Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Leaders and Leadership -- as we prepare for Passover

On Leaders and Leadership – Sermon for Parshat Tzav
March 26, 2010 Rabbi Steve Weisman, Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Last Shabbat, as we began our annual look at the book of Leviticus, we re-established the modern Reform Jewish paradigm for approaching this sacred book – read it, attempt to understand the significance in context, and where we are unable or unwilling to follow the law to the letter, find a way to apply its spirit, as understood from the significance and context, in our own lives. We discussed questions that should challenge us individually and collectively, to point out that we, by our own actions, can do more than we are currently, then turned our attention to the situation between Israel and the US – which, sadly, got no better this week.

I owe everyone who heard those words last week, or read them on-line, the same apology I gave at the introduction to my blog posting of the text. What was missing from last week’s sermon, and I knew it when I spoke the words, was an action strategy on our part that might change the status quo that we spent so much time lamenting. While I hinted at actions that we could take here when it comes to our congregational life, there was no similar plan laid out for how to move the peace process, and the rapidly souring Israeli-American relationship, in the right direction. For that omission, I am truly sorry.

However, there were 2 significant reasons for this deliberate omission. First, I was keenly aware that the difficulty in understanding the root causes of the events of the last few weeks required us to spend too much time and go into too much detail, simply to make the points that needed to be made in explaining the situation. I did NOT want to add to the length of an already too long sermon. But even more than that, despite my background in political science, and my time studying in and about Israel, honestly, I am at a loss as to what it will take to succeed that we can hope to accomplish, either by our own actions, or by lobbying our elected officials. The situation really IS that far out of control.

But that was all last week. Tonight, we dive into parshat Tzav, which delves even more deeply into the details of the sacrifices, before taking us, as we read earlier, through the ordination of Aaron as the High Priest, and the formal establishment of the entire system of ritual leadership of our people. Tonight, I want us to focus on this latter part of the portion – if for no other reason than there is only so much that we can learn from the details of a sacrificial system that we have no desire to see reinstituted in our lifetimes!

The text gives us the ritual for establishing Aaron and his sons as the religious heads of our people in ancient times. The first item that should jump out at us is that Moses himself is expected to install his brother as High Priest. This allows us to make two significant points – one obvious, the other less so. The obvious point of Moses’ role in this ritual is to make clear the importance, even the necessity, of the two leaders – Moses and the High Priest – being able to work together in serving God and the people. Such is the nature of rituals – especially those marking the beginning of something new – they ought to hit us over the head with the “sledgehammer o’ metaphor,” giving us a clear image of what to expect from this new entity or undertaking. Think weddings, or Rabbinic or Board Installation services, or even the way we celebrate b’nai mitzvah, for some excellent modern examples of this same phenomenon!

But there is an even more subtle message in God’s instructions to Moses to install his brother as the High Priest. We have seen, throughout the story, God and Moses working extremely closely, and with great success, in leading the people. On the assumption that we would expect the High Priest to maintain a very close personal and working relationship with God, we certainly couldn’t be blamed if we expressed surprise that it was Aaron, rather than Moses, who was chosen for this task. In fact, the Midrash makes fairly clear to us that Moses really WANTED that position, even more than the overall leadership position he had. And the Rabbis of old were not just projecting their own ideas into Moses’ character in this. From the beginning, Moses tried NOT to be the leader. He claimed he was unfit to be spokesman to Pharaoh or to the people, so God sent Aaron to speak for him. He complained bitterly about the people’s unwillingness to be led during their many uprisings. He spent so much time on judging their issues that Jethro had to sit him down and make him see that he was killing himself by not delegating significant responsibility to others.

On the other hand, as soon as Moses was on the mountain even minutes longer than the 40 days and 40 nights he told the people he would be away, they turned to Aaron (was there another available choice? There ARE other leaders named in the text!), and insisted that he build them an idol. Even though, on the surface, his willingness to accede to their request probably should have ruined his chances to become High Priest, a closer reading points out that at every step of his acting as leader, he tried to redirect the mob back to YHWH, albeit without success. But then again, Moses only succeeded in regaining control after arguing with God over who should handle it, coming down the mountain, breaking the tablets of God’s law to get attention, and then sending out the Levites to kill those who insisted on sinning still. Neither one of them distinguished themselves by successfully handling the out-of-control mob!

Which marks our point of departure into our own modern experience. Leaders who do not succeed in leading, who forget why they are in the position of leadership. Leaders who allow themselves to become ineffectual by becoming temporarily blind to the needs of those they are leading. Not that Moses or Aaron is guilty of these shortcomings themselves, but rather these are the kind of leaders of whom we have far too many examples in our own time.

We have, to a large degree, allowed ourselves to get worn down by the failures of our elected political leaders, on both the national and local level, to remember who voted them into office in the first place, whose interests they supposedly represent. In some cases, there may be good reason for this. For as long as anyone can remember, Bowie has been represented in the Maryland Senate by two men – Leo Green and now Doug Peters. Both are widely respected for NOT being of the type we are talking about tonight. But both, as strong Catholics, have consistently failed to represent us on issues such as women’s reproductive rights and homosexuals’ rights, choosing instead to follow the deeply held convictions of their own hearts. This is NOT the kind of failure to listen to the electorate that we need to fix – since their views on these subjects were clear to us long before we elected them, and we chose them anyway. In fact, more examples of leaders who clearly express, and consistently follow, the dictates of whatever belief system motivates them would be a step in the right direction for all of us!

Rather, I am talking about those who run on a party label rather than a conscience or even a clear voting record, who say whatever they think will get them elected, and then, once in office, care only about getting re-elected, which sadly, in this day and age, is easier achieved by pandering to big money corporate supporters than caring about the Joe the Plumbers who elected them originally. I am talking about those who, when nominated for judgeships, refuse to disclose their personal beliefs, and try to suppress their records, claiming that these would only bias opinion about what they could do in the future. I am talking about those who ran promising change, and then became part of the status quo and blocked change. I am talking about those who seem to have no positive ideas of their own, but insist that every idea presented by the opposing party is wrong.

But most of all I am talking about those in our country who seem to have forgotten the concept of the “loyal opposition,” – the appropriate role of the minority party. Their role is to serve as the conscience of the country – questioning the actions of the majority, to ensure that they ARE acting in the best interests of the country as a whole. This may have been true once, but apparently, is not so anymore.

Now, it appears that the role of the minority party has changed dramatically. It appears to be defined as follows: spend every possible second starting the next election cycle, in the hopes of increasing the numbers identified by OUR party’s label, irrespective on where those individuals might actually stand on issues, or their competence to serve and lead. It appears to center on running down not merely the policies of the incumbent majority, but when that does not work, engaging in character assassination against the duly elected opposition leaders, on motivating their electorate to act through scare tactics about their future if they don’t act, rather than proposing authentic alternative solutions. And now, it appears that back-room horse-trading, once the most egregious of political sins, has instead been replaced with the public threat that if another legislator votes against my view, I will personally make sure he is challenged in his next election! And when even that doesn’t work, incitement of the masses to violence against duly elected leaders, as has been reported in the aftermath of the health care vote! We are back to Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton – perhaps the darkest days of American politics!

In short, civil discourse appears to have been completely eclipsed by bully tactics. The ability of elected leaders to work together for the common good has been replaced by a cronyism of self-protection and interdependence that has turned politics into a lifetime career that it was never meant to be, and incumbent status into a huge advantage for re-election. As a result, re-election has become the gold standard – anything that increases its chances, no matter how morally questionable, is valued, and anything that gets in the way must be squashed!

Just imagine for a second that the Midrashic Rabbis were accurate in what Moses really wanted, but that he and Aaron were, l’havdil, 21st century American politicians! Not only would they have failed to work together, but Moses, at every opportunity, would have been undermining Aaron’s authority, both in private dealings as the leader, and in public accusations that sacrifices were being mishandled. They would have traded ugly recriminations over who was responsible for the deaths of all those civilians in the incident of the Golden Calf.
Aaron would have questioned Moses’ leadership at every turn, especially as the years passed, and the deaths mounted. Oh, sorry, that last one actually DID happen! And one of them would have sided with Korach and Dathan and Abiram, and the tea-party folks who preferred return to Egypt over the progression into the unknown against the other, completely rewriting Jewish history and our upcoming festival of Passover.

But now, imagine that the recently (almost) completed health care debate had been waged in the Biblical context. Aaron and Moses, putting aside petty squabbles and personal desires, leading the people to a promised land that, while not perfect, certainly achieved what they set out to achieve. Not without some struggles along the way, which they would have overcome. Not, perhaps, without some others questioning their authority and direction, and maybe even, in the short term, gaining enough traction to temporarily pull us in a different direction, only to be eventually overcome by the forces of right. Ahh, times were so much simpler then!

Sadly, our leadership gap today isn’t merely in our highest elected leaders. Take the total lack of leadership coming out of the courts and prosecutors’ office in PG County. A police officer, traveling 50 miles an hour off-duty in a 25 mph zone, strikes a car and kills its driver. And all that he is charged with is a speeding ticket, because the prosecutor can’t – or won’t – make a case against him. And lest we think he was protected because he was a law enforcement professional, what are we to make of the headline story in this week’s Bowie Blade?

Earlier this year, an officer serving at Bowie HS was physically assaulted by 4 students inside the school, one of whom grabbed his weapon. 1 month ago, 3 of the 4 were found “involved” – the juvenile court equivalent of “guilty.” Each was sentenced to 30 days of electronic monitoring and supervised probation. Two were 17, one was 16. The fourth, also 16, who admitted to jumping on the officer’s back, and was identified by witnesses as the one who had grabbed for the gun, had been found “not involved” in an earlier proceeding. But before we go off on why these 4 were not tried as adults, or how the 4th one got off, or why the punishment didn’t better fit the crime, for which the 4 all claimed they were victims, not perpetrators (so much for the theory that they had already learned their lesson!), believe it or not, there is more!

Since the incident occurred in the school, the school did not have to wait for the courts, and acted to expel the four students. Their parents appealed the expulsions, and, following a second hearing, all 4 students (although none achieved even a 1.0 GPA through the first two grading periods of this school year) were allowed to return to school and reassigned to other PGC schools! In Prince George’s County, physically assaulting a peace officer apparently can no longer get you expelled, only transferred to another school where you will fail. Talk about “No Child Left Behind”! But finally, this, WHY did it take the local paper of record an entire month after the 3 were sentenced, and longer since the trial of the 4th, to even report this story to the public in the first place?? Who can we the people count on today?

However, before we allow this to become a self-righteous rant, rather than the collective preparation and soul-searching that this season of preparation for Passover requires of us, let us make sure that our own behavior allows us to be justified in throwing these accusations at others whom we have placed in positions of authority over us.

A colleague, for whom I have the highest regard, both as a role model and a teacher, felt compelled to write to his congregation this week, expressing shock and dismay at the number of kids in his religious school who were reporting that they and their families would not be abstaining from eating bread during the upcoming holiday. We all know that most of us don’t search for chametz – even though the spiritual metaphor is so potentially powerful in our day -- or even change our plates. And we know that precious few of us keep kosher in our homes throughout the year. We even know that, despite our best efforts, there may even be some in our community who do not celebrate at a seder meal at all. While these truths may sadden us, as we look at missed opportunities for spiritual growth, they do not threaten our individual or collective Jewish identity terribly much. But eating bread during Passover? Willfully, publicly? This seems to be a dangerous level that, if not our own personal community, clearly parts of our broader local Jewish community seems all too comfortable with. And what message do the adults who make those choices send to young Jews and to the non-Jewish world?

We almost all have no problem following 2 of the 3 required mitzvot of the holiday – telling the story, and eating matzah. Why then is the third – to abstain from bread products, such a hardship? A week – not even 8 days! For most of us, if our doctor’s told us to do it for health reasons, we’d give it up in a heartbeat! Thankfully, here, I am not aware of such behavior starting to take hold. If I was, I wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable joking with the families that are traveling to Paris during Passover about being unable to eat the bread there!

Friends, leadership takes many forms in our world today. Few, if any of us, are completely exempt from ever being called upon to lead. What we do and how we do it when we are given those opportunities can and does impact many more than just ourselves. As we prepare ourselves for Passover, and read parshat Tzav, let us commit, at this season, and throughout the year, to demand quality leadership, and, when we see it lacking, to exercise our own good leadership by not standing by silently helpless, but rather, by calling out those who fail us as our leaders on their shortcomings, demanding improvement, atonement, and replacement as warranted. Because if it does not start with us, now, when and where will it start!? KYR

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Situation in Israel -- this week's sermon

The following is NOT easy to read (and not just for its length!) -- it was NOT easy to write! But it needed to be said. In fact -- MORE needs to be said -- I hate that I had to stop, having gone on too long as it was, without reaching a point to offer an action plan as an alternative to the status quo. The sad truth is that there may not be one available at the moment. For those of you who do not subscribe to Ha'aretz (the Israeli newspaper) on-line (available through facebook among other ways) -- it is remarkable that every time Ha'aretz puts something up on their blog -- whether critical of the government or not -- 60+% of the comments it gets in facebook are from Israel-haters -- more of whom are starting to sound like Tea Partiers -- now THERE is a scary marriage to contemplate!

The Little Aleph and the Tolling Bell -- Sermon for Parshat Vayiqra
March 19, 2010 -- Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

The clocks have been set forward – soon it will still be light as we begin services. People have dressed in green, and been a little bit silly. Obviously spring is about to arrive – and it does, this weekend.

But for me, the two BEST proofs that spring is here are the hints we have this Shabbat. The first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, with wall-to-wall big games on television, and results that will alternately make us scream for joy and wallow in self pity as an unimaginable loss suffered by a team we would never be caught dead rooting for destroys our brackets , is one of those signs. To which I can only say – with millions of other Americans tonight – Go Georgetown!

The second, and far more serious, of those Shabbat signs is that we begin the reading of the book of Leviticus – tomorrow, with our Bar Mitzvah and his family. Most of us are no longer very well connected to the natural rhythms of either nature’s agricultural seasons or the annual cycle of Torah readings, so we probably haven’t noticed this before. But with the arrival of Spring, the rebirth of the Earth, and the start of the growing season, our tradition has us studying the laws of the sacrifices and the Priesthood that administered the system.

This may be insignificant to us, or appear coincidental. But I believe this was both deliberate, and extremely telling, at least in its time. Therefore, the challenge for us, as modern Reform Jews, like it is for so much of the rest of this book of Torah, is to read it carefully, not with glazed over eyes at incredibly mundane details that we would no longer practice, many of us, even if they were forced upon us. But rather, in keeping with the ideals of our Reform Jewish tradition, we need to read these chapters and verses carefully, trying to understand their significance in that earlier time, and then seeking ways, if not by following the letter of these laws, then certainly by following their spirit, to achieve similar results in our own lives.

For me, this linking of Leviticus and Spring is easy to interpret. As our ancestors returned most, if not all of their attention and energy to the land, as was needed for their economic and physical survival, the text is reminding them, and us as well, that our survival as Jews requires more than mere physical sustenance. It is a message reinforced in the early chapters of Deuteronomy, where we are taught that it is “not by bread alone” that we are sustained in life, but by “anything that issues from God’s (proverbial) mouth.”

At exactly the time that our ancestors were being drawn back to the land, our text tradition reminds us that doing so is NOT an end in itself. We are sustained fully in life ONLY if that action is joined to an increased awareness of God’s role in our daily lives. Working the fields and tending the flocks are essential, but so too is an awareness that whatever bounty results for us is only partially the work of our hands. It is, in truth, the embodiment of the beneficence of our Creator and Nurturer, Who created these animals and crops, Who filled us with the wisdom to become good farmers and herders, and Who gave us this land to work.

So how do we – no longer farmers and shepherds – demonstrate our awareness of God’s presence in our daily lives in something approaching the same way? Well, our ancestors were obligated to bring the firsts and the bests of their efforts to God as sacrificial offerings. What do we find ourselves obligated to bring to God’s House as part of our worship of God?

Do we bring the best and first of ourselves? If that were true, we’d need a bigger sanctuary – not just at High Holy Days, or when the Rabbi’s kids are celebrating b’nai mitzvah, but every Shabbat and holy day. How many of us make the decision between Temple and someplace else in the Temple’s favor more than half of the time? How many of us are satisfied simply to make it to services, or to be on time for programs and classes; and how many allow ourselves the time to prepare properly, and make the effort to make our time here special? Even an event as enjoyable as this weekend’s SOCIAL fundraiser is undersubscribed. We have allowed our physical participation to become optional in our lives – far too many of us. And that dodges the deeper question of the quality of our participation when we ARE here – one which we would do well to explore as well!

Do we bring the best and first of the work of our hands? The Torah calls for a tithe of 10%. Our dues and other fees, even for that family with 3 kids in the religious school, hardly ever reaches as much as 5% -- for most it is far less. But that doesn’t stop us from kvetching about how much we HAVE TO pay (even though, as we have noted, that sense of obligation is otherwise gone)! Even for something like tomorrow evening’s casino night and silent auction, how many of us have contributed something tangible to the auction, or sponsored a table? How many of us, despite the significant urging, brought a prospective member family to Shabbat Across America this year, to help us increase our numbers, and hold down that percentage for each of us? The answer is fewer than we’d like!

Clearly, in this area, we have much improvement to strive for! But we are far from alone in this shortcoming. Because it seems clear that the other major way of achieving the ends desired by the Torah and our tradition require of us, collectively, not merely a solid physical connection to the land given by God to Abraham and his descendants, but a connection to Israel that is rooted in the spiritual and ethical as well.

Sadly, on this Shabbat, as American Jews, we have much to lament in the handling of affairs in the modern State of Israel by BOTH the Israeli and American governments. Clearly, we count on the Israeli government to properly handle our people’s physical attachment to the land, and to maintain order – both within their own state, and with their neighbors. That is what governments do. We have, from the moment of Israel’s birth, counted on the American government to do what was right in supporting Israel as an ally. And even in the worst of times – Richard Nixon comes to mind – that support has been there. Sometimes stronger and more obvious, sometimes less so. And sometimes we may have disagreed with the particular route to that end being taken at a given moment.

Sometimes, our dual identity interferes with our vision, or our willingness to call for action. As Americans, we fear being accused of having “dual loyalties,” we worry that our perspective, because we are talking about Israel, is skewed. As those who lived through the ‘60’s in America, we are careful in raising criticism, remembering the depths of the internal conflict over Viet Nam. Tonight, however, I cannot remain cautiously silent any longer.

I cannot recall a time when BOTH the public actions of the Israeli government, and the apparent motivations of America’s elected leaders have been as off-key as they have appeared to be in the last two weeks. The public embarrassment suffered by Vice-President Biden at the incredibly stupid timing of the Israeli announcement about building 1600 luxury apartments in East Jerusalem while Biden was FINALLY in the region, trying to move the stalled peace process forward, is NOT the first time the Israelis have so burned an American leader. But it is assuredly the worst-timed example of short-sighted, politically motivated decision making by a Likud government in embarrassing America at a time when America needs to be actively involved and positively disposed to the peace process -- for Israel’s sake.

However, if it sounds like I am blaming the Israelis – in majority part, or in whole – for the current “crisis,” (and I do not believe that word is hyperbole here), rest assured – I am not! One does not ascend to crisis status unilaterally – it takes a colossal misreading of circumstances far beyond the control of just one party! And there is PLENTY of blame to be shared quite widely!

For we need to ask ourselves another probing question – Why was Vice-President Biden sent to Israel – for the first time -- NOW? Why is the administration sending precious resources overseas, while in the heat of the battle for a health care victory at home? The answer, surprisingly, is far worse than the presumptive “Wag the Dog” scenario of trying to distract attention from the health care mess and the utter failure to create a single substantive change in 14 months in office.

No, apparently the answer is far darker. And no, I am NOT taking up camp with the “Birthers,” questioning Obama’s religious and sentimental leanings in this conflict on the basis of his middle name, even after he failed to visit Israel last year as he toured her Arab neighbors. Nor am I agreeing with Charles Krauthammer, who ALMOST got it right in the Post today, before he came up short and lapsed into useless partisanship.

For while I agreed with most of Krauthammer’s analysis, I recognized last year, and agree still, that Obama’s trip was made necessary by his predecessor’s near lock-step support for Israeli policies for 8 years, without regard to the impact on an eventual peace process. Any hope of lasting and meaningful success, whether justified or not, DID require reassuring potential allies and peace partners that America COULD still be seen as an “honest broker” in any serious peace effort.

So then why DID Joe Biden find himself in Jerusalem at exactly the wrong moment? Sadly, it was because no less than General Petraeus (and yes, it is taking ALL of my restraint to avoid repeating the deliberate mispronunciation of his name that I objected to so vehemently several years ago when it was done by others who thought he was selling out the interests of American soldiers!) showed up at a Pentagon briefing, and made the claim that unless the Administration got the Israeli-Palestinian situation moving towards peace again, that conflict would not only continue to fester, but would serve as fodder for those we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and embolden the Iranians as well.

The problem with this evaluation is not its inaccuracy – for sadly, he is correct. The problem is both in its incompleteness, and in the way it was interpreted by others after he said it. The sad truth is that Israel’s EXISTENCE, as a geo-political fact, is enough of an irritant to put our troops at additional risk where they are; that if this particular truth didn’t exist for our enemies to use to motivate them against us, they would find another, or invent one if they had to. After all, they have done this for over 35 years now!

Let us remember that the second intifada was not REALLY a response to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount – it occurred too soon after his visit NOT to have been in the planning for months, just waiting for an excuse to justify its launch. If it hadn’t been Sharon’s actions that day, it would have been something else shortly thereafter. The Taliban and al-Qaeda will continue to use the existence of Israel, the perceived abuse by Israel of the Palestinians in Gaza, and the perception of Israel’s close ties to America, as a rallying piece for new recruits and new missions against US. Neither 1600 new apartment buildings in East Jerusalem, nor a reversal by the Israelis, just because this is not ethically justifiable in the face of calls to make sincere peace, will NOT themselves inflame behavior against America to new heights. Neither will the continuation of Israel’s legitimate policy of not compromising fundamental security concerns merely to get a viable peace partner to come to the table. Sadly, it needs to be made clear that neither will, it should only happen, a successful peace being found!

