Friday, September 25, 2015

High Holidays 5776 - Sermon 4 of 4 (Yom Kippur Morning)

Here is my fourth, and final sermon from this year's High Holiday services. Thank you for reading and following along in the series. Shanah Tovah!

I want to take this morning’s sermon in two very different directions. Both speak to our High Holiday theme, and both fit under the rubric of our fourth, and final quote about love, but I think you will agree that these are two disparate interpretations. They intersect, however, at you and me. This is, by the way, true of all four of my sermons these High Holidays. The link between everything I have said, and among all of our experiences across these services and Holy Days, is the effect it can and should have on our behavior. This morning I want to ask what it means “to love the stranger.” But I don’t only ask it generally, as a theoretical question about the world. I invite you to think about what “love the stranger” means to you, in your life, and what it can mean for you in the year ahead.

As you probably know by now, if you’ve heard any of my Divrei Torah, my speeches, this holiday season, I chose my theme for this year back in June. I was visiting a Jewish community in London, where I had lived over a decade earlier, and I was praying in their new sanctuary for the very first time. Above the ark in the New North London Synagogue I saw three quotes inscribed on the walls, each dealing with love in the Torah, and each now forming the basis of a sermon at our High Holidays here in Wallingford. For this, my final talk, I want to look at one of those verses; a powerful statement from Deuteronomy, 10:19,
“v’Ahavtem Et Ha-Ger,” “and you shall love the stranger.” The Torah knows that this goes against our natural inclination. We are more comfortable with people who look, sound, and act like us, because that is what we, human beings, are programmed to do. I feel I need to emphasize that the Torah does not command behaviors that are obvious. You won’t find in our Bible: “thou shalt breathe in and out every day” or “take heed, and eat when thou art hungry.” Our mitzvot focus on challenging us to be better people, to improve our own lives and the lives of others around us. Hence the commandment to “love the stranger.”

Again, I chose this theme back in June, yet here we are, in September, and a major public debate swirls around Syrian refugees, and whether we can allow them to come to the US or not. We see countries like Denmark, France, England, and yes, Sweden, turning people away, and even going so far as to put up billboards in Lebanon discouraging emigration to Europe. It is tempting to agree with these countries, and fear waves of immigration. But as Jews, we cannot. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat - who blogs under the wonderful name “The Velveteen Rabbi” - writes: “Jewish history is filled with exile and wanderings. Our community retains the memory of being marginalized and mistreated. When economic times were tough, time and again, we have been the victims of attacks, of prejudice, of pogroms.” Rabbi Barenblat reminds us that the mitzvah in Deuteronomy SPECIFICALLY says that we must “love the stranger…” BECAUSE we were strangers in Egypt. And our history reminds us we were strangers EVERYWHERE, and we know what that was like. We need to use our voices to stand up for refugees and exiles today, in 2015, because their story was ours, and not even so very long ago. We know how to be vigilant on behalf of our own community, to stand up against hateful speech like Ann Coulter’s, but can we also feel the pain of Syrian refugees, and speak out for them as well?

The famous Chasidic master, Reb Nachman of Bratslav, challenged us in this regard as well, stating: “You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it is your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah, repentance.” I am certain that we could come up with a LONG list of reasons why NOT to accept refugees. I know that EVERY country could make such a list, and many probably do. But that is not our job. Our job is to “love the stranger”; to push ourselves to see the good in another, even when we have many reasons NOT to do so. Reb Nachman specifically reminds us that when we think the best of people, they may even surprise us and rise to the challenge; exceeding our expectations, and leading us all to greater teshuvah, repentance, on these High Holidays.

I began my sermon this morning by telling you that this topic, and really all my topics, are about YOU. “Loving the stranger” could appear to be the exception. You might think it’s about the stranger, about that other person, or group of people, but it is actually very much about you, about all of us. Loving the stranger makes us better people; it makes us feel greater pride in ourselves, our community, and our religion. Rabbi Francine Klagsbrun, in a monumental work entitled “Voices of Wisdom,” writes about our rabbinic ancestors. She informs us that they held a firm “conviction that the Torah was God’s instrument for spreading ethical teachings to ALL people. Through exemplary behavior toward non-Jews, they felt they enhanced the Torah and God’s name in the eyes of the world.”

When we read articles about the latest crises across the globe, when we consider which campaigns to support online, such as or the American Jewish World Service, or think about contacting our legislators, I encourage all of us to not just think about Jewish causes or issues that affect the Jewish community. Remember that “love the stranger” is ALSO a central commandment for Jews, and one that has inspired our ancestors and our leaders for generations. We cannot limit our expressions of love; we must instead realize that our obligation, our duty, extends to all people everywhere, and showing our concern for them, as well as our own brethren, is central to what it means to be a Jew.

Let me pivot now to my second interpretation of our essential verse. Part of this mitzvah, this commandment, is about making space for another. We cannot love the stranger at a great distance, he or she needs to be close to our hearts and close to our physical space. Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the founders of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism in the 16th Century, talks about how God created the world with Ahavah, with love. And when God created the world, God had to remove God’s Self from covering all of existence. The Divine Spirit, you see, was everywhere and everything, but God pulled back slightly to create a small pocket, like a bubble of air in a bottle of water, wherein humanity and the world could exist. This is called tzimtzum, God’s contraction. And an Israeli psychologist, Mordechai Rotenberg, took Luria’s Kabbalistic concept of Divine tzimtzum, and applied it to human behavior. We each need to learn to contract OUR selves to create the potential for another to expand. “Tzimtzum makes room for others,” writes Rotenberg,” thereby giving a person and others space to co-exist.” This is a difficult thing for all of us to do; remove ourselves, pull back, and allow for another to step into that space. It may sound simple, but it is not. Just as we discussed on Rosh Hashanah, these concepts are actually much harder to live by.

The truth is, we do not like to share space. Right now, here in our little community of Ohev Shalom, we are engaged in a dialogue about contracting AND expanding; a form of congregational tzimtzum. Led by our interfaith community chairperson, Josh Cohen, our synagogue president, Bonnie Breit, and myself, we have been discussing the role of interfaith families in our community, and whether non-Jewish family members can be fully accepted and integrated into our congregation. It has truly been a wonderful communal conversation, and one which I have personally valued greatly. I want to publicly thank everyone who has voiced an opinion in this discussion.

There is disagreement. Some people have expressed concerns. For instance, how are we still a JEWISH community, if we make this change? Will we still be a Conservative synagogue? Won’t we just become a community center, and no longer a religious organization? To me, this issue is a question of love and making space. It might have surprised you that I brought up the question of interfaith under the subject of “love the stranger” rather than, say, “love your neighbor as yourself,” but I did this very deliberately. We sometimes treat interfaith families as if they are, indeed, strangers. Over the course of our community conversation, several individuals shared very powerful stories of feeling excluded. For instance, I heard, for the first time, that some non-Jews move away from the aisles when the Torah is processed around; concerned that it would be inappropriate to touch or kiss it, or that the Jews in the room might be offended, or at the very least uncomfortable, if a non-Jew approached their holy scroll. This made me very sad.
As the rabbis of the Talmud clearly stated, the Torah is God’s instrument for spreading ethical teachings to ALL people. Anyone can touch it, and everyone should feel welcome to connect to it and to its wisdom, metaphorically AND physically.

This is still, and always will be, a Jewish synagogue, and a Conservative Movement congregation. That is a core value for me, for leadership, and for all who have engaged in this dialogue. At Ohev Shalom, Jews bless the Torah, Jews carry the Torah and dance with it when we celebrate receiving this Instruction on the holiday of Simchat Torah, in just a couple of weeks. But non-Jews ARE a part of our community; they are not “the stranger.” As one person in our congregation wrote to me in a beautiful letter earlier this year, “Interfaith is not good or bad, it simply IS.” We must open our eyes to the make-up of our community, to live with honesty and integrity about who we are, who we already are. And we should celebrate it. This is a strong place. We should take great pride in what we have built here, together, and feel great joy that, in this day and age, we are able to include all those who join us in making Ohev the wonderful place it is. For now, this DOES still fall under the rubric of “Love the stranger,” but I hope that a constitutional change in the months ahead will enjoin us all to change the way we think, the way we act, and the way we include people in this, our shared community.

As I conclude this talk, and hence also conclude my series on “Ahavah,” on love in our Jewish tradition, I want to return, one final time, to my original intent. Love is about relationships - with God, with our neighbors, with our values of Truth and Peace, and with the strangers around us. At the core of it all is the hope that you will look inside and think about ways to challenge, change, and improve yourself. Bringing more love into our outlook can influence all these powerful relationships, and create for each of us greater harmony and peace. Rabbi Barenblat - the Velveteen Rabbi - writes on her blog about the power of this kind of shift in outlook: “Imagine if everyone who looked at me saw in me the very best things I have done. Imagine if, looking at me, what you saw was me at my most compassionate, my most kind, my most caring. You wouldn’t be able to impute ill will to me, because you would see my best self… and as a result, my best self would continue to manifest.”

Not only would we become better people if we could see the best in one another. We might draw out EVEN greater behaviors in one another, and together we would all rise to the greatest versions of ourselves. Having others believe in us and see us as we are at our best can be incredibly empowering, and even life-altering. “Ahavah.” It is not simple. It is not easy. But it is - as its Aramaic root, “y’hav,” reminds us - a “gift,” an invaluable present that we can give one another and ourselves.

I believe that Ahavah, love, can and should be at the core of everything we do. That it should essentially be the kind of thing we would want to emblazon on our walls, and do so with all our hearts, souls, and might. In this new year, let us resolve to bring more “Ahavah” into our lives, individually and collectively, filled with Peace AND Truth, along with all members of our community, fused together with one purpose.

One of our greatest Jewish sages, Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote in a letter a thousand years ago that the Torah “bids us to love with the whole force of our heart’s affection.” This is our task in the year ahead. May we take it on wholeheartedly, and may we thereby each write ourselves into the Book of Life for a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year.

Shanah Tovah!

High Holidays 5776 - Sermon 3 of 4 (Kol Nidrei)

Now that Yom Kippur is over, I would like to share with you my two final sermons in this year's High Holiday series. Pasted below is my sermon from Kol Nidrei, the night of Yom Kippur, and I will also post shortly my Yom Kippur morning sermon; the final in my series on "Ahavah," "Love." As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Shanah Tovah!

What does the Book of Life mean to you? How are we to understand this ledger, this peculiar concept, which dominates our High Holiday liturgy in general, and our Yom Kippur services in particular. We just sang about it: “B’Seifer Chayim, B’rachah v’Shalom, u’Farnasah Tovah, Nizacheir v’Nikateiv l’fanecha” - “Remember us,” O’ God, and “write us into” “The Book of Life, Blessing, Peace, and Good Fortune.” More than just this one song, we actually refer to the Book of Life A LOT throughout the holiday. We greet one another on Yom Kippur with, “G’mar Chatimah Tovah,” “In the end, may you be sealed for good”? And we also say “L’Shanah Tovah Teichateimu,” “May you be sealed for a good year.” All of these images, and many others in our High Holiday prayers, speak of being written, signed, inscribed, and sealed in God’s Book of Life. We rarely spend too much time unpacking this, but tonight, in light of this year’s High Holiday theme, we must.

Every year, I speak on one, single topic across four High Holiday sermons. Two were delivered on Rosh Hashanah, tonight is number three, and I’ll offer one final sermon tomorrow morning; all four - this year - are on the subject of “Ahavah,” “Love.” Last week, we spoke about “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” and “Love Peace and Truth,” and tonight let’s delve into the enormous, intimidating, and so crucially central topic of “God’s Love.” And so, I feel compelled to look at the song we just sang, and how we are all impacted by the image of God’s Book of Life. Many of us struggle deeply with this idea, and the ramifications which accompany it. Traditional Jewish theology tells us that there is a Book of Life and a separate Book of Death, and our actions before, during, and even immediately after the High Holidays determine our fate; will God write our names in one book or the other for the Jewish year that is about to begin. “Mi yichyeh u’mi Yamut?” we ask in the famous (or perhaps infamous…) Untane Tokef prayer - “who will live and who will die” in the year ahead?

This notion hurts us a lot. If we imagine that God is making deliberate, willful, intentional decisions about our lives, we feel angry. How and why are you choosing my fate? If we believe that God has answers in mind for the questions of who will live and who will die, who by cancer, flooding, dementia, and car accident - we feel furious! “YOU did this??” “You made this happen?!?” It hurts too much to entertain these ideas. Yet how can we not? And if we want to speak of God’s Love, can we do so without facing these horrible, painful, but ever-present questions?

On Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you that earlier this summer I spent some time in England, and saw the beautiful redone sanctuary of the New North London Synagogue, with three quotes on love from the Torah carved into its walls. Front and center, right about their enormous, 20 ft. Ark, was written: “v’Ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha,” “Love the Lord, your God,” and many of us know that the quote continues, “b’Chol Levav’cha, uv’Chol Nafshecha, uv’Chol Meodecha” - “with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.” How can we do that, love God at all, let alone with our entire being, when we’re sitting here contemplating these Books of Life and Death, and the implications they might have? And while we’re here, pushing the envelope and asking these tough questions of the Almighty, I’ve simply got to ask… is it reciprocal? If I can get there, if I COULD, somehow, push myself to truly love Adonai with my entire heart, my deepest soul, and all my might, will God do the same? When God commands my love, will I get it back in return? Or will I be the tragic lover in a Shakespeare play, pouring my heart out to my beloved, only to learn that my feelings are embarrassingly and heart-breakingly unrequited?

We sing, over and over, on the holidays about the Thirteen Attributes of God, “Adonai, Adonai, Eil Rachum v’Chanun,” and we list each of God’s praiseworthy characteristics. Kindness, compassion, faithfulness, forgiving… Why doesn’t the list include some form of “Ahavah”? Does God not love us?
On the High Holidays, we say that we are here to ask big questions. Rabbis often use this speaking opportunity to challenge our thinking about Israel or anti-Semitism. But tonight I feel that we need to turn our attention to God, and to our relationship with our Creator; if indeed we believe there is a Creator out there, responsible for breathing life into us in the first place. It is so, so painful to feel alone. And sometimes we look up at the sky, or we read about death and destruction in the news, and we search inside ourselves, and we do, we feel alone. Today, on this holiest day of the Jewish year, should we not ask ourselves, one another, and the Heavens above, about God’s Love?

Easy answers are hard to come by. Of course they are. But let us ask the question nonetheless. And let me turn to our ancestors, the sages who lived thousands of years before us, for guidance, as they struggled with these very same issues as well. In fact, they often lived with the threats of violence as a part of their everyday, ongoing lives, so if they found a way to understand and come to peace with loving God, being commanded to do so, and feeling God’s love in return, we certainly can as well. The great sage, Rashi (whose hometown of Troyes, in France, I also visited in June, by the way), wrote that to love God was to perform God’s commandments out of love. In other words, the way we express our love for God is not through love letters, chocolate boxes, or a dozen roses;
it’s through living our lives with tremendous love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness towards ALL of God’s Creation. When we love that which God loves, then we are expressing our love for God as well. And this, I believe, is our first step towards understanding this issue a little bit better.

In just a few days, our lives will all be impacted by an historic visit here in Philadelphia. As you are all most certainly aware, Pope Francis will be arriving on Friday. And more than perhaps most people, our current pope understands that loving God IS a commandment, and it is lived by loving others around us. Pope Francis recently stated: “We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach love.” I am a big fan of his. Pope Francis cuts to the core of difficult issues, strips away all pretense, and addresses critical topics unapologetically. He knows how to put his faith into action, and he feels, deeply, that compassion and love are at the center of our existence.

But our big struggle actually wasn’t trying to figure out how WE should love God; we wanted to know IF God loves US, and how THAT is being expressed! We want to know, is it reciprocal… and perhaps more painful to ask: why - sometimes, even often, do we not feel loved? Let’s return to the Thirteen Attributes of God. The word “Ahavah” may be absent, but actually the totality of all these other behaviors - kindness, compassion, forgiving, faithful - IS love.

Each of the thirteen Hebrew words like Chesed, Rachamim, Chanun, each has its own meaning, but each is also a synonym for love. And these attributes of God, they are not action-driven or mighty, like “conqueror of enemies” or “curer of Alzheimer’s Disease.” God’s role in our lives is to partner with us, as a source of kindness, compassion, and strength in difficult times. God does not step in and stop weather storms or prevent dictators from rising to power, but is ever-present to give us courage, hope, inspiration, and of course, love IF we are willing to let God in. When we look to the sky and expect God to remove hunger from the world, we are sorely disappointed. But when we instead look around and see that all the food the planet needs IS here, we may, perhaps, instead pray for God to speak to all of our hearts and lovingly urge us to distribute it more equitably. God is present, the question is really whether our eyes and our souls are open to see and feel that closeness. The 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi, wrote: “Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” We need to open ourselves up and remove the barriers, then love will find us.

Joe Rosenstein is the author of a siddur called Eit Ratzon, which contains wonderful meditations and thought-provoking prayers. It also contains one of my favorite reimaginings of how we understand God’s role in our lives. The second paragraph of the Shema is very hard for us to accept. Much like God’s Book of Life, we struggle with this passage from Deuteronomy, chapter 11. It speaks of the consequences for disobedience to God’s laws, and specifically God’s withholding rain on our fields, which we all know causes droughts and starvation. Again, it is painful to imagine God doing these things on purpose. But Rosenstein reads it differently: “If you listen to My commandments, [says God,] and you do them, the rain that falls on your fields will also fall in your lives, enabling EVERYTHING to grow.” In other words, when we live with compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and courage, and we accept a sense of commandedness in our lives, all kinds of things grow and flourish, in a literal AND metaphorical sense. Not because God will now show us favor, but rather we’ve created a good life, filled with blessings and strong relationships which are themselves a reward. Even when bad things happen, we are rooted and fortified, and emotionally able to face challenges, illnesses, and hardship. Our eyes are open to the symbolic rain, the bounty, that is all around us.

Perhaps most powerfully, Rosenstein then turns it around. He writes: “If you turn away from My commandments, then you will also turn away from My rain; you will no longer be aware of this blessing and its source, so that, for you, the rain will no longer exist.” It is not physical rain which God withholds. The commandments are a tool to make us aware of all the beauty and wonder in our lives, and if we instead choose to live without meaning, then how could we possibly feel and perceive the blessings that exist all around us? When we come to services on Yom Kippur and take stock of our lives and seek to make real change - we are actually writing ourselves into the Book of Life. This is the message I want to say to you all here tonight. It is not God who writes us in that book. Living a life of meaning and purpose, being able to ask forgiveness of another and accept it back fully and wholeheartedly, being vulnerable and introspective, and yes, able to really see and feel love in our lives, giving it and receiving it - doing all these things is equivalent to writing ourselves into a book of life; a book of living, truly and fully living.

There is also pain and hardship, misfortune and illness in our lives. When we are angry and wounded, we ascribe our misery to God because it at least gives us a focus for our outrage. And our wrath IS often justified. But I do not believe that God is sending these things to punish us. I cannot. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, the rabbi of that synagogue in London, writes about pain and love, suffering and perseverance. He describes seeing people who have experienced deep loss or hurt working within themselves to tell an inner story which helps them integrate and cope with their situation. He writes, “we may not be able to change the facts of what has happened to us, but… we are able to determine, at least in part, what it SHOULD mean in our souls and in our lives.”

Sometimes it can feel like a loved one, trying to offer a hug, to hold us, but we are too filled with rage to even notice their presence. God has not abandoned us, but sometimes it hurts too much to feel the embrace. This is hard work. That is why our Torah tells us to experience God’s love “b’Chol Levavcha, uv’Chol Nafshecha, uv’Chol Meodecha,” “with all your heart, soul, and might.” If you want to feel it, it is there. But we have to be willing to let love in. And, as Pope Francis reminds us, to spread it to others as well.

I hope that this Yom Kippur will be for you, for every one of us, a meaningful and introspective holiday. Use this time to have an honest conversation with yourself, and - if you want it to - that mindful introspection WILL also be a conversation with God. Our ancient Talmud teaches us: “It is not sufficient to leave God’s love in heaven; it must be in our hearts and hands.” Think about how you could better experience the rain and bounty that is already falling in your life, and what it might look like for you - with a full heart, an open soul, and with dedicated might - to bring this love down from heaven and write YOURSELF into the Book of Real Living in the year ahead.

Shanah Tovah!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Yom Kippur: Q and A-ha!

I apologize for not writing a blog post for this Shabbat. I invite you to read last year's post on this parashah. You can find it here. Right now, I am in the midst of preparing for Yom Kippur, which begins on Tuesday night. If you'd like to read my sermons from Rosh Hashanah, they too are posted here on the blog. You can either scroll down to read them, find them in the "blog archive" on the right, or click on these links:

Sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah

Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah

My sermons for Yom Kippur will be added to the blog next week, if you'd like to read them as well. For now, I wanted to invite you to participate in our High Holiday conversation. On Wednesday afternoon, between the Mincha (afternoon) service and the Neilah (concluding) service, I'll be answering people's questions about Judaism. Last year, we discussed many interesting topics, including the history of Conservative Judaism and the theological problem of the Holocaust. Whether you are able to join us or not for the actual service, I am curious if you would like to pose any questions for me to discuss, which I am then happy to share here on the blog as well. If so, feel free to write it in the comments' section of this post, or send me an e-mail at to share it directly.

Thanks so much for reading my blog, whether you've been following for six (yikes!) years or are a newbie. I wish you all a Shanah Tovah u'Metukah - a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year, and I look forward to writing to you again next week.

Warm regards,

Rabbi Gerber

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

High Holidays 5776 - Sermon 2 of 4 (Second Day of Rosh Hashanah)

If you look up at the walls of the sanctuary, to the right and to the left, you’ll see eight mosaic panels, the first eight in a series of fourteen. When completed, these panels will represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the ancient Levitical priests, and our ancestor, Jacob’s one daughter, Dinah. Yesterday, during services, we dedicated the latest two panels in the set, Issachar and Dan. But I want to reflect back for a moment to our first dedication, the two tribes of Reuben (Jacob’s oldest son) and Naphtali (the twelfth and final tribe). These panels are still being constructed; the final six have not yet been made. And our order of assembly - the decision to make Reuben and Naphtali first - was done based primarily on symmetry. In the first chapter of the Book of Numbers, Moses lists all twelve tribes, and we are simply following his order, putting up 1 and 12, 2 and 11, and so forth from Moses’ enumeration.

But a congregant, Stephen Lehmann, pointed out to me an interesting juxtaposition in these first two. There are many stories in the Bible about Reuben, the person, and Reuben, the tribe. Looking at all these accounts together, we see drama, intrigue, vying for power, sexual scandal, loud complaining and trouble-making; all of it swirling around Reuben.

Naphtali, meanwhile, is silent; barely mentioned as a person in the Torah, and the exploits of his tribe are essentially unknown. The two panels, Reuben and Naphtali, represent opposite ends of the spectrum of people in our community and in our lives. The people who sometimes talk a lot but say very little, and the people who are quiet and introspective, but so insightful and reflective when they do speak. Reuben and Naphtali, together, remind us to pay attention to all people around us, wherever they may fall on that spectrum. Though we had no hidden motivation for putting up these two panels together, it was fascinating to discover connections between them nonetheless.

And now, on Rosh Hashanah, we find ourselves with an interesting - and seemingly happenstance - parallel between our latest two panels, Issachar and Dan. But let me return back to that in a moment. If you were here yesterday, you know that our theme this High Holiday season is “Ahavah,” the Hebrew word for “love.” Back in June, I visited a congregation, the New North London Synagogue, in London, England, which had THREE verses from the Torah inscribed on its sanctuary walls, each referring to love in the Bible. Yesterday’s sermon was based on one of those passages. But you may also know that I deliver FOUR sermons on a single theme each year, so three quotes from this one synagogue meant that I was still missing a fourth.

Well, later in that same weekend - still in June, still in London - our tour group visited another congregation, the New West End Synagogue in the posh neighborhood of Bayswater. Theirs was a beautiful sanctuary, stained glass and marble pillars all around, and many Biblical quotes lined the walls of the balcony as well. I was only still mulling over whether to use these verses on Ahavah as my theme, when suddenly, my eye was drawn to a verse from the Prophet Zechariah, 8:19, and I had my fourth quote. The theme was set.

Zechariah, interestingly enough, is in the midst of talking about fast days (how appropriate for our High Holidays), when he states, “Ha-Emet v’ha-Shalom Ahavu,” “Love truth and peace.” With that in mind, let us look again at our two latest panels. Dan, meaning “judge” in Hebrew, is depicted as scales of justice. Certainly this represents the value of “truth,” mentioned by the prophet Zechariah. Issachar, meanwhile, is represented as the sun, moon, and stars, harkening back to the story of God’s Creation. The rabbis considered the source of creation to be God’s pure, unselfish love, and because God rested on the seventh day of Creation, the number seven is considered the number of peace, Shalom.  So together, the panels of Dan and Issachar depict this quote from Zechariah, “love truth and peace.” Again, a peculiar coincidence, when the two panels were only being dedicated together because they are numbers 4 and 9 in Moses’ list.

But what does this really mean? Why does God command us to love truth and peace? Why does God NEED to tell us this? Because we tend to skew to one or the other. Look around the world, or at our newspaper headlines. At one end of the spectrum, we see WikiLeaks and computer hackers everywhere stealing people’s private information and sharing it with the world, because “truth” is absolute, and everyone should have access to all information. We see politicians insist upon no abortion exceptions, even in cases of rape and incest, why? Because they insist that principles are absolute. It is true and right, and there are no exceptions, no room for mercy or compassion.

Though we do also see the other extreme. People who decry all forms of rules and structure, who reject tradition and history if they impinge on individual rights in any way. When the reality is that we sometimes DO need frameworks and systems, traditions and customs, or we have only anarchy and chaos. As a rabbi, I’ve often seen people, especially in the face of terrible illness or death, needing to lean on Jewish law to help them bring order and calm back into their lives. Even when they are not observant, following the customs of grieving and saying Kaddish can help support people through a very challenging period in life.

“Ha-Emet v’ha-Shalom Ahavu,” Zechariah reminds us that we need BOTH. We need law and we need compassion. And so does God.

In the ancient rabbinic work, Bereishit Rabbah, a commentary on the Book of Genesis, the rabbis imagine the Almighty deliberating right before creating the world: “Adonai said, ‘If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; [but if I create it] on the basis of justice alone, the world cannot exist. Therefore, I will create it with a combination of mercy and justice, and may it then stand.’” Even God realizes that either extreme is harmful. If the world tips too much in one direction, it cannot survive. In our lives today, we need the justice and structure of Dan as well as the peace, love, and mercy of Issachar, or we too cannot survive.

With that in mind, I want to bring us back to my High Holiday theme from two years ago, “Guilt-Free Judaism.” Back then, a lot of people raised their eyebrows at me, and jokingly/not-so-jokingly said that “Guilt-Free Judaism” was an oxymoron, a total contradiction. But to me, “Guilt-Free Judaism” is about love. It’s about finding that balance between truth and peace, and finding a way to be joyfully Jewish that is filled with honesty, integrity, and most importantly love. We still need “Guilt-Free Judaism” today. But in order to do so, I think we need to change our language.

Today, across the Jewish world, we talk about being observant or not. In Hebrew, we say someone is “Shomer Shabbat,” meaning they keep or observe all the rules of the Sabbath. Similarly, we say someone is “Shomer Kashrut,” meaning they keep or observe all the ritual laws of keeping Kosher (separation of meat and milk, separate dishes, no non-Kosher meat, shellfish, even products that don’t carry a hechsher, certification, etc., etc.) Our Jewish language only contains two options; you’re either Shomer Shabbat and Shomer Kashrut or you’re not. You can be aspiring, you can be on a journey of working on your observance, but ultimately our Jewish lingo describes us as in-or-out, doing Judaism right or wrong. We need a new category.

Last month, a group of Ohev congregants traveled with me to Israel. We had a fabulous trip, and saw and learned so much about Israeli culture. We spent our first Shabbat in the north, at a Kibbutz called Ginosar. It wasn’t a very touristy place, but was instead filled with locals; mainly secular Jews getting away from the cities for a weekend. And I was fascinated to watch these non-religious Jews sitting down for Shabbat dinner with their families in the hotel restaurant. They covered their heads with napkins, because no one had a kippah, and they only said a single blessing over the wine, rather than the traditional Friday night Kiddush. And after dinner, they sat on the grass outside, smoking and texting away on their iPhones. Clearly, they were not Shomer Shabbat, but they also clearly made room for Shabbat and family celebration, and it was very powerful for me to see this mix of secular and religious. Should we not have a term for this?

Or let’s talk about Ohev, and people here in Delaware County. If you, for instance, come to Friday night services, but then go to the Phillies game or go out to dinner at a restaurant - AND do NOT order Kosher food - I still say you brought Shabbat into your life, and that constitutes real commitment. If you keep a Kosher home but don’t eat Kosher food outside, that too represents genuine, heartfelt dedication to Judaism. I cannot call that “Shomer Shabbat” or “Shomer Kashrut,” but maybe I don’t need to. Or want to. It is hurting us, as a people, to define ourselves as good or bad. “Ha-Emet v’ha-Shalom Ahavu,” find a balance between being at peace with yourself but making a genuine effort to bring Judaism into your life, and I say you are “Mechabed Shabbat,” honoring Shabbat, or “Mechabed Kashrut,” honoring the dietary laws. That, by the way, is just a made up term, because we currently don’t have other options besides observant or not. Over the past few months, I've been discussing this concept with other rabbinic colleagues, and it was our very own Rabbi Kelilah Miller who suggested these new terms. So thanks for that... and now I'm stealing them! The reality is, we NEED another category like “Mechabed Shabbat and Kashrut.”

There is a famous story about a great Chassidic rabbi of the 18th Century, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. He once was walking on the road and saw a man oiling the wheels of his cart WHILE wearing his tallit and tefillin. Another rabbi might look on in disgust. “What a defilement of these ritual objects!” or “This jerk left services early to get a jump on his day, disrespecting himself, his congregation, and God.” But not Levi Yitzchak. He saw the man hard at work, looked up to heaven, and proclaimed:

"Ribbono Shel Olam- Master of the world, look at your wonderful children, even while oiling the wheels of his buggy, this man wears his Tallit and T'fillin."

Can we have this level of love for ourselves and the people around us? Maybe we don’t have to whisper, as if we are ashamed, to one another about the non-Kosher meal we had, or the vacation we took on a Jewish holiday, or how poorly we speak and read Hebrew. Maybe it’s ok, or at least it can be ok. If we can stand in the breach, somewhere between the judgment of Dan and the peace of Issachar, we can learn to accept how we live our lives and seek ways to be more “Mechabed Shabbat and Kashrut,” honoring of the Jewish rituals in ways that fit our own lives and infuse joy, meaning, and spirituality into our daily experiences.

Some people may see this an “out,” that I’m giving people permission not to challenge themselves to be more observant. But I see it as an “in,” as a way of inviting more people into the community. Bring your authentic selves; bring all aspects of your struggles with Judaism and its rituals, and leave behind the obstacles and barriers that you think Judaism has put up to keep you at bay. Judaism is not holding you at arm’s length; it is inviting you in. “Ahavah Rabbah Ahavtanu,” we sing in the Shacharit, morning service: “With a great love you have loved us, Adonai.” The challenge is not for God to accept us as we are, with our flaws and our unfulfilled aspirations, our vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies. The challenge is our own. God loves us already.

“Ha-Emet v’ha-Shalom Ahavu,” can we challenge ourselves to be more truthful and honest, yet also be more compassionate and forgiving?

You don’t have to be “Shomer Shabbat” or “Shomer Kashrut.” You don’t have to get there, and you don’t even have to worry about trying. But on this Rosh Hashanah, at the start of a new Jewish year, perhaps you can push yourself to be “Mechabed Shabbat” and/or “Mechabed Kashrut.” Bring Judaism into your everyday life, and find a place to stand between Dan and Issachar. The word, “Ahavah,” comes from the Aramaic “y’hav,” which literally means “to give.” Love is a gift that we share, that we offer. And just as God gave us the gift of Creation, and loves us with “Ahavah Rabbah,” great love and acceptance of who we are, AND just as Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev could see the good and the intention of the man working on his cart while wearing tefillin, we can get there too. We can find a place between the “Emet,” the truth of Dan, and the “Shalom,” the peace of Issachar, and we can fill that space with love, with a gift that we give ourselves, the gift of “Ahavah.”

Shanah Tovah!

High Holidays 5776 - Sermon 1 of 4 (First Day of Rosh Hashanah)

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

Once again, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below was my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year, the first in a series of four on a single theme. I hope you like it; feedback is always welcome and appreciated. More will be coming very soon:

Twelve years ago, I moved to England. I had graduated college and been accepted to Rabbinical School, but rather than remain in New York, on the Upper West Side and at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I took time off to live in London. I spent a full year traveling to British, Welsh, and Scottish college campuses, speaking about Judaism and the Conservative/Masorti Movement, and I lived in a small apartment, a flat, in the northern suburbs of the British capital. That year I also belonged to one of the most well-known British Conservative congregations, New North London Synagogue, with its incredible rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg. And before I moved away, in 2004, the community had just begun to discuss a project to construct a new building, centered around a new sanctuary.

I began my Rosh Hashanah sermon here today with this brief nostalgic recap, in order to share with you that back in June, just a few months ago, I returned to London for a visit. Finally, I was able to see, for the very first time, their new, beautiful building, which took them nearly a decade to complete. And it was in that building, in their incredible sanctuary, three months ago, during a Friday night service, that I had an epiphany, truly, and right then I knew what I would be speaking about here, today, to introduce my High Holiday theme for the year 5776.

Close your eyes for just a minute (indulge me…). Picture walking into a very large, cavernous, white room. Hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room, above your head, is an immense piece of wood, as if sliced out of a tree and hovering in the air above the main table. Attached to the wooden piece is the synagogue’s ner tamid, eternal light. At the front of this sanctuary are two enormous doors, nearly 20 ft. in height, covered in stained glass, behind which is, of course, their ark. If your eyes are still closed, I want to direct your mind’s attention to the right, left, and above this oversized ark. On all three sides are Biblical quotes. And it was to these quotes that my attention was drawn, and it was from these that I educed my epiphany.

Three quotes from the Torah, each written three times, and together forming the basis of the mission of the New North London Synagogue: “v’Ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha,” “v’Ahavta l’Rei’acha Kamocha,” and “v’Ahavtem et Ha-Ger” - “You shall love Adonai, your God,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and “You shall love the stranger.” Ahavah; NOT just the name of a famous brand of Dead Sea skin products - it is, in fact, the Hebrew word for “love.” These three quotes, on the sanctuary walls of a synagogue in London, will each form the foundation of a High Holiday sermon here in Wallingford, with a fourth Biblical quote from a different prophetic source, rounding out my four main speaking opportunities. Our theme for this year’s High Holidays is “Ahavah,” “Love.”

All at once, love seems like something so simple, so cliche, and so overdone; yet also incredibly complex, deeply meaningful, AND unique to each and every one of us. It is also a subject we do not talk about nearly enough. Yet, love is at the core of our religion, and arguably ALL religion. Jonathan Wittenberg, that same London-based rabbi, writes quite a bit about love. In 2009, in an article in the British newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, Rabbi Wittenberg wrote: “The call to God is love, the foundation of all the commandments.” With that in mind, let us launch into our theme, and our first quote on love. The ancient rabbis latched onto my first quote about love, and used it to illustrate - like Rabbi Wittenberg - that love was, and is, at the very core of everything the Torah is trying to teach us.

The Talmud, written and compiled over 1,500 years ago, relates a story that might be familiar to some of you. I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version: A heathen, living 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, decided to play a trick on the two most famous Jewish leaders of his time. He went to the great sage Shammai and announced that he’d convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai was no fool; he recognized a prank when he saw one, and so he chased the heathen away. Our huxter loved how well the gag was working, and how infuriated he made the great Shammai. He then proceeded to the house of Hillel, an even greater sage still. The same proposal was put forth: “Teach me the entire Torah while standing on one leg and I’ll become a Jew.” To his, and our, great surprise, Hillel responded, “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor - that is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.” Hillel took a very famous line from the Bible (our quote for today) - “v’Ahavta l’Rei’acha Kamocha - Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” - and he rephrased it in the negative. Rather than commanding the heathen to love another, Hillel set the bar a little lower, saying essentially, “just don’t do bad things to others, and that too represents the essence of the entire Torah.” Think about this for a second: The WHOLE thing?!?! We’re talking about Five Books of Moses; 613 different commandments; one of the foundational texts of all world literature - and Hillel sums it up in a single line?!? It is hard to wrap your mind around. Nevertheless, that is indeed what he is saying.

If you are familiar with this story, you may, however, NOT be aware that Hillel’s quote actually continues. He DOES say that this commandment, often called The Golden Rule, is the entire Torah and the rest is commentary, but then he adds, “now go and learn it.” This IS the essence of the Torah. Hillel DOES believe that the rest IS commentary. BUT you must go and study it to fully grasp what is really is all about. Like the word “love” itself, this Golden Rule seems so simple and straight-forward, yet it must be studied - again and again - before it can truly become internalized and assimilated into the very core and fiber of our being.

What about you and me? Do we really live it? Many of us can quote the Golden Rule, and we know that it is called “The Golden Rule,” but we struggle to put it FULLY into practice. We love our neighbors. You may even have thought that the Golden Rule WAS, simply, “Love thy neighbor.” It isn’t. We care, somewhat, about the people around us. But the hard part of this verse, from the Book of Leviticus, 19:18, is NOT the love part; the really tough part is just one word in Hebrew, two in English: “Kamocha - as yourself.”

Think about how much MORE upset you are when you yourself suffer an illness, or your children or parents are afflicted, or your best friend is in an accident, than if any of these things happen to strangers around us. Or worse still, in some foreign country halfway around the globe. “Sure,” we say, “but that’s just human nature. We take care of our own.” And that is true. However, our Torah, the foundation of our Jewish heritage, is in so many ways ALL about rising above human nature. Not letting that be a good enough excuse for our behavior. Yes, that is our initial inclination, to care about ourselves, our families, and our friends more than we care about others; but we must push ourselves to do better. The Golden Rule is urging us, even demanding of us, that we apply it to EVERYONE, not just the ones for whom it is already self-evident that we should care and be concerned. “As Yourself.” Can we love another THAT much? Can we allow ourselves to hear and internalize the commandment to open our hearts and homes THAT wide?

Can we raise money for cancer when we, ourselves, are not survivors, and when we don’t have immediate family or friends affected? Can we become leading voices against gun violence, with no personal loss to draw from? Can we allow ourselves to be touched by the plight of international refugees, even when our daily lives are unaffected by their struggles or their suffering? Can we care ANYWAY, just because? THAT is the challenge of Hillel’s teaching.

Now, I get it. It’s NOT easy. That’s my whole point, really, isn’t it? That love is more complicated than we sometimes give it credit, and Leviticus’ self-evident Golden Rule is in actuality a lot harder to live by than we think. But here’s the key: Relationships. If you seek to know “the other,” then loving him or her as much as we love those closest to us becomes a whole lot easier. You and I, we CAN manufacture a vested interest. If we’re willing to push ourselves to get there, we can create the relationships that will make us care deeper, and bring a little more “As Yourself” into loving our neighbors. This is basically the guiding principle behind Ohev’s new community initiative, called FUSE. FUSE is a partnership among congregations and community groups from Chester, Media, Swarthmore, and Wallingford, to engage with THIS very issue. In our community, we are often siloed; we share a physical space, but we do not really know one another, and we do not feel responsible for our community as a whole, let alone one another.

FUSE aims to ask what “Kamocha - as yourself” could really mean. Can we expand the boundaries of our communities and our hearts to include people from all walks of life, from various faith traditions, different races and sexual orientation, and disparate economic status? And can we make THEIR fate feel like our own? Not just feel like it, not in an inauthentic way, but actually “fuse” together our shared destiny to make it vital and life-sustaining that we help one another?

FUSE is just getting off the ground. You may never have heard of it until five minutes ago. But our work has begun. Next month, on Monday, October 12th, Columbus Day, we are holding a large communal gathering to which you are all invited. It’s a full-day conversation, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., which will include brainstorming and action-planning for us to look at our SHARED community and think about how we can use the resources we already have to start working together to affect change. But the agenda, and the goals, and the action steps are only part of the purpose of FUSE. A major component is the getting together itself - just being in a room together! - the creation of joint space to share stories, meet face-to-face, and just get to know one another a little bit better, and in ways we otherwise never would, and never do. In short, FUSE is about the verse from Leviticus, “v’Ahavta l’Rei’acha Kamocha - Love your neighbor as yourself.” One of the taglines we’ve even been using is “Strangers becoming Neighbors.” Because that is what we need to be doing. We need to break down those barriers.

Together with other clergy members and community leaders in Delaware County, this is MY effort to embody Hillel’s addition to the famous quote. It’s not just “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself,” but also Hillel’s instruction: “Now go and learn it,” go make this dream a reality. We learn to live the Golden Rule with our actions and our behaviors; by interacting differently with the world. And I am sincerely hoping that FUSE can be just that, a fuse or spark that ignites change in all of us, everyone here.

Think about your own life. Each of us has causes we care about. We give money, time, and effort, we post things on Facebook and retweet them on Twitter. But ask yourself if all your causes and campaigns and contributions are meaningful to you because of an existing connection; to yourself, your history, your family and friends, or your community. For many of us, that is indeed the case. And that’s not a bad thing. I’m not judging those choices. That is, after all, human nature. But ask yourself if there is another level to which you can push yourself, a way to embody the full version of the Golden Rule, “v’Ahavta l’Rei’acha KAMOCHA,” “Love Your Neighbor AS YOURSELF.” Let us all resolve to work on expanding our fences, adding new relationships to our lives, and opening up our hearts to greater love for the people around us.

As we have adorned the walls of our sanctuary with beautiful art that reminds us of our history and what it means to be Jewish, so the New North London Synagogue has inscribed on their walls the values they wish to represent within and without their community. Let us also write these powerful words down, but etch them into our hearts and souls. Rabbi Wittenberg, and the ancient sage, Hillel, remind us: it is the foundation of our Torah; the essence of our people. Let us each emblazon these words in our lives in the new year that is about to begin. “v’Ahavta l’Rei’acha Kamocha”; now go and learn it.

Shanah Tovah!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Nitzavim: A Safe Place to Remember

Memory is a funny thing. Earlier this month, I was in Israel with a group of congregants from Ohev Shalom. All at once, my memories of
that experience feel as if they are already distant, ancient recollections of another universe, and yet they also seem as if they happened yesterday. Today, as I write this, we are commemorating 9/11, which somehow, inexplicably took place FOURTEEN years ago. I recall that day, living in New York City, as something that also happened 100 years ago, but is also strangely fresh in my mind. This week's Torah portion, Nitzavim, as well as the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah each have interesting perspectives on human and Divine experiences of memory.

Our parashah begins by stating that "you stand this day, all of you, before Adonai, your God" (Deut. 29:9). And in just the first seven verses, the Torah uses the term "Ha-yom," meaning "today" or "this
day" five times. But this isn't a diary entry, is it? We aren't given a date or time, so we don't know exactly when "this day" took place. The Torah, in fact, doesn't seem to care about a particular moment in time, despite all it's references to "Ha-yom," because it goes on to say that "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" (29:13-14). So it applies to EVERYONE, whether you lived 4,000 years ago, today, or 4,000 years into the future. Time is fluid, just as memory, for us, often seems fluid and malleable as well.

One of the main sections of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the repetition of the Musaf Amidah, towards the end of the lengthy morning service. And right in the middle of this repetition are three special parts called the Malchuyot, Shofarot, and Zichronot. The last one, Zichronot, means "remembrances," and talks about the importance of personal and communal memory. 
But it acknowledges also that humans aren't very good at this whole memory-thing. God is described as "Zocheir Ha-Brit," "the One Who remembers the covenant" (i.e. unlike us mere mortals, who get a little forgetful from time to time...). And our prayers also state that God "Zocheir Kol Ha-Nishkachot," "remembers all that which has been forgotten." Again, we're good at the forgetting part; God does the remembering. We can view this in a negative way - our memory is, and our memories are, flawed. But a dean of mine from rabbinical school, Rabbi Mychal Springer, wrote a commentary this week that read it a different way: "We are safe in God's memory." We do our best. We try to recall - we share stories, listen to others, and write history books - but acknowledge that memory often plays tricks on us. But we are also safe, knowing that God DOES remember, and none of us are forgotten or left out of the Divine covenant. 

I find this comforting. As my recollections of 9/11 do indeed begin to fade away, I feel good knowing it IS still recorded somewhere. And perhaps our individual memories are sometimes stronger or weaker, more vivid or foggy, but collectively we have incredible powers of 
remembrance. Part of why we come together for the High Holidays, and why our prayers at that time include Zichronot, Yizkor, and Eileh Ezkerah (all prayers related to memory and memorials), is to strengthen those communal ties THROUGH memory. "Remember what happened last Yom Kippur?" "Remember how grandma used to pray with such fervor on the holidays?" "Remember dad's old special Rosh Hashanah recipe?" Memory is activated around the festivals. We'll never quite be able to achieve God's level of recollection, but we don't have to. Let God worry about all the things we have forgotten; we are safe in God's memory. But now that the holidays are upon us, let us be strengthened in our communal bonds and shared family experiences through the incredible power of memory. This can be a very meaningful and spiritual time to really feel how you fit into the chain of Jewish history, going back thousands of years and (please God) continuing for many millenia yet to come. Each of us is so essential and unique in that chain. Never forget that!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Ekabhishek on Wikimedia Commons

2. CC image courtesy of USMC Archives on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of BeefJeaunt on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of CSIRO on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, September 4, 2015

Ki Tavo: Remembering Our Humble Beginnings

Sometimes we need to be reminded of our history. It may not always feel like it, but it's good to remember where you came from; what you 
were like as a child, as a teenager, in college, as a young parent, etc., etc. We work pretty hard in life to grow, evolve, mature, and move away from the antics of our youth, but that doesn't mean we should forget the past. In fact, the only way to really move forward is to bring the past with you; to learn from it and allow it to inform future decisions. Nevertheless, sometimes it seems easier to leave the past behind. It can even feel embarrassing to be reminded of ourselves as children, now that we're trying to be "real" adults. Three things are bringing this issue to the forefront of my mind. The first is a declaration at the start of our Torah portion this week... and the second is that my sister is coming to visit!

I don't write about family here too often. I've talked about my daughter from time to time, but otherwise mainly just quoted a family member here or there. Both of my siblings - my older brother, Benjamin, and my younger sister, Nomi - live in Sweden, so it's really a rare treat when I get to see them. In fact, this will 
be Nomi's first visit to Wallingford! On this exciting occasion of her visit, I know that I will feel torn between who I was and who I am; the man who's been a rabbi for six years and the child inside who used to run around in our local park and play pretend. Family members knew us when. They have inside information that both creates intimacy and makes us feel vulnerable. But it is really SO vital for us to remain in touch with that side of ourselves. It allows us to feel human and humble, which we honestly so desperately need. Believe it or not, that sense of humility connects us back to parashat Ki Tavo, towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy.

Moses is speaking to the Israelites as they are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. He urges them not to forget their modest beginnings when they eventually enter the land and become a powerful nation. "When you enter the land that Adonai, your God, is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it... you shall then recite as follows before Adonai, your God: 'My father was a fugitive Aramean. 
He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.'" (Deut. 26:1, 5) Don't forget how you started out! It will make you arrogant, conceited, and - most importantly - indifferent to the plight of others. And it applies to you and me today as well: If you become a big and powerful CEO of a company, be kind to the little guy at the bottom, for you were once him. If your family has been settled and comfortable in a place for four generations, don't turn your back on the immigrants and refugees, just because you no longer remember what that was like. Their story is yours, and you are forbidden from forgetting that!

Earlier in this blog post I said that THREE things are making me think about the past - and specifically how it informs the present and future - but I only articulated two. The third is the month of Elul, which is rapidly turning over into the High Holiday 
season itself. This Saturday night we hold the Selichot service, which REALLY makes it clear that Rosh Hashanah is here! And Elul is a month of reflection and introspection. Though we actually cannot go through this process entirely alone. Family can help us remember things from yesteryear, which are essential pieces of the puzzle that help us feel whole. On the High Holidays we have services called Zichronot (remembrances), Eileh Ezkerah (These I remember), and Yizkor (Remember). Clearly, our history is essential for helping us repent and change! We need to connect to our origins in order to grow. Whether through family, the Torah, or the holiday season, I hope that you will think about how to connect the past to your own present AND future, and explore ways to keep them all connected in your own life. 

Photos in this blog post:
1. My siblings and me when our family lived in Jerusalem for a year. I'm the one in the funky green sweater on the right!
2. A family picture from summer camp. I'm in the center of the photo, in the white T-shirt. 
3. CC image of Moses speaking to the Children of Israel courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
4. Sitting on a swing with my dad. Ah, memories...