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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reclaiming Heroism In An Age Of Skepticism

Reclaiming Heroism In An Age Of Skepticism
by Rabbi Isaac Jeret
December 1, 2009
*Reprinted From The Palos Verdes News

Just the other day, I received a SPAM email from a company selling cell phones. Typically, I delete such emails immediately upon noticing them. This time, accidentally, I opened the email. Staring me in the face, glistening beautifully on my computer-screen, was a brand-new HTC HERO cell-phone. It was exquisite. Though I have absolutely no need for a new cell-phone, I found myself clicking on the various images of the phone, taking in the colorful display and a range of functionality that could lead one to believe that it might even fly. Finally, I looked again at the name of the phone. The HERO.

Many of us have long-lamented our society's coronation of sports icons as "heroes." True, children have always had imaginary heroes and, for boys in particular, they have often been famous and gifted athletes.

However, for several decades, many of us have retained our childhood identification with the sports-heroes that were created for us by the media or in our own minds far more seriously than we might have in past generations. Gone are the days of presidential heroes (thank you, Richard Nixon), or military heroes (thank you, Vietnam - however one chooses to assess that war), or historical heroes (thank you, unqualified Deconstructionism). Beleaguered by the moral and ethical failures of the heroes we were accustomed to and the arenas in which we were used to finding them, we turned to the sports-arena to find them or keep them.

Well, friends, we may now truly have entered the post-Michael-Jordan era; the age of the technological HERO! Our athletic heroes revealed for the steroid-relapses, criminal convictions, spousal abuses, and drug addictions, we need to find someone - or something - to look up to, to respect, and to reflect back to us the best of who we are while challenging us all to be the best that we can be. Welcome to the age of the HTC HERO!

The sad absurdity of it all is that, because we have been disappointed by betrayals of the public trust, we, the public, have elected simply to disappoint and betray ourselves by turning to sources of darkness rather than light - to the point of branding objects rather than people - as our heroes. Instead of fixing the problem, we've compounded it.

And yet, annually, the Jewish tradition reminds us, with Festival of Hanukkah and the Maccabbean Heroes that heroes do exist and that they must be appreciated and remembered if their lessons are to be learned and their character retained for future generations.

Real heroes exhibit courage. Yes, they feel fear, but they transcend their fear to meet the challenges and opportunities at hand. Real heroes champion and even fight for causes that benefit people beyond themselves. Real heroes learn from their mistakes and improve themselves; they aren't perfect, they are flawed, but they try their best to be as good as they can be. Real heroes aren't for every moment; what matters is that they show up when their rare or even lone moment arrives. Real heroes bring light unto darkness, they inspire others to do so alongside them, and their inspiration toward the better lasts as long as their lights continue to be lit by those who remember them and the good for which they stood.

May the Lights of Hanukkah burn as brightly as those of the Maccabees so many years ago and may the light of liberty and sincere tolerance that we can all bring together to our world with courage and conviction glisten timelessly, far beyond our computer screens and cell-phones, pointing us while summoning us toward an ever-better, and brighter, tomorrow.

*Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, located at 5721 Crestridge Road in Rancho Palos Verdes. Learn more about the Congregation and its upcoming programming at or by calling (310) 377-6986.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Key To Peace


Commentary on Parashat Lech Lecha

October 28, 2009


In most instances, families relocate due to a measure of dissatisfaction with where they live currently and a degree of hope for where they might arrive. The Torah portion of Lech-Lecha presents the beginning of the epic Israel-bound family journey of the Jewish people. It is distinct in various respects from all other family relocations recorded in the Book of Genesis or elsewhere in the Torah. A journey that continues still today, it retains central purposes that date back to Abraham’s formative travels even as its unfolding, historic itinerary inspires travelogue entries and reflective commentary with each passing day of the Jewish present.

A comparison of all other family relocations in the Book of Genesis to Abraham’s formative journey to Israel reveals its uniqueness. The departure of Adam and Eve from Eden was at least as much about leaving Eden as arriving elsewhere. The builders of the Tower of Babel were scattered from the Babylonian region of Shinar rather than being sent anywhere else in particular. Noah fled the flood. Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Joseph’s and Jacob’s other sons’ journeys beyond what would come to be known as the land of Israel were initiated due to mortal dangers they faced living in Canaan.

However, Abraham’s journey to Canaan is not presented in the Torah as an escape from anywhere, for any reason. Its purpose is identified solely with the merits and blessings associated with its commanded destination.

To ensure that Abraham, his descendants and all who would later read this story understood the unique purpose of Abraham’s relocation-journey and its enduring implications, God pronounced to Abraham that his descendants’ destiny would be bound inextricably and forever to the special land to which God would guide him and that great blessing would accompany this bond. To ensure that the precise territory constituting the Israel that would exist was just as unambiguous, God articulated the territory’s borders and had Abraham walk the entire land.

Ever since, the Jewish people have been bound to the land of Israel as heirs to God’s promises and blessings to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families. Jews have lived in Israel, with a continuous presence, for at least 2,500 years, possibly dating back as far as the time of Joshua. And, the Israel in which Jews have resided throughout most of this period — the same Israel promised biblically to our forbears — includes Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nablus and Ramallah, areas assumed by many to constitute the heart of a future Palestinian state.

Any honest broker of peace between the State of Israel and her Arab neighbors must acknowledge publicly a fundamental historical truth and require Arab and Muslim leaders to do the same, for most Israelis to feel that their claim to Israel is affirmed and that their security is an overriding concern. This fact and its implications derive from Abraham’s formative journey and were ignored by President Obama in his Cairo speech and since then.

