Know Before Whom You Stand: Learning from Everyone

These words are displayed over the ark containing the Torah scrolls in many synagogues: Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed (“Know Before Whom You Stand”). Thousands of Jewish people see this reminder in front of them while sitting in synagogue. Of course, the phrase reminds us to keep in mind that we stand before God while we pray in synagogue and it calls to mind the scene in Exodus when Moses appeared before God at the Burning Bush.

I thought of these words yesterday while reading an article in the New York Times about the recent armed robbery of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at his Caribbean vacation home. The article goes on to discuss the anonymity that the Supreme Court justices enjoy and the relative lack of security provided to them. The article concludes with a true story that demonstrates just how anonymous these justices are. “One day, Justice [John Paul] Stevens was walking outside the court when tourists stopped him. They wanted to know if he would mind moving out of the way so they could take a good photograph of the Supreme Court.”

These tourists had no idea that they could have enjoyed the memorable experience of meeting one of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, but instead they were left with a photograph of a building in which this justice sits and makes history while ruling on the most important legal cases of our time. I couldn’t help but laugh while reading this story. I recalled the famous Yehuda Amichai poem, “Tourists”:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What a shame that those tourists in our nation’s capital didn’t recognize Justice Stephens. Too often we don’t take the time to recognize the important people in front of us and what they have to offer. Here’s another true story that shows how easy it is to ignore the wonder right in front of our noses:

On a cold January morning in 2007, a man sat at a Metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them commuting to work. The story goes that after three minutes, a middle aged man finally noticed the musician but he only slowed down to listen for a few seconds. Some people stopped to toss some money in his collection till, but most simply ignored the violinist. The individual who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy, but his mother hurried him along. In all he collected $32, but no one really stopped to enjoy his music. When he finished, no one applauded.

Turns out that this wasn’t just any violinist playing on any violin. This wasn’t a beggar looking to make some quick lunch money either. The violinist was Joshua Bell, who only days earlier had sold out at a Boston theatre where the average ticket was $100. In the subway, Bell was playing one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth $3.5 million. The Washington Post conducted this as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. (The video of Joshua Bell playing violin in the subway station is below.)

Why don’t we recognize people’s gifts when they are right in front of us? We have a reminder that we’re standing before God when we pray in a synagogue, but perhaps it would be helpful to have this reminder when we stand before other human beings. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.”

I have found that many Jewish people are hesitant to learn from other Jews who are of different denominations than their own. We can all learn from those around us and oftentimes, we are forced to think in new and different ways when we keep an open mind to those who think differently than us. While the teacher in front of you may not look like you or dress like you, I encourage you to remember before whom you stand. It is a child of God who, in the words of the sage Ben Zoma, may make you wise.

One of the gifts of the Internet is that we have much more access to the wisdom of teachers from around the world. Every teacher who offers his or her Torah via the Internet is a “rabbi without borders.” It is so important that we are all open to learning from others. We just never know when that human being in front of us will be a Supreme Court justice, a world renown musician, or a great teacher who will forever change our life.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Action More Than Words

In this week’s Torah portion called Vaera, the Lord speaks to Moses, saying, “Go and tell Pharaoh King of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” However, Moses protests. He raises doubts that the people will listen to him. He uses a kal vachomer – the hermeneutical device often used by the rabbis in midrashic literature. Applying the outcome from a minor case to a major case, the formula is “If X, then all the more so Y.” Moses says to God, “The Israelites [my own people] would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?” If his own people will not listen to him because of an inability to speak well, then how can God expect Pharaoh to listen to Moses’ demands?

This is not the first time that Moses appeals to God using his speech impediment as an excuse. In last week’s parsha, Moses claims Lo ish d’varim anokhi – “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant.” Ki khvad peh u’khvad lashon anokhi – “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God negotiates with Moses finally offering his brother Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece to convey the message to the people. Yet Moses remains the central guiding figure standing at the helm of the Israelite nation. One not familiar with the rest of the Biblical Narrative might presume that Moses’ incompetence in public speaking would immediately disqualify him for the role of leader of the Israelites. Thus, regardless of how we understand Moses’ speech impediment or its negative effect on his self-confidence, we should consider the fact that the Jewish people’s leader par excellence was not an effective speaker. And it did not matter.

