Rabbi Sommer's weekly writings
December 4, 2016
San Bernardino, CA
Colorado Springs, CO
I'm just not sure what the world has come to. My heart goes out to all the families of those killed in the San Bernardino shooting Wednesday, and at the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs last week. My prayers remain with all the families from Paris and all the many families in Israel who have suffered during the recent spate of stabbings and terrorist attacks throughout the country.
This has to stop. Our system is broken. In Chicago and other cities of America, the police have lost the trust of their communities. Far too often American terrorists betray the greater trust in their communities, and our whole nation, killing innocents for no explainable reason. Terrorists throughout the world are corrupting society with their hatred, violence, and twisted view of theology and religion.
I've spent the last thirty years reading science fiction, among many other genres. The one thing alien attacks always bring home is that we only have one planet and are actually only one planetary people. And yet, it brings near total annihilation in these books for humanity to come together as a planet. Why is that? We cannot wait for a cataclysmic moment to wake us up. We are witnessing a societal upheaval the likes of which we haven't really witnessed since the 1970s. So much of the world is still suffering from seemingly unending wars, and we hope that this isn't leading us towards World War III. As a society we must confront so many issues facing us today. The fabric of society is being torn apart from so many different angles.
In our Torah portion this week, Vayeisheiv [Genesis 37:1- 40:23], we begin the story of Joseph and the technicolor dream coat. The essence of the story shows us all the gritty details of a dysfunctional family, torn apart by favoritism, greed, jealousy and moral decay. The same things that seem to be tearing our country apart currently. We know the story of Joseph ends well, and that all is meant to be, but it is hard to ignore the dysfunction that causes his siblings to do what they do.
The Talmudic rabbis, hundred of years after Torah was in its final form, time and time again try to teach us about the sanctity of life. They equate destroying a single life with destroying an entire universe, and saving a single life with saving an entire universe. They teach us that even the laws of Shabbat can be broken if it means saving a life. So great is the value, and valuing, of life, that even honoring Shabbat comes second. In the early days of the Prophets, starting with the Book of Joshua, we, as a people, were no better than any of the other warring factions of the modern world. With God's guidance we were sent into the Promised Land and told to take it by force under God's protection. It took centuries, and exiles, and the destruction of the Great Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans, for us to truly begin to understand that violence wasn't a means to an end as much as it was just the end of so much we hold sacred in this world.
Violence will never lead to peace. It may lead to a cessation of war eventually, but at what cost? How many millions must die in order for us to reach a stalemate or cessation of war? How many innocents must be gunned down in our streets before we really address the issue of gun violence in America. How many deaths at the hands of terrorists must occur before we truly begin to understand what we are fighting against?
I believe in peace. I've seen the beginnings of it in my lifetime, lived in Israel for a year during one of the most peaceful moments in the history of the Middle East Peace process. We all know what peace felt like in the 90s when it seemed as if middle eastern animosity against Israel was at an all time low and tolerance at an all time high throughout the world. While each of us, individually, cannot completely change the world by ourselves, we are forbidden from not working at it just because the task seems so daunting.
Be nicer. Try to be understanding and hopeful, even in the face of such violence and despair. Pray for those grieving for the deaths in their families. Pray for those souls who somehow believe their violence is justified. Pray for the world, for our nation and for our communities, in hope that we can all work together to create a better reality for our children and their children.
Our reality is as fragile as a single moment in time. During these dark times remember to say I love you to all your family and friends who make such a difference in your life. Remember to be grateful for all the blessings that fill our days. Remember to visualize what peace looks like and feels like, so that you understand what the world looks like, and what you are trying to make real. Peace is possible. It is possible to fill this world with more love and eradicate hate. But, a week like this last one reminds us how hard we must keep working to love more, hate less, and end the senseless violence that fills our world. May peace reign in your lives and in all the lands some day.
