Friday, October 28, 2016

Bereisheet: Are We Asking Good Questions?

I am always amazed that in this day and age, in 2016, some people STILL insist on pitting science and religion against one another. A professor of mine, Neil Gillman, offered - what I consider - the best rebuke of this ludicrous debate.
The two are simply NOT in conflict, said Rabbi Gillman, because they are trying to answer different questions. Science wonders "How" the world was created. It then follows this up with questions like "When did it all happen?" and "What is everything made of?" Religion, on the other hand, asks entirely different queries, like "Why are we here?" and "What does it mean to live a good life?" And, quite frankly, one discipline isn't at all interested in the questions posed by the other. They are not at war with one another. This week, as we restart the reading of the Torah, back at the story of Creation, one single word shows us that we are dealing with a religious document and very much NOT a scientific one.

I suppose you COULD argue, as some do, that both science and religion examine the creation of everything... but almost immediately, they part ways. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, just four verses in, the Torah states: "God saw that the light was good." Good? How
unscientific to look at one's work and declare it "Good," or even "Bad," for that matter! It's unscientific, and it's irrelevant. But not to the Torah. From the very Beginning, we are invited to consider the qualitative, substantive, and moral aspects of our world. Are things good? Are we doing everything we can to MAKE them good, to enable them to help and not harm other people, animals, things, and even the planet itself? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Torah employs this (highly subjective and unprofessional) value judgment SEVEN times in its first chapter. The number seven mirrors, of course, the days of the week, and is considered in Judaism to be a number of wholeness and holiness. How very symbolic.

Our narrator applies the label "Good" to light on Day One; then nothing on Day Two (interesting in and of itself...); the separation of the Earth from the Sea AND later the creation of vegetation and fruit on Day Three ("good" is used twice); the sun, moon, and stars on Day Four;
sea creatures, creeping things (really?), and birds on Day Five; wild beasts and cattle on Day Six; and then, finally, as Day Six comes to a close, God looks back at all of God's creations and declares them "Tov Me'od," "VERY good" (1:31). Again, science would have no opinion on the question of whether things are "good" or not. But it is an essential, and central, concern for our Torah, for two important reasons.

First, it helps us see and feel that God cares about us and our world. God is invested in our success, and desperately wants this enterprise to succeed! Perhaps more importantly, however, we are meant to read the text as saying that all these things have THE POTENTIAL to be good. Especially in verse 31, we understand that anything and everything CAN BE "very good," but it won't happen all by itself. Are we helping
our world be "very good"? Are we, as human beings, living up to our potential to be "very good" for one another and for our planet? Sadly, the answer to a lot of these questions is "no." But our response cannot, and should not, be to therefore shut off, tune out, and become callous to the problems of the day. We don't have the luxury of looking at our planet through a microscope, or objectively analyzing the studies about species becoming extinct, temperatures rising, or pipelines destroying habitats. We live here too! And though science and religion diverge on origin stories, ultimately they do - and we should - converge back at realizing our planet needs help. We all need to be asking how we can do more, and reverse some troubling and alarming trends. We should stop pitting ourselves against one another, and instead get back to thinking about how to do good and BE good. Above all, we need to work on these issues together, or we might see the Creation story start working itself back in reverse. And that wouldn't be "very good" at all...

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Ydun on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Wakalani on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dolovis on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 21, 2016

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: An Exercise in Futility

Being misunderstood is very frustrating. Especially when it happens over and over again. You try and explain yourself, but it seems that no one gets what you're trying to say. Multiple people - multiple times -
keep getting the wrong impression, the wrong messages, and the wrong takeaways. It is truly maddening!! And yet, there is also an opportunity for self-reflection. If LOTS of people are indeed missing the point, and "simple" explanations aren't helping... maybe there's something wrong with the message? Maybe it isn't them; maybe it's me? This weekend, as we continue to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, we will also be chanting from the ancient Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet. And people KEEP misunderstanding what Kohelet is all about!! Why don't they get it??? Well, maybe it isn't the readers who are to blame...

Ecclesiastes is often described as a depressing book. It is cynical, jaded, and pessimistic. Perhaps that perception comes from sentiments like the one expressed in verse two of the entire book: "Utter futility! - said Kohelet - Utter futility!
All is futile!!" The author then goes on to elaborate on all the many pursuits he has engaged in throughout life, and again concludes: "All is futile!" So, not a very chipper fellow. But scholars and rabbis generally reject that categorization of Kohelet. I frequently read commentaries that state (something like): "... people often view Kohelet as pessimistic and downbeat. Nothing is further from the truth!" I struggle with this dichotomy. On the one hand, I too appreciate Kohelet (and I'll tell you why in a second); but on the other hand, if SO many people are misunderstanding the book, perhaps the problem lies with the text, not its readers?

On its surface, Ecclesiastes DOES come across as a downer. Let's just acknowledge that reality. What he is TRYING to convey, however, is more complex. He decries extremes - whether riches or poverty, self-aggrandizement or excessive humility, too much sadness or too much revelry. Kohelet likes the middle road. Moderation, self-discipline,
balance. What especially resonates with me is that the narrative isn't linear. It doesn't begin with tough questions and end with satisfying answers. It begins with an exclamation, and only LATER goes into his "research" about the meaning of life. And his conclusions, his main points, come at the end of chapters 2, 3, 5, and late in chapter 8 (among others). Each time, he then returns to his frustrations ("futility!!") and further searches for meaning and purpose. What I love about that is that it reflects REAL life. Our own "Aha!" moments of insight don't come in straight trajectories, or at predictable stages in life. Sometimes random, seemingly mundane situations produce the most important lessons of our entire lives. The same is true for Ecclesiastes.

I think Kohelet gets misunderstood because he gets written off. We look instead for upbeat messages and quick soundbites that don't require a lot of in-depth analysis. We like our information in 140 characters or (preferably) less. And while I think that's truly a shame, I also don't entirely fault the readers.
On Yom Kippur we talk about God meeting us halfway, eagerly "running" to accept our repentance and apologies. Shouldn't Ecclesiastes be doing the same? Appealing to US, rather than waiting for the reader to commit 100% before revealing important truths? In the spirit of moderation, perhaps it needs to be both. We need to focus our attention for longer than 30 seconds, but we do also have the right to expect Judaism and our age-old texts to make SOME effort to speak to us too. Instead of continuing to misunderstand one another, let's be open to truths and maxims both ancient and current. If we take just that little extra time, we may learn some wonderful things that help us navigate our world in healthier, more harmonious ways. And there's nothing futile about that at all.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ysangkok on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Nikodem Nijaki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 14, 2016

Ha'azinu: No More Talk; Just Listen

I'm not one to criticize Moses. Especially right after Yom Kippur, that does not seem wise. And he's a pretty good guy, right? Not perfect, sure, but who is? And yet, I really feel strongly that the Torah wants us to learn something from observing Moses.
Sometimes, we are meant to see his humility, his kindness, his passion for justice and the liberation of his people... and sometimes I think we are encouraged to disagree with him. Right now, as our national (and perhaps global) conversation is laser-focused on what makes a good leader, I feel we MUST look to the Torah for guidance. How do we want our leaders to act? What characteristics and qualities are most important to us? Watching Moses do his thing can be a very eye-opening experience...

This Saturday, we are reading the final weekly Torah portion of the annual cycle, Ha'azinu. On Simchat Torah (this year, starting
Monday evening, 10/24), we will read the final parashah, v'Zot ha-B'rachah, and then immediately start all over again at the beginning of Genesis. As the Torah draws to a close this week, Moses delivers one, final, LONG (43-verse) soliloquy, expressing his concerns that the Israelites will forsake God once they enter the land, and imploring them to remain faithful to Adonai. I have a hard time hearing this speech, and not because of the scathing language that Moses uses. The first word of our parashah, and the first word of his speech, "Ha'azinu," is where my gripe begins.