The land of Israel promised biblically to the Jews and inhabited by Jews more so than anyone else since then includes Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria as much as Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat. Consequently, the Holocaust and violence prior to it may have been why many Jews fled Europe, and it might have been why most nations voted in 1947 to allow for a Jewish state, but it constitutes neither the reason nor the purpose underlying the historic Jewish return to Israel. Jews didn’t happen upon Israel in 1948, settling for a location that seemed easy and safe. Rather, those who returned home to Israel, before or after the Holocaust, did so despite the significant challenges they knew awaited them.

Public recognition of the historic and continual Jewish claim to the entire land of Israel by President Obama and, following his lead, by Arab and Muslim leaders genuinely seeking peace with Israel is a prerequisite, both theoretically and practically, to any final agreement in which Arab and Muslim leaders would accept a permanent and Jewish State of Israel, regardless of its final borders. It would acknowledge that what constitutes “occupied territories” for Israel’s enemies are “disputed territories” to most Israelis. In truth, given that Israel “occupied” Judea and Samaria in a defensive 1967 war aimed at destroying the Jewish state, referring to them as “disputed” rather than simply annexing them should seem generous on Israel’s part.

Arab and Muslim leaders could join with Israel’s leaders in a mutual recognition of historical claims rather than denying Israel’s right to exist. Israel would be invited to give away land that is rightfully its own rather than returning it, as though anyone lay greater claim to it, in exchange for an enduring peace.

An honest accounting of history may be the key to determining whether there exist today authentic voices of compromise among Arab and Muslim leaders and whether Israel should see fit to forgo its historic and legitimate claim to any portion of its land, at this juncture, in pursuit of peace. President Obama can turn this key.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Invocation - AIPAC Summit Gala Reception



by Rabbi Isaac Jeret

La Costa Resort / San Diego, CA

October 19, 2009

She-Hekheyanu V'Ki-manu V'Hee-gee-yanu La-Z'man Ha-Zeh ... God has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us unto this moment ...

With this magnificent blessing, Jewish families and communities have marked throughout the ages occasions of celebration and moments of purpose, acknowledging the uniqueness of each for the individuals participating and the precise circumstances at hand, neither of which would ever have aligned before, as they would never arrive again, and the specific consequences of their interaction unknowable before beforehand and impossible ever to generate again.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are blessed to live in the greatest country ever imagined in the course of human history. And, indeed, every American endeavor of enduring virtue has benefited greatly from the unique wisdom, born of the unique experiences of the vast array of the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses who sought refuge on America's shores.

Only several decades ago, our country's Jewish community was the epitome of these tired, poor, and huddled masses, often barely escaping the tyrannical and genocidal clutches of hateful ideologies and tyrants whom, we learned from our unique historical experience as Jews, far more often than not, tend to seek to enact their threats against the objects of their hate and scorn if ever they achieve the means and are afforded the opportunity to do so.

My friends, as leadership is valuable and significant only in situational context, so is wisdom. Thus, when we enter ™the halls of Congress, visiting with respected leaders and their knowledgeable staff-members, sharing our passion for the U.S./Israel relationship, lobbying our representatives regarding important legislation, and urging an appreciation on the part of our elected officials for the nuances of the Jewish State's noble struggle to survive so many thousands of miles away, we do so not as American citizens biased and clouded by a dual allegience, and thereby unable to see clearly that which is in our country's best interests, as cynics and even bigots would suggest of us. Rather we do so, first and foremost - and always, as proud and devoted Americans, contributing our unique wisdom - born of our own experiences over the last 2,000 years of our exile from our Homeland - to the task of ensuring that America identifies swiftly and with clarity who our friends are, who our mortal enemies are, and what we must do, right now, to ensure that we defend our country and those with whom we ally ourselves in the spirit and challenge of liberty and toward the strategic virtue of defending it against those who seek its destruction and our own.

Barukh Ata Ado-nai Elohei-nu Melekh HaOlam Shehecheyanu V'Kee'ma-nu V:ee-gee-yanu La-Z'man HaZeh ... Blessed are You, God, our God, Sovereign of all time and space, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us unto this moment - and, Who may well have brought us here to America for this very moment, a moment requiring the wisdom earned of a unique Jewish historical journey, a moment in which our country may need Israel as much as Israel relies upon the United States, a moment that needs us - right now - to make the difference that only we American Jews can make. - Amen!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Immorality of Palestinian “Resistance;” A Response To President Obama’s Speech In Cairo

The Immorality of Palestinian “Resistance;”
A Response To President Obama’s Speech In Cairo
by Rabbi Isaac Jeret
July 16, 2009

There are many, throughout the Jewish world and beyond, who have reacted to different portions of President Obama’s speech delivered in Cairo in early June. Numerous responses have focussed upon the President’s assertion that the State of Israel is a consequence of the Holocaust, omitting the historic connection of the Jewish People to the land of Israel, with many challenging this notion (for good reason) and others more forgiving of the President. While there are many other sections of the President’s speech to which one might respond (and others have responded accordingly), there are two specific paragraphs, communicated in succession, that caught my attention beyond all others. Together, they carry a message that our Biblical tradition cautions us against, and that we, as Jews and as Americans, ought to consider carefully for its implications.

Referring to the Palestinian Arab’s pursuit of a Palestinian State, and the efforts of Arabs and other Muslims to assist them in their pursuit, the President communicated the following:

“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding.

This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia, to Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed, that's how it is surrendered.

The moral-equivalence assumed by the President to exist between the Palestinian Arab’s pursuit of a Palestinian State, on the one hand, and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, on the other hand, serves, in actuality, to undermine his condemnation of Palestinian Arab violence against Israeli civilians that he deplores (above) for its lack of morality. For President Obama, Palestinian violence against innocent Israelis is immoral because of whom it targets, although the “resistance,” if unarmed, is a cause of moral virtue; Terrorism against Israeli civilians is morally unjustified only in that it is directed at those who are innocent, but the cause that it aims to further is a worthy one. Finally, President Obama presents terrorism against civilians as absolutely immoral; it appears from his quote that one could never justify "armed resistance” against civilians.

