Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lech Lecha: It'll Just Cost You Your Soul...

In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd write a slightly spookier post than usual. That's right, even though I'm both Jewish AND a rabbi, I can still say the pagan/Christian/heretical/scandalous/evil word "Halloween" without melting. Personally, I don't subscribe 
to the Jewish poopooing of Halloween; I think it's as American as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, New Year's Eve, and Superbowl Sunday. And as American Jews, we should embrace it. (Except the horror films; those freak me out...) Or, if it makes you feel better, think of it as a Purim celebration in the Fall, perhaps. Either way, it ain't anti-Jewish. And so, let's move on to our scary-themed blog post:

This week, we are introduced to Abraham (or "Abram," as he was originally called before God renamed him). For a short while, and rarely the parts we talk about in Hebrew School, we get to see him as a young, vibrant guy. He's a pretty fearless military leader, and in our
parashah he takes on several menacing kings, and beats them all!! He rescues his nephew, Lot, from captivity, and seizes a sizable fortune from his enemies. When he returns from battle, a group of OTHER kings, his allies, come out to greet him (and take their share of the wealth...). It is at this moment that we see a fascinating, and eery, sentence in our text. The king of Sodom (and yes, we ARE talking about one half of Sodom and Gomorrah, and we know what lovely people THEY were! Keep that in mind for this scene...) approaches Abram and says, "Give me the persons [you captured] (i.e. slaves), and take the possessions for yourself" (Genesis, 14:21). But that is just the English translation. The Hebrew text is much more ominous and terrifying.

The actual words spoken by the king of (awful) Sodom are: "Give me the soul, and keep the possessions for yourself." It doesn't even say "souls," plural, but just "soul." Whose soul is he asking for? I hear 
the king saying: "Become my ally. Align yourself with me, my people, and our way of life; sell your soul to me, and I'll make you wealthy." I think Abram hears it this way too. It's not that the king is offering to split the spoils with him, he's offering a deal that would make Abram indebted to him, and Abram will never get out of it. Which is indeed why he sharply refuses. He knows he would be making a deal with the devil, so to speak. It sounds so innocent at first, until you really read what is being offered. Then it is haunting and terrifying, and sends a shiver down your spine.

Because we're not just talking about Abram, are we? Looking at our Jewish history, we have often found kings and rulers making us this 
offer. "Sell your allegiance to God, abandon your traditions and restrictions, and you'll become wealthy." Or we can even look at our own lives. Are we sometimes tempted to abandon morals or overlook the wrongdoings of others, for personal gain or just to avoid making waves? In your life, has someone come to you with this kind of offer? Inviting you to share the riches, and perhaps only later do you realize they were actually asking for your silence/agreement/vote/endorsement/acquiescence - your soul - in return? Halloween can serve as a reminder that sometimes things that appear scary are really harmless, while other things (or deals) seem innocent and simple at first, but are actually frightening and damaging under the surface. The trick is to learn from Abram and determine when someone is really wearing a mask. Or perhaps it's the ones NOT wearing masks you truly have to watch out for...

Happy Halloween!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Crakkerjakk on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Megistias
 on Wikimedia Commons (Yes, I know this is not likely what Abram/Abraham looked like in battle, but it's an ancient soldier (Greek, maybe) and it's probably not TOO dissimilar, so LAY OFF!! Sheesh...)
3. CC image courtesy of Jujutacular on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Lyd0286 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 24, 2014

Noach: What Hollywood can Teach Us about Good Stewardship

Earlier this year, Hollywood came out with a movie about the ancient story of Noah and his Ark, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, and Emma Watson. I thought it was an entertaining, and particularly intriguing, interpretation of the Noah story. 
The creators of the film definitely read Genesis, and had good Biblical scholars advising them, because I was struck by how carefully the storyline either stuck to the Torah text directly or created fascinating midrashim (interpretive stories) to answer some tough questions. The critical point to remember here - both about Noah and really any and ALL stories in the Torah - is that you cannot create a depiction that is 'just' literal. It simply doesn't work. Interpretation is always essential.

