For the text, click HERE.
For the lesson, click below…
Here is the source sheet to look at while listening and/or watching.
9 Tips On Life, Love & Marriage; from somebody who’s been married for a little over a week (Sermon for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah 5774 in Gulfport, Mississippi)
Read below for the hard-to-read version of the sermon (not verbatim, just like the pdf linked above).
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A Prelude: Before the Torah Reading of the Day
At just about midnight Saturday night or Sunday morning (depending on how you look at it), as our first week of marriage came to a close, my spouse Raysh and I were leaving synagogue after Selihot services, those late Saturday night services that prepare us for the High Holiday season starting in the week ahead. Raysh and I were walking with friends of ours, another married couple. I knew our first week of married life had come to a close as a man following us closely began lamenting to us how synagogues are unwelcoming to unmarried people. “Do you know,” he said, “there is not a single synagogue that has programming for singles in their 40s and 50s?” He then cited that in certain Jewish newspapers, when there are events for singles in their 40s and 50s, these events are listed under “Bereavement Groups.” From there, he told us the statistics of how many Jews marry late in life, how many Jews never marry, how many Jews never join synagogues, how many Jews marry people of other faiths, and every other statistic that should in fact remind us both how painful and how likely it is for a Jew to be lonely in, or outside, the Jewish community.
When we read the Torah today, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, when Abraham binds his son Isaac upon an altar he builds on Mount Moriah. But, first off, how old is Isaac?
<open the floor to answers>
It seems from the story like he might be a young kid. Anybody above a certain age, we’d imagine, would protest or question the situation. After all, Isaac is being tied down, and he can see tools for fire. At a certain point, don’t you think he’d start to suspect something? So it sounds like he’s young. But when we try to do the math, it seems he’s older. When the rabbis do the math, they come up with different answers: some say he’s 37 years old, some say he’s 26 years old. I prefer the answer of 26 years old, for the simple reason that I am also 26 years old. So I have to imagine myself, at 26 years old, in Isaac’s position in life. Isaac, always at home. Never married. Never found love at all. And, though Iasac may have thought that he was loved by his parents—in knowingly bringing his son to a near-death experience, and presuming that the experience would result in the killing of his son—Abraham has now proven himself unreliable in ensuring neither that he will love his own child nor that his child should have reason to trust him. Isaac is no longer guaranteed parental love, and he has no other love of which to speak. Isaac is alone in the universe.
But the story goes on. The angel stops Abraham from killing his son. In fact, when the rabbis retell this story, Abraham says, “But I thought you told me to kill him.” God explains that there was a misunderstanding. When God said veha’alehu, to “raise” Isaac as a “rising offering,” our forefather was not supposed to raise his son to the altar, but to raise his son spiritually, as an ethical, holy being in the image of the Supernal God in Heaven. Abraham comes to terms with that explanation, he and Isaac go on their way—Isaac, as we can imagine, completely shattered and alone. Our Torah reading, the majority of which is the story of the binding of Isaac, ends on an auspicious note though. We recite a family tree listing the eight offspring of Milkah. It is only at the very end of the listing that we learn of the birth of Rebecca. Isaac, unloved and without reason to love his parents, does not know it yet, but the love of his life has been born. It is only years later that both Isaac’s and Rebecca’s world will turn around and we will witness the first loving relationship of Biblical spouses, Isaac and Rebecca—a profound love arising only after suffering a near-death trauma.
I do not know what is in store for the future of the single man who spoke with Raysh and me on Saturday night, but I do hope that, after all of the trauma he has suffered, he will soon find love, and he will soon find release. When the rabbis comment on the story of the Binding of Isaac, they add a curious note: that in every generation, there is always someone like Abraham; that in every generation, there is always some like Jacob; that in every generation, there is always someone like Moses; that in every generation, there is always someone like Samuel. My understanding of this comment is that, in every generation, the spirit of every character of the Hebrew Bible gets revived, and their lives relived. Many of us know modern-day Isaacs, and many of us are, or have been, modern-day Isaacs, who have hit rock-bottom and seen little value in their own lives, and we hope that the modern-day Isaacs will, like the olden-day Isaac, find the love and release deserved of any soul after such profound suffering. The story of the Binding of Isaac ends up does not simply conclude with the Unbinding of Isaac as he is unbound from the altar. The story of the Binding of Isaac comes to a close with a hint of the Bonding of Isaac, when his future marriage is nothing other than a textual foreshadow. I hope that that man who followed us on Saturday night has love waiting for him somewhere in the shadows of his universe, waiting soon to be revealed, even if he does not yet know it. Although Raysh and I had a lot of fun at our wedding, one of the hardest realities in planning our wedding was knowing how many people in our lives are lonely or, for whatever reasons, legal, religious or personal, do not see themselves as ever getting married, or ever being loved.
