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Black Friday Winners and Losers – Sermon for Chayei Sarah

My foster kids are still working on understanding what it means to live in a Jewish house— which holidays we do, and which we don’t. What foods we eat, which we don’t. One of them asked me the other day, “Do you celebrate Black Friday?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I think Black Friday is celebrated by many, and dreaded by others. Personally, though I’m not agoraphobic, the thought of being in those crowds freaks me out. I think I saw on TV this morning that the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in New York had 16,000 people lined up waiting just to get inside. No thanks. I heard that there were riots in South Africa over discounted toilet paper. It makes me shudder. In past years people have died, being trampled as they rushed into Wal-Mart to take advantage of the holiday sales. Folks…. at some point, isn’t this beneath our dignity? Couldn’t we spend 50 more bucks for a television or 20 more dollars for a pair of boots just to keep our sanity? We have to ask ourselves, what is the price point on our dignity? We’d have to ply ourselves and spend a little more. Especially for toilet paper, we could triple ply ourselves, cushion the blow, and be more absorbent to the sticker shock, and pay what it’s actually worth.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good discount as much as the next guy. I have driven across town two and three times looking for the best deal on a computer. With a conservative calculation for gas and mileage, I basically broke even. What I’m trying to say is, every now and then, it’s worth the extra expense to escape aggravation.

This is part and parcel of what our father Abraham teaches in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. The life of Sarah comes to an end, and Abraham needs a special place to bury her. Just like today, we don’t just bury in any old place. We seek special grounds, often locations adorned in beauty. Our Mt. Lebanon in Wyuka is a fine example. People picnic there. They perform Shakespeare in the summer. I will never forget the first week I was in Lincoln, and I went to do the funeral for Richard Sachs, and I was greeted by a pair of beautiful swans. The Wyuka Cemetery is no ordinary plot of land. This is precisely the type of place Abraham sought for his beloved Sarah, practicing the Jewish value of kevod hamet. That is honoring the dead with heartfelt devotion, just as much if not more than they were honored during their life. He doesn’t think long and decides on the cave at Machpelah in Chevron, in the land of the Hittites, on the property of Ephron the son of Zohar. The commentators have a field day with the name of this place just to glorify this piece of real estate. Machpelah, Rashi says, means double (from the root kaf-feh-lamed)… it has a lower level and un upper level. Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam says it is called, “double” because it not only includes the cave, but also the field leading to it. And if you really like a garden view, the Zohar book of mysticism, teaches that Machpelah means double as it bridges this world to the Garden of Eden. I think a realtor would say, “It’s literally the ultimate green belt!” So what would you pay for such a plot of land? Do you follow the MLS listings, wait to see how many days it is on the market and see if the price drops, or do you just know that’s the place you want and you taking no risk on losing out to another buyer?

Abraham wastes no time. Machpelah is the cave he wants, and he wants to honor Sarah by returning her to the Earth as quickly as possible. He announces to the Hittites who live in the area that he will go to Ephron who owns the land and will pay full price. So intent is he, that even when Ephron offers to just give him the land, Abraham insists on paying. There is no reason, he feels to bargain for something so important. It is Ephron’s land, and he is entitled to compensation. Furthermore, by paying the market value, and doing so publicly, in front of the other Hittites, no one can question the fairness of the transaction or question the transfer of ownership. There are no hard feelings on any side.

What it all boils down to is this. We are living in an era that places a lot of emphasis on winners and losers. The stakes are all or nothing. It seems that sports fans have lost the ability to celebrate success and going deep into the playoffs, and end up mourning in frustration for losing at the highest level with the championship on the line. Fans of the Buffalo Bills only talk about losing 4 Super Bowls in a row, rather than the fact that they had an improbable streak of playing in 4 consecutive Superbowls. I can say, after the 2014 World Series, I did not feel better until the end of the 2015 World Series when at last the Royals won…. But still, I’ll never forget the bitterness feeling of seeing Alex Gordon standing on 3rd base as a weak popup ended that series. I and others had to remind ourselves that sometimes the victory is the excitement, the fun, the exhilarating feeling of hope, and the learning we do, being engaged in new, high stake situations reveling in the satisfaction of having fought hard in an environment of complete fairness. If we could think this way, we could all can be better off for the experience. Some are victorious. Some are runners up. But if we really do it right, we all can be winners.

Maybe our nation’s politics could benefit from such a view.

