Monday, October 3, 2011

Week 6 - Haazinu - Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52

On Friday night, there will be a lot more cold hungry people out on the streets. Jews walking home after Kol Nidrei services, the night of repentance before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will join the throngs of protesters occupying Wall Street, Boston, and other major cities out on the streets. It’s a poignant moment: one people upholding an ancient tradition of mutual responsibility for one another to God, and another trying to foster a similar sentiment in a new age towards government and business. So why, would it seem, that they are ignoring each other?

Why aren’t religious groups getting involved with the #OccupyWallSt protests? There are religious people out there, like a great group called the Protest Chaplains ( The dioceses of some Christian denominations have lent support as well, but we could all do more. Preaching against greed and corruption is the schtick of religious groups, and I say this as a person proudly a part of one, so why aren’t we out there? Fighting the good fight! Offering up services! Anything?! I realize their goals and leadership aren’t as well defined as they could be (or in some cases too defined and highly unrealistic ( I realize many are nervous, because it seems like only thing that unites the movement is a lot of volatile anger swirling around in concentrated areas, but the protesters are still people who need care. They are hurt, unsure how express their discontent with the system, and desperate to try and make the future better. Regardless of their politics, it sounds like they need spiritual support. So where are the spiritual people?
Pardon me for this, but I would like to focus on my people for a moment: Why aren’t Jewish groups throwing their yarmulkes in with the protestors? I realize it is a busy time, but we still have the Days of Awe to help them out as people. After all, helping the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the homeless have all have been the readings from the past couple of weeks’ Torah portions, leading up to the High Holidays.
Speaking of which, there must be Jewish protestors down there: What are they doing for High Holiday services? Would not a shofar blast meant to pierce the soul out of apathy and into spiritual and communal awareness be appropriate? Rosh Hashanah has passed, but what about Shabbas? What about Yom Kippur? I think we, as a American Jews, can make it so that their identity as protestors and as Jews isn’t mutually exclusive. There are ways we could reach out, so why aren’t we? Will religious groups begin to if the movement becomes mainstream? Will it be too late then because a main source of anxiety for the protestors is that their previous trust in institutions failed them? Can we turn this into a moment of spiritual growth rather then a moment of pessimism?
Now I am no evangelist and no socialist. I love capitalism. I take a free market approach to religion in fact; I think our product is so good that if we put it out there, people will like it and it will do well. I am also a big fan of money; I would like to have some one-day. I just think the people who have it, and those who were given it by the government from taxpayer money, should use it more appropriately.
I apologize for this next section; I was trying to keep it apolitical, but I cannot hold back. If I may focus on my people again, may I suggest which side to take for reasons other then religion? As a group forever plagued by the stereotype of money-grubbing Puppet Masters of the World, should we not take this chance to distance ourselves from people like that? To announce once again we are not all like Bernie Madoff? That we try to disavow the morals and ideas of people like him, as anyone who would rob families and institutions of their money so quickly that they have to sell off holocaust relics to stay afloat, is no Jew (
That’s why this Saturday I am heading down to #OccupyBoston with as many siddurim, yarmulkes, and tallit as I can carry and running my own Yom Kippur Services. Yes it will be an ad-hoc unofficial service. Yes, I realize (now that a lovely Rabbi pointed it out) that I would be breaking halakhic code by doing it. But Judaism teaches me that for the sake of one person, the entire world was created, so think of how much good you do with two.
What do I know? I am no Rabbi. I am no economist. I am just a guy that loves America, Judaism, and Humanity in general. And while that won’t get me a job nowadays, it will at least keep me sane. And if spiritual groups can go to these protests and help to cultivate a love of any of those things, the sanity that would come out of it might do us all some good.
Many of us see a faint glimmer of the promise land in the world around us, but we do not know how "to cross the Jordan." Perhaps it is the faithful observation that gets one there; perhaps it is treating one's actions not as a trifling thing but as if their whole life depends on them. I do not know. I do know that when you get to that promise land, when you have broken down the wall that separates you from your fellow Man and from God, you indeed shall long endure, because you will not want to stop dwelling in such a land.
I wish you a reflective fast and a good shabbas!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Week 5 - Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech - Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

L’shana tovah everybody! We had a double shot of Torah from last week coming to you straight up. It’s been a rough week and the coming weeks looks to be even busier, so I need the extra boost before the High Holidays begin. And the first line was so happy right? I had to start off being overly excited, but I want to talk about feeling alone.

I am going to make this a bit personal, so indulge me if you will: I feel alone. Everyday I wake up when no one is up in my apartment and ride the bus to school alone. I run from class to class to work to class to whatever else I have going on and then ride the bus back alone. Even now I write this entry in an empty room alone, miles away from my family who are celebrating together. Total bummer, but I will come back to it.

In this past week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people are about to feel alone. Moses is about to leave them in this week’s parshah and they will be for once, in a very long time, without guidance. Lost in the wilderness, if you will (cue Children of Eden song).

This sentiment though is not foreign, especially not around this time of the year. Many of us feel alone now: kids just starting school or college graduates just entering the work force. With the way the world spins and changes every day, it is easy to feel lost in the desert.

The Jewish people though are never alone because we have each other. This all sounds very “Hands Across America”-y, but think about the past couple of readings I have done. The point of Deuteronomy isn’t the stoning of adulterers and the wrath bits, but the care for the poor, the widowed, the orphan, and just each other in general. It’s a guide to never being alone. This week’s parshah really makes that sentiment concrete: unity of people.

And how could we ever feel alone? We are heirs to one of the oldest traditions known to humanity. Someone, somewhere along the line over thousands of years, has felt like you, has been like you… and they made it. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be here as you are now. They were still standing, after wandering the desert, traversing the wilderness, overcome with the feeling of being in exile, despite being surrounded by all of God’s blessings, they stand. This past week’s reading begins:

“You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite man; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood-hewer to your water-drawer.”

You stand.

And it’s everyone, from the biggest to the smallest, from the ones who join things together, to the ones who split things apart, the stranger and the tribe all stand together. Moses’ last physical act in the Bible is to give the Jewish people something so that they are never alone and never without guidance: the Torah. And he knows about being alone.

Moses himself feels like he will be alone and without guidance at first, to quote this wonderful Davar Torah from the Academy of Jewish religion where I would like to possibly study (hint hint wink wink – please read this and offer me financial aid).

“At one time Moses protested that he was not a man of words, that for him speech was difficult and his lips were not fluent. But forty years later he preached the words of Deuteronomy. Throughout a full day he held forth, concluding by saying that the thing, the commandment, was not too far away or too difficult, “rather it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” What happened to him?”

(The rest of the article can be found here:

What did happen to him? I don’t know. I am not a rabbi; maybe I will be one day if I go to AJR. But perhaps the Haftorah has an answer… You know me. I love me some good Haftorah. Here is a brief summary, from

“The prophet begins on a high note, describing the great joy that we will experience with the Final Redemption, comparing it to the joy of a newly married couple.

Isaiah than declares his refusal to passively await the Redemption: "For Zion's sake I will not remain silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be still, until her righteousness emerges like shining light..." He implores the stones of Jerusalem not to be silent, day or night, until G‑d restores Jerusalem and establishes it in glory.”

It’s interesting the juxtaposition between Torah Reading’s first word, nitzvahim meaning “you stand” and the Haftorah, where Isaiah refuses to just stand there. Maybe that is what happened to Moses. The struggle between standing firm in your faith in God and the urge to go out and bring the righteousness out. Maybe it is the fight to become who he is meant to be that made him who he is. Circular logic, but God’s funny like that. And it would fit our namesake well; the Hebrew word, Yisrael, means “Struggled with God.” The inherent nature of Jewish is struggle with God, to wrestle with the issues in your life in a God-ly way.

And this would fit well with the theme of the new year. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote:
Thus, the Hebrew word for “year,” shanah, means both “change” and “repetition.” For the year is an embodiment of the entire range of transformations that constitute the human experience. Each year of our lives only repeats this cycle, though on the higher level to which a year’s worth of maturity and achievement have elevated us. In other words, one can say that we all live for one year, and then relive our lives for as many times as we are enabled, each time on a more elevated level, like a spiral which repeats the same path with each revolution, but on a higher plane.

You can read more of that here:

But I could be wrong! Again, I am not a Rabbi (nor a rock star). But there still might be something in the Haftorah. It is the idea that God is out there, suffering with his people and he will redeem them. Isaiah 63:9 says "In all [Israel's] afflictions, He, too, is afflicted, and the angel of His presence redeemed them..." 

So maybe it was the struggle, maybe it was knowing that God was always with Moses. Both are good lessons to take away though. Remember my long busy days from the beginning of this long blog post? No. Well go back and read it. I will wait.

Still waiting.

Alright. So, I try and see these things that bring me down as blessings in my life and the more I try it, the more it works. Every bus ride, I seem to meet someone new and interesting. So it turns out I am not alone. Last night it was a Rastafarian and an Orthodox Jew! In the past it has been Spanish professors at Harvard, pharmaceutical-related IT consultants, or just interesting people from the neighborhood who I now ride the bus with every day. True, my family is far away, but I have an over abundance of opportunities for services here. A better buffet of Judaism than I could have at home with great people who are slowly becoming members of my Harvard family.

The fact is that I am never alone, even when I feel down. I have God, opportunity, and a network of friends, family, and Jews everywhere I go. Everything is a blessing, you just need to look for it. Perhaps this is overly optimistic (especially given the serious injustices going on in my hometown of NYC right now, #occupywallst), but I have been trying to live my life this way since I have gotten here, and not a moment goes by when I am not overjoyed. Plus, how can I feel alone when badass Jews like this are out there:

Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem  - Party Rock Anthem Parody by Aish

“It’s Time to Come Back Baby To Hear Kol Nidrei” – Lady Gaga Rosh Hashanah Remix

“The Book of Life” – “It’s a Good Life” Parody by Yeshiva University’s Maccabeats (Like GLEE, but Jewish)

Shana Tova Umetukah! Ketiva ve-chatima tovah! Tizku leshanim rabbot!

Rockstar Rabbi, out!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Week 3 - Ki Tavo - When you come into the land...

What’s up my Hebrews and Shebrews? My He-bros, if you will. (Thank you Michael for that awesome word.) I am gonna get heavy this time around, but I promise it will get better towards the end. Please wade through the darkness, for “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Thank you Zach for bringing this beautiful psalm to my attention.

It is so easy to feel cursed nowadays. You turn on the news and the world is falling apart. Personal and national debt keeps getting bigger and bigger. Ashton Kutcher is on Two and a Half Men; like I said, we are definitely cursed.

But why, you must be asking yourself: What did I do?
What did we do? If you want to know the answer, scroll down….

I don’t know; I am just a guy in grad school.

But the truth is no one does, save for the big guy. For thousands and thousands of years, people have given answers – people far wiser then I. After all, I am not a Rabbi, (I am inclinded to say it now once a post), but I have read a lot. The Book of Job provides tons of explanations, but none are that great, aside from ‘Just listen to the guy in the whirlwind.’ The Book of Tobit provides similar answers, but in a much more ‘Rockstar’ fashion; angels, demons, magical fish, and wayward bird droppings all factor into this apocryphal work to heal and renew one pious man with a very sucky life. Augustine had his whole original sin/Eve ate an apple explanation, but he stole an apple as a child and had problems with women as an adult, so … yeah. No disrespect, Augustine is my man, and I will bring him back later, but does anyone have an answer? Even Moses, in this week’s parshah, gives some advice too:

Vahayah Ki Tavo El Ha’Aretz - And it will be, when you come into the land…

… all the reasons God will love us and all the ways that we will be blessed. At this point in the reading, you are ecstatic. Break open the Johnnie Walker Red Label (which I just found out is Kosher, so I guess its Yonaton Vaqer)! Make it rain up in this bayit (Hebrew for house)! Awesome.

But then there are the curses. Curses for anyone who can’t uphold the law, and there are A LOT of laws. That’s the covenant: keep the laws and you are blessed, ignore them and you are cursed (at least the Mosaic one, God has a whole other thing going on with David and Abraham, and don’t even get me started on Jesus).

So what to do? Perfect your knowledge and action and hope for the best? It’s a good plan, the recommended plan in fact, but what about those of us who are weak of will? I know that I, the Rockstar Rabbi, am incredibly weak of will. I admit it here and now, loud and echoing throughout the caverns of the Inter-webs: I AM WEAK.

I don’t think I am alone though. Augustine’s whole thing was that he was weak, and he knew it. He would call out: God, grant me grace, but not yet! Same with Paul and the author of the Psalms. Nobody is perfect. If you know someone who is, please call me so I can alert the media and get them working on solving all those aforementioned problems.

So what do we do when Psalm 86:7 might not help? You are an imperfect person who needs to be perfect. Life sucks; What to do? This is where the whole theodicy (Latin meaning Justice of God) falls apart. Which is when wise men stop answering and try and give comfort.

Now you don’t have to read these next two articles I have linked, even though they are very good ways of dealing with the paradox of God and suffering. You don’t even need to read the part that says MY THEODICY in big bold letters.

What I do need you to do is watch the third link that I have starred. I do realize the irony that if this was am an actual Shabbat sermon I couldn’t actually show you it, but I would tell you it with my heart open and such passion, because I found it to be so moving.

Brilliant article: Sometimes the bad is good and the good is unknown to you.

But I am young and brash and impetuous – so let’s face it- some times life sucks and no amount of Chabad article will help that. Okay, maybe one more…

The sweetest fruits go bitter in our mouths feeling the need of our brethren.
The passage also talks on the first fruits and he has a lot of good points on it:

I know that this week’s parshah says you need to stone those who break the commandments, but one needs to understand the context of this within the narrative. These were a people so close to God at this moment and time that they literally could not take it. They were surrounded and infused and all encompassed by God’s presence. Thus, they had no excuse for their actions then. The world as it is now is different; it needs to be healed. It needs to be brought back to this level of Godliness.

But what about that stoning we talked about? What about the wrath of the Lord? Doesn’t the Old Testament have a reputation to maintain?


I will no doubt get into that whole speil another time, but for now, I tell you that God loves. God loves. He gives unceasingly. That is why these past couple of torah readings have all included commandments to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan. You are God’s foot soldiers in the spiritual warfare of life, and God does not want you to leave anyone behind. It is just the kinda god God is; God would give the clothes off his back if he had a back, or clothes, or a corporeal form. (He has a backside which Moses sees, but let’s not get into being flashed by the Divine Presence (Exodus 33:23)).

The haftorah of this week and the past couple of weeks are about the Lord forgiving and renewing and giving, despite Israel’s many many MANY misgivings and faults. It is all building up to the renewal of the year (Rosh Hashanah) and great redemption of Yom Kippur. That’s why they are placed that way. They compliment each other. 

Moses says in this week’s reading:
If you will listen to the voice of G-d... and observe the commandments... All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you…” (Deuteronomy 28:2)

Now I have some curses. In fact, it is even easier to recognize those curses over the blessings, but that’s not the challenge of life. It’s not to be overtaken by curses, or non-chalant about your place in life. The challenge is to be overtaken by your blessings. Swim in them; let them engulf you and make your heart leap and your soul dance.

When it comes down to it, I have so many blessings in my life. I am healthy, I have an amazing support network of friends, loved ones, and mentors, I have intelligent and good looking readership, I go to one of the most prestigious universities in the world,  and so many things come naturally to me. So often in my life, has just talking to someone rewarded me a thousand times over. I am truly blessed.

****************WATCH THIS***************
Sometimes in life, you think you can’t find the blessings in the curse. This man sufferes one of the worst things a person can suffer: to have both his children killed on the same day. But watch how he finds the blessings:

My final word is this: I love you. I am gonna try my hardest to love the way God does, but I will fall short… and that’s okay. As long as I work to make it better. As long as I love you just as much as I love everyone who reads my blog. As long as I love that homeless guy outside the bus stop enough to show him the compassion those curses keep in my mind. As long as I love that that nice person I keep having interesting conversations with at the Chabad House enough to keep my mind and heart open to another person. I even love the class of Jesuit educated high school students that are reading this, because they will take it as an opportunity to learn some Torah, commune with their Jewish brethren, and set the world on fire (in a good way). I love them all with compassion, kindness, and openness.

By saying this I don’t demean my love. That’s not how love works, if we are to try and emulate God in this respect.

It is not profane because I do not keep it separate; if anything, love is more holy when it is shared.