Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yom Kippur Main Sermon, 5778

As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is my main sermon from Yom Kippur morning. Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!

PLEASE NOTE: The spoken word poetry performed by Mr. Michael "Storm" Miller is not currently included in my sermon (below). I am hoping to receive a printed copy of his poem, and will then include it in the sermon text. So please check back in, if you were hoping to read his powerful words. Thanks!


Yom Kippur 5778 - Main Sermon
Shanah Tovah! Today I conclude my sermon series for the High Holidays of 5778, for the year 2017. I hope you have found a message or two in them that you can take to heart, a question to debate with a fellow congregant, and a nugget to enrich your year ahead. I also hope I’ve pushed you a little. When I first came to Ohev Shalom, this was hard for me to imagine doing, but I’m not really a rookie anymore. This fall, I’m starting my ninth year as your rabbi, and God willing we’ll be stuck with one another for quite a few years to come. So it’s time to push and prod a little, to embody what I think I’ve conveyed to you is a philosophy of mine, borrowed from the model of our Biblical prophets, though a term more recently coined by a turn-of-the-century journalist, Finley Peter Dunne: “[My job is] to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” I try to speak words of comfort when we, individually or communally, feel afflicted, hurt, scared, or powerless. But when I think we’re too comfortable, too apathetic or insular, I want to try and afflict a little, to challenge us all to do more, to be a bit better. Well, today I hope I’ve saved the best for last. I think I have, but we’ll see.
My theme, as you know, for this year is “Harmony.” I mentioned that in each of my previous three sermons, but I didn’t explain WHY it was harmony. I hope you’ve given it some thought for yourselves, and I invite you to share your conclusions or musings with me and with one another after services. For my part, I still want to hold off on revealing my reasons for choosing this theme for just a little bit longer. It builds suspense, or so I like to tell myself… For now, I want to say that this final installment in the series is about sadness. There is surely so much I could talk about that elicits sadness in every one of us. It is an emotion that we all, unfortunately, will feel at some point in our lives, and some of us - probably many of us - struggle to be present to that emotion. We try to dull it or joke it away. We cry briefly, but even then often alone or hidden. It’s a sign of weakness, right? I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah that people who have cried in my office have often apologized for it. I try, but it’s hard, to console not just the crying itself, but that tragic judgment of the self, of a perceived weakness. It is not. If, however, we disappear into our tears, drown in our own sorrow and never emerge, THAT is not healthy. That can be terribly destructive, and I’ve seen that too. But absent that, tears can be empowering or cathartic. More importantly, we need to work on not labeling or criticizing our own experience. On this Yom Kippur, we need to forgive ourselves and be kinder towards our emotions. Perhaps especially, our inevitable sadness.
In a little bit, we will also continue with the Yizkor service, in which we remember our loved ones who have died. For many people, that is a moment when tears ARE ok, as long as we wipe them away quickly, before children come back in the room. What would happen if they saw us cry? If they asked us a question or two about pain and grief, and it was hard for us to answer? Because we didn’t know what to say, or their questions induced more tears? Can we sit with that experience, can we stay with those raw, vulnerable emotions? This past Sunday, we held our memorial plaque dedication service here in the Sanctuary, and many people who were dedicating plaques shared beautifully about loved ones who were patriarchs or matriarchs in their families, heroes, pillars of the community, and just best friends. There were lots of tears, and I know that was hard for some people, and would be hard for many more. But it was also so beautiful; SUCH a tribute to the memories of these individuals. Each story was like a glimpse into an entire world. It was sad, of course, but also awe-inspiring and SO filled with love and gratitude. All of these emotions we’ve discussed over the holidays - joy, anger, yearning, and now sadness - they CAN create anxiety in us, and make us want to run as far away as we can. But what I want to say to you here today - central to my message in this, my final sermon of this series - is that you need to do the opposite. When you want to run away, you need to lean in. When you want to mitigate an emotion, you should feel it fully. Our instincts aren’t so great in these instances, and we need to retrain our initial reactions.
Now I need to push you a little more: These emotions, anger, sadness, discomfort, vulnerability, they also come up in our engagement with the world, not just inside ourselves or with personal, family matters. Most of you know that I co-founded a group in our area called FUSE (the Fellowship of Urban-Suburban Engagement). And some of you are perhaps sick of hearing about FUSE. I understand that. In my performance evaluations of the past couple of years, a few frank comments crept in, somewhat timidly and guiltily, that said I spend too much time in Chester, and not enough time taking care of my own congregants. That’s uncomfortable to hear. It makes me sad and, in truth, a little angry. So let me do the opposite of my gut reaction - which is to run away, to sweep this under the proverbial carpet and move on. Instead, let me lean in. Let’s talk about this. I understand the frustration. “What about US?!?” What about this congregation, that has hired me? My first obligation is to THIS community, isn’t it? Of course, the answer is “yes.” Well, first of all, I might respond that our FUSE work just earned us the top award in the nation from our movement, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Out of more than 180 applications, and only thirteen winners, we won for BOTH our Children of Israel mosaics, here in the Sanctuary, AND their Highest Award for Innovation and Impact - interestingly enough in the category called “Prophetic Voice” - was given to Ohev Shalom for our work with FUSE.
But I want to push beyond just the acclaim. I want to declare to you all that the work we do with FUSE is FOR you. It is for all of us. It is not charity, it is not even selflessness, it is not do-gooder stuff. We need this. We need to expand our fences, open our minds and our perspectives up to see things in new ways, because we are living inside an echo chamber and we don’t even know it! Only a handful of Ohev congregants have been coming to FUSE events, because I think some of you may feel scared of these conversations. Either you’re physically intimidated by the places we go in Chester, or you’re concerned about what will be said and how we - the white, suburban, affluent, privileged - may be viewed and accused. Is the work challenging? Yes, most definitely. Is it also nourishing our souls and making those of us who participate see the world in new ways and reconsider our stereotypes and expectations - 100%, resoundingly “YES.”
But you’re getting tired of hearing this. I’m starting to drone on. I’m at risk of becoming like the Biblical prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, who kept shouting and shouting, and people just tuned them out. Sometimes you need to hear a new shofar, a different ram’s horn. So I’ve invited one to join us here this morning. A few weeks ago, FUSE hosted an event called “A Chester Experience.” Several business owners, including Mr. Mike Miller, spoke to our combined group from the urban and suburban communities about life in Chester. We sat at Mike’s established, called “Open Mike’s Internet Cafe,” and in addition to telling us their stories, a couple of people, Mike in particular, shared with us some incredible spoken word poetry. Mike is actually a military veteran, having served in the Army and the Marine Corps, for a total of 15 years, two tours of duty, in Afghanistan and Kuwait. He has four kids, lived nearly his whole life in Chester, and is a member of Warrior Writers, a group that works with veterans to express themselves through art. Mike was featured on WHYY, has been on local radio and TV, and has performed at the Kimmel Center, and in New York City. I don’t want to say too much more about Mike or what he’s going to share with you. I know this is an unusual thing to do, especially on Yom Kippur. But that’s kind of the point. I hope you’ll hear this shofar call. Mr. Miller, please.

(Michael "Storm" Miller joined me on the bimah to deliver a powerful spoken word poem of his own composition. As I mentioned above, when Mike shares his poem with me, I'll include it here on the blog in the sermon text.)

Thank you so much to Michael Miller for your incredible spoken word poetry, and just for being here. As you are still processing Mike's words, I want to mention that his cafe in Chester is across the street from a new and popular performance venue, called MJ Freed. It’s a symbol of things happening in Chester, though not without its own controversies. I mention that location, because its name comes from an old furniture store that used to be there. The new owners kept the old name. Well many of you today are sitting in our Freed Reception Room, right behind our Sanctuary. The MJ Freed Reception Room. We are from Chester; we are OF Chester.
Many people don’t know that Martin Luther King Jr. spent time in Chester, studying at Crozer Theological Seminary, now the site of Crozer-Chester Hospital’s old building. One of Dr. King’s professors at Crozer was Ira Sud, Rabbi Ira Sud, the predecessor to Rabbi Louis Kaplan here at Ohev Shalom. And over the course of his studies, Dr. King received a scholarship that helped him along the way. It was the Pearl Plafker Award, created by the Plafker family - also Ohev congregants. And our FUSE work today only exists because of another fund, the Netzach Fund, established by an anonymous donor, and for which I am eternally grateful. So many connections; our story is intertwined with Chester’s. And engaging with Chester residents like Cory Long, who co-founded FUSE with me, or Mike Miller, isn’t about white guilt or being white saviors. I do this for us. It is our story, and we can’t make our lives better without being in relationship with others; without striving for balance with our community, without harmony.
So let us finally talk about harmony. Certainly one obvious answer why I chose this theme is the notion of being in balance or harmony with our emotions. Anger, sadness, yearning, joy; when we try to mute one emotion, others get ignored as well, and we are worse for it. Striving for harmony, for emodiversity, makes for greater groundedness and ability to deal with challenges and obstacles in life. But more than this, we have an opportunity to examine all aspects of our world and think about our relationship to them. How do we find harmony with our community, especially if we disagree on issues that feel really hard and divisive? How do we achieve harmony with Israel, when we love it so much, but feel our love is unrequited AND struggle with the decisions and actions of her government? How do we acknowledge the lack of harmony we experience with our planet, and how much we are all being damaged by Climate Change and our ignoring the warning signs that are all around us?
And finally, how do we engage with our local community? Harmony, in my opinion, is realizing that we are interdependent. That reaching out to help them IS a way of helping ourselves. Creating a better society raises all our ships TOGETHER. An Ohev member gave me a book a while ago, Paolo Freire’s [Fray-ree] “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Now, in his book, Freire makes blanket categorizations of people as “oppressor” and “oppressed.” That isn’t always fair, but it’s a good challenge for us all to think about our own roles and how we can change them. Again, hard to hear, but we can lean in and learn something still. One of the things that Freire emphasizes in his book is the idea that oppressors cannot affect change FOR the oppressed. It has to happen TOGETHER. FUSED together as one, we can make this world better. Freire writes: “For the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary (that’s us!), the object of action is the reality to be transformed by them together WITH other people - not other men and women themselves.” I hope you can appreciate that my work in Chester - OUR work in Chester - is about connecting with our roots, forming real, deep, authentic bonds with our neighbors, and about finding harmony for ourselves as well. To be transformed by our shared work.
We have talked about a lot of difficult things. We have heard from prophetic voices that were stark, evocative, and challenging. We sometimes imagine that the voice of prophecy was an ancient (and possibly fictitious) thing, when really we have prophetic voices all around us today. I told Mike Miller that hearing him perform at his cafe in Chester was like hearing a clarion call of a prophetic voice for me. The prophetic message is critical and prodding, but also compassionate and inclusive. And even when it’s harsh, it is filled with hope. In his book, Freire offers a hopeful message that I want to share with you to end my sermon. It is the perfect response to our concerns about immigration, the environment, Israel, anti-Semitism, inequality, and racism. He prophetically states: “The dehumanization resulting from an unjust order is NOT a cause for despair but for hope, leading to the incessant pursuit of the humanity denied by injustice. Hope, however, does not consist in crossing one’s arms and waiting. As long as I fight, I am moved by hope, and if I fight with hope, then I can wait.” (repeat?)
In this new year, may we all be filled with hope and harmony, and may we be inspired to fight for ourselves, our communities, and our world. In this new year, may we each be grounded, mindful of our emotions and our experiences, and filled with compassion for our inner beings and our fellow human beings. May we feel gratitude for each day, each person who blesses our lives, and the ability to hear and heed prophetic voices all around us. May our year ahead be filled with Shalom, with true and lasting peace, and may it be for us all a Shanah Tovah u’Metukah - a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year. Amen.

Kol Nidrei Sermon, 5778

As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is the sermon for Kol Nidrei, the evening service at the start of Yom Kippur.
Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!

Kol Nidrei 5778 - Main Sermon
Fifty years ago, in 1967, something miraculous was about to occur. Twenty years earlier, in 1948, we had somehow managed to establish a Jewish State in Israel, in the Promised Land, though one crucially important landmark had not made it onto the Israeli side of the border; the Western Wall. After Israel was born, the Jewish People spent two more decades praying with the Temple Mount and its peripheral wall only in their minds; it was not yet a place where our feet could stand or our hands could touch. But when Jordan joined the countries attacking Israel in 1967, and IDF forces quickly started pushing Jordanian troops back - in what we later came to call the Six Day War - our soldiers knew the Western Wall, the Kotel, was within reach.
One such fighter, an Israeli paratrooper, was named Avraham Sela. I read about Sela in an article by Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Klein Ha-Levi writes about Avraham Sela - that he was born in Iraq, came to Israel as a young boy, and that it was the dream of his life to one day stand at the Western Wall, something which was forbidden by the Jordanian government when Sela was young. He joined the military and fought in the battle for Jerusalem, but was sadly wounded in the hills outside the city. When Israeli forces finally conquered and reunited the entire Old City, Sela was stuck in a hospital bed. When he found out his company was there for the actual moment of liberation, he felt tremendous joy and pride, but also sadness and disappointment that he could not be there with them. Those iconic photos of soldiers leaning against the wall and weeping were his friends… but not him.
It took him months to rehab from his injuries, but Avraham Sela worked hard to recover, and when he was finally ready to be moved to an IDF rehabilitation center, he asked his driver if they could stop in the Old City first, so he could finally, finally stand by the wall itself and touch its stones. And so they did. As he got out of the car, he was still in tremendous pain from the lingering machine gun injury. He had to shuffle forward because it was so difficult to walk, but he wasn’t going to miss this moment because of some bullet. He was about to touch the wall itself, he made it right up to the stones, when he heard a harsh voice behind him yelling: “Bachur!! Young man!! Put on a kippah!” An Orthodox Jew was screaming at him. Klein Ha-Levi writes: “Avraham froze. In his excitement to reach the Wall he’d forgotten to cover his head. The abrupt tone of religious authority stunned him. Profoundly offended him. He who had so anticipated this moment, who had been ready to give his life for Jerusalem, to be treated with such contempt – He turned his back to the Wall and didn’t return.”
If you were here for Rosh Hashanah, or if you read my first two sermons online, you know that the theme of my Divrei Torah, my talks, this year is “Harmony.” I don’t want to speak directly about the word “harmony” until tomorrow, but please do keep thinking about why it is our theme, and what that word, in the context of what you’re hearing at our holiday services, might mean to you. Each sermon has focused on a different emotion that I think we need to emphasize more and acknowledge in ourselves. Last week, we spoke about joy and then anger. Tonight, I want to talk to you about longing, about yearning.
I actually want to share with you two separate stories about yearning that in some ways have nothing to do with one another… and in other ways are entirely intertwined.
As you probably guessed, my first narrative is about Israel. I again want to thank Jordyn Kaplan, Noah Katcher, and Maddie Speirs for sharing with us a little bit about their experiences in Israel this past summer. As these three wonderful teens demonstrated, Israel is a very important part of the life of our community. We teach about it in our religious school, we celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, we emphasize Hebrew language in our school and throughout our congregation, and as many of you know, I led two congregational tours to Israel in 2011 (with Noah and Jordyn) and again in 2015, and we are VERY excited to already have 25 people signed up for our next trip, scheduled - God willing - for October of 2018. If you’re interested in joining our group, we’d LOVE to have you. You can speak to me, Alan Schapire, or Karen and Louis Stesis for more info. I have also shared before from this pulpit that I myself lived in Israel twice, once as a child and again with Rebecca when I was in rabbinical school. I’ve participated in, and led, groups traveling to Israel from Sweden, England, and the US, and so far, I have been to Israel more than 20 times. It is precisely because I love Israel that I struggle deeply with her.
The very name, “Yisrael” means “one who wrestles with God,” and I definitely wrestle tremendously in my engagement with Eretz and Medinat Yisrael, with the Land and - most certainly - with the State of Israel. I am a Zionist; a Proud Zionist. And it is truly bewildering to me that somewhere along the way, the word “Zionist” became a slur,
especially among some liberal groups. I have heard them rattle off Nazism, Fascism, and Zionism, like they’re comparable, or cut from the same cloth. This past summer, several times - once at a Gay Pride Parade and once at a rally in Chicago called the Dyke March - Jewish participants, and mind you they were ENTIRELY on board with the stated goals of all the other marchers, were asked to leave, because they waved rainbow flags with Jewish stars on them. Their link to Israel was too strong. When confronted by the organizers, these Jewish marchers didn’t disavow the Israeli government, the Israeli state, the occupation, and the settlements vociferously enough, and so they were told to leave. Turned away, almost reminiscent of Avraham Sela at the wall.
But Zionism, the ideology itself, is NOT the problem! Zionism IS yearning. It is a response to the reality of the Jewish experience for centuries - MILLENIA - that we are not safe anywhere. It has been proven time and time again, and the desire for self-determination and for Jewish unity is really at the core of the Zionist dream. In that article I mentioned earlier, by Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, he speaks directly to this question about Zionism. He writes, “Zionism was never only about creating a Jewish state; it was about defining Jewish identity. Zionism’s definition is peoplehood. The noun is “Jew;” all other identities – religious and secular, Orthodox and Reform, left and right – are adjectives.” And yet, this is why I wrestle. The word itself, and the meaning of this term that I love, have been co-opted - either by liberal groups who loathe it, or fundamentalist groups who use it to justify hate and violence. One of the leaders of the Conservative Movement of Judaism - our movement - Rabbi Gordon Tucker, wrote about this split in Zionism. “There is,” says Tucker, “in fact, a Zionism of fear. And it is not at all illegitimate… because it is about Israel’s role as a provider of safety for Jewish people in a world in which it is still not always safe to be a Jew. Zionism of fear is really a minimalist Zionism that does not say much about the positive things that a Jewish state could do for the furtherance and the flowering of Jewish culture. It is about safety.”
I understand this Zionism, and sometimes I feel it myself. But I also chafe against it. I worry when some Jews or Israelis use the victim status to justify terrible things. We use the Zionism of fear to avoid looking at the actions of the Israeli government, to deter ourselves and others from criticizing wrongs that we KNOW are taking place; either by Orthodox against secular and non-Orthodox, or by Jews against Palestinians. But Tucker goes on to say there is also a Zionism of love. THAT is really what we yearn for. That is what we try to teach about in Hebrew School, and that is why we send our children to Israel. To love the land, the heritage, the people, the food, even - we still hope - the state and its leaders. But I wrestle, and will continue to wrestle, because I cannot do that disingenuously. It has to be a relationship of respect, honesty, integrity, AND love. I need to say to you this evening, I’m struggling. I feel like the sense of mutual respect and equality isn’t there, and right now I mainly feel just the yearning.
I am in pain. I am in a serious struggle with this country that I love, because - in truth - it does not love me back. Right now, in Israel, my Judaism is not considered legitimate. My authority as a rabbi is entirely non-existent, that is almost a given these days, but furthermore, my rights, your rights, and the rights of non-Orthodox Jews visiting and even living in the State of Israel are under constant attack. A former professor of mine from JTS,
who made aliyah to Israel nearly a decade ago, Alex Sinclair, regularly writes for Israeli newspapers. Recently, he authored a think-piece in which he stated: “Liberal Jews are like... abused spouses. For decades, orthodox Jews have ignored our concerns, discriminated against our converts, insulted our rabbis, and used our money against us; yet we still smile weakly at them and cling to the hope that they’ll make nice. No. This is not about the unity of the Jewish people any more; it’s about the vision of the Jewish people. No longer can we allow that vision to be sacrificed on the altar of unity.” This is painful to say: “Israel does not love me back.” It is heartbreaking to admit. Especially when we - when I - fear that stating this aloud will label me a self-hating Jew.
That is why I felt I needed to rattle of my bonafides; the list of times I’ve been to Israel as well as the trips I have led and intend to lead back there. I need you to know that I love. But I am also afraid. And still, I yearn. I need to express how hurt I feel, and I need you to know how complex, nuanced, multi-faceted, and emotionally charged my relationship is to Israel. Gordon Tucker, whom I quoted earlier, employs a very agonizing, but evocative, image in his article. He states: “You have all loved. And so you know that love always desires to be requited, not for what we can do for the one we love, but for what and who we are. I love Israel. And I want it to love me back, not for what I can do for it. Israel has always been pretty good at that kind of love. But for what and who I am… We should not have to feel that our love is heroic, offered in the face of unrequited feelings.”
Right now, in the midst of a fight over access to that same Western Wall that Avraham Sela was willing to die for, and with constant battles over conversions, funding, and government support - ours is an unrequited love.
I know that’s hard to hear, and believe me, it is VERY hard to say… but it needs to be said. I don’t have answers - just as I didn’t have solutions to the tough questions I raised on Rosh Hashanah - but if I am going to be grounded in my own feelings, if I am going to be authentic and genuine, I need to also give voice to my pain. And with that comes a selectivity about groups I support in Israel, because we can’t be those abused spouses any longer.
I also want to push a little deeper into this important emotional realization that I’m trying to articulate to you. When I understand how I’m feeling, how alienated this situation makes me feel, it SHOULD also motivate me to introspect. To look at myself in relation to others around me, and think about how I, as a representative of an establishment, am welcoming to, or alienating of, individuals in my own community. That is an important leap that is tough to take, but so, so crucial. When I feel a negative emotion, my inclination NEEDS to be to make sure I’m not inflicting that on someone else. Sometimes we do the opposite; when we are hurt, we hurt others. When we are teased, we tease someone weaker, so that we can feel strong again. But the prophetic call demands we do the opposite. When we hurt, we need to name that experience, and fight like hell to defend others from feeling that same way. With that in mind, here is my second example of yearning:
Talking about Israel stresses me out. But there is actually another issue that is even harder for me. I will admit to you right now, that there is no topic around which I feel greater pressure to change than interfaith marriage. I fear that we, as a Jewish community, continue to send mixed messages to interfaith families in our community. We welcome them in, we welcome many of YOU in this room into our family,
but then put up barriers and obstacles to participation. And so I worry: Are we creating a sense of unrequited love in a subsection of Ohev congregants? That is my concern. But on the other hand, this is a HUGE issue, and if - hypothetically - we were to consider breaking from our movement, and if I were to perform an interfaith marriage, we might alienate and disenfranchise people on another end of the spectrum.
I struggle with this issue more than anything else. Here at Ohev, I think we’re doing everything we can, within the boundaries of Conservative Judaism, to welcome and integrate interfaith families. All are invited up on the bimah, we hold aufrufs, pre-wedding celebrations, for interfaith couples getting married, and we acknowledge all lifecycle moments for all congregant families. I thought we were doing well. And we are! But last year, I felt that pressure increasing yet again. In the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JTA, Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok published an article that declared how essential it is that rabbis officiate at interfaith weddings. Oy. Welcoming families isn’t enough; continuing to reject them at that most important moment in their lives, under the chuppah, is hurting us tremendously. In their article, Fertok and Saxe write: “The data are unequivocal, that intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.” Yisrael, my wrestling continues.
Part of the problem is, to be totally honest with you, my own stigma is virtually gone. This is a halachic and organizational hurdle. Which is no small thing, but let’s acknowledge the difference. We no longer say Kaddish and ostracize someone who marries out of the faith. We do not shun.
Just this past June, a colleague of mine from Mt. Kisco, NY, Rabbi Aaron Brusso, wrote an article in the Jewish Forward, addressed to the interfaith couples directly. He states: “[I know that] You are not rejecting something, you are choosing someone. I want you to know that I respect that and don’t expect you to be anything other than who you are, for me or anyone else.” Towards the end of his article, Rabbi Brusso also expresses this sentiment: “...let me say very clearly: you have done nothing wrong by falling in love. No one should make you feel shame and if they do, shame on them.” Even though Rabbi Brusso ultimately explains that he still cannot officiate at interfaith weddings, he demonstrates tremendous warmth and acceptance.
I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments, though in truth, I may actually be struggling even a bit more than Aaron Brusso. The data are pretty stark, and the people are very, VERY real to me; the requests I receive come from families I love, and people I respect. They yearn for inclusion. Two years ago, when we debated making non-Jewish spouses members, and ultimately DID make that monumental change, a congregant sent me an incredible letter. She is not Jewish, AND has raised wonderful children in this congregation. She talked about interfaith spouses being like journalists in a military conflict, embedded with an army unit. It’s a great metaphor. They are not soldiers in the war, but they ARE there every step of the way. They risk their lives too, and they form deep, meaningful, life-long relationships with the soldiers on the front lines. I could picture just such an embed, running alongside Avraham Sela in the battle for Jerusalem. Our fight for equality and acceptance in Israel is also the fight of interfaith families as well. A gender-dividing line at the Kotel divides them just the same, and they too would get yelled at for not putting on a kippah.
That same congregant also wrote in her letter to me, “Interfaith marriages aren’t good or bad, they simply are.” I agree completely. This is our community. This is who we are. And in the Jewish world, we have our different denominations. We are not one, uniform monolith, and honestly, we never have been. There have always been different groups of Jews, throughout our history. This is who we are. We are diverse… and we all yearn. We yearn for acceptance, peace, and equality. We yearn for a Zionist homeland; a Zionism of love and, perhaps, some fear, because that is our reality as well, and for a loving relationship with our Jewish homeland. We long for a love that is reciprocated; for who we are, not just what we can do.
And when we see ourselves yearning and longing, we must also remember our prophetic call to witness others’ yearning as well. Even when we don’t have answers, and we wrestle with challenging issues, we still need to see and acknowledge others who feel excluded and are searching for belonging and community. Sometimes we feel like Avraham Sela, fighting passionately for this place that we love, willing to give everything for its safety and security. And other times we are that Orthodox Jew at the wall, saying: “Yeah, that’s nice… but you’ve still gotta put on a kippah.” One important way to reconcile those two experiences is to just see them when they are happening. To notice when we are the gate-keepers, and when we are the ones longing to be granted entry.

The story of Avraham Sela touched me deeply, even though I personally don’t actually like going to the Kotel anymore. Maybe that’s actually why I love his story. I feel rejected there too. Unloved. But still yearning to be accepted. May we all - Jew and non-Jew, in Israel or the Diaspora, religious and secular - strive to embody the call of Yisrael, of wrestling with God, with ourselves, our communities, and our emotions. And with our beloved Zionist homeland. Strangely and paradoxically enough, in our wrestling may we also find peace, Shalom. Amen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Day 2, 5778

As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is the sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!

Shanah Tovah!
I need to start my sermon to you here today by breaking the fourth wall. That term, if you aren’t familiar with it, comes from the world of theater. Wikipedia refers to it as “a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot.” You may not have realized it, but there is a fourth wall in sermon-giving, though obviously it’s different. I’m speaking to all of you directly, so clearly the wall separating us doesn’t exist right here, somewhere between the amud, this table, and the first row of pews. In my case, the wall I need to break is, in a sense, behind me. You see, I usually show up on the High Holidays, as all rabbis do, with a fully prepared and polished sermon, ready to deliver. (Unless I’m pretending to have the wrong speech…) The writing of it was effortless, the words flowed forth like a well-spring… and it’s goooood.
Folks, I struggled this year. I mean REALLY struggled, and that’s actually saying something, because last year my son was three months old and wasn’t sleeping. Our house was then plagued with mold, so much so that we had to move out and descend upon Amy and David Pollack, who so, so generously and graciously allowed us to bring a 3.5 year old bull in a china shop and a screaming infant into their home for weeks!! And this year’s sermons have been harder to write than last year’s!!
I’m breaking the fourth wall to share a little about WHY it’s been so challenging. Like my sermon yesterday, today I want to continue to talk to you about emotions, and about how most of us aren’t fully utilizing our feelings as well as we could be. As you can imagine, I interact with a lot of people. In my office, in services, in our wider community, I have noticed MANY people apologizing for tears, doing their darndest not to get too angry, being passive-aggressive in various relationships, or feuding with family members. And those are the high-functioning, well-adjusted ones! I also speak to colleagues regularly - other rabbis, but also priests, imams, and other faith leaders - and we all see it. I confer with psychologists, social workers, and teachers, and they see it too. I’m also not preaching this message from up high on my pulpit; I’ve been seeing a therapist weekly for nearly all eight years I’ve been here, and believe you me, I struggle to find a balance between my emotions ALL. THE. TIME. Anxiety, anger, disappointment, frustration, but even joy, praise, and pride. I’m working on all these just like the rest of you!
Let me pause here for a second. One of my most well-known High Holiday sermon topics was “Guilt-Free Judaism” from a few years back, and even now, every so often, when I tell someone I feel guilty about this, that, or the other thing, they seem surprised, and remind me of my sermon series on No Guilt. And my response is always, “Why do you think I devoted all those sermons to that topic?? Because I struggle with this! All my sermon themes - pride, mindfulness, love of self and others, sustainability, and now this year’s topic: harmony - I chose them all because I’m in the trenches WITH you. And I know I’m not alone. But the reason this subject is so hard for me is not because I’m uncomfortable sharing my own vulnerabilities. That isn’t easy, mind you, but I can handle that part. I have no problem telling you I see a psychologist; I think everyone should! We all definitely need it, and investing in a therapist is self-care, it’s an investment in yourself and your mental health. If you want to talk more about this, PLEASE let me know.
Instead, the reason why this is hard, is because I genuinely think you all need to work on these issues too. Today’s sermon is about anger. In the time that we have together now, I want to share some Biblical quotes and some statements by researchers, and I want to make you aware of one particular issue that worries me, that we should all think more about, AND more importantly act to try and change… BUT I also really want and need you to hear the underlying message about you and your emotions. Some of you may even be tempted to come up to me after services, or after the holidays, and tell me how you’ve absolutely worked on this for years and you’re in complete balance with your emotional faculties. Yesterday I talked about emodiversity, the importance of feeling a deep, rich variety of emotions, and being able to cycle between them mindfully, intentionally, and without judgment. You may want to come and tell me you’ve hit it, you are emodiverse! I’m just not sure it’s something we ever complete; we’re always a work in progress. But you can still tell me that, if you’d like.
Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, corroborated this statement nearly one hundred years ago. We are ALWAYS a work in progress was Rav Kook’s opinion as well, stating that teshuvah, repentance, is so important that if we strive for perfection, if we think we’re ever actually going to be perfect, whole, complete, and flawless, we’re actually undermining the process of teshuvah. Aiming for perfection, rather than just improvement, is actually a sin in-and-of-itself, because it somehow suggests the process of changing, evolving, and repairing has an end-goal. It doesn’t. But even if there is no perfect, final product we’re seeking, we still have to keep working on ourselves. Pirkei Avot, the 2,000 year old rabbinic work known as Ethics of Our Fathers, adamantly insists, “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Are you starting to see why these sermons were so hard to write this year? This is a TOUGH balancing act! I don’t want to convey an over-arching, macro-level message about the world and people in general; I am trying to speak to YOU. But I know that’s uncomfortable, and I know that’s a harder message to receive. Hence my borrowing from a lot of Biblical prophets, who ALSO found it hard to get through to people. I don’t think you’re TRYING to resist; I don’t imagine you’re unwilling to change or that you’re not interested in hearing this message from me, specifically. But change is hard. Change is ALWAYS hard... for all of us.
There is also a second reason why my sermons this year were more challenging to write; namely our world and our country right now. Like all of you, I have concerns and fears. (That’s kind of a peak behind the fourth wall too, but I doubt that statement comes as a shock to anyone…) But what can I say about it? How can I address the turbulence and uncertainty that is EVERYWHERE, when it’s also so divisive, and people in this room probably have strong feelings on BOTH sides of, well, EVERY issue??? Another challenging juggling act… I recognize that some people come to synagogue to find a calm from the storm, to get away from all that mess out there, to find Sanctuary. But even the very word “Sanctuary” has become political! I find it so fascinating that the term for our holiest space, our sanctuary, has become an emblem of the struggle between federal and state law, or federal ICE officials and local law enforcement, with sanctuary states and sanctuary cities. This co-opting of a word is a good analogy for my dilemma. Even our sanctuaries are no longer sanctuaries. There’s no place to hide; we are forced to engage.
Furthermore, my wife sent me an online article, written by Jan Zauzmer, a former president of a large Reform Congregation here in the Philadelphia area, entitled, “Dear Rabbis: Please Talk Politics During the High Holidays.” Zauzmer writes, “I believe this is the reason you became rabbis: TO teach the community in unsettling times. To stand up for truth when others twist facts like pretzels. To demand that those in power denounce and defeat the ugliness of neo-Nazism and racial prejudice… to cry out when, in contravention of every message in our Torah, political leaders insist that we not welcome the stranger, that we not care for the less fortunate, that we not  treat others as we want to be treated.”
She’s right. I know it, you know it… it’s just hard to stand up here, in front of all of you, and speak to political matters, even when there’s a moral and/or Biblical dimension to them. It goes against a lot of what I was taught in rabbinical school, and what some of you may think a rabbi is meant to do. But I lean on the words of a colleague and good friend of mine, the Rev. Peter Friedrichs, who is the pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Media. He said there’s a difference between being political and being partisan. We shouldn’t be partisan… but we kind of have to be political. He’s right too. I don’t want to endorse any candidates or decry any specific politician, but you and I DO need to talk about some tough, political subjects because of our moral imperative. We must! Fourth wall be damned.
All of this might make you angry. What you’ve heard so far in, essentially, the first half of my sermon, may already have made you mad and frustrated. Well, maybe that’s good. It’s all part of our emodiversity, and we need to get it out there. I censor anger in myself. It’s not a very flattering trait. We prefer to keep things level-headed, calm, in control. But anger burns hot, doesn’t it? It simmers for a while, but then starts to churn and boil. The prophet Jeremiah talked about it as “a blazing fire shut up in my bones.” We think we are in control, until we are not. And sometimes we may even be tempted to point out that our Jewish tradition frowns on anger. Our Judeo-Christian Bible has a lot to say about it, and it tells us NOT to get angry... doesn’t it? Several times in these High Holiday services, we’ve sung the 13 attributes of God, “Adonai, Adonai…” From Exodus, 34:6, one of God’s top-13 traits is “Erech Apayim,” slow to anger. See, see! The Torah says “don’t get angry”! Well, that’s not exactly what it says, does it? In actuality, the Torah is doing the opposite; it’s admitting that God DOES get angry, that anger IS a normal emotion for all of us, we just need to have some control over it, bring it into harmony with our other emotions, our other traits, and be mindful when we DO choose to bring out our anger.
The Book of Ecclesiastes does the same thing. In chapter 7, verse 9, it says: “Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, For anger resides in the bosom of fools.” We may be eager to use this too as proof that the Bible frowns on anger. But I see it as a reminder that it can get away from us. When left unchecked, when our anger rules us and we don’t rule it, it CAN make us look foolish and chaotic. But Ecclesiastes still knows it’s there. Anger isn’t an unflattering trait, it isn’t one of the “bad” emotions; it just is. And it can actually be a very powerful weapon when we need it, when we NEED to get furious, bring out our inner Incredible Hulk, and tear down injustice, oppression, and intolerance! (HULK SMASH!!)
I wonder if, like me, you do this too, if you keep the anger hidden under the surface, maybe even from yourself? It could be doing a lot of damage under there. At this High Holiday season, when we make resolutions and try to be better in the New Year, I encourage us all to dig a little bit and face some of those scary, unwanted, labeled emotions, and think about how to instead wield them as tools of creativity, kindness, and activism. Because there are REAL issues out there that SHOULD make us mad! We shouldn’t tolerate them. Let’s speak, for just a little bit, about one of them, though there are many more we could tackle. So, I still find myself mystified that climate change has become a political issue! How did it come to this? Our distrust and paranoia has gone so deep, that even the signs that our very planet is sending us, that it’s emphatically flashing at us in giant, neon-colored, billboard-sized letters, get ignored. We suffer massive hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean (poor Puerto Rico...), so-called “1,000-year storms,” and even though technically that doesn’t mean we should only get one in a millenium, it is also pretty clear that this is NOT normal. Forest fires, rising tides, massive earthquakes in Mexico, animal extinction; these are all messages, being conveyed loud and clear… but who’s listening?
Jeremiah, the prophet we mentioned earlier, stated in chapter 6, verse 10: “To whom shall I speak and give warning? No one will listen to me! Behold, their ears are closed and they cannot hear. Behold, the word of Adonai has become offensive to them; they do not want to listen at all.” Our political and business leaders do NOT want to listen. They withdraw us from international, global environmental treaties, like the Paris Accords, because they aren’t a good deal. They build giant pipelines under our homes and communities, like Sunoco’s Mariner East II, despite massive public outcry and tremendous concerns about safety hazards and environmental impacts. Even when the media DOES tackle this issue, and calls out Sunoco, the company just plows on through… literally! A few weeks ago, I wrote on my blog about Houston, and the disastrous impact of Hurricane Harvey. The damage was SO much worse, because the fourth largest city in the country has grown incredibly quickly and each new mall, each convention center, each housing development seems great. What’s the big deal? How does one more Walmart make a difference? Well, eventually the entire city is encased in concrete, one parking lot next to another, and flood waters that used to get soaked up by marshland and swamp have nowhere to go but people’s homes.
Issues like these SHOULD make us mad, they have to. Yesterday, I quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote extensively about the Biblical prophets, but also railed against injustices he saw in the world around him. Heschel wrote that we should be MORTIFIED by the inadequacy and superficiality of our own anguish when we witness the suffering of others. Exasperated, Heschel wrote: “We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.” Can this be true? And is this hard to hear? I hope so. It should be upsetting and disheartening, AND it should make you angry and want to change the script. If Heschel’s words are wrong, let’s prove him wrong, and if he’s right, well, then we have even more work to do to create a new narrative.
Let me remind you, Pirkei Avot informed us two thousand years ago - or should I say, what’s supposed to be two millenium-sized hurricanes ago - that we are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. “Lo Alecha…” We’re not going to solve climate change, but that doesn’t absolve us - any of us - from doing our part. Here at Ohev Shalom, we’ve tried to make changes with our CSA, community-supported agriculture, with recycled paper in our newsletter and less paper mailings in general, and with other energy-saving changes around the building and in our practices. It’s hard, especially with a 50+ year old facility, but we’re trying. I especially want to acknowledge our Sustainability Task Force, led by Annie Fox, that is really trying to raise awareness at Ohev and get people involved. At the end of next month, we’re doing an entire weekend on Food Waste Awareness (Oct. 20-22); you should have received flyers about it in your holiday mailings. Food waste is another massive issue in this country, and the statistics on this are staggering. We can’t fix this issue, but we still don’t get a free pass either. Rav Kook reminded us, don’t aim for perfection! Nevertheless, we all have to do our part, and we need to take ownership of our communities, our country, and our planet.
One of the very first commandments in the entire Torah comes in the story of Creation, directed to the original humans in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 1:28, God blessed them and said: “ Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it.” “Subdue it,” “Chivshuha,” what a terrible word. What horrendous damage it has caused throughout our history. A single word that gave us, human beings, license to destroy the earth at will, to encase its marshlands in concrete or bury a pipeline full of explosive natural gas liquids in its soil. In his book, “Judaic Ethics for a Lawless World,” Robert Gordis talks about the traditional Christian understanding of this verse, for centuries upon centuries, and how it was “giving men the license to use and abuse the natural world and its resources as they see fit, without limitation or restriction.” Gordis writes about how misguided this is, how it fundamentally misunderstood our relationship to our world, and our obligation to be stewards, guardians, keepers of our earth.
Two years ago, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, published an environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, in which he too referred specifically to this infuriating verse in Genesis, this one devastating word. We humans, wrote the pope, broke our covenant with God. “The harmony between the Creator, humanity, and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to ‘subdue the earth.’” We got it wrong, and we’re still getting it wrong. And that SHOULD make us angry. But what are we going to do about our anger? We can’t ignore it, but we also can’t let it explode like a fire from inside our bones, or like an oil rig burning combustable material.
Maybe, instead, we can be Erech Apayim, slow to anger. We can let it build and develop, so that we can both control it and direct it where it needs to go. But we MUST direct it; we need to make use of it and break down the walls of our superficial, inadequate anguish. Our Sustainability Team needs your efforts and your passion. The people of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean need our help, but they also need to be careful and intentional when they rebuild so as not to keep perpetuating their, and our mistakes. And we all need to hold our lawmakers and leaders accountable for the decisions they make and the oaths they’ve sworn to uphold.  Maybe Climate Change isn’t your thing, and you have other concerns at the top of your list. That’s ok. There are LOTS of causes and issues that need our attention, our energy, and our angry tools of change. But we DO need to get involved and become more informed and more intentional. This is me, pushing you, to strive a little more in the year ahead. Rav Kook reminded us we don’t need to be perfect. I know you aren’t, and believe me, neither am I. It’s just that, it’s not a good enough excuse. We are simply not free to desist from this task.
On Rosh Hashanah we sing “Ha-Yom Harat Olam,” “Today the world was created.” It is the birthday of our planet. Is that a scientific fact? No, it isn’t. But it IS a day to think about our world and our role in relationship to it. We are stewards of this place. God has entrusted us with it; not to take God’s place, but be partners with God and with the very planet itself. Please take that partnership and that stewardship seriously; don’t waste it. That would make me angry. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…
Shanah Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Day 1, 5778

As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is the sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah. Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!

Shanah Tovah!

“Adonai, do not Your Eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; You have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent… In vain I have struck Your children; but they would not respond to my discipline; Your own swords have devoured Your prophets like a ravenous lion.”

These are the words of Jeremiah, the ancient prophet. He was speaking to, and about, the Israelites more than 2,500 years ago, and how they refused to listen to him, despite all the warnings he gave them about their sinning, idolatry, and mistreatment of the disenfranchised in society. They never did change their ways, and destruction befell them. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the people enslaved. So why, you may ask, did I begin my sermon with these words from Jeremiah? Is this the fire-and-brimstone sermon you’ve never heard me give?? Well, I guess that remains to be seen.
Let me say this: I am not a prophet. I am not claiming to have seen visions or to have heard God’s Voice. But I have never before felt, the way I do today in 2017, the true nature of the prophetic dilemma, of seeing REALLY challenging, disconcerting things going on in society around me and wrestling with how to speak up, while not knowing how I could possibly keep silent. I have never previously felt, the way I do right here, right now, the urgent need to speak out about so many critical issues; the complexities of Israeli politics, our and my attitudes on interfaith marriage, condemning racism and bigotry in America, the surprising thorniness of acknowledging climate change, or voicing a clear opinion about immigration and dreamers. Again, I am not a prophet. Although, what is a prophet really anyway? To our own detriment, I think we all completely and utterly misunderstand the purpose of prophecy.
Prophets predict the future, right? They hear voices in their heads and dream fantastical dreams of reanimating bones and the End of Days. They perform miracles and battle idolaters, and even sometimes, on rare occasions, breathe oxygen into a lifeless body and bring it back from the dead. If those are the criteria, I am WOEFULLY underqualified. I once had a cool dream about being able to fly, but that’s pretty much the extent of it. But here’s the thing: All of that stuff does grab our attention, and it’s memorable… but NONE of it is actually at the core of the prophetic mission, not today and not even in Biblical times. Everything I just listed is a bunch of special effects. Hocus-pocus and impressive explosions, designed to make for a good story, to keep the listener and the reader engaged. But THAT is NOT the function or purpose of the prophet. Fundamentally, a prophet is a social critic. If they’re showing you visions of a terrifying future, it’s to scare you about what may be IF you don’t change NOW! And when they offer promises of a utopian future, it’s meant to comfort and give hope, when today is too depressing to face. But more than anything else, a prophet holds up a mirror to all of us today, and says “Look! Please, you have to look. You need to see what I see... what God sees.”
In 1962, Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest philosophers of his time, published a book entitled, “The Prophets.” I acknowledge, by the way, that I quote Heschel to you nearly every year, but his words so often just speak to me, and so by extension they speak to you as well. In his book, Heschel describes prophets like this (and I’ll preface this quote by saying it’s from 1962, so gender-neutrality wasn’t a thing. I personally avoid using “he” and “him” to mean “person,” so I apologize, but I also didn’t feel I should edit the quote.) Heschel writes: “The prophet’s words are outbursts of violent emotions. His rebuke is harsh and relentless. But if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails? … The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed... Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”
Right now, you might be thinking to yourselves, “Huh, I guess the rabbi’s theme this year is prophecy… also, he’s a little fiery this year!” Well, I thought about making prophecy my theme, but decided against it. I WILL be talking a lot about prophetic voice and prophetic call TOO, but there’s another message I feel compelled to convey to you all. My theme this year is the word “harmony.” But I’m also going to do things a little differently this year, and I’m not going to use that actual theme word itself again until my final sermon on Yom Kippur. In sermons 2 and 3 I will ALSO tell you that the theme is “harmony,” but I won’t explain WHY until Saturday morning next week. Just keep the word “harmony” in the back of your minds, and let it simmer there for a bit. Perhaps decide for yourself why you think the theme is “harmony,” and then we’ll compare notes and reveal our conclusions to one another on Yom Kippur.
When I first sat down to start writing my High Holiday sermons for this year, and I found myself reflecting back to last Rosh Hashanah, I could not get over how different the world seems. Has it really been only ONE year? We were on the precipice of an election, and probably could not have imagined how deeply affected and impacted we all would be by it. We thought it was important… but we had no idea. It began with a change in the White House, but it has since led to the creation of many movements, and groups, and rallies, and marches, and protests, and conspiracy theories, and more and more. But it actually goes back further still. In recent years, a wave of fear seems to have spread, not just across the country but around the globe. We’re afraid of Muslims, immigrants, or terrorists - or to make it easier we are tempted to just conflate them all, and make those three categories into synonyms of one another. Or perhaps we fear the spread of white nationalism, anti-Semitism, or other hate groups. Add to these fears, the damage caused by hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and nuclear threats, and all of it is enough to make us want to crawl back under the covers and NEVER come out again.
It’s also painful, because we’ve been here before. The Jewish people, that is. Jews KNOW these emotions of fear and uncertainty, and we’ve known worse. In the year 587 BCE - 2,600 years ago - the Holy Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. This was Jeremiah’s reality. The city was laid waste, and most of the Jews were dragged off into slavery in Babylon. So I guess if we compare ourselves to that moment, we’re doing ok… mostly? At that lowest point, in the pit of despair, another prophet emerged named Isaiah, who softly consoled the people, telling them: “Comfort, oh comfort, My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her warfare has ended, her sins have been pardoned.” (Isa. 40:1-2) Chaverim - dear friends - I too want to offer comfort. Not because I have the answer to our concerns, or the cure for what ails our society; but because comfort and compassion and unity are the strength and courage of our Jewish people, and even when we can’t see it, they are also at the very core of our American values as a nation. I know they feel hidden right now, but they ARE there. Compassion helps us keep pushing forward. We unite together, we gather our resources, we reach out a hand to help another, and together we look for new ways and paths, and we continue climbing. We KNOW that whatever gets thrown at us, natural disasters and more, we will overcome. We will persevere, and emerge stronger.
Now, here is the reason why my theme this year is NOT prophecy. This isn’t about hearing an external voice that prods you along. It isn’t about waiting for someone else - like a Jeremiah, an Isaiah, or even some rabbi on a bimah that’s really WAY too high up in the air - to hold up a mirror to your face. Who’s got time for that? We can’t wait for mirrors! There’s work to do right now. So what I REALLY want to talk to you about is the importance of being grounded. Heschel told us the prophet “feels fiercely.” We need to do that too. All of us! It is essential that we feel all of our emotions. Each of my sermons, these High Holidays, will focus on one emotion that I don’t think we emphasize enough; both on the happy end of the spectrum, and the sad end. We don’t feel them fully, and we are weaker for it. And we need to be strong. We allow ourselves to be numb to pain and suffering, but honestly we censor joy as well. We can’t help it! We are then left with what Heschel called “abysmal indifference,” and we need to shake ourselves out of that lethargy. That’s what the shofar call is trying to do; rouse us awake! That’s also why I began with that sharp quote from Jeremiah; to provoke you to feel SOMETHING! Even if you didn’t like what you heard! And right now, today, as we take a deep, deep breath and prepare for the year ahead, we need to be strong. We need to have courage and pride in ourselves, we need to resist fear and fear-mongering, and then when it’s thrown back at us - because it will be - we have to resist it again and again and again. To-Day, we need ALL of our emotions.
When we are afraid, we must face it head-on, and say it out loud: “I’m really afraid right now.” You don’t have to have solutions; just naming it IS powerful. You’ll be surprised. When we are sad, we can’t hold that back and pretend we’re fine. We do that constantly. I see people doing it ALL THE TIME! But it’s hurting us. It’s hurting you. Tomorrow, I want to talk about the power of anger, a power that we fear and run from - that I fear and run from in myself - when we all need to know it fully. And on Yom Kippur I also want to celebrate the immense energy we can draw from yearning, from longing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s feel something else, fiercely, right now.
In the time I have remaining, I want to focus on the emotion of joy, happiness. I should probably state that clearly, because it’s possible that up until now this hasn’t felt like the most joyful of sermons. I recognize that. Nevertheless, I persist. This may not be a moment in many of our lives when we’re feeling immense happiness. I know scary, hateful sentiments in the public debate are a reality. Shouts of “Jews will not replace us!” have sent shivers down all our spines, either because we’ve heard it before, or we thought we’d never have to hear it in our lifetime. But let me offer a slightly different read: We also live at a moment in human history - in Jewish history - when we genuinely feel we have the right to expect our government to denounce anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism. Even if and when we don’t get to hear that as clearly as we would like, take a moment and recognize that our Jewish ancestors NEVER had the luxury of expecting the leaders of their host countries to decry their oppressors. Today we get to yell back at elected officials: “You aren’t doing enough, you’re not saying enough! I need more!” Just that fact, alone, is incredible. Millenia of our ancestors NEVER knew that feeling.
And this is precisely my point about joy or gratitude. In times of fear and hate, we need to INSIST on feeling positive emotions as well, and feeling them fiercely. Too often, when good things happen, we mitigate them. We say, “I had a really good day today... but if I name it, if I declare it out loud, I’m going to jinx it, and something bad will happen.” Or we say, “I had a great summer… but now I’m feeling stressed or tired, or I didn’t get as much done as I’d like to have.” I do this too! I’m not exempting myself in any way. We don’t allow ourselves to say something positive, because we fear we’ll sound too naive or maybe pollyanna-ish. We mute our emotion of joy, of fully experiencing happiness and NAMING it when it happens, maybe out of superstition, or being jaded or cynical. Take a moment now to feel gratitude for this day, for this service, this community. Just feel it, if even for a second. I’ll wait. Happiness, strangely enough, is hard! We don’t let ourselves feel it fully. And if we can’t be present to, and mindful of, our joy, we’re not going to be able to handle grief and rage either.
A good friend of mine is a rabbi in San Francisco, Rabbi Corey Helfand. We were sharing sermon ideas and themes, and he told me about a sermon of his from a couple of years ago. In his sermon, Rabbi Helfand referred to a term that scientists coined: “emodiversity.” He quoted an article in Greater Good Magazine, entitled “Variety is the Spice of Emotional Life,” in which the author, Kira Newman, argued that “[we need to] live our lives feeling a variety of emotions, positive and negative, balancing things like amusement, awe and gratitude with ones like anger, anxiety, and sadness.” Rabbi Helfand also cited Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught a course at Harvard called “The Science of Happiness.” Dr. Ben-Shahar suggested that we need to “[give] ourselves permission to be human.  When we accept emotions such as fear, sadness or anxiety as natural, we are more likely to overcome them.  Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.”
We need to be more grounded; we need to cultivate emodiversity. Can we ALLOW ourselves to just be human? It sounds so easy, but it’s really quite difficult to do. And to keep doing. There is no question that there are terrible forces at work around the world, but we cannot match hate with hate. The answer is also not to wall ourselves off, figuratively or literally, and hide under our proverbial covers. No, we have to face those fears and those powerful emotions. We insist on feeling joy, on embracing challenges because we KNOW they will make us stronger and more resolute. Let’s pick a prominent issue where this plays out right now: Today we are challenged by the needs of immigrants and refugees. There are countries like Syria and Afghanistan that are forcing people to flee en masse, and lately we can add Myanmar to that terrible list as well. Millions of people are refugees now, who just a few years ago (or weeks ago…) were not . But in response, we see people like Marin Le Pen in France or President Erdogan [Erdowan] in Turkey, or frankly politicians in the country where I grew up, in Sweden, as well as here in the United States, who respond by shutting borders and instituting bans. That’s fear talking! But what does the prophetic voice inside us all say to that? It is begging us to open our arms wide. Is it scary? Sure! But we must. If we turn away from their plight, are we not the ones Jeremiah railed against, turning our faces into stone, refusing to repent?
We cannot, we must not. I know it’s hard. I do. The sheer mass of people in question is intimidating and overwhelming. And yet, we need to push back. In a moment where we COULD turn to anger or sadness, we must raise up our joy and gratitude. I KNOW this feels like a strange moment to do so. But as the descendants of immigrants - all of us - we need to celebrate the myriad blessings and gifts and contributions of ALL immigrants to this country, to be strengthened in the truth that we know to be real; that immigration is vital to every nation around the world. Our Torah DEMANDS of us that we welcome the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Every year, we are especially reminded of that when we celebrate, sing, laugh, and eat at the Passover table. Joy mixed with obligation. We WERE those immigrants, and now it’s our turn to give back. It is THE theme of Pesach, and it’s a central tenet of Judaism; it cannot be ignored.
Across the world there is a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Our prophets - ancient and modern - remind us that kindness towards the stranger isn’t an option. It’s a must. It’s who we are. Frankly, it isn’t even about that other person, it’s about elevating goodness and compassion in ourselves. Treating others, ALL others, the way we ourselves want to be treated. God forbid there’s a hurricane here, and our homes are washed away and we become nomads seeking sanctuary and kindness, we would want others to welcome us. We would want to be cared for, and helped to stand back up and rebuild. We need to embody all of that TODAY. Our faces and our hearts cannot be hard as rock… waiting until the moment we need help, and then we seek compassion. That is too late. Now is the time, this is the place.
This may feel like a scary moment. I know there are so many reasons to despair. But I have also seen so many examples of kindness and courage - in people helping one another in Houston and Florida, in people organizing and speaking out against hate and intolerance, and in communities reaching out to welcome immigrants, and refusing to turn on those who are already here, including the Dreamers. I believe, in my heart, that we need to lift ourselves up. We need to cultivate our emodiversity, and not buy into the narrative that being positive means we’re ignoring the problems in the world. No, we need to feel our gratitude and our joy and our kindness towards others, so that we can battle against that abysmal indifference, so we can stop feeling numb.
Maybe you don’t agree with me. Maybe you’re feeling something radically different right now, at this moment. But that’s actually good too. You’re feeling SOMETHING; go with that! These High Holidays, let’s take on some thorny issues together, and express our emotions authentically. Even, and perhaps especially, when they clash. I think for many of us, it’s a muscle we haven’t flexed in a long time. But there are too many things happening around the world for us to remain apathetic. We cannot afford it any longer. Over the summer, I signed on to a statement together with over 2,000 rabbis around the country, crafted by the wonderful organizaion, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). Though founded in 1881 specifically to help Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, today they advocate on behalf of all refugees, proudly embodying our Jewish values. In the statement I signed, we collectively declared: “As Rabbis, we take seriously the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger.” Grounded in our history and values, we will continue to raise our voices in support of refugees and call on our great nation to uphold a legacy of welcome.” You can read more on their website, hias.org.
This is our mandate as well. All of us. I need you to do something for me. Go home (well, not right now, services aren’t over yet! But after we’re done, Go home), and consider two messages: First, think about my theme for this year, give yourself permission to be human, contemplate your own emodiversity, focusing today on joy and gratitude, and challenge yourself to flex a new emotional muscle. And second, let us listen for the prophetic voices inside ourselves - whether rebuking Jeremiahs, comforting Isaiahs, or urging Heschels - let’s all challenge ourselves to truly feel something, to feel it fiercely, and let it spur us to action. We ignore those prophetic voices - outside and inside - too much. It’s time to make a change. Listen to the sound of the shofar, rouse yourself, and let’s get to work.
Shanah Tovah!