D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Women of the Wall
Last March I was fortunate to be able to attend a historic event in Jerusalem -- the 30th anniversary of Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall, or WOW is an organization that has for the past 30 years been fighting for the rights of women when it comes to praying and reading Torah at the Western Wall. If you follow the news in Israel you may have over these past 30 years seen news stories about ultra-orthodox men for example spitting on the women, throwing chairs at them or stories of police arresting some of the women for carrying a Torah or reading from the Torah.
Although I myself have followed some of these news stories over the years this was the first time I had ever attended a Women of the Wall event in person. I went with one of my congregants in New Jersey, Chaya Schneider, whom some of you met last weekend when she played music with me during both our Kabbalat Shabbat and Selichot services. Actually, it was Chaya's generosity that made it possible for me to make this trip and participate in such a historic event, for which I am very grateful.
WOW began as a response to a service held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on the last day of an international feminist conference back in 1988. The service conducted according to halakha, went smoothly until it came time for the Torah reading at which point ultra-Orthodox men and women greeted the WOW women with spitting, cursing, and physical violence.
WOW formed soon after with the creation of a women's prayer group that would meet once a month on Rosh Chodesh morning to pray and read Torah in the Women's section at the Kotel-- at the Western Wall. Soon after, laws were enacted that forbid women from wrapping themselves in a prayer shawl and reading from a Torah scroll. But it wasn't until 2009 that a woman was actually arrested for those acts.
Over the years, Women of the Wall has had many successes, although the arrests have continued. Reading Torah without harassment in the Women’s section is still not possible, and this is the primary focus of WOW's struggle today.
The celebration of the 30th anniversary began with a program the night before the service. Among the honored guests were the three paratroopers from the iconic photograph you've all seen -- a photograph taken during the Six Day War when the Israeli army captured the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. I will never forget the words one of them spoke that evening - We won over the Jordanian Army, but we didn’t liberate the Kotel. The Kotel is still in captivity, held by the extreme-right Orthodox under the protection of [Israel’s] Chief Rabbinate and government. In other words, the soldiers in 1967 may have liberated the Kotel from its Jordanian rulers, but today the Wall is still a captive, but this time of the ruling Orthodox rabbis in Israel.
That evening Chaya and I were also given an opportunity to participate in a somewhat illicit act. We were each given a mantle, a Torah cover to carry into the Kotel the next morning. I was also given a piece of the Atzei Chaim a piece of the wood roller from one of the Torahs that would be smuggled into the Kotel Plaza the next morning. While it is illegal for the women to carry a Torah into the plaza, it is not illegal to bring in Torah covers. Not really sure about the Etz Chaim, but I did carry it in my pocket, hidden from the guards as I went through security.
The next morning, we all convened at the Women's section of the Western Wall for our 7am service. This wasn't just any old Rosh Chodesh. It was Rosh Chodesh Adar, the month in which we celebrate Purim. In Adar of course our joy increases. Unfortunately, there was no increased joy that morning.
Since I was asked to lead part of the Hallel service Chaya, her daughter Kayla who was spending a year in Israel and I arrived well in advance of the 7am start time so I could be as close to the action as possible -- near the makeshift amud (podium) that is set up each month for this service. This was even more critical for me since WOW had been turned down in their request for a sound system. I needed to be as close to the front as possible so I could hear what was going on and I would know when it was time for me to lead my small part of the service.
While each month it is understood that the women will be at the very least harassed by Haredi men and women, this month was a little bit unusual. The event was well publicized and the publicity claimed 1000 women would be attending the event. When the Haredi got wind of this they took 10,000 young girls out of school and bused them to the Wall. We guessed they were either trying to make a point or they were scared. The Israeli elections were held one month after this event and there was at that time a fear among the Haredi that Netanyahu, one of their big supporters, would be voted out. With the election of a more liberal government their days of controlling the Wall would most likely be over. They were scared and so they went out of their way to disrupt our service.
While the service began in earnest, by the time we got to Hallel, not long before the Torah service, most of those 10,000 Haredi girls had joined us in the plaza. Their job was to stop our service by pushing us; verbally assaulting us; and in some cases getting a bit more physical with us. The intensity of these tactics got worse as the service went on mostly because more and more girls filled the plaza and it became difficult for us to move and carry on anything resembling a normal prayer service.
Being right in front of the amud, my job, not one I was asked to do but one I found necessary to do because of where I was standing, was to prevent the girls from toppling over the amud. As the mass of Haredi girls pushed behind me, and a few older participants in our service pushed back and protected me and the amud, the force of their pushing did eventually get to where I was standing. Fortunately, I was able to prevent the amud from toppling over although there was one scary moment when all seemed lost.
