The Bible’s most Troubling Verse

The Hebrew Bible contains 23,145 verses and if I had permission to excise only one, I have no doubt which it would be: “Happy the one who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock” (Psalm 137:9).

Psalms 137 is a stirring lament over the destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.E. and the exile of a significant percentage of its population to Babylon. The rage and humiliation of the exiles, with their “harps hung on the willows near Babylon’s rivers,” is palpable as they commit to remember their beloved Jerusalem even as Judah’s captors taunt them: “Sing us some of Zion’s songs!” (Psalm 137:2-3, 5).

Coming as it does, so abruptly at the end of one of Scripture’s most poignant passages, verse 9 stuns the reader, and as Robert Alter writes in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line.”

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Hebrew Bible is its honesty. As I wrote in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, “The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws.”

The same must be said of the biblical author.

We understand his (or her) anger at seeing his homeland conquered, his beloved Temple razed to the ground, and loved ones savagely tortured and killed. But to wish to brutally murder the infant children of the captors … that is too much. I find myself ardently wishing the editors had deleted the psalm’s final words.

Aside from the sheer horror they evoke, they distract readers from the power and beauty of connecting to the Jewish homeland, the way the poet, our people, and we ourselves do.

In the current debate about whether being anti-Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, we must remember that the land of Israel has been an inextricable part of our people’s covenant with God since God first charged Abram to go forth from the land of his birth “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

In other words Since God first called us to be a people, the land of Israel has been part of what it means for us to be Jews.

Of course, it is possible to support Israel and criticize the actions or policies of her government just as those of us who love this country freely take its leaders to task for things they say and do.

But saying Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish State while failing to question the right of more than 20 Arab and Islamic states to exist is crossing a line to anti-Semitism.

In Leviticus Rabbah 36:5, Resh Lakish told the parable of a king who had three sons, each one brought up by one of his maidservants. So, whenever the king inquired about the well-being of his sons, he would add: Inquire also about the well-being of her who brought them up.  So, too, whenever the Holy One mentions the patriarchs, God mentions the Land with them.

Psalm 137 is a magnificent statement of the centrality of Israel to our being. Can we ever forsake or forget Jerusalem? Never! But I would love to forget the psalm’s final verse!

(This essay originally appeared on the blog)



O Christmas Tree Cast Along the Curb

O Christmas tree, cast along the curb,

What tales would you tell?

Were you decorated with tinsel

and heirloom ornaments

each filled with memory and meaning

and hung carefully on a branch?


Did you share a celebration filled with joy

and overflowing love?

Did you witness the reunion of generations

gathered from corners of the nation

or the world?

Did you see students return from college

in university swag

filled with new knowledge

and so glad to be home?

Or did you vainly try

to lift the spirits

of one alone and forlorn,

missing a dead spouse

and feeling forgotten

by family and friends?

O Christmas tree,  cast along the curb

What tales would you tell?


(Reflection for January 4, 2019)




Biblical Women Were Far From Powerless

From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt, the story from the Torah Jews around the word begin to read this week, enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold.

Had God not freed us we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero.

People often complain that women are subjugated and powerless in the Bible.

Subjugated? Indeed, But by todays standards women in the 1950’s were subjugated. So it should not surprise us that 3000 years ago they did not enjoy the status we expect today.

But were they powerless? Not by a long shot. Without the role six women play the Exodus could not have taken place.

Shiphrah and Puah

Shiphrah and Puah were humble midwives. Pharaoh ordered them to kill every baby boy that emerged from his mother’s womb.

The most powerful man on earth – one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order! The midwives, though, answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh.

Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis’ who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews because, “They were only following orders.” Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice. (Exodus 1:15-21)


Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Then she placed him in a wicker basket and floated him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took, but her gamble paid off! (Exodus 2:1-3)


Miriam, Moses’ sister watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam runs to her and suggests the baby’s own mother as its nurse. In so doing she saved her brother’s life. (Exodus 2:4-9)

Pharaoh’s Daughter

Pharaoh’s daughter also is a hero. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses.   For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name) (Exodus 2:5-10)


The final female hero of the Exodus is ZipporahMoses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so. The passage really does not fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished. They could have deemed it crucial or inconsequential. The chose to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son! (Exodus 4:24-26).

