Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bereishit: The Responsibility of Being Someone Else's Image

Bereishit – In the Beginning. What an enigmatic way to start off the Bible! A Hebrew grammarian can tell you that this very first word of the entire Torah is fraught with complexity: Does it really say “In the beginning,” or is it perhaps “In a beginning,” or “In the beginning of…”, or possibly even, “When God began creating.” And even if you’re not so familiar with grammar rules, you might still have a whole host of questions right off the bat. What does it mean that this was the beginning? What came before? What was God doing just prior to all this Creation-business? The Torah begins… and so do our questions and our challenges.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe our frustrations with the very first word of our Bible are meant to remind us that life is about engagement. We are not supposed to sit back and let experiences wash over us, we have to get involved! Take charge! What do YOU want out of life, and when do you plan on starting to go after it? Our ancient sage, Hillel, reminds us simply, “If not now, when?” How long should the Torah have to wait before it can expect us to react and become an active player in the drama of human history? Apparently not very long at all.

Sure enough, once the earth has been created, and then filled with dry land, plants, and animals, God decides to create human beings. Once again, we come across an enigmatic phrase, as God states, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Who is God talking to? Is it the royal “We”? Or perhaps God is surrounded by a Divine Entourage? One interesting commentary I recently came across suggested something different. Abraham J. Twerski, a Chasidic Rabbi and a psychiatrist who deals with substance abuse, suggested that God is actually speaking to the very people God is about to create. According to Twerski, it is as if God is saying, “I will give you the potential, and you must develop it.”

There is no time to rest! God hasn’t even created humans, and already there are expectations and good ol’ fashioned Jewish guilt. God started the Creation process, but we need to pick up where God left off. We need to set about improving our own lives, the lives of those around us, and indeed the state of the entire planet. God says to us, “Are you ready to be made in My image? Can you handle this responsibility?” What should we respond?

The High Holidays are behind us, and we have supposedly begun the new year on a higher note, and with loftier ideals and resolutions. There’s no downtime now. We don’t get to rest on our laurels, and pat ourselves on the back for surviving another year of holidays. The rest of the year – and the rest of our lives – begins now. Are we ready for it? A new Genesis is upon us, and whether we make it A beginning, or THE beginning is up to each one of us. Either way, it is starting right… now!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Neilah: High Holiday Sermon Series 5771 - #6

Neilah Sermon
Another High Holiday season is coming to a close. Yes, we've still got Sukkot and Simchat Torah coming up, but everyone's mood changes after Yom Kippur. This is the big one. So as we get ready to conclude our services and our holiday, what do we take with us? Is there something you can hold onto, and take with you, into that auditorium for the break-fast, and back into your homes and lives for the year about to begin?
That, to me, is the central question. And you all know by now that my answer has to do with Pride. That has been my theme for these holidays, and that will also be the final thought I hope you leave with, and that you internalize.
What does Pride mean to you, and how can it become a tool, a vehicle, to help you improve your life? But that is only one part of my message, which leads me to the topic of tonight’s sermon, and the final installment in my series on Pride.
So much of society today is about both instant gratification and self-gratification. What will work for me? What will serve ME the best, right NOW? These questions certainly dominate our thoughts about the economy, healthcare, the government, the environment, and even how we run the congregation, and how decisions get made in our homes. Judaism and the rabbis in every generation have battled against this. Yes, it is human nature, and understandably we need to protect ourselves, worry about our families, and make sure we have enough security, shelter, education, and food. But Judaism demands that we think past ourselves. Isaiah said it in our Haftarah this morning, “God doesn’t want your sacrifices, doesn’t want you to ask God for help and forgiveness, if you are going to mistreat the widow, the orphan, and the poor.”
I began my series on Pride with the self, the individual. I believe we have to start internally, understanding ourselves better and feeling good about who we are, but that is only the starting point. We begin there, but we must move outwards. We must expand that circle and look outside ourselves, then outside our families... and then outside our communities.
The self is not the end, just as Neilah is not the end. Our services this evening conclude, but our year, and our ability to transform and improve, has only just begun.
I had a lot of thoughts about what my final sermon would focus on, what the last circle would be. I’m sure each of you could think of a different option, and I encourage you to keep expanding your own circles, and contemplating other areas where you can feel more Pride, and where you can work to make a difference. But for me, tonight, the final circle is Pride in being Jewish. Now I know that not everyone in the room IS Jewish. This sermon is not meant only for the Jews in the room, because I think these principles can apply both to other religions, and to everyone’s relationship to Judaism.
Furthermore, this IS a Jewish congregation. And there are problems in this world that I feel stem from a lack of pride in who we are, and what it means to be Jewish. So I ask your forgiveness, today on Yom Kippur, if you feel this topic does not apply entirely to you... though I sincerely believe that it still might.
But when I look around and I see a growing disconnect between young people in Israel and young people in the rest of the Jewish World, where we feel we have nothing in common, and neither community understands the other, I feel a need to say something. When we hear about people like Bernie Madoff, about scandals surrounding rabbis, or corruption in Israel, or even the issues regarding honesty right here in our own building; I know that it can be hard to feel pride in being Jewish.
No one is saying there aren’t challenges. I am not pretending there aren’t reasons to be fed up with both Israel and Judaism. I know that religion has a lot to answer for, and that when Christopher Hitchens writes a book called, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” he has good reasons for saying that.
HOWEVER, we cannot give up because there are challenges. We cannot throw out our heritage, or forget about our history, or stop defending the things we love, simply because they are not perfect. I’ve got my issues with Judaism, with Israel, and with the Torah, and I’ve aired them here several times. But I stand before you this evening, and I say that I am still proud to be Jewish.
One of our greatest rabbis, Hillel, taught, “Al Tifrosh Min Ha-tzibbur,” “Do not withdraw from the community.” He doesn’t give all the reasons why the community is great, and why your grievances do not matter, or are not legitimate. In fact, he wouldn’t write this if people didn’t have issues with their community, or didn’t have a desire to indeed leave. Nevertheless, Hillel tells us, “Do not withdraw.” If you love something, if you feel great pride in it, you will find a way to stay, and find a way to make it work.
In my previous four sermons, I gave you reasons and examples why you should feel pride. I am not going to do that tonight. It is late, the gates are closing on our service, and I know that our attention is beginning to drift elsewhere. Tonight’s message is, “Feel pride in being Jewish.” Each of us has to figure out what that means for ourselves. How will I feel it, how will I pass it along, and how will that sense of pride become sustainable?
I tell you now, that it must happen. I believe our future depends on it, which is why I am dedicated to this work; to helping build up pride in ourselves, our families, our Ohev community, the Conservative Movement, and the Jewish World.
The central theme of Neilah is “to be sealed.” Now that we hope to have been written into the Book of Life, we focus on being sealed into it, so that it becomes permanent. Nearly every prayer in our service that includes the word, “Kotev,” meaning “Inscribe,” has been changed, and they now all say “Chotem,” “Seal.”
The other major difference in Neilah is that once we begin the repetition of the Amidah, the bulk of the service, the Ark will remain open the entire time. As I did last year, I invite you, at any time once the repetition has begun, to come up on the bimah, whenever the mood strikes you, and take a moment for your own prayer in front of the Ark. Even if someone else is standing here, you can stand beside them, and we can make room for anyone who wants to come up.
I ask you, whether you choose to come up on the bimah or not, to think about this question: Can you seal the word “Pride” into one area of your own life this year? I gave you five areas, and there are certainly more, but can Pride become a focus, and an imperative, for you to make an improvement in one area or another? Like the shofar blast, which will conclude our service, Pride can be our call to action, that wakes us up and inspires us to make a change.
Another great rabbi, who lived shortly after Hillel, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, taught, “Repent one day before your death.” His students asked him, “But how can we know when that is?” His reply, “You cannot know.” That is why we must make our changes today.
On the first evening of Rosh Hashanah, I anticipated a question you might have about this sermon series, stated simply, “Why Pride?” My answer, which I give you now, is this: It is optimistic. It creates self-confidence as well as joy in the accomplishments of others. It makes us stand up for what we care about, and want to pass it along to others, especially the next generation. And they will want to take it on, when they see the passion and excitement it evokes in us.
That is why I chose Pride. And that is what I hope and pray for all of us in the year to come. Shana Tovah and G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May you all be inscribed, and inscribe yourselves, in the Book of Life!

