Opening Our Eyes by Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

I watched the 2016 movie Spotlight on a long-haul flight. I had put off watching it when it was first released, because I was afraid that I would find the depiction of child sexual abuse too upsetting. As it turns out, the film spends almost no time focused on the actual abuse. This is a movie not about the abusers, but about bystanders choosing to overlook the abuse.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, here is a bit about it: the term “Spotlight” refers to a small group of reporters employed by the Boston Globe newspaper to engage in long and complex investigations. In 2001, the Spotlight team discovered that the Boston Catholic archdiocese had been covering up sexual abuse by priests for decades and shifting offending priests from one parish to another. The articles published in early 2002 shocked the public and ultimately led to the resignation of Boston’s powerful Catholic cardinal Bernard Law.

Of course, child sexual abuse had been taking place in the Boston area for years and years before the Boston Globe broke its story. It becomes clear in the film that abuse allegations had been finding their way to Globe journalists on and off for quite a while before the Spotlight unit finally began its investigation. At the start of the film, the newspaper hires a new editor: Marty Baron is a Jew from Florida, taking the helm of a newspaper in a city with a deep and pervasive Catholic culture. He meets with the Spotlight reporters and joins them in a brainstorming session to come up with a new target for their investigation. When a reporter mentions the abuse allegations, the editor pounces and suggests that this could be an important story. The reporters themselves are sceptical–after all, they’ve written a few assorted stories over the years. What need is there for more coverage? Ultimately, the Spotlight unit begins its investigation and uncovers not only the extent of the problem but also the way the Archdiocese has been covering it up.

I was so struck by the fact that it was the Jewish editor from Florida who recognised the significance of this story–not the Catholic reporters. Appalling things had been happening for generations in the Boston area, but it took the arrival of a complete outsider to open up the journalists to a new perspective. The movie pushes each of us to ask, “What are we not seeing? How are our own pre-existing biases stopping us from recognising potentially horrifying behaviours?”

This week, we heard from two prominent columnists at the Murdoch press that Cardinal Pell couldn’t possibly be guilty of the allegations against him. Andrew Bolt wrote, “Declaration: I have met Pell perhaps five times in my life and like him. I am not a Catholic or even a Christian. He is a scapegoat, not a child abuser. In my opinion.” Miranda Devine wrote, “It’s devastating because I don’t believe that Pell, who I know slightly and admire greatly, could be guilty of sexually assaulting two choirboys in a busy cathedral after Sunday mass when he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.” What both of them are saying is basically, Cardinal Pell is a very intelligent and likable person. Therefore he is incapable of perpetrating evil on others. Therefore his victims must be lying.

Twenty-five years ago, I attended my very first seminar on clergy sexual abuse. It was conducted at my annual rabbinical conference, and I sat in a room together for dozens of other rabbis–some of whom were beloved friends and all of whom were respected colleagues. We watched a video showing how abuse might occur. The person depicted on the screen was a caricature: someone whose behaviour and mannerisms were so bizarre and inappropriate that you would have had to have been blind not to pick up on them. At the time, I looked around and thought, when abuse is exposed among us, it won’t be some strange person who is the perpetrator; it will be one of the people in this room.

I would suggest that the most pernicious reason why abusers can offend again and again is that we adults take the side of the fellow adult that we know, trust and respect over the words of a child who is suffering. It is a natural human tendency to think well of the people in our lives. How incredibly difficult to come to the realisation that we are wrong–the person we thought was so worthy of admiration has inflicted terrible harm on a child. Easier not to believe the child than to see our own world view so shaken up.

Two years after I finished rabbinical school, the unthinkable happened: a rabbinical student was expelled weeks before his ordination when it was discovered that he was a sociopath who had been sexually assaulting female students at the school for years. He also happened to have been the university roommate of the president of the seminary. When his victims would threaten to go to the seminary president to expose what he had done, he would gleefully say, “Who do you think he’s going to believe? You or his university roommate?!” So the assaults remained secret for a very long time.

All of us need to see ourselves as being that potential safe person who might trusted by a child with a shocking revelation. Perhaps we would do well to each ask ourselves—if someone came to me tomorrow and made an accusation against someone I knew, liked and respected, what would I do? Would I be prepared to have my eyes opened? Would I be prepared to have my foundations rocked? And if not, who am I? Shabbat shalom.

Rabbis and Politics–just prior to the Wentworth by-election

The mainstream press was all abuzz last week with talk about my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, longtime rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra. For those of you who don’t know Sydney, Woollahra is right smack in the middle of the Wentworth electorate. News emerged that Rabbi Kamins had used the synagogue’s email list and website to ask his members to consider the disastrous implications of climate change in deciding who to vote for in the upcoming election. He did not actually suggest which candidate his members should vote for, but even so his appeal caused quite a stir. I would dare say that if the Liberal party had an actual progressive strategy on climate change, Rabbi Kamins’ plea would have not have resulted in such a fuss. But because the party and especially the government has chosen to ignore the IPCC report from last week, Rabbi Kamins is seen as encouraging his membership not to cast their votes for the Liberal candidate.

In wading in on this election that the Saturday Paper called “The race that stopped the nation” Rabbi Kamins has raised an eternal issue for rabbis and other clergy: how active do we get in the political life of this country? Over the last several weeks, I’ve been to two very different gatherings which married the religious and the political. The first was an event on religious responses to climate change, run by the Multifaith Association. That organisation has generally steered clear of politics in the past, but I’m personally encouraged that it has decided to wade in on this and perhaps other issues. I’ve concluded over the years that the best chance for meaningful multifaith relationships to develop is to join together to work on social justice and community service projects. I was serving as chair of the ministerial association of my little town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, when I suddenly found myself thrust into the role of re-inventing our local food bank to be more effective in meeting the needs of the many who were not able to make ends meet each month. It was hard, hard work, but it also brought together people from nearly every one of the 24 congregations in the town.

The second event was a conference held by the Anti-Poverty Network, an organisation made up of those who are trying to get by on low incomes and Newstart as well as their advocates. The conference took place at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church—the enormous monolith at the corner of Portrush Road and the Parade. Although much of the day was non-religious, it was significant that this church had opened its doors up to the meeting and that its volunteers catered lunch. I was part of a panel that included the vicar general of the Adelaide Catholic Archdiocese and the South Australia moderator of the Uniting Church. I must say I felt like quite a small fish, making a tiny splash in a state where care for the most vulnerable is dominated by church-based agencies. After we panelists spoke, there were questions and comments from the audience. One audience member, a long-time advocate for the homeless, wanted to know why it was that religious organisations were now so meek when it came to standing up for the poor. What had become of our prophetic voices? Why weren’t we doing more to speak out for those who felt themselves voiceless? Sue Ellis, the very impressive moderator of the Uniting Church, spoke of declining numbers of church members leading to decreased funds and a lowered ability to get things done. She said, “This is the reason—but it’s not a justification.” Meeting in a church named in part for an early Christian abolitionist, we were reminded of how religious leaders have often been at the forefront of battles for a more just world.

It can be a delicate balance. I recently read a stinging Facebook comment by someone who noted that Chabad has been successful worldwide in luring Progressive Jews to their fervently Orthodox synagogues because they are as passionate about Judaism as we Progressive Jews are about social justice. Ouch. Not too long after I read that, a colleague on one of my rabbinic Facebook lists lamented that she had to lead services for the first day of Sukkot when what she really wanted to be doing was getting arrested to protest the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. I was so astonished that I had to work very hard to suppress the desire to write, “Was that why you became a rabbi? To get arrested while wearing a tallit?”

An old adage says that the role of a clergy person is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Congregations are often completely happy when their clergy comfort the afflicted. But those of us who are comfortable would clearly prefer not to be afflicted. Too often, that means ignoring suffering happening very nearby. There are plenty of people out there in need of comforting, and we could do much to be of help to them. I was reminded yesterday that a significant percentage of Australians are trying to live on a Newstart allowance which has not been raised by either party since 1994. Most of those folks are so caught up in trying to meet their daily needs for shelter and nutrition that they have no energy left to advocate for themselves. That’s where we come in—not only clergy like me, but caring citizens like you. We Jews are part of a proudly prophetic tradition. Isaiah, Amos and, yes, Abraham, whose story begins this Shabbat, all spoke up on behalf of others. It is possible to rejoice in our lives as Jews and also advocate for a more perfect world. Let’s strive to do both. Shabbat shalom!

If you have three minutes, I recommend the song “It’s Time,” which advocates for a raise in the Newstart allowance. I spotted a familiar face in the choir!

Guarding the Earth–a sermon for Parshat Noach

I am well and truly blessed that part of my bicycle ride from home to the synagogue takes me along Adelaide’s gorgeous Linear Park. I rode in this morning, revelling in the shrieks of the lorakeets in the gum trees, admiring pink-breasted galahs on the grass, and enjoying the Torrens gently trickling down. It’s almost too beautiful for words. As I was riding, I was reflecting on the news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the terrifying report it issued early this week. The grass is already turning brown after the dry winter—what will this park look like in ten years? Twenty? Will rainbow lorakeets still flock to the gum trees? Will galahs still be able to find tasty insects in the grass?

The release of the IPCC’s report fortuitously falls in the week that synagogues around the world read the story of Noah, his ark, and the destruction of the world. In recent years, parashat Noah has become an unofficial environmental Shabbat, as Jews reflect on the possibility of a second global catastrophe.

Climate change is, without a doubt, the most daunting challenge the world has ever faced. Decades of technological and medical advances have enriched us in ways that would have been unimaginable one hundred years ago. We can now travel anywhere in the world we want. Some of us own large homes and enormous cars. Our food comes from all over the world. It has occurred to me lately that two of my favourite foods—coffee and chocolate—are also among the least environmentally friendly, as both have to travel vast distances to reach me. We are increasingly reliant on technological miracles—phones and tablets and computers spun together from rare earth minerals dug up at great expense and dramatic environmental impact. Entire nations (including ours) have become wealthy through digging up, refining and selling coal and petroleum to perpetuate our lavish lifestyles. Why would we ever want to give all that up?

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Noah to build an ark of cedar wood. In an ancient midrash, Noah plants cedar trees and nurtures them for a hundred years until they’re ready to be harvested and their wood used to build the ark. Year after year, people would approach Noah and ask him why he was letting his trees grow taller and taller. Year after year, he would warn them of the impending flood and of the need for them to repent. They never did. Some climate scientists have been issuing warnings for decades, and now the estimate is that 97% of scientists are in agreement that climate change is real and caused by human beings. Humanity is quick to embrace the innovations of medical science, engineers, and agricultural science. But somehow a 97% consensus on climate change is still not enough to bring about the radical, systemic change that is desperately needed right now, and in all probability thirty years ago.

As a small start, this week I went onto the website and made a personal commitment to reduce my demands in three areas: energy, transport and food. I have given up red meat entirely and am making an effort to minimise the amount of milk and cheese I consume. For several years, all of my energy has come from renewable sources. All electric companies will give you that option, and of course thankfully South Australia is ahead of many other places when it comes to our renewable energy production. And finally, I’m trying to ride my bicycle and take the bus more. I’m a bit appalled at the cost of taking the bus in this city, but would still like to do it more often. Making these commitments hopefully shows our federal government and other nations that we, the voters, are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve our world for the future.

It says in the Torah that God gave Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden to tend and to guard. In a midrash, God further warns this first human pair: Be careful how you look after the garden, for if you destroy it there will be none after you to restore it. This amazing world is our garden. Let us do all we can to tend it. Shabbat shalom!

Welcoming Guests–Kol Nidre 5779

On Rosh Hashanah, I began a series of sermons on the five values that are a part of Beit Shalom’s mission. At those two services, I spoke about chesed–grace, and also Torah. This evening, I want to talk with about hachnasat orchim.

First, a Hebrew lesson. The word hachnasat comes from the word “to enter.” The meaning of Hebrew verbs changes depending on what conjugation pattern is applied. Hachnasat uses the hif’il pattern of conjugation, which makes the verb causal–meaning, causing someone else to do something. So the word katav means “he wrote” and the word hikhtiv means “he dictated.” Hachnasat means “to cause to enter,” and orchim means “guests.” To practice hachnasat orchim is to cause guests to enter—into our homes and our hearts.

Many of us make inviting guests part of our weekly or monthly schedule, but Judaism has turned the action into a mitzvah. As with the giving of tzedakah, welcoming guests is not only a nice thing to do, it’s actually a religious obligation. The Talmud tells us, “Welcoming guests is a greater action than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah, as it says in the Torah: “He said, “my lords, if I have found favour in your eyes, please do not turn away from your servant.”

The quote here is from Abraham in chapter 18 of the book of Genesis. It is this story which sets up the model for what true hospitality looks like. When we meet Abraham at the start of the chapter, he is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. A different source suggests that he sits at the entrance of the tent specifically to spot travellers in need of hospitality, but here the rabbis understand that he is also recovering from his circumcision, which only happened at the end of the previous chapter. Presumably, he is not at his best. And yet, when he spots three angels disguised as dirty, dusty strangers, he leaps onto his feet and goes to work. Never has a 99-year-old man moved so quickly. He races from one tent to the next, organising food for his company. He begs them to stay, offering to wash their feet, and plying them with freshly-killed lamb and newly-baked bread. And all of this before he even asks their names.

The rabbis pondered many times over why God plucked Abraham from obscurity and chose him to be the father of the Jewish people. This story provides as good an insight as any into his generous and genuine character. There is so much that is extraordinary in this episode. Abraham rises far above and beyond what we might think of as the call of duty to look after people he has never met. Surely it would have been acceptable for him to say, “I’m not well today. I believe that my neighbour a few hills over can look after you.” But he didn’t say that. He welcomed in the strangers and completely spoiled them.

Of course, we know how the story ends: these men turn out to be angels bearing a thrilling message for Abraham and Sarah–that in a year, they will have a son. But it is important that Abraham does not know the identity of these men. We get the sense that this is how he treats each and every person who happens upon his tent.

Of course, it would have been far easier for Abraham living a nomadic lifestyle in a sparsely populated land. Nowadays, it is rare that we take a complete stranger into our homes. Rare, but not unheard of: each year in the weeks, days and sometimes even hours before the first seder, the office receives calls from the strangers in our midst. They may be overseas students, people here on business from interstate or overseas, and the occasional tourist. I have never had difficulty finding a seder table where they will be made to feel welcome. It helps that it says right there in the haggadah “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

But hachnasat orchim is not a once-a-year mitzvah. Ideally, it’s a mitzvah for every Shabbat, or at least every festival. I note that nowhere in the texts I’ve checked is there a requirement that you offer your guests a gourmet five-course dinner appropriate for Master Chef. We all do the best we can–me most of all. My slow cooker is my friend, and whenever anyone asks, “What can I bring?” the answer is never, “Oh–you don’t need to bring anything.” I bake and freeze stuff, and I’m definitely not above taking advantage of the local bakery or pizza parlor to feed guests. Because it’s not actually about the food–it’s about the welcome we extend. I have a wild mix of crockery, used furniture, and a humble home which I am keen to open up to many more guests in the coming year, just as soon as my new puppy gets a little more used to strangers.

Rabbi Yosi son of Yochanan is quoted as saying, “Let your house be open to the winds, and make the poor members of your household.” The rabbinic work Avot d’Rabbi Natan expands on this idea by speaking of Job, who tradition tells us had entry-ways to his home facing north, south, east and west so that all who passed by would find their way inside. In my years as a rabbi, I have been present at many funeral meetings in which adult children have said fondly of their mothers, “her house was always open and full of kids from the neighbourhood.” Some of these mums had home-baked cookies and slices waiting to feed the hungry hoards. Others just opened a packet and a carton of milk. What the kids remembered was the open door–not the quality of the food they were fed.

I note that hachnasat orchim is not only about entertaining the people who are already your friends. It’s about opening up your home to people you don’t know well or barely know at all. I specifically chose this night to talk about this subject, because tonight is the night when you are most likely to be surrounded by people you don’t know. With us this evening are exchange students and tourists, newly-minted Jews and people who have recently relocated to Adelaide. With us as well are longtime Beit Shalom members that you may not have seen in quite a while, but are no less worthy of a warm welcome and a dinner invite.

I started thinking about giving a sermon on hachnasat orchim when a colleague of mine posted on a Facebook page that her congregants believed this to be a mitzvah that only the rabbi needed to worry about. She even had someone approach her and say, “It’s amazing that you manage to put on a dinner party every week,” to which she said, somewhat perplexed, “You mean–Shabbat?!” I’m delighted that this is not that kind of community. We have a wonderful tradition of hachnasat orchim at Beit Shalom—so much so that Alison Marcus’ challah–dearly missed!–and Merrilyn Ades’ creme caramel are legendary enough to have both become fixtures of Purim shpiel scripts. But both Alison and Merrilyn are known above all for the warmth of the welcome they extend. Others in our community have also been incredibly generous in hosting out-of-town visitors and guests at their homes. I hope that everyone who is here tonight will consider extending their hands in friendship as well.

Practicing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim is often its own reward. I have gained friends, learned amazing things and added to my professional networks as a direct result of welcoming people I didn’t know particularly well into my home. I have carved the smile lines more deeply into my face as a result of all the laughter, and occasionally been present for extraordinary moments of connection. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that it’s all been an absolute pleasure.

On this night when we’re called to stand back and a take a long look not only at our lives but at the world beyond, I’d like to digress for a moment and talk about the global value of hachnasat orchim. We live in an era when countries are less and less willing to extend a hand of welcome. It is increasingly difficult to pick up and start a new life in a new country. Australia is no exception. Decades ago, the spouses of Australian citizens were automatically entitled to begin applying for citizenship as soon as they arrived. Today, a partner visa costs $7000, and the application process can last years. The answer to one of the questions on my citizenship exam was that a benefit of Australian citizenship is the ability to sponsor family members to come here to live. But if you visit the Department of Home Affairs website, you will see that there is a quota on how many such visas are issued each year, and as a result family members might have to wait years or even decades for approval. It seems to me that if these are both rights of Australian citizenship, the least the government can do is to extend the hand of hospitality to our family members whom we choose to bring to this country.

And then there is the issue of refugees. According to the UNHCR, more than 68 million people worldwide have fled their homes and are in need of care and protection. 40 million of those are internally displaced within their home countries, but 28 million more are living in a country not their own. We know that Australia is far from the only nation that has closed its doors to all but a trickle of refugees. In fact, it seems the world’s unwillingness to be open and welcoming to the most vulnerable has increased in direct proportion to the numbers of those needing refuge. It is not a far jump from the concept of welcoming guests to hachnasat hager—welcoming the stranger. As it says in Pirkei Avot, we are not expected to complete the work, but that does not mean we are free to ignore it entirely. We should seek to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.

Over the next twenty-four hours, we’ll spend a lot of time contemplating how we will try to be better in the year ahead. Hachnasat orchim—welcoming guests—is really not that difficult in the great scheme of things. And it has profound benefits, not only for us individually, but for us as a community as well. I wish you well over the fast, and may this new year be filled with joy, good health, and new connections and friendships as well. Shana tova!

Being Torah–Sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

Last night, I began a series of sermons on the values that Beit Shalom has as part of its mission statement. I spoke about the concept of chesed, which has traditionally been translated as “lovingkindness” but is more accurately understood as grace. This morning, I’d like to talk about Torah. For starters, I want to make sure that we all agree on what Torah is. Many Jews will confidently state that Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and they’ll be right. But confusingly, the term Torah is also used by the rabbis to represent all Jewish teachings from all time, right up until today. The Talmud, midrash, kabbalah, Shulkhan Arukh—all can be considered Torah, and the study of any of those texts, along with thousands of other Jewish texts, is all talmud Torah—the study of Torah.

Torah study, even of those first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is a world away from what Christians call Bible study. In Bible study, there are a limited number of questions, and each question generally only has one answer. When Jews get together to study Torah, there are many many questions and just about an infinite number of possible answers. The rabbis cheerfully include contradictory answers right next to each other, adhering to a teaching from the Talmud that many find challenging: “These and these are the words of the living God.” The goal of Torah study appears not to get to The Answer but rather to reach an answer that feels right for each of us. One interpretation may ring true one year, but feel wrong in another year. As is quoted in the Talmud of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it and turn it, for all is contained within.”

Few passages in the Torah have been interpreted and re-interpreted more than this morning’s Torah reading. The wonderful website records no fewer than 64 commentaries and midrashim discussing just the very first verse! Some of those 64 interpretations themselves include multiple understandings, such as the medieval commentary Chizkuni who quotes four conflicting interpretations of the verse, “Sometime afterward, God put him to the test.” The rabbis very early on observed that the word דברים can mean “events” or “words.” They generally opted for the second definition, and then set about trying to figure out what conversation had precipitated God’s test of Abraham. Here are Chizkuni’s answers: “Ishmael had boasted to Isaac that he had voluntarily undergone circumcision at 13, an age when it was most painful, to which Isaac had replied that he, Ishmael, had endured pain only on one part of his body, whereas he, Isaac, would be prepared to undergo such pain on his whole body, i.e. he would even give his life for G-d. Another interpretation of the words: ויהי אחר הדברים האלה is that they refer to the treaty concluded between Abraham and Avimelech, when Abraham had voluntarily postponed the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to him without having first obtained G-d’s permission to do so…Another interpretation, one which places the emphasis on the words נסה את אברהם, “God tested Abraham.” Abraham was not tested in order for G-d to be convinced of his willingness to offer up his beloved son, seeing that God, Who is omniscient, already knows such matters; he was tested by the attribute of Justice which had dared question the degree of loyalty Abraham could summon when so tested. Passing this test successfully would convince the people around him of the absolute obedience to any command G-d would issue to him. There was no way the nations of the world could challenge his faith thereafter.”

Each of these three different interpretations paint the story of the Binding of Isaac in a completely different light: the first interpretation makes it all about Isaac, who brazenly challenges his older brother Ishmael to a very serious game of truth or dare. In the second interpretation, Abraham’s faith is actually placed in doubt, as it appears that he himself postpones God’s promise of the gift of the land without asking God first. And finally, the third interpretation suggests that the whole test was intended to prove Abraham’s faithfulness to the world. Another commentator Ibn Ezra challenges this third interpretation, noting that the only ones who witnessed Abraham’s faithfulness were God and Isaac. And so the debates continue on and on over centuries. Ultimately, it is generally this last interpretation that prevails. In the end, it is not important that there were no human witnesses present but rather that God was watching and was favourably impressed. We blow the shofar today and even invoke Abraham’s faithfulness in our prayers to remind God that though our own deeds may be small, we are descended from someone whose faith was tested and found to be true.

Chizkuni includes a fourth interpretation of the first verse that first appears in the Talmud, is quoted by the famous medieval French rabbi Rashi and is repeated by many others after. Says Rashi, “Some of our Rabbis say that it means after the words of Satan who denounced Abraham saying, ‘Of all the banquets which Abraham prepared not a single bull nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to You ’. God replied to him, “Does he do anything at all except for his son’s sake? Yet if I were to bid him, “Sacrifice him to Me’’, he would not refuse.” Knowledgeable readers will immediately recognise in this ancient midrash an echo of the opening of the book of Job. The start of that book, buried in the back of the Tanakh, sees God engaged in conversation with Satan. God boasts of Job’s faithfulness, but Satan question the depth of Job’s loyalty, pointing out how abundantly God has blessed him. God rises to the challenge, permitting Satan to make Job’s life completely miserable so that his fidelity to God can be confirmed. And so by the end of the first chapter, all that Job has is gone, including his seven sons and three daughters.

My teacher Rabbi Jacob Staub pointed out how the Talmud’s twist on the opening words of our Torah portion turns the story dark and sinister. No longer is Isaac’s ordeal justified as a demonstration of his father’s faithfulness to the world. Instead, the whole test happens to decide a bet between God and Satan as to just how devoted Abraham is. All of the uplifting potential of Abraham’s selflessness and suffering are negated by the petty dispute between two beings who hold his fate in their hands. Rabbi Staub pointed out how Rashi, the greatest of all interpreters of ancient Jewish texts, was an old man when he witnessed the start of the First Crusade, an event which proved catastrophic for Jews scattered across Europe. Was it any wonder that, in sifting through the dozens of explanations for why God might have tested the faithful servant Abraham, Rashi settled on the most capricious and terrifying of them all?

Jews have continued to wrestle with this text ever since, striving to make meaning and sense out of a spare few verses which reveal so little and hide so much. I have done my part over the years, turning the story this way and that each year. I have spent significant time with Genesis 22 for thirty years and still feel I have more to understand.

It is essential to understand that you don’t have to be a professional to study Torah. Far from it. But an open and inquiring mind is essential. So is a willingness to listen with a whole heart to those whose interpretation differs from your own. Torah study is all about vikuach l’shem shamayim: argument for a higher purpose. Traditional Torah study is conducted in pairs with a chevruta—the word comes from the word for friend, but is closer to a sparring partner. You and your chevruta drive each other to go deeper and deeper into the text. You challenge one another, you contradict one another, and you affirm one another. Your ultimate goal is not to better your partner but to leave your hour of study having gained insights would never have reached on your own.

For decades, it’s been my pleasure to use the textbook Being Torah for teaching the classic stories of Genesis to students aged 9-12. The book, published in 1986, features children cast in the roles of the biblical characters. My students poke fun at the silly costumes and the felt beards. But children are cast as commentators as well. At the end of each story, three or more kids share their own interpretations. The invitation is clearly given to the children reading the stories to do the same, and happily my students pile on.

We studied the story of how Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man the night before he was due to confront his brother Esau. The Hebrew text is compellingly ambiguous about what actually happens that night. One student piped up, “Maybe he was wrestling with his own conscience.” The students noticed how even after Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, the text continues to use both names to refer to him. They noted his shadow side—how after he reconciles with his brother, he promises Esau that he will follow closely behind, only to head in the opposite direction. Even though he is trying to be Israel, he still slides back into his Jacob self—a sobering message for us at this time of the year as we hope to attain our better selves.

The following week, we moved on to the start of the Joseph cycle. The kids had very little patience for the spoiled brat that is Joseph at the beginning of the story. They were particularly offended that at multiple places in the story, the text notes, “God was with Joseph.” But why?! they wanted to know. This was Joseph who dobbed in his brothers and then related dreams to them that seemed designed to offend them further. Then one student jumped in, “Maybe Joseph doesn’t know that God is with him.” And yes, there is nowhere in the entire story where we ever see God speaking directly to Joseph.

Finally, in the week before Rosh Hashanah, we had another look at the binding of Isaac. The story—all 19 verses of it—is short enough that I can recite it from memory nearly exactly as it appears in the Torah. The kids are subdued and sober. Then one bursts out, “Why does God insist that we have trust but doesn’t trust us?! If God trusted Abraham there would be no need for the test.” We reflected back on the dream of Jacob’s ladder, how after God appears to him Jacob places conditions on his faith: “If God brings me safely home and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear, then Adonai will be my God.” Yes, but. It’s one thing for a person to be lacking in trust, but it’s definitely problematic when the one lacking trust is God.

These exercises make me very happy and fill me with pride. I see my students growing into mature, thoughtful students of Torah who are comfortable asking hard questions and are prepared to accept ambiguous answers. I see that this mind-stretching work helps them to develop into complex, nuanced thinkers who will hopefully resist the temptation to settle for easy answers. I wonder whether respectful Torah study might be one solution to the increasing problem of how often we fail to listen deeply to one another.

Talmud Torah–the study of Torah–happens at Beit Shalom all the time. We discuss the parshah at every Shabbat service, and twice a month members are invited to join in for a lively 45 minutes or so where we delve deeper into that week’s Torah portion. In October, I’ll be teaching Talmud one again–the ultimate in sacred Jewish arguments! If coming to synagogue is tough, there are virtually endless ways to study Torah at home, at the office, alone or with family and friends. I invite you in the year ahead to consider making Torah study a part of your weekly routine. Let your brain stretch in new directions, and see where it leads. Shana tova–may this be a year of sweetness, good health and spiritual growth for us all.

Chesed–Embodying Grace

Rosh Hashanah 5779

Even long-time Beit Shalom members may not be aware that this congregation has embraced five Jewish values as its core mission. They are chesed, Torah, tikkun olam, hachnasat orchim, and tzedakah. I have decided that this year I’m going to dedicate my High Holy Day sermons to these topics and what each of us might gain in the year ahead by working to embrace all of these values. Tonight’s topic is chesed. I’m specifically not providing a translation at this point in the sermon in the hopes of keeping you on the edges of your seats wondering when I’ll reveal the answer. Stay tuned!

It was a hot, steamy day in Washington, DC as my son Onyx, my father and I boarded the subway at the Bethesda station bound for a day of museum visits. We had just found seats when Onyx said to me, “Someone’s fainted.” I looked to the middle of the car, and saw a man lying on the floor. Now, you may know me as your humble neighbourhood rabbi, but I also have a secret identity as a first aide provider. Armed with the knowledge provided by occasional one-day first aide training courses, I strode confidently down the car and went to work. The man was thankfully breathing and was actually awake and talking a bit. I knelt down next to him, introduced myself, took his hand, and set about doing what we first aiders do best: reassuring the patient and waiting for the professionals to show up. A fellow passenger knelt on the other side of the patient and kept him company as well. Two other passengers were on the subway intercom, talking to the driver and letting her know what was going on. Another passenger passed over her bottle of water so that the man could have a drink, and yet another passenger watched over the man’s briefcase.

Help came just a few minutes later at the next subway stop. The driver announced that the train would stay at the station while this medical situation was tended to. My fellow first aider and I helped our patient very slowly to his feet and walked him out of the car and to the bench on the platform. We were met there by a Metro employee, who said she would watch over him until the paramedics arrived. The man was reunited with his briefcase. We helpers got back on the train and watched the man recede as the train started moving towards the next station.

It was only much later as I reflected on the episode that I understood that I had witnessed and also participated in an act of chesed. Chesed is a word which is too often translated as lovingkindess. The translation is problematic because there isn’t actually such a word. As I write this, “lovingkindness” is underlined in red because the word simply doesn’t exist. If you use google translate, it will tell you the plain meaning of chesed is “grace.” We Jews are inclined to think of grace as a Christian concept, but that’s incorrect. We have grace too. The Hebrew word is chesed.

Chesed is kindness freely given, with no expectation of ever being repaid or rewarded. There is a reason that many chevrot kaddishah—burial societies—have the word chesed in their names. Preparing the body of someone who has died for burial is the ultimate example of a kindness for which the recipient cannot possibly repay the favour. Very few people feel called to perform this particular mitzvah, but each of us have opportunities to perform acts of chesed nearly every day.

You’ll remember about twenty years ago there was a popular call to “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” The concept has not gone out of fashion even though the phrase has. Within a Jewish framework, random acts of kindness are known as g’milut chasadim. Another tricky phrase to translate, because the word g’milut doesn’t exactly mean “acts.” It’s a verb whose meaning is closer to “to deal with.” The expression implies that we have made the choice to deal with someone kindly rather than cruelly. It continues the message that human beings—like God—have the ability to gift acts of kindness to people completely at random and with no expectation that they’ll get anything in return. Simply the knowledge that they have done the right thing at the time.

There are two different categories of mitzvot—those that are between human beings and God, and those that are between one person and another. The first category covers religious mitzvot such as observing Shabbat, hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and wearing a tallit. The second category covers ethical mitzvot such as paying our workers on time, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick.

While performing g’milut chasadim is an ethical mitzvah, chesed itself is not a mitzvah at all. Chesed is not an action, but rather an attitude. Danny Segal, founder of the Ziv Foundation, points out that giving tzedakah is a mitzvah. It’s a religious obligation, meaning that we are required to do it whether we are in the mood or not. But surely giving from a place of chesed is the preferred way to give. Maimonides suggested that someone who donates in a grudging way is not as worthy of praise as one who donates cheerfully. So too for all the other mitzvot we do. The rabbinic classic Pirkei Avot includes a quote from Antigonos, man of Sokho: “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” There is a Jewish ideal that we should strive to give of ourselves to others not because we will be rewarded for doing so or even because it will make us feel good about ourselves, but simply because that is the right thing to do. We hope to act from the most selfless motivation possible.

I note here that true selflessness is increasingly rare in this age of social media. Facebook is crowded with videos of people engaged in acts of chesed while someone else films them for posterity. In this era when our phones allow us to record our significant moments, it can be too tempting to make sure that all of our friends and acquaintances are aware of just how full of chesed we are. It can be tempting too to turn these moments into Rosh Hashanah sermons…No one is going to sneak into our brains and explore whether our motivations for our actions are truly selfless. But Jewish wisdom suggests that the purest form of chesed is when it’s bestowed with no hesitation and with no thought of whether we’ll get more likes as a result.

That is what happened on my eventful subway ride back in July. I was part of a sudden outpouring of chesed. Half a dozen or more passengers instinctively sprang into action and did the right thing, with no expectation of reward or thanks. And, as I said, there are opportunities for acts of chesed nearly every day. We may see that someone we care about—or even someone we barely know—is going through a difficult time and jump in with a listening ear or a helping hand. We may come upon someone who is clearly hungry and make sure they get a meal. Sometimes it’s just a small action, like introducing ourselves to an unfamiliar face at Rosh Hashanah services and inviting that person to sit with us.

Of course, Jewishly we strive to act with chesed because God acts with chesed. The word is everywhere in our High Holy Days prayers. We have just sung out our request that God act towards us with tzedakah and chesed and we will do so again at every service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Earlier tonight, we named God as gomel chasadim tovim–the One who bestows great kindness. In the morning prayer Sim Shalom, we pray that God will grant us chen, v’chesed v’rachamim: kindness, grace and compassion. As we celebrate the extraordinary gift of life at this time of year and count our abundant blessings, I hope we will feel called to give back to the world around us.

This time of year brings with it a spiritual vocabulary which is strange and often confronting. Many of us are disturbed by the suggestion that God personally decides each of our fates at this time of year. The workings of the universe are inscrutable and mysterious. But these Yamim Nora’im–these awesome days–affirm how much power is in our own hands. Gertrude Hildreth Housman wrote the essence of this in her poem “The Gift of Choice:”

I came into the world without being asked,

And when the time for dying comes

I shall not be consulted;

But between the boundaries of birth and death

Lies the dominion of Choice:

To be a doer or a dreamer,

To be a lifter or a leaner,

To speak out or remain silent,

To extend a hand in friendship

Or to look the other way;

To feel the sufferings of others

Or to be callous and insensitive.

These are the choices;

It is in the choosing

That my measure as a person is determined.

Shana tova–may we all be blessed with a year of sweetness and joy, of health and peace, and may each of us bring these gifts to one another and to the others we have the opportunity to touch. Amen.

The Worst of Times and the Best of Times

(pictured above: Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi of the Tri-Faith Initiative.)

I haven’t uploaded a sermon in ages, so I’m going to make up for lost time by adding in several all at once. I hope you enjoy them. This sermon was written before it became apparent that we are most likely going to see more of the revolving door for prime ministers that has characterised these last ten years or so:


It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was a time when a newly-minted senator believed it was acceptable to stand on the floor of the senate and talk about how much better Australia was when everyone was white and Christian. And it was a time when nearly every other senator and member of parliament expressed their dismay and adamant disagreement. It was a time when that same senator could call for a “final solution” on Muslim immigration and a time when two members of parliament—one a Muslim man from the Labor party and the other a Jewish man and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor from the Liberal party—could embrace as friends in the parliamentary chamber.

Not surprisingly, I’d much rather focus on why it was the best of times rather than the worst of times. On Wednesday night, I got to hear journalist and football tragic George Megalogenis speak at the Hawke Centre on his new book The Football Solution: How Richmond’s Premiership Can Save Australia. It was a very brave thing to come to the home town of the premier-losing Crows and talk about Richmond, but happily no one threw anything at him during his talk. The book itself is about how the Richmond football club finally realised after thirty years that its long-time practice of sacking coaches and captains as soon as there was a losing season was not doing the team any good. It took the club’s first woman president Peggy O’Neal to transform the culture of the club and especially of the board, and that was the beginning of a new approach and so an entirely different and better football team.

Megalogenis’ message is directed especially at our Federal government, and how it continues doing things exactly the same way with ever less impressive results. He argues for a change in how the government runs and especially in how it leads. I confess that I didn’t buy the book, but I was charmed by how he wove football and government together. Did you know that the Richmond football club has more members than the national Liberal and Labor parties combined? That football clubs around Australia are among the most trusted institutions in this land? News to me!

It was impossible for Megalogenis not to talk about Fraser Anning’s incendiary and offensive maiden speech, which he had delivered just hours before the lecture. He noted the splintering of Australian society, in which an estimated 40% of the population is now disinclined to vote for either of the major parties. Only about a quarter of that 40% embrace the agenda advocated for by Fraser Anning, Bob Katter and the One Nation party. But they are the loudest 10% and so the people who are most likely to be noticed. I’m also guessing that a lot of them are concentrated in the rural regions of Queensland, represented by people like Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton. Megalogenis was puzzled as to why the current government seems so concerned about appealing to this 10% that it is prepared to antagonise the remaining 90% of Australians. But the reassuring message is that only 10% of the Australian population hold these extreme views.

I was deeply moved by the outpouring of support for Australia’s vibrant multicultural identity. As Katherine Murphy wrote in The Guardian:A line has been crossed in Australian politics. At least we know a line still exists.” I thought Penny Wong’s speech to the Senate was magnificent, and it was so important that her resolution received backing from such a diverse range of parties. I was even a little amused that Pauline Hanson was offended by Darren Hinch’s comment that Anning’s speech was like Pauline Hanson on steroids. If something is too offensive even for Pauline Hanson, that’s really saying something.

I wish I could say that I am sharing the universal Jewish view when I talk about how upsetting Fraser Anning’s speech was. But there is no one Jewish view. We live in an era when the prime minister of Israel extends an official welcome to the authoritarian, anti-migration Hungarian prime minister. When extremist rabbis in Israel and elsewhere regularly teach that Jews are biologically different to other human beings. Our own texts speak repeatedly of how Jews are different and holier than non-Jews. We Jews are just as susceptible to messages of hate and intolerance as other people. Such an easy way to unify us—by turning us against others who seem different.

One of the pieces of really good news from this last week was about the annual Tri-Faith Picnic in my sister’s home town of Omaha, Nebraska. The initiative was in large part a vision of Temple Israel’s now retired rabbi Aryeh Azriel. Along with Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi, Rabbi Azriel spent years pursuing his dream of a campus where Jews, Muslims and Christians could pray, learn and socialise. Today, a synagogue and a mosque share space on a re-purposed golf course. A church is under construction and will open later this year, and there are plans for a community centre to bring all three faith groups together. Each year, the Tri-Faith Initiative puts on a community barbecue. Attendees all bring a side dish, and everyone eats, chats and plays together. It is a simple but amazing thing. I note that the Tri-Faith memorandum of understanding was signed in 2006, but that the first completed building—Temple Israel—was not dedicated until seven years later. I would not have wanted to be in on the years and years of discussions that led the Tri-Faith Initiative to take shape, but I am in awe of the final result.

What is at the heart of this success is the appreciation that there is far more that unites us than divides us. It is also important to celebrate our differences rather than to believe that we can never find common ground. These are hard messages to hold onto in this era when our own elected officials are sometimes the source of divisiveness. So all the more gratifying when government and opposition, Greens and cross benchers, rise as one to affirm our vision of an Australia immeasurably enriched by our diversity. Shabbat shalom.

Our Recycling Challenge

As seems to happen at least twice each year, I spent a significant amount of time this week cleaning out the Cheder classroom. So much accumulated rubbish! I tossed out two large boxes of brochures about services for the elderly that were leftover from a Bagel lunch last year. I also tossed out dried-out paintbrushes, old construction paper, broken pencils–you name it. Some of the discarded stuff went into the red bin, but a great deal of the rubbish–especially all the papers–went into the yellow recycling bin.

A story on ABC’s website from March 3 of this year reported that in 2014-2015, Australians recycled 60% of our waste. That’s an amazing and inspiring statistic, but all that it means is that 60% of our rubbish went into the recycling bin rather than the red bin. Where that recycled rubbish ends up is only now coming into sharper focus. As we have learned, what happened up until the beginning of the year was that most of that potentially recyclable material–a whopping 600,000 tonnes–was being loaded onto cargo ships and sent to China. Now China has announced that it will no longer accept Australian recycling; around the country, warehouses are filling up with our discarded bottles, cans, paper and especially plastics. It turns out that Australians are very faithful about placing our recyclables in the right bin, but not prepared to think more deeply about our responsibility for dealing with those items after they’ve been thrown away. Now is that time of reckoning we’ve managed to avoid for so long.

The revelation that simply throwing recyclables into the correct rubbish bin does not magically cause it to be recycled has been quite an unpleasant revelation within my own family. I remember an episode within the last year in which I threw a plastic milk bottle into the regular rubbish. I think this might have been because the recycling bin was full and no one had bothered to take it out to the much larger bin outside, but that is another story. At any rate, both of my sons treated this incident with such severity that you would have thought I’d committed the original sin. Recyclables need to be placed in the recycling bin, they lectured, because then they are recycled.

It occurred to me at the time how neatly the action of placing items in the yellow bin absolved us for throwing it away. My sons earnestly believed that using recyclable items–especially plastics–meant that no waste was involved at all. Somehow they had conjured up a recycling system which operated with 100% efficiency. This meant that even though our yellow bin was full pretty much each time the recycling was collected, none of us bore any blame for increasing the amount of rubbish thrown away and the amount of raw products used.

And now we know that isn’t true at all. And that, I think, is a good thing. Because now we need to see ourselves as accountable for all the rubbish we use, whether it’s theoretically recyclable or not. That same ABC article cited an estimate from a European Union report that production of virgin plastic will account for 20 per cent of global oil consumption and 15 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. I invite you to collect all of the plastic that you discard in a single week and contemplate just how much plastic each of us are putting into the environment every year. In recent weeks I’ve been monitoring my own plastic use, and it’s appalling, even as I carry around my own water bottle and use reusable plastic containers to store food. I buy milk in plastic bottles, cheese in plastic sleeves, produce in plastic bags–and on and on and on.

It is an unpleasant truth that Judaism in the past did not have a particularly good track record when it comes to environmental advocacy. It is comforting to appreciate that this is true of just about all the world’s major religions, which mostly came about in eras when human beings usually had negligible impacts on the world around them even when they tried really hard. The good news is that, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan memorably noted about Judaism, “The past has a vote—not a veto.” It is possible to chart a new course, and Judaism has done just that in recent decades. Standing up for the environment takes us all the back to the second chapter of Genesis, in which God admonishes the first human to tend the garden in which he’s been placed. At the moment, we are doing the exact opposite of tending our garden. Another imperative to environmental activism comes through Judaism’s highest mitzvah: the saving of life. We see now that our lives are inextricably tied up with the health of the sea, the air and the land. So our highest calling is to save the earth, and our own lives with it. As I’ve said often, doing so will be difficult and will require much of us, but it is so important to do so. As the rabbis said, “It is not for us to complete the work, but we are not free to leave it to others.” Shabbat shalom!

Australia’s first Jewish same-sex wedding in a synagogue!

Okay–so this clearly isn’t a sermon, but it’s such a gorgeous moment recorded for history. (And the photo is from a renewal of vows, but still fits the theme.) L’chaim!

Making history: Australia’s first religious Jewish same-sex wedding

Making history: Australia’s first religious Jewish same-sex weddingWATCH: Ilan Buchman and Oscar Shub made history when they stood under the Chupah at Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue on Wednesday. Dayenu Sydney Australian Marriage Equality Aleph Melbourne#MarriageEquality #YESvote LGBTQ@Facebook

Posted by Plus61J on Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Anzac Day 2018

This last Wednesday, I spent much of my day doing Anzac Day activities. No sleeping in for me! I didn’t get to a dawn service, but did go to the Torrens Parade Grounds at 9:30 for the march. This was only my second time at the march and my first time standing next to the dignitaries’ platform. That meant that I got to spend much of the two hours watching them. If you haven’t been situated here, I’ll tell you a bit about it: high-ranking representatives of the Army, Air Force and Navy were standing at attention on the platform as the veterans and their family members walked by. The governor Hieu Van Le and Adelaide lord mayor Martin Haesse stood as well. Marchers are required to face the platform, and I really enjoyed hearing even some elderly veterans bellowing at the top of their lungs, “15th Air Squadron…Eyes…Right!” There are so few World War II veterans left, and even fewer still able to walk the parade route by themselves. But for sure, those who can, do. I imagine these gentlemen, all well into their 90s, waiting each year for the opportunity put on their best suits, pin on their medals, and walk as erectly as possible down North Terrace and King William Street. I was very moved watching them march, but was also moved watching the governor watching them. I saw him wipe away tears numerous times during the morning as these elderly men passed by, but also as several dozen South Vietnamese veterans marched proudly in formation, smiling broadly at our governor. What a privilege to have this experience!

In the afternoon, I headed over to the Dunstan Playhouse for quite a different Anzac Day activity. Country Arts SA was staging a read-through of a new play Mewei 3027 by Glenn Shea. The theatre was pretty well packed out despite very little publicity other than an article in InDaily, which is how I found out about it. The play tells the story of a true but unlikely friendship between Roland Carter, a World War I digger from Ngarrindjeri country, and Leonhard Adam, a young German Jewish ethnologist. Carter was wounded in the shoulder and taken prisoner by the Germans early in 1918. Adam, who had been permitted to meet with soldiers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, began to interview Carter and learned a great deal about his language, his people, and his country on the shores of Lake Alexandrina. Over the months they spent together, they became friends. The play’s name comes from the Ngarrindjeri word for “soul” along with Carter’s prisoner number 3027.

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Leonhard Adam was stripped of his registrations and eventually fled to the UK in 1938. Labeled an enemy alien, he was shipped to Australia on the notorious Dunera in 1940. He lived out the remainder of his life in Australia, where he taught anthropology at the University of Melbourne. For his part, Roland Carter returned after the war to his home community of Raukkan, where he opened a movie house and dance hall. His daughter and other family members continue to live there, and the first read-through of the play took place in Raukkan a few days before the reading in Adelaide. Sadly, the two men never met again, although a beautiful letter of friendship from Carter to Adam was preserved and read out at the end of the play.

The day was a sobering reminder of the costs of war. I wondered at the stories locked inside the many thousands of veterans I saw march on Wednesday. How many watched friends die? How many displayed heroism in the face of absolute terror? How many shared their stories with their loved ones? How many have never spoken of what they witnessed? And also, How many formed unlikely friendships with people that they would never have met under other circumstances? But at what cost?

Early Friday afternoon, I spent an hour with 94-year-old Kitty Anderson. She showed me a photo of her first boyfriend John Asher. There they were as seven-year-olds on Kangaroo Island, arm-in-arm. Asher enlisted in the Australian navy and was one of only 21 soldiers killed during the Japanese submarine attack on Sydney Harbor in 1942. That photo of the two of them as children is the only picture Kitty has of him. Seventy-six years later, the loss still stings.

This week as we remember the many wars and conflicts that Australia has been a part of in the last one hundred years, we continue to pray for a time of peace—of shalom. I have often noted that the Hashkivenu prayer which calls on God to protect us with a sukkah of peace is impractical—a sukkah is the last place you’d want to be during an air raid. Shalom is more than simply the absence of war. We imagine a peace so great, so all-encompassing, that war is no longer conceivable. We are far from the vision. Let us continue to work for it. Shabbat shalom!