Interestingly, Iran’s tyrannical leadership, its terrorist-proxies - Hamas and Hezbollah, and the PLO-derived and Fatah-party ruled Palestinian Authority all employ the term “resistance” when referring to their openly stated hope and intention to destroy the State of Israel, either in stages that commence with the establishment of a Palestinian State (as in the case of Fatah and it allies) or simply by waging all-out-war against Israel via terror, conventional warfare, or a nuclear attack. Hamas actually incorporates this terminology into its charter, calling for Israel’s destruction, that of world-Jewry, and that of the United States - each and all via “resistance.”

Setting aside for the moment the obvious problem of the President’s usage of the very term (“resistance”) employed by the Western World’s greatest enemies when referring to its intention to destroy us, is it true that Terrorism is absolutely immoral? Is it true that one might never imagine a situation in which Terrorism is, even possibly, morally justifiable? According to the Palestinian Arabs and many of their supporters, any and all forms of “resistance” are justified. Their argument is that the innocent Palestinian Arab civilian-population cannot defend itself against Israeli aggression and ongoing attempts at ethnic-cleansing (an absurd but increasingly common accusation against Israel); the Palestinian Arabs have no armed forces and no defensive capability against the supposed Israeli war-machine. How can one blame the otherwise helpless Palestinians for “responding” to Israeli aggression with attacks against the only targets that they can hit - Israel’s civilians?

Furthermore, as Israel itself notes regularly and correctly, Israel’s army constitutes the majority of its 18-21 year old young-adults, drafted into service without significant protest among Israel’s citizenship and serving alongside reservists, the majority of whom are adult-men who continue their reserve-service into their 40’s. As such, the distinction between army personnel and Israel’s civilian-citizenship might be seen as a distinction without a difference; a substantial portion of Israel’s civilian-citizenship might appear to be complicit in Israel’s “aggression” against Palestinian Arabs, perhaps rendering some or all Israeli civilians reasonable and justifiable targets of Palestinian terror.

In truth, contrary to President Obama’s condemnation of Terrorism as absolutely immoral, one can indeed make a case for ongoing Palestinian "armed-resistance” against Israel, supported financially, materially, and logistically by Iran, Syria, and other “freedom-loving” nations, so long as one accepts as basic assumptions either the veracity of the Palestinian Arab’s historical narrative or their recounting of Israeli oppression. After-all, while unarmed protests worked in South Africa against Apartheid and in the United States against segregation, had these methods failed, would armed resistance against civilians (if available as an option) have been unjustified? Had the citizenship of the United States been proven to have been complicit in enforcing policies of segregation (which many were, particularly in the South) or had white South Africa been proven to have been similarly complicit in enforcing Apartheid policies (which it was, overwhelmingly), and had civil-disobedience failed to achieve its desired end, would not “armed-resistance” against civilians have been the logical and justifiable next step in attempting to put an end to American and South African oppression of blacks in either country?

In actuality, wittingly or unwittingly, by likening the Palestinian Arab’s cause to the anti-Apartheid and Civil Rights movements, President Obama has indeed justified Palestinian violence against all Israelis - whether army-personnel or otherwise. All one needs to do to justify such “armed-resistance” is to show that unarmed resistance has not worked to bring about the outcome sought. After all, the President has clearly stated that the goals of the “resistance” are worthy!

This is not the first presidential gaffe of this general sort. For President Bush, America’s “War on Terror” sought to defeat a formidable enemy, that of Terrorism itself, rather than the Islamist Expansionists who employed it against the United States, and continue to seek to do so. This, too, amounted to a presidential failure to identify that which truly deserves absolute condemnation. Only, President Bush’s failure to identify as the enemy in “The War on Terror” the Islamist Expansionists who employ the Terror as a tactic could never have been confused with any affirmation on his part of their objectives; clearly, President Bush found the cause of the Islamic Expansionist to have been morally repugnant.

The problem with Palestinian Arab “resistance,” is that it is wrong whether it is conducted with or without violence; it is immoral and even criminal when conducted with violence - against any Israeli or Jew, anywhere in the world. It is the cause that is fundamentally objectionable, thereby relegating any means by which it might be achieved unjustifiable. The Palestinians have no legitimate claim to the land that they seek as a sovereign state. The truth is simply not on their side. It is because of their baseless claims against Israel that their violence, against any Israeli anywhere, is entirely unjustifiable.

In this regard, I will not, in this piece, aim to prove the lack of legitimacy of the vast majority of Palestinian Arab claims. However, it suffices to say the following, as has been stated by many an Israeli statesman over the past sixty-one years: If the Palestinian Arabs and their Arab and Muslim supporters were to lay down their weapons unilaterally, recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, and pursue a path toward peace, Israel’s use of any violence in its defense would be unnecessary and would therefore cease. On the other hand, if Israel were to lay down its weapons unilaterally, its annihilation would occur within hours, if not sooner, at the hands of its Palestinian and otherwise Arab neighbors and its Muslim foes worldwide.

