Thursday, March 25, 2010

And When the Heroes Crumble

And When the Heroes Crumble

December 18th, 2009

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


I can't remember the first sports figure of whom I was disillusioned. There were always rumors circulating around Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, but they never made the front pages and I don't ever remember reading them in the sports section. When they retired in their prime like Sandy Koufax, I didn't see them crumble like the statues of Greece and Rome. Without the designated hitter slot, once they couldn't run and throw, their careers were over. I remember pitchers like Early Wynn and others struggling to win three hundred games, almost a guarantee to enter the Hall of Fame. Somehow we were permitted to keep our heroes, see them sanctified in the sports' pantheons and then enshrined in memory. It really hurt to learn that Bobby Thompson's home run off of Ralph Branca might have been aided by telescopes in the scoreboard and phoning back information about the pitches. Yet, he still had to hit it.


What about the George Washingtons, Thomas Jefferson's, Abraham Lincolns of this country, the David ben Gurions, Chaim Weitzmanns, Moshe Dayans and Yitzchak Rabins of Israel? The stories and myths of our countries provide the foundations of our existence and the motivation for our perpetuation. They infuse us with meaning and spirit. They rally our energies and urge us forward. And when the hero crumbles, the hurt can be intense because each of these components is afflicted. We want, we need, maybe incorrectly but true, someone to look up to, someone larger than life, whose deeds determine our future and destiny for the good, whose wisdom creates greater meaning, whose strength enter our bodies and make us stronger, whose music can soothe us or set our feet marching, singing like the angels. Maybe it is the child that always will reside within us, optimists and cynics alike, and shape our souls, to want to look up to someone as we as children looked up to our parents. And while the direction of that glance will change as we grow up, later on the incline will return to that original disposition as we as adults realize that we don't have all the answers to the challenges of life and wonder how our parents did so well.


Looking within the Holy text of our Torah, neither patriarch nor matriarch is elevated to the status of a saint. None of them are perfect. They are portrayed in all the pain and pathos of their humanity. They sin. They hurt. They cause pain. Yet God speaks to them even in or especially in their brokenness. They are the bearers of The Message, The Word, and we are their descendants in all our fragile and mortal humanity. Perhaps our story is strong because it is not based on the delicate pedestal of supposed flawlessness and faultlessness. We are not perfect either. We do not stand on the pedestal of moral superiority. Each holy person struggles to be right, to be good, to be moral, and to be ethical. Perhaps that is the greatness of our being human. That is the depth of having souls, the unique gift bestowed to the human kingdom.


I am saddened but not surprised over the downfall of Tiger Woods. Perhaps there were rumors circulating about his sexual behavior that did not make the sports pages of the Times-Dispatch but accompanied him from green to green, from golf course to golf course. If place and position is assessed by money then certainly Tiger Woods occupied the highest level of the Greek sports pantheon. Yet when there are homeless under the bridges and overpasses of Richmond tonight in this snow storm, while people are worried about food on their tables, paying the mortgage or losing their homes or a job, the sums of money that he has earned and commands is beyond my grasp. The disparity between these scenes is greater than any distance fathomable. The Hubble telescope's furthest reaches are closer than the divide between Tiger Woods and the homeless and the helpless. Indeed if he never swung his club again, never endorsed another product, he could live forever on his past earnings. He doesn't have to worry about anything ever again, financially. Only a select few have that privilege.


The Rabbis teach us that of all the riches in the world, the supreme, and the highest most esteemed is that of a good name, shem tov. As we are born clean and untainted it is bestowed upon us by our loving God. We don't have to do anything to get it. It is a gift. Our responsibility is to keep it pure, unsullied, unblemished and untarnished. It is not easy. The temptations before us are multiple and ceaseless. They are little and they are great. They stroke our ego and they dress our bodies. And yet our Judaism stills places the shem tov as the ultimate because it is the elevation of the soul in the purest imitation of God. It is the unfettered spirit that can soar without guilt, knowing that it has been good, lived goodly and did good deeds to others. The shem tov enlarges our vision about existence, about others and about good and evil. The greatest epitaph ever written should say: "He/she was born with a shem tov and died with a shem tov." No greater accolade could be given for this says it all, better than any Hall of Fame for any sport.


Tigers Woods was given a shem tov in his birth and his talent caused the media to embellish his reputation, his shem. That is not the same asshem tov. He has lost it, most ignobly. At Talmud class this week I speculated whether he can do teshuvah, repentance for his sins, for in this episode there are so many. Not just because of the alleged number of women but because he has brought shame upon his family, his wife, and his children. I was, am, always proud to say that my father is Henry Creditor. I do everything to insure that my children can say that they are proud that I am their father. What will his children say? How does his wife hold her head up in public? What about all the people who earned their living because of him and with the fall out of this disgraceful episode will be terribly hurt? What about all the youth who looked up to him, put him on a pedestal, idolized him and wanted to be like him? Must every hero crumble into dust? This disappointment and despair in others is a sin at his feet. At what price can a shem tov be bought? How much does it cost to reacquire respect, dignity and honor? What is the fee to repair the damage in his marriage, with his children? Sometimes it is beyond even the millions he has earned.