Moses says, “I am not a man of words.” So, how is he such a successful leader? He is a man of action. Moses says, “I am slow of speech.” What does he mean by this? He is a man of justice. He might have physical disabilities or limitations precluding him from eloquently conveying a message, but it does not deter him from demonstrating strong and charismatic leadership abilities in other ways. What Moses lacks in oratorical skill, he makes up for in his action, and in his pursuit of justice.

This past week our nation commemorated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his birthday. Dr. King was one of humanity’s greatest orators. He could steer an audience’s emotions with his booming voice, with his carefully crafted words, with his memorable sound bites. And yet, it was his acts of social justice that ultimately made him the great leader that he was. Many of us have seen the famous photographs of Dr. King walking arm-in-arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the march in Selma Alabama. Heschel famously commented that on that day, he was “praying with his feet.”

Letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rabbi Seymour Siegel thanking
him for his honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary on July 3, 1968

Equally moving was the time King and Heschel, two modern masters of words, walked together in silence to Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in protest of the war in Vietnam. They laid a wreath in pledge to lo yilmedu od milchama – that humankind would “no longer know war.” They certainly could have movingly expressed their feelings with words, but it was more powerful to resort to action. They let their actions do the speaking.

We should be curious as to why God does not perform a miracle and correct Moses’ speech impediment. After all, this is a God who only moments later causes miraculous plagues to triumph the Egyptians and opens the sea for our ancestors to cross. The answer must be that actions speak louder than words. Moses leads by example. He leads by doing.

This should become a powerful message of American Judaism. We have the moral imperative to strengthen our social action initiatives. We must apply Jewish ethics to contemporary issues pursuing social justice. From the words in our Tradition, tzedek tzedek tirdof (only justice shall you pursue), we must make it our ethical responsibility to make social action one of our highest priorities. Rabbi Shammai teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Say Little Do Much.” Not everyone is a great speaker. But that should not be a hindrance. Be a “doer.” You can change the world.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Vayechi: The Gift of An Ethical Will

In 1997, when Mitch Albom published his now famous Tuesdays with Morrie, he essentially presented three gifts. The first, of course, was his gift to society. Albom, a Detroit sportswriter who I’ve grown up reading, shared the inspiring wisdom of his college professor Morrie Schwartz. Publishing this book was also a gift to himself as he now has a memoir of his mentor’s lessons.

The third gift that Albom gave through writing this book was the gift of an ethical will for his beloved professor. Albom penned his old professor’s legacy of words. He served as a trusted biographer, an inquisitive interviewer, listening intently to Morrie’s story so that it will not soon be forgotten. Through Albom, Morrie Schwartz was able to leave his family and friends with a vivid image of him. I never met the man, but after reading the book (twice!), I have images of him laughing, dancing, and philosophizing in my head. Imagine how reading this book brings him back to life for those who knew him intimately.

For Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom did not merely write a “book.” He penned his ethical will on his behalf. Writing an ethical will is not a new idea. In this week’s Torah reading, we learn of the first ethical will when our patriarch Jacob called his sons together and said to them, Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father. He then spoke his ethical will to each of his sons, one at a time. He told them what he expected of them, what he learned in his own life, and what his blessing was for them.

There are three types of wills. The first is the most common one called a “Last Will and Testament.” In this legal type of will, usually drawn up by an attorney, the estate distributes material possessions after the individual’s death. It is in this will that you state to whom you would leave custody of your children, where your money will go, who gets the rare stamp collection, the bowling trophies, the Bob Dylan records, and so on.

Another type of will that is also of great importance is a living will. In a living will, one makes advance decisions about medical care in the event they should become incapacitated. With advances in medicine, it is crucial that we spend some time considering what our wishes would be should we find ourselves debilitated with an incurable illness. A wonderful source for guiding us through this complicated and challenging matter is Clal’s guide to palliative care entitled Embracing Life & Facing Death.

Ethical wills are not legal documents as compared to living wills and your last will and testament. In your ethical will, you decide how you want to be remembered. Rather than bequeathing material possessions to your survivors, you bestow to them the deeds and ideals by which you want others to remember you. Mitch Albom gave his friend an enormous gift by essentially publishing Morrie’s ethical will on his behalf, but the rest of us will not have a talented writer like Mitch Albom to do this for us. And so, we must take on the responsibility of writing our own ethical will — our legacy for our progeny.

