Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Parshat Ekev, 5770

We are a society that fiercely values personal independence and self-sufficiency. It’s part of the American mythos – the great story that we tell ourselves about who we are. Paul Revere, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Calamity Jane – they are the raw material of the American heart.

What is stunning, then, is just how much we rugged individualists expect that other people produce for us.  This demand goes far beyond material goods, for which we are wholly dependent upon others at this stage in our civilization. We also expect that other people will provide us with emotional care (therapy), exciting and challenging experiences (adventure travel), even, especially, spiritual connection on demand.

That we should ask these things of others is not unreasonable: we cannot live without other people; their care and blessing is the stuff of life; we are not islands; however, what troubles the mind is that we often place the burden of the success of these ventures upon their shoulders. The psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp (he wrote, If You Meet the Buddha on The Road, Kill Him!) says about this mode, “It is as if [the patient] comes into the office saying, ‘my world is broken and you have to fix it.’”

Our midrash teaches us that one of the names for the human soul is yehidah: the solitary one, the unique one. It is not our bodies or our ways of living that are unique - we are more similar to each other in these regards than we are different. What is unique is the particular twist of our own heart. Life is made richest in the midst of the care of others, but only we, in the end, carry the responsibility for our own souls.

Shalom u’Vrakha
Peace and Blessing,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Comfort of Transience


Parshat VeEthanan, 5770
Shabbat Nahamu – The Shabbat of Comfort

One of Martin Luther King’s habits was to quote Bible verses without indicating that he was doing so. Without that pause for ascription, those words would flow with the thunder with which they were originally created, adding the strength of the Divine to the strength of his own words.

At the climax of his “I Have A Dream” speech, King says, I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

 The quote is from this week’s haftarah, the first after Tisha b’Av. We call this Shabbat Nahamu – the Shabbat of Comfort, meant to comfort us after the pain of the last weeks. Its first words are, “Be comforted, be comforted my people, says Your God.” (Isaiah, ch.40)

Why, though, is raising up valleys and leveling mountains an expression of comfort? It is,I believe, because of their restatement of a firm truth: all things change; Even mountains and valleys, in their seeming immutability, are not permanent. In the eyes of the earth itself, they are but a passing phase.

When craggy peaks and chasms in our lives seem immutable and insurmountable, I bless us with the wisdom that King Solomon found so profound he inscribed it on his seal: Gam Zu Ya’avor” –  This too shall pass. To that we add an article of our faith: that they will change for the better.

Friday, July 16, 2010


4 Menahem Av, 5770
Shabbat Hazon – The Shabbat of Vision
Parshat Devarim
We have a long memory (deservedly) when it comes to those who have persecuted us over the centuries. It is perhaps harder to remember, though, when we have brought suffering upon ourselves.

Our people revolted against the Romans in 66 C.E., but the era was beset as much by internal Jewish strife as it was with conflict against the Romans. The civil situation had deteriorated such that Jews assassinated others in the streets of Jerusalem. When the Romans finally recaptured Jerusalem in 70 C.E., it meant the destruction of our way of life up that point.
Our Rabbis ask the question of why it happened, why the Temple was destroyed. And the surprising answer they find is that our leadership lacked vision.
Our own story of the destruction begins with a man who is publicly and deeply embarrassed by his enemy, a la Romeo and Juliet’s Tybalt. At the silence of our rabbis in the face of his shame, he vows to destroy their leadership (for the full story go to wikipedia).

As he puts his plan into action, one rabbi, Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avkoles, prevents his colleagues from responding at all, for good or for ill. The great teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, comments bitterly that it was because of Rabbi Zekhariah’s great humility that the Temple was burned, Jerusalem destroyed, and our people sent into exile (Talmud Gittin 56a).

There is a mitzvah of vision – a commandment to see forward. In the face of impossible options, there is a mitzvah to find a third way.

But this mitzvah does not devolve upon an individual alone, rather an entire community. In the inevitable times when tension and strife arise, in the times when we act against our own best interest, in the times when we are on the verge of destroying ourselves, people must step forward with the option that lies between impossibilities, to find the solution that no one has yet seen. And for all the rest of us, our mitzvah must be the courage to listen to those with courageous vision.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Unwanted Inheritances

מטות-מסעי תש''ס
Mattot-Masei 5770

The lovely thing about relationships with family is that they are permanent. Our parents, our children, our siblings – they will remain so forever, even beyond our own lives.
But the paradox of permanent relationships is that they can hold far more bitterness than those that can be broken. Because they are forever, their memory is long and pain and contention accrete in a way that does not happen elsewhere in our lives. In my experience, time only heals some wounds. Others remain exactly the way we left them.

This close to Tisha b’Av, the commemoration of the Temple in Jerusalem’s destruction on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, the mind of Torah stops to think about pain and bitterness, and to teach.

And what the prophet Jeremiah teaches is that pain and disappointment can have a long future: “’And therefore I will continue to fight with you’, says God, ‘and fight with your children’s children.’” (2:9) This verse from this week’s haftorah, the second in a series of three leading up to Tisha b’Av, is a warning that contention unresolved can become a permanent commodity so real that it is an inheritance handed down to children.

But the only thing with a longer future than such contention is the potential for resolution: “’If you return Israel’, declares God, ‘if you return to Me…in sincerity, justice, and righteousness – nations shall bless themselves by you, and praise themselves by you.’” (4:1-2)

Pain is strong, but redemption is always stronger. And what is reached after the resolution of contention is greater even than the place in which the relationship started. “Said Rabbi Abahu, ‘The place where those who have returned stand, even the completely righteous cannot stand there.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 99a)