Elections are no longer about deciding who can lead us with a uniting vision. They have instead become about whose ideology can subjugate the other. In a democratic society, we are supposed to focus on the mutual benefit, not the suppression of the opposition. This is not only about the recent election, but in general. It has been a growing trend for many years. Elections no longer end with mere celebrations and congratulatory statements. They are punctuated by gloating and demands for the losing side to admit abject defeat that the percentage difference is a repudiation of their ideas. Leading up to the election, there was discussion on both sides about whoever won, their party would be in disarray and have to figure out how to rebuild from the ruins. It’s just not likely that both parties could be teetering that close to demise. In actuality, both were probably going to be okay over all, just needing to re-organize, and apply a new strategy. In this environment of perceived winner take all, half the country stops being able to work with the other half of the country. No one is allowed to lose with honor. And winners choose not to win with dignity.

In this environment, we are all losers.
It follows the trend of where I started this talk, the Black Friday sales. We are obsessed with getting the upperhand, finding the best deal, at the expense of others, so much that we ultimately lose ourselves in the process. It is not fun to fight over the last discounted Big Screen TV, or roll of toilet paper, when the ultimate cost is our own humanity. The feeling of satisfaction when we get the deal is fleeting at best. It is counterproductive to living under the rule of loving our neighbors as ourselves— the most important command in all the Torah.

What Abraham did was demonstrate this basic love of the neighbor through fairness and consideration. When he purchased the cave at Machpelah for a fair price, he simultaneously did a lot of things. He protected his own reputation as a fair player and honest broker. He likewise allowed Ephron to be perceived as a straight shooter and good business man. The Hittites looking on, they too gained because they never had to doubt whether these men could be trusted or if they would uphold the greater good. And they learned from this model the lesson we all learn, that when we value and respect our fellow men with fair negotiations, fair prices, and fair competition, everyone is happy and everyone wins in the end.

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Those who love God, Hate Evil- Sermon for Shabbat, November 18, 2016

Friends,

I am going to start by saying something kind of controversial. Despite what you may have been told,  what you might believe, it is okay to hate. This sounds strange coming from a rabbi, right? Well there is a Jewish way to hate, and no, I’m not talking about guilt. It is okay to hate racism.

In Psalm 97, we are taught, in command form, “Ohavei Adonai, sinu ra. You who love God, hate evil.” There are few evils worse than racism, and racism is a mere stepping stone to those other evils. So yes, let us hate evil and hate racism with all our hearts.

Now I want to be clear, when I talk about hating racism, I am talking talking about hating ideas, not the people who hold them. Admittedly, it is hard to differentiate between them, but we have to. There are restrictions and limitations to permissible hate. Defeating an idea allows us to maintain our humanity when the battle is won. If our goal is to defeat people, it causes us to push for complete humiliation of the opponent. It takes us too far down a dangerous road which can elicit the worst parts of our own humanity which we have to keep in check. It is important to offer the opportunity for every person to lose with dignity. To brag, or belittle, or intimidate, or dominate another in defeat is antithetical to Jewish ideals. Even if our opposition has behaved in such a manner, we are prohibited from doing the same.

We find instruction in the Torah laws of engagement which demand that, in war, the Israelites maybnever completely surround a city, thus offering a chance for citizens to retreat (Hilchot Melachim 6:7). Even our enemies deserve a chance at continued life, during which we hope they will re-evaluate their ideas. Additionally, Jewish law permits us to do only the minimal amount it takes to win. Maimonides teaches further in the Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Melachim 9:4) teaches about self defense against one who follows you to do harm. If one can stop an attacker by just injuring his leg, but one goes ahead and kills him, then that is tantamount to murder. The law is there to curb our inclination for blood thirst and total subjugation of another. Once the aggression has ended, we move on. So if we are able to defeat an idea, we can leave what’s left of the person intact. We can move on in peace, causing no undue harm to an already damaged person. That is the just way. That is the Jewish way. So let us set our sights on defeating the ills of hatred and racism, not to squash the haters and the racists. Who knows, they may one day become repentant and turn into strong allies. Our congregation knows this history personally with Larry Trapp, who died repentant for the harm he caused as a Klansman. It is also evident in the Nate Phelps, son of the the deceased Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist Church once protested our Temple. Nate left his father’s church to become an outspoken advocate against his father’s wretched ideals and for LGBT rights. Complete humiliation or annihilation of people might have prevented these people from turning around so they could have s chance to reach more and bring them to a path of truth.

There is no singular way to deal with the forces of hate and racism, but we have no choice but to combat them. Racism fills our world with darkness. Clouds of hate envelope us, but again, we can turn to Psalm 97. Soon after the command to hate evil, we are told, “Or Zarua latzadik, ulyishrei lev simcha. Light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright.” So if we, in righteousness hate evil, not only can we defeat it, we bring light into the world. If it sounds easy, it shouldn’t. If it sounds overly simplistic, it is not. You see, the Torah speaks very little about feelings. It is mostly about actions. That’s what our form of hate needs to be. If we allow hate to be merely a a feeling, it can become all consuming and overwhelm us. It can reduce us to tired and bitter recluses who lose sight of the greater goal, to live in peace and love. So the command to hate that we hear from the Psalmist, does not allow us to become embroiled in anger. Sitting back, embittered in our rightness and bathing in cynicism achieves absolutely nothing. The directive in Psalm 97 is compelling us to take acton.

