“This Synagogue is a Zoo”- D’var Torah 8-15-09; Parashat Re-eh

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

This is a d’var torah that I presented at Shir Chadash on August 15, 2009. It was the final Shabbat before our new Rabbi started. Over the previous year, I, along with another congregant and two Rabbinical students, were alternating leading services. Finally, the year had come to an end, and we had one last Shabbat on our own. In this d’var torah, I attempted to discuss my family’s month-long trip to Israel, give a plug for visiting Israel, and wrap-up the long transition which the synagogue was undergoing.  I was pretty proud of how it turned out. No animals were harmed in the making of this d’var torah.

Will & Baby at the Biblical Zoo

At the Biblical Zoo, Jerusalem

This Synagogue is a Zoo

A few months ago, as Jennifer and I were planning our Israel trip, we decided that it would be a good idea to study some Hebrew. I have a decent vocabulary but after every Israel trip that I take, I always say ok, before the next trip I’m going to take a Hebrew class. Never happens. So, we found an online Hebrew course that offered a series of lessons, and we decided we would do a lesson every day in advance of the trip. We got up to lesson number 4. Much like how I do with exercise programs, we kind of put it on the back burner after the first week.

This lack of Hebrew was evident when we got in a taxi one morning and we told the driver we’re going to the zoo. Unfortunately, he didn’t know the English word “zoo.” So, I had to very quickly attempt to explain a zoo with the limited knowledge of Hebrew that I had. I wanted to say “the place with all of the animals,” except in the spur of the moment I could only remember one animal in Hebrew.  So I said “Kelevim” of course meaning “dogs.” Then I remembered “Sus” means horse and “dag” means fish.  So in my pidgin Hebrew I asked to go the place where they have all of the dogs, horses, and fish. So the cab driver dropped us off at the Korean restaurant.

Fortunately, the cab driver was able to figure out what I was talking about and he taught me the Hebrew word for zoo is “Gan hayot”   Literally, garden of animals. So he brought us to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo which is now known as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens.

The zoo, which opened its new modern facility in 1993, stands on 62 acres and has become one of the top attractions in Israel.  It’s a beautifully landscaped open site that blends into the countryside and onto the Jerusalem hills. There are two main levels and lots of side paths that take you to all of the exhibits. It’s perfect for strollers and wheelchairs—you can get to everything without having to go up any steps, and on a given day the zoo is filled with people. Israelis, Arabs, Secular, Ultra-Orthodox, kids, grandparents. It’s an enclave within Jerusalem where everybody is there to relax and have fun—to walk around, have a picnic, fly a kite, see the animals, or just hang out enjoying the people you’re with.  It’s a place where people of all races and nationalities can take a break and relax.

There are two main themes in the zoo- It features animals from around the world that are in danger of becoming extinct. Asian elephants, rare macaws, cockatoos, penguins, red pandas, and of course a lot more, although there were no dogs or horses. But mainly, it’s a Biblical Zoo, so it features animals that are mentioned in the bible including lions, beers, cheetahs, types of deer, oryx, gazelles, Ibex, and birds; many exhibits have the biblical quotations that feature the animals. What’s an Oryx? It’s a type of antelope. It has majestic horns that could appear as a unicorn-  it’s mentioned in our Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, “you have exalted my horns like that of an oryx.”

Of course, we have many animals that are mentioned in this week’s torah portion. As Moses is recapping the laws to the people of Israel, he takes special care to list the types of animals that are allowed and prohibited. Oxen, sheep, gazelles, wild goats, roebucks and antelopes were all okay, although, he said, good luck finding kosher antelope at Joel’s. Any clean bird was okay except for eagles, vultures, falcons, buzzards, owl, stork, or bats among others.

So what do you do? You take this torah portion and go to the Jerusalem Zoo and you play a game about the animals—what’s kosher, what’s not. You track down and study the biblical references where the animals appear. Or, you don’t and you just walk around—that’s okay too, although you miss a prime learning opportunity.  But that’s the amazing thing about Israel—everywhere is a prime learning opportunity. You’re walking in the steps of 1000s of years of history of the major religions in the world, but you’re also walking on steps that are designed with the future in mind. You can spend hours in the zoo studying about Judaism but you also have to marvel about the ingenuity of the zoo’s design. Because as you’re walking along the paths seeing the exhibits, you’re looking above at new residential complexes. You’re walking below looking at the valley and out toward the desert, and you’re looking around at opportunity.  700,000 people visited the zoo in 2007; that’s more than the # that visited the Audubon Zoo that year—they only welcomed 628,000 visitors.  The Jerusalem zoo was designed to be able to expand in its current location; the Municipal Planning Committee recently approved plans to expand the zoo from its current 62 acres to almost 100 acres.

And that, my friends, is the beauty of Israel. Every time I go there are new buildings, hotels, attractions, restaurants, shopping—there’s a new high-end shopping mall that connects King David Street to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. Thursday nights, the mall is packed with shoppers enjoying live music, clowns, street performers, and fireworks. I find it fitting for the Jewish state that the most convenient pat

From the Haas Promenade, Jerusalem

From the Haas Promenade, Jerusalem

h to the Old City goes through a shopping mall. There are building cranes everywhere. Sitting on the patio of one of the mall’s restaurants, we could see 9 cranes in downtown Jerusalem. That is progress.

Israel has mastered the art of honoring its history while securing its future. Think about the zoo—preserving animals that are in danger of becoming extinct—teaching about their role in the Bible- in our recorded Jewish history while at the same time doing all of this in a state of the art facility with room to grow. It’s not easy taking care of all of these animals- Jennifer and I have enough trouble taking care of a dog. The animals in the zoo—they’re all coming from different parts of the world, all with different backgrounds, all wanting something different to eat, and all wanting different climates. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too sunny over here, it’s too shady, it’s too dark, why are there so many lights in here, why are the chairs set up this way? Hmmmm. It’s like running a zoo is a lot like running a synagogue. All of our members have different needs and desires and it’s up to us as a synagogue to ensure that we succeed in our goal of pleasing all of the people none of the time.  Or something like that.

Friends, this Shabbat marks the end of a long chapter in the history of our synagogue. Chuck was pretty happy at the board meeting this past week. He said there wasn’t a lot to talk about. Our new Educational Director is in place. Our new Rabbi starts next week. Our building renovations are complete. We have a workable budget in place for the coming year. We’re preparing for the High Holidays that mark the start of our celebration of fifty years of Conservative Judaism in New Orleans. And most importantly, Elliot and I are preparing for our new positions of Pseudo-Rabbis Emeritus.

It has been an honor and a pleasure serving in this role over the last year. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity and I have enjoyed the challenge of coming up with divrei torah, sermons, and Shabbatainment over this past year. I hope I can speak for Elliot when I say that he and I have strived each in our own ways to conduct services that were spiritual and comfortable, and while we know our methods may not be all things to all congregants, our aims have been twofold: to preserve our synagogue’s great history and traditions while attempting to bring a new song to our worship. Together, we thank Julie for chairing the Ritual Committee, Hugo for arranging all of the divrei torah over the last year, everybody who has participated in services, and all of the members of the Ritual Committee for their hard work in making this last year run smoothly.

I feel fortunate that growing up in this synagogue has given me the skills and abilities to be a non-Rabbi. I credit my parents for making it a priority to bring me here growing up and encouraging me to get involved and to lead by example with their many roles in synagogue leadership.  I think about all that I’ve learned here in forty years and how that knowledge plays a role in almost everything that I’ve done. This synagogue is a pretty special place- and we can all be pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last year and how we’ve promoted Conservative Judaism over the last 50 years. Just as they’ve done in Israel, as we’ve honored our history, we’ve built for the future.

The future starts next week for this synagogue under the leadership of Rabbi Linden and Liba Kornfeld and I look forward to seeing the role that the two of them will play in {our daughter’s} Jewish development just as our previous Rabbis and Educational Directors have had on mine.  We’re not going to see miracles. We’re not going to have 400 members next week and a religious school of 150 all of a sudden. We’re not going to have a bunch of babies flying all around the room. Yet- but there might be some safety issues. We need to give Rabbi and Liba our support and work with them so that they can feel comfortable in their roles. We can’t expect them to have all of the answers especially when we don’t know all of the questions. But we can look forward to a new spark, a new light, and a new song in our congregation.

Our parsha this morning is Re’eh- “to see” but that can mean much more—to feel, to touch, to hear, to taste, to experience. To have hindsight and foresight. Moses is instructing the people of Israel how to live their lives in holiness- learning from their ancestors while foreshadowing how they’re supposed to live in the Promised Land. Travelling around Israel, there is so much to see and so much that is unseen—the history of our people that lies around us and the vision of a Jewish state for all of us to experience. On this Shabbat, may G-d open our eyes so that we can look around and see each of us as a building block in time. Together, may we build a “Gan Neshamot”- a Garden of Souls that honors the past and prepares for the future for the sake of our synagogue, for Israel, and for the Jewish people.  Amen.

Will Samuels
Shir Chadash, Metairie, LA
August 15, 2009

Categories: D'vrei Torah

Some Thoughts on Ed, Farrah, and Michael: D’var Torah, 6-27-09

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

Someone else gave the d’var torah at synagogue on June 27, but I was leading services, and I had to say something about the notable celebrity deaths of the previous few days. I figured I would prepare something in case I was asked to deliver the eulogy at Michael Jackson’s funeral, but alas, Jermaine never called. (Latoya did, but that was just weird).

Some Thoughts on Ed, Farrah, and Michael: My D’var Torah at Shir Chadash 6/27/09

Michael Jackson from 1984 (Public Domain)

On Thursday, people who used the web service Twitter were encouraged to include in their “tweets” the name of Gilad Shalit so that his name would show up in the list of the top trending topics of the day. That way, people using Twitter would see his name among the top trends and remember that after three years he was still in captivity. For a while that day, it was successful, and Gilad’s name was ranked among the top trends appearing on the site. That is until mid-morning Thursday when news about Farrah Fawcett’s death hit the internet and then later that afternoon when people started talking about Michael Jackson. For several hours late Thursday, the internet was at a virtual standstill, as Twitter, Facebook, TMZ, Wikipedia, and Google News all suffered from the huge pileup of internet traffic from fans wanting to learn about and discuss the death of these pop icons.

This week, three celebrities left us but their loss means more than what we may read about in People or hear a blurb about on Entertainment Tonight. We lost three icons- people who we’ve come to know and love and who have played a part in our growing up or in our nightly rituals or in the music to which we and our kids have danced.

Ed McMahon

Ed McMahon (photo by Christa Chapman)

For twenty years, Ed McMahon was part of our nightly soundtrack as Johnny Carson’s sidekick on the Tonight Show, and for many of us his distinctive laugh and “Hiyooo” was one of the last things we heard every night before going to sleep. Farrah Fawcett was an international sex symbol of the 1970s and 80s and who can forget her indelible image from 1976 that became the top-selling pin-up poster of all time. 12 million copies of her poster decorated the walls of impressionable teenagers. And finally, Michael Jackson, for whom we must overlook the media scandals and eccentricities of recent years and remember him as a musical legend—holding the Guinness World record of Most Successful Entertainer of All Time. With 13 Grammy Awards, 13 number one singles, and 750 million records sold worldwide, you have to reach a very far corner of the Earth to find someone who hadn’t heard of Michael Jackson or had been affected by his music. He was a revolutionary singer, songwriter, dancer, and musician and spent a large portion of his short life as an inspiration to millions.

Ed, Farrah, and Michael were three of our icons—and as we remember them this Shabbat, our mission is to focus not on the troubles that the three of them have had in recent past. Troubles showcased and trumpeted by the media and gossiped about by many. Twitter, blogs, and Facebook have all been overloaded with comments, tributes, gossip and innuendos about the loss of these three icons. But the rabbis teach us to focus on these individuals in the vital roles that they served. In Pirkei Avot, chapter 1 mishna 6, we’re taught “select a master-teacher for yourself, acquire a colleague for study; When you assess people, tip the balance in their favor.” “Dan l’kaf z’chut”—giving someone the benefit of the doubt. A teaching based on a line from Leviticus Chapter 19 verse 15, “in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” In our torah reading this morning, we read about the 14,700 people who died from a plague because they followed the rebellious words of Korach instead of believing in the power of G-d. Korach’s bile spread like wildfire around the camp, and the people focused on the gossip, the lashon hara, and the negative stories. For that, they were sentenced to die.

And so on this Shabbat, as we take a break from E News, and TMZ, and Perez Hilton, and Twitter, and the Drudge Report—all of whom are trying to increase their viewership by being the first to release a scandalous story or an intrusive picture, we remember those we lost this week for the good that they have done and for the lives they have touched. We focus on Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson as our entertainers, as part of our lives, as our companions through our growing up. We focus on their laughter, on their spirit, and on the joy they brought us for which they made their lives ambition to spread. May their loved ones be comforted among the mourners of Zion and may their memories be for a blessing.

Will Samuels
Shir Chadash, Metairie, LA
June 27, 2009

Categories: D'vrei Torah

“Jim Cramer is the Golden Calf” -D’var Torah from 3-14-09; Parashat Ki-Tissa

October 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Here’s my dvar torah from March, 2009, Parashat Ki-Tissa.  The Jim Cramer/Jon Stewart feud that week served as a great jumping-off point for discussing the story of the Golden Calf.

Jim Cramer is the Golden Calf

This week, front page news focused on a new war that was brewing—not the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or the War on Terror or the War on Drugs but the war between Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and CNBC’s Jim Cramer. You may have heard of or seen Jim Cramer—he’s the host of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” an hour-long program where Cramer prances about giving his thoughts on the market complete with flailing arms, shaky camerawork, sound effects, and general effusiveness.

Jon Stewart & Jim Cramer

Jim Cramer & Jon Stewart on The Daily Show

The proclaimed “Weeklong Feud of the Century” started last week when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli cancelled out on his planned appearance on The Daily Show—the popular news-skewering program on Comedy Central. Host Jon Stewart took that opportunity to stage a seven-minute missive against the Business Network’s false projections, softball interviews, and general Hooray for Wall Street stance, paying special attention to Jim Cramer’s daily rants. He concluded his piece with “If only I’d followed CNBC’s advice, I’d have one million dollars today—provided that I started with a hundred million dollars.”

See The Daily Show Clips here

All this week, Stewart and Cramer have been battling back and forth in the media—with Stewart ridiculing Cramer’s incorrect projections such as when Cramer recommended buying stock in Bear Stearns at $69 per share, shortly before the stock went down to $2. Cramer went on the defensive—using his program as well as the Today Show, MSNBC, the Martha Stewart show, and a bunch of radio interviews to defend himself saying that essentially he gets paid to be wrong and that Stewart is a comedian who “runs a variety show.”

On the David Letterman show last week, Stewart talked about CNBC saying that the network’s financial mis-projections is “like turning on the Weather Channel during a hurricane and having them say ‘Why am I wet? What’s happening to me?  And it’s so windy! What’s going on? I’m scared!’”

The feud continued back and forth this week in the media, culminating Thursday night when Cramer appeared as a guest on The Daily Show where the financial guru along his network was virtually eviscerated in an extended interview by Jon Stewart. It was the dizzying climax of what promoted by the network as “The Basic Cable Personality Clash Skirmish of ’09”—all to the delight of the media and the television viewing public resulting in huge ratings all around. But the best part about all of this happening this week— booyah, it fits right into our Torah portion.

What’s going on with the people of Israel? In the last few weeks they’ve been slaves, they’ve watched the Egyptians being slammed with crazy plagues. Water turning to blood, frogs jumping everywhere, hail with fire. They get a memo saying “hey, don’t forget before you go to bed on the 15th of Nisan be sure to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on your doorposts. Oh yeah, don’t forget to set your clocks ahead an hour too.” They had to pack up and leave their homes quickly—“oh wait, the bread didn’t have time to rise.” They get their first taste of matza and hey no fair their Sephardic brethren get to eat green beans and legumes. They dash out of Egypt on the run from horses and chariots until they find themselves trapped on a seashore. Hey it’s okay, Moses has his magic stick and holds it over the Sea—it splits- hey let’s dash on through. They escape to the other side until the Sea falls back as the Israelites watch the Egyptians drown in the Sea. It’s an eventful couple of weeks. The 600 some odd thousand make their way across the desert nourished by this swell new food called Manna where they get to Mount Sinai. And immediately, Moses says “okay, you guys stay here- I’m going up the mountain. I’ll be right back.” And so the people stay at the base of the mountain waiting for Moses and waiting and waiting and waiting. For forty days. They start getting antsy. They say “hey Aaron, G-d brought us out of Egypt but what’s the deal? Where is this G-d? We need something to pray to that we can see. We don’t know what’s next for us—there’s too much uncertainty. Where is our next meal coming from? How are we going to take care of our families? If only we had something concrete that we can pray too. A figurehead—something that can tell us what to do.

Nicolas Poussin - the adoration of the golden calf 1633-36

Nicolas Poussin - the adoration of the golden calf 1633-36 {public domain}

The Israelites are getting angry and getting ready to riot in the streets of sand. Moses’ brother Aaron, who is forced to deal with forty days and forty nights of being barraged with constant complaints, fears for his own life. He tries to placate the people. He says “It’s time for change. You all can make a difference. Here’s what you can do— you got any gold? Give it all here.” The people melt the gold down and form it into a big cow. They’re very proud of it- finally they have something concrete (or metallic, actually) which they can see in front of them and to which they can pray. They say “This is change we can believe in!” They make sacrifices to it, they have a big Festival—they’re happy. G-d– not so much. He tells Moses “you might want to go check on your people down there.” Moses comes down the mountain channels Charlton Heston, “Woe Unto Thee, O Israel—you have sinned a great sin in the sight of G-d,” throws down his shiny new tablets, melts the calf down into water and serves it as a beverage to the offending people.

Now very slowly, let’s try to figure out how all of this comes together into one happy dvar torah. Jim Cramer is the Golden Calf.  A Google search for “Jim Cramer” and “Golden Calf” yields 412 results. CNBC’s own promos for the network have pictures and sound bytes of Cramer while showing the words in large letters “In Cramer we Trust.” It’s on billboards all over the place too. “In Cramer We Trust.” {Look! Here’s a video clip} How about trusting G-d? We’re watching unemployment soar, 401Ks plunge, investments nosedive, personal fortunes crash, and doom and gloom reach the stratosphere and we’re supposed to put our faith in a man because he’s wearing rolled up shirt sleeves and a tie and bounces around making funny sound effects and throwing books around the set?  We get caught up in the media hysteria about the economy tanking which feeds our own fears which brings down the stock market and we complain “Oh where are our leaders? It’s time for change. Help us O great One! Maybe you can bring us to the Promised Land!”

There are three 24-hour Financial News Networks that all have to battle for ratings- the almighty advertising dollar. So it makes sense that they have to do things to be better than the competition. Flashier sets, more telegenic hosts, the fastest quotes and insights. But these networks created the media hype that made a bad economic situation worse by feeding on the public’s fears. And it seems that whenever any our elected officials appear on screen with their swell new economic plan, the little green up arrow becomes a big red down arrow.

There are plenty of Golden Calves out there in the media and the government and they are the ones who exacerbate the situation by interfering where it doesn’t belong and not letting the situation just play itself out by the market and economy’s natural self-correcting mechanisms. We’re giving our gold away and they’re melting it down and forming stimulus packages and government bailouts around which we are all supposed to dance and pray.

Thankfully, Jon Stewart, the comedian was able to cut through the mumbo jumbo on Thursday night’s interview and showed how irresponsible the media have been in this economic crisis. One blogger reviewed the interview as follows:

Stewart was on fire, on point and didn’t hit the brakes once as he steamrolled Cramer and NBC into submission, calling them out on their blatant misrepresentation of the markets which helped in pulling the wool over the general public’s eyes about what was happening in our financial markets.

“…They burned the house down with our money and walked away rich as hell,” said Stewart about Company CEOs and Wall Street.

And Stewart couldn’t be any closer to the truth. It sickens me to think that these people are crying for more of our money to bail themselves out because of their terrible business practices after draining 401k’s and taking the average American into the middle of the financial desert with an expired credit card and telling them, “Good luck.”


As an aside, but since we’re on the subject of money and investing—what’s the safest investment you can make? And this is where I make my Dad proud (finally after almost 40 years of shame and disgrace). Israel Bonds. They’re currently paying as much as 3.5% interest and Israel has never defaulted or missed a single payment of principle or interest. And the money goes to support Israel’s infrastructure helping to build new roads and a light rail system, supporting development in the Galilee and the Negev, and enhancing exports including a huge natural gas find recently off the coast of Haifa—one of the largest deposits of natural gas that could change the face of Israel’s economy. The golden calf proved to be bit less safe of an investment, although analysts are saying under a weakening dollar there is a safe haven in precious metals. Gold is trading at record levels and copper is up 19% year to date, so maybe the Israelites felt that their investments were safe inside a giant gold cow. Remember, past performance is not indicative of future results. Always read the prospectus.

The Golden Calf didn’t work out too well for the Israelites—they lost faith in their situation and they needed something to rally behind. It made them feel better for a second, until Moses came down and showed them quite dramatically the error of their ways by not having faith in G-d. And I’m not saying to ignore the commentators and analysts because they have experience in studying the economy and often have some pretty good insights into money and investments. But I am saying that we need to be careful so that we don’t dance around the Golden Calf. Even though Jim Cramer may have a lot of insights, I for one, feel much more comfortable sticking with the phrase “In G-d we trust.” Amen.

Will Samuels

Presented at Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation, Metairie, LA, 3/14/09

(The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff, leadership, or congregants of Shir Chadash. Or anyone else.)

Categories: D'vrei Torah

“The Love Offering”- d’var torah for Parashat Pinchas, 7-7-07

October 26, 2009 Leave a comment

A d’var torah from 2007– my challenge was to figure out how I could tie in the Essence Festival, which was being celebrated that weekend in New Orleans, into the torah portion. I think it worked out.

The Love Offering

Those of you who are here for the beginning of services on a regular basis, as opposed to those of you who come just in time to have cottage cheese, know that at the beginning of the shacharit service, we read a selection of Talmudic texts. They’re found on pages 17-19 in the siddur, and we choose to read one of the four passages, normally the shortest one. It’s followed by the Kaddish De-Rabbanan, the special kaddish in which there is a paragraph which praises those teachers and students who engage in the study of Torah. The section gives us the opportunity to stop for a second, before the onset of the shacharit service, to study, to learn a little bit of torah, and to stimulate our minds so that we are mentally and spiritually ready for the morning prayers which lay ahead.

Making a Pilgrimage to the Temple

Second Temple Simulation (copyright Israel Antiquities Authority)

The section of the readings is a relatively new addition to the morning service— it used to be that during this part of shacharit, they would slaughter a lamb. Of course, that was before the new carpet was put in—this was in the time of the temple. Every day and every evening, the people of Israel were commanded as we read this morning in parashat Pinchas: “This is the offering made by fire which you shall offer to the Lord; two lambs of the first year, without spot, day by day, for a continual burnt offering. One lamb shall you offer in the morning, and the other shall you offer at evening.” And so every morning, immediately after dawn—a priest stationed on a nearby roof to the temple would announce that first light had struck, and the priests of the temple would go through an elaborate ritual to sacrifice the lamb and sprinkle its blood on the altar. They would then perform a meal offering- as commanded an ephah of flour mixed with the fourth part of a hin of beaten oil which the priests formed into what was essentially a griddle cake (and that’s also the basis of our pizza dough at my restaurant), and they would perform a drink offering with wine. After the sacrifices, the priests would descend from the altar to continue reciting prayers which were followed by bagels and schnapps provided by the holy Temple’s Men’s Club.

After the destruction of the temple, of course, the sacrifices stopped, and prayer and study became the substitute. In Orthodox prayer books during this part of Shacharit, they give an extended description of the korbanot, detailing what was sacrificed and the procedures used in case the Temple is rebuilt and the sacrifices are re-enacted. Unfortunately, the temple probably will not be rebuilt anytime soon, as the owners of the Temple are still waiting for their Road Home money. In our siddurim, however, we acknowledge the sacrifices that were done in temple times, but we don’t have the desire to see them re-enacted. Instead, our siddur, as an introduction to the section which would have contained the description of the sacrifices, provides a passage from the Talmud.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his disciple Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: “Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!” Then Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness.” For it is written, “Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.”

Indeed, as we read in Hosea, G-d says that burnt-offerings aren’t as important as loyalty, mercy, and loving-kindness. The passages that we read at the beginning of shacharit discuss how we can achieve atonement, no longer with burnt offerings but with love offerings, to lovingly perform mitzvot for others—to walk in G-d’s footsteps and to follow in His image.

But what does this mean for holidays? In this morning’s parsha, we read not only about the sacrifices offered every morning and evening, but the extra offerings, the lagniappe, if you will, for Shabbat, holidays, and Rosh Hodesh. In reading this week’s parsha, we’re faced with a strange case of déjà vu. Haven’t we read this before? Yep—the section we read this morning contains the maftir readings from which we read on these special days. On every Jewish holiday—either the entire reading or the maftir reading comes from Parashat Pinchas.

On the holidays, instead of just a lamb, the commandment was to offer an olat tamid, a burnt offering, of parim (bulls), eilim (rams), and kvasim (sheep), the wine and pizza offerings as we talked about earlier, and a se’ir izim, a goat for a sin offering. The quantity varied depending on the holiday. It’s always one goat, 7 sheep, except on Sukkot, when it’s 14 per day, and 1 or 2 rams. And the amount of bulls could be as many as 1 on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to 13 on the first day of Sukkot.  On the first day of Sukkot, they sacrificed 30 animals and fried a turkey. What did this show? On Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, and holidays we were commanded to give an extra offering. We read about it in the amidah during every musaf service. So how do we translate this in the post-temple era? Now that we don’t have sacrifices, what is the extra offering that we can make as a substitution?

Shabbat and our festivals give us the perfect chance to make another love offering in lieu of our burnt offerings. The opportunity to enhance Shabbat and Yom Tov and spend it with the ones we love—to every week make it a point to have a special Friday night dinner—to clean the house, to turn off the tv, to gather the family, say Kiddush and hamotze, to bless the children. In our home, our dog knows that it’s Shabbat. He sits patiently while we sing Kiddush because he knows that his little treat is coming up– he’s going to get a little piece of challah—the only table scrap that he’s allowed is once a week on Shabbat.

My Sukkah

"Mr. Will, what is this thing you are building?"

Festivals give us a chance to do something extra in preparation and in celebration—to clean the house for Passover, to have special family meals, to build a Sukkah (which you should do if no other reason, than to try explain to a group of workers who don’t speak English and who have spent the last several months redoing your house, why all of a sudden you’re building a hut in your backyard). We’re commanded on these special occasions to do a little something extra—to offer a little lagniappe, an extra love offering to G-d and to others.

But it’s the middle of summer. Why are we concentrating on festivals now? Sukkot is not for a few more months. Shavuot was over six weeks ago. Parashat Pinchas gives us the chance to have a little Christmas in July, as it were.  As it often falls in the Jewish calendar, we read this parasha during the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, the period between the time that the Romans broke through Jerusalem’s walls and the eventual destruction of the Temple. It’s customary for this to be a period of mourning—we don’t have weddings, we don’t get haircuts, and some avoid big parties and concerts. So parashat Pinchas gives us a little reminder of happy times. Hey, remember the holidays—we’re in the middle of summer in a time of mourning, but think happy thoughts and remember the good times that we have on Jewish holidays. As you’re reading the parsha and learning about the sacrifices offered during these Festivals, we think about the Essence of Judaism and the spirit that makes up our holy days.

On Shabbat and holidays, it’s up to us to do a little something extra. To do an extra mitzvah—to have an offering for the Temple. And since today is not one of the festivals listed in the Torah, we still locally are celebrating Hag HaTamzit, the Festival of Essence. Plus, we just celebrated Independence Day during which I wrote the bulk of this dvar torah while sitting upstairs in my restaurant. So instead of a burnt offering for this Festival, which was probably accomplished in many a backyard barbecue, let’s figure out an Act of Lovingkindness we can do as a special Love Offering. As you go through your daily routine, think about what you can do as another act of lovingkindness. Give a little something extra to tzedaka. Tip your waiter or bartender. Slow down and let someone merge into the lane ahead of you instead of speeding up to get in front. Pay someone a compliment. Mow a neighbor’s lawn. Mow our lawn. Tell your children why you love them. Open a door for someone. Pick up a piece of trash that’s on the sidewalk. Call an elderly neighbor and see if they need anything. Wake up early tomorrow morning, come to minyan, and stay to volunteer for Nearly New. While you’re at it, bring your newspapers to our recycling bins in the parking lot.

The list goes on and on, and while you’re researching the website for the virtual reality second temple simulation that we talked about at the beginning of the torah reading {which can be found here}, surf on over to actsofkindness.org and read about thousands of random acts of kindness that are being done and that you can do. On this Shabbat, we remember the offerings and sacrifices made long ago in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. As we sit in this holy temple in Metairie, let us commit to performing Acts of Lovingkindness, which are a lot less smelly than carting around a few goats and bulls, but which let us show our devotion to G-d and help us realize that each one of us is created in His image.  Amen.

Will Samuels

Shir Chadash, 7/7/07

Categories: D'vrei Torah

“38 Years Later…” D’var Torah for parashat Chukat/Balak, 7-8-06

October 25, 2009 Leave a comment

The Rabbi at Shir Chadash traditionally goes on vacation during the month of July, so it is up to congregants to conduct the services and deliver the divrei torah during the month. In this one, I discuss the 38-year gap in the torah.

“38 Years Later… “

Cast AwayHave you seen the movie Cast Away? It stars Tom Hanks as a FedEx executive who crash lands on a desert island and becomes, well, a castaway. The movie chronicles the harrowing crash landing, then everything that Hanks’ character must do to survive on the island. Getting food, making fire, doing self-administered dental surgery, and creatively using the supplies in the FedEx boxes to help him get through each day. The scenes are beautifully shot, and often done without music or dialogue—at one point, there’s a 20 minute stretch without dialogue. About two-thirds of the way through the movie it switches gears, and all of a sudden the words “Four Years Later” appear on the screen. Four years have passed, Hanks’ character has a very long beard and is much skinnier, and the movie progresses with the third act and Hanks’ character’s quest to get off the island. The audience is left to wonder, all of a sudden it’s four years later, just what happened during those four years? But, the movie goes on with the last part of the story leaving it to our imagination to fill in the blanks.

That’s what happens in the torah portion this week. Over the last several months, we’ve been following the people of Israel’s trek through the desert and learning what it took for them to survive. We’ve learned how they got food and water, the revelation at Sinai, the building of the temple, the march through the desert, and last week we learned about Korach and his rebellion. This week, the parsha starts off with a break in the narrative to explain the story of the Parah Adumah—the red heifer—and the elaborate ritual in which the big red cow is used in purification. Then we get to Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, and all of a sudden, just like that it’s 38 years later. The narrative jumps to the 40th year after the Exodus to discuss the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the remainder of the people of Israel’s journey through the desert. There’s a 38 year gap that’s left to us to fill in the blanks.

What happened during the missing 38 years? We don’t know, and we probably have to wait for the expanded unabridged Torah or DVD with special bonus features to find out. The long gap in the narrative has been justified by saying it just wasn’t important anymore to learn what the generation that came out of Egypt had been doing. They had been sentenced to die in the wilderness because of their lack of faith in G-d. They were old news—not important to the storyline anymore. It was time to focus on the younger characters—to ensure that the new generation that was able to enter Israel would have the knowledge and abilities to be able to do so. As an aside, in case it comes up in a trivia question, the only two people from the older generation who were allowed to enter the Promised Land were Joshua and Caleb, for they were the only two that had complete faith in G-d when everybody else was afraid that they wouldn’t be able to conquer the land.

So what can we imagine happening during the missing years? It was up to the older generation to prepare the younger generation to enter the Promised Land. There were around 603,000 people according to the census—they needed to teach what they learned at Sinai. They had been sentenced to die in the wilderness because of their lack of faith in G-d. Perhaps they learned the error of their ways and realized that even though they could no longer save themselves, they could be able to make life easier for their children. They needed to tell their children about the power of G-d and of the importance of mitzvot. It was incumbent on them to share their stories about life in Egypt—life under Pharoah, life in slavery. Can you imagine sitting around the campfire eating manna, “Dad, tell us the story again about how you built the pyramids!” But that’s what they did. They had to teach the rituals and traditions which probably shouldn’t even be called traditions yet because they were so new at that point. “Family, we gather around this table tonight to celebrate Passover—a holiday that goes back 12 years.”


My Trophy Collection (from 30 years ago)

How do we do it now? What is the legacy that we leave to our children? If you were to come up with an archive that you want your children to hold onto, what would it be? Jennifer and I were recently going through the Samuels Family Archive at my parents’ house. We came across my old report cards, journals, pictures, and the true treasure—my collection of basketball trophies. I bet you didn’t realize that I was a star basketball player. But I got three trophies from my days of Biddy Basketball at the JCC, including the 1980 championship team. Remarkably, I got all of these trophies despite only having touched the ball one time in three years. I played goalie. I couldn’t run much because of my asthma, so my job was to stand at the other goal just in case there was a breakaway. We found sweaters that my grandmother had knitted. We have to save those for some reason, despite the fact that they have been eaten by moths and were very itchy to begin with.

William Samuels, circa 1953

My grandfather, William Samuels, from November, 1953

But we also found old family pictures of great and great-great grandparents. My grandmothers’ school diplomas. My grandfather’s Bar Mitzvah certificate. A story that my great-grandmother wrote for Readers’ Digest—her life story detailing about she was secretly adopted and raised by her aunt and of her quest to find her lost family in Russia. Family heirlooms that we can’t get rid of—and even though they’ll be put in a box and put up in the attic, it’s family history that we just can’t throw away. For we can learn so much from those who have come before us.

Inside my old bedroom in my parents’ house lies my doubloon collection and comic book collection and every letter and card that I’ve ever received in my life (not to mention every Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation card, and I still treasure the belt sets and Cross Pens that you all gave to me twenty-four years ago). But somewhere inside the house lies a microcassette containing an interview that I did with my grandmother of blessed memory. I was maybe 10 or 11 at the time, but this cassette is of her telling her story of growing up in Russia and coming to America. The stories of life in the old country that give us a new appreciation of how she grew up Jewishly. Of rituals and traditions that have been passed on through the ages. How important is it to make an archive? To interview your parents and grandparents about their lives growing up—to make a visual and audio record that may just end up in a box somewhere, but you never know how appreciative you will be to have it after they’re gone.

A growing trend as of late is to create an Ethical Will—different from a Last Will & Testament, an Ethical Will is a way to share your values and beliefs, your life’s lessons, and your hopes and dreams for the future. It’s a way for others to learn from you in the hopes that your thoughts and values will be an inspiration to others. Ethicalwill.com (yes there is such a website) calls an Ethical Will “a love letter to your family.” The concept actually goes back 3000 years ago as Jacob lay on his deathbed. He called his sons together to address each of them individually. To talk about each son’s special character and gifts- to transmit his values on each of them so that they can be better human beings.

An Ethical Will is a meaningful and cherished gift for your loved ones– hopes and prayers that will help get them through life.  My father wrote one. In it, he discusses his beliefs and love of Judaism and the hope for the transmission of truth through the study of Torah and Talmud. He conveys his hopes for us all to understand why being Jewish is so important not only for each of individually, but for all mankind.

But your family archive is much more than just tangible things like pictures, videos, diplomas, and basketball trophies. It’s the intangible things that go so far. The rituals and the family traditions that go back for generations that you do in the home can leave lasting memories for your children and can do so much to shape their Jewish identities. The most basic of Jewish rituals can go so far. Lighting candles on Shabbat and holidays. Saying Kiddush on a Friday night. Performing Havdalah on Saturday night. Searching for Chamets the night before Passover using a candle, a feather, and a wooden spoon. Kapparot—swinging a live rooster over your head three times the day before Yom Kippur then slaughtering it… well, okay maybe not that particular ritual, but there are others that are important. Start early with your family and teach your children by example about the special gifts that Judaism offers us all of the days of our lives.

Food—I dare say there is no greater tradition to be passed down then the special recipes of our people. Nobody could make French toast like my grandmother, and I can still remember the smell of her kitchen in Cape Girardeau. I would give anything for a piece of Patti’s Butterscotch Coffee Cake, and I’m hoping that she passed on her secret recipe to someone before she died. A family challah recipe. Homemade gefilte fish—does anyone ever make that anymore or does everybody just use the jars? I sound like Seinfeld– “And what is the deal with the jelly?”  Family recipes—Shabbat and holiday favorite foods. These are the easy Jewish traditions that can be passed down for generations.

Although we don’t know what happened during the missing 38 years in the desert, we hope that the next generation of the people of Israel entered the Promised Land with the hopes and dreams of their ancestors who died out along the way. We assume that the generation who left Egypt realized the importance of teaching their children, and so the young people geared up for the final act of their journey with a renewed spirit and the inspiration from their parents to love G-d and follow his mitzvot. To learn from those who were at Sinai how important it is to be Jewish and how important it is to pass on the rituals and traditions that they’ve learned. “V’shinantam l’vanecha b’edibarta bam—and you shall teach them diligently to your children.” May we live all of our days learning, experiencing, and teaching our rituals and traditions with the love and inspiration of those who have come before us. Amen.

Will Samuels,
Presented at Shir Chadash, Metairie, LA 7/8/06

Categories: D'vrei Torah

“The Eighth Sign”- d’var torah for Shabbat Chanukah, 12/31/05

October 25, 2009 Leave a comment

A few months after Katrina, I gave the year-end d’var torah during Shabbat Chanukah. We were in the middle of renovations, folks were coming back to town slowly, and the community was starting to get back on its feet. King Kong was the hot holiday movie, and the eighth sign of the apocalypse occurred on Days of Our Lives.

The Eighth Sign

So what’s been happening? Have you seen any good movies lately? Have you seen the new King Kong? I hardly ever go to movies anymore, but I try and stay informed. I like to peruse Entertainment Weekly. I have a number of shows that I follow. 24, The West Wing, The Office, The Apprentice—did you catch that? Did you catch the big finale? Randall who was the likeable hero for the whole series becomes the villain in the last minute by not letting Rebecca be a co-apprenti. She fared out okay. The next morning on the Today Show, she was offered a job from yahoo.com, which conveniently was one of the major marketing partners in the show. You couldn’t escape watching the TV show without seeing any of the scores of companies clamoring for marketing opportunities on the show. Yahoo.com is everywhere, Star Wars, Burger King, American Express—so many companies paying big bucks to be included within the scope of the show. You see it on Survivor—“the winner of this challenge gets a can of Pringles, and how would a tasty can of Pringles go right about now?”

Of course, you can’t go anywhere without seeing King Kong related merchandise. The movie promotional tie-ins are everywhere.

  • Chase King Kong Universal Entertainment Master Card
  • King Kong is on 18 million Kellogg Cereal boxes
  • Volkswagen has a new commercial that was shot on the King Kong movie set
  • Kong images on 10 million Nestle candy bars with their “Crunch and Win” online game
  • Toshiba Computers’ “Capture The Beast” Promotion
  • Royal Brunei Airlines—not sure how they’re involved, but they’re a sponsor
  • Burger King- The King Kong Double or Triple Whopper with a guaranteed artery clog
  • California Lottery, Georgia Lottery, New York Lottery
  • And of course, once again there’s the Pringles King Kong game, and Pringles is also offering new Pringles Prints with items from the 2006 Guinness Book of World Records imprinted on every chip.  They just paid me $5,000 to give that plug.

The King Kong Pringles game, where apparently you have to jump over cans of Pringles.

Cross promotion is everywhere. Companies are tying in with each other finding new ways to promote and new ways to reach out to potential customers. We’ve seen a paradigm shift in the world of advertising that totally changes around the world of consumer marketing. One of the more alarming examples of this happened a couple of weeks ago—you probably didn’t see it. But it was a sign of the END OF THE WORLD. The Rolling Stones appeared on Days of Our Lives. The episodes that aired December 16, 19, and 20, had four cast members winding up at a Stones Show in Anaheim. During the concert, which of course had Mick Jagger strutting like a chicken on stage, the cast members showed up on the arena’s Jumbotron, which played a role in the show’s storyline which I won’t go into because it’s insipid, and I stress that I only watched the show for research purposes. There have been other Rolling Stones tie-ins in recent weeks. The music video for the new single “Streets of Love” had its premier on the show, with two characters saying “hey, let’s watch tv—the new Stones video is on. Man, I love that band. They’re the greatest rock band of all time!”

(If you have the stomach, you can watch it here.)

So why are the Rolling Stones, whose four members have a combined age of 245, appearing on Days of Our Lives? Because they’re trying to reach a new market. According to NBC, the Stones came to them because they were trying to reach out to the demographic of women ages 18-49, because that was a previously untapped market for them. They’re trying to find new ways to reach out and market their product with a previously underutilized audience. Their album entered the Billboard chart at #3 and sank pretty quickly. Sure, it sold 129,00 copies its first week, which we would pretty happy about for any album at Basin Street Records, but it very quickly sank in the ratings, down to #154 a couple of weeks ago, so they needed to something drastic, and selling their souls to Days of our Lives was pretty drastic.

Conducting research for this sermon with Days Of Our Lives' Bryan Datillo (Lucas), back in the early 90s

But that’s what companies need to do to keep up with changing times and changing trends. And synagogues and Judaism need to do the same thing. This was addressed at the USCJ Biennial convention at which I had the honor of speaking a few weeks ago. During a major address, USCJ CEO Rabbi Jerome Epstein introduced the concept of edud: encouragement, support, and inspiration towards interfaith families. While continuing to encourage marriage within the Jewish community, reaching out to both the Jewish and non-Jewish spouse when intermarriage occurs—to outreach to the non-Jewish spouse to encourage their involvement in synagogue life, to inspire Jewish study, and to make the non-Jewish spouse feel comfortable with our religion for the eventual goal of halakhic conversion. I will leave it to Rabbi Lichtenfeld upon his return to further explain the concepts and principles behind this, and to elaborate on what he feels that our congregation and other congregations should do in response to these new principles. The movement has published a booklet—in their words “A Roadmap of Approaches, Suggestions and Expectations offering a Sincere Concern and Encouragement of Intermarried Families to Become Part of Conservative Judaism.” This is a tremendous change for the movement, but it shifts towards principles of encouraging conversion and creating programs of methods of outreach. This is a whole new demographic to which Conservative Judaism is trying to market.

It involves promotion and marketing, but now more than ever, we need to have a shift in the ways in which we are thinking to be able to attract more people into our synagogues. We’re going to face the same thing at Shir Chadash, but we have the opportunity now to market ourselves, to promote, to show to the community and to the world that under the most dire of circumstances, we will continue to be a vibrant congregation in a rebuilding city, and we will be on the forefront of providing a comforting spiritual home to those who are returning to their physical homes. How we do this? By showing that we are back and being consistent with programs, education, services, and events. We had 85 people at the amazing Chai-nese Chanukah dinner earlier this week, and yasher koach to Nicole Tygier and her committee for all of their work. There were over 500 people at the JCC Chanukah party a week ago, and several hundred people Thursday night at the annual Chanukah celebration at the Riverwalk. And here on a Shabbat morning, we have seen over the last 13 weeks attendance going up each and every week. On October 8, our first Shabbat back, we had 12 people. Last week, we had 86.

And the numbers are growing. That’s the word we need to get out—that it is still possible to live Jewishly in New Orleans and that Shir Chadash can and will be a haven for more than just a place to pray. Our Religious School reopens a week from tomorrow. In discussions a few weeks ago, we agreed that it doesn’t matter how many kids are back—what matters is that they have a place to come back to—a place to learn, to socialize, and to feel good about being home. Even if we only have 3 children in religious school—Shir Chadash is going to offer it. We have over 20 signed up, and more are on the way.  It’s incumbent for us to re-start our Adult Education programs, our Men’s Club minyanim, Sisterhood Programs, USY and Kadima events, Israeli Dancing, and those things for which our synagogue is known. It’s even more important, however,  for us to be able to find new ways to get people involved. Jewish Yoga as an example, music, cultural events—Shir Chadash needs to the catalyst for a new and innovative way of looking at a synagogue.

Within the last ten days, a new event was born in the city of New Orleans. I was asked to attend a breakfast during which we began to develop the first annual New Orleans International Jewish Music Festival, to be held April 1 and 2, 2006. Details are in the works, but through the generosity of Gary Rosenthal and the assistance of Moment Magazine, this promises to be an event that will showcase national as well as local Jewish musicians, and provide an outlet for people around the country to visit New Orleans, to help rebuild the Jewish community, and to enjoy the finest names in Jewish entertainment. During the discussions, there were some concerns brought up that we are trying to do this too big and too quickly. But we said this needs to be done because it needs to be done—and this is our opportunity while we are in the public eye to reach out to potential sponsors and benefactors and to showcase a resurgence of the New Orleans Jewish Community.

(Editor’s Note: A recap of the event can be found here)

For businesses, they must adapt to constantly changing business climates. We saw it with the record label with the paradigmatic shift towards downloading music online rather than buying CDs from record stores. Companies are having to come up with new ways of getting the word out about their product. The good folks at Pringles are showing their creativity in finding new ways to showcase their chips. Judaism and Shir Chadash need to find new and creative ways to market and to outreach.

Tanya Boyd (ex-Celeste, Days of our Lives) helps me with research for the dvar torah I would give almost twenty years later.

And we have much to showcase. At Shir Chadash, we have a great new Rabbi. We have a dedicated group of people who make up our congregation, and we have a physical home that is making strides every day. How fitting it is that this morning on Shabbat Chanukah, we are back in the newly carpeted Sanctuary—and while we still have a ways to go, there has been much progress in painting, carpet, wallpaper, bathrooms, electrical, and more. Yasher Koach to Sande Burstein and Pat Klein for spearheading the efforts to improve our building.  During Chanukah, in the Amidah and Birkhat Hamazon, we read a special prayer called the Al Hanisim, where we tell G-d thank you for the miraculous deliverance, for the heroism, and of the triumphs in battle of our ancestors in other days, and in our time. We read the story of the Maccabees and of the great miraculous deliverance enabled by Hashem. Then we read, “Your children came into Your shrine, cleansed your temple, purified your sanctuary, and kindled lights in your sacred courts. They set aside these eight days as a season for giving thanks and reciting praises to You.”  As this Chanukah and as this tumultuous year conclude, we thank G-d for giving us all that we have. And as we turn the corner on this new secular year, we open another chapter in our lives and in the life of this synagogue. Let us rededicate ourselves to New Orleans and to Shir Chadash, let us spread the word that it’s time to come home, and let us hope for G-d to give us the strength and courage to get through all the Days of our Lives.  Amen.

Categories: D'vrei Torah

“With Community Comes Responsibility”- D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot, 1-13-07

October 25, 2009 Leave a comment

It was the beginning of 2007: crime was growing rampantly in New Orleans and things were getting frustrating. In this d’var torah for parashat Shemot, I spoke about the concerns we were all feeling and of the responsibility that each of us has as members of the synagogue, as members of the Jewish community, and as New Orleanians.

With Community Comes Responsibility

“It is our happy duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, and extol G-d who wrought all these miracles for our fathers and for us. He brought us forth from bondage to freedom, from grief to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light, and from subjection to redemption. Let us therefore, sing before him a new song. Halleluyah.”

These words in the Passover Seder come just before the first part of Hallel, and just after we’ve recounted the story of the Exodus from Egypt and how G-d redeemed our ancestors from slavery. He brought us out of Mitzrayim with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with great awe with signs and wonders. This morning’s Torah reading tells us how we got there in the first place. Last week we read where Joseph was reunited with his brothers as they came to Egypt to seek food. After the revelation, they went back and brought their father Jacob so that all could live in Egypt where things were good and plentiful. The seventy members of Joseph and his brother’s brigade were fertile and prolific according to the torah, but they became assimilated into Egyptian society. The new Pharaoh thought that they would align with Egypt’s enemies and become a threat to the nation, so he enslaved the Jews and dealt with them harshly going so far as to kill the Jewish baby boys.

You know the story- you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the movie. Did you ever wonder, though, if the Jews were so prolific in number, do you think maybe they could have organized a little better at the beginning and say to the powers that begat, “Hey, you might want to reconsider this whole slavery thing? You might want to read up on Joseph— he’s one of us, and it wasn’t for him you’d still be eating sand omelettes.”

Why didn’t they do that? We discussed it last week—because they became too assimilated in Egyptian society. They lost their sense of community. They adopted Egyptian customs. They lost the essence of what it meant to have a Jewish society. Pharoah had no reason to care that Joseph, who before he died was going by his much-catchier Egyptian name “Zaphnath-paaneah,” was a Jew. There was no more Jewish community, there was only chaos as the people of Israel descended into years of a living hell with hardships, slavery, and death.

Let’s jump forward a few thousand years…

“Welcome to New Orleans. Can I interest you in a place to live?”

“Well, how’s the crime?”

“Lower than ever according to our police chief. There were only 161 murders in 2006—the lowest total in 30 years!”

“Hmmm. Isn’t the population a whole lot smaller now, though?”

“Well yeah, but we try to only focus on the positives. Did’ya hear about the Saints?”

Friends, it’s getting harder and harder to stay positive and be optimistic about the city for which we’ve been fighting so hard to rebuild. At the beginning, there was so much energy and a level of excitement about the challenges that lay ahead—the ability to rebuild a city, a Jewish community, a synagogue, and a home. There was a buzz about the city a year ago and everyone seemed ready to grab a crowbar and a shovel and get to work. Now we need a crowbar and a shovel to protect what is ours. The spiraling crime rate and lack of leadership in this city can bring even the most excited and optimistic to thinking why does it all matter?

Chris Rose, who has always been one of the head cheerleaders for what’s great about the city, channels the minds of so many in his column last Tuesday. He writes that “we are a community held hostage by our teenagers. What the hurricane couldn’t do, what the flood couldn’t do, what political chicanery and incompetence could not do, a random and soulless group of children can do.” For as much as he loves the city, he says he still thinks it’s the right place to live and work, the right place to raise his family, and the right place to face the future. But he says that every day there is stronger and stronger evidence that counter these arguments.

It was sure comforting of Police Superintendent Warren Riley to point out that last year’s murder total was the lowest in 30 years, he just failed to mention that the per capita murder rate was 4 and ½ times the national average with a figure as high as 81 murders per 100,000 people in 2006, a rate roughly 50 percent higher than that of 2004.  Two-thirds of the murders last year were in the last half of the year.

Friends, what is happening? Nine murders since the start of 2007. Five murders in 14 hours, which happened just days after the police chief says that his department was bringing murders under control. More people dying in the last two weeks in New Orleans than in Iraq.

Teenagers are drifting back into this city from where they were evacuated with no parental supervision, no guidelines, and no remorse. Their preferred method of making money is in dealing drugs and they will stop at nothing to protect their investment. A 15 year old boy, who shot and killed Dinerral Shavers, director and snare drummer of the Hot 8 Brass Band. Shavers wasn’t the target—his 15 year-old stepson was. A turf war—an “Uptowner” moving into the territory of the “Govs”- Governor Nicholls Street. An 18 year old and a 19 year boy who were arrested and booked with 12 counts of armed robbery for holding up the popular Parasol’s bar, and who were wanted in other armed robberies. Most recently, the community was shocked by the burglary and senseless murder of filmmaker Helen Hill and the shooting of her husband Dr. Paul Gailiunas. Shot while he was holding their two-year-old son. The young couple in their thirties were doing so much to help the city rebuild. They returned to New Orleans and bought a house in the Marigny. They put so much effort into helping rebuild the community. She taught free film classes and worked in community outreach. He dedicated so much time to providing medical care for the poor and underprivileged. Article after article spoke about how loved they were by their community and how much they loved their city. Now they lay victim to the senseless violence which is enslaving us. We are enslaved by those with no regard for right and wrong and by those who are in positions of leadership without the knowledge and abilities to effectively do their job.

To effectively rebuild our community, we must demand a change in our leadership. I’ve supported Mayor Ray Nagin from this pulpit and I’ve shown my support for him in person. But it’s time for him to go. Warren Riley’s comments show a lack of leadership that make me frightened to spend time in the city. District Attorney Eddie Jordan shows a remarkable ineptitude in prosecuting criminals and keeping them off the streets, with a felony conviction rate of 7% versus a national average of 57%. It’s time to bring in new leaders from the outside with qualifications other than the fact that they’re a friend of the mayor—the same mayor who recently ousted the head of the Library Board—a Tulane Law Professor, and replaced her with a jazz trumpeter who has never been to college.

But so what? What’s the point of talking about this now on the bimah? What can we do? Why can’t we just go on to the “Prayer for Everything” and hurry up and finish and get to our cottage cheese? Because we can do more. We can unite as a community and say we’ve had enough. The several thousand people who marched on City Hall on Thursday have said they’ve had enough. So many people who are committed to this city are now demanding change. On the internet, there are websites, bulletin boards, and online blogs, of people writing in with their suggestions. The website Nolaagainstcrime.com has continuously updated articles about crime in the city, and a bulletin board where citizens can post suspected crime activity as well as hotspots in the city where police should monitor. The site Silenceisviolence.org organized Thursday’s rally and presents five ideas for change with what we and our leaders can do.

It’s optimistic that there were so many people at Thursday’s rally and there are a group of dedicated people who are working for the city. It’s going to take helping each other to rebuild our community. And the best we can do to improve our New Orleans community is to take immediate steps to strengthen our Jewish community. For if we can show that we are a strong Jewish community, we can work to bring in the professionals who can help rebuild the community as a whole—the doctors, the educators, the planners, the leaders. What’s the most important key to having a strong Jewish community? A strong Jewish Day School. We must commit ourselves to being able to provide for our children a quality Jewish education. We have seen so many shining stars coming out of the Day School who excel in both Judaic and in secular studies. The quality of education that is in the school is unmatched by any school in the area. It is up to each of us to make the commitment to support the school by expanding its enrollment. We must acknowledge the paradigm shift and recognize the fact that we have the responsibility to help each other and to ensure that our Jewish institutions remain strong. To say “it’s important that New Orleans has a Jewish Day School but I’m sending my kid to Newman” is no longer acceptable. With that attitude, our community dies.

We have two kosher restaurants in this city that provide an important service to the Jewish community. They provide an outlet for kosher dining and shopping for kosher food. Without them, our Jewish community suffers. We have the responsibility to ensure that they stay strong—to send the message that it is possible to live Jewishly in New Orleans. Each of us has the obligation to support these institutions. To say “it’s important to have a kosher restaurant in the city, but I don’t need to eat there” is no longer acceptable. Next time you’re trying to figure out where to eat lunch or dinner—remember Kosher Cajun and Casablanca. If you’re organizing a group of Jews for a meal then you have a responsibility to help them out.

We have morning minyans here at Shir Chadash on Sundays and Wednesdays. 7:00 on a Wednesday morning is pretty early, but there are people who come to minyan who need the opportunity to say kaddish for a loved one. It’s important to them and so they’re here. For them to perform this mitzvah, they need a group of 10 people. Often on a Wednesday morning, they fall short. We have the responsibility to ensure that there is a minyan each and every time this synagogue offers a service. To support each other in times of need. To make it possible to perform the mitzvah of saying kaddish. To say “it’s important to have synagogue services, but I don’t need to help make a minyan” is no longer acceptable. Make the commitment today to come to a Wednesday morning minyan—commit to one week a month, or every two months, or even three.

Kol Yisrael Arevim Leh Lazeh: All Israel is Responsible for One Another. We have the responsibility to be there for each other—to build and strengthen this Jewish community and to unite together to stay strong for our New Orleans community. Friends, Jennifer and I are getting married in four months. We have resolved to keep New Orleans our home—we both agree that we could never live anywhere else. This is our home, this is our synagogue, and this is our community. We hope, if we so are blessed, to raise a Jewish family and instill in our children the Jewish values that are so important to the both of us. And we intend do to that here—in New Orleans. Davening at Shir Chadash, learning at the New Orleans Jewish Day School, and eating at Kosher Cajun and at Casabalanca restaurant. We all have fought too hard for this community to become enslaved by the individuals who seek to destroy it. May G-d give us the strength to become once again a people free and strong—may He once again lead us bondage to freedom, from grief to joy, and from darkness to great light, and may He help us become a community united by the power of His teachings. Amen.

Will Samuels, 1/13/07

Categories: D'vrei Torah