Yet even in brevity of these remarks I wish to include one more thought. I am not surprised at any of this. In every type of media, from clothing advertisements to film, TV and computer, the values of fidelity and modesty, honor and respect are under siege. And to hold them up is tantamount to heresy. The list is endless of the plots that elevate exactly what Tiger Woods did. On the altar of ratings and profits our society is ready to sacrifice all that is sacred, even the marital bond, even the parental duty, especially our bodies, and our honor and our integrity. I followed the discussion is the media of the speaker at a public school that seemed to stress abstinence in a way that perhaps went overboard. Surely after all our admonishments there will be teenagers that engage in sex and they need to be knowledgeable and informed about safe practices, but the safest sex is only between two covenanted monogamous adults. The highest morality is when we respect the holiness of our bodies. The highest ethic is when we respect the bodies of others. Abstinence is that highest plane. What has Tiger Woods taught his children? What image has he portrayed to society? Maybe there are too many hypocrites that do the same as he, yet will hang him from the highest pole?


His demise should bring pause and contemplation about the quality of our society, of our heroes and our souls.


A good Jewish boy whose birth will soon be celebrated is cited as having quoted in part from Psalms37:12: "The meek shall inherit the earth" as part of longer piece in the fifth chapter of Matthew. I would commend it to Tiger Woods.


Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see our God.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.

                                                            (Matthew 5: 3-9).


It might seem strange to you that I close these remarks in this vain but every sentiment espoused here come straight from our Torah and prophets, yet they are a shared heritage through their holy text.


If only all would live by the words of our faiths.

                                                                                    Shabbat Shalom

Minarets and the Future of Europe and the World

Minarets and the Future of Europe and the World

December 3rd, 2009

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


For me Switzerland is more than a picturesque setting for "The Sound of Music." It is more than the scenic setting of the Alps. It is the place that declared its neutrality on the eve of World War II and did the most to keep the Jews of Europe, fleeing for their lives, out of their country. There are many stories of how Jews were kept out and put out of Switzerland in those terrible and evil days. Predominantly, there was no sympathy, no mercy, no "love your neighbor" yodeling around the mountains. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Switzerland is the first – who knows what and where comes next – country to constitutionally ban the building of minarets. While their Federal Assembly recommended 129 to 50 to reject this initiative, 57.5% of the participating voters and 22 of the 26 cantons approved the initiative which now becomes Swiss law.


What is going on here?

Should we care?

What's it all about?


What is a minaret? "The word comes from the Arabic manara which means lighthouse. It is the distinctive architectural feature of Islamic mosques. They are generally tall spires with onion-shaped or conical crowns, usually either free standing or taller than any associated support structure. As well as providing a visual cue to a Muslim community, the main function of the minaret is to provide a vantage point from which the call to prayer is made." [Wikopedia].


Perhaps the most critical issue here is that the minaret serves the mosque just as the giant spires and crosses indicate the presence of a church.  In our and Beth Ahabah's majestic synagogues, there is no specific visual piece dominating one's vision that proclaims the synagogues' presence, nor our communities' existence. But Christianity and Islam, Church and Mosque are perched on the edge of the abyss. They once were locked in mortal combat during the days of the Crusades. Islam in its heyday invaded the European continent. In our powerlessness of the exile we could not challenge the Church or the Mosque. The Cross and the Crescent were dominant. Only with the Holocaust does the Church realize what it did to the synagogue. Only with the birth of the State of Israel does the Magen David and Crescent join in conflict.


The questions facing all parts of the world are strike to the core of civilization.


Can a society, a religion, set aside original components that demand dominance and domination and instead adopt a posture of co-operation and collaboration with another without risk to is own existence?


Can a society, a country accept into its midst significant numbers of people that are not like them and maintain their character and essential nature?


Is xenophobia natural to the human condition?

            As Americans, we know who flew the planes on 9/11.

            As Jews, we know who were the suicide bombers of the buses in Jerusalem.

            How do we look upon our fellow Muslim citizens of greater Richmond?

                        Do I fear them?

                        Can I love them?

                        Are we friends or foes, or is there some neutral, creative,

                                    quiet common ground wherein to make a new world?


Is one society able to accept the mores that are very different than theirs of another group, in a "live and let live" world?


What accommodations is an Eastern Religion ready to make to welcomed into the Western environment?


