In the rabbi’s words: A time of transformation


Many Jews will point to the Hebrew word het for sin, which is an archery term, and insist that Judaism teaches that sin is just “missing the mark.” That simplification does a grave injustice to the Jewish tradition. There are other words for sin in our liturgy — pesha, avon and more. Judaism has too keen a sense of evil in this world to consider all sin a mere misfire. Murder is not missing the mark. The rape and torture of women is not missing the mark. There is sin in this world, and from our long and beleaguered history we Jews know that all too well. Judaism takes sin seriously.

Granted, much of what we do is indeed missing the mark. We speak without thought, wound by inadvertence, expose our vulnerabilities and insecurities in ways that slight others. We thrust our hands in the heartstrings of our friends with heedlessness and sometimes cruelty, even when we do not mean to wound. There is a lot of missing the mark. 

Whatever term we use, generally we think of sin as an injury to someone or a violation of a social rule that enables us to live with one another. Jewish law is largely an attempt to understand and spell out the ways in which we can coexist and create community. To live in sacred community is what our tradition teaches God wants of us. 

To change in a deep way is extraordinarily difficult. The literature on teshuvah explains that there are two ways to change: one is to never put yourself in the situation that led to the infraction in the first place. So an embezzler should not take a position as a CFO. Here self-knowledge is crucial — knowing not to test yourself in ways you may fail. The more radical form of teshuvah is to be able to face the same situation and not sin. 

The latter possibility tells us that the tradition does believe in change. Maimonides emphasizes the centrality of free will to the process of teshuvah — you can choose what to be. There are limits, of course. Change is difficult and arduous. Nonetheless, we are not prisoners of our past. 

The same traits that upend us can often be redirected. We have seen too many people turn their lives around to be cynical about human possibility. In the Talmud, Resh Lakish, one of the greatest of our rabbis, started out as a thief. He learned to use the same focus and passion for Torah. Theodore Herzl spent his early years as a bon vivant, unconcerned with the fate of the Jews. Later he turned his charm, his ability to engage others and his skill in writing to a great cause. We can change for the better.

Are we forgiven? In this world, making amends to one you have hurt, apologizing and seeking to redress the wrong are all crucial not only to the process of teshuvah, but to any soul growth. As for God? God forgives. We are told that is so again and again in the Torah, in rabbinic writings and in our prayers. In the wry but touching words of Heinrich Heine, the great German Jewish poet who converted to Christianity so that his books might be sold and his poems read, “Of course God will forgive me, c’est son metier” — it’s God’s job.

As we are forgiven, so we can forgive. Each of us harbors resentments and anger in our hearts. Not forgiving has been compared to drinking poison in the hope the other will die. Forgiving does not mean letting another in your life; it means understanding that human nature is a blessing and a curse and others need to live with who they are, but you need not live with who they are. You can be free.

The holidays are a time of transformation. Each year we suffer losses and learn wisdom. The Torah calls us not to be perfect, but to be better.   

Learn more, grow more, forgive more, connect more, love more. Hayom harat olam — Today the world was created. We say that on Rosh Hashanah. It can be true every day of our lives. God offers us a new beginning. So we resolve, we forgive — we try once again. 

Shana Tovah.


Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

Confessing our sins


Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned …”) and Al Chet (“For the sin …”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.

Talmudic practice, therefore, was to say a confession every single day, a precedent that continued into the Middle Ages and still survives in Sephardi synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews also announce that sinfulness daily in a part of the service called Tachanun (“supplications”), which includes a line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have no deeds.” 

That translation misses the theological point, however. Classical Christianity believed that we are too sinful to be of any merit on our own. We depend, therefore, on God’s “grace,” the love God gives even though we do not deserve it. Jews, by contrast, preach the value of good deeds, the mitzvot. But Avinu Malkeinu hedges that bet. At least in Tachanun, and certainly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we proclaim “we have no deeds” and rely on God’s “gracious” love instead.

Our two Yom Kippur confessions appeared in “Seder Rav Amram,” the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book (circa 860), and became standard thereafter.

But do Jews really believe we are as sinful as the confessions imply? Nineteenth century Jews, recently emancipated from medieval ghettos, doubted it. For well more than a century, philosophers had preached the primacy of reason as the cognitive capacity that makes all human beings equal. These two influences, political equality and the fresh air of reason, paved the way for a century when all things seemed possible. And indeed, scientific advances and the industrial revolution did seem to promise an end to human suffering just around the corner.

It wasn’t just Jews who felt that way. For Europeans in general, the notion of human sin, whether original (for Christians) or primal (for Jews), lost plausibility. Far from bemoaning human depravity, it seemed, religion should celebrate human nobility. Enlightenment rabbis began paring away Yom Kippur’s heavy accent on sin.

From then until now, new liturgies (usually Reform and Reconstructionist) have shortened the confessions, translated them to lessen their overall impact and created new ones that addressed more obvious shortcomings of human society. But traditionalist liturgies also tried to underscore human promise and explain away the aspects of the confessions that no one believed anymore. Al Chet “is an enumeration of all the sins and errors known to mankind,” said Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. It is not as if we, personally, have done them, but some Jew somewhere has, and as the Talmud says, “All Israelites are responsible for one another.”

Some would say today that as much as the 19th century revealed the human capacity for progress, the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated the very opposite. Perhaps we really are as sinful as the traditional liturgy says. Religious “progressives” respond by saying that we suffer only from a failure of nerve and that more than ever, Yom Kippur should reaffirm the liberal faith in human dignity, nobility and virtue. At stake on Yom Kippur this year is not just one confession rather than another, but our faith in humankind and the kind of world we think we are still capable of building.

I am not yet ready to throw in the Enlightenment towel. Back in 1824, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon of Hamburg gave a sermon in which he said, “All of us feel, to one extent or other, that, in spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than the ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the word, that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

Those words ring true for us today. We have something to gain from the Enlightenment’s belief that acting for human betterment is the noble thing to do, and that acting nobly is still possible.


Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is the author most recently of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism — Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights).

The sin of slander


V’al chet she-hatanu l’fanekha bil’shon ha-ra, “And for the sin we have committed before You through slander” — over the course of Yom Kippur we say these words over and over again as we recite the Viddui (Confessional) quietly to ourselves and then aloud communally. As we say them, we beat our breasts to physically hammer home the meaning of the words we say.  In fact, sins of the tongue represent the most common single category of transgression in the Al Chet confessional.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, along with most of their political operatives and the funders and staffs of the super PACs who support them, will not be sitting in shul all day on Yom Kippur and will not hear or say these words and allow their meaning to seep into their brains and souls. And so, I fear that over the course of the campaigning of the coming weeks, the slandering that has become a hallmark of the political process in the 21st century will continue unabated. I believe that, given the immediate and wide-ranging impact of today’s electronic media, the political divisiveness that we are witnessing today is, to a considerable degree, a result of the vitriolic defamation of character and proffering of half-truths that have come to dominate the rhetoric of our political process. 

Some will say that the ends justify the means, and, in order to get the right people into office so as to develop the correct public policy, almost any tactic is “kosher.” I disagree strongly with this approach. For a democracy to work, it must be based on the principle of respect for one’s political opponent and the understanding that in a democracy there will be many opinions expressed — otherwise it becomes a tyranny. In a democracy, respect, negotiation and compromise are the only way the needs of the people can be served in the long run. If we demean a person with whom we disagree, then we lose respect for that person and we can become more than political opponents — we can become enemies. Enemies harm one another. Enemies do not work together to solve problems — indeed, their enmity creates more problems.

Our rabbis teach us that Jerusalem fell to the Romans because of baseless hatred within the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. Slander leads to hatred.  Hatred leads to weakness. Weakness results in defeat. What America needs now, more than ever, is not a fractured polity, but a polity that can unite and work together for the greater good. The sin of slander, lashon harah, prevents that from happening and must be excised from our political campaigns. Please convey this message to the leaders of the political party you support, and remind them of the words of Torah (Deuteronomy 16:20) with which we are all familiar: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” — the means must be in agreement with the end, and the pursuit of justice must be accomplished justly, not with lies (R. Simcha Bunim).


Rabbi Joel Rembaum is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am.

Burning Bush Meets Burning Man


In a tent on an ashen desert plain, seven Jews take refuge against the beating sun. One, a middle-age man with a thick Israeli accent, chants Haftorah as the wind kicks up white dust devils around the group. Next to him, a sun-kissed, raven-haired miss in bikini bottoms and halter follows along, her lips forming the syllables in silence. It’s Saturday morning at Black Rock City, in a tent they call the Jewish Community Center, and this happens only once a year.

Black Rock City, Nev., is a temporary community that springs from the ground in the desert each August as tens of thousands make pilgrimage to the weeklong Burning Man festival. You may have heard of Burning Man as a celebration of countercultural art and community. Or you may know it as an orgy of sex and drugs in the desert. What bubbe probably never told you is that in Black Rock City, the temptation to connect spiritually is as strong as the more publicized pull to indulge physically. In this arid terrain, Jews can connect to an underlying sense of yearning and can undergo spiritual cleansing.

Hence the presence of the Black Rock JCC on this bleached prehistoric lake bed of a desert called the “playa.” The “Black Rock JCC” is a nylon roof held up by four poles. No permanent walls keep out the wind — or the curious. And both are welcome. The structure itself defies the odds, withstanding forceful bursts of wind, sandstorms and penetrating heat. A JCC here, where no stalk can grow, is a monument to the strong roots of tradition. Among the 40,000 attendees or “burners” at Burning Man, a few Jews shy of a dozen are the heartbeat of this Jewish community.

For a week the tent stands along with thousands of others arranged in concentric circles, weblike about a central camp. At week’s end, a wooden man burns in the center of the playa. Revelers cast into the flames objects they wish taken from the earth.

“I see burning the man as analogous to burning off spiritual sin,” says Rabbi Menachem Cohen of Oak Park, Ill., after conducting the Saturday morning services for his small band of congregants.

Like a secular Yom Kippur, burners throw off a year’s worth of evil. Instead of casting out invisible sin, it’s photos, letters, mementos, bottles and even furniture they hurl into the bonfire. But then, a photo can capture a sin; a sofa can hold a mistake. This rite celebrates freedom, cleansing people of “negative energies” from their possessions and acts — even as the fire and parties rage far past dawn.

There’s something tribal, in an ancient Jewish way, in the vista of 1,000 tents surrounding that central, blazing light. Cohen connects the moral dimension of Burning Man to tikkun olam — that is, to why Jews must continue to explore wherever a light burns.

“When God made the universe he created vessels to hold the light,” Cohen said. “But the vessels were too weak and when he filled them with light they burst. The sparks flew to all parts of the universe. When we do tikkun olam we are searching for the sparks, to gather them together, to repair the world. Sometimes the brightest sparks are hidden in the darkest places.”