At this point it became impossible to carry on with the service on the plaza and the police just in the nick of time came to escort us to our originally designated area where we read Torah. In my humble opinion, if the police had not arrived when they did, someone could have easily been killed. But I don’t give the police credit. Some months they don’t show up at all.
What Chaya, Kayla, and I witnessed that morning was a hivdil, a separation; a divide between those tenacious women who just want to pray in the way they should have a right to do in an Israeli democracy, and those who believe they have no such right. When God designated the separation of the holy from the profane this is not what God had in mind. What God had in mind was b’tzelem Elohim – the creation of all human beings in God’s image – all of us equally holy.
I came home from Israel emotionally scarred and visibly angry but I also came home with the belief that we were all a part of history that Rosh Chodesh morning, and a belief that the fight for women’s rights at the Kotel had turned a corner. Only time will tell and although the elections held back in April did not make a dent in moving forward, the elections held more recently offer a very slight glimmer of promise.
My sermons during this High Holy Day season are in part dedicated to the fight for women’s rights at the Wall. Each of the topics I have chosen to speak about, is in some fashion connected to Women of the Wall.
Tomorrow morning, I will to talk about hope. After thirty years, the Women of the Wall have not given up the fight for equality and rights at the Kotel. Their unrelenting belief that one day women will have equal rights at the Wall is nothing short of remarkable.
On Kol Nidre I am going to talk about democracy. Israel is a democracy. The government often likes to tout how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. But in a democracy the “rule of law” protects the rights of citizens, maintains order, and limits the power of government. All citizens are equal under the law and no one can be discriminated against on the basis of their race, religion, ethnic group, or gender—except at the Kotel?
On YK morning I will talk about antisemitism. I have to admit this is the most distressing connection I am making to my trip to Israel. It pains me deeply to make this connection. It pains me to say out loud to all of you that on that day I experienced antisemitism not from White Supremacists or radical Muslims, but from other Jews. But that is not nearly as painful as watching those three paratroopers who made it possible for the Haredi men and women to be at the Kotel; and to be in charge of the Kotel – it pained me deeply to watch how they were harassed in the men’s section that morning.
We read in the Zichronot portion of the Musaf service:
Blessed is the person who does not forget You, the one who draws strength from You; for those who seek You will never stumble, and those who trust in You will never be shamed.
And I can’t help but think: Cursed is the person who does forget You, the one who uses the strength drawn from You to harm others; who causes others to stumble and who shames those who seek to be closer to You in their own unique way.
Tomorrow morning, we will continue with—Hope.
L’Shana Tova u’metukah
House I live in
(by Abel Meeropol and Earl Robinson)
What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me?
The house I live in
A plot of Earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
And the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That's America to me
The short film The House I Live in, which we watched as a community on Selichot evening was made in 1945 and starred a very young Frank Sinatra playing himself. Taking a smoking break during a recording session, Sinatra steps out into an alley behind the studio where he finds a gang of young boys surrounding another boy who they have trapped against the wall of a building. When Sinatra asks the boys what is going on, they respond: We don’t like him; we don’t want him in our neighborhood and going to our school. We don’t like his religion. The boy they are chasing is Jewish. Sinatra then gives the boys a lesson in tolerance, sings the title song, and all’s well that ends well.
With its American as apple pie lyrics about the grocer, the butcher, and the children in the playground, The House I Live in, written by composer Earl Robinson and lyricist Abel Meeropol, became a patriotic anthem in America during World War II. Meeropol, a Jew of Russian descent who wrote under the pen name Lewis Allan, was a liberal Jew who loved the rights and freedoms America was based on, but was appalled by the way people of other races, religions and political views were often treated. The lyrics of The House I Live In reflect more the America he aspired to live in rather than the America in which he actually lived. In writing the song, Meeropol wanted to express why the war was worth fighting.
Almost a year ago, at a vigil held at my congregation in New Jersey after the Tree of Life Synagogue tragedy in Pittsburgh, I spoke the following words:
Just 14 months ago, we heard the hateful words “Jews won’t replace us” spewing from the mouths of Neo-Nazis dressed in fatigues and carrying tiki torches and automatic rifles, marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. We were horrified when TV cameras filmed on Shabbat morning a group of men carrying guns standing across the street from Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, chanting Seig Heil and other anti-Semitic rantings. We were stunned as this wave of horror washed over us -- as if we had been thrown into a time machine and found ourselves in 1930’s Germany.
This past weekend on Shabbat morning, the נְתִיבוֹתֶֽיהָ שָׁלוֹם , the paths of peace were shattered -- the Shabbat Shalom, the Sabbath peace, was smashed into 11 pieces; 11 beautiful souls taken from their families, from their community at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and taken from the world.
Saturday’s tragedy has been described as the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Antisemitism is on the rise. In 2017 anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses nearly doubled from the year before. From 2016 to 2017 there was a staggering 258% increase in White Supremacist incidents on college campuses.
In 2016 more than half of the religious hate crimes in the US were directed at Jews. In 2017 anti-Semitic incidents against Jews increased 60%. According to the Anti-Defamation League, this was the largest single-year increase on record since ADL started tracking this data in 1979. This is not politics folks. This is not fake news. These are facts.
In the year since I spoke those words, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States during 2018, including the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue. But that attack was one of 39 reported physical assaults on Jewish individuals last year -- a 105% increase over 2017. 
Around the world, more Jews were killed in anti-Semitic violence in 2018 than during any other year in decades, according to a report released in May by The Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University. Assaults targeting Jews around the world rose 13% in 2018, with nearly 400 incidents worldwide. The spike was most dramatic in Western Europe, where Jews have faced even greater danger and threats. In Germany, for instance, there was a 70% increase in anti-Semitic violence.
According to the ADL, just 13% of the attacks in the United States during 2018 were carried out by members of white supremacist groups. In the words of ADL’s chief Jonathan Greenblatt, this suggests more than a vast underground conspiracy and widespread recruitment by white nationalist groups. What we are seeing is much worse. What we are seeing is the normalization of antisemitism.
Similarly, Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress believes it is now clear that anti-Semitism in Europe is no longer limited to the far-left, far-right, and radical Islam. It is now becoming mainstream and often accepted by civil society.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines Anti-Semitism as: a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. That same definition was adopted by the European Parliament.
In her book Antisemitism Here and Now Deborah Lipstadt writes: Imagine that someone has done something you find objectionable. You may legitimately resent the person because of his or her actions or attitudes. But if you resent him [or her] even an iota more because this person is Jewish, that is antisemitism. Imagine a driver who has been deliberately forced off the road by an erratic driver who happens to be black. The person who has almost been hit can legitimately complain to the other people in the car about the dangerous driver. But if he complains about “that black guy” who has done this, he has crossed the line into racism.
Oddly enough, despite all these statistics, recent polls report that 74% of Americans have a favorable view of Israel and feel “warmer” about Jews than any other religious group, just ahead of Catholics. Unfortunately and evidently, liking can co-exist with loathing. Jews have been the most victimized religious group on the FBI’s annual list for hate crimes since the year 2000.
Throughout history, Jews have been whatever a given civilization has defined as their most sinister and threatening qualities. Under Communism they were the wealth-obsessed capitalists opposed to the social and economic betterment of the poor and working class. In 19th century Europe those on the political right accused Jews of being Socialists, Communists, and revolutionaries. Under Nazism Jews were the race contaminators. In today’s world Israel has become the last bastion of white, racist colonialism.
In a joke that is believed to have been told by Jews in 1930s’s Germany, Two Jews were sitting on one of the few park benches on which they were allowed to sit. One was reading the Berliner Gemeindeblatt, a Jewish communal newspaper; the other, the maliciously anti-Semitic Nazi publication Der Stürmer. “Why on earth are you reading that thing?” the Gemeindeblatt reader asked his friend. “When I read a Jewish publication,” his friend replied, “I hear of our woes and terrible fate. When I read Der Stürmer, I read how we control the banks, world media, international governments, and how powerful we are. I much prefer the latter."
So, how is it with such a difficult history that we Jews are still around? Surely there’s more to it than the old joke: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat. The writer Walker Percy once quipped: Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but not one single Hittite, even though the Hittites had a flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people?
Scholar Ze’ev Maghen writes: Why are we still here? What is the key to our unique, defiant, unparalleled survival against all odds and forecasts? ……..What is [the] ingredient that makes us the “Indestructible Jews?” What as Mark Twain asks, is the secret of our immortality?....Surely none of you will tell me…….it was our appeals, protests and screams for equitable treatment that sustained us, kept us in life, and brought us to this season. No…….[it was because the Jews] chose to build, to educate…………to defy antisemitism …… with Jewish learning, Jewish observance, Jewish strength and Jewish achievement.