The heroism of the women who played crucial roles in our Exodus from slavery is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking. The heroic women of the Exodus also provide wonderful role models for girls and women today to admire and emulate.



The “Pewter Mug” in Perspective


The now dented Pewter Mug won in 1966


Today marks the five month anniversary of my right shoulder rotator cuff  operation, but today is more important for another reason: Our son Ben, our daughter-in-law, Kristin, and two of our grandchildren, four year-old Flora and eighteen-month old Logan arrived today from Connecticut for a visit.

Vickie and I are thrilled!

Aside from the sheer joy of seeing them, their visit takes my mind of the ongoing “it comes and it goes” pain I still feel in my shoulder. I had hoped that would be over by now, but I still ice regularly, go to PT three times a week and have need for an occasional dose of OTC pain killer.

And frankly, though I am trying to be patient, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever be able to play tennis again. It certainly won’t happen while this on and off pain lingers.

And then …

Logan came clomping down the stares dragging “the Pewter Mug” that I won in the fall of 1966 as champion of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), College Division, Draw II Fall Tennis Championships.

At the time I won it that Pewter Mug was probably my most prized possession on earth. It represented five of the best matches I ever won.

I was unseeded and not given much of a chance against Swarthmore’s Kirk Roose in the second round, but I earned a marathon (in those pre tie breaker days)  11-9, 6-3 victory. The semi final against Pakistan’s Sandy Salaun of Lehigh was also tough, but I won, 8-6, 6-2.

In the final my opponent was Bob Mendel of Franklin and Marshall. We split the first two sets, 3-6, for him and 6-4 for me.  In the deciding set I jumped out to a 5-2 lead. “Don’t think this is in the bag, Steve. Stay focused,” I kept telling myself. And it wasn’t. Bob came charging back to tie it at five all.

Then (I can feel the nervousness I felt then as I type this) I told myself over and over, “Stay calm; don’t panic,” and I won the next two games and the match.

Now that tournament in Trenton, NJ, is a long way from Wimbledon in more ways than one. But I was over the moon at what I had achieved. There were long lonely afternoons of running on the dark indoor Hamilton College track that surrounded the hockey rink to prepare. I know those wind sprints pulled me through.

It was so long ago.

But today as Logan came clomping down the stairs with the “Pewter Mug” it all came rushing back.

Once upon a time I would have jumped up grabbed the precious mug from his tiny hands for fear that he would dent it.

Today, I could have cared less.

More than half a century later that mug and the other trophies I have won over the years don’t matter, But the life lessons I have learned from playing and teaching tennis surely do.

Playing competitive tennis has taught me: to always do my best,  to be a good sport, to stay calm under pressure and most of all, to never ever look for any excuse for a loss except, “He played better than I did.”

I still hope to play tennis again, and if I do I will still try to win.

But having my children and grandchildren come to visit puts winning in perspective and gives that word a totally different definition, a definition I am thankful to understand.

Christmas Morning

I dreamt that Donald Trump woke up this morning after a Christmas Eve slumber like the one endured by Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

I dreamt that he woke up a changed man resolved to forsake the venality, shallowness, and self-centered hardhearted nature that has caused hurt and displacement to so many and brought shame upon the United States of America.

  • I dreamt that—just as Scrooge sent the young boy to the poulter to buy the prize turkey for his impoverished clark, Bob Cratchitt, Mr. Trump would donate a billion of his own dollars to help alleviate the problem of hunger in our world.
  •  I dreamed that just as Scrooge awoke determined that Tiny Tim receive the health care he deserves, that Mr. Trump would wake up and see that health care—the best money can buy–should be the right of all and not the privilege of the few.
  • I dreamt that like Scrooge Mr. Trump awoke this morning with zeal to right the many wrongs of his past.
  • He would start by remitting back payment with interest to all the contractors and other workers he stiffed or cheated over the years.
  • I dreamt that he would wake up not with a commitment to sending more miners into the depths the earth to die young from Black Lung Disease, but with a commitment to put, “America First,” in the development of clean solar energy and other environmental saving initiatives.
  • Yes, I dreamt that Mr. Trump woke up this morning not with a commitment to making America First in competition with other countries but first in its desire to fulfill the dream of its founders.
  • I dreamt that Mr. Trump woke up with the resolve to turn his massive pleasure palace at Mar A Lago into the official, “United States Refugee welcoming Center.” I dreamed Mar A Lago could become the place where, “the tired … poor huddled masses yearning to breath free,” of oppression violence and fear would find warm beds, healthy food, language and job training so that like so many immigrants before them they can assume productive positions in building what truly could become the greatest nation in history.