A famous ethical will was composed by Nachmanides, a 13th century Jewish scholar and biblical commentator who lived in Spain. Late in his life he composed an ethical will to his son, writing, “Accustom yourself to speak in gentleness to all men, at all times. Thus will you be saved from anger, the fertile cause of sin… Remove anger from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh.” He concludes with, “Read this Letter once a week, and be as regular in carrying out its injunctions, by its aid walking forever after the Lord, blessed be He; that thou mayest prosper in all thy ways, and be held worthy of all the good which is treasured up for the righteous.” Nahmanides’ ethical will to his son is so moving that it is actually included in many editions of the prayer book.

Some might wish to include practical advice in their ethical wills. Moses Sofer, known as the Hatam Sofer, included the following in his ethical will to his children, “Be strong and courageous in diligent and penetrating study of God’s law. Establish groups for the dissemination of Torah, and promote activities for Torah among the populace. If you can do only a little, then do that little with utmost devotion.” In our ethical will, we might explain why we were philanthropic with certain causes in the hope that our children will continue that pattern of giving tzedakah. Perhaps there were certain life lessons we learned, mistakes we don’t want our children to repeat, and secrets we want to share.

In our day and age, we simply pick up the phone to communicate with friends and family or send simple text messages and chats. Pen and paper letter writing is a thing of the past today. Therefore, composing an ethical will can be a very challenging task. And yet, it can be a cathartic endeavor as well. It can be an opportunity to sit down and explore those lessons you wished you had taught during your life, but did not have the time. You might think you are going to be disappointed discovering all the things you wished you did in your life, only to realize how much you actually accomplished.

Take the example of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion and give the gift of an ethical will to your loved ones long after you’re gone. They’ll be thankful for the gift.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Miketz: Kim Jong Un, Joseph and Ultimogeniture

In biblical times the concept of primogeniture was practiced widely in the Ancient Near East. That is to say, the eldest son would inherit the entire estate to the exclusion of younger siblings. In Jewish law, the eldest son was promised a double portion of the estate (Deuteronomy 20:17). However, in the Book of Genesis we see that this is not the case. Rather, it is the younger brother who, time and again, receives the birthright (albeit through deception) and the promise of succession.

Throughout the Genesis narrative (what my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky calls “an ugly little soap opera about a dysfunctional family”) the eldest son appears unsuitable to succeed as leader of the family dynasty and thus the younger son becomes the heir to the clan. With the sons of Adam and Eve, God chooses the younger Abel’s offering instead of the firstborn Cain’s sacrifice. Abraham is the eldest son of Terach, but when he leaves his father’s home, he gives up the birthright to his younger brother Nahor. Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael is kicked out of the house and the patrimony goes instead to the younger Isaac. Then Isaac’s younger son Jacob receives his father’s birthright and coveted blessing through trickery. The trend continues when Jacob favors his younger son Joseph, the son of his true beloved Rachel. This favoritism of one son leads to horrible events for the family.

The last act of patrilineal ultimogeniture in the Book of Genesis is at the end of the narrative when Jacob blesses his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons). The grandfather crosses his hands, laying his right hand upon the younger Ephraim and his left on the elder Manasseh, thus granting the birthright to the younger brother.

In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we learn more about the interesting character of Joseph who flaunts his “most favored son” status in front of his brothers causing their enmity toward him. Joseph makes his dreams into a reality by lording over his brothers in Egypt when they come looking for food during the famine. While things seem to have worked out well for Joseph, we cannot ignore the series of unfortunate events (including his near death experience of being hurled into a pit by his brothers) that occurred because of ultimogeniture, the emergence of the youngest son as leader. (Technically Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob, but Joseph was Jacob’s favorite because his beloved Rachel died during the birth of Benjamin.)

Following the sudden death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, we are beginning to learn more about his youngest son and the successor to his dynasty. The new leader of North Korea is Kim Jong Il’s third and favorite son Kim Jong Un.

It will be interesting to see how Kim Jong Un’s two older brothers respond to their younger brother’s leadership. I don’t suspect they will throw their brother into a pit or sell him into slavery, but I am certain there exists a fair amount of jealousy following their younger brother’s transition to power. Perhaps the day will come when Kim Jong Un’s brothers come to him in a time of need just as Joseph’s older brothers had to come to him in Egypt during the widespread famine.