Consider for a moment what our tradition teaches about the opposite of hate– love. It’s so much more than a feeling. Love is action. We are taught to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our being. We show love for God when we lie down, when we rise up, when we walk by the way (Deuteronomy 6:5-7). We learn from this that feeling love is not enough. It can fill our hearts, it can even overflow. However when love is not expressed, whether it be love of a spouse, love of a child, love of a friend, love of our earth, love, as a mere feeling, can only be unrequited because the object of that love receives no benefit. That kind of love is pointless. And thus, the same can be said of hate. If we do nothing about it, it is like poison inside of us, harming only us who bear it.

I looked at today a passage of Leviticus, and understood it like I have never understood it before. It’s in chapter 19 verse 17), part of the holiness code. It teaches, “Do not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him.”

Wow. Hating in your heart. That’ resentment. Reproving. That’s action. Incurring no guilt, that is actively taking down repulsive ideas, without, as Rashi says, “bringing him embarrassment,” degradation, or undue harm.

This is where we begin. It does not matter who you voted for. The election is done. But we combat the hate-filled rhetoric which filled the campaign. We trust that there will indeed be policies which are good for America. But, that which is distasteful, we clear our voices and raise them up as loud, and as often as possible. I attended a rally on the campus of UNL today, and suffice it to say, there are a lot of people, gay, white, black, asian, native american, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, who are genuinely frightened for the uncertain future because the only things they know to be true are the words which have been spoken and the policies which have been proposed. Those fears deserve to be taken seriously.

Since November 8, I have had some fascinating conversations that have given me some hope. I have found people on both sides of the aisle who genuinely care about some of the same issues as I do. Some really care for LGBT rights. As those issues arise, we can join together with anyone willing to lend their support and knock down those ideas. I have found others who actually care about a woman’s right to choose. So we seek our allies, and knock it down. There are people on both sides who do not support the Muslim registry, so again, we work together to knock that down. Whatever the issue, we hate the ideas and we accept any ally, regardless of their vote or political leaning to reject those ideas we hold so dear.

Most pressing right now is how we address the formation of the new Presidential administration. Many of us have made a mistake by describing individuals themselves as white Nationalists and anti-semites. While it may be true, we cannot definitively prove either statement. What is quantifiable however is the presence of at least one adviser, who in his own words, provided a platform for the alt right, which is a euphemism for white nationalists, which is another word for Nazis and Klansmen.

Another way to look at this is to consider a great enemy of the Jewish people we read about in Exodus. The terrible Amalek attacked the most vulnerable Israelites from behind just as they were leaving slavery in Egypt. And we are to be at war with Amalek throughout the ages. A midrash (cited by Rashi on Deu 25:18) explains why Amalek is so hated. It was not that he attacked the Israelites. The rabbis believed that with God’s help, they could not be defeated. What Amalek did by attacking was to make it appear that other nations, who would otherwise know better, could do the same. And so Amalek’s sin was to open the floodgates for other nations to attack as well. So let us be cautious with our comparisons. We are not talking about Hitler, or even Goebbels. We are talking about a modern day Amalek, giving voice to racism and senseless hate, making it mainstream, and giving the appearance that others may do the same.

Again, it does not matter who you voted for. As Jews, we have to speak out against the forces of hate, by hating them in return, not in our hearts, but with our words and our deeds. We need to appeal to our elected leaders and tell them this is not ok. We need to call upon our president elect not to allow policies to be shaped by people whose presence instills fear in large groups of American communities.

That is not the world we want to live in, and hand to our children, so it is incumbent upon us to reprove our fellow citizens, to show them the positive force of hate, as we demolish destructive ideals, and set our fellow kinsmen on the path of right. We must hate evil, because that part of loving God.

Chazak ve’ematz. May we be strong and of good courage so that we may stand up for justice in the coming days.

Shabbat Shalom.

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A Prayer For Our Nation

I just want to add this after my most recent post. Prayer is good. We must be thoughtful about what we pray for. I cannot say it any better than this prayer:

From Mishkan Tefillah: A Reform Siddur- Shabbat, p. 258

O GUARDIAN of life and liberty,
may our nation always merit your protection.
Teach us to give thanks for what we have
by sharing it with those who are in need.
Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation,
and alert to the care of the earth.
May we never be lazy in the work of peace;
may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals.
Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.
May they govern with justice and compassion.
Help us all to appreciate one another,
and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.
May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,
and our country be sound in body and spirit.
Amen.

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One Nation, Under God… But Which Version?

There has been an internet meme that people prayed about the election, and those prayers brought them victory. Aside from the obvious, that no religious group voted unanimously for Donald Trump, there is a more disturbing sentiment in this statement. Proclaiming  one form of prayer victorious plays into a narrative of religious triumphalism, a notion that makes people of other religions nervous. It turns our election into a battle of prayer, who prayed harder, and whose prayer God preferred. This was how wars were settled in the Ancient Near East, god against god. Each nation would carry an effigy into battle, and the clash of armies would reflect the battle of the gods. Whichever army won, their god was superior. That god’s effigy would earn a higher place in the pantheon of gods. Is that what American elections have become, an effigy of an elephant vs. a donkey carried by candidates through debates, and rallies, and advertising until votes get counted to decide the victor? I hope not. To turn our elections into battles between gods would be pagan. It would also mean democracy was in the hands of the divine, not the citizens here below. Furthermore, most of us, regardless of how we vote, are talking about and to the same god. Even most atheists are talking about that very same god they don’t believe in. It is hard to imagine God fighting against Godself. It might look like the Monty Python sketch where a man wrestles himself into submission. Of course some religions could see a 3-on-1 fight, but that hardly sounds fair. So can we cut out the triumphal religious overtones? A candidate got more human votes. If any god or gods had anything to do with it, then one could rightfully argue that it was rigged.

Ok. For the sake of argument, let’s go with the “we prayed for this,” scenario. If prayers for the election were answered, that means that the victor has been anointed by God. Didn’t we throw a bunch of tea in Boston Harbor to get away from divine right? By the way, there is a religious word for “anointed one”- it’s Messiah. If we elected the Messiah, we have a lot more to prepare for than a simple inauguration. We would have to clear the way for Elijah’s coming. We are more likely to see Elijah Cummings, who is not thrilled about any of this. I for one think it would be a mistake to call Donald Trump the anointed one. Again, to quote Monty Python, “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” He won the election fair and square, but this was no divine act, so let’s stop pretending.

As a rabbi who works hard at building interfaith dialogue and understanding, I want people to quit saying “my god is better than your god”, especially when it is the same God. It is impossible to feel respect or love from someone who considers your belief and practice inferior to their own. If we are truly going to love our friends and neighbors, unconditionally giving them their due respect, people need to understand how others feel when they are told their prayers are inferior, especially when the supposed proof is a man-made election. It is fine, actually right, to be grateful, to pray for the health and wisdom of a leader, and to pray for their success. But humility, which is demanded by all religions, demands we recognize the prayers of sadness and regret on the other side, equally accompanied by prayers for the future of our nation. God takes no sides in elections, though arguably God is most needed to comfort and strengthen the losers. Still none of us can say for sure that any of this was God’s will. God’s will is for peace and understanding, freedom for all mankind, all of those things which, as we awakened on November 9, were still distant dreams. So, it might be wise for us to quit turning earthly triumph into religious triumph, rejecting non-believers or heathens who dare to vote another way. It is time that we all start praying for the same things, health, safety, prosperity for all the Earth, and to stop bragging that our vote was some sort of divine emanation through which God showed our beliefs to be right. Our democracy prohibits the establishment of any religion, so even if God wanted to tamper with an election, our Constitution demands we resist. The issues before us are too important to wait for divine validation. Life is too precious. Time is too precious. Democracy is too precious. We have to, instead, be one nation, indivisible, under God, each according to our own understanding of God, and challenge our leaders to turn our shared prayers into reality.

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Invocation for NAACP Lincoln Chapter Banquet, October 29, 2016

This past Saturday, October 29, I had the privilege of offering the invocation for the NAACP Lincoln Branch’s annual banquet at the Downtown Holiday Inn. It was an extraordinary event highlighted by the presentation by Daniel Dawes on his book “150 Years of Obamacare” and capped by a moving chorus of “We shall overcome” led by up and coming vocal graduate student Alfonzo Cooper, Jr. Special thanks to the organizers (mentioned in my comments), branch president Bennie Shobe and TJ McDowell who served as master of ceremonies.  

I would like to thank the organizers, Thomas (Christie) and Jareldine (Mays) for this invitation tonight. This is one of the great honors of my career to be part of this event, as it gives me the chance to stand humbly in the footsteps of one of my personal heroes, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. He was a founding member of two great institutions. One was The Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinical seminary that merged with the Hebrew Union College, where I received ordination 86 years later. Rabbi Wise’s second institution was born of his desire to serve all mankind. In 1909 he was also one of the 53 courageous founders of the NAACP.

In a sermon (“On Richard Wright’s Native Son: One Race Pleads For Another,” 5-10-1940) delivered to his New York congregation (The Free Synagogue in Manhattan), he explained his commitment to civil rights and social justice.

“I understand as I have never understood before the words of the Hebrew prophet: Be not afraid my servant. If thou are my servant, thou canst not be afraid… Let us be servants of the truth, whatever others may say and do in moral surrender… (Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27).”

Rabbi Wise promoted religion as the “spirit and practice of democracy, of a wholesome approach to divine worship, the spirit of inquiry, free discussion, community and social service… (“No Dues and No Pews: The Story of the Free Synagogue,” April 10, 1947).

And to those who would have silenced him, he proclaimed himself a “watchman on the tower… [bound] to serve as an unafraid watchman on the tower of human duty and of human hope.”

And in truth, Rabbi Wise was not speaking of himself. He was daring everyone, every man, woman, and child, of every color, of every race, of every creed, to be watchmen on the tower of freedom, humbling ourselves to the truths that we are all created equal, in the same divine image, inherently entitled to life, liberty and justice. He reminded us never to fear, for one can never go wrong as an agent of truth and freedom. He sought to instill in all of us the moral courage to be counted, to be heard, to live by our highest shared ideals.

Walter White, former President of the NAACP [from 1931-1955,] felt a special kinship with Rabbi Wise. They shared the vulnerability of being a minority, and recognized the dangers when we ignore the pain of our fellow man. They knew that when one was threatened, all were threatened, one by one, until, as Mr. White said, “Until liberty has been destroyed, not [just] for the minorities, but for the people as a whole (Remarks at Memorial for Stephen S. Wise, Summer 1949).”

Walter White spoke at Rabbi Wise’s funeral and recounted the final words of protest spoken by his dear friend. They were said at a rally after a lynching in Georgia. Barely able to stand, against doctor’s orders, fighting the frail shell of a body which was fading away, the rabbi inspired one and all declaring, “As long as I am able to raise my voice in protest [], I am going to raise it, no matter [] the cost to myself.

And so my friends, as we begin this banquet, and continue to do the amazing work of the NAACP, upholding the rights and dignity of all people, may we never forget the friendships that bind us, may we be servants of truth with no cause to fear. May we pledge ourselves to democracy, justice, and service. May we always be watchmen on the tower, duty bound to fight intolerance in all its forms, and may we continue to support our fellow men and women, brothers and sisters of every race, creed and color, raising our voices as long as we can, raising them in the cause of right, raising them in protest if we have to, and may the day come when we only raise our voices in a chorus of praise, celebrating freedom for all mankind.

And so we pray, Creator of all things, source of life, bless our meal and bless this gathering, fill us with the sense of fellowship that makes us truly our brother’s keepers. Bless our great nation, and bless our mission to help it live up to its highest ideals that all men and women are truly created equal.

Let us say, Amen.

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Pictured above, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise

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Jewish Ghost Stories- 2016

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For Halloween fun, I am sharing my ghost story adaptations from this past Friday Night Live.  Keep in mind that interspersed in the breaks were prayers for Shabbat and the spectacular music from the Star City Kochavim. Both stories were adapted from “My Grandmother’s Stories: A Collection of Jewish Folktales” by Adele Geras.

As we approach the end of October, we think of mystery, of frights, of things that go bump in the night. No, it is not a Jewish holiday but we do find in Jewish tradition stories which feed our fears at this spooky season. There are Jewish ghost stories, in the Bible and in our folklore, and they all stem from the mysteries of the unknown, born of fear that grows from uncertainty. A symbol of uncertainty appears in our study of the Torah portion for this week. In creation, God creates day and night. And for six days the Earth is filled with all that lives and breathes. And all of it is GOOD. But in light and dark, we have certainty. The midrash on creation opens the door to mystery, just before God rests. The sun is setting, and we are Bein Shemashot, in a period between the lights, neither day nor night, Twilight. This is a time in some midrash and in mystical literature when mysterious things, even miraculous things can occur.

In midrash, Bein Shemashot just before Shabbat saw the rise of a talking donkey, a miraculous worm, and miraculous food. In the uncertainty, writers of Jewish folk tales also made this the time for the creation of werewolves, vampires, and all sorts of mysterious spirits.

Tonight in our service, we will explore the world of Jewish ghost stories, and we shall see what indeed we can learn from them.
My grandmother liked to tell a story…
Let it be known, for the rest of the night, when I say my grandmother, it’s just a story-telling device which makes stories sound old and established. I’m not talking about my actual grandmother’s whose scariest story was about the time when she kept sending a baked potato back to the kitchen because it was just too cold. And the chutzpadik waiter kept bringing it to her room temperature. For my actual grandma, that was a nightmare. But for my storytelling grandma, there are nightmares of another kind.

My grandmother told me this story which was told to her by her bubbe, Ruth. It was about a bride who died on the very day she was to be married. Before going to the chuppah, the groom came to look under her veil, as has been the Jewish custom Jacob and Leah, and he discovered her face, pale, waxen, lifeless. Tears flowed far and wide like rivers rushing the sea. What should have been seven days of celebration became seven days of darkness and mourning.

Gradually time passed, and the would-be groom decided to no longer dwell in the past. After several years of loneliness, he found another bride. Unbeknownst to him, the ghost of his first betrothed was still wandering the Earth, sulking over the love and the joy which were not hers.

The night before the wedding, the new bride awoke with a fright, as she saw the image of a specter standing at the foot of the bed. She immediately called off the marriage, leaving the groom to wander alone in life, just as his first love had to wander alone in death.

The ghost of this poor should continued to walk the earth, the ultimate crasher, visiting wedding after wedding uninvited. My grandmother said her bubba Ruth had been warned by friends just before her wedding, but she somehow knew what she would do if indeed that happened.
And I’ll tell you about that in just a moment.

Sure enough, the night before Ruth was to marry great-great grandfather Itzik, she was visited by this lonesome ghost. The pale apparition sobbed uncontrollably at the foot of her bed.
“Why do you cry like this?” She asked.

“Because,” the ghost replied, “there is to be a wedding, and it is not mine.”

“But, I am marrying Itzik. He is my love. Not yours. You wouldn’t want this to be your wedding… believe me.”

“Yes, but,” the ghost looked up, her face turned brighter, she approached Ruth until there was barely an inch between their faces. “I was cheated. I never stood under a chuppah. I never carried my bouquet. I never heard the chanting of the sheva berachot. I never heard the smashing of the glass. That much I deserved, but this, this is my lot.”

Ruth, shook a little, but she knew what needed to be done. She left the room for a few minutes and came back to make the ghost an offer she couldn’t refuse.

The next day, at the wedding, Ruth’s mother took a seat in the congregation. This seemed strange to the guests, for it was custom for the bride’s mother to stand under the chuppah during the nuptials. The rabbi read the wedding contract. He sang the seven blessings. He poured the cups of wine. And the groom smashed the glass, as everyone shouted Mazal tov.

And there are those who swear, in all the rejoicing, if they looked to the chuppah in just the right light, and if they squinted their eyes just so, they could make out, that the biggest smile came from a faint shadow of woman in a bridal gown, standing right where the bride’s mother should have been.

Ruth and her mother had agreed to let this forlorn soul stand under the chuppah to share in their celebration and enjoy the wedding which she had been denied for too long.

As Ruth and Itzik were raised in chairs for their celebratory dance, the ghost bride appeared one last time, blew a kiss to my grandmother’s bubbe Ruth and vanished into the air, at last to rest in peace, in the bonds of everlasting life.
What I love about the story of the ghost bride is that it has just the right amount of spookiness, and the right amount of heart. Most ghost stories teach us not to walk alone through abandoned houses and not to hang out in cemeteries or amusement parks after hours. Jewish ghost stories teach us values. Here, from the ghost bride we learn about the mitzvah of sharing joy. We recently finished the celebration of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were commanded to share our homes, our food, and our possessions with others. This in keeping with he command from Deuteronomy, “You shall rejoice before the Lord. You, your son and daughter, manservant and maid, the Levite… the stranger, the orphan, the widow in your midst.” everybody. This was what Ruth understood and how she allowed soul to rest eternally at peace. But that’s not all we learn from my grandmother because there is more to life than happiness and peace. There is the ways we create happiness and peace. But I will tell you about that with another ghost story, in just a moment.

Few things are more thrilling than taking a stroll and discovering a new and beautiful garden. And nothing is more chilling than wandering alone in this unfamiliar place, as the sky grows dark, and suddenly the flowers begin to speak. But it’s not just the flowers. The bushes, shrubs, and trees. My grandmother spoke of this magical garden in which, as a little girl, she one day got lost. She didn’t know what to do, even less what to say, for she had never met a talking flower. At first they took no notice of her. The flowers and trees argued, tossing barbs past her as they insulted one another, furiously thing to settle an important score. All the plants proclaimed themselves to be the best and most beautiful in the garden.

The poppy cried out, “Look at me, my petals are more delicate than anyone else’s and seriously, no one can match my rich scarlet coloring.”

Oh, but the oleander gave a rebuttal, “But your petals, they are easily torn, just a puff of wind, and you are in tatters.”

The orchid was amused, snorting from his dragon-shaped head. “Leave it to the poisonous oleander to be spewing such venom. You are both pathetic.

The gladiolus tried to put them all to shame. “Look at how many flowers I have, and so nicely arranged along my stem.

“Whatever!” Said the carnation. “You speak of quanity, when it is quality that mattes.”

“Yeah,” said a neighboring carnation. “We come in all sorts of colors, we smell real good, and our petals may look frilly, but they are built to last. No wonder we are always chosen to be boutonieres.”

The seeds of hate blossomed into a riot. The roses brought their buds, and the orchids came with pistils. It was a chaotic scene, such that if one took a picture, it would be impossible to provide an adequate photo synthesis.

The giant trees looked on and found the whole thing a bit shady. “Flowers,” grumbled the pine tree. “Feh. They grow. They’re cut down. They’re put in bouquets. Ver vaist. I’d get rid of all the flowers if I could.”

Luckily his bark was worse than his bite.

“Yeah,” said the willow. “We can live hundreds of years. We give shelter to the animals. We give fruits, and if we do get cut down, our wood can build lasting structures where people can live and work.”

“Let’s have a contest!” cried the oak. “We’ll see which of the plants in the garden is the best of all.”

“But who will judge?” asked all the other plants.

“Why that little girl over there,” he replied, pointing a branch toward my grandmother who was suddenly no longer an observer. She was thrust into the middle of the fight. She agreed… but on one condition…. I’ll tell you what that condition was in a moment.

My “grandmother” agreed to be the judge of the trees, if they in turn would then show her the way home. The judging began.

My grandmother went from tree to tree, inspecting the branches, climbing them, testing the sturdiness of their trunks, the strength of their branches. She felt the leaves and pressed them against her face to feel the coolness of the surface, and the textures of their veins. She walked among the flowers, sniffing each one as they preened themselves, presenting their petals in the best light as possible. She measured them. She compared their colors. She searched their roots, fully examining each and every plant to make sure she gave all of them their due.

And at last she made her decision.

All the plants of the garden were uncharacteristically quiet as they awaited the announcement.

“The Rose…” she said, and was immediately interrupted as the rose started to brag. “I knew it. I knew it. Take that suckaz.”

“Wait,” my grandmother said. “You don’t understand.”
Confused, the rose said to her, “who are you, Steve Harvey?”

“No.” She said. “What I was about to say is, the rose is the most beautiful flower. But your thorns make you unpleasant. They prick the fingers of those who touch you. So I have to give the highest award to a tree. And I choose…… the olive tree.”

None of the trees understood. It was a terrible choice. One of them called out, “It was rigged all along.”

The olive tree was old, and twisted. Its leaves were dull. There was just now way it could compare to the blossoming apricot tree, or the elegant cypress, or the dignified cedar.

I choose the olive tree because its fruit stands apart, its taste is sharp and can be turned into a valuable oil. Secondly, the olive tree does not flaunt its beauty, as it humbly displays its rough bark. Third, it give its fruit willingly. And lastly, was is not an olive tree branch that was chosen in the time of Noah to show that the flood was over. So the olive tree is all at once, beauty, modesty, kindness, and peace. Therefore, it’s the only sensible choice I could make.

The plants agreed, and peace came upon the gaden, as the tree branches pointed my grandmother toward home.

The Torah portion this week warns us about the fragility of peace, taking us from the first Shabbat soon after to the first violent spilling of bloodshed between Cain and Abel. Peace was the world’s default, but it is in the hands of humans to restore it. It is amazing that even Jewish Ghost stories like the ghost bride and the talking garden point us in this direction. It stands to reason since in Judaism, all tradition grows from Torah, and we say in Proverbs that all of Torah’s paths lead to peace. In a lesser known volume of Jewish teaching, Tractate Derech Eretz, a work devoted entirely to living ethically with our neighbors, it teaches, “Great is peace, that every commandment in Torah is written for the sake of peace.” That means in every bit of learning and in every action, we have the potential to create and spread peace. Each of us can strive to be like the olive tree, the greatest plant in the garden. it is through sharing joy with others, behaving with humility, going out of our way to be kind to others, fighting the temptation to lash out in anger, and to always be willing to extend our own olive branch of peace.

tseng_burgerandfries

Nourishing Healthy Minds and Souls

If you want to have a fascinating conversation with a child, try discussing the nutritional value of McDonald’s Happy Meals. My kids love McDonald’s. They would eat there every single day if they could. I don’t know if they even like the food, or if it’s the toy. But they love it. Sometimes it’s not bad like when you ask, “Where should we go for your birthday dinner?” You brace yourselves for a pricey answer like Momo’s or Radizio Grill, but all they want is McDonald’s. And you save lots of money. That’s not so bad. But after a while, when they can’t even see a yellow M, at any time of day, even right after a huge meal, or at night on the way home from a movie, or even when they have fallen asleep in the car, but magically they can smell the golden arches and wake up, and they excitedly beg to go there, it is time for an intervention.

I was trying recently to explain to one of my kids the difference between junk food and healthy food. There came the protest, “But it has all four food groups.” Hard to argue with… except there is more to it than that. Somehow nutrition education is lacking in our schools. It’s kind of like teaching kids how to count in Spanish from one to nine (keeping in mind one of my favorite bits by comedian Paul F. Tompkins), which is fine until a Spanish speaker asks what time lunch is. In Spanish and in nutrition, there is certainly more to learn.

With regard to nutrition, I started talking about that documentary “Supersize Me” from several years back where Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s three meals a day for 30 days and became very, very ill. It took more than a year to recover from the effects of his experiment.

In hindsight, maybe this wasn’t the best argument to use with a child. You want to talk about scared straight? She swore never to eat McDonald’s again… which wasn’t exactly my goal. We had to explain it’s ok as a once in a while treat. We were basically explaining the difference between junk food, which tastes good in the moment but in the long term, offers no real sustenance, and good food, which you digest and gives ongoing nourishment.

The Torah portion this week addresses this distinction, but instead of talking about the way we nourish our bodies. It talks about the way we nourish our souls. Parashat Ha-azinu opens with Moses calling out to the Israelites, to give ear, to pay attention to what he is about to say. He prays that his words will fall down on the people like rain, like showers pouring down on the growing grass (Deu 32:1-2). The great Torah commentator Rashi explains that just as heavy rain showers strengthen the grasses and help them to grow, so too do words of Torah strengthen those who study them. If you are watering the grass, you can’t use junk. It has to be the real thing that makes it live and thrive. So, according to Rashi, if we want to nourish our souls we don’t want the verbal equivalent of junk food. You need the good stuff.

Some words have true staying power. Just hearing them reminds us of important lessons and the history associated with them. Even out of context they continue to nourish us many years later. We even remember the person who first spoke them and their lives and achievement endure in the memory of those words.

“Let my people, Go.” That was Charlton Heston (actually Val Kilmer in the Prince of Egypt).

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.”

“I have a dream.”

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“If you will it, it is no dream.”

These words have staying power because they truly meant something. They inspired and continue to inspire to this day. Also think of the great books, the classics of all time, not ones that just tell frivolous stories, but the ones who truly comment on the nature of humanity. Think about the music, movies, and other arts that challenge us to think and help form us into better people. I love a silly comedy as much as anyone. Dumb and Dumber is still entertaining 20 years later, but it merely passes the time rather than changes the time. Also consider true news that actually attempts to highlight important trends and confronts our ever evolving, dare i say devolving society. Put that against virtually everything we read on social media… funny that Facebook calls it a “news feed,” right?

I can’t tell you definitively what constitutes junk posting, but if there are animals playing the piano, it’s probably just entertainment. If it is gossip, it is just feeding a particular need for gratification. And if the name Kardashian appears anywhere in the posting, it is nothing that really matters.

We as human beings have a tendency to be attracted to junk words with the false belief that they truly are sustaining us. In truth, this is mostly what we find on social media. It’s a funny thing that Facebook calls what we see a “news feed.” If we were truly honest, only a small fraction of the things we read on it would actually be determined as substance. Entertainment is okay. There is a place for it. We need to take breaks from the stresses of daily life. We need these outlets. A little bit of junk food for the soul is ok. It’s like a comfort food. However, if all we did to sustain ourselves was consume junk, then we would gain very little.
We would be like grass without the rains. Judaism without the Torah. We would be living lives without depth or meaning.

When Moses tells us to Give Ear to his words, he is telling us to truly listen and discern the good from the bad. The world needs thoughtful and educated people who know fact from opinion, who know how to apply logic, who appreciate the reality of history, who are not afraid to address real issues. The world needs us to be well nourished with sustaining words and ideas. If we become too weak with the consumption of junk media, we can accidentally defer the reins of power to those who wish to take advantage of our lack of depth. Of course, we can consume the less important things, like McDonalds’ from time to time… there is a place for that, to destress, to be entertained. After all, “[We] deserve a break today!” But we must never forget to return to feeding ourselves with the kind of words that really matter.
The world needs our brains and souls as healthy as they can be.