Friday, October 27, 2017

Do You Know this Wealthy Jew?

A quick Web search of the Detroit Jewish News Archives from the past two decades will yield a handful of covers featuring head shots of some of our Jewish community’s most successful businessmen who are remembered for their generous charitable contributions. These individuals were mega-wealthy, but they were glorified for their mega-philanthropy. What many may not realize is that the founder of our faith was a wealthy businessman too and the Torah’s first Hebrew might serve as a paragon of virtue for today’s mega-wealthy.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech Lecha, Abraham is commanded by God to "lech lecha," that he should leave his ancestral land and travel to a new place that God will show him. Right after this divine order, we are informed about Abraham’s financial status. V’Avram Kaved Meod (Abram was very rich.” Our patriarch was rich in cattle, silver and gold. There is much to be learned from this word kaved, or rich. The word most often used for rich or wealthy in the Torah is ashir. So we must be curious about the choice to use kaved here.

In modern Hebrew, we use the word kaved to mean heavy, as in a physical weight, but it can also mean a burden. Rashi mentions this meaning in his commentary on the verse, and adds another meaning of kaved that we are familiar with from the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments -- kabed et avicha v’et imecha (you must honor your parents). Similarly, from the same root is the word for an honor that is given out in synagogue, a kibood. Finally, the word kaved also means liver, which is the heaviest part of our body. So, in the Torah portion, we learn that Abraham is very wealthy and that the term used to demonstrate his wealth is an unusual choice.

"Kaved" is used to tell us that Abraham was weighted down with many possessions because of his wealth showing that it can be a challenge to have a financial fortune. In the very next verse, we learn that Abraham traveled from the Negev desert to Beit El “in stages,” which Rashi explains as meaning that Abraham took the same route on his return staying in the same places he had lodged on his way down to Egypt before he had wealth. This means that while Abraham is wealthier now, he has retained his humility and doesn’t choose to stay in nicer places. Abraham, our patriarch, was not altered by his accumulation of wealth. Recognizing the tendency to be burdened by money and possessions, Abraham maintain his kavod (honor) when he became kaved (wealthy). This is not always the case.

We tend to only see the positive side of enormous financial wealth. But, having power and wealth can be burdensome, it can be a challenge. In our society, such a vast possession of wealth requires much responsibility and integrity. It catapults people into the public eye, living life in a fishbowl, having every business decision scrutinized, every investment maneuver questioned. There are many advantages to a life of wealth, but it must be done while maintaining kavod.

There is much to learn from our patriarch Abraham. He was wealthy, but he was also well respected and humble. A model for us in modern times, Abraham possessed the dignity to keep him from a life of over-indulgence in material wealth. Many of the mega-rich tycoons in the corporate world of the 20th and 21st centuries were not paragons of virtue. Their wealth became burdensome, they became greedy and many ultimately got into legal trouble before their ultimate downfall. Such has not been the case with the Detroit Jewish community’s leaders over the past century. By and large, our community has been blessed with a disproportionate number of mega-philanthropists who have used their fortunes for the common good, bolstering noble causes in our community. Like our patriarch Abraham, the pillars of our dynamic community have maintained their kavod while being kaved.

For further discussion:

1. Have you noticed behavioral differences in friends or relatives who have become wealthy suddenly?

2. What are ways we can teach our children to make philanthropy a priority in their lives?

Originally published in The Detroit Jewish News

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Free Speech vs. Respecting the National Anthem

The following is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur:

A story: In a synagogue somewhere (it doesn’t matter where), the rabbi instructs the congregation, “Please rise for the Torah processional as the ark is opened and the Torah is taken out.” The rabbi notices one of the synagogue regulars has remained in his seat. He thinks this is odd and makes a mental note to ask Mark during the kiddush following services why he didn’t stand. After the Torah reading the rabbi again directs the congregation to stand and, once again, there’s Mark sitting in his seat.

At Kiddush, the rabbi approaches Mark and greets him with a “Shabbat Shalom.” The rabbi asks Mark if everything is OK and he says it is. The rabbi says that he noticed he did not stand when the Torah came out of the Ark or when it was put back during the recessional. The rabbi peppered him with more questions. “Is there a handicap that prevented you from standing? Do you have a bad back? Do you now get dizzy if you stand?”

Mark then looked at the rabbi and explained, “Because I’m a gay man. I cannot agree with what the Torah says about me or my friends in the gay community. I’m silently protesting the verse in Leviticus that deals with homosexuals. You want me to stand out of respect for a document that, in essence, calls me morally reprehensible – an abomination.

Well, the rabbi thought, on the one hand, it is our synagogue custom that everyone who is physically able to, stands when the Torah is carried around the congregation. But, on the other hand, we subscribe to the democratic ideals of free speech in our country. So, Mark is violating our synagogue policy, our minhag hamakom (our community’s custom), but I also respect him for taking a stand.

Now, I must tell you that I made up this story. But it does serve as an appropriate analogy for the ongoing debate about NFL football players “taking a knee” and refusing to stand during the National Anthem before football games as a form of a protest. I’m not going to get into the reasons WHY these professional football players are choosing to protest… some say it’s because of police brutality, others because of our President’s choice words in condemnation of their protest, and others because of the lyrics in our nation’s anthem. What I do want to discuss today is how we ascribe holiness and meaning to objects, and what happens when our embrace of freedom of speech gets in the way of how we feel about these objects of meaning.

First, take a moment to think about how you would respond to my made-up character of Mark. If you were the rabbi – or a fellow congregant in Mark’s congregation, what would be your response to his decision to not stand for the Torah processional and recessional because he’s at odds over what the Torah says? It’s a plausible act of conscientious objection. What if a group of women in the congregation refused to stand because they didn’t agree with the Torah’s views of women? What if all the non-Kohanim in a congregation objected to the privileges ascribed to the Kohens and refused to stand when the Torah was paraded? That would be a lot of people sitting down in protest!

From just one congregant refusing to stand, it could catch on and then there’d be large-scale protests in congregations around the country – maybe the world. Would we commend the protesters for holding their ground, or would be feel they were disrespecting our Holy Torah?

Remember, ultimately, it was humans who ascribed such holiness to the Torah. And it was humans who ascribed meaning to a poem by Francis Scott Key. Is it not each individual’s right to determine if they should stand or sit for the Torah? For the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner? What if someone chooses to sit for the singing of Israel’s national anthem – Hatikvah? Are they wrong? Are they inconsiderate? Or, are they merely expressing their beliefs and making a statement?

It’s a challenging situation and it’s certainly more complicated than simply saying everyone who is of able body MUST stand for the National Anthem. Looks look at how this controversy began in the NFL.

On August 14, 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick chooses to sit for the National Anthem and no one noticed. Mostly because the TV cameras never used to broadcast during the National Anthem unless it was a big playoff game or the Super Bowl. A week later, again Kaepernick sits during the anthem, and again, no one noticed. The following week, he sits and this time he is met with a level of vitriol unseen against an athlete. Even the future President of the United States took shots at him while on the campaign trail. Kaepernick went on to explain his protest had NOTHING to with the military, but he felt it was difficult to stand for a flag that didn't treat people of color fairly.

Then on August 30, 2016, Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret turned NFL long snapper, penned an open letter to Colin Kaepernick in the Army Times. In it he expressed how Kaepernick's sitting affected him. Then a strange thing happened. Kaepernick was able to do what most Americans to date have not... He listened.