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Yizkor for Khojaly: Sharing Sorrow and Hope

On February 21-22, Pico Shul, our newly established spiritual community in Los Angeles, organized a “Solidarity and Commemoration Weekend” with local Azerbaijanis and the Consulate of the Republic of Azerbaijan. These are some of my reflections.

On the world stage, Jews and Muslims are viewed as mortal enemies. This weekend in our synagogue we demonstrated that not only do Jews and Muslims have the capacity to be at peace — they can even be friends.

For millennia, Jews have enjoyed unparalleled security, peace and friendship with the people of Azerbaijani. Jews who were persecuted in other areas found refuge and safety within this predominantly Muslim nation. With Azerbaijan’s rebirth as an independent nation after the fall of Soviet Union, that friendship remains, and in many ways has even grown.

But we did not gather to discuss geopolitics, or the latest advances in trade and relations between Israel and Azerbaijan. We gathered because, in the words of my friend Nasimi Aghayev, the Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, friends are there for one another when things are going well and when things are down.

Twenty-three years ago, in February 1992, Armenian militants and soldiers in the town of Khojaly murdered six hundred and thirteen innocent Azerbaijani men, women, and children during the Nagorno-Karabakh War and injured hundreds more. Thousands of residents of the town were made homeless. Supporters of Armenia dispute the number of dead, the identity of the perpetrators, and many issues surrounding the event. However, the Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and other international observers back the Azerbaijan account.

We listened to Anar Usubov as he told his painful story of survival. He lost 27 members of his immediate and extended family in the massacre. When he showed a Google map aerial view of his old home – now in ruins – we all felt his deep, permanent sense of loss.

But when we watched the video testimony of Durdane Aghayeva, who gave a detailed account of the massacre, her torture and captivity — that is when we cried. Durdane was a 20 year old girl when she was caught by militants fleeing the massacre. She was assaulted and tortured over eight days. She was placed naked in a tub of ice-water for hours at a time. She was tied to a chair, and had cigarettes extinguished on her knees because she refused to speak. They beat her so often and so mercilessly that she couldn’t walk.

But through sharing those stories, bearing witness to tragedy, and mourning together – we are planting seeds of hope. For here, in this Jewish house of worship, we had Muslims and Jews demonstrating solidarity, not strife.

When I recited Yizkor, the most solemn Jewish prayer of remembrance, I did not feel we were two antagonistic groups. Rather, we all felt a powerful unity of faith and humility as all children of the same God.

Jews are grateful for the friendship of the people of Azerbaijan

and the Republic of Azerbaijan, both with the State of Israel and Jewish communities across the world. I pray that our friendship continues to grow and deepen, bringing peace and prosperity to our peoples.

May God comfort the mourners of Khojaly, may we see peace soon in Nagorno-Karabakh, and let Muslims, Christians, and Jews search for pathways of reconciliation to overcome darkness with light.

Shalom, Sülh.

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Where God is Depends on Us

When children ask us, “where is God?” We usually tell them that “God is everywhere.”

It’s a beautiful answer, completely true, but it doesn’t help when you are older. When we see what goes on in the world, we often ask ourselves the very same question, “Where is God?” The truth of the matter is that God’s presence in the world is hidden, difficult to perceive, yet embedded in everything.

After the Jewish people received the Torah on Sinai God instructs them in Parshat Terumah, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Shemot 25:8). God instructs the Jewish people to create a vessel to experience the proximity of God.

Shabbat is another vessel for us to experience the indwelling presence of God in the world. For on Shabbat, teaches the Sfat Emet, we experience the truth that everything that we have and do exists only because of God, and we are able to recognize the sanctity of all creation.

When we gather at the table and bless the Shabbat on Friday night with our candles, wine, and meal, the Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God is with us.

When we gather as a community to sing, dance and pray especially on Shabbat- the Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God is with us.

Whenever we wonder where God is, it usually means that we’re not making a place for God. Because when we live a life full of Shabbat and community, of gratitude and giving, we cannot help but experience the proximity of God.

God’s presence in the world is truly, as the Rebbe of Kotzk taught, wherever we let God in. Our lives, and the whole world, can be a dwelling place for God. This is what the Torah is all about.

But our relationship with God depends totally on us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Acting With Godliness

The Torah tells us in Parsha Mishpatim, that we are to “Distance yourself from falsehood.” (Ex. 23:7) No other transgression, said Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, has this commandment. What it is about falsehood that God is so concerned about us falling into?

There is the obvious problems that lying can get one in trouble. Each lie becomes bigger and bigger, and then you have to create new lies to cover up the other lies. Before you know it, you have constructed a life of lies.

But lying, we learn from several places in the Talmud, is at times permitted – especially to save a life and to prevent various levels of embarrassment. So if lying is permitted in those cases, what is the Torah referring to here?

The majority of our sages teach us that Torah is giving specific advice to judges. As Rav Hirsch wrote, “It makes it the judge’s duty to meticulously avoid any and every thing by which there is the slightest possibility of the veracity of the judgement being affected.”

I want to add another layer onto this. The Torah is also telling us to distance ourselves from lying to ourselves, and specifically from lying in how we judge ourselves.

So much personal strife results when we are are not honest with ourselves, who we are and what we are doing. We can end up judging ourselves very harshly, and distancing ourselves from God. Or we can fail to judge our actions and think that we are always right, and it’s the other person who is in the wrong.

We must therefore keep ourselves far, far away from falsehood – from mock piety and self-importance, to self-defeating low self-esteem and not seeing all the wonderful and unique qualities that God gave to us.

Instead we need to judged ourselves and each other favorably, gently, and honestly. Then we will be acting with Godliness in our thoughts and actions, improve our performance of the mitzvot, and deepen our relationship with our friends, loved ones, and with God.
Shabbat Shalom!

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Shabbat is Everything

Can’t wait for tonight.
Candlelight, a bottle of Bro-Deux from Shirah Wine, fresh challah from our French-Persian bakery with a heavy dose of sesame seeds on top, some special guests, our four children, my beautiful wife of over eighteen years, and certainly a feast befitting this auspicious time.

It’s a weekly ritual that grounds me in this world of here and now, and also elevates my soul to appreciate the oneness of Creation.

We’ll sing too. Shabbat melodies new and ancient. We’ll share stories and discuss this week’s Torah portion of Yitro, which contains the most important section of the Torah – the Ten Commandments. (A better translation would be the 10 Declarations, or Pronouncements).

This revelation includes the mitzvah of Shabbat, which in turn contains both the positive and prohibitive elements of Shabbat called shamor (guard) and zachor (remember).” We remember the Shabbat when we recite kiddush on Friday night, and we guard the Shabbat when we refrain from work.
Never before in human history has the wisdom of Shabbat been more apt that in our times. For in a life that is attached 24/7 to the umbilical chord of the data and mobile phone service, we find less time for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Shabbat allows us the time, creates space, and contains rituals to focus on what truly matters.
The Zohar tells us that Shabbat sums up the entire Torah. I would add that Shabbat sums up all of Jewish life, history, and values. For Shabbat is about the sanctity of life, living in harmony with ourselves and others, the preciousness of the Earth, and connecting to the infinite wonder of Creation.

Can’t wait for tonight.