But I fear that before Trump wakes up a changed man like Scrooge, we are the ones who will have to wake up.

And when we do we will marvel at how we could elect a man like this to be our leader. Just as Germany looks back in shame at having elevated Adolf Hitler, America will look back in shame at placing Donald Trump in the oval office.

I have another dream this Christmas morning: that at the earliest opportunity, we shall oust this president from office and consign the disastrous policies he has pursued to the dustbin of history.

And then, let us begin to heal.




I can hardly believe it!

Four years ago, when I was about to publish my first book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, my wonderful Writing Coach and Web Page Designer, Susan Marie Shuman, (please visit told me:

“You have to have a blog!”

“Not interested,” I replied. “Nobody will care, and nobody will read it.”

“You have to have a blog,” was Susan’s response.

“Susan always knows what she is talking about,” I figured.

And so, I launched my blog.

The essay I posted this morning about the struggle of tomato workers in Immokalee for safe conditions in the field, affirmation of their basic human rights and a living wage marked the 500th entry on the blog I did not want to begin.

It is hard for me to believe, and I am grateful to every one of you who has ever stopped to ponder my thoughts.

And I am beyond grateful to Susan Marie for not taking, “No,” for an answer!

It is beyond my imagination that in another four years I will post another 500 essays.

But then, four years ago it was hard for me to imagine that I would post even one.

So who knows what will happen?

I hope you will stay tuned to find out.

Immokalee on My Mind


Ready to join #Tomatoclergy and CIW staff to protest in front of Wendy’s at busy intersection in Naples


Recently, I returned to Immokalee for the better part of three days thanks to a program sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, under the able leadership of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, I learned so much.

Immokalee is where 90% of all tomatoes eaten fresh in the eastern United States are grown. It is one of the state’s poorest cities but a scant half hour away from one of the richest, Naples.

While many residents of Naples live lives of splendor; life for those in Immokalee is difficult, mired in poverty even after hours of backbreaking work in the fields.

They make their living in the vast tomato fields where, not long ago, rampant sexual abuse, pitiful working conditions and equally pitiful, sub-poverty wages were the backdrop for their efforts.

Complaints against these abuses met with summary dismissal.

The sorry history of farm work in southwest Florida also includes episodes of forced labor in which workers found themselves locked up in windowless and bathroom-less trucks overnight or housed behind barbed-wire enclosures patrolled by armed guards to keep them from escaping. Field foreman often denied workers access to shade, water and bathroom breaks.  There are several documented cases of workers being beaten.

But in the early 1990s, the workers began organizing, determined to change conditions in the fields and better their own lives. The organization they founded, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), started by trying to change conditions on the farms directly, attempting to get cooperation from the farm owners. But in 2001, they tried an innovative new strategy, holding the giant corporations at the top of the supply chain responsible for human rights abuses and low wages at the bottom.

The Fair Food Program demands that major food retailers pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes (paid directly to workers and aimed at increasing wages) and buy only from growers who had committed to stringent, legally binding human rights monitoring in the fields. 

One of the highlights of my three days in Immokalee was visiting the vast tomato fields of Sun Ripe Certified Brands, of Pacific Tomato Growers. There, in a lovely auditorium designed for worker educational sessions we met with the company’s human resources director, Jessica Castillo who told us: “When as a child, I saw my mother get up in the middle of the night to go out into the fields and be subject to all of the abuses . . . I never imagined that today I would be here paid by the company to provide mandatory education for workers on their basic rights. I am proud that workers seek out our company as a place to work and know that if they ever have a grievance it will be heard with sympathy and dealt with appropriately.”

Unfortunately, Publix, the largest grocery chain in southwest Florida, and Wendy’s’ have so far refused to join the Fair Food Program. I am so inspired by the optimism of the members of the CIW. I love that when CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo addressed us, she did not refer to Wendy’s as an enemy but as “a future partner” in advancing justice in the fields.

To encourage this “future partner” to hasten the day she joins the alliance, I joined seven other clergy people and a group of CIW workers in a demonstration in front of a Wendy’s at a busy intersection in Naples. Thousands of cars drove by, and many honked their horns in support.

Why does this matter to me?

Our Torah teaches there is no such thing as an innocent bystander in the face of injustice (DT 22:3), that we must pay our workers promptly and fairly (LV 19:13) and that we may not stand idly by while our neighbor suffers. (LV19:16)`

Because I take these teachings very seriously, I encourage you to communicate with Wendy’s and Publix about the Fair Food Program. Ask to see the store manager and tell them that a penny per pound is a small price to pay for basic human dignity.

“I Cried Because I Had No Shoes …”


When I rolled into the gym several mornings, ago I was hoping to get on my favorite recumbent bike because it allows me to do a good lower body work out without using my arms or putting any stress at all on my right shoulder as it continues to recover from rotator cuff surgery. 

 No such luck.  

Both of “my” bikes were taken.

The rules are prominently posted: 30 Minute Limit on all machines when others are waiting.

A young woman was toweling herself off on one of the bikes, so I asked her if she was finishing or just starting.

“Just starting,” she answered quickly.

I was more than a little dubious.

So I looked at the sign-up sheet to see if one would be available the next half hour. No luck. They were signed up for through the morning.

So I settled for a treadmill, signed up for one and did a productive half hour there.

When I finished, the woman was still peddling away with no sign of slowing down, let alone stopping.

I contemplated telling her what the rule was, as if she could not read the signs. I contemplated giving her, what past congregants have called, “The Look,” which I am told is a fearsome stare when something distracts me during services. I have been working on putting that one away because no one has ever liked being on the receiving end of it.

But I restrained myself and said nothing and walked past her with my eyes down. I walked into the other room and did a little work with a jump rope, an exercise that my Physical Therapist has OK’d for me to do at this stage of my rehab.

A short while later, I left the gym, still fuming. “How could that person be so inconsiderate? I would bet dollars to doughnuts she had already been on the bike a half hour before I got there. Of all the nerve!”

As I walked out the door, I stopped in my tracks.  A young man was walking in guided by his caretaker. He is blind and has braces on his legs. He also had a smile on his face. 

I was so ashamed of myself I almost started to cry.

 I had seen the young man before. His exercise routine consists primarily of being guided onto a treadmill and walking for a short while at about two miles per hour.

And there I was, inwardly pouting because another person overstayed her time on a machine I wanted to use.

In my work I have had umpteen occasions to be brought up short by my self-centeredness. I have seen so many people with debilitating handicaps live their lives focused on what they can do not on what they cannot. 

And each time, I say to myself:

“I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.”

Dear God, when will that lesson sink into my heart and brain?!

One of my very favorite prayers is from the Reform Movement’s Shabbat Manual.It is from the Havdalah service that takes leave of the joy and sanctity of Shabbat and returns us to our day-to-day world. It reads:

“Help me O God to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain!”

Ma’am, “You can stay on that bike as long as you want. There are plenty of other things that I can do.

(This essay originally appeared on the blog.

Why I Did Havdalah Alone


Above: The symbols of the Havdalah service: wine, spice box, twisted candle. Havdalah means, separation. The Havdalah service is a brief ritual to bid good-bye to Shabbat and enter the new week.

(This essay originally appeared on the blog site of


Havdalah is not much fun when I am by myself, but I do it anyway.

Vickie was in San Francisco for Thanksgiving Weekend visiting her 97-year old mother, our children and four grandchildren who live there.

My duties as Rabbi of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands kept me in Sanibel. We don’t like to be apart on holidays, but given the realistic possibilities, we made the best choice. It is vital for Vickie to spend as much time with her mother as possible. And every time either of us sees our children and grandchildren it is a great joy.

I often say, “We have all been expelled from The Garden of Eden. None of us has it perfect in life. There is no perfect, marriage, position or friendship. But our tradition urges us to make the best choices of those available to us that we can.

God in the Torah is an example. As Rabbi Samuel Karff taught, God had to choose between Esau on the one hand who cared so little for his birthright that he sold it for a bowl of stew, and Jacob on the other who wanted it so badly that he would cheat and lie to get it. Some choice! But if even God had to choose between imperfect alternatives, it should not surprise us that so must we.

I am frequently asked why do we study Genesis’ stories year after year because they are all about highly dysfunctional families.

No argument! But their very flaws make them valuable object lessons for us. We are all flawed too. Jacob and Joseph were obnoxious punks in their youth. Neither becomes perfect, but each grows into a responsible adult to fulfill vital roles in keeping our people’s Covenant with God- a Covenant made for the purpose of creating a just, caring and compassionate society— vibrant and alive.

That brings me back to Havdalah.

In the flames’ reflection I see the days when our three children were young, and we all said goodbye to Shabbat together. Now they are busy adults, scattered from Jerusalem to San Francisco to Connecticut, each pursuing worthy careers that help further the Covenant’s original goal.

If we can’t all be together, at least let there be Vickie and I. but this week she too is in pursuit of important Covenantal ideals by visiting her aging mother.

So I am alone, and frankly it would be easier to skip the ritual. But I don’t because even an imperfect Shabbat ritual holds meaning for me.

I laugh as I light the Havdalah candle because Vickie rarely lets me do it when we are together. Our Havdalah candle throws off a big, almost scary flame, and Vickie fears I will burn the house down. I thought of her and was extra careful

The bottom line reason I chose to do Havdalah this evening is because I still got to celebrate Shabbat.

I had the privilege of co-leading worship with our wonderful Cantor, Murray Simon. I was blessed to read and teach Torah to a smaller than usual, but still interested and attentive day after Thanksgiving congregation. So imperfect as it was, Shabbat was still different from the rest of my week in a sacred way.

And so I marked its end and the beginning of a new week. The new week, I pray will lead to a Shabbat that is better for me, better for my family, better for our nation and better for the world than the last.

And as I extinguished (without burning the house down) our Havdalah candle I contemplated the small steps I might take to draw closer the ever-living hope of our people that like our flawed biblical forbears I too can become a better person, who can help in some small way to make the world a better place.



For Love of the Game


John Collins dances off first base after rapping a sharp single to right center field for the Cardinals.


It has been a quarter of a century since I saw my friend John Collins at our 25thHamilton College reunion. John and I were Fraternity brothers at Delta Upsilon and talked often on the Hill. He was one of the classmates I respected most of all in those days, so when he wrote me in the spring that he would be in southwest Florida in November, I cleared ample time on my schedule so we could get together.

John played varsity baseball at Hamilton and was an under-utilized and sometimes frustrated infielder on the Continental Nine.

Today he gets plenty of playing time as a member of the 70 and older New Jersey Wonder Boys.  He came to this area for the annual Roy Hobbs baseball classic.

According to the rules the 75 and older squads can have two players under 75 so John was recruited to play on a second team during the tournament, the Cardinals.

For two glorious fall weeks these superannuated superstars of the diamond get to extend their summer leagues season in the Roy Hobbs Baseball classic.  They play some of their games at the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins spring training facilities in the area.

As one player put it, at 73, I get to play games that count in beautiful weather in Major League stadiums. How can life get better than that?”

Indeed I asked some of the players why at our advanced age do they drag their weary and often banged up bodies out into the hot Florida sun to play nine (or seven in the case of the 75 and older teams) innings of baseball every day for two weeks.

Clearly, baseball is in their blood, and while their skills have certainly and understandably diminished as John wrote me when he let me know he was coming down, “These guys can still play.”

Indeed you see flashes of what was in the way they track fly balls and the way they swing the bats. Most of their arms have lost their zip, and their legs are not what they were, but the desire to compete is keen and the games are fun to watch.

As I watched the Cardinals in action one week and then the Wonder Boys take the field the next, I almost wanted to be out there myself. I was certainly worried when I saw the catcher of the Cardinals feeling woozy after five innings of getting up and down on each pitch as his position requires in 90-degree heat. Fortunately he took himself out of the game in time, and by the time I had lunch with him and some of his teammates later, he was feeling fine and eager to do it again.

What motivates them is what motivates me to persevere with my three times a week of physical therapy and hit the gym on the in between days in hopes of getting back out on the tennis court after my massive rotator cuff surgery.

What motivates these guys in their 70’s to spend the time energy and money continuing to play competitive baseball in their seventies? When you get down to it, it is no mystery. The answer was the same from each player I asked: “Love of the game.”


Here I am with John after the Wonder Boys game. I am wearing an official New Jersey Wonder Boys cap that I cherish as a wonderful memento of John’s visit