Monday, September 29, 2014

Rosh Hashanah - Sermon 2

Shanah Tovah.

You know, I never thought I would start a High Holiday sermon talking about Scotland. But here goes. Last week, I found myself intrigued – as so many people around the world were as well – by the vote for independence taking place in Scotland. I think, perhaps, that one of the reasons why people across the globe followed this particular vote was because of its seeming simplicity. I mean, let’s face it, how often in life does ANYTHING come down to JUST saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’???

Sure, there were repercussions to either outcome in Scotland, both within that almost-new country itself and for so many other places considering their own push for independence, like Catalonia in Spain, Kashmir in India/Pakistan/China, and Quebec just, you know, slightly north of here. But ultimately, for over 5 million people, it was a question of ‘no, let’s stick with the UK’ or ‘yes, let’s go it alone.’

And certainly for anyone connected to Israel, another country debating a one- or two-state solution, there is something incredibly covetous about Scotland’s situation. Could you imagine anything being this simple in Israel? Is there any question at all being debated that could in any way be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’? The answer, of course, to THAT question is ‘no, not really, well maybe sort of, but ultimately, sadly, probably mostly no.’

Even sitting here, on the High Holidays, if I asked you why you’re here, or what Rosh Hashanah means to you; is there a simple answer? Or would your response likely incorporate past experiences, both positive and negative, expectations and hopes, theology, culture, gastronomy, and so much else? Nothing in life is ever as simple as it may appear, and that, perhaps, is why we were all so intrigued by the straightforward vote in Scotland.

And yet, even as uncomplicated as it was, the decision of 5 million Scots was always going to affect other people; it was not a vote cast in a vacuum. That is, perhaps, because the whole notion of living in a vacuum, of someone, anyone, making a choice that impacts NO ONE else, is basically always false. Everything we do touches the lives of those around us.

I say this because our theme this year, “Hineini,” the Hebrew word “Here I am,” which is so crucial in the Bible, also does not take place in a void.

As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s sermon, EVERY time the word is used in the Tanach, it is in response to someone else. No one ever speaks it alone, and no one ever says it without directing it AT someone else. Even though it SOUNDS like a word of independence, entirely about me and my relationship with myself, it is actually very much a statement filled with interpersonal meaning. “Here I am” for a task, to do something, with someone else. So even though we’ve talked about “Hineini” as mindfulness, as being present to your own experience at any and every moment in life, it is also true that “Hineini” is about noticing those around you as well. When your eyes are open to your experience, you start to notice how others around you are impacted as well.

Yesterday, I shared with you the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen monk and meditation master, who writes and speaks a lot about presence. He also talks about the importance of the Other, saying: “if you are really here, something else will also be here: the presence of the other. You are here and the other is here.” And he also adds that “your presence is the most precious gift you can give him or her.” Yesterday we talked about how important it is to be present and mindful to ourselves, and today I want to add the notion of being present to others, of not just paying lip service to one another, talking about mundane things like the weather or the Eagles, or trying to seem intelligent and worldly, by talking about international issues, like the vote for independence in Scotland.

This is our question of the day: Can we say “Hineini,” “I am here… for you,” for each other, and really mean it?

I want to share with you the accounts of three generations of our patriarchs in the Torah; Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. All of them use the term “Hineini” in fascinating ways, and we understand them better when we see the differences in how they speak this one word, throughout the various stories of the Book of Genesis.

First, though, I want to declare that none of them are perfect. They are models to us, not because of their flawlessness, but because of their journeys. They struggle, they grow from experiences, they relapse and make the same mistakes again, and then they keep moving forward. That is one of the things I love about the Torah, its willingness to be vulnerable, to present our ancestors as REAL people, with real shortcomings whom we find ways to love anyway. So too it is in life.

We jump right into the messiness of their lives, with our ancestor, Jacob, lying to his father, Isaac.

In one of the first, and most famous, stories about this troubled family, Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, conspire to steal a special blessing from Isaac, which was really intended for the other brother, Esau. While Esau is out hunting, Jacob pretends to be his brother and goes in to see his father, who is nearly blind.

It’s a tense moment for everyone, including you and me, the readers. Jacob goes up to his father and says “Father?” And Isaac answers, “Yes, who are you, my son?” Meaning, “Which of my sons are you?” But right there, in that very moment, something is already off. I never saw it before myself, but Isaac doesn’t actually say, “Yes” to his son’s question, as the English translation suggests. Instead, he says “HiNEHni,” using the weaker form of the word, NOT the stronger one that indicates full and complete presence, “HiNEIni.” Even before Jacob gets the opportunity to misrepresent himself, to pretend to be Esau, Isaac senses that something is wrong. He says “HiNEHni,” because he isn’t really there.

Jacob doesn’t appear to notice this distinction, perhaps because his father – who blatantly preferred Esau throughout their lives – was never fully present to Jacob. Theirs was never a relationship of face-to-face encounters, of genuine connection. And that is the ultimate tragedy of their story.

But the devious plan is successful; Jacob wins his father’s blessing, and he flees his brother’s wrath and goes to live with his uncle. However, he never seems settled or at peace in any new place he lives for the rest of his days. It is heartbreaking to realize that Jacob’s entire life is marred by the lack of love and attention he received from his father. And yet, it is perhaps even more tragic to witness him perpetuate this behavior with his own progeny. He openly and insensitively favors Joseph over his other eleven children, and Joseph’s brothers grow to hate him for it.

I mention all of this because “Hineini” reappears in this story. Jacob, now the father, sends his favored son, Joseph, to spy on his brothers out in the fields. When Jacob calls his son over to prepare him for his journey, Joseph responds to his father with… “Hineini.” Incredibly, THIS is the last word he will speak to his father for twenty years. In the story, he goes to find his brothers, they grab him and sell him into slavery, he is taken to Egypt, gets thrown in prison, but rises to fame and fortune… AND only after two decades is he eventually reunited with his father. And before all of that, the final word that Jacob heard from his son, Joseph, was “Hineini.”

Think about how ‘presence’ plays out in these stories, and how our ancestors’ decisions to be in the moment, or be removed, has SUCH lasting impact on their own lives AND the lives of those around them. Isaac speaks “HiNEHni,” absently, and he is then an absent character in the Torah. Joseph, even as a child, says “HiNEIni,” with great strength, and demonstrates why he is really the hero of the Book of Genesis. He is ready for his task, and with this single word, “HiNEIni,” he foreshadows the Odyssey of meaning and growth that lay before him.

And what of Jacob’s presence? The middle generation? I think he struggles to find himself. He began his life lying to his brother and his father, and is then repaid – perhaps a Biblical form of karma – with an uncle who deceives him, wives who manipulate him, and children who trick and fool him as well.

Three times we actually hear Jacob use the word “Hineini” as well, BUT two of them are somewhat dubious. In Genesis 31, Jacob recounts to his wives, Leah and Rachel, his meeting with God, and claims he said “Hineini” when God called to him… but we never actually heard him use the word in a conversation with God, just his version of that story. Similarly, when he and Joseph are reunited, later in life in Genesis 48, he again references an audience with God, and uses “Hineini,” though we did not hear him say it in realtime. Only once, in chapter 46, does he use the strong and sincere form of “Hineini” when ACTUALLY speaking with God.

Perhaps we can look at Jacob’s life, and say that he struggled to be present to the people around him, and was only able to bring himself fully to his encounters with the Divine, not other human beings. But as the rabbis remind us regarding the High Holidays, we have two relationships to maintain: “Bein Adam La’Makom,” between us and God, AND “Bein Adam l’Chaveiro,” the relationship between people. You cannot ask God for forgiveness, if the one who was wronged was a family member or a friend. Our actions all have consequences, and we need to be fully present to those ramifications, and SEE how our choices can harm or heal another, and only then can we be forgiven.

Our ancient ancestors reminded us to think long and hard about our relationships. Sometimes we make a comment absent-mindedly, or while we’re stressed or irritated, and we don’t think it’s such a big deal, if we even notice it at all. Imagine a child, OUR child, walking into the room, seeking connection, attention, and like Isaac, we say “HiNEHni,” NOT fully engaged.

To us, it’s minor and we forget about the encounter moments later, but to that child, it could be incredibly hurtful, and it could stay with them for years or even decades to come. 

But we are also reminded that life is unpredictable and fragile. Who knows when you have seen someone for the very last time? As you run out the door in the morning, late for work, you snap at your spouse for not emptying the dishwasher, but you don’t know if those could possibly, God forbid, be the last words they ever heard you say. You plan to apologize that evening, but like Jacob and Joseph, the next opportunity to speak face-to-face may come twenty years later, if in this lifetime at all.

To me, there’s an urgency in the word “Hineini.” Or at least there should be. “I am here… because I cannot afford to waste another minute.” And I need to use my time wisely, to both be in relationship with myself and with the people around me.

That, by the way, is the reason why Ohev Shalom is shifting its focus a little in the way we do things here at the synagogue. Bonnie and I both have themes this year that speak to connection, to relationship. As Bonnie shared with you yesterday, her theme is about personal narratives, about hearing one another’s stories, and allowing them to become the foundations for engagement and stronger bonds between individuals. And my theme, “Hineini,” is basically the same idea; being more present to yourself and your own story, realizing how IT impacts others, and then also identifying and connecting to the stories of those around you.

We’ve both drawn our inspiration from a book called “Relational Judaism” by Ron Wolfson, and the Ohev Board of Directors is actually reading that book together, throughout the year. Wolfson introduces the reader to NINE levels of connection, nine different relationships that we’re each engaged in, with self, family, friends, community, Israel, God, etc. The word for ‘between’ in Hebrew is “Bayn,” and Wolfson cleverly calls these the nine “Bayns of our existence.” He writes, “The sacred self is relational. The sacred self is unique. The sacred self is imbued with a sense of kedushah – a spirituality born of the realization that what I do in the world makes a difference, a unique contribution that only I can make.”

This, to me, is “Hineini.” The sacred self that is BOTH unique AND relational. Like Abraham, in yesterday’s sermon, we strive to be in closer relationship with our self, and to be here in this present moment; at the same time, like Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, we need to learn that our lives are interwoven with so many others.

Our ancestors remind us that we cannot waste any more precious time; we need to refocus on cultivating relationships and sharing stories. Another Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, writes, “When we look at what’s satisfied us in the past week or month or decade, it’s been the connections, the love and the openness of our lives to the places we’ve traveled and the people we’ve met.” And it’s true; if you think back to what was really meaningful in just the past few days or even the most recent few years, I am sure most of you would agree it’s been experiences, places, and relationships, NOT possessions or work goals achieved.

These High Holiday services invite us to refocus, recalibrate. That’s not to say it’s easy or simple. It’s not like a casual vote for Scottish independence. You can’t just say “yes” to making a change, and then “poof!” everything’s different. But Ron Wolfson reminds us that our kedushah, our holiness, comes from realizing that our lives make a difference. You have a choice: Do you want your life to look like Isaac’s, Jacob’s, or Joseph’s? Absent to the people around you, struggling to find your sense of self, or present and ready to make the most of every moment.  

Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo, who teaches at the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, writes: “Our encounter with God on the High Holidays teaches us a powerful lesson: There are no deeds of insignificance. It warns that we should never see our lives as common and irrelevant. However small a deed may seem in our eyes, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make us aware that our entire lives, and even the most trivial deeds, should be attuned to eternity.”

Don’t let your life be filled with absently spoken “HiNEHni”s, with missed opportunities and lack of presence. Instead, use every moment to declare “HiNEIni,” I am truly here… for myself and for you.” Thich Nhat Hanh reminded us that our presence is a gift. Please make the most of that gift each and every day, and in all of the votes that you cast in life’s many complicated and nuanced ballots.

It’s as simple as that.

Shanah Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah - Sermon 1

Shanah Tovah! - Happy New Year! 

For anyone who wasn't able to join us at Ohev Shalom for the High Holidays, but was curious to hear what was covered in the sermons, I'm posting them here on my blog. Below you will find my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and I'll also be posting my second day sermon here as well. Next week I'll add the Yom Kippur speeches, in case you're interested. And, if you feel like it, please feel free to post your comments/thoughts/reactions here, or send me an e-mail at Thanks so much, and I hope to see you at Ohev for Yom Kippur!

Shanah Tovah.

I’d like to ask everyone to please indulge me for a second (and, if possible, answer as honestly as you can); please raise your hand if you are actually happy to be here, in this place, at this moment, right now. (Terrific; you all get extra credit after services.)
And this, obviously, is the riskier one, but please raise your hand if you wish you were somewhere else right now, anywhere else! (Thank you, teenagers, you can put your hands down now…)

I began my sermon this way because I think it’s important to be honest. We’re here, right? We’re all in this room together, and yet we each come with our own biases, preconceived notions about the High Holidays, expectations, hopes, fears, and so on. However you’re feeling right now, let’s also be fully present to this experience, together. Presence, mindfulness; that is my theme for this year’s High Holidays, so you’re going to hear a lot about that in a few minutes. But I want to step away from that concept for right now.

I recently realized something about my HH sermons, in general, after listening to a podcast (like radio shows you download to your smartphone and listen to anytime) – it’s really like a sales pitch. I was listening to ‘This American Life,’ where one of their producers, Alex Blumberg, is leaving to start his own business. And he was talking about trying to woo investors, but he was nervous about it, because he said you only have a short amount of time to make your ‘sales pitch.’ He talked about creating a PowerPoint, called a pitch deck, and how he was perfecting his ‘elevator speech,’ his short presentation, in which he was trying desperately to grab the attention of investors and really wow them.

And then it hit me: You are my investors. Whether you want to be here or not, basically this, right now, is like your agreeing to meet me at Starbucks to hear my pitch deck, my PowerPoint presentation. Even if you’re happy to be here, you and I both know our time is limited.

Lucky for me, I’m not ACTUALLY trying to sell you a product, but I DO want your buy-in, I AM looking for you to invest. And I’m hoping that my message, and your subsequent investment of time, energy, and enthusiasm in yourself and in the community will have an impact, not just today, but for the duration of the HH, and hopefully for the rest of this year, and maybe, just maybe, even beyond that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

So here’s the pitch. In one word: Hineini. Now, I’d like to think I’ve already done some of my homework on the sales pitch with you, because I’m guessing at least a decent percentage of the people in the room knew I was going to say ‘Hineini.’ I’ve already dropped little hints here and there, mentioned it at the Congregational Meeting in June, it made its way into a new series in our monthly newsletter, L’Chaim, without my even having to propose it, and some people have already been talking about it. So you and I may be sitting down together at Starbucks for the first time, but I’ve already gotten my buzzword into your head. Yeah, that’s right, I’ve got you right where I want you...

Ok, so let me tell you about ‘Hineini.’ I like to think of it as the most important word in the Torah that you’ve never heard of (that’s a pretty good start to a sales pitch, don’t you think?). Maybe you know ‘Shema Yisrael,’ ‘Hear O Israel,’ or ‘Bereishit Barah,’ ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,’ or ‘Anochi Adonai Eloheicha,’ ‘I am the Lord, your God’ (the first of the Ten Commandments); I would argue that ‘Hineini’ should be in that same category, but many of you never heard the word until I snuck it into your heads over the summer, or just now, here in Starbucks.

In short, Hineini means ‘I am here,’ or ‘Here I am.’ Now if you HAVE heard of Hineini, it might be from some of its most famous uses. Abraham says Hineini, ‘Here I am,’ when God first makes contact, first speaks to ANY human being, and commands him to leave his homeland and move to Canaan. Moses uses it as well, when God calls to him from the Burning Bush. For Abraham and for Moses, and for a few more important figures as well, THAT moment, that “Hineini” means something very, very special.

It’s not just “Here I am,” like roll call in school – present and accounted for – it’s SO much more purposeful. It’s readiness, it’s realization of mission, it’s filled with dedication: “Hineini, Adonai!” “Here I am, God, let’s do this thing!!” Without perhaps realizing it, many of us HAVE felt “Hineini” moments in our lives. At the start of a new job, perhaps? One that we believe in, feel passionate about, and ready to throw our body, mind, and soul into? Or perhaps parenting, filled with trepidation and uncertainty, but “Hineini,” here I am, bring on the sleeplessness, poop, and messier house than you could have ever imagined. Hineini comes in many forms in our lives.

But Hineini isn’t actually just for big, powerful, life-changing moments or crossroads, filled with mission-drive purpose. As I’ll share with you in a minute, and throughout our High Holiday services together, Hineini is used in the Bible for other, less momentous or famous situations, but are perhaps just as important anyway. Hineini, can also be a word that just indicates ‘presence.’ Here-ness. And as such, I think it’s an incredibly important word that you and I should be saying more often. Like when you’re sitting in services, listening to some rabbi deliver a long High Holiday sermon – it’s just as important in that moment to be present to your experience. We should all be able to say “Hineini,” I am here in this moment, and aware of myself being here.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist teacher and practitioner of mindfulness meditation, wrote a book called ‘You are Here: Discovering the magic of the present moment.’ And guess what? His entire message is about getting his readers to say ‘Hineini,’ ‘Here I am.’ Our ancient Jewish teachings and the equally ancient Buddhist proverbs are both trying to send the same message: How can we live in this moment, right now? How can we open our eyes, our minds, our hearts, and our souls to the world and the people around us, and live more fully in the here and now? This wisdom is especially crucial on the High Holidays.

And indeed, over the course of THESE High Holidays, I want to look with you at some of the people who said ‘Hineini’ in the Bible (as well as some who ‘claimed’ to say it, and we’ll have to decide whether we believe them or not, and some who SHOULD have said it, but sadly did not), and we will examine how the message of ‘Here I am’ in our Jewish tradition corresponds to so much of what others teach about mindfulness and gratitude. When we put it all together, across history and from around the world, my sincere hope is that we will all learn something about how to say ‘Hineini,’ ‘Here I am,’ to ourselves, to the people around us, to Judaism, and perhaps, to God.

I want to share with you a little secret about me… that many of you know: I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to Hebrew grammar, Hebrew spelling, and Hebrew pronunciation. If you’re a Torah reader or a Gabbai, or you lead services for us, you’re probably nodding your head right now and rolling your eyes at me. (But some day you’ll thank me!) And it was my love of Hebrew grammar and spelling that perked up when I began looking for instances of ‘Hineini’ in the Bible, because I was very surprised to discover that it is spelled in three different ways.

In fact, the three variant spellings are amazingly significant, and each changes how the word is pronounced. It’s either ‘HiNEHni,’ HiNEIni,’ or ‘HineNI,’ with the emphaSIS on the last syllaBELL.

The most common form, “HineNI” means ‘look’ or ‘now,’ or perhaps more famously, ‘Behold!’ This form shows up in TONS of really significant moments in the Torah. In the story of the Exodus alone, it shows up at the burning bush, when God sends Moses to Pharaoh, for several plagues, at the splitting of the sea, the giving of the manna, the striking of a rock for water, AND at the giving of the Ten Commandments. But despite its prominence, this is NOT the form that means “purpose” or “life-altering” mission. “HineNI” reminds us that even in our everyday, mundane lives, we should be present to our experience. “Be Here Now,” no matter what you are doing in this moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the miracles of mindfulness, and the first is “presence.” He writes, “Being TRULY here is very important… where mindfulness is, true life, solidity, freedom, and healing also manifest.” So even the everyday moments, the “HineNI”s are essential.

As for the other two forms, I don’t want to bore you with grammar, but basically Hebrew has pairs of vowels that are similar to one another, but one is considered stronger than the other. This is not a value judgment, just a reality of Hebrew grammar. And yet, the Torah uses them to indicate strength and weakness in a fascinating way. Even though the weaker form only appears twice in the whole Torah, one of them is in tomorrow’s Torah reading. And an instance of the stronger vowel is in that reading as well, so we can compare the two.

On p. 103, God calls to Abraham, just as he did when he sent him to Canaan, but this time God aims to test his faith with the infamous Binding of Isaac. Abraham responds, in verse 1, with great strength and religious conviction, ‘Here I am’! He uses the stronger form of the word, “HiNEIni.” Just six verses later, on p. 104, Abraham and his son, Isaac, are walking together up the mountain. Abraham knows he is about to slay his own son, but Isaac does not. The child innocently perks up and starts to ask his father a question. ‘Father,’ he says? Abraham responds, ‘Here I am,’ but with the weaker vowel, “HiNEHni.” Such a subtle little distinction between them! A single dot, in fact, but the fear and uncertainty in his voice reverberates so loudly! He cannot face his son, he cannot be fully present to him. Perhaps Abraham doesn’t want to bring himself fully to ANY PART of this awful scene, trying to remove his heart from the terrible act he is about to perform.

And if that weren’t enough, when Abraham is on the brink of doing the unthinkable, four verses later, v. 11, with his child bound below him and his arm raised high with the knife poised to slash and kill, an angel calls out to Abraham, doubling his name: “Abraham, Abraham!” And Abraham yells back, cries through his tears, ‘HINEINI’!!!
The stronger form is back, and Abraham is now demanding of God, ‘Is this really what you want??? Is this where I am meant to be, can this be what you want of me??!?!?’ And the two of them are both released.

‘Hineini,’ Here I am.’ In the absence of angels or mountain sacrifices, it may feel as if OUR presence, OUR mindfulness does NOT have the same implications of life and death as Abraham’s.

It’s not true.

When we live without being fully present to our experiences, we are not alive, or maybe as alive as we could be. Thich Nhat Hanh jarringly states, “Some people live as though they are already dead. There are people moving around us who are consumed by their past, terrified of their future, and stuck in their anger and jealousy. They are not alive; they are just walking corpses.”

Sometimes you and I, we are so busy thinking about work, and obligations, and anything other than what’s going on right in front of us, that even when we DO respond to others around us, we are not there. We say “HiNEHni,” half-heartedly, rather than “HiNEIni,” fully present. And as a result, we eat without tasting our food, we read without internalizing words, and we pray without feeling any real intention. We miss those precious moments with family and loved ones, when we are physically in the room, but mentally absent, on a phone or focusing elsewhere. Life ebbs away, and we are left with regrets. Are we then any better off than Abraham, who was about to lose his son?

So here’s the challenge of “Hineini”: In order to be more fully present ALL the time, we need to experience the highs AND the lows, the positive moments in life as well as the negative ones. Sometimes what happens is that we try to protect ourselves from the bad stuff, so we deaden our emotions a little. Pain, illness, heartache, death – we don’t want to FEEL the intensity of those moments, so we go through life a little bit removed. But when we censor one aspect of ourselves, we lose other parts as well. It would be really nice to be able to remove the bad emotions and keep all the intense highs, the joys and celebrations in life. But that’s just not how it works. When we remove ourselves from one emotion, we unintentionally remove ourselves from ALL emotions.

So “Hineini” actually requires us to bring ourselves back to the whole range of emotion. Which is particularly true here, on the High Holidays. It would be great to just get to come here and sing the fun tunes, see all our friends we haven’t seen in a long time, enjoy the apples and honey and cake at the end of services, and that’s it! But the main message of the season is repentance; we need to do the hard work as well – say we’re sorry, own our mistakes and shortcomings, be open and honest with ourselves, and with God – and THEN the lighthearted parts of the holiday experience, the songs, the loved ones, the food, will be that much more enjoyable.

In the case of our patriarch, Abraham, God called him, the first time, to an incredible, unique relationship, unlike anyone before him, and the second time called him to do something unthinkable and terrible… and BOTH times, Abraham said “Hineini.” We must all challenge ourselves to be present to all of life’s experiences, and to be able to say, to them ALL: “Hineini,” “Here I Am.”

So that’s it, that’s my sales pitch, that’s my pitch deck. And like a new entrepreneur, trying to court an investor to help with a new startup, I hope that my elevator speech hasn’t just left you with something to think about, but that’s is also tempted you to come back for more! Tomorrow I’d like to introduce you to the very different ways that three generations of ancestors use “Hineini” in the Torah, and what we can learn from each of them. We also have yet to explore the prophet Samuel, trying to decide what “Hineini” meant for him, and on Yom Kippur morning we’ll end our journey standing next to Moses at the Burning Bush, where hopefully you’ll be challenged to look at “Hineini” in an entirely new way.

But for now, we’ll end with Thich Nhat Hanh’s message of presence. In his book, You are Here, he says simply, “How can you love if you are not here?” Our theme for these High Holidays is “Hineini,” but “Hineini” is always offered in response. In Genesis 3:9, God says to Adam and Eve, “Ayeka,” “Where are you?” And really, that is the underlying theme behind “Hineini”; the question that drives the reply.
Sooo… “Ayeka” – Where are YOU? I hope you’ll come back so we can continue answering this question together.

And when you do, I look forward to buying you another cup of coffee.

Shanah Tovah!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shanah Tovah!

Chaverim - Dear friends,
I won't be writing a new blog post this week, I hope you'll forgive me. Later this evening, we begin the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I wish you all a wonderful holiday, and the start of a terrific new year. May it be a year filled with new experiences, thought-provoking questions, growth, joy, love, and perhaps most importantly of all - for us and the entire world - peace.

Shanah Tovah u'Metukah - May you have a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year!

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Gerber

Friday, September 19, 2014

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: All That You Can Accomplish in One Day

"You stand THIS DAY, all of you, before the Lord your God... to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you THIS DAY, with its sanctions: to the end that God may establish you THIS DAY as God's people and be your God" (Deut. 29:9-12). 
Our Torah reading this week begins with a very powerful statement. Moses declares to the entire people, as they are about to enter the Promised Land, that they are in a binding covenant and relationship 
with God. But, you see, Moses also makes it ABUNDANTLY clear that the covenant isn't just with the people standing in front of him right there and then, on THIS DAY. It is also a covenant for all future generations, i.e. you and me (as well as our great-grandparents AND our great-grandchildren). As mentioned above, I think this is a really impactful and significant declaration by Moses. But what's also fascinating to me is his repetition of the term "Ha-yom," meaning "this day," over and over again. Why so emphatic about this seemingly minor point?

In fact, I even cut out a few additional "Ha-yom"s from the part I quoted to you! I stopped at verse 12, but verses 13 and 14 state: "I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us THIS DAY before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here THIS DAY." So five 
instances of "Ha-yom" in six verses! And I want to bring in one other (arguably unrelated) observation. This Saturday evening, we will hold a service called S'lichot, which is our first introduction to the High Holiday season. It's always conducted on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, and some congregations begin the service at midnight (ours starts at 8:00 p.m.; who can stay up that late???). S'lichot reacquaints us with some of the High Holiday liturgy, and begins to put the melodies and themes of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, into our hearts and minds. One of the main liturgical pieces of the High Holidays is called, you guessed it, "Ha-yom."

These two points may indeed appear disparate, but I think there's a significant lesson in here for us all. You see, I don't think that either instance is really talking about the significance of "today," meaning the actual date on the calendar. Even though Moses emphasizes "this day" 
and the High Holiday song repeats over and over "this day," both are actually trying to say that ANY day can be "this day." Moses, especially, is reminding us all - in every generation - that we cannot forget our covenant with God because that day has passed, and the warranty has run out. And every year we sing about the importance of "Ha-yom," clearly it isn't referring to that one particular day when the author composed this piece. In fact, the rabbis remind us of this point in many different ways. Torah, they say, is not received once and then we can check that box. We have to choose, every day, to continue to receive it, to accept it. 

This may sound daunting, but it's the same with anything that really matters in life. If you declare your love for your spouse on your wedding day, are you then 'covered' for the rest of your marriage? No need to say "I love you" or find new ways of expressing your love, right? Of course not! And if you once taught 
your child how to tie his/her shoe or tell time, have you fulfilled your obligation to teach that child about life? Again, certainly not. Real, lasting relationships take ongoing work, and require us to keep checking in and reaffirming our commitment. In many ways, the High Holidays are about making that same commitment to yourself. How do you want to change and improve in the year ahead? Having once made an effort to improve 15 years ago just ain't enough; you deserve more. So take a moment - this day - and think about what you want out of life, and how you're going to work towards it in the New Year. Teshuvah, repentance, comes from the word 'to turn around'; change only requires one small step in a new direction. There is so much you can achieve and accomplish right here, right now... on this day.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of "Tablets of the Ten Commandments (Bible Card)" courtesy of The Providence Lithograph Company on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Geagea on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's desk calendar (you'd think there would be images of such a thing available for common use online, wouldn't you??)
4. CC image courtesy of Jay from UK on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ki Tavo: Who Really Believes in the Power of Prayer Anyway?

Every Wednesday morning, I teach a Bible class. We're not a speedy bunch, mind you. Sometimes we may cover a chapter or two, but occasionally an entire class can be spent on a single paragraph of text. 
Needless to say, our discussions often go on for a while, so we move at a pretty slow and steady pace. It took us an entire year to get through the Book of Genesis, and we are now in the early chapters of Exodus. It therefore feels kind of funny to be reading about Moses beginning to approach Pharaoh in class, while our weekly Torah portion has us wrapping up the very end of Deuteronomy, and the Israelites about to enter the Promised Land. From Wednesday to Saturday, I feel like I jump 40 years into the future! But it also gives me an opportunity to reflect back and forth between the start and the end of the Exodus, which surprisingly also offers some insights regarding this, the Season of Repentance before the High Holidays.

Our parashah this week enjoins the Israelites to recall their history in Egypt when they eventually enter Canaan and offer sacrifices to God. When they, in the near future, will bring an offering to the Levitical priests, they are commanded to recite a specific formula, which retells the story as follows (and I'm paraphrasing): 'Our ancestors went down 
to Egypt; became populous; the Egyptians oppressed and enslaved us; we THEN cried out to God; God freed us from bondage; God brought us here.' The full version can be found in Deuteronomy 26:5-10, or, incidentally, it is also reproduced in the Passover Haggadah. What jumps out at me is the sequence of events; our plea to God only came late in our time of oppression. Sure enough, this story in Deuteronomy is corroborated in Exodus. Our Wednesday Bible class recently read that the first time the Israelites prayed for help was at the end of chapter 2 in Exodus, after a long period of bondage and hardship. We may be surprised when God finally takes notice of their pain, but perhaps no one had called out to God until then!

Which is not to say, by the way, that I'm blaming the victim. Theologically, it is still problematic that God 'forgot' us until conditions got REALLY bad. But the order of events 
presented in this week's Levitical prayer, in Deuteronomy, DOES reflect an accurate description of when the Israelites first called out to God. So why did they wait? Were things not so bad earlier? Had they just grown accustomed to their slavery, and they couldn't imagine anything different? Or were they just feeling dejected and forgotten, such that prayer seemed impossible? Again, we're not blaming them for remaining slaves for as long as they did. But is there also a lesson in here for us all regarding the power of prayer? Even just as a self-motivator, as a kick-starter to get us to change ourselves and improve our own lives? I think there is.

Many people today do not believe that prayer 'works.' By which they presumably mean that we don't automatically 'get' the things (money, success, wisdom) we pray for. But that can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don't believe our prayers can do anything; they won't! 
Perhaps the Israelites didn't reach out to God because they thought it was pointless. But as soon as they did, they were ready to believe in a leader, and ready to lift THEMSELVES out of the mire of bondage. As we continue to march towards the High Holidays, let us also think about how prayer actually COULD work in our own lives. What will it take for you to offer a sincere prayer, about something you truly want to change - in yourself - and which is achievable? Do not remain a slave to your own cynicism, firmly refusing to believe in the efficacy of prayer. You can free yourself, and make this a season of true and deep change. But you need to first figure out where you are in your own sequence, in your own life, and then determine which specific prayer is needed. And then, offer it sincerely. You never know who's listening...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Kris from Seattle, USA on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Dennis Jarvis on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Vert on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Geo Swan on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, September 5, 2014

Ki Teitzei: Stubborn and Rebellious Misreadings of the Torah

I had a funny experience this week. On Monday morning, we had two special Torah readers attend our regular morning minyan. Every week,
the Torah is read on Monday and Thursday (as well as Saturday), and on weeks when we are celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (or both) at Ohev Shalom, we invite our students to come and read Torah for us at the morning minyan. It's a smaller crowd in a more intimate sanctuary, and it's a great place to chant Torah readings in a real service, that can also be a safe environment in which to make a mistake or two. And this Monday, our two celebrants, Sierra and Zach Hellman, came with their family and read from the Torah... and they did incredibly well! However, I found it kind of odd to hear a 13-year old chant this one particularly troubling section of our parashah, and it's the subject of my Take on Torah this week.

Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verses 18-21, tells of the 'stubborn and wayward son.' If two parents are raising just an awful child, who makes their lives miserable and won't listen to anything they say or do, then the parents can bring their child to the city gates (where the courts were convened), and they can have their child stoned to death. Yeah, you
read that correctly. And so I found it somewhat odd to hear a young teenager - in this case, one of two really great kids being celebrated this week - chant this passage about the rebellious child. On the one hand, I've gotten to know enough parents of teenagers, that I know this law sounds appealing every once in a while! But of course, on the other, none of us could ever imagine actually DOING something like this! Besides, what is this meant to teach us? How would anyone derive a positive, constructive, helpful lesson from such a barbaric act? Surely some, if not all, of you are also wondering what happened to the Torah's famous decree about preserving life above all else! It's hard for us to make any sense of this in any way.

It also doesn't help, when we've been reading in the news lately about ISIS, the absolutely horrific terrorist organization in the Middle East, that has been perpetrating unthinkable beheadings. It is a complete perversion of religious law, but nevertheless they DO justify their actions
with religious excuses. And sadly, we are all familiar with other groups - Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and yes, even Jewish - that rationalize their barbaric behavior by pointing to God and holy scripture. Let's not kid ourselves. The Bible DOES contain archaic and draconian laws, like the 'stubborn and rebellious child' of Deuteronomy 21. But I fundamentally believe that all these groups are misreading their scriptures, and they are misreading God. Religion is a precious and invaluable thing, that also demands responsibility, discernment... and love. You cannot - you simply CANNOT - read it literally and without interpretation. That is when you begin to kill people for being 'infidels.'

But here's the thing: We still read about the Torah's unfortunate problem child, because we need to constantly remind ourselves what literal reading of the text can lead to.
We don't white-wash the texts of our Tradition because they make us uncomfortable. They SHOULD make us uncomfortable! We can't forget that some people abuse the text, and pervert it to suit their needs. And the way we continuously remind ourselves to be vigilant, and to only use religion to inspire us for good, is to read the tough texts of our Scripture and KNOW that we're better than that. All the better, then, when those texts are being chanted by impressive B'nai Mitzvah students who give us such hope that our religious tradition is in good hands.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Roy Lindman on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ibn Battuta on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of "Preaching 'Holy War' during an uprising in British India" courtesy of Paul Barlow on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Pikiwikisrael on Wikimedia Commons