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How Healing and Forgiveness Can Come in the Wake of Trayvon Martin

By Rabbi Evan / July 15, 2013
originally written for Beliefnet.com As President Obama said, the jury has spoken. The case has concluded. One side won, and another side lost. Yet, no one is happy. A 15-year-old boy is dead. Grieving parents will never be the same. What now? Some want to continue the conflict. Facebook and twitter are filled with words of vitriol and vengeance. Others, like Trayvon Martin’s parents, have conveyed their sadness and hope. They have turned to faith not in the name of anger. They have turned to God in the name of healing. This morning Trayvon Martin’s mom tweeted, Continue reading

Jewish Beliefs About Jesus

By Rabbi Evan / June 24, 2013

This article was originally on my blog at Beliefnet.
For every complex question, as H.L. Mencken once put, there is usually an answer that is “clear, simple and wrong.” His observation rings true when it comes to a question I get at least once a week. What do Jews believe about Jesus?Jews as a group rarely agree on matters of Jewish belief. How could we agree on the essence of another? Yet, we ignore the question at our own peril. Learning About Jesus Means Learning About Judaism Continue reading

Why Did I Become a Rabbi?

By Rabbi Evan / June 10, 2013
  Whenever I tell people I’m a rabbi, the first question they ask is, “Where’s your beard?” The next question is usually something like, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?” Blessing a recent Bat Mitzah.   This question reflects a number of different cultural forces. The first is the largely secular identity of the American Jewish community. Jews express belief in God in significantly less proportions than other religious groups. They attend houses of worship less than other groups. While charitable giving to Jewish causes, commitment to education and liberal voting patterns continue to distinguish Jews as a group, religious practice and affiliation are irrelevant to a significant percentage of them. Continue reading

Who Else is Afraid of Public Speaking?

By Rabbi Evan / June 5, 2013
Some people would rather die than give a speech in public. I find this fact difficult to understand, yet numerous surveys attest to it. Since I speak for a living, I thought I had grown immune to the fear. Yesterday, however, it was palpable, as I presented a two-minute summary of my book to a group of distinguished authors and book fair organizers from across the country. The person to my left had been a senior editor at Newsweek. The author behind me was the Editor-in-Chief at Business Week. Three people in my row had New York Times bestsellers!  I felt like one of the people the Bible describes when it tells of the Israelites first entering the Promised Land: “Giants roamed the land…and we must have been like grasshoppers in their eyes.” What Are They Saying About Me?  When the emcee called my name, time stopped. I went up to the microphone, looked out and started talking. I looked for a friendly face. When I found one on the upper left hand corner, I relaxed. What felt like 20 minutes ended up lasting a minute and a half. When I sat down, I heard the customary applause, and then a murmur. I imagined they must have been whispering to each other, “Who invited this guy?” Speed-Dating The program continued for another hour. Afterward, all the authors and book-fair directors converged into a social hall for appetizers, drinks and discussions. The book-fair directors sought out the authors who interested them. It felt like a big unorganized speed dating exercise. I expected to sulk in a corner and maybe have one or two conversations. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Though I was not deluged with attention as some of the authors were, many people commented on my presentation and how interested they were in hearing about the book. A fellow author even asked for speaking tips. The entire experience taught me a few lessons. 1. The anticipation of an event generates much more fear than the event itself: When I was speaking, I focused on what I was saying. Before speaking, I focused on how nervous I was. We may not be able to avoid anticipatory fear, but if we recognize and call it out, we can see that it is more about ourselves than what we are about to do. 2. It’s okay to be nervous: It is a sign we are taking the event seriously. Why would we get anxious over something that was not important? When we care, when we have worked hard to get somewhere, we take it seriously. The key is not to let it push us offtrack. 3. Envy is deadly: There is a difference between ambition and envy. Ambition can drive us to innovate and move beyond our comfort zone. Ambition can lead us to work hard and achieve. Envy, however, can destroy us. C.S. Lewis pointed this truth out with characteristic eloquence. Envy, he said, is “the wish to be more conspicuous or more successful than someone else. It is this competitive element in it that is bad.” “It is perfectly reasonable to want to dance well or to look nice. But when the dominant wish is to dance better or look nicer than others – when you begin to feel that if the others danced as well as you or looked as nice as you, that it would take all the fun out of it – then you are going wrong.” Yesterday I learned, once again, God does not compare our lives with other peoples’. God calls us to find and live by the unique divine spark within ourselves.  

