Democracy Spring Kickoff Rally

This is the speech I gave on April 2nd at the Democracy Spring kickoff rally at Independence Hall.
(Here is an edited version in op-ed form: )

The Original:
The first Democracy Spring, the first summit on voter suppression and institutionalized corruption, happened over 3,000 years ago when Moses and the Israelites went to see Pharaoh. And Moses said, by what right do you rob us of our right to self determination, by what right do you dominate us? And Pharaoh replied, I make the sun rise and the Nile flood, I grow the economy and I create jobs. And it was just as unlikely then that Moses and the Israelites would soon walk across the red sea toward freedom, as it is today that an average citizen will one day be able to walk into Washington DC and be meaningfully represented.

But before Moses and the Israelites could earn their right to self-governance, they needed to believe that they could. And the courage to inspire was sparked at the burning bush where, for Moses, the dejected castaway, despair turned to hope, indifference became passion, and the stale swampy levees of inaction shattered before the flowing waters of righteous action. This rally, this march, this is our burning bush, and we are all Moses.

At the burning bush, Moses acted with wonder and gratitude, he honestly and courageously faced his suffering, and he found his place, his role, in a larger story that began before his birth and will end after his death. And Moses also realized that Pharaoh and his entire empire is based on a lie. The lie of Pharaoh’s perceived control over reality. In the mindset of Pharaoh, in the attitude of empire and its subjects, everything can be made stable with enough corruption, everything can be known with enough ignorance, and everything can be controlled with enough deception and violence.

At the burning bush, Moses learned that no human can maintain strict static order in our ever-changing world, no human can claim absolute knowledge, and no human can forever control the fates of others. Moses, the formerly depressed runaway, learns that the absolute control Pharaoh claims over reality is a temporary farce, an unfunny joke.

And with this knowledge, Moses is emancipated from the mental slavery of empire, and he takes the first step toward meeting with Pharaoh, and demanding as a free human, let my people go!

When we march to Washington and sit in at the Capitol as free human beings, we are lovingly reminding our brothers and sisters that we are not immune to the grand trends and the shifting tides of history. We are lovingly reminding them that democracy is an adaptable and dynamic and open system, and they do not have our consent to close us out. And we are lovingly reminding our fellow patriots that they are sowing seeds of division and discontent, and we cannot continue this way and expect to avoid the plagues of a failed state.

And we must hope that, unlike Pharaoh, their hearts have not yet fully hardened.

Shabbat shalom and happy democracy spring.

From Then to Now to Then

This is my attempt at a creation story, enjoy:

12th century Hasidei Ashkenaz poem, Shir Hakavod: “They envisioned you in an abundance of metaphors. You are one in all of those images.”

Evolutionary biologist EO Wilson: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and are a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”

The Baal Shem Tov was once asked why his Chassids sing and dance so much. He answered, “Imagine a great musician comes to town and starts playing a great composition for all to hear, and people start gathering and dancing. Then a deaf man walks by, and is very confused by all the singing and dancing, because he cannot hear the great musician.”

In the beginning, about 15 billion years ago, it all began with a single note, a secret chord. And in that note was all that was and all that is, the unified canvass of reality, the universe. The note was loud, brash, like a something, an everything, blasting outward into the void. And in the universe, energy turned to matter, and matter turned to energy. Matter joined with other matter, and stars formed that gave off energy. And in the fiery wombs of these stars, smaller pieces of matter baked into each other and formed bigger pieces of matter, the building blocks for planets. And the stars became too dense, and they exploded outward and the heavier matter formed planets. Our planet, Earth, was formed 4.567 billion years ago, and everything that formed Earth, and everything that would form life on Earth, had been star stuff. And this star stuff cooled, and energy flowed, and matter joined with other matter, and energy flowed through matter, and life emerged. And then it almost disappeared, again and again, and then, by four million years ago, we stood up for the first time to see over high grasses. From the beginning, we were propelled forward, shot into the void, shoved onto the cosmic stage without our consent.

By 1.78 million years ago, we developed tools, small stone axes. By 1.5 million years ago, we developed better and different tools, bigger axes, cleavers, and picks. We were no longer primate see, primate do, but we had become primate see primate think and improve. We could learn, improve, and communicate complicated information from generation to generation, and this allowed us to adapt and thrive. “Wisdom gives life to those who possess it.” (Eccl. 7:12). We humans do not survive in different environments because of our inherent physical traits. We survive because of the information we accumulate across many generations. Moses’ survival in the desert did not depend on his own physical fitness, it depended on the extensive knowledge of Yitro, Tzipporah, and their well-adapted desert group.

Over some time, we became a social species prone to altruistic acts within our groups. We lived in small interdependent social groups that roamed large amounts of land. Our groups conflicted often, and our natural selection proceeded on two twin tracks: The relative fitness of the individual compared to others in the group, and the relative fitness of the group compared to other groups. Our survival depended on both our actions within our groups, and our groups’ actions within our environment. In the words of evolutionary biologist EO Wilson, “Thus was born the human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, the two impulses often conflict.” The yetzer ha-tov, the instinct for altruism, and the yetzer ha-ra, the instinct for self-preservation, evolved together, destined to cause that wonderful human condition.

By 250 thousand years ago, Homo Sapiens distinguished ourselves from our other Homo cousins. 74 thousand years ago, Mount Toba in Indonesia blew ash and sulfur into the atmosphere and caused dramatic global cooling. Our new species shrunk to just a few thousand and we almost disappeared forever from the world stage. And then, 64 thousand years ago, some of us wandered out of Africa.

By 40,000 years ago, we were harmonizing with the beauty of the world. We crafted ivory flutes, and sounded their sweet sounds. We painted images of the sun and the animals on cave walls. Imagine the great joy of the first artists and their audiences, expressing our gratitude for the beauty of creation, leaving behind praises for our world for all time.

And then, 14 thousand years ago, we made a friend. The friendliest of the wolves came closer to the campfire. And for the first time, we began to consciously evolve another species. Today we have over 200 species of dogs: Some dogs are genetically healthy and adorable, and some dog species have chronic back problems and soft teeth, and are also adorable. The wolf was the first species other than ourselves that we consciously evolved, and it would be followed by everything from wheat to the chicken to our vaccines.

By 11 thousand years ago, our collective information, our shared Torah, allowed us to adventure our way to every continent except for Antarctica, our total population was between 6-8 million human beings, we had truly created a planet of the apes.

In the words of Carl Sagan, “We were hunters and foragers, the frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the earth and the ocean and the sky.” We were free to wander about Eden, delighting in the fruits of the land, and moving freely with the food. And then, we ate the apple. But was it an apple? Rabbi Meir says that the apple wasn’t actually an apple, it was a stalk of wheat. Why wheat? Wheat was the first domesticated plant. We ate farmed food for the first time.

And as we move into the agricultural era, let us stop for a moment and remember the words of Carl Sagan, “If you want to bake a loaf of bread, first you must invent the universe.”

After we ate wheat, we tilled the soil, and we had a lot of loving children with the extra matter and energy we harnessed, and every child birth was painful. Was eating the farmed food a joyful inevitability or a curse? Was this transition good or bad? We like to think we know the difference, and the traumatized story tellers did label it as bad, but life is complex by nature.

The first two children of the first two farmers were Cain and Abel. They both brought an offering of gratitude for the great musician’s composition. Abel, the nomadic herder, a relic of the pre-agricultural days, offered some meat, and Cain the settled farmer offered some grain. Cain felt like his offering was inferior, and the farmer was told that he must conquer his yetzer ha’ra, or else the music will be muted and suffering will increase. And it does. A dispute arises, and farmer Cain murdered his nomadic brother Abel. This wasn’t the first murder, we know that we have always murdered. The Rabbis ask, what was the dispute? They theorize that Cain and Abel decided to divide the world between them, Cain, the farmer, gets the land, and Abel the nomad gets everything that moves. This sets up conflict any time the wanderer moves through the settled land and grazes on the planted crops. I like to imagine that Abel convinced himself of the rightness of his diminishing lifestyle with the words of Rosseau, who wrote: “The first person, who having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: Do not listen to this imposter, you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one.” And I imagine Cain replied from behind his secure city wall with the terse words of Hobbes, ‘Life in the wild is nasty, brutish, and short.’

After the murder, the civilized farmers had more kids, and they thrived.

And Cain went to the east and his firstborn son founded a city and they settled. We no longer wandered, Abel was dead and the fiery angels guarded Eden. We were confined, stationary. We changed our environments and our environments changed us. We worked the land and this allowed us to build towns and cities.  With more food stability, we had many painful childbirths, this was our fate, our joyful inevitability, the blessing and the curse of the apple. This new reality was painful for our ancestors, we did not adjust very smoothly. The farmers grew cities, but they were violent and corrupt, our yetzer ha’ra dominated, and our world was so unjust that it regretted life. But we had a righteous ancestor worthy of life. After the flood, our cities didn’t really get any nicer, and our righteous ancestor, brimming with hesed and yetzer ha’tov, had to flee the cities for a new land. And there, we wandered and wondered with the music while the wicked cities of Sodom and Gemorrah collapsed under the weight of their own sin.

But we had to go down into the cities of Egypt because cities and agriculture are stable. Grain can be stored so the bad years can be survived. And we were suspicious of cities, Abraham just assumed Sarah would be raped and stolen from him. And then we got trapped in the cities. And then we fled the cities, the narrow confined places, and we went into the desert. And it was at that time, that we had a forced evolution, a conscious information adaptation out of necessity, thousands of years overdue. We knew that we had to settle in a land and build cities, walled cities with stored food were more and more essential for survival, manna does not last forever, and we had a taste for farmed cucumbers. But we didn’t want our group to become corrupted and violent like the others. We didn’t want the music to be forgotten in the suffering slavery of the cities. So we accepted the law. God held Mount Sinai over our heads, and we accepted.  We accepted the covenant, we collectively established our relationship to the world and to each other. We accepted upon ourselves the yoke of the yetzer ha’tov, of the group, of the Am. The law was born. Law sets an environment in which we adapt. The better the laws, the better we adapt toward loving our neighbor like ourselves. The core mitzvah that commands the yetzer ha’tov’s cooperation and altruism and affirms the yetzer ha’ra’s self-love.

And then, 3,000 years ago, for a brief time, we figured it out better than we ever had before. A young shepherd from Bethlehem established relative peace and ended the anarchic horror stories at the end of Judges. He was a human who loved the music, and he harmonized with the music, and he strummed the secret chord, and it pleased the lord, hallelujah. The yetzer ha’tov flourished, we had peace amongst ourselves, but all things change, and that peace waned. The yetzer ha’ra asserted itself with greed and insecurity. Amidst the increasing chaos and corruption, our great prophets saw our next necessary adaptation, our next evolution. We will become a nation of priests and prophets, we will no longer learn war, justice will roll like a mighty river and righteousness like a never ending stream, and the glory of God will be revealed in all flesh. One day, we will all hear the music, and together we will dance in the streets.

And our species continued to suffer and fight and create beautiful art and artistic lives, and we continued to adapt to new environments and expand. We farmed the world and pru or’vued. By 1776, we had passed the ants as the heaviest collective animal species on the planet.

Then, in 1859, an English naturalist gifted us a lens to read the change written in reality. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution taught us that the world is a dynamic environment in which species adapt to survive. The world is always changing, and to stay alive, one must also change. Shakespeare knew that each human is a temporary actor on the stage of life. Darwin and others proved that humanity as a whole is temporary, and that all life changes. We were not the first actors, although we are descended from them, and we will not be the last actors, although they will be related to us. The play of life is long, and we change with it.

Right now, we are living through the greatest change for our species since the agricultural evolution. In this modern era we industrialized our ability to harness energy and matter and information. This has changed how we live, where we live, and how long we live. From the Revolutionary War until now, our population grew from about 1 billion humans to about 7.3 billion humans. We soared into space and dove into the seas. We subdued old foes like polio and infant mortality. And we enshrined into law our highest ideal social contract, as human beings created equally. Our change is accelerating, every new human is a new adventurer into the unknown, an unfolding story. Our collective creative capacity is larger than ever before, and we seem to have lost our evolutionary compass. We do not seek to harmonize with the sublime. We thrash about threateningly and we stomp on the trapdoor beneath our feet. In the midst of our evolution, we must perpetually stand again at Sinai and strive to evolve in the direction of the music, of love your neighbor like yourself, to live the knowledge that we are all connected, we are all at home in the universe. Our checkpoints on our derekh, on our journey, are the dreams of the prophets: No more war, justice and righteousness flowing freely, and joyous dancing with the music.

But it will not be we who collectively harmonize with the secret chord of creation. It will not be we who usher in an era of messianic redemption. It will not be we who beat our swords into ploughshares and summon the Shekhina by the merit of our care for the widow and the orphan. It will be a we that is very much like us. A humanity with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses. We will be wiser, more compassionate, courageous, and far seeing. We will be able to reconcile our deepest contradictions, and to know with confidence that we are at home in the universe.

We each have the privilege to compose a verse within the universe. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “There is meaning beyond mystery… and the meaning of life is to live life like it is a work of art.” We get to be mad scientists in the laboratory of life. Wake up, we have life, and such a serious thing should not be taken so seriously.

Yom Kippur, 2015

These are the five short sermons I gave at the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service in 2015 at Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland. Each one is about the prayer about to be said.

Ki hineh kakhomer:

A paradox is a true statement that seems self-contradictory, like I want the tastiest and healthiest thing on the menu, or I fast on Yom Kippur for spiritual sustenance.

In Judaism, we have many paradoxes. One is, our actions have cosmic significance and we are insignificant dust. The Kabbalah teaches us that we have the power to repair the world and affect God with every good deed, and Pirkei Avot teaches us that we are from worms and we will return to the worms. The prophets teach us that God is in an emotional relationship with us, and Maimonides teaches us that we are so unimportant that God would not even care to look at us. Sometimes we feel like we are masters of our universe, and sometimes we feel tossed around by the chaotic waves of destiny.

This paradox was explored by an old country Hassidic Rebbe. He used to give everyone he knew two cards, one to keep in each pocket. The card for the left pocket read, “You are but dust in the wind,” and the card for the right pocket read, “The entire universe was created for you.”

Life is like a pendulum, the Rebbe would explain, when you begin to feel that you are very important, reach into your left pocket and know that you are but dust in the wind. When you feel insignificant, reach into your right pocket and know that the world was created for you.

On Yom Kippur, we swing the pendulum toward humility, we fully reach into our left pocket and start with the knowledge that we are dust in the wind, or in the words of the next prayer, like clay in your hands.

To set this intention, I quote one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Dr. Carl Sagan:

“We would not have known beforehand that the evidence would be so repeatedly and thoroughly incompatible with the proposition that human beings are at center stage in the universe… We have not been given the lead in the cosmic drama… We live in the cosmic boondocks, we emerged from microbes and muck, apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open, and we find ourselves in bottomless freefall… We have good reason for humility.”

13 Attributes:

The next prayer centers on a few lines that God said to Moses after the golden calf incident. After the nation turned to idolatry, God was so angry that he said to Moses, and I paraphrase, ‘I’m walking out on you and that stubborn nation. An angel of mine will take you the rest of the way through the desert, because if I stick around, I will kill you all.’ Moses then has the audacity to reply to God’s anger with an ultimatum and a demand. He first tells God, ‘If you won’t continue with us then we won’t continue at all, we do this together or not at all.’ Moses then demands a one on one encounter with God. God reluctantly agrees, and when Moses treks up Mount Sinai the next morning for a sunrise confrontation with his angry God, God meets Moses and says, ‘Adonai, Adonai, El rakhum v’hanun. God, God, God of mercy and compassion,’ and God reaffirms the covenant and agrees to not leave the people. Moses responded to the great sin of the golden calf by confronting God, and God responded with mercy and compassion.

Moses, who had the boldness to confront God, is also the most humble person who ever lived according to the Torah, and it seemed paradoxical that the Jewish archetype of humility has the nerve to encounter a furious God. To explain Moses’s humility, Rabbah Melanie Landau of Jerusalem points to the 11th century French commentator Rashi’s equation of Moses’ humility with his radical patience and ability to bear himself. Moses had the patience to sit with difficult thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, and to push deeper into the difficult and dire to the point of confronting the divine, and Moses found mercy and compassion.

It is so often the first instinct to shy away from frustrations and confusions, to be spooked by the shadow of our own doubts. We often lack the resilience to fully research our past sins and to sit with our present problems and future hopes. I hope that, like Moses, we can find the humble courage to confront our world and ourselves, to demand an encounter with God and to find mercy and compassion.

Shema Koleinu:

When we strive to encounter the truth, we can get caught up in paradoxes, and in a paradox, a clear way to act is not so clear.

The crescendo of this next prayer is a paradox: Hadesh yameinu k’kedem, Renew us, in our days, as of old. Within these three words we hold the hopes of the future, the reality of the present, and the memories of the past. Sometimes, when we hold the past, present, and future together, a paradox forms and we are beyond a clear path. For example, I hold the past traumas of the Jewish people alongside the current reality of the middle east, alongside my desire for a peaceful future. So, how should I feel about the Iran deal? I’m still reconciling that paradox.

This past year, I lived in the paradox of hadesh yameinu k’kedem. I lived in Israel, a modern high tech country with an ancient story. I lived in Tel Aviv, a city that roughly translates as an old new spring. Twice a week, I travelled from the modern secular coast up the hills into the ancient religious city of Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv, I studied at Bina, the secular yeshiva. At Bina, Israelis are exploring and figuring out the paradox of hadesh yameinu k’kedem. The values and memories of the past are put in conversation with present day realities and future hopes and dreams. What emerges is beautiful creativity. A modern Israeli Talmud is being written. A school of democratic thought rooted in the wisdom of our ancient monarchies is being formed. Ancient holidays are being celebrated in new ways and ancient customs are free to evolve. When the conflicting past, present, and future are held together, we can reach a deeper understanding and find a way forward.

On Yom Kippur, we enter into this paradox of time. We strive to recognize our past, present, and future, reconcile contradictions and emerge from the day with a more informed and creative way forward.

Intro to Viddui:

In 70ce, as the Romans besieged Jerusalem and the collapse of the Jewish state was imminent, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai turned his back on the Temple and snuck out of Jerusalem at night in a coffin. He went north to Yavneh in the Galilee and opened the Rabbinic academy that would write the Mishnah and largely determine the post-Temple Judaism we still live today. Yochanan Ben Zakkai abandoned the war effort against the Romans and fled Jerusalem on the eve of her destruction to go north and start building the future of Judaism.

Years later, Yochanan Ben Zakkai lay on his deathbed and began a vidui, a confession. He began by weeping, and his students asked him why. He said, there were two roads in front of me, one led to paradise, and the other straight to hell, and I do not know which road I walked down.

Yochanan Ben Zakkai teaches us that a confession must begin with doubt, because a doubt is an idea that is still alive.

With courage, humility, and resilience, we must doubt. We must doubt every angle and every perspective. We must doubt every exchange and every event. We must doubt every action, reaction, and inaction. We must shake our perceptions and shatter our indifference. We must split the truths that we hold dear into frustrating contradictions and sit in the shattered pieces of our perceptions, and pray that we may discern our true confessions.

As we go into viddui, I would like to offer a prayer that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan used to begin his classes with at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half-truths, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, O God of truth, deliver us.”


There is a tradition from the old country that in every generation there are 36 saints hidden throughout the world on whose good deeds and humility the world rests. I think I met one of them two years ago. He explained to me the meaning of this next prayer, rachmana, which is Aramaic for ‘the merciful.’

Two summers ago, I sat on the roof of a hostel in downtown Denver watching the sun set, and was joined by a young fundamentalist Christian couple and a wandering old saintly looking Chinese American construction worker with a brown bagged bottle. We started talking about life, and then about God. The fundamentalists mechanically quoted scriptures describing God and Jesus as just and powerful, the king of the universe who strictly governs and judges harshly. The older man told tough stories about his life, how his pregnant grandmother was scarred and driven out of Mao’s China, how his loving mother had raised him by herself and had died just a few years ago, and how he understands why his two beautiful daughters need some space from him right now. With tears in his eyes, he described his theology, the way he interprets the world. The world, he said, is like a giant womb. We have everything we need, and unconditional love and mercy sustain us by virtue of our existence. We are cared for in the great womb, just like his loving mother always cared for him. He asked me what the Hebrew word is for womb, and I said, it’s rekhem. And then I said, it’s the same word as mercy, rakhamim, and as God, rakhamim, or rakhmana. A word of ours for God is our word for mercy is our word for the womb. When I said this on the roof in Denver, the tired old wanderer started weeping.

About 1,700 years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud decided that God prayed, and that this is the prayer God says, “May it be My will that My mercy may prevail over my other qualities, so that I may deal with my children mercifully, and stop short of strict justice.”


This is the sermon I gave at my brother Joe and his then fiance Rachael’s Aufruf in August, 2015.

The Jewish religion is a binding force that focuses on how we relate to each other and to our world. Judaism is focused on creating community and uniting people, like how my brother Joe and his future bride Rachael along with (the other couple whose aufruf it also was) will soon be married, or like how we all came together to celebrate their aufruf today. In the biblical worldview, a preferred approach to relationship is called the covenant, the brit. This week’s parsha, Eikev, is about the nature and conditions of the covenant.

To be in covenant is to be in relationship. It is not a mystical union where one or both parties abandon any sense of self. Rather, a covenant is a partnership dependent on its members bringing their full selves to a perpetual encounter with the other. God and Moses and Israel are not one, they are in relationship. It is a relationship of active caring, not of indifference. It is a relationship characterized by pathos, feelings. God is both sympathetic and empathetic toward Israel. God wept for the slaves in Egypt, and God wept with the exiles from Jerusalem.

It is hard to describe a covenant as a tangible thing like a physical contract, it is more of an approach to life. In this week’s parsha, we learn that the key to the covenant is a deep love that breeds active service.

The love found in a covenantal approach does not objectify the other, subsuming their needs and feelings to your will. Rather, this love subsumes your will to the needs and feelings of your partner, and pushes you to actively serve those needs. In the words of the 19th century eastern European Mussar Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, “The material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs.” No matter how frustrated God was with our ancestors in the desert, with the adultery and idolatry of the golden calf, the constant complaining and the lack of gratitude, God still served because God had a deep love for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants combined with an unshakeable faith that the people of Israel would one day become a holy nation of priests and prophets.

While living in Israel this past year as a rabbinical student, I had the privilege to learn about a human who exemplified the covenantal attitude of love and service, Rabbi Menachem Froman. Reb Froman is largely unknown in America, but in Israel he is known as a Rabbi committed to peace. He met with everyone, including weekly meetings with the head of hamas. He is unique amongst peace activists because he was one of the early leaders of the settlement movement. This movement began after the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel, buoyed by its newfound control of the West Bank, allowed Jews to once again settle the hills of Judea and Samaria where Abraham and King David lived. Reb Froman’s wife, Hadassah, told me the story of when she and her husband first arrived at their brand new apartment in the settlement village of Tekoa. On the front door of the apartment was a sticker that read, ‘The land of Israel for the people of Israel.’ Reb Froman fell to the ground and wept, he shrieked, ‘They got it backwards! It’s the people of Israel for the land of Israel!’ This arrogant approach to the land violated the covenant, and this shocked and frightened Reb Froman about the future of the West Bank.

Reb Froman died two years ago after a joyful life committed to love and service to both Jews and Palestinians in the whole land of Israel. He had many students, and one of them taught me about the importance of listening as a skill to develop the type of love necessary for the covenant.

Listening is a theme in Jewish tradition. The Shema, our central creed, simply means, listen! We listen because words and sounds have the power to create worlds. While other creation myths contain tangible events like fires, floods, and turtle backs, our world begins with words. Barukh she’amar v’haya ha’olam, blessed is God who spoke and there was the world. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Words create worlds.” In this week’s parsha, we find the second paragraph of the shema. It details the good life that happens if the covenant is followed, rain, crops, and life, and it details the evil that comes with disobeying the covenant, drought, famine, and death. These terms and conditions of the covenant begin with the phrase, ‘If you listen,’ to emphasize the role of listening as an approach to covenantal life. One of Reb Froman’s students, Shaul Judelman, told me a story about how he learned the importance of listening as a step toward understanding covenantal love and service.

Shaul is an American Jew from Seattle who moved to the West Bank in 1999. He went directly to Reb Froman’s school in Tekoa to study the kabbalah, very much unaware of Reb Froman’s peace work. One day during the second intifada in the early 2000’s, when suicide bombers were blowing up cafes in Jerusalem and Israeli fighter jets were bombing Ramallah, Reb Froman asked Shaul to go into a Palestinian refugee camp to pick up three Palestinians who Reb Froman wanted to meet with. Shaul nervously drove his beat up blue pickup truck with his yellow Israeli license plates into enemy territory in a warzone, and found three men waiting for him at a street corner. Two jumped into the front seat next to him, and the other Palestinian, holding an oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument that King David used to play, jumped into the bed of the truck. The ride was totally silent, Shaul spoke no Arabic and these men spoke no English or Hebrew. Near the end of the drive, Shaul came to a complete stop at a stop sign and he heard a soft noise coming from the back of the truck. It was the sound of an oud playing ha-tikvah, the Israeli national anthem, the Jewish song of yearning to be free in the land of Israel. Shaul was so moved that he couldn’t move. He just sat, and listened, and wept. This Palestinian man strummed out love and acceptance to Shaul across the abyss of war and suffering and pulled him into a loving covenant. Shaul has since sympathetically strummed back love and service for all his neighbors. He is living in the covenant, and frankly, I’ve never met a more joyful person.

The covenant is a joyful obligation. It provides us with direction within a mysterious world. It encourages us to flower and be fruitful. It places us on a historical arc toward peace, justice, and mercy. In the words of God through Moses, “If you will keep my covenant… you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The covenant is a launch pad toward the greatest potential of humanity. Toward the emerging creation of a better us.

The covenant roots us in a tradition of belonging and comfort, and also encourages us to transcend our individual concerns and participate in tending a grander garden of meaning and joy. The covenant is the foundation that imbues our temporal actions with an eternal significance, attaches cosmic meaning to the mysteries and existential absurdities of day to day life, and grounds us on our pale blue dot. When we accept our role in the covenant, we participate in relationship with the powerful play of life, and we are privileged for the chance to humbly compose a verse.

Marriage is a covenant between two loving people. It has the power to root its participants in loving soil, to provide an expression for soulful service, and to grant a meaningful knowledge of a significant life. Its fulfillment yields ripe fruits.

I hope that through our covenantal relationships, and through your marriages, we can create belonging and meaning through love and service, and move ourselves and all of Israel and all of humanity another step forward along the path toward fulfilling our obligation to be a holy nation.

Shabbat Shalom

Roots: Update from Israel (May 2015)

On a warm sunny day, we made a right turn at the busy intersection where three Jewish boys were kidnapped and murdered this summer, passed the IDF outpost and the new supermarket where Jews and Palestinians shop together, made a right turn down a bumpy dirt road, and then walked a short distance to a shack in the middle of a field in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. We were there to meet with Shaul Judelman and Ali Abu Awaad at Roots, a center for non-violent peace building in the heart of one of the world’s tensest areas.

Shaul Judelman, literally translated from an old country language as ‘Shaul a Jewish man,’ was born in Seattle to South African parents. He moved to Israel before the second intifada began in 2000, just as the powder keg was about to explode. He describes his first few years in Israel as a mikveh of fire, a trying test to see if he was really willing to throw his lot in with the Jewish people in Israel. He studied at various yeshivas and with the lateRabbi Menachem Froman and his disciples in Tekoa. Rabbi Froman is well known in the West Bank as an early and committed settler, and an honest, spiritual, courageous, and adventurous peace builder. He met with everyone. When Hamas’ then leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was in Israeli prison, Rabbi Froman visited him often. They would talk for 15 minutes and praise God together for 45 minutes. Sheikh Yassin once told Rabbi Froman, ‘Your heretics and my heretics will never negotiate peace, but you and I could do it in an hour.’

Shaul sees the Palestinians as a hevrutah partner, study partners who help each other discover the full richness of a text. Just like how hevrutah partners can disagree on interpretations and can see the same text in two very different ways, both are the words of the living God. Just like how Israelis and Palestinians can hold such different narratives about the same land, both are dear truths and must be respected.

For Shaul, Roots helps people see the face of the other. He cited the French Jewish scholarEmmanuel Levinas’ thought that seeing a human face orders and ordains us into giving and serving the other. Forming compassionate connections is key to Roots’ work. One project of theirs creates a network of respected community leaders in each village, Jewish and Palestinian, to serve as ambassadors when tensions flare. Another project brings kids from both sides together for summer camp and after school activities. Roots also has language learning programs, a women’s group, and meetings between families. But some of their most impactful work is unstructured and anecdotal. A few months ago, Ali set up a phone call between an Israeli General and the leader of an Islamist terrorist group in the West Bank. Not too long ago, Shaul introduced a Palestinian farmer who was being harassed by Jewish teenagers to the security chief of the teenagers’ settlement. Now, when the kids come to throw rocks at him, the farmer directly calls the Jewish security chief and he disciplines his village’s kids. Ali and Shaul both like to quote Malcolm X: “What is justice? It’s just us.”

We asked Ali, wearing a Friends of the Earth Middle East shirt, what his ideal political solution is. He said that it is not a full divorce and not a full marriage. That the Jews and the Palestinians would each have a state, because both need to feel in charge, but there would be federal neighborhoods and connections that bound the two together. Shaul commented that peace now often means a separation, that the two warring nations each need their own space, a time out in their own fiercely independent states. Ali said that peace is sometimes a frightening word for people in the West Bank because it can mean forced separation. Shaul noted that the bible happened in the West Bank: In Bethlehem, Hebron, Shechem, and Jerusalem, and not on the Israel side of the green line in Tel Aviv, Rishon L’tzion, or Raanana. And the Palestine in the Palestinian narrative includes Haifa, Jaffa, Acco, Lydda, and Ramle, cities along the coast. When I saw Ali at Roots on Thursday morning, he told a group of American gap year students that the future of the Jewish people is also in the West Bank. Ali and Shaul agreed that peace cannot be a full separation, and they are doing the work to bring the warring spouses together. Shaul says they are environmentalists working for climate change.

I asked Shaul who funds their work. He said that Roots is less than a year and a half old and is just starting to pull together a funding network and submit grant proposals, so he hasn’t been paid since December. Ali and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger will be travelling to the States soon to raise awareness and funds. For more information, click here.

Roots is within view of a ring of Jewish settlements that surround the Palestinian village of Khalid Zachariyah. I’ve visited the village, named after the biblical prophet Zechariah, three times with Encounter since December and most recently last Friday morning while facilitating a gap year trip. Abu Ibrahim, a leader in the village, told us how impossible it is to get building permits from the Israeli military for the village. Most residents live in corrugated iron roofed shacks, the mosque has remained half-built for years, and the constant threat of demolition hovers over the small and illegally built school building. From the top of the unfinished mosque, a 360 degree view shows a ring of Jewish settlements with modern buildings and impressive yeshivas. Some of the gap year students who study at these yeshivas told me the janitors and cooks live in Khalid Zachariyah. Someone always asks Abu Ibrahim this question, ‘Would you like to be part of Israel if it meant full and equal rights as a citizen?’ Every time he answers yes.

On Monday morning, we met three settlers in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, not too far from Roots and Khalid Zachariyah and in view of King Herod’s tomb. One was a software engineer and art gallery owner born in the former Soviet Union, one was a native Israeli teacher, and one was an American born agricultural business owner who was the closest thing I have ever seen to a Jewish cowboy, complete with a long sleeve plaid shirt and a sidearm sticking out of his jeans. Each had lived in Tekoa for a significant amount of their lives, enough to lay down roots and feel at home.

Oren, the American, likened Israel to an abused child who can either blame himself for being abused, or can realize that the abuse is not his fault. He said the problem is not with Israel. There is nobody to make peace with. Natanel, the educator, said that the Israeli left thinks we have a choice, that we can do something to make peace, but it is not in our hands. All three agreed that we are not in a position for conflict resolution, but are in a time of painful conflict management. I asked what they thought of something I heard Ali say, ‘Peace will come when Palestinians abandon anger as an identity, and when Jews abandon fear as an ideology.’ I touched a nerve. The three settlers reacted emotionally, quickly saying that they are not afraid and are not ruled by fear. They rattled off what they are not afraid of: Isis, Hamas, Hezbollah, and all the other threats to them. Bella, the software engineer, said the leftists in Tel Aviv are the fearful ones, because they don’t live in the West Bank and are too afraid to even come visit the West Bank.

Oren spoke longingly for years past, when he could hike from village to village to the Dead Sea, when he could go into Arab villages and welcome Arabs into his. This interaction is not legal anymore, and the separation is suffocating. A few months ago, I met with a settler in Hebron who echoed this pain. Since the Oslo treaty divided the West Bank into three separate spheres of sovereignty in 1994 and the second intifada hardened these quasi-borders, he can no longer enter the 97% of the city that is not Jewish to shop and visit friends. He lamented his isolation from his neighbors. Peace, for him, did not mean a piece of the city, but coexistence as equals.

On Thursday afternoon, I sat in on a panel of three young Palestinian activists outside Bethlehem. One speaker, Fadi, talked about the power imbalance in the conflict. He logically laid out how the economic, military, social, and diplomatic power balances are greatly in Israel’s favor. They are not equal, so he does not approach Israel as an equal. Another speaker, Woroud Abu Awaad (Ali’s niece), seemed to disregard all of Fadi’s evidence, and she stubbornly claimed that she approaches Israelis as equals. I asked her how this is possible, and she answered, ‘I am a human and I know my rights and worth as a human.’

Some Thoughts on the Jewish Condition

Throughout Jewish history, we have asked the question: How far are we willing to stick our necks out to make the world better when we know we could lose our heads in the process? To analyze this question, I will look at a major tension within human nature and the nature of the Jewish people, a biblical example of this tension, and then end with examples of how this tension is playing itself out today.

In the Mussar stream of Judaism, human nature is expressed as a constant struggle between the yetzer hara (YR) and the yetzer hatov (YT). These terms translate poorly as the ‘bad inclination’ and the ‘good inclination.’ The YR really refers to the preservation of the self. Our Rabbis teach us that without the selfishness of the YR, people would not find jobs, build houses, take care of themselves, or procreate. The YT refers to selflessness, those altruistic actions necessary for families and societies to stay together and those actions intended to make our world a better place. The conflicting and underlying unity of the YR and the YT are best summarized in the words of evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, “The human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, the two impulses often conflict.”

These conflicting impulses hold true for both individuals and for groups of individuals, such as the Jewish people. Rabbi Sid Schwarz* refers to this tension as the Exodus consciousness and the Sinai consciousness. The Exodus consciousness is the selfish impulse for the Jewish people to circle the wagons and strengthen itself as a group when threatened. Facing slavery and genocide in Egypt, the Hebrew slaves banded together and formed a nation determined to clearly establish itself and to preserve itself, if need be as a nation that dwells alone. The Sinai consciousness represents the selfless impulse of the Jewish people; the great task that we have taken upon ourselves to be a light unto the nations, a kingdom of priests and prophets, and the repairers of the world (tikkun olam). We are a tense people, consistently caught between these inclinations when they so often compete.

The oft conflicting values of the safety of the Jewish people and our mission to redeem the world as a partner of God is not a new phenomenon. We see the competition between the Exodus consciousness and the Sinai consciousness near the end of the Bible in the generations following a major collective trauma. 2,600 years ago, Jerusalem was sacked, the First Temple was destroyed, and a third of the people died from disease or starvation, a third died from the sword, and a third were exiled to the rivers of Babylon where we sat down and wept. After 70 years, by the grace of the Persians, a Jewish state was reestablished in the land of Israel. In the generations following the end of our exile, four relevant biblical books were written: Ezra, Nehemiah, Jonah, and Ruth. Ezra and Nehemiah focus on the Exodus consciousness, the establishment and protection of a nation with clear boundaries. Other nations, like the Samaritans, are seen as a threat that can and should be dealt with in whatever way is thought necessary, and perceived threats to group cohesion like intermarriage are dealt with violently. On the other hand, Jonah and Ruth explore the Sinai consciousness, our altruistic mission in the world. Jonah teaches us to share our light with other nations and to help guide them, no matter how grudging we may be or how hostile they have been toward us. And Ruth exemplifies welcoming the outsider into the group and truly loving our neighbor. These four biblical books show us the very real and ancient tension between our collective selfish and selfless impulses in the generations following a massive collective trauma.

A few generations after the holocaust, the debate between group preservation and repairing the world is found everywhere. Should European Jews move to Israel for safety reasons, or should we encourage a diaspora presence so that we can be a light unto the nations? Should a Jew be strictly defined as a matrilineal Jew or an Orthodox convert, or should we broaden our definitions of who is a Jew to include patrilineal Jews and partners who choose to not formally convert? Should Jews isolate themselves in Jewish neighborhoods or live amongst gentiles? Should Jewish institutions consider only internal Jewish problems, or should they engage in broader issues? Should we seek peace and honestly negotiate with Iran, or should we declare a pre-emptive war because of Iran’s threatening rhetoric and actions? Should we seek friendship and coexistence with Palestinians, or should we strengthen our security with more walls and checkpoints? And finally, does ‘never again’ apply only to us, or does it apply to everyone, and how much are we willing to risk to protect others? How much are we willing to let our guard down to do good?

As we continue to move through the post-holocaust world, it is necessary to recognize the tension between protecting our people and the holy mission of our people to redeem the world. These two truths stand stubbornly side by side in an eternal paradox. We must strive to never succumb to extremism in either direction. And as we move from Passover through Yom Hashoah and toward Shavuot, we must always seek a path forward that honors and holds both the Exodus and Sinai.

*The Exodus-Sinai continuum appears in Judaism and Justice, The Jewish Passion to Repair the World, by Rabbi Sid Schwarz.

Many thanks are due to Rabbi Ira Stone for teaching me Mussar, and to Tamar Kamionkowski Ph.d for teaching me about post-traumatic biblical texts.

Some Thoughts from Jordan

A few months ago, Nathan and I went to Petra for two full days of adventure. Petra is an ancient trade city in the Jordanian desert, carved into rose red and blindingly beige cliffs about 2,500 years ago. It was deserted about 1,500 years ago, and ‘rediscovered’ by a British explorer in the second half of the 19th century. The famous treasury building is where the holy grail scene was filmed in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra is a wonder of the world, and is on every ‘places you need to see before you die’ list I know of. Here are some stories from that trip:

Each morning while it was still dark outside, Nathan and I walked about three kilometers through the city of Wadi Musa to the entrance to Petra. On the second morning, we were joined by two Jordanian men in their 20’s. They wore pre-ruined jeans and fashionable jackets, and were eager to talk with us. They worked at the souvenir shops in the official Petra visitor’s center, which was generously built by the King not too long ago. One told me that the monthly rent on one of those shops is about 1,000 Dinar ($1,400), and they are having trouble paying the rent because of how few tourists there have been this year, possibly because of fear over ISIS next door. As an employee, he makes 200 Dinar ($280) a month. A chicken costs five Dinar ($7), but he can’t complain. He just wishes that he had a little bit more money so he could go out with friends, buy clothes, and live life. I asked him why there was no Arab Spring in Jordan. He said people see what is happening in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc. and are grateful to be able to sleep at home safely. As we walked past another public image of the King, he said that the King was responsive to the people. He tours the country and asks the people how he can better serve them. I told him that our politicians do this too, but we know that every time they say something like, ‘Today I met Susan Collins from Chicago, and she told me how…’ we know they are full of shit. The Jordanian man looked at me with surprise, and said, ‘Here, the King is sincere.’ I asked him if Jordanians come to visit Petra. He said they don’t. I asked him why, and he solemnly lamented that Arabs have no sense of history, they come here and just see rocks. He has a sense of history though, because his archaeologist uncle made a movie with National Geographic about how Petra was built. By this time, we had reached the beautiful modern visitor’s center, and Nathan and I said goodbye and headed down through the canyon entrance to Petra.

Nathan and I walked across the blooming valley and past the main Nabatean temple to hike to the Byzantine era monastery. We took a wrong turn on the trail and ended up at the ruins of a Crusader castle, sitting on top of a pillar of rock jutting hundreds of feet into the sky. With steep drop-offs on every side, and the sun half an hour away from being directly overhead, we decided to have lunch. The only three other people at the castle were also eating, and they invited us to join them. They were Americans, from the Midwest and the West Coast. They asked us who we are and what we do. We were eager to safely confide in someone that we are Jews, Rabbinical students, and are living in Israel. We asked them who they were, and they told us they teach English in an unremarkable Jordanian city a few hours from Petra. ‘How do you become an English teacher in Jordan?’ ‘You just show up,’ and they all laughed uneasily. ‘What have you learned so far?’ ‘I’m not as self-reliant as I thought I was.’ ‘What’s it like being an American woman in Jordan?’ ‘Sometimes you’re aware of it, especially when you realize there are no other women in public spaces. Sometimes I feel unsafe, but it’s not Saudi Arabia.’ They finished lunch and headed down the cliff for their next hike. Nathan told me that he thought one of them was gay. No straight man takes that much care of his appearance. I felt my own scraggly half beard and agreed. While we hiked down, we joked about the proper protocol for asking someone if they’re gay while sitting in castle ruins in Jordan.

After a tough hike to the monastery, Nathan and I sat down in the sand for our second lunch. We were joined by a young American man, a Menonite from Oregon who had just spent a few months working for Messianic Jews in the Baptist Village by Petah Tikvah in Israel. He told us that the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) spit on them in the streets. We told him that we were Rabbinical students, and seeing that we were not Haredim, he felt comfortable to talk openly with us. He said that while there are Christians in the States who don’t think the Jews’ covenant between Abraham and God still holds, he does. And then he asked me the question that every fundamentalist Christian inevitably asks me, “Why don’t you Jews accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?” I wanted to give the answer I always want to give: Because after 2,000 years of crusades, inquisitions, blood libels, and holocausts, I don’t want to ever be more like you. I bit my tongue though, as I always do, and gave my standard answer: If Jesus were the Messiah, the entire world order would have been flipped upside down. Empire would crumble, and life for the last, the least, and the lost would be forever improved. Since that hasn’t happened, Jesus could not have been the Messiah. He said that will all happen when Jesus comes back. I told him that when that happens, I will gladly reconsider my position. He seemed satisfied, as if it’s only a matter of time before Jesus returns.

After hiking back down from the monastery, we headed across the valley toward the amphitheater and made a left turn toward the winged lion temple. We summited the hill to find an archaeological team digging out the still covered temple. An older member of the team came over to talk with us, and he recommended we go see the Byzantine Church on the other side of the hill. Nathan and I trekked to the Church, and while we were staring slack jawed at the beautiful preserved mosaic floors, the old archaeologist came over to talk with us. Him and his father worked together to unearth the Church back in the 1980’s. I asked him how long his family had been in the area. He said about 3,000 years. I imagined his ancestors carving the caves in the cliffs, welcoming traders and depositing tariffs in the Treasury, building the amphitheater and the temples, then the church and the monastery, then the crusader castle, then being shepherds, and now archaeologists. It was like talking to a James Michener character. He talked about how Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all very similar because they believe in the same God. I imagined his ancestors thinking similarly as they may have been Jews, then Christians, and now Muslims, changing gracefully with the tides of history. He asked what we were. We told him we were Jewish, the only time we trusted that information to a local. He asked if we knew any Arabic, and I said a few phrases. He replied in Hebrew, and we talked about how similar the languages are. His cell phone rang, and he excused himself by saying in Hebrew, ‘regah regah,’ meaning ‘wait wait,’ or ‘one second.’

On the Exodus

This is the d’var Torah I gave at the Reconstructionist minyan in Jerusalem on January 31, 2015. Enjoy:

Almost two years ago, I approached a very wise classmate of mine with a simple question. “How do I change the world for the better?” She taught me how to form a group, how to protest, and how to get media coverage. She ended our meeting by telling me that I needed to find faith. Me, the emphatic rationalist, the atheist leaning realist that I am, dismissed this as shtus, as garbage. But, for the last two years, I have not stopped asking myself why she said this. And this brings me to the story of the Exodus, the story of the Jewish faith and of the Jewish people.

The Exodus is our central defining tale, the reference point for God’s covenant with the Jewish people and our faith in God. It is the story of a young man raised as a prince in the king’s palace, receiving the finest education, wearing the nicest clothes, eating the best food. Then, one day, he runs away from his life in the capital of the empire to live in the desert. Moses and the Hebrew slaves then work together and ultimately walk out of Egypt, into the sea, and into the wilderness together as a free nation.

The Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman describes the Exodus in terms of the royal consciousness versus the prophetic imagination, as empire versus freedom. The Exodus is our ultimate tale of the mindsets of empire versus freedom, Pharaoh versus Moses and God.

But before entering into that conflict, it must be said, empire and freedom exist in every human being, in every society, in every time. Both are necessary, both are good. But sometimes, one dominates the other. Sometimes, to borrow a metaphor from Heschel, the pendulum of our lives swings back and forth between empire and freedom, between the head and the heart, between reality and dreams, and it becomes stuck. It is in those times when the balance must be redone. The Exodus is a story of dramatically swinging the pendulum from empire, Pharaoh, to freedom, Moses and God.

Empire is always worried and anxious about having enough. For empire, there is always an immediate unfulfillable desire, and any act, no matter how cruel, is justified. Pharaoh, a slave to his own fears, enslaves the Hebrews because he is afraid of them potentially acting as a fifth column for a possible invading army. Pharaoh, living in the rich and fertile Nile delta is so anxious about food that he forces the Hebrew slaves to build two cities of storehouses to accumulate more and more. Empire suffers in the narrow space of the mind.

Freedom lives in the open space of the heart. Freedom is free from those anxieties and is free to trust in the world. It is this revolutionary freedom from surpluses and mass accumulation that Israel must learn in the wilderness to reach the promised land. This lesson began immediately with mana, about which it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack, each gathered according to what he could eat.” This lesson in satisfaction continues with enough sweet water being found and enough fresh meat being eaten. Freedom will not commit acts of injustice to satisfy even the most rational fears. The midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah, facing death for saving infant lives, act with righteousness anyways. The text tells us they risk their lives because they revere God.

God, for empire, is controlled by empire, chained to the empire like an agunah. This was taken to its extreme in Egypt, where Pharaoh actually was god. Pharaoh made the sun rise, the Nile flood, and the crops grow. Pharaoh and his priests are in absolute control of the universe. There is no room for the unknown, for mystery, because the empire deals exclusively with what is empirical, what can be known, and the empire controls all that is known. Murdering mystery, reducing and rationalizing existence, and claiming total control is the underlying evil of empire, wherever and whenever it shows up. Whether it is sacrifices in Solomon’s temple to control the divine, some Israeli politicians claiming that Israel can do no wrong because it has God on its side, or an American president claiming ‘God bless America’ as an unquestionable fact.

God, for freedom, is wildly free. The God of the Exodus is a God who can choose the slaves over the slave owners, a God who responds to any attempt at knowing God with a deflective tautology. Moses asks God for God’s name. God replies, “I am that I am.” Moses tries to pigeonhole God into revealing God’s self to Moses and God replies, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” The God of the Exodus seems to be determined to prove to Pharaoh, the empire, and everybody, that any perceived total control over the workings of the universe is a dangerous illusion.

Empire is the known, the rational, the possible. Empire is static because it hates and suppresses imagination. Empire lives in its own fears and desires. Freedom imagines a world free from fears and desires. Rabbi Shai Held, in writing about Heschel, notes that empire commoditizes and objectifies existence to its own insatiable desires, using language like ‘natural resources.’ In the process, empire commoditizes itself, mechanizes itself, hardens its heart, and is indifferent to all choice, using phrases like ‘human resources’ and ‘following orders.’ Freedom sees mystery in the world, and does not dare attempt to limit God’s freedom. As Brueggeman notes, empire domesticates the vision of humanity by asking the question, ‘Is it possible?’ Freedom is not concerned with this question. Freedom has faith in the impossible. Faith, I’ve found, is believing, oftentimes irrationally, that if one walks toward freedom, one will be joined by our God of freedom. The God who Dr. King called, “The power that can make a way out of no way.” And who Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan called, “The power that makes for salvation.” With this faith, empire’s depressing stranglehold of reality and suppression of dreams melts away, and new life springs and righteousness flows like a mighty stream.

History is the story of new life through faith in the impossible and the irrational. The story of empires collapsing and dreams thriving. How could a tiny Indian lawyer rally a divided people to love the greatest empire in the world into leaving the richest land in the world as friends? How could thirteen disjointed agrarian colonies take on the mighty empire and begin a new project based on the principles of democracy and equality? How could a group of slaves march out of Egypt and into the desert? Was it rational for a young carpenter and a few friends to take on the powerful moneyed priests of Herod’s temple? Was it rational for an orphan to overthrow the establishment in Mecca? Was it possible in 1897 that a group of stateless, landless, powerless Jews could one day have a sovereign Jewish homeland? Their leader tried to distance his idea from the irrational, saying, “If you will it, it is no dream.” I disagree! Mr. Herzl, do not diminish Zionism. It was a dream, a hope, a tikvah, and it still is for so many of us. Impossible dreams are willed into existence throughout history. Faith in the unknown and sheer force of will is what allowed the Jews to leave the shtetls for the promised land. Faith is what allowed the Hebrews to walk into the sea and emerge in joyous song in the wilderness. Taking that first irrational step away from empire and toward freedom is what faith and the Exodus mean to me.

In the past two years, since meeting that student, I have protested, been arrested, lobbied aggressively, educated and registered voters, and gone into Palestinian territory several times to pursue peace. Every time, for weeks before, my head, my empire, screams at me to not do it. Don’t go, you’re an idiot, you’re a fool, you’ll be hurt, targeted, marginalized, ignored. The emperor Solomon yells at me from the temple mount, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Empire demands that nothing will change, that my actions do not matter. But my heart dreams for a world of peace, when the last, the least, and the lost will be cared for, when the lion will dwell with the lamb, and nations will not know war anymore. So, every time, after my heart allows my mind to make a few safety decisions, in the tradition of our ancestors, I irrationally walk into the sea with the faith that I will come out on the other side a freer man, singing joyously, deeper into the reverent wilderness, one step closer to the promised land. I know many of you know this faith that I’ve spoken of, and I look forward to hearing your stories over lunch. Shabbat Shalom.

On Zion and Zionism (1/4/2015)

It was late in the afternoon in Bethlehem on Christmas day.  A group of about 40 Jews, mostly American, sat in the Nativity Hotel meeting room asking questions of a panel of three Palestinian civic leaders and one Palestinian translator.  This meeting was done through Encounter, an organization that allows Jews to listen and to better understand a Palestinian side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Someone asked the panel what Zionism meant to them.  Ala’ Nusseibeh, a young, German educated woman from East Jerusalem, said that Zionism stands for expansion, colonialism, oppression, theft, and exploitation.  The room gasped with shock.  She recognized her definition had offended, but stood by her truth.  That was her lived reality.  When she encounters Zionists, they are throwing rocks at her when she goes to a Jewish doctor in East Jerusalem, they are harassing her at checkpoints, or they are the strangers who lived across the street from her childhood home.  She said that the values of Zionism are not compatible with peace.  Fatima Faroun, an older woman who organizes women’s groups, told us how she used to work with peaceful Zionists decades ago, but she said there are no more left to talk with.  An American Jew said, you were just talking about how Islam has been misinterpreted in the west, is it possible that you are misinterpreting Zionism?  Ala’ suggested that there are two different definitions of Zionism.  Sheikh Maher Assaf, an Islam teacher in several Palestinian schools, said that if he ever met a peaceful Zionist, he would be happy to talk with them.  The room eagerly said hello!  Sheikh Maher beamed and said, ‘Salaam,’ with his hand over his heart.

Before the panel, we met with Ali Abu Awwad.  Ali was born in 1972, and spent four years in jail from 1990-1994 for throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers and participating in other violent actions against Israel.  The first intifada in the late 1980’s, Ali said, was his time to explode and express his rage.  In jail, Ali participated in a 17 day hunger strike and spent time studying Gandhi, King, and Mandela.  After the Oslo Accords went into effect in the mid-1990’s, Ali joined the newly created Palestinian Authority security force to police the self-governing Palestinian sections of the West Bank.  When the Oslo peace process failed, and the second intifada began in the early 2000’s, Ali was seriously wounded in the leg and forced to leave the area for medical treatment.  While gone, his brother was killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers.  Ali describes the year following his brother’s death as the most depressed period of his life.  Ali joined the bereaved families program, where both Israeli and Palestinian grieving families meet and recognize each other’s suffering.  From these experiences, Ali emerged with an active commitment to non-violence.

Non-violence for Ali is not a strategy, it is an identity.  To be non-violent is to know that your humanity is not dependent on Hamas or Fatah or Israel or anybody else.  It is to not be occupied by your anger, to not allow fear to be your identity.  To be non-violent is to be free from victimhood and to be free to claim your choice.  It is to recognize your humanity and the humanity of all, and to realize that your occupier is suffering alongside you.  Ali told a story about a time he was stuck in line at a checkpoint in the Gush Etzion Jewish settlement area on a cold and rainy day.  A young Israeli soldier was goading him while he waited, trying to get a rise out of him.  Ali asked the soldier how he was.  The soldier said he was fine.  Ali told the soldier he looked cold and he looked like he was suffering.  The soldier told Ali that Ali was the one who was suffering.  Ali agreed and said that he was, but the soldier also was.  He was the one standing in the cold rain while Ali sat in a warm car.  The soldier broke down.  He told Ali how he had grown up in Kiryat Arba, a settlement next to Hebron, and no Palestinian had ever recognized his fear and suffering and seen him as human.  Violence, Ali says, is caused by not dealing with suffering.

Israel is suffering.  The Jewish people are suffering.  My people are suffering.  I am suffering.  The popular story of every Jewish holiday is, ‘They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.’  It was only 69 years ago that a third of the Jewish people were murdered in the holocaust.  It was only 66 years ago that the state of Israel, the place where Jews could finally live with dignity and peace, was born into violence, forced to defend its own existence with violence from the beginning.  Ali made it a point to recognize the Jewish history and consciousness of trauma and suffering as truth.  He acknowledged the source of my mistrust and fear.  I came to Bethlehem needing to hear a Palestinian answer this question, ‘Do you recognize my right, and Israel’s right, to exist?’  I asked three Palestinians this question and I received three thoughtful, serious, and friendly answers.  I of course do not know how representative this response is, and to speculate misses the point.  I know in those moments how moved and relieved I felt, after so many years of war, to hear a human being on the other side recognize my right to exist as a Jew living in the Jewish state.  Ali and others recognized our pain.

The Palestinians are also suffering.  The occupation is real.  There are over 600 checkpoints across the West Bank making travel extremely difficult and dehumanizing.  The settlements in the West Bank are expanding and strangling Palestinian villages.  The security barrier cuts through private land and creates a physical feeling of being trapped.  A few Israeli settlers harass Palestinians, a few Israeli soldiers make their lives difficult.  Olive groves are torched and mosques are defaced.  To grow a business or build a building requires Israeli permission that is tough to obtain and often times impossible.  Water and electricity are erratically supplied.  There is a frustrating mix of Israeli military, Palestinian Authority, Jordanian, British, and Ottoman legal systems frozen into place under international law.  One of our encounter tour guides said, ‘I recognize that we Palestinians have a higher material standard of living than any other Arab country.  This does not matter if we cannot be free and live with dignity.’  Dignity and the feeling of living in a cage were themes for every speaker.  A life without dignity, without the freedom to be fully human, is a life of suffering.  It is on us,aleynu, to recognize the real pain of the Palestinians.

I’m certain that many people reading this reacted negatively to that last paragraph.  It was difficult to write.  Yes, I agree, checkpoints are there to actively stop terrorists, and they work.  Yes, the security barrier stops suicide bombers from murdering civilians.  Yes, the IDF is perhaps the most moral army in the history of the world, and I too am extraordinarily proud, thankful, and supportive of the Israeli soldiers who keep Israel and the Jewish people around the world safe.  Yes, the occupation of the West Bank is because if we immediately take down the checkpoints and remove our soldiers, Hamas might take over and move to push us into the sea.  Yes, we are right.

But there are Palestinians who claim that they are right.  There are Palestinians who are certain that they are right to do everything they violently can to protect themselves from settlers and to evict Israel.  They are certain that they are right to say that Israel is a colonizer and an occupier.  The Palestinians were on the land for hundreds if not thousands of years before these Europeans showed up and started pushing them around.  Ali said that when he talks to Palestinians, he says, ‘If you want to be right, go pick up a bomb or a gun.  Go choose blood, hatred, and suffering, because you are right.  But if you want to succeed, you must choose and believe in non-violence.’

We asked Ali if he is optimistic that we can reach peace.  He said he isn’t optimistic, but he is a believer.  It sounded like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saying he was an optimist against his better judgment.  We asked Ali when peace would happen.  He said it would happen when fear is no longer the guiding ideology for Jews.  When Jews recognize that Israel is a nuclear power armed to the teeth, and when the Jewish people feel safe.  Peace would happen when the Palestinians recognize that the Jews need to feel safe, that every verbal and physical attack on Israel is an attack against themselves.  When the Palestinians abandon anger as an identity, and when they give the Jews no option but to love them.  Somebody asked if the boycott (BDS) movement is helping or hurting.  Ali said, that at this time, the boycott is seen by most Jews as a threat intended to hurt and cause pain.  He said boycotting only works if it comes from a place of love, and the Palestinian movement of love and non-violence is still under construction in the West Bank, so he is currently not in favor of BDS.  Somebody asked, what can we do to further peace?  Ali said that we should talk and listen to Muslim and Arab communities back home.  We need to hear their story, affirm their safety and dignity, tell our story, and have our safety and dignity affirmed.  The problem is that we trap ourselves in echo chambers and neither side is seeking to understand the other.  Somebody despaired that there are too many extremists on both sides.  Ali said, ‘The extremists aren’t stronger, they are just louder and better organized.’

When Ali Abu Awwad went to speak to the House of Lords in London, he was introduced to its two separate groups, the pro-Israel group and the pro-Palestine group.  Both sides defame the other, attack the other, and ignore the other.  He asked both groups where the pro-solution group was, and he received confused looks from the two groups who both knew they were right.  Ali told us about a Jewish friend of his in Tel Aviv, a lefty smolnik, who proudly told him that he would not even talk with the settlers because they are so wrong.  Ali said, ‘If you won’t talk with them, who will!?’  Now, Ali organizes groups of left-leaning Israelis to meet with groups of right-wing Israeli settlers.  The night the Encounter trip ended, I asked some smolnik friends in Tel Aviv if they had ever talked with settlers.  Only the one who grew up in Jerusalem had.  Another said, ‘Settler is too nice a word for them.’  After some intense conversation, that same smolnik declared, ‘If you find one who is willing to talk with me, I will gladly talk with them.’

Sadly, to talk about Israel in America is to lick a third rail.  I want to make clear that I am both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.  I am not advocating for the IDF to disband, or for the Jewish people to all of a sudden let its guard down.  I think it would be suicidal to immediately and unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank.  I understand why the situation is the way it is, Palestinians have committed unspeakable atrocities against Jewish civilians for almost 100 years.  At this moment in time though, we have two choices: To circle the wagons and give up any chance of peace, or to slowly open ourselves to the chance of peace.  I am advocating for a very active, very courageous, and very slow trust-building process with our Palestinian and Arab partners for peace.  Not every Palestinian (or Jew) is ready to be a partner in dialogue, but enough exist right now to begin, or continue, the process.  I am advocating for a willingness to listen, and a recognition that defaming the other side’s dignity and right to exist is counter-productive.  I am advocating for Jews to recognize that the fate of the Palestinians and the fate of Israel are intertwined, and to quickly and cautiously tip toe down the difficult path of understanding.  Our survival depends on it.

To live in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, one must earn it.  Jerusalem has been conquered 44 times since King David conquered it from the Jebusites 3,000 years ago.  Israel sits at the meeting point between Africa, Europe, and Asia.  It is sacred land for the great monotheistic religions.  In many ways, it is the center of the world, and many people desire it as such.  We, the Jewish people, have a state in Israel, in the holy land where the prophets of the Bible taught us how to live with love and hope.  Our prophets taught us that we are in a covenant with God, a partnership between us and the world.  They taught us how to fulfill that covenant and earn our place on the land, and they taught us what violates our covenant and forfeits our place on the land.  We know that to choose justice and love is to choose life.  And we know that to choose injustice and anger is to choose death.  We know to love our neighbor as we love our self.  We know, justice, justice, you must pursue, so that you may live on the land God is giving you.  We know the dreams of the prophets toward which we must strive: A day when the wolf will dwell with the lamb in peace, and nations will not lift up weapons against nations and will not learn war anymore.  For me, Zionism is the active movement of striving toward the ideals set forth by the prophets of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear such a different definition of Zionism from the mouths of Palestinians.

The last Palestinian we met with was Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American businessman and high tech consultant in the West Bank.  He said that he knows our people’s record in the Civil Rights movement, our positions and impact in Central America, the Soviet Union, and South Africa, and of our rich tradition of standing up for justice and truth.  He challenged Jews and our institutions to stop checking our morals at the airport by Tel Aviv.  Sam, a Palestinian, challenged us to be Jewish.

Ali Abu Awwad, Shaul Judelman, and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger do great work to promote dialogue and to teach non-violence in the West Bank with their organization,

The organization that I traveled with is called Encounter.  Encounter does not support or voice any political views about the conflict.  It creates a safe space to learn and struggle with the conflict.  They have programs in Israel and in the United States.

I'm Not a Fan of Ayn Rand

Note: I hope you do not read this as arrogant. I mean to totally refute Rand’s philosophy, and in doing so, I write with a voice of certainty.  I am open to any critique, comment, or question.  Though I ask that you read it all the way through before you do.

I am writing a refutation of the philosophy of Ayn Rand because it is dangerous, sad, and misguided.  This philosophy of exclusive rational self-interest, quantifying all of existence in relation to its perceived value to you alone, has gained prominence in the modern western world, and among some who are close to me.  My major disagreements with Randian philosophy are the idea that objective rational self-interest exists, and that if one is interested in living the most joyful life, exclusive self-interest is the method to do so.  In this refutation, I will discuss the mystery of existence and the illusion of the reductionist philosophy to show why rational self-interest is impossible.  I will then show why pursuing rational self-interest is dangerous and sad.

I begin with an axiom so obvious that it may be regarded as fact: Existence exists.  There is something and not nothing.  There are clouds, humans, trees, molecules, and atoms instead of nothing.  Adventurers in the world of knowledge have established to the best of their reasoning and experimentation that the universe began about 15 billion years ago when a singularity exploded outward, expanding rapidly and filling the previous void with something.  To uncover the what, who, how, when or why that existed before or beyond existence is a task worth pursuing aggressively, and I am glad that some of our best minds are probing that mystery, because this mystery is the ultimate question.  As the Zohar, the main text of the Kabbalah, states, “All existence depends on a mystery.”

I cannot prove anything about the great mystery that underlies the ultimate question of existence, or even define it, and I usually dismiss anyone with any concrete revelatory knowledge of mystery.  I can, however, attempt to show that mystery exists in our perceived world through a famous mathematical proof that points to mystery and to one of many examples from our lived world.

A central tenet of Cartesian philosophy is the idea of reductionism.  Reductionism means that any problem can be solved by reducing the whole to its smaller parts.  In other words, 4 X 4 can be solved as (2+2) X (2+2) = 16, as ((1+1) + (1+1)) X ((1+1) + (1+1)) = 16, as ((0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5) + (0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5)) X ((0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5) + (0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5)) = 16, etc.  If reductionism were to be true, any and every problem could be solved by reducing it to its smallest parts.  The dream of Cartesian reductionism is to reduce all of existence to its smallest parts at any one exact time and then, using the laws of physics, predict the future in its exact details.  To compute so much knowledge would take a super computer.  Alan Turing, the inventor of the Turing machine and father of the computer, invented a way to reduce larger bits of information into smaller bits of information that can be read and performed to recreate the larger information.  While building a computing machine and showing that reductionism is relevant and useful to process problems, he also proved that not every problem can be solved.  According to complex scientist Melanie Mitchell, Turing proved that, “Not every mathematical statement has a definite procedure that can decide its truth or falsity.”  He proved that not every problem can be solved, so not every problem can be reduced to the sum of its parts and then solved.  Sometimes, 4 does not equal 2+2.  His proof was in response to the ‘Halting Problem,’ and is sketched out and explained here:  If not every problem can be reduced and solved, then mystery exists.

The existence of human societies is an example of the often non-reductionist and mysterious nature of reality.  When a group of humans live together in an ordered and complex society, properties emerge that are greater than the sum of the individual humans added together.  A deterrent effect, peace, complex industrial products, group think, culture, etc. emerge in a society.  One could attempt to reduce and solve the group’s deterrent effect, how unlikely an enemy is to attack, by quantifying the deterrent effect of all the individuals and then adding that together.  But then, one would miss the emergent deterrent effect of being seen as a whole large group by enemy groups.  One is less deterred to attack a series of individuals than to attack the sum of those individuals, the group.  This is represented in the common sense adage, “United we stand, divided we fall.”  That gap between the mathematical sum of the individuals’ deterrent effect and the group’s actual deterrent effect is a mystery.  That addition emerges from the interdependence of parts of existence.  Other everyday examples of the mystery that flies in the face of reductionist philosophy are: The collection of interdependent neurons in the human brain producing thoughts, the interdependent parts of the human body creating artistic masterpieces, the interdependent parts of human societies creating cultures.  Here is a cuter example of an emergent property invisible to a reductionist, six individual puppies drinking milk and forming a pinwheel:

This is all to show that value cannot always be quantified, and the ability to quantify existence to determine rational self-interest is a false illusion.  Now, to show why it is dangerous.

There are some great minds that have an ability to both accept and explore mystery.  As Albert Einstein, one of the greatest explorers into mystery said, “Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”  An acceptance of mystery, which is often wrongly confused with an ignorance or indifference to discovery, is foundational to acquiring meaningful knowledge, that is, knowledge that can be understood wisely.  Without awe before great mystery, the world, one does not conceive of knowledge as anything but a commodity, a utility.  This awe is impossible when one is exclusively preoccupied with objectifying the world and subjugating it to your needs.  Without a recognition of great mystery, each learned bit of knowledge enlarges the ego’s ability to master the universe.  The quote, “Knowledge is power,” embodies the way an unwise mind views knowledge as a self-serving commodity.  This perception of knowledge as a commodity will often extend to nature, in language like ‘natural resources,’ and will eventually extend to the commoditization of self.  This is present in the language we use surrounding education.  To pursue an education is to ‘invest in yourself’ and make one ‘fit for the job market,’ as if you are an oil lamp to be filled or a mechanical person equal to the sum of its parts, instead of a candle to be sparked.  In this utilitarian light, education is no longer a sacred act, serving that which is greater than oneself, because it is self-obsessed.  At this point, when self has become a commodity and everything in relation to self is a commodity, the world exists exclusively as a toolbox on which you will impose your will.  Ego is often convinced of its own rightness and is amazingly adept at rationalizing away doubt.  Unchecked, ego imposes itself on the outside world and this leads to rampant destruction and sorrow.  This leads to a continual violation of the covenant between humanity and our world, and will inevitably be our destruction.  This is the danger of Randian philosophy.

When one is exclusively self-absorbed, either attempting to quantify oneself or the materials around oneself in relation to its potential value to be gained, then the possibility of self-transcendence is impossible.  This is the sadness of Randian philosophy.  The goal and meaning of life is to continuously pursue and achieve joy.  The ultimate joy of life is found when the self transcends itself.  One of the greatest mysteries of the mystery is what happens when one acts according to the knowledge that existence exists.  When one is able to perceive the world not in relation to one’s ego, but from the perspective of the totality of everything.  This is described as God-centeredness vs. ego-centeredness, as making the shift from head to heart, or as shifting from the self to the other.  Ultimate joy comes from blurring the boundaries of self into the totality of existence.  This sensation is referred to by Buddhists as being, “One with everything,” and it results from, “The annihilation of self.”  It is referred to by the Hasidim as, “The cancelation of self (beetool nefesh).”  I’ve heard Christians call it, “Feeling God’s love.”  There are many names for this moment in every religious tradition.  According to William James, these moments are always transient (fleeting and impossible to predict or expect), the one experiencing is passive (it happens to you, not the other way around), noetic (there is intellectual content), and it is ineffable (that intellectual content is indescribable.)  It is rationally unprovable, yet it is the greatest goal of human existence.  It does not involve the skies opening up and revealing a heavenly choir of harp-playing angels.  This moment often happens standing in one’s driveway and looking at a tree, serving food at a soup kitchen, marching for human dignity, or during the height of sexual climax.  It is the emergent property of experiencing the sum of all of existence, the interdependence of all.  It is a connection with the mystery.  It is a paradox of human existence: To be fully human means transcending yourself.

This idea is often labeled as mysticism and quickly dismissed as shtus, garbage.  This is a tragedy, and this is a reason why religion has lost its relevance and nihilism and exclusively selfish philosophies have been given space to rise.  The mystical pursuit is continually relevant.  It is what makes life worth living.  Rabbi Lawrence Kushner said, “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”  To segregate one’s self-interests from the whole is against the very foundation of monotheism and denies the chance of ever transcending the self.  To help others without first attempting to calculate their value to you is to further the task of transcending your self. To only serve and help others because of one’s expectations of reciprocal value will forever allow the ego to prevent itself from yielding to all of existence.  The starting point of helping cannot be the desires of ego, but must be the needs of the other if a human is able to transcend itself and be potentially receptive to the mystical moment.  Rand rejects this idea, and this is the sadness of the Randian philosophy.

The promise of modern western culture and Randian philosophy is that exclusive focus on the self will yield joy.  Everything is related to my interests, to my material security, to my existence.  Jewish tradition overwhelmingly, and to my knowledge, unanimously, disagrees with this.  The theme of prophetic rebuke is to care for others and not just self.  “What does God require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  The theme of prophetic hope is the transcendent joy that will happen when we consider and care for others.  “Seek good, not evil, that you may live.  Then God Almighty will be with you” (Amos 6:14).  The prophetic voice speaks for the whole on behalf of the part, never for the part on behalf of the part.  Viewing one’s actions from a higher vantage point, from the perspective of others, with the whole community in mind, should complement one’s individual assessment of value in relation to one’s perceived needs.  If one has no space to consider the other except as a tool for self gratification, then one surely has no space for the mystical moment.

Connection with the ineffable, experiencing the mystery, is impossible when one is exclusively self-absorbed.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the ego.”  Paradoxically, the most selfish way you can live is selflessly.  To focus exclusively on self and to commoditize everything in relation to self is both impossible to do and unwise to attempt.  Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism will lead to a life of sorrow and destruction in which it is impossible to feel the greatest joy.  A life lived exclusively according to rational self-interest is less than human.  As Heschel wrote, “One who is exclusively concerned with his self is a beast.”

This refutation of Ayn Rand may be interpreted as an attack on all self-interest.  This is not true.  Without rational self-interest, as best as we can humbly determine, we would be dead.  We would not build a house, get a job, stay healthy, or even eat.  The problem is with exclusive self-interest through the perception of everything in relation to self.  This philosophy is destructive, isolating, and spiritually void.  If we lived in a world of total selflessness, I would be arguing for people to look out for their self-interest.  But this is not the world as it is.  A Chassidic Rabbi used to give every person two cards on their wedding day, one for each pocket.  The first said, “You are the center of the universe.”  The second said, “You are but dust in the wind.”