Who’s violence is more effective does not reflect or determine the perpetrator and victim in any conflict. Rather, one should hope that the victim, Israel in this case, would be more effective in its self-defense than the Palestinians and their supporters might ever be in their aim to destroy Israel.
It is the Palestinian cause that lacks any moral underpinning; while Israel may choose to cede territory for the creation of a Palestinian State, its reasons for doing so would be either because of its benevolence and compassion for a population abandoned and betrayed by its Arab and Muslim brothers or because of Israel’s assessment that it is simply in Israel’s best interests to do so -- or both. One would hope that President Obama might one day soon reconsider his distinction between “armed-resistance” and any other sort of “resistance” on the part of Palestinian Arabs and their supporters, affirming the immorality of either when employed toward a morally unworthy aim.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

One Great Day; Two Great Celebrations

One Great Day;
Two Great Celebrations
by Rabbi Isaac Jeret
July 4, 2009
(Updated: July 4, 2011)

Each year, on the Fourth of July, Jews residing in The United States of America, as well as those residing in The State of Israel, have reason to celebrate a great day, commemorating, not one, but two great events that occurred on this single day, spanning a distance in time of exactly 200 years. America's Founding Fathers, and (ultimately) its inexhaustibly committed soldiers and founding citizens, declared into existence the world's first independent, democratic country on this very day, 235 years ago. As well, only 35 years ago today, the boys of TZAHAL -- Israel's  Defense Force (the Sayeret Matkal unit, to be precise) -- freed 100 Jewish hostages from the Entebbe Airport, where they were held after their plane was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and their German accomplices.

Courageous and benevolent Americans, motivated ever-since by our country's founding generations and forever-more by America's Divinely inspired message of freedom and liberty, have championed causes of human dignity the world over in the most recent century and prior. Both the very ideals that America represents and the reality that it constitutes continue today to awaken a deep yearning for liberty in the hearts and souls of decent human beings throughout the world who seek at minimum to secure a free and better future for themselves and their families. The intellectual courage, spiritual fortitude, and physical bravery of those who thought and fought to breath life into a new, free, and dignified way of living, on the soil of the New World, exemplifies and models still today the necessary vision to dream of liberty, the courage to fight for it, and the conviction to defend it. The State of Israel is the world's finest and most authentic present-day example of this remarkable, life-affirming phenomenon.

This week, I find myself reflecting concurrently upon two great heroes, men who typified the spirit of liberty shared by Americans and Israelis alike; George Washington and Yonatan Netanyahu. The former was, of course, the brave General, and thereafter the founding-President of the United States of America, who dedicated his life to birthing and nurturing our great country in its most formative years. The latter was a hero of Israel's desperate self-defense in the north against Syria during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and served later and most heroically as the Unit Commander of Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli Special Forces Unit charged with developing and executing the plan to free the hostages at Entebbe Airport in 1976.

Though his younger brother, Benjamin, serves today a second term as Israel's Prime Minister, Yonatan's future ended tragically on July 4, 1976, as he sacrificed his life at Entebbe Airport. He died very much in service of his country's self-defense against forces of evil who claim openly for all to hear that their greatest strength is their de-emphasis of the importance of each individual human life and their resulting willingness to die, and even to kill their own, in order to achieve the death and maiming of Israelis and all Jews everywhere and the annihilation of Israel. They claim that Israel's greatest weakness is its unwillingness to deem acceptable even a single death of its citizens and that this weakness will ultimately bring Israel to its end. The values shared by George Washington and Yonatan Netanyahu would argue otherwise, no doubt, and their conviction, courage, and moral clarity in defense of those who would value and dignify human life is exactly that with which we must respond today.

George Washington and Yonatan Netanyahu are bound together in an eternal bond of life-affirming human liberty and dignity, just as The United States of America and The State of Israel must remain today bound by shared visions and values. The bond between Washington and Netanyahu was fashioned by their heroic acts in the course of their lives, though they lived centuries apart in time, as each championed ideologies and defended civilizations that value supremely each and every human life. Their eternal bond is cherished, no doubt, by our God, The One who loves life as God’s own creation and sustains all life every moment of every day.

On July 4th, Americans of all religions and races are joined in spirit by Israelis as we celebrate together a revolution of Liberty that began on the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean and spread not only from sea to shining sea, but, nearly two centuries later, to a tiny strip of blessed land, reaching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan Valley and from the northeastern peaks and plateaus of the Golan Heights to the crystal-blue of the Red Sea. Indeed, the very vision that inspired America was one born of our Jewish forbears who learned from God and His servant Moses at Sinai the primacy of the value of all human life and dignity, who were reminded of these values in the compelling teachings of The Prophets, and who studied it throughout the ages, and continue to do so, as expounded upon by the Talmudic Sages and in subsequent teachings. The Divinely inspired vision that guided our Founding Fathers as they birthed our country and the modern-day miracle of Israel are born of a single Source.

Today, we celebrate freedom and, as we do so, we champion all who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to bless us with every reason for our celebration. This week's Torah portion, Balak, reminds us that, if we are true to our most sacred values and to the essence of a heritage that champions above all else Life and Liberty, the words and deeds of those who seek to bring us harm can only serve to strengthen us in blessing (Mah Tovu O-ho-lekha Ya'akov ...). Our history's lessons and our future's hopes call upon us all to redouble our efforts to ensure that the eternal bond of Life and Liberty, envisaged and forged by great men such as Washington and Netanyahu, and inspired by The Creator and Sustainer of all life, remains an eternal bond, indeed. We must dream with vision, we must be prepared to fight with courage, and we must always defend with conviction. Great heroes have paved the way for us, God continues to entrust us, and the rest is up to us.

God Bless America, Am Yisrael Chai!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Seeing The Light

Seeing The Light

June 10, 2009

Torah Commentary: Parashat B'ha'alotecha

Reprinted from: The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

In a series of magnificent discourses on this week’s Torah portion and, more generally, upon the construction and dedication of the Tabernacle’s menorah, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, derived two interdependent perspectives on the Jewish people, from which we can derive similar approaches to understanding humanity. During this pivotal moment in the encounter between Western civilization and the Muslim world, it behooves us to consider the interdependence of these two perspectives to avoid unwarranted risks carrying potentially grave consequences.

