SERMON: Is ANYTHING O.K?

Next week Sherry and I are talking our two oldest grandchildren to see Rome and Venice. Going at this time can be quite hectic. According to an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal, because of the strength of the dollar, people from the U.S. and other countries are flocking to Europe this summer and especially to the most popular sites … one of which is the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. According to the Journal article, on the Trip Advisor website, the Sistine Chapel received more than 2600 reviews marked “excellent” and just 94 reviews marked “terrible.” I asked myself: How terrible can it be? I’m sure the critics must have felt that they could have done a better job, but still! And then I had a more painful insight. Is it possible … is it just possible … that the 94 “terrible” reviews had come from Jews?

Why would I ever think that? It’s not for religious reasons. I can’t imagine a Jew denouncing the Sistine Chapel because of his Jewishness. If that was the case, he never would have gone there in the first place! So what makes me think that it may have been Jews nonetheless? For that, you have to know who David Blatt is. If I ask you: how many of you know who LeBron James is, I think most all of you – with the possible exception of Rabbi Wecker – would know the answer. But you have to be a bit of a sports connoisseur to know who David Blatt is. David Blatt is LeBron James’ coach. He is the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. And he is a Jew … a proud Jew. He has four children named, Shani, Adi, Ella and Tamir. Two of them have served in the Israeli army. Blatt grew up in Framingham, MA and after spending a summer in Israel he decided to go on aliyah and join the Israeli army. He eventually became the head of the Israeli National Basketball Team. In 2014, he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euro League championship … making him good enough to coach LeBron James into the finals that are now being played in the NBA. READ MORE

SERMON: Charm City?

Two weeks ago at the conclusion of the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert, the trainer of the winning horse, American Pharaoh, was asked whether, given the unrest in Baltimore, he would be bringing his horse here to run in today’s Preakness. His response was, “People settle down and things get worked out … life still goes on.” He’s right, you know! And that is part of the problem. What happened here in Baltimore has happened before. Time Magazine captured that feeling with its cover story picturing a racial disturbance in Baltimore with the words: “America 1968” with 1968 crossed out and 2015 scribbled in instead, followed by the words: “What has changed and what hasn’t?” The fact is, it has happened before, and people settled down. And so, it happened again and people have settled down. Yet we are left with the feeling that we haven’t seen the end of all this. READ MORE

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SERMON: There’s So Much To Talk About …

For me, the most difficult part in preparing a sermon is to decide what I should speak about. It’s not always easy to think of a topic. Today I have a very different challenge … what should I NOT speak about? There are so many topics to choose from! Shall I speak about Yom Hashoah –Holocaust Remembrance Day that took place this past Thursday? Or should I speak about Yom Ha-Atzmaut  – Israel Independence Day, which takes place this coming Thursday?  Should I talk about today’s Torah portion? Or, should I just talk about the Bat Mitzvah of my granddaughter? I couldn’t decide, so let’s see if I can do it all!

Let’s begin with this question: Which should play a greater role in our being Jewish – the Holocaust or the re-establishment of the state of Israel? I know the obvious answer is: both! Both are crucially important and both are central to our existence. But if you had to choose ONE which is most significant to your identity as a Jew, what would you choose? That is a question that thousands of Jews were asked in the Pew Survey. When people were asked, “What is essential to being Jewish?” 73% replied, “remembering the Holocaust.” 43% answered “caring about Israel,” just 1 % more than responded “having a good sense of humor.” The Holocaust beats Israel every time! READ MORE

SERMON: The Nile, Denial and Religion

It has been said that every Jewish holiday can be encapsulated in these words: “They tried to kill us, we survived … let’s eat!” Surely, this festival of Pesach is a perfect example of this. Unfortunately, these words: “They tried to kill us …” still resonate today, except that the “they” is something no one wants to name, and the “us” is not just the Jews, but the civilized world.

In the weeks leading up to Pesach these are some of the quotes I read:
– Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said that the terrorism trend lines today were worse “than at any other point in history.”
– Michael Morrell, former Deputy Director of the CIA, told an audience, “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”
– Former CIA Director, Gen. David Petraeus, told an interviewer, “We are in the midst of what clearly is a long struggle … there are no shortcuts to success. No single measure that we can take that will eliminate the danger in one fell swoop.”

Yes, “they” are trying to destroy “us.” And it would seem to me that a good measure of the problem that exists today finds its roots in our ancient Egyptian experience. The problems today begin with where the problem began then: right at the Nile. READ MORE

SERMON: Is It Time for the Exodus From Europe?

I don’t always agree with Rabbi Eric Yoffe, one of the illustrious leaders of the Reform Movement, but he got it just right in his reaction to this week’s Israeli election when he told American Jews, “Bibi won, get over it.” I thoroughly agree, and that is why today I speak not of the choice the Jews of Israel made this week, but of another choice that another group of Jews are having to make – a choice just as crucial, just as existential – as the choice Israelis made!

Jewish Action, the magazine of the Union of Orthodox Congregations, has as its cover story the question: “Do Jews Have a Future in Europe?” This week the Mosaic website’s feature article asks: Time for Swedish Jews to leave? The Atlantic magazine’s April issue has a feature article by Jeffrey Goldberg entitled. “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?” By a show of hands, how many of you – if you were living in Europe – would be considering leaving that continent? And how many of you would not be thinking about it? Well, let me tell you what Moshe Kantor, the President of the European Jewish Congress, said last week: “The question just now in every Jewish family in Europe is: to leave or to stay.” Every Jewish family is now asking that question! Who would believe that in the 21st century Jews would be afraid to live in the heart of the civilized world? That can only mean one thing: the world has gone crazy! READ MORE

SERMON: Netanyahu Addresses Congress: One Speech, Two Opinions

This Shabbat, I gave my perspective on Netanyahu’s speech to Congress:

Who Do You Trust? Iran? The World? Obama? Netanyahu?
I have read a lot of books and it would be hard to say which is my favorite. But it’s easy to say which title was my favorite! It was a book written by Sidney Zion, which he titled: “Trust Your Mother but Cut the Cards.” Those few words say so much! As close as we are to someone, as much as we might love someone, we should never take things for granted. We should never be naïve … trust your mother but cut the cards.

We Jews have a two word phrase for this: “Kabdeihu v’chashdeihu – honor him, but suspect him.” In a sense, we put those words into practice because of today’s Torah portion. On the surface, today’s Torah portion tells us nothing new … after several Torah portions describing God’s directions to Moshe on exactly how to build the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – today’s Torah portion finds Moshe, word for word, sentence by sentence, telling the Jewish people: I did this, I did that, I collected this amount of money, I spent this amount of money … more than 100 verses telling us nothing more than just that. Do you know why? The Midrash tells us that after Moshe collected all the gifts that people gave for the building of the sanctuary, every time he walked by, people would whisper to each other behind his back: “Look how good he looks … look how well he is dressing … surely he must be taking money off from what we have contributed.” Moshe heard this talk; he heard them questioning his integrity and their lack of trust in his honesty and so he gave them a detailed report of every single dime that was spent on the building of the sanctuary. And you should know that because of this incident, we are told that the person who collected the money for the funds in the Temple could not wear a double-hemmed garment, a hollow belt or even pants … so that if later on he would become rich people could not claim that he became rich from taking money from the communal treasury. READ MORE

And then I invited Rabbi Jonathan Gross to give his:

A Response to Rabbi Wohlberg’s Sermon…
First I want to thank Rabbi Wohlberg for giving me an opportunity to give another perspective to the Netanyahu speech. One of the many things that make Beth Tfiloh the best synagogue in North America is the diversity of opinions that exist among our congregation, and even our Rabbis, and our ability to come together on Shabbat and discuss and debate them as a congregation.

One of the stories surrounding the Netanyahu speech involved Nebraska Congressman Brad Ashford, from the district that I used to live in Omaha. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire activist, was sitting in the balcony with his wife Miriam waiting for Netanyahu to enter Congress to deliver his speech. Miriam leaned over the balcony and dropped her handbag, hitting Congressman Ashford in the head. I just hope that this is the last time we hear of a distinguished gentleman from Omaha getting hit in the head because of the Netanyahu speech.

In the sermon you just heard, Rabbi Wohlberg made many good points about the perfidiousness of the Iranian regime, and the looming dangers Iran’s nuclear aspirations pose to Israel. But I am not here to debate those. He also made some strong assertions about Netanyahu’s record on economic policy, religious matters, and how he handled the war in Gaza. All of these are debatable, but not today. READ MORE

What do YOU think?

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SERMON: From Selma to Lebanon; Left on the Cutting Room Floor…

I know that some of you would like to hear my thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and the events of this week. To tell you the truth, I would like to hear them as well, but I am still listening and reading what others have to say. The fact is the real test of the speech is the effect that it had, and for that it is too soon to tell. So, I will wait until next week to speak about what everyone is speaking about! Instead, today I would like to draw your attention to some people and events which no one is speaking about because they were left on the cutting room floor.

First, let me ask you: how many digital pictures do you think are taken every year? Let’s start with this: on Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat alone, 1.5 billion new photos are shared every day, which comes out to about 550 billion a year! How many digital pictures are taken in total? Hard to say … it could be one trillion or five trillion or ten trillion! And amongst those photos, do you know what picture is frequently taken? A picture of yourself – a selfie! Over a million people every day take a picture of themselves. Now you tell me: do you think they really look that good? They obviously don’t think so! More than one third admit to touching up their selfies! So why do they bother even taking the picture in the first place? I guess that’s the world in which we live. Today there doesn’t seem to be anything worse than being left out of the picture. There is a phrase – an idiom – “left on the cutting room floor” … the picture was made but for one reason or another, your part got edited out … “left on the cutting room floor.” I tell you this today because that is what has been happening recently to the Jewish people. READ MORE

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