Moses has basically been battling the Children of Israel for 40 years. So has God, for that matter. The people complain. They rebel. They undermine the authority of BOTH Moses AND God. Why? In short: They don't want to be there.
It is true, they asked God to save them from oppression... but they never actually asked to leave Egypt. And they certainly never signed up for 613 commandments, a lengthy Torah, and exclusive worship of just ONE God. When I read the early part of the Book of Exodus, I see tremendous dissonance between leadership and its followers, between management and the workers on the assembly line. They aren't communicating well at all. Expectations from Above aren't clarified and outlined ahead of time; while needs, concerns, and rights are not expressed from below. They are talking AT one another... and certainly no one is listening.

Back then to our Torah portion. The first word, Ha'azinu, literally means "listen"! Is anyone? The ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, famously observed: "We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." Moses pontificates and threatens, but sure enough, the Israelites enter the land and begin to sin again! He demands that others listen, but he should lead by example.
On Thursday evening, I participated in an interfaith, community conversation on racism, organized by FUSE. It was amazing! 75 people came from across the county, and they sat together and "just" talked. Our conversations may not change the world, but we are doing something that is (sadly) so rare in our country these days; we are listening to one another. It sounds so simple, but Moses struggled with it, and many world leaders today are STILL mystified by it. It is SO crucial. I wonder how the Exodus story might have been different, if two-way communication - and listening! - had been more central. And I especially wonder how our lives today could, and might, look different if we spent more time listening to one another. It is hard to do, and it is hard to be self-aware enough to know when we're NOT doing it well. And yet... Ha'azinu; let us all take to heart the message of this one word, and let us truly hear it.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
2. Image of egalitarian, inclusive Simchat Torah flag courtesy of Masorti Olami (flags available for purchase)
3. CC image courtesy of Geo Swan on Wikimedia Commons
4. FUSE logo courtesy of FUSE Delco (and brilliantly designed by Amy Pollack)

Yom Kippur 5777: Morning Sermon

Here is my fourth, and final, High Holiday sermon on the topic of "Kavod," honor and respect. Please continue to share feedback, whether here on the blog or with me directly (via e-mail, phone, or in person); it is all greatly appreciated. I wish you all a Shanah Tovah - Happy and Healthy New Year!

Yom Kippur Morning 5777, D’var Torah
Shanah Tovah!
Did you see what the rabbis did just there? It was subtle, sure, but it’s so significant that we really cannot let it go unacknowledged. You see, our ancestors were VERY sneaky. They wanted to get their message across, but they didn’t always want to just knock you over the head with it, they wanted to be savvier than that, a little more cunning. Here’s what I’m talking about. Our Torah reading this morning came from the Book of Leviticus. It outlined the rituals of Yom Kippur in the Ancient Temple, so of course it was used as the subject of our Yom Kippur morning Torah reading. Lev. 16:31: “It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial.” That, by the way, is the verse you can thank for why you are starving right about now; thanks a lot for the fasting, Leviticus! The text goes on to elaborate on the very detailed and intricate rituals of the High Priest, and concludes with this thundering line: “It shall be to you a law for ALL TIME; to make penitence for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.” (34) It is unequivocal, folks. These are the statutes of Yom Kippur for ALL TIME! We MUST follow them to the letter of the law.
And then, the very next thing the rabbis have us read, after we learned all those Yom Kippur rules, comes from the Prophet Isaiah, chapters 57 & 58. Isaiah scolds us: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like reeds bending in the wind, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable? No! This is the fast I desire; to unlock the shackles of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off EVERY yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh and blood.”
Let me be really, really clear about this: Isaiah’s message is the exact OPPOSITE of the one we read RIGHT BEFORE in Leviticus. As we sit here, hungry from fasting, feeling sacred and holy for all our praying, the rabbis hold up a mirror to our faces and say, “Do you really think that is what God wants? IF there are people out there hungry, sick, oppressed, crying; do you think there are enough Avinu Malkeinu’s or Kol Nidrei’s or chest-beating Ashamnu’s to make that ok? No. Not a chance.”
This is probably a good moment for me to share with you my agenda here today. Although I can also be a little sneaky… In 1902, an American writer, Finley Peter Dunne coined a term describing the role of newspapers in our country, but I have heard many people use it to describe perfectly the work of the ancient prophets: “They comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” When things were bad, the prophets foretold salvation and redemption… but when people grew apathetic, lazy, and complacent, the prophets railed against them to do better,
to BE better. Many rabbis throughout the last two millennia saw themselves as the keepers of the prophetic legacy, and I think that is what you see going on in our Machzor. On the holiest day of the year, with the most people present, when we might be feeling safe and secure… and comfortable, the rabbis hold up a mirror to OUR faces, and remind us we are not doing enough. The world, and indeed our very own community around us, needs us to do more. Like our ancient prophets, and our medieval rabbis, I too want to employ that same mirror. So… are you feeling afflicted yet?
This is my fourth and final sermon on the topic of Kavod, meaning honor and respect. We’ve spoken about honoring the self, honoring our congregation, and honoring our different relationships with Israel. I would like to conclude the series by talking about “Kevod Ha-briyot,” honoring all people, which we might also describe as “Honoring The Other.” We’ve also thus far spoken about three of our patriarch, Jacob’s four wives. All these panels you see on the walls around us were descendants of Jacob, also known as Israel, but they each had a mother as well. Leah and Rachel we know quite well, but Zilpah, mother of Asher and Gad, is less known, as is Bilhah, mother of Dan and Naphtali, and the final matriarch about whom I’d like to speak.
Bilhah, in my mind, represents The Other. We know nothing about her.
Her story does not feel like ours, because none of us are descended from the tribes of Naphtali or Dan. They were two of the Ten Lost Tribes, part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE (so over 2,700 YEARS ago), and whose stories separated from ours at that moment. They are not us. We know next to nothing about their descendants, so we don’t have to care about what happened to them. Right? Well, there is an interesting little asterisk at the end of that narrative. The Jewish community of Ethiopia, known as the Beta Yisrael, traces its origins back to – indeed – the Tribe of Dan. They cite testimony from a man who appeared in Egypt in the 9th Century CE, named Eldad ha-Dani, who said he came from Ethiopia, and that the people of his kingdom were descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. Today, many Ethiopian Jews live in Israel – over 120,000, in fact – where they keep the traditions of the Beta Yisrael, and their story has once again fused back to ours. A lost tribe has come home.
But these stories are never simple. The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel today faces a lot of racism and discrimination. In May of 2015, Israeli Ethiopians demonstrated in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a video was released of an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent being beaten up by Israeli police officers. Sound familiar at all? Black lives have a difficult time mattering there as well. Their story IS ours. That is Isaiah’s message. “Unlock the shackles of wickedness… do NOT ignore your own flesh and blood!”
There is an organization called Jews of all Hues, which reminds us that we are not all white, and that there IS a problem of racism within the Jewish community and in Israel. Furthermore, OUR community isn’t just the Jewish community, but Delaware County and our neighbors RIGHT HERE as well. I know you’ve heard me talk about our community project FUSE before, and I need to speak about it again, and I will do so in the future as well. It is part of my prophetic mission. I know that sounds like a crazy thing to say! But EVERY time I talk about FUSE, every time I do any work with FUSE, I feel energized, uplifted, and excited. I can’t help it. It feels like the work I NEED to be doing; it feels like my prophetic call. What can I say?
FUSE stands for the Fellowship of Urban Suburban Engagement, and it is our way of saying THIS is our community. We are one. We need to speak with one another, form relationships with people in Chester, Media, Swarthmore, Marcus Hook, Wallingford, and across our county, and we NEED to learn and take to heart that our fates are intertwined. Our country cannot heal until we all work to heal one another. I am so honored and grateful that my partner in this work, Mr. Cory Long, is here with us today. Cory runs a mentoring program in Chester called Team MAC, Team “Making a Change.” Cory was born and raised in Chester; he is OF Chester, as he likes to say. He is a role model and a leader in the community… and Cory is my friend.
We debated back and forth about having him actually come up and share his story with you, because I don’t want to speak FOR him, but we decided – together – against it. For today… Nevertheless, it means SO much to me that you are here today, Cory. I want to say publicly how privileged I feel to work with you, how much Rebecca and I have enjoyed spending time with you and Ronette, and how much you have taught me in a short time. Thank you.
Cory and I, and many other community leaders, are working together for the honor, the Kavod, of our shared home. Bonnie Breit, Shari Baron, Joel Fein, and others within Ohev are joining this work as well, and if you don’t know much about FUSE yet, and want to, please let me know. We are holding a very important community conversation on Racism TOMORROW night, in fact, at Wallingford Presbyterian Church, and on November 20th, Ohev is hosting a big FUSE interfaith Thanksgiving concert, called 4Ever Grateful, which I hope you can all attend. Our congregation is filled with Leah’s and Rachel’s, people whose lives we know, and whose stories feel like our own. But we also need to make room for the Zilpah’s and the Bilhah’s, who may seem strange and foreign, but who are a part of US nonetheless. Can their honor become as dear to us as our own?
Unintentionally, I seem to have been carrying yet another theme with me throughout the High Holidays this year. I really hadn’t meant to, but I’ve been quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in nearly every sermon.
Half a century ago, many people saw him as embodying that same prophetic voice, and he actually had a good friend whom HE saw as being a modern-day prophet as well. In March of 1968, Heschel was introducing his friend, as he got up to speak in front of a group of rabbis. Heschel said: “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were indeed good friends. They famously marched together in Selma, and just a few weeks after Heschel introduced King to those rabbis, he heart-breakingly found himself reading a psalm at Dr. King’s funeral. Three days after that funeral service, had he not been assassinated, Dr. King would have been celebrating Passover at the home of Heschel and his family.
Both Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel embodied the prophetic voice of old. They certainly afflicted the comfortable; they knew how to challenge the status quo and FORCE people to think about the need for change… But they also comforted the afflicted. One of the things I especially find SO powerful about each of them is how they REFUSED to lose hope. Ever. The point of my challenging you all today is not to cause guilt or shame. That doesn’t work on anyone. You know that I know that. But we also can’t be apathetic. We can’t become desensitized, and we can’t stop fighting for change. I KNOW how it sounds when I tell you this feels like my prophetic call.
I hear myself say it and I’m surprised… and a little embarrassed. Who am I to claim such a thing?? In Hebrew or Yiddish, we might say it takes an awful lot of Chutzpah to compare myself to the prophets, or to people like Heschel and King. In English, we might say it is filled with audacity and hubris.
But chutzpah, audacity, is actually a powerful part of Yom Kippur as well. We dress in white, because we imagine the angels too wear, or are by their very nature, white. We fast, in part because angels don’t need food. And there are lines in our liturgy, our prayers, that every other day of the year we say only silently, because only angels spoke them out loud. But on Yom Kippur, we shout them aloud, so that perhaps God will believe we are free of sin and pure like the heavenly angels. What chutzpah?!?! Could we EVER successfully FOOL God??? What tremendous and ridiculous audacity!! Yet, here we are. And here I am, Hineini, telling you we need to hear this prophetic call, and we need to do better in the year ahead.
While we’re on the subject of chutzpah, of audacity, it also makes me think of President Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” in which he too echoes the same sentiments we’ve just heard from Isaiah, Dr. King, and Rabbi Heschel. Obama writes, “To think clearly about race, then, requires us to see the world on a split screen... to maintain in our sights the kind of America that we want, while looking squarely at America as it is,
to acknowledge the sins of the past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair.” This is my question for all of us here today, and for the year ahead: Can we, together, maintain that split-screen? Can we talk about systemic racism, gun violence, white privilege, white fragility, and the problems that plague our society, yet all the while refusing to become bitter, jaded, or so cynical that nothing changes or we stop caring? Can we come to the table and speak honestly, holding up mirrors to one another, and challenging each other to be our best selves, to form new relationships and bonds across our various divides, to heal our country and our world together?
This entire past year, along with focusing on the work that Cory and I have been doing with FUSE, I’ve also been struggling with something that Martin Luther King said. Or rather, I’ve been stuck in a split-screen. One part of the screen focuses on Dr. King’s famous line, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He reminded us to be patient, because the universe IS good, maybe it’s just Good Enough, and slowly but surely we’re getting there. Things ARE getting better. But the other part of my split-screen is a retort, a provocative response from the writer, Ta-nehisi Coates, who recently stated in his book “Between the World and Me”: “The arc of history bends towards chaos.” Things aren’t getting better, or when they do, they snap back in the other direction as well. Xenophobia, racism, bigotry, fear and all its mongers;
Coates is very concerned that the universe moves in the OPPOSITE direction to what Dr. King suggested. I can’t stop thinking about these two quotes, these two world-views, or perhaps universal-views. But we are not passive in this story. We are movers; we bend, and we need to decide which way we will curve; like reeds in the wind, or like angels, shouting out glory before God.
As I conclude this sermon, and with it my theme for these High Holidays, I again want to emphasize my message: I am NOT peddling guilt or shame, but I AM trying to push you, and maybe afflict you JUST a little. You know, Ohev Shalom is about to celebrate its centennial. One hundred years ago, our story began in Chester, much like Cory’s, and much like many of you, sitting here today. Like Cory, we are “OF Chester.” Our history is fused together; our future should be too. The panels on these walls should remind us that we as Jews are not just descended from Leah’s son, Judah, or Rachel’s sons, Joseph and Benjamin, but Zilpah’s children as well, and Bilhah’s too; our shared story takes many forms… and many different hues.
We need to remember this at all times, and place before ourselves the prophetic call of “Kevod Ha-Briyot,” honoring ALL people. We need to share our bread, our clothing, and even our homes with one another, and never allow ourselves to believe that nothing will change. We can make change happen, if we do it fused together.
But we have to keep our eyes on the split-screen, aware of the problems that afflict us and comforted knowing we WILL get to a better place. There IS a lot of chaos swirling around us, and making things seem bleak and hopeless. But we need to hold on to our chutzpah, our audacity. We cannot allow ourselves to be crushed by the chaos. It may push us, it may even bend us. And we SHOULD bend. But when we do, let us bend towards honor and glory; let us bend towards Kavod.
Shanah Tovah!

Kol Nidrei 5777

Included below is my sermon from this year's Kol Nidrei sermon. I will also be posting my Yom Kippur morning sermon here on the blog. Please feel free to share reactions or thoughts in the comments' section. Thanks so much!

Kol Nidrei 5777, D’var Torah
Shanah Tovah!
I don’t talk about Israel from the bimah. It’s not that I’ve never done it, and it CERTAINLY isn’t because I have nothing to say on the subject, or that I have no opinions on the matter, but in general, when I am thinking clearly and making good decisions, I DON’T talk about Israel from the bimah. Tonight, I would like to talk to you about Israel.
Let me first tell you a little more about why I primarily avoid it, and I will do so by citing a few of my rabbinic colleagues to help me illustrate this point. On a wonderful website (that is really a terrific resource), Rabbi Pamela Jay Gottfried wrote an article entitled, “Why This Rabbi Does Not Talk About Israel.” In it, she writes, “Israel is a topic that gets people’s blood pumping and, when emotions run high, impulsivity tends to override thoughtful and rational conversation. We sometimes allow ourselves to say things we later regret.” (I’m sure no one here can imagine ANY topic making us feel this way…) I agree with Rabbi Gottfried, and I imagine that the moment I first said “Israel” in this sermon, a fair number of you in this room started to feel YOUR blood pumping, and you braced yourselves for what might come next. THAT is what this topic does to us.
Another rabbinic colleague, and actually a friend and a mentor of mine, Rebecca Sirbu, also wrote an article on that same website, hers entitled “Why Rabbis Should Talk About Israel.” Rabbi Sirbu acknowledges the many pitfalls and minefields which dot the landscape of Israel conversation, noting: “Even words will get you in trouble since they signal your political leanings. Do you call the land east of Jerusalem ‘The West Bank,’ ‘The Settlements,’ ‘Judah and Samaria?’ Are the Israeli settlers reclaiming their own land or occupiers stealing the land? Any single word could lead to trouble.” Even now, in this very moment, I am more nervous about this sermon than I have been about speaking in front of you in a long time. My goal is NOT to make political statements or declare allegiances, and I certainly don’t mean to offend ANYONE… and yet I know I am likely to betray my own biases and opinions, perhaps just a little, and someone will be upset. I pray that in the spirit of the holiday, and with a genuine sense of forgiveness and compassion, that you will all understand that I want to engage in dialogue. I am not telling you what is “right” and what is “wrong,” or trying to tell you what to believe. Let’s talk. Let’s opine. We will get through these stormy waters together.
Let me tell you what else terrifies me. First of all, that you will hear me saying something I don’t mean to say. But then, you might share my sermon with others, and THEY will misunderstand, infer, assume, and worst of all, judge.
I need to share with you, what I consider, a horror story, in this regard. And it revolves around yet another rabbinic colleague, and someone with whom I studied briefly at JTS in New York. Rabbi Neil Blumofe is the rabbi of Agudas Achim in Austin, TX. A few months ago, Rabbi Blumofe was planning to lead a trip to Israel with a group called Interfaith Action of Central Texas. Before the trip was set to take place, a TENTATIVE itinerary was sent around to members of the congregation. It included a pretty provocative, albeit brief, stop at the grave of PLO founder Yassir Arafat in Ramallah. Now, let me say this, I am NOT voicing an opinion here about the PLO, Arafat, or the idea of visiting his grave. I don’t know that I would go there myself, but that is NOT the point of this story. It was controversial, but it also wasn’t definitively on the agenda. They were considering going.
Soon after congregants saw this proposed plan, a long-time supporter of Rabbi Blumofe’s within the community immediately called for his resignation. No conversation WITH the rabbi, no attempts to understand the reasoning for going to Ramallah, no invitation to community dialogue, just “RESIGNATION.” In his letter to the rabbi, this congregant wrote: “… paying homage [to the PLO founder responsible for the deaths of many Jews is] beyond the pale … like paying your respects to Hitler’s tomb, if one existed. Somehow your priorities have become completely perverted… You have revealed yourself to be a man of poor judgment and little common sense. Sadly, your moral compass is completely broken. It’s time for you to resign.”
Obviously, I don’t agree with how this person handled the situation. It was rash and judgmental. But sadly, things only devolved further from there. His letter was shared outside the community and went viral online. It appeared on at least one right-wing Israeli blog, and was distributed by a group called “JCC Watch” that has labeled the JCC in Manhattan and the UJA-Federation “anti-Israel.” I read about this shocking story in The Jewish Week, a prominent newspaper for the New York Jewish community. Gary Rosenblatt, the newspaper’s Editor and Publisher, wrote a piece entitled “Anatomy of a Takedown.” In that article, he highlighted one particularly heinous open letter sent to Rabbi Blumofe, where someone wrote:
“your actions have opened up an entirely new page in the history of treachery… helping to promote modern blood liables [sic] against Israel and world Jewry… [you are] glorifying the founder of contemporary terrorism … as if he were one of the great humanitarians in history, mak[ing] you lower than any kapo during World War II.”
I honestly could not believe that last line: “lower than any kapo during World War II”?!? This was a potential stop on an interfaith trip to Israel, and again, I’m not endorsing the choice to visit Arafat’s grave. But I find it unfathomable that ANY action today could make anyone lower than the kapos,
the Jewish guards who carried out some of the worst of the Nazi atrocities inside the death camps of the Holocaust. It is hard to believe that someone could even say such a thing, no matter how enraged he was. When I tell you that I am afraid, as a rabbi, to speak from the pulpit about Israel; this is what I’m talking about!! And yet… we must.
In her article, Rabbi Sirbu wrote: “As Jews we are connected to Israel whether we like it or not. Our sacred texts, liturgy, and history all speak of Israel. Instead of trying to disassociate ourselves, we should strive to better understand each other’s complex relationship and feelings about Israel.” Yes! We ARE connected to Israel. We cannot get away from it, nor do we want to. I may not speak often about Israel from the bimah, but many of you know that I lived there TWICE, once when I was a child for a year, and then again in rabbinical school when Rebecca and I spent a year in Jerusalem together. I’ve visited over 15 times, and brought TWO fabulous groups of congregants from Ohev to the Holy Land, when I believe this congregation had previously only taken ONE official trip in the last forty years. And more trips are being planned as we speak! We go there, we sing about it, we pray about Eretz Yisrael, and we dance the hora together on Simchat Torah; so why can’t we TALK about it?!?
How do we open a conversation on a subject so divisive that it gets our blood pumping, and sometimes even boiling?
Can we HONOR one another’s positions, and honor one another’s struggles, and somehow see past all the noise and the vitriol, to see that we all love this place and we all TRY to find our own ways to relate to it? It’s often so much easier to call someone anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew – or a kapo – than to sit down, talk to them, learn their opinions, wrestle with one another, and accept the genuine differences we may indeed have.
Hopefully, you know by now that our theme for this year’s High Holidays is indeed “honor,” or “Kavod” in Hebrew. In some ways, my sermon tonight is about “Kevod Ha-Aretz,” respecting and honoring the Land of Israel. But that’s only part of the focus. Tonight is also about “Kevodcha,” a single word that means “Your honor.” Is there room for “Kevodcha or “Kevodech,” giving honor to one another, in our lives? Whether we’re dealing with hawks and doves on Israel policy, left-wing or right-wing, regarding Israel or our own American political powder keg;
it often seems that we do NOT have room for respecting The Other. As Rabbi Blumofe’s congregant stated, unequivocally, those who do not think, speak, or act the way we do, are simply “beyond the pale.” I don’t have any answers to this question. Arguably, with the Israel climate the way it currently is, and three weeks before our own crucial election, some might say this is THE question right now: Is there room for honoring and respecting The Other in our lives and in our world right now? Let me mention two people who offer us some insight.
They don’t solve our problems, but perhaps they can offer some clarity… and maybe that will be Good Enough.
First, I want to bring our matriarch, Rachel, into this conversation. As I explained on Rosh Hashanah, in addition to speaking about “Kavod” this year, I am also using Jacob’s four wives, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, as a metaphor to illustrate various aspects of Kavod. Tonight, let’s focus on Rachel. Like Jacob’s other wives, her story is mainly not a happy one. It wasn’t easy living in Biblical times, that’s for sure. Though Jacob loved her deeply, Rachel was unable to have children. While three other women around her produced eleven kids among them, Rachel was alone. Finally, finally, God heard her plea, and she gave birth to Joseph. Just when it looked like things were turning around, and she was again pregnant with Benjamin, tragedy struck, and she died in childbirth. The Book of Genesis tells us, “Rachel died, and was buried on the road to Efrat, now Bethlehem” (35:19).
It is a peculiar moment, because the family had a burial plot, the Cave of Machpelah. Eventually, all other patriarchs and matriarchs would be buried there, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah… but not Rachel. The Torah doesn’t tell us why Jacob buried her by the side of the road, rather than with their family ancestors. But that is what he did… and I mention all this because you can still visit Rachel to this very day, at a site called Kever Rachel, Rachel’s Tomb. Now, if you think about it for a moment, we Jews do not have a lot of holy sites. Last week, I quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in a different context. Well, Heschel also writes about how we Jews have “sacred time,” not “sacred space.” Every week, we make our pilgrimage to Shabbat, to sacred TIME, not a particular space or place. Every year, we bring ourselves back to the High Holiday experience; our physical location is less important. And yet, there is “sacred space” as well; there ARE a few holy Jewish sites. The Western Wall is certainly the most famous. Well, according to many religious Jews, the second holiest site is that cave I mentioned, the Cave of Machpelah, where the matriarchs and patriarchs are buried, and right after that is… Rachel’s Tomb.
So, this is, arguably, our third holiest site as Jews, and yet it is located in contested land, near Bethlehem, and the Israeli authorities fight with the local Arab population over it all the time. Groups of religious Jews defiantly demand to go there, and Palestinians attack them for trying. It is awful. Muslims say the site is also the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, a holy place for them as well. Neither side respects the history or claims of the other, and fighting persists. As a result of the hatred, the site itself has been desecrated and vandalized numerous times. Many experts on the Middle East look at the treatment of this site, and other holy places, as a microcosm of the conflict. It is entirely devoid of honor, respect, or glory for the Divinity we all claim to be praising.
Rachel began her life alone, bickering with her sister, and now surrounded by concrete barricades and violent fighting, she is once again the very symbol of solitude and division.
It is SO tempting to say “Yes, but their acts are WORSE!” or “Why don’t THEY see OUR side of the story??” I tell you now; we must resist that urge. Not for the sake of The Other, not because THEY deserve better, but because WE deserve better! That is the real secret of Kavod. “Kevodcha/Kevodech,” giving honor and respect to someone else, it makes YOU better; it is ultimately a way to give true glory to your own soul and your moral integrity. Strive to give Kavod to The Other, and it will nurture and heal your neshama, your spirit. The person I want to honor before I conclude my sermon, he knew this very, very well. Two weeks ago, the world lost Shimon Peres. He was considered the last of the generation of Israel’s founding patriarchs and matriarchs. In his career, he served almost every position of leadership, including prime minister and president, and in 1994 he won a Nobel Peace Prize together with Yitzchak Rabin, and yes, with Yassir Arafat.
Shimon Peres is quoted as saying, “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” He understood BOTH that peace was unquestionably Israel’s goal, and always should be, but also that you NEED to have open conversations with people on the other side.
Even, and perhaps especially, when the topics on the table make your blood pump and often boil. In a beautiful eulogy to Peres, President Obama said, “Even in the face of terrorist attacks, even after repeated disappointments at the negotiation table, he insisted that as human beings, Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews, and must therefore be equal in self-determination.”
I want to leave you with one more sound bite from Shimon Peres. He said: “There are two things that cannot be achieved in life unless you close your eyes a little bit. And that’s love and peace. If you want perfection you won’t obtain either of them.” How fitting for our theme this year. Last week, we spoke about Good Enough, and how honor, respect, Kavod are about acknowledging that we are not perfect, but we are good. We are not flawless, we are not free of sin. We are certainly not Nazis or kapos. Even when we fundamentally CANNOT understand people on the other side of the divide, we must remember that they too seek love and peace, if not for everyone, then at least for their families, their communities, for their history, and their matriarchs and patriarchs. We simply cannot wait for them to come to us first. It may never happen. But still we must seek love and peace, even if it means squinting, or closing our eyes a little. We cannot afford to wait and wait and wait… it is killing our very souls.

We need to talk about Israel, and we need to acknowledge that it makes our blood pump and our defenses go up. But we also need to figure out how to keep “Kevodech” and “Kevodcha,” the honor and respect for our fellow human beings, at the forefront of our conversations; without vilifying, without wild accusations, and without walking away from the table. It is hard to talk about Israel, and fifteen minutes later, I still feel nervous about this sermon. But for the dignity of my rabbinic colleagues, like Neil Blumofe, for the importance of SHARED holy sites like Rachel’s Tomb, the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, and for the enduring memory of Shimon Peres, we NEED to have this crucial conversation. So… let’s talk.
Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Vayeilech/Shabbat Shuva: Remember the Shofar?

There is something strange going on in weekday morning services this week... or rather, what I find strange is the thing NOT happening. Over a month ago, we began the Season of Repentance - to help us prepare for the High Holidays - by reciting Psalm 27 every morning, and also
blowing one set of shofar blasts. "Get ready! Prepare yourselves! Rosh Hashanah is NEARLY here!!" That is what the shofar blowing is meant to convey. So essential to the season is the shofar itself, that the Torah never even calls the holiday "Rosh Hashanah"; it's known as "Yom Teruah," "A Day of Blowing the Horn." Even though Rosh Hashanah is behind us, the Season of Repentance continues to Yom Kippur, and even a little further into Sukkot and Hoshanah Rabbah; and we continue chanting Psalm 27 all the way to the end. So... where did the shofar go?

In addition to our special psalm, other significant prayers are added, e.g. Selichot, the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, and a few changes to the liturgy that remind us we are DEFINITELY still in the Season of
Repentance. There's just one thing missing: the shofar. Interestingly, both the presence AND the absence of the shofar are intricately part of the holiday experience. I mentioned that the Torah calls the holiday "Yom Teruah," which can be found in the Book of Numbers, 29:1. But in an earlier place, Leviticus, 23:24, the Torah ALSO refers to this day as "Zichron Teruah," "A Remembrance of the Blast." Somehow, the holiday itself should be about blasting the shofar AND about remembering that we DID blast it at some point. Like I said, I find this very strange.

The shofar is there to help us remember something important. Can anything else convey "WAKE UP!!" quite the same way? Does any other sound, or Jewish paraphernalia for that matter, connect us more viscerally and audibly to the holiday spirit? It really gets us in the mood like nothing else. Which is why, I would argue, it is actually VERY
important that we also take the symbol away. The shofar does something on our behalf... and it's something we need to learn to do ourselves. In this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech, Moses is close to the end of his life, and he sounds almost frantic about making sure the Israelites take responsibility for the Torah, for the relationship with God, and for this entire religious enterprise. The word "Teruah" that I mentioned earlier can also mean "shouting," and our parashah certainly seems to contain a lot of that. Moses admonishes the people, yelling: "I know how defiant and stiff-necked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant toward Adonai; how much more, then, when I am dead!!" (Deut. 31:27) He knows he cannot keep doing things FOR them any longer. He NEEDS them to take it seriously.

The shofar, like Moses, can say the things we cannot say ourselves. They both seem to speak plainly, simply, and clearly, so we let them do the work for us. But the scaffolding is gone now. We need to march along on our own, and get ready for Yom Kippur even though the shofar has stopped reminding us to prepare.
"Yom Teruah" is behind us; it's time for "Zichron Teruah." Is there a way to hear the ringing of the shofar in our ears, even after the "shouts" themselves are gone? And if we hear it, how can we push ourselves to be better in the new year, as a result? Our Season of Repentance continues. In fact, we've still got more than two weeks to go. But no amount of time will make a difference, if the message falls on deaf ears. I pray that we each "listen up" and think about how to start the new year off right... AND keep it going as long as possible. It's a message worth remembering.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Matanya on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Alhen on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Jim Padgett on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Jewsforliberation on Wikimedia Commons

Rosh Hashanah 5777 - Day 2 Sermon

Rosh Hashanah 5777, Day Two, D’var Torah
Shanah Tovah!
You know, I start, and end, every holiday speech with those same words – Shanah Tovah – Have a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year. But this is probably the first time that for me, personally, it is a genuine prayer for a fresh start and a clean, new, calamity-free beginning to the new year. If you’ll indulge me, I would like to share a little bit about my life right now, even though this sermon is eventually going to be about community. Rest assured, we’ll get there; I promise!
Many of you know that Rebecca and I were blessed with a second child on July 1st. Our son, Max, is just over three months old now, and thank God he is healthy and smiley, and our nearly four-year old daughter, Caroline, gets along with him just fine. Phew! And we were just getting used to our new normal, when we discovered a leak in our main bathroom, under the shower stall. To make a long story short, we had to move out of our house so that mold could be treated, and we are actually STILL not back in our home! I want to publicly thank David and Amy Pollack for taking us in, and letting our daughter turn their home into a playground. We will pay for all the damages, I swear.
Now, you can perhaps imagine what this has been like for us. A 12-week old, a preschooler, the High Holidays right around the corner, and we’re living out of suitcases, displaced from our home. As bad as that sounds – and I’m not going to sugar-coat this, folks, it’s been rough – but as bad as it sounds, I also feel like we’ve tried to use this opportunity to take stock and appreciate what we have, even in the face of the stress we’ve experienced and the challenges we’re still enduring. When someone first came to our home and diagnosed our mold problem, they also scared us, and we had to grab a few belongings and quickly move to a hotel. Needless to say, that was a really bad day. But soon after, we both looked at one another and thought about other people facing a similar, but much more terrifying scenario. When we grabbed our things in haste, and quickly glanced back before shutting the door, getting in our car, and speeding off, we knew we’d see it all again soon. It would still be there when we returned, though hopefully free of mold and spores. What if we lived in Louisiana? Right now, today? That brief glimpse over the shoulder might be the last time we saw any of those belongings. That perspective makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
What if we lived in Aleppo or Homs, in Syria? They too had to grab a few, portable possessions and run. That fleeting look before closing the front door might be the final sight of our house, our community, our city, and even our country. All the rest of our belongings – along with our social standing, our jobs, our security and prospects for ourselves and our children – all of it could be gone forever. What Rebecca and I experienced, and continue to experience, is a tiny fraction of the tragedies and calamities that befall other people around the world. In fact, it is, and has been, a reality of human life from the dawn of civilization. In yesterday’s Torah reading, from the Book of Genesis, we read about our ancestors, Hagar and her son, Ishmael, fleeing their homes to escape persecution. What about the Israelites Exodus-ing from Egypt, or our forbearers forced out of Spain in 1492 or Poland in 1939? It has always befallen human beings, and though it is hard to think about comfortably, it is also true that this isn’t just ancient, medieval, or even modern HISTORY – for many people this is life today, in 2016.
We’ve been out of our home for two weeks, and still have A LOT of work to be done before we can return. And it’s inconvenient and stressful. But nevertheless, we feel blessed. Several congregants offered their homes, either to stay overnight or for Rebecca and Max to hang out during the day. We’ve received advice from lawyers, insurance agents, doctors, friends, and one incredibly, incredibly helpful environmental health and safety officer at a local college. In addition to all of this, on top of all that I have just shared with you, Rebecca and I are also STILL feeling residual gratitude to all the people who supported us after Max was born. People brought over meals, sent gifts, and generally took care of us. I mention this in the same context as our displacement, so I don’t feel guilty about all the people we still owe “Thank You” cards. We have a good excuse, ok?!? But in all seriousness, thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has come to our aid. We do NOT know where we’d be without you.
I cannot overstate how much we value you, our community. I wish I could say that Ohev does this for EVERYONE in the congregation, but I know that our experience is unique because I am the rabbi. I will say that it has opened my eyes to the realization that we MUST work harder to provide at least a comparable level of care for everyone. Our Chesed chairperson, Paula Cherner, has done a phenomenal job of activating our Chesed volunteers, and together they have been marvelous at reaching out to many, many congregants who need care and support. Or an occasional car ride. Community can be such a force for good in people’s lives, especially in those vulnerable and fragile moments. But it can be difficult to let someone know when you’re in need. It was hard for us to ask for help. I suddenly saw that even in a desperate moment, when it was obvious to others that we needed assistance, it was actually painful for me to say that word, “Help.” In the time that I have left in this sermon today, I want to speak to you a little bit about the power of community, and how we all can work on saying “I can help”… but also “I NEED help.”
If you joined us yesterday for services, you likely know that our theme this year is “Kavod.” It is the Hebrew word for “honor” or “respect,” and this morning I want to move from honoring ourselves to honoring our community, “Kevod Ha-Tzibbur.” But let’s first pause for a moment and ask; what is this thing, Kavod? How do we define it? In our prayers, we speak of God’s “Kavod,” when we sing, “Baruch Kevod Adonai Mimekomo.” So what is that?? In his book, “God in Search of Man,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century – writes about this notion. He translates “Kavod” as “Glory,” and states that Kavod is not a thing. It cannot be held or touched. “The glory,” writes Heschel, “is the presence, not the essence of God; an act rather than a quality; a process not a substance.” I wholeheartedly agree. In our case, Kavod was not the food items that someone made us or bought us after Max was born (though it was all delicious!); Kavod was the moment when they arrived and rang our door bell. It is not the house we’re staying in or the suitcase we borrowed, but Kavod IS the sense of comfort and support that so many people offered. You can’t touch it or hold it… and yet, you can give or receive it.
Heschel called it a process, which I like, because it entails a reciprocal exchange; it’s a two-way street. And earlier I spoke about the importance of learning to say “I can help” AND “I need help.” Sometimes we think of ourselves as the caregivers, and sometimes we feel like the victims. But we can be both. In fact, I think we need to be both. Yesterday, in addition to introducing our theme of “Kavod,” I also shared a metaphor that I’m using to illustrate my theme, which comes from the mosaic art panels on our Sanctuary walls. These panels, the Children of Israel Collection, depict our mighty Tribes of Israel; well-known names like Judah and Benjamin, and the ancient High Priests, the Levites. But there are also some names on there you maybe DON’T know… and yesterday I spoke of some names that aren’t even up there. Our community is made up of talkative, charismatic extroverts… but also contemplative, insightful introverts. And everything in between.
Yesterday morning, I spoke about the four women who birthed all these children, as a reminder to give Kavod, honor, to the people behind the scenes as well, especially the women. Two of our tribes, Gad and Asher, were descended from a little-known woman named Zilpah. The Torah tells us next to nothing about her. The Bible itself just doesn’t give us much to go on, though in a wonderful book, “The Red Tent,” by Anita Diamant, all of these characters from Genesis are given much more depth and personality, and I highly recommend it. You see, Zilpah IS our ancestor as well; she is part of OUR story, the history of our community. There are her two children, right on our Sanctuary wall! The military camp of Gad, and the olive tree of Asher.
Can we make room for Zilpah’s story in our own? When we honor our community, do we recognize the quiet, reflective people in the pews as much as the outspoken leaders on the pulpit?
In yesterday’s sermon I also quoted an ancient rabbinic text called Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of our Fathers.” In that very same teaching, we have a second observation: “Eizehu Mechubad?” “Who is honored?” from the same root as our theme, “Kavod.” “Ha-mechabeid Et Ha-B’riyot,” “one who honors all people.” Can we praise the Jacob’s and Judah’s in our congregation as well as the Zilpah’s? And can we allow ourselves to sometimes feel like Judah and sometimes like Zilpah? Take a moment to think about yourself, and your standing in this community or any other social structure of which you are a part: Are you able to take initiative, and lead the group when it feels right and appropriate to do so? And, when necessary, are you able to back down, make room for others, and sit quietly and listen while others take charge? If we intend to glorify and praise our congregation, we need to honor and respect the contributions of ALL our members equally; male, female, straight, LGBT, disabled, Jews, and non-Jews. And we need to find ways to support one another in every way possible, as often as we can. Because THAT is community.
Sometimes we find this thing called community in obvious, tangible places. Like a building on Chester Road in Wallingford. But community is also a presence, a behavior; as Heschel suggests, it is a process, not a substance. After tragedies strike, like in Louisiana or in refugee camps around the globe, communities begin to form organically. People rally around to offer help and support. To be sure, more needs to be done for these unfortunate victims, because the disasters are immense, and additional help is always needed. But it also often leads to conversations about why goodwill and kindness waits to surface when calamities strike. And we need to ask ourselves this question as well. Can we live our lives feeling BOTH grateful and humble for all we have AND compassionate and giving to others, even before something horrific happens to remind us why we need to care?
There is no question; this is hard to do. When things are going well, and we only need worry about the day-to-day and “normal” problems, we aren’t thinking about these major questions and concerns. But I believe that is what the High Holiday season is all about. Forcing us to STOP, look around, and think about our own lives, the lives of those around us, and the lives of people everywhere. It is challenging to think about these kinds of things every day, but if you can’t do it TODAY, I don’t know if a better opportunity will every come around. For me personally, this past month has been very humbling. I certainly don’t like being out of control, having this much uncertainty in my life, or feeling this unsettled. But feeling humility, even when we weren’t planning for it, can be a really good thing.
I hope that Rebecca’s and my story can help you too focus some of your intentions this holiday season. What do you hold dear… and sometimes take for granted? What would happen if one day, unexpectedly, you too felt even just a little bit like a refugee, fleeing water-damage or war zones? How could you mine that experience for lessons and deeper understandings, and is there a way to learn those lessons even without experience the plague of mold remediation?? And additionally, what is your role in your community? How do you give Kavod to others, and how are you the recipient of it? When do you feel like the powerful patriarch, Jacob, and when do you feel like his third wife, Zilpah? And how can we all better live the value of Kevod Ha-Tzibur, and give more people a sense of belonging and value in our community?
At this Season of Repentance and self-reflection, I certainly don’t wish anyone to go through the disruptions that we’ve endured. But I do pray that you all get to feel the warm embrace of support and concern, that others are there for you with a meal, a suitcase, and even a home. And I challenge each of us to BE that warm embrace for someone else. Our ancient rabbis remind us that when we honor ALL people – from the top to the bottom, from Judah and Benjamin to Zilpah and her children – we too are honored. This month, my family has felt incredibly honored by this community, and honored to be A PART of this community.
The Kevod Ha-Tzibur, the honor of this congregation has been swirling around us, and we feel blessed. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
Shanah Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah 5777 - Day 1 Sermon

As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. If you're planning on joining us for Yom Kippur, here's your chance to catch up on this year's holiday theme. If you heard it, but can't remember what I said, I guess this is kind of like a transcript! :-) Or maybe you're just curious to know what I spoke about. The only other thing I'll say, by way of introduction, is that our synagogue president, Rich Kaplan, had just finished telling the community that I had re-signed with Ohev Shalom for another seven year contract! That should help explain my first sentence... (And please feel free to post reactions/thoughts/comments on the sermon. Thanks!)

Rosh Hashanah 5777, Day One, D’var Torah
Shanah Tovah!
       Well, now you know; you’re stuck with me. We have seven more years together, fifteen in total, and who knows where we’ll go from there. It’s hard to believe. But I want to tell you honestly, from the heart, how thrilled Rebecca and I – and now Caroline and Max – are to be a part of this community. You have done so much for us, and you are such a central and crucial part of our lives, that we really did not hesitate for a moment to re-sign with Ohev Shalom. I want to especially thank Rich Kaplan for your leadership, support, and friendship, together with our three terrific VPs, Amy, Joel, and David, and a special thanks to Matt Tashman and David Pollack, who negotiated the contract with me, and who made the whole process feel like three friends sitting down and trying to work together as a team to make this happen. I feel really, really blessed.
I do think, however, that this whole thing surprises some people. From time to time, I hear from congregants – usually second- or third-hand – that there’s speculation about when I’ll leave, not if. I don’t believe they WANT me to go, but the assumption is that, obviously, Rebecca and I want something else. Eventually we must want an enormous congregation, a big city, a broader reach; it’s only a matter of time, right? Well, I hope we’ve laid some, if not most, of that to rest, at least for the next seven-plus years. We are home.
I want to take a moment and explore with you the assumption that people were making. “We must want more.” Doesn’t everyone? More, bigger, faster, greater… I don’t know. Do we? Is that the ideal? Our ancient rabbis, in a book entitled “The Ethics of Our Fathers,” “Pirkei Avot,” wrote, “Eizehu Ashir? Ha-sameiach b’Chelko?” “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his or her portion.” It sounds SO simple. “Just be content with what you’ve got.” Well, you and I know, that’s HARD to do! It’s difficult to allow ourselves to be happy, content, satisfied with what we have. Sometimes (often), we DO want more, we want bigger… we want perfection. Otherwise we’re lazy, right? We need always be striving, reaching, and challenging ourselves, or else we’re just slackers.
My High Holiday theme, the focal word of which I am about to unveil to you in another minute, centers on “Good Enough.” Which I’m sure at least some of you hear as me saying we should settle. “Good Enough” sounds like a cop out, a giving up. But that is NOT the message I want to convey. “Good Enough” can be GOOD. Just “good.” We come here on the High Holidays and we talk about repentance, but I’m not sure any of us REALLY know what we’re repenting for, or what we’re repenting TO! We sometimes feel we need to apologize for not being perfect. Let me save you the suspense; we are not perfect. None of us. And after Yom Kippur is over, we STILL won’t be perfect.
We need to find that balance where we’re challenging ourselves to do a little better, while still accepting our imperfect, broken, flawed, Good Enough-selves. But it might surprise you to hear how my theme word for this year reflects that value.
This High Holiday season, I want to talk to you about the Hebrew word, “Kavod.” We usually translate “Kavod” as “honor” or “respect.” It is also commonly used to mean “glory,” as in the famous phrases from our Siddur, “Baruch Sheim KEVOD Malchuto l’Olam va’Ed,” or “Baruch KEVOD Adonai mi’Mekomo.” These well-known lines tell us that the KAVOD of God, or of God’s Name, fills the earth, it radiates all around us. We are indeed talking about God’s tremendous Glory, or the respect and honor we show to God. (Pause) Soooo, how can this be my key word for a sermon theme on “Good Enough”? How do respect, honor, and glory relate to being content and satisfied? That is a great question… and I’m going to ask you to hold onto it for just a little bit longer.
If you’ve been coming here for any of the last seven years, you may also know that I try to tie a metaphor to my theme as well. In the past, I’ve used Biblical quotes on a Sanctuary wall in England, ripples spreading outward across the surface of water, or pieces of a puzzle that come together to form an image – I believe, I hope, that my holiday theme-message AND the metaphor will come together to illustrate my point. (Pause) Let’s see if it works…
If you look up at the Sanctuary walls to the left and right, you see the beautiful mosaic panels of our newly dedicated Children of Israel Collection. A year ago, we had completed half the project, and now it is finally complete, and well over 120 of you participated in making these incredible pieces of art. But there is a problem with them. We call them the “Children of Israel,” and we say they reflect who we are, but only one in fourteen is a woman, Dinah. And they don’t reflect racial diversity, they don’t necessarily represent our religious diversity, as our community contains many, many interfaith families, and though we don’t KNOW this for sure, and can never know, they don’t overtly reflect a spectrum of sexual orientation or sexual identity either. I can’t fix all of that. Our Bible is a product of its time; but I want to name that challenge for us today, and dedicate my sermons this year to diversity in our community. I am seeking ways to make these panels represent all of us, either in what you see, or in what you DON’T see. That is my plan. I’ll admit, it isn’t perfect… but maybe it’s good enough.
You see, all the names on our walls were indeed children (or grandchildren) of our patriarch, Jacob, also known as Israel, so the name of our collection makes sense. But for each of my sermons this year I would also like to highlight one of our Jewish matriarchs. Let’s face it, it would have been hard for Jacob to produce even one of these kids all on his own! But I also don’t want to speak about our four “classic” matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
I want to speak about the four women who birthed Jacob twelve sons and a daughter, namely Leah and Rachel, but also Bilhah and Zilpah. If you’ve never heard those last two names, I invite you to come back for more holiday services, and hopefully I can shed a little light on them for us all. By naming these four women, my intention is to acknowledge and honor more than just the male, Jewish, white, cisgendered names you see on these walls. Our history is deeper and more nuanced, and certainly our present and future is as well.
Today, I want to start my series on Kavod, and on Good Enough, by telling you about Leah, Jacob’s first wife. Hers is a pretty tragic story. Jacob wanted to marry her sister, Rachel, but their father, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying Leah first, and made him work longer to earn Rachel’s hand as well. In a cruel twist of fate, Rachel couldn’t have any children, at least not at first, but Leah had no such trouble. Not only does she give birth to four sons in rapid succession, but the Torah tells us she named her sons herself, perhaps because Jacob didn’t care to take the time. And the names she chooses are SO painful for us to hear. She calls her first son, Reuven, meaning “now my husband will love me.” (Gen. 29:32) It cuts you right in the heart to hear such a thing. Simeon, her second son, was so named because, “Adonai has heard that I was unloved, and has given me this one as well.” (33) And Leah called her third son Levi, meaning: “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” (34)
Her pain is unmistakable. Jacob can’t see her… except when he wants something. There is no honor in this relationship, no respect at all. And certainly, no glory.
But then, Leah grabs hold of her own fate. She doesn’t need him. She finds glory and honor elsewhere, in herself and in her children. Her fourth son, Judah, from whom we derive the term “Jew,” is given a name meaning: “This time I will praise Adonai.” (35) Our Etz Hayim Chumash writes in the commentary on this verse that, “Her heartfelt prayer of thanks reflects her having grown from self-concern and a focus on what she lacked to a genuine sense of appreciation for what was hers.” Is it a perfect scenario? No, of course not. We don’t get to choose all the factors in our lives. But when we honor ourselves, and we honor our own accomplishments and abilities, and the things for which we should be grateful, our lives are good. They are Good Enough.
So what do I mean when I say our theme this year is “Kavod”? Last year, we spoke about Ahavah, Love. Love is the peak, it is the ideal. We want to love ourselves, and love the people around us, and our community, and God, and, and, and. That all sounds terrific. I know. I said it… last year! But love is hard. Sometimes it is truly difficult – it can even feel impossible – to get there. One of the Ten Commandments, the one regarding our parents, says “HONOR [Kaved] your father and your mother.” From our same root word, Kavod. The rabbis jump all over this. Why not love!?! Why just “honor” your parents???
Because family relationships can be tough. Just look at this morning’s Torah reading, about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their children. Relationships are so complex, so fraught with difficult emotions, you cannot always command yourself to love. Leah prayed fervently for God to command Jacob to love her. Life doesn’t always work that way. But we also don’t have to walk away, if we cannot reach that peak.
We aren’t limited to just two options, or at least we shouldn’t be. That’s why I’m talking to you here today. We don’t have to EITHER love with all our hearts, and souls, and might OR cut ties, burn bridges, and HATE The Other. And I’ll be speaking more about this throughout our holiday services together – about how we relate to our community, and Israel, and other people around us. In this Season of Repentance, I want to talk to you about four ways to find that middle road, to seek improvement, but without judgment. To strive for better, while also being kind and compassionate… and forgiving. And our matriarch this morning, Leah, reminds us that we need to take care of, and honor, ourselves.
Let me give you one more example of how you can do this. I am sure in each of our lives, there are many ways that this can be done. I invite and encourage you to examine yourself – in this season of self-examination – and find areas where you can treat yourself with more honor and respect, either by giving a little extra effort OR by easing off the throttle, giving yourself a break,
and showing yourself some more compassion. It’s not a cop out! It’s not settling. It’s leaning into Good Enough. But since we’re sitting here in a synagogue, and you’re listening to a rabbi, let me also give you a religious example. Let’s talk about observance, and commitment to Judaism. Here it comes, folks: The opposite of my Guilt-Free Judaism speech! It’s the Guilt-Is-Back Speech!!
Ok, you obviously know that’s not true, especially if you’ve listening to anything I’ve said these past 12 minutes. Last year, on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, I introduced a concept, that I want to reinforce for you today. Does it count as plagiarism if I’m quoting myself? A year ago, I spoke about my frustration with our current Jewish lingo. If you keep Shabbat or keep Kosher, you are called Shomer Shabbat or Shomer Kashrut; Shomer Shabbes. And if you don’t observe the laws PERFECTLY, there’s no other term for you. It’s all or nothing. Last year I said, “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.”
In that speech, a year ago, I made up a new term. Well, I had the idea, and developed the concept, but then I couldn’t think of a name. And it was Rabbi Miller, with whom I had then only worked for a month or two, who actually came up with the perfect term. And though I unveiled it last year, it’s actually perfect for this year’s theme. We need a new category, an in-between option that’s more than nothing but less than fully observant. I submit to you, “Mechabeid Shabbat” and “Mechabeid Kashrut,” “Honoring Shabbat” and “Honoring our Dietary Laws.” Just as love is the pinnacle of a relationship, Shomer Shabbat is the pinnacle of ritual adherence. Mechabeid Shabbat is Good Enough, but not in a way that connotes settling or falling short. Good Enough is GOOD.
So let me turn the spotlight on all of you. Is there room for “Mechabeid Kashrut” in your lives? You don’t need to be an Orthodox Jew, or even – God forbid – a rabbi. But is there a place for Good Enough, for honoring yourself by infusing life with more joy, meaning, and spirituality in your daily experiences? To add one practice, or one more intention to the way you live your life today? To not feel you need to make excuses for your level of knowledge or spirituality, while simultaneously challenging yourself to remain on that journey, to remain in relationship with your Judaism?
This is my invitation. I’ll echo my sentiment from last year: “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.” Like our great ancestor, Leah, we too can flip the script and break the cycle of negativity and self-judgment. In that way, it isn’t just “Mechabeid Shabbat” or “Mechabeid Kashrut,” it’s also “Mechabeid et Atzmecha/Atzmeich,” “Honor and Respect Yourself.” Use the opportunity of these holidays to strive and push to be more content and happy, and it will make each and every one of us truly and gloriously wealthy indeed.
Shanah Tovah!