Can we live together without killing each other, or dreaming to kill each other?

Can we write a new chapter onto our ancient stories, even if we have to make significant changes?


As Jews who saw our synagogues burned by Christians,

As Jews who saw the height of our synagogues suppressed by Muslims,

            We must condemn the vote in Switzerland, and are not silent.

            The minaret, the cross and the Magen David should be able to loyally,

            faithfully, authentically proclaim the existence of their communities, and,

            to borrow a phrase from George Washington,

                                                                        "and none shall make them afraid."

            We remember the mantra of not protesting until it was too late and there was no one left to protest. We protest most vehemently!


We bring to the entire world the lesson from our Torah from last week's sedra of Jacob wrestling with an angel. The Rabbis themselves struggle with who this is. They say that Jacob was perhaps wrestling with his inner self. He had his own demons to exorcise. As all three faiths look back to our patriarchs, I recommend their leaders, to the Swiss, to Islam and to Christianity, to consider this understanding. They need to struggle with their inner selves. They need to remove from their hearts the evil they would do to others, the evil chapters of past histories.


I am not naïve nor blinded by wistful thinking. It is wishful thinking, the heartfelt desire, the deep dream, that people will desire and find the path to peace.

                                                                                                Shabbat Shalom


“The Voice is the Voice of Jacob But the Hands Are the Hands of Esau”

"The Voice is the Voice of Jacob But the Hands Are the Hands of Esau"

November 20th, 2009

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


The verse from this week's parsha of Toldot, "The Voice is the Voice of Jacob but the Hands Are the Hands of Esau" indicate the duplicity of Jacob towards his father Isaac to surreptitiously receive the blessing of the first born instead of his brother Esau, who was the true first born. It is a complicated sedra, and reading it can and should leave us ill-at- ease with all three main characters, Rebecca, Isaac and Jacob. While I was conditioned to see Esau as the "bad guy" in the Torah, in reading this sedra is particular, Esau is the one which attracts my sympathy. With all that said, the verse uttered by Isaac with his son standing before him, echoes through history as signifying a person being two-faced. I wish to use this verse in a most serious, delicate and crucial context.


Regarding Reverend Pat Robertson, at least everyone knows where he stands on any given issue. He is the voice of the ultra-conservative political spectrum as well as a voice expressing Christianity's response and manipulation of immediate pressing issues, social and political. While some in the Jewish world are willing to embrace ultra conservative Christian leaders when their views on Israel dovetail with ultra nationalistic Jewish views, I would personally reject both these and those. Both "ultra"s lead to destruction. And I would be particularly leery and exceedingly watchful of politicians who don't understand the difference and repudiate both these and those.


We are all horrified by the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas that happened two weeks ago. Whenever such terrible events occur I double clutch my kishkes, first for the terrible event itself, and secondly, waiting for the name of the perpetrator(s). When the name Maj. Nidal M. Hasan was mentioned I knew that many terrible things would be said about Arabs/Muslims, their place in our country and the world view about Islam. As Jews and as American, we should not, must not be silent.


On his 700 Club, Reverend Pat Robertson said the following:

"Islam is a violent – I was going to say religion – but it is not a religion. It's a political system. It's a violent political system bent on the overthrow of governments of the world and world domination.


"They talk about infidels and all this. But the truth is, that's what the game is. You're dealing with not a religion. You're dealing with a political system. And I think you should treat it as such and treat its adherents as such. As we would members of the Communist Party and members of some Fascist group."


I condemn Reverend Robertson for his remarks. The definition of Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity does not yield to simplification. We talk about Israel as a "Jewish State." Christianity made the Roman Empire into "The Holy Roman Empire." Islam has "the Ummah." In particular Christianity does not have clean hands. Its representatives decimated the Native Americans in North, South and Central Americas, never mind its bloody trail in Africa. It led several very bloody Crusades against Muslims before its adherents perpetrated the Holocaust on us. Judaism, at least in its earlier history also has bloody hands. The conquest of Canaan and the disposition of its peoples is well recorded with people rejoicing with David having killed by the thousands and tens of thousands. Even the self defense against thousands of missiles from Gazaand previously from Lebanon shows the difficulty of doing so among large number of civilians. There is an old expression: "People who live in glass houses don't throw stones." Everyone lives in glass houses. No one should throw stones at the other.


I condemn Reverend Robertson for his remarks.  No segment of American society should be tarred and feathered because of one its adherents has committed a crime. Should American Jewry have been so tarred when Goldstein perpetrated the massacre in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron? Are we all to blame for the sins of Bernard Madoff? Has not Robertson learned anything from the witch hunts conducted in the early 1950's looking for a "Commie" under every rock? Muslims, Jews and Christians died in the World Trade Towers catastrophe. Particularly because of his besmirching Muslim Americans with one brush stroke, we, from our own Jewish experience, must condemn him and his words and join with like minded Americans in demanding an apology and retraction. We know to where calling names leads. Words are not empty. They create hate. As Jews, because of the values of our Judaism we must condemn hate in any form.