Rabbi Schneerson, referred to as the Rebbe by his Chabad followers, reflected on the interpretations of B'ha’alotecha’s opening verses by medieval commentators Rashi and Ramban.

Rashi noted that at the outset of Beha’alotecha, God’s charge to Aaron to dedicate the Tabernacle’s menorah follows the dedication of the Tabernacle itself, recorded in last week’s Torah portion, Naso.

To link the two accounts meaningfully, Rashi refers to a midrash, explaining that God sought to console Aaron, given that neither he nor the kohanim (priests) were invited to bring their own offerings during the Tabernacle’s dedication, whereas the leaders of Israel’s tribes, other than the Levites (to whom the kohanim belonged), were so invited.

Perplexed by the midrash underlying Rashi’s reasoning, Ramban wondered why Aaron would have needed consolation, given the numerous Tabernacle and Temple rituals reserved for the kohanim and given that the kindling of the menorah was not exclusive to the kohanim subsequent to its dedication.

Ramban concluded that the lighting of the menorah in the Tabernacle during its dedication was not Aaron’s consolation. Rather, God consoled Aaron by associating his priestly descendants with the menorah as an eternal ritual object, enduring long after the destruction of the temples later to occur, by virtue of the chanukiyah’s kindling throughout the ages commemorating the miracle of Chanukah.

The Rebbe expounded upon a subtle differentiation between the above interpretations. If Aaron’s consolation was his kindling of the menorah, our reflections upon this passage should center upon the menorah’s lights themselves. However, if Aaron’s consolation was the endurance of the menorah, then the menorah’s unique construction, rather than the lights it was designed to contain and support, should be our focus for contemplation.

Drawing upon Rashi’s commentary several verses earlier, the Rebbe noted the uniqueness and independence of each individual light of the menorah, suggesting that these same qualities characterize the Jewish people. Noting that the menorah was sculpted from one solid piece of gold — and Ramban’s derivation that chanukiyahs must be constructed similarly — the Rebbe reflected on the virtue of Jewish unity as the menorah’s fundamental message. The Rebbe concluded that diversity must be grounded in mutual concern and appreciation, and that unity cannot stifle individual aspirations.

Taken together, and applied to humanity more generally, the Rebbe’s reflections can offer guidance as the Western world seeks mutual understanding, reconciliation and peace with the Muslim world. A genuine appreciation of our common origins, of the singular Source from which we all derive, is a prerequisite to the harmony we might achieve through the diversity of humanity’s religious expressions, ethnic and cultural identities or national aspirations.

The radiance of our unique and respective lights could only be understood then to be enhanced by the light of others.

However, there is great danger in confusing and equating as equal to our own the light of adherents and leaders of ideologies that do not appreciate such underlying and overriding pluralistic values. In our rush to compromise with those who see compromise as surrender, we may likely strengthen the more extreme factions among those who seek to extinguish our light, even at the expense of their own, by presenting our light as negotiable. In the name of such compromise — and self-deception via a false mutuality of understanding — we could also come to see misguided merit in abandoning those with whom we share most an understanding of the origins and purposes of our light.

Moreover, we might well render our own destruction unnecessary by forgetting, or worse, by repudiating the very pluralistic values that differentiate our light, rendering us indistinguishable from those who seek to extinguish us.

Some lights so yearn to join with others to illuminate the darkness that they may risk their own extinction. Other lights, however, may well consider extinguishing all light altogether, even their own, toward achieving a world all their own, even if it exists in a sea of darkness. We would be wiser and safer to see the light and remember this distinction.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Catholic Students Learn About The Jewish Passover

*Reprinted From The Los Angeles Times

In an effort to promote understanding, a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest host a Seder to teach high schoolers about the similarities and differences between the religions.

April 06, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

It wasn't so much that about 85 high school kids were in a synagogue for a Passover Seder; it was that there was hardly a Jew in sight.

But that was the idea for this gathering, to teach Catholic high school students about the holiday that commemorates Moses' leading the Jews out of Egypt and slavery.

"Your faith wouldn't have existed if we weren't rescued from Egypt," Rabbi Isaac Jeret told the students who gathered at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes last week.

This marked the third year that Catholic students went to the synagogue to learn about Passover, what Jeret called "for the Jewish people, our master story." He said the event "is one of the most important things we do in this synagogue each year. . . . We explore how different and similar our faiths are."

The Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, in charge of ecumenical affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who sat next to Jeret, said the archdiocese has engaged in many programs with Jews recently. "All are an effort to grow an appreciation of each other," he said.

Elsewhere, Catholic students also are attending Seders. This year, for example, all 1,200 students at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance attended Seders in the gym.

"We were looking to our elder sisters and brothers in faith," Smith said.

Neither Smith nor Jeret, the son of a Holocaust survivor, airbrushed the Catholic Church's past anti-Semitism. Matzo, the unleavened bread eaten on Passover, has led to "some of the darkest moments of history between our people," Jeret said. He told the students about "blood libels," when Jews were falsely accused of killing Christian children to use their blood in matzo.

"The result was many Jews were killed at the hands of the Church," Jeret said.

Smith, whose full shock of gray hair falls to his shoulders, later added, "The history between Catholics and Jews has not always been pleasant. We're still working on that."

The Ner Tamid Catholic Seders grew out of the close relationship between the synagogue and Catholics on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

In early 1999, at a conference at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, a Catholic unexpectedly proposed marching from the center to Ner Tamid to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when German mobs attacked Jews, burned and vandalized synagogues and destroyed Jewish-owned stores in 1938.

About 1,000 people took part in the 1 1/4 -mile candlelight procession, and another 1,000 met them for the program at the synagogue. At Ner Tamid, the Catholics presented the synagogue with a sculpture made of unbreakable glass.