The lesson we can learn from the family in Genesis is that leadership succession in a family dynasty will always be wrought with emotion. Primogeniture might have been the way of the world in biblical times, but the younger brothers always emerged as the chosen successor. And so it is in our day. We can only hope that North Korea’s new 28-year-old leader will rule with a level head. Joseph might have been in charge of the stockpile of food during a famine, but this young ruler is charged with North Korea’s nuclear program. Let’s hope his older brothers are able to put aside any animus and envy that exists so that sibling rivalry doesn’t cause a grave situation that could impact us all.

Shabbat Shalom!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Midrash, Manicures and Middle School Girls

I love reading about the creative ways in which my colleagues are bringing people closer to Torah. Over the weekend I read about one young colleague (a Conservative rabbi) who is using manicures to teach midrash in a Jewish day school. Yes, manicures!

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The NY Times reports that Rabbi Yael Buechler of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester, New York teaches her middle school students how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portions. 

It’s the Midrash Manicures club at Schechter, a Jewish day school here, where the weekly club offerings include math club, glee club, sports writing club and this one, in which Rabbi Yael Buechler teaches girls in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portion. (The term “midrash” refers to the deep textual interpretation of the Bible, with every word examined for meaning.)

If the mix of acetone fumes and Torah study strikes you as unusual, you’re not alone. When Yarden Wiesenfeld, 13, first heard about the club, she wondered whether there was another meaning for “manicure,” one that did not involve the coloring of fingernails.

But Rabbi Buechler has been at it since college, when she seized upon the manicures “as a way for me to personally explore my own Jewish learning.”

“Re-envisioning education is what this is all about,” said Rabbi Buechler, 25, who was ordained in May by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and is the middle school student life coordinator at Schechter. “If I said come to a Midrash course, I’d have five or six students. But Midrash Manicures? Twenty plus.”

It seems to me that this is a wonderful example of how a rabbi who is a woman is embracing her femininity and using it to achieve the goal that all rabbis are striving for — teaching Torah. Rabbi Buechler, who’s father Rabbi Howard was ordained from JTS in 1985, is not trying to be like her male rabbinic predecessors. Rather, she is doing something that those male rabbinic predecessors could never have done. She brilliantly connects with these middle school girls in a Jewish Day School environment and makes Torah learning fun.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna, who taught Rabbi Buechler as an undergrad at Brandeis University, told the NY Times that “her Torah-inspired manicures were both innovative and in keeping with the Jewish precept ‘that we worship God with all of our bones and our muscles and, by extension, with our fingernails.'” I especially liked the quote from Rabbi Buechler’s boss, the school’s principal Nellie Harris (wife of my beloved Torah teacher Rabbi Robbie Harris), who described the manicures as “a modern tzitzit.”

Incidentally, this is now the second time this year that I’ve blogged about Rabbi Buechler, although the last time (March 2011) she was still a couple months shy of gaining the title. On this blog I referenced a very funny video Yael Buechler made for Purim at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York starring the Seminary’s Chancellor Arnie Eisen as Sesame Street’s “Ernie” and Professor Burt Visotzsky as “Bert”.

I certainly hope that her manicure curriculum takes off and that other Jewish Day Schools (including the one my own children attend) begin offering this club to their female students. Perhaps some day my own daughter will get a Torah-inspired manicure from Rabbi Buechler. I’m already very proud of my beautiful daughter who turns 6-years-old later this month and can already (pretend) to read from the Torah. Here’s the video:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Dead Sea Scrolls Go Online

After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a cave in Qumran in the winter of 1946–47 by Muhammed edh-Dhib, a Bedouin boy, and his cousin, it still took two decades until they were placed on display in a museum. Now, about 65 years after their discovery they can now be accessed online.

Today, the Israel Museum launched the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, which provides access to high-resolution images of the scrolls, as well as additional data and background information. This is a joint project between the Israel Antiquities Authority and Google, which has a research and development center in Israel.

So far, five scrolls have been digitized: the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll, the Commentary on Habakkuk Scroll, the Temple Scroll and the War Scroll. It marks the first time that the collection of scrolls is being photographed in its entirety since the 1950s. The entire collection includes 900 manuscripts comprising about 30,000 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments.