I condemn Reverend Robertson for his remarks and want to hear equal words of condemnation from governor elect McDonnell.When then candidate Obama was linked to his former minister Jeremiah Wright, every one, Robertson and republicans included, jumped on the bandwagon to pressure him to denounce Wright.  $25,000 is not paltry sum in campaign donations. Does it by silence? Or will the governor elect, with a sizeable Muslim American population speak the truth?


Particularly one who has advocated for, lived in and has a daughter as a permanent Israeli citizen, do not take lightly nor casually the multi-dimensional geopolitical, religious, and economic dynamics that bedevil the world. There is nothing simple about it. But when I shop in the grocery store, in the malls, walk down Carytown and see men and women in their authentic garb speaking in their native language, I will not look at them as threats to my existence. I will look at them as fellow Americans. I want them to see my kipah and hear my Hebrew. I want us all to salute the flag and sing the anthem. If we can not do it in this country, then the world is doomed. As Jews, we must make a difference and raise our voices, to quote my favorite hero, Superman, "for truth, justice and the American way."


Shabbat Shalom.

Israel Is A Miracle

Israel Is A Miracle

Rosh HaShanah Day II, 5770

September 20th, 2009

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel is a "nas," is a miracle. Every time I fly over the coastline of Tel Aviv and land at Ben Gurion Airport I am filled with awe and radical amazement. Upon landing Ruby and I always recite Shehecheyanu. And while that beracha surely voices our thanksgiving for safely returning to Israel again, my mind is conscious that I am equally thanking God that we have arrived at this time in the chronicles of the Jewish people to have a state to which to return. I never, ever take this for granted. When I walk down the long corridor towards the luggage area and pass the sign welcoming me "home," my heart skips more than one beat. Every mile of the flight from Richmond to Israel is more than a measure of distance, it is a measure of history, it is a calculation of destiny. I walk much wherever I go. I feel that my steps on the streets of Jerusalem are paces through the journey of the Jewish narrative and not just my going from place to place. I believe there is a transcendent purpose for the Jewish people in the existence of Medinat Yisrael. This meaning and purpose clutches at my heart even in the most mundane details of daily living in Israel.


The Rabbinic imagination holds Eretz Yisrael as the most unique place on earth. They said that ten beautiful places were created in the world, nine of them in Eretz Yisrael. The medieval Jewish cartiologists (mapmakers) drew maps with Jerusalem as the center, as it is called the "bellybutton" of the world. Looking down at the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee at dawn or sunset, the sunset over the Mediterranean from the beach at Tel Aviv or looking at its glow from the city of Tzfat high in the upper Galilean mountains, the quietude of the Kotel at night, captivates me and captures me as no place else.


It is not that Israel is perfect. Ben Gurion is quoted to have said that he wanted everything in the Jewish state that everyone else has, Jewish garbage men, Jewish policemen and Jewish ladies of the night, and he got it. There are many imperfections in Medinat Yisrael. But looking at Jews in the rainbow of colors and in the cacophony of languages, in military khakis, M-16's on their shoulders, walking the streets, studying at the universities, shopping in the modern malls, building a country out of marsh and barren mountains - we have wandered and waited, we have suffered and endured for two thousand years, until we could do it in a place of our own, in the place of our beginning, in the place where we were born, four thousand years ago. We are not interlopers on this land. Medinat Yisrael does not exist because of the Holocaust, despite President Obama's remarks in Cairo.

            It exists because it fulfills Judaism, because it fulfills Jewish destiny.

            It is the liberation of the Jewish people.

            It is the restoration and expression of our national being.


My feelings and writings develop from my thinking about the existence of the Jewish people. My first encounter of Israel was as a child with a little cellophane bag of sand, purported to have come from Eilat and a fifteen piece puzzle. I treasured it. It was a little bit of Israel from far away and from all the ages of the past. As I have grown and studied, as I have stood on the Golan Heights and on the Temple Mount, I have pondered and meditated on a series of questions:

            Where do Jews belong?

                        Are we supposed to be citizens of the world?

                        Is my being an American an accident?

                        Should we all pack up and move to Israel?

                        What organizes my life? That is a question about me.

                        What am I? What are we?

                        And, "how" am I? "How" are we? Jew? American?

                                    What comes first, last or not at all?

                                    What determines how I live, the dreams that drive my life?

            What language should I speak?

                                    English is my native tongue and Hebrew I acquired.

