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,
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!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shanah Tovah - A Message for the New Year

Greetings, friends.

I will not be writing a specific blog post for the High Holidays, though in the next couple of weeks I WILL be posting my High Holiday sermons. So keep on the lookout for those. In the meantime, I wanted to take a moment and wish you all a:

Image result for shanah tovah

So much has changed since last Rosh Hashanah; the world almost looks entirely different. And just in the last few weeks, we've felt the awesome power of nature in the form of hurricanes, storm surges, and earthquakes. We do not know what the year ahead will bring, but we pray fervently for peace, harmony, tranquility, courage, unity, strength, acceptance, and all good things. We cannot predict the future, but we can fortify ourselves for its inevitable challenges, and open ourselves up to its joys, blessings, and opportunities. Let us each work on ourselves a little bit more, and strive to love those around us with a bit more honesty, vulnerability, humility, and gratitude. 

Image result for ‫שנה טובה שופר‬‎

May it truly be a Shanah Tovah u'Metukah, a Happy, Healthy, Sweet, and Blessed New Year. 

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Jeremy Gerber

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Hiding Underneath the Diamonds

I love it when the Torah is cryptic. Most of the time, it just seems like any other book, especially if/when we focus on the English translation. But occasionally
we are given little hints and clues that it really is an ancient book, filled with mysterious, strange, and obscure details that are trying to tell us... something? This weekend, as we conduct the Selichot service on Saturday evening to officially begin the High Holiday season, and as we make final preparations for Rosh Hashanah, and as we also contemplate the many challenges we're facing around the world and in our country; one of those enigmatic little cryptic messages has leapt out at me. It's almost imperceptible, yet vitally important. At first glance, it is literally hidden between the lines of our text, yet upon further examination, we realize it's actually shouting a message at us that we simply can't ignore. I certainly won't.

Sometimes the mysteries can be found in odd word choices or peculiar phrases. Syntax errors and seeming grammar mistakes are actually messages with hidden meanings. Well, at least we can choose to read them that way.
And other times, the secrets are not concealed in meaning, but in the written text itself. For instance, a particular letter is written larger than the others around it, and every time new scrolls are commissioned, scribes know to print that unique letter in that special way. Tradition tells us it MUST be enlarged. Elsewhere in the Torah, a letter may be smaller than the "normal text," while another letter has an intentional crack in it. And believe it or not, ALL scrolls have these same "flaws." One of my favorite examples is a set of little diamonds. In just a handful of places throughout the entire Torah scroll, tradition tells us that a specific sequence of letters are to be written with tiny, black rhombuses added above them. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

We don't KNOW, with any certainty, why they are there. They just are. But one thing is for sure, we (rabbis, mainly) use this opportunity to zero in on these letters and/or words and offer interpretations. Hey, it's what rabbis do best! I am, of course, mentioning all this now because this week's Torah portion offers a particularly
poignant example. In Deuteronomy, 29:28, the Torah tells us: "The secret things (?) belong to Adonai our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." In that verse, the words "to us and to our children" - "Lanu ul'Vaneinu" - have diamonds over each letter... in EVERY Torah scroll around the world. Of course, we may also ask ourselves, what the heck is the text talking about here??? A fair question. I'll offer you my interpretation: Society can only govern behavior that is seen and known, or (if initially hidden) that ultimately comes to light. But we KNOW there's more going on behind closed doors or whispered off-camera. The Torah is saying that we are STILL responsible for those actions, and will eventually be held accountable. If, say, you pledge a donation but never make good on it, you might think no one will find out. But God will know... and there is reckoning to be had, even if it has to wait until we reach The Other Side.

But as ominous as that part sounds, I'm actually more concerned about the second half of the sentence; the rhombus-ed part. Why are these words, "us and our children" singled out? We can't control the secret "stuff" that happens. But we - and
according to the text, our children (and children's children, and so on) - are responsible for everything else. We must govern justly, and we must speak up against immoral behavior. God is "only" in charge of the unseen; we simply MUST take responsibility for ourselves and one another in our society. The text even puts an extra exclamation point on this lesson, with glistening (sort of) diamonds to make us pay attention! As we enter the holiday season, and sit surrounded by Jews and fellow congregants in the hundreds, we need to recognize the power we have as a community. We need to see ourselves as obligated to care for our neighbors and indeed our entire world, because NO ONE ELSE is going to do it for us. And there's no better time than the present. We need to step up, and we need to set for ourselves a gold standard. Or maybe it's a diamond-standard?

Shanah Tovah u'Metukah - I wish you all a Happy, Healthy, (Revealed), and Sweet New Year!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Mizunoryu on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Lokal Profil on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of Deut. 29:28 (Blue arrow indicates where the "diamonds" begin)
4. CC image courtesy of Wiktor Brodzki on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ki Tavo: God. And You?

Let's spend a little time talking about God. One of the things that I, as a rabbi, hear most often is that we don't talk about God enough in Judaism. Or at least not
in the Conservative Movement. Sure, we pray to God all the time. But do we TALK about God? Or perhaps the question should really be, vulnerably- and intimately-speaking, do we talk about our own, personal, unique, relationships with God? With the High Holidays around the corner, and with some seemingly conflicting God-references in our Torah portion, it seemed to me like the perfect time to chat about the Creator of the Universe. So let's start with an interesting question: Where is God?

Our parashah, Ki Tavo, knows the answer. It begins by instructing the Israelites that, when they enter the Holy Land (in the very near future), they are going to have
to bring sacrifices to God. The text tells us: "you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil... put it in a basket, and go to the place where God has chosen to cause God's Name to dwell" (Deut. 26:2). What does that second half of the verse even mean? God's Name is a "thing"? It has its own address? The Torah seems to be saying that God doesn't live there - in the Temple - it's "just" the place where God's Name resides. But then later in this same section, we are told that the priest puts the basket "in front of the altar of Adonai, your God." (v. 4) And soon after, the text adds, "You shall leave it (the offering) before Adonai, your God,  and bow low before Adonai, your God." (v. 10) So is God in the Temple or not?!?

To confuse us further, our parashah adds, just a few verses later, that the Israelite worshiper should add this blessing: "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel..." (v. 15)
So God is IN the Temple, but not in the Temple, also in heaven, and only God's Name dwells in the Temple, but God is everywhere. Good, I'm glad we cleared that up. I guess one thing that may be comforting about these mixed messages is that our ancient ancestors were as ambivalent about God as many of us are today. Sometimes we feel God's close, intimate presence... and sometimes God is as far away as can be; if we even feel that God exists at all. Our High Holiday liturgy (also arriving in the very near future...) reflects this tension, when we first sing "Ki Anu Amecha, v'Atah Eloheinu" - "You are our God and we are Your people," which exuberantly lauds our close bond with Adonai! Then, on the very next page, we beat our chest and declare we have sinned and are far, far removed from the Divine. Back and forth we go, in an endless roller-coaster ride of emotions.

I began by asking about the personal relationships we each have - or don't have - with God, and I want to come back to that. What complicates this so much is that it's deeply personal and hard to change. If you feel God's Presence in your life,
you just do! And if you don't, it's incredibly hard, I would even say impossible, for anyone else to persuade you, or to somehow prove something incontrovertible about God. But I would also say that faith can be like any other muscle in our body. If you don't exercise it, you almost don't even know it's there. So have you tried flexing your faith muscles lately? Have you asked yourself these challenges belief questions, and opened yourself up to the possibility that you COULD have a relationship with God? In our parashah, we get lost in all the location-confusion, but at its core, our text is about gratitude. We are thankful to be alive, to be in good health, and to have sustenance for which we can be SO appreciative. And sometimes our utterance of "thanks" can be directional - TO God - and sometimes it's just expressed out loud, to no one in particular. As you prepare for this High Holiday season, try a little light stretching of a "muscle" you might not have used in a while. Is there room in there to talk about God, and maybe even to say a prayer or two? I guess we won't know until you try. It's time to start warming up...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Stebbes87 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Gila Brand on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Boris23 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Sumita Roy Dutta on Wikimedia Commons