“We are privileged to house in the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book the best preserved and most complete Dead Sea Scrolls ever discovered,” said James Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher director of the Israel Museum. “They are of paramount importance among the touchstones of monotheistic world culture, and they represent unique highlights of our Museum’s encyclopedic holdings. Now, through our partnership with Google, we are able to bring these treasures to the broadest possible public.”

The site allows for comments from users and offers insightful videos to further ones understanding of the scroll being viewed. The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library project is being funded with a major gift from the Leon Levy Foundation, with additional major funding from the Arcadia Foundation and the Yad Hanadiv Foundation.

Academics once had to travel to Israel to research the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the scrolls’ accessibility online should now yield an even greater amount of higher biblical scholarship in the coming years. This is not Google’s first time being involved in digitization project of this nature. Past projects have included the Google Art Project, Yad Vashem Holocaust Collection and the Prado Museum in Madrid. The scrolls are accessible online.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sheldon Yellen – CEO and Mensch

Yesterday morning, we heard the words from the Torah portion Ki Tavo, which included the blessing that God shall make us the head and not the tail. This blessing is often repeated on Rosh Hashanah Eve and some even have the head of a fish on their holiday dinner table as a reminder of this blessing. According to the Torah, it is good to be the head.

That’s not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the “head” and not the “tail,” but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we’ve seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what’s right. We certainly wouldn’t consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children.

There are exceptions. There are CEOs who demonstrate strong leadership skills along with ethical behavior. Several years ago I gave a sermon about Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Maden Mills, who after his entire plant burned down spent millions of his own money to keep all of his 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. Feuerstein consistently did the right thing even when it was difficult and he was faced with significant challenges. He claimed his strong ethical behavior and sense of justice as a corporate head were due to his faith and Talmud education.

Photo courtesy of Belfor

There is another CEO, who like Feuerstein, is striving to be a mensch and give back to his community. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor is not your typical CEO. Tonight he’ll be at the Emmy Awards, where his episode of “Undercover Boss” is nominated for an Emmy. Sheldon went undercover in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” and received an education about how hard his employees work and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Yellen was so moved by all the lower-level employees he met that he eventually broke down and revealed himself as the CEO of the international disaster restoration company that is based in Michigan. The episode is up for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Reality Program.

Yellen’s episode of “Undercover Boss” is a long shot to win an Emmy tonight against the other nominees including “Hoarders,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Deadliest Catch,” Kathy Griffin’s show, and an episode of “MythBusters” guest starring President Obama. But while Yellen may not win an Emmy tonight, he is quite deserving of a mensch award.

In the episode of “Undercover Boss,” Sheldon demonstrated strong moral character and was able to show his emotions on national TV. Sheldon learned a great deal about his employees, their passion for the job, and how hard they work to support their families. He came off as an inspirational leader and the episode proved to be an important lesson for the upcoming Jewish holidays. I’m not the only rabbi who noticed that Sheldon’s experience of going undercover is a lesson for all of us as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sheldon recently received a phone call from a Connecticut rabbi asking him to be the guest speaker at the community’s Selichot services this year. In his typical humble fashion, Sheldon couldn’t understand why the rabbi would want him to speak. However, he agreed and will be the featured speaker at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport this Saturday night. He’ll speak about his journey from a challenging childhood in Detroit to becoming a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He’ll also talk about system of values he draws on as a CEO.

Yellen and his three brothers were raised on Welfare by their mother in Detroit during the 1950s. Their father was a great person, but became sick and eventually developed an addiction to methadone after having nine stomach operations in the course of only two years. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community in which he and his brothers had to work from a very young age and with a father who was in prison (for dealing drugs) was difficult for Yellen. He told me that his mother didn’t have enough money to belong to a synagogue or send Sheldon to Hebrew School, but right before he turned thirteen she decided that it was important for him to have a bar mitzvah. An Orthodox synagogue agreed to let him have a bar mitzvah, but he didn’t have the Hebrew background. He was called to the Torah for his aliyah with the blessings transliterated in English on a piece of paper. The Orthodox men were expecting him to actually read from the Torah. It is a memory that has lasted with Yellen to this day.

In the past year Sheldon Yellen has made lasting contributions to his community. He bought a financially distressed private Jewish country club in order to keep its Jewish roots alive. He also funded a Toledo, Ohio-based yeshiva that had run out of living space for its young students. He was able to donate enough money so that the yeshiva could move into a new facility in suburban Detroit with enough room for both study and living quarters for its students. Yellen has also committed himself to Torah study at the local Detroit Kollel. The Jewish education he missed out on as a child is now one of his top priorities.

