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YK Evening Sermon 2019 5780

The Wilderness as Midwife

Edwin Goldberg

A poet once wrote:

In the middle of our life journey, I found myself in a dark wood. I had wandered from the straight path. It isn’t easy to talk about it: it was such a thick, wild, and rough forest that when I think of it, my fear returns…. I can’t offer any good explanation for how I entered it. I was so sleepy at that point that I strayed from the right path.

These words, from Dante’s Inferno, capture a fundamental human constant: the forest, the wilderness, the jungle, is a metaphor for a formative place of fear. We all have internal journeys that we dread. Countless books, movies and fairy tales recount the adventures of the hero through the wilderness, or the dark night of the soul. Whether we call it sadness, loss, or failure, it is tempting to rush out of this place, if we can. But here is a great truth: ironically it is only by learning to live in the darkness that we can find our true selves.

The setting here in the Woodlands of Texas is beautiful and amazing but in traditional lore of fairy tales the woods are often a dark place filled with foreboding and great personal challenges.

As Joseph Campbell wrote every culture has a story of a hero who must find herself or himself only through travel in the dark woods.

Our lives are made up of darkness and light. Right now, sitting here at synagogue, you may be living in the light. Or in the darkness. I promise you that, wherever you are, this too shall pass. As Susan Sontag once wrote of sickness but it could also be any challenge: “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Illness as Metaphor)

Be it sickness, depression, frustration, failure, we all carry both passports.

As Americans we are famous for solving problems. But not all problems can be solved. Happiness is not the goal of life. And sometimes the wilderness is exactly where we need to be. Hemingway observed that “life breaks everyone; many are strong in the broken places.”

I believe an important message of Yom Kippur is to embrace the darkness as a gift. We may not like it, but it is part of who we are and if we cannot dispel it then at least we can learn to learn from it.

Think of how Jonah, in tomorrow afternoon’s reading, is first in the bottom of a ship then in the belly of a big fish. He certainly knew about darkness and yet his journey ends with God’s love and compassion for him. His journey inspires us because his dark tale resonates with us as well. How tempting it might be to run away from God when life is difficult. But Jonah’s story teaches us that God is not so ready to let us go. Jonah in the darkness of the belly of the fish is like one who meditates mindfully. There are no distractions. Nothing but the darkness and the paradoxical illumination that such darkness can bring.

Camus once said that, “In the midst of winter I discovered an invincible summer.” Likewise, it is only in the darkness that our inner light can be revealed.

A question asked by ancient Jewish sages: Why was Torah revealed in the wilderness? Why not in the center of Jerusalem? One answer: To remind us that revelation comes from emptiness.

Rabbi Shefa Gold says this of the wilderness:

The wilderness is the place of our journey…The harsh inner reality of the wilderness purifies whatever traces of enslavement we still carry. This wilderness is the midwife of our new life, after long and hard labor. The wilderness forces us to face the resistance, ambivalence and self-delusion that has kept us from whole-heartedly receiving our birthright: the promised flow of milk and honey that is given to us, and through us, with each moment of life. The wilderness will scare out all our old ghosts and send them forth from the shadows into the emptiness.

A great teacher of the power of light in darkness was the Baal Shem Tov. Born in the backwaters of the Carpathian mountains, in what in the 18th century was part of Poland and is now in Ukraine, his teachings are an invitation inward, a map that allows us access to pre-modern and even prehistoric modes of religiosity, and the transforming secrets of the Jewish esoteric tradition. The Besht, which was his nickname, believed that we find God in the ongoing story of one’s own life, and he believed in the value of each individual life a recipe for an engaged mystic, one who is of the world rather than withdrawn from it. Following his lead, even our struggles are to be seen in the context of the godly. Difficulties do not come from God, but God is part of our struggles with them.

The Baal Shem Tov did not leave behind many teachings but there are numerous stories told about him. Here is one: After he had been teaching for quite some years, his followers asked him – “Rebbe, What is different since you have come and shared your wisdom with us?” And he replied, “Before I came, when a thief tried to enter the house they would shout and scream and try and scare the thief away. Now that I have come” – the Baal Shem Tov went on to say – “when a thief tries to enter the house, they lie in wait. They trap the thief and they hand the thief over to the proper authorities.” So that’s the change: Shouting and trying to scare the thief away or letting the thief in before turning the thief over to the proper authorities.

Of course, this is not an argument about literal thieves and literal houses. Rather it is a question about the nature of the human soul. What is going on in this parable of the Baal Shem Tov? Well the house is the body – me, or you. And the thief? In Jungian terms the thief is our shadow – our messy stuff – our failures, our shortcomings, our embarrassments. Our inner darkness. Our fears. Our vulnerability.

It is the stuff we often keep hidden from our conscious minds. It’s not just the things we have done, but also the things we are drawn to do; the thief is the temptation to do unhealthy acts, our lusts and our temptations to hurt ourselves and others. It is also our sadness, our frustration, our failures. Our fears.

The ancient rabbis saw the thief as the yetzer hara – the evil inclination. In Yiddish we might call it the “schmutz”. Schmutz is a synonym for something dirty, like garbage, or it can be used in a sentence, like: “Those were some good ribs. Hey Tony, you've got some schmutz on your face.” So, in essence the Baal Shem Tov is saying this: Before I came, when people felt the evil inclination coming upon them, they would try and scare the evil inclination away. Now I have come, he says, we let the schmutz in, we acknowledge that it can’t be scared away, and we hand it over to the authorities. We work it over, and we own our schmutz. This is the great contribution of the Baal Shem Tov – helping us to “own our schmutz.” Shouting and screaming and trying to scare the thief away is an immature attitude, and it won’t work – the thief will duck ‘round the corner and plot another heist. We are instead asked to admit that there is something to learn from letting the thief in. You see, there is always something to learn from our evil inclinations, from all of our actions, even the failures. Not to mention our fears and our vulnerability. Of course, mindfulness is more than paying attention to the world. It is specifically about how we work so hard to avoid our inner truths, our schmutz, and how we might learn to confront our schmutz instead.

I have tried mindfulness meditation throughout the years. The basic discipline in this meditation is to concentrate on your breath and let your subconscious come to the fore. I always found it hard to do because it’s hard to let go of one’s conscious ego. Finally, I found myself more successful at the practice, but I was in for a nasty surprise. My meditation did not make me feel relaxed or good. Indeed, it seemed to be bothering me. I felt worse, not better, after meditation. Then I read Jeff Roth’s book on Judaism and meditation and his words helped me. (Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life: Awakening Your Heart, Connecting with God) He observed that mindfulness meditation often is unpleasant precisely when it works. For him, the practice is like revealing all the garbage under the kitchen sink. It stinks. But here’s the thing: when you see the garbage, and you deal with it, you take it out of the house, and you dispose of it. And that’s a good thing. After all, it’s better when it smells outside the house than inside the house!

Another Chasidic text to share, from the Tanya of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. In it he writes, “As you arouse your heart by facing your shadow you may find yourself engulfed in a deep and troubling sadness. If so, do not be alarmed. Such sadness arises from and operates within the shadow of self, yet it draws energy from your innate yet hidden desire for God and godliness and thus kindles your passion for self-transformation. To work with sadness, say to yourself: ‘I feel utterly removed from God, yet within me is the light of God desiring only to return to God…. Therefore, I will cry out to God and God will end the exile of my two related selves. Shalom will come.’”

Yom Kippur is about seeing ourselves in all the shadows. And still being in the light.

Thomas Moore writes:

The dark night is the soul shining through with its lunar luminosity. It is the deep, dark discovery of roots and cellars, the opposite of enlightenment, but equally important and equally divine. It is the pulling apart of meaning so that mystery can be revealed. It is the disappearance of an ego so that life can eventually move in its own time and its own way. (Dark Nights of The Soul, p. 311.)

In short, The Woodlands are a metaphor for the journey to truth we all must take if we are to live lives dedicated to reality, to growth, to lasting maturity, to repentance. To honor and integrity.

In the 18th century the Rhine River in Germany became a popular place for romantics to walk the trails, enjoy the river and contemplate the meaning of life. One Rhine obsessed Count built a deep, dark cave with both an entrance and an exit. The idea was to go through the dark tunnel and think about your life and then come into the light and a gorgeous view of the hills around and the Rhine River below. The moral is that the woods are scary but also life affirming. I went into this cave last month and I would be lying if I said that all my cares and fears disappeared when I exited the darkness. If only! But when I saw the view and the light at the end, it was so inspiring. In the middle of the cave there was a hint of the light to come with the singular rooftop opening. Amid total darkness, that light brought me comfort, even joy. That crazy Count was onto something important!

And I do believe that the cave’s message should not be lost on us: to be human is to know the darkness but it’s also to remember the light. Someone once said that religious people believe in hell, but spiritual people have been through hell.

This I know: the darkness is real but so is the light.

The woods hide us from the world, but paradoxically they also reveal the light within us.

As we sang at the beginning of our worship: Or Zarua Latzadik: Light is hidden for the righteous. Sometimes we only find it in the darkest of places.

Sometimes the light only comes after the darkness.

As the great poet Aeschylus wrote:


“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”.

And as the great Leonard Cohen sang, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”

This is our lot.

This is our blessing.

May it be our destiny.




September 30, 2019  Rosh Hashanah Morning 

A Flash of Trut

“For Sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

That’s one of the shortest stories ever written.

It’s an example of something known as “flash fiction.” That example — all of six words in length — has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although scholars are doubtful. The legend is that he wrote it in order to win a bet.

Whether the six-word story came from the genius of Hemingway or someone else, its back-story is seductive.

The thing about flash fiction is that it draws you in. It does so not by what it says, but by what it doesn’t say. Our six-word example is a very compact mystery novel. To whom do the baby shoes belong?

Why are they for sale?

And how did it happen that they were unused?

Was it because of some sort of falling-out between the person who purchased the shoes and the baby’s mother? Or was the mother so desperate for money she had to sell them?

Or, did something terrible happen to the baby?


The story, like a Zen koan, provides no answer. The answer is supplied by us, through our engagement with it.

A few years ago, (September 11, 2016) Zack Wortman, writing in The New Yorker, had a little fun with this whole flash fiction thing. He published a list of six-word sequels Hemingway might have written — based on the fantasy that this bouncing baby simply outgrew the shoes — and very fast, indeed. Here are a few of them:

Have you seen enormous baby? Escaped.

Authorities warn: beware of monster baby.

Baby crushes pickup truck. Bare hands.

Hostage taken. Baby on the move.

Playful baby delighted by military helicopters.

National Guard drags snuggly baby home.

Now everything is back to normal.

Everything except for the house-sized baby.

A similar example appeared on a motel signboard. A photo of it made the rounds on social media not long ago. The sign outside the motel — a short story in itself — said: “Now Pet Friendly. Except for bears. We’re not making that mistake again.”

Just let your imagination fill in the details.

Some have argued that flash fiction has been around for millennia. Consider, for example, Aesop’s Fables. These tales are longer than six words, but they are all very short, and carry a ton of meaning.

Actually such fables are more like flash truths. What’s a flash truth? A brief statement that speaks a great truth, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

It can also be a brief tale with an important moral. There was a flash truth in the Torah portion that we read today. When Hagar is sent out into the wilderness by Abraham, she despairs that her son will die of thirst. She abandons him out of her fear of seeing him suffer. And then God opens her eyes and she sees a well of water, a well that had always been there. Something there but not seen. That is a flash truth, for it describes so much of our own blindness to the reality before us.

We’ve all been guilty of missing the obvious. The pilots in our congregation surely remember what happened to the two Northwest pilots a few years ago, who overshot Minneapolis, their destination, by 150 miles. They were oblivious of their instruments and their internal clocks, as well as of a barrage of increasingly desperate radio calls from air-traffic control. Afterward, they explained that they’d logged onto their personal laptop computers and become so engrossed — not in social media updates or God knows what but rather, if you believe them, in the nuances of the airline’s new crew flight-scheduling procedure -- that they’d essentially forgotten where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. Which was landing a plane.

We can laugh at these two hapless pilots except that driving around even in The Woodlands it is hard not to see the distracted drivers, blithely texting away. This is not only bad form. It’s also unrealistic to think we will maintain situational awareness while being distracted. Recently, Western Washington University released the results of an experiment in what’s called “inattentional blindness” — a state of such absorption in an activity that you fail to notice really obvious stuff around you, like a guy in a gorilla suit. Go watch the YouTube video where people are playing basketball and viewers are told to count the number of basketball passes. In the video a guy in a gorilla suit walks in and pounds his chest. People who watch the video often don’t see the guy. They are distracted. And, by the way, when I saw the video the first time I totally missed the gorilla. In Wisconsin they tried a test, it was a clown on a unicycle, pedaling through an open square on campus. Of the test subjects who were walking by while talking on their cell phones, roughly three out of four failed to see the clown.

What is going on? We are being driven to distraction and we need to do something about it.

Go to any family friendly restaurant and you will see parents distracted from their kids because of their phones. And often the kids themselves, sometimes still in diapers, are hypnotized by their parents’ phones. Or maybe they have their own ones, for all I know!

It has gotten crazy. We are addicted and we are blinded by our addiction to technology.

Like Hagar, we are not even aware of the reality before us.

Earlier this year, Alexandra S. Levine, a Metro reporter for The New York Times, wrote of being forced to go phoneless while viewing a corruption trial. The courthouse had required observers to check their electronics before entering the building. Levine writes, “The experience was at once inconvenient and enjoyable, disorienting and liberating.” She also said after a day with no texting, email or internet, it occurred to her that the courtroom “might be one of the few spots left in the city where New Yorkers could fully disconnect.”

The experience led Levine to explore what other venues in the city required one to temporarily cut the cyber pipeline to the rest of the world. But even in a place as large and varied as New York City, it mostly came down to courtrooms, federal buildings, jails, some museums, a few restaurants and various performance sites.

Generally, the museums and restaurants simply ask visitors to shut off their electronic gadgets, but some performers now require audience members to place their cell phones in provided pouches that include a lock technology that prevents people from using the devices. They can keep their phones with them, but the pouches make it impossible to snap pictures, shoot videos or send text messages during the performance. Their only option — gasp! — is to simply view the show.

Such restrictions are necessary because so many of us have become compulsive users of our communication devices. We could, of course, simply shut off our electronics from time to time and create our own disconnected zones, but how many of us actually do it?

“The typical American cell-phone user checks his or her phone on the average every four minutes, spends at least six hours per day looking at the screen of a cell phone or a computer, and spends more than 10 hours per day (i.e., most waking hours) connected to some electronic device. The result is that most Americans no longer experience one another as live humans whose faces and body movements we see, whose voices we hear, and whom we get to understand. Instead, we experience one another predominantly as digital messages on a screen, occasionally as voices over a cell phone.”

Excerpt From


Jared Diamond

The fact is, unless we’re in one of the officially restricted locations, if we want to unhook from the larger world, we have to take the steps ourselves to make it happen.

Television producer and reality TV show judge Simon Cowell hasn’t used his mobile phone in almost a year — and he told a U.K.-based publication that it's “absolutely made me happier.”


In an interview with the Daily Mail, Cowell — known for his work on “American Idol” and “X Factor” and his notorious on-air insults — said he used to get irritated when he had a meeting, and everyone was on their phone.

“I literally have not been on my phone for ten months,” the TV mogul told The Mail.

Since he’s given up his addictive phone habits, he noticed he's been more focused on his immediate surroundings, he told the publication.

Ditching his mobile “has been so good for my mental health,” he said. “It’s a very strange experience but it really is good for you and it has absolutely made me happier.”

Cowell is one of the latest people to draw attention to unplugging from cell phones as a way to improve mood, health and cut down on distractions.

“Bill Maher ends every episode of his HBO show Real Time with a monologue. The topics are usually political. This was not the case, however, on May 12, 2017, when Maher looked into the camera and said:

“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”

Excerpt From

Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport


“Maher’s concern with social media was sparked by a 60 Minutes segment that aired a month earlier. The segment is titled “Brain Hacking,” and it opens with Anderson Cooper interviewing a lean, red-haired engineer with the carefully tended stubble popular among young men in Silicon Valley. His name is Tristan Harris, a former start-up founder and Google engineer who deviated from his well-worn path through the world of tech to become something decidedly rarer in this closed world: a whistleblower.

“This thing is a slot machine,” Harris says early in the interview while holding up his smartphone.

“How is that a slot machine?” Cooper asks.

“Well, every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see ‘What did I get?’” Harris answers. “There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used [by technology companies] to get you using the product for as long as possible.”

“Is Silicon Valley programming apps or are they programming people?” Cooper asks.”

“They are programming people,” Harris says. “There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true—”

“Technology is not neutral?” Cooper interrupts.

“It’s not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.”

Bill Maher, for his part, thought this interview seemed familiar. After playing a clip of the Harris interview for his HBO audience, Maher quips: “Where have I heard this before?” He then cuts to Mike Wallace’s famous 1995 interview with Jeffrey Wigand—the whistleblower who confirmed for the world what most already suspected: that the big tobacco companies engineered cigarettes to be more addictive.

“Philip Morris just wanted your lungs,” Maher concludes. “The App Store wants your soul.”

If we agree that our devices are controlling us we still may not have the willpower to stop.

Of course, most of us don’t even want to try.

I find this sad.

I am also aware that I, too, am addicted. But this doesn’t mean I need not work on the problem myself.

You may recall the story of the mother who brought her boy to Mahatma Gandhi and asked the great man to tell the boy to stop eating so much sugar.

The Mahatma told the mom to bring the boy back in two weeks.

At which point Gandhi said to the boy, “you must stop eating sugar. It’s very bad for you.”

The boy had such respect for Gandhi that he stopped and lived a healthy life.

But the woman was confused and asked him, “Gandhi, please tell me: why did you want me to wait two weeks to bring back my son.”

Gandhi said, “Because before I could tell your son to stop eating sugar, I had to stop eating sugar first.”

So let me say, as a tech user myself, that the point is not to give up our tech, but to realize how distracted we have become and how we need to curtail our practice. That’s the flash of truth we need to see.

Fortunately, if we really want to change our usage, there are suggestions to help.

For instance:

(From the New Yorker, April 29 2019:) According to the Georgetown computer-science professor Cal Newport, “willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.” In “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” (Portfolio), Newport argues that we must establish a “philosophy of technology use.” He recommends a monthlong digital detox—a Marie Kondo-like decluttering period, in which a person takes a complete break from all optional technologies. When it’s over, the digital minimalist slowly reintroduces these technologies on her own meticulous terms. She might need only an hour of Instagram each week to catch up on her favorite babies and dogs. She might, Newport suggests, prefer to hold “conversation office hours” at a local coffee shop rather than constantly text with her friends and acquaintances.

Here’s another idea: Shabbat.

Traditional Jews have their own list of what not to do on Shabbat. This list is based on Jewish law. For me, as a liberal Jew, there are things I try not to do on Shabbat, but the motivation is more about therapy than theology. I ponder what makes my life crazy and I try to avoid such activities on Shabbat. It’s that simple. So I try not to use the phone, check email, handle money or do errands; these acts for me are the epitome of ordinary time.

You can do the same. For we all have more control than we think. We simply have to establish a new discipline, a new routine and stick with it. It might take a few weeks before it starts to feel natural. Don’t give up too fast. Make Shabbat a discipline in your life. If someone joined a gym and quit after a week because the exercise wasn’t working, we’d suggest they try it for at least a month. The same is true of Shabbat.

Unplug and learn to let go.

Look, I am not judging. I am suggesting in the New Year we re-examine what we do and why we do it.

I am asking that we open up our eyes and see reality for what it is, and realize how we are too often controlled by our things instead of served by them.

And I am pleading that all of us find more silence, more disconnected moments from things and more connection to others and to ourselves.

From 18th-century poet and hymn-writer William Cowper:

A life all turbulence and noise may seem

To him that leads it wise and to be praised.

But wisdom is a pearl with most success

Sought in still waters.

On this New Year, let’s make a plan to spend more time in the company with others. To put aside our devices and to revel in the actual and not virtual reality of life.

The Book of Life is open. It is offering a deeper, more authentic existence.

What kind of entry shall me make?

copyright 2019 Edwin Goldberg




September 29, 2019  Erev Rosh Hashanah 


Once again, Shanah Tovah.

What an honor and delight it is to be here with you welcoming in the New Year.

There are of course many differences between the Jewish New Year and the secular new year, but both offer a chance to look back and make cultural proclamations.

When it comes to the secular new year, did you know that a certain group of editors pick the word of the year? Or the phrase of the year? No surprise last year’s winner was “Fake News”.

Of course, many old words have new meanings in our age:

For instance:

Mono Tasking – Paying Attention

Value Engineering – Not Paying For Something

Water Landing – A Crash

Fake News -- Lying

Fake news of course is published or reported information intentionally designed to mislead. Fake news has many names: “propaganda,” “misinformation,” “yellow journalism,” “libel” and even “lies.”


Here are some examples:

Pedophile priest with HIV who raped 30 children found crucified outside church.

Pluto has been officially reclassified as a planet!

Super Bowl bombing plot discovered!

But then there are some headlines — actual headlines from The New York Times, The Washington Post and other sources that we all wish were fake — but aren’t. Such as:

Televangelist wants his followers to pay for a $54 million private jet. It would be his fourth plane.

Study: Opioid epidemic increasingly reaching newborn babies.

Heroin suspected in 20 Milwaukee deaths in 2 weeks.

If only these were fake!

Sadly, Fake News is just expanding.

Just recently, some people have broadened the concept of “fake news” to mean any reports or political news that they don’t like — regardless of the veracity of the information. Then, not only the news but the source of the news is attacked.

Now, do you think fake news is a new phenomenon? Think again. The 1796 presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was notorious for smear tactics carried out by the newspapers of the day.

Jefferson’s supporters let it be known that Adams wanted to be king of the United States by trying to marry off one of his sons to a daughter of English King George III, a move blocked by George Washington who intervened just in time to stop it, or so the story goes. The political conversation remained riddled with false facts, with newspapers reporting, for example, that if Jefferson were president, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced,” that the country would be “soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Political parties owned newspapers in those days. There was no independent media.

What we need here more than ever is some integrity.

Integrity is a great goal to strive for, and for a man or woman to "walk in their integrity" is to require constant discipline and usage. The word integrity itself is a martial word that comes to us from an ancient Roman army tradition.

During the time of the Roman Empire, the Roman army would conduct morning inspections. As the inspecting Centurion would come in front of each Legionnaire, the soldier would strike with his right fist the armor breastplate that covered his heart. The armor had to be strongest there in order to protect the heart from the sword thrusts and from arrow strikes. As the soldier struck his armor, he would shout "integritas", which in Latin means material wholeness, completeness and entirety. The inspecting centurion would listen closely for this affirmation and also for the ring that well kept armor would emit. Satisfied that the armor was sound and that the soldier beneath it was protected, he would then move on to the next man.

At about the same time, the Praetorians or Imperial Bodyguard were ascending into power and influence. Drawn from the best soldiers of the legions, they received the finest armor. They no longer had to shout "integritas" to signify that their armor was sound. Instead, as they struck their breastplate, they would shout "Hail Caesar," to show that their heart belonged to the Imperial personage -- not to their unit -- not to an institution -- not to a code of ideals. They armored themselves to serve the cause of a single man.

(Adapted from General Charles C. Krulak, USMC, Ret.)


The antidote to lack of integrity must be faith in something more than a person, even a leader.

What is that something?

How about faith in God, in Torah, in virtue, in the values that matter most?


Rabbi Shaul Robinson, of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, delivered a sermon in which he discussed business ethics. At one point in the sermon he asked: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say that a business venture was absolutely proper because Orthodox Jews are running it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the surest way to attest to the trustworthiness of a business was to say that it was operated by Orthodox Jews?” When Rabbi Robinson asked these rhetorical questions, the large congregation spontaneously broke out into laughter!

As Rabbi Marc Angel, in his blog, asks, “Yet, weren’t Rabbi Robinson’s questions pointing to a serious issue confronting our community? Why should people laugh when the suggestion is made that the most trustworthy and honest people are Orthodox Jews? Why shouldn’t this be true?” After all, Orthodox Jews claim to follow the Torah, claim to live their lives in accordance with the will of God, and believe that they will be answerable to God in the world-to-come. How could they be anything but honest?

(Rabbi Marc Angel, Jan 13, 2019)

And yet...this is not an Orthodox problem … this is a Jewish problem.

How do we ensure integrity? Let’s consider teachings of those with integrity. Here are some notable quotes:

“Integrity is not something that grownups have and adolescents can aspire to. Integrity is something that all of us, at all ages, are constantly striving for.” Rabbi Harold Kushner

“Let unswerving integrity be your watchword.” Baruch Spinoza

“So live that you wouldn't be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.” Will Rogers

I believe that there is nothing more important than practicing integrity. It is not only the best way for us to sleep at night. It will raise the discourse in our country, the trust in each other and institutions, and provide a positive, communal spirit.

As the New Year begins, I invite us to consider how we might up our own game in the practice of integrity. It’s not a partisan observation that truth seems at risk these days. My question is what part can we play in bringing more integrity to our world?

I believe there is a story in the Torah that can help guide us in this quest.

When my team and I were creating the new prayer book we are using we wanted to add more narrative from the Torah to give congregations more choices in what to read on the Days of Awe. After consulting with a well-regarded biblical scholar, Marc Brettler, we learned that Joseph is connected by the ancient rabbis to Rosh Hashanah. Specifically, they claim that he was freed from Egyptian jail on Rosh Hashanah. The ancient rabbis made this connection because they see his freedom as a new beginning, as the New Year is for us.

But I also like the connection because Joseph is a paragon of integrity. His rabbinic-given nickname is actually “Joseph the Righteous.” Yosef haTzadik. But what made him righteous? He didn’t start out that way, as a spoiled baby brother and a tattle tale.

And yet, when he served in Egypt under his master, Potiphar, and Potiphar's wife tried to seduce him, Joseph said no. He was surely tempted and maybe could even rationalize this betrayal, but he did not succumb. His actions matched his values. The ancient rabbis even imagined that just as he was about to say yes to Mrs. Potiphar, he saw the image of his father and he knew it was unforgivable to act in such a way. In a word, Joseph modeled integrity.

(From Midrash Genesis Rabbah 87:5)


Ironically, Joseph’s actions would lead to false charges and he would go to prison. He would then be freed from prison on Rosh Hashanah.

But even though it would lead him to prison, when Joseph said no, when he aligned his actions with his values, he was celebrating a much deeper freedom.

Much like the freedom that Nelson Mandela displayed in his prison, a freedom he celebrated by the poem, Invictus:

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

(William Ernest Henley)

Integrity ultimately means we take responsibility for who we are and we live a life dedicated to the values we profess. Even at great cost if necessary.


A story: Many years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn’t famous for anything heroic. He was notorious in the windy city for everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder. Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.” Eddie was very good! In fact, Eddie’s skill at the law kept Big Al out of jail for a long time.


To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well. Not only was it the money, but also, Eddie got special dividends. For instance, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all of the conveniences of the day. The house was so large that it filled an entire Chicago city block.


Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him. Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son, Butch, whom he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars and a good education. Nothing was withheld. And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was. Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn’t give his son; he couldn’t pass on a good name or a good example.


Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. Easy Eddie wanted to address the wrongs he had done. He realized he was abetting terrible crimes. He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al “Scarface” Capone, clean up his tarnished name, and offer his son some semblance of integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against The Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great.


So, he testified.


As a result, Easy Eddie’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago street. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay. Police removed from his pockets a rosary, a crucifix, a religious medallion and a poem clipped from a magazine. The poem read:


The clock of life is wound but once,

And no man has the power

To tell just when the hands will stop

At late or early hour.

Now is the only time you own.

Live, love and toil with a will.

Place no faith in time,

For the clock may soon be still.


Eddies’s son grew up to be a war hero, a pilot in the World War Two pacific theater. A presidential medal winner. He died defending his country and the city of Chicago named its new airport after him. Eddie and Butch’s last name was O’Hare.


I know that fake news is here to stay and that integrity will be challenged time and again.

But I also know that righteousness should be our goal, and aligning our values and our actions is the mark of goodness, or integrity.

If we are not happy with the state of our political and social culture these days, then let’s start to heal ourselves with renewed dedication to the nobility of integrity.

Let’s follow in the footsteps of Joseph.

Let’s make the hard decisions.

Let’s uplift the debate.

And let’s remember that words matter, truth is not relative, and maybe, just maybe, our acts of goodness will tip the scales and herald a return to the values we cherish and the dreams we hold dear.


copyright @2109 Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

Fri, September 24 2021 18 Tishrei 5782