I wanted to recite a prayer on the day of the wedding for those who have not yet found the love they are seeking. I decided to search through Likkutey Tefillot, a “collection of prayers” from Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, one of the great founders of Hasidic Judaism. The book is organized by day, according to the day on which Rabbi Nahman of Breslov said each of the prayers in the book. Since my wedding was on the 19th of the Hebrew month Elul, I looked to see what Rabbi Nahman prayed on that day about 200 years ago. He prayed these words, and I, last week also prayed these words on the 19th of Elul:
וּבְכֵן תְּרַחֵם עַל כׇּל־עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הַצְּרִיכִים לִמְצוֹא זִוּוּגָם,
And so may it be that You will have compassion for all of Your people Israel who need to find their partners,
שֶׁיִּזְכּוּ לִמְצוֹא זִוּוּגָם מְהֵרָה,
That they may merit to find their partner soon,
Their true partner,
זִוּוּגָם הֶהָגוּן לָהֶם מִן הַשָּׁמַֽיִם,
Their partner reserved for them from the Heavens,
וְיִזְכֶּה כׇּל־אֶחָד לְהִתְעוֹרֵר אֵלֶֽיךָ בִּשְׁעַת הַהִתְקַשְּׁרוּת…
And may each and every one merit to become conscious of the Divine in the moment of their loving connection.
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The Sermon Proper: Upon Returning the Torah to the Ark
I don’t usually title sermons, but this sermon is called, “Nine Tips On Life, Love and Marriage; from somebody who’s only been married for a little over a week.” I can’t say I know too much yet, but I like to think that I’ve learned a lot of great wisdom from people far wiser than I am. I’ll try and attribute each life lesson, each personal piece of Torah, to each teacher.
Time management is holy. I used to get home from a day of work—which for me is school—and I used to have free time during which I would work. Not just homework. I’d write. I’d compose. I’d be organizing events. During my free time, I would do the work that I didn’t have time to do during my other work time. In the end, this means that I never had free time. I just had work time, and then other work time. In those days, when I wanted to keep working but eat anyway, I used to do a thing called “grabbing a quick bite to eat,” which meant taking something out of the refrigerator and eating it, and then getting back to work. I don’t quite do that anymore. These days, when I eat at home, I’m eating in the presence of someone I love, and eating can take 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, 2 hours. It depends. This means: My old schedule doesn’t work anymore. It’s not because I shouldn’t work anymore, but it’s because I have to acknowledge that free time is free time, and work time is work time. I would be denying myself the sanctity of free time, and time to be with someone I love, if I felt it would be better to work than to sit around for a few more minutes of a meal. Rabbi Greg Wall once said to me, “There is nothing we have that is holier than time because we can never get it back.” Work time is work time. Free time is free time. All time is holy. Time management is holy.
2. A marriage must be built. (And for that matter, so must all relationships—business, friendship, family, community.) I used to have my own money, and Raysh used to have her own money too. And, in fact, we each still have our own money. But all of a sudden, the money that I had became money that Raysh could have, and the money that Raysh had could be money that I could have. Our money became shared in a way. This means that every time that I spend a cent, this is a cent that Raysh could have saved, or spent differently. And every time that Raysh spends a cent, there’s one cent that I could have saved or spent differently. This means that the way that we handle money now must be, to some extent, determined by shared values. And those values do not come automatically. We have to work together to build together what the values are that we share: For what reasons do we spend money? How much money do we spend on different things that matter to us? Building the values of a marriage is not limited to money. This includes far more than just money. This includes what information is private to me, or what information is private to Raysh, and what is now private to us. Building the values of a marriage includes what are the things that concern us? What social issues, political questions, religious experiences, lifestyles, works of art are the drives of our marriage and our spiritual connection? No marriage, and no relationship—business, friendship, family or otherwise—is ever built without a foundation. The establishment of a friendship, or a marriage, or any other relationship does not happen in a vacuum, and the relationship must be built thoughtfully and talked through in order to create the relationships we want to see. A relationship must always be built. Thoughtfully. And founded on certain values.
3. Don’t go to sleep with an argument. Anyone could be tossing or turning if the last thing you hear left you unsettled. This rule is very simple: Don’t go to sleep with an argument. This means you’ve got at least two options. First, if it’s nighttime, and if you need to bring up something uncomfortable, wait until the morning, or the afternoon, or some time when you have the time to discuss it, just as long as it’s not nighttime. Second, if it’s nighttime and you need to bring up something uncomfortable immediately, then make sure that you both can stay up long enough to get the conversation out of the way, bring yourselves down to a level of calm, and remember how much you love each other. And then remind each other how much you love each other. After your moments of anger, remind yourself why you love whom you love, why you are friends with whom you are friends, and why you connect with those to whom you connect. During our first week of marriage, Raysh and I observed the tradition of Sheva Berakhot. Sheva Berakhot, meaning “Seven Blessings,” is a practice of—at the end of meals during the first week of marriage—gathering together with friends who offer seven special Hebrew blessings to bless and to sanctify the new marriage. Raysh and I actually adapted this tradition a bit to our liking though. In addition to the seven Hebrew blessings typically recited, we would ask seven friends to give impromptu blessings of their own design, in English. During our week of Sheva Berakhot, I was very moved by my friend Emily’s blessing. Not only did she bless us that we never should argue before we go to bed, she blessed us that we should never be angry at nighttime so that we have to stay up later trying to calm down so that we don’t go to bed upset. Don’t go to sleep with an argument, and don’t ever have to stay up late just so that you can go to sleep after an argument.
The truest verse of the entire Torah is Genesis 2:24: עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזׇב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד: Therefore shall a person leave their parents and cleave unto to their partner, and they shall become as one flesh. This teaching comes from Rabbi Morris Allen, who served as the rabbi of the synagogue to which Raysh belonged towards the end of her time at the University of Minnesota. Rabbi Allen offered us much wisdom as we prepared for our wedding, and he gave us the counsel and exercises he would give any other couple for pre-marital counseling. Despite the role that Raysh’s parents have played in her life, and despite the role that my parents have played in my life, our relationships to our parents must now change. Although our parents can offer us their love and their support for the two of us, the truth is that we have to find our own way of building our own home now. The home that Raysh and I build ought to be defined neither solely by what Raysh’s parents have taught her nor solely by what my parents have taught me, but by Raysh and me using all the lessons that we have learned to put together the foundations of a loving marriage, and a loving home. If neither of us were ever to change our relationships with our parents, and if we were never to leave our parents’ home, then this marriage would never have a home.
Advice from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “When you get into an argument with someone you love, please close your eyes and visualize yourselves three hundred years from now. When you open your eyes, you will only want to take each other in your arms and acknowledge how precious each of you is. The teaching of impermanence helps us appreciate fully what is there, without attachment of forgetfulness.”
I believe that the quote speaks well for itself. All I will say is: We often argue about stupid things, and sometimes we argue when there isn’t even anything to complain about. We don’t have to.
Speak well of your in-laws. The #1 reason: Why not? When you marry somebody, you are legally marrying only one person. But the reality is you’re marrying an entire family. The Jewish tradition values that we refrain from leshon hara, “the evil tongue,” or speaking ill of our family and friends. Unless there is a situation of abuse or violence or another serious violation of trust that must be made public in some way, there is never a reason to say anything hurtful about anyone. The only reason speaking ill of someone behind their back might not hurt them is that they’re not actually there to hear what we have to say about them. But the words do hurt because often these words get around. As Jews, we value refraining from leshon hara. On top of how much we value refraining from leshon hara: If your spouse were to say something terrible about your mother—even if you agreed deep down inside—you would almost certainly want to retort, “But, that’s my mother you’re talking about!” So, if you’re going to speak of your in-laws, speak well of them. If you’re going to speak of people who are—when it comes down to it—in no way violating a certain pact of trust, then speak well of them. Speak well of all people as much as you can. I’ll tell you: when it comes to in-laws, I lucked out in this marriage. The Weiss family is one of the most thoughtful, talented, honest and caring families you might ever meet. Myra Weiss, Raysh’s mother, is one of the most learned and dedicated people I’ve ever met. She herself studied for a doctorate in Biblical Studies and knows the Tanakh, the Old Testament, like no one else. She has dedicated her life not only to her own personal pursuit of knowledge, but also to the altruistic goal of raising three wonderful daughters we’ll discuss in a minute. Raysh’s father Ira is a doctor—a cardiologist to be exact. Dr. Ira Weiss still works hard 6 days a week, taking a break for Shabbat and holidays, and has always had the gentlest demeanor you could ever imagine. In addition to all that he gives his family, Dr. Weiss has spent his life thoroughly caring for his patients and teaching his own medical students to be as astute and meticulous as he is. At a certain point in his career, Dr. Weiss became a renowned doctor in the world of American Chasidic Jewry, having cared briefly for the Bostoner Rebbe, and eventually becoming something of the personal doctor of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of Chabad fame. Sarah, the eldest of the three Weiss daughters, works for the Israeli Foreign Ministry as the Director of the General International Law Department and as the Acting Director of the International Law Department. She speaks about half a dozen languages, and she is married to Yaniv, a caring father and an architect who specializes in making Israel a more handicap-friendly country. Together Sarah and Yaniv are the parents of three sweet children: Lielle, a great singer who just began first grade; Aviad, who, despite being younger than Lielle, is already an amazing breakdancer; and Shai, who is hardly two months old, and absolutely cute. Becky is the middle child of the three Weiss daughters, and she herself is a riot. She has a witty sense of humor, a strong sense of responsibility to her family and to the community at her synagogue, and she has worked hard and coded innovative programming for Windows ever since she graduated from college. Her husband Eric, one of the sharpest lawyers you could ever meet, is no stranger to the Supreme Court, having sat there several times, and having co-authored papers advocating for positions in favor of which the Court has ruled. Eric and Becky have two adorable, musical, talented children with great senses of humor: Daphne, who just started 3rd grade, and Charlotte, who just entered 1st grade. And, last but not least, the most important person I married when I got married last week: Raysh Weiss. How often do you get to meet a Jew who is an imaginative visual artist, a brilliant writer, a profound philosopher, a non-stop social activist, a lush poet, a an aficionada on several saxophones, an awesome film director and editor and videographer, a PhD, a rabbinical student, a kind-hearted soul, an articulate speaker with an amazing sense of humor, and a sheyne punim? And then how often do you marry them? So, nu? What’s there to complain about? Always speak well of your in-laws. Always speak well of others.
7. Take out the trash when nobody’s asked you. In fact, don’t stop at taking out the trash when nobody’s asked you. Do other kind things for people when nobody’s asked you. The more you can take out the trash when nobody’s asked you, the more you can clean the floor when nobody’s asked you, the more you can cook for others when nobody’s asked you, the better off you’ll be. It’s as easy that. Take out the trash when nobody’s asked you. They’ll love you forever.8. Both #7 and #8 come from my sister-in-law by the way. I asked her for marriage advice the Friday night before the wedding. #8: Be a rock when your loved one is shaken. No matter how easy it is to feed off of your partner’s energy, and no matter how easy it is to get angry when your partner is angry; if both of you go crazy at the same time, then everybody will be crazy. If you can learn to listen calmly when your partner is upset, then you will maintain sanity. If you’re upset too, don’t forget why you’re upset, but don’t act on it. If you need to act upset at some point, wait until you no longer need to be the rock. Wait until your partner is calm, and let your partner be your rock when you’re infirm. One of you must be the rock when the other is shaken.
9. You must love yourself. If you cannot love yourself, it will be harder for others to love you. In fact, it may be impossible. Two years ago, I was living in Jerusalem and I often got together in a quartet of rabbinical students who would write songs with each other and we’d play for each other the latest songs we had written. Many songs that I write tend to be comedy songs. Many of these comedy songs though are self-deprecating, in a way. Once when I was talking with Ruhi Sophia, from the song-sharing quartet, I was discussing how I was alone. I had never been in a relationship before. So, Ruhi Sophia said I had to stop writing songs that were self-deprecating, and I owed it to myself to write myself a love song. Although I didn’t say it at the time, I think she knew that I thought that sounded goofy. Although I thought it sounded goofy, I knew that deep down inside, Ruhi Sophia was right, and I needed to write myself a love song. I did write myself a love song; it felt goofy, but it also felt good. At services the Friday night after I wrote myself a love song, I had a realization in the Shema as I retranslated for myself the passages Ve’ahavta:וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה֣’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ
You shall love the Lord your God…
בְּכׇל־לְבָֽבְךָ֥…in your heart… You shall love the Lord your God in your heart. The Lord your God is in your heart. The Lord your God is in my heart. We must love the Lord your God in our hearts, for we must love what is in our hearts. We must love all that is in our hearts, for the Lord God is in our hearts. Ve’ahavta: You shall love yourself. It is a Jewish commandment to love yourself. And I’ll tell you what. Ruhi Sophia was right. Because it was only after writing love songs to myself that I was able to get to where I am today.
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So, reviewing these nine lessons:
1. Time management is holy.
2. A marriage must be built. (And for that matter, so must all relationships—business, friendship, family, community.)
3. Don’t go to sleep with an argument. Don’t go to sleep angry.
4. The truest verse of the entire Torah is Genesis 2:24: עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזׇב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד: Therefore shall a person leave their parents and cleave unto to their partner, and they shall become as one flesh.
5. Advice from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “When you get into an argument with someone you love, please close your eyes and visualize yourselves three hundred years from now. When you open your eyes, you will only want to take each other in your arms and acknowledge how precious each of you is. The teaching of impermanence helps us appreciate fully what is there, without attachment of forgetfulness.” In short, before you argue, ask yourself if it’s really worth the argument. Don’t argue about stupid things.
6. Speak well of your in-laws. Speak well of your business associates. Speak well of your friends. Speak well of your friends’ friends. Speak well of your family friends. When there’s no serious reason you must do otherwise, speak well of everyone.
7. Take out the trash when nobody’s asked you. And do other nice things when nobody’s asked you.
8. Be a rock when your loved one is shaken. Be calm when your partner is shaken.
9. You must love yourself. Each of these 9 tips could change your life, if you haven’t lived according to them yet. You can trust me. Not only have I learned these nine lessons from people who are far wiser than I am, but I’ve also been married for a little over a week. Shanah tovah.
 After having placed the Torah upon the reading table.
 Liat and Daniel Graber.
 Answers I received included “8” and “older.”
 In fact, God implies that Isaac is loved by Abraham, in Genesis 22:2: וַיֹּ֡אמֶר קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֨בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶ֨ךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּֽרִיָּ֑ה וְהַֽעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ: (“[God] said, ‘Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and raise him there, as a rising offering upon one of the hills which I will indicate to you”).
 Bereshit Rabbah 56:7.
 Though Deuteronomy 34:10 teaches, “וְלֹֽא־קָ֨ם נָבִ֥יא ע֛וֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְדָע֣וֹ ה֔’ פָּנִ֖ים אֶל־פָּנִֽים:” (“there never again rose up a prophet in Israel like Moses who knew the Lord face to face”), there are nuanced ways of reconciling these two truths within the same religious framework.
 ליקוטי תפילות ח”ב מו, י”ט אלול; רבי נתן מברסלו בשם רבי נחמן מברסלו, Likkutei Tefillot II:46, 19 Elul; Rabbi Nathan of Breslov in the name of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov.
 After reciting Hatzi Kaddish, we paused for a sermon, continuing after the sermon with our own private Amidah.
 I credit Myra Weiss (my schviger—“mother-in-law” in Yiddish) for giving a devar torah on our third day of marriage, discussing how a marriage needs values so as not to be yesh me’ayin, ex nihilo, or “made from nothing.”
 This was taught to me by my own mother, Ellen Rank, who taught this to me in the name of the rabbi who officiated at my parents’ wedding, Rabbi Kassel Abelson. I believe I’ve heard this from several other sources since.
 Giving credit where credit is due, this friend is Emily Bluma Watkins, author of On the Border of Fire: Origins of the National Religious Settler Movement in Israel.
 Congregation Beth Jacob in St. Paul, Minnesota.
 From his work The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering Into Peace, Joy & Liberation : the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and Other Basic Buddhist Teachings, (Random House LLC: 1998) page 133. Melissa Marver pointed out this quote to us, intending it as a personal blessing during Sheva Berakhot.
 Never speaking ill of in-laws is something taught to me by my mother by way of Rabbi Abelson, as well as Rabbi Allen in working with Raysh and me.
 Not on trial, I should clarify.
 Lauren Rank.
 This quartet was: Shoshana Friedman of Hebrew College, Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Jacob Siegel now of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and me, of the Jewish Theologiacl Seminary.
Click the link above for the sermon presented nicely. Below is the main text unformatted, unexplained and uncited, etc..
Although it has just started, so far it has been a shanah tovah—a good year. As you may have heard me say before, it is a real pleasure and honor for me to be back in Gulfport for a second season of High Holidays. Two years ago, I left Mississippi inspired beyond words after meeting members of Congregation Beth Israel and witnessing the rebuilding of a community that could have given up all hope after a tragedy as great as Katrina. I hope that I can provide this community even half the warmth, thoughtfulness and holiness that you offered me when we brought in the Jewish new year of 5772. As we begin the year 5774 together, I want to thank you all for bringing me back here. It is a rare honor and treat to be able to join the same community at two very different points of my life. More on that though another time.
* * *
The time is 2:30 AM. The evening is pitch black, and not a sound is to be heard on Oak Lane. A stealth burglar has entered a small, brick home that clearly never installed an electronic alarm system. The burglar quietly feels her way through the dark, hoping to find a worthy steal. Suddenly, she hears a voice: “God is watching you.” The burglar turns around, looks behind her. She sees no one. She inches forward and hears the voice again: “God is watching you.” She searches in the darkness, pulls out a small flashlight, and finds a parrot. The burglar, in a nearly silent whisper, asks the parrot, “Were you just talking to me?” The parrot, with no expression in his eyes, bobs his head up and down, opens his mouth and says, “God is watching you.”
“I gather that your name is God,” says the burglar to the parrot.
“No,” says the parrot. “I’m Moses.”
“Moses?” asks the burglar. “Who would ever name their parrot Moses!?”
“Idunno,” says the parrot. “The same people who named their rottweiller ‘God.’”
* * *
When we know we are being watched, we sometimes find ourselves constricted: Someone is watching me, and whatever I do will be seen.
When we are watched, our hearts and minds may turn to fear, guilt, responsibility, censorship.
When we are watched without reason, we may rightfully worry that our privacy is being invaded: that nothing is personal anymore, and nothing is sacred. It is the exact terror George Orwell describes in his novel 1984, where Big Brother is watching.
Earlier this year, Edward Snowden’s name took over the American media. He has been called everything from a disgraceful traitor, to a champion of American freedom, and everything else in between. I will leave an evaluation of Snowden’s actions to people who understand American politics more intimately than I. What I am here to say is that Snowden has brought forth to the conscience of American media one of the most important questions about responsibility and culpability: How do we live when we are being watched?
Edward Snowden leaked some documents revealing the expertise of the spying methods of the National Security Agency, the NSA. No other member of the American government, past or present, had explicitly stated the lengths of what the NSA can do. The government may have listened to my phone calls with my family, read my text messages to my friends, or seen e-mails with my employers. The NSA may have access to my bank account information and know what I have purchased with my credit cards, or what videos I watch on the internet, or what recipes I have e-mailed people.
I may be naive, but I hope, and I believe, that the NSA’s ability to wiretap, to listen in on, to read through, and to spy on any American’s activities is enacted for only one of two purposes: (1) to use, unknowingly as guinea pigs, people whom we would never suspect of anything wrong, so the government can practice spying, or (2) to spy on people whom the government does suspect of criminal conduct. To clarify, it may be because I am optimistic here, but I basically have faith that members of the American government have not abused their power of spying on us. If the NSA has in fact spied on me and invaded my privacy, then I am not sure what to say. And this leaves us with a tension that reflects the life I live as a Jew.
I have found that what drives me back to Judaism every day are not the definite answers I have to life’s hardest questions, but it is the hardest questions themselves that drive me back every day. The 16th century Jewish mystic Shimon Lavi once wrote:
דָּבָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ נִ(י)שַּׂג:
Any matter that cannot be understood:
הִנֵּה תְשׁוּבָתוֹ הִיא שְׁאֵלָתוֹ.
Behold, its answer is its question.
How do we live when our lives are under surveillance?
If the question is the answer, then perhaps the Jewish answer is: we live our lives when we are watched as if we are being watched. While wiretapping and internet-hacking and electronic espionage are all hazards of modern technology, the truth is that Jews have been watched by others, and have felt watched by forces beyond our control for much of our history. You may have heard before of maris ayin, or mar’it ayin, literally “what is seen by the eye.” A Jew might say, “I would never enter a store who mistreats their workers. If another Jew sees me, they’ll believe I don’t care how workers are treated.” That’s the fear of mar’it ayin: that someone will see us compromised and imagine the worst. This Talmudic anxiety flies in the face of the Jewish value of not judging others, for we can never know what they have experienced in life. Yet, the Jewish fear of mar’it ayin not only pertains to the domain of human relationships, we also fear what non-human eyes may be watching and evaluating us.
About 1800 years ago, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi advised his disciples: “Contemplate three things, and you will never stumble into the pitfalls of sin: Know What is above you: (1)עַֽיִן רוֹאָה , a Seeing Eye; (2) וְאֹֽזֶן שׁוֹמַֽעַת, a Listening Ear; and (3) וְכׇל־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ בַּסֵּפֶר נִכְתָּבִין all of your actions recorded in God’s Book.”
In the universe of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, three Divine attributes of the Heavenly Court kept a good Jew in check: God’s watchful eye, God’s attentive ear, and God’s written record of absolutely everything that anyone has ever done. Because of these three things, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi lived a life that was holy. Also we today can look back and suspect that Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi must have been one of the first-ever neurotic Jews. Woody Allen would be envious.
You might be familiar with the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, as told both in the Torah and in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph’s brothers cast him into a pit, where he is rescued by slave-dealers who sell him into slavery in the home of the Egyptian master Potiphar. Joseph, an attractive young man, accidentally catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife, and—though the relationship would be illicit—she attempts time and again to seduce Joseph, who refuses her advances. Frustrated in the end, she falsely accuses Joseph of sexual misconduct and has Joseph sent to prison.
But that’s not exactly how the rabbis retell the story: All the members of Potiphar’s house went out for the day to watch something fantastic. (It was either the Nile, or a theater production. The rabbis debate over what it was.) Joseph stays back to do some work, but, with no one at home to watch him, and left to his own devices, Joseph nearly gave in to Potiphar’s wife. In fact, just when Joseph was about to give in to the seduction, Joseph suddenly sees the image of his father Jacob standing before him, and Joseph’s hot blood cools. By the way, the vision of your parent standing between you and an illicit lover can really put a damper on any situation. And thank God that’s what happened, because Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife landed him in the prison where he was eventually released in order to become the vice Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. All of that, say the rabbis, is because Joseph thought about what he would do had his father been there watching him.
Of course, there’s a big difference between God watching our actions, and a parent watching our actions. During private or intimate moments of our lives, we often don’t want our parents there. But, when it comes to God, we do hope that our private and intimate moments will be in some way sacred. And, if we believe in a God who is everywhere where we accept God’s presence, then there’s no denying God any entry into our private lives. We don’t have a choice when it comes to God.
Regardless of who’s watching us, we’ve got rabbinic approval for that sense of being watched. So, should we thank the NSA for being able to spy on us now better than ever before? Are we commanded to feel watched at all times and celebrate our paranoia? I’m inclined to say “No”—mostly.
You might know about this incident that happened last week in Wayne, New Jersey. Not long after Buddy’s Small Lots closed early on Sunday August 25, four players from William Paterson University’s football team broke into the store—unknowingly. The store was closed, but the lock function of the electronic doors had broken. Anthony Biondi, Jelani Bruce, Kell’E Gallimore and Thomas James, entered the store, searching for a speaker cable and some batteries. They called out for a clerk, but there was no employee to be found. Having found the items they wanted, they went to the cash register and, with no cashier in sight, left with the items they had picked up—after they left exact change at the cash register.
Recalling the experience, these four undergrads explained that they figured the cashier may have been hiding or playing a trick on them. The Internet has footage from the surveillance camera, showing the four of them waving at cameras and shouting for anybody’s attention. What could have been a perfect steal was a careful, honest business exchange, all caught on candid camera.
If I were to bring in two experts, a professional Optimist and a professional Pessimist, to explain what happened at Buddy’s Small Lots, here’s what I think we’d hear. The professional Pessimist would say: These young men saw the cameras and did the right thing so as not to get caught. The professional Optimist would say: These young men did the right thing, believing that life should be lived as if we are always on camera, and now a camera was here to prove it.
I want to pause and take a vote. You can raise your hands: How many people agree with the pessimist that they did the right thing because a camera would have gotten them in trouble?
How many people agree with the optimist that this is how these gentlemen always live, and now it’s on camera?
And how many people think the truth is somewhere in between?
I believe that the truth is somewhere in between, but I would feel dishonest if I denied that a world with cameras reminds us, that not only are we always accountable for our actions, we as Jews are obligated to act in a way that acknowledges that we are always accountable for our actions.
We’ll see time and time again in our High Holiday prayer book Mahzor Lev Shalem: implications that God knows not only our actions, but the deepest of our intentions. In the prayer of “Le’El Orekh Din,” addressing “the God who lays out judgment,” we sing the words levohen levavot, referring to God as bohen levavot, “the Discerner of hearts.” Our God is not distant from our spiritual being. Our God is deeply intimate, revealing the depths of our emotions. The novel 1984 portrayed the surveillance of the menacing Big Brother, but our prayers portray God as the loving Parent in Heaven. If we can let God into our hearts, then we can live lives centered around love and affection—and better yet—responsibility and accountability.
There’s a world of difference of course between God and the NSA. But the way in which we make ourselves transparent to God or the NSA might not be so different.
If you are familiar with TED Talks, then you may be familiar with Hasan Elahi. Professor Elahi, or Hasan (as he likes to be called), is an artist born in Bangladesh and raised in New York City, and the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the totality of the US government always know where he is. Being of dark complexion that hints that he might be an Arab terrorist, he was stopped by airport security in Detroit in 2002. Thet interrogated him to find out if he actually was a terrorist. Although he isn’t, Hasan was erroneously added to the US government’s watch list anyway. He knew that he could be stopped wherever he would travel, so Hasan made it a habit to contact government officials every time he was about to travel anywhere. At first, this was practical, and limited only to when he’d fly from one airport to another. He would take photos at the terminals and send them to the government to let them know he had gotten to and from his different destinations. But Hasan, who travels frequently, decided he would update the government as regularly as possible, even if he was just going to work and back home. He programmed his phone to photograph wherever he was at all times and post it on his personal website, which he set up cheekily in order to allow the government to check in on him 24/7. He began to photograph everything: his meals, his errands, and his rest stops. Hasan, playing along with the government and turning it into a game, designed for himself his own personal surveillance system that would allow absolutely anyone in the world to know exactly where his whereabouts were at any given time. According to Hasan’s theory, the government now has so much information about him that they hardly have the energy to find out anything about him anymore.
Hasan Elahi lives with the faith that whatever he is doing in life is okay for the government to see, okay for friends to see, okay for family to see, okay for strangers to see, okay for anyone to see. In an age where covert surveillance causes fear and trembling, Hasan Elahi has resolved that the best defense against finding out about our secret lives is to live lives without secrets.
And indeed, in Jewish living, how could we possibly live lives where we keep anything a secret from God? Whether we are confessing our sins on the High Holidays or we are surrounded by God’s presence in daily life, God’s Heavenly Court always has a way of uncovering that which we try to hide.
Traditional Jewish life asks us to check in with God the same way that Hasan Elahi checks in with the American government. We are assigned three times a day to check in with God through prayer: when we wake up in the morning, when we’re in the midst of the working day in the afternoon, and before we go to bed at night. There are blessings to be recited before and after eating every meal, and there’s a blessing we can say after we have used the restroom. When all the cameras are off and no humans are watching, there still is God—eyes on us, ears towards us, and blank pages in Heaven, ready to be filled with our stories.
But there’s a difference between Hasan Elahi and Judaism. Hasan’s cameras did not start revealing anything new to God—whether or not Hasan personally believes in God. Moreover, it is easy to challenge that there is a watchful God, if, simply, you don’t believe in God. And if we were to believe that there is no God, and that there is no God when we are alone, then we are not in effect always being watched. So, without God, we need not be accountable for our actions in private.
We would be wise to listen to the words of the 19th Century Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda: “You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.” None of us will ever hold ourselves accountable to God, or for that matter, to any higher authority, until we hold ourselves accountable to ourselves. We must hold ourselves accountable to our own sense of wrong or right. For some Jews, the reason we should do the right thing when no other people are around is because of yir’at shamayim—our fear of Heaven. Our Heavenly God may look askance at us and treat us badly if we behave badly: yir’at shamayim—our fear of Heaven. For other Jews, the reason we should act justly when no one is looking is because of yir’at het—fear of sin itself. Regardless of whether we know our friends and family are around us; regardless of whether we suspect that there is a hidden camera around us; regardless of whether we doubt that there is a hidden God amidst us; we are all obligated to live in yir’at het—in fear of sin itself.
So, do I personally care if the NSA is watching me? Not really. And my reason is beacause of my faith. First off, I don’t believe that the NSA has violated me. And second, I am accountable to a power even greater than the NSA: God.
Regardless of what the NSA knows about you or me, I know that above me there is עַֽיִן רוֹאָה, a Seeing Eye; וְאֹֽזֶן שׁוֹמַֽעַת, a Listening Ear; וְכׇל־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ בַּסֵּפֶר נִכְתָּבִין all of our actions recorded in a Holy Book in Heaven. If we can believe in ourselves, then we will never be alone anyway. We will always walk side-by-side with God’s loving presence. When we look back, we can see reflections of our ancestors and ask like Joseph did: WWJD? What Would Jacob Do? Or, what would my parents do? God discerns our hearts, entering every intimate moment, not interrupting as a third person, but intertwining as a spirit conferring with our souls. God is not just watching our actions and investigating our hearts. God is bringing our actions to life. God is making our hearts beat in real time. And God is watching, because God cares for us.
May this year be one where we find our best selves, where we accept ourselves, where we see ourselves as accountable, where we love ourselves, and where we do not fear what others may discover about us. What they may discover God will have already found, and we and God will have already found a way to love and accept it: the sounds, the sights and the actions of our best selves, and the sounds, the sights and the actions of our worst selves. And may we each know that nothing about us can be holier than who we can be, and who we can become, in the privacy of God and self.
תפילת הזכרת הורים כשאין מניין לאמירת קדיש
Memorial Prayer For When There is No Minyan
אָֽנָּא יְיָ מֶֽלֶךְ רַחֲמִים, אֵל אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחוֹת לְכׇל־בָּשָׂר, אֲבִי יְתוֹמִים וְדַיַּן אַלְמָנוֹת אֱלֹהִים בִּמְעוֹן קׇדְשֶֽׁךָ! תָּבֹא לְפָנֶֽיךָ תְּפִלָּתִי וְתוֹרַת חַיִּים שֶׁלָּמַדְתִּי בַּעֲבוּר נִשְׁמַת
להזכרת אב: אָבִי מוֹרִי (שם האב) הַנּוֹלַד מִן (שם אביו) שֶׁהָלָךְ לְעוֹלָמוֹ
להזכרת אם: אִמִּי מוֹרָתִי (שם האם) הַנּוֹלֶֽדֶת מִן (שם אביה) שֶׁהָלְכָה לְעוֹלָמָהּ
כולם ממשיכים: וּבַאֲשֶׁר שֶׁלֹּא אוּכַל לְכַבֵּד זִכְרוֹן
להזכרת אב: (שם האב) נִשְׁמָתוֹ
להזכרת אם: (שם האם) נִשְׁמָתָהּ
להזכרת אב: אָבִי מוֹרִי (שם האב) נִשְׁמָתוֹ
להזכרת אם: אִמִּי מוֹרָתִי (שם האם) נִשְׁמָתָהּ
Please Lord, Sovereign of Compassion, God, Arbiter of the spirits of all flesh, Parent of Orphans and Judge of widows: God, from the source of Your holiness! May my prayer and the Torah of life that I have learned come before you on account of the soul (parent’s name) born of (grandparent’s name) , who has gone on to her/his world. As I cannot honor the memory of (parent’s name) ’s soul by saying a communal Kaddish, You God who examines hearts, may You link good thinking to such action, and may the spirit of my (relation) , my teacher, (parent’s name) ’s soul be bound in the bond of life in the Garden of Eden, along with all other righteous and pious people, sheltered beneath the shade of Your wings. Amen, and amen.
 Note that in Sefer Totza’ot HaHayyim (after some passages of Torah study; p. 111), Rabbi Joseph Nobel spells this word with the final vowel being a kamatz ( ָ ), rather than a patah ( ַ ); however, because the word dayyan (דַּיָּן) here is in semikhut (סְמִיכוּת, “subordination”) form (the grammatical form where the noun preceding the next noun—without the use of a preposition or any word inbetween—acts subordinately in relation to the following word), the grammatically correct vocalization is as written in the version of the text here, with a patah.
 In Nobel’s version, this word is spelled inconsistently with standard Hebrew grammatical laws: בְּצִיבּוֹר. The above text has incorporated this correction.
 This word is likely a mistake for either תְּצַדֵּק (“justify”) or תְּצָרֵף (“link”). The translation here follows the latter interpretation.
 This term, referring to “righteous women,” is technically already subsumed under the previous word צַדִּיקים (tzaddikim), “righteous people.” Some may choose to omit the word וְצַדִּיקוֹת (vetzaddikot).
 In Nobel’s printing, there is a dagesh in the dalet of hasidim, thusly spelled incorrectly: חֲסִידִּים.
 This term, referring to “pious women,” is technically already subsumed under the previous word חֲסִידִים (hasidim), “righteous people.” Some may choose to omit the word וַחֲסִידוֹת (vahasidot).
Many thanks to Rabbi Tzvi Graetz for calling the original source to the attention of mine and other Facebook users.