But worse, was the internal American reaction. I doubt highly that Petraeus is the first American military leader to make this statement and back it up. I am fairly certain he is the first whose utterance led directly to an attempt to do what he was asking, and clearly one undertaken in a rush, without thinking through all the potential outcomes. Friends, for better or worse, diplomacy is a chess game, and apparently no one looked ahead a few moves to see what could – and would --happen here!

And, if the REAL analysis ended here, we would have an example of a well-meaning but misguided decision by the White House that they firmly believed was in our country’s best interests, turning out not to be so. And probably one in which the White House might be subject to charges that intelligence reports may have been deliberately manipulated to justify a desired military response. But then, this is not the first time we have heard that accusation, is it!? And one which, quite ironically, l’havdil, when we acknowledge reality, makes us no better than the Taliban and al-Qaeda in how we are willing to manipulate facts for our own ends!

But there is MUCH more at work here as well. Why did the Israelis feel the need to make this decision regarding these apartments at all, much less to announce it at this moment and risk embarrassing Biden and the Americans? Part of the blame here is internal, part is external. To start, we need to remind ourselves of just who is in charge in Israel these days and why.

Bibi Netanyahu, who spent more of his adult life as a Republican in Pennsylvania than he did living in Israel, was re-elected as Prime Minister after several years in political limbo, despite his first term having ended in the disgrace of a conviction for personal fiscal malfeasance. This happened after the “peace middle” of the Israeli political scene broke down in large part because of the failures in Gaza and against Hizbollah, pushing the Israeli electorate to the right, making them vote for their own short-term protection. Bibi, in turn, rather than forming the unity government of strength to continue Israel on the middle path that seemed to be indicated by the election results, instead chose to form a slim minority government, far too dependent on the whims of political partners like the ultra-Orthodox Shas, who, history has shown, despite their religious convictions, are far more motivated by personal gain than desire for the peace of Israel.

Two possibilities arise here, because the announcement about the apartments actually was NOT made by official government spokespeople, but by a leader of Shas. Either, as Bibi claims, this was not of his doing, and he was equally surprised and embarrassed by Shas. In which case his ruling majority is even less tenable than anyone realized, when his own partners are willing to embarrass him for their own gain! Or, this was all a deliberate move on the government’s part, to maintain distance from the top, because they KNEW they would be embarrassing Biden by the timing, in which case we need to try and figure out what legitimate sounding motive they might have had for such a dangerous move, likely to blow up in their faces, as indeed, it seems to have done.

And for that, we need to look at the Arab side of the equation! At the same moment that there was some slight progress back towards discussions with Fatah leaders from the West Bank, the situation with Hamas, in Gaza, appears to be getting worse. Not, this time, because of Hamas, themselves. But rather, because Israel’s efforts to weaken Hamas are working, and Hamas is now being threatened by even MORE radical elements, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper of record on military events, Ha’aretz, this week. And at exactly the moment that a viable Fatah should be in a position both to regain control AND move a peace process forward, they are failing to make an effort on the first, and being as ineffectual as ever on the second. In fact, according to a separate report in Ha’aretz, Hizbollah has sent 1000 “soldiers,” uninvited, into the West Bank, where they can ONLY be seen as a threat against Fatah.

So here is what we are left with. At BEST, the Arab terror groups, the Palestinians, the Israeli government, and the White House and Pentagon have all simultaneously misread the current reality, with results that might be comedic if they weren’t so deadly serious. As a result, the first serious effort of the Obama administration towards negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace was delivered late, and apparently DOA.

At WORST, the American military, the Israelis and the Fatah leadership are all now painfully aware that, unless something dramatic and positive happens, and happens very soon, the intolerable Hamas may soon be gone from the scene, and we will miss their moderation – something they have NEVER been accused of – as the situation spirals even further out of control. And Fatah themselves may find themselves fighting for their political, and physical, survival as well. And we will have no one to blame but each other – because none of the parties will look in the mirror and blame themselves!

For the first time in my adult life, the worst case scenario is actually the more plausible, in part because I have been given no reason to have ANY faith in either the Netanyahu or Obama governments’ ability to accurately read and address such a situation. I sure hope that I am wrong – that the events of the last two weeks are, in fact, a diplomatic smokescreen, all carefully choreographed by the parties working together, designed to allow progress to happen below the surface. But even a closet conspiracy theorist like me is having great trouble with that reading of the situation!

This is why I can no longer remain quiet. As the modern British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, made so clear – sometimes not to act is, in fact, to act. Action is needed, and needed fast. Not action rushed into too quickly as a reaction to growing concerns. But action carefully crafted and thought through, properly prepared for on and by all sides, designed to move forward, with as little risk, and as much likelihood of success as is humanly possible and predictable.

The fact that the last item from Israel this week was the response to a Hamas-sponsored “Day of Rage” to protest the status quo that led to armed riots, in which close to 100 Palestinian protestors were injured, reinforces the danger in waiting too long, and doesn’t make it any easier for me to be optimistic. But I pray that I am wrong, and ask you to join me in that prayer, even as we pledge to work together to make Leviticus more positively meaningful as a force in our own lives closer to home. KYR

Friday, March 19, 2010

The 2010 Census -- and Counting

So, with all the fanfare that can come from a multi-million dollar advertising campaign from the people who brought us "A Mighty Wind" and "Best in Show," the Government has begun its decennial obligation to "number the people. Some of us will be blessed to receive the short census form -- others the long form. Some of us will answer quickly, others slowly, and some may even just forget or ignore it. That is when the REAL census machinery breaks out in force -- the field squads whose job it is to number the conscientious objectors and forgetful among us -- along with the homeless, and others who, for some reason, do not receive mail.

It should be fairly easy, one would think, to get an accurate count of the population of this fine country, which, after all, IS the primary purpose of the census. The stuff about how many toilets and telephones are in your house, while important on a more local basis, is definitely a secondary undertaking. But, as we learned a decade ago, there are legitimate issues in finding those who can't or don't wish to be found, and legitimate differences of opinion on how to treat that reality. Sad that in some minds, some of us (the homeless, et al.) still only count for 3/5ths (or less) of a person.

And, in this day and age, one needs to wonder why this whole process cannot be done on-line, without wasting thousands of trees! However, I believe the surprising answer to this lies in another anomaly -- nowhere on the form are you asked to provide your address! Since we KNOW that much of the crunching of the data is location dependent, this information must already be encoded somewhere on the form that you received in the mail -- TO YOUR ADDRESS! And there is not yet a method to avoid someone deliberately skewing the results online -- by filing multiple responses. The pre-encoded address information is therefore what keeps the responses somewhat honest!

However, there are some very real philosophical and statistical issues, some comical, some very real. And despite some pretty clear instructions, some of the serious issues risk being subject to multiple interpretations which WILL skew the results. For example:

(and this is based on a real example, slightly expanded upon for impact): divorced couple with 2 children, had 2 residences -- a townhouse in manhattan, and a country home in connecticut. She gets the townhouse, he gets the CT house. They split custody of the kids, although she has physical custody. The older child goes to school at georgetown, and lives in a lovely off campus apartment within the city limits. The younger child goes to school near her father in CT, and therefore lives at his house the majority of the week, despite the court decision. both kids have their cars registered in CT, to save on the insurance, but are registered voters in NY, which IS their legal address.

According to the census, how are they counted?

Bottom line -- we need to make this process more tech savvy and user friendly, so both the primary and secondary purposes of the census do not conflict, and multiple responses from different members of the same family living temporarily or permanently in different places can be accurately and effectively cross-referenced. Because, according to the census rules, the older daughter lives in DC and the younger daughter in CT, even though both legally live and vote and should be counted in NY! In fact, the older daughter, because she is NOT living in a dorm, will get her own form to fill out -- which may or may not match the info either of her parents share! And each of them have to determine how to properly deal with their kids' statuses as well! It is NOT inconceivable that these 4 people could end up being counted as 7 -- 3 in new york, 3 in CT, and 1 in DC! Even if they ALL get it "right" according to the directions, NY will still be shorted by 2 legal voters in its count, while DC and CT will each gain a body that isn't truly theirs when it comes to apportioning seats in congress!

To end on a humorous note -- as shared with me by a former city councilman here. He recognized the trap, and e-mailed a political friend, a former newspaper editor of his acquaintance, and his son for their advice. The simple, if sneaky, question -- who is "Adult #1." The politician responded: This is very tricky situation, and requires great diplomacy. The former editor replied: My dog. The son, having learned much from his father, responded: I am letting my wife fill it out!

So get out there and get counted -- maybe multiple times!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


It seems this will be my week for ranting and raging against "the machine."

We have grown all too accustomed to politicians who no longer represent those of us who voted them into office, but, rather, think they represent an ideology, from which there is, too often, no deviation possible, no matter how great the need.

We have grown too accustomed to minimum wage clerks who couldn't understand "customer service" if you tore the page out of the dictionary, translated it into words of a single syllable in any language they chose, and injected it directly into their brains -- with the chutzpah to complain about how mistreated they are on the job.

We have gotten all too used to our fellow citizens who drive their vehicles as if they were the only ones allowed to use the roads, or worse, the only ones actually ON the road at that moment, who have never been trained to understand the impact that a ton or 2 of machine travelling at excessive speed can have on them or someone else, and as a result of that lack of grasp of the painfully obvious, treat driving as an inconvenience -- a distraction to their talking, texting, putting on make-up, or eating -- that must be completed as quickly as possible, without regard to possible consequences.

And, we have somehow allowed our schools to stop teaching our children the important value and details of citizenship -- BECAUSE it cannot be quantified and tested, and is not part of any evaluation of the schools' work that matters! My son took MSA's this week -- and it dawned on me that his school is probably less concerned about what his results mean for his education than they are for what they mean for the school's reputation!

However -- all of those pale at the moment. As I write this, I am beginning the 5th hour of waiting for a Verizon technician to come to my home -- at MY expense -- to find and fix the problem that makes it virtually impossible to hear the person on the other end when the phone rings. It is 12:15 -- and after L finally got thru to a human being by phone last evening, and they did the remote test of the outside lines, and made her go around unplugging each phone individually to make sure it wasn't in any of the phones themselves, they agreed to send a technician today.

At first, they wouldn't giver her an arrival time. When she pushed, they told her between 8 and 12, and that she would receive an automated text message in the morning when they were "on the way."

Sure enough, she got the text message at 7:45 this morning, still not promising anything more specific (First lie exposed -- they were NOT "on the way" according to the text!). I bundled D into the car, rushed him off to his "period zero" phys ed class, and arrived back home at exactly 8:01. No sign of them as I was leaving, no sign they had been here while I was gone, and if they had been here and left, they did so BEFORE the appointed range of times began -- no reasonable expectation that I would be ready or willing to meet them at said time, no attempt to contact either of us to let them know they were waiting.

When they still hadn't shown by 11:30, I texted L, who followed up on their website -- only to find a cryptic message with a 3:00 PM time. Is this the outside endtime by which they were required to be done and report their findings and work? It sure didn't match what we had been told. And it was anything but clear. And good luck finding the magic combination thru the voice-mail switchboard to have this checked, or a pathway thru their website to an actual human being who could explain where the human error had occurred on their end.

And, of course, this followed a day on which not 1, but 2 doctors had each kept me waiting an hour past my scheduled appointment times in order to be seen. BOTH our daughter's (soon to be ex- ) pediatrician and my dermatologist were guilty of this. Not of keeping us too long IN the appointments -- that was an hour each before we were SEEN.

That makes a total of 6 hours -- and counting -- theoretically lost to my congregation of my time (although we all know that I am blessed to work with a congregation that understands the need for their rabbi to have flexibility in his schedule, and besides, I am working from home these days, awaiting the opportunity to rebuild my computer after it mysteriously crashed, so, in fact, THEY are not losing the hours!). Almost one full work day spent waiting for others to do their jobs! Time that I will NEVER get back (even if a fair amount of today's was spent getting things done while I waited).

For snicks, while I was waiting yesterday, I calculated what each of those hours would have cost me in income if I had an employer who would dock me for missing that time. It runs to about $55 per hour -- and we are now pushing past $350 dollars worth this week alone.

But frankly -- as much as I fantasize about living in a world where this kind of selfish, undisciplined, and disrespectful behavior was either banished or billable (wouldn't it be amazing to be able to hand the tech a bill for $250 of MY time if he walked through the door right now?!), the far greater loss to me is that precious time. There are not enough hours in my week as it is to do my job to the standard I and my congregation expect of me, while also spending enough time with my wife and kids, and taking care of myself. So I, like those of you reading, am forced to cut corners to catch up, and to seek some solace by venting in a blog, while waiting, waiting, until only God knows when. Because clearly Verizon sure doesn't!

And the only losers are all of us -- the real people who make up this community, this country, and our planet. We all are a little more desensitized, a little more worn down, a little more dehumanized, by yet another thing that we have no ability to control or correct. And apparently, neither does anyone else!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The first Sports-themed entry

I know -- hard to believe it has taken this long! Even harder to believe, given that this is both "fill in your bracket" time in college basketball, and late spring training (or fantasy drafting time) in baseball -- aka "the greatest time of year!" -- that this blog is about NEITHER of those sports!

Nor, shockingly, is it about the greed and stupidity that seem poised to take down BOTH professional football and pro basketball in the near future. Or about Major League Baseball's continuingly frustrating refusal/inability to get steroids behind them effectively.

It is about the peccadillos of the NHL -- the one professional sport usually beyond the silliness that greed has foisted upon the other major sports. And in particular, it is a simple question about arguably two of the greatest talents to EVER play the game. What does the NHL have against Alex Ovechkin? And why does the league feel it needs to overprotect their self-anointed Savior and wunderkind -- Syndy, oops, Sidney, Crosby?

To start with the latter -- hey guys, wake up -- if he IS as good as you say he is -- then you shouldn't need to protect him! Sure, the NBA had the "Jordan Rules" for MJ, and the NFL has turned Tom Brady into an untouchable -- literally. But, the clear evidence of the recently concluded Olympic tournament be damned, haven't you been telling us for years that the NHL version of ice hockey -- with the violence and fighting integrally a part of the game -- is the best in the world? The Jordan Rules weren't intended to give one player an advantage -- they were designed to keep him in the game, where he could amaze virtually every night (with the God-given talents and killer desire to be the best that DID give him that advantage!), and bring the world to the game. Tom Brady is a QB -- they should ALL already be required to wear dresses and flag football belts, since the rare one who is physically capable of defending himself would earn the wrath of his coaches for endangering himself if he ever tried! So the Brady Rule is designed to keep stars in the game, too!

But hockey? Where the machismo of the sport requires the best to be willing and able to defend themselves, or else requires their team to give up a roster spot to keep a bodyguard around at all times!? ESPN has made a household phrase out of "but he returned from the injury to finish out the game -- he's a HOCKEY PLAYER" -- regardless of the sport they are highlighting when they say it!

Even hockey has had its exceptions -- especially in the modern age. Mike Bossy, the great Islander goal scorer of the 70s and 80s, hardly ever drew a penalty, and may have fought once in his career. But he had Trottier, and often Clark Gillies, around to make sure that no one touched him! Likewise Gretzky and Lemieux -- they hardly ever were penalized or fought. And unlike those other sports, it wasn't because they were protected by the league, but rather, because they were disciplined internally, and protected by teammates -- because they were too damned valuable NOT to have on the ice. That trend probably traces back to the true Golden Boy -- #4, Bobby Orr!

But go back to the "glory days" of the NHL and the great ones -- Gordie Howe? NEVER shrunk from a hit or a fight, took care of himself. Bobby Hull? Rarely fought, but always got you back for whatever you did to him. Stan Mikita? Bobby Clarke? Two pests, who were among the dirtiest players in the league in their day -- and also the most successful!

So now -- back to Ovie and Syndy. In Ovechkin, we have a throwback -- a player with more size, speed, and skills in one package than this league has EVER seen (okay -- maybe since Gordie Howe. And no, I am not claiming he is more skilled that the Great One, #99 -- merely that he is more the "total package" that Gretz ever was). He can hit with the best, skate with the best, pass with the best, and score with the best of all time. You don't need to protect him -- but apparently the league has decided that other players need to be protected from him -- because they aren't big enough, or fast enough, or skilled enough!

Four times in his career -- and 3 of them this season (not counting the "hit for the ages" on Jagr in the Olympics -- as viciously hard and clean an open ice hit as I have EVER seen!) -- Ovechkin has hit an opposing player so hard that the game had to be stopped to tend to the injured player. In all 4 cases, he has received match penalty ejections for those hits. This, despite the fact that certainly in 2 of the cases, and quite possibly in all 4, a different referee on a different night, with a different set of players involved, would likely have called NONE of those hits as penalties, certainly none more than a single minor! And if you really want to be a stickler for details, and go back to the (seemingly forgotten) old rule that makes drawing blood an automatic 5 minute major instead, then at worst, he should have racked up 20 minutes in the penalty box for the 4 hits combined.

In the latest incident -- for which the game's greatest player was sent off the national game of the week in the first period (pretty stupid for PR purposes!), and is now serving a 2 game suspension -- it was SO clear that the bulk of the reason for the surprisingly severe injuries sustained came from a) the unfortunate position of the victim's skates as he was hit, and b) the significant weight differential between striking force and object player, and NOT from the hit itself, that the first intermission was spent by the analysts desperately trying, and ultimately FAILING, to justify the ejection! NOT the home town TV guys -- the NATIONAL crew! Some of the victim's own teammates have had no issue about going on ESPN and acknowledging that the hit was neither dirty nor that severe -- and have not been fined by the league or their own team! Unheard of!

Compare that to an incident that occurred late in one of Lady Crosby's first games back after achieving sainthood in Vancouver. As he moved towards the Rangers' goal, he appeared to take a dive over a Ranger defender's stick in an attempt to draw a penalty, losing his balance and sliding headfirst into the boards behind the goal. It is bad enough that this, now illegal, manuever was already going to lead to a penalty not on him, but on the Ranger player for "tripping" him.

But when Flopper Boy got up after the whistle blew, the Rangers' goalie obviously had some choice words for the cowardly diver, because the next thing we saw was Crosby giving the goalie a two-handed crosscheck across his face mask, which not surprisingly led to a full-scale melee.

The result of all this? Somehow, the referees found NO reason to penalize Crosby for either of his blatant infractions, or the instigation of a game-delaying brawl. In fact, somehow the Rangers ended up at a TWO-man disadvantage, during which the Penguins tied the score, before going on to win in OT!

It certainly looks to me like there is not merely a CLEAR double standard at play -- one which can only be intended to protect the Savior status of the Canadian-born Crosby by not allowing Ovechkin to pull too noticably ahead of Fat Sid in EVERY meaningful stat and area of the game -- but that as a result of it, the outcome of games is being impacted. Thankfully, the Bruce Boudreau coached Capitals are so deep that even the loss of Ovie doesn't slow them down. But I think both the Caps and the Rangers have a legitimate beef here.

And please don't try to connect this to the admittedly boorish behavior the Great 8 showed after his Russian team was eliminated from the Olympic tournament, directed at a female fan wanting to take his picture. Yes, he was in the wrong -- even though none of us knows the full story in this case. But 3 of those 4 hits and ejections, and his first suspension, all pre-dated that unfortunate misjudgement, so it cannot be the league trying to get back at him for a PR black-eye!

And yes, I know that the league has a growing problem with more severe injuries coming from hits from the blindside, because the size of players and speed of the game have both increased significantly. But the truth is that the NHL is lightyears AHEAD of both pro and college football in dealing honestly and effectively with concussions, and the most recent injury to Marc Savard that has led to a likely rules change for the better (even if the actual incident was FAR more clearly a penalty than any of Ovechkin's suspension-worthy hits, but no penalty was called and no suspension assessed, even after Savard was ruled out for the rest of the season!). But NONE of Ovechkin's alleged transgressions had a hint of deliberate intention to them. Watch the replays and show me where you find any -- and I dare you to find earlier incidents involving the injured players that might have led to a deliberate targetting -- they don't exist!

So the NHL, instead of making Ovechkin the co-poster child, and creating a rivalry worthy of Bird and Magic, that could catapult THEIR game to the next level, instead seems hell-bent on making the ONLY player from the last 25 years who could have played in the league 50 years ago, change his game for the worse. Gee, makes PERFECT sense to me -- NOT!

Which is why, no matter how skilled he truly is -- I will NEVER cheer for Syndy Crosby, or his team. Nor will I stop rooting for Ovechkin and his team -- if only to overcome the seemingly stacked deck they are being dealt from!

And if you have not given yourself the chance to watch Alexander Ovechkin play hockey, I strongly suggest that you do so at the earliest possible convenience -- before the league succeeds in doing what no player on the ice can do -- stopping him!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Question for SERIOUS Discussion

I was approached by a congregant this past Shabbat evening, who had a pressing concern to share. His concern revolved around the wording of our prayer for those serving our country overseas. As one with a background in the Armed Forces himself, his concern (if I understood correctly and am doing it justice here) was that we may not be as sensitive, in the wording of this prayer for our own, to the concerns and needs of ALL who are endangered by our military presence in foreign lands as we might be.

I respected his concern, and see where he might have a valid point. Together, we agreed to post the question here, along with the text of the prayer, and let others chime in. My request is that, regardless of whether you agree or disagree, you offer concrete suggestions for how to improve this prayer to make it truly reflective of the Jewish sensibility regarding peace, and Temple Solel's own commitment to tikkun olam b'sheim Adonai -- improvement of our world for the sake of God's name.

For Our Soldiers and Civilians Overseas

Our prayers go out to the men and women who, whether by desire or by direction, are now, or soon will be, in the midst of conflict and battle.

O God, gather them together under the protective shadow of the wings of Your Shechinah. Protect them, guard them, and keep them from harm. O God Who gives life and values life, bring them back soon and successfully, whole of mind and body, to all those who love them. May the honor and courage that You have placed within them guide them as they serve our nation. Amen.

As We prepare for Passover -- Divrei HaRav -- My Temple Bulletin Column for March

Divrei HaRav -- Words From Weisman

Usually, when the President of the congregation or I start our columns, we mention the time lag between our writing and your reading these words, because there are frequently poignant distinctions to be made. Occasionally, as this month, rather than creating distinction, this lag works to bring 2 disparate items together, hopefully in a way that provides deeper understanding of our Jewish lives.

As I write, I am anticipating being able to get into the office at the Temple, following the ridiculous snow. I KNOW that no one wants to think about it anymore, or be reminded of it, but as I write, it is still very real – the snowplows are literally clearing the parking lot as we speak!

So I need to start with an ENORMOUS “Thank YOU” to the women of our Sisterhood who make up our Mitzvah Committee. In the hours leading up to the beginning of the first part of this storm, they were able to work with me, not only in preparing a workable plan that needed to be implemented to reschedule Sisterhood Shabbat, but also to work with me, proactively, in setting up a protocol for checking in with many of our members who are older or live alone, and might have been more harshly impacted by the inclement weather. The co-Presidents of Sisterhood, as they do every time it is possible, found a way to say yes to something that helped our membership, and along with those others, who made the initial calls, and received the few follow-up calls, and arranged for things for a few people, made it happen. {Editorial Note: As I have promised to do, I will edit sermons and bulletin columns to remove specific names that might inadvertently make private individuals public by their inclusion -- my thanks are no less heartfelt to these specific individuals!}

The lawyers teach us that “Extreme cases make bad law.” But extreme circumstances DO provide the opportunity to judge who we are and how we are doing in a different light than we usually allow to shine on our lives. Thanks to the efforts of Sisterhood and the Mitzvah Committee, I was far more calm during the storm, knowing that those most likely to need assistance had been contacted, and I hope those who were called were too. I also saw neighbors pitching in to help neighbors where they rarely even stop to say hello.

I saw an AWESOME display of both God’s power, and God’s beauty in creation, playing out through my windows – something I hope others gave themselves the time and opportunity to recognize, because it WAS magnificent. That, in turn, allowed me to see that blessing and curse truly ARE 2 sides of the same coin – so easy it was to imagine the beauty before my eyes suddenly being responsible for taking what would be a bad situation in everyday life, and possibly making it catastrophic, if people were isolated, or couldn’t get out to get the help they needed.

I was thankful the power stayed on for us – allowing me to stay connected electronically, even as we were isolated physically. This allowed me not only to be aware of what was going on at the Temple and with members, but also allowed the work of planning the community-wide “Bowie Cares” Benefit event for Haiti on February 28 to go on without delay. As always, I am not sure as I write when you will read these words, but if you read them before the event, I hope to see you there for a spectacular event for a great cause!

I was also able not to overdo in the shoveling department, BECAUSE of the help of my family, neighbors and friends. I assure you, that I do not like being unable to just go out and become a human snow plow as I used to be, but I was and am able to recognize my limits, and not push them, to use proper technique, and keen self-awareness, to still be part of the effort, but not in a dangerous way. It was not easy, letting others help to get me loose, but it was necessary. And let me add a huge thanks here to the many of you who know me too well, and responded to my innocent picture with a shovel in my hand, by reminding me, sometimes forcefully, to be careful!

But most of all, I am thankful as I look ahead to the month of March with my Jewish eyes, in light of the snow. At the end of the month, when we get to Passover this year, I suspect it will be much easier for us to follow the Talmudic injunction: “In every generation, each of us should see ourselves as if we, ourselves, came out of Egypt.” We may not know slavery firsthand – and that too is a blessing – but for this year, at least, we will certainly share a better understanding of the sense of relief and release that led our ancestors to spontaneous song and dance on the freedom side of the Reed Sea!

So as we prepare for our “Festival of Freedom” this year, I encourage you, as I always do, to make your celebrations personal. Fill the seder with personal sharing of questions, and answers, and especially this year, reactions and experience. And let all of those guide us to be even more aware and appreciative of God’s presence in our lives and our reality – in both the every day AND the spectacular. I wish you all a zissen Pesach!

Building a Foundation of Holiness

Introductory note: You will see that when you read through this sermon that I thought long and hard about NOT posting it here or anywhere. In the end, I was convinced that, even despite the ridiculously small showing of this group (3 adults and a child at Bowie HS, who, thanks to the efforts of the police and the school administration were virtually a non-issue, and, thankfully, no appearance at the funeral), I DO need to make people aware that such bigotry and hatred in the name of God is all too real in our country today.

Building a Strong Foundation of Holiness –
Sermon for Parshat T’tzaveh – Friday, February 26, 2010

In this week’s Torah portion, the blueprints for the Miqdash – God’s sacred address in the midst of the Children of Israel – continue to be given by God to Moses. As our Bat Mitzvah pointed out last Shabbat, the level and depth of detail is truly remarkable – as befits both a holy place, and God’s physical abode. And, as she also pointed out, for such a project, when the time comes to turn the blueprints into an actual building, the workers will need to take equally great care in following the instructions to a “T.”

It isn’t only THE sanctuary which can become a holy place – as Rabbi Joe Black pointed out in one of his powerful songs of preparation for the High Holy Days a number of years ago, when he answered the question “Where is God?” with the response “Whenever we let God in.” Indeed, after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Rabbis sought to have each of us turn our kitchen table, and by extension, our home, into a miqdash m’at – a small altar designed figuratively to take the place of the now destroyed large central one!

I was reminded of this twice in the past 10 days, when first a family in our community suffered a fire in their residence, and then another member family suffered a break-in. The sense of upheaval, the sense of violation, even when the reality that thankfully no one was injured in either case, and that ONLY things were lost, is no less deeply felt, no less powerful. I think we all DO take for granted the structures in which we live – unless or until something forces us not to – whether fire, or burglary, or damage that needs repair.

But I have also been reminded of another truth that I have been learning constantly over the last 20 years and more. We serve our fellow congregants, our fellow community members every day, just as we take for granted the structures in which we live on a daily basis. But that service is most keenly sensed – both by recipient and donor – when it comes at a time of heightened awareness and need. Whether it is the ability to celebrate a joyous simchah with family, neighbors and friends; or to welcome a stranger from far away stranded by weather in our area, and make him feel at home; or the ability to reach out in a time of loss and need such as these two families are feeling now -- THESE are the moments by which our congregation, as a q‘hillah q’doshah -- not a sacred place, but a holy community -- is measured and judged.

I am thankful, and I know the two families who have been impacted are also thankful, for the response and concern and support shown by individuals who are part of our community. Whatever our strengths and weaknesses as a congregation – and we are merely a group of human beings, after all! – on the whole, we GET this concept of supporting each other in good times and bad.

It is EXACTLY for this reason that 5 years ago, I was honored to be involved in the first Bowie Cares benefit concert, that raised some $8,000 to help the victims of the tsunami. It is EXACTLY for this reason that we put that group back together a few short weeks ago, to plan for this Sunday’s Bowie Cares: heart 2 heart 4 Haiti benefit concert, and have labored to create an event which strives for q’dushah not only by allowing us to help those in such dire need in Haiti, but by bringing our own larger Bowie community together in holiness. I hope to see as many of you there at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts this Sunday at 3 PM for a great afternoon of musical entertainment, and a chance to make Bowie a sacred place – at least for a day!

So imagine the pain any of us would feel, upon hearing the news of the death of a 16 year old football player, while he was working out lightly at the high school gym after school last Thursday, doing informal conditioning for the football season this fall. No history of medical issues, no hint of drug or alcohol use, no foul play. A seemingly physically healthy 16 year old athlete just keeled over and died. A tragedy to his family and friends – an emotional time for all those in the high school, whether they knew him or not, because teenagers are immortal in their own minds – nothing can happen to them. Sure, they here about stories like this in the news all too often – but that is someplace else, and so it doesn’t count; it isn’t real. But, when it happens in MY gym, I have to confront reality, every bit as much as if it is my house, or that of someone I know, that is damaged by fire or burglarized. In a small way – ALL of us feel violated, ALL of us are forced to face our own mortality. Whatever sense of qodesh – of transcendence in our lives – is temporarily lost, and needs to be recovered.

That reality is bad enough. But now, try to imagine the unthinkable – that there could be a group of people in this country or anywhere, who make a habit of targeting high profile funerals, especially those with military connections, AT RANDOM, and adding to the grief of the mourners by staging VERY visible demonstrations to get out their homophobic, misogynistic, hate-filled, extremist views – and claim to be acting in the name of and for the glory of their God!

It sounds so ludicrous as to be laughable, so obviously the exact OPPOSITE of true q’dushah, except for the fact that it is true. It is a small “church,” based in Kansas, whose mouthpiece and “minister” has personally paid for half the group to attend law school, and become experts in First Amendment issues. To date, they have been exclusively non-violent, seeking to provoke responses with their hate-filled words and obscene placards that will allow them to file lawsuits claiming that THEIR First Amendment rights have been violated. In the process, since they usually target local and state governments, who would rather pay a settlement than be dragged through the mud in court, they raise funds to self-perpetuate, and gain even more media coverage for their obscenities.

The URL of their web site cannot be repeated in polite company – and I am deliberately not sharing that name, or the name of the church or the minister. Because, honestly, they are not worth our time and concern, and by going to their website to learn about them, you may be allowing them to place a tracking cookie onto YOUR computer to learn about your movements. I do not want to give them any more publicity than the none that they deserve for their lack of respect for the dead, for the mourning, and for good people of faith everywhere who find their modus operandi morally reprehensible.

The problem is that they have targeted this local young man’s funeral on Monday, and now apparently also have a demonstration planned later in the week in front of the high school. Suddenly, they are no longer somewhere else, someone else’s issue to deal with. Uninvited, they have made themselves OUR issue. Personally, their timing is a further outrage, because I guarantee the downtown paper of record will give THEM waaaay more coverage than they will give our little concert for Haiti – in fact, I suspect the local papers are likely to do so as well.

Like the fire, or the burglary, or the death in our extended family, the threat of their actions violates our q’dushah - our ability to be comfortable in our own place and circumstance. That they claim to act out of their own misdefined sense of holiness is more than ironic – it adds to the pain we may allow ourselves to feel.
Sadly, but hardly surprisingly, their website lists as many Jewish sites for demonstrations around the country as it does secular ones. As of now, that list does NOT include us – and for this, we can be thankful indeed.

However, I, for one, will prepare for the worst, even as I pray and work for the best possible outcome from this unwanted invasion. I have been in contact with the Bowie Police, and have assurances not only that they are aware of what is planned, but that the city’s response does include protection of our property, even though it has not been explicitly targeted at this point.

I have made our congregational president, aware of the situation, and shared with her my plans for this evening’s remarks. She agrees with me that our best response as a congregation is to share this general information with you this evening, and to encourage everyone to go about their normal business this week. The time of their expected visit to Bowie is such that it would not interfere with anything but normal daily business, and that barely, if at all. As such, our staff will be fully briefed on the details, and have a plan in place for that time period, designed to minimize the possibility of making our property an additional sore point in their festering attempt to drag Bowie into the mud with them.

I know that not sharing more information about this group is a two-edged sword, because, sadly, human behavior tends toward rubbernecking. Some of us will, armed with this information, breathe a sigh of relief, as I have, that we here at the Temple would make a terrible target for them. Others will make plans, also rightfully so, to stay clear of the building during that period, just in case, and to give them no audience. But there are some, perhaps even many of us, who would go out of their way just to see what all the fuss is about, and by our actions, inadvertently, give these uninvited “guests” a bigger audience than they deserve. That is what we are trying to avoid. And yes, I am also aware that withholding information will, for some, make it even more desirable to have!

There is a very good chance that I will choose NOT to post this sermon on my blog or online – simply to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, and helping to ensure that we continue to stay off their radar screen. This DESPITE the great strides I have made to make this text almost unsearchable by those who would search for additional targets! I do not make such a decision lightly, as my general response to crud like this that grows under rocks in the dark of ignorance is to expose them to the light of day and thereby kill them off through educating ourselves and the community; to follow the prophetic ideal of speaking truth to power. However, since they have no power over us, save what we give them, I see no reason to speak more than I am to us tonight! Sadly, they ARE a small part of a much larger phenomenon of extremism and divisiveness that threatens the fabric of our entire country if it is not soon brought under control, which both adds to my desire to make as many people aware of them as possible, but also informs my need to respond (or more accurately, not to respond) to them in a proper manner.

Because I DO understand – and agree – that the best response to groups like this is to deprive them of the air that they need to exist and grow. By depriving them of our response, by rendering them a non-story and a non-issue, we can pray that the media will also come to recognize them as the nothing they truly are or should be, and cut off their air supply of free publicity accordingly.

And so, I implore all of you NOT to go looking for them this week. If you happen upon their demonstration by accident, please do all you can to distract any impressionable youngsters in your vehicle from being adversely impacted by their images and words. In ALL cases, do not engage or confront them in any way – this is what they want us to do! They cannot gain victory without our complicity and interaction with them.

Do not turn this into grist for the gossip mill – if you MUST share with friends and neighbors who are not here tonight out of concern for them, please do so calmly and completely, and stress the key words: low-key, non-confrontational.

Do trust me as your Rabbi, and the rest of our leadership and staff, to act appropriately in the best interests of our entire community and our communal home. And, those with students at the high school – know that the school is equally aware of what is coming, and is a part of the communal response as well – so that our children and adults in that facility will be kept, as best as possible, away from the disturbance, making a full day of school completely safe for all.

I fully expect to let local law enforcement and our elected leaders issue our formal reply – long after the irritant has been removed from our midst – that they came here uninvited, they were unwelcome, and they in no way, shape, or form represent anything remotely like what our community truly is.

In an ideal world, Sunday’s concert is the week’s top local headline - their demonstrations would be merely a footnote. Sadly, that ideal Jewish world, the one built on true q’dushah, is too often NOT the one manifested in the photo ops and sound bytes that define our age. This is why we still await the Messianic Age!

In other words, WE need to build upon the q’dushah - the sanctity, the rectitude - that is the primary ingredient of the foundations of our individual lives, as well as of our communal identity – both physically and spiritually – and respond to this provocation with patience, knowledge, and restraint. It is exactly for troubling moments such as these that we built our homes and our lives on this foundation of holiness in the first place. Ken y’hi ratzon - may it be God’s will! Amen.