Out of that march came the Dawn Unity Group, dedicated to continuing the interfaith dialogue in Palos Verdes. The group holds four programs a year.

Passover, an eight-day celebration, begins this year at sundown Wednesday. Seders, in which the Passover story is read from the Haggada, usually are held in homes, not synagogues.

At last week's event, the Catholic youths sat at tables, with ceremonial foods set in front of them: matzo; charoset, a combination of apple, nuts, wine and cinnamon; horseradish; parsley; salt water; a roasted lamb shank bone; and a roasted egg. The males wore skullcaps that many Jews put on while praying.

Before the Seder began, Smith explained the significance of Passover from a Catholic perspective -- that as a Jew, Christ would have celebrated Passover and that the Last Supper was a Seder, something most students were not aware of. He pointed out that Catholics have adopted some of the symbols of Passover. For example, the four glasses of wine drunk at the Seder (at this one, the youths drank apple juice) became the chalice of wine that Catholics believe is the blood of Christ. Matzo is similar to the Communion wafer eaten at Mass.

In addition, according to the Passover story, when the Pharaoh refused to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, God rained down 10 plagues on the Egyptians. The 10th was the slaying of the first-born son. Jews placed lamb's blood on their doorways so the angel of death would know to pass them by.

Smith explained that the lamb was sacrificed so its blood would spare the Hebrew people in Egypt. "Early Christians identified Christ as the lamb being sacrificed," he said. "Christ becomes our paschal lamb."

Interfaith Seders are not unusual, and they come in many shapes and colors. Although one hope is that the Ner Tamid Seder will help demystify Judaism, what makes it different from other interfaith affairs, the rabbi said, is that the Catholic students are not paired with Jews. This gives students a chance to explore the similarities and differences between the religions in a more comfortable atmosphere.

"There is a conscious charge to do it for the Catholic community," Jeret said. "What it means for Catholics is the focus."

Michael Zapata, 18, said he was surprised by the similarities between the religions. "It gives me a different point of view," he said.

Andrew Knox, 15, said, "It gave me a better understanding of Jewish traditions and what influenced them."

But Jews still seemed a mystery to many of the students.

Edward Desouza, 14, said he hadn't known that the Old Testament is the Jewish holy book.

The group seemed surprised when Jeret told them there were just 13.2 million Jews in the world, compared with 1.2 billion Catholics and 1 billion to 1.5 billion Muslims. "I thought there would be more," said Joren Lagmay, 14.

For Bob Rothman, chairman of the Dawn Unity Group and a former Ner Tamid president, the Seder was a success.

"Part of the importance is having a priest explain to Catholic kids how this relates to their faith, that it is the Last Supper, the Jewishness of Jesus," he said. "This is why we do it. If people would understand that much, then we would be a lot closer together."


Sunday, April 5, 2009


by Rabbi Isaac Jeret

The Passover seder has evolved and changed throughout the ages. Many of us might not know that the "four questions" were originally "three questions," and one of the three -- preparation of the paschal lamb -- is no longer asked.

Until recently, most Jews read the same haggadah at their seders. Today, different denominations have published haggadahs that include new passages, omit older ones and rearrange the order. And many of us have created and printed personal haggadahs each year for our own family seders.

But the single greatest change to the seder in the American Jewish experience might be our prevailing focus on a more universal theme and message related to liberation.

Whereas the particular Jewish experience of subjugation and liberation was once the central expression of the seder, the persecution of others and their need for liberation has influenced the great majority of the changes to both the haggadah and the seder experience for American Jews.

In discussing this phenomenon with people planning seders over the last several years, they've often shared their concern that their non-Jewish guests or family members might feel excluded, if not offended, should their seders focus too much upon the historical Jewish experiences of subjugation and redemption or the threats facing Jews today. Some have shared that they omit entire passages in the traditional haggadah that reference the Jewish experience of persecution and liberation beyond that of the exodus from Egypt.

Ironically, I've found over the years that non-Jews attending seders come with the expectation, and often the hope, of experiencing a particularly Jewish occasion. When we opt to universalize the theme to the exclusion of the unique historical Jewish experience, we may be responding to our own discomfort with a particularized focus on our history of persecution or our desire to concern ourselves with the welfare of Jews living with less freedom than we might enjoy today. In doing so, we might be avoiding or even denying our own vulnerability, as a miniscule minority among the world's population.

Over the last several years, and this year in particular, world events leave us little room for such self-indulgence. While it is admirable indeed, and very much in keeping with fundamental Jewish values championing life and liberty, for us to be sure to include in our seders our commitment to the liberation of all human beings, Iran is only several months away from developing a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the State of Israel, home to the world's largest, youngest and only growing Jewish population. Iran's radical Islamic leadership has expressed openly its aim to wipe the State of Israel off the map and, if we do not act immediately and decisively, it will soon have the means to do so.

We can make a difference, even at this late hour. And we can start at our seders.

We can encourage our guests or our fellow attendees to become involved in a nationwide undertaking to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. We can begin by consulting the Web site of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at We can download and distribute at our seders, and to our friends and relatives nationwide for distribution at their seders, important background material on this issue and links to legislation pending in the House of Representatives and the Senate that deserve the strongest support of our representatives in Washington, D.C. Via the AIPAC Web site, we can all lobby our representatives to support these initiatives. Each of us, and all of our guests, should be encouraged to contact AIPAC's offices as soon as possible after the seder to learn how we can all be even more helpful in this sacred and urgent mission to keep the means to annihilate the State of Israel out of the hands of those who seek such an end.

As for our non-Jewish guests, wouldn't we be doing them a great disservice were we to ignore this issue at our seders as one of central concern to us as Jews? Shouldn't they know that both the painful and the miraculous lessons of our history help us determine when and how we must act in the name of Jewish self-preservation? If we reclaim our Passover priorities, priorities that demand our Jewish self-concern shamelessly when warranted, more than a few of our non-Jewish guests might well join with us in our urgent endeavor to keep Iran from harming our brothers and sisters in Israel. As we invite them to expand the base of support that will be required to ensure that Iran's aims are never achieved, we might well be surprised to learn just how much they may feel included in our seders, enlightening us about why they accepted our invitations to attend our seders in the first place.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, a warm and inclusive synagogue-community on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in Los Angeles, CA. For more information about Ner Tamid, call (310) 377-6986 or visit

Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay

Sunday, March 15, 2009


The story of Purim, so simple at first glance, is anything but simple when examined more closely. Recounted in the Bible's Scroll of Esther, it appears on the surface to be a story of how the Persian Jewish community, approximately 2350 years ago, was condemned to annihilation by the decree of the King Ahashverosh and then saved by the selfless and courageous efforts of two Jews, Mordechai and Esther. The Persian king's decree had been engineered and manipulated by Haman, the king's most trusted advisor. The classical commentaries of the Jewish tradition view Mordechai and/or Esther as Purim's heroes. And, contemporary commentators point to the fact that they each took personal initiative, rather than awaiting Divine intervention for their People's deliverance, to explain the absence of even a single overt reference to God in the entire Scroll of Esther.

However, appearances can be deceiving. Taking nothing away from Mordechai and Esther, there aren't enough days in the year to celebrate the courageous undertakings of Jews who acted throughout history to save our People from disaster. And, to omit any direct reference to God simply because people chose to act first and pray later seems to deny God's hand in the successes and deliverances that we might ever achieve; an unlikely expression on the part of ancient Jewry on the whole and, some would argue, an unfortunate one on our part today. Is there room to understand Purim as a reminder that faith in God is not a prerequisite to Jewish participation, and even to Jewish heroism? Of course, there is. However, should this, in and of itself, constitute sufficient reason to elevate Purim's apparent heroes beyond so many other heroes of Jewish history who acted similarly in the face of equally grave circumstances while achieving comparable success? No, it shouldn't.

So, if there is a unique hero of the Purim saga, one worthy of Biblical mention and from whom we might learn enduring lessons, who was s/he? And, might this hero shed greater light upon God's absence from Purim's story?

It seems to me that Purim's true hero turns out to be the very man who decreed the annihilation of Persian Jewry in the first place. Yes, King Ahashverosh, the man whom history would rightly have tried and convicted for a genocidal attack upon his own Jewish subjects had he failed to annul his decree upon Esther's impassioned plea on their behalf, is indeed our hero! No, his annulment of the decree constituted nothing heroic; of course, this was simply the just and reasonable thing to do. However, when the king's motivations are considered more carefully, they may reveal how he was indeed Purim's hero, they may offer important insights into God's absence from the Scroll of Esther's recounting of the Purim story, and they may constitute collectively an accessible and virtuous model for today's leaders of the free-world, as the West struggles to acknowledge a serious existential threat posed by Expansionist Islam.

Had King Ahashverosh been motivated to annul his decree against his Jewish subjects solely due to his love for his beloved Queen Esther, his intervention might well have ended with the reversal of his decree alone. While he might never again have trusted his advisor, Haman, to the degree that he once did so, his love for Esther was hardly reason enough to order his Royal Army to engage in all-out war against the militia that Haman enlisted to destroy the Jews; shouldn't he have reasoned with them or even folded some of them into his own army rather than initiating what could easily have become a civil-war? Furthermore, as the Scroll of Esther recounts, the king allowed the Jews of Persia to rise up against Haman's militia, fighting alongside the king's army, in their own self-defense. Didn't the king risk anarchy among the various subjects in his kingdom by allowing the Jews to do so, rather than using his own army exclusively to render Haman's network harmless. After all, wouldn't such actions among one group of subjects encourage other groups to take matters into their own hands, as well?

It is possible that King Ahashverosh's decisions were motivated by more than his love for Esther and her People alone. Ahashverosh might well have realized that the Jews were the canaries in the mine-shaft, his own monarchy constituting Haman's next target. He might well have wondered whether some officers and soldiers of his own army were compromised by Haman's manipulations. Allowing the Jews to fight alongside his army might have discouraged those among the Royal Army who were less loyal from breaking ranks with officers and troops more loyal to the king's monarchy. Furthermore, empowering the Jewish population to defend itself alongside the king's forces might have encouraged even greater loyalty among his Jewish subjects, long into the future, as they might have come to understand that their fate and that of the monarchy had become bound inextricably.

As for God's absence from the story of Purim, King Ahashverosh might well have been motivated by self-interest in his determination to save his Jewish subjects and confront Haman and his militia with decisive force, having understood the broader implications of Esther's more focused concerns for her People. Decisions and actions motivated by self-interest do not necessarily constitute acts of faith. Seeing as there is no evidence at all that King Ahashverosh was a man of faith, it should not surprise us at all that God is not mentioned in the Scroll of Esther; Purim's real hero acted upon the most basic human instinct of self-preservation, though he achieved a Divine, just, and even righteous purpose.

The Neville Chamberlains of history might likely deem King Ahashverosh a war-monger; to the Jewish People, he is perhaps worthy of distinction as a heroic figure, having taken decisive action before it was too late. Today, most ironically, as Iran (modern-day Persia) inches ever-closer to developing the nuclear arsenal that its Expansionist Islamic leadership threatens to utilize to wipe the State of Israel off the map, leaders of the Western World might be well-served to take note that Iran is completing a nuclear infrastructure that will allow it to produce approximately fifty nuclear weapons annually - almost fifty times the arsenal necessary to destroy the tiny State of Israel. We would all be wise to learn from the decisive action that King Ahashverosh took against Haman's militia, protecting the canaries in the mine-shaft, empowering them to protect themselves alongside the king's own forces, and thereby both ensuring evermore their loyalty to the monarchy while protecting the monarchy from an ominous and impending threat.