In addition to his philanthropy, Yellen has proved himself to be a very generous individual on a personal level. Recently, Michael Kenwood, a 39-year-old New Jersey volunteer EMT, was killed during Hurricane Irene while trying to save others’ lives. That hero’s sister-in-law is Amy Margolis of Birmingham, Michigan. When Amy and her family were unable to get a flight to New Jersey for her relative’s funeral because of the hurricane, they had no choice but to get in the car and drive. She was already on the road making the Michigan-New Jersey trek when she received a call from Sheldon Yellen who offered to meet them on the road and escort them to the airport where they would board one of his two private jets.

Margolis was quoted in the Detroit Jewish News saying that Yellen’s act of kindness makes him a mensch and an angel. “I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” Sheldon Yellen said.

In an era when CEOs don’t always do the right thing and often act immorally, it is refreshing to see Sheldon Yellen demonstrate that a CEO can also be a mensch and a role model. While he might not win an Emmy Award tonight, he certainly has made a positive difference in his own company and in his community. He’s made a fortune restoring properties, but Sheldon Yellen might just have enough integrity and generosity to restore the reputation of our nation’s disgraced CEOs.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Torah From Terror

Following the Jewish High Holiday season in 2001, I decided to collect the sermons that rabbis had delivered about 9/11. I knew that on September 11 most rabbis already had drafts of their High Holiday sermons completed, but after the attacks that day these rabbis would have to rewrite those sermons. That tragic day left us speechless, but rabbis had to come up with the right words to bring comfort to those sitting in front of them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the days following 9/11.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 cast a dark shadow on the Days of Awe 5762. Many rabbis, after discarding their already prepared sermons, found their voices and were able to construct the appropriate words to bring a sense of comfort during those uncertain days.

I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary at the time and I told my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, about my idea for a project. Rabbi Gillman agreed to be the co-editor of the “Torah From Terror” project and we sent out requests to Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis asking them to submit a sermon from either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur that dealt with the 9/11 tragedy. Immediately, the sermons began pouring in. I organized the sermons into the Torah From Terror website.

On this, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I have decided to reformat the Torah From Terror website. The sermons are now available at http://torahfromterror.blogspot.com. Now visitors are able to leave comments on the different sermons. Also, the search capability is much improved from the original site.

I hope you will visit the Torah From Terror website, and through those words of wisdom you will find comfort and hope. May those words be a remembrance of that horrific day in our nation’s history and may we continue to find inspiration in words of Torah.

Our world has changed immensely in the past decade as a result of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, but we continue to pray the memories of the victims will be for blessings. God bless America.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Va’etchanan – Loving God Through Stem Cell Research

One of the oddest of the 613 commandments offered in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion. On Shabbat morning, Jews all over the world will hear the words of Va’etchanan read aloud, including the commandment that we are to “to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Even young children pick up on the fact that it’s odd for God to command us to love God. After all, love is a feeling and commanding a human being to have an emotion seems strange.

However, there are ways for us to express our love for God that transcend our emotions. We can love God in physical ways as well. Our actions toward the betterment of people’s lives are a reflection of our loving relationship with the Divine. If we believe that God created humans and we were partners in the creation of the world, then we have a responsibility to help other humans be healthy and live long lives.

In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi explains that “with all your heart” means that we should serve God with all our powers for goodness, compassion and charity.

Last night I had the pleasure to learn from one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Dr. Eva Feldman, of the Taubman Institute at the University of Michigan, is using her knowledge, talent and heart to change the world for the better.

Feldman, a soft-spoken professor of neurology at the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine, has made significant contributions to the fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Diabetes in a very short period of time. Last night, she explained to a living room full of some of Metro Detroit’s young adults how her clinical trial of a stem cell therapy for ALS has allowed dozens of patients to walk better.

A. Alfred Taubman, the Michigan shopping mall magnate and mega-philanthropist, helped create the Taubman Medical Research Institute with a $22 million endowment in 2007 and named Feldman as the institute’s first director in January 2008. (Taubman is the University of Michigan’s largest individual donor, with total giving of more than $142 million including $100 million specifically for innovative medical science.)

