating that gays must be treated as human beings.

There is a unifying thread in all these statements, an ideology summed up in the official motto of his papacy: “Miserando atque eligendo,” a Latin quote from the seventh-century English monk Bede that means, roughly, “By having mercy, choosing.”

That, in short, is Francis’s message to the world, and the mission of redeeming humanity, of evangelizing and elevating, cannot be conducted through political partisanship or theological bickering, Francis has said. It must evangelize as Jesus did, by seeing past the discord and sinfulness with which people interact with the world to the suffering and brokenness at the core of the human experience.

This is the backdrop for Pope Francis coming to Israel in the spirit of harmony and brotherhood and peace.  Both the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ tried to get him to legitimize and magnify their narratives, and in response he refused nothing. He recognized every symbol, stood at every wall and memorial, recognized both Palestinian suffering and Israeli victims of Palestinian violence, Zionism and the State of Palestine. As Gur writes, in doing so, he wasn’t being a “pawn.” He was simply but emphatically refusing to play the Israeli-Palestinian game

Humility, Francis has taught, especially in the face of conflict, is the only way for the church to offer guidance to those who suffer war or deprivation. That is what Israeli and Palestinian leaders must learn if we are to move forward towards peace. 

For Israeli’s, what might have been the highlight was the Pope as leader of a billion Catholics with Peres the president of the only Jewish state.  But Francis did not seem to share the Israelis’ enthusiasm for the symbolic event, wearing a bland, tired expression, and walking slowly through the grounds.  It was only when a choir of 120 Jewish, Christian and Muslim children sang Hallelujah, did he smile and make contact by shaking the hands of all the participants.

Pope Francis is not as foolish as Israelis and Palestinians believe. He did not invite Abbas and Peres to the headquarters of the church to negotiate — but to pray.  That was the point of his visit, and before leaving the country, the pope extended an unplanned invitation to President Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join him in the Vatican for a prayer for peace. The invitation, which the two leaders immediately accepted, was soon the subject of much head-scratching.

Abbas and Peres have met hundreds of times. Abbas is forming a government with Hamas, which continues to openly advocate terrorism against Israeli civilians, while Peres holds a symbolic post from which he is in any case retiring in July.

The pope “doesn’t know Peres doesn’t make political decisions at all,” PLO official Hanan Ashrawi explained in comments echoed by officials close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who were embarrassed by the pope’s favoring of Peres over the prime minister who holds the actual power to broker peace.  That is because the Pope is smart and it’s a lesson we can all learn.  He isn’t there to negotiate, especially over generations’ long conflict and heels dug in mutual suspicion – rather he came to ask God to help us all find Peace.  Ken Yehi Razton.