Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Yom Kippur Sermon 5774

This is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning; the fourth, and final, part of my sermon series on the theme, 'Guilt Free Judaism.' If you would like to read the previous three sermons in the series, you can find links to all of them on the right-hand side of this page, a little further down in the margin.

To whom do you answer? Before whom do you stand? (CHACHAM)

I like having a theme for my High Holiday sermons. That may seem obvious to all of you, since I’ve now done it for five years, but I felt it needed to be stated nonetheless. Why? Why do I like themes, and why have I been employing them annually, here at our High Holiday services. Because I want to talk to you. And not talk AT you, I want to engage you in a conversation, that might start here, in the middle of services, with me on the pulpit and you in your seats, but I’m hoping it will continue beyond right now. And this moment, right here; this is precious. Today is possibly the biggest service of the Jewish year. Big crowd, holy atmosphere, major sermon opportunity – but it’s fleeting. You aren’t going to listen forever, nor should you. And it’s tempting to try and squeeze in all the things I’d like to say, all the messages I want you to hear, into this one sermon. Lord knows every Jewish and non-profit organization under the sun has been sending me material for weeks, trying desperately to convince me that I should mention THEM in this speech. They all know this is a biggy, and I know it’s important as well. But if we’re going to talk, you and I, if we’re going to start a conversation, then we can’t talk about 100 different things, or even 20 or 10. I just want to convey one idea, but (hopefully) convey it clearly and definitively, so we’ve got something we can work on together.

And THAT’S why I like themes. The High Holiday season is FILLED with different messages, some conflicting, some outdated, some provocative, and some speak to our very soul. But we can’t try to deal with ALL of them right now; we’ll wind up internalizing NONE. And we'll leave here with nothing whatsoever to show for it. So instead, here at Ohev we start working on a theme at Rosh Hashanah services (and those two main sermons are online, in case you didn’t hear them and would like to know what I talked about), we continued it into last night’s Kol Nidrei service, and right now I’m adding the fourth, and final part.

You’re gonna laugh when I tell you where I got the idea for using themes. Pastor Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose-Driven Church.” Now I got to Rick Warren by way of a much more traditionally Jewish book, ‘The Spirituality of Welcoming’ by Ron Wolfson, about how to transform synagogues into sacred communities, but nevertheless, the inspiration itself came from Pastor Rick Warren. I’m not looking to form a megachurch, by the way, or a megasynagogue for that matter, but the rabbis of the Talmud taught me something: ‘Who is wise?’ they rhetorically ask. ‘One who learns from all people.’ So I learned a valuable lesson from an evangelical pastor.

It’s about boiling down your message, making it simple, explicit, and user-friendly. Warren says, in his book: “Teach them something on Sunday that they can use on Monday.” Our theme this year, Guilt Free Judaism? I don’t want it to apply only to Yom Kippur services, to your experience here TODAY; I want it to mean something to you tomorrow, and the day after, and basically, every day. And I’m sure most rabbis and clergy members would say, ‘Yeah, of course, we ALL want to do that,’ but sometimes you’ve just got to SAY IT! You know? Stop beating around the bush and just state it explicitly.

AND, I’ve kind of realized that in order to do that, to give you something on Yom Kippur that you can use on Monday morning, we need to talk about last year’s theme, Sustainability. Not the environmental side of it (for now), but rather the ability to KEEP THINGS GOING. In other words, how do we make Guilt Free Judaism stay with us BEYOND this Sanctuary, and beyond our parking lot? So we’re actually BLENDING themes here, people! Combining this year’s with last year’s. Stay with me, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!!

Ok, so in order to do this, we’ve got to ask some Good Jewish Questions. That’s kind of been a staple of our work together these High Holidays, asking questions to make sense of guilt, to connect to it more directly, and thereby let it go a little, allow it to recede back and instead make room for other emotions and experiences, and more connections. So we need Good Jewish Questions, but I think that to get this to the next level, to make guiltlessness SUSTAINABLE, we also need to ask some SMART Jewish Questions. Which brings me to our guide for this, our final sermon on Guilt Free Judaism, namely the Wise Child of the Seder Table.

On Rosh Hashanah, I told you that we would be using the Four Children of the Passover Seder as metaphors for our four main holiday sermons. We’ve worked our way through the other three, Rebellious, Simple, and Unable to Ask Questions, and now we’ve ended up at Kid Number One, the Wise Child. Just between you and me, I always thought she was a little bit boring. (By the way, I just made the Wise Child female, but boys can be smart too!) It’s not that I’ve got anything against her; I guess I just think she’s a bit of a brown-noser, always trying to give the ‘right’ answer, and wanting to look smarter than her siblings. I suppose if I’m REALLY being honest, this child makes me uncomfortable, because she reminds me of myself as a child; focused maybe a bit too much on BEING good, and DOING good… and not enough on FEELING good, and being content with myself. I guess it’s sort of a ‘grass is always greener’ situation, where all the other kids sound so much more interesting and colorful, at least to me.

But as we’ve already learned three times before, nothing is ever as straight-forward as it seems. The Wise Child asks: “What are the testimonies, the laws, and the judgments that the Lord, our God, has commanded you?” And it really is a fabulous question for the Seder table, isn't it? To me, it sounds like that moment when you’re putting a child to bed, and they’ve had that last glass of water, and they’ve been tucked in, and the lights are out, and just as you’re about to tip-toe out of the room, they ask, “Dad, what does it mean, ‘to be or not to be’?” No big deal, just answer it in 15 seconds or less, preferably while standing on one foot. Right? Because if you think about it, we're right in the middle of the Seder, with the food sitting in the kitchen ready to be served, starting to get cold, with babies screaming, teenagers sighing, and grandparents falling asleep, you’re just trying to do your very best to get through all these Hebrew passages, and all the important Seder parts, and this goody-two-shoes asks, ‘What are ALL the laws of Passover?’ ‘What is this entire holiday REALLY all about?’ I mean, these aren’t LITTLE questions, are they? There’s no 30-second answer to satisfy this kid’s curiosity. She wants the facts… ALL the facts!

The anonymous voice of the Haggadah instructs the parent to ‘guide the child through all the obligations of Passover.’ Again, easier said than done. I would hope we aren’t expected to do it all RIGHT NOW, right here at the table with the Matzah Ball soup getting chilly. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to reference food while we’re all fasting. I apologize.) It’s a good first reminder to us all, that we don’t have to come up with one, single, complete answer to all our questions and issues RIGHT NOW. It’s true for the Wise Child, and it’s true for you and me, dealing with the issue of guilt. We need to be patient and kind with ourselves, and not expect to be rid of guilt by the time this service ends, or even by the time we’re breaking the fast later tonight.

It takes time. And WE take time. The key to sustainability is not rushing things, not forcing ourselves to reverse 33 years of doing things one way, or 55 or 77 years. ‘Be patient’ is key number one. And key number two also comes from the Wise Child. The main lesson she is really teaching us is, be curious! It’s important to cultivate the ability to step outside ourselves and recognize what’s going on. Why do I feel so guilty? Why won’t I let this go, and why do I continue to torment myself with things I cannot change? This may seem obvious, kind of like all those other rabbis who think it’s self-evident that speaking from the bimah means you want your message to be applicable in people’s lives. It’s NOT obvious. And we often let guilt hang out in the dark recesses of our minds. We SAY we know it’s there, but have we actually STOPPED and paid attention to it?
Named it, engaged it in conversation, and tried to gain a deeper understanding of WHY it just won’t let us go?

Probably not. Because it can be scary to do this. Guilt isn’t a happy emotion, and we prefer to just ignore it and joke about stereotypical Jewish guilt, without really giving it the significance and attention it deserves. I spoke last week about leaning into the discomfort. No one ever REALLY promised us that life would be easy, yet we spend so much of our time running from difficult emotions, and difficult experiences. We need to be curious about our guilt, and continue to engage it, today, tomorrow, next week, and next year, to teach ourselves to accept the discomfort of the emotion, and start learning more about what it’s doing there.

Later this year, our Ohev Shalom community is going to be very blessed to learn from Rabbi Debra Orenstein. Rabbi Orenstein is this year’s Scholar in Residence, and she will be spending an entire weekend with us at the end of March. I had the privilege of learning from Rabbi Orenstein last January, at a rabbinic conference. She taught a three-day course on gratitude, and it was FABULOUS. Rabbi Orenstein spoke about ‘the acceptance of what is, WITHOUT the denial of suffering.’ We do try this, don’t we? We try to deny the suffering. “No, no, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I've forgotten about it already. Sticks and stones! I'm fine. Really.” When in reality, we're not fine. We need to get better at accepting where we are RIGHT NOW, and that things might hurt. We might indeed be in pain. And we need to SEE that first, and give voice to it, and then we can begin to move through it productively.

I was also recently reading a wonderful post in the ‘Well’ section of the New York Times, written by a doctor, whose name I am going to mangle horribly: Haider Javed Warraich. The post was called, ‘If this were YOUR mother, Doctor…’ and it was about the physician's challenge of responding to family members of patients in terminal conditions. Before deciding whether to keep loved ones on life support, or try experimental treatments, families often ask their doctors, ‘if this were YOUR mother/father/spouse, what would you do?’ and it can be a truly terrifying question for doctors. And Dr. Warraich writes about the answer he has learned to give family members, which is, ‘tell me more about your mother.’ He goes on to elaborate, saying that it helps families ‘think about their loved ones, about what they would value and what they would consider a good life, what they would think was worth fighting for if they were available to answer the question for themselves.’

But it can’t be an easy response to offer. Because it may bring tears, and anger, and uncomfortable memories about relationships filled with tension, or the bitterness of loss. It reminds me, personally, of the many conversations I must have with families who need to plan a funeral. When I begin to prepare the eulogy, I often start with the question, ‘tell me about your loved one, and the values they represented.’ I never know what’s going to come next, what families are going to say. But like Dr. Warraich, I need to lean into the discomfort… because THAT’S where the real conversation can begin. That’s where holiness can be found.

So much of it also has to do with listening, for Dr. Warraich and for me. And just as we need to learn to be curious about guilt, and engage it in conversation, we all also need to learn to listen, to be silent, to hear what it has to teach us. Guilt from having embarrassed someone 20 years earlier; guilt from having wronged a family member, or let money split us apart; guilt because we aren’t as religious as we think we should be, or we worry that our families want us to be – ALL of these scenarios, and all the other ones going on in your lives; they have stories to tell. And we think we know the whole story already, but really we’ve never approached it with HONEST curiosity, without judgment or anger. And we haven’t been very good at listening. Rabbi Orenstein talks about cultivating the ability to wait. In the class I took, she taught us that the word ‘wait’ is actually an acronym. It stands for, ‘Why am I talking?’ Silence, and patience, and kindness are SO essential; both for really understanding the essence of Jewish Guilt, and for beginning the long journey of making sustainable change.

Listening is crucial when it comes to the Haggadah as well. I told you that the unassuming description of that Wise Child wasn’t really so simple at all, didn’t I? So much going on under the surface, but we must be willing to take the time to look, and let the book speak to us.

In fact, the whole Passover Haggadah is FILLED with stories and vignettes; TONS of insights that we often fly by in a hurry to get to the main course. I began my sermon series on Rosh Hashanah by mentioning the Seder's famous Four Questions, the Fir Kashes. I then switched gears to focus mainly on the Four Children, but I want to return for a minute to the Four Questions. A few weeks ago, I was talking to Ethan Fein, a High School senior in the congregation, about the teen discussion that’s going to take place in the library, right after I finish jabbering on. And Ethan happened to mention to me that he found a sermon online entitled, ‘The Four Questions of Yom Kippur.’

What a fantastic coincidence, considering that I already knew what a prominent role Passover was going to play in my High Holiday theme! So thank you, Ethan, for finding me this wonderful sermon, by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit at the Tufts University Hillel.

Rabbi Summit talks about how HIS four questions, for Yom Kippur, not Pesach – all found in various places in the Book of Genesis – are about ‘turning our life towards deeper fulfillment and satisfaction, helping us re-connect to people we care about, and become clearer on what is really important in our lives.’ Basically, his four questions are:

1.     First, from the story of the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, they hide from God, and God asks Adam, “Ayekah?” “Where are you?” Rabbi Summit says, ‘it’s not about global positioning,’ the question of ‘Where are you?’ is asking, “Do you think that no one sees you, that your actions have no consequences?” And I would add that the one who truly sees us, or SHOULD truly see us is ourselves. ‘Where are you?’ can be about reconnecting with our sense of self-worth, of self-compassion.
2.     The second question comes from the story of Cain and Abel, and God’s question to Cain after his brother has ‘mysteriously’ gone missing. God says, “Ayei Hevel, Achicha?” “Where is your brother, Abel?” This is a question about our sensitivity to the world around us, to other people who walk this earth beside us. Do we see their struggles? Their battles with guilt, with their own self-images? Can we practice the kindness we’re trying to embody on the people around us?
3.     I really like Rabbi Summit’s third question. From the story of Joseph, out in the fields looking for his brothers, the sheep herders. He comes across a stranger, who says to him, ‘Mah T’vakeish?’ ‘What are you looking for?’ I need to stop for just a second and admit to you that this whole sermon series on guilt, it’s something I’M struggling with too! I don’t speak about things that I’ve solved, and I’m looking back behind me at you sad strugglers, unfortunate enough not to have achieved what I’ve accomplished. NO! I’m in it too. I know what I’m looking for. I know the role guilt plays in my life, and how I’m trying to work on it. But how about you? ‘Ma T’vakeish?’ ‘What are YOU truly looking for?’
4.     And finally, Rabbi Summit identifies a question from our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, when Abraham was about to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. His hand is raised in the air, he’s about to go through with this terrible deed, and a question comes from out of the sky: “Abraham?” Just his name. So subtle, we almost don’t even realize that it’s a question.
And not just ANY question, but in some ways it’s the most difficult question of all. ‘Are you there? Are you, you? Are you being the best VERSION of yourself, the strongest, most grounded, and kindest incarnation of your true self?’ ‘Matt?’ ‘Steve?’ ‘Amy?’ Such a personal question, directed squarely at each one of us. How do we respond to such a question?

And returning back to where we began today’s sermon, I also want to think about how to make change sustainable, and sustained. To me, it’s important to have anchors, some method or technique to reconnect when we start to get lost. We are SO focused here today. So committed to change, to improvement, to moving away from guilt. And then tomorrow comes, and the day after, and guilt starts to sneak its way back in. So we need anchors, ways to return back to the dedication we feel today. And perhaps that is PRECISELY when we need some SMART Jewish questions:
1.     Ayekah – Where are you?
2.     Ayei Hevel, Achicha – Where is your brother, where is your sister?
3.     Ma T’vakeish – What are you truly looking for?
4.     And our own name, ‘Jeremy?’ Are you really being yourself right now?

These four can be our smart questions, they can help us return to the intentionality of this moment, to our recognition that guilt IS a problem. They can help us focus squarely on it, be patient and curious, and start to make changes in our lives to leave guilt behind.

I want to add a fifth question as well. (After all, I AM that Wise Guy, I mean, Wise CHILD, from the Seder, and if another rabbi comes up with FOUR questions, you know I’ve got to contribute FIVE!) When I was growing up, the Amud, the main table from which we would read Torah (like this one), had a bright light hanging over it. I’m talking about the main Sanctuary in the synagogue in Stockholm, the one President Obama just visited last week (I just wanted to get that in there…). And on the corner of that light was a tiny little label with a quote on it. Most people probably never even noticed it, it was really very small, but it was intended to catch the eye of the person having an aliyah, an honor, at the Torah. The label read: “Know before whom you stand.”

And that’s really my fifth question to all of us here today: Do you know before whom you stand? Do you know who you answer to? The implied answer in my childhood synagogue was ‘God,’ but here today I think it’s ‘you.’ You stand before yourself. You have to answer to your own self, and really ONLY yourself, about the choices that you make in life, and the values that you prioritize.
THAT is my message to you all here today. Guilt Free Judaism is important enough to me that I wanted to dedicate four sermons to it during the holiest and most well-attended services of the year. But does it matter to you? Know before whom you stand; know yourself. Be curious… listen… take the time to understand your own struggles, and then keep returning to the questions that can anchor you, as you continue to focus on putting guilt in your rear-view mirror.

Ultimately, it’s still a process. My sermons are done, but the holiday continues, and after that, our year continues as well. And hopefully we’ll keep revisiting the theme of Guilt Free Judaism. But for now, we’ve got a few tools to get ourselves started. We’ve got Good Jewish Questions, we’ve got Four Children to guide us along the way, and we’re starting to work on connecting to our inner selves. And hopefully you’re also pondering the deeper meaning of the phrase, ‘know before whom you stand,’ and what it means in your life.

I'm really hoping that this is just the beginning of our conversation together, you and I. But for now, let's just acknowledge that we’ve got all these tools. We’re all set to go.

So, why am I (still) talking? A very good question indeed.

Shanah Tovah!  

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5774

This is my sermon for Kol Nidrei, the night of Yom Kippur. If you would like to read my sermons for Rosh Hashanah, or my Yom Kippur morning sermon, you can find links to all of them on the right-hand side of this page, a little further down in the margin.

What Does Judaism Mean To YOU? (RASHA)

I changed my mind. This is, after all, the season of t'shuvah, of repentance, of turning around; so I should be allowed to rethink my positions, no? Well, I’ve changed my mind… about guilt. I don't believe in Guilt Free Judaism anymore! Really, it's for two reasons: First of all, too many people have been telling me it's an oxymoron, that 'Guilt Free Judaism' is like saying 'fat free ice cream' or 'airplane food.' I now agree that Judaism isn’t Judaism without the guilt. It’s too intrinsic, too ingrained in all of us. And second, I've started to worry what might be lost if we subscribe to Guilt Free Judaism. How will we make minyan in the mornings? Will anyone take positions on our synagogue board? Will people contribute to our High Holiday appeal. I could be imploding our entire community if I continue to advocate Guilt Free Judaism; it’s just too dangerous!
Maybe instead, we should just forget about all that silly stuff I said on Rosh Hashanah, and talk about what we LIKE about feeling guilty. It can... motivate us to try harder! It can... get us to do things we didn't really THINK we wanted to do, but once we started doing them, they weren't so bad. It can make us more responsible. We might prefer to think of ourselves, and only focus on our own needs, but guilt really CAN nudge us to open our hearts to other people, and other causes. Like those commercials on TV about the World Wildlife Fund or children who are starving. They fill those spots with images of sad, pitiful things, to tug at our heart strings and make us feel guilty if we DON’T help… and it works, doesn't it? At least until we change the channel... There’s no question that guilt is extremely powerful; so maybe we SHOULD embrace it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?
Let's pause for a second though, and talk about what guilt really IS. If we're going to start endorsing it now, we should have a clearer understanding of what we're talking about, so we're all on the same page. I was going to read you the dictionary definition, until I recently read that words like 'twerk' and 'frenemy' are now official, and the dictionary kind of lost a little bit of credibility in my eyes... I mean, did you hear that there's now an accepted alternate meaning for the word 'literally'? "Used for emphasis, while not being literally true.' So the word ‘literally’ doesn't literally mean 'literally' any more… That LITERALLY makes my head explode!!

Anyway, let's get back to developing a better understanding of 'guilt.' It affects us in so many different ways. It permeates our history, our past, referring to that sense of responsibility or remorse that we feel regarding something we did wrong, or which we, or others, perceived as an offense. We cannot change the past, but perhaps the guilt can motivate us to correct behaviors today? So that can be good, no? In the present, it can be a choice we're making right now because of the fear of embarrassment, or being thought of as rude or strange. We worry what it would look like to others if we didn't dress appropriately, or give someone the right of way in traffic, or hold a door open before exiting. So there, guilt is almost like a social lubricant; keeping everyone in line, courteous and polite. Guilt can even affect the future, the worry about what others WILL say or do, or the repercussions we MIGHT someday face. So we adjust our behavior today, because of what may happen sometime down the line.
Guilt can truly affect our past, present, and future, all in an attempt to keep us honest, to 'incentivize' our behavior, and compel us to do what’s expected of us. Guilt kind of helps society run smoother! I mean, where would we be without it?!?
There's a provocative Midrash, a rabbinic story, that illustrates the 'subtlety,' shall we say, of this approach. According to this Midrash, when the Israelites were standing at Mount Sinai, deliberating about whether to accept the 613 Commandments that God was just, you know, lightly nudging in their direction, God 'lovingly' lifted the mountain itself into the air, up over their heads, and said 'if you accept these laws today, then you shall live. If not, then I drop the mountain on you.' Needless to say, our ancestors eagerly accepted the yoke of the commandments. I’m not saying that guilt is a mountain of expectations, pressures, and burdens; just that our ancestors weren’t necessarily excited about taking on all these new obligations. They needed a little ‘light’ encouragement, and the result of which is that we’re all here today, still connected to our Jewish heritage. Sure, it also comes with the weight of Jewish guilt, but maybe that’s the price we pay for admission. What’s wrong with that?
Ok, so maybe I'm not doing the greatest job convincing you of why guilt is fabulous, but tonight is Kol Nidrei, if you aren't meant to feel guilty tonight, when ARE you?!? On the very first page of tonight's service, almost the FIRST prayer the Cantor chanted, we were declaring that all of us here tonight are basically just a big bunch of sinners. It's right there, on the bottom of p. 204.
You all came here this evening, dressed up beautifully, prepared for one of the holiest services of the year, and the first thing we did is made you feel bad for all the sins you’ve committed. The entire Kol Nidrei service, in fact, is about using guilt to make us change our behavior. If that doesn’t prove that guilt is great, I don’t know what does!
(Sigh) You're not fooled, are you? You know I haven't really changed my mind at all, and I don't actually think guilt is wonderful. You're right. I don't. Though I should probably state it explicitly, so there's no confusion, and you don't leave thinking I either lost my mind, or that Jewish guilt is actually terrific. It isn’t. Not at all. So let me again be clear, I haven't changed my mind about guilt, not even a little.
Tonight's sermon, like my two main sermons at RH and tomorrow morning's as well, is inspired by the Four Children of the Passover Seder. Of course, we call them 'Children', so we don't have to look too carefully at what they're saying, when really all four are speaking directly to us, and represent OUR emotions and struggles throughout life. You may also have already guessed that this D'var Torah is linked to the second of the four children, the Rasha, the Wicked Child. Though I never liked that term. Perhaps we could say 'the Contrary Child,' that doesn't sound as bad as 'wicked' or 'evil.' What a terribly bad rap the second child gets in our Haggadah! Like a rebellious teenager, who is being a nay-sayer just for the sake of being different and disagreeable, the Contrary Child defiantly states, 'what does all THIS mean to YOU?' 'To you,' he says, to everyone else in the family, but NOT to him. (I just want to stop and point out that I made the child male in this D'var Torah, but girls can still be rebellious teenagers too!) And the anonymous voice of the parent in our Haggadah responds, 'if you'd have been a slave in Egypt, God never would have freed you!!'
And the reader, you and me, we are left stunned and horrified. Really? That's what you would say to your own child? That God would leave you to languish in slavery because you're being a teenager, who is rebelling because, I don't know, you're a teenager, and it's part of your job description! How could you say such a thing to a child?? On Rosh Hashanah, I told you that the third child, the so-called Simple One, isn't really that simple at all. And here too, the text is in fact deceiving us, presenting a scenario that has SO much more depth than we initially gave it credit. Look at the facts:
1.      The child is here, at the Seder table. That's got to count for something, no? He's not at a party, or with his friends, or getting into trouble. He's participating in the rituals.
2.      He's asking questions. Sure, he had a snippy tone in his voice, but YOU'RE the parent! You've got to see through that, try (hard as it may be) to have some patience, and realize that the child is actually asking real questions: "What does this mean to you? I feel outside, I feel forgotten. The Torah doesn't understand me, and my life, and what I'm going through. Show me it DOES care about me." And how do we respond, by slamming the door in his face. By scaring him and threatening that he'd be left behind by God. And with guilt, once again, mean, unkind, and harsh guilt.
3.      And 3) You may not realize this, but the so-called Rebellious Child, the wicked, evil, contrary, turn-your-back-on-your-people kid, he's actually quoting the Torah! His hurtful obnoxious line, 'What does this mean to YOU??' is actually STRAIGHT out of the Torah! Exodus, 12:26-27 says: "And when your children ask you: 'What does this ritual mean to you?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our homes.'" So this is, in actuality, a pretty knowledgeable kid. Maybe his parents forced him to go to a traditional Hebrew School or Yeshiva, and even though he learned something, he's pretty resentful. I guess he should have tried our new Mispallelim educational model...
So yes, tonight I am truly inspired by the Rasha, by the Contrary Child. I began by taking a contrary position, because I wanted to highlight for you how pervasive guilt can be. And that there ARE arguments that one can make, to justify why guilt is good.
We DO feel tremendous remorse for things we wish we could have changed or done differently or said differently. We feel horrible about letting money get between family members and friendships, and we do worry about what everyone will think or say about us. And even here at the synagogue, we sometimes do fear that our minyan will die out, that no one will want to step up and take a leadership position, or that we'll fall short of our fundraising goals, and be unable to do the things we'd hoped to do as a community. Guilt is here.
We sometimes feel like we are indeed standing in services as a congregation of sinners, racked with all these tough feelings of wrongdoings and mistakes, fears and failures.
But we need to look deeper, as we've done with the Contrary Child. We are so much more than just rebellious and wicked. We too are HERE, we're at the proverbial table, and we WANT to be included. We WANT Judaism to speak to us, today on Yom Kippur we HAVE the audacity, the chutzpah, to say 'I want You, God, to speak to me!!!' And it's ok. We can be contrary. We are indeed allowed to feel vulnerable and disillusioned; maybe even fed up with religion. It's ok. That too is allowed, and it's even welcomed here. I DO want to hear about your struggles, I DO want to know what ails you, what hurts you. You can feel lost and frustrated, angry and upset, but also know that you will NOT receive the response given to the Rebellious Child; you will NOT be left behind, enslaved to your own feelings of shame and guilt.
In his book ‘American Savage,’ author and sex-advice columnist, Dan Savage, has a very emotional chapter called ‘At a loss,’ about the death of his mother, and his relationship with the Catholic Church. Savage talks about how frustrating it is, as a gay man, in a same-sex marriage, with a teenage son, to be rejected by the Catholic Church, to have religion turn its back on him. He writes beautifully: “Some part of me wants the Church to want me back. I want the option of going back. Not because I believe – I don’t – but because I ache. I ache for my loss.” I’m sure a lot of people would describe Dan Savage as the Rebellious Child, and I think he’d even enjoy that title. But it’s also true that the Church, that religion, and even us here in the synagogue, we all SHOULD want these people back. If anyone – ANYONE – is reaching out for connection, our arms should be wide open to receive them back. Free of guilt. When we shut out people like Dan Savage, we're all poorer for it.
We've talked about what guilt IS. And on Rosh Hashanah we also talked about what Judaism is, or at least what Judaism means to us, what it CAN mean to us. In order to move forward, and to continue to work on Guilt Free Judaism (because we DO still want to work towards it, even though it may sometimes STILL feel like an oxymoron...), it is important to know what guilt is, and what Judaism is, so that we can begin to separate them out from one another.
I was talking about this theme with Cindy Hoffman, when she was writing our press release about the High Holidays. Cindy is our External Publicity Chair, and she and I were talking about this theme, Guilt Free Judaism, when it was still in its fledgling stages. And Cindy said to me that when she works with people on preparing for interviews, she starts out by talking to them about what an interview is NOT, in order to then begin to understand what an interview IS. I like that concept. I think it does help us shed some of the misunderstandings, some of our biases and stereotypes, and really focus in on the heart of the matter. Now we've already talked some about what Judaism IS; people's six-word phrases about what forms the basis of their Jewish identities. We're not done, we're still working on it, and I think at this stage it is indeed helpful to think about what Judaism is NOT:
We are NOT Jewish simply so that Hitler won’t win. I've heard that phrase before, and it makes me sad. Of course Hitler shouldn't win, but what kind of foundation are we laying down, on which to build a love of religion that can be passed from one generation to another, if it starts with defiance, anger, and vengeance? We SHOULD carry our history with us. Tomorrow, during our service, we will pause to reflect on the Eileh Ezkerah, a part of the service devoted to the martyrs who have died for their beliefs. But that cannot be the basis of our Judaism, it will poison the foundation, and wind up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We should NOT be Jewish because our great-grandparents would roll over in their graves if we weren’t. You cannot live for someone else. Great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, siblings, even children. Judaism is trying to speak to YOU. God is seeking a relationship with each and every one of us. We cannot live our lives for another, and we cannot subscribe to a set of religious beliefs for someone else. You have to live your own life, and live it with pride and self-compassion.
We should also NOT be members of a Jewish community for anyone but ourselves; not for another family member, a friend, or a neighbor. I started out by talking about my fears that Guilt Free Judaism would mean our community would be depleted. That statement (which, again, was intended to be contrary, I don’t actually believe it), implied that you're only here, paying dues and participating in our community, out of guilt. That shouldn't be true. I really HOPE it isn’t true. Even though I wasn't serious about changing my mind at the start of my D'var Torah, it is still kind of true that trying to release you of guilt could come back to haunt me.
Like if I ever DO need a tenth person for our minyan, and ask someone standing in the hallway, they might reply, 'I thought it wasn't about making people feel guilty!'
But you know what? It's worth the risk. Yeah, people might throw my own words back at me, when I ask them to do something. But I'll take my chances. It's TOO important that you NOT feel like the Contrary Child, spurned by a parent for asking a pretty reasonable, and Biblically-based question. It's too important that you should know that Judaism accepts you, with all your struggles and challenges, all your feelings of anger and frustration, and is totally, totally fine with the choices that you make. You truly don’t have to conform to someone else’s expectations or standards.
So I guess I haven't changed my mind. I still think we can all spend the rest of this year working on achieving Guilt Free Judaism, even though we're also very, VERY likely to be right back here a year from now, once again referring to ourselves as a bunch of guilt-ridden sinners. Why? Because we'll be striving to be a little more honest with ourselves, and with one another. We'll be just a small step closer to our authentic selves, and a bit more connected to all four of the children who are vying for attention within our own psyches.
And maybe, just maybe, I've instead changed YOUR mind. And you're no longer looking at me skeptically, still thinking Guilt Free Judaism is an oxymoron. Because it's a process and a journey. If we learn to accept that the Rebellious Child is truly in all of us, and that Judaism is not defined for us by what it is not, or by what WE are not, but rather by who we are - and all of the complex parts of ourselves that go with that - then I think Guilt Free Judaism is a very real place we can get to.
And I KNOW that you could start to see that too... if you'd just stop being so negative and contrary already!! Geez!

Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rosh Hashanah 5774 - Sermon 2

(This is my sermon for the SECOND day of Rosh Hashanah. If you'd like to read the sermon for Day 1 first, you can find it here. Thanks!)

What is the Opposite of Guilt?
Shanah Tovah.

Yesterday I introduced my theme for this year's High Holiday sermons, namely 'Guilt Free Judaism.' I also presented the metaphor through which I plan on presenting my four main holiday sermons: The Four Children of the Passover Seder. And I got a few quizzical looks from people yesterday, presumably because they didn't come to Rosh Hashanah services expecting to hear about Passover, and I appreciate how some of you are recreating those puzzled looks for me here today. Thank you for that.

As you may have suspected after yesterday's D'var Torah, my speech, the Passover connection is going to continue into today and further into Yom Kippur as well. But don't worry, I'll make it up to you by talking about Apples and Honey and blowing the Shofar in the spring, during Passover.

I always loved the image that the rabbis painted for us at the Passover Seder of these Four Children asking questions during the meal. It’s presented, inconspicuously, as these four curious kids, just trying to understand what the heck is going on with this whole Seder thing. Yet, each one of them winds up posing to US, a few challenging questions about what WE’RE doing here! It turns out, it isn’t about these four children at all; it’s about you and me, and not going through the motions by rote, year after year. It's an important reminder, both that children play an essential role in our holiday observances, and that we should look at our various traditions, rituals, and laws through the fresh and inquisitive eyes of children. It's easy for us to get complacent, and to start observing our Jewish customs without really thinking much about what we're doing. Along come these four mischievous kids and really force us to answer, not only their questions, but really our own as well.

My favorite of the four children has always been the last one, known in Hebrew as Sh’eino Yodei’a Lishol. Literally, it means 'the one who does not know how to ask.' I find it such a humbling, and human, statement; being so thoroughly lost that we don’t even know how to ask a question. We don't like to acknowledge that we feel this way sometimes, but the reality is that there are always occasions in our lives when we are SO confused, so utterly befuddled and confounded that we do not EVEN know how to ask the first question that it going to start us on the road to begin to understand what we don't know, and eventually move towards some semblance of comprehension. Right? Now, it's not always like that. Sometimes we just don't get it. We're perplexed, but we ask a couple of questions and we start to get a hang of things. But there ARE occasions, even as adults, when we're not sure what the first question should even be to help get out of the utter fog of mystification that we find ourselves in; THAT is Sh’eino Yodei’a Lishol.

Just to give you an example, many of you know that math just ain't my thing. I love rabbinic math, like when they tell you there are 10 commandments, but when you start counting you either get to 9 or 12. Or they tell you there are four essential truths you need to know, and then list 5. Oddly enough, I GET rabbinic math. But algebra, geometry, and calculus; terrifying! So I just made sure to pick a profession where it's not essential that I bring a calculator or an abacus, and most of the time I'm fine. But it does occasionally intrude into my little rabbinic world. Like when we review the synagogue budget information at Executive Committee and Board of Directors' meetings. In fact, next month I've asked Matt to offer a tutorial to 'all' the new board members who are confused about these B&A, P&L, whosiwhatsit's. And maybe one or two other board members will come to make me feel better, but we all know for whom this tutorial has really been set up... I look at the information before me, and I’m not even sure what my first question is to start making sense of it all!

But it can be freeing to admit this. Society tells us NEVER to do that, to never use terms like 'I don't know.' Fake it, till you make it, we say! Never ADMIT that you're confused!! But that can be SUCH a burden. Yesterday we talked about the weight that we carry around with us, the heavy load that guilt can constitute when we allow it to drag us down. Sh’eino Yodei’a Lishol, admitting that we're hopelessly lost, invites connection. It allows us to be vulnerable, to maybe even laugh at ourselves a bit, and then accept help from another to begin that long journey towards comprehension. The research professor, Brené Brown, whom I’ve spoken about from this pulpit before, writes about this in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”: “To overcome perfectionism, we need to be able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities to the universal experiences of shame, judgment, and blame.” Vulnerability is SUCH a crucial emotion, and one that we generally think of as a four-letter-word, or a sign of weakness and failure. And we feel guilty when we are vulnerable, when we’re less than perfect. Brené Brown admits that even she has to use ‘fake it till you make it’ from time to time, but she likes to think of it as ‘practicing imperfection.’ I think we all need a little practice to get BETTER at being IMperfect…

So how does Sh’eino Yodei’a Lishol relate to today, to the High Holidays? Sometimes we feel stuck at the opposite end of where we want to be. We are lost, and we are in fact so lost, we don't know where to begin to turn around. In Hebrew, we might call that t'shuvah, turning around and beginning to take that first step towards repentance. We feel so FAR away from repentance sometimes, that even that first step, just turning around, and exposing ourselves by saying ‘I’m sorry,’ without qualifying it or laughing it off, feels impossible. We don’t even know how to take that first step.

Guilt can permeate our lives, and we feel so saturated with it, it's hard to know where to start, in our attempts to move away from it. Perhaps we need to begin by freeing ourselves, by just acknowledging how much guilt infuses everything? Brené Brown refers to the hard things we DON’T want to talk about. It’s more fun to talk about joy and gladness, maybe the weather or the Phillies (on second thought, no one really wants to talk about the Phillies…). We focus on what’s easy and uncomplicated… but all the while, we aren’t getting to the heart of the matter. And we’re NEVER going to improve, or get out from under that weight, if we don’t talk about the hard things that get in the way. Let's begin by accepting that we're at the other end of the spectrum, and let's talk about what the opposite of that might be.

So what is the opposite of guilt? There's no right answer here, and there's no wrong answer. But it's an interesting little question, no? A good first question for that Passover child, who's been seeking just a question to get him or herself started. What IS the opposite of guilt, of feeling burdened by so much self-imposed guilt?

Because it is self-imposed really, isn't it? It's not as if what we're wrestling with here is the felony form of guilt, like, ‘I'm racked with guilt because I killed someone/stole/cheated.’ It's imagined guilt; self-inflicted and wholly unkind. That's an important word to me, unkind. We can be so harsh on ourselves, so punishing. This illusory guilt is particularly unkind, because we won't forgive ourselves, and then we feel bad about feeling bad, and the vicious cycle continues. And it can be crippling. So maybe the opposite of guilt has to do with kindness? Kindness towards others, and particularly kindness towards ourself. And don’t be fooled here, folks! Just because we can name it, doesn’t mean it’s easy. This too takes practice, like vulnerability or imperfection. But we’re not going to get ANYWHERE until we admit that a lack of kindness is problematic, and in need of remedy. Perhaps kindness is the opposite of guilt?

The Baal Shem Tov, a very famous rabbi from the 1700s, was considered the founder of Chassidic Judaism, and an expert on the Kabbalah. And he taught about something called the 'Yeitzer Ha-Rah,' the evil inclination that is in all of us. Picture a little devil sitting on your shoulder, and of course you've also got the 'Yeitzer Ha-Tov' on the other shoulder, a little angel. And the Baal Shem Tov said that the Yeitzer Ha-Rah was always trying to get you in trouble. Like talking you into eating just one more little piece of cake, or convincing you to stay up just a little bit later to watch one more episode of the TV show, “Homeland.” (It’s a really good show, ok?!?) The Yeitzer Ha-Rah IS a part of you, it's just not the most kind or forgiving part. The Baal Shem Tov said that, 'More than the Yeitzer Ha-Rah desires that you should sin, it desires that you should feel GUILTY that you sinned.'

The guilt is in some ways WORSE than the sin itself. It's more damaging, because it lasts longer, and allows you to keep punishing yourself, again and again, for something that is in the past, can't be changed, and is so completely human. So maybe the opposite of guilt, according to the Baal Shem Tov, is letting go? Again, related to t’shuvah, to repentance, because we end that vicious cycle. We don’t allow the guilt to fester, to remain in the darkness of our souls, continuing to plague us with ‘what if’s’ or ‘I should have’s.’ Again, we think it’s easier to just not talk about it, to just ‘drop it,’ and move past the sin that was committed. But our Yeitzer Ha-Rah won’t let us drop it, and so we have to recognize the guilt in ourselves FIRST, and then we can begin to let go.

But the opposite of guilt can also be freedom. Freeing ourselves, and freeing another. When someone has been hurt, they sometimes think that refusing to be consoled, or forgive, is empowering. ‘I am in control,’ they might say. ‘I have a right to be hurt, I have a right to refuse forgiveness, and I have a right to demand that the other continue to feel guilty!’ But we’re not just hurting someone else; we’re actually hurting ourselves as well. Again, it is a wound that festers, that languishes. It isn’t made better, and it is once again the Yeitzer Ha-Rah that’s in there, giving us the language of empowerment, entitlement, and righteous indignation. But it hurts. It’s unresolved. And it damages everyone.

So the opposite can be, again, FREEDOM! Release. Like it says on the Liberty Bell, here in Philadelphia, from our Torah, from Leviticus, 25:10: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” It’s a funny word, in the Torah, for ‘liberty.’ It’s not the normal word for ‘freedom,’ either ‘chofesh’ or ‘cheirut,’ like when we say the Israelites were taken from slavery to freedom, ‘Mei-Avdut l’Cheirut.’
(Yeah, I know, I’m back to the Passover story again. I don’t know what’s going on, I can’t help myself!) In Leviticus, it uses a peculiar word, ‘D’ror.’ It’s a hapax legomenon (I love that term!), meaning a word that appears only once in the entire Torah. It can mean ‘liberty,’ or ‘freedom,’ or even ‘release.’ WE need to release ourselves and each other: Summon from the depths of our being the strength to BE free of guilt, and to give that freedom as a gift to one another.

It’s not easy! This word appears once in the Torah, certainly a reminder of how hard it is to recreate! But without it, without liberty and release, we are left without the words to speak; unable to ask even a simple question to figure out how to begin feeling less guilty.

But there isn’t just one opposite of guilt. I told you, there isn’t a right answer and a wrong answer, there are only nuances and choices. Sometimes we need kindness to reduce guilt, sometimes we need to practice letting go, and sometimes we need to just open our arms wide and allow freedom to wash over us! Personally, I like another choice: ‘self-compassion.’ In a way, it is a combination of all the other traits we spoke of; kindness, letting go, and freedom. Dr. Kristin Neff is a researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and she has a whole website devoted to this, There, she summarizes self-compassion as three things, self-kindness, common humanity (meaning, the importance of recognizing that it's part of being human, for EVERYONE, to experience suffering, and to feel inadequate), and mindfulness (dealing with our challenges and limitations, but not obsessing over them). Neff writes about how self-compassion is a lot like compassion for other people, except it's often hard to truly accept that we're like everyone else, with the same fears, the same frustrations... the same guilt. It is indeed part of THE human condition. Neff deduces, "The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life."

A friend recently shared with me the term 'analysis-paralysis.' Sometimes when you spend too much time on something, read too much, and now know too much on a subject, it crosses over a threshold from being useful, informative, and empowering, and instead becomes debilitating. I don't want that to happen here. I think analysis-paralysis is what happened to that poor fourth child at the Seder table, listening to endless debates and conversations about Passover, and all that Hebrew being chanted. Lost and overwhelmed by too much information, there isn't even a question left to help get back on track. I hope that isn't the case here.

We know our first question: What is the opposite of guilt? Guilt is up there with shame, fear, perfection, and insecurity - they're all barriers to keep us from ourselves and others, to stop us from feeling connected and in harmony. So what do YOU think is the opposite of guilt? Is it kindness, letting go, freedom, or perhaps self-compassion? Just start with one question, one small change to start moving away from guilt and distance. A simple turn like that can help us achieve real and lasting t'shuvah.

The Baal Shem Tov, our Kabbalistic friend, also taught that t'shuvah, repentence, is process - not accomplishment; journey, not destination. In order to move away from Sh’eino Yodei’a Lishol, from being unable to EVEN ask that first question, we don't need to know the final destination, the total accomplishment. We need only to be WILLING, today, right now, right here in this room, on this holiday, to begin the journey, begin the process. Then Guilt Free Judaism won't seem impossible; it'll be SO close by, just opposite us, in fact. We've just got to turn and look.

Happy Passover - ach, darn it, I'm still stuck! Shanah Tovah - Happy New Year!

Rosh Hashanah 5774 - Sermon 1

Shanah Tovah! Happy and Healthy New Year, everyone! I had hoped to be able to share with you all a video of my first two High Holiday sermons, but sadly, those aren't ready yet. We will try to get them online within the next week or two. For now, if you're planning on coming to Yom Kippur services, and want to know what I spoke about at Rosh Hashanah, I'm posting the texts of my two sermons here, in two separate posts. It's not quite the same as HEARING them, but it'll have to do for now. Otherwise, you can certainly wait and watch them next week, and if you're joining us for some part of Yom Kippur, I promise the sermons will STILL make sense. Thanks for your understanding; sorry about the delay.

Warm regards,

Rabbi Gerber

What Does It Mean To Be Jewish? (TAM)

Shanah Tovah!

Every year, at the Passover Seder table, we read from a book called 'the Haggadah.' Bear with me, people. I KNOW it’s not Passover right now, I haven’t lost my mind, but I’m going someplace with this, you’re just gonna have to trust me.

So it’s Passover. We’re reading from the Haggadah, and we’re talking a lot about questions, right? Like the Four Questions. And there’s one particular Haggadah that I like to use for teaching purposes and at our communal Seder here at Ohev, called A Different Night. And when you get to the page with the Four Questions, there’s a little story in the margins about Nobel laureate, Isidor Rabi. Mr. Rabi – let’s call him ‘Izzy,’ we’re all pretty informal around here – Izzy was once asked why he became a scientist, rather than a doctor, lawyer, or businessman like the other immigrant kids in his neighborhood. And he responded: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you LEARN anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a GOOD QUESTION today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.”

Now first of all, my mother loves that little story, and she reads that at our Passover Seder EVERY year, so that’s one reason why I like to begin my sermon there. But again, I know it’s not Passover today – in fact, we’re about as far from Passover as we can possibly GET in the Jewish calendar! – yet nevertheless, that story jumped out at me, when I was planning for this year’s High Holiday theme.

The theme is NOT questioning, I just wanted you to know that. It's also NOT about asking good questions. But questioning IS going to guide us along on our journey through these holiday services, as we explore the theme that we ARE going to deal with, namely ‘Guilt Free Judaism.’ So let’s begin with our first question, which is ‘Why is this our theme for 2013, or the Jewish year, 5774?’ Why should these High Holidays be any different from all other High Holidays?!?

Well, let’s begin with the fact that it, guilt, is here, right now, in this Sanctuary. It’s almost palpable, that infamous Jewish guilt that we like to kid about all the time, but can actually be quite powerful, and quite painful for so many people. Just think about how many of you here are attending because someone said to you, ‘How can you NOT be in services on Rosh Hashanah??’
Or at least, maybe you WORRIED that someone MIGHT say that to you, and you started feeling guilty even before giving anyone the CHANCE to make you feel bad! And how many people feel guilty because they haven’t set foot in the Sanctuary since last year’s holidays? Or feel guilty because their kids aren’t as familiar with this service or the Junior Congregation service as they'd like? Or are wishing I’d stop talking already so this service can end, because they're bored… but are then feeling guilty for even thinking that! (and you know, even though this sermon is about being Guilt Free, you SHOULD feel bad for even implying that my sermon is boring or long...). All kidding aside, it really IS a powerful emotion that seems almost entirely intertwined with our experience of Judaism, and maybe all religion. And it creates distance. It stops us all from being fully present and open to some of the essential questions that we SHOULD be asking ourselves here today.

I started my sermon by referencing two Jewish mothers, our buddy, Izzy’s and my own. And in part, I did that because we often try to trace back a lot of Jewish guilt to moms everywhere, which is sometimes a little unfair, and sometimes a little bit justified. But in addition, I often feel like a lot of people trace their guilt back to right here, to the synagogue. It may be this one, or it may not. Perhaps you grew up in another part of the country or the world, but it's unfortunately quite likely that SOME synagogue SOMEWHERE holds memories of guilt and failure. Or maybe it's a church or mosque, if you grew up in a different religion. Some of it MAY come from parents and grandparents, but we also institutionalize a lot of guilt as well, especially in religious communities, and quite frankly, that, makes me really, really sad.

I love Judaism. Not every minute of every day, to be totally honest with you, but I do LOVE being Jewish, and I love sharing that with all of you. But I also hear a lot about Jewish Guilt, in one form or another. Whether it’s someone saying, “Rabbi, I really should come to services more often,” or “Rabbi, I am not as spiritual as I should be,” or “Rabbi, do I have to do this or say that or keep this or observe that?” There’s a lot of ‘Thou shalt’ in there, but probably a whole lot more ‘Thou shalt not.’ It's like there's this weight, this mass, just pressing down on SO MANY people, a weight of communal expectations - perceived or real - of family obligations, unmet personal goals, unrealistic expectations; and it all seems to be just unbearably, excruciatingly, and exhaustingly dragging us down, and sapping us of energy. And it hurts me, when I see that in people. And what really makes me particularly upset is to hear about all the negative experiences people have had with synagogues, and rabbis, and congregational leaders, and yes, even cantors,
throughout their lives, in different communities, cities, and countries, and from almost every decade. I pray to God, literally, that I am not contributing to those experiences, or heaping more guilt and shame and anguish onto people’s already heavy burdens, or adding to their severely tarnished, bruised, and battered images of Judaism.

Instead, I try to find ways to say to people, to you, to everyone here, and almost every single day of the year, but ESPECIALLY right now on the High Holidays; I say: it ain’t about the guilt. I don’t want to dismiss your bad memories, or devalue your experiences, which WERE painful, and which stay with you. I recognize them, and I hear them; I really do. And if you’re loving holding onto that Jewish Guilt, if it's truly doing something good for you, then I guess there isn’t much I can say to take that away. But I honestly don’t get it. And I don’t want it FROM you. I don't want you to feel that I'm looking for it, that I'm expecting it, or that I'm going to give you extra credit for feeling bad that you didn't pay better attention in Hebrew School 30 years ago. I'll hear it, if you really want to tell me about it. But I just want you to know, it doesn't do anything for ME, and I don't entirely believe that it's doing anything good for you either. And I most certainly don’t want YOU to be burdened by it.

Last month, I had to write a press release, as we were trying to let the wider community know about High Holiday services here at Ohev Shalom, and as I thought about what I wanted to say, regarding Guilt, I just kept coming back to this one thought, ‘What is it doing for you?’ ‘What are you getting out of it?’ And to quote a beautiful meditation that we used during the month of Elul, written by Amy Graham's mother, Barbara Wissoker, ‘Is it worthy of you? Is your guilt worthy of the wonderful person that you, that we all, are?’ And the answer, resoundingly, is ‘NO!’

So I’m starting us down this path of asking all these questions, of asking some really Good Jewish Questions, as our pal Izzy might have said. But I want to boil it down to its essence. Let’s focus on one, really big, and really important question: ‘What does it mean to be Jewish?’ If we’re going to talk about our guilt, and if we’re going to start unpacking the barriers and road blocks that we either put up for ourselves, or which other people have constructed in order to halt our progress, we need to FIRST understand what it’s all about. And not just ‘What does it mean to be Jewish GENERALLY,’ but ‘What does it mean to be Jewish… for ME’ and in MY life.

Now I need to stop for a second and share with you a small side note. I’m not ready, you see, to let go of the Passover undercurrent just yet (or, as you'll soon discover, really at all for these holidays), especially since I have FOUR major sermons (two days of RH, KN, and YK), and the theme of FOUR is so prevalent at Passover (questions, children, cups, Biblical verses of redemption, etc.). But I actually don’t want to focus on the Four Questions, per se, though that WAS where I began my sermon, but rather the Four Children, or what were traditionally known as the Four Sons. Because the story of the Four Children isn’t really about four kids at all. It’s about four urges, four emotional states, four ways of being that ALL of us experience throughout life. All four are IN us. We feel smart, we feel contrary, we feel shy, and we feel clueless. Sometimes one, sometimes another, and sometimes all four at once. And sometimes many more than just those four...

So as we delve into that good ol’ fashioned Jewish guilt that we all love to talk about so much, and try to unpack what it’s all about, I think it’s helpful to take four approaches to this question, representing different sides of each of us, individually and collectively. And so each of my four main High Holiday sermons is going to be modeled on one of the Four Children from the Passover Haggadah.

Let us begin, not in the order presented in the Haggadah (cause that would just be WAY too easy and obvious…), but with the third child, known as Tam in Hebrew, meaning ‘simple’ or ‘artless.’ And that is why, before we descend deeper into this question of ‘guilt,’ I think it’s important this morning to ask a very basic and very SIMPLE question, ‘What does it mean to be Jewish?’ Before we can unpack our guilt and our baggage, our issues with religion and history and culture and family and food; before we take on ALL that stuff, let’s remind ourselves what we’re doing here, why we care about being Jewish at all.

I actually started this conversation with all of you back in the summer. Inspired by my friend, Rabbi Eric Yanoff at Adath Israel in Merion Station, I engaged in some ‘crowd sourcing’ by putting a question up on Facebook for anyone to answer. My query was this: Can you summarize the basis of your Jewish identity in SIX words? Literary legend (though apparently not necessarily fact) tells us that Ernest Hemingway once challenged other writers to compose an entire novel in just six words, to really emphasize the importance of crystallizing your message. He himself offered the tragic, but thought-provoking, ‘Baby Shoes for sale: Never worn.’ There are many other examples out there of using six words as the bench mark for summarizing and boiling down concepts to establish what something truly means.
NPR (National Public Radio) launched a terrific online campaign called The Race Card Project, inviting readers to summarize the meaning of ‘Race’ (as in, skin color or nationality) in six words. There are thousands of submissions that you can read online, many of which are filled with emotion and tension. A couple of examples are: ‘What kind of name is THAT?’ and ‘Who Will Your Children Play With?’

And so I tried to take a page from these playbooks, turning that same spotlight on Judaism and putting a challenge out there to the magical world that is the online community of Facebook. I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Hemingway – or should I say ‘Ernie’ – by throwing out a challenge without taking it on myself, and so I came up with a few suggestions of my own. Two of them were inspired by our compadre, Izzy: “Ask Good Jewish Questions Every Day,” and “Questioning Is In Our Blood. Why?” I had a couple others as well, like ‘We’ve Got A Holiday For That,’ but I really wanted to see what others could come up with. I was thrilled and impressed when I received an incredible TWO DOZEN responses back to my question, some of them from people sitting here today. I want to share just a few of them with you:
-       In my blood, in my life – from a member of the congregation
-       Two Jews, Three Opinions, Chosen People.
-       I wouldn’t be alive without it.
-       And here’s one from another member of the congregation, who's SIX years old, Jordana Jasner: The Judaism is awesome to me! (I love that one)
-       I also had someone submit ‘Shema Yisrael, Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,’ which is certainly a classic answer, an oldie-but-a-goodie, but let's be honest, it’s not very original.
-       And perhaps my favorite one: Candles glow, tradition guides soul; nourished.

If you’re interested in reading all of them, you can find them on Facebook or on my blog. Or you can just let me know and I’ll print you out a copy.

There's no time limit on this. I invite and encourage all of you to mull it over, and see if you can come up with a six-word answer to this essential question, 'What is the basis of your Jewish identity?' You can send it to me, you can write it on a small slip of paper and just keep it with you, in your pocket or your wallet, or you can just ponder the question without writing ANYTHING down. BUT if we're going to plunge ourselves further into this question of guilt, and if we're serious about wanting to make changes in our lives, and lift that burden off ourselves, then we need to begin somewhere, and this is where I'd like us to start.

I've always been intrigued by that third child in the Passover four-some. 'Tam,' again, meaning 'simple.' 'The Simple Child.' Except nothing in Judaism, or in Hebrew, is ever quite that 'simple' at all. The word 'Tam,' (T-A-M) is also the word used to describe our ancestor Jacob, in the Bible. He was an 'Ish Tam,' we are told, a 'mild-mannered guy,' as opposed to his wild-man brother, Esau. 'Tam' is also the word used whenever we conclude the study of a rabbinic work. We say 'Tam v'Nishlam,' it is finished and complete. So the word can signify 'simple', 'mild,' 'innocent,' but also 'complete,' and even 'honest.' At the Passover table, the Simple Child is just boiling down all the questions and confusion, laws and customs of the holiday, and focusing in on what really matters. For that child it's 'what is Passover all about,' and for us, today, at the start of this High Holiday journey, it's 'what is the essence of Judaism in my life?'

And today, as we talk about resetting, and refocusing on the heart of the matter, and as we also talk about four different types of children, I also want to turn our attention to education. Our chaver - our friend - Izzy, reminded us all of the importance of asking good Jewish questions, but he also talked about how his mother, in her efforts to shape the way he viewed the world, was able to start him off from a very young age on a life-long path of exploration and wonderment. THAT is what we are trying to do here at Ohev Shalom with our new launch of Mispallelim, our synagogue's educational program. We spent a year dreaming, and brain-storming, and marketing, and planning, and organizing this new program, with the help of JLV, Jewish Learning Ventures. And I especially want to recognize and thank our Ometz team, members of the congregation who spent hours and hours every week putting this together, under the fearless and patient leadership of Michael Speirs, our School Committee chair.

And now it's here! It's about to get off the ground THIS upcoming Sunday morning. The program is called LeV, meaning 'heart,' as in 'getting to the heart of Jewish education.' And that's really our theme here today as well, right? Boiling it down to its essence. So let's do that for a second, let's strip away all the distractions and the noise, all the bad memories of Hebrew Schools we hated and lessons about the Jewish holidays we learned over and over, EVERY, SINGLE year. Strip all that away. And let's focus in on the real questions we want to ask. Do we want our kids to be able to answer what Judaism means to them? Do we want them to be able to ask good Jewish questions, and also ask questions about their world Jewishly, with a Jewish lens that informs all aspects of their secular, everyday, regular lives? And if we're really being simple and honest, we should also ask ourselves another question:
"Has Jewish education improved much in the last 100 years?" And without feeling GUILTY about it, we need to admit to ourselves that the answer is 'no, it hasn't improved.'

Our new program? It ain't perfect. And as it gets off the ground on Sunday, it'll have flaws and challenges, kinks that need to be resolved. But will it also be pushing all of us to think about the meaning of Jewish education, and the fundamental basis of what it means to be Jewish? Yes, most definitely. Our kids will learn in new ways, they'll see Judaism as a positive and guiding element in their lives, and they will develop a strong and confident answer to the question of what Judaism means to them. They will go from simple and artless to honest and complete.

We need to talk more about guilt. And luckily we have four sermons to do it. And I'm assuming you're all going to be coming back to hear all four sermons??? I'm kidding, I'm kidding! Yes, I definitely want you to feel guilty by the end of my sermon about Guilt-Free Judaism. But if you can't make it back, and you still want to hear my sermons - only if you want to, NO guilt - I AM going to be recording them and putting them online.

For now, just sit with that first, basic question, and think about what Judaism means to you, and how grappling with that question CAN and WILL help relieve the burden of Jewish Guilt that weighs down on all of us. We CAN change the script. We CAN reverse the trends and change the narrative, and give ourselves, and our children, a Jewish identity that we can all be proud of. But you have to be willing to engage, to challenge. Our leadership team for the new Mispallelim is called the Ometz team, from the Hebrew word meaning 'courage.' It takes courage to think outside the box, to shirk old models and be willing to dream big... AND then act on it.

Yeah, it's scary, and yeah, it's safer to stick with what we know, and just keep repeating the same lines, and joke about good ol' Jewish guilt the way we've always done. But Isadore Rabi's mother didn't stick with the same tired questions all the other mothers asked their kids. She changed the conversation, which emboldened her son to change the world, and inspired my mother to tell THEIR story every year at Passover, and motivated me to stand here and tell you all to LET GO of your guilt, and hopefully has now sparked something in each of you. So? Nu? Did it work?

Shanah Tovah!