#MeToo: No More To Violence and Degradation


Rabbi Yoshi ZweibackRabbi Yoshi Zweiback granted me permission to share his moving and meaningful #MeToo sermon from Friday, October 20, 2017 at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California:

“This is the line of Noah: Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

It was good that Noah walked with God. It was good that he was blameless in his age. It was good that he was a righteous man.

Because no one else was.

According to our tradition, Noah was the only righteous man of his generation. Everyone else was pretty much disgusting.

Our Torah portion this week tells us in fact that the whole world had become corrupt.

The great medieval commentator, Rashi, tells us that the Hebrew word “וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת” refers to a particular type of corruption – ערווה, usually translated as “liscentiousness” – sexual depravity.

WATCH: Soulful Shabbat Service Oct 20 2017 with Rabbi Yoshi’s sermon

Rashi notes that according to the midrash, ערווה so offends God that it leads ultimately to indiscriminate punishment, the “end of all flesh,” a punishment that is meted out on good people and bad people alike. It, in the words of the midrash, is something that הוֹרֶגֶת טוֹבִים וְרָעִים – it kills both the righteous and the wicked.

What a parasha for this week.

Like many of you I’m sure, I’ve been reading one #metoo story after another on facebook.

Friends, classmates, colleagues sharing horrifying stories of aggression, discrimination, degradation, humiliation, and violence.

Details of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior and the degree to which so many were complicit in it continue to emerge. There is a corruption, a type of ערווה in this town, in the entertainment industry, and – more broadly – in our world, that is gross, disgusting, nauseating.

How should we respond? What should we do? How can we make things better?

Although I had a mother and I have a sister, a spouse and three daughters, it is very difficult for me to relate personally to so many of the stories I read.

I’ve found it helpful, though, to simply try to listen to the experiences of others.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Margaret Renkl shared a moving piece about her own experiences. A few years back, she found herself sitting around her kitchen table with her sons. The subject of travel came up and her boys asked her why she hadn’t backpacked around Europe like their father had.

Here’s what she shared with them:

“It’s dangerous for a woman to camp alone,” I finally said at the table that night. “There are women who do it, but I’m not that brave.”
My children grew up with stories of their father’s adventures. They did not grow up with stories of mine. I didn’t tell them the story of the 16-year-old family “friend” who babysat while his parents and mine went out to dinner the year I was 11, how he followed me around the apartment, tugging on my blouse and telling me I should take it off, pulling at the elastic waistband of my pants and telling me I should take them off, how I finally locked myself in my bedroom and didn’t come out till my parents got home.

I didn’t tell my children the story of walking with my friend to the town hardware store when we were 14. I didn’t tell them that my friend used her babysitting money to buy a screwdriver and a deadbolt lock to keep her older brother out of her room at night.

I didn’t tell my children the story of my first job, the job I started the week I turned 16, and how the manager kept making excuses to go back to the storeroom whenever I was at the fry station, how he would squeeze his corpulent frame between the counter and me, dragging his sweaty crotch across my rear end on each trip…

There is nothing unusual about these stories. They are the ho-hum, everyday experiences of virtually every woman I know, and such stories rarely get told. There will never be a powerful social-media movement that begins, ‘Today I ate breakfast’ or ‘Today my dog pooped and I cleaned it up’ or ‘Today I washed my hair with the same shampoo I’ve been buying since 2006.’ We tell the stories that are remarkable in some way, stories that are surprising, utterly unexpected. The quotidian doesn’t make for a good tale.

And maybe that’s why the avalanche of stories on Twitter and Facebook this week has been so powerful. It started on Oct. 5, when The New York Times first broke the story of accusations of sexual harassment against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but it became a juggernaut 10 days later, when the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within minutes the hashtag #MeToo was all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — over 500,000 times on Twitter and 12 million times on Facebook in the first 24 hours alone — and the deluge shows no sign of slowing. The numbers keep ticking up as women tell the stories of men who used their power to overwhelm or coerce them.” (“The Raw Power of #metoo “-NY Times, Oct 19, 2017)

There is a terrible corruption in this world.

In this week’s Torah portion, God gets so fed up with humanity that She decides to start over, to destroy Her creation and begin again.
Our parasha tells us that Noah was indeed righteous.

But he is criticized by the rabbis who contrast Noah’s behavior with the behavior of Abraham. When Noah is told that God wishes to destroy the world, he says nothing. He builds the ark and saves his own family but he does nothing to address the core issue, the fundamental problem, the corruption that so angered God.

And maybe that’s one of the lessons for us. It’s not enough to be upright in your own behavior. Of course each of us at work and in our interactions with others wherever we are should behave according to the highest standards of our tradition and be particularly careful not to degrade, humiliate or harass – ever. But our tradition requires us to go farther: we have to actively work to build communities where the norms and standards of upright behavior in this regard are widely embraced so that we can build a world where 14 year old young women don’t need to put deadbolts on their bedroom doors.

On a closed facebook page for Reform rabbis, I read many stories of female colleagues across the country who have felt uncomfortable in their own shuls because congregants or co-workers had made comments about their dress and their appearance. They shared stories of being hugged or kissed at the oneg when they didn’t feel comfortable with that type of touch.

We can and we must do better. And we have to help each other as a community to do better.

If you didn’t hear Rabbi Knobel’s powerful and moving High Holy Day sermon about gender violence, you can find the video of it on our website (https://youtu.be/B5S2opBM_Ss). And if you heard it, watch again and think about it in the light of what we’ve seen over the past two weeks.

And I invite you, if you feel comfortable doing so, to share any of your experiences and any suggestions you have about how we can make this sacred space more comfortable for you and about how we can work together to change things in our City of Angels where so many of those awful, awful stories we’ve been reading took place. And then we must change things more broadly so that the violence and degradation, the terrible corruption that led God to want to destroy the whole wide world will become a distant memory so that no woman or man will ever again have to say “#metoo.”

Thank you to Rabbi Yoshi and Stephen Wise Temple for all you do: 

“We make meaning and change the world.”

אנחנו יוצרים משמעות ומשנים את העולם.

Rabbis Share Wisdom in Yom Kippur Sermons


In their 2017 Yom Kippur sermons, rabbis of varying denominations touched on such current events as the recent wave of devastating hurricanes and even the recent solar eclipse, all to motivate, inspire and prompt introspection. Some drew on biblical text and espoused messages of tolerance and the importance of engaging others in difficult conversations amid a divisive political climate.

Here are excerpts from some of those sermons.

Rabbi Steve Leder

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

When you only have 15 characters per line to sum up a person’s life, you have to distill that life down to its most essential elements. You want to know what really matters? Walk through the cemetery and read the headstones.

It almost always comes down to a few, simple words: Loving husband, father and grandfather. Loving wife, mother and grandmother. Loyal friend. Loving Sister. Loving Brother. That’s it. No resume, no net worth. We matter when we love our family and our friends. It sometimes takes death to remind us that life really is that simple.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Donniel Hartman [president of the Shalom Hartman Institute] has pointed out that in its very opening chapters, the Torah has explained that sometimes the reels will feel like they are rolling together and that sometimes they won’t feel that way, and that we need to master both of the resultant types of faith experience.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of Bereshit, God is an intimate and invested presence, molding the human with his hands, enlivening the human with his own breath, planting a garden to satisfy the human’s needs, and, when necessary, castigating the human for his transgression. But the first chapter is thoroughly different. There, God is majestic, regal and distant, creating worlds through his speech, and then leaving the day-to-day operations in the hands of the creature who possesses His likeness. … And in the hands of a fair degree of mazel. “Take both of these visions,” the Torah is saying. “You will need them both to maintain your spiritual fire and your sanity.” 

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh

Temple Israel of Hollywood

In the Book of Ruth, in our Bible, Ruth’s son becomes King David’s grandfather. That’s some yichas! According to the rabbis, one of King David’s decedents will announce the messianic age. Listen, I’m not sitting around waiting for the Messiah to walk through the sanctuary doors, but it’s a profound teaching that the Messiah will come from a non-Jew, Ruth, who was welcomed into the Jewish community. When we close ourselves off, when we don’t eat with the other, we don’t encounter the Ruths in our midst, and we prevent any possibility for the Messianic age to come.

Rabbi Ken Chasen

Leo Baeck Temple

Time, temperament and turning. Three tools that our tradition has gifted to us to help us rebuild our sagging spirits. They’re the ice packs and stretching regimens we need in order to make it through the process of living in one piece. When the miles are piling up, and you are feeling and fearing just how destructible you are — don’t just keep running. Give a little something back to yourself from our Jewish tradition.

Remember how not to become paralyzed by the present … how to wear your tallit of your assuring past and your tallit of your promise to the future simultaneously. Embrace the power that lightness of soul can unleash for yourself and others. And start changing the world by changing yourself … for real … because the love you’ll feel for yourself, and the belief you’ll gain in the potential for human growth, will transform your vision of what is possible for this world.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy

Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

The recent solar eclipse reminds us of the promise of renewal, not only for ourselves, but for all who share the same sun and moon and stars. At this moment of alignment, we are given an extraordinary opportunity to cleanse ourselves of the blame and anger that prevents us from seeing that.

