Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

No, not the politically-correct "Happy Holidays." Our Jewish holiday that happens at this time of year, Chanukah, is long past. We lit our Menorahs for eight nights, sang songs, ate fatty fried foods, played gambling games and exchanged presents. Now it is our neighbors' turn to celebrate their own joyous festival. To all my Christian friends, colleagues and neighbors, I wish you much joy as we enter the day of Christmas Eve. May this festival uplift and inspire you as you reflect on its deepest meanings. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Letter Supporting Clemency for Jonathan Pollard

I have thought a lot about the Jonathan Pollard case over the years. He was hired by the US Navy, gave classified documents to Israel, was arrested and sentenced while I was serving in the Navy's intelligence-gathering establishment. I actually had a professional connection to the case; I served on the damage assessment team prior to his sentencing. At the time, I was struck by two discrepancies. First, after the extensive reportage on him I wondered why he had ever been hired by the Navy in the first place. Second, when the damage assessment team unearthed that he was a minor 'desk jockey' who funnelled various intelligence summaries from other agencies to analysts within his agency, why was he touted as an 'Israeli Master Spy' and given a life sentence?

The answer to the first question became clear to me five years later when I was due a routine five-year update and background investigation. I found that I had to submit information going ten years back; because of the rapid build-up of the intelligence services in President Reagan's first term - during which Pollard was hired - the agencies investigating applicants for top security clearances were swamped beyond their capacity and often pencil-whipped the clearances if the applicant had no police record and there was no 'red flag' on the application. If my own SCI update was signed without investigation, my guess is that a new hire, a young man recently out of school, someone with some 'yichus' (his father was a prominent professor at Notre Dame who had surely done some work for the government at some point) would not attract close scrutiny. The Navy didn't know Pollard was something of a 'fruit-cake' because they didn't give him much of a look.

On the issue of the extent of the damage Pollard had done to national security, two factors certainly worked against him. The first was his, and his defense team's, own miscalculation. In jailhouse interviews to CBS' '60 Minutes' and the Jerusalem Post's Wolf Blitzer before sentencing, Pollard and his wife bragged about the high levels at which they worked within the Israeli establishment. The truth all along was that the Israeli agent 'running' Pollard was conducting something of a rogue operation. Why did the Pollards puff themselves up in the media? My guess (and this is only a guess, but I think a good one) is that they calculated they would force the US and Israeli governments at the highest levels to begin negotiations for the Pollards' release. The second factor was Secretary of Defense Weinberger's interference with the case. Weinberger, according to Lawrence Korb, his deputy at the time, seriously inflated the damage assessment to make it sound as if Pollard had made extremely damaging disclosures not only to Israel but to the Soviet Union and other states. And in an apparent attempt to manipulate the ire of the presiding judge, Aubrey Robinson who is an African American, Weinberger painted a picture of disclosures to (then Apartheid state) South Africa. Given all this, it is no surprise that the judge locked Pollard up 'and threw away the key,' and that Pollard spend some eight years in solitary confinement.

Over the years, I've had the sense that this was a very bad deal. Pollard is certainly no hero, although there are elements in Israel who see him that way. He was more like a village idiot. Given the undue meddling in the case at the highest levels, and the Navy's negligence in ever granting the guy a security clearance, I think that 25 years in prison for him is more than enough and have signed on to the effort to free him. Below is the text of the letter I recently sent to President Obama at the request of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC, 20500

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to you to add my voice to those requesting commutation of Jonathan Jay Pollard's sentence to time served.

I was serving on active duty in the U.S. Navy and working as a Cryptologist at the time Pollard was arrested. Working at the time for the G6 organization of the National Security Agency, the Middle East-North Africa section, I was chosen to participate on the team assessing the damage potentially caused by Pollard’s disclosures. My recollection matches those of Senator Dennis DeConcini, Dr. Lawrence Korb and Mr. R. James Woolsey, all of whom have suggested Secretary of Defense Weinberger seriously inflated the assessment of the damage done by Pollard in his report to Judge Aubrey Eugene Robinson, who presided over Pollard’s case. My own recollection is that there was nothing that we came across to indicate that Pollard gave information to any country but Israel. Further, the information he probably disclosed consisted primarily of daily operational intelligence summaries, information that is extremely perishable. It did not appear to me at the time that the information he gave Israel should have resulted in a life sentence.

This combines with my sense that the Navy was seriously negligent in even granting Pollard a security clearance. Had the Navy done the required background investigation, Pollard certainly would not have been hired in the first place. But when Pollard was hired it was at a time of very rapid expansion of our intelligence services; then it was fairly commonplace for clearance investigations to be dropped and the clearances granted if the investigators saw no ‘red flags’ on the application. I was due a routine five-year update of my clearance the year Pollard was hired; five years later, the Naval Investigative Service had to go back 10 years because of the omissions during the build-up during President Reagan’s first term.

These two factors – the giving of what appears to be only extremely perishable information to an ally, and the extreme unsuitability for the work to begin with – do not erase the guilt for the crimes Pollard committed. But it does lead me, as someone with a connection to the case on the government’s side, to add my voice to those of Senator DeConcini, Dr, Korb, Mr. Woolsey and the members of Congress who have recently asked you to consider commuting Mr. Pollard’s sentence to time served.

Thank you for your prayerful consideration of this matter, and may you and your family enjoy a blessed Christmas holiday.

Donald A. Levy
Rabbi, Temple Beit Torah
Chaplain, Major, USAF (retired)

What do YOU think?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vayechi - And He Lived

I was thinking about the recent and tragic death by suicide of Mark Madoff, the son of convicted Ponzi Schemer Bernard Madoff, while studying this week’s Torah portion. The younger Madoff, a 46-year-old father of four, hanged himself with a dog leash in his Manhattan apartment last Saturday while his wife and children were out of town. The day on which Madoff killed himself was the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. Mark Madoff and his younger brother Andrew were the ones that turned their father in, after he had confessed his crimes to his family. The entire Madoff case is a tragedy: for the Madoff family, for the many individuals and charitable foundations whose investments were lost, and for the entire Jewish community. The specter of an obviously-Jewish crook defrauding so many of billions of dollars should be a source of shame for every Jew. And one would have to be heartless to not sympathize with the many who feel the pain that his crimes spread, including his family. For an intelligent young man of 46, a father of four and apparently uninvolved in his father’s crimes, to take his life in such a way, can only be heart-rending.

This week’s Torah portion opens with the words, “Vayechi Ya’akov – And Jacob lived in the Land of Egypt 17 years.” Jacob tells his son Joseph of his wishes for arrangements after his death. He knows that his death is approaching. He is happy that he was able to live out his final years in Egypt, under the protection of his son with whom he was miraculously reunited after many years apart. Jacob doesn’t want to be buried in Egypt; he instructs Joseph that, when he dies, he wishes for his remains to be taken back to Canaan, to be interred in the burial place of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. Recognizing that the family will eventually leave Egypt and return to the land promised to them by G-d, Israel does not wish for his remains to spend eternity in the soil of a foreign land. Israel’s swearing his favored son to carry out his wishes as to what to do after his death, serves as a leitmotif for following generations.

Joseph himself, having taken his father’s bones back to Canaan for burial, makes the same request of his sons. Eventually, when the people Israel leaves Egypt, they carry Joseph’s bones with them for re-interment in Canaan. But the practice of making known one’s final wishes has become commonplace and normal. We instruct our loved ones as to where we’d like to be buried, or if we prefer some other method for our remains to be dealt with, we make that known. And it is an important ethical principle that one carry out your relative’s dying wishes.

But beyond expressing our wishes as to what we’d like done to our remains after we die, we also express our preferences as to he circumstances of our dying. Thanks to the incredible technology that can keep us legally alive long after we’ve reasonably expired, we often give advance notice as to our wishes with regard to so-called heroic measures being taken, or not, which will determine when and how we die. In recent years, the idea of palliative care to ease our death, rather than heroic measures to prolong our life, has become more popular and compelling. I have to say that the availability of palliative care is a good thing and has allowed so many to die with some dignity intact.

But the ultimate level of taking control of the circumstances of one’s dying, is achieved by taking one’s own life – by suicide. In recent years, there has been a movement to allow physicians to assist terminally ill patients to take their own lives. As you remember, Doctor Jack Kevorkian – dubbed ‘Dr. Death’ by some – elicited both praise and condemnation for his illegally assisting, by his own claim, 130 people to commit a painless suicide. He served eight years in a Michigan state prison for his efforts.

Now I’m astute enough – and compassionate enough – to know that some reading this will think of Jack Kevorkian as a hero. I think I understand how painful it can be to be in the throes of a terminal illness. I watched my father die a somewhat messy death from multiple myeloma, and before that my maternal grandfather from colon cancer. A prolonged death from a terminal illness robs the dying patient of his last scraps of dignity, causes his loved ones pain to see him suffer so, and can bring financial ruin to those responsible for his care. Even so, I have to tell you that the slippery slope that assisted suicide opens up, gives me some pause. Some people have famously expressed a desire to die for what can only be termed trivial reasons. It is natural for someone facing a life of severe disability to think themselves better off dead. Someone who has lost his sight, or ability to walk, or ability to control his bowels, could be forgiven for thinking that suicide offers a release from the indignity of continuing to live. My point here is not to condemn those who would wish to take control of their life by determining the time and manner of their death. Rather, my point is to offer a contrasting viewpoint. It is only natural to feel despair when faced with a life in which one will be denied some activity, some talent that is important to one’s self-definition.

Most of us have activities that we love to do. Golf, tennis, running, skiing…our favorite sports and activities give us untold amounts of pleasure and help us through the difficult times. But while these things are fun and bring joy, we should not measure our lives by these things. If we do, then our lives will seem far more shallow and vapid after they’re over. We should be able to drift in and out of these activities, because our lives’ meanings should be far deeper than these things. If we think that our lives are no longer worth living because we’ve lost the ability to play some sport, then we’ve lost sight of what the real meanings of our lives are. We should think of those whose spirits have been able to soar despite our trials and setbacks. Of, for example, the wounded warriors who have found the emotional strength to live on despite losing one or more limbs in battle. Of those whose fighting spirit makes them see that their worth as individuals, far exceeds the sum of what they’re capable of doing. What a tragedy if someone thinks that, because they can no longer perform some accustomed physical feat, that their life is no longer worth living. Of if a terminally ill person frets over the way his protracted treatment is eating up the estate he might leave to his heirs. Another hint of misplaced priorities.

And how about a relatively-young man, with many years of health, happiness and yes, productivity ahead of him, so despairing because of his father’s crimes that he feels he must ‘check out’ prematurely? Perhaps it is unseemly to reflect on these things as we inaugurate the Shabbat, the day of rest and renewal of spirit that is G-d’s greatest gift to the Jewish people and the Jews’ greatest gift to humanity. But my purpose is not for us to despair, rather to learn an important lesson. And that lesson is that we must, while we have control of our faculties, take stock of what’s most important in our lives. Although evil surely does exist in our world, I’m guessing that just about everyone reading my words today has spread far more good than evil in his or her lifetime. Perhaps you have not given yourself the credit you deserve for the good you’ve spread. We frequently think more harshly of our lives than we should, because we focus far to much on achievements, than goodness. Mark Madoff, according to those close to him, was not a man in his crooked father’s image. Rather, he was a relatively unassuming man who helped many with his expertise in investments, who prospered at least in part because of his hard work, and who cared deeply about those closest to him. It is a tragedy that he ended his own life so ignominiously, leaving a widow and four orphans, because of the shame his father’s crimes caused him to endure. How tragic when any human being feels his life has lost its meaning, whether because of a broken relationship, because he must endure a protracted illness, or because some new disability has robbed him of some activities that brings him joy. In all these cases, from the famous to the anonymous, the tragedy is that we find it difficult to see the true value of our lives.

Jacob’s life was supremely valuable, although he had a rocky beginning. As his death approached, he might have been forgiven for thinking that he had outlived his usefulness. He might have thought he would be unduly overburdening his son by making him swear to carry his bones back to Canaan for burial. But Jacob’s greatness, through all his foibles, was that he understood the values that make life worthwhile. He therefore felt free to burden Joseph with his request to return him to Canaan for burial with his fathers. And Joseph’s greatness is amply displayed in the fact, chronicled later in this week’s Torah portion, that he indeed carried out his dying father’s request.

“Vayechi – and he lived.” May we find the strength and resolve to live out the fullness of our years. And may we be blessed to understand the true worth of our lives, and those of the ones closest to us.

Friday, November 19, 2010

More Jacob

This is the D'var Torah I'm planning to deliver tonight at Temple Beit Torah. Enjoy!

This week, the Jacob saga continues. Our patriarch, on his way back to Canaan after years of exile with his wives, concubines, children and considerable wealth, is still afraid of his brother, Esau. He divides his entourage into three camps in case Esau attacks; that way he'll have a remnant with which to start over.

In the night before Jacob's meeting with Esau, he wrestles with an angel all night. Another dream? But no, this time it is apparently seen as an actual, physical encounter. As the sun is rising, the angel blesses Jacob and re-names him Israel, meaning he-will-strive-with-G-d.

Despite Jacob/Israel's fears, Esau awaits with a loving reception...sort of. Outwardly it's an encounter one would expect between two long-separated brothers, but the Rabbis clearly felt some ambivalence about the undercurrents of the meeting. And Israel clearly feels it, as he tells his brother of his plan to settle in another part of the Land, far away from the flocks and pens of his brother who has also become quite wealthy in the years of their separation.

Israel clearly does not fully trust his brother. But he understands he must make an attempt to reconcile with him if they're to live in the same country. So he sends a delegation ahead with gifts and warm greetings, and he physically approaches his brother without an accompanying war party.

Jacob is caught in the broad nether-land between fully trusting and fully distrusting. And we, likewise often find our relations with others falling into that extensive ground.

It is dangerous to trust others completely. How many of us can relate to having been 'burned' after lending a considerable sum of money to a relative or a close friend or associate? Who among us had an unfortunate experience after co-signing a loan? Has anybody ever let someone stay in their house and returned to find something missing or broken? And these are just examples of PERSONAL trust that was returned with bad-will.

What about relations between groups, for example the different groups with which we find we must forge alliances in order to improve life in our country, in our world? I'll give you an example that comes immediately to mind, from my recent experience that some of you here tonight experienced with me. As you know, I recently invited a representative of the Muslim community to come and teach us something about Islam. Since it is alleged that Americans in general are very ignorant of Islam and likely to fear it and its adherents out of that ignorance, does it not follow that we should be willing to sit and learn something from a representative of that community? Very hearteningly, a number of you showed up to listen and learn respectfully.

The presentation by Mr. Yousufi was supposed to be in the framework of a series of discreet events that would ultimately, hopefully lead to some form of dialogue and fellowship between members of his community and this one. We hadn't worked out the details, but we had discussed the process to some degree. And an agreement that we made immediately in our discussion - it was Yousufi's suggestion, but in offering it he could have been reading my mind - was that we should leave the Arab-Israeli dispute out of the structure of the dialogue. Yousufi expressed that it would could not be anything other than a point of contention, conspiring to spoil any good efforts we might be making. From my standpoint, it is irrelevant to the notion that we are two minority groups in American life that actually have quite a bit in common. Few of you find that the large part of your Jewish consciousness resides in the conflicts of the Middle East, and my assumption was that for most members of the local Muslim community that would also hold true. Perhaps, but clearly not for Mr. Yousufi.

Despite our agreement, Yousufi chose to use his audience with us to lecture us about the sins of Israel. Some of you responded quite vigorously,as I would expect you to. But most importantly, an excellent opportunity for further dialogue and mutual support between our two communities vanished, at least for the immediate future. And that's unfortunate.

I trusted Mr. Yousufi, but in truth I didn't stick my neck TOO far out, and that minimized the damage. To be honest, in proceeding with the 'baby steps' toward dialogue I was very much thinking about Israel's caution in approaching his brother, as chronicled in this week's Torah portion. If one aught to hold one's brother, Esau,at arm's length after a bitter conflict,how much more so one's distant cousin, Ishmael? Approach,trust as much as necessary to open a dialogue, and be ready to either open up more-or withdraw, depending on the other side's behavior. Or to put it as we did when I worked in intelligence: In G-d we trust...all other we monitor.

As I've said on so many occasions that I know I sound like a broken record - for those who remember what a record is! - The Torah, whatever the process that resulted in our having it in its existing form, is an endless repository of some of the most sublime wisdom known to humanity. The lesson we learn from Israel this week is just one example.

Shabbat shalom!

Monday, November 15, 2010

What We Learn from Jacob

I love the patriarchal narratives found in the book of Genesis, and in particular I find the chapters featuring the stories of Jacob and Esau, and Jacob's his sons riveting. Why? Because these biblical actors are so incredibly ordinary, regular people with foibles like your and mine. And in their ordinariness, they can teach us so much about life - important lessons to help us live together understand and respect one another. Often, when I hear of the disfunctionalities of peoples' family lives, I am reminded of the very issues faced, and in many cases overcome by, our patriarchal families.

For example, the issue of sibling rivalry pops up time and again. We're taught that the twins Jacob and Esau fought for dominance even in their mother's womb, distressing Rebecca to the point where she asked G-d to take her life. When it was time for their birth, Jacob tried to hold Esau back so that he could be born first. No, I don't think we're supposed to take this account literally; I think it serves to set-up the story of the deep rivalry between the brothers and Jacob's desire to supplant Esau as the favored one.

After the twins' birth, each parent developed a preference for one of the boys. we read that Isaac favored Esau, the hunter, 'because the taste of game was in his mouth.' Translation: Esau was developing into the 'manly man' that Isaac, who lived in the shadow of his powerful father, never became. On the other hand, Rebecca favored the outwardly mild, thoughtful and clever Jacob.

When they were young, Jacob manages to wrest the Firstborn Rights from his brother; coming out of the field famished after a day of hunting, Esau smells a delicious lentil stew that Jacob is cooking, requests some, and Jacob agrees but demands the Birthright in return. Esau, declaring 'what good is a Birthright if I'm going to die,' accepts the trade. Some readers would criticize Jacob for the uneven exchange, but my reaction is to be critical of Esau. The truth is that he wasn't dying, he was just hungry and so focused on his bodily needs that he couldn't think clearly. He spurned the Birthright by letting it go so easily, for a bowl of stew.

More condemnatory of Jacob is the later incident where the blind and dying Isaac asks Esau to go hunt a deer and fix the venison stew that he loves, so that after eating and sating himself Isaac can give his final blessing to his firstborn son. Rebecca, wanting the blessing to go to Jacob, colludes with the younger twin to get Isaac to unintentionally give the blessing to Jacob instead. This enrages Esau (with more than a little justification) to the point where Rebecca sends Jacob fleeing for his life. But clever and thoughtful Jacob learns an important lesson from the adversity; after a strange dream while resting during his flight, he realizes that G-d is there with him, to comfort and protect him through his travail. Jacob declares famously, 'G-d was in this place, and I - I did not know it.'

Returning after years of exile with his two wives and two concubines, Jacob still fears his brother's wrath. he approaches cautiously and is skeptical when Esau receives him with apparent welcome and forgiveness. We read this account in this week's Torah portion,Vayishlach. having received a blessing from what appears to be an angel of G-d on the morning of his re-entry to Canaan, Jacob realizes that he will have to remain alive in order to realize the blessing; out of his caution, he holds his brother at arm's length and moves his family into a region where Esau has not established himself.

Jacob's growth to maturity, his learning important lessons from the adversities he faces, sets the stage for similar life lessons by his son, Joseph. But that's a subject for another essay. For now, I certainly recommend the Jacob narratives as presenting important life lessons even for us, in the 21st century of the common era. Enjoy!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Postlude to the Elections

I’m as interested in politics as most of the people I know because the results of the struggles for political control of our society, after all, directly affect our lives as individuals and as members of a society. Having said that, I’m not what one might call an ‘activist.’ Unlike many of my colleagues (in the rabbinate and in Christian ministry) I try to avoid making politics a part of my pulpit persona. Believe me, on the rare occasion when I transgress his principle I usually hear about it from someone in the congregation. But here, on my weblog, I feel freer to address subjects one might call ‘political.’ Although I do not aspire to be a pundit or a political analyst, I am particularly interested in the nexus of politics and values as I’ve expressed her a number of times.

So, what is my take on the mid-term elections of this week? What is the lesson from the (some would say, spectacular) gains the Republicans made in the US House of Representatives, as well as many governorships and state legislatures across the country? How about the Republicans’ failing to make significant gains in the US Senate? Again, I’m not a skilled political analyst, but here goes…

President Obama, in his press conference on Wednesday, explained the ‘shellacking’ (his word) that his party took by acknowledging that the economy hasn’t yet rebounded significantly enough since his election to improve people’s lives; the people took out their frustration on the ruling party. Of course there’s truth to that, but if the President really thinks that’s the only reason for the turn of events then he’s sadly mistaken.

The American people are largely frustrated by the way that government has been operating in the last two years. While President Obama has lived up to a number of his campaign promises (but not all) with regard to policy agenda, he has completely ignored his promises as to how his government would operate.

The openness and accountability that Obama promised, never materialized. Much of the electorate has watched the way that Obama’s White House and the congress controlled by his party (but particularly, the House of Representatives) has operated and been dismayed. Even many of those who agreed with a particular part of the legislative agenda (say, the health care reform initiative) were shocked by the tactics used to pass it, and by the lack of openness in revealing the contents of the legislation. Very emblematic of what was wrong with the process was Speaker of the House Pelosi’s declaration (concerning the health care bill), “We have to pass the bill, so you can find out what’s in it.” Most of the folks I know, wondered if Speaker Pelosi even knew what was in it. And then there was the President’s declaration (offered when concerns were raised over the congress’ intent to use ‘reconciliation’ to pass the health bill) that “the American people aren’t interested in process, only in results.” I have to say that I cared about the process, and most people I know expressed similar concern.

So we’re frustrated over the stubbornness of the economy, but that’s not all. Voters expressed their frustration by voting to significantly change the balance of power in the House. But why not the Senate?

Again, I’m not the ├╝ber-pundit, but it seems that the Republican candidates who failed to unseat Democrats in the races so many were watching carefully (e.g., Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada) did not engender trust in the voters. They were seen as too extreme, too inexperienced, or too flaky. Perhaps the electorate simply voted on the principle ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know.’

Perhaps, the mixed result of the election, points to the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the American voter; even when frustrated and wanting to send a clear message to those in power, they were not about to vote for those they considered unqualified. That’s the message I got, anyway. It gives me cause for optimism about the future of our country.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shana Tova!

May you be inscribed for a year of happiness and blessing!
If you're interested in my Rosh Hashanah sermons, you can find them here:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Letter to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

I sent Imam Feisal this letter as my contribution to the conversation on his controversial Park51 Islamic Center, the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Imam Feisal,

As a colleague in religious leadership, I wanted to write to you to express my support and solidarity, and to offer a little unsolicited advice. I pray you’ll be forbearing.

Perhaps I congratulate myself far too much in referring to myself as your colleague; I am rabbi of a small synagogue in Colorado Springs, hardly the peer of a religious leader of national stature who has embarked on a very bold, visible and controversial project in New York city.

Nevertheless, I claim the title ‘colleague.’ I do have a little experience in working with Muslim colleagues; while stationed in Germany as a US Air Force Chaplain, Imam Hamza al-Mubarak and I built a chapel and educational center for the joint use of our two communities. At a $550K budget for construction, it was obviously far more modest than your proposed Cordoba House in New York. Here in Colorado Springs, I consider my local Muslim colleague, Imam Arshad Yusoufi, to be a friend and confidant although we have not yet had the chance to get our communities together for any dialogue or activities. Ah, so much to do…but that’s something I surely needn’t tell you, this being the middle of Ramadan!

Imam Feisal, I hardly need to point out that prominence is a two-edged sword. It enables one to accomplish things that the relative unknown cannot. Of course a danger of prominence is that the fame can be intoxicating. And of course, the more dangerous aspect is that one can often unwittingly attract attention of the unwelcome kind: attention that questions one’s motives and integrity. I have experienced this, but on a very small scale. You, of course are now experiencing a tidal wave of such attention.

Of course, I refer to the firestorm of protests that seem to have consumed the nation for the last three weeks or so, since your proposal for Cordoba House has become such widely-reported news. Very strong words have come forth, impugning your intentions. Some of your supporters have suggested that the negative expressions represent a general anti-Muslim feeling – many call it, Islamophobia – that already existed in our land, and which the feelings that your project elicited have simply brought to the surface.

Being an attentive observer of the public discourse, and in particular being a Jew with roots in New York, I want to tell you that I don’t see America as being infected with Islamophobia, if such a thing could even be said to exist.

Americans tended to have very ambivalent feelings about my people, the Jews, and my religion, Judaism at least until the Second World War. So, what happened to change that? The war itself, of course – and the experience of so many Christian kids landing on Omaha Beach, marching across Europe, and diving into foxholes next to a Jewish kid from New York or Philadelphia. As that march across Europe wound toward its conclusion, those Christian kids saw the heartbreak of the Nazi concentration camps, and saw how deeply the sight affected their Jewish comrades – many of whom had only shallow roots in America and still had family in Europe.

If those Christian kids had any ambivalence about their Jewish fellow citizens left after those experiences, they vanished for most in the post-war years when so many ex-GIs crowded American colleges and universities, and began to move out of traditionally ethnic neighborhoods in America’s cities to settle in the new, and culturally-diverse suburbs. Thanks to all that history, we Jews are so accepted in the American scene that it is sometime breathtaking when one considers that before the war, we were not welcome in various businesses, clubs, and even whole towns across the land.

Imam, most Americans want to – and do – judge Muslims positively. Look at the proof. Since 1990, we have spilled our own blood no fewer than five times in order to help Muslim peoples in various parts of the world: Kuwait, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This has happened under administrations and congresses representing both our major political parties, conservatives and liberals, so our willingness to defend Muslims abroad is clearly not what one would call a ‘political’ issue – it transcends politics.

After the shocking and sad events of September 11th, 2001, what did President George W. Bush do? He told the nation unequivocally that we are at war, not with Islam or the Muslim people, but with a group that attacked and wants to destroy us in the name of Islam. He urged all Americans to look favorably upon their Muslim neighbors, to not hold them accountable for what had been done in the name of their religion. He took a lot of flak for his statements, which were interpreted in some circles as being an expression of ‘political correctness,’ itself an unfortunate element in our public discourse, and something of which you’re surely aware. For my part, I believe that Bush’s statements were straight from the heart, an expression of his deepest sense of what’s right. After all, even his detractors knew him as a devoutly religious man with a sincere respect for others’ religions as well as his own.

Of course, our current president has surpassed even his immediate predecessor in terms of outreach to, and expression of solidarity with, the Muslim world. That President Obama’s first television interview after his inauguration was to al Arabiya, and that his first trips abroad as president included Turkey and Egypt, were pregnant with meaning. They elicited, as with Bush’s post-9/11 statements, both praise and criticism.

No, Imam…our nation and our people are not Islamophobic, this despite the charges that have been made regularly in the left-wing commentariat over the last couple of weeks.

What we are is basically unfamiliar with the Islam of our neighbors, which unfortunately gets drowned out in the noise created by the Islam of Al Qaida, Hamas, and Ahmadinejad. We’re perplexed. Although Muslims are ubiquitous in American life, they occupy a fringe. In a sense, your people occupy a place in American life that is analogous to that of my people up until the war; they are recognized as being part of the fabric of American society, but are little understood because most Americans have not had a close friendship with one of their Muslim neighbors. And honestly, that’s not entirely the fault of non-Muslims. Frankly, you have not been all that good at being approachable, and telling your story to America.

But you surely know this, since the website for the Cordoba House suggests that the Park51 venue would be used specifically as a place where such connections could be made through creative and welcoming programs.

The problem of course, is that you’ve misread the mood of America in selecting 51 Park Place as the address of your new center. That it is located only yards from ‘Ground Zero’ and is in fact the site of a building that was severely damaged in the fall of the Twin Towers, has resulted in a majority of Americans (according to the most recent polling data) thinking negatively about your project.

The way I see it, your only ‘sin’ in all this is a lack of clairvoyance which caused you to act in miscalculation of what the national mood concerning this issue would be. But you have the power to turn this miscalculation into a tremendous public relations success, not to mention as my tradition would put it, a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name. How can you accomplish this? Easily: Call a press conference and announce that, while the law cannot prevent you from erecting your center at 51 Park Place, you wish to honor the sensibilities of America by deciding to build it on another site. Ask for assistance from local government and any groups with an interest, on selecting an alternate site. Imagine the goodwill that would result! And with that goodwill, your Cordoba House would be far better positioned to fulfill your prayers as to what it would accomplish. My fear is that, if you build it at 51 Park, it will only serve as a permanent symbol of division and rancor. And you surely deserve a better result for your most well-intentioned efforts to build bridges.

My best wishes for you as you return from travelling abroad and continue your days of fasting and introspection…

Rabbi Don Levy
Temple Beit Torah
Colorado Springs, Colorado

Friday, May 14, 2010


Get Something Out of the Wilderness…
Then Get Out of the Wilderness!
A Sermon for Parashat Bemidbar
Donald A. Levy

This week’s portion, Bemidbar, opens the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the five in the Written Torah. I know I offer this kind of knowledge repeatedly, but I’ll say it again. In larger circles we call the book, Numbers, because the theme that runs through the book is the taking of a census that will enable Moses and Aaron to organize the people Israel into an army of conquest. In Jewish circles we call the book – and therefore the book’s opening weekly portion – Bemidbar because the book opens with the words: “Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe bemidbar Sinai…” “Then Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…” The word midbar is often translated “desert” because the Sinai certainly meets the description of a desert landscape: unpopulated, dry, hot in the summer days and cold in the winter and nights. But the word “wilderness” is something broader in scope, meaning a place of challenge and possibility.

So the people Israel were in the wilderness – during the 40 years’ wandering – when the events chronicled in this book took place. But the wilderness, through which they wandered, was more than just a physical wilderness.

After a lifetime in Egypt – a narrow place of limited horizons and possibilities – the people were not ready to enter the promised land and to be a free people under the sovereignty of God until they had spend time in a wilderness. They needed to stop clinging to the safe, the familiar, the limiting. They had to have the chutzpah to reach for the possible, to re-imagine themselves as free people in a free land.

Folks, we often wallow in our own Egypts, places of comfort and familiarity, places of settled routines and predictability, instead of experiencing our wilderness, truly as a wilderness – a place where a better person can be forged. These qualities – comfort, familiarity, settled routines, predictability – are not in and of themselves bad. All of the aforementioned, in certain amounts, give us the courage to move forward into unfamiliar ground. But when our hearts and minds remain in a narrow place, we preclude the wilderness from being able to help forge us into the people we have the potential to be.

Look, I know this theme, and some of the details I’ll now proceed to give, are familiar to many of you. I’ve propounded these ideas from the platform again and again. And I’ll keep doing so until I have evidence that most of you ‘get’ it.

The element that limits us to a ‘narrow’ place so often, is the mindset that we lack something that someone else has. We limit our own potential by seeing ourselves, who we are and what we’ve achieved in the shadow of what someone else is, and what they’ve achieved.

This week, I encountered someone who has incredible talents, talents that I wish I had. Talents that I can only dream of. But this person can only think of what she doesn’t have and she is therefore feeling miserable right now.

If only my kids were smarter, if only my salary were more generous, if only more people cooperated with me, if only my husband were more helpful. Please, please, please…don’t try to decode the identity of who I’m talking about. It could be any one of us!

Folks, I want to draw your attention to my face. Is it a nice face? Most people wouldn’t think so. Hollywood only casts men with faces like mine, as villains. Women with faces like mine? They don’t get cast at all! No matter what I do in life, no matter what goodness I spread or don’t…there’s a portion of humanity that will see my face and typecast me as loathsome.

I don’t say this to complain. Rather I want to point out that I am among the happiest people in this room. Why? Because I have learned to say, the hell with the ridiculous stereotype! I’m going to reach for the best that’s in me. Have I reached it? No, like everyone else in this room I’m a work in progress. Each day, I learn something new about what I can do and think about where God would have me go, what God would have me do. Every day is a blessing from God. Every day represents new opportunities. Every day I have a new opportunity to reach toward the person that I will eventually become. That’s the key to escaping from the narrow place, the limiting Egypt of our minds and letting our sojourn in the wilderness truly open us up and let us spread our wings.

So you want to be happy? Become a rabbi! Just kidding! Figure out what you’re supposed to become, and work your way toward that vision of yourselves by dropping the narrow vision of yourselves that you’re carrying around, and carrying around, and carrying around until your poor back is hunched under the oppressive weight of that vision!

Celebrate your kids, even though they’re insufferable, because they’re a gift from God. But at the same time, understand that they need you to be a parent – and sometimes that entails pushing them beyond their comfort zone.

Celebrate your profession, even if your salary isn’t as high as you’d like it to be, because it’s your calling. And if it’s not, find what is your calling and find a way to pursue it. Perhaps in so doing, you’ll end up achieving a higher salary. Or more likely, you’ll realize that the size of your salary isn’t nearly as important as any number of other things.

I know someone – actually, I’ve known several individuals – who actually moved from careers with higher salaries to careers with lower salaries in order to respond to the calling that was within them. In so doing, they had to live more modestly, but they became happier! For some, this entails leaving the business world for teaching. And that does not negate that for some, teaching feels limiting to them and they can only find their vocational happiness by leaving teaching behind for something else.

I have spoken before about the importance of weighing decisions, because when we choose between various alternatives that has a way of constricting our choices in the future. For example, what we do when we are young can limit our possibilities later. Want to be an astronaut? You have to be a military pilot first. So you want to be a military pilot? First, take those silly earbuds out of your ear, because you need perfect hearing to be accepted for pilot training. Also, don’t experiment with drugs, or get in any kind of trouble beyond a minor traffic violation or you won’t be accepted. And get your act in gear before the age of 27, because 27 is the maximum age to enter pilot training. If you want to be an astronaut, and therefore first a pilot, you’d best grow up fast, keep your nose squeaky clean, and focus yourself early.

Okay, so you didn’t do all those things…or perhaps you were born with some physical limitation that precludes you from military pilot training, or perhaps you tried but didn’t make the cut. If means you’re much less likely to be an astronaut. But maybe there’s something else within you, something that if you achieve it, it will also make you happy. But you’ll never find it if you spend your life feeling sorry for yourself because you couldn’t be an astronaut.

I mention this specific thing – being an astronaut – because I have a dear friend who dreamed of being one. And he was definitely on the way to becoming one. He was an Air Force fighter pilot, then a test pilot, earned a scientific master’s degree and even asked me to teach him Russian and sat many hours in my living room, conjugating Russian verbs with me. Ya lublyu. Ty lyubish. On lyubit. My lyubim. Vy lybitye. Ony lyubyut. And that’s not to mention aspect! Mne prosto zhal! Why did he want to learn Russian? Because of our partnership with the Russians in the International Space Station, he thought being able to speak some Russian would help him transcend other candidates for astronaut training.

Well, he never made the cut. But he went on to other things and has a very successful, happy life. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he went on to new challenges. He’s an executive in a big corporation, a Colonel in the Air Force reserve…and is running for the Indiana State House. One of his twins attends the Air Force Academy, and the other Purdue. What does he have to complain about? Nothing…so he doesn’t. But many of us, if put in his position would let the one thing we didn’t achieve, fester and annoy and ruin anything and everything else that we did achieve.

And what if he had become an astronaut. Well, this man probably would have found it fulfilling and happiness-inducing. But what about Lisa Nowak? Recognize the name? She was a young naval officer, a Captain – same as a full Colonel in the other armed services – who made the cut and became an astronaut. And yet she was incredibly unhappy, so much so that she lost it all by terrorizing a romantic rival. From being an elite of the elite, she ended up in a Florida jail among prostitutes and drug addicts because of the chip on her shoulder that blinded her to the happiness that she lacked but, by all accounts, should have enjoyed.

Friends, wilderness is a part of life. Each of us, at some time, must pass through a wilderness if we are to leave behind the narrow horizons that limit us. So we step into a wilderness to our choosing in hopes that it will forge us into the person we have the potential to become. But that transition – from what we are to what we may become – is not automatic! Until we’re ready to let our wilderness improve us, and let us grow, and open our eyes to what limits us so that we can leave it on the desert floor…then we’re going to remain stuck in the wilderness.

If we continue to feel sorry for ourselves because somebody out there is more attractive, or smarter, or makes a better salary, or has a nicer house or less debt or more savings…we will never achieve happiness. And the tragedy is that there is no limit in the number of happy lives possible in the world; like personal wealth, happiness is not rationed. That my neighbor achieved it, doesn’t give me one less chance to achieve it.

If you’re in a narrow place, step into the wilderness. And when you’re ready to allow the wilderness to do its work, then you’ll be ready to get out of the wilderness. The wilderness is a good place, because it can help us to become what we might become. But at some point, we must also have the courage to step out of the wilderness and into the garden of possibilities.

This transition – from narrow place to wilderness to garden of possibilities – took the Israelites 40 years. Each one of us has the ability to make the transition far faster. May each of us find within us the strength and courage to make that transition and thus become the happy people we can be.