New York Times journalist Bari Weiss who became a Bat Mitzvah at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh offers, in her inspirational book How to fight Antisemitism, a series of instructional tips on forging ahead in our defiance of anti-Semitism. Here are a few – well more than a few. Let’s just say here are some good ones:
In these difficult times our best strategy is to build without shame, a Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul—and in the souls of everyone who throws their lot in with ours. As Debra Lipstadt writes: I have repeatedly stressed that antisemitism is a delusional form of hatred. It conjures a malign image of the Jew that does not in fact exist, and then it proceeds to find it everywhere. But we cannot allow this delusion to lead to another delusion—that because this hatred is unfortunately, ever present, we must make fighting it the fulcrum upon which our identity exists…..What is necessary for Jews to survive and flourish as a people is neither dark pessimism nor cockeyed optimism, but realism. It would be ludicrous to dismiss as paranoid the concerns of those who react strongly to the escalating acts of antisemitism in recent times….But at the same time, it would be folly for Jews to make this the organizing principle of their lives. The need for Jews to balance the “oy” with the “joy” is an exhortation on the fight against hatred.
Let us instead strive for the America Abel Meeropol longed for when he wrote:
The house I live in
A plot of Earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
And the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That's America to me…..
Gmar Chatima Tova
 https://www.songfacts.com/facts/frank-sinatra/the-house-i-live-in (accessed August 2019)
 ADL finds alarming increase in white supremacist propaganda on college campuses across U.S. https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-finds-alarming-increase-in-white-supremacist-propaganda-on-college-campuses (accessed August 2019)
 Anti-Semitism in the US https://www.adl.org/what-we-do/anti-semitism/anti-semitism-in-the-us (accessed August 2019)
 Audit of Anti-Semitic incidents: year in review 2018 https://www.adl.org/audit2018 (accessed August 2019)
 Antisemitism on campus up by 70%--AMCHA Initiative report. https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Antisemitism-on-campus-up-by-70-percent-AMCHA-Initiative-report-602018 (accessed August 2019)
 Aron Heller. “Anti-Semitic attacks spike, killing most Jews in decades.” https://www .apnews.com/0457e96b9eb74d30b66c2d190c6ed7e5 (accessed August 2019)
 Bari Weiss. How to fight Anti-Semitism(New York : Crown, c2019) 82
 Deborah Lipstadt. Antisemitism here and now. (New York : Schocken Books, c2019) 13
 Bari Weiss. How to fight Anti-Semitism(New York : Crown, c2019) 21
 Ibid. 31-2.
 Ibid. 166.
 Ibid. 194.
 Ibid. 199-200.
 Ibid. 205.
 Ibid. 240.
Democracy (by Leonard Cohen)
It's coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It's coming from the feel
That this ain't exactly real
Or it's real, but it ain't exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
In the song I just sang, Democracy, written in 1992 by Leonard Cohen of blessed memory-- Cohen a nice Jewish boy from Montreal notes that democracy won’t come through the government but through a fresh wind, a hole in the air -- It’s coming from the silence on the dock of the bay, from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet; from the sorrow in the street, the holy places where races meet; from the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.
Cohen combines a certain amount of cynicism with hope-- that we are not the democracy we claim to be and that racism has yet to be abolished, but that America is trying to getting there.
In the Jerusalem Talmud Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai have a disagreement as to which is the most fundamental principle in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva quotes the book of Leviticus: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה'You Shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). So well-known is this verse in relation to Rabbi Akiva that it was made into a popular song, Amar Rabi Akiva-- Rabbi Akiva said. Ben Azzai on the other hand, quotes Genesis: זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּֽוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם This is the book of the generations of Adam.(Gen. 5:1) Rabbi Akiva’s statement is straightforward-- the most important thing that the Torah teaches is to love your neighbor as yourself. But Ben Azzai’s statement is not quite so straightforward. What exactly might he have meant with his seemingly peculiar quotation from Genesis? It becomes much clearer if we look at the entire verse:
זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּֽוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ: זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם:
This is the book of generations of Adam—When God created man, God made man in the likeness of God; male and female God created them (Genesis 5:1–2).
Ben Azzai believed in the principle that all human beings were created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image and so no one person is superior to another. Both sides of the argument -- the feelings of love for one’s neighbor and the belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, have merit. 
However, without Ben Azzai’s principle that all men are created in God’s image the commandment to love your neighbor has no philosophic base. Because we are all created in God’s image, all born with equal dignity, it should stand that we love our neighbor. It’s on the basis of b’tzelem Elohim that God can say to the children of Adam -- Love your neighbor as yourself. As philosopher Hermann Cohen wrote: the love of a neighbor is dependent upon God’s creation of man, and not upon the subjective feeling with which I love myself or somebody else. 
The idea that certain essential rights and liberties are inseparable from the very creation of human beings is not just found in Ben Azzai’s quote from Genesis. It is deeply rooted elsewhere in the Bible as well-- in the idea of covenant, the belief that every man or woman is free to choose between good and evil, and the idea that the right law is ultimately founded on the righteousness of God and not on the will of any human being, even if that human being is a King or Judge.  Could it be that the American writer E. B. White was familiar with the argument between Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai when he wrote: do not try to save the world by loving your neighbor; it will only make him nervous. Save the world by respecting your neighbor’s rights under law and insisting that he respect yours [under the same law]. In short, save the world. 
Known more for his children’s books such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, than for his body of essays, White lived and wrote through several of the most contentious periods in our history-- the depression, World War II, the McCarthy era, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement-- writing about all of them in the New Yorker and Harper’s magazines. 
In the early days of World War II after the Nazis invaded Poland and plunged Europe into a war that would last 6 years, White described a day he spent on the waters in Maine:
It struck me as we worked our way homeward up the rough bay with our catch of lobsters and a fresh breeze in our teeth, that this was what the fight was all about. This was it. Either we would continue to have it or we wouldn’t, this right to speak our own minds, haul our own traps, mind our own business, and wallow in the wide, wide, sea. 
About democracy White wrote: It is the current suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor.
We often hear people say that in the United States “freedom is not free.” This is often used in reference to the military and wars fought and won to protect the values of the country- to remind people that democracy didn’t just magically happen. Thousands of people were killed and/or died for us to sit here and sip as Mark Manson writes in that same book I mentioned last week whose name I cannot entirely say on this bima: for us to sit here and sip overpriced mocha Frappuccinos and say whatever the bleepity bleep we want. It’s a reminder that the basic human rights we enjoy were earned through a sacrifice against some external force. 
But these rights were also earned through sacrifice against some internal force. As Manson writes: Democracy can only exist when we are willing to tolerate views that oppose our own, when we’re willing to give up some things we might want for the sake of a safe and healthy community…..democracy requires a citizenry of strong maturity and character …..Freedom demands discomfort. It demands dissatisfaction. Because the freer a society becomes, the more each person will be forced to reckon and compromise with views and lifestyles and ideas that conflict with their own. 
Life gets worse without democratic representation, in almost every way. And it’s not because democracy is so great. It’s more that a functioning democracy [bleepity bleeps] things up less often and less severely than any other form of government.  As Winston Churchill once famously said: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, a 19th century Hassidic rabbi also known as the Kotzker Rebbe once wrote: Who among you, created in the image of God, could compare himself with his creator? Yet I say unto you: Even if the heavens were to descend or the earth to break asunder, a man must not renounce his rights.
In his book, Judaism and the American Idea, Milton Konvitz notes how the biblical story of creation helped to establish the idea that there is an eternal order that is natural, moral, divinely ordained -- an order that was around prior to and independent of human life.  The same God who created the sun and the moon created Adam and Eve, and just as God was the law maker for the former, so, too, was God the law maker for the latter. If God can make laws that regulate the physical bodies, God can make laws to guide the actions of human beings. According to Konvitz, no man, no king, no government, can alter that moral order.
This is perhaps the origin of the notion of the Rule of Law, that all things, events, and actions are subject to law. As a system of values, Judaism places an emphasis on law. In addition to the Torah we have the Mishnah, the Talmud, rabbinic commentaries, codes of law, responsa literature, and on and on.
From the very beginning of American civlization, the founding fathers who thought of themselves as Israelites who had left Egypt and entered the Promised Land, where they might live under the laws of God and not men, moved towards a law-centered civilization. So fully did they identify with the Israelites that Benjamin Franklin wanted the country’s great seal to depict Moses parting the Red Sea. 
Judaism accepts the teaching of the school of Rabbi Ishmael that “the Torah speaks in the language of men” and so there are bound to be differences of opinions over what the law is and what it requires. But this is no way weakened Halakha, Jewish law. Rabbinic texts record hundreds of disputes; between Hillel and Shammai; between Rav and Shmuel; between Abaye and Rava. All opinions were duly recorded as disputes for the sake of heaven. Each opinion was regarded as of value. Not only did the sages call out errors made by other rabbis but some called out their own errors.
The greatest test for the Rule of Law comes when the head of a government asserts he or she is beyond the reach of the law. The Tanakh provides several examples of rulers who were not beyond the law no matter how much they tried.
In the II Book of Samuel, King David sets up Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband to be killed in battle so he could be free to take Bathsheba as a wife for himself. When Bathsheba gives birth to David’s child, the prophet Nathan confronts David with his crime and David responds: חָטָ֖אתִי לַֽה' I have sinned before God (IISam 12:13)
In I Kings, King Ahab of Samaria lets his wife Jezebel contrive the murder of Naboth, whose vineyard is coveted by the king. The prophet Elijah confronts him with his crime. Ahab responds by fasting, renting his clothes and putting sackcloth on his body.
In each story the king tried to take what was not his to take. In each case the king plotted the murder of someone standing in the way of his getting what he wanted. In each case the king was held accountable by the prophet of his day. In each case the King repented. In Tanakh the prophet was the voice of God, the voice of conscience; the voice of outraged morality. Prophets were at the very least, the journalists, congressional oversight committees, and grand juries of their day. 
If in the Bible we can trace the origins of the human race to a single person who was formed by God in God’s own image, the Talmud brings that idea to its fullest maturity.  The Talmud sought to protect the accused against a miscarriage of justice. Circumstantial evidence no matter how convincing, was not acceptable (Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:3). Juror-judges could reverse a vote from guilty to not guilty but not the other way around. The younger members of the court were first to announce their vote, so as not to be influenced by the actions of their seniors. In civil cases a majority of one was sufficient to establish guilt but in criminal cases a majority of two was required.
The Talmudists developed a system of democratically constituted town councils which were charged with the administration of local municipalities. Since this whole process would bring individuals in positions where they exercised power over the lives of others, it was then the job of the community to develop instruments of social control to temper that power. 
The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court system at the time of the Temple, ruled that in order to make sure a King was kept humble, he was required as soon as he took the throne, to write his own Torah scroll for himself. He was required to have that scroll with him on all occasions, even when he sat down to eat. The king was not allowed to have more than a certain number of wives and if he did he was flogged. He was not allowed to have more than a certain number of horses, and if he did he was flogged. He was forbidden from filling his private treasury and if he did he was flogged. 
As E. B. White wrote: I just want to tell before I get slowed down, that I am in love with freedom and that it is an affair of long standing and that it is a fine state to be in, and that I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fascism and dictators merely because they are succeeding in war. From such adaptable natures a smell rises. I pinch my nose  ........ Democracy, if I understand it at all, is a society in which the unbeliever feels undisturbed and at home. If there were only half a dozen unbelievers in America, their well-being would be a est of our democracy, their tranquility would be its proof. 
It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely sa
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA
Sail on sail on
O mighty ship of state
To the shores of need, pass the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on......
G’mar Chatima Tova
1. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 44.
2. Ibid. 45
3. Ibid. 38
4. Martha White, ed. E. B. White on Democracy (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) location 853
5. Ibid. location 90
6. Ibid. location 95.
7. Mark Manson. Everything is fu’d. (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) 21.
8. Ibid. 212.
10. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 41.
11. Bari Weiss. How to Fight anti-Semitism. (New York : Random House, c2019) location 19.
12. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 60
13. Ben Zion Bokser. “Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism.” In Judaism and Human Rights (New York : W.
14. Ibid. 148.
15. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 62.
16. White, Martha, ed. E. B. White on Democracy (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) location 488.
17. Ibid. 1481.
Rise Up (by Audra Day)
You're broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry go round
And you can't find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And I'll rise up, I'll rise like the day
I'll rise up, I'll rise unafraid I'll rise up
And I'll do it a thousand times again
And I'll rise up high like the waves
I'll rise up in spite of the ache
I'll rise up and I'll do it a thousand times again
Back in 2001 my life underwent a transformation. When I say transformation I don’t mean I changed my hairstyle; or got a makeover; or bought a new car; or got a new job……. No wait that’s not right, I actually did get a really fantastic new job that year. But in essence what happened to me in 2001 was a massive shift in the way I thought about life; in the way I presented myself to the world; and in the way others responded to me. Without that transformation I would surely not be standing in front of you today. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be standing in front of anyone or anywhere were it not for the miraculous new and positive direction my life managed to take.
But of all the things that changed for me that year, one particular detail stands out more than any other. The year 2001 was the year I first encountered hope.
Having grown up with a verbally abusive mother and having lived for many years with an alcoholic husband, hope had rarely if ever entered into my vocabulary let alone my thoughts and actions. Up until 2001 my days were focused on a single thought--making sure I – and by extension, my husband Joe-- got through the day safe and sound. I was consumed with survival. I was filled with fear.
In Rise Up, the song I just sang; a song made famous by Audra Day, the lyrics cry out that despite being broken down and tired; despite the ache in our hearts-- we can and we will shake the fear; we can and we will move mountains, and together we can and we will rise up. What drives us and gives us the confidence to rise up is hope. Later on the lyrics proclaim: All we need is hope and for that we have each other.
In 2001 my life crashed all around me. I could no longer hide from the world what was happening at home and I was faced with two choices. As one of my best friends said to me at the time: Ellie, you can go down with the ship-- or not. Fortunately for me this wasn't a choice at all. I wasn’t ready to give up. I wasn't willing in the least to go down with the ship. It doesn’t mean it was easy.
While in those early days it was basic survival skills that got me through, as I eventually got back on my feet a little bit more, it was hope that carried the day. It was hope that saved me.
Hope is defined as “the perceived capability to derive pathways to a desired goal and motivate oneself despite possible obstacles, to use those pathways and achieve your goal.” Just like the Little Engine that Could, thoughts such as “I think I can” serve as motivators for us in pursuing goals.
But, using the word hope in a sentence doesn’t mean we are hopeful. When someone says: “I hope you have a great day” it isn’t an expression of hope, it is a wish. Unless the person who speaks that sentence is going to spend the entire day with you they really have little control over whether or not you will have a great day. When someone says, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” this is also a wish since most of us anyway, have no control over whether it is going to rain tomorrow or not.
Hope is something unique to human beings. As Dr. Shane Lopez writes in his book Making Hope Happen: Whenever someone poses the question, what’s unique about humans? feel free to skip the usual answers about opposable thumbs, the use of tools, and language, and instead answer: Hope.”
When we are hopeful we have high expectations for the future, as well as a clear assessment of the obstacles we need to overcome in order to get there. It isn’t just something you sit around and wish for or wait to happen. Hope requires action. It is the belief that your future can be brighter and better than your past and that you have a role to play in making it better.
According to Shane Lopez people who are hopeful share 3 core beliefs.
First: the future will be better than the present.
Second: I have the power to make it so.
Third: There are many paths to my goals and none of them is free of obstacles..
In the course of human history hope has not always been perceived as a positive force. Plato called hope a “foolish counselor,” while the Greek philosopher Sophocles believed human suffering was prolonged by hope. Benjamin Franklin declared that anyone who lives on hope will die fasting, while Friedrich Nietzsche like Sophocles called hope “the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.” Religious leaders have consistently used hope to buoy the spirits of their flock, but demagogues have utilized it for their own nefarious purposes.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about one of the most formative moments in Jewish history-- the encounter between Moses and God at the Burning Bush when Moses asks God what name he should use when people want to know who God is. God’s response is mysterious – Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, literally I will be what I will be. As Rabbi Sacks writes--God’s name belongs to the future tense. God’s call is to that which is not yet. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very thing that makes Judaism unique. 
In Torah the Jewish story begins with God’s call to Abraham to leave his birthplace and travel to the land that I will show you, (Gen. 12:1) but Genesis ends with the promise unfulfilled. In Exodus Moses is called to lead the Israelites back to freedom and the Promised Land. But a journey that should have taken days takes 40 years and by the end of the Torah, the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites have still not fulfilled the promise. It’s a gloomy conclusion but it is also a hopeful one because we don’t know the end of the story. The story is incomplete.
At the end of the Tanakh, the end of the Bible, the Israelites are in exile again – this time in Babylonia and they have been given permission to return from almost the same place from which Abraham and his family set out. So here’s the deal. The stories in Tanakh have a beginning but while there is an end, it’s always just beyond the horizon. We always seem to be looking towards the future—like to the Messianic age when nation shall not lift up sword against nation. (Isaiah 2:4)
Having said all that, in the Torah hope is presented for the first time in history as a positive force. While the Greeks believed in fate, that our future is determined by our past, the Jews believed in freedom, that there is no evil decree that cannot be averted. As we will sing in a little while:
U’tshuvah, u’tfilah, u’tzedakah,
Ma’avirin et ro’eh ha-gezeirah
But repentance, prayer, and deeds of charity have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
If the Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy, Jews gave the world the idea of hope. As Rabbi Sacks notes: Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.
It is no accident that so many Jews spend their time pursuing justice; fighting poverty and disease -- refusing to see these things as inevitable. It is no accident that after the Holocaust, Jews did not become bitter and resentful, but instead looked to the future, building a nation whose national anthem is Hatikvah, the hope.
Elie Wiesel used to tell the story of a remarkable discovery he made in Breslov, Poland. Over the entrance to the oldest synagogue in the city he came upon a sign that had surely uplifted the ghetto dwellers of the city 150 years ago, functioning as a challenge and a forewarning of the need for hope many years later during the Holocaust. The sign read: Gevalt! don’t give up!