“A human being is part of a whole, limited in time and space, and even though we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.” This, as Einstein reminds us, is an optical illusion. That which is concealed has been revealed, if but for an instant, if only we will open our eyes, our minds and our hearts into a greater consciousness, a “mochin d’gadlut.”    

Rabbi Noah Farkas

Valley Beth Shalom

[Holiness] fills our world and floats in the background, and many of us never know that it is there. If you only live your life trying to achieve one thing — happiness — you are living along a single axis. Your life is broadcast in black and white.

But if you understand that happiness is a means and not an end, if you understand that there is a greater world out there more cherished and sacred than happiness alone, if you see yourself in service to something greater, then you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer broadcast in black and white but in full streaming Technicolor.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Congregation Or Ami

Last May, congregants from Congregation Or Ami stood together in a small sanctuary in Cuba, in a small sanctuary in Santa Clara. Only 20 Jewish families still live in that small community. We were inspired as the community leader, David, who proudly spoke about how they keep Judaism alive. Teaching the rituals. Using their small kitchen as a gathering place to make tsimis and kugel, rice and beans, and chicken soup. Against declining odds, they are sustaining a community, a community devoted to [God].

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad of Glendale and the Foothill Communities

One of the confessions we make on Yom Kippur is:  For the sin which we have committed before you by a glance of the eye – besikur ayin.  What’s wrong with the glance of an eye?  This is a deep sin of looking at something or somebody with the glance of an eye and then thinking “I got it” while in reality you got and saw nothing.  For until we shut our eyes and recognize the true depth of our fellow human beings, we don’t get it at all.

And this leads us back to our central Yom Kippur message: The deeper you see yourself and those around you, the more you can forgive.

And this brings us to Yizkor.  Sometimes we had a less than perfect relationship with our parents.  Perhaps our father was a bit strange, or I had an overbearing mother.  But we need to have the strength to look past these superficial elements and truly appreciate the depth of people.

For those of us whose parents are still alive, don’t wait until it’s too late.  Make the extra effort to connect with them on a truly deep level and overlook the less than important things.  Do that today.  For those of us who are saying Yizkor – think of all the good moments and reconnect on a spiritual level. 

May it be a year in which our eyes stay shut, so that they can remain truly open.

Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson

Temple Judea

Judaism is the most optimistic religion in the world and Jews are the most optimistic people in the world. What, you ask, how can that be? Is the story of Jonah optimistic? How can we be optimistic in the face of the destruction of the Temple not once but twice? How can we be optimistic after millennia of anti-Semitism, of expulsions? Where is optimism in the face of pogroms and the Shoah?

The answer is you. Despite all these things, all this tzuris, you are sitting here, in this sanctuary. You are the guy with boat after the flood in Houston. You are people pulling survivors from the rubble of earthquake in Mexico. What Jonah failed to realize — and what I think we fail to realize — is that our story is not the story of the destruction of the Temples or the expulsion from Spain or the Shoah. Our story and our religion is the story of what happens between those events — the boats that come to save us. That’s who you are. That’s who we are.

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Kehillat Israel

Peg Streep, who writes about unloved daughters, says, “Forgiveness is not the goal. Healing is the goal.” For me and for many others who have suffered abuse and betrayal, this is the absolute truth. Forgiveness is not the goal. Healing is the goal. The action we take in the face of our suffering is to heal and to make meaning out of our own pain.

Staff Writer Ryan Torok contributed to this report.

Rabbie Yosef Kanefksy’s Yom Kippur sermon: Luck and Forgiveness


Moed Kattan 28a

אמר רבא: חיי, בני ומזוני, לא בזכותא תליא מילתא, אלא במזלא תליא מילתא. דהא רבה ורב חסדא תרוייהו רבנן צדיקי הוו, מר מצלי ואתי מיטרא, ומר מצלי ואתי מיטרא. רב חסדא חיה תשעין ותרתין שנין – רבה חיה ארבעין, בי רב חסדא – שיתין הלולי, בי רבה – שיתין תיכלי. בי רב חסדא – סמידא לכלבי ולא מתבעי, בי רבה – נהמא דשערי לאינשי, ולא משתכח

במזלא תליא מילתא

 

Rava said: Length of life, children, and sustenance do not depend on one’s merit, but rather they depend upon luck. As, Rabba and Rav Ḥisda were both pious Sages; one Sage would pray during a drought and rain would fall, and the other Sage would pray and rain would fall.

And nevertheless, their lives were very different. Rav Ḥisda lived for ninety-two years, whereas Rabba lived for only forty years. The house of Rav Ḥisda celebrated sixty wedding feasts, whereas the house of Rabba experienced sixty calamities. In other words, many fortuitous events took place in the house of Rav Ḥisda and the opposite occurred in the house of Rabba.

Things depend on luck.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Rava’s view is not the exclusive one in our tradition.  Prominent sections of our Yamim Noraim liturgy are founded on the alternative view that there is a strong correlation between length of days and repentance, between having blessings and being righteous. Some might argue that this is in fact the essence of the Yamim Noraim.

At the same time though, we know what Rava is talking about. He is simply articulating what we have all observed with our own eyes, and have experienced in our own existence. That God IS, and God cares, and God commands, but there is a large realm of randomness out there. God often just isn’t involved on the individual fate level.

Rava was of course, no heretic. He had a different experience of faith. One which could only enhance our Yom Kippur – and our lives – if we can identify and articulate it, and weave it into the fabric of our own faith experience.

To generate a hopefully helpful metaphor: There are two movie reels that are rolling simultaneously on Yom Kippur. Let’s call one of them the “zochreinu l’chaim” reel, which features us, urgently and repeatedly requesting life, health, and blessings in the year to come. This is the reel that has sound, and words, and song. And let’s call the other the “cheshbon hanefesh” / personal accounting reel, which has no liturgy, no music, no audible sound; it is the one that runs internally, comprised of sharp memories and profound regrets, of determined resolutions, and sincere commitments to fix,  change, and improve.

At those moments of Yom Kippur when we in standard Tishrei faith mode, the two reels are completely woven together, with our articulated pleas for life and blessings carrying inside them the silently pledged resolutions and commitments. But there are also the moments when we are squarely in Rava mode, במזלא תליא מילתא and suddenly the two reels are just not talking to each other. Have we, at those moments, fallen out of Yom Kippur? Has the whole film broken down?  Or are the two reels just running simultaneously and independently, and this too is Yom Kippur. And this too, is a hallowed, intense, sacred faith experience.

Donniel Hartman has pointed out that in its very opening chapters, the Torah has explained that sometimes the reels will feel like they are rolling together and that sometimes they won’t feel that way, and that we need to master both of the resultant types of faith experience. In chapters two and three of Breisheet, God is an intimate and invested presence, molding the human with his hands, enlivening the human with his own breath, planting a garden to satisfy the human’s needs, and when necessary, castigating the human for his transgression. But the first chapter is thoroughly different. There, God is majestic, regal and distant, creating worlds through his speech, and then leaving the day to day operations in the hands of the creature who possesses His likeness…. And in the sand of a fair degree of mazal. “Take both of these visions, The Torah is saying.  You will need them both, to maintain your spiritual fire, and your sanity.

Friends, when we are inside the standard Tishrei faith mode, when we are knowing in our deepest kishkes that life and blessing are inextricably bound up with repentance and recommitment, let us drink in our faith in God who sees the sincerity of our confessions and tears up the evil decree. The faith in God’s intimacy and immanence.

And when we are in Rava mode, when we are knowing God as our Creator and commander who has granted a wide berth to nature and to luck in determining our fate, let us inhale a different aspect of faith  – our faith in the dramataic assertion that our Sages made in their commentary on B’rasheet chapter one, that from the beginning God sought partners upon the Earth, who could help shoulder God’s work, who could keep advancing the Divine vision for things, by sustaining, protecting, and being a conduit of God’s blessing to all that God created. The faith that God had entrusted and empowered us to be His partners.

For Rebbe Nachman, this was the very essence of the faith experience. Just as seeds that are planted in the ground will only sprout and grow in the presence of the right nutrients in the soil, the noble desires and lofty aspirations that are planted in the human heart  – to repair what is broken, to correct what is crooked, to create what is needed, to do those things which the Lord our God hath told us are good –  those desires and aspirations will only sprout in the presence of faith – the faith that these intentions represent nothing less than the fulfillment of Divine dreams. This faith is so crucial because obstacles will invariably arise. Whether in the form of self-doubt, of naysayers who deny that it can be done, or in the form of the real-life challenges that we just didn’t foresee.  And what gives us the strength to power through those obstacles is:

  • The faith that it was not for nothing that God created me with the talents I have,
  • the faith that God who dwells in high is nonetheless “good to all, and His compassion is upon al that He has created”
  • the faith that in taking up God’s work I am assuming a strength greater than my own, as I dream a dream so much bigger than my own.