Kein y'hi ratzon ~ May this be God's will.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Michael
November 27, 2016
I hope everyone had an incredible Thanksgiving surrounded by family and friends. At this point I've been away with my family since Sunday and am either walking home alone or most likely still enjoying an incredible week with my family, mother, brother and his family, aunt and uncle and cousins. This time of year is about family. Thanksgiving is the secular Passover seder for the United States where we remember the pilgrim's leaving England due to religious persecution. They started their new lives in a new world, free to practice their personal beliefs without fear of persecution or violence. So much has changed since then and so much as stayed the same.
The attacks on Paris allow us to pause and pray even more for peace and healing especially to those families still grieving for the loss of their loved ones. They give us pause to be ever grateful for the security we enjoy in America and the blessings that fill our lives. We continue to pray for a world where acts of violence like this are a distant memory in the history books while all citizens of the world live in peace and with tolerance.
I pray that this Thanksgiving caused everyone to pull their families in closer and hold them tighter in gratitude for our way of life. I pray that we keep in mind those in the world who continue to suffer violent upheaval, who have been forced to flee their homes due to war and intolerance in their countries. As Jews we always remember the times historically we've been forced to flee our homes fearing for our lives. We remember the Exodus and the centuries of slavery under the tyrannical fist of Pharaoh. We remember wandering in the wilderness for forty years until it was the right moment to enter the promised land as God had promised us. We remember. That is what we do. We sit together for holiday meals and we remember our past while giving thanks for our present.
So this Shabbat I hope you continue to remember where we've come from. I hope you find warmth in being surrounded by your loved ones, family and friends, who make our lives better. I hope you imparted some wisdom to your children that they may pass on to their children someday. I pray for peace for everyone. I pray someday that the world population is able to sit with their families for a meal on a given day and teach "This is the meal to mark the great day of peace when all humanity put down their weapons once and for all so that all people know a lasting peace to this moment and beyond."
Kein y'hi ratzon ~ May this be God's will.
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom,
November 20, 2015
Paris leaves me speechless and yet with so much to say. I've been seeing this trend for a long time, since London, since Barcelona, since attack after attack after attack on European Jews. And yet somehow in the world Israel is always to blame.
If Paris was Israel the world newspapers would have roared "Israel uses disproportionate strength to retaliate against Palestinian rocket attacks."
If Paris was Israel the headlines would read "Eight Palestinians gunned down by Israeli Police."
If Paris was Israel they would face charges of war crimes leveled at them by the Hague and the United Nations.
But Paris isn't Israel. They simply killed the terrorists causing extreme violence in their country and went to war against ISIS in Syria. Honduras detains five Syrians with stolen Greek passports trying to sneak into the United States to cause more violence.
Perhaps now Europe is opening its eyes to the threat that lives within its borders. Perhaps now Europe is beginning to feel what it is like to be Israel and live with that threat on a daily basis.
I don't think Europe will ever understand or come to accept Israel or Jews completely, but maybe they will understand that Fundamentalist Muslims who choose terrorism as their sword only see an end where their religion rules over every land.
It isn't just that Israel exists to ISIS and their fellow extremists. It is that the modern world exists without a care for what they think or believe in. It is that they believe that the modern world and all nations, religions and cultures other than theirs need to be converted or wiped from existence.
There is no reasoning with extremists. The world is black or red to them. Black with all the embers of the burning world they despise and red with all the blood they are willing to spill to see their vision for the world made real.
With all the oil wealth in the world most oil wealthy nations remain deserts and barely evolved. The majority of their citizens remain uneducated and impoverished. So much if their funds also go the the organizations now terrorizing our modern world and their countries.
Only Israel has taken a swamp and turned it into a nation. Only Israel has taken deserts and reclaimed their once ancestral beauty, turning them back into forests. Israel has taken its ancient inheritance of knowledge and understanding in a land bereft of oil and turned that into technologies that have helped change the course of industries, science, agriculture and medicine.