Three years ago, Dr. Feldman and the Taubman Institute educated citizens in Michigan about the importance of stem cell research in the study and treatment of disease, which led to voters approving a constitutional amendment lifting restrictions on stem cell research. As a result of the election, the Taubman Institute opened the first core facilities in Michigan to derive embryonic stem cell lines (one of the few in the nation).

Dr. Eva Feldman is a pioneer in this field of medical science, but she has also learned to be a quiet fighter. She has to fight against politicians who seek to make her research illegal and she has to fight against those who claim that what she is doing is unethical. Some even accuse her of playing God. There are many who cite their religious beliefs to criticize Dr. Feldman’s work, but I am convinced that her research comes from a place of deep compassion for humanity. Dr. Feldman is motivated to find ways to treat and cure disease. She does this through the power of modern scientific and medical innovation. She explained to our group that she is pro-life because she uses the leftover frozen embryos created for couples using IVF to have children. These embryos would have been destroyed in a garbage disposal, but Dr. Feldman is able to use these stem cell lines to learn more about genetic diseases, create treatments for suffering patients, and help find cures for such life-threatening conditions as cancer, ALS, and Diabetes.

We were all created in the image of God and we owe it to each other to use modern science and medical innovation to benefit the lives of God’s creatures. Using stem cells to fight (and potentially cure) diseases isn’t playing God, but it is a form of loving God. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that it can be determined if a person really loves God by the love they bear toward others. Dr. Eva Feldman strikes me as this type of person.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Masei – Jewish Summer Camp

This Shabbat, we read the final Torah portion from the book of Numbers, Parashat Masei. This section of the Torah begins with an extensive list of the places our ancestors traveled through on their way to the Promised Land. It details their stops and encampments as they walked through the desert wilderness eager to arrive in Canaan.

It’s appropriate that we read this section of the Torah during the summer as thousands of Jewish children and teens are experiencing their own journeys at summer camp. For so many Jewish youth, the summer camp they attend is their Promised Land. It is a place of refuge they look forward to each year.

In the Torah, there is precedent for Jewish camping. In Genesis, we learn that our patriarch Jacob must have attended sleep-away camp for it says: “Jacob slept at camp” (v’hu lan balilah hahu bamachaneh) (Gen. 32:22). And in Exodus, when the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, the Torah teaches that Moses returned to the camp (v’shav el hamachaneh) (Ex. 33:11). And then, in the book of Numbers, we are told that all of the Levites go to camp (v’halevi’im yachanu) (Num. 1:53). And finally, in Deuteronomy the Torah even tells us “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp” (ki Adonai Eloheicha mithalech b’kerev machaneicha) (Deut. 23:15). So there is clearly a long-standing tradition of Jews and summer camp.

Today, thousands of Jewish children attend summer camps like Camp Hiawatha, Camp Tomahawk, Camp Tamakwa, Camp Tamarack, Camp Al-Gon-Quin, and the like. A comedian once noted the humor of all these Jewish kids going to camps with Indian-sounding names. He surmised that somewhere there are American-Indian children spending their summers at Camp Oy-Vey-Ismier.

The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has tremendous effect on children. A Moment Magazine study suggests “that children who go to Jewish camps come home with a much stronger sense of their Jewish selves. Community based studies across the United States show that Jewish campers consistently marry Jews more often and belong to shuls in greater numbers than non campers. Most Jewish professionals — whether at the pulpit, in the classroom, or in the community-at-large — say they discovered or consolidated their Jewish identity at summer camp.”

Today, our non-profit Jewish camps need our support more than ever. The majority of Jewish camps are non-profits and they simply cannot compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned, profitable camps. We want our children to experience everything our Jewish camps provide, but we also want our children to be comfortable and to have an abundance of resources. It should be a top goal to get our Jewish summer camps up to the same physical quality as the best secular, for-profit camps, offering specialized activities in the arts, sports, and outdoor adventure; and, with a spectacular professional staff that is second-to-none. It should be a top goal for scholarships to be made available to any family who needs assistance in sending their children to camp.

To Jewish educators like me, Jewish camps are the canvas on which we can create future leaders in the Jewish world. Summer camp may only be two months out of the year, but the experience is for a lifetime. No longer can we keep our eyes closed to the importance of Jewish summer camps. For the sake of the future of our Jewish communities, let us strengthen our camps so we can strengthen the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller