Thursday, September 13, 2018

High Holidays 5779 - Rosh Hashanah, Day Two

Included below is my main sermon for the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Day Two. To read additional sermons from this year's holidays, go to the drop-down list on the right hand side of the screen. Or from the main page, you can keep scrolling down. Thanks!


Rosh Hashanah 5779 - Day 2, Main Sermon
Shanah Tovah!
I have to tell you, perfect faith is just the greatest. Man, it is SO easy. You just KNOW, you know? No doubts, no questions, no messiness... no problem. Just perfect, unflinching, impenetrable, rock-solid FAITH. Yesterday, I told you that my theme for this year, for all my main High Holiday sermons, is Radical Honesty. So... I should probably share with you that I, your rabbi, your spiritual leader here at Ohev Shalom, most definitely do NOT have perfect faith. I have FAITH. I feel, deep inside me, that there is a God, and I honestly always have. I distinctly remember being a child, walking along a dirt road at the Jewish summer camp, Glämsta, outside Stockholm, and the question of whether God is real just popped into my head.
I recall, so clearly, asking “Do YOU exist?” Even then, right there on that Swedish island, I knew that because I was in dialogue WITH God, not asking about the existence of a Deity to no one in particular, that I had faith. And that part of my beliefs has remained in tact... but it ain’t perfect. I grapple with it. All the time, in fact. My faith IS “Yisrael.” The verb, not the noun, Yisrael literally means “One who wrestles with God”! It is our very name!! My theology is FILLED with doubt, endless questions, and messiness like you wouldn’t believe. It’s not perfect… but it is TRUE.
Yesterday, I also told you that a key word for us this year is “Emet,” the word for “truth” in Hebrew. I shared with you that Emet features heavily in the Shacharit service, the morning prayers, where it actually functions as a powerful link, joining together the Shema and Amidah prayers. Well, Emet pops up in other places too. A few days ago, I was bouncing sermon ideas off Rabbi Miller, who - by the way - is just a fabulous chevruta, a partner for study, discussion, and all manner of rabbi-nerding-out. (If you haven’t seen us since last High Holidays, you might have missed that she had a second child, Ezra, and was out on maternity leave. But believe me, those of us who with her every day DEFINITELY felt her absence! And it is SO NICE to have her back!!) Anyway, Rabbi Miller reminded me of two terrific instances of Emet that I need to bring in to this sermon, as well as a third that, by virtue of not being Hebrew, I want to “save” for a bit later… but believe me, it adds a significant punch, and hopefully a bit of a shofar-blast-of-a-wake-up to our conversation.
As I mentioned at the start of this sermon, perfect faith is just great. So much so, in fact, that our great ancestor, Maimonides, the Rambam, who lived over 800 years ago, put together a helpful list of THE Principles of Jewish Faith. That list could really help us all hone in on what Jews believe, and what they SHOULD believe. Very practical. And, when Rambam proposed his list, lo those many centuries ago, it was resoundingly rejected! Why? Because we simply are NOT a religion that mandates faith. Even the great Rambam couldn’t force Jews to agree on what we believe; talk about your Yisrael, wrestling not only with God, but with anyone who tries to pin down our thoughts! But in honor of Maimonides’ great stature, his principles WERE included in our prayers… just at the VERY end, preserved as a little ditty with no ritual, halachic status, known as Yigdal. So kind of an honor, but also kind of a slight (or as the millenials would say: the rabbis threw some shade on Maimonides…).
In Yigdal, included in Rambam’s perfect-faith-checklist, our noted ancestor declares, “Torat EMET natan l’amo.” God gave us a Torah of TRUTH. And this same phrase is echoed again in the closing blessing that each of our Torah honorees recited after their aliyah this morning: “Asher natan lanu Torat Emet…” So what is a “Torah of Truth”? Or THE Torah of Truth? And this, I feel, is REALLY a key question: Is truth just a synonym for fact? When we state that ours is a Torah of Truth, do we mean it’s 100% accurate, flawless, Divine, unquestionable, and perfect??? Is that what Torat Emet means? That would be nice, wouldn’t it? So easy. Don’t think; just follow all of it. Gotta love that perfect faith, right? Unfortunately, it most definitely is not. Truth and Fact are NOT synonyms. I am so certain of this, that I want it to be your sound byte for today. Please do not forget this when you leave here today: Truth and Fact are NOT synonyms. Our Torah is True… but it never ACTUALLY purports to be fact, it never claims to present statistics or science, and it most definitely does not represent all-encompassing, all-knowing, and unchangeable firm-and-cold-as-granite decrees.
Why do I say that so confidently? Because my theology won’t allow me to think of it any other way. I’m just speaking for me here; I’m not telling you what to believe. Let me add that second source (of three) that Rabbi Miller contributed; the Haftarah blessings. A few minutes before I began my sermon, Julie Silverstein chanted a beautiful Haftarah for us, as she’s done many, many times, and after the Haftarah text itself was over, Julie recited the traditional blessings that always follow. In there, she sang the phrase, “She-kol devarav EMET va’tzedek.” “ALL of God’s words are true AND just.” Everything we read in the Torah text, as well as in the Tanach, the entire Jewish Bible is BOTH entirely TRUE, AND it is filled with Tzedek, meaning compassion, kindness, justice, and righteousness. Well, if “true” means “fact,” we’ve got a problem.
If you read the text, and you don’t even honestly have to dig that deep, and you examine the commandments pronounced by the Biblical author, you find things like stoning a person to death for gathering sticks on Shabbat, forcing a woman who has been raped to marry her assailant, and killing an underaged child for disobeying his or her parents. If we’re being radically honest, these are the facts. In our Torah reading this morning, God unequivocally demanded that Abraham sacrifice - meaning murder - his own child as a sign of his faith. I’ll step out on a controversial limb here and say, I don’t like that story. That is NOT my faith. So if “true” means “fact,” and these are the facts of our Torah… it is NOT righteous, compassionate, and kind. It simply is NOT.
Now this, this moment right here, is precisely what to me is meant by “Yisrael.” This is us wrestling with God, grappling with our Torah, and kicking and shoving our Tradition and demanding that it stand up to our scrutiny - ‘True’ and ‘Fact’ and ‘Righteous’ simply do NOT all work here. One has got to give. So this is it! We are Yisrael right now, with God proverbially and definitely-not heretically trapped in a headlock!! And if we’re embodying Yisrael, the TRUE meaning of our name, let us also take on modern-day Yisrael, the land, the people, the state, and yes, the government of Israel.
Last year, I laid the groundwork for what I intend to say to you today. I want to double down on a phrase that I used a year ago, which a number of people found hard to hear. I said: “I love Israel… but right now it does NOT love me back.” A few people tried to comfort me, soothe me, and convince me I was wrong. They sent photos and video clips of thousands of people dancing on the Kotel plaza, or standing on the tarmac waiting to greet new immigrants just making aliyah to Israel for the very first time. Thousands upon thousands of smiling faces, singing and dancing. Embracing one another and welcoming new olim, new immigrants with open arms. “See!” my comforters declared. “Tangible proof that Israel does love you!” Indisputable facts…
My friends. My dear Ohev family. My beloved congregation… Israel does not love me back. And I say this as someone who in a matter of weeks will be taking 40 people to Israel! (... and who sincerely hopes no one backs out as a result of this speech; Alan Schapire would kill me!) This will be my third trip as your spiritual leader, and as your tour guide with a silly hat. I LOVE Israel. I need you to know that. Our upcoming trip is going south, to some of my most favorite places in Eretz Yisrael; Sde Boker (Ben Gurion’s kibbutz), Machtesh Ramon (the great crater), Kibbutz Keturah, and the Arava desert. I won’t stop going, I won’t stop loving our homeland… and yet I also need to be radically honest with you, and challenge you to be radically honest with me and with yourselves, and state truly that Israel does NOT currently love us in return.
I NEED you to hear some of the facts. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to these things and still claim to have a genuine - and true - relationship with Israel.
  • A year ago, in September, 2017 - After a LONG negotiation, the Israeli government ultimately backed out of a deal regarding the creation of fair and equal prayer spaces by the Kotel, the Western Wall. Every month, women (and men) continue to this day to be attacked for praying. Some radical opponents go so far as to grab and throw the women’s Torah scroll to the ground, because they say it’s unclean in their hands. Instead of challenging the harassers, the police often do nothing to deescalate the violence, and have - on multiple occasions - arrested THE WOMEN for disturbing the peace.
  • Last year also, in September, an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz indicated that almost 900 Israelis were added in 2015 and 2016 to the list of “unmarriageable” individuals, according to Israeli rabbinical court. These are people who were Jewish enough to become citizens, to be allowed to escape oppression in their countries of origin, but then, once they arrive, the orthodox courts scrutinized their status. In all cases, these were individuals who were previously registered as Jewish, but whom the courts then hounded and investigated, and ultimately decided to declare ‘unmarriageable,’ meaning they are no longer considered Jewish, possibly years after their arrival. Now, you might stop and think “900 individuals, that doesn’t sound THAT high.” However, from 1954, when the list was created, until 2014, only around 3,000 names had been added. So for 60 years it only grew to 3,000, then it jumped 22 percent in just the last two years!!
  • I want to mention a couple of individual cases as well, that I find painful to discuss. In February of this year, it was reported that Israel continues to deny a student visa to a man named Yehuda Kimani, who is seeking to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Kimani, a Kenyan Jewish leader, was converted by the Conservative movement. Last December, he was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport and deported, despite having a valid visa signed personally by the Israeli ambassador to Nairobi. At the time, Amos Arbel, director of the Israeli Population Registry and Status Department reportedly said, "...to us, he is a goy from Kenya."
  • I know it’s uncomfortable to discuss, but I need to stay with this unpleasant theme of the intersection of bias against non-orthodox groups and racist undertones. Just a few months ago, in June, Israel’s Interior Ministry rejected the aliyah application of Kibita Yosef, a member of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, currently in Israel as a volunteer on a kibbutz. This decision reverses over two decades of government policy that has conferred Jewish status for purposes of immigration and citizenship on those who convert abroad through a major Jewish movement. It is not only an affront to the Abayudaya, but also to the entire worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.
  • Over the summer, this oppression went even further. Two months ago, in July, a colleague of mine was arrested. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun isn’t just a fellow Conservative rabbi, I actually studied with Dubi in Israel in 2006. AND, when our Ohev Israel trip went to Haifa in 2011, we met with Dubi in his synagogue! Well, Rabbi Haiyun was awoken at 5:30 am by police pounding on his door, like some sting operation, and he was subsequently arrested for the "crime" of officiating at a wedding outside the authority of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Haiyun potentially faces two years in prison for officiating at this wedding. The non-orthodox world has loudly voiced its protestations, but the charges against Rabbi Haiyun have not yet been dropped.
  • Over the summer, government officials also began stopping people at the airport - such as the journalist Peter Beinart and the philanthropist and activist Meyer Koplow - when their political beliefs did not align with the current government. These are not terrorists or people feared to be potentially aggressive or violent; they simply speak out when they don’t agree with something. They wrestle with injustice, and challenge the status quo… and Israel is saying ‘no more wrestling match. When you enter Ben Gurion airport, you adopt our perfect and flawless faith, or you can turn right around and leave.’
  • And finally, I need to grapple briefly with the government’s declaration of a nation-state law, just a few weeks ago. In many ways, it was meant as just a reaffirmation of Zionist ideals: This is a Jewish state. The language is Hebrew. The calendar is the Jewish one. But it left out one crucial, vitally essential detail, namely proclaiming the equality of all citizens. “Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and upholds equal rights for all its citizens” … is what it SHOULD have said. That is NOT the text of the law that ultimately passed. That was the proposal of Benny Begin, a member of Knesset who appealed to Netanyahu to say something - anything - to include the Druze, Arab-Israeli, Christian, Armenian, atheist, and all other groups for whom the designation ‘Jew’ just didn’t apply. To no avail. This new declaration, rammed through by a slim majority, says nothing about Jewish and Democratic values co-existing side by side.
    So, those are the facts. These are things that have occurred, and these are issues we cannot ignore. But I know they also do NOT reflect the larger TRUTH of what Israel is, and what she means to us. Again, Yisrael, we need to stay and wrestle with this. I have also come to realize that we can skew too far one way or the other, and both get us in trouble. If you ONLY look at the facts, you may judge Israel to be an oppressive regime, an apartheid state, a threat to world peace. And if you only honor your own truth about Israel, you defend her blindly, unwilling to consider the appalling actions of her government. You decry others who would raise these concerns as “self-hating Jews” and even - God forbid - kapos, referencing the Jews who did the Nazis’ bidding in the concentration camps. Both positions are extremes; both are missing the heart of what Israel stands for. One cannot survive without the other.
When Rabbi Miller and I were discussing our theme, Emet, she also brought in a third example, but this one is particularly interesting. On Saturday morning, we stand before the open Ark and sing together before taking out the Torah scrolls. The song is “Bei Ana Racheitz,” and in that paragraph, just before we sing, we read: “[we rely on] the God of Truth; whose Torah is true, whose prophets are true, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth.” However, what’s so unique about this paragraph is that it’s in Aramaic, an equally old language to Hebrew, that sometimes pops up in our prayers, like the Mourners’ Kaddish. Aramaic is also our language, and yet somehow it also represents otherness, since it’s really not spoken among Jews any longer. It symbolizes our ancient past, but also our reliance and partnership with other peoples around us, a FACT that has always been TRUE.
So in “Bei Ana Racheitz,” the word is not “Emet,” but rather the Aramaic, “Keshot.” My Talmudic dictionary, by Marcus Jastrow, reveals that this word comes from a root meaning “straight” or “to shoot forth,” and it can even mean “righteousness.” This, I think, makes sense to us, like the English expression, “Give it to me straight.”
It’s also a nice combination of two words we mentioned earlier, “Emet va’Tzedek,” truth and righteousness. Here, one word combines them both together. And this is ultimately where I want to end up:
We don’t need perfect faith. It’s not realistic, it’s not reflective of the world we know, or the history our people have lived. And if we hold it up as the ideal to which we must strive, we’re not only setting ourselves up for failure, we’re turning people away who know, deep in their bones, that some things are wrong. So let us instead set our eyes on some straight-talk, some Keshot. The facts of what is going on right now in Israel ARE troubling. But this doesn't have to be our whole truth; remember, Truth and Fact are NOT synonyms. And even when it hurts to hear - and believe me, it hurts even deeper to say - the reality is that Israel’s government and religious courts, through their actions, arrests, and abuses, are telling us loud and clear that they do NOT love us back.
Our wrestling match is not over. If you walk away because you’re too disillusioned or too sick of hearing the criticism, you’re abandoning this relationship that we so desperately need. So let’s instead engage in some radical honesty. Let’s talk about the love AND let’s talk about the pain. It’s not as simple as perfect faith, I’m not gonna lie. It’s harder. But that’s why we’re Yisrael, no? Our honest wrestling match continues, and oddly enough, the longer we wrestle, the more our relationship with Israel grows stronger and more resilient. I don’t have facts to back that up, but I do know one thing. I know it’s true.
Shanah Tovah!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

High Holidays 5779 - Rosh Hashanah, Day One

Included below is my main sermon for the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Day One. To read additional sermons from this year's holidays, go to the drop-down list on the right hand side of the screen. Or from the main page, you can keep scrolling down. Thanks!


Rosh Hashanah 5779 - Day 1, Main Sermon
Shanah Tovah!
I want to begin my sermon here on Rosh Hashanah by talking about last year’s High Holidays. Specifically, I want to focus on last Yom Kippur. Don’t worry if you weren’t here for services, I’ll catch you up. I need to be honest with all of you; I’m still dwelling on something that happened a year ago, something that YOU did, or really DIDN’T do! I have been wanting to get this off my chest for nearly an entire year now, and now that I have you all back again, and I’m here on the pulpit, we need to talk.
Last Yom Kippur, I was telling you about FUSE, as I’ve done for a few years now, updating you on our networking group - the Fellowship of Urban-Suburban Engagement - that deals with racism, white privilege, economic injustice, and a myriad other disparities that exist right here, in our Delaware County community. And I decided to take a BIG risk. I invited an incredible presenter, a business owner and military veteran, Michael Miller, Open Mike’s, to come and deliver a spoken word poem on racism from the perspective of an African-American. On the biggest day of the year, in front of our largest crowd, I just went for it. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, many people told me they were quite moved. The purpose was clear, the poem was heartfelt and real, and the impact was pervasive. It was memorable. The only critique I heard was that Mr. Miller was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, which some people found inappropriate. Though everyone agreed, his 10-year old daughter was truly dressed to the nines! I felt the messages of fighting injustice, improving relationships, and prioritizing this work; all of that hit home. It was a rousing success, no one was upset. The bad news is… I was kind of disappointed.
Here I was, thinking I was being a maverick. A rogue operator, tearing up the rabbi-script for what you can and cannot do on the High Holidays. I was a provocateur, a rabble-rouser. I was being an edgy rabbi… and then you all just loved it?!?! I told Rebecca, my wife, ahead of time, and she said it was gutsy. I told Rabbi Miller, and her eyebrows went up and she was afraid FOR ME. I was all set to go, bracing myself for impact and repercussions. Ready to defend myself against leadership, congregants, and mass uproar... and you were just fine with it?
Yes, it’s true. If I’m being honest - truly, truly honest - I WAS nervous, and afraid I might be pushing a little too hard, maybe not using the right venue for that message. Clearly, my fears were unfounded. I was left relieved… but also confused, definitely surprised, and indeed, just a LITTLE BIT disappointed. But then I took a step back, and I realized something. You trust me. Here we are, it’s my TENTH High Holiday season with you, we’ve been doing this together for NEARLY a decade now, and even when you don’t agree with everything I’m saying, even when some people feel frustrated when they have wanted more, or different, or less, or silence, or shouting… the majority of you seem to believe and feel that I have the best interests of the congregation at heart, and that I’m doing what I do for the right reasons. Even if and when you don’t know where I’m going with something, and the long-term plan isn’t clear; you trust me. Again, I may be a little disappointed that I’m not the iconoclast I romanticized myself to be… but nevertheless, thank you.
The other lesson I took from last year’s experience was… I clearly need to push harder. Don’t worry, I don’t have a string of secret presenters lined up; each more abrasive and controversial than the next. I’m not going to fake some sort of injury or pretend to be illiterate… again, and I’m not even going to use the entire holiday season to talk only about FUSE. But I do intend to push you. Not just a little bit, but a lot. In year ten of this relationship, we are ready for another level… I hope. Every year, I organize my four main holiday sermons around a theme. This year, my theme is radical honesty. That’s right, I’m just coming straight out and saying it. Many years, I beat around the bush, try to hint at it and build up to it. But there would definitely be something ironic - and maybe even hypocritical - about a theme like “honesty” being shrouded in secrecy! Last year, I tried to be especially super-sly, and I told you the theme was “harmony,” but then intentionally did not speak about the word itself until my final sermon; as if to build towards a crescendo. Yeah, the only problem was, it was SO sly that no one remembered what the theme was! Someone asked me last week, and even I couldn’t remember what last year’s focus had been! Well done, Rabbi Gerber…
None of that this year. I have four sermons planned, all centering on radical honesty and the same accompanying Hebrew word, Emet. It means “truth,” and whether or not you’ve heard it before, you might be surprised to hear how central a word it is to our prayers and our tradition, considering we don’t discuss it all that often. Sometimes it’s central because of OVER-use… and sometimes because of a conspicuous absence. Furthermore, in the spirit of radical honesty and transparency, I even want to tell you right now about the plan for each upcoming sermon.
Later on, this D’var Torah is going to subtly and almost imperceptibly shift over to talking about privilege. We HAVE privilege - we don’t always acknowledge it or WANT TO own it, but we do - and we need to take a long, hard look at it, otherwise we are part of the problem in society today.
Tomorrow morning, I want to talk about Israel. A year ago, I used a phrase that was uncomfortable to hear. People reached out to tell me they didn’t like it, they didn’t agree with it, and it was unpleasant to sit with. So I am - of course - returning to that phrase again, and will dig in even a little bit deeper. Right now, even as I love Israel and am excited to take 40 people on yet another trip in just another month, I firmly believe that Israel does NOT love me back. Stopping people at the airport, flaunting and then denying abuses, doubling down on its support of an orthodox rabbinate that revokes conversions, bullies all non-orthodox groups, and terrorizes ordinary citizens - right now, the STATE of Israel, the government, is engaging in some practices that I cannot defend. But we can’t just pull our support, right? I certainly won’t. So now what? Let’s take an honest look at that tomorrow.
On Kol Nidrei, I want to discuss Ohev Shalom’s inclusivity. How are we welcoming, when do we fall short, what does it mean to live our principles? And listen, we ARE doing well! I love this community. Focusing on straight-talk doesn’t mean ONLY criticizing, or wantonly disparaging ourselves. I want you to know how much I love this place and you crazy people as well! Zeroing in on the “Emet” of our congregation, the “truth” at the core of who we are means openness to all vulnerable emotions; the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly as well. Oh, and since we’re talking about welcoming on Kol Nidrei, I am also going to reveal a couple of secrets about how I remember so many people’s names, including many of your Hebrew names. And I’m even going to tell you my worst mess-up as Ohev’s rabbi, my most embarrassing incident with a congregant. Oy…
And then, finally, on Yom Kippur morning, I want to talk about individual vulnerability. The importance of stripping away our own defences, our walls and barriers to relationship. It’s easier to keep people at arm’s length, but it also means we aren’t real and transparent with others. We don’t see their true selves, and we certainly aren’t opening up OUR inner beings to be seen, witnessed, and embraced by others.
Candidly, that is also going to be the scariest D’var Torah for me personally, because I don’t want to just talk ABOUT putting ourselves out there. Stopping there would leave the whole thing a bit theoretical and might even ring hollow and insincere. No, I need to model what I’m suggesting we all do. Soooo, I want to talk to you a little bit about my weight. Like my actual, physical, personal life-long struggle with size, body image, dieting, scales, and all of it. Unless I lose my nerve completely between now and then, in which case I’ll talk about an ancient Biblical source, or a VERY important Talmudic quote, or just about ANYTHING else to get away from this incredibly uncomfortable topic! Time will tell...

    So that’s the plan, folks. Four sermons on four topics that I think are essential at this moment, as Jews, as Americans, as citizens of the world, and just as human beings, striving to be whole and functional, to be our best selves. I want to also stress to you how important honesty and truth are in our lives. The Hebrew word that’s helping us along on our journey, again, is Emet. It’s three letters, Alef, Mem, Tav, which just happen to be the first, middle, and final letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Not a coincidence, I assure you. This tells us it’s crucial, it’s essential, and needs to permeate everything; as we might say in English, “from a to z.” But in this case, it also needs to be smack in the middle!
    As I hope you’ll discover throughout these sermons, it’s kind of amazing how prevalent “Emet” is at times in our prayer book, while at other times it is then suspiciously missing. Our Machzor, Lev Shalem, even does a good job of highlighting a few of the most central occasions, and we STILL frequently overlook this crucial word! Two of the most important prayers we recite, not just on the High Holidays but EVERY day of the year, are the Shema and the Amidah. They are always situated pretty close together in the Shacharit, morning service, and I want to draw your attention to something in that part of the prayer book. If you want to follow along, it’s on page 78. The three paragraphs of the Shema are chanted, and then the last line, which we recite out loud is… “Adonai Eloheichem EMET!” This means “The Lord, your God, is truth,” or it can also be understood as God saying “I am TRULY Adonai, your God.” In this book, it has even been written on its own line, larger than any other word, highlighting that it links the Shema, together with all previous prayers, to the Amidah and all that follows. But its centrality continues! The editors of our machzor want to make it abundantly clear that Emet is the theme of the liturgical bridge that links together the Shema and the Amidah, by bolding each instance of the word - five more times in just two pages!  There’s a commentary in the margin, starting on p. 78 and even continuing onto the next page, that points out how each instance of Emet introduces another central aspect of the Jewish creed; reminding us that Truth needs to be in all that we do and all that we believe. We also see it as central to what we know about God. The commentary states: “the essence of God is truth - absolute truth may be elusive to us, but God is the ultimate knower of truth.”
    Throughout the High Holidays, we, as Jews, are seeking a relationship with God. We yearn for it, we crave it. I can’t speak for you personally, but at the very least, our liturgy enjoins us to pine and diligently pursue closeness with the Divine. Again, that might not be you, but if you’re even SLIGHTLY on that journey, perhaps just a LITTLE BIT curious to know more about God, then it seems the path to God goes through truth, as we just stated: “the essence of God is truth.” So how can we be more open to truth? What does that look like? Radical honesty, my friends. Radical honesty. And I am using that term quite intentionally. I think we all value ‘honesty,’ writ large. How could we not? It’s a fundamental human value, and a building block for trust, relationship, and safety. But sometimes truth hurts. Sometimes it’s unpleasant and unflattering. It’s easier to smile and say something nice, rather than something true. We bring in concepts like “white lies” and “side-stepping” or “softening” the truth. And sure, there are instances where that makes sense. Being vicious or uncaring in our honesty, what we might call being “BRUTALLY honest”; that doesn’t help anyone. But even if you’re a big fan of kindness over truth, perhaps conflict-averse to the Nth degree, can you state, unequivocally, and completely truthfully, that there’s NO room for change? I think we would ALL do well with a quick check-in on how well we can handle the truth...
    Let’s experiment a little together. A big buzzword these days is “privilege,” which refers, in this context, to bias we receive simply based on who we are, not what we’ve achieved for ourselves. There is white privilege, male privilege, socio-economic privilege, even heterosexual privilege. As an aside, I am the parent of two children who are, or at least currently appear to both be, left-handed, and I have only recently become aware of right-handed privilege. It may sound silly, but we live in a world that assumes right-handedness. Seating at tables, scissors, sports equipment, even handshakes; anti-leftie bias is everywhere! If you yourself are not left-handed, or if you don’t have a close family member or friend is… have you ever even noticed it? I certainly never did...
    See, that’s the key challenge of privilege. Most of the time, you don’t notice it at all. It seems so ironic to say, but you know you have privilege when you DON’T notice it… so, then how could you make yourself aware of it? Hold onto that question for a bit; we WILL come back to it. Right now, I want to focus on one, vital statement: If you aren’t aware of a disadvantage, you’re probably the beneficiary of it. When you leave here today, PLEASE, retain this key concept. I am going to repeat it a couple of times. If you aren’t just naturally aware of a disadvantage, you’re probably the beneficiary of it. Here’s what I mean:
    A few months ago, and unbeknownst to the participants, I held a surreptitious conversation with a group of guys from Ohev’s Men’s Club. It was presented as a conversation ABOUT the #MeToo movement, and our role - as men - in being allies and supporters in this major cultural shift that is taking place around us. But it was surreptitious and sneaky, because that was NOT why we were there. It was a rouse. In my defense, I firmly believe you cannot become an ally, you cannot work on creating change, if you aren’t HONESTLY grappling with your own experience of what it means to be a man. So we NEEDED to talk about ourselves before we could focus on this national movement. That first session was ACTUALLY about confronting our own emotions, and thinking about male role models in our own lives... and frankly how damaged (and damaging) SO many of them were.  My concern was, if I had said the topic was going to be “men and their feelings,” I think I would have been sitting in an empty room for two hours. So it’s TRUE; I misled the guys... but just a little. This year, I hope to continue that conversation, as well as talk about the topic we had advertised… that is, if they’ll trust me again...
    We did, indeed, wind up having a very powerful conversation, and one moment stood out for me at the very end, after the “official” part of the evening had concluded. One participant came over and said to me, “you know, I don’t think of myself walking through the world as A MAN. I always feel that I’m Jewish, and that what I do reflects the Jewish community, but I don’t think of myself as A MAN.” I had to challenge him: “But don’t you think people around you do though? Non-men (meaning women) especially? In their interactions with you, do you think they forget - for even a moment - that you’re a man? Do you think people of minority groups just FORGET that you’re a man AND white?” I even asked if he didn’t think, conversely, that women are acutely aware - probably most, if not ALL, the time - that they are women? Walking along a city sidewalk, deciding what to wear on any given day, sitting in a meeting with men; I venture to say that most women don’t ever just forget that they are women. But men do. I do. If you aren’t aware of a disadvantage, you’re probably the beneficiary of it.
A couple of weeks later, I went walking in the neighborhood with a good friend of mine. We decided to casually stroll onto the grounds of the Spring Haven Country Club, just as a nice place to get exercise and walk freely, without dealing with cars and traffic. Neither of us is a member. At one point, a golf cart zoomed over towards us, and two men stopped, looking quite suspicious, and asked if we needed anything. We told them we were fine, they paused, and then they just left. And my immediate thought was, no way that interaction would have gone like that if we were anything other than white… We strode onto those grounds with the air of privilege wafting off of us, carrying ourselves as if to say, “of course we belong!” and so we were essentially left unchallenged. NO WAY that happens if we’re African-American or Latino or if our skin was any shade darker than it is. It barely even occurred to us that there could be any danger or risk in taking that walk… because for us, there wasn’t. “If you aren’t aware of a disadvantage, you’re probably the beneficiary of it.”
So let’s return then to a challenging question from a few minutes ago: If you don’t instinctively SEE privilege, then how could you possibly ever make yourself notice it? You’ll never guess what my answer will be. “Adonai Eloheichem EMET.” TRUTH! Radical Honesty! Each one of us needs to take a good, hard, long look at ourselves. Now, please remember what I said earlier: Radical honesty does NOT mean brutal honesty. This isn’t about criticism, feeling guilty, or apologizing for privilege. But when you walk through life oblivious to it, you are not only the beneficiary of it, you are likely trodding on someone else who does NOT have that privilege. So you NEED to be honest about it. Bluntly honest; radically honest.
Let me add another TRUE statement that is hard to hear: If you’re not part of the solution, you ARE part of the problem. It may not be your choice, it isn’t malicious, but complicity IS enabling. I recently watched John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, interview Anita Hill, the well-known attorney and academic. Hill stated: “Men need to step up… There are no innocent bystanders. If you are aware of something, you acknowledge it, you know it’s wrong, but you DON’T do anything about it, then it’s the same as participating in it.” But this isn’t just about men. There isn’t just one type of inequality. There’s white privilege, socio-economic advantages, heck, even rightie-bias! Save the Southpaws!! None of us are off the hook; there are NO innocent bystanders.
Rosh Hashanah begins the new year, and with it come not only opportunities for renewal and change, but also self-examination, re-evaluation, and yes, an HONEST look at who we are and where we are each going. Do not miss this opportunity. I am not only saying that for you, for your own benefit, but we need you; I need you to be my ally. I’m using every tool at my disposal to rouse you awake and challenge you to STEP UP!
A few minutes ago, before I began this endless D’var Torah and before we put the Torah scrolls back in the Ark, we heard the sound of the shofar. It is, indeed, a well-known symbol of this holiday, possibly the most famous. But it IS a tool, and I NEED you to hear it. A reading in our Machzor reminds us: “Wake up from your slumber! Examine your deeds and turn in repentance, remembering your Creator. You sleepers who forget THE TRUTH while caught up in the fads and follies of the time… take a good look at yourselves. Improve your ways.” I know it isn’t easy to look at your own privilege. But believe me, it’s a whole lot worse for those who don’t have any at all. This isn’t your fault. I’m not saying it is. But if you truly, truly have not noticed all the disadvantages around you, you probably ARE the beneficiary of them. And we need to wake up. We need to look squarely at that truth and know it. It is not only God’s Essence, but ours as well. Now you know, now you are beginning to see the honest truth. It’s time to hear that clarion call, and do something about it.

Shanah Tovah!


High Holidays 5779 - Erev Rosh Hashanah

Happy New Year! 
Now that we've gotten through Rosh Hashanah, I thought I would post a couple of my sermons. In previous years, I've mostly focused on adding my four MAIN sermons (Rosh Hashanah Day 1 and Day 2, Kol Nidrei, and Yom Kippur morning. But someone asked me for Erev Rosh Hashanah, so I'm starting with that one. If anyone would like to read any others that aren't here, please just let me know. Thanks! And, as always, your feedback is welcome and appreciated. 


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779 - D’var Torah
Shanah Tovah!

Earlier, when I began our service here tonight, I included in my Welcome Message a Hebrew question - “Ayeka?” “Where are you?”

I meant it in the context of preceding what we imagine is the ideal response, which is “Hineini.” But we can consider “Hineini,” “Here I Am” aspirational. And even aspirational over the course of the holidays, not just here tonight.

In the meantime, I ask it as a genuine question, Ayeka? Where are YOU right now? Not geographically speaking, but on a MUCH larger spiritual plain. Because I truly mean it as a question, I want to take a moment before continuing with my remarks. It’ll be brief, but in the next minute of silence, just consider if you are feeling happy, anxious, excited, tired, bored, amused, angry, present, absent - whatever. If I’m going to talk about Ayeka, I want you to have some sense of where you are, how YOU are feeling. I’m going to stop talking now.

So Ayeka is actually a Biblical quote. It’s just one word, but it comes from the Book of Genesis, 3:9. Of course, I am taking it entirely out of context. There, in Bereishit, God is strolling through the Garden of Eden and calls out to Adam and Eve, “Ayeka?” to ascertain where they are, and perhaps also to see what hijinx they might be getting themselves into THIS time. Spoiler alert: It’s worse than God could have imagined...

For God, Adam, Eve, and one super-conniving snake, it’s not about prayer or mindfulness or spirituality. But even there, in the First Book of the Torah, God isn’t really asking an attendance question, right? God DOES know where Adam is PHYSICALLY; even a surface-level reading of the text teases out of us a deeper interpretation, because imagining God bewildered and genuinely confounded by the Where’s Waldo of the Garden of Eden just seems too strange. So even IN context, this word simply MUST mean more than just “Where you at??”

I also feel I need to defend myself, and point out that the rabbinic tradition is, at its core, a long history of employing verses from one part of the Bible to serve an ENTIRELY different need or function someplace else. The fact that the original didn’t mean that at all never stopped a rabbi from quoting ANYTHING!

Let’s focus on a second example. Look at p. 2 in your Machzor. The book suggests a welcoming blessing for the entire holiday season, namely “Shalom, Shalom…” Here, on Erev Rosh Hashanah in 2018, it seems like the perfect opening line of a prayer service. It is welcoming everyone into the building, whether you live a block away or on the other side of Delaware County… or maybe even FURTHER away! A crazy notion.

Lo and behold, this too is taken from elsewhere in the Bible, where the context had nothing to do with welcoming worshipers during High Holiday prayers. It comes from Isaiah 57:19, where the famous prophet is gazing into the future, at a time when the Temple will be rebuilt and Jerusalem, and the people will be welcomed back (Shalom, Shalom) from their dispersion anywhere and everywhere across the globe (la’rachok v’la-karov). So again, a text that isn’t about us at all, is used to speak to our experience here today.

But I wear my rabbinic propensity for disregarding context with pride! The welcoming blessing is PERFECT for us! Because it could be read as saying that you are welcome here, not just regardless of your point of origin, but also regardless of your state of mind. Are you feeling ‘rachok,’ far from here, either because you wish you were somewhere else, you have other things on your mind, or are just disillusioned and cynical about anything you might encounter in this service? Or are you ‘karov,’ feeling close, meaning you’re eager to pray, learn, and sing; excited and yearning for the spiritual vacation we’ve promised you?

Most likely, it isn’t one extreme or the other. Many of us are somewhere in between, and we’re likely to shift along that spectrum over the course of the holiday, or even a single service, or maybe even from minute to minute. I want to offer three important reminders:

That’s ok. Do not judge your experience. I know what I’m talking about here, folks. I am constantly judging myself and feeling harshly critical of my own decisions and experiences. I urge you not to do that. Allow yourself to feel uplifted by a prayer or totally unaffected by it. Hopefully something I say over the holiday will resonate with you, but something else might not at all; it might even upset you. All of it is ok. I mean that truly and sincerely.
Keep checking in with yourself, and asking yourself this simple question: Ayeka? Where are you? What’s going on inside, why is it sometimes so hard to look at, and what are you hoping to get out of these services and this High Holiday season. The more you check in, the easier it’ll get to listen for a response.
And finally, please hear the sincerity of my “Shalom.” My “Shalom, Shalom,” in fact! You are welcome here, you are not judged or pressured here, and we are all grateful to share this High Holiday experience with one another. Whether you are ‘rachok’ or ‘karov,’ far away or close by in WHATEVER way you choose to hear that; we bid you Shalom.

And of course, Shanah Tovah.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Happy 5779!





Shanah Tovah u'Metukah - 
Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year!

At this season of renewal, introspection, and hope, may we all be blessed with:

Happiness - A year of joy. A year of freedom for all who are enslaved; blessed to share their joy with their loved ones. 

Health - A year of security. A future in which we know we are ALL cared for, protected, and nurtured. In which our health is mirrored in the health of our planet, the birth day of which is celebrated on Rosh Hashanah.

Sweetness - A year of goodness and compassion. A new beginning to feel invigorated, energized, and empowered; free from numbness or lethargy, poised to make meaningful change in the world and speak up for ourselves and all those around us whose voices are not heard.

Newness - A year of change and optimism. A fresh start, a clean slate, an open book. A chance to make a difference in our own lives, the lives of those around us, and in our entire world. The ability to truly open our eyes, and see things in a new light and with new possibilities.

Whatever you are bringing from the past year(s), and however you are entering the season ahead, may you be blessed and may you bring blessing upon yourself.

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May we all live with honesty, integrity, great empathy, openness, vulnerability, humor, and satisfaction. 
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And may it truly be a Shanah Tovah u'Metukah. 

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Gerber


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Comforting Haftarah #6: Perhaps Not the Brightest of Topics...

This Saturday evening, September 1st, we will be starting the High Holiday season in earnest. Even though Rosh Hashanah is (thankfully...) still another week away, our
"warm-up" continues to help get us ready for its arrival. For a month, we have been hinting at the coming holidays, by ending the regular daily minyan prayers with a quick set of shofar blasts and a special psalm. Now, we take yet another big step closer, with a lesser-known service called Selichot. This service takes place at nighttime; ideally at midnight (though our version starts at 8:00 p.m.). Lately, I've been thinking about the many themes of the High Holidays, these Days of Awe, and especially about those we don't talk about as much. Both the Selichot service AND this week's Haftarah afford us opportunities to look at a darker side of these holidays. It's not an easy perspective to embrace, but it's quite important... and I think you and I are up to the challenge!

I used the term "darker side" on purpose, because our Haftarah emphasizes something we didn't hear about in most of the previous Haftarot of Comfort. This vision of Isaiah's refers constantly to God as the very manifestation of Light, and proclaims the emanating, healing, protecting, rejuvenating power of
the rays of light that shine from God. The prophecy begins: "Arise! Shine! For your light has dawned. The Glory of Adonai shines upon you" (60:1). However, even though the entire prophecy is about brightness, I find myself reflecting on the need for darkness to accompany that light. It's hidden, I acknowledge, but it's unmistakeable. You see, the main reason to tell a people about how much they will bask in radiance is because they are currently mired in gloom. Right? The power of this prophecy is the stark contrast it creates from their present situation. This, to me, mirrors the High Holiday experience. We can't talk about repentence without sin. We can't talk about improving things without acknowledging what is currently bad and needs change! Light and warmth and security and hope are only powerful concepts when the speaker or the listener (or both) is experiencing the exact opposite, and NEEDS to know things can - and hopefully will - get better.

Selichot carries a similar weightiness that is challenging but important. It's late at night. Perhaps we're tired. Perhaps we aren't ready to heed the messages of the High Holidays, but nonetheless, we jump in. We think about the fragility of life, the
precariousness of every day, and the idea that we get no guarantees in life, no assurances that our actions will secure our health and prosperity. These things are hard to think about, and most definitely uncomfortable to face. But how sincere can we be about making changes and wanting a fresh start in the New Year, if we can't first face the uncertainty of what it means to be alive? When we get to Yom Kippur, we traditionally dress entirely in white... not entirely unlike the tachrichim, the burial shrouds in which we dress the deceased at a funeral, and we also abstain from food or drink. We place ourselves in an almost-dead state, because we're meant to stare at our own mortality and be humbled. In our Haftarah, Isaiah declares: "Adonai will be a light to you forever... and your days of mourning shall be ended" (20). Yes, we're meant to see the first part, about God shining on our behalf. But can we afford to ignore that our ancestors listening to Isaiah felt like mourners every single day? Death NEEDS to be a part of living, otherwise we're just burying our heads in the sand.

Like I said, I know this theme can be difficult for many people to discuss. Death has become, for many of us, scary, looming, potentially filled with pain, deeply sad, and the very LAST thing we ever want to confront.
And yet, oddly enough, I think our Jewish tradition tries to put this issue in front of us time and again to make it EASIER to grasp. A lot of the terror that death holds over us is about what MIGHT happen, and how we COULD feel; the reality of the actual engagement with death is often much less intimidating. The final point I want to make about this here is; ultimately it isn't really about what I see in the text, or what I think we should be talking about. What do YOU think? How do you feel about death, or the notion that mortality is an underlying High Holiday theme that the rabbis want us to confront? If it IS something you're willing to explore, what are your concerns and/or fears around death, and how might you want that to change in the New Year? I know this isn't easy for MANY people, but it truly is vitally important. Now is the time to shed some light in this dark corner; the wait (and the trepidation) is over.

Images in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Vivobarefoot on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Pixabay
3. CC image courtesy of Sander van der Wel on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of stgortol on Pixabay


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Comforting Haftarah #5 (and also #3... sort of): Do NOT Ignore the "IF"!

Do you know what feels really great? Knowing you have God on your side. What better feeling could there be? You're invincible! God is unequivocally, unwaveringly,
unfailingly on your team. You know, it almost - almost - makes you think you could do absolutely anything, even the most reprehensible acts, and God would forgive it all. Hey, just look at what Isaiah says in (the first half of...) this week's Haftarah: "'My loyalty shall never move from you, nor My covenant of peace be shaken,' says Adonai, who has compassion on you." (54:10) It seems so comprehensive, so impenetrable... you ALMOST couldn't blame a person - someone who saw him/herself as a loyal and faithful adherent - for getting drunk on this power, for justifying every abhorrent behavior by saying "God loves me, and that will never change." Almost...

I'm really struggling right now, to be totally honest with you. As a clergy member, a pastoral leader who receives people in my office, often people who are grieving,
vulnerable, and some who are innocent and naive pre-teens, the newspaper headlines cut me so incredibly deeply. I have been reading the stories of Catholic priests abusing their positions and abusing children, and the church allowing it and/or enabling it to continue, with much the same horror as I'm sure you have. But I also think I feel that pain somewhat differently, because I have the same kind of title, and am given that same level of trust. I have an office with a door that COULD close, and I both cannot fathom AND cannot stop thinking about how others with these same privileges turned them into instruments of terror. As a faith leader, I am struggling. Something is very, VERY wrong in our system, and some sort of major, sweeping change is really needed to cleanse us of this scourge.

I know that last sentence sounds kind of dramatic, but we cannot take this lightly. We are all injured by the abuse of these children. This is about more than celibacy, and we, as a society, need to reexamine our attitudes around sex-standards and expectations for men/boys and women/girls,
slut-shaming in our culture, victim blaming, and perhaps even societal assumptions that monogamy is right for everyone, with one other person, for an entire lifetime. These atrocious stories point to a wide-spread disease - THAT is the crucial message underneath all of this, and we simply cannot afford to miss it. The same is true of our Haftarah. There's a surface-level teaching, and a vital, glaring instruction running just below the text. On top, the words are saying that God is behind us 1,000%... but we all ignore an important word at our own peril: IF!! If you obey the laws, if you are kind and compassionate, if you are a crusader for justice, equality, and mercy, and IF you care about others as much as you do your own security, safety, and wealth - THEN you get God's protection. But only IF. Only, only, only "IF"...

You see, that same text - our Haftarah - also references the flood of Noah. It says God won't flood the earth again, wipe the slate clean of our sins. But Isaiah goes on
to say that all of this is true IF we "give heed," "incline the ear," and "hearken" to God (55:2-3). When we mistreat our neighbors and abuse the innocent, no amount of fake-holiness, well-constructed sermon, or charitable giving can save you from God's purifying floods... When we rest on our laurels and assume God's favor, we get in trouble. No one should be resting, and no one should be assuming. We have work to be done. We have to examine our society, and examine our values that spawn this level of evil and allow it to fester. We are in Elul, a month devoted to reflection, and it leads straight into the High Holidays. We've got a lot of soul-searching to do. This plague is hurting all of us, and hurting us to our very core. Let's get to work.

CC images in this blog post:
1. Courtesy of Chan Walrus on Pexels.com
2. Courtesy of Will Folsom on Flickr
3. Courtesy of SmilingHarrySyphilis on DeviantArt.com
4. Courtesy of Dallas_Foodie on Flickr

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Comforting Haftarah #4: Unlocking Hineini; In the Text and In Ourselves

Every year, at the High Holidays, I focus my four major sermons on a central theme. Yes, I am doing it again this year... no, I will not reveal the theme ahead of
time. Sorry. :-P Some themes are forgotten soon after the holidays end, while others seem to stick with people for one reason or another. I am constantly reminded by congregants of my "Guilt-Free Judaism" theme, even though it's now YEARS old! And another that had staying-power was a single, Hebrew word: Hineini. The straight-forward meaning of Hineini is "Here I am." It is uttered time and again throughout the Hebrew Bible, and often by some of the most prominent individuals. This week, in our Haftarah, Hineini is taken to an even GREATER level, and it has some incredibly powerful implications for our ancestors... and possibly for you and me today.

As I mentioned above, some of the biggest "stars" in the Bible declare "Hineini." As such, it doesn't just mean "Here I am" in a geographical sense, but it implies so much more. It is mindfulness, spiritual and emotional
presence, groundedness, and perhaps most importantly, readiness. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Samuel; they all say "Hineini" to God when called, indicating they are ready, willing, and able to take on whatever awe-some task God has in mind for them. "Here I am... let's do this thing!!" And in this, our fourth Haftarah of Consolation, the tables are turned, and strikingly it is now God who declares "Hineini!" God's very Presence is a source of great consolation to the people living in exile, and hearing God say "Here I am, fully committed!" heals generations of pain, suffering, and perceived abandonment. To our forebearers in Babylon, no sweeter word could ever be uttered by the Divine.

Something else, however, is also going on in our Haftarah. Something very powerful. I won't go too far down this rabbit hole, but I WILL say that many modern, Biblical scholars do not believe the Torah was written by Moses, as suggested by
the text itself. If you want to learn more about this idea, either write to me, leave a comment on the blog, or check out Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? We could spend hours upon hours on that one statement, but for our purposes here, I want to posit that the Hebrew Bible was compiled during the time of the Babylonian Exile, sometime after 587 B.C.E. If you accept that assertion, various hints and allusions start to come alive in the text. For example, in our Haftarah, we find the following verse: "This is what Adonai, God, said: 'Long ago, My people went down to reside in Egypt. Now they are oppressed by Assyria'" (Isaiah, 52:4). This simple verse reveals the motivation, perhaps, of the entire Bible: To connect the current suffering of our people to our ancient ancestors, and thus to pray/hope/plead that God will redeem US as God redeemed them.

There are two sides to this coin. By telling and retelling these stories, the authors and editors want to "nudge" God to save them just as the slaves in Egypt were saved. It's a constant, gentle, but firm prodding. At the same time, the word "Hineini" reminds us that it's a partnership.
We have to be like our forebearers, if we hope to emulate their triumphs. We have to declare out loud "Hineini - Here I am! I am ready to take on injustice, stand up to tyrants, demand equality and compassion for those suffering oppression, and treat others as I wish to be treated myself." We can rehash old tales all we like, but if we don't lead by example, we cannot ask God to reward us beyond what we deserve. For the Jews in Babylonia, the stories of the Exodus were IMMENSELY powerful, because the people could draw strength, courage, and resiliency from them. What do the texts mean to us today? If we are not looking for salvation, or hoping to return to Israel, what other messages might we be searching for, hidden under the surface of the text? As we continue to march towards the High Holidays, each of us is challenged to unlock the disguised meanings within the Biblical text; both the ones that spoke to our ancient relatives AND the ones aimed straight at us, right here today.


Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Ged Carroll on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Joe Loong on Flickr
3. Title page of Who Wrote the Bible courtesy of GoodReads.com
4.  CC image courtesy of of Tripp on Flickr

Friday, August 10, 2018

Comforting (sort of) Haftarah #3: Nerding Out on Haftarah Practices

This week's Haftarah poses an interesting ritual conundrum, in a number of different ways. I'll try not to get too far into the weeds on this one, but I make no promises. And if anything here is confusing, BUT you are still interested in understanding it better, feel free to post a comment and/or write to me.
Ok, here we go: As I've now mentioned a few weeks in a row, we're right in the middle of a series of Haftarot of Comfort, that link together the special occasions of Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. However, this year, one of those Shabbatot (namely this weekend!) also falls on Rosh Chodesh, a new month on the Jewish calendar, so we replace the regular Haftarah with a special one for the new month. It actually works out well thematically, however, because the Rosh Chodesh Haftarah is also about reconciliation and God caring for the people. But then, a second Haftarah jumps in, pushes ahead in line, and changes the meaning entirely... though potentially in a crucial and timely way.

I've written and rewritten this next paragraph several times, but I can't get it quite right. The reasons WHY there's another Haftarah here seemed straight-forward enough to me at first, yet I am unable to explain it without taking up WAY too much
time and space here. If you're local, please join us for services on Saturday and all will be revealed... :-) For now, and for our purposes, I'll just say that there is a second Rosh Chodesh-related Haftarah at play, and one tradition enjoins us to just add the first and last verses of that other Haftarah, kind of like a little nod, a hat-tip, to the other reading. So here's what I think is so fascinating: Our first Haftarah, the "regular" Rosh Chodesh one, ends on a really unpleasant note. I won't give you the whole verse, but it starts like this: "They shall go out and gaze at the corpses of the people who rebelled against Me" (Isaiah 66:24). Believe me, it gets worse from there. The point is, our ancestors instituted a clever little practice, whereby we DO read that morbid verse aloud... but then we go back to the penultimate verse a second time, so we can end on a much more benign and corpse-free note.

My conundrum is this: If we're adding two verses from a DIFFERENT Haftarah, do we still need to repeat verse 23? Or perhaps the need to do so is obviated by these special additions? I find this especially intriguing, considering the final verse of the second Haftarah is focused on an entirely different topic.
No longer are we talking about the human-Divine relationship, about God forgiving our sins, restoring our Temple, and joyfully bringing back worship and sacrifice. Instead, the added verses focus on interpersonal relationships, human-to-human. The body of the text itself focuses on the strong emotional bond between David (before he became "King David") and Jonathan, and how external forces push them apart. The reading powerfully concludes with the two young men parting ways, but not before Jonathan could declare to David: "Go in peace! For we two have sworn to each other in the name of the Lord: 'May Adonai be [a witness to the bond] between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring forever!'" (I Samuel, 20:42) Not a seamless shift, to say the least. So why include it, and how does this alter the take-away of our first text?? 

I'll tell you what I think. The new month that we're entering (the reason for all these extra readings in the first place!) is Elul. It is the Season of Repentance, the "official" start of the High Holidays. And we cannot only look heaven-ward for
forgiveness, reconciliation, and change. The first Haftarah reminds us we have obligations to ourselves, to our faith, to our planet, and to God. Human beings are prone to marveling at their own accomplishments and stressing the value of self-reliance and independence. But there are forces beyond us, and we need to recognize and respect them as well. Simultaneously, we are in relationship with other PEOPLE - as Jonathan said - forever! It is inescapable. So we need to make peace, bridge divides, and form sacred bonds between one another as well. Keep both of these in mind as we enter Elul. We've got a whole month to work on it, but NOW is the time for a check-in and some self-reflection. And neither Isaiah, David, OR Jonathan (or I!) want you to forget it...


Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Dover Air Force Base
2. CC image courtesy of Robert Hruzek on Flickr
3. CC image of an Otto Stemler Bible drawing, courtesy of pcstratman on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Len Raden on Flickr

Friday, August 3, 2018

Comforting Haftarah #2: Don't Talk. Just Be.

As I mentioned last week, we are now chanting our way through a series of seven Haftarot of comfort. These prophetic texts escort us from Tisha b'Av to Rosh
Hashanah, and each offers reassurance to the People of Israel after terrible calamities had left them utterly traumatized. There's a lot for us to unpack in here. These texts give us fascinating historical insight into how our ancestors persevered despite enduring vicious persecution. They also offer us models for how to handle moments (or decades...) of theological doubt. But these prophecies also teach us something else that is equally (if not more) crucial. As a pastoral professional and a chaplain, someone who has had to offer comfort to people in times of uncertainty, illness, and death, I would like to speak with you for a little bit about that last point.

Our Haftarah opens with the prophet Isaiah imagining all of Israel, embodied in the term "Zion," stating: "Adonai has forsaken me; the Lord has forgotten me" (49:14). In Hebrew, that whole quote is just four, short words, but it reflects a total decimation of faith. Israel's Temple has been destroyed, its autonomy is gone, its people have been dragged off into slavery in a foreign land. So yeah, this is bad.
From the perspective of the survivors, the evidence certainly makes it abundantly clear; God has either abandoned us or forgotten us... or both. Or perhaps worse still, God has turned against us and deliberately caused this cataclysm! Isaiah, then, has to step into this situation and offer pastoral care and comfort. If you've ever had to sit with a friend or family member after a devastating loss, if you've felt that horrific sense of "what could I POSSIBLY say to make any of this 'better' for you right now?", then you have just a tiny inkling of what Isaiah was taking on. THAT is what I think these Haftarot are trying to impart - how to offer consolation and be present when someone has experienced heart-breaking loss. And, in fact, our Haftarah suggests a couple of different models.

Sometimes, you've got to employ tough love. I know that can be hard to imagine, but if the grief has turned over into toxic obsession, if the person is utterly unable to find their way out of total darkness, we sometimes need to shock the system.
Isaiah tries that tactic. Believe it or not, he actually mocks the people! It sounds almost like a taunt when he says: "Why, when I came, was no one there? Why, when I called, would none respond? Is my arm, then, too short to rescue??? Have I not the power to save?!?" (50:2) I know that occasionally pushing is needed, but this particular example is hard to hear. God (through Isaiah) sounds almost amused; "What? You don't think I can save you?!?" Isaiah even sprinkles a little salt in the wound, pointing out that Israel was exiled for her own sins. Gee, thanks, I'm sure that reminder was helpful and appreciated...

But there are also two other tactics being employed. One is to remind the person/people that even though they can't hear it right now, they DO have support, and loved ones are waiting to receive them in the Land of the Living when they're ready to extend a hand and ask for help. Our Haftarah ends with words of hope: "God has made [Zion's] wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of Adonai. Gladness and joy shall abide there, thanksgiving and the sound of music" (51:3).
I hear the prophet saying: "You, the mourner, can't see it right now - and that's ok - but life IS waiting for you on the other side of this pain." I employ this one a lot myself. And then, the final tactic is simply to be. This is often the most healing, but also sometimes the hardest to offer. What can you say to help someone heal? The answer - frequently - is "nothing." So stop trying. Isaiah is present. He's there. He talks a little too much, but that's an occupational hazard (I can relate...). We need to do this as well. Just BE. Sit close, sit quietly, and hold the space (and the pain) for the one who is grieving. So the overall takeaway here is that there isn't one "right" way to offer consolation. I encourage you to think about instances when you've been comforted, or when you tried to reassure someone else; what worked and what failed miserably? We can learn so much from both. There is a reason why this Season of Comfort leads straight into the High Holidays; a period of self-reflection, renewal, and striving to become our best selves. How we act, and react, in moments of pain is crucial. And we could all use some help in this regard. And remember, sometimes you don't have to do much. Just be.


Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Shelley Rodrigo on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Victorgrigas on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Pixabay
4. CC image courtesy of Pixabay

Monday, July 30, 2018

Summer (Newsletter) Message – Happy Ten(or tin?)-a-versary!

I'm continuing to post my Ohev Shalom newsletter (entitled L'Chaim) articles here on the blog. These are in addition to the weekly Torah (or Haftarah) posts. Thanks for reading!


I don’t know if this is more surprising to you or to me, but right now I’m starting my TENTH year as the rabbi of Ohev Shalom! Hard to believe, isn’t it? Sooo, whadya get me??? Our tenth-anniversary symbol is tin or aluminum, so I’m thinking maybe a picture frame or some funky jewelry? Regardless, the point is: We’ve been doing this together for a long time. We’ve got roots, a special bond, and you’ve given me license to try some pretty gutsy things from the bimah: I faked a panic attack, I had David Pollack pretend to be the Voice of God, and I invited non-traditional speakers to challenge us all from the pulpit. Not to mention my shenanigans OFF the pulpit, like dressing in drag, getting whipped cream thrown in my face, and more! Needless to say, it’s been a great (first) ten years.

But it can also be a challenge. At what point will you start tuning me out? When do I become the grownup in a Charlie Brown cartoon, blathering on like a trombone (or shofar?) without making any sense? I’ve started saying to people who ask, I am not prepared for this! In rabbinical school, they gave tips and advice on being a rabbi in year one, some thoughts for year three, and an idea or two for year five. But TEN?!? And beyond? It’s anyone’s guess really. So, what do you want that script to look like?

As your friendly neighborhood shofar (and one you’ve heard blow a lot of hot air for years…), I’m working on some new “material” for the High Holidays that will hopefully wake you up. Rosh Hashanah is a time for new beginnings; maybe ESPECIALLY when you’ve gotten into a routine and have become (perhaps) a bit lethargic. When relationships are genuinely new, it’s easy to talk about fresh starts and clean slates. It’s a little harder when you’re ready to exchange aluminum clocks and tin pendants. But don’t you worry, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, and hopefully you’ve got some new ideas to contribute as well. I’m excited for yet another year together, and more time to bond, deepen our shared roots, and challenge one another. It is, however, a two-way street. I’ll work on turning my trombone into a shofar, and you get ready to listen and respond. Deal?

Then let’s get started!

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Gerber