The leaders of the free-world might take a page out of Esther's Scroll, learning from Ahashverosh's decisive but self-interested actions to determine how they may secure our own civilization, one far more just and worthy than the fate that the Hamans of the world might ever seek to perpetrate upon the Jewish People - and, thereafter, upon everyone else.

*To listen to recordings of Rabbi Jeret's sermons and classes, and to consult a schedule of upcoming Services, classes, and other programming at Congregation Ner Tamid, please click on the following link:

Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hardening Hearts; Protecting Our Freedom

January 28, 2009
Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
Rabbi Isaac Jeret

(Reprinted from the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles)

To the contemporary reader, the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is every bit as compelling as it was to readers centuries ago. And much like the rabbis as far back as 2,000 years ago, there is an aspect of this story that remains troubling for many of us today — God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, effectively compelling Pharaoh to continue to subject our ancestors to slavery, even when Pharaoh might have chosen to do otherwise.

God’s actions appear to interfere with the integrity of the story and its message, allowing Pharaoh an excuse for his continued tyranny and even rendering Pharaoh a sympathetic victim. Is it not God who, having hardened Pharaoh’s heart after the first five plagues, bears sole responsibility for both the continued enslavement of our ancestors and the resulting destruction of Egypt?

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, begins with God’s charge to Moses to call upon Pharaoh yet again, introducing the eighth plague. In the Torah’s recounting of the narrative, God tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart ... that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians ...” (Exodus 10:1-2).

But why would God want to make a mockery of the Egyptians? And why would God want succeeding generations to hear, and presumably retell, the story of how God did so? A commonly referenced talmudic answer to this question, attributed to the sage Resh Lakish, suggests there is a limit to God’s patience in awaiting one’s repentance; that given Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelite slaves after the first several plagues, God was unwilling thereafter to accept Pharaoh’s change of heart. However, this interpretation runs counter to many meaningful rabbinic sources who suggest that the gates of penitence and repair remain open, always, to the sincere of heart. Would Pharaoh have been insincere in his change of heart? We’ll never know, because God did not permit him the opportunity to correct his horrific subjugation of our ancestors, according to this interpretation. Wouldn’t our ancestors have been better off knowing with absolute certainty that Pharaoh and Egypt deserved their fate? Shouldn’t God have cared to find out?

Another interpretation suggests that God’s intent was to clarify for the Egyptians that there is a God to whom even their own king would succumb; that God is the redeeming force in the universe; that once unleashed by God, freedom’s will ultimately overcomes those who enslave and torment others, or seek to do them even greater harm, and that such designs will lead to the obliteration of all aggressors. However, wouldn’t this point have been made just as powerfully and, perhaps, to a more enduring pedagogical effect, if Pharaoh had been granted the opportunity to see the error of his ways and then transform the Egyptians into a liberating People themselves? Surely this would have made for a story of enormous consequence, potentially encouraging the abolition of all tyranny in the world.

Well, no.

Liberation, as with security, is rarely — if ever — achieved without confronting with decisive power those who aim to terrorize, subjugate and destroy others.

It strikes me that the primary audience for God’s excessive pursuit of Pharaoh, even to the point of hardening his heart, was the slaves and not those who enslaved. It was the Israelites whose grandchildren were intended to hear and repeat this story, not the Egyptians. Perhaps, as a liberated people, there was a lasting lesson to be learned from overcoming a persistent and stubborn enemy with evil intent. Perhaps the challenge of outlasting tyrannical adversaries and their desire to conquer and even to destroy liberty and humanity is one with which liberated societies have an inherent difficulty, especially when tyrants and their followers or proxies extend a false hand toward reconciliation. Perhaps God prolonged Pharaoh’s refusal to free our ancestors, hardening his heart for all to see and retell, so we might never confuse the contrition of those sincerely repentant with the manipulation of those bent on our destruction. Perhaps God was helping our ancestors avoid a tendency to which free but weary people might be forever vulnerable — that of compromising with a seemingly repentant tyrant who might then survive to torment them, with even greater effect, in the future.

Two weeks ago, our brothers and sisters in Israel unilaterally ceased their fire against a treacherous enemy whose leaders state openly that their ideology values death over life, an enemy who seeks the destruction of Israel and the marginalization, at best, of all Jews everywhere. Israel stopped shooting in order to honor the new path of respect and shared interests that our new president aims to pursue with the Muslim world. The new administration seeks to pursue diplomacy with the Muslim world as a preferred strategy toward our own nation’s security, turning away from the perceived errors of ongoing confrontations with our adversaries.

We might be wise to remember what might have been God’s most important lesson of the exodus for our generation: There are those, like Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Iran, and other states and terrorists-groups of the Muslim world whose hardened hearts no longer merit our olive branches, and extending them might make us more vulnerable and encourage evermore their evil designs, as they perceive our weariness for exactly what it is. For our own country’s sake, for Israel’s sake and for that of the entire free world, I pray this Shabbat that our new administration, led by a president who has instilled hope in so many, remembers God’s lesson that, as free but weary people, our willingness to compromise with evil may leave us unable to confront it in the not-too-distant future, when it will have grown stronger and we will have grown wearier and, by consequence, even weaker.

Sometimes, the best response to a hardened heart -- is with a hardened heart.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, a warm, welcoming and inclusive congregation, affiliated with the Conservative branch of judaism and located in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. For more information, visit

Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay