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D'Var Torah

January 15, 2016

In this week's parashah, Bo, Moses continues his negotiation with Pharaoh fo...

In this week's parashah, Bo, Moses continues his negotiation with Pharaoh for the liberation of the Jewish people. The seven plagues last week were unable to move Pharaoh's "hardened heart," so heightened pressure is required. Just prior to the eighth plague there is a fascinating dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses demands the release of all of his people to go and worship God, but Pharaoh misunderstands, or is continuing the negotiation, and indicates he will let only the men go. Moses corrects Pharaoh and says he wants old and young, men, their sons and daughters and even their livestock to be set free. He wants everyone. Pharaoh refuses.

This theme of inclusiveness is repeated later in the reading when instructions are given for preparations on the final evening before the final plague. In what is the precedent for our annual Passover sederim, the Jews are told to prepare a meal. Recognizing that not all of these slave families can afford the necessary ingredients for the meal, God says: "But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons." (12:4). In a tradition that we carry on today at our Passover tables, friends, neighbors, and relatives are invited, so that all may be included.

In our Jewish social service agencies, we understand inclusiveness. Regardless of personal characteristics or how they identify, all clients are served. Each one deserves and receives a "place at the table." Just as when Moses insisted he take all of the Israelites out of Egypt, we today work to include all people in our enterprise of repairing the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Lee I. Sherman 

January 8, 2016

Two years ago, along with hundreds of others, I signed the following pledge prod...

Two years ago, along with hundreds of others, I signed the following pledge produced by our colleagues at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. We live in an age where our disagreements, both public and private, often are addressed in adversarial and disparaging rhetoric. For all of us, recognizing that disagreement is common and can be constructive, we should continue to pursue the civil discourse reflected in the following statement:

Statement on Civility

In American society, especially in our diverse Jewish community, we value robust and vigorous debate about pressing issues. Such debate is one of the greatest features of our democracy and one of the hallmarks of our people. We revel in our tradition of debate: A frank and civil exchange of ideas helps to inform our decisions, provoke new ways of thinking, and sometimes even change our minds. 

And yet today, the expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience. Community events and public discussions are often interrupted by raised voices, personal insults, and outrageous charges. Such incivility serves no purpose but to cheapen our democracy. When differences spiral down into uncivil acrimony, the dignity of individuals and community is diminished, and our precious democracy is weakened. People holding diverse views cease to listen to each other. Lack of civility makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to open minds, much less find common ground. 

Therefore we as a community and as individuals, must pledge to uphold the basic norms of civil discussion and debate at our public events. We do this not to stifle free expression of views, but rather to protect it. 

We will discover civility in the guarding of our tongues and the rejection of false witness. We will find it wherever we show care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may strongly disagree. We will find it by listening carefully when others speak, seeking to understand what is being said and trying to learn from it. 

This pursuit has deep roots in Torah and in our community's traditions. Our Sages saw the fruit of arguments that were conducted l'shem shamayim, "for the sake of Heaven." They fervently believed that great minds, engaged in earnest search and questioning, could find better and richer solutions to the problems they faced. They refrained from insisting on uniformity. They sought to preserve and thereby honor the views of the minority as well as the majority. They did so through their understanding of the great teaching of Eilu v'elu divrei Elokim chayim, "both these words and those are the words of the living God." 

As a community, we must commit ourselves and ask others to open their hearts and minds to healthy, respectful dialogue based on our love for our neighbors and our people. 

We therefore agree to treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other. 

We commit ourselves to this course to preserve an essential element of a community - the ability to meet and talk as brothers and sisters.

Lee I. Sherman 

December 11, 2015

In our house, we use, at least, one Hanukkiah for each person present for the ca...

In our house, we use, at least, one Hanukkiah for each person present for the candle lighting. All are welcome to be part of the ceremony - they don't need to be a family member or even Jewish. Hanukkah is a festival of freedom, resilience, and light, something anyone should be able to relate to. And, as Jews, it is our privilege and responsibility to share that message with the broader communities in which we live.  

Lately, this message of welcome seems to be lost in words of hate and fear. Certainly, we all can feel threatened by acts of terror that strike at the very heart of our culture by targeting our most routine activities. But, rather than react by building walls of exclusion, we need to focus on bridges of inclusion. I feel so fortunate to live in a country that welcomed my grandparents when they were fleeing persecution and gave them the opportunity to live full lives and grow their families, as Americans and Jews.

On Wednesday, I was once again fortunate to attend the White House Hanukkah Celebration, hosted by the President and Mrs. Obama. This is not a political event, present are Jews from all across the political and religious spectrum. It is a time to be welcomed into our nation's house, into a United States that we can call home. From the moment we entered to the sounds of the Maccabeats performing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in English and Hebrew, we were home. This year I took my son as a representative of our family's next generation, so he, too, can appreciate our country and all it represents as a home to many faiths, nationalities, and cultures. It was a privilege for us to share the spirit of Hanukkah with the President, President Rivlin of Israel, and Jews from across our country. This is the meaning of the light of Hanukkah.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

Lee I. Sherman 

December 4, 2015

Sometimes you just have to shake your head, drop your jaw, and gaze in wondermen...

Sometimes you just have to shake your head, drop your jaw, and gaze in wonderment. I know that Art Linkletter said that "Kids say the darndest things!" But, kids are nothing compared to adults, particularly adults with a microphone. Politicians, Hollywood celebrities, athletes, and other media stars just can't keep from revealing to us that they truly have no understanding of a variety of things they insist on commenting about. What could help them to give more consideration prior to opening their mouths?

This week's parashah, Va-Yeishev, begins the Joseph narrative with the familiar story of Joseph's vicious treatment by his brothers. The story begins with Joseph's revelation to his father and brothers of two dreams easily transparent as conveying that all of his family occupy an inferior position to him. Not only are his brothers angry, but his father, Jacob, berates him for sharing his dreams. What was Joseph thinking? Not long after, Jacob does something quite surprising. Knowing how the other brothers feel about Joseph, Jacob, nonetheless, sends him to Shechem to check up on the brothers and their flocks. What was Jacob's agenda?

Jacob clearly knew that Joseph was foolish to share his dreams with his family. But, Jacob understood that Joseph's poor decision-making was a result of his lack of understanding of his brothers and the world they occupied. Joseph had been favored, pampered. So, Jacob sent Joseph to Shechem to gain a better understanding of who is brothers were, of what they do and are about. Joseph, or any of us, must not feel superior just because of the environment in which we were born, we need to understand the other before we categorize or demonize. Perhaps if those who spout off in the media without pausing for thought gave a little more time to understanding those they feel compelled to speak about, we would all have more time to learn about each other.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Lee I. Sherman