It's easy to be fearful of hope. It seems so unlikely while fear seems so logical and persuasive. After all, your hopes may not have come true in the past but maybe your fears did. Never be afraid to hope because once we become afraid we become paralyzed. Fear robs us of our courage, while our hopes can come true, sometimes against all odds.
Mark Manson, in his book whose name I cannot entirely say from this bima, Everything is f’d, the opposite of happiness isn’t anger or sadness. If you are angry or sad it means you still care. You still have hope. You still give a darn. No, the opposite of happiness is hopelessness—the belief that everything is messed up so why do anything at all. Hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression, the source of so much misery, a major cause of addiction and a strong predictor of mortality.
In order to conquer the fear of hope here are a few suggestions:
*Don’t dwell on the past; the past is over
*Be in charge of your own future.
*Be patient but not passive. Nothing happens all at once
*Trust in God to help you along the way.
As Dr. Henry Viscardi founder of the National Center for Disabilities Services writes: The tragedy of life lies not in failing to reach your goals, but having no hope and thus no goals to reach.
One of my favorite stories in Torah is the story of Joseph. A bit of a spoiled brat, Joseph was betrayed by his family, thrown into a pit and left to die. We can only surmise what Joseph was feeling in that pit, but eventually he did get out-- only to be sold into slavery. And just when everything seemed to get better and he became a servant in the House of Potiphar, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of sexual assault and he was imprisoned. Here we know Joseph had faith. The text tells us, God was with Joseph and he knew one day his torment would be over. Eventually he was vindicated and promoted to second in command in Egypt.
It doesn’t matter if the way you get to hope is through religious faith or evidence-based theory or an intuition or a well-reasoned argument, they all produce the same result—a belief in the potential for salvation in the future and the belief that there are ways we can navigate to get us there.
David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel once said that in his country if you don’t believe in miracles you are not a realist.
While Mark Manson in his book whose title cannot be spoken, gives a very good argument for why hope is hopeless, he still offers a hopeful path. Don’t hope for better. Just be better. Be something better. Be more compassionate, more resilient, more humble, more disciplined. Many people would also throw in there, be more human, but no – be a better human….”
Rise up, rise like the day
rise up, rise unafraid
rise up, and do it a thousand times again
rise up, high like the waves rise up, in spite of the ache
rise up, and do it a thousand times again
For you For you For you For you
L’Shana Tova u’metukah-- Wishing all of you a sweet and happy new year.
 Casey Gwinn and Chan Hellman. Hope Rising. (New York : Morgan James, c2019) 8
 Feldman, David B. Rand, Kevin L., Kahle-Wrobleski, Kristin. “Hope and Goal Attainment” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 28, issue 4 (2009)
 Shane J. Lopez. Making Hope Happen. (New York : Atria Books, c2013) 36
 Casey Gwinn and Chan Hellman. Hope Rising. (New York : Morgan James, c2019) 9
 Ibid. 18
 Ibid. 32
 Maurice Lamm. The Power of Hope. (New York : Fireside, 1997) 19
Jonathan Sacks. “Future Tense, How the Jews Invented Hope.” http://rabbisacks.org/future-tense-how-the-jews-invented-hope-published-in-the-jewish-chronicle/ (accessed August 2019)
 Maurice Lamm. The Power of Hope. (New York : Fireside, 1997) 47
 Ibid. 51
 Mark Manson. Everything is f’ed. (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) 12
 Ibid. 13
 Maurice Lamm. the Power of Hope (New York : Fireside, 1997) 52
 Ibid. 53
 Mark Manson. Everything is f’d (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) 15
 Ibid. 228.
Live life on life’s terms
To live life on life’s terms means to acknowledge that life is bigger and more complicated than each of us. It means accepting the reality of our lives. It means recognizing that we cannot control every aspect of our life and our environment.
In this week’s Torah portion Nitzavim Moses describes the covenant between God and Israel. Choosing to abide by that covenant is one the Israelites can make freely but in one of the more famous verses in the Torah Moses encourages the Israelites to choose wisely:
הַֽעִדתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַֽחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ בַּֽחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּֽחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day; I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, if you and your offspring would live. (Deut. 30:19)
The Italian commentator Sforno understood the phrase if you and your offspring would live, to mean not so much keeping the laws for the sake of the reward you will receive, but rather for the sake of living a true life, a life of meaning.
Life can be challenging especially when it comes to managing the many trials and tribulations put in front of us. When we choose life we accept responsibility for taking on those challenges. When we choose life we make a decision to live life on life’s terms.