Friday, September 28, 2012

A Brief Hiatus...

Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year, everyone!

I hope that you all enjoyed your High Holiday experiences, whether here in Wallingford or wherever you are around the world. In light of how little time there was between the end of Yom Kippur and this upcoming Shabbat, I am unfortunately going to have to leave you without a blog post yet again. In lieu of writing something for parashat Haazinu, I am including a link to my High Holiday sermons, so you can see that I really have been busy! :-)

In addition, I am proud to inform you that this Shabbat morning we will be concluding three years of studying Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers. It's a pretty momentous occasion for Ohev Shalom, and it coincidentally coincides with the last week of our Torah cycle, as next week is Sukkot and then we go back to reading the first chapters of the Book of Genesis! In honor of our siyyum (conclusion of study), I share with you the final Mishnah (teaching) of Pirkei Avot:

11. Everything that the Holy, Exalted One created in the world, was created solely for God's glory. As it is written (Isaiah 43:7): "All that is called by My name, I created it, formed it, and made it for My glory." It is further written (Exodus 15:18): "Adonai shall reign forever and ever."

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Gerber

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Vayeilech: Please wait... Recalculating...

As you might imagine, I'm pretty busy these days. I tell people that the High Holiday period is for rabbis what tax season is for accountants. Mayhem. So I hope
you don't mind that instead of writing a new blog post this week, I've given you my (modified) thoughts from the first night of Rosh Hashanah, delivered during services. In addition, I've included a link to two videos of Rosh Hashanah sermons, both centered on my theme for this year's holidays: Sustainability. Please let me know what you think, and I wish you all a Shanah Tovah Um'tukah - A Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year!

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we switch out our regular, everyday prayer book, the Siddur, for a fancy new High Holiday book, called the Machzor. And considering that we try to get through
the whole book in just a few services, it can seem pretty daunting to imagine ready EVERY page in just ten days! So how do we navigate through this Machzor, and more importantly, how do we navigate through these holidays? I don't mean only, how do we find the right page number; I'm talking about kavanah, intention. With so much going on during these services, where do we put our focus? How do we create personal connections and meaning with such an emphasis on the communal prayers, the speeches, the shofar, the fasting, the Torah reading, Yizkor, children's services, tashlich, what clothes we're wearing, talking about who's here, talking about who ISN'T here, kibbitzing, and so much else?

I want to share a thought with you for these High Holidays. This Machzor is kind of like a GPS. That's right, just like the one you have in your car. The prayer book and the GPS both give you directions. Just as a GPS tells you when to turn where, how long to stay on this road or that highway, how much traffic is ahead, how fast you should be going; so too, the Machzor instructs you when to sit, stand, beat your chest, listen for the shofar, turn to page such-and-such, etc.

But like a GPS, this book doesn't know all. Most of us have love/hate relationships with our GPS, because it gets things wrong sometimes. The GPS proudly announces that you've arrived at your supposed destination, your vacation hotel, yet your car is sitting outside an
abandoned gas station with nothing else around for miles. It's not all-knowing, and it's not all-powerful... and neither is your Machzor. It's a guide, a navigation tool when you're lost or looking for directions. But if you know the route, if you have a sense of where you'd like to go, or when you'd like to stop, enjoy the view, or take a break along your travels, by all means put it aside and follow your own path. The GPS Machzor will help get you started. Don't worry about knowing exactly where you should go, where you'll end up, or what you'll experience throughout services. Let it begin. Let the trip start, and then just allow yourself to see how you feel and what you may discover along your journey.

One final thought. While we're on the subject, Rosh Hashanah itself can ALSO be a GPS. Our entire lives are odysseys, excursions along various highways and local roads, some familiar, some entirely foreign. Some are scary, and some are exhilarating. And sometimes
we get along just fine on our own... or at least we THINK we're fine until we're suddenly and inexplicably utterly lost. THAT is when the GPS really comes in handy. And that is also when the High Holidays can come in handy. They give us an opportunity for 'Recalculating,' in each of our lives. The holidays can be a tool for helping our lives get back on track. So, in a sense, we strive neither to live entirely reliant on our tracking systems, nor devoid of their assistance. Somewhere in the middle, we must live our lives with independence, self-reliance, and without fear of getting lost... yet also willing to stop along the way, ask for help, and follow directions.

Take advantage of this opportunity for recalculation, and you may yet find yourself eventually arriving safely at your destination. Shanah Tovah!

Photos in this blog post:
1. A very shofar-focused Rabbi Gerber, from a photo shoot with Pat Crowe.

2. Mahzor Lev Shalem, posing dutifully in the Ohev Shalom sanctuary.

3. CC image courtesy of Dittmeyer on Flickr

4. Just a blank page that's trying to refocus...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nitzavim: Hitting Your Stride In Time For The Holidays

As I write this post, the Phillies seem to have miraculously gotten their groove back (though by the time you read this, they may be slumping again…). Who would have thought they’d be in the hunt for a Wild Card spot? Yet here we are. And one of the images that’s 
always stuck with me is the description of the difference between a hot streak and a slump: As a batter, when you’re really in the zone, it looks like the pitcher is lobbing beach balls at you. But when you’re struggling, those beach balls turn to golf balls. I don’t know why that concept has stayed with me, but I find it fascinating. The ball always stays the same, right? What changes isn’t the size, speed, or angle of the ball; it’s our own mind, and our perception of the self, the people around us, and the predicament we find ourselves in. This week’s Torah reading teaches us much the same lesson… but let’s face it, nothing really drives it home like a baseball metaphor!

God and Moses are bringing it all together this week, summing up all the teachings of the Torah in these final, fleeting chapters. In chapter 30, verse 15, Moses declares: “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” And he follows it up with a
reiteration in verse 19: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” We’re talking about free will. This is the crux of the entire Torah. God isn’t going to FORCE us to obey, that’s the whole point of being human. We have a choice. There are, however, barriers that make it hard to choose wisely. What stands between us and making the right decision is lethargy, apathy, selfishness, anger, fear, and a whole host of other forces that the rabbis group under one name: The Evil Inclination.

Each of us has one, but the decision to listen to it or fight it is entirely up to us. The rabbis share a fascinating midrash, a story, about the Evil Inclination: “In The Time To Come [The end of days], the Holy One, blessed be Adonai, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in
the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, 'How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!' The wicked also will weep saying, 'How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!' (Sukkah 52a). 

One thing that fascinates me about this midrash is that it seems reversed. I would have thought the evil impulse would seem tiny to the righteous and huge to the wicked, yet here it is the opposite! And it made me realize that it’s all in our own minds. 
We all face adversity and challenge, no one is ever really exempt. We don’t succeed because we never faced hardship, or because those obstacles seemed minute and insignificant. And when we fail, it’s often because we trip ourselves up and lose confidence, not because we were burdened with insurmountable odds. Like the baseball, whose size never actually changes, our Evil Inclinations are the same. The work that we must all do now, with Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, is figure out how to start seeing it more like a beach ball than a golf ball, so we can knock it clear out of the park. Maybe Chooch can come and give us some pointers.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone.
2. The part of 'heaven and earth' will be played today by the view from the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland. Courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone.
3. Image courtesy of clipart... and a very overworked iPhone...

4. Image courtesy o Rabbi Gerber's iPhone and 80's night at CBP!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ki Tavo: When You're Looking For Maximum Effect...

How do you leave a lasting impression? Is it possible to take something that's meaningful to us TODAY, and turn it into an enduring symbol, creed, or monument, that will remain forever? 
This is certainly a driving force for Democrats and Republicans during these days of convention-fever. For those of us trying to write High Holiday sermons and plan services, it is naturally of great import as well. But it was also a major concern for our Biblical ancestors, and this week we read about one very interesting attempt to turn something temporary into a permanent fixture; though I'll let you be the judge of how successful it was...

Moses is in the middle of lecturing the people about staying faithful to God's commandments. He yells at them, cajoles them, pleads with them - all of which clearly demonstrates how important this is TO HIM, but will it remain deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of the Israelites for generations to come? At one point, Moses and the elders of Israel instruct the people: 
"As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching [Torah]" (Deuteronomy 27:2-3). The way my mind works, I have to stop here and ask a few questions: 1) Are we writing THE ENTIRE teaching on these plastered stones? That sounds like a lot of work! 2) Who is maintaining these stones? 3) What happens in 50 years, or 100 years, or 500 years, when the plaster starts to fade? Is there a Large Stones Fund set up as an endowment to cover the cost of repair?

I see what Moses was TRYING to do. He wanted to fashion something large and imposing to perpetually remind the Israelites of their commitments to God. But the things we build - even the large and imposing ones - break down; just ask anyone working on the upkeep of a 50-year old building... 
What is REALLY permanent isn't the physical structure, it's the teaching itself. When we impress it upon ourselves, our hearts, and pass it along to those who come after us, that is when the Teaching really endures. The 19th Century Torah commentator, the Avnei Nezer, wrote about this when he quoted the Book of Proverbs, chapter three, verse three: "Write them on the tablets of your heart." Avnei Nezer says that our Torah portion isn't really talking about giant obelisks covered in plaster, it's talking about us, you and me, and the work of committing our lives to the Torah, and the Torah to our lives.

So what was Moses talking about? Why not just say that in the first place! Moses was a pretty smart guy, I think he knew all of this from the outset. If you follow his instructions in chapter 27, shlepping that rock up to the top of a mountain, slathering it with wet plaster, then carving all of these words onto it, you WILL learn something. 
You'll watch it age and chip away and fade, and you'll realize that even something amazing as that monument will eventually disappear. But we will still be here. We will still be teaching our children the words of our tradition, and we will continue to inscribe these words on our hearts and in our lives. And I don't think you'd realize all of that if you didn't first try to make it work with that giant, stupid boulder. Sometimes the High Holidays are like that big boulder. You go through all the motions, sit through the services, long for something to eat, and in the end realize that the real work wasn't being done on the outside, it took place inside you. And THAT has staying power.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of William Beutler on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of cdaltonrowe on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of markomni on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of jasleen_kaur
on Flickr