                        What does having a common language imply?

                                    And what does it mean not to have one?

                        Will Hebrew literacy or lack thereof bind us together or disconnect us?

            How do we see the world and its politics?

                        Specifically, the areas under dispute,

                                    Do you know where they are?

                                    Do you call them "The Territories, "The West Bank."

                                                                 "Judea and Samaria, Yehudah v'Shomron"?

                        What should Israel do with the settlements? Where are they?

                                    Do you really care? What's the implication?

            Who remembers June, 1967, October, 1973, 1956,  besides pre-1948?

            And lastly, who has been to Israel?   For how long?

                               How many here today never intend to even visit,

                                     while going everywhere and anywhere else in the world?

                                What message does that give to your children, grandchildren?

            Where is home?          

I can only share a small amount of the thoughts in my heart.


The liturgy, ritual and inner dynamics of Judaism and the Jewish people always oriented Eastwards. While current synagogues like ours were built to fit into the block, it was almost universal to face Jerusalem. Jewish homes had a piece called a "Mizrach" which means "east", secured to the eastern wall of the house, pointing the way. My grandmother as a child in Poland nailed a piece of matzah at the end of Pesach on the eastern wall of the house that stayed there until erev the next Pesach. Jews faced east with their heads, their hearts and their bodies.  To pray the Machzor that is in your hand, the Siddur the rest of the year, to read Torah, is to affirm the centrality of the land of Israel in and for Jewish existence. We close the Seder and Yom Kippur, not with a memo to our travel agent but with a religious exclamation: L'shanah HaBahah BeYerushalayim. It has always meant: By next year may the Jewish people return home to Eretz Yisrael. Of all the generations that have come before, we alone are the privileged generation to have Medinat Yisrael.


This consciousness, this physical and spiritual posture was based on the vision that Jews outside of Israel are living in the Exile, in Galut. The very use of that word makes clear the belief that Jews belonged, at least predominantly, in the land of Israel. One moment which made me melt, was standing in line to pay for a meal in a town in Emek Hefer, our partnership region, and the cashier, having never met me before yet clearly recognizing my being an American, said softly, "Welcome home." Maybe that is why the singular question so many Israelis ask is: "When are you moving here?" It is asked with sincerity, with love, it is  asked with four millennia of longing, that the Jewish people should be one, should be whole, should live its national life with vibrancy, with normalcy impossible any place else.


Yet most Jews in the world choose to remain in the lands of their domicile. Israel is coming to grips with the fact that while it is now the numerical center of the Jewish people, the Galut, the Jews of the Diaspora will endure and need their/our own vibrancy, too. But if we are going to stay here, there are some things I must say:


Israel must never be for us "just another place in the world." In a sense world Jewry lives vicariously through Israel. Without it, the Magen David would be missing from the international ensemble of flags. Israel puts us on the world stage. Without it, the Jews of the world would have no defender.//// Remember Entebbe.//// Without it, we would not have our self respect, as Jews. Without it, Jewish culture in all its manifestations would be stilted, like a soul without a body. Without Israel, there would be no magnetic force, no centripetal force to unite people that have such diversity and distance. My list is endless. No matter how we existed pre 1948, we cannot live like that again.


Here let me insert from my writing to you during our visit this summer:


The last time we went to Yad VaShem was 36 years ago - 1973. It has been totally remade and expanded. The experience here is totally different from the Museum in Washington, D.C. and ours in Richmond. But one memory of our visit stands out sharply and indelibly. Many units of the army, border police and Jerusalem police were on organized and guided tours at Yad Vashem. At a model of a concentration camp stood two soldiers, motionless, expressionless, staring, poring, riveted to the model. Both wore kipot and one had payot, both in the uniform of the army of Medinat Yisrael. Perhaps is was just me, but maybe this was what was going through their minds - the juxtaposition of them, their age, their religious being, their strength, their military service, the existence of the State embodied in them, the soon to be observed Tisha B'Av - remembering the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Jewish Commonwealths resurrected by the blood of those previous to them, and the model of a place of our destruction, that their blood will prevent in the future. I hope they didn't see me staring. I did not want to interrupt or intrude on them. More than the displays -- these soldiers caught me completely.


Would we have been chased out of every country,

would we have been burned at the stake,

would we have had to endure centuries of endless, bloody pogroms

            and burned in the furnaces of the Holocaust,

                                    if we had had a State of our own?

That question, above all others, disturbs my life, haunts me,

                        and is answered with each grain of earth of Medinat Yisrael.

I feel that answer in the soles of my feet as I work each step on the soil of Eretz Yisrael.

I see that answer in our daughter's face, a proud citizen of Medinat Yisrael.


Without intending to whitewash anything, the Jewish heart in the Galut, in the Diaspora, must be in sympathetic beat with Medinat Yisrael.

            We must be its defenders.

            We must be its spokesmen.

            We are better than you read in the newspapers.

                        Just because Medinat Yisrael exists,

                                    quite clearly does not mean, that the world loves us!

                        Quite the reverse!

                                    The discrimination against Medinat Yisrael is virulent,

                                    in every language, in every electronic format, ceaselessly,

                                    even if you don't read it in the World Street Journal or the


So let me ask:

How many here have been to Ashdod?

How many here have been to Ashkelon?

How many here have been to Beersheva?

How many here have been to Shderot?

                                                                        I have been to all of them.

And I hope that the office can electronically attach my photos to this sermon when published on the listserv. At the Rabbinical Assembly Convention held in Jerusalem this past February, we traveled to these four cities/towns. I first had to sign a waver releasing them from liability in case I suffered any harm. I visited schools, Conservative synagogues, and an old age center.  As civilian centers, they were the targets of the thousands upon thousands of missiles fired from the civilian population centers inside Gaza.  They aimed at the water treatment centers, the electric plants, the ports, the apartment houses. 12,000 rockets of all varieties. And I saw them! When we came to the Conservative synagogue in Ashkelon, the first thing said to us was not, "hello," was not "we welcome you." It was: "If you hear a siren, this part of the room goes out that door to that shelter and this side of the room goes out that door to that shelter." That was my "Hello" sitting in shul in Ashkelon. Then we went to the lions den. I stood with my colleagues on the hillside of Shderot facing Gaza, as if I was standing on Broad by MCV and looking at Church Hill. And from those residential, civilian housing complexes in Gaza were fired the katyushas, the rockets, the missiles without end upon the civilians, citizens of Israel, their homes, their shops, their schools, their hospitals.

            And the world did not care.             And the world did not stop it.

            And the U.N. did not send any commissions.

            And the world did not condemn Hamas.

It doesn't seem real to me standing here in this shul in Richmond, Virginia. You can't feel the fear of parents with their children in school, their parents in their old age impossible to get to shelters, that your steps are measured in the distance to which bomb shelter you should run, in the sense of isolation that the rest of the world that doesn't care what happens to you, how much you will suffer, and in the words of the Unetaneh Tokef, "who will live and who will die."


This doesn't excuse any crime. But the report released this week is a sham, at best. When released on the listserv, I will attach President Shimon Peres' remark that are most eloquent. I don't stand here as an apologist for Israel. I don't stand here as a Rabbi. I stand here as a Jew. It was a terrible war. It was fought under the most difficult conditions. There were mistakes. There was the heat of the battle. The stories of the bravery of Israeli soldiers trying to protect Palestinian civilians will unfortunately never be told until too late, and nobody will read them, and nobody will care. But us. We care. That will have to be enough. I have faith in the fathers and sons, the mothers and daughters who defend their parents, their grandparents, their children, when the world doesn't care again, if Jews live or die. I have faith in Medinat Yisrael, without making excuses, without having to white washing the truth.


It is a mitzvah - a commandment - that every Jew must visit Israel, at least as a tourist, if not for longer. Every Jewish child must visit Israel: on youth tours, Birthright, for their junior year of college abroad, or at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem after they graduate. If I could rewrite the Machzor, if would add it to the list of Al Chets, if we don't. My words are just words. There are no words that substitute for walking the streets, looking into their faces, listening to their voices and seeing the miracle of Medinat Yisrael. The gap between American Jewry and Israel, our lack of knowledge, our disconnect, our disinterest is a sin. Atonement will be made by going there, for which beating our hearts cannot replace.


When I first heard of the Kotel, "The Wall," it was called the "Wailing Wall." That term was coined by the British who translated it from the Arabic. They mistook our praying on Shabbat eve, with our kisses upon the ancient stones, the place of our glory, as cries of anguish, when it was really tears of adoration and of love for our holiest site. In all our history we never called it "The Wailing Wall." It was just "HaKotel" or "HaKotel HaMa'arvi," "The Western Wall." I believe that if God had not watched over us to preserve at least a saving remnant, we would still be weeping. The Guardian of Israel has saved us, as we have joined in saving ourselves.  The Kotel is a place of joy. I wrote about the soldiers pledging their allegiance to serve, protect and defend Medinat Yisrael, in the courtyard before it. When Ruby and I watched them I did my best to hide my tears of pride, to suppress my feeling that our entire history was fulfilled, and the absolute faith, that from this land, with whatever borders will ever be drawn, we will never leave again. I share these feelings, these insights, my imploring you to go to Israel, from the deepest recesses of my heart. May God protect and shelter the defenders of Israel and our State.                                      May Gilad Shalit return home soon.

                                                May we love Medinat Yisrael as we love life itself.   Amen.     

What Do You Do When You Go To A Cemetery?

What Do You Do When You Go To A Cemetery?

Yizkor - Yom Kippur - 5770

September 28th, 2009

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


What do you do when you go to a cemetery? Especially when it isn't an unveiling and I'm not there to conduct a service. What do you do?


My earliest memories are of going to Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York where my maternal grandfather, Abraham Liebhoff is buried. We would pick up my grandmother in Boro Park, Brooklyn and drive to Queens, across the highway from the 1964/1965 World's Fair. We used to joke that he had the best seat in the house. We walked the short distance from the road. First, my parents and grandmother would 'inspect the stone.' Nothing ever changed. Then my father would pull any weeds growing in the bed of ivy. My brother and I just stood and watched. Then my brother and I were prompted to talk about what had happened in our lives since we were last there. My parents would ask us about this and that. It was as if my grandfather was listening in. It would be a long time until I learned a relevant Talmudic teaching. God forbid if we left out any details. In the early years, when there were still empty plots, my parents and grandmother would discuss if they knew those recently buried. We didn't say any prayers. Just stood there. By some unwritten code, they decided that it was time to leave. My father always kept a bag of rocks from the backyard in the trunk and we would take a stone and put it on the top of the monument. I always wondered what happened to the ones we had put there the last time. That's a subject for another sermon. Then we walked back to the car.


It was later that I learned that the mitzvah we were fulfilling has a distinct name: kever avot. It is a mitzvah enfolded in a minhag, custom, to do this not only before the Yom Tov season but also at yahrtzeit and before most important events in one's life. Before I left for Israel in 1968 and 1973, before Ruby and I were married, and before Tzeira left for Israel in 2007 I visited the graves of my grandparents, my paternal great grandparents, my father, Ruby's mother and grandparents, my uncle and other family members. After getting to New York, it is a full day's drive from cemetery to cemetery to 'do' kever avot.


At all but one, we follow the family pattern that I learned at my grandfather's grave. I sometimes even remember to bring stones from Richmond to New York.  I now include some prayers, Psalm 23, and El Moleh for each one. All their Hebrew names are engraved so I can say it easily. 'Doing' kever avot for my father is, eighteen years after his death, still not easy. After relating all the important events of my life since I stood at his grave last, I cry. I don't do it at the other graves, but at my father's grave I cry. As I stand there and think of the special moments in my life: when I was a little boy; when I assumed my student pulpit; of the births, brit milah and naming of Menachem, Yonina and Tzeira, I see every moment. When I think of his death at the age of 67, and all that he missed since then, my neshama is provoked to endless tears.


My father is not the youngest person I ever buried. My mother-in-law was younger. Perhaps, besides our own bond as father and son, and that I missed having my father at my side for so many special moments in my life, thinking of the prematuredness of his death brings me to recall so many of the young people for whom I have officiated and the injustice of all their early deaths, and further provokes my tears. I miss my father dearly. Through the years of my Rabbinate I particularly miss and am pained by those who died, in the words of the Unetaneh Tokef, "before their days." I don't know how we are supposed to calculate "in their time," but I can certainly calculate when it is too soon. It is difficult for the religious person who accepts the belief in a good and just God as a fundamental axiom of a life of faith, to stand before the 'early' graves. I have no words to assuage the pain, and so I cry. It expresses all the feelings and all the emotions for which I have no words, that for which words can do no justice.


Maybe tears are meant to be therapeutic. Not only do they literally wash my eyes, trying not to rub them red, but they figuratively 'wash my soul.' The act of crying releases my pent up feelings of anger, of disappointment, of longing. My internal compass fluctuates wildly and then, after the tears, settles down in a steady place. When Ted Kennedy died and was buried 100 feet from Bobby and 200 feet from John I was transported back to the days of their deaths, and felt again the pain that I remember from my youth. I could not restrain the tears. Not so much because of Ted Kennedy, but his death was the doorway to events of yesteryear. I felt that ache when I stood before the eternal flame on Arlington Cemetery. There is something unresolved, unfinished, imperfect, unacceptable, and there is nothing that I can do to balance history, to right the wrong, or rewrite the script. Tears are the only tool in my human arsenal.


Tears and stories. Stories can express ideas better that philosophical tracts. Stories can allow our imaginations to roam; they can propose responses to our existential dilemma that are not bound by fact or logic. Stories help me cope with life. I share this with you.


The story is by Shloyme-Znavel Rapaport, better known as S. Ansky. It is entitled:

 "Dos Lebn fun a mentsh," - "A Person's Life."


When the time comes for a person to be born, God calls the angel named Night and says, "A person is going to be formed from such and such a drop. Bring the drop to the Throne of Glory."


The angel brings the drop to the Throne of Glory, and God decides whether the person will be male or female, weak or strong, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly. But God doesn't decide whether the person will be good or bad.


Then God calls the angel in charge of souls and says, "Hurry and bring me such and such a soul from the great storehouse."


The angel brings the soul to the Throne of Glory, and God says, "Soul! Go into this drop. This will be your home as long as this person lives."


The soul says, "Lord of all worlds. I am very satisfied here. Please don't bring me into this drop. I want to stay where I am."


And God answers, "The drop that I am bringing you into is also an endless world. And I created you for this very drop."


The soul cries, and all the other souls and the angels cry, too. But God forces the soul to go into the drop. Then He calls the angel named Night and commands him to return the drop to the womb of the mother, and that is the moment when the baby begins to be formed.


God gives the unborn infant two guardians, and angel of light and an angel of sadness.


Every day they carry the unborn infant with them and show it all the joy and suffering in the world. And every night they light a candle over the unborn infants' head. They teach it the entire Torah and tell it all the secrets of creation. And when the nine months are completed, the angel named Night comes and says, "Do you know me?"


"I know you. Why have you come?"


The angel says, "It is time for you to be born. You have to go into the world of human beings."


And the unborn infant says, "I am very satisfied here. Please don't take me into the world of people. I want to stay here."


The angel answers, "The world that I am taking you into is a world of life and good actions. God created you for this very world."


The unborn infant cries, and all the other unborn infants and the angels cry, too. But God calls the angel named Night and he extinguishes the candle. Then comes Purah, the angel of forgetfulness and as if he were flicking a stone off his thumb with his forefinger taps the unborn infant just over the lips, and it immediately forgets everything it saw and heard. It forgets the Torah that it was taught and all the secrets of creation. But an echo of all that it saw and learned stays with it in the deep stronghold of its heart.


Then the person is born and passes through seven worlds.


In the first world, the person is like anew emperor, greeted with joy and gifts.


In the second world, the person is like a goat who feeds in the muck at the riverside; jumping for joy, without a care, and eating grass that he didn't plant.


In the third world the person is like a young colt who feels free and happy. Nothing holds him back.

In the fourth world the person is like a fast horse that trots easily pulling a wagon behind him. He doesn't feel the weight of the people in the wagon.


In the fifth world the person is like a donkey heaped with burdens. He moves slowly and is whipped by his driver.


In the sixth world, the person is like a dog that drags off everything he can get and barks at everyone who comes near him.


In the seventh world the person is like a monkey, human in appearance, but not quite a human being. He loses his good sense, everyone laughs at him and no one obeys him.


Then comes the time to die. The angel named Night comes to the person again and says, "Do you know me?"


"I know you. Why did you come?"


"I came to take you away from this world."


The person doesn't want to leave the world and says, "You took me away from two worlds against my will. I want to stay in this one."


And the person cries bitterly, but no one living hears him because every heart would break if they did. Only the rooster that crows at night hears the person's cries and answers.


And the angel named Night says to the person, "You were created against your will, you lived against your will, and now against your will you have to die and give a reckoning to the King enthroned above kings of kings, blessed be His Name."


And the angel takes the person's soul.


This story is instructional and even inspirational.

We don't ask to be born and we don't ask to die. God is there from before the beginning. God is there after the end. It is God who sent us to this world and it is God who summons us back to Him. Between beginning and end our decisions and our deeds are in our hands. We cried not wanting to enter this world. We cry not wanting to leave it. And the angels of heaven cry with us. Perhaps when I cry at my father's grave, I am not crying alone. Maybe his neshama and the angels are crying with me too. And even if all the tears in heaven and on earth cannot change history, I feel better believing that I am not alone. I feel better having released the pent up emotions, having opened my heart. Perhaps even God cries with us. It is our tears that reveal our deepest humanity as we yearn for eternity.


So what do you do when you go to a cemetery? This is what I do and why I do it. But it is a question that each of you can answer with your own personal story. We remember. We pray. We put rocks. We cry. Yet there is another minhag when we visit a cemetery. As we leave we pull a few strands of grass and toss it away to remind us of the verse that our lives are as grass that exist briefly. But in this brief lifespan, as measured by the stars, as measured by God, we find the loves of our lives and perform beautiful mitzvot and exquisite deeds. Between the two eternities of past and future, we live purposeful and meaningful lives within the unknown but allotted span. As the Psalmist says, "Hazorim b'demah, b'rinah yiktzoru." "Those who sow with tears, will reap with joy."


May we know fewer tears and greater joy.

May we cry with those who cry.

May we give them our shoulders and they share theirs with us.

May we find peace and tranquility.                                                                Amen.