The plots have gaps in them. Who helped Noah build an Ark large enough for all those animals? Or if he worked with only his sons and his wife, how long did it take him? 
One of those questions MUST be answered, and the Torah doesn't offer us explanations. So again, interpretation is required. And the movie does just that. Some religious fundamentalists around the world have questioned the director, Darren Aronofsky's choices, but that, to me, is beside the point. The Torah doesn't give enough information to create a full and complete story, so his proposed solutions are just as valid as yours, or mine, or those of ancient and medieval Biblical commentators who were ALSO confused by the text. I would like to highlight for you one example of Aronofsky's close, close reading of the text.

The movie, "Noah," takes a dark turn, in which the protagonist, Noah (Russell Crowe) imagines that God is done with humanity, including the survivors inside the Ark. Their only purpose, he now believes, 
is to help bring the animals on the ship to dry land, and then humans are meant to die out. No more procreating, no more homo sapiens interfering and ruining creation; just get the animals safely off the Ark, and then slowly fade from existence. I told you, dark. And I was confused about where Aronofsky got this idea. What was he basing it on? But then I read this week's parashah, and I found the following - previously unnoticed (by me) - passage: "God spoke to Noah, saying, 'Come out of the Ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons' wives. Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.'" (Gen. 8:15-17) Do you see it? The moment where the movie's midrash takes shape?

Several verses later, in chapter 9, God finally invites Noah and his family to also "be fertile and increase." But in chapter 8, God instructs the humans to make room for all the other creatures and let THEM procreate and fill the planet, but NOT humans. That is where Aronofsky's Noah got his inspiration.
It is, perhaps, a minor point, but I was impressed with Hollywood's close reading of the text! Because it IS a curious distinction. And perhaps it should, at the very least, serve as a reminder to us all. We are not the only creatures on this planet, and certainly not the only ones that matter. I do believe we have a purpose, and we CAN be a force for good (though I won't give away whether Noah comes to a similar realization in the film or not...). But we can also be terribly destructive, and have been throughout our species' time on earth. We need to learn - and this is true for EACH individual, not just world leaders and environmentalists - how to step aside and let nature flourish and rejuvenate. We are not only partners with God, we are partners with our planet and our neighbors who share the space with us. That message is in our Torah; sometimes we just need Hollywood actors and directors to point it out for us.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Liviu368 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of 
GelpgimLa22 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of Leandro Bassano's "Animals Entering Noah's Ark" courtesy of Vert on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of Simon de Myle's "Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat" courtesy of Botaurus on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bereisheet: Caught Between Dust and Spirit

Welcome to 5775! The new Jewish year has begun, we're still over 3,700 years ahead of the secular calendar (they are NEVER gonna catch up...), and our annual cycle of Torah readings has started over yet again. And so, we return to the 
creation of the world. I like to reiterate, every year, that the Creation story in the Torah is NOT meant to compete with Darwinism or science. I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of this story in Genesis. I firmly believe it is a poetic rendition of the origin of human beings - with special emphasis on our rights and responsibilities on this earth - and is in NO WAY trying to compete with Big Bangs or the evolution of the species.

And if you agree with me about the real purpose of the Torah's description of Creation, then you actually witness, in the very first MOMENT of God forming Adam, our rights and responsibilities 
laid out before us in the text. Nothing that God makes is created from something ELSE. God says "Let there be light," and POOF! Light. God decides to make great sea monsters; they appear. Ex nihilo - creating something out of nothing. That is, until God fashions the first human being in Genesis, 2:7. The text informs us, surprisingly, that God: "formed man from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." All of a sudden, God CHOOSES to produce a being, a human, out of something else. And it IS a choice, because we know God has no trouble creating anything and everything out of thin air (or less). So what does this teach us?

It can be, for us, a source of great pride or great humility. The Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna declares that: "solely in the case of man is the material from which he is made explicitly mentioned, [which] implies emphasis upon a unique position for man among created things and a special relationship with God." 
We have the Breath of Life, God's spirit, exhaled into us, unlike all other animals, which makes us really, really special. And yet, we are also formed of dust, NOT simply by Divine Word like the rest of creation, so perhaps we're not so impressive after all. The medieval commentator Rashi says: "The human being is a combination of the earthly and the Divine," which is why our bodies are buried in the ground, returning to their source, and our spirits return to God. However you want to view us, it is clear that the Torah purposely separates us out from all other creatures. Ours is a special and complicated relationship with God, and our task on this earth requires some serious contemplation.

I would also like to add that our being formed FROM the earth gives us some responsibility towards it. Back in Genesis 1:28, God said that human beings were meant to "fill the earth and master it." The word for "master it" in Hebrew is "kiv-shu-ha." For most of human history, people understood that word to mean "do with it as you please," and 
we certainly did just that. And yet, in recent decades we've learned that our actions had (and have) lasting repercussions, not just for the land itself, but for us, living on it, as well! Perhaps we should have understood kiv-shu-ha to mean "stewardship" or "guardianship" instead? After all, we were created from this very earth, we are a part of it, and our fate is intertwined with its survival. The Divine Spirit breathed into us undoubtedly makes us unique. But it does not only give us special rights; it demands of us certain responsibilities as well. For we were also formed from the dust of this planet. The name "Adam," comes from the Hebrew word for "earth," "Adamah." We are literally OF this earth. The Torah may not be competing with science, but its lessons should surely bring us closer to a partnership WITH science, to do everything we can to be better stewards of our world. That, to me, is what God had in mind when we were created. It's time to take that message to heart.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of VectorOpenStock on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Chixoy on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Afrank99 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Nanoworld on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: A Booth Filled with Meaning

What do you think of, when you picture a Sukkah? This week, we begin the holiday of Sukkot. At Ohev Shalom, we've built our community Sukkah. In my backyard, I too have built a Gerber family Sukkah, and I imagine that at least some of you reading this have built your own as
well. When you hear the word, "Sukkah," do you picture the one in your backyard, the one built when you were a child, the huts built by the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt, or do you picture something else entirely? I'd love to hear from you, so please write a response on this blog, e-mail me personally, or stop me in the hallway and share. Our Jewish Tradition is actually filled with lots of references to Sukkot, but there are some interesting conflicts and contradictions between them, which leads me to believe that even our Biblical and rabbinic ancestors had lots of different images of Sukkot in their heads when they heard the word. So which one is it?

Underlying this question is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the Sukkah. Is it a symbol of stability or of fragility? We see both images in our liturgy, so it's kind of confusing. A colleague
of mine, Rabbi Julia Andelman, wrote about this for our shared alma mater, JTS. She pointed out that, on the one hand, we refer to God as "Ha-Poreis Sukkat Shalom Aleinu," (the One who spreads over us a shelter of peace), but on the other hand, the Birkat Ha-Mazon (the Grace after Meals) on Sukkot includes the line “Harachaman Hoo Yakim Lanu Et Sukkat David Ha-Nofalet” (may the Merciful One establish for us the fallen Sukkah of David; based on Amos 9:11). So we see that the Sukkah is either (both?) the powerful protection we get from God, as we did during the Exodus from Egypt, or it's the Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed first by the Babylonians and then the Romans.

Yet, in some ways the Sukkah really is both. It reminds us of the fragility of our lives, and how much we're dependent on heat, refrigeration, plumbing, and a good night's sleep. Stepping outside our
comfortable homes for just a short while in the Sukkah makes us VERY grateful for what we have, and perhaps reminds us to do more for those who live everyday in a Sukkah of insecurity, without a roof over their heads, without enough food, and without the ability to improve their situation. At the same time, the Sukkah also persists. Like the phoenix, it is destroyed and rebuilt, over and over. Even when it rains or snows, or the wind blows, the Sukkah either survives it all, or we wait and reconstruct it after the weather has passed. Either way, it's an eternal symbol of our people, and a constant reminder that despite our fragile beginnings in the desert of the Exodus, and all that our people have endured throughout the ages, we are still here; and so are our Sukkot!

I have many memories of this holiday, and this silly little hut: Snow-covered Sukkot in Sweden; rooftop Sukkot in Israel; the largest Sukkah in North America (for over 200 people), in New York City; and the first Sukkah I assembled on my own, that I built for my wife and daughter,
here in Wallingford. For me, the Festival of Booths is very much about BOTH the fragility and the stability. We need the humility of the Sukkah to remind us to care for others, and to feel gratitude for the blessings in our lives. We also need the flimsiness of the Sukkah to see how tied we are to the earth, and to our task of caring for the environment and living our lives in greater harmony with our planet. At the same time, the Sukkah is a powerful and enduring symbol, reminding us of God's role in our lives as well as the tenacity and resolve of our people. But it also can and should mean something different to each person. So my question again is, what does the word Sukkah mean to you? I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Chag Sameach - Happy Holiday!

Images in this blog post:
1. Gerber Sukkah 2012
2. & 3. Gerber Sukkah 2014
4. Caroline enjoying her first Sukkah!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5775

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 morning of Yom Kippur. In the right-hand column of this blog, you can see a list of previous posts; there you'll find all my High Holiday sermons. And, if you feel like it, please post your comments/thoughts/reactions here, or send me an e-mail at 

Thanks so much, and have a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year!

Ok, so this one is a little bit harder to put on the blog in written form. It involved a bit of theatrics on the bimah, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Sorry. Basically, picture me fumbling around nervously. First, I started delivering the wrong sermon, went back to my chair to get the right sermon, dropped IT on the floor and the papers flew everywhere, then finally made it to the table, where I continued to fidget, tap the table nervously, knock the microphone with my hand, and have trouble getting the words out correctly. (It had the desired effect…) Finally, I began my sermon:

When God first called to Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses was frightened. (Clear throat) He really didn’t want the job. He felt… Excuse me. (Take out handkerchief, wipe forehead…) He, Moses, that is, felt that he wasn’t the right (tap table) person for the job, that he wasn’t able to speak so good. (Clear throat again) Not, in a sense, he didn’t feel he had a way with his words.

In fact, the Torah mentions SIX different times that Moses protests to God, giving various reasons why God should pick someone else. The first time is in… wait, I had the citation here, hang on… It was Exodus, chapter 2. No, sorry, chapter 3. Right, verse 11 in chapter 3, and then in chapters four, five, AND six.

And reading about all the protestings of Moses’s, we are kind of left picturing him as a bit of a nervous wreck! The kind of person who it might have been painful to have to listen to, who couldn’t really speak in public.

It would be so awkward, you know? [Pause] Kind of like, if a person started the wrong speech. Then dropped his papers before even starting to speak. Or had to keep wiping his forehead, creating uncomfortable pauses. And said things like ‘speak so good’ and ‘protestings,’ and kept clearing his throat, tapping the table, and fidgeting while speaking. It would be unpleasant to listen to, I think?

But Moses grew, he improved. He probably learned to take a deep breath whenever he got nervous (take a deep breath), and then, gradually, he began to trust his own abilities to speak in public. [Pause]

[By now, I’m delivering the speech in my usual tone and pace.]

It was indeed in chapter three that God first approached Moses at the Burning Bush, and first called him to the formidable and daunting task of freeing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. And then Moses did, in fact, protest SIX times, eventually pleading and begging God to just, please find someone else. But God knew that Moses was the right person for the job, just as I imagine that, on some deep level, Moses too knew that he could do this.

Even before that first encounter, at the fiery shrub, God was watching Moses’ actions, not listening only to his words. He, Moses, defended an Israelite being abused by an Egyptian taskmaster, when he himself, raised in the palace, had nothing to gain and everything to lose by sticking up for this lowly slave. He then came to the rescue for a group of women by a well in Midian, chasing away their male harassers, even though he was an outsider, and again was risking his own safety by intervening in someone else’s affairs.

Even the Burning Bush itself showed Moses’ readiness. The rabbis tell us, in a midrash, a rabbinic story, that the bush had actually been burning since the dawn of time. A Ner Tamid, a perpetual flame. Moses was just the first one to actually stop and notice it, the first one aware enough of his surroundings, curious and inquisitive, sensitive to disturbances in the world around him, to pause and turn aside to look. All of these things were seen by God, and so Adonai knew the right person for the job was standing right there, even though Moses was not yet convinced.

And, of course, when God DID reach out to him at the bush, Moses’ response was… “Hineini.” And so today, in this the final of our four sermons on “Hineini,” on mindfulness and presence, I want to talk to you about saying this difficult word even when we’re not ready. And I began my sermon by kind of putting you through a little awkward display of poor public speaking, because I really don’t think Moses was good at it at first. We know the Moses who led the people for 40 years, brought them out of bondage; but I wanted us all to actually experience an earlier version of Moses, nervous and sweaty. In my mind, I picture some of the Israelites, who, when first approached by Moses while in slavery, saw this anxious, fidgety schlemiel, a dope even, who didn’t present well at all, and they probably thought to themselves, “This guy is gonna stand up to Pharaoh and free us from oppression?? No way!!”

But later, on the other side of the Sea of Reeds, and then years later, after receiving the Ten Commandments and having Moses lead them through countless battles, and fending off rebellions and constant complaints, those same Israelites must have looked at him with new eyes and thought, “Boy, were we wrong about him! Who knew that he could accomplish so much?” I’ll tell you who knew… God! And THAT is not only how I want us to understand Moses, that is how I want us to look at ourselves here today as well.

We cannot afford to wait until we feel completely competent, ready to go, free of fear and doubt, and only THEN will we be ready to say “Hineini.” No! We must say “Hineini” first. We must push ourselves to declare, “Here I am! I am ready to make a difference in my life, I am ready to be more present to family and friends, to be kinder to myself and to truly improve in the year ahead”; and when we make such a declaration, the journey can then TRULY begin.

We can ALL be Moses. We can start off saying “Hineini” even when we’re nervous as can be. We can grow into the person and the ideals that we long to embody. But we need to be deliberate. We need to make choices, and we need to have our eyes open, like Moses, to the burning bushes that may be out there along our journey. I can tell you right now, they won’t be lying right there, IN your path, waiting for you to step over them! They may be off to the side, out of your current field of vision, slightly inconveniently located away from the main path; you have to choose to turn aside and find that bush.

I want to share with you a story:

Lincoln Hall was the name of an Australian mountain climber who scaled Mount Everest in 2006, but who, on the way back down, was afflicted with altitude sickness. His companions, his sherpas, they all tried to help him, but to no avail. Eventually, they just left him. Several other groups also passed by, either going up or down Mount Everest, but they never turned aside to try and help Lincoln Hall. Incredibly, he survived a night alone.

The next day, another climber, Dan Mazur, was passing by with his team, and they saw a man sitting alone, with no oxygen tank, half undressed, and clearly not in his right mind. Mazur chose to abandon his own mission, later stating to reporters, “The summit is still there and we can go back. Lincoln only has one life.” This all took place at 8,700 feet, much closer to the top than the bottom, but Mazur stepped off his own path, and instead helped bring Lincoln Hall back down to safety.

In that moment, SO close to your goal of reaching the summit, you might think the worst thing would be to have to abandon your quest. Who will remember me, if I don’t actually make it to the top?? Yet ironically, many other people climbed to the peak of Mount Everest, but most of them are not famous. The story of Dan Mazur is known today, and has been the subject of books and movies, because he saw that his journey lay elsewhere, not in forging ahead and upward, but in turning aside and stepping OFF that path.

When Mazur was interviewed after this ordeal, and asked how he could abandon his quest, he also stated: “There is a Buddhist teaching that life is all about the journey, not the destination.” This is also a very Jewish saying. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, the rabbis teach us: “You do not have to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Don’t worry about beginnings and endings; focus on the journey, focus on the here and now.

This certainly sums up the life of Moses. He never does reach his destination, assuming that destination is supposed to be the Promised Land. But if we look at Moses’ legacy, can we really say he didn’t achieve his goal? We sometimes lament for him, because we think the purpose of it all was to set foot inside Canaan. Yet Moses achieved SO much in life, and lived with great purpose and meaning. And really, THAT is what it’s all about.

The word “Hineini” is all over the Hebrew Bible, 178 times, in fact. But most of them are used, not in the strongest form of mission-driven purpose and great intentionality, but in passing speech. Only 14 of the 178 are powerful examples of people opening up their eyes – to themselves, to the people around them, and to God – and realizing that they can be more, they can DO more with the time they’ve been given on this earth.

I want to pause for a second, before I conclude this, my final sermon of four on “Hineini.” Why did I choose this theme? Why is THIS, mindfulness in Judaism and in our everyday lives, the most important issue to me, especially considering the violence in Israel, the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, and so many other crisis issues capturing our attention right now, like climate change, gun violence, ISIS, and Ebola? Why devote FOUR sermons, on the most well-attended holidays of the year, to talking about “Hineini”?

Many people in the Jewish community today do not feel that Judaism is relevant in their lives. They don’t believe it speaks to their experiences, it doesn’t know what they are going through. I have chosen to devote the majority of my time this High Holiday season to saying to you, Judaism CAN help you navigate through your daily challenges and stresses, it does have SO MUCH to say about our everyday lives.

When we read about people saying “Hineini” in the texts of our Tradition, we need to look past the specifics of their situation, the ancient contexts of their existence, and see that the Bible is reaching out to you and to me, it’s trying to offer some wisdom about how to live our lives to the fullest. In our library, just down the hallway, Amy Graham, our librarian, has put out books for people to peruse during the High Holiday season. (She does this every year, which I think is fantastic) One of the books that’s sitting by the couches is Hineini in Our Lives by Norman J. Cohen. In it, Cohen writes about the people who say “Hineini” in the Bible, much as I’ve shared with you on these Days of Awe, and he echoes this sentiment I just expressed, about the connection between ancient models and everyday life in 2014. He explains: “Every moment of calling and response is a model for each of us, who must learn how to discern the call of the other and react to it appropriately. We are the Abrahams, the Moses’s, and the Samuels of our time, and we are challenged to hear the call and the cry as they did.”

We began the holiday on Rosh Hashanah, reading Torah portions about Abraham, and how he said “Hineini” and was able to be present to himself and God. Earlier this morning, Fran Stier chanted beautifully our Yom Kippur Haftarah, from the prophet Isaiah, which (perhaps by now not so surprisingly) ALSO contains the word “Hineini,” in its strong, present, purposeful form. But this time, it is not a person saying “Hineini” to God; it is God saying “Hineini” back to us! P. 286, v. 9, reads: “Then, when you call, Adonai will answer; when you cry out, God will say: Here I am.” And in the margin, our Machzor takes note of the connection between Abraham’s “Hineini” and God’s, and how the two bookend the High Holiday season.

But it doesn’t just tie together Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is the message I want to convey to us all here today. When we make the effort, when we reach out and challenge ourselves to be present to our own experience, and to really push ourselves to say “Hineini” even when we’re not ready, even when we feel like bungling fools, dropping papers and making nervous mistakes; IF we can say “Here I am to this life; Here I am to what the world has to offer me; and Here I am to make the most of it all,” THEN God will be our partner. God will join us in our projects, and the work of our hands will be blessed.

Judaism has SO MUCH to offer us, to help us navigate our everyday lives. I hope you will choose to say “Hineini” and join us on this journey. Turn aside from the ordinary path; seek out the Burning Bush that will inspire and enrich your life. If you do, the community and ALL the stories of our Tradition will be here to respond resoundingly, to welcome you in and to say “Hineini”

Shanah Tovah!

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5775

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 Kol Nidrei, the evening service at the start of Yom Kippur. In the right-hand column of this blog, you can see a list of previous posts; there you'll find all my High Holiday sermons.

And, if you feel like it, please post your comments/thoughts/reactions here, or send me an e-mail at Thanks so much, and have a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year!

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5775:

It’s late at night. The middle of the night, in fact. Right now, I am not a rabbi, I am a security guard at a museum, working the graveyard shift. There is one other guard as well, and after the two of us have finished our rounds, we retire to two separate guard posts, just a few rooms away from one another. It is quiet. The only sound that can be heard is the backup battery in the emergency exit sign, the soft hum of the security monitors, and faintly, in the distance, a radio program the other guard is listening to, “This American Life,” perhaps.

Then, suddenly…

[The congregation hears a disembodied voice over the loudspeaker. Each "Jeremy" in quotes below is another instance of the other voice, not me, speaking my name.]


A voice. Out of nowhere. Says my name. (My first name is Jeremy, by the way. I know many of you thought it was ‘rabbi’….) Obviously, it must be the other guard… although it didn’t really sound like him. But I get up, walk two rooms over, and ask him what’s up. “I didn’t call you,” he says. “Go back to your post.” Confused, I return. I check my iPhone, nothing there. The radio is off. I go back to watching the monitors, when, again, I hear it:


Clearly, my colleague is playing a prank, so I walk back again, feeling slightly annoyed. “Here I am, buddy. What’s going on?” He assures me it isn’t him. We argue for a few minutes, and I return to my desk… though walking a bit slower this time, and starting to feel a chill up my spine. As I sit back in my chair, I hear it yet again:


I burst out of my chair this time, insistent that it’s him… partly because I have no other explanation, and partly because I’m starting to feel frightened about what else might be going on. So I run back to the other guard a THIRD time. “Here I am, ok? Quit playing around!!” Again, we argue. And in the end, my exasperated colleague says, “Hey, if you hear it again, why don’t you just try answering the voice directly, huh? See what it says, and quit buggin’ me.” He chuckles to himself, and this time I walk back VERY slowly, and very bewildered. I ease my way back into my chair. It creaks. I can feel myself starting to sweat now. I’m nervous. I brace myself for the sound I do NOT want to hear, but sure enough:

“Jeremy… Jeremy.”

With great trepidation and foreboding, I respond, “Here I am – Hineini.”

This, with a few modern upgrades, is the story of the great prophet, Samuel. It was he who anointed the first king of Israel, Saul, and who eventually, at God’s command, also took the throne away from him. He then anointed David to take his place, and a descendant of David’s remained on the throne throughout the period of Ancient Israel. To this day, the line of David is still considered the royal bloodline of Israel. And it was Samuel who first declared David king.

When Samuel first heard God call to him, in the scene I described for you, he was just a boy. But I shared with you this little theatrical piece because I wanted each of us, every person in this room tonight, to imagine what it might have felt like for Samuel to hear that call. To picture instead a modern setting, with modern characters, and actually hear a disembodied voice speaking out of nowhere, and wonder, perhaps, for just a second: If this were you, could you respond to God with “Hineini”?

In today’s society, we often talk about not feeling the efficacy of prayer, that prayer actually “works.” I also hear people ask “Why don’t we hear God’s voice anymore? Why don’t we see miracles, and signs of God’s existence” But honestly, I think if we DID hear God’s voice speaking to us, calling us actually BY NAME, we would be terrified. What would it imply? What would come next, and is there any way that we could decline whatever God was coming to say???

I have always thought about this in regards to the prophet Jeremiah, who was ill-fated with the task of chastising and yelling at the people for their wrong-doings, and everyone hated him for it. His was a miserable existence. So why didn’t he just stop? Well, chapter 20, verse 9, is, in my opinion, one of the most chilling verses in the entire Bible, when Jeremiah cries out: “I thought, ‘I will not mention God, no more will I speak in God’s Name’ – but it was like a raging fire in my heart, shut up in my bones; I could not hold it in, I was helpless.” He had no choice. He was doomed to live this life, and say things to people that they absolutely, positively did NOT want to hear. And he, AND they, suffered for it.

What if God showed up one day and gave you a task, wanted you to rebuke the Pharaoh of the day, maybe Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin? Or even just told you to turn to your family, your friends, and your neighbors, and start preaching to them about doomsday and the sinful lives they are all leading. How terrifying to even imagine, just for a moment, having to give up our jobs and our everyday lives and do such a thing.

But there ARE people who do this. And I am not talking about people who’ve had mental breakdowns or who have psychological problems. I’m also not only referring to ancient examples, like Samuel, or the other three Biblical figures who also heard God urgently call to them in the same way Samuel heard it, by doubling their name, “Abraham, Abraham; Jacob, Jacob; Moses, Moses,” and who ALL responded: “Hineini – Here I am.” I am NOT talking about them alone. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, all of them felt it as well; the fire SHUT UP in their bones, that demanded they speak up against injustice, even at personal risk and ultimately, sacrifice.

And yes, many of the most famous examples set out with religious agendas, speaking of God and Biblical morals, but you don’t need that. Let us, for a moment, take that out of the picture. Let’s remove God briefly, yes, even here on Kol Nidrei night, IN synagogue, ON the holiest day of the year. Let’s take God OUT of the picture. Look, I want to be totally honest with you. Many people in this room do not believe in God, or you aren’t sure what you believe. And believe it or not – literally – that is OK! So forget God, I’m serious.

We can still feel that fire in our bones, in our souls (if there is such a thing as the soul). Don’t be distracted by the question of whether there’s a God or not, focus on whether you can believe in a cause, ANY cause, with the kind of passion that sometimes, but not always, comes from religious belief. Do you need God, to care about children dying because of terrible gun laws? Do you need God, to know that Ebola is a horrible virus that must be stopped? And do you need God, to dump a bucket of ice water on your head and donate to an incredibly worthy cause, that will fight an otherwise incurable, terminal disease?

On Rosh Hashanah, we talked about “Hineini” being directional, relational; it’s always said TO someone else. But that ‘someone’ doesn’t have to be God! We talked about saying “Hineini” to ourselves, but we can also say “Hineini” to the very notion of being called, of feeling passionate and committed to something you believe in. The real enemy here is apathy, cynicism, and jaded indifference. When we’re sitting in that guard booth at the museum and we hear someone call our name, it’s definitely easier to imagine it’s candid camera, or a prank, or ANYTHING other than a voice calling us to devote ourselves to something, to make the most of our lives, and to be a force for GOOD in the world… because it’s scary to care.

But what if there IS a voice calling to you? What if that voice is inside you – conscience, morality, whatever – but it is CALLING you… and you are just too scared, too worried about what it’ll demand of you, too concerned about what you’ll have to give up, to listen.

Please, listen.

What IS the message of Kol Nidrei? The lights feel dimmer, small candles line the back wall, the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei has been sung, and we’re all bracing ourselves to feel the impact of the fast, which hasn’t yet set in, since we recently ate… but we know it’s coming. We have set the stage; we have created the mood, the atmosphere. But now YOU have to choose to HEAR the lesson of the day.

I believe, that message is to believe in something, to care, to want to make yourself a little bit better, and thus to make the world a little bit better. In Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins’ book, Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational readings for Yom Kippur, he quotes Eugene O’Neill as saying, “Each of us is capable of an unimagined greatness. Each of us is a treasure house of vital potential. Yet apprehensive love and inhibited talent pervade the expression of our being. Past failure and present fear restrict the range of our feelings and the purview of our thinking. While these days of meditation awaken us to the truth of what we are, they must also quicken within us the reality of what we can be.”

“Past failure,” “present fear,” these things are also the enemy, along with the apathy and cynicism I mentioned before. We don’t believe we can change, and it’s SCARY to imagine change. But the message, the TRUTH, of Yom Kippur is that we DO have that ‘unimagined greatness’ in us… if we’re willing to hear it calling out to us, begging us for a “Hineini.”

Even the great prophet Samuel, after whom TWO books of the Bible are named, even he needed to hear God’s voice FOUR times, just as our museum guard did, before he could accept that it was, in fact, God! All the great leaders, in the world, in our communities, and our own personal heroes; they have ALL had moments of doubt and self-criticism. They’ve wavered from their path and wondered if it’s all worth it. It’s ok to be unsure. It is hard to get ourselves to a place of being ready to say “Hineini.” But tonight is a good place to start.

Use the opportunity of this evening, and perhaps also of the entire day tomorrow, into the last service at dusk, Neilah, when the curtain in front of the Ark will be opened, and you are invited to come up and stand before it to offer a personal prayer. Use this time to think about, consider – meditate perhaps – on the word “Hineini.” How are you here, and how are you NOT here?

You don’t need God to get something out of Yom Kippur, but you DO need YOU! Bring yourself fully to this experience, to the fasting, the praying, the beating our chests, and yes, to standing in front of an open Ark at Neilah time, and it WILL lead you to new “Hineini” experiences beyond this holiday, beyond the synagogue, and beyond Judaism. You will open yourself up to new opportunities in life, and to greater harmony with yourself and others.

So don’t wait, and make that voice call to you FOUR times before you respond. Listen to it today, Divine or not, and begin this new year with a resounding “Hineini!”

Shanah Tovah!

(…and G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all inscribe OURSELVES in the Book of Life before the gates close.)