Only Israel has offered the Palestinians land for peace and a partner to work with.
Paris is just one more wake up call forcing us to face the enemies we've allowed to breed in our havens of peace and tolerance.
Jews around the world understand what Paris and all of France feels right now. We send money, prayers and dignitaries to stand with our French brothers and sisters even while knowing few if any stand with Israel when we need them the most.
Liberty, Equality and Fraternity...may the light of enlightenment and modernity see us through these dark times and defend us against those who would have us return to the dark ages.
Peace for all. Tolerance for all. Love for all.
I wish you all a safe and blessed thanksgiving.
November 13, 2015
This week we read Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9.
The twins, Esau and Jacob, are born. Rebecca has trouble getting pregnant, just as her mother in law, Sarah, had trouble getting pregnant until she and Abraham conceived and had Isaac. Isaac must turn to God to have his and Rebecca's prayers answered. When pregnant Rebecca asks God why there is such turmoil within her. God speaks to her and tells her of the two nations struggling inside of her.
And thus begins the story of Jacob and Esau, two completely different twins, one a hunter and one an intellectual, each favored by one parent for such diverse reasons.
In this portion Jacob causes Esau to bargain away his birthright and later his mother convinces him that he must con Isaac into bestowing upon him the blessing of the first born.
Esau seeing how he has been duped by his brother and mother, takes for a third wife the daughter of Ishmael to further displease his mother.
Oh the tangled web fate weaves. Jacob is sent to his Uncle Laban who we find is a bigger con artist than Jacob ever hoped to be. Jacob never sees his parents alive again. He doesn't reconcile with his brother Esau for twenty years.
This has taught many parents to do their best never to favor one child over the other as much as it set the stage for those parents who enjoyed pitting their children against each other and favoring whomever they wished.
This story sets up the divergence of the people we now call Jews and Muslims. It shows them struggling from the time they shared a womb together all the way up the our present day.
These two people have rarely known peace in the three or four millennia since this story was lived/told/written down.
As Jews, what do we learn from reading this portion year after year, decade after decade? Never to be like this. Do not be the sibling who while smarter and wiser takes advantage of his brother whose skills of reasoning don't compare. Don't buy into parents who play out their designs on children who only wish to be good enough, loved enough. Jacob questions Rebecca's intentions, Isaac is no fool when Jacob tries to pass for Esau, but both men know they are no match for Rebecca's drive and determination.
Year after year we watch the story unfold until Jacob's own children sell a sibling into slavery and tell him his favorite son has been slain (but that tale is a fee weeks from now).
We all know modern examples of these stories. Conniving parents, conniving children, families torn apart by greed, poverty, mental illness, abuse, neglect, fear and loathing. We see in the news daily accounts of the children of Esau attempting to murder and annihilate the children of Jacob for the same piece of land promised to the seed of Abraham so long ago.
This portion teaches us to do the opposite. It implores us to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. We must learn from it how to be better parents, better siblings, better families. We've spent millennia realizing that we can't survive if we pull each other apart as a family.
Globally Jews know we can't survive if we can't figure out how to teach radical muslims the ways of peace and coexistence. Globally Jews have been trying to live peacefully for over 2000 years. We don't seek wars, we don't embrace violence. We no longer seek the utter annihilation of our enemies because we've felt what it is like for our enemies to attempt our complete annihilation.
We don't want to ever be considered worse than "them" who would see is stripped from the face of this earth.
As a people we try to save this planet. We try to create peace and not war. We invent cures for global diseases and invent ways to bring water to all who need it. We invent faster ways into space and cars that need no fossil fuels.
Jews have always seen the long picture. I just hope we can find a path to peace with our siblings so that we can stop living this portion once and for all.
May you know peace in your homes. May you hold each of your parents, children and siblings as dear. May peace in your life begin with you and pour forth to be felt by all you know and meet in your life.
Kein y'hi ratzon ~ May this be God's will.