As a child of the 1970’s , I still marvel at the college kids who founded the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. What were they thinking? It was surely 1 part thought and 9 parts faith.

When the reels are running as one for you today, grab that faith and don’t let go. And when the reels are running separately let’s ask God, Ha’melech Ha’chafetz b’chayim, for forgiveness and for life because we need forgiveness and life, and we want forgiveness and life, and separately – in a profound gesture of faith, let’s ask God to be the wind in our sails, the partner in our efforts, because we need that and want that no less.

God and God of our ancestors, Forgive us and pardon us today, why? Because

  אָנוּ פְעֻלָּתֶךָ וְאַתָּה יוֹצְרֵנוּ

We are your creatures, and You are our craftsman; and because

אָנוּ קְהָלֶךָ וְאַתָּה חֶלְקֵנוּ

We are your true believers, and You are our portion in life

Rabbi Steve Leder’s Yom Kippur sermon: What Have I Learned About Death?


The letter came from Hillside cemetery in June…the kind of letter that always gets my attention: “Buy now, price increases on July 1st.” I’ve been to Hillside 500, 600 times, maybe more. But this time was different. This time it was for me. It was for Betsy. I was buying the last piece of real estate we will ever inhabit.

I looked at a few different Leder Plot possibilities. Which should it be? Fountain, bench, path or tree adjacent? “This one,” I said to the sales woman, after wandering and pondering for a few minutes. A double plot between the fountain and the bench. Section 5, row 11, plot 8— my eternal coordinates.

I stood on my little rectangle for a good long while. I felt the breeze. I imagined Betsy bereft, Aaron and his future wife, Hannah and her future husband, their children, my grandchildren, sitting beneath a green awning on white folding chairs while some other rabbi helps them tear the black ribbon, utter the words, and turn a spade of dirt upon my plain pine casket. They will be sad, they will get back into a dark limousine, loosen their ties, kick off their shoes and journey home to bagels and stories, a flickering candle and Kaddish. They will cry and they will laugh and I, will be gone….

It is a strange thing, it is a sobering thing, to stand upon one’s own grave.

Tonight is supposed to make us feel the very same way. Yom Kippur was designed by the sages as an annual rehearsal for our death. We neither eat nor drink because the dead neither eat nor drink. We wear white to remind us of the white burial shroud into which a traditional Jew is sewn upon death. We begin with an empty ark, the word for which in Hebrew is aron—which is also the word for casket. The three Torahs we hold represent the bet din, the three judges in the heavenly court above.

We begin Kol Nidre staring into an empty casket, standing before the court of eternity. We end Yom Kippur afternoon with the very same words that are recited when a person dies “Adonai Hu HaElohim—Adonai, is God.” When the Yom Kippur prayer book asks, “Who shall live and who shall die?” The answer for each of us is, “I will.”

Unlike most people, Rabbis don’t have the luxury of thinking about death only once a year on Yom Kippur or a handful of times over decades of life. On July 15th I completed my 30th year as your rabbi. This means many wonderful things, but it also means thirty years of seeing death up close. So what have I learned from 30 years of death that I can share with you on this evening when we are commanded to consider our own deaths in order that we might change our lives?

1.

The first thing I have learned about death might surprise you, which is, there are many things worse than dying. I have held the hands of hundreds of dying people. It might amaze you to know that not once, not one time has any of them been afraid. There are rare exceptions but most people die at the end of a very long life or if young, after a long, debilitating illness. Age and disease have their own rhythm and power. They teach us, they carry us along, preparing us and the people we love for death. For most, death comes as a sort of peaceful friend.

Most people are ready to die the way we are all ready to sleep after a very long and terribly exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around us and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed. We are not afraid. The rabbis called death minucha n’chonah—perfect sleep. Disease, age, life itself prepares us for death and when it is our time, death is as natural a thing as life.

Here’s some good news. This means if you are afraid of dying it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living. And when it is really your time to die, you will be at peace and welcomed into the arms of God.

2.

If life is good then death must be bad is the way most people think, but it really isn’t so. I am not for a moment trying to make sense of the death of a child or anyone who has not been granted his or her full measure of life. But generally speaking, is more really better or is there something about death that defines the essence of life itself?

Imagine a world without death. Without death to what would we aspire? Could life be serious or meaningful without mortality? Could life be beautiful? “Death,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the mother of beauty.” The beauty of flowers depends on the fact that they soon wither. How deeply could one deathless “human” being really love another? It is the simple fact that we do not have forever that makes our love for each other so profound.

And finally, without death, would there be such a thing as a moral life? To know that we will die means we must stand for something greater than ourselves in life. It is death Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon that makes us human in the best sense of that word. We contemplate death on Kol Nidre in order to become our best, most human selves.

3.

There is a difference between prolonging life and prolonging death. When I am summoned to the hospital by a family that must decide whether or not to allow some procedure, amidst the stress, chaos and confusion I ask a simple question. Is this going to prolong your loved one’s life or prolong your loved one’s death? It is loving to prolong life; a chance to live and love and laugh again. But it is cruel to prolong death.

If you are wondering how you will know whether you are prolonging life or prolonging death. I can tell you only this. You will know. Then you must have the depth of love and courage within your heart to act upon what you know. To truly love someone is sometimes to let them go.

4.

Jews don’t know Shiva. I am not sure when it happened, but most reform Jews have lost touch with what Shiva is really supposed to be. Sitting Shiva is supposed to ease the burden on the mourners. This means we are supposed to take care of them after the funeral. They are not supposed to throw a party to entertain us.

The rabbis knew what they were doing when they mandated seven days and nights of being taken care of by the community, of staying home, staying put, taking the time to remember, to pray, to say Kaddish. When someone you care about becomes a mourner help organize the food, the parking, the chairs, the everything needed for the Shiva at their home.

When you arrive at the Shiva, do not approach the mourners. Just be close by so they can summon you if they wish. If they do, do not distract them by avoiding the subject of their loved one’s death. Talk about their loved one, share your memories. They want to remember. They need to remember, to talk, to let it out, to grieve.

A man whose thirty-year-old daughter died in a car accident said at the Shiva as he looked around the room at the people who came to comfort him, “This changes nothing. But it means everything.” Showing up matters. Hear me reform Jews–Hold a proper Shiva, and I promise Shiva will hold you when you need so badly to be held.

5.

Be you. People who are facing death or mourning do not really want or need us to approach them with drawn faces and whispered sympathies. They need us to be with them in death who we are with them in life. If you are a hugger, hug. If you are a joker, joke. If you are a story teller, tell stories. If you are a feeder, feed them. If you are a Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon doer. Do for them. Just be who you are and have always been for them. That is what people need and want. They are sad enough without your sad face. Tell them the funniest story you know about their loved one. When mourners laugh, it means they will survive. When it comes to death, laughter is a gift.

6.

There is an old joke about the French that says: “The French are like everyone else, just more so.” Death makes everyone more so. If a person was private in life, she will be private when dying. If he was a wise-cracking optimist in life, he will be a wise cracking optimist in death.

If your family was tight, loving, and supportive in life, your family will be thus as you face death. If your family was dysfunctional, distant, and fractured in life, it will pull together briefly to make funeral plans and get through the day, but soon enough, it will be fractured again.

People and families face death exactly the way they face life—this is sometimes times terrible, and sometimes beautiful, but it is almost always true and it is best not to expect otherwise.

7.

Anyone who thinks the shortest distance between two points is a straight line does not understand grief. Grief is not a linear process with sadness diminishing each day until it clears up like some infection. Grief ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows. Sometimes we can stand up in it, other times it pulls us under, thrashes and scares us, the world is upside down and we cannot breathe.

When that wave called grief comes, it is best to float with the pain and the emptiness, give in to it, be with it, take your time, and then stand up again.

We lose so much to death. Half our memory is gone with the only person on earth who shared our memories of that incredible trip, pizza from that little place down the alley, the babies’ first stumbles across the room, that old white Ford we took cross country when we were young and had no money.

We lose the only mother, the only father we will ever have. We lose so much love to death and if that love is real, and deep, the grief is real and deep.

Grief is not a race to be won or an ill to be cured. To deny grief its due is to deny the love we have for those we have no longer. Do not fight grief when it comes. Float with it…then, stand again.

8.

The rabbi does not write your eulogy after you die. You write it with the pen of your life.

9.

When my friend Debra’s mother died recently I asked her what she learned from it all. Her answer? “Nobody wants your crap.” We spend so much of our lives working, working, working to buy so much that amounts to—nothing.

I sat next to woman on a plane back to LA from Cincinnati. I don’t usually talk to people on planes because I have to lie about what I do in order to get any peace. In this case I was honest and the woman immediately handed me her card. She owns a nationwide business called Everything But the House. She sells the stuff in people’s homes after they die. Their children don’t want most of it. No one they knew wants it. The business nets over 120 million dollars a year.

We spend our lives acquiring things we think matter—mostly they don’t. Filling ourselves up with things is like trying to eat a picture of food.

A group of American tourists visited one of the most famous Eastern European Rabbis of the last century known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” in his little town of Radun. When they arrived, the Rabbi was in his small study with a rickety desk and a few books.

One of the incredulous tourists said, “Rabbi, where is all your stuff?” The Chofetz Chaim smiled, “Where is all yours?” “But we are just passing through,” the man answered. “So am I,” the rabbi said with a wise nod.

Death is a powerful reminder to buy less, and to do more, live more, travel more, and give more instead. No one wants your crap.

10.

The afterlife might be real. Judaism has a lot to say about the afterlife and much of it is contradictory. Views range from Ezekiel’s resurrection vision in the Valley of Dry Bones that take on flesh, to the transmigration of souls, which is Judaism’s version of reincarnation, to heaven and hell scenarios in the Talmud, to the rationalist and humanists who say there is no afterlife. It is easy to say we live on in memory—but the truth is, at some point there will not be a single person left alive who remembers us.

So what can we credibly say about the other side?

I have seen about 800 dead bodies. A body is not a person. It is a vessel. There is so much more to us than our bodies. But where does the soul go? I do not know. But I have heard too many stories, real stories, to dismiss the possibility of an afterlife.

My wife’s best died fifteen years ago. Every year, every year on her friend’s birthday Betsy sees a lady bug. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Perhaps not.

Lorin told me this story. “At one of my grief group meetings, we had to go around and answer ‘If you could say one thing to your spouse right now what would it be?’ I said ‘Please, keep showing me signs you are here with me.’ I returned to my car. Out of the 100s of songs in my iTunes library, Springsteen’s Promised Land started playing – the one song Eddie told me he wanted played at his funeral.”

These stories and the hundreds of others I have heard bring me great warmth and hope and strength.

Dreams, butterflies, lady bugs, a smell, a vision, a song, a soft breeze in a hard moment– -these reminders may or may not be a presence, but they are real and they are to be treasured…they are their own afterlife. More we cannot know….

11.

Headstones. Kafka was right when he said “The meaning of life is that it ends.” It’s true. Death is a great teacher because it informs the living about what really matters. We are here tonight to think about what really matters.

When I walk through cemeteries I am always struck by the uniformity of the inscriptions on headstones. Sure, there are a few funny ones—like Rodney Dangerfield’s which says: “There goes the neighborhood.” Or Mel Blank’s that says “That’s all folks.” But mostly, headstones mention the same few things about people.

When you only have 15 characters per line to sum up a person’s life, you have to distill that life down to its most essential elements. You want to know what really matters? Walk through the cemetery and read the headstones.

It almost always comes down to a few, simple words: Loving husband, father and grandfather. Loving wife, mother and grandmother. Loyal friend. Loving Sister. Loving Brother.

That’s it. No resume, no net worth. We matter when we love our family and our friends. It sometimes takes death to remind us that life really is that simple.

And so, this simple prayer:

God, we stand tonight before our open grave, before an open book, before You. Help us, as we imagine our deaths, to make the most of our lives.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ Yom Kippur sermon: That Time I had it Out with God


Or “Where are You, God? Where are You?”

Six weeks ago, Congregation Or Ami partner, 49-year-old Jennifer Richmond, celebrated the successful completion of a yearlong course of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Four weeks ago, she finished her parent speech for her daughter’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah, which included the sentiment: “I’m here, let’s celebrate my child.”

Three weeks ago, with growing pain, Jennifer was back in the hospital

The evening of the Bat Mitzvah, her husband rolled Jen into services in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank by her side, and they watched as their daughter became a Bat Mitzvah.

On Sunday Jen went into the hospital.

On Tuesday she died.

We buried her just before Rosh Hashana.

And then I had it out with God.


Esa einai el heharim mei-ayin yavo ezri? Ezri mei-im Adonai, oseh shamayim va’aretz. (I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will come my help? My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of heaven and earth – Psalms 121:1-2).

So God, I needed your help. Where were you?

I flew up to the mountains last month, in a 10-seater plane, to find you. My wife Michelle and I soared around the beautiful Alaskan glaciers up near Denali, the highest peak in America. We came to walk amongst your unsullied creation. Landing on the pristine white snow, breathing in the clean fresh air, Michelle and I shared a moment of holiness with You. As the prophet Isaiah exclaimed, M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo (The whole earth is filled with Your majestic glory – Isaiah 6:3). Up there, on the mountain, we witnessed Your wonder. But down here, in the midst of it all…

Dear God, I need Your strength. Where are you, God? Where are you?

Back at home, I went to the ocean. I seem to experience You most powerfully there. Let me hear Your waves crash on the seashore, let me look out at the sea’s vast expanse, watching a ripple propel itself along until it becomes a wave gaining power, and I am in awe. In the Midrash, that rabbinical teaching, the primordial Adam in the earliest days of Creation, stood transfixed on the seashore, gazing out over its vastness and beauty (Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3).

At the ocean, I too understand Your greatness. And when You take out Your divine paintbrush and just at the right moment, as the sun kisses the horizon, You paint in pinks, purples, and yellows, and oh that orange, my heart bursts open and like the Psalmist, I sing songs of praise to You: Mah gadlu ma’asecha Adonai (How great are your works, O God – Psalms 92:5). You, the One they call Borei Yom Valaila (Creator of day and night) – You are awe-inspiring!

And then I have to leave. And that’s when it begins to get difficult. And then things… like this… happen. And it all stops making sense. YOU stop making sense. And when I need comfort most, I can’t find You. And I wonder, where are You, God? Where are You?

When hurricanes hit

Dear God, why can’t You keep hurricanes from destroying homes and uprooting lives? Although I reject the foolish who falsely claim that You were punishing the gays and the abortionists, still I was shamed by Your silence, Your absence. Where were You, God? We needed You.

Last May, congregants from Congregation Or Ami stood together in a small sanctuary in Cuba, in a small sanctuary in Santa Clara. Only 20 Jewish families still live in that small community. We were inspired as the community leader David who proudly spoke about how they keep Judaism alive. Teaching the rituals. Using their small kitchen as a gathering place to make tsimis and kugel, rice and beans, and chicken soup. Against declining odds, they are sustaining a community, a community devoted to You.

David proudly showed us Your Torah in their beautiful ark. There in Cuba, where very, very few can read Hebrew, Torah called out to us: Tik’r’i, read me. Darsheini, interpret me. So we did. I placed the Torah scroll in the arms of 75-year-old Jay Hakakha, a mission participant. Jay’s still small voice had regaled me throughout the trip with almost miraculous stories of his fleeing Iran before it fell.

Then, while unrolling this rarely used Torah, You God and I, we talked. I prayed, “Please, lead me to the perfect passage.” And miracle of miracles, You answered my prayers, as the Holy scroll opened right there, to the most famous of sections, to the intersection of Genesis and Exodus. It was as if You were reminding us that after the incomparable splendor of creation, our people still experienced the typical but painful ups and downs of life: when people make good choices and bad, when they sin and repent, live and die.

We read at the end of Genesis about how in the face of the famine in Your Holy Land of Israel, Jacob and his children were directed down to Egypt, where Jacob’s son Joseph was already second in command. You saved us from the famine, for which we were grateful, only for us to fall, years later, into the maniacal arms of Pharaoh, a new king who knew not Joseph.

For four hundred years we toiled in Egypt. Beaten down, enslaved, left as trash on the roadside of life. But then You sent Moses, Miriam and Aaron, who did the “go down Moses, way down to Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” You sent signs and wonders, ten plagues that would blot out the sun, and turn the Nile to blood. You faced down the megalomaniac sitting on the human throne, who acted as if he were a god, forcing him to open up the borders and let us go in or out as we wished. And so we did. And when our path was blocked by mighty Yam Suf (the Red Sea), You told Moses to lift up his arms, which he did, and You promised to split the seas, which You did. And our people walked forward upon dry land. Hallelujah!

Make those plagues stop coming

But God, those plagues keep coming. Please make them stop. The cancer cells keep splitting and multiplying. This time they took a beautifully soulful, intelligent businesswoman, mother, wife, daughter – 49-year-old Jennifer –who died just days after her only child celebrated her Bat Mitzvah, before they even had a chance to reminisce. The plague of darkness keeps blotting out any glimpse of a cure for these diseases. Too many dear ones, like David and Jerry and others, died this past year, and too many wonderful people keep suffering.

God, at that Bat Mitzvah, I held my head up high, as I held your Torah up high, and I carried Your people forward. I am lifting up my arms, but the seas, they aren’t splitting. Where is the dry land for us to walk through?

Where are You, God? Where are You? Sometimes You seem so far away.

Then I heard You

And then, when I was exhausted from running to bedsides and from helping a new widower figure out how to get through, when my rage had run its course, when my soul was scorched with sadness and my voice hoarse from yelling at You, when I thought I had no more tears to shed, then, in the quiet of my home, in the depths of my broken heart, I heard You, whispering ever so quietly that I almost missed it.

I heard Your kol d’mama daka, that still small voice inside, repeating one of my favorite verses in all of Torah, Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, behold, [I God] am in this place (based on Genesis 28:10), and in this moment too. I am here, if you let me in (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk).

So I wiped my tears, and held in check my fear, filled my lungs with deep breaths, and, like a young child to his father who seemed so far away, I asked, “Where were you God? I felt so alone. While the hurricanes hit and we were collecting donations to buy food for the Houston day camp… while centuries old Caribbean synagogues were near destruction… while that mother had to experience her daughter’s bat mitzvah in a wheelchair with an oxygen tube in her nose… I couldn’t find you. Where were You?

God finally speaks

And then suddenly, You enveloped me, like a tallit wrapped around my heaving shoulders. You held me close, and again let me cry. And ever so quietly, compassionately, You said:

“Remember when you woke up that day at 4 am, after that long night of consoling others, how exhausted you were and yet you kept going until 10 at night? Did you ever wonder where you found the stamina to go on?

“When in the depths of your sadness you guided her husband to decide whether or not to issue a Do Not Resuscitate order in the hospital, when you encouraged their daughter to climb into the hospital bed so her mom could wrap her in a hug… Did you ever wonder where you found that strength and courage?

“My child,” God said to me, “back in the beginning, on that sixth day of creation, when I said, ‘Come, let us make humanity in our own image’ (Genesis 1:26), I knew that like a parent giving a 16-year-old the keys to the new car, I was giving you control of my new world. As parents, we can teach and guide, critique and caution, but once we give the keys to our kids, we control less than we would like, way less than I would like. Granting you humans free will came with the requirement that I pull back. You now have the ability to assert your will over Mine.

“But God,” I asked, with renewing confidence and a little bit of chutzpah: “You are ha’eil hagadol hagibor v’hanorah (the great, powerful, awesome One – Deuternomy 10:17). You created the majesty of the mountains, the beauty of the ocean, and the intricacies inside the human body. Why didn’t You do it differently? Give us free will but ensure that life would turn out well? Like when I had that backgammon app on my smartphone, and I could play on the hardest level, but I was always winning 96% of the games. Couldn’t you make life like that?

Just then God laughed. And then I remembered, how when I was losing a backgammon game, I would just hit “start over” and the game would reset, but my winning stats remained.

“Is that what you want,” God asked, “a cheat to game the system? A hack to hone your play in the game of life?

Why do you insist on blaming Me?

“You don’t like the hurricanes? Follow the science and see how your actions are destroying my world, leading to mega-events that flood your cities.

“You don’t like the floods? Follow my Torah and legislate in ways that preserve the land so that the marshes and grasses can still absorb the overflow and channel it out to the sea.

“You don’t like the earthquakes? You home-owning Californians each must sign a piece of paper when you purchase a new home, testifying that you know it sits on or near an earthquake fault. If you chose to live there still, is it My fault? If you don’t spend the money to retrofit your buildings, or don’t allocate the funds to fix the levies and drainage systems when everyone knows they are grossly in disrepair, and then hurricanes devastate, why do you insist on still blaming Me?

“It’s all there,” God said. “I left you instructions. In the Torah, you learn about how to care for others fairly. And in your minds, you have the wisdom to figure out how to cure everything, from cancer to the common cold. I even gave you chicken soup to carry you along while you put the other pieces in place. But you have to make a choice: to choose people over profits, prayer over personal acquisition, thoughtful planning over expansive growth.

“You humans have unmatched ability at genius. You can sit a soldier down in a room in the Midwest, and using a joystick and flatscreen, he or she can guide a missile on the other side of the world, dropping it on its target, one foot in diameter, with the precision of a brain surgeon. Why won’t you use that same genius, giving your scientists unlimited research dollars to finally cure cancer, ameliorate the ravages of Alzheimer’s, and destroy the darkness of depression? I implanted that wisdom in your minds. So it’s not up to Me. You just need to focus on building up medicine and scientific research. And for God’s sake – for My sake – fix your fakakta health care system so that everyone is cared for, so that prevention is primary, and diseases are eradicated, and then you will see the costs will go down. I, God, can’t be rofei hacholim, Healer of the Sick, if you keep interfering with the delivery systems I try to inspire within you.

I am with you

“So while Jennifer sat in the wheelchair, with her husband right by her side, who do you think that empty seat right next to him was for? Elijah? That was for me,” God whispered. “I was there – I’m everywhere. With you. With them. With that amazing bat mitzvah girl. Giving Jen the ability to endure the pain and make it through the Bat Mitzvah. Her husband the capacity to find joy in the moment. I was with those congregants who found strength to hold up my Torah for so long over the Jennifer’s lap so that from her wheelchair she could watch up close as her daughter chanted and became a woman. I was with the people who arranged the shiva meal so the family didn’t need to. Whose idea do you think it was to invite everyone to email stories so that the village could make a book of memories of Jen to bequeath to her daughter? Yours? Really?

“I know you feel lost and alone. And it saddens Me. And I know you wish I was the kind of god who gave you free will but still make the stats look amazing. I sometimes wish I could too. But I’m here. I’m always here.

“So when you want to feel My presence, sit up and be compassionate.

“When you want to feel my love, speak up, against your own comfort and privilege, and create equal justice for all.

Rise up, against your own inertia, and change your life, by inviting Me to be part of it.

“Then the world may be a little calmer. And your lives will be a little holier. And perhaps the significance of these Holy Days of repentance will change because you will have less to apologize for.

“And then you will realize, you will really know – you will even feel it deep inside you – that I love you b’chol l’vavi uv’chol nafshi uv’chol me’odi (with all My heart, My Soul of souls and with all of Existence.

“And I am here, with you. Now. And always.”

Amen.

This was originally posted on Paul Kipnes’ site.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy’s Yom Kippur sermon: I’m Still Here


Mazel Tov! If you are sitting here in a seat this morning, it means that made it, and YOU ARE STILL HERE! No one can take that for granted, as I am sure that Dr. Ruth, Steve Kivo, and many others in this room who have battled with life threatening illness can tell you. Many of us come into this room mourning loved ones who have passed away this year, and we know that getting here requires not only determination and attention but a certain amount of good luck. Thank God-, as we should, every day.

As you may have noticed, I’m also still here. Last year’s Yom Kippur sermon was to be my final sermon, but…Heneni- Here I am. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I asked the question “Why am I still here?” and I could not fully answer except to say “I think the answer will be revealed during these ten High Holy Days.” It has. I am here because I could not face this High Holiday season without you.

And why are you still here with me? I was completely prepared to hand over these High Holidays to a successor. “Lo Alecha l’gmor, you do not have to complete the task, but neither may you desist from beginning it” was the theme of last year’s Yom Kippur farewell. A search committee went into gear, and I finalized arrangements for my house in Santa Fe. I even had a fantasy of spending the High Holidays as a rabbi on a cruise ship somewhere, perhaps the Caribbean. But as the world whipped itself into frenzy over the last months, I realized that one more time; we needed to ride out the eye of the storm together.

Even at the Gala in late May, I still had hopes for a lightening strike hire of a new rabbi. But the winds of change were already buffeting this community. A week before, our beloved Cantor had lost all of his belongings in a house fire caused by a careless neighbor. He was devastated. It did not seem to be an appropriate time for Cantor Marcelo to forge a relationship with a new rabbi right before the High Holidays. After all, as he often points out, after seventeen years, our relationship is his longest relationship.

Neither was it the best time for me to be visiting Israel as usual.

Every summer, I attend the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem during the first two weeks in July. I did not register, as I planned to be moving to Santa Fe. By early July, the city of Jerusalem was on High Alert. An Israeli policeman had been stabbed in the Old City, and the response was to alter the rules and put metal detectors at the entrances for Arabs onto the Temple Mount. This is not the simple security precaution that it appears to be, but a question of “Who’s in charge here?” challenging a long-standing arrangement with the Jordanians. Tempers over the Temple Mount reached a flashpoint, and the Middle East once again stood on the brink of war. To add to the tension, most of the one hundred and seventy five rabbis attending Hartman were furious because Netanyahu’s government, bowing to ultra-Orthodox pressure, had just cancelled a compromise allowing egalitarian worship at the Southern end of the Western Wall.  This did not seem to be a formula for a relaxing vacation.

By mid July, I realized just how much I needed one more summer of Shabbat on the Beach.

Each Shabbat was spectacular, as the skies changed from tear drop sunsets to a womblike cloud, to a sparkling canopy of stars. Thanks to global warming, we never even used our parkas. I felt your warmth and support as we huddled in a circle, with blessings for healing and infinite versions of Ose Shalom. I do not know if I would be ready to leave now if we had not exchanged so much love and blessing this past summer.

By the time we reached Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it felt as if the entire world was in total chaos. Tensions with the North Koreans grew as one nuclear missile test followed another in rapid succession. Bigotry and hatred were rampant in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. A week later, much of the American West was on fire, and you know how nervous fire makes us here in Malibu. And then, Hurricane Harvey, a “once in a hundred year” storm, struck Houston, followed a week later by Irma, another monster hurricane that barreled up the Florida peninsula. In the same week, an 8.1 earthquake toppled Oaxaca, and the temblor was felt throughout Mexico. Fires raged close to home in Pasadena. Maria struck Puerto Rico.

And then, I understood why I am still here.

I AM HERE TO SAY ONE LAST “UNETANEH TOKEF” PRAYER TOGETHER WITH YOU. I am here in answer to the question: How can Judaism help in times of trouble? I am here to remind us that we are not the first nor the last people to face crisis, and that the truths revealed in this prayer, written 1000 years ago, continue to guide us.

Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom… Now we declare the sacred power of this day…

Hayom-Today is the day that we stand, together, and acknowledge, as a community, that we are not in control. In this era of flexible, fungible truth, one Truth stands firmly beyond all doubt. Eventually, no matter what, we will face death.

All of humanity is founded on dust, of dust they are made, and to dust they return;

It is not a question of “if”, but “when”. At the end of the day, our lives are not in our own hands. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer reminds us that death is always over our shoulder, and we are ultimately not in control.

On Rosh Hashanah all is written and revealed

And on Yom Kippur the course of every life is sealed.

-How many pass on, how many shall thrive,

who shall live on, and who shall die,

whose death is timely and whose is not.

WHO DIES BY FIRE, AND WHO SHALL BE DROWNED

WHO BY EARTHQUAKE AND WHO BY PLAGUE…    

And there was, right in front of our eyes on National TV.

“But why, Rabbi,”  “Why does one house stand unscathed and the next house is flooded to the rooftops? Why does one person suffer absolute loss and despair while I am safe in my bed in Malibu? Why?

There is a paradox embedded into the liturgy of Yom Kippur. On one hand, it is our deeds that determine our fate.

True it is that you are our judge;

You alone can reprove, you alone can know,

You alone are witness to all deeds… 

ON Rosh Hashanah, ALL IS WRITTEN AND REVEALED

AND ON YOM KIPPUR, THE COURSE OF EVERY LIFE IS SEALED.

The shofar of Rosh Hashanah rouses us to examine our actions. These ten days give us the opportunity to return, correct and make amends, so that we will be judged favorably “by justice’s eyes”. We are to be judged on our merits, and strive to improve.

But there is also a random, chance factor at work. The biblical Yom Kippur ritual, which we read this morning, speaks of two goats, one which carries the sins of the whole community into the wilderness, and one (the lucky goat) who gets to be slaughtered as the Yom Kippur sacrifice. Which goat is which? Literally, it is luck of the draw. Why does one house burn and one does not? Sometimes, it’s random, just plain luck. The rabbis loved the pun of Yom Kippur- and Yom Ki-like-Purim. Purim is the plural for the word PUR, meaning  “lots” or dice, and it was by a roll of the dice that the day of Adar 14 was chosen as the day to annihilate all the Jews. Our Purim victory is celebrated with feasting and parties, “we won, lets eat” with no mention of God.  Yom Kippur is day a day of abstinence and fasting that acknowledges God’s sovereignty and dominion over all. They are two sides to the same coin, and we stand at this moment of Yom Kippur to remember that ultimately the short straw will be ours.

How can we live with this fatalistic premise?

TTTTTTTTT!!!!(Sound shofar) The sound of the shofar, calling us to action, holds the key.

But teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah

Make easier what God may decree,

Make easier what life holds in store,

Make easier facing the world,

Make easier facing ourselves. 

Oh, we already knew that. Rabbi, You repeat that every year, we just heard this on Rosh Hashanah! But I am here, THIS year, one more time, to share these tools with you as never before.

.

The essence of the Unetaneh Tokef  prayer provides  our  Emergency Preparedness Kit. When disaster strikes, which we know it will, we ask ”How can tshuvah, tefilah and tzeddakah help me in this situation?” This is not a magic formula.  No words or actions can wipe out the cruel decree of loss and death, but our actions can make “easier what life has in store”. Let’s open the kit one more time, with the images of the past few months before our eyes.  Get ready, as “This is real, and we had better be prepared”

Tshuvah-

The screen on the dashboard in my new car has an arrow that curves and turns around, pointing the other way. That’s our sign for tshuvah, as we literally turn and make the necessary changes. These weeks of category four and five hurricanes hurtling across the Atlantic have put “an inconvenient truth” before our very eyes. Climate change, no matter how much we deny it, is real, and its normal effects are exacerbated by human actions. Of course, we can find the odd study that disagrees, but the force of these hurricanes feeding over rapidly warming waters is strong evidence that human change is needed. We cannot cancel the decree, hurricanes will happen- but we can ameliorate the situation through our actions. We need to turn, and change, before all of our coastal cities are underwater.

Tshuvah means that we must be able admit our mistakes. If we cannot, and “double down”, the situation will be exacerbated until change is no longer possible. Ego is the enemy of tshuvah. as we do not want to be seen in a bad light. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we traditionally read the story of the prophet Jonah, who turned away from God’s instruction to go to Nineveh to offer the sinning citizens a chance of repentance. Jonah had already prophesied their destruction, and did not want to look bad if they repented. When the reluctant prophet Jonah finally delivers God’s message under duress, the King of Nineveh, Israel’s enemy, immediately asks for forgiveness, and changes his ways. But even a sojourn in the belly of the whale does not cure Jonah’s ego as he sulks in a hut outside of the city.  Eventually God loses patience, and the self centered Jonah ends up alone, living under a dead vine.

Tshuvah means not only to repent, and to turn, but also to forgive. I do not know what my “legacy” is, but if I have to choose one line that I have contributed, it is this:

“God made families so we can do tshuvah.”

Everyone, in every family has an issue with someone- a parent, a sibling, a cousin, a branch if the family that we no longer speak with, though we are not quite sure why. Why can’t everyone be just like me? Tshuvah allows me to turn and ask, “What is my part in this situation? When do I need to say, “I’m sorry”, and when do I need to forgive? Families provide us with an opportunity to practice our tshuvah skills at all times. When we forgive, we free not only the offending party, but ourselves. I love this poem by Marge Piercy:

We forgive those we firmly love
because anger hurts…

We forgive because we too have done the same to others…
or because anger is a fire that must be fed
and we are too tired to rise and haul a log

How long are you going to haul that log of resentment around with you? It probably has no place in this year’s paradigm. Tshuvah, the ability to turn, change and forgive, makes the world go round.

T’filah- Prayer

Nestled into the toolkit is a small prayer book. Some prayers are written on paper. Others are written on our hearts.

When a fire or a hurricane strikes, we do not enter into a complicated philosophical dialogue about God and the efficacy of prayer. We pray, we beseech, we give thanks for our very lives. “Please God, send help soon, this water is rising so fast.” “ Please make sure that my mother in Florida, who I can not reach by phone, is protected.”  And then “ Thank you, God,.. Our home is gone, but we are grateful to be alive, and in this shelter…”

The Gospel choir that went from shelter to shelter in Houston, giving people a chance to praise God for their lives, even though their belongings were in tatters, particularly moved me. Song will get us through.

And then, there is liturgy; prayer written long before us that reminds us that we are not the only ones to suffer a storm. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me”…Modah Ani l’fanecha- I give thanks before you. These words are engraved upon our hearts. In a moment of crisis, they are your protection and salvation.

Tzedakah- Charity and Justice

This tool holds the ultimate key. In a moment that seems difficult beyond belief, “secure your own mask first” but then, reach out and help someone else. Slamming into Texas just a few weeks after the racist debacle of Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey gave us the opportunity to see the true character of America. Neighbor helped neighbor, and no one in rescue boats asked for immigration papers or established priorities based on the color of one’s skin. It rained on rich and poor alike, as huge houses flooded and hovels were destroyed. Volunteer rescue squads, from the “Cajun Navy” to fleets of private planes from all over the country, made every effort to see that no one was left behind. The veneer of separation was stripped away, and we were reminded, once again, that we are “all in the same boat”. Can we remember once the rain stops falling?

Crisis and disaster are not new to the Jewish people. The seeds of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer were planted after the destruction of the Temple, and legend has it that the prayer became High Holiday liturgy around the year 1000CE in response to the persecution of the Jews in Medieval Europe. Each generation has passed it forward, in response to the exigencies of the times. It has been an honor to serve as your Rabbi for these past twenty-one High Holidays, and I can only hope that the seeds planted here will be passed on to our children’s children’s children.

There is a famous story of Honi HaMagal, a Jewish sage of the First Century:

One day Honi the circle-drawer was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi asked: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Usually, this is where the telling of the story ends. There is, however, another chapter that seems so relevant to this last Yom Kippur sermon.

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him, and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grand-son.” Thereupon Honi exclaimed: “It is clear that I have slept for seventy years.” Shaking himself awake, he then mounted the great grandchild of his donkey, and returned to his village. There he inquired, “Is the son of Honi still alive?” The people answered him, “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.” Thereupon he said to them: “I am Honi the Circle-Drawer,” but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the beit ha-midrash [study hall] and there he overheard the scholars say, “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer”. Whereupon he called out, “It’s me, Honi I am he!” But the scholars would not believe him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy, and he died.

No, with God’s grace I am not dying, just retiring, and I hope that when I return to visit, you will still recognize me. But the time has come to let the seeds that I have planted be harvested by the next generations, just as I have brought the fruits of my teachers, who came before me, home to you.

I would like to end this, my last sermon, with homage to Leonard Cohen, a great Jewish poet who died this past year. May his words guide our farewell:

I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me
It’s just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea
But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie

Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

May we all be sealed for another year in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback’s Rosh Hashanah sermon: We Need Each Other


Maybe it’s because she grew up in a very small Jewish community – El Dorado, Kansas was home to about ten Jewish families. Maybe it was because of her deep love for Jewish values, traditions and teachings. Whatever inspired it, my mother absolutely delighted in discovering that the perfect stranger with whom she was sitting on the airplane or whom she happened to begin speaking with in the museum or concert hall at intermission was, like her, a Jew.

If one of her kids was nearby, she’d shoot us a knowing look and stage-whisper, “He’s JEWISH.” Sometimes it was obvious. A star of David around the neck. A hamsa. Maybe it was the name – David Shapiro was an easy one. Rochel Leah Rabinowitz – a no brainer. Shmuel Cohen – a gimmee. But mom could also find the Jewish Maureen O’Malley, too.

Then it was time for some Jewish geography. Before you knew it, mom had found a connection. Maybe through an acquaintance, a distant cousin – some Rabbi we knew in common.

When I entered Rabbinical school, it got worse. Here’s how it played out:

  • Step one: Identify the Jew.
  • Step two: Chat up the Jew.
  • Step three: Discover some type of personal connection to the Jew.
  • Step four: Seize the opportunity to announce proudly to her new best friend that her son is studying to be a rabbi.

Once on a family vacation, as we sat down for our first dinner, a member of the staff approached me and said, “I hear you’re a rabbi – would you be willing to help us light the Chanukah candles tomorrow night in the lobby? Your mom said you’d love to!”

I don’t want you to think that her ability to identify and connect with Jews was flawless – sometimes her “Jew-dar” was off. Once, on a phone call with mom when I was in college, I mentioned that I was going to a Bruce Springsteen concert with some friends. “You know he’s a self hating Jew, don’t you?” She said. “I mean, he never talks about his Jewish identity, he’s not raising his kids as Jews – he hasn’t ever performed in Israel.”

“Mom,” I noted. “We’ve talked about this before. Bruce Springsteen is not, I repeat, NOT a self hating Jew. Do you know why that is, mom? It’s ‘cuz he’s NOT A JEW AT ALL. Yes, his name ends in ‘Steen’ and he’s from Jersey but HE’S NOT A JEW.”

There was a pause.

“Still,” she said, “he could be more supportive.”

My parents taught us that we were part of a community, a People – Members of a Tribe. They were devoted to our synagogue. Mom was president of the Temple sisterhood, an active lifelong learner, forever volunteering for things like the outreach committee, the book drive, and taskforces of all types. Dad was honored to be named the volunteer of the decade at our local Jewish Community Center.

For us kids, attending religious school through Confirmation was a requirement. Mom insisted that we all try Jewish summer camp and youth group. We loved it so much that we went back year after year.

And my parents walked the walk with their tzedakah dollars as well supporting the Temple, our local Federation, and a host of Israel related activities.

Their example, the way they modeled the importance of being part of Jewish community, shaped me in the most profound ways, leading me ultimately to the rabbinate, to devoting my professional life to Jewish community, education, and values. It’s what inspired me to move to Israel to study and that’s there I met my wife, the mother of our three daughters – by far the best outcome of all.

My life has meaning and purpose because of these experiences. I have a deeper sense of my small role in the cosmos because of it. Being part of this tribe, this people Israel, has helped me to feel a sense of connection in a time of increasing alienation and division. And – most importantly – it is through my community that the values of our People have been transmitted to me: a way of life that points us towards justice and righteousness and inspires us to make ourselves and the world better.

This sense of connection to a people with a shared history, destiny and set of values provides us with what the great sociologist, Peter Berger, calls a “plausibility structure.” A system of meaning which helps us to make sense of our world and understand our place in it.

But for so many people today, not just Jews, the “plausibility structure” of community itself is being undermined in profound ways.

Marc Dunkelman, a professor at Brown University, writes about this in his recent book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.”

Dunkelman describes what he calls “middle-ring” relationships. These involve people who are not family or close friends but not as distant as mere acquaintances. Over the past few decades, these middle-ring relationships have all but disappeared in America and as a result, people feel less and less connected to their neighbors, their towns, and, even more broadly, their country. An additional consequence of this alienation is a narrowing of our world-views.

Dunkelman notes that middle-ring relationships are best “suited to pierce our much-bemoaned filter bubbles” – the increasingly precise way we get our news and are exposed to the ideas of others through the various feeds, tightly controlled by ever-monetized algorithms, that limit the ideas, people and – ultimately – experiences to which we are exposed.

Before the deterioration of these “middle-ring” relationships, “a left-wing academic might talk with a conservative banker while in line at Blockbuster — if that’s how we still rented movies. An activist could explain the benefits of paid leave to a skeptical businesswoman on the sidelines of the P.T.A. meeting — if that were how we spent our Tuesday nights. Experiments that compel ordinary people to discuss a fraught topic face-to-face have illustrated that those conversations quite frequently lead participants to think differently. But without middle-ring relationships, those sorts of thoughtful, substantive interactions have become all too rare.”

And, sadly, tragically even, our ability to connect deeply with what was once not a “middle-ring” relationship but rather a kin/familial relationship, namely, to Jewish community, has also been compromised.

Locally, nationally, and internationally, our Jewish community has become more fragmented and divided politically, ethnically, and religiously. Right versus Left. Ashkenazi versus Sephardi. Orthodox versus Reform.

And, more globally, there has been a most unfortunate distancing between the two major centers of Jewish life today: Israel and America. This past summer, divisions between Israel and the Diaspora surfaced in deeply troubling ways. The Kotel controversy and the debate over a new conversion bill in the Knesset, inspired headlines in Jewish newspapers including this one that should send chills down our spines: “Netanyahu to Millions of Jews – we don’t really want you.” The author of that piece, David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, argued that the Prime Minister’s decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise plan that had been labored over for more than three years was a “blow to the heart and soul of world Jewry.”

And just a few weeks ago, in the middle of the month of Elul – our countdown to repentance – the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem said publicly that Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Rabbi, don’t be so naive! Isn’t this how it has always been?”

Indeed, my own grandfather used to tell me about how the German Jews in Omaha used to look down on the Shtetl Jews – my family – who had immigrated more recently from Poland.

And what about the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions”? This one is beautifully illustrated by the joke about the Jew who is shipwrecked on a desert island. The crew of a passing ship notices his campfire and comes to his aid. When the captain of the ship comes ashore, the Jew thanks him profusely and offers him a tour of his little island. He shows him the fire pit where he cooks his food, the hammock where he sleeps, and the little synagogue he built so he could offer his prayers to God. On the way back to the ship, the captain notices a second synagogue. The captain is confused. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks, “why on earth did you go to the trouble to build two synagogues!?!? You are the only Jew on this island!” “Vell,” replies the Jew, “da first shul, dat’s where I go to daven! Dis shul? I would never set foot in dis shul!”

It’s funny. And it’s awful. And it’s a rather apt metaphor for human life on this planet today – or where we might be headed.

Each of us all alone on our own little islands. Like the two couples I saw the other night out for the dinner – all four of them on their smartphones, not talking to one another, not even looking at each other.

All alone on our islands – one Jew with two synagogues, or, even worse, one Jew actively choosing to absent himself from every synagogue, from the community itself. Each one of us an island – experiencing the world, filtering our news and our friends and the values we embrace, all on our own.

And here is why this conversation is so urgent, why it matters so much, right now: Communities transmit values and a sense that, whatever the challenge, we can confront it more successfully together.

Think about the extraordinary images we’ve seen over the past few weeks of the devastation caused by hurricanes and earthquakes. Neighbors rescuing neighbors right along side professionally trained first-responders.

Friends – now, as ever, we need each other. Whatever our differences, the challenges we’re facing confront us all. Climate change, North Korean nukes, stagnant wages, social disruptions, a worldwide refugee crisis – no one is immune. Gay, straight, transgender – whether we were born in this country, immigrated here with all the proper papers, or came as an infant in the arms of a parent dreaming of a better life – we are all in this together. Only through a shared commitment to our best values will we be able to survive, to thrive, to hope for and realize a brighter tomorrow for ourselves, our children, and our world.

So the challenge is bigger and the sense of urgency is more pronounced but here’s the good news: the solution hasn’t really changed at all. It’s ultimately a matter of choice. We have a simple decision to make: Are the privileges and benefits of communal membership generally and, more particularly for us as Jews as members of this tribe, this People, worth the efforts required? If we conclude that they are, then it’s all about commitment.

And, make no mistake, it’s always been a matter of choice. In Talmudic times, there was a robust competition amongst the Jewish, Christian, and Pagan communities for the hearts and minds of the masses. The rabbis – two thousand years ago – had to make a case for Jewish community.

First, they laid out the obligations the community has toward the People. In short, the community had to provide for the physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of everyone – no small task. Soup-kitchens for the poor; funding, and matchmakers, to make sure that orphans could marry; assistance for widows; burial societies and cemeteries for life’s end. Schools for learning. Synagogues for worship. Emissaries to represent the interests of the community to the Gentile authorities. The community would provide everything. (Sanhedrin 17b)

But the relationship must be reciprocal. The individual has obligations to the community as well.

Here’s how the Midrash puts it: “The person who asks, ‘Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to involve myself in their problems? Why should I care about what they say? I’m fine all by myself!” This person, says the Midrash, “מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם – destroys the world. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2:2)

An example of Rabbinic exaggeration? Perhaps. Destroying the world might be putting it a bit too strongly.

And yet, and yet. The one who thinks, “I’ll just worry about myself and my needs alone,” doesn’t this way of thinking, ultimately, lead not merely to the disintegration of one’s local community but to the disintegration of society, of civilization itself?

And here’s what makes affiliation in Jewish community in particular and the energy we expend to strengthen it more than a provincial, self-centered act. Communal affiliation is generative. The act of connecting more deeply to our particular community, leads us to a deeper sense of obligation to and concern for the broader community. Our affiliation with and affection for members of our tribe does not have to lead us to being “tribal” in a parochial, narrow, xenophobic fashion. In fact, our tribal tradition wants our particular, personal experience to be a doorway to a more expansive sense of connection and responsibility for others who, while not MOTs, are part of our broader, human family.

As the great theologian and scholar, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, argues, “our particular religious vision is also profoundly and inseparably universal.” Our People’s master narrative of our slave ancestors being redeemed at the Shores of the Red Sea, leads us to understand in a personal and profound way, the universal value of liberation and national dignity for all people.

In a time when our nation is so deeply divided and so much in need of healing, our commitment to Jewish community and the values it upholds can help us to be better Americans for, as Jews, we have always cared for more than just “our own.” As the great sage Hillel put it 2000 years ago:

״וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי?״

״If we are only for ourselves, what are we?”

For our Rabbis, the “case” for community is existential: without it, the whole world is destroyed. We depend upon community for our very survival – physical and spiritual as well for communities transmit values.

And our spirits, our souls, need the core values of our tradition especially right now.

In the face of hatred and violence, neo-Nazis and klansmen marching in our streets, our tradition reminds us (Lev 19:17):

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ

Hatred is a sin.

In the face of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia – our tradition reminds us that God created humanity through a common ancestor for the sake of peace –

מִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת

so that no man or woman could ever say: אַבָּא גָּדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ! My father is better than yours! (Sanhedrin 37a)

We are all children of the same loving God. We are all connected.

In a time of “alternative facts” – our tradition reminds us that there is such a thing as truth and that, indeed, the integrity of the world depends on it.

In a time in our country when disagreements about our deeply held beliefs increasingly move from what should be vigorous, healthy debates to scenes of chaos and violence, our tradition reminds us that, no matter how hard, our job is to “seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:15)

בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרָדְפֵֽהוּ

I could go on all day – but I won’t.

But do indulge me just one more: In a time of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, our tradition teaches us that “the whole world is a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid!” In the face of the very real and frightening challenges of our lives, our tradition reminds us never to lose hope, never to give in to our fears. And being part of a community helps us to cross the bridge despite those fears.

In my own experience, the gifts I receive from being part of this community, this People Israel, far outweigh what is required of me. I get so much more than I give.

And I know this is true for so many of you here today. You’ve told me story after story about how – right here, maybe in our parenting center – you met the closest friends who have supported you throughout your life. You’ve told me about how, right here – maybe at Torah study or as a regular in Shabbat services – you’ve found meaning and strength through life’s most challenging times. You’ve told me about how our clergy have been there for your family through simchas as well as through life’s tsuris. You’ve shared how you’ve found a deeper sense of purpose as a volunteer in one of our Tikkun Olam programs.

You’ve told me – again and again – that you have received more than you’ve given.

We’re lucky – so lucky – to be part of a vibrant, established Jewish community. My mom and her family had to drive to Wichita from El Dorado to attend Shabbat services. Now, truth be told, it’s only 40 miles which took them less time than it does to get to Stephen Wise from Santa Monica on a Friday evening but still, still – it took some effort. She could hardly imagine, as a young woman, a Jewish community like ours numbering in the hundreds of thousands, boasting synagogues and day-schools and Jewish institutions of all shapes and sizes. She couldn’t imagine a shul with a pool.

My mom grew up in a town that didn’t have any Jewish institutions and barely enough Jews to make a minyan. It’s probably why she was always searching, always on the look-out for other MOTs, Members of the Tribe.

It’s part of what inspired her to give so much time and energy to her community. But I know that – ultimately – she received as much or more as she contributed.

When she died, much too young, hundreds and hundreds of members of our community were there to honor her and to support us, to carry us in our grief.

This is the commitment, this is the support, this is the sense of belonging and meaning and purpose that we all need. And it’s what our our nation and our world needs right now, too.

To get there – we’ll all need to step up. It’s hard, I know. We’re busy – pulled in a thousand directions. But it’s important. So in this New Year of 5778, let’s all commit to doing more for each other.

I’m not going to ask you to devote yourself 24 X 6 to the Temple – although you’re welcome to do so. But what if we could each commit to doing one additional act of kindness every month for our community? It might be attending a shiva minyan or showing up to pack lunches for homeless folks in our city. Maybe it’s reaching out and bringing a friend to a class or a service. Maybe it’s helping to raise funds for a special project that will bring more meaning and hope into our world. Maybe it’s volunteering to serve on a committee or help with a program. Whatever it is, let’s commit ourselves to doing more to strengthening our tribe, our community and in so doing, we’ll strengthen our city, our nation, and our world.

Friends – we need each other. Desperately. Joyfully. Eternally.

 

Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, an independent congregation, delivering an invocation at the inauguration of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in July 2017. Photo courtesy of Ikar

Why some rabbis used their High Holy Days sermons to bash Trump – and others demurred


As spiritual leader of one of the most widely known Reform synagogues in America, Rabbi Joshua Davidson tries not to be divisive on the holiest days of the year.

So on the High Holy Days of years past, when he stood before thousands of congregants at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, Davidson stuck to universal and uncontroversial topics. In 2015, he spoke about the synagogue’s history and mission. A year ago, in the heat of an acrimonious election, he talked about civic duty and the value of political participation.

But this year, Davidson criticized President Donald Trump.

His Rosh Hashanah sermon last week was on “trying to lift ourselves above the dishonesty, the incivility, the indecency which so many feel has become the societal norm,” he said. One of the hallmarks of that indecency, according to Davidson, was Trump’s response to the August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I certainly mentioned the president in certain contexts,” he told JTA. “I mentioned his response to Charlottesville and condemned it. We have to condemn any sort of equivocation when it comes to bigotry in the strongest terms. His response was an affront to decency.”

Whether or not to use the bimah as a bully pulpit has become a particularly burning issue in the first year of the Trump presidency, which even his supporters acknowledge has been unusually divisive. Non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the vast majority of American Jewry, voted against Trump in wide margins. According to a recent poll, a majority of Orthodox Jews voted for him and approve of his performance.

But rabbis disagree when it comes to talking politics from the pulpit, especially when more Jews attend their synagogues than at any other time of the year. For every rabbi who insists on taking clear stands, others worry about alienating congregants who may disagree.

Rabbi Shalom Baum advocated policies as a past president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. But he avoids discussing politics from his pulpit at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey. The High Holy Days, he said, are a time to rediscover the good in other people, not to find more reasons to disagree.

“It’s a time for spiritual growth which increases both our connection to God and our connection to people,” he told JTA. “When it comes to the way we view other people I try to focus, on the High Holy Days, on what’s right with other people, as opposed to the things that divide us.”

Rabbi Joshua Davidson delivering a High Holidays sermon at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, September 2017. (Courtesy of Temple Emