Rabbi Wirtschafter’s Columns

August 7, 2020

Toughness and Tenderness: A Delicate Balance in Difficult Times
 
“Cut away, therefore thickening about your hearts and stiffen your neck no more.” (Deuteronomy 10:16)
 
Our capacity for toughness is a mixed blessing. We need a healthy measure of it to get through life. There are occasions when we must put our feelings aside and focus on the task at hand, situations in which we must take control of our emotions so they do not take hold of us. It does not take long for us to learn that we cannot always afford to let our sensitivities show.
  
But toughness can take a toll. There is a price to swallowing our tears, biting our lip and keeping our chin up. If we are not careful, toughness can become overly habitual, a default mode instead of a mindset for specific times. It tempts us to look away from sights that disturb us, tune out sounds that upset us, distance ourselves from settings that trouble us. The voice of toughness warns us not to allow our fragility to be exposed.
  
It took toughness for our ancestors to survive slavery and the desert journey, toughness to accept demands and higher expectations. There were countless times when being tough was a necessity, not a choice. Now, in this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, as the people draw closer to the Promised Land, Moses recalls the long journey and cautions them to be more open-hearted with God and one another. How do we know that? By reading the very next verses. “For the Eternal your God shows no favor and accepts no bribe but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing them with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
  
Surviving a traumatic ordeal can leave any number of legacies. It might make us more responsive to the pain of others, but it just as easily could leave us indifferent to them. God – in this instance at least – calls on the people to not revisit the abuses of Egypt upon others. Their indebtedness for divine salvation from endless suffering requires that they behave kindly and justly with those who are suffering now.
  
Keyn Teheye Lanu, so may it be for us. May we guard against the toughness necessary to get through COVID-19 so we don’t turn a blind eye to the suffering in Beirut. May we remember not to misuse the history of suffering as a people as an excuse to dismiss that of others, whomever and wherever they might be. May we temper toughness with tenderness. May we cut away the thickening of our hearts and stiffen our necks no more.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
July 31, 2020
 
V’ahavta for COVID-19
 
This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, includes the V’ahavta, the powerful passage telling us to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”[1] It is difficult enough to fulfill this commandment in the best of times. How are we supposed to fulfil it in the worst? The words below are an initial attempt to articulate a V’ahavta addressing the difficulties of COVID-19.
 _________
 
   Help us to Love You with all our hearts, O God, even when we are heartbroken, angry and anxious.
   Teach us to love You will all our soul, even when our souls are embittered, weary and confused.
   Show us how to love You with all our might, even when the mighty are misusing their power, and decent people are wondering if they are losing their minds.
   No matter the circumstances, we will take to heart the commandments You have given us.
   We will keep on teaching them to our children.
   We will continue to speak of them at home and on our way.
   Come what may, we will keep them near at hand, from the moment we put on our masks to the moment we take them off.
   Long may they remain inscribed on the doorposts of our homes.
   We will not forget them when we walk through our gates.
   Thus we will remember to cherish your commandments and remain holy unto You. Now and always You are the Eternal our God.
   You brought us through times of suffering before. Grant us the strength to overcome the suffering surrounding us now.
  You are the Eternal Our God.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
(Please consider writing a V’ahavata for COVID-19 of your own and sharing it with others.)
_________
[1] Deuteronomy 6:5
July 24, 2020
 
The Path of Perseverance: A Prayer for Not Being Out of the Woods Yet
  
Last week we finished Bamidbar, typically translated as “The Book of Numbers” but more accurately rendered as “In the Wilderness.” Things would be easier if we could end the difficult chapters of our existence with the same reliability of schedule that we do a book of the Bible, but life does not work that way. We are not out of the woods, wilderness and uncertainty of COVID-19. But we are starting a new chapter and a new book in our Torah reading cycle. Fittingly enough, Deuteronomy, a Greek word meaning “second law,” is filled with repetition of what the people of Israel already have been through. So, too, much of our pandemic existence has become repetitious. Yet even under the unchanging circumstances, there are new challenges to be met. We are starting a new book in the same continuing saga. The chapter before us is that of preparing for the High Holy Days and the new Jewish/academic year with the understanding that the painful realities of COVID-19 have no definitive date of departure. It is a tremendous reality to absorb. Each day can feel like a battle between denial and acceptance.
 
As we continue this difficult journey together, let us draw strength from the words in this week’s Torah portion with which Moses charged our tired and worn-out ancestors, anxiously awaiting the unknown day they could enter the Promised Land: “Fear not and be not dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 1:21) Though fear is part of our nature, may we never allow it to get the better of us. Though we experience dismay at times, let us resolve never to give in to it entirely. Our path is that of perseverance. We are not out of the woods, but we have the resources: emotionally, spiritually and materially, to persevere through this pandemic, and to reach the day when we will speak of it not in the present tense but in the past.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
 

 

July 17, 2020
 
 
Sabbath Refuge
  
This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, teaches us about cities of refuge, places where someone who meant no harm could run to escape lawful vengeance at the hands of a pursuer (Numbers 35:6-28). We, too, are seeking refuge now. Refuge in the form of respite from this terrible pandemic that relentlessly pursues more and more of us. We know that we cannot wish it away. No amount of denial will diminish the power of its presence. Nor do we seek to ignore it and the infinite pain it continues to cause. The existence of the city of refuge does not change the fact that there is danger, heartbreak and crisis. Rather, its purpose is to provide a place where a victim of circumstance can experience safety and security in an otherwise threatening world.
  
Our houses of worship are not smart places in which to claim sanctuary right now. Our sanctuaries cannot offer sanctuary in this moment, but the Sabbath can. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath “a sanctuary in time,” an expression of the sacred independent of space. It would be nice to be back in our space, to take refuge together in our sanctuary. Yet Judaism has given us a “sanctuary of time,” and technology has provided us with ways to transcend space. Therefore, until this pandemic ends, may every shabbat observed in our homes be our sanctuary. May remembrance of the Sabbath renew our capacity for hope, gratitude and joy. And may our devotion to it, and to one another, provide us with the refuge we need to face this crisis with caring, commitment and courage.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
July 10, 2020
 
Coping With the Reality
of What We Cannot Do
 
In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses that Moses will not be allowed to cross into the Promised Land. The reaction of the man who can reasonably lay claim to holding the world’s longest, and most thankless and demanding non-salaried job says a lot about who Moses is. Rather than protesting, pouting or resigning on the spot, he simply asks God to appoint a successor “so that the Eternal’s community will not be like sheep with no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:17).
 
During this COVID-19 era, Moses has more to offer us than ever when it comes to coping with the reality of what we cannot do. Getting the people from Egypt to Israel is his life’s work, so much so that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the man and his mission. Yet when God tells Moses that he will not get to cross the threshold, even for a moment, Moses’ thoughts are not for himself but for his people. Accepting limitations — human or divine, fair or unfair, reasonable or arbitrary — has always been an unfortunate part of life. As this pandemic continues, let us endeavor to face the greater intensity of this reality with the patience, persistence and selflessness of Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our Teacher.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
 
June 26, 2020
 
A Trio of Doctorates: Three Distinct Voices United for a Delightful Service
 
Those of you who enjoy Torah readings and commentary from guest speakers are in for a treat this evening. Diane Arnson Svarlien, a Ph.D. in Classics, expert translator, member of Shir Adat and TAI Religious School faculty member, will be chanting from our newly restored Turnov scroll. The famous passage of Korah’s rebellion was not one of sections we chose to repair, but, although faded, it is still legible. Normally I would not bore you with the details of a Torah reading, but these are not normal times. To maintain social distancing and keep the service from running too long, things will be handled somewhat differently. Rather than taking the Torah out of the Ark right before we read from it, the scroll will be placed on the lecturn/table in advance. Diane will recite the blessings and read from the text, but be no one will be standing near her as she does so. Once she has chanted the dramatic section and recited the blessing after the reading, she will cover the Torah and leave it on the table. The scroll will be dressed and brought back to the Ark after the service.
  
Once the reading and translation of the passage have concluded, Diane will read a Torah commentary from Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. You might have heard Rabbi Sabath at my installation or when she returned to our community as the Moosnick Scholar-in-Residence. I’m happy to say that Rabbi Sabath recently agreed to serve as visiting rabbi at Ohavay Zion Synagogue during the coming year, and has graciously agreed to have Diane read the Torah commentary the rabbi will deliver at Saturday morning’s Zoom service at OZS. In addition to being ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform), Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative). She and I grew up together at Temple Israel Minneapolis and have remained friends. I encourage you to “friend” her on Facebook and avail yourself of the opportunity to listen to her speak via Zoom at Saturday morning services at OZS — unless you’re attending a session of Jewish Texts, Kollel or Torah study via Zoom at TAI, that is. Even with the limitations of COVID-19, I am delighted to welcome Rabbi Sabath back to Lexington as a Bluegrass colleague, and both of us are looking forward to partnering on services for Tisha B’Av, Selichot, and the Festivals.
  
As he has for several weeks during this pandemic, TAI’s musician-in-residence Lorne Dechtenberg, who has a doctorate in musical arts, will be leading us in song. Please join me in thanking Lorne not only for the gift of his musicianship but for the time and energy he has put into installing and maintaining our livestream technology. If you can assist us with tech support during services, please let us know. We should not be asking Lorne to play keyboard, guitar, sing and troubleshoot live stream issues all at the same time.
  
I’m taking a break from the bimah tonight, but as I conclude my fifth year with Temple Adath Israel, let me say what an honor it is to be your rabbi and how dedicated the leadership of our congregation remains to providing comfort, community and continuity during this pandemic. Remember, our campus is closed, not our congregation. We remain open and are here for you every bit as much as before.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
 
June 19, 2020
 
Interrupted: Renewing ‘Women First’ Sabbaths
 
There is a debate among those who study speech and conversation about the nature of interruption. Some argue it is an example of power dynamics. The more empowered we are by race, gender, education and income, the more likely we are to interrupt. Other experts assert there is an important distinction between cutting someone off because we vehemently disagree with what they are saying and finishing people’s sentences because we enthusiastically desire to affirm their point of view. According to this school of thought, we should carefully consider the intent of the interruption before decrying its impact.
  
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lek­ha, Caleb waits quietly as his counterparts, the pessimistic scouts, declare that continuing on to the Promised Land is a recipe for disaster. Once it is his turn to talk, however, Caleb is scarcely allowed one sentence in favor of moving forward before he is shouted down by those who insist the land is filled with giants who make the Israelites look like grasshoppers. Even when Caleb and Joshua get to speak for more than one verse, their fellow journeyers threaten to pelt them with stones. Not exactly a case study in polite discourse or how to have a respectful disagreement.
  
“Women First,” the initiative we started a year ago of inviting the women of our congregation and community to give a Torah commentary, sermon or other form of remarks on the first Friday of the month was also subject to being interrupted, albeit by COVID-19 rather than an angry mob. The fact that the interruption was unintentional does not make it any less impactful. Whether grounded in power play or pandemic, the result is the same: Women who had waited their turn, women who had been promised their chance to speak, did not get to do so. We cannot scold COVID-19 for being rude, but we do not have stand for it interrupting our stated goal of increasing the number of women we hear from at services.
  
Our commitment to another year of “Women First” starts now. Please call me at 269-2979 or email me about the service at which you would like to speak. This invitation includes those who participated before the disruption of COVID-19. If you are not comfortable being in the sanctuary, we will work with you to record your remarks and show them during the service or have you “Zoom in” from home. What we will not do is to allow further interruption of an initiative that has been so well-received.  I am happy to guide anyone who would like help drafting her remarks or recommend someone to work with you. Please check our livestream archive for examples of what previous speakers have said. The commentary/remarks typically begin about 30 to 40 minutes into the services on Aug. 2, Sept. 6, Oct. 4, Nov. 1, Jan. 3 and Feb. 7.
 
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Father’s Day!
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
 
June 12, 2020
 
Shouldering the Burden
 
On the surface, Numbers 7:9 seems inconsistent and unfair. The prior two verses tell us how Moses allocated carts and oxen to the Gershonites and Merarites for moving the Tabernacle. Now watch what happens to the next group. “But to the Kohathites he did not give any; since theirs was the service of the [most] sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder.” Rabbi Morris Adler sees tremendous symbolic significance arising from the order that these holiest of items have to be carried.
 
We are being told not only about a detail of transportation but that we are being instructed in a very important matter. When it comes to the very heart of religion, we must not try to find – and cannot really find – a substitute for our own shoulders. We cannot transfer to anybody else, or to anything else, the obligations that rest upon ourselves. There are things that others cannot do for us.
 
The Bene Kehat – “the family that carried the ark” – had a challenging      responsibility. They had to carry it on their bodies; they had to feel its weight; they could not seek means to make their burden easier. Religion, too, is a burden, and it is also a discipline. Anyone who seeks to carry a faith easily, shouldering no special tasks, making no distinctive sacrifices, will have a religion that is neither true nor helpful. (Plaut Commentary, p. 1079)
 
The weight of COVID-19 and systemic racism imposes a serious burden on those who believe it is our duty to alleviate suffering, no matter our religion. As Adler points out, some things are not supposed to be easy, and we cannot simply delegate them to others. We have been, and will continue to be, engaged in long, hard work on these matters. There is nothing comfortable or convenient about it. The burden is demanding and draining on any number of levels.
 
Helping one another through COVID-19 and confronting racial injustice is a weight that must be felt. If we are to make any substantial progress, we must continue to shoulder special tasks and make distinctive sacrifices. There are no substitutes for the work we have to do ourselves.  
 
May we carry these burdens with a sense of purpose. May we be persistent in our resolve to achieve real and lasting change. And though the burden should never be easy for anyone, may we work together so that no one group, profession or race has to carry these burdens alone.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
June 5, 2020
 
A Blessing Despite Ourselves: A Prayer
for Parshat Naso
 
In a few short hours, Shabbat will be with us, offering an opportunity for peace and reflection on the heels of a week that has witnessed tremendous pain and turmoil. This week’s Torah portion, Naso, from the Book of Numbers, includes the well-known birkat kohanim, or “priestly benediction,” that parents recite over their children every Friday evening at candle lighting, and that also appears in the High Holy Days and festival liturgy.
 
“May God Bless you and keep you.
“May the light of God’s presence shine upon you and be gracious to you.
“May God bestow favor upon you and give you peace.”
 
After reminding everyone at the dinner before family Shabbat services that it is not nice to play favorites, I like to introduce this blessing as my favorite. Watching parents and grandparents bless their children in this setting is always a highlight of the month. A friend and colleague tells the story of getting into an argument with his teenage son just moments before Shabbat dinner. His son left the house only to call a short while later and ask, “Can I have my blessing please?” My forgiving rabbinical school buddy blessed his difficult child right then and there over the phone.
  
Dear God, we come before you this Shabbat, when we read your holiest of blessings, having disappointed, failed and frustrated You in any number of ways. We have been horrid to You and one another. We are hard-pressed to make a logical, merit-based argument for why we deserve your blessing, yet we desire it nonetheless. Bless us, we pray, despite ourselves. We teach that You are all-knowing, but I wonder if we desire your blessing even more than You know. We do not deserve it. We have not earned it. We have not even acted as if we want it, but great and all-knowing God, do not let us fool You. We do want it. We want it so much. We need it so badly. So many of us are angry, hurt and scared right now. No matter how foolishly we squander it, our appetite for your blessing is insatiable. It is rather difficult to believe that we are your favorite creatures at the moment, but we beseech your favor nonetheless.
 
Bless us and keep us, your challenging children.
Light the way back to You, and though we are sinful, smile upon us.
Favor us, your flawed creatures, despite our destructiveness,
with the blessings of wholeness and peace.
 
Undeserving though we are, O God, may we have our blessing please?
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
                 
May 29. 2020
An Answer Is Revealed: Reflections
on Shavuot at a Time of Pandemic
           
In keeping with the kind of spring we have had, this year’s celebration of Shavuot falls dramatically enough on Shabbat. Known in English as Pentecost, for the 50 days between Passover and itself, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah.
  
There are three overlapping theological constructs in Judaism: creation, liberation and revelation. Shabbat is a weekly celebration of the first two. The prayers throughout the service quote Genesis and cite Exodus. As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, the reason for the Sabbath in Genesis is grounded in God’s universal gift of creation. The reason for the Sabbath in Exodus and Deuteronomy is Israel’s liberation. Shavuot calls on us to consider the third major theme, that of revelation. Note the order in which things happen: God frees our ancestors from slavery, then gives them a new set of laws to follow. The only law for slaves is the will of their masters. Only a free people may enter a covenant. Our newly liberated ancestors freely accepted the gift of Torah. What was revealed at Sinai is the mission of the Jewish people. What we bring to the table of human history and ideas is Torah itself. It does not make us holier, smarter or better than anyone else. Torah is rooted not in superiority but identity. Everyone has a job to do, a purpose to fulfill. Torah tells us ours. Creation tells us how fortunate we are to exist, to have a planet, to be in awe of the Creator. Exodus tells us how fortunate we are to be free, how God’s intervention, not some real or imagined greatness we possess, released us from slavery. Revelation answers the missing question. Why did God take us out of Egypt? What does God expect in return, and how do we fulfill these expectations.
  
The counting of the Omer is over for this year. Two of our three festivals have taken place under the social distancing disciplines required to curtail the spread of COVID-19. We are not free from this thing yet, and though it is Shavuot, no end date has been revealed. Yet revelation is alive and well. Our sense of purpose, what God expects of us and what we expect of one another have not fundamentally changed. The specifics of our current challenges and difficulties are unique. The existence and persistence of them are not.
  
For those of us who wondered if our generation could withstand a test on the magnitude of the Great Depression or the Second World War, the answer has been revealed. Yes, we can. Yes, we are. Yes, we will. This is neither the first nor the last year when Shabbat and Shavuot have overlapped, but it is particularly powerful to see them share the stage now. As the words from the Festival Hallel (Psalm 118:24) tell us: This is the day that God has made. “Let us be glad and rejoice in it.”
 
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
May 22. 2020
A Prayer for Jerusalem Day
 
According to rabbinic teaching, there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel l’matah, the lower Jerusalem of this world, and Yershulayim shel l’matah, the heavenly Jerusalem of the world to come.
God who calls on us to make “the earthly Jerusalem” a slice of heaven
And to keep our desires for a “heavenly Jerusalem” down to earth,
May we remember that co-existence requires compromise;
That maintaining a single city, shared by many peoples, demands mutual respect for sacred time and sacred space.
May we be mindful that conflict has consequences
And that pettiness carries a price.
May those entrusted with leading the Holy City of Jerusalem remain steadfast in their commitment to protecting its holy sites from acts of hate,
And may all its inhabitants affirm the holiness that resides in one another.
Let this be the last Jerusalem Day when celebration is diminished by pandemic.
Let us live to see the words of Jeremiah and the Jewish wedding service speedily fulfilled:
“Again there shall be heard in the towns of Judah and streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, with no one, without inhabitants – the sound of the joy and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sounds of young people celebrating and the sounds of children at play. The voice those who exclaim, ‘Give thanks to God for God is good, for God’s kindness is everlasting!’ as they bring Thanksgiving offerings to the House of God, For I will restore to the fortunes of the land as of old.” (Jer. 33:10-11, final blessing of the Sheva Berachot)
May the pain of divisiveness and disease, the limitations and sacrifice of social distancing give way to a time of joy, a sense of wholeness and a city of peace.
Let us say together: Amen.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
May 15. 2020
Certainty in Uncertain Times
 
Unlike the counting of the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, we don’t know when this pandemic will end. We can say definitively what day of the week it is, what month it is, what year it is, how far into the Omer we are, but we have no idea where we are in the duration of this disease. Like our biblical ancestors, we are on a journey with no mile markers, no predetermined timeline and no map. Nobody can promise there will be a vaccine, but the possibility of a vaccine has promise. Until you reach the Promised Land, the vow of getting there remains no more and no less than a promise
 
It’s the uncertainty, the not knowing where we are in time, that makes situations like these particularly unnerving. Our smartphones have protected us from responses like “I don’t know.” Living in the Information Age has led us to believe we deserve instant access to knowledge, our desires to be met on demand. We don’t know what causes this disease. We don’t know how long it will take to find answers. We have grown unaccustomed to uncertainty, and we find it unsettling.
 
Yet there are things we do know. We know there are brilliant and dedicated scientists searching for a vaccine. We know there are doctors, nurses, EMTs and lab techs working around the clock to treat the infected. We know we have the material, emotional and spiritual resources to help one another and eventually find a cure. We do not know how long this will last, but we do know it can be outlasted.
  
We need not be undone by uncertainty. We can remain certain of our goal, our destination, our core values in these uncertain times. During this counting of the Omer let us “not merely count our days but make our days count.” Take another look at the “Ways to Help” email we sent on March….. and choose action items that are appropriate for you.
   
May grief not lead us to lose our grasp on gratitude. May we practice perseverance despite our pain. May we hold fast to faith amidst our frustration. May we meet the challenges of these trying times with courage, reason, generosity and kindness. Amidst all this mourning, may we make room for joy.


Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
May 8, 2020
Gratitude and Honesty: An Update
for the Shabbat of Mother’s Day
 
One of the life lessons our mothers teach us is that of gratitude: reminding us to say “thank you,” to write “thank you notes” and to be thankful for what we have. Another value they impart is honesty. Honesty goes beyond whether something is factually accurate and truthful. Honesty demands a conscientious assessment of facts and truths that help us reach responsible choices. We have often heard the expression “moment of truth.” Mother’s Day 2020 is a moment for both gratitude and honesty.
 
We are grateful that the Governor has given us the choice to gradually begin the process of reopening houses of worship by Wednesday, May 20. Knowing that we can do that means a lot. So, too, we are grateful for the way he has articulated that there is a considerable difference between “can” and “should,” just as our mothers teach/taught us that simply because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
 
Our current circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic are among those in which gratitude must make room for honesty. We are thankful for the freedom to reopen May 22, but, in all honesty, there is no way to do so responsibly. We need far more guidance, information and resources before we can do that safely. Services via livestream cannot replace the feeling of being in the sanctuary together, but we cannot welcome one another into the building without a comprehensive plan that sufficiently addresses the complicated needs involved. We do not have even a tentative date for reopening TAI at this point. There are too many unanswered questions to propose one.
  
Would that there was better news to share on Mother’s Day weekend. Even those of us fortunate enough to live within driving distance of our mothers cannot necessarily visit them safely right now. Commencement ceremonies and graduation parties that also share this weekend are relegated to Zoom. It’s not the Mother’s Day we imagined, wanted or planned. But our mothers taught us to be strong, to be grateful for what we have, and to be honest about what we should and should not do. May we make this a meaningful Mother’s Day by practicing the values they imparted to us.
   
(Rabbi Wirtschafter’s remarks tonight are a reflection and interpretation of a poem by Ruth Brin about this week’s Torah portion. You can print the poem or read the pdf your phone or other device if you are watching via live. Click here for the link.) 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
May 1, 2020
Closures Continue: Confronting
a Summer of Limited Options
 
The Reform Movement made official on Thursday what we knew was coming for weeks: all Reform Movement camps will be closed this summer. At least two Ramah camps (Conservative movement) have said the same. Like our schools going online for the rest of the academic year, this comes as no surprise, yet the finality of it still stings. Kids and adults alike look forward to camp all year. For campers, counselors, unit heads, directors, rabbis, doctors, nurses, specialists in arts and crafts, sports, waterfront, kitchen and maintenance staff, and more, the public statement has personal repercussions.
 
Anyone who has consoled anyone about anything knows how hollow words like “there’s always next year” or “there’s more fish in the sea” can be. The point is this summer, this breakup, this rejection letter, this situation here and now. So let’s acknowledge the situation for what it is. This stinks! The continuation of social distancing and the time it will take to return to how things used to be are frustrating, aggravating and disappointing. But maintaining these practices at the appropriate level, however, is the wise, responsible and ethical thing to do. There are times when doing the right thing does not feel good, and the era of COVID-19 is just such a time.
   
For so many of you at this congregation, going to GUCI, Young Judaea, Tel Yehudah and a host of other camps is something you have done for multiple summers for generations. It’s not only an element of summer but essential to summer. This is a loss, and you are entitled to mourn it as one. As someone who loves camp and values the memories it holds for those who have experienced it, I want you to know how sorry I am that this decision had to be made, and let you know I’m here to listen to anything you need to say about it. Working in concert with Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass and other partners in our community, we are ready to talk with families about exploring alternatives o what looks to be a summer of far fewer options than we are used to.
   
As Torah teaches: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Thursday was another difficult day. We are living in tough times, but the things we learn about adaptability, flexibility and resiliency will serve us well. This does not mean that all of this is ultimately all for the best. It does mean that we have what it takes to get through it, and we can grow from it.
   
Please see the link to the URJ article about talking to kids about camp and look for ideas about alternative ideas for the summer. An announcement about our local Jewish day camp, Camp Shalom, will be coming soon.
For tips from ReformJudaism.org on how to talk to your children about canceled summer plans, click here.
Shabbat Shalom,
 Rabbi David Wirtschafter
  
April 24, 2020
 
A Message for the Shabbat 
Before Israel Independence Day
 
Wednesday marks what hopefully will be the only Israel Independence Day of the COVID-19 era. Fresh off observing Passover, Holocaust Remembrance and Earth Day via Zoom, livestream or FaceTime, the process is becoming increasingly familiar, yet each “first” seems strange.  
 
It would be nice if intense social distancing were over by the Fourth of July, but we don’t know whether that will be the case. What we do know is that Israel is going to experience its “Fourth of July” without fireworks, flyovers or any of the usual fanfare. COVID-19 is having a severe impact on all parts of society in Israel, just as it is here. We pray for our fellow Jews and people of all religions there. May the determination, reliance, persistence and strength that has seen them through so many crises be with them now. May this pandemic prove an opportunity to solve problems together rather than different groups tearing one another apart.
 
In honor of Yom HaAtzmaut, tonight’s service will feature Israeli poetry, folk music and sharing the Jewish state’s Declaration of Independence. At our 9 a.m. Kollel study tomorrow, we will discuss articles pertaining to the choices and challenges facing Israel today. Look for online Israel Independence Day programs and activities sponsored by Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass, Union of Reform Judaism, Hadassah and the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). Finally, please consider a donation to Magen David Adom, (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross) to celebrate the 72nd anniversary of Israel’s founding and to assist with its COVID-19 relief efforts.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
 Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
To allow members of our communities to follow along with the livestream of our services, URJ has created: 
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat (click here)  
* A discounted Kindle ebook version (click here
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Youth (click here
* A discounted version of the Kindle ebook (click here
April 17, 2020
Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Spring of COVID-19
 
A year ago yesterday, according to the Hebrew calendar, Lori Gilbert-Kaye was murdered and three others were wounded at a synagogue shooting at Chabad of Poway, Calif., during services for Shabbat and the final day of Passover. The very next day, our community and those around the country gathered for Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, even with the pandemic of Covid-19, let us not forget Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, or the persistence of violent anti-Semitism. Here in Lexington, our annual communitywide program will be held online at 11 a.m. Sunday. If you did not receive an email from TAI, OZS, JFB or another Jewish organization about how to participate, please click here for registration information. 
 
Our program, “Jewish Resistance During the Shoah,” will be a Zoom discussion led by history professors Ken Slepyan and Jeremy Popkin. A prerecorded ceremony with our traditional candle lighting, songs and prayers also will be made available. The video will include musical contributions by TAI musician-in-residence Lorne Dechtenberg, singing “Ani Ma’Amin,” and cellist Eli Flomenhoft playing “Eli Eli.” “Eli Eli” is a poem by resistance fighter Hannah Senesch that was set to music by David Zehavi; last year we were fortunate to hear it rendered at TAI by Israeli cello virtuoso Amit Peled. Additionally, winners of the Emilie Szekely Holocaust Awareness Writing Project will be announced. 
 
We are living in challenging times. Seders via Zoom and services via livestream were not supposed to be the only way to safely meet our religious obligations, but this is the moment in which we find ourselves. It is just as important to participate this year via the Internet as it was last year in person. The means of participation has changed, but our motivation remains the same. It’s a mitzvah.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
 Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 

To allow members of our communities to follow along with the livestream of our services, URJ has created: 

* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat (click here)  
* A discounted Kindle ebook version (click here
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Youth (click here
* A discounted version of the Kindle ebook (click here
 
April 10, 2020

Never and Always: A Prayer for the Night
After the Seders During COVID-19
 
God of times and seasons, changes and challenges, grief and gratitude.
May we never again have to cancel our temple seder due to a pandemic,
    but may the things we are learning about creativity remain with us always.

May we never again have to limit the number of our guests at our family seders due to pandemic,
   but may the things we are learning about resourcefulness remain with us always.

May we never again be limited to attending services exclusively via livestream due to pandemic,
   but may the things we are learning about inclusion remain with us always.

May we never again have to reconfigure baby namings, b’nai mitzvah, confirmations, weddings, graduations, ordinations, funerals and shiva minyans due to pandemic,
   but may the things we are learning about the blessings of family and time itself remain with us always.
 
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloihainu Melech ha’olam schecheheyanu, v’keyamanu v’higeyanu l’zman hazeh.
Blessed are You, O God, Source of Existence, for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us through these challenging times. And let us say: Amen.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
To allow members of our communities to follow along with the livestream of our services, URJ has created: 
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat (click here)  
* A discounted Kindle ebook version (click here
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Youth (click here
* A discounted version of the Kindle ebook (click here
 
 
 
April 3, 2020

Considering King’s Parting Words in Our Moment of Pandemic
 
Fifty-two years ago today, on the night before he was murdered, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  preached his stirring “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. On this Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover, King’s references to the cruelty of Pharaoh and the challenge of unity couldn’t be timelier. At tonight’s service we will explore the question of how this heartbreaking farewell address, given more than half a century ago, speaks to our current crises of COVID 19, poverty, violence and injustice.
 
Before reaching the resounding crescendo, evoking Moses looking out onto the Promised Land, King leveled an impassioned critique of the status quo: “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around.”
 
Tonight, just days away from Passover seders that must be restricted by the need for social distancing, let us consider how this applies to us. To what extent do terms such as “sick,” “troubled” and “confused” speak to our current situation? What does it mean to recite the seder’s opening greeting, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” when public safety requires that we cannot have even our entire family or a few friends on hand? I encourage you to review the Haggadah and to read and/or listen to King’s final address in advance; just click here.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
To allow members of our communities to follow along with the livestream of our services, URJ has created:
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat (click here)  
* A discounted Kindle ebook version (click here
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Youth (click here
* A discounted version of the Kindle ebook (click here
 
March 27, 2020
 
Cheated: Consoling and Congratulating the Class of 2020
 
During the course of the past few weeks, it has become increasingly clear that Class of 2020 has been cheated out of the celebration it deserves. From the prom night rituals of dresses and tuxedoes, to the graduation rites of caps and gowns and marching down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance,” this year’s crop of high school, college and graduate students has been robbed of the robes that are rightfully theirs. Indeed, in some families both a high school and college senior are losing out on graduation ceremonies via some form of postponement or another. Yes, it is nowhere near as bad as death, hospitalization or being laid off, but it is a loss, and we should recognize it as one. The observation that millions of people have worse problems conveys condescension when what is needed is consolation.
 
In Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim,” there is a powerful anecdote about two friends playing hide-and-seek. The one who has faithfully played the seeker finally gets a turn to hide, only to be ditched by a thoughtless friend. When the confused child realizes what has happened and runs home crying, the parent, rather than dismissing the tears as trivial, bursts out crying as well. “Why are you crying?” asks the child. “Because,” replies the parent, “it is the same way with us and the Holy One. All too soon we give up the search for the Eternal, leaving God wondering, ‘Why have my beloved abandoned me?'”
 
May we be like the loving parent in the tale who takes the pain of others seriously. Who, rather than dismissing it as silly, sees the disappointment of a children’s game as something of cosmic significance. Our graduates of any program of any age don’t need to be told there are worse things happening in the world. The cancellation and postponement of graduation activities is a big deal in their world. That should be reason enough to join them in sadness for what they are losing.
 
To the Class of 2020, we offer you consolation. You deserve a bigger and better celebration then this spring has to offer. We congratulate you on what you’ve achieved and wish you nothing but success at the next stage of life. COVID-19 has changed your lives, but it need not define them. One day your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ask you about these difficult times, just as we asked our elders about the Great Depression and World War II. You have the resilience, strength and persistence to overcome the pain and turmoil of this pandemic.
 
May the story your generation tells be one that inspires generations to come. As we say when we go from one book of Torah to another and from one phase of life to another, Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik. May all of you always go from strength to strength.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
To allow members of our communities to follow along in remote services, URJ has created: 
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat (click here)  
* A discounted Kindle ebook version (click here
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Youth (click here
* A discounted version of the Kindle ebook (click here
 
March 20, 2020
Convoked
 
“Moses convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them … ‘On six days may work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal,'” (Exodus 35:1-2).
 
It is both ironic and poetically fitting that this week’s Torah portion is titled for its opening Hebrew word: v’yakel, typically translated as convoke, to call together or summon an assembly or meeting.
 
So many things feel strange right now. It seems as if the precautions surrounding COVID-19 have disrupted everything we think of us normal. Schools are closed, workplaces are closed, hugs and handshakes are discouraged. The authorities, for good reason, keep telling us to keep apart.
 
Yet, Vayakhel is about being called together, summoned into one another’s presence. Coronavirus has not changed the fact that it’s Shabbat. It need not diminish its importance or holiness. Shabbat can be our lighthouse and our refuge amid the anxiety and unease we have experienced all week. It can be a grounding and centering source of comfort during all the disruption if we honor it with constancy.
 
Our ancestors must have felt disorientation and distress throughout their desert wanderings. No map, no compass, no familiarity with the surroundings, no personal memory of the Promised Land or how to get there. Yet they persevered. They found their way. So, too, can we. Like them, we are convoked, called together into assembly and meeting. True, we are temporarily required not to encounter one another in the realm of space, but there is nothing stopping us from sharing sacred time. There is a world of difference between being in attendance and being attentive. Being physically present is no guarantee of focused participation, and being absent doesn’t prove we don’t care. Shabbat is a sacred convocation calling us to be attentive to the potential for holiness even in hazardous times.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
To allow members of our communities to follow along in remote services, URJ has created: 
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat (click here)  
* A discounted Kindle ebook version (click here
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Youth (click here
* A discounted version of the Kindle ebook (click here
 
 
March 13, 2020

 

Let Us Be Strong and Resolute
Dear Temple Family,
 
 I hope that you and your loved ones are remaining healthy and calm during these challenging times. Among the difficult decisions we have had to make is to hold services by livestream only. (Click here to watch.) No one will be in attendance at tonight’s service. Yet there still are a number of things you can do to follow our prayers attentively. You can pick up a copy of Mishkan Tefilah, our Reform prayer book, until 5 p.m. today in the temple office. We will take down your name and the number of books you borrow so we can collect them once it’s safe to pray together at Temple again. Another option is to avail yourself of the free “flip book” version of the prayer book or to purchase a digital version of the text. The links and instructions for how to do this are below.
  
The awkwardness of our situation is reminiscent of a scene from the film “Hoosiers,” about a small town high school basketball team about to play in the state tournament. They aren’t familiar with a big stadium, electronic scoreboards or glass backboards. Even before the opposition arrives, the teenage boys are intimidated by their surroundings. Seizing the moment, their coach reminds them of what they are to do. Grabbing a tape measure and asking the tallest player to lift up the shortest, they examine the distance from the floor to the rim, confirming it’s the same regulation height of 10 feet as the home court at school. The elements of the game itself and what it takes to be successful as a team haven’t changed. Their surroundings are strange, but their task is still to play basketball.
  
Our challenge is no different. We want worship to be meaningful, relevant and accessible. It’s still our sanctuary, whether we are physically in it or not. It’s still our prayer book, whether there’s another person holding one next to you or not. It’s still our candles and Kiddush cup, whether we are seeing them directly with our own eyes or through the camera. The Hebrew word avodah means both work and prayer. Our ancestors did the work required to maintain faith and peoplehood even after the destruction of the first and second temples. So, too, we will work to maintain a sense of congregational worship even if we aren’t in the building. It isn’t a building that makes us a congregation. It’s you, the congregants. We will be no more and no less connected than we allow ourselves to be. Prayer is work. Sometimes the work is harder, but it’s always work. We have what it takes to do it successfully if we work at it together. As Moses said to Joshua: Hazaq V’Amatz. Let us be strong and resolute.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
To allow members of our communities to follow along in remote services, URJ has created:
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat (click here
* A discounted Kindle ebook version (click here
* A free online flip book for Mishkan T’filah for Youth (click here
* A discounted version of the Kindle ebook (click here
 
 
March 6, 2020
 
 
God, Goodness and Godliness:
Thoughts for Hadassah Shabbat

Reflecting on this week’s Torah portion,Teztaveh, scholar Lisa D. Grant reminds us of a powerful contrast of absences.” Tetzaveh is the only portion from the beginning of the book of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy where the name of Moses does not appear. And Esther is one of only two books in the Bible where God’s name does not appear.” (1)  The absence of a name, however, is not tantamount to the value it stands for. It’s true that no one utters the name of God in the Megillah, but that does not mean everyone in it has abandoned godliness.
 
Esther and Vashti are prime examples. Vashti refuses to be treated like a plaything. She chooses departing with dignity over being reduced to an object for the amusement of the king and his drinking buddies. She accepts banishment over debasement. Fear of the unknown over a gilded cage. So, too, Esther ultimately refuses to compromise identity and integrity for the safety of the palace. Could she have survived a closeted existence? As the queen, perhaps she might have been saved from persecution as a Jew. We will never know, though, because she puts her privilege to use to save innocent people from peril.
 
The essence of Hadassah, the organization that bears Esther’s Hebrew name, is the underlying expectation that we do no less. Like Esther, we have been fortunate enough to attain access and influence in our diaspora existence. The question is, to what uses will we put it. Hadassah calls on us to remember that with the blessing of safety and comfort comes the responsibility to make sure that human rights are for all humans. Health care, education, clean air, edible food, drinkable water, a safe place to live and a voice in one’s future are not meant to be restricted entitlements reserved for a few. All humans are entitled to them. Hadassah asks us to give generously, listen compassionately and act righteously because only when we respect the tzelem Elohim, the spark of the Divine in everyone, can we truly honor it in anyone. It doesn’t matter how many times we utter God’s name if we ignore the imperatives of godliness. When we remember to act with godliness, when we defend what God stands for from those who would weaponize God’s name to worship nothing but themselves, then we truly qill be living up to the lessons of Vashti and Esther. May godliness lead us to goodness, and may goodness lead us to love of God.
 
 
February 28, 2020
 
Generosity and Acceptance: A Prayer for Parshat Terumah:
 
“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people
to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for me from every person
whose heart is so moved.” (Exodus 25:1)
 
God of Our Ancestors, You who call upon the People of Israel to practice generosity and acceptance,
Especially at dangerous times, may our hearts move us to speak carefully.  
May we accept one another’s sincerity instead of questioning each other’s integrity.
 
Especially at frustrating times may our hearts move us to act compassionately.
May we accept the legitimacy of each other’s concerns despite disputing each other’s facts.
 
Especially at painful times may our hearts move us to respond to troubles patiently.
May we accept the complexity of our crises rather than construing them conveniently.
 
Just as we want the things we bring and words we say to be accepted, appreciated and acknowledged, so, too, we should be willing to accept the contributions of others as extensions of what their hearts have moved them to do. We can disagree with their conclusions without challenging their decency.
On parshat Terumah, this Shabbat of gifts, O God, grant us the openness of mind and generosity of heart to hear each other, value each other and love each other.
May this be our blessing and let us say: Amen.
 
 
February 21, 2020
Cover: The Outcry of Desperate Syrians
   
As we gather in the comfort of our sanctuary and the warmth of our homes, we are confronted with the painful reality that thousands of internally displaced people in Syria have nearly nothing to cover them from the wind and cold. They have been rendered homeless by a civil war now approaching its ninth year. They will die if they return to their homes, and they will perish if they remain where they are. There is no roof over their heads. Their improvised tents are made from blankets.
 
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Laws), offers an ominous admonishment against leaving people out in the cold: “If you take someone’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets; it is their only available clothing – it is what covers their skin. In what shall they sleep? Therefore, if they cry out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25-26)

Right now, our fellow humans, with little cover between the elements and their skin, are crying out while world leaders leave them exposed to starvation, exhaustion and bitter cold. Perhaps we moderns don’t fear personal retribution from the Divine. Maybe God won’t judge us harshly. But make no mistake: If our leaders refuse to act, history will judge us harshly, and deservedly so. Here at Temple Adath Israel, our Shabbat evening announcements always end with these words. “As we leave, may we take the joy of each other’s company.” Instead of taking the warmth and joy of this place and of our homes for granted, we should share it with others. There are people in our country and around the world who need. No one should be left with nothing to cover them from the cold.
 
Please consider a donation to the Union of Reform Judaism Disaster Relief Fund, Jewish World Watch, Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders or The Red Cross, and call members of our Kentucky congressional delegation to encourage them to take urgent action to prevent further loss of life in Syria.
 
 
 
February 14, 2020
Yesterday: Love and Loss
on a Beatles-Themed Shabbat

I begin by way of apology, in both the modern and classical sense of the word. I’m sorry to insert a degree of sadness into a night dedicated to Beatles songs. It would be nice to “have nothing but joy,”(1) but we would be remiss not to acknowledge the heartbreak of handguns and firearms on the second anniversary of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, a 21st-century Valentine’s Day massacre. 
 
The rock band U2, which draws greatly on the work of The Beatles, called its ode to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and it is in the name of love that we accommodate the painful reality of loss on this joyful Shabbat. The Jewish wedding, a sanctification of love, requires that we shatter a glass to remind us that even in times of joy we remember there is sorrow that must be addressed lovingly. John Lennon, who lent his voice to the anti-war movement and whose lyrics championed the ideal of love, lost his life to the plague of gun violence. Lennon, who embraced King’s emphasis on love, soon will join the slain civil rights leader in a tragic club: people 40 or younger who have been dead longer than they were alive. Who can forget the ironic political cartoon, with its smoking gun and the word “yesterday,” that was published the morning after Lennon was killed? When Paul McCartney was asked why he attended the March for Our Lives rally in New York in 2018, he simply replied, “One of my friends was killed in gun violence right around here.” Much has been made of the 
fact that The Beatles didn’t always like one another. Perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to how much they loved one another.
 
Here in Lexington, we are trying to hold on to love amidst an onslaught of loss. Last year we set a record for homicides. Just a few days ago, Antwan Roberts, a 15-year-old student at Lafayette High School, was gunned down in his own home. The greatest need we have is for love. Lennon and his bandmates were right about that. Indeed, what we need is what jazz legend John Coltrane called “A Love Supreme.” A love that compels us to take action, listen up, reach out and heal the pain of “the brokenhearted people living in the world.”More guns and more metal detectors will breed more guns and metal detectors. Only when we love the rights of free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion more than we love the right to bear arms will things ever be made right. Please go to the websites for March for Our Lives, the Religious Action Center, Brady: United Against Gun Violence, and Moms Demand Action to learn more about what we can do. The surest way to fulfill the commandment to “love Adonai your God with your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”(2) is to demonstrate love to one another.
 
Thank you to Jonathan Miller, Lisa Miller, Lorne Dechtenberg and Shir Adat for everything you have done to make tonight’s service so special.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
____________________________________
(1) Deuteronomy 16:15 
(2) Deuteronomy 6:5
 
 
 
February 7, 2020
ANOTHER ELECTION?
Voting for World Zionist Congress

 As this presidential election year begins in earnest, it’s important that American Jews be aware of another election, for the World Zionist Congress, taking place through March 11, because it is essential that our Reform movement and our partners for progressive Judaism have a larger say over the activities of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). The WZO has a considerable budget and exerts a significant role within JAFI, a multimillion-dollar agency that principally supports immigrant absorption and related activities in Israel.
 
The number of votes we get in the WZO elections, held every five years, determines the degree of our influence. It affects how many seats the Reform slate gets at the table, what role it can play in the WZO leadership, and which WZO departments it will be able to head. Without a sizable progressive vote, intolerant, sexist and xenophobic groups will have a disproportionate influence within the WZO, which we have sadly seen in other Israeli institutions. The progressive wing is a check against misusing funds of the Jewish people to perpetuate discrimination and injustice within Israel.
 
If you are an adult Jew (at least 18 years old by June 30, 2020) living in the United States, did not vote in the last Israeli election and will not vote in the next, then you are eligible to vote. Our vote in the World Zionist Congress election is a critical opportunity to advance democracy and equality in Israeli society. Vote Reform!

To cast your vote, visit Azm.org/elections, then follow these instructions:
1. Click the “Vote Now” button, then, on the new page, “Register & Vote Now.”
2. Fill in your information and submit the form.
3. Check your email or text messages for your verification number, and enter the number you received.
4. Proceed to payment and hit submit. The fee to register and vote is $7.50, which covers the administrative costs of running the election. (Voters 25 and younger pay $5.)
5. You are now registered to vote. In a few moments, you will receive a PIN by email or text.
6. To begin the voting process, enter the PIN found in your registration email.
7. Select the Reform slate (listed second); it will say “Vote Reform: ARZA Representing the Reform Movement and Reconstructing Judaism.”
8. Submit your vote.
 
What makes Fridays in February different from all other nights? Normally, we begin services by asking everyone to turn off or silence their cell phones. This election is so important that at all Friday evening services this month we will allocate five minutes before our opening song and prayers for everyone to take out their phones and vote. Please forward the email confirming that you voted to rabbiw@lextai.org. A donation to ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) will be made for every such email received. Voting instructions will be posted throughout the building, and reminders will be sent via email.
 
 
January 31, 2019 
 
Yet Another Prayer for Peace
 
Creator of all humankind, at this fearful moment we beseech You to bless Israeli and Palestinian leaders with wisdom, caution, compassion and restraint.
 
As tensions run high and pressures increase, we implore You to help our brothers and sisters throughout the region to choose reason over retaliation, reconciliation over revenge.
 
Neither rockets nor airstrikes can alleviate the resentment and mistrust that once again has brought on a new iteration of the same conflict.
 
Cain’s failure to resist the inclination to wrath, the temptation to lash out at Abel, resulted in their parents losing both of their sons.
 
May the leaders of the Middle East consider the prospect of more parents burying their children before succumbing to the siren song of provocation.
 
Confronted with the sight of more bloodshed, what comfort will there be in telling ourselves, “But we were provoked”?
 
Peace negotiations are long, hard and arduous, but continuing asymmetrical warfare has done nothing but perpetuate war.
 
God of Eve and Adam, of Abel and Cain, grant our leaders the resolve to fulfill Your commandment to “Seek peace and pursue it.”
 
May we realize the vision that has eluded us for far too long. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Nor shall they learn war anymore.” May this be our blessing and let us say:
 
Amen.
 
January 24, 2019 
 
No Excuses: God’s Loving Refusal to Alter Expectations
                
Sometimes the most empowering thing we can do for someone is to refuse to accept excuses. The way God deals with Moses is a textbook example. Despite repeated appeals that God please choose someone to lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom, the Holy One is not having it. Moses reasonably asks, “Why would Pharaoh listen to me, a man with impeded speech?” It’s not difficult to imagine the scene Moses fears. There he is in Pharaoh’s court, trying to make radical demands, only to be stymied by a speech problem. Everyone is laughing at him. Neither the message nor the messenger will be taken seriously.
 
As the narrative progresses, we come to learn that this scene is the first of a three-part series in the relationship between God and Moses. When Moses askes to be excused from leading the people, the answer is no. After the catastrophe of the golden calf, when Moses asks to see God face to face, the answer is no. When Moses asks to cross into the Promised Land, the answer is no. In the first instance, God insists that Moses is capable of leadership. No excuses. In the second, God reminds Moses that, for all his uniqueness, Moses is a mortal who cannot look upon God’s face and live. No exceptions. In the third, God reinforces the timeless teaching that no one is above the law. Moses must accept the consequences for mocking the people instead of singing God’s praises back in Numbers when the rock gushed with water at the Almighty’s command.
   It is the first of these three interactions that sets the tone from the beginning, and it never changes throughout the next three books of the Torah. God fully understands we are not perfect. The Creator created us with talents and challenges.
 
We hope the young people at Friday night’s family service know that we will take your difficulties and limitations seriously. We will not ask the impossible of you. But we also owe it to you not to allow these things to be a hallow excuse for doing less than you’re capable of. And yes, we will keep on saying that you cannot quit, cannot get out of it, cannot be excused from making the effort before you have really given it a try. All of us are tempted by the desire to get out of doing difficult tasks, even someone as brave, wise and unselfish as Moses. Refusing to excuse people from doing what we know they are capable of might come across as harsh, unfair and frightening. But when we reflect more carefully, when we remember the confidence God had in Moses, we are reminded that refusing to accept excuses is actually a transformative act of love.
 
 
January 17, 2019 
RIGHTEOUS REFUSAL:

Attica Scott and the Women of Exodus

On this Shabbat before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are honored to welcome state Representative Attica Scott of Louisville as our guest speaker. As we reopen The Book of Exodus this week, the narrative abruptly introduces the emergence of a cruel regime and the implementation of racist oppression. As things continue to deteriorate, it is the women, not the men, who offer acts of resistance. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s edict to drown the Hebrews’ newborn sons. Yocheved, Moses’ mother, refuses to hand over her child for slaughter. Miriam, his sister, refuses to stand by and do nothing as the basket containing little Moses flows down the river. Pharaoh’s daughter, who seems to have daddy wrapped around her little finger, refuses to allow an obviously Hebrew child to drown and brings him into the palace instead.
 
Like the heroines of Exodus, Attica Scott righteously refuses to be intimated, co-opted or silenced. Be it health care, education, the environment, gun violence or poverty, she forcefully advocates for positions consistent with that of the Religious Action Center of our Reform movement. No matter the chance for success, she refuses to give up, give in or turn her head and walk away from things that seem unbearable to watch.
 
After a year that marked the 400th anniversary of kidnapping fellow humans from Africa to serve as slaves, a year that witnessed the continuation of the #MeToo movement, a year that set a record for homicides in Lexington, we are blessed to listen to the words of a woman who refuses to be bullied into abandoning what she believes in. She is living proof that it is possible to fulfill the challenge posed by Ruth Messinger, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “to be the kind of leader we have been waiting for.” It is with gratitude and admiration that we welcome her tonight.
 
January 10, 2019 
 
 
Sex and Slavery, Then and Now
 
Slavery manifests itself in many forms. This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, provides us with a bittersweet ending to the Bible’s opening book. At the climax of last week’s portion, Joseph and his brothers are reconciled. Jacob gets to spend his final years with the son he thought had been lost forever. The family is saved from terrible famine and internal feuding that could have destroyed them. But as this week’s reading begins, the text takes a more somber turn. Jacob’s parting words to his sons are filled with painful truths and serious worries. And for good reason. Going to Egypt does indeed save Jacob’s descendants from starvation, but it also sets in the motion a transition that will take them into slavery. So, when we gather to hear tonight’s speaker, Eileen Levy, from the anti-human trafficking organization The Well, it is with slavery, including sexual slavery, in mind.

We readers have known for a while that Joseph is safely in the palace. But according to a particular midrash (rabbinic folklore), Joseph’s brothers fear that he ended up selling himself on the streets of Egypt.[1] Sex slavery also asserts itself earlier in the biblical narrative, when Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers, takes responsibility for his widowed daughter-in-law only after she “plays the harlot” for him.[2] Disguising herself as a prostitute was not something Tamar wanted to do; it was the only ploy she could think of to prevent actually becoming one. Clearly, “human trafficking,” though a relatively new term, is anything but a novel concept, as we as a people are well aware, having experienced poverty and persecution from slavery in Egypt, and Nazi concentration/extermination camps. 

Turning fellow humans into slaves, including sex slaves, has been with us throughout our history. Forcing anyone into prostitution is cruel and abusive. To target refugees, the undocumented, and those fleeing poverty and violence is even more disturbing. Over and over, Torah teaches us not to oppress strangers, foreigners, widows and orphans because we ourselves were oppressed in Egypt.

Tonight’s Shabbat speaker is here to help us better understand the extent to which human trafficking has become a crisis not only in our community and our country, but throughout the world. More importantly, she is here to tell us what we can do about it. Jacob and his children were far from perfect. So, too, are we. But we don’t have to be perfect to demand an end to human trafficking. Slavery, including sexual slavery, an act of gross inhumanity, can be alleviated only if we have the humanity to combat it. In this year that marks the 400th anniversary of bringing enslaved Africans to this continent, let us confront slavery in all its forms, no matter the victim, no matter the victimizer, no matter the type of force or coercion involved. As we turn from the grand aspirations of Genesis to the brutal suffering of Exodus, the time for The Well’s message is now.

 
___________________________________
[1] Beresheet Rabbah compiled in Israel between 300-500 CE, attributed to Rabbi Osha’yah. See Me’Am Lo’ez The Torah Anthology, Vol. 3B, page 388. Written by Rabbi Yaakov Culi (1689-1732). Translation by Rabbi Areyeh Kaplan (1934-1983) Moznaim Publishing, 1991.
[2] Genesis 38:24
 
 
January 3, 2019 
“I Am Joseph, Your Brother: 
A Test of Compassion at a Time of Crisis
 
The moving scene of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers we read about in Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, could not have come at a better time. Like the sons of Jacob, we American Jews have had no lack of infighting, resentment and distancing ourselves from one another. When Joseph chooses to put his family first and stops hiding behind the mask of being Pharaoh’s second in command, the dynamics between parties change dramatically. The injuries of the past seem less important than the potential for a better future.
  
The fact that our ultra-orthodox brothers and sisters are being targeted and terrorized does not negate our differences, but it should motivate us to put them in perspective. Wearing modern clothes and attaining greater access to power no more changes who we progressive Jews are on the inside than dressing and acting like Egyptian royalty did for Joseph. Like him, we know who we are and who are brothers are. The time has come to reach out to them in a strong and clear voice that says, “An attack on your community is an attack on ours.” It’s the moment to say, “Our shared history and common values are more important than our ritual and social disagreements.” 
 
If Joseph could overlook the rejection and pain inflicted by his brothers and help them in their hour of need, so can we. It’s harder to show camaraderie and compassion to those who have hurt us. If Torah teaches nothing else, it is that we are not the first generation to have family fights. Saving Egypt from starvation comes naturally to Joseph. Rescuing his father and brothers from the same fate takes far greater effort. It’s easier in some ways to feel compassion for our fellow humans seeking refuge at our border than for our fellow American Jews who drive us crazy sometimes. May we resolve to meet the test of compassion presented by this moment with same the generosity and humanity with which Joseph met his.
 
 
 
 
December 6, 2019 

THE INTEGRITY OF “I DON’T KNOW”:
Jacob’s Admission and the Journey of Humility

It takes integrity and courage to admit we don’t know something. Particularly in the information age, it’s easy to succumb to the expectation that we should be knowledgeable about everything. It’s true that people resent a know-it-all, but we can be equally impatient with those who prefer to say, “I don’t know.” One sometimes fears that uttering those words will make us look inept, unqualified or ill-prepared. It takes humility and confidence to trust that people will respect us for admitting we don’t have an answer to everything.
 
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob awakens from his powerful dream of the heavenly ladder and says, “God is in this place, and I did not know.”The same Jacob whose only concern has been advancing his own interests regardless of their effect on others suddenly realizes that while you can run from your furious brother and heartbroken father, you cannot escape God’s presence. Or, to put the same idea in more humanistic terms, no matter where you’ve left, where you’re going and why you’re on the go, you cannot run from who you are, what you’ve done, and your responsibilities. Jacob has only just begun his journey, but his words after the dream are a significant step. 
 
Moved by Jacob’s admission, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (1730-1805) taught, “When can we experience God’s nearness? Only when we are suffused by ‘I don’t know,’ when we ourselves know that we do not know and do not pretend to have wisdom and insight.”2 May this teaching inspire us to disabuse ourselves of the misguided notion that we should have all the answers. May we find liberation from unreasonable expectations though our readiness to profess that we don’t know everything. And may we honor the courage of others to do the same by thanking them for their honesty rather than belittling them for it. 
 
___________________________________
Genesis 28:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary; Rabbi Gunther Plaut, URJ Press, 1981 page 197.
 
 
 
 
December  2019 Bulletin Article

What Hanukkah teaches about making
things happen

 

According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, they found a cruse of oil thought to contain only enough fluid to burn for one day, but miraculously it lasted for eight. The tale is intriguing on so many levels. What does it teach about sacred space, use of resources and what we leave behind? To some degree the story is reminiscent of how the Prophet Elisha feeds the masses with loaves and fishes that could only serve a few. The lesson seems to be that the question before us is not one of resources but of faith. If God sees that our needs are legitimate and our intentions are good, then what seems insufficient will suffice. The issue is not scarcity of material but our readiness to believe in miracles.

If only it were so. Rather, it seems that people prefer to rely on miracles than to formulate plans. For better or worse, real life is not like the Torah or Talmud. Coaches, instructors, teachers, mentors and friends impart different articulations of the following lesson: The best we can expect at game time, performance time or test time is that what we do then will be as good as our best practice, rehearsal or preparation exercise. Expecting that we will somehow be better, perform better or do better is wishful thinking. There is nothing wrong in wishing or praying for a miracle. What is wrong is to mistake hoping for a miracle with making a plan. Moreover, it is irresponsible to rely on a miracle when people are counting on us to meet our obligations.

The miracle of the cruse of oil teaches us that people are relying on what we leave behind. What story would there be if those who fled the Temple had not secreted away any oil at all? Someone had the composure and foresight to think about what the redeemers of the Temple might need one day. Someone had to have faith that despite the military unlikelihood of it, the Temple would be ours again, and oil would be needed. Faith is not a license to forgo responsibility to the future. Faith requires the commitment to a better future even in the face of present circumstances and demands.

We cannot relegate the responsibility of leaving a sustainable congregation, community, nation or planet to hopes and prayers. Leaving behind insufficient resources and utter messes for future generations is to break faith with those who provided for us and rightfully expected us to do the same for those to come. We cannot justify leaving only enough breathable air and drinkable water to last a few years because we are counting on science and technology to make it last for centuries. “Maybe they will find solutions we cannot even imagine” is not a plan; it’s a cop-out.

The story about the cruse of oil still has the power to inspire. Finding something useful amidst disaster is a theme worth employing to rekindle our efforts when morale is low. But the only practical way to leave enough oil for eight days is to provide enough oil for eight days. Future generations, faced with the challenges of managing congregations, communities and indeed the world itself, will receive little comfort from the knowledge that we fervently prayed for a miracle. What is required of us is to take the difficult measures and make the necessary sacrifices for our descendants to have an existence as good as, if not better than, ours. The Maccabees did not rely on a miracle to save them. Through remarkable efforts they achieved a result we call miraculous.

Happy Hanukkah!
Rabbi David 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
November 22, 2019

 “The Slave’s Prayer”
 
Sometimes a single word can make a world of difference. In his 1981 masterpiece, “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” Rabbi Gunther Plaut refers to the supplication by the man Abraham has sent to find a wife for Isaac as “The Servant’s Prayer.” Fast forward to the revised edition in 2005, and Plaut’s three-paragraph reflection on the same passage is titled “The Slave’s Prayer.” As has been pointed out repeatedly, this year marks the 400th anniversary of African slavery on this continent. Whether during colonial times or after independence from Great Britain, slaver — and the forms of racial oppression that continued after its abolition — remains a moral failure for which we have yet to atone.
 
Noting Plaut’s change in nomenclature has motivated me to prepare a sermon and/or Torah study comparing and contrasting the prayer of Abraham’s slave with those of African-Americans subject to the same cruel and unjust institution. That project will take some time. For now, I’ll offer the following thought: One of the many painful steps in addressing the injustices of slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration is to use language and terminology free of euphemisms and apologetics for that which can never be undone or conveniently compartmentalized as a problem of the past. 
 
Rabbi Plaut, whose family fled Nazi Germany and who served in the U.S. Army as a frontline chaplain in his native country during World War II, knew all to well the cost of hatred, oppression and war. Let us honor his legacy and those like him by making a deliberate effort to stop using gentle terms for grotesque practices.
 
It was wrong for our biblical ancestors to engage in slavery, and it was woefully wrong of Americans before us to practice its grave brutality in what was supposed to be a place of greater liberty. A basic step in addressing the failings of our past is to address all forms of pain we have caused by their proper names.
 
 
 
 
 
November 15, 2019
Mourning and Grieving: The First Yahrzeit for the Victims
of Terrorist Attacks in Louisville and Pittsburgh
 
This Shabbat marks the first Hebrew calendar anniversary of the mass shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. At tonight’s service we will read the names of the victims; light the same memorial candles we used at last year’s vigil; and share a special version of the El Malay Rachamim (the funerary prayer for God’s compassion) written by Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who narrowly escaped being killed. Shir Adat will lead us in song, and Jerry Suhl and Lauren Hill will sing “He Was My Brother,” a haunting ballad from the Civil Rights era, just as they did when we gathered together with the support of our neighbors a year ago.
 
We can’t speak for the rest of American Jewry, but for those of us in our state, we will never forget that the murders of our fellow Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue happened just days after a racist terrorist gunned two African-American Kentuckians at a grocery store in Louisville after his attempt to shoot up a church proved unsuccessful. We lit 13 memorial candles, not just 11, a year ago. Tonight will be no different. The tallit (prayer shawl) from which we cut off many knots and dabbed with many drops of wine at last year’s vigil will be on hand, too.
 
According to Jewish custom, there are at least two major changes at the end of the first year of grieving someone. We stop saying Mourner’s Kaddish on a daily or weekly basis, and we return to attending celebrations and discretionary activities that are discouraged or prohibited to those in mourning. 
 
The relationship between the two is intriguing. We are simultaneously relieved of the requirement to recite the most solemn of prayers and released from restrictions that curtail opportunities to experience joy. For a solid year we are challenged not to diminish sadness by distracting ourselves with celebration. At the end of that year we are asked to desist from the duties of mourning even if we are not feeling up to expectations of trying to be happy. 
 
While the observances of mourning are limited to a year, the work of grieving remains with us for as long as we live. We can let go of the rituals that designate us for one year as mourners. What we cannot relinquish are the sadness and pain these rituals help us address. Saying Mourner’s Kaddish and lighting a candle for yahrzeit (the anniversary of death) and yizkor (the memorial service of Yom Kippur and the three festivals) allows those still grieving to join those in mourning, and reminds those in mourning that they never have to stop grieving. In the technical or pietistic sense of the term, those who lost spouses, parents, children or siblings a year ago can stop mourning now. But not only will we never ask them to stop grieving, we promise to remain with them in their grief. 
 
It’s hard to believe that we have reached this solemn milestone. To acknowledge death, especially violent death, is to acknowledge a difficult truth. This is why our blessing before kriah (cutting the black ribbon worn for seven days) contains the words “Blessed are you, Adonai, the true judge.” The racist and anti-Semitic killings of last year have forced us to adjust to ugly truths about the real threat white-supremacy poses. It was also a brutal reminder that we are not immune to the epidemic of gun violence that takes more innocent lives every day.
 
Please consider commemorating the lives that were brutally taken last year by giving blood, making a financial contribution to worthy causes, and donating time to organizations that promote the values of peace, compassion and justice. 
 
May the memory of the victims be a blessing and may those who mourn them find peace. 
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 _________________________________________________________
Click here to read the URJ statement on the current conflict in Israel.  
 
 
 
November 8, 2019
Surmounting the Wall:
Abraham, Sarah and The End of the Soviet Era
               
The moment we celebrate today in world history and the Torah portion we study this week contain a common lesson. Things are not always as they seem. That which we deem impossible, problems we label intractable, hopes we fear are lost, may not be as out of reach as circumstances have led us to believe. As the adventures of Abraham and Sarah unfold in parshat Lech-Lecha, (meaning “Go forth”) we readers often wonder why God would ask a man of 75 and a woman of 65, married for decades without having a child, to start a new people. True you have to start sometime, but is this a logical place to start? Indeed, the couple does not conceive a child when either of them are in their seventies or eighties. Rather, it occurs when Sarah is ninety and Abraham is a hundred. Despite legitimate reasons for doubt and cynicism it is not too late for them after all.
                 
It’s not too late for us either. This week commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down. In high school and college our teachers told us that we should anticipate the reality of two diametrically opposed nuclear superpowers to remain with us for the rest of our lives. Nothing on the immediate horizon, they said, suggested otherwise. Thirty years later there are plenty of experts who claim they told us it was coming all along. Almost no one was saying it would come so quickly at the time. The end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe brought sweeping change to millions of people. Authoritarian rule has sadly returned to far too many places in the Former Soviet Union, but that should not diminish the significance of what happened thirty years ago or allow us to lose sight of the lesson that progress is possible.
                 
So many of our challenges today often seem insurmountable. The persistence of gun violence, the worldwide refugee crisis, air and water pollution, corruption, cruelty, bigotry and extremism. It behooves us to remember that the Cold War, apartheid and violence in Northern Ireland, situations that seemed resistant to intervention, protest and pressure of all kinds, did indeed change radically for the better. Historians have the benefit of hindsight to help them identify which actions proved most effective, when public opinion shifted, and leaders realized that the status quo was no longer sustainable. Like Abraham and Sarah, the rest of us have to live moment to moment, wondering if and when change will come and whether anything we do is making a difference. The miracle of their having a child late in life, and the dismantling of the Berlin wall are reminders that not knowing when our dreams will be realized cannot be used as an excuse for abandoning them. Abraham and Sarah surmounted a wall of anxiety and doubt by persisting against all odds in the hopes of having a child together. The people of East Berlin literally tore down a wall built to curtail freedom of movement, thought and expression. May we honor the conviction of our biblical ancestors, and the courage of those throughout history who sacrificed to make a better world, by surmounting the walls of injustice, poverty, and inequality through maintaining our efforts for the causes we believe in and holding on to hope no matter how hopeless things appear to be.
 
 
November 1, 2019
The Great Flood and Our Great Challenge

The offenses compelling God to wipe out the entire earth in this week’s Torah portion, Noach, are rather short on details. The Creator’s blanket indictment that the world is full of “corruption and violence” is lacking in who, what, when, where, and why. God wipes out everyone and everything except Noah’s family and one male and one female of every species, hence the “twosies twosies” lyric in the Sunday School classic “Rise and Shine.” All joking aside this is the ultimate reminder that it’s not our earth, it’s God earth. Or if you prefer a secular articulation of the same assertion; It’s not for any one of us to treat the earth as if it were ours alone or to be inhumane to fellow human beings.  This planet belongs to all humankind and all humankind should relate to it and one another accordingly.

We are alarmed at the way God expresses displeasure in this story, yet the narrative seems more and more relatable to our present-day reality. How many times can we have two five hundred-year floods within five years of each other and continue to act as if we should just keep on declaring state of emergencies without doing anything to prevent them? Isn’t “corrupt” a fitting term to describe a society that would
rather appease wealthy polluters than protect vulnerable people? This does not mean that the frequency and intensity of floods are God’s way of punishing us for our sins. What is does mean is that we need to take these things more seriously and act with a greater sense of urgency. To think about and relate to the environment as our responsibility and not someone else’s. That there is a social and moraldimension to how we treat the earth. That there are lessons to be learned from what is happening, particularly when the same things keep happening.

Whether you are a member of TAI or visiting us from another house of worship, please consider attending the “Single Use Plastics Summit for Faith Communities” Tuesday, November 19, 6-7:30 p.m. at Second Presbyterian Church, donating to your favorite environmental charity, and improving your current recycling and composting efforts. The least we can do to cherish the beautiful world God has given us is not to take it or one
another for granted.

 
 

October 31, 2019

Thoughts on the first anniversary of our Pittsburg vigil
 

A year ago tonight religious leaders, elected officials, public safety workers, and neighbors of all faiths filled Nordsworthy auditorium to show their support after the fatal terrorist hate crimes in Louisville and Pittsburgh left us grief stricken. We will never forget this act of kindness and solidarity. Thank you especially to the FCPS main office for providing a space that could accommodate the overwhelming turnout. Our congregation will commemorate the anniversary of the violence on the Hebrew date, but it seems only fitting to thank our neighbors according to the calendar we share with you.

May love and reason yet triumph over fear and hate. May our country become a place where civility and decency are practiced by all of us, no matter our religion, race, class, gender, sexual orientation or nation of origin. May the words we heard and things we witnessed a year ago tonight inspire us to lead lives of goodness everyday of our lives.

To our fellow Lexingtonians we say Todah Rabah. Thank you for the message your presence sent to us a year ago. To watch that auditorium fill up with friends was an act of love we will never forget. As the psalm teaches: “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” In the Jewish world when we depart from a house of mourning we say “Next time on a simcha, (a happy occasion). May we soon gather together in the hundreds to celebrate the defeat of racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, bullying, violence, selfishness, greed and deceit.

As Rev Mark Johnson of Central Baptist teaches: “It’s not OK but it’s going to be OK.”
A day of truth is coming. A day of justice is coming. A day of freedom is coming. A day of love is coming. A day of healing is coming. A day of joy is coming. And although it can’t come soon enough the time is coming soon. May all of us live to dance and sing on that great day. And let us work to make it so.

 
 
 

October 25, 2019

Timely Reminders and Torah Related Arts
Watching Sofer (scribe) Neil Yerman diligently working here at Temple the last couple of days have helped me to recognize something I hadn’t sufficiently considered before. The craft of writing or rewriting the scroll itself is only one of the arts we rely on every time we take a Torah out of the ark. As he assessed the eitz chayim the wooden rollers, and as we removed the mantles, breastplates, pointers finials, and binders, I arrived at a better appreciation of the metalwork, needlepoint, weaving, dyeing, and carpentry it takes to provide us with the things we need to protect and decorate the scroll itself. Everything we use in a Torah service is a work of art. These beautiful objects and the artists who made them have lessons to teach and stories to tell.
 
This Shabbat and weekend we are celebrating the Torah scrolls themselves. Tonight, Professor Randall Roorda will be telling us the story of Turnov, the original home of our Holocaust Torah scroll. Though the Jews of Turnov were slaughtered, their Torah scroll survives and we here at Temple Adath Israel are honored to preserve and protect it. Now, thanks to the work of Sofer Yerman and all of those who have donated time and money to this project, we can actually read from it more often and with greater assurance of its health than has been possible for a long time. Tonight is different from all other nights in that instead of a sermon in the sanctuary we will be treated to Randall’s remarks in the library. After Mourner’s Kaddish and closing song we will go from the former space to the latter and after the conclusion of Randall’s presentation, adjourn to the social hall for oneg.
 
Sunday at 1:30 PM we will be celebrating the restoration and rededication of all three of our scrolls, taking the time to read a little bit from each. Dr. Lorne Dechtenberg, our Musician-in-Residence, will lead us in song and Sofer Yerman will share some brief thoughts about how the Turnov scroll speaks to us today. Once again, I’d like to thank co-chairs Deborah Flomenhoft and Amy Gewirtz, along with Temple President, Deborah Nelson for all the hard work and coordination required to make this project something the whole congregation can participate in.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Postscript Regarding Pittsburgh:
As Ecclesiastes teaches, there is a season for everything and a time for every purpose. This Sabbath and weekend our focus is on celebrating the work on our Torah scrolls, but we have not forgotten Pittsburgh. Rather, we will honor the memory of those who were killed at Tree of Life according to the date on the Hebrew Calendar, the third Sabbath of the month of Heshavan, corresponding to the Sabbath of November 15-16 in the Gregorian calendar this year. Please join us that Friday evening when the focus of our service will be commemorating the first anniversary of the unconscionable violence on that terrible day.
 
 
 

October 11, 2019

Consecration
   Mazel tov to tonight’s consecrants and your families. A week ago we gathered with those celebrating 50-plus years of marriage; tonight, we are here to celebrate 4-, 5-, and 6-year olds as they begin a lifelong journey of Jewish learning. L’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), these are sacred occasions bound together by the values of commitment, dedication and devotion. 
   Marriage is a form of consecration. The Jewish wedding vow says: “Behold you are consecrated unto me by this ring in keeping with the laws of Moses and Israel.” Like a wedding, consecration take places under a chuppah (canopy) and/or a tallit (prayer shawl). Just as beloveds are entering into a sacred relationship with one another, consecrants are sanctifying the beginning of their relationship with formal religious education. 
   In keeping with the parallels between the two, here are seven blessings for tonight’s consecrants and their families.
   May learning be sweet as honey.
   May Torah always be meaningful even when its lessons are difficult.
   May you build lifelong friendships as you continuously explore your faith.
   May the knowledge of Torah deepen self-knowledge.
   May self-knowledge deepen appreciation of Torah.
   May you take the lessons you learn here into the world around you.
   And may you share the things you love and lessons you learn beyond these walls with the loving people inside them.
   Congratulations to you and your families, and thank you to the teachers who have taken on the sacred task of raising up the next generation of active, engaged and caring Jews.
 
 

October 4, 2019

7 BLESSINGS FOR 50-PLUS YEARS
 
   As of this writing, there are seven couples who plan to participate in tonight’s service honoring those who have been married 50 years or more. Seven is considered an auspicious number in many cultures and religions, including ours. There are seven days in the week with the Day of Rest assigned to the seventh. Torah prescribes seven days of celebration for Sukkot and Passover. The Sabbatical laws include the commandment that every seven years farmers are to let their fields lie fallow. But of greatest relevance for tonight’s celebration is that the second half of the Jewish wedding service contains the unit known as the seven blessings. In fact, some people use the words sheva brachot (seven blessings) as another term for a wedding ceremony. So, in honor of the seven couples gracing us with their presence, here are seven blessings for reaching the 50-plus milestone:
   Just as you have blessed and inspired us with your love
for one another, tonight we share this blessing with you.
May the Source of Love bless you with abounding affection.
   May the Source of Strength bless you with patience,
persistence and perseverance.
   May the Source of Compassion bless you with kindness
and gentleness.
   May the Source of Wisdom bless you with discernment, judgment and insight.
   May the Source of Courage nurture your resolve to face challenges with hope and optimism.
   May the Source of Joy bless you with happiness and
holiness, lots of laughter and long life.
May the Source of Peace bless you, your families, and all who love you with the wholeness and oneness that only peace can provide. And let us say together: Amen.
 

September 27, 2019

AFTERNOON WITH A MASTER ARTIST:
A Pre-High Holiday Update on the Torah Project
 
   Thursday afternoon I had the opportunity to enjoy a few one-on-one “office hours” with our scribe (sofer) Neil Yerman. I worked with Neil once before in my Bay Area days, so it’s all the more meaningful to be partnering again after almost 15 years. Neil’s love of Torah, dedication to his craft and enthusiasm for teaching know no bounds.
   Like any serious endeavor, the restoration efforts on all three of our scrolls have involved changes and challenges. We understood from the beginning that the parchment on the Turnov (Holocaust) scroll was so delicate that it would be unwise to restore some sections. Balaam’s unexpected blessing of the wandering Israelites was among the passages on our wish list, but upon closer examination Thursday, we determined that the risks of restoring these verses were too high to make the attempt. The Priestly Benediction, a blessing we say on Shabbat and festivals, and the story of Moses striking the rock can be restored safely, so the Book of Numbers still will be well represented. Neil felt badly about “the patient (the Balaam story) not being strong enough for the surgery,” so he generously offered to restore a passage of Deuteronomy, Etem Nitzavim, that we read each year on Yom Kippur. This means the Turnov scroll will be viable to read from for all High Holiday passages: The Binding of Isaac (Genesis), Moses’ Charge to the People (Deuteronomy), and the Holiness Code (Leviticus).
   Like most worthwhile “progress reports,” there is a degree of good news and bad. The bad news is that due to the demanding nature of the restoration process, we won’t have the Turnov scroll with us for the High Holy Days this year. The good news is we will have it in time for our celebration on Sunday, Oct. 27, when Sofer Yerman will be spending the weekend with us. Also in the good news column is we can celebrate our restored Turnov scroll at this time next year by using it for all three High Holy Days readings.
   I hope you’ll join me in taking this opportunity to make a donation online or by check to our Torah Project and to thank the co-chairs of this extensive undertaking, Amy Gewirtz and Deborah Flomenhoft, for all their hard work.
   May our final Shabbat of 5779 be peaceful and may 5780 be a good and sweet year.
 
 
 
September 20, 2019
 
Good Things Come in Threes:
This Shabbat’s Scholar-in-Residence
and 2 More Communitywide Opportunities
 
   During the next 24 hours, you have three opportunities to hear a world-class scholar here in Lexington. Tonight at Temple, tomorrow morning at Ohavay Zion Synagogue and tomorrow evening back at our congregation, Professor Louis Newman of Stanford University will be speaking on the timely topic of repentance. In collaboration with OZS, the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass and The Lexington Havurah, all three of these opportunities are open to anyone who wants to participate. We even have taken the unusual step of cancelling Saturday morning Kollel and Torah study at TAI to encourage our members to attend services, including Professor Newman’s remarks, at OZS.
   During these times of shifting demographics and limited resources, it’s more important than ever that we in the Jewish community strengthen our capacity to coordinate rather than duplicate these kinds of enrichment opportunities. I want to thank our community partners for lending their name and financial support for this undertaking. Securing this many speaking engagements by someone of Professor Newman’s stature would have been far more difficult without their help. We should regard this as a reminder of what we can do when we put our heads and resources together. Services tonight are 7, the regular time. Worship at OZS begins tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. (Professor Newman will speak after the Torah service, so please arrive no later than 10:30 if you can’t be there at the beginning.) Things begin here tomorrow evening with Havdalah at 8, followed by a study program led by our visiting scholar, a brief social period with refreshments, and Selichot services at 9:30.
   This Shabbat represents the first of three fall events we are doing in this collaborative manner. On Sunday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m., “Top Chef” finalist and Jewish Kentuckian Sara Bradley will be here with her mother for “Top Nosh,” a culinary and cultural event for all of us to share. Later that same week are our annual Moosnick scholar-in-residence offerings with Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D.; her topic will be #MeToo from a Jewish perspective. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, at Transylvania University, Rabbi Wasserman will be part of a panel, moderated by our own Professor Shana Sippy, with Christian and Muslim leaders and scholars discussing religious responses to sexism and sexual harassment. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, at TAI, Rabbi Wasserman will focus with greater intensity on what the religious, ethical and social implications of this crisis are for us as modern Jews.
 
 
 
 
 
 

September 13, 2019

The 50+ Service Is for You
 
   Today, Sept. 13, 2019, would have been the 60th anniversary of my parents’ marriage. A black-and-white picture from their wedding day sits in my office.  Standing in front of the red brick house in Petersburg, Va., where my mother was raised, my father’s left hand rests gently on my mother’s right as she cuts the cake. They look so happy, so young, so in love. Some people even say the handsome couple looked like Elliott Gould and Ali MacGraw.
    But life isn’t lived in the realm of “would have beens.” We have what was, what is and what might be. My father died just short of what would have been the happy couple’s 45th anniversary. 
In just a few weeks, on Friday, Oct. 4, we will be celebrating our annual Sabbath honoring couples who have been married 50 years or more. It’s a beautiful service, and I look forward to it every year. A few new couples join the group each year. This leads to a lot of cute teasing, because couples who have been married for 60 and even 70-plus years sometimes look at the newcomers the way college seniors look at incoming freshman.  And, of course, there comes a time when a couple’s names no longer appear on the list. That can feel so unfair, so arbitrary, so unkind. It takes a lot of effort to join this group. You join it as a couple, and then one day one of you departs. You leave the group as a couple, though one of you is still here.
    There’s no way to really mitigate the unfairness of it. We can’t live in the realm of what would have been. But there are some things we can do to make the service more inclusive for those who desperately wish they had made it into “the club” or still were part of it. Anyone who wishes to share the date of their anniversary, whether you “made it” to 50 years or not, or if your spouse’s death took your names off the list, is lovingly invited to do so. No one gets married planning on not reaching this milestone or leaves the group because they want to. Love isn’t the only force that determines the duration of a marriage. Luck plays a part, too. The second thing we can do is have a special memorial ritual akin to a second yahrzeit or Yizkor service. If you wish, we will list the name of your deceased spouse as part of the evening’s commemoration. You also can choose to have your spouse’s name read right before kaddish. Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, we can clarify who this service is for. It celebrates the good luck of “50-plus” couples, but it also celebrates the love of all couples. Widows and widowers are more than welcome to attend. It won’t be easy. Believe me, I understand that. But our sadness over what would have been need not keep us from sharing in the happiness of what is. Everyone is encouraged to attend. Everyone has something to celebrate. 
   One of the many interpretations for breaking a glass at the end of the Jewish wedding ceremony is to remind us that even at the happiest moments we can’t ignore that there is sadness and brokenness in our world. You don’t have to exclude yourself from this service for fear it will make you sad or that your sadness will diminish the joy of others. Weddings and anniversaries are always emotionally inclusive and diverse. There are a lot of different feelings making their presence felt at the same time. Celebrating doesn’t demand that the only thing we’re feeling is happiness. Celebrating means appreciating that life —  unfair, arbitrary and unkind as it can be -also provides us with moments of joy, kindness and love. Please call the office to RSVP for a complimentary dinner that evening, sponsored by a couple from the congregation, then attend the service whether you’ve been married a few months, a few years or a few decades, or never married. It’s a night to celebrate love no matter how long we’re lucky enough for it to last.
 
 
 
 

September 6, 2019

Judges

   This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, (meaning judges) begins with three interrelated commandments. First the community must appoint judges and magistrates. Second these individuals must be impartial and free from corruption. Thirdly the people must pursue justice if they hope to thrive in the promised land (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). Peace and progress are not unconditional guarantees. They are contingent on a society dedicated to justice. Judges can not maintain justice in a vacuum.   
   Ironically, it was just yesterday that we rabbis who have had the good fortune to travel to Guatemala with American Jewish World Service received word that any number of judges in that nation are now afraid for their lives. Judges who maintained the rule of law, sent corrupt officials and war criminals to jail, and refused to be intimidated by government threats are now terrified about the potential fall out of anti-corruption laws being overturned and those who violated them released. Human rights advocates lauded these judges as Guatemala’s fire wall against things becoming even worse. That fire wall has now become imperiled by approaching flame.      We sometimes forgot how dangerous being a judge can be, especially in dictatorships, failed states and countries coping with extreme poverty and violence.  I can’t hear about foreign journalists being imprisoned, kidnapped or killed without thinking about my brother Jacob. Nor can I learn about judges anywhere being threatened without thinking about my brother Benjamin, a Superior Court Judge in California. No righteous judge anywhere in the world should be faced with threats of retaliation for fulfilling their obligations to justice. There can be no just society when judges are coerced or corrupted by injustice.
   On this Sabbath named for judges may we be mindful of the role they play, grateful for the integrity it requires, and watchful so that no nation can intimidate its judges with impunity.

 

 

August 30, 2019

Timely Words of Torah for This Weekend’s Hurricane Crisis:
A Prayer for the People of Florida
 
“Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against the needy. Rather you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)”
 
These words from R’eih, this week’s Torah portion, couldn’t be more timely. As Hurricane Dorian bears down on Florida, may we demonstrate the generosity of open hands and the concern of open hearts.
 
God of Caring and Compassion. We pray that the people of Florida, bracing once again for damage and disruption, find the strength and persistence they need to cope for yet another crisis.
 
We pray that lives, and homes and neighborhoods will be spared.
 
We pray the response from state and federal agencies will be swift, generous and comprehensive.
 
We pray that assistance will be offered to everyone who may be impacted by this impending crisis, regardless of race, religion or class.
 
May the faith and fortitude with which Florida has rallied itself so many times before be summoned upon again in this latest hour of need.
 
May the Source of Hope help Floridians to hold on to hope no matter what happens.
 
May the Source of Love inspire us to offer open hands as we pray for those in harm’s way.
 
May this be our promise. And let us say: Amen.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
For ways we can help please see the links to disaster relief agencies below:
 
 
 
 
 

August 23, 2019

KNEAD AND NEED:
Food for Thought on Parshat Ekev
   Every now and then life provides moments when the words and events of Torah and the present come together. This week we study parshat Ekev, wherein we find the famous words, “Man (or human beings) cannot live on bread alone.” The culinary effort of the week here at Temple has been baking challah for our upcoming Jewish Food Festival. I cannot resist the factual pun that the Bakers were among the bakers this week. Nor will I keep from kvelling (Yiddish for beaming or crowing) that my teenage daughter and her friends were also among the busy volunteers kneading and braiding in the kitchen. To watch someone braid the challah and then shape it into the round loaves we enjoy at the High Holy Days is to observe artwork being made. Yet beautiful as it might be, we cannot live by bread alone. Neither could our biblical ancestors on their long wilderness journey. As Deuteronomy, and centuries later Maslow, points out, we have needs that go far beyond those met by kneading.
   Other passages attribute the 40 years of wandering as a punishment for lack of faith and obedience. Ekev conveys that God’s purpose was “to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not.” Consequences and character building are two different things, even if they often feel very much the same. God understands that the Israelites need more than manna (food from Heaven), even if they don’t. What the people need is to gain confidence and accountability in God and in one another. Neither of these things mattered as slaves. The only party to whom they were accountable in Egypt were Pharaoh’s taskmasters. The only laws were Pharaoh’s laws, and Pharaoh’s laws kept them enslaved.
    After hundreds of years of slavery, once they no longer were his, Pharoah won’t even allow them a few peaceful minutes for their bread to rise. Their survival had some value when they were his property; it means nothing to him now. He has promised God to free them not feed them. God, by contrast, insists that the one is useless without the other. Freedom without sufficient resources is a brutal farce. One cannot know liberty while starving to death. Nor does the absence of hunger prove the presence of freedom any more than the absence of violence proves the presence of peace. We cannot live by bread or freedom alone. As Pirke Avot “Sayings of Our Ancestors,” teaches: “Without flour there is no Torah and without Torah there is no flour.” May the blessing of sustenance provide food for thought. And may freedom of thought feed our appetite to act.
 
 

August 16, 2019

The following is a modified version of a letter I am sending.
Dear Friends at Hispanic Ministries of Catholic Diocese of Lexington,
   With heavy hearts we write to express sadness and dismay at the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. As a people with a long history as exiles, deportees, immigrants, refugees and asylees, we know what it is, from Pharaoh to the Third Reich to this very day, to be falsely targeted as strangers with ill intent. The xenophobic rantings that the assailant parroted from mass media bigots is yet another painful reminder of how quickly defamatory words can lead to deadly acts. This week we Jews throughout the world study the portion from Deuteronomy containing the Ten Commandments. Once again, we have seen how the sixth and ninth commandments are inextricably linked. When the flawed sense of entitlement to bear false witness against our neighbors goes unchecked, perpetrators feel encouraged to continue on a path that all too often leads to murder. The rationalization that it is acceptable to do the first enables the ideation to commit the second.
   We weep for those who lost their lives and for the devastated loved ones they left behind. The fear and intimidation that this terrorist has wrought are utterly antithetical to our religious and democratic values. We condemn hate speech and violence as Americans and people of faith no matter who the victims and victimizers might be. We cannot deny that extremists such as the deranged shooter in El Paso exist. Nor, however, should we lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of Americans reject his ideology and maintain the belief that our nation should be a place where everyone is entitled to dignity, freedom and the opportunity to succeed.
   Together with you we will work and pray for the day when the spirit of brotherhood will dispel the virus of bigotry from our land; a day when we will fulfill the sacred commandment that our Creator has charged us to do, that we love and care for one another as fellow human beings bound together in the humanity and holiness we are blessed to share. Together may we realize the words of Scripture: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
   Wishing you strength and comfort in this time of sorrow and pain,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 

July 19, 2019

A Blessing for Bravery Before Bullies:
An Appreciation to Those for Whom “Go Back Where You Came From” Goes Too Far
 
   Let us be grateful for the elected officials and influential leaders in the president’s party for standing up to him by criticizing his latest hateful outbursts. The moral courage required to do so should not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Like any act of courage, it comes with personal, political and professional risks. Just as the prophet Nathan stood up to King David and Solomon, and the prophet Elijah to King Ahab, so, too, these members of the president’s party have shown the integrity, humanity and fortitude to denounce someone with the power to hurt them in any number of ways. We don’t have to agree with them on a single issue to acknowledge the risks they are taking for the sake of the common good.
   Be it bullies on the block or the playground, in the classroom or boardroom or the breakroom, there’s no one who hasn’t felt the bitterness of their barbs or the force of their fists. They prey on those with less power, privilege and prestige. They never pick on someone their own size. It’s crass and dishonest to say that the president’s critics within his own party spoke out because they had nothing to lose. There’s always something to lose when we stand up to bullies. They can and they will make their displeasure felt.
   Whether it’s “you can’t play here, you can’t join here, you can’t work here, you can’t be here”;   whether we’re young or old; gay or straight; black or white; male or female; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist or atheist; rich or poor, native-born or newcomer, there’s nothing like the meanness conveyed in the message that we don’t belong. That we’re not welcome somewhere. Until and unless someone shows bravery before bullies, we have little or no reason not to believe that everyone, or most everyone, hates us as much as they do. The president’s critics within his own party provided that much-needed confrontation. Far better than a teacher putting a stop to the bullying is when other students do. Constructive peer pressure is a powerful thing. The peer pressure within his own party might not change the president’s ways, but it certainly has gotten his attention. There is a tendency for bullying in all of us. The reality that restrains it is rooted in the fear of losing our friends, not that of offending our opponents. These conscientious men and women within the president’s party definitely have something to lose, but their willingness to stand up to him serves notice that so does he.
   So, to all those in the president’s party who have said to him that these latest attacks go too far, this blessing, adapted from our liturgy, is for you. May the words of your mouths and the mediations of your hearts be commendable in the sight of The Rock and Redeemer of all humanity. May it be that if a president in other parties proves to be as bad or worse a bully than this one, that the leaders of that party show the same courage as you. And may it be that when the history of these horrid statements is studied years from now, you are remembered for goodness, blessing, life and peace.
 
 

July 12, 2019

Shabbat Message I
HOW DO YOU DEFINE LIFE-THREATENING?
 
   Honoring Shabbat and Participating in Protest
  As a rule, neither our congregation nor I officially sponsors or encourages events that conflict with Shabbat services or Saturday morning study sessions. There is a rabbinic principle, however, that under severe circumstances we can compromise a ritual commandment to honor a moral one. Even the strictest Jewish authorities say you can break the laws of Shabbat or festivals to save a life, rush someone to the hospital or call an ambulance.
  Reform Judaism asks us to consider exceptions to religious practice in an informed and sensitive manner. Our movement and its affiliates, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Religious Action Center, have made our concerns about the crisis at the southern border and circumstances in detention centers abundantly clear. One could make an argument that protesting the life-threatening situation on our border and the unacceptable conditions in detention facilities meets a definition of pikuach nefesh (saving a life). Under current circumstances, lives are being endangered, compromised and even lost because of the desperate measures people are prepared to take to enter our country and the appalling living conditions in which people are being detained. Attending a protest on this issue is not quite the same as rescuing someone from a burning building, but it is aimed at preserving lives by responding to a life-threatening situation. If we regard pikuach nefesh as being on a continuum, then all forms of intervention have their place.
  Tonight’s “Lights of Liberty” rally at the courthouse at 8 p.m. will protest conditions in the detention centers and call for new approaches to the crisis. Neither TAI nor or I are officially encouraging you to attend, nor are we encouraging you not to. The question isn’t ultimately how your rabbi or congregation or Jewish school of thought defines what constitutes a reasonable standard of sufficiently life-threatening circumstances to compromise observance of the Sabbath. The question is how you determine what meets that definition. I’m going to lead Friday evening services at 7 as I always do. I’ll be leaving the oneg earlier than usual to join the rally in progress and perhaps share a few words if the timing works out. However, the fact that I’m approaching it this way doesn’t necessarily mean you should. I ask you to do nothing more and nothing less than to consult your conscience and arrive at an informed and sensitive conclusion. My way of handling this isn’t an ideal compromise. (There is no such thing as ideal compromise. If you compromise your values to get something you want, then the agreement you reach isn’t ideal.) It’s an acceptable compromise at best. Like all of us, I’m trying to meet conflicting obligations, both of which deserve serious consideration, as well as I can, and I encourage you to do the same.
 
Shabbat Message II
 
MY CONGRESSMAN, MY NEIGHBOR
  By sheer coincidence Monday, during a late evening run through the neighborhood, I spotted Congressman Andy Barr wheeling his bins to the curb. He was generous enough to spend at least 15 minutes talking to this sweaty constituent when he had grilling duties to attend to. We shared our concerns and frustrations about the border crisis, and he graciously offered to come to TAI soon to discuss it with us. Please look for updates about this in upcoming emails and other TAI announcements.
 
 
July 5, 2019
 
Matir Asurim: Liberator of the Captive
 
   Our morning prayer services include the Nisim B’chol Yom (acknowledgements of daily miracles), things we all too often rely on without thinking but should never take for granted. Things like waking up in the morning, the body functioning properly and having clothes to wear. But in addition to these physical needs, this long litany of one-line blessings incorporates essential liberties that not only shouldn’t be taken for granted but might not necessarily be an accurate reflection of reality. The third blessing of the entire grouping says, “Praise to You, Adonai Our God, Sovereign of the universe, who frees the captive (matir asurim).”
   “Captive” is a profound choice by the translator. Asur (singular) or asurim (plural) is legally distinct from prisoner or inmate. “Captive” conveys that a person or persons have been or are being wrongfully held and need to be liberated. With more and more disturbing reports about conditions at children’s detention centers along our southern border, this daily prayer has taken on special significance. These children fled dire poverty and violence in their home countries at the behest of their parents. We can have a debate as to whether their parents had a choice or committed an offense. These children had no choice; they have committed no offense.
We cannot continue to hold them captive, certainly not under the conditions that have been verified by multiple agencies.
   The voice of realism asserts that God has not, does not
and will not free all captives under any and all circumstances. The voice of idealism maintains that if we cannot even wish or pray for the freedom of children in captivity, if we do not acknowledge to God and to one another that the current situation is unacceptable, then how can we even begin the work of demanding their release? On this day after Independence Day, a day celebrating our freedom from being governed in a way our founding fathers deemed unjust, let us demand immediate changes to conditions in detention centers that we know to be unjust. If we cannot safely and speedily set these children free, we must at the very least
implement radical reform of the places in which they are being held captive. Baruch Atah Adonai matir asurim. Blessed are You, O God, who frees the captive. 
 
 

June 28, 2019

An Early Tashlich at The Rivers of Repentance:
Lamenting the Deaths of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez

  Just as the River Jordan parted for Joshua and the people on their way to the Promised Land,* would that the waters of the Rio Grande have parted this week for Oscar Ramirez and his young daughter, Valeria, fleeing poverty in Central America. 

   What song could be sung to honor their lives and protest their deaths? “Down to the River to Pray” might seem like a strange choice for a song of lamentation from a rabbi, even one from Kentucky. Yet the notion of mayim chayim (living waters), representing second chances, fresh starts and rescue from destruction, is something we Jews share with our Christian brothers and sisters. 
   This week the Rio Grande, the waterway between starvation and salvation, became deadly for a dad and his daughter. Wouldn’t we risk rushing water and crossing borders illegally to save our children from starving? No river will ever be the same now. Not the Jordan, the Ohio, the Kentucky, the Mississippi or the Rio Grande.
   May the drowning of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez move us to action as well as tears. May their deaths help us to see that no democracy can continue to drive imperiled people to such desperate acts. Let’s go down to the river to pray and to repent. Because teshuvah (repentance) is called for now. Repentance for enabling circumstances contributing to such fatal outcomes. From now until the crisis stops, let us approach all rivers in the spirit of repentance. 
   On Rosh Hashanah we observe the ritual of tashlich. We go down to the river, the lake, the ocean or the creek to cast bread crumbs representing our sins into the water. We cannot wait until Rosh Hashanah for this year’s tachlich. After tonight’s oneg, around 9 o’clock, let’s go down to Jacobson Park and cast crumbs into the water to convey contrition for the loss of innocent lives and declare our commitment to alleviating the status quo that leads to death. And when the weekend is over, let’s call our elected officials and go down to their offices to tell them that when people drown in an effort to reach our shores, it is a betrayal of conscience that Americans cannot accept. 
   Tonight let us sing Mi Chamocha, the song Israel sang when God rescued us at the Red Sea, to the melody of “We Shall Overcome.” May the memory of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez be a blessing, and may we make the heartbreak of this horror into something holy. 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
* From the Book of Joshua, the text for this week’s Haftorah portion
 
 

June 21, 2019

For the Sake of Argument
 
   El N’ah Refah Nah Lach. “Dear God, please heal her!” 
   This famous prayer, exclaimed by Moses to argue for mercy on behalf of a sister who has just wounded him deeply, is taken from this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotkha (Numbers 8-12). Moses’ plea is a reminder that argument, at its best, is a sacred act, an act that goes beyond success or failure, winning and losing, acceptance or rejection. To argue someone’s cause is to declare they are deserving of care, consideration and compassion. Inspired by these ancient words, I offer this new prayer that struggles with the intense challenge of arguing for three distinct yet deeply intertwined people: ourselves, our families and all others:
 
 God of decision and deliberation, thought and feeling, word and act,
  Give us, we pray, the compassion to argue for those who disparage us, those who betray us, those who disappoint us and those who hurt us.
   Give us the courage to argue for our families, even if we are called selfish, ungrateful or disloyal for doing so.
   Whether we win or lose, when we fight for our families, we demonstrate to those we love that they are worth fighting for.
   And grant us please, O God, the conviction to argue on behalf of ourselves.
   For if we cannot look upon ourselves as deserving of recognition, respect and regard, then who will?
   For our own sake and that of our families, for the sake of all others and for the sake of argument itself, may this be our blessing and let us say, 
   Amen.
 
 

June 14, 2019

A Blessing for Father’s Day
 
   Father’s Day weekend is here again. This year, on Aug. 9, will be the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. One week from today, I’ll be continuing a tradition established after I came back to Lexington of representing my family and bestowing an award in my father’s name to a University of Kentucky ophthalmology resident recognized by his/her peers as an outstanding teacher. I love seeing my dad’s former colleagues, meeting the residents and trying to read an ophthalmology program without glasses. 
   Father’s Day is particularly special this year because I recently learned that my nephew Leo Golub (my sister’s eldest of three) will be attending Reed College in Portland, Ore., dad’s alma mater. My brother Ben also graduated from Reed, so Leo’s enrollment marks the third generation in our family to attend this remarkable school. I’m a proud alum of Brandeis (named for a Jewish Kentuckian), but there is tremendous joy and comfort in seeing a tradition like this continue. 
   So, while each year brings more reasons for missing those we have lost, each year also brings more opportunities to see people participating in institutions and carrying on the values they cared about. L’dor v’dor, “from generation to generation,” presents itself in countless ways, from the foods we like, talents we have and things we love to do (or don’t love to do) to places we live in, schools we attend, professions we choose and the people we love.
   As this week’s Torah portion, Naso, includes “The Priestly Benediction” parents recite over their children at the beginning of each Sabbath, it seems fitting to end with words of blessing: Blessed are You Adonai Our God, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God of Adolf, Zoltan and Jonathan: Help us please, O Father of Life, to cherish the good things our fathers teach/taught us and consider how we can share them “from generation to generation, Hallelujah.” 

 

June 7, 2019

Between D-Day and Shavuot: A Prayer for Liberty and Law 
 
God of Our Mothers and Fathers. Soldiers and Civilians. The Living and the Dead.                          
Yesterday, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we commemorated the sacrifice of the greatest generation and rededicated ourselves to the pursuit of a more just and peaceful world. 
 
Tomorrow on Shavout we remember the gift of revelation and the responsibilities that come with it.  
 
 
 
Yesterday we reaffirmed the ideals for which far too many people died. 
 
Tomorrow we celebrate the giving of Torah, that teaches us how to live.  
 
Yesterday’s sounds were that of Taps and the singing of anthems.  
 
Tomorrow’s sounds will be that of sacred texts and festive prayers. 
 
Yesterday was one of reflection and sorrow. 
 
Tomorrow will be one of rejoicing and rest. 
 
On this Shabbat between D-Day and Shavuot help us, O God of Peace, to consider the price of war.
Teach us to practice your Torah, to protect it, pursue it, and prize its timeless teachings. Help us to understand that liberation and revelation go hand in hand. That terrorized people have no true law and that no true law can promote terror and evil. May yesterday’s commemoration renew our zeal for tomorrow’s celebration. 
 
And may tomorrow’s celebration deepen our gratitude to those whose lives we commemorate.  
 
May this be our blessing and let us say: 
 
Amen.   
 
 

May 31, 2019

Your Personal Invitation to Tomorrow Morning’s Service
 
You are cordially invited to tomorrow morning’s Confirmation service. Yes, confirmation is a service for you, the congregation. To borrow a line from the old orange juice commercial, confirmation isn’t just for confirmands anymore.  
 
Confirmation, like each and every holiday, and Sabbath is for all of us. And by all I mean “all y’all.” Confirmation doesn’t simply mark a milestone in the life of this year’s students and their families. Each confirmation service is a milestone for our congregational family. Take a walk up and down the Religious School hallway and see for yourself. Confirmation class pictures are part of our on-display Temple Adath Israel photo album. From black and white to color, from 20th to 21st century, rabbi to rabbi, year to year, class to class.
Confirmation is an annual life-cycle event in the life of our temple family. Yes, it is a celebration of what our students have learned but it is also a celebration of us, the congregation in which they have been raised. Albeit to different degrees all of us are invested in them. If you were confirmed here, then our students are joining you as fellow confirmands of our congregation. If your children were confirmed here, then this year’s students are joining them as confirmands. If you teach or taught religious school here, then our students are joining your students as confirmands. If you support our congregation through membership dues and other donations, then think of tomorrow as the beneficiaries of your generosity, the yield of your investment, being confirmed here. You don’t have to be a family member or a family friend of a confirmand to be invited to tomorrow’s service. You’re invited because you’re a member of our Temple family. A family that loves and cares about every confirmation class.
 
It’s true that I’m invested in this year’s class as the spouse of my co-instructor, father to one student, and rabbi to all students and their families. But each of you is invested in them too. And it is because of that investment that you are encouraged, welcomed and warmly invited to attend. Our wonderful students will be reading Torah and Haftorah, sharing their personal reflections on Judaism, and leading us in prayer. The service starts at 10:30 AM. I hope to see you there.
 
Mazal Tov to our confirmands, their families, and the congregational family to which all of us belong.
 
 

May 24, 2019

Our Debt to Our Dead: 
Thoughts for the Shabbat of Memorial Day Weekend 
 
Thanks to the efforts of people like Jerry Cerel and Tim Grossman, our local Jewish veterans officially received confirmation that they now constitute a new chapter of the Jewish Veterans of Foreign Wars. We congratulate them on the acceptance of their application and wish them success in all their endeavors. How fitting it is that this official starting point should occur in the same month in which we observe Memorial Day.  
 
This year’s Memorial Day is one of particularly historic significance. Two weeks from now is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy. A community wide interfaith service commemorating this essential turning point of World War II, and the sacrifices that came with it, will be held at Central Church of Christ on Thursday, June at 6:00 PM. Please encourage friends and family members to attend.  
 
So too, this coming February of 2020 will be the 75th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. At a service dedicating the cemetery for the American fallen in April of 1945, Rabbi Roland Gittelson, a chaplain in the U.S. Military, offered these words:
 
[These men], “have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost…the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it is we, the living, who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.”We dedicate ourselvesto live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men…, rich… and poor-together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews-together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color…Among these men there is no discrimination, no prejudice, no hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.Any man among us, the living, who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates an empty, hollow, mockery…” 
 
It isn’t enough to talk about the risks and the sacrifice of the greatest generation “making the world safe for democracy.” We have to defend the democratic ideals they fought and died for by living up to the legacy they left for us. Rabbi Gittelson’s words are as timely now as they were nearly 75 years ago. We owe a tremendous debt to our dead. A debt to the past that can only be paid by safeguarding the future. May the capacity our veterans displayed during their military service to work together across racial, religious and socio-economic linesserve as a constant reminder of how essential it is that we do the same. If they could practice it under the stresses of military service, surely, we, blessed with the privileges of civilian life, can do no less. The greatest measure of our devotion to them lies not only in the readiness to fight our nation’s enemies, but our willingness to treat our fellow countrymen, and all who dwell among us, with fairness, dignity, and compassion.   
 
Wishing You a Shabbat Shalom and Meaningful Memorial Day Weekend, 
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
Special thanks to Rabbi Laurence Milder PhD for drawing attention to Rabbi Gittleson’s patriotic service and powerful words. Selections from Rabbi Milder’s work can be found at ReformJudaism.org.
 
 

May 17, 2019

Disqualified for Dwarfism:
Reich or Weinstein? Whom to Decline for Priesthood?
 
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, provides a list of things that disqualify a Levite from making the offerings associated with priestly service. Persons failing to meet the requirements
remain Levites, conveying Levite status to their children, but for all intents and purposes they cannot be priests. Among the grounds for disqualification is dwarfism. Consider,
therefore, the following wildly hypothetical scenario. If, for the sake of argument, the Temple were rebuilt and the priesthood restored, and that economist Robert Reich and producer Harvey Weinstein were both Levites, then Reich would be ruled out while Weinstein would be welcome. How is that possible? Because Reich has a form of dwarfism and Weinstein doesn’t. None of the disqualifying criteria are anti-social, boorish or bullying behaviors. All of them are physical
abnormalities (a better word than “deformity” or “imperfection” but still a disturbing term). Reflecting on this troubling text, Professor Shulamit Reinharz offers three profound questions that we will discuss when we study her
commentary at services tonight:
 
1. What should be grounds for disqualification to serve as a religious leader?
2. What constitutes an impairment or threat to holiness?
3. What is the difference between beauty and goodness?1
 
I invite you to ponder these questions on your own and bring your responses with you to services tonight and/or send them to me via email.
 
Before we turn someone away from a job, acceptance to an educational program, membership to an organization or
refuge from dangerous environments, let us be mindful of our reasons for declining their request. Are we saying no because of things for which they are responsible or because of
circumstances beyond their control? Are our criteria logical, ethical and just, or arbitrary, irrational and mean-spirited? May we consider carefully what our standards for acceptance say about our values and how our values can better inform our admissions standards.
 
 
 
1 Please see Reinharz’s “Contemporary Reflection” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary edited by Rabbis Eshkenazi and Weiss, Ph.D. CCAR Press 2008 pages 743-744.
 
 

May 10, 2019

Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times:
An Appreciation for Shabbat of Mother’s Day Weekend
 
   It’s wonderfully fitting that the Torah portion we read on the Sabbath of Mother’s Day weekend is Kedoshim, meaning holiness. Holiness can be taught by many people in our lives, but nobody teaches it quite like our moms. “The Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19 touches on just about every aspect of life, but no verse from it is better known than the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
   Watching the recent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about the life and work of Fred Rogers has moved countless people to tears. What Mr. Rogers modeled on television was what my mom practiced in real life. Concern for the feelings of others, the gift of imagination, genuine curiosity and, above all, kindness. Kindness, for my mom and Mr. Rogers, was something beyond politeness, respect or courtesy. Kindness, they taught, is an attitude, an approach to life and to all those with which we live.
   None of us grows up in a perfect world in which kindness is assumed to be the prevailing way we treat one another. Rogers grew up in Pennsylvania being called “Fat Freddy,” and my mom grew up in Virginia, where the cruelty of segregation was ordained as civic virtue. My mom didn’t really get a chance to play and learn with African-American children as social equals until she went away one summer for Girl Scout camp. It was an experience that changed her life. When she went to college, she joined the diversity committee. As she continued along the journey of adult life, she became a teacher, a camp director, a Holocaust educator, a program director and executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Anti-Defamation League. Whether the issue was homelessness, housing, education or harassment of any minority, my siblings and I knew where Mom stood and what she wouldn’t stand for.
   Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who fled Nazi Germany and joined the Civil Rights Movement in America, declared: “Neighbor is not a geographical term. It is a moral concept.” So, too, wise mothers teach us that neighborliness is an ethic to be applied to everyone, not an affect we perform for the select few. At age 82, my mom still is making new friends and remains actively engaged with her neighbors. At a time when people are hurting one another emotionally and physically based on dangerous claims of superiority, it is more important than ever to honor our mothers by living the lessons they taught us. And perhaps none of those lessons is more essential than that of regarding every human being as a neighbor and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
 
 

May 3, 2019

Dear TAI Sisterhood,
 
So sorry I can’t be with you tonight for Sisterhood Shabbat. At least the reason for my absence is a happy one. One of my nieces is getting married in California. I truly look forward to this service every year. While it is disappointing to miss it under any circumstances, it is particularly so given the things Jewish Women both here and in Israel have endured since last we gathered for Sisterhood Shabbat. To expect women to assume the financial obligations, time commitment, and existential risks of Jewish life while affording anything less than full equality in all aspects of participation is unacceptable and unsustainable.
 
*Ashamnu. We might like to think that our congregations and central institutions in the Reform movement are safe havens from the sins of sexual harassment, pay inequity, and unfair hiring/firing practices, but they aren’t. Salary studies, institutional reviews, formal complaints and grievances women are too frightened to take public, paint a troubling portrait of the current landscape. That Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, our Reform Movement’s Rabbinical, Cantorial, Education, Jewish Studies, Social Work and Non-Profit Management School, could hire as its new president a man with degrees in none of these fields, while passing over several women with at least two of the above credentials and many years of service at the institution, is baffling to say the least. Concerned colleagues bear no resentment with the person who landed the position. The process is not his fault. Everyone wants him to succeed so it behooves everyone to improve the process.
 
So rather than reiterating well deserved expressions of appreciation for all that you do, I’d like to offer something else. Changes in practice and in process. For academic 2019-2020 let’s strive to have women delivering a Torah commentary, sermon or other remarks from the pulpit, on an average of at least one Friday evening per month. (I love the sound of my own voice as much as the next guy but enough is enough.) As of tonight, we will try to transition out of a mindset that assumes that candle lighting is for women and kiddush for men. Please be patient with me on this one. Old habits are hard to break. Additionally, I want to respectfully and lovingly challenge my brothers, fellow Jewish men, to ask yourselves who is doing most of the work to have a Jewish home, raise a Jewish family, and live a Jewish life. If your reflection leads you to conclude that you could be doing more, then please do it. Finally, I want to take this opportunity to provide a “save the date” for next fall’s Moosnick Scholar-in-Residence program with Rabbi Mira Wasserman, PhD, who will be speaking on the evenings of November 6 and 7 about religious and ethical responses to #MeToo.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
*Ashamnu is Hebrew for “we have sinned” and is also the name for one of the confessional prayers in our High Holy Day liturgy.
 
 

April 26, 2019

Applied Prophesy
 
  The focus of our fourth-graders leading tonight’s service is on prophets. We will hear from several of them about who their favorite prophet is and why. In his introduction to The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society in which Amos’ words would not apply.”
    As a rabbinical student many years ago, I complained to my brother Josh about having to write a paper for a prophesy class. He wryly remarked, “How are they going to grade you on that? Hold onto the paper for seven years to measure your accuracy?” Prophets do not predict the future. They promise future calamities as the heavy price for failing to address present failures. Much like fourth-graders, they pounce on any whiff of hypocrisy. They have little tolerance for the gap between what we practice and what we preach. The point of prophesy isn’t to say, “I told you so”; the task of the prophet is to decry abuse of power and societal failure that we might narrow the alarming discrepancy between who we are and who we ought to be.
    Prophesy is neither a lost art of the past nor a personal agenda cloaked in shouting out dire consequences for the future. Prophesy, as Heschel taught, is about now. There has never been a time or place where the message of the prophets does not apply. May we apply the thoughts about prophets our students speak of tonight to a world that urgently needs our care tomorrow. May tonight inspire us to engage in applied prophesy, wherein we go beyond an insightful critique of what’s wrong and take meaningful steps to make things better.
 
 

April 19,2019

On This Night We Dip 20 Times:
A Blessing of Tears on the 20th Anniversary of the Mass Shooting at Columbine High
 
   Tomorrow marks not only the second seder but the 20th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. It’s frightening to think about how fast the time has passed. Fifteen students lost their lives that day. Had the tragedy not occurred, they would be in their mid- to late 30s. They would have children, teenagers themselves, perhaps.
   There are so many reasons to mourn what might have been. The graduations, weddings, anniversaries, baby-namings, the personal and professional achievements that ought be part of their stories. We will never know what they would have done with their lives. Yet compounding the pain of what we can never know is the anguish of what we do, the heartbreak of what has and hasn’t happened since.
   The Ten Plagues cast upon Egypt take up about six chapters of Exodus. The death of Egypt’s firstborn transpires over a single night. How long has the plague of gun violence gone on, and when will it end? How many more people have to die before our leaders realize that something has to change? We know what it took for Pharaoh to change his mind. What price will be required for the obdurate leaders of today to change theirs? It isn’t just the names of the killed and the wounded, the towns and the schools; it isn’t just the numbers that keep stacking higher and higher; it isn’t just the things the victims and their families would have done together. It is the unwillingness to change, the hardness of heart, the lack of leadership and the refusal to face facts despite the overwhelming realities of the epidemic that leave us wondering how it is possible that so few lessons have been learned in the past 20 years. The insult of how little progress has been made is added to the injury we feel at every untimely death. This plague will not stop by itself. Like those we study in Exodus, it must be stopped by deliberate and decisive action. The blood of the innocent cries out to us from the ground to urge our legislators to pass comprehensive gun-safety laws. It is political will not moral imperative that is lacking from the status quo.
   Even the tasting of tears requires a blessing. According to the Passover haggadah, we dip our parsley twice into salt water to remind us of slavery, to swallow its tears, to make them our own. But tonight is different from all other nights. This year is different from all other years, albeit nowhere near different enough. The grief of mass shootings is with us every day. Grieving on the 20th anniversary of the Columbine high school massacre happens only once. So tonight, we do not dip karpas, our parsley, twice. Tonight, we dip our parsley in salt water 20 times, once for each year that has passed since the nightmare of two decades ago. We don’t just send thoughts and prayers to the those who survived their wounds, to the families of those who succumbed to them, to all those who were and remain affected. We send you our tears. We weep with you, whoever you are wherever you are, however you’ve been affected and whenever you weep. And when our seder is concluded, we will rise up with you to demand the change we need to live in a nation that doesn’t allow whoever wants one to get their hands on a gun.
 
Baruch Ata Adonai Ha’tov Ve’Hamayteev. Blessed be the Source of Goodness who calls us to do what is good.

April 12, 2019

Congratulations and Concerns

   The day after the Israeli elections, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president of our Reform movement, released a statement. It’s a letter that did what it had to do. Protocol and civility require Rabbi Jacobs to congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu. Refusing to do so would be deemed by many as unprofessional and undeserved. Integrity and honesty require Rabbi Jacobs to convey “concern about discrimination against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism,” policies that “discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel,” and the prime minister’s “calling for the annexation of the West Bank Jewish settlements.” Refusing to do so would be deemed by many as a failure to stand up for core values of our movement, including the pursuit of justice and commitment to democracy. 
   It’s telling that the reposting of Rabbi Jacobs’ statement on social media has drawn the ire of people who wanted a stronger refutation of the prime minister’s policies and those who defend them. Some found the word “concern” to be lacking in intensity and urgency. Others denounced the statement as placing disproportionate responsibility on Israel’s government while ignoring that of Palestinian leadership. What does this say about our ability to have a constructive conversation about Israel and the challenges of trying to remain engaged during such discouraging times? Had Rabbi Jacobs said “alarmed,” he would have been accused of being alarmist. Had he failed to point out the lack of progress that has been made in matters of critical importance, he would have been accused of being an apologist.
   Tonight, the Sabbath before Passover is known as Shabbat Ha’Gadol, the Great Sabbath. According to tradition, rabbis are supposed to urge people to rid their home of chametz (leavened products) and devote themselves to strict observance of the Fast of Matzo. I accept the obligation to take Shabbat Ha’Gadol seriously, but my message is not about matzo. Rather, with the coming of Passover and the attendant responsibility to reflect on freedom, I offer you this commitment: For too long I have put off organizing a robust conversation about Israel in the name of not upsetting people. Not upsetting people isn’t the worst mistake rabbis can make, but mastering the art of it isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. As Ron Segal, the newly installed president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, preached this month at our annual conference: “When has avoiding challenges ever availed us?”
   Therefore, over the coming months, in partnership with lay leadership, we will endeavor to create Israel engagement and education opportunities that increase our knowledge and strengthen our capacity to maintain a healthy dialogue on a complex subject.
   In keeping with the complicated nature of his position, the results of this week’s election called upon the president of our movement to both extend congratulations and express concerns. By congratulating a prime minister whose policies he often disapproves of, Rabbi Jacobs is modeling the importance of derech eretz, the common decency needed to move forward after a trying election. By respectfully stating his concerns, he is demonstrating the critical distinction between constructive criticism and reckless attack. The question isn’t whether we’re happy or upset with his statement, the question is whether he is providing leadership consistent with our values and working to achieve a vision that provides a better life for Israel and its neighbors.
   May the arrival of Passover reinvigorate our commitment to reach the day when all of Israel’s inhabitants and all the world can truly be free.
 
 

April 5, 2019

“I Am Not a Leper!”

Rescuing Humanity from Humiliating Afflictions

It is customary in the academic and medical community to organize a festschrift, a collection of articles in a scholar’s field on their seventieth birthday. In my father’s case the date was moved up a bit because he had been diagnosed with ALS, a fatal form of neuropathy that deprives patients of everything we rely on our bodies to do. In his remarks at the dinner honoring him at this bittersweet occasion he noted something unusual about the better-known name of his condition. Most diseases are named for the physicians who discover or find cures for them. Yet amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is known in popular culture as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. My father the physician fully embraced the poetic irony of having a fatal condition named for its best-known patient.
Unlike the term ALS/Lou Gehrig’s, the nomenclature in this coming week’s Torah portion, Metzora, meaning “leper”, shows little consideration of those who suffer from it. One is hard pressed to come up with another disease that labels the afflicted as harshly as leper does with leprosy. We don’t call someone a “cancerite“, a “fluer,” or a “measlesist.” True we have “arthritic,” “alcoholic,” “diabetic,” and “hypochondriac,” but none of these terms instill fear of contagion nor arouse repulsion on par with leper.
Once labeled, the primary thing one pays attention to about lepers is their leprosy. Those who suffer with other conditions are neither driven from our midst nor regarded with the disdain reserved for lepers. The idiom “treated like a leper” has survived long past leprosy for a reason. Regarding the leper, Leviticus 13:45-46 teaches “his clothes shall be torn, his hair shall be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Why isn’t there a verse requiring us to “Love those with leprosy as yourself”? Why must those already forced to dwell outside the camp in an area presumably designated for lepers be required to shout out referring to themselves “Unclean! Unclean!”? After hours, days, weeks, months of doing this who wouldn’t want to cry out “I am not a leper! I am a person with leprosy!” No one wants to be thought of primarily by the medical condition from which they suffer. Sometimes, as is the case this week, Torah challenges us to derive priceless lessons from poor examples. Let us therefore avoid making the same mistakes as Levitical priests and the communities they served. Quarantining people is one thing. Shaming them is another. Rather let us remember, as is the case with Lou Gehrig’s disease, that the patient is first and foremost a person. If we cannot see the afflicted as a human being with a medical problem, then we empower the medical problem to compromise their humanity.
May The Source of Vision teach us to look upon others as we would have them look upon us. May The Source of Wisdom inspire us to comport ourselves wisely. And May The Source of Healing help us to alleviate suffering so that those who suffer can know wholeness once again.