What My Dad Learned in Prison

By Rabbi Evan / May 9, 2013

A nineteenth century rabbi used to spend time each afternoon looking out of his window. Every day he saw a member of his synagogue rushing down the street. One day he stopped him and said, “Why are you always in a hurry?” The man replied, “I’m running to make a living.” The rabbi answered, “How do you know your living is not running after you. Perhaps all you need to do is pause, and let it catch up.” The rabbi’s insight applies not only to making a living. It teaches us how to make a life. It reminds us that we can become our own worst enemies. Perfection is the enemy of the good How often do we create a flawless vision of our future self: the perfect job, the perfect marriage, the perfect world? Rarely do these visions ever match reality. They often have the opposite of their intended effect. Rather than guide us, they handicap us. Rather than pull us toward the future, they trap us in the past. If we think only of tomorrow, we never discover hidden treasure within us today. When we avoid the challenges of today, we never become future person we are meant to be. “Today,” the psalmist wrote 2000 years ago, “is the day God has chosen. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” If we do so, we discover possibilities within ourselves that we never saw before. What My Dad Learned in Prison My dad taught me this lesson recently. A few years ago, the medical school where he works entered into an agreement with the Wisconsin state prison system. Coincidentally, a clinic he had been running was sold to a different hospital. The dean of the school asked if my dad could serve as a therapist at a medium security prison three times a week. My dad was in his early sixties imagining a nice, easy retirement with my mom. I think working in a prison was the last thing he imagined doing. On his visit to decide whether he was going to do this or not, the prison’s warden told him not to shake hands with the prisoners or wear a tie, lest someone try to strangle him. Yet, he accepted. Through the prison work, he has found a whole new meaning in his career. He has faced situations and behaviors that opened new channels of empathy. He has struggled with the reality of evil and apathy. He has encountered people that have changed his perspective after 35 years of practice. Quite often we find new meaning and strength where we least expect it. Quite often it lies waiting for us to discover. We simply have to look within ourselves. Where the treasure is buried One of my favorite stories in all of Jewish literature conveys this truth in dramatic fashion. It concerns a man named Reb Isaac of Krakow. Isaac had a dream one evening. He dreamed that a certain treasure was buried underneath a bridge in Prague. Eager to provide more for his family, he pooled his resources and traveled to Prague. When he got there, he found that the bridge to be guarded day and night. He waited patiently. After a while, the guard began to have sympathy on him. He went up and asked Reb Isaac what he was doing here. Reb Isaac told him about the dream of buried treasure that brought him to this bridge. The guard laughed. “You have faith in dreams, he said. That’s nonsense. If I believed in dreams, I would have gone to Cracow, because long ago I dreamt that under the stove of a man named Reb Isaac of Cracow, there lay buried a great treasure.” Reb Isaac understood the message. He returned to Cracow that same day. When he got back to his home, he discovered the treasure that lay inside it. To Receive a Free Book on Forgiveness, sign up for Rabbi Moffic’s weekly email list here.

Information About Earth Day: 3 Things To Remember

By Rabbi Evan / April 22, 2013
Protecting our planet is not just a scientific or political issue. It is a religious, spiritual imperative. Information about Earth Day from a scientific perspective is abundant. What is often missing is a spiritual voice. As a rabbi, I see honoring earth day as a religious imperative. Here’s three reasons why: 1. The first is captured in the Hebrew phrase l’dor v’dor: the imperative that we pass on our earth “from generation to generation.” This imperative goes back all the way to Adam and Eve. The Bible tells us that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to “till and tend.” The Hebrew words have specific connotations. The Hebrew word for “tend” is used Jewish law to imply a legal sense of guardianship. In effect, God has made us trustees of the earth. Part of our obligation is to keep it in good condition for the benefit of future generations. 2. The second critical value is bal tashchit. In Hebrew  that means “do not destroy.” It is a religious value that also goes back to the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites were specifically commanded not to destroy the fruit-bearing trees of an opposing city when in battle. The sages saw this law as an example of a broader imperative. They extended it to peacetime as well as war, other objects as well as trees. The broader imperative is this: We don’t have a right to destroy anything of potential human benefit, even if it is our own property. Why I Never Throw Anything Out How might this work in our lives? Let’s say we are moving, and we have a usable table and chairs that we don’t really need any more. We might think we can dispose of it as we would wish. Jewish law, however, tells us that we may not. We are obliged to seek its further usage—by giving it away or selling it—rather than destroying it. To destroy it would violate our role as stewards of what ultimately belongs not to us, but to God. 3. The final critical value is shomrei adamah, which means “guardians of the earth.” As human beings, we are endowed with great power. Unlike other animals, we can manipulate nature. This has enormous benefits: technology, buildings, civilization. But it also has dangers: war, pollution, disease. With our enormous power comes significant responsibility. Foremost among them is sustaining our world. That means we have the responsibility to do what we can to conserve energy. That means we have the responsibility to speak out for laws that curb waste and pollution. A Child Will Lead Us In so many ways, our children are leading us in this area. I was amazed and inspired by a student at my synagogue. Compelling by this issue, she implemented a recycling program in her high-rise building. It was an enormous undertaking. She had to get other residents on board, work with the management company, order recycling bins, coordinate the pick-up, and make sure it became self-sustaining. She did it. Ultimately, a Jewish view of environmental responsibility demands action and humility. We know that the world is not wholly ours to bend to our will. Rather, it is something given to us in trust for future generations.

How To Find Life After Death: Memorial Day in Israel

By Rabbi Evan / April 15, 2013

The standard Jewish toast is L’Chayim, to life! Yet, during its last 65 years, the Jewish state of Israel has experienced a disproportinate share of death. 25,578 people have died as a result of war and terrorism.

This fact headlines the newspapers today in Israel. It is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day in Israel, where fallen soldiers are remembered in ceremonies around the country. What is Unique About Israel This day in itself is nothing unusual. Most countries have a Memorial Day. Yet, as we the sun sets on Memorial Day, the country begins Independence Day! Streets fill with people preparing to watch fireworks and celebrate their freedom and independence in a sovereign nation. Why the rapid transition? Is it psychologically healthy? Shouldn’t we have room to mourn our losses before celebrating our victories? The rapid shift proclaims an audacious message. Only when we acknowledge death can we fully appreciate gift of life. Remembering our loved ones reminds us of the imperative to live. The Courage to Rejoice In this regard, Jewish tradition echoes beautiful words of playwright Thorton Wilder, “All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” In other words, we remember by living. Our lives proclaim the faith that those we loved live on through us. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, “It requires moral courage to grieve; it requires religious courage to rejoice.”
   

Where Was God During the Holocaust?

By Rabbi Evan / April 12, 2013
We just experienced a modern Jewish holiday. It is not a holiday of celebration. It challenges to ask about God. It challenges us to remember. We remember the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
What did not die, however, is hope. The Holocaust exemplified the enormous evil humans can inflict one another. We must not be blind to it. Yet, Israel exists, and Hitler does not. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Jewish faith is not about believing the world to be other than it is. It is not about ignoring the evil, the darkness and the pain. It is about courage, endurance and the capacity to hold fast to ideals even when they are ignored by others.” The most difficult question in the world What challenges me each year during this time is the question I am asked more than any other. “Where was God during the Holocaust? Why did not God not stop it?” I do not have a set pre-formulated answer to these questions. They haunt me every day. Anyone who claims to know the answer lacks the humility demanded of any person of faith. What I can offer, however, are premises I affirm. They shape the way I think about this question. They can guide each of us in our own struggle. 1. The better question is where were we?

God did not murder six million Jews. God did not start a destructive war. Human beings did. Since Cain and Abel, we have known human cruelty. God gave us the gift of free will, and we cannot blame God for the way we use it. The Holocaust challenges humanity not God.

2. God cried alongside the Jewish people. 

A rabbi named Kalonymous Shapiro was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1941-1943. He wrote a journal in the evenings, and buried it shortly before he was deported to a death camp. In it he records the his mounting losses.

He describes his family being taken away, his community, his neighbors. His pain reaches a peak as he writes of God crying in the heavens, with His tears carrying such power that if one of them were to escape from heaven to earth, it would destroy the world.

3. Never Again

It is hard to escape the connection between the Holocaust and founding of the state of Israel. The war ended in 1945, and Israel was founded in 1948. Yes, Israel existed during the age of the Bible, and modern Zionist movement started in the 1880s.

Yet, for those survived, Israel became a refuge of hope amidst despair, life amidst death. Israel reminds the world of the Jewish people’s will to live, and its strength declares that genocide can never happen again.

4. The best answer we give is the way we live

After the Holocaust, some survivors felt inconsolable pain. They had lost their families, their hopes, their dreams. They could no go on. Others, however, felt a stronger imperative to live. The only way to challenge the horror they experienced was to live with greater fervor and higher ideals. In the face of death, they sought to bring the Jewish community back to life.

Perhaps they took guidance from a story of the 18th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He once saw a man whose house had burnt down. The man had been crying terribly about his losses. As he began looking through the rubble, he found bits and pieces of wood and metal to start rebuilding. One by one he made a pile of pieces. Rabbi Nachman said, “See how he is collecting pieces to rebuild. Even when we think there is no hope, we are already collecting pieces to rebuild.”

Where Was God During the Holocaust?

By Rabbi Evan / April 6, 2013

Posted for Beliefnet.Com 

This evening begins a modern Jewish holiday. It is not a holiday of celebration. It is one of memory. We remember the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

What did not die, however, is hope. The Holocaust exemplified the enormous evil humans can inflict one another. We must not be blind to it. Yet, Israel exists, and Hitler does not. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Jewish faith is not about believing the world to be other than it is. It is not about ignoring the evil, the darkness and the pain. It is about courage, endurance and the capacity to hold fast to ideals even when they are ignored by others.” The most difficult question in the world What challenges me each year during this time is the question I am asked more than any other. “Where was God during the Holocaust? Why did not God not stop it?” I do not have a set pre-formulated answer to these questions. They haunt me every day. Anyone who claims to know the answer lacks the humility demanded of any person of faith. What I can offer, however, are premises I affirm. They shape the way I think about this question. They can guide each of us in our own struggle. 1. The better question is where were we?

God did not murder six million Jews. God did not start a destructive war. Human beings did. Since Cain and Abel, we have known human cruelty. God gave us the gift of free will, and we cannot blame God for the way we use it. The Holocaust challenges humanity not God.

2. God cried alongside the Jewish people. 

A rabbi named Kalonymous Shapiro was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1941-1943. He wrote a journal in the evenings, and buried it shortly before he was deported to a death camp. In it he records the his mounting losses.

He describes his family being taken away, his community, his neighbors. His pain reaches a peak as he writes of God crying in the heavens, with His tears carrying such power that if one of them were to escape from heaven to earth, it would destroy the world.

3. Never Again

It is hard to escape the connection between the Holocaust and founding of the state of Israel. The war ended in 1945, and Israel was founded in 1948. Yes, Israel existed during the age of the Bible, and modern Zionist movement started in the 1880s.

Yet, for those survived, Israel became a refuge of hope amidst despair, life amidst death. Israel reminds the world of the Jewish people’s will to live, and its strength declares that genocide can never happen again.

4. The best answer we give is the way we live

After the Holocaust, some survivors felt inconsolable pain. They had lost their families, their hopes, their dreams. They could no go on. Others, however, felt a stronger imperative to live. The only way to challenge the horror they experienced was to live with greater fervor and higher ideals. In the face of death, they sought to bring the Jewish community back to life.

Perhaps they took guidance from a story of the 18th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He once saw a man whose house had burnt down. The man had been crying terribly about his losses. As he began looking through the rubble, he found bits and pieces of wood and metal to start rebuilding. One by one he made a pile of pieces. Rabbi Nachman said, “See how he is collecting pieces to rebuild. Even when we think there is no hope, we are already collecting pieces to rebuild.”  
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