Yom Kippur: High Holiday Sermon Series 5771 - #5

You may need a quick background for my lead-in. I talk about Andy Szabo, who spoke to the congregation about our new Legacy Society, where congregants put Ohev Shalom in their wills or make the synagogue the beneficiary of life insurance policies. This is a new initiative for the synagogue, so I began my sermon by referring to Andy's talk.

Yom Kippur Main Sermon
When I first realized that Andy (Szabo) was going to be speaking today, right before this sermon, I was very pleased to discover that it was actually a great lead-in for me, and for what I was going to talk about myself. Andy was trying to convey the importance of caring for your community, even after you are gone; of contributing to something even though it may not benefit you yourself. It’s about being part of something bigger than oneself, or one’s immediate family.
By now, you might be getting a little sick of my constant harping on about pride. So you probably were hoping that I would take a break from it for a sermon or two. Well, you’d be wrong. I will, however, expand the definition of pride a little.
I began by talking about Pride in Oneself, then Pride in One’s Family, followed by Pride in One’s Community – but all of these are about things that affect you, about making changes that improve your life and that keep YOU connected to those around you. Andy introduced us to the notion of the next step, of thinking ahead to what will come after you. This too is a form of pride, giving to a larger cause, but also caring about people you may never have met, and whom you may never engage with.
I’m not going to focus on the same topic as Andy, this isn’t a Pride in our Legacy Society speech. But I do want to shift our conversation away from our individual needs, away from our synagogue in the here and now, which is similar to what Andy did. As we expand outwards, adding another circle of Pride to our ongoing conversation, please do keep these ideas that Andy has shared with us in mind, and we will return to them later on. Right now, I would like to talk about Conservative Judaism.

This is a Conservative congregation. I am a Conservative Rabbi, trained at a Conservative Movement school in New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and we are all affiliated with this denomination through our synagogue. But I wonder if I were to poll all of you here today, how many of you could describe what it means to be a Conservative Jew, and how many of you feel like Conservative Jews.
I imagine the numbers would be quite low, but it’s definitely not YOUR fault. The Conservative Movement has been in an identity crisis for the better part of 20 years, or perhaps more, and we are still struggling to figure out what we stand for, and who we are.
Now, to some extent, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe we can focus on OURselves, here at Ohev, do what we do, work on building this congregation, and not worry about whether we’re part of this movement or that movement. Who cares anyway? Some people are even calling themselves “post-denominational” these days, claiming that movements, as such, are outdated. We’re Jewish, and we’re proud of it, and let’s leave it at that!
The only problem for me is, I like being a Conservative Jew. I love what this movement stands for, I love what it has given me, I continue to be inspired by its theology, its vision, and its leaders, and it makes me feel part of something bigger than just this community. I don’t think everything the movement has done is terrific, I can’t say I’m ecstatic with some of its current leadership, and there are lots of things in Reform, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Judaism that I think we can learn from, that are really excellent.
Sometimes people fear that if I speak to highly of myself, that I am inherently disparaging The Other. That just by saying, “This is what I like about me,” I am insinuating that you are no good at it. Obviously, I disagree. This whole sermon series is about the value of pride. In this case, I think that when we stand tall, feel proud of our movement, and embrace what makes us Conservative Jews, we will be better at communicating with others. We become better partners in dialog when we speak with self-confidence and pride. I have often found that those who are comfortable with themselves are more tolerant of others; it is the people who are insecure, who need to prove something, and who defend their position the most vociferously that we need to worry about.
So yes, I am a Conservative Jew. I cannot tell you how to feel about yourself, about your own affiliation. I cannot try to convince you why this movement is right for you, and I certainly have no interest in disparaging other movements to try and prove why this is the “right” movement. I can only tell you, simply and plainly, why I am a Conservative Jew, and if you agree with me, or hear things that resonate with you, I invite you to join me on this, my journey of affiliation.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing a panel discussion with three prominent rabbis in the Conservative Movement, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school in California, Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi of Sinai Temple in LA, and whom I have often quoted from the pulpit, and Rabbi Ed Feinstein, of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. (It was a very California-based conversation) Rabbi Wolpe began by saying that when it comes to movement branding, “If you can’t put it on a bumper sticker, you will discover that in fact you can’t enunciate it in a way that people understand, appreciate, or can live.”
Even with a couple of weeks to prepare this sermon, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to create a bumper sticker, that’s a lot of pressure! (Though I will say that our new logo and tagline would actually fit quite well on a bumper sticker! Karen, a new idea for the giftshop perhaps?)
But if I had to pick a term or an idea that I like, it would go with the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who wrote a book called, “Polarities in Balance.” I like that idea of two polarized ideas, in this case, tradition and change, being held in a harmonious balance. That is what we do! That is what it means to be to be a Conservative Jew. To keep one foot rooted in tradition, in Halacha (Jewish law), Shabbat observance, Kashrut, the holidays, religious services; yet at the same time always with the other foot in the secular, modern world.
Rabbi Artson, in this panel discussion, talked about the essential questions that drive us as human beings:
What does it mean to be human?
How do I live my life with meaning?
How do I live my life with integrity?
And What does the world need from me?
And we address those modern, and perhaps eternal, questions with a question of our own: Are there resources within the Torah tradition to help me frame my answer? We, as Conservative Jews, try to provide the Jewish tools for addressing universal questions.
What I particularly love about this approach is the fact that it’s a process, what you might expect me to call a journey. Rabbi Wolpe likes to talk about a Judaism of Relationships – focusing on the areas of relationship to the Jewish people, to non-Jews, to God, to Israel, and to ourselves. And, says Rabbi Wolpe, relationships are like Halacha, Jewish law, in that they both change, evolve, and grow.
So that is the first half of my message: Conservative Judaism is about Polarities in Balance, keeping Jewish tradition and secular values in the air at the same time, and it is about being a Judaism of Relationships.
The second half of the message is: How do I feel proud of my movement? What gets me excited about Conservative Judaism and inspires me to tell other people about it, and to speak about it from the pulpit?
Hopefully you’ve heard me speak about Conservative Movement issues at some point, whether from up here, in the minyan, over e-mail, or in person. But let me name a few things going on, that I believe you need to know about:
o One of the biggest issues facing the movement is the situation in Israel. Earlier this year, we were able to postpone a bill that was going through the Knesset, and which the Orthodox are trying to make into law, which would give sole religious authority to the Orthodox Court. It is called the Rotem Bill, and sadly it’ll be up for discussion again this fall. If passed, it would mean that no non-Orthodox conversions would be accepted, and it would, for the first time, tamper with the Law of Return, to start making value judgments about who is a Jew, and who can make aliyah to Israel.
o David Lissy, the Executive Director of the Masorti Movement, wrote a letter, which you can read online, where he talks about the movement struggles. He writes, “When 100,000 haredim (Ultra Orthodox) take to the streets to defy the Supreme Court, the problem is greater than the disruption to commerce which ensues. When a young woman is arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit and another is physically assaulted because t’fillin strap marks are visible on her arm, and when on public bus lines women are told to ride in the rear, it is an attack on the entire fabric of society.”
o Indeed, these are incidents that have happened in the last few months. One woman was attacked in Beer Sheva, not Jerusalem, because it was clear she had been praying with her tefillin on, straps traditionally only worn by men. Another woman was arrested, by the Israeli police, for carrying a Torah scroll by the Western Wall. And women are, in fact, required on some public bus routes to ride in the back of the bus, or they suffer attacks from male passengers, while the driver looks on and does nothing.
o But our voices in the Diaspora ARE heard. We CAN make a difference, if we stand up for what we know to be right, and proudly defend non-Orthodox denominations, and fight for equality in Israel. Yes, Israel faces external threats, and we must defend her against all of those as well. But David Lissy also writes, “We have shown we know how to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel to fight external threats. Now we have to show our support for the overwhelming number of Israelis who are wrestling with internal challenges to the core values of a Jewish and democratic society.”
o Aside from the situation in Israel, our movement DOES give us cause for great pride in other areas as well. Cantor Friedrich has graciously agreed to serve as one of our liaisons, Ambassadors really, to Hechsher Tzedek. Recently, you may have seen reports in the news about Kosher meat plants where the workers were mistreated, and where the animals were living in terrible conditions. Some might say this has nothing to do with keeping Kosher, that all we care about is having a rabbi bless the meat, kill the animal a certain way, and we’re good to go. It is the Conservative Movement that is spear-heading a change. Hechsher Tzedek is an organization pushing for a separate seal on foods, placed next to other stamps of Kosher certification, but this one indicating that the workers who handled the product were treated well, paid fair wages, and not abused. It indicates that animals were not mistreated, and that they did not suffer to provide you with food.
o For some of us, there is no such thing as Kosher veal or Kosher foie gras, because these products inherently involve cruelty towards animals, and yes, that matters if we’re going to eat them. We have provided flyers on the table here in the Sanctuary if you would like to read more. Thank you to Cantor Friedrich for helping connect us to this important cause, and please let me know if you too would like to serve as an Ambassador to Hechsher Tzedek.
I have given you just a couple of examples of how Conservative Judaism engages with the world around us. “Polarities in Balance” and a “Judaism of Relationships” – these central principles help guide my life, and have already shaped my vision for Ohev Shalom. Along with all the other things I have asked you to feel proud of these High Holidays, I ask you now to also feel proud and confident in the Conservative Movement. We’re not perfect! The movement has got a lot of work to do, and WE have got a lot of work to do. But I’m not ready to abandon ship just yet. I firmly believe that when we are strong and resolute Conservative Jews, we engage better with other movements, other religions, certainly with Israel, and with the world at large.
Pride can indeed have many definitions. Pride in that which is closest to us, as well as Pride in something bigger than ourselves, like a world-wide movement. The common denominator is standing up for what we believe in; feeling enough pride that we care about something and want to see it succeed, grow, and evolve.
Pride is about ownership and taking responsibility…Hey, maybe that would make a good bumper sticker?
Shana Tovah!

Kol Nidrei: High Holiday Sermon Series 5771 - #4

Happy New Year! Now that Yom Kippur is behind us, I would like to share with you the rest of my High Holiday sermons on the theme of Pride. Below you will find the Kol Nidrei sermon from the evening of Yom Kippur. Please feel free to share comments and feedback over e-mail or here on the blog. Enjoy!

Kol Nidrei Main Sermon
If I told you that I was going to start my speech this evening by talking about the prophet Jonah, you might be a little surprised. Jonah is usually the prophet connected to Yom Kippur Mincha, the afternoon service, because that is when we read the Book of Jonah. And my talking about Jonah tonight should in no way lead you to believe that I am trying to hasten, or that I’m looking forward to, the end of Yom Kippur.

Nevertheless, I would like to begin my talk this evening with the prophet Jonah. His full name is Yonah ben Amitai, which generally means that his father's name was Amitai, but it is also an interesting name, because it comes from the root for the Hebrew word, Emet," meaning, "truth." Jonah is, in a sense, the "truth-seeker," a no-nonsense guy, a straight-shooter, who values real justice. God sends Jonah to the city of Nineve to tell the people their city is about to be destroyed because of their sins. He tries to run away, gets swallowed by a whale, after he repents the whale spits him back out, and he agrees to go to Nineve. Pretty much your standard day-in-the-life of a prophet.
At the end of the story, the people of Nineve repent, and so they are saved. Jonah however, is not happy about it, because he felt the people deserved to be destroyed. Again, he's the truth-guy, so he wasn't looking for mercy; he wanted just-desserts! Comeuppance!
God is disappointed with Jonah. At the end of the book, God tries to teach Jonah the value of community, showing him that these people can change, that there is so much good that can come from a community of people working together. If they are willing to repent and change, there is no question they are worth saving.
This evening I am continuing my series of High Holiday sermons on the subject of Pride. I began this series on Rosh Hashanah, but for those of you who weren’t there, or who can’t remember what happened 10 days ago, or who didn’t look on my blog where I have posted the Rosh Hashanah sermons, let me do a quick recap. After tonight, you’re on your own!
I mentioned at Rosh Hashanah services that the word Pride is like a small rock dropped in a pond, with ripples generating outwards; affecting change, growing, and moving away from that central point. Each sermon represents another sphere of potential, possibility, and opportunity for all of us to develop in the year ahead. So far, we’ve talked about Pride in Oneself and Pride in One’s Family.
What Jonah failed to understand is that Pride in One’s Community, and a desire to make that community grow and thrive, is also an essential ripple in our lives. When Jonah looks up and criticizes God for saving Nineve, he takes a phrase from the Bible, and he distorts it slightly to get his point across.
We are familiar with the phrase sung at High Holiday services describing the 13 attributes of God: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and remitting punishment” (Ex. 34:6-7). Jonah quotes this line, but he says, “I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness…” And he stops. Right before the word “Emet.” The Etz Chayim and the Sim Shalom Siddur both translate it as “Faithfulness,” but it’s really “truth.” Jonah says, “I know you’re full of kindness and compassion, but WHERE’S THE TRUTH!?? I wanted justice, and I didn’t get it.”
It’s a cunning re-use of the phrase, interpretation by omission. But the reality is that Jonah isn’t the only one who does that. In fact, the rabbis created their own midrash, their own interpretation, when they put this phrase in our Machzor, our prayer book. They break it a little too early as well! Our liturgy has the phrase ending with “… and remits punishment,” but the quote from the Torah actually goes on, “Nakeh LO Yinakeh,” “as for punishment, God will NOT remit punishment,” but will hold you responsible for your actions, and even the actions of your ancestors.
The full phrase makes sense in context in the Torah, when it is uttered by a Heavenly Voice in front of Moses, but it doesn’t work so well for us on Yom Kippur. We are looking for God to forgive our sins today, and so the rabbis who were skillful editors of Biblical verses (when it suited their needs), put a subtle, but effective and well-placed break to help us get through the holidays with our theology intact.
This concept, of reinterpreting a quote for different purposes, done by Jonah AND by the rabbis, was my inspiration when I myself was thinking about community. I was contemplating the value of pride in our congregation, of rallying around something we care about, and my mind went back to all the quotable lines from the Torah, like the 13 Attributes of God, that are taken in different contexts, edited and re-translated to help convey a message about who we are and what we believe in.

So, when Amy Pollack showed me our new proposed synagogue logo, I was inspired. Along with our new logo, Amy introduced me to the tagline: “Bringing Judaism to Life in Delaware County,” and the many ways it can be read. But it wasn’t just an opportunity for a clever re-reading of the line in different ways, I truly believe the different ways we see this phrase speak to different areas of great pride within our congregation.
Let me show you what I mean. Option 1: “Congregation Ohev Shalom – Bringing Judaism to life… in Delaware County.” When you read it like that, we are indeed on a mission, a journey perhaps, to reignite a love of Judaism; to bring Judaism to life. Cantor Friedrich wrote in his impressive guidebook and calendar to our new year in the Mispallelim Religious School, “[the mission] is to inspire lifelong embracement of Jewish beliefs and practices.” We love being Jewish, and we spend our days trying to figure out how to help you embrace it as well.
The Cantor and I care deeply about all our religious services, from morning minyan, to Shabbat services, and holiday experiences. We have tried to create a light-hearted and informal, yet engaging and enjoyable atmosphere, because worship opportunities are at the heart of Jewish involvement. That is also why we are thrilled that we have successfully made our bimah more accessible, so that anyone who wants to, can join in our services. All are welcome!
Communal meals, Sukkah lunches, and Chanukah candle lighting are also new programs we’ve instituted as part of my vision of weaving Judaism into the fabric of your own living tradition, a tradition you’ll want to pass on to your children as well.
Looking ahead, I am also hoping to bring this Jewish engagement to other areas of the congregation, like Men’s Club, with a series of evening get-togethers outside the synagogue, at a local area restaurant or pub – we’re calling it Torah on Tap.
We are restarting the Confirmation class and strengthening our relationship with Mekom Torah, our local Jewish High School group AND adult ed program, in order to make Jewish learning a life-long experience. Hopefully it will be a journey of enjoyment and enrichment, with educational opportunities for all ages of young people as well as adults.
Soon we hope to put out a program book, filled with a wealth of exciting sessions, workshops, and lectures going on right here at Ohev Shalom throughout the year!
Now if you take that same phrase, and you move the pause around, Ohev Shalom is instead, “Bringing Judaism… to Life in Delaware County.”
Last year Josh, Cantor Friedrich, and I ran an Interfaith Passover Seder at a church in Media. I also participated in a Martin Luther King celebration; throughout the year we were featured in newspaper articles and on websites; and we’ve tried to open up our facility to anyone and everyone in the region, whether Jewish or non-Jewish.
Furthermore, you really can’t talk about influences on life in Delaware County without mentioning our Social Action committee and Fran Stier, who do reading programs, LifeCenter dinners, and food drives, like the High Holiday Drive right now. Thank you so much to Fran and all the volunteers for their hard work, and for representing us so well in the wider community!
In the year ahead, I will be coordinating the Swarthmore Wallingford Interfaith Ministerium, or SWIM, and in November we are resurrecting the county-wide Thanksgiving celebration! On Sunday, November 21st, we are hosting a communal Thanksgiving Day event, with choirs from several congregations, speakers, and of course, holiday-appropriate food. Please keep a lookout for more info on that, and come out to support our effort to bring our religious communities closer together.
Life in Delaware County also includes other Jewish groups, certainly our friends down Rt. 352. We’ve done two annual events with Beth Israel in Media, Selichot before the High Holidays, and an evening of study, a Tikkun, on the evening of Shavuot. We will continue to work with BI, because their rabbi is terrific, Rabbi Linda Potemken, because the people are great, and because they are part of our community. Too often we see synagogues fighting or being territorial. I think everyone loses when we do that. Instead, when we support them, communicate with them, and (heaven forbid!) even recommend them, we are all strengthened. Each place is right for its congregants, and when anyone is ready to affiliate with a synagogue and pay dues, I want them to feel at home there, wherever it may be.
Our tagline has a third division. We emphasize “To Life!” in the center of the phrase, which, for some people, conjures up images of Tevye the Milkman, and the play “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Drawing a connection to “Fiddler on the Roof” reminds us to emphasize culture, Jewish tradition, and even the light-hearted side of being Jewish, throughout our community.
Obviously, this is also meant as promotion for our theatrical performances at Ohev Shalom. After a few years’ hiatus, we are now reviving the Ohev Players, and will be making use of our terrific stage THIS spring. Under the direction of Ann Fackenthall, and the amazing work of producers Penni Starer, Lise Fishman (aka Starfish Productions), and Sharon Kotzen, with several other key individuals, we are going to bring performances back to Ohev! I am thrilled about this, and can’t wait to audition myself.
I might even go so far as to say that “To Life” in our tagline draws us back to the popular Hebrew exclamation, “Le-chayim,” which means “To Life,” thus reminding us of the importance of Hebrew. Hebrew is an essential part of our newly adopted curriculum in the religious school, it is obviously a major part of our worship service, and this fall we are restarting our Hebrew reading courses if anyone would like to work on improving their skills.
Our connection to Hebrew, and thus the Land of Israel, is a central part of what makes us Jewish. I want to take this opportunity to remind you about our Israel Trip 2.0, a newly released and updated follow-up on the successes of the trip in 2008. We are going in August of 2011, and I am so looking forward to experiencing Israel together with all of you. I would like to thank Rich Kaplan, Karen and Louis Stesis, and the rest of the Israel Trip Planning committee for their hard work. It is going to be an amazing trip, whether it’s your first time, your 2nd, or you’re practically a native. (Perhaps especially if you’re a native, because you obviously never take the time to visit these places!)
We hope you also felt that sense of connection to Israel through Alex (Abramowitz) and Ethans (Graham) terrific presentation earlier. That is what we hope to give all our young people; a strong connection to Israel and their own heritage, and a way to experience Judaism that is fun, exciting, and full of hiking! Yasher Koach (again) to both of them for a great presentation!
Now I want to share with you just one more midrash, an interpretation, on our synagogue’s new tagline. This one comes from our very own Steve Smith, who’s been taking care of this building, and its staff, for nearly 15 years now. Steve unintentionally created his own version of our tagline, when he put it on the sign out by the street. I scribbled it on a piece of paper for him, and he created a beautiful new midrash that really inspired me.
He wrote on the sign, “Bring in Judaism to life in Delaware County.” What might have been perceived as passive, or done FOR you by someone else, “bringing Judaism to life,” is now active, and an imperative on all of us: “Bring in Judaism.” Tonight I’ve listed a plethora of things that have made me proud to be associated with this congregation over the 15 months that I’ve been here. I’ve told you about ideas, plans, and visions for the future, but I can’t MAKE you feel the same pride, and I can’t MAKE you get involved. How are you going to contribute to our vision, and add your own interpretation of what we do here?
It might be joining one of our newly formed, or newly expanded committees. Or creating a chavura, a peer group with other congregants. You might want to add to something that already exists, or hatch an idea of your own, and inspire others to join you.
It could even be something as simple as handing someone your prayer book. One custom I’ve seen done here hundreds of times, and which to me is emblematic of our culture, is helping others navigate our service. When a new person has entered the Sanctuary, not only have people greeted them and told them the page number, I’ve seen many people physically hand over their own prayerbook, and go get a new one for themselves. Come to think of it, when I’ve stepped out of the Sanctuary myself, and come back in, I’ve had congregants hand ME a prayer book!
I want to conclude with one final story, an amazing experience that happened here back in March. This should be a source of pride for all of us as a community. We were visited at Ohev by a small family of Persian Jews, two men in their 30s and their mother, who were tragically stuck in our area after their father had suffered a stroke during a trip down from New York. They didn’t know anyone, they didn’t have a lot of money, and they were feeling lost and afraid for their father.
They were in awe of this community. And it wasn’t because of me, or the Cantor, or Josh. Countless people welcomed them, sat with them, prayed with them, and showed serious concern for their well-being. The mother couldn’t even speak English, yet many people sat with her and offered her comfort and support. They were in our community for nearly three months, and it was stunning for me, and I know for them, to see how well they were treated in this community.
The truth was that the situation was dire. And sadly, the father passed away, just a few weeks ago. The truth was that they were never going to become members, they live in New York, and even if they did, they weren’t a wealthy or well-connected family. But we are not the prophet Jonah. We are not truth-seekers above all else. As you have heard from all the things I have listed here tonight, we are a community of support, substance, caring, enthusiasm, and we embrace our Judaism; as well as all those who are in need.
This is why you should feel tremendously proud of your community. This is why our community is worth everything that we want it to be, and everything that it could be in the future... if we make it happen.
And this is why I encourage all of you, in the words of my friend and colleague, Steve Smith, to BRING IN Judaism, to your life, and to all of Delaware County.
Shana Tovah and Tzom Kal – May you all have an easy conclusion to your fasts.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rosh Hashanah (Day 2): High Holiday Sermon Series 5771 - #3

Sermon #3 – Reigniting Family Pride
A few nights ago, on Saturday, just after Shabbat ended, we gathered together here, along with members of Beth Israel in Media, for the Selichot service which introduces the High Holiday season.
Selichot is kind of like the pre-game warm up show, or the “Look-alive-people-the-holidays-are-around-the-corner” service. Either way, it’s an opportunity to brush up on some of the tunes that repeat themselves throughout the holidays; it’s a chance to start reflecting on where you yourself are, going into the holidays; and we usually include a study session to start thinking about the themes of the holidays.
So sure enough, we talked about Teshuva, repentence. No big surprise there. But we wanted to be a bit more focused than that, so Rabbi Linda Potemken of Beth Israel and I brought in the subject of the family. How do we ask forgiveness of our family members, and seek to repair relationships within our own families? To get the discussion started, we each selected a number of poems that focused on family issues, and that got our conversation going. I would like to share one of those poems with you right now.
To read the poem, “Family at War,” by Judy Karbritz, please click here.
Today’s sermon is the next installment in my High Holiday series on Pride. My vision for this series is that the word “Pride” is like a pebble, dropped in a body of water, and the different areas of Pride that I’ll be talking about are like rippling circles that expand and grow inside all of us. Each sermon is a new circle, that I hope can inspire you to think about how to make changes for yourself, your family, and your community in the year ahead. Yesterday we talked about how to feel pride in oneself, and today I would like to move outwards to what I consider the next essential ring; the family.
I can’t tell you how often I have already heard about family feuds – much like the one in Judy Karbritz’s poem – both in this congregation, in past congregations, among colleagues and friends, and seemingly wherever I go. It’s almost ubiquitous, with nearly every one of us having someone in the family we don’t talk to, or two family members who don’t speak to one another, or a black sheep whom everyone avoids! Why does this happen? Before we can speak about feeling pride in one another, let us examine what might cause the opposite emotions; envy, frustration, disappointment, and rage.
I want to begin back in our Torah reading this morning; the Binding of Isaac. Why is this story so disturbing to grapple with, yet so essential for us to read? Because it is about the damage we can cause one another within the family. We know each other so well, we grew up together, we cried in front of one another, and we’ve been our most immature, scared, humiliated, and embarrassing in front of each other. And we know, better than anyone else, how to push each other’s buttons! Family can be the source of so much joy, comfort, support, and love; but also so much pain, anguish, and heartache.
Even more so than for us today, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac only had each other. Abraham had left his homeland, and his nephew, Lot, had moved on to greener pastures. So when Sarah saw her husband and son set off together, she felt certain they would take care of one another. And Isaac, leaving with his father on a hunting trip, felt he had nothing to fear, that he could always trust his father to shield him from harm.
But God had given Abraham different instructions. It turns out God could trust him, but Abraham’s family members, not so much. It’s almost unimaginable, putting yourself in Abraham’s sandals, knowing what is expected of you, having to look your wife and son in the eyes, and go through with God’s request. Our rabbis tell us that the hardest part of the entire ordeal for Abraham was having to walk back down off that mountain. Yes, they are all safe, but now he has to face his family and figure out how to rebuild these broken relationships.
Now perhaps some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Rabbi, come on! No one here is about to tie their child to an altar and offer them as a sacrifice to God!!” And I certainly hope you’re right. But let go of your literal-mindedness for a minute. Are you telling me parents never hurt their children today in pursuit of their own ambitions? No, they don’t physically tie them to altars, but they might bind them metaphorically to unrealistic expectations. They don’t turn them into offerings, but some use their children to try and realize unfulfilled dreams; to live vicariously through their successes in sports, or school, or in life...
Stop for a moment and realize that this story is truly speaking to us today. It reminds us how family members can injure one another, whether emotionally or otherwise, and that it can leave real and long-lasting scars.
So today I implore us all to begin to turn things around. Yes, we spend a lot of the holiday either praying or eating… after all, this IS a Jewish holiday. But it should also be a time for apologies and making changes. Judaism teaches us that we cannot apologize to God for the wrong we have done another human being; we have to apologize directly to that person. Or perhaps you genuinely feel that the wrong was done by the other person; then this season can be one of accepting apologies. This should be a season of letting go, freeing yourself and someone else of something that weighs down on you both; whether through offering, or accepting, a “sorry.”
Judy Karbritz’s poem was written in the third person – watching this happen between other people – which reminds us that everyone in the family is affected, even if the feud, the broiges, was only between two people. The next story in the Torah after ours tells us of the death of Sarah. The rabbis link it back to the Binding of Isaac, further supporting the idea that family members are all affected. Sarah was nowhere near the altar, but she was deeply impacted by this dramatic ordeal nonetheless, and the rabbis say it ultimately killed her.
On Saturday mornings, I read a small paragraph out loud in front of the Ark, right before the Cantor sings “Bei Ana Racheitz” and just prior to removing the Torah scrolls. Usually I just read the translation of the song we sing, but sometimes I substitute it with one or another English reading I find meaningful, and which also speaks about the Torah and our relationship to it. One of those readings is actually a personal, family meditation, but when I include it in the service, I make a few adjustments so it will apply to the congregation. In that prayer, the following phrase speaks directly to our topic this morning: “Save us from dissension and jealousy; shield us from pettiness and rivalry. May selfish pride not divide us; may pride in one another unite us.”
Can we learn to feel pride in one another again? How do we turn things around, teshuva (a word that literally means “turn around”), to start seeing that the successes of those closest to us are our successes as well? Jealousy, pettiness, rivalry - they are unfortunately easy to fall back into. Let us strive to claw our way out, and instead feel joy, excitement, and pride for our family members.
As I mentioned earlier, I compare these sermons on Pride to a pebble dropping in a pond, and the rippling circles that extend out from the center. How can we continue on to the next ring, to celebrate and enjoy the pride we feel for our community, the Jewish people, or our country, when we are carrying around strong negative emotions?
This High Holiday season, give yourself a gift. Reward yourself with the gift of forgiveness, of abandoning past grudges and ill-will.
In a few moments, Cantor Friedrich will once again share with us his beautiful rendition of the Hineni, the prayer that leads us into the Silent Amidah. Yesterday we spoke about how the Hineni is said in the singular, “Here I am.” Indeed, we do all stand before God as individuals. Our lives are unique, our perspectives are our own, and we will ultimately each make our choices and live with the consequences of our own actions. But look around the Sanctuary. We stand as individuals, but as a large group of individuals. So often we feel utterly alone, and believe that no one understands what we’re going through; when in reality we are dealing with the same challenges and struggles as the person sitting right beside us.
Judy Karbritz reminds us that the first step towards creating a world at peace can be the resolving of conflicts within the family. Let us learn from our history, from our religious texts, from modern poetry, and from one another - and thereby be united by pride in one another... and a reignited sense of pride in our families.
Shana Tovah U’metukah - May you all have a Happy, Healthy, and Liberating New Year.

Rosh Hashanah (Day 1): High Holiday Sermon Series 5771 - #2

Sermon #2 – Creating the First Ripple
“Drop a pebble in the water:
just a splash, and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples
Circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the center,
flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling
where the end is going to be.”
Thus begins the poem, “Drop a Pebble,” by James W. Foley. This notion of rippling circles, going out from a locus point in the center was part of my inspiration for these High Holidays. The pebble that I have attempted to drop for all of us, as we begin this New Year, is just one word, “Pride.”
Again, I want to reiterate something I said last night, which is that I am reclaiming this word. I don’t want you to think of “Pride cometh before the fall” or Pride as one of the seven deadly sins. But rather the ability to be “proud of our own accomplishments,” or “feel a great sense of pride in our congregation.” One of our ancient books, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, contemporary with some of the later books of the Hebrew Bible, though it did not make it into the official canon, teaches us the following lesson:
“My son, in all modesty, keep your self-respect and value yourself at your true worth. Who will speak up for a man who is his own enemy? Or respect one who disparages himself?”
“Value yourself.” “Do not be your own enemy.” These are essential lessons for us to learn. And so I would like to move now from our initial pebble - the word “Pride” - to the first rippling circle: Pride in oneself.
I begin here because I think that in some ways it is the most difficult, but also the most essential. How can we reach out to other people, volunteer in our congregation, offer support and comfort to someone else; if we are experiencing inner turmoil? We begin inside, striving and struggling to understand ourselves better, and only then do we turn outwards to help those around us.
Now this is of course the ideal. But realistically it’s not at all easy. And I certainly do NOT mean to imply that if you’ve got any unresolved issues, we don’t want you offering any help in the community! That’s not it at all. It’s just that you will function better, with more happiness and fulfillment, and healthier, if you’re moving towards developing a sense of pride in yourself.
Let’s take a look at our Biblical models. Our Torah portion begins with Abraham and Sarah having a child despite being well beyond child-bearing years. Sarah calls her son “Isaac,” “Yitzchak,” which comes from the word for “laughter,” “Tzechok.” She exclaims that, “God has brought me laughter. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.” But as you know about me, and the way I study Torah, I cannot accept the words at simple face value; especially when you consider how this story plays out, the surrounding context of her statement. She says, “Everyone will laugh with me,” but the Hebrew is, “Yitzchak-Li.” It’s unclear whether she is saying that everyone will laugh “with me”.... or “at me.” Perhaps she is really wondering, “Are they laughing at me? The old woman with an infant?” She turns her own embarrassment and insecurity on her maidservant, Hagar, and has her thrown out and left for dead in the wilderness.
It is wishful thinking to say that Sarah felt nothing but great pride in herself, and in her accomplishments. Perhaps she felt elation as well, but she does project a lot of negativity onto Hagar, and I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that it’s because she is harboring unresolved issues with herself.
Hagar, on the other hand, acts the heroine in our story, because she does the opposite. She is thrown out into the desert, spurned by her family, yet when death seems immanent, her only comment is, “Let me not look as the child dies.” No cursing Abraham and Sarah, no yelling at God. I don’t mean to say it is a moment of pride or self-confidence, but she DOES take responsibility for her predicament. She owns the moment and doesn’t cast blame on others.
The Biblical characters are simply older examples of human behavior; the same behavior we see in others... and in ourselves. Take a moment to acknowledge what a little bit of introspection, or a healthy dose of therapy, might have done for the people in the Torah. What about for all of us?
For some reason, we imagine that we understand ourselves well. “I’m me, right? I’ve lived with myself for every second of every day, how could anyone understand what I’m going through better than... ME???” But that is often a serious misconception. We don’t know how traumatic situations have affected us, we don’t always remember everything that has happened to us. If you have a hard time celebrating your own successes, or taking credit for things you genuinely did well, there’s a reason why that’s happening. And it’s a reason worth exploring. And when we understand our own behaviors better, the results can be quite dramatic.
So how do we begin? Let me take a page out of [the congregation’s past president] David Pollack’s playbook, and answer those questions with a story:
There once was a rabbi who said to his students: “we are as far from where God wants us to be as East is from West”? And then he said to them: “By the way, just how far is it from east to west? One of his students raised his hand and said: “11 thousand miles. I just heard that on NPR.” The rabbi said, “no, that is wrong.” Another student raised his hand and said: “25 thousand miles. That’s the circumference of the world.” The rabbi said, “no, that is wrong.” A 3rd student said, “6 thousand miles,” the rabbi said, “no, that is wrong.” The distance from east to west is one step. You are facing east, you take one step and turn around and now you are facing west. In the same way, teshuvah is not a change in personality, teshuvah is a change in direction.
In our Machzor, we read, “Hashiveinu Adonai Eilecha ve-nashuva,” which means, “Bring us closer to you, God, and we will turn around.” Change our orientation so that our growth in the coming year will be a growth towards you and not a growth in the opposite direction.
Speaking of the liturgy in our Machzor, I actually think the way our rabbis phrased the prayers speaks to my point as well. Some of our prayers use communal language:
“Elokeinu Melech Ha-olam,” “OUR God, King of the Universe”
“Aleinu Leshabeach L’adon Ha-kol,” “WE rise to OUR duty to praise the Master of all.”
And even the one I just quoted, “Hashiveinu... Ve-nashuva,” “Bring us closer to you, and we will turn around.”
But other prayers speak as individuals. Even in this room, as we all stand or sit together in communal prayer, we are also individuals. We take individual responsibility for our actions, and we each have the opportunity to speak to God. You need to pray for YOUR self. If you think I’m standing up here, in my personal Amidah, with my eyes closed, my tallit over my head, and speaking on YOUR behalf... well, I hate to break it to you, but... Many of our prayers use 1st person language:
“Adonai, Sefatai Tiftach, U’fi Yagid Tehilatecha,” “MY God, open up MY lips, and MY mouth will proclaim your glory.”
The prayer Cantor Friedrich will be teaching you later (with the melody he composed!), “Elokai, Netzor Leshoni Mei-ra,” “MY God, keep MY tongue from evil.”
And speaking of Cantor Friedrich, after my sermon, he will move to the center of the Sanctuary, and sing the Hineni prayer, with its beautiful liturgy about the humility of a Cantor singing on behalf of the congregation, and leading us all through these High Holiday services. So, yes, there are parts of the service where we pray FOR one another, but even THAT prayer is composed in the 1st person, singular; he is singing about himself.
So our liturgy urges us to contemplate our own situation. It’s not just about the communal, it’s about the individual as well. Where are you right now? What were you doing before you came here, what are you doing after you leave, and how do YOU feel about YOURSELF at this moment?
And I’ll push you once again: What will it take for you to feel a little more pride in yourself? What are the external factors that will bring about an internal shift, for you? Or perhaps put in another way, what is the pebble - not a boulder or a monolith, not a major, life-altering decision… just a pebble - that is going to start your own rippling effect?
Returning back to our original metaphor, it’s amazing to me how significant this phenomenon of the rippling circles truly is. The idea that one behavior or action has countless effects on other people, situations, and systems, sometimes totally unrelated to the starting point - this concept exists in economics, education, sociology, computer science, and in understanding charitable giving; all of them use the image of the circles expanding out from one, central point.
The main question is: How do you begin the ripple? You begin it by acknowledging that you can change, that there are changes that need to happen. Could Sarah admit that her grievances with Hagar were really just a symptom of a larger problem? Would she have been willing to change? In our own lives, do we act more like Sarah, projecting our frustrations onto others… or like Hagar, owning our own moments, whatever they may be?
Over these High Holidays, I will be delivering several more sermons on feeling a sense of pride. But it begins here, it begins for me by understanding myself, and taking greater pride in what I am able to achieve, and what I have achieved. That is a big part of Teshuva, of affecting a transformation inside each one of us.
If you can drop that pebble of Teshuva, of turning around and making a change inside yourself, there is truly, as James Foley wrote in his poem, no telling where the end is going to be.
Shana Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah (Erev): High Holiday Sermon Series 5771

Throughout the High Holidays, I am delivering sermons that are all connected in one, unified theme. For those of you who weren’t able to join us for Rosh Hashanah services, I thought I would give you an opportunity to see what I spoke about. If you are able to come for Yom Kippur, you’ll have a context for the next sermons in the same series. And if not, you’ll still know what I spoke about. May you continue to have a Happy and Healthy start to your New Year, and have an easy fast at Yom Kippur!

Sermon #1 – Introducing the Series
I’m going to try something different these High Holidays. This is my seventh year leading High Holiday services, so when I say it’s different, I don’t just mean different from last year. And when I’ve told other people about it, including rabbinic colleagues, I get a few raised eyebrows. But many of you might already know what I’m going to say, especially if you read my article in the Honey Jar this month.
I’m going to maintain a theme throughout my High Holiday sermons, beginning this evening, running through Rosh Hashanah, and continuing until the end of Yom Kippur. In my Honey Jar article, I wrote about the theme of “Pride,” which in fact is going to be the common word throughout these sermons.
Now the way I see it, you have one of two questions running through your mind right now, and I’m going to answer both. If your question isn’t one of these two, then perhaps sit back and bide your time, and see if your question gets answered in one or another of my upcoming talks.
Ok, so what are the two questions? 1. “Why have a theme for all your sermons?” and 2. “Why pride?”
During the years I spent in rabbinical school, my classmates and I became very close. We studied together, we traveled to Israel together, we spent an absurd amount of time with one another, and we relied on each other for advice, help and support, tips, and occasionally strategies, methods and suggestions for our future careers. Several times, I found myself even reading books based on recommendations from classmates.
And one book that a number of people were reading was “The Purpose-Driven Church” by Pastor Rick Warren. This may surprise you, because it’s not exactly a Jewish book, but what we found was that a number of books within the Jewish community - all talking about improving synagogues, reinventing the Jewish community, changing our focus, etc, etc - many of them were based on ideas found in Rick Warren’s book. SO, we went to the source.
And one of the things I found was that Rick Warren talked about consolidating your message, finding a “Purpose” that “Drives” your organization. As a religious community, we need to distill down what we want to do into simpler ideas. Not because people can’t handle more complex ideas, but because everyone should be able to grasp it, and it should be able to permeate different areas of the community. I want us all to be on the same page, so if the message is somewhat basic, it can run through the school, the Men’s Club, the Executive Board, the Social Action committee, the Ritual Committee, Sisterhood, the synagogue play, and the rummage sale.
Now I didn’t get the message itself from Rick Warren, just the concept. I hope it doesn’t make you uncomfortable to learn that we can “borrow” ideas from other religions, even what some people might call more radical groups. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel when someone else has found a system or principle that works. We just have to change the language, the players, and the theology; but some of the concepts are really, really good.
So in our case, I decided to do a test-run last year. Throughout my charges to B’nai Mitzvah students, speeches at social gatherings, talks to the religious school and various synagogue groups, and wherever else I could fit it in; I talked about “Journeys.” My thought was that we are all on our own Jewish Journeys, life-long “trips” of exploring our relationship to religion and God, and that the congregation can be there for each of us as we move along on that odyssey. It is, after all, both a personal AND a communal experience. I still like that message, so you may find lingering examples of it throughout the upcoming year, but as we begin 5771, I’m adding a second word: Pride.
The first thing I want to say about “Pride” is that I’m NOT talking about the negative kind, i.e. “Pride cometh before the fall,” or the Pride you’ve heard about as one of the seven deadly sins. In fact, it’s fascinating to me that it’s one of the seven worst sins in Christian dogma. (Pause) I think I understand what they were going for, namely hubris, thinking that you’re better than other people, or maybe stubbornness and unwillingness to admit fault, which can lead to self-destruction.
However, what bothers me about it, is that the word “Pride,” across the board, now sounds like something terrible. I feel like we’ve thrown out the baby with the bath water. What about when someone says, “I’m proud of you.” Or “I was filled with such pride when I saw my students succeed.” Is that also part of the seven deadly sins? So yes, I know it’s the same word, and some people might think of the negative examples before the positive ones, but I am reclaiming the word! Feeling a sense of pride – in others, in our community, and even in ourselves – I believe is very, very important.
I hope that throughout these High Holidays, I can convince you of the same. As we move through each of our services over these next couple of days and again during Yom Kippur, please think about what “Pride” can mean to you. At this season of self-improvement, making changes, and learning to understand ourselves better, I think that it can do us a lot of good to reflect on what makes us proud.
Let us begin simply with that. A thought to hold onto throughout the High Holiday season. I’m curious and excited to see where we, together, take it from here.
Shana Tovah!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Hide, but Go Seek!

Lately, when people ask me how I'm doing, I've been responding that the next few weeks for a rabbi are kind of like tax-season for accountants. Hectic, very, very hectic. Everything is about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah; all the holidays that come in rapid succession throughout the month of September. So I was quite surprised when I heard my colleague, Cantor Steven Friedrich, mention the holiday of Purim (which doesn't come until March) in services on Monday morning. Who talks about Purim right now?

It turns out he was looking at this week's Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, and a specific verse in chapter 31 of the Book of Deuteronomy. God tells Moses he is about to die, and that the people will soon thereafter turn away from the commandments of the Torah. In verse 18, God says, "Yet I will keep my countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods." The Hebrew phrase for the hiding of God's face is, "Haster Astir Panai," and Cantor Friedrich pointed out how similar the words "Haster" and "Astir" are to the name of the heroine on Purim, "Esther." And indeed, on Purim we find no mention of God's name in the Book of Esther, and Esther herself "hides" her identity from the king and his advisors, and ultimately it winds up saving our people.

While considering Cantor Friedrich's fascinating observation, I also read a commentary quoted in the Etz Chayim Torah Commentary about a rabbi named Dov Baer of Mezeritch who one day found his son crying. He asked him what was wrong, and the boy said, "I was playing hide-and-

seek with my friends, and I hid so well that they stopped looking for me and went away." Dov Baer goes on to say that God must feel the same way, having hidden so well that many of us now live our lives without God. I was intrigued by this story! Perhaps God did indeed choose to hide because human beings were being sinful, but the point was always for us to keep looking for God; to seek a relationship and try to be close. Where did we lose our way?

Some people shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, who needs God anyway?!" But it's also about finding a way back to ourselves, a way back to happiness, health, and striving to live a good life. In many ways, we have stopped looking for those things as well. The High Holidays, which are right around the corner now, allow us some time to resume the search. We take time out from work, stress, and ambition, and return to peace, reflection, and introspection.
But the answers are not just sitting there waiting for you, like a dog on the front step, anticipating your homecoming. If you want to return to a relationship with God, to explore existential questions and understand what's going on inside yourself, you will have to work a little harder to uncover it.

For me, the question still remains;

why do we stop looking? Why
do we often behave like the friends of the crying child, who give up searching all too soon? The answer to that question is different for each of us. And the time to start pursuing an answer begins right now.

Shana Tovah - Happy and Healthy New Year!