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Connecting the Dots


Despite the High Holidays arriving late this year, many Jews are still scrambling to prepare. The practical and spiritual work is demanding: cooking, traveling, repenting, forgiving — it all takes time and energy.

In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, Jews judge themselves this month, conducting a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). Some people resist this not just because it is daunting, but because the process seems negative. They don’t want to be mired in self-criticism.

But accounting means looking at both sides of the ledger — deposits and withdrawals, mitzvot and sins. One way to balance the ledger is to reduce withdrawals; the other is to increase deposits. The latter method may be even more effective, because our assets (good deeds) can be leveraged to eliminate bad debt (sins that seem so enticing at the time, for which we pay later).

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, offers many laws that can increase rachamim (compassion, mercy). Rachamim is a particularly valuable asset, because it offsets anger and augments patience. We can deliberately grow midat harachamim in ourselves. The goal is to make compassion greater and more important than being right. Thus, we imitate God, who is said to pray: “May My mercy overcome My anger” (Berachot 7a).

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav imagines hunting for our good points as if they were literally small points or dots. When we “connect the dots,” we both notice and create patterns of right action. We don’t so much fight sin as crowd it out.

Like the image of adding to an asset column, gathering good points focuses and capitalizes on the positive. Below are questions based on laws in Ki Teitzei to help us find, connect and expand the points of compassion within:

“Do not show favoritism among your children” (21:15). The Torah talks about favoring the children of one wife over another — an idea that is not so foreign in an age of blended families. Recall times during the past year when you related to each of your family members as special and beloved. How can you be even more compassionate to them?

Return lost objects (22:1). The Hebrew warns, lo tuchal lehitalem, meaning “you must not remain indifferent,” “you must not disappear,” or “you cannot hide yourself.” When you are really connected with others, you cannot separate yourself from their woes. To increase rachamim ask: What can I do this year to strengthen my connections with others?

“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest … do not take the mother together with her young” (22:6). Thus, a mother bird is not subjected to witnessing the removal of her children. This “small kindness” has the explicit reward of a good and long life. How have you been compassionate to the helpless this year in chance encounters and “small matters”? How have you been merciful, even when your mercy wouldn’t change the end result?

“[Make] a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (22:8). Rachamim doesn’t expect perfection. It anticipates the fallibility, and occasionally even the foolishness, of others. Around what issues and what vulnerabilities (in yourself or others) do you need to build a protective parapet?

“When you enter another’s vineyard, eat … until you are satisfied, but you must not put any in your [bag]” (23:25). Compassion asks us to honor the needs of both self and others. How have you managed that balance this year, and how might you do even better?

“When you make a loan of any sort to your neighbor, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge” (24:10). Compassion seeks to protect dignity, as well as provide help. How have you protected the dignity of others, regardless of what you might rightfully demand? Can the help you offer be more compassionate?

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether an Israelite brother or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets” (24:15). It is relatively easy to be compassionate for those with whom we feel kinship. How can you expand the mercy you practice to include people and behaviors that are alien to you? How can you be more just and compassionate to people who work on your behalf?

“When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (24:21-22). It’s not enough to feel empathy for those without means or power. The Torah asks us to show it concretely, respectfully and ongoingly. One way to increase compassion in ourselves is to do the same thing we have been doing, but more regularly. Make it a rule; make it a habit.

Reb Nachman taught that a person must be patient — even with himself. Ki Teitzei can inspire us to have compassion on ourselves as we attempt to extend compassion to others. This year, may rachamim grow in you and through you.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana, which provides daily meditations on repentance and shofar during Elul at www.makom.org. She is also editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”

 

What Is Greatness?


As I sit in the heartland of Israel, surrounded by simple and beautiful people, I am constantly amazed at the kindness, the goodness and the utter simplicity of the average Israeli Jew. It is hard to pinpoint why their lives seem to be so greatly enriched even as they struggle to eke out a simple subsistence living. I cannot help but to contemplate a definition of that greatness.

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And yet, the great personal tragedy of Moshe is hard to miss — especially in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). As the book commences, Moshe — an incredibly unlikely candidate — has already accomplished the impossible of bringing freedom to an entire nation, uniting them to receive the Torah, defending them in times of crisis and now safely perching them on edge of the land of Israel. Moshe can taste the ultimate fulfillment of his destiny as leader of the Jewish people.

One senses the pulsating excitement as Moshe invites his father-in-law, Yitro, to join him on this triumphant march toward the land of Israel. Nosim anachnu el hamakom. “We are traveling to the place. Come join us.” We, both the Children of Israel and myself are all entering the Promised Land. At this point one feels that nothing can stop the rendezvous with ultimate destiny.

Indeed, the rabbis in the midrash relate that had this march been successful, the Jews would never have experienced the bitter taste of exile. Moses’ entrance into the land of Israel would have ushered in the Messsianic Era, once and forever.

It was not to be. One sin creeps upon the next, and finally the sin of the spies seal the fate of the Children of Israel. A sense of hopelessness pervades and the Children of Israel display intermittent episodes of anger, resentment and even outright rebellion toward their great leader, Moshe. Shortly thereafter, Moshe loses his personal right of entry into the Land of Israel. As the people, so goes the leader.

Thus concludes the tragedy of Moshe, the singular personality who literally gives up his family life and merges his own personal identity with that of the Jewish people. He is denied the success he so passionately desired.

And yet, Moshe remains the greatest leader of the Jewish people. He was the vehicle for the Jew, and, ultimately, the world receiving the Torah. Indeed, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) considers Moshe’s unique prophetic status as being one of the 13 primary principles of Jewish faith. So how do we reconcile the notion of the tragic Moshe with the great Moshe?

One of the more poignant moments of this incredibly tragic book of Bamidbar is the moment in our parsha, Matot, that God delivers to Moshe his final command: “Avenge the Midianites and then you shall return to your nation.”

Moshe’s death will follow shortly thereafter. It is thus only pragmatic that Moshe would delay the implementation of the command. Would Moshe not want another stab at overturning the Divine Will so perhaps he can enter his beloved Israel? Yet Moshe does not delay. Rather he submits to the Divine will. Perhaps it is this consistent and constant refrain that marks Moshe’s life that is the true definition of greatness.

I have often thought that one of the major values of Western society is the value of results, of tangible accomplishment. Bluntly, the bottom line is the bottom line.

“To the victor goes the spoils” is the modus operandi. In stark contrast, Judaism exalts the process, the struggle over the result. It is interesting to note that the very word Israel means to wrestle with God.

Most of the great Jews that I know toil in the cloak of anonymity — leading wholly ordinary lives laden with challenges and frustrations of normal human existence.

Their greatness lies in their ability to perceive the Divine in every situation and their desire to do what is right rather than what is purely pragmatic. As I reconnect with old friends who have made aliyah, I realize it was that very process that brought most of my Ivy League educated highly successful professionals to “give up” their cushy jobs for simpler jobs that produce far less cash and convenience but perhaps yields something even greater — greatness.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.

 

Bird’s-Eye View


 

One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.

“How ugly you are,” said the startled rabbi. “Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?”

The man responded calmly, “What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly.”

Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town’s people called out: “Welcome, rabbi.”

The man asked the people, “Whom are you calling rabbi?”

The people pointed to Ben Elazar.

“If this is a rabbi,” said the man, “let there be no more rabbis among the Jews.”

Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.

I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: “This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me.”

But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.

He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: “Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?”

What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the “ugly” man. So who is a truer image of God?

The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?

We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.

In this week’s parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that “the priest shall order two live clean birds … to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered … and he shall take the live bird … and dip … in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered … and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”

This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.

The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.

Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird’s-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.

 

Sins the Rabbis Left Out


The writers of the machzor were pretty comprehensive in listing the multitude of sins we commit as a community over the course of the year. Some of them — such as foul speech, unscrupulous business affairs, sexual immorality and fraud — are remarkably relevant today. But the authors couldn’t have envisioned some of the temptations offered by contemporary society.

So here are some modern infractions for which you might need to atone:

For the sin of forwarding dumb jokes via e-mail;

And for the sin of forwarding e-mails which insist that you forward them or suffer the consequences.

For the sin of watching shows where people vote other people off the show;

And for the sin of watching shows where mothers admit to stealing their daughters’ boyfriends.

For the sin of cutting people off on the freeway;

And for the sin of flipping off the person who cuts you off on the freeway.

For the sin of talking on your cell phone while driving.

And for the sin of having cell phone conversations in public during which you broadcast graphic details about your love life or medical symptoms.

For the sin of using the Internet at the office to work on personal business.

And for the sin of neglecting to exit the ESPN Web site before your boss walks into your cubicle.

For the sin of buying things you don’t need because there’s a really good sale.

or the sin of paying $3 for a $1.50 cup of coffee.

For the sin of talking during High Holiday services;

And for the sin of rating the rabbi’s sermon as though it were an Olympic sporting event ("I’ll give it a 6.5").

For the sin of leaving a whole package in the cupboard with just one cookie in it (you know who you are).

And for the sin of using family members’ exploits as fodder for newspaper articles (I know who I am).

For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. — NSS

‘Deadwood’ Lassos South Dakota Tales


David Milch’s HBO Western series, "Deadwood," tells of a grimy mining town where drinking, whoring, killing, cussing and cheating are de rigeur. Illegally located on Sioux land ungoverned by United States law, its saloons and gambling dens seethe with debauchery — largely orchestrated by a Machiavellian pimp, Al Swearengen, whose language rivals Tony Soprano’s.

In an interview, Milch, 59, eschews expletives, although his grittily poetic speech resembles Swearengen’s, as does his fascination with vice. It’s an interest that dates as far back as his bar mitzvah, when this son of a Jewish surgeon learned a thing or two about sin.

"I studied with a cantor who was susceptible to being bribed," he said, raspy and with relish. "He was a great stamp collector, so I was able to get around some of the more stringent requirements."

But something about the religion apparently stuck, because Milch added that "Judaism is predicated on an ethical and legal perspective, and I imbibed that." Indeed, his TV work has obsessively focused on laws and lawlessness since he left his Yale English teaching post to write for the cop drama "Hill Street Blues" in 1982.

Milch, a creator of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," envisioned a more unusual police show in 2001 when he pitched the series that would become "Deadwood": a cop drama set in ancient Rome. The HBO executive replied that the network already had a proposed Roman series, but would Milch like to try a Western? He quickly agreed.

"I realized the genre was perfect for exploring how laws emerge in a place where nothing is explicitly forbidden," he said.

While poring through historical documents, Milch discovered that the real Deadwood, S.D., was perhaps the quintessential example of how order developed from the "primordial ooze of libertine anarchy." He decided to set the series there, mixing fact and fiction to people it with characters who had flooded the area after gold was discovered in Deadwood gulch in fall 1875.

The show’s historical figures would include the famed "Wild Bill" Hickok (Keith Carradine); the crude Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert); hot-headed ex-marshall Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his temperate Jewish partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes), who founded the town’s first hardware store (their most popular item: chamber pots). During a year of meticulous research, Milch was interested to discover that Star, an immigrant from Bavaria, was elected to Deadwood’s first city council in 1876 and eventually served 10 terms as mayor. Milch had conceived the series before Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now known as The Museum of the American West) opened its 2002 "Jewish Life in the American West" exhibit, and was unfamiliar with how Jews helped civilize such towns.

"Jewish immigrants played a major role in providing businesses that supplied Western communities, and it was not uncommon for Jewish leaders to hold political office," said James Nottage, the museum’s founding chief curator. "Certainly it was not uncommon in Deadwood, which became the center of the Jewish population in South Dakota as people rushed to mine gold from the Black Hills."

Although only a couple hundred Jewish merchants lived among Deadwood’s estimated 5,000 inhabitants between 1876 and 1900, they owned more than one-third of downtown businesses, said Mary Kopco, director of the town’s Adams Museum & House. "They were such a stabilizing force," added Kopco, who in 1999 curated an exhibit titled "An Unbroken Chain: Deadwood’s Jewish Legacy." "It was the Jewish community that really allowed Deadwood to survive."

Their influence is literally carved in stone, as Milch discovered while wandering downtown Deadwood for inspiration. The name "Goldberg" is still engraved in the brick building that housed Jacob Goldberg’s grocery, where Calamity Jane once shopped. Harris Franklin (ne Finkelstein), an ex-peddlar, liquor distributor and cattle baron, hired a synagogue architect to design his 1892 Queen Anne Victorian, now the Adams House.

A grander Victorian structure, the Bullock Hotel, stands on the site of the former hardware store, Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants. The store’s well-liked co-founder, Star, was "a fascinating person," according to Milch, "someone who wasn’t typically associated in the popular imagination with the West."

Star was born in Bavaria in 1840, probably to a Reform German Jewish family, and immigrated to the United States at age 10. He settled with relatives in Ohio, moved to Montana in the economic chaos following the Civil War and met Bullock, with whom he traveled to Deadwood via a wagon loaded with hardware in 1876. Their goal was "to mine the miners," said actor Hawkes, who read numerous books on Judaism and pioneer Jews to portray Star.

There was one catch, however: "I’m not Jewish," Hawkes frankly told Milch upon their first meeting two years ago. "David asked me, ‘Have you ever felt shame or sadness or ostracized?’ I said, ‘Every day.’ And David said, ‘Then you’re Jewish.’"

It was this sense of Jew-as-outsider that Milch wanted the actor to bring to his level-headed character, albeit in a subtle way. Hawkes’ Star is an assimilationist who "goes along to get along" and has keenly honed survival skills, "undoubtedly enhanced by centuries of Jewish persecution, and ramped up by the outlaw community of Deadwood," the actor said. "So when my character goes into a new place for the first time, he always knows where the exit is, as if he has eyes in the back of his head."

The fictional Star also avoids cussing, which is telling in a town where expletives indicate just how far a person is willing to go to protect himself. Milch — who said the swearing is historically accurate — sees Sol’s refusal to cuss as part of his survival strategy, a "submissive posture that suggests, ‘You’ll have no trouble from me.’"

Nor does the Jewish character bat an eyelash when the notorious Swearengen tells him, "I love you people. You make $5 before I’ve gotten out of bed and taken a p—."

Milch compared the comment to the kind of ignorance-based prejudice he encountered while living with rodeo cowboys to research the show.

Kopco and other aficionados give Hawkes’ character high marks for historical accuracy. But given Milch’s interest in vice, will "Deadwood" explore the darker side of Star who bounced back from at least one scandal?

"Well, he did get fired and accused of theft as the town’s postmaster," the producer said in his gravely voice. "So I think you’re entitled to all those expectations."

"Deadwood" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Sin


By the time you read this, it’s probably too late for me.

To repent, I mean.

You might be reading this on the day before Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement itself, and by then — despite all the rabbinic lore of last-minute deathbed confessions and Indiana Jones-style slide-under-the-fast-closing-door of Heaven’s pearly gates — I think that if you haven’t been thinking about your wrongs until the final hour, "Ne’ila" — the last prayer of Yom Kippur day, which literally means closing — then you don’t have a prayer to be saved.


How many shall leave this world
and how many shall be born into it?
Who shall live and who shall die?
Who shall live out the limit of his
days and who shall not?
Who shall perish by fire/water/
sword/beast/hunger/thirst/
earthquake/plague/strangling/stoning … etc.

If my attitude toward these holy days seems glib, it’s because I took these Yom Kippur prayers very seriously from a young age, and this is my only way to deflect that foreboding feeling that grips my chest like a shrunken glove, sometime mid-August, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashana.

Some people look forward to the High Holidays, with its delectable apples and honey, the family ingathering and even, they say, their time in synagogue, which they say is "cleansing." Imagine that.

I, on the other hand, raised on the fire-and-brimstone imagery of angry angels, an unforgiving God and a never-ending checklist of sins listed in the Machzor prayer book, never overjoyed at the prospect of these holidays.

How could I?

There were too many things I did wrong over the year for me to enjoy the holiday — although what an 11-year-old religious girl could do wrong, in retrospect, seems laughable compared to 20 years later.

Greater men than I have thought about the concept of sin. Rabbis, theologians, philosophers, professors have dedicated tomes to it. But this is a subject that I have been schooled in all my life — one way or another, Orthodoxy, and the departure from it, is always about sin — and I have become an amateurish expert myself, a dilettante of sorts.

My first "sin": My first official fast, age 12. It is drizzling, a cool September Brooklyn rain that cools and clears the sizzling summer streets, and portends the torrid winter to come. The night mist spritzes my father and me on our way home from shul. I am wearing my yellow plastic slicker, run-walking, trying not to slip, to keep up with my father’s lengthy paces. I put my right sleeve in my mouth, while my left holds my father’s yanking hand. The rubber is wet. I am thirsty, and it tastes good. I let some more rain gather on the edge of the sleeve, and then suck it off, delicately. My father doesn’t notice. I am drinking. On Yom Kippur. A sin.

Oh, there were many sins for which to repent.

"For the sin we have sinned before You
under duress and willingly,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
through hardness of the heart.
For the sin we have sinned before You
without knowledge,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with utterance of the lips…."

A sin for every occasion. The Artscroll Machzor lists one for each letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, which we recite about 10 times throughout Yom Kippur, pounding our hearts in repentance.

There we are, crowded in one row: My mother, her mother and me, sandwiched between my older and younger sister. On rickety metal chairs with sticky red vinyl cushions, in the basement "break-away minyan," the five of us stand, sit, stand, sit, each time the ark is opened and closed.

We take our right hands in a fist, and pound our hearts for every sin. My elder sister, nearly as pious as God, sways and pounds fervently, like a metronome, carefully iterating every word, loudly. Too loud.

"You’re supposed to whisper," I tell her.

Another sin. Talking during davening.

My grandmother doesn’t say the words at all. I watch her lips and they aren’t moving.

"You’re supposed to talk them," I tell her. Me, the little rebbetzin.

"I’m reading them to myself," she says. I am disappointed. Also, look at how she pounds her heart — with an open hand, tepidly, as if caressing herself. What kind of repentance is that?

And forget my mother. She pounds her heart perfectly in time. Her hand is just the right shape, but it is her heart that isn’t in it. I see it, but I say nothing. Because you can’t tell someone who doesn’t care about sinning to repent. It’s like arguing with a color-blind person about fall fashion. It’s just not applicable.

But as much as I am watching those around me, it is my own young soul for which I am mildly terrified. I think that this anxiety over the holidays originated in my schooling, the prayers themselves, and, if I want to be psychoanalytic about most of my religious hang-ups — from my father.

We learned that on Yom Kippur you ask God for forgiveness for all your sins, but prior to synagogue, during the 10 Days of Repentance, you are supposed to deal with your fellow Jews. The sins you did onto them — the ones they know about and the ones they didn’t know about (which were most of them, presenting another question: Did you have to actually tell them about the times you made fun of them, making them feel bad in order to exonerate yourself?). Otherwise you had no business asking God for forgiveness. If you sincerely asked a person three separate times for forgiveness (saying in one breath, "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry," doesn’t count) and they refused to forgive you, the sin was upon them, according to Jewish law.

As a child, I lay in dread of asking my father for forgiveness — like asking for an expensive after-school trip, it seems fraught with doom and rejection; and as I grew older, even as I gave up this parent/child exchange, I use the High Holidays to reconcile with other people I might have wronged. It’s the one custom that remains, though few others do.

Yom Kippurs pass, awesome in their familiarity, and standing between my mother and older sister, my piety vacillates: I’m repentant, at times, and questioning at others.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
through denial and false promises…."

This is the one I have the most trouble with. My false promises.

Yes, I know. In the three steps of repentance — acknowledgment of the sin, regret for the sin and a promise not to do the sin again — I am clear on the first two. But year after year, I find myself in shul, making the same promises, having the same regrets, seeing the same failures — with new ones added to boot.

And I grow weary. Wary. How could I be here every year saying the same things, knowing I wouldn’t manage to keep my word? How meaningless is that? It’s like a Hollywood marriage — they say the vows, but everyone knows that it will never last.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
in public or in private,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with immorality."

Years after I leave Brooklyn, I am beyond my girlish desires of hoping not to sin again. On Yom Kippur I stand there, knowing I will sin. I know I will violate the Sabbath, conduct "lewd" acts, eat in a non-kosher restaurant and countless other wrongs. But, I think, who says these are really sins? (Sin: Haughtiness.)

In my 20s I reached a point where I didn’t even consider these things sins. In Judaism, it seems, the more observant you are, the more you have to worry about. The most pious rabbi, the one who never said an unkind word to a soul and spent all his time studying Torah, sits crying for days before Yom Kippur. On the other hand, my Sunday school friend eats cheeseburgers on the beach on Rosh Hashana, and thinks, "Hey, I’m a pretty good person. I am nice to my mother, I pay my taxes. What do I have to worry about?"

Which person would you rather be?

So, as an adult, with no one to force me to go to services, I take a break from the holiday, the angry angels, with their copious note-taking on my deeds, tallying them up like Santa’s elves, with the prize being life. The break occurs inadvertently. My non-religious boyfriend won’t come to synagogue with me. "It’s boring," he says. I had never considered this obvious possibility, synagogue being boring. Especially if you take your prayers seriously; and you have to, don’t you? Or not.

I start to "cut" services on the High Holidays. I don’t go to the beach or do anything quite so rebellious, I just sleep in or go for a walk in the park. (Sin: "We have strayed.")

But still the High Holiday angst does not disappear; it comes regularly, mid-August, like a seasonal occurrence, among the turning leaves and shorter days. I ride it out like a panic attack or a tornado, waiting for the storm to descend, descend, envelop, then disappear by the time Sukkot rolls around.

A few years back I am invited to a Traditional synagogue. Since I no longer identify as "religious," I think that there is no harm in going there, despite my strict training against other streams of Judaism, which, in truth, have always seemed as foreign to me as another religion.

I arrive just in time for the Musaf service. And it seems as if I have never left. They are reading the same verse as years prior. My heart starts to pound, and I ready my hand for the sin lists. But they don’t beat themselves, as they read aloud: "We abuse, we betray, we are cruel."

Hey, those don’t seem so bad, I think. "We destroy, we embitter, we falsify," OK, I can handle this, I say to myself. "We gossip, we hate, we insult…." I don’t recall the prayers being this easy. They aren’t as negative as I remember. Or is it my childhood Bogeyman that frightened me so?

As I read through this list of sins, I feel a sense of possibility. Hey, I can do this, I think. I can be this person. I may have a shot at being a good Jew.

No, this is not solely about denominations — sure, this is a different Machzor I read, a different translation, with only half the sins, interpreted in a way that I can apply to my life without feeling like an utter and complete failure. But it’s more than that. Reading the holiday from a different perspective — instead of the same words I had read since childhood, with the voice of my father/teachers/rabbis embedded within — introduces to me a concept so integral to Yom Kippur, but one that I had forgotten: Forgiveness.

All my life, I worried so about my sins, my wrongdoings, my faults, my failures, that the only image I had was of a vengeful, exacting God towering above us mercilessly.

"For all these sins, forgiving God,
forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement."

These words are there in every Machzor, but this time, I am old enough — distanced enough? — to hear it. If God is so great and awesome, won’t he be more apt to overlook, excuse, and yes, forgive me for the sins I have committed? Could there be another God than the one that I grew up with?

It’s been two decades since my first "real" Yom Kippur, and I still don’t have the answer to that. Or to any of my other questions on sin and repentance, observance and disobedience.

Nonetheless, I have recently returned to services, sporadically. This year, at the Tashlich services, when we gathered at the ocean to throw bread in the water to symbolize the casting away of our sins, a school of dolphins swims up, nearly to meet us. The dolphins jump and dive as we lob out day-old raisin challah, and while I’m not sure that they eat our bread, as I stand there, knee-deep in the salty high tide, I think it is a sign. Maybe my sins — whatever they are, however and whoever is counting — will be forgiven. Maybe.

February 11: A Rally for Israel


Talmudic sages wondered how King Achav of Israel could have reigned for decades, considering his practice and encouragement of idolatry and every type of sin. They arrived at the answer that at least during his reign there was, if nothing else, unity among the Jewish people. Today we find deep divisions among our people, perhaps nowhere more so than in our attitudes toward Israel and the peace process. It almost makes you wish for the good old days of King Achav.

These days, there are radical hard-liners on both the right and left who are ready to push their single-minded agendas even at the cost of death and destruction. There are racist, bigoted Jews and self-hating anti-Semitic Jews, and both must be discredited at all costs.

As for the rest of us, it sometimes seems as though if we are united in anything, it is in the belief that the other side is dead wrong and largely responsible for the terrible predicament that confronts our people. At least we agree on something.

The losers in this struggle are Israel and the Jewish people. This is not a new circumstance for our people. The sages of the Talmud tell us that baseless hatred was the proximate cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. While this has traditionally been seen as a philosophical point, with the “great sin” tipping the scales of some heavenly balance, it has a more pragmatic interpretation as well. The Jews of Jerusalem were busy with internal conflict even as the Roman siege tightened around them. Large storehouses of food were put to the torch by Jews who didn’t agree with government policies, and the people and the city were then doomed. The unthinkable has already happened. We must not let it happen again.

We have no choice but to see ourselves again as one people. Our adversaries certainly don’t differentiate us by religious or political variant. More importantly, our own Torah sees us as one people, warts and all.

Promises by G-d of a special role in the world, of a land of our own and of our continuity as a people, were made to the nation of Israel, not to its left or right wings. It is only together that we can fulfill our destiny as Jews.

The road to achdut (unity) is long and arduous. We can begin by finding the common ground, our support for the people and the State of Israel. We feel their pains and hurts as if they were our own. It is in this spirit that we of the Orthodox Union call upon the Jewish community to unite in a rally in support of our brothers and sisters in Israel and their quest for a true peace, Sunday, Feb. 11, 10:15 a.m., at the corner of Olympic and Doheny. (Rain location is next door at Beth Jacob Congregation, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills.) The program is to include prayer, addresses by Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem and Rep. Henry Waxman, an address by Rabbi Marvin Hier and songs of hope, unity and peace. It’s a start — please join in.



Dr. Larry Eisenberg is president of the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

Torah Portion


It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met.

Who is greater: a person who is obligated to perform a certain act and does, or a person who is not obligated to perform the act but does it anyway? According to modern sensibilities, the second person is a hero, whereas the first may just be a drone. According to the Talmud, however, the first person is the hero. It is often easy and fun to volunteer. Whatever you do is appreciated, and when you get bored, you can stop. It is difficult and rare, however, to fulfill one’s own obligations constantly.

Yes, we appreciate those who go beyond the letter of the law, or go lifnim meshurat hadin. A world in which people fulfill worthy tasks they have not been assigned is likely to be full of pleasant surprises. But that world would not be nearly so pleasant or safe as one in which everyone simply and reliably did his or her duty. To explain the Talmudic hierarchy of values, consider how you respond to deadlines. My writer friends and I have discussed how that a month before a book is due, our closets are clean, our correspondence is updated, our desks are organized, and — while we are getting ourselves and our offices “ready” — our manuscripts are neglected. Human fears and resistance dictate that it is easier to tackle what is discretionary than what is required.

The Torah portion Naso includes laws of the Nazarite. Nazarites assumed additional obligations, beyond the commandments given to all Israelites. They vowed, for a period that could range from 30 days to an entire lifetime, not to cut their hair, not to drink intoxicants, and not to come into contact with dead bodies. Often, the vows were inspired by a danger or illness that was overcome. Other times, piety was the only motive. These men and women went lifnim meshurat hadin. Yet all Nazarites who successfully fulfilled their vows were instructed to present a sin-offering. What was the sin? The Rabbis teach that it was arrogance. Are you so confident of executing the commandments that you take on additional vows? Love of God may well drive that decision, but so, to some degree, does hubris.

Later in Naso, leaders from each tribe bring offerings for the dedication of the altar. Nachson of the tribe Judah comes first, and it takes six verses to list the gifts: one silver dish and one silver basin, each of a certain weight, and each filled with flour and oil; a gold ladle of a certain measure, full of incense; one bullock, two oxen and six goats for various sacrifices. Curiously, this listing is repeated in full for each of the subsequent tribes; all brought the same exact sacrifice.

Yet the Bible takes 77 verses to convey information that might have been communicated in just six or seven lines. This twelvefold repetition in our normally laconic text imparts a message about the equality of the contributions. According to popular interpretation, it shows that no tribe was superior to any other. At the same time, the repetition also drives home the importance of doing what the community does, of bringing what the community brings. Nothing less will do, but something more may be distracting. There is a danger that “more” may be an exercise in self-importance, rather than generosity. And adding new items along the way could lead you to forget a bullock — or a mitzvah.

It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met. Give more when the gifts already promised are on the altar.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, co-editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” will be installed this Friday night as a spiritual leader at Makom Ohr Shalom Congregation in Tarzana.

Torah Portion


Because of our sins were we exiled from our land, and displaced far from our soil.” Thus the festival Musaf prayer expresses the theology of this week’s Torah portion: Obedience and loyalty to God brings rewards of prosperity and security. Sin brings exile and its terrors.

For a very long time I wrestled with this prayer. It seemed the height of Jewish neurosis: Not only must we suffer exile, we must also suffer guilt; as if it were our own fault. Do we really imagine that Jewish repentance and righteousness would have stopped the advancing armies of the Roman Empire? And even if such a thing could be affirmed about the destruction and exile 2,000 years ago, how can we, the witnesses of the Holocaust say such a prayer today? Perhaps Jeremiah could see the chastening hand of God in the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar, but for us to even hint that the Holocaust might be subsumed under the same categories of divine reward and punishment — to even imagine that Hitler was the instrument of God’s justice — is simply an obscenity.

The Talmud wrestles with this as well and asks a very useful question: What specifically was the sin that got us thrown out of Israel? Talmud Yoma offers a startling answer: The First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. because of the sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. “Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed sinat chinam, senseless hatred. This teaches that senseless hatred is considered as serious as the three sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed together.”


The Jewish people

suffered two millennia

of exile because of our

inability to recognize

our common destiny


The Talmud’s opinion is more than just sermonic. Its historicity is corroborated by the Roman historian Josephus and other sources. When the populace of Judea took up arms against Roman rule in 70 C.E., they were in a remarkably strong position. The Jewish community of the Roman Empire was large, wealthy and well-connected. Some historians estimate that fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish. Coinciding with the revolt in Jerusalem, parallel insurrections broke out in Alexandria and other Jewish centers tying up Roman military assets. At the same time, the Parthian empire invaded the Roman eastern frontier. Rome, notoriously overextended in governing such a vast empire, was severely strained. Jerusalem was heavily fortified and within the city walls the rebels had ample supplies of food, water and weapons. The Judean revolt was a nightmare for the Roman Empire.

What then caused the swift collapse of the revolt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people? According to Josephus, it was the unending internecine rivalry among the factions defending the city. Unable to agree upon one leader or one strategy, the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem spent more energy fighting one another than they did fighting the Roman invaders. One faction, excluded from the high command, burned all the city’s food stores in protest. Others simply abandoned the fight. It is a supreme irony that Masada is seen today as a symbol of Jewish fortitude and courage. Those heroic zealots who defended Masada and ultimately chose suicide over captivity had earlier deserted the defense of Jerusalem and fled to Masada when their leader was not chosen to head the revolt.

The rabbis of the Talmud were right. “Because of our sins were we exiled from our land.” It was senseless rivalry and spiteful hatred that brought the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. The Jewish people suffered two millennia of exile because of our inability to recognize our common destiny, or need for one another, and our unwillingness to put aside rigid ideological differences and share in the common defense of people and homeland. And if we haven’t yet learned that lesson, we will surely find ourselves in exile once again. For the sin of sinat chinam brings swift and sure punishment. So teaches this week’s Torah portion. Shabbat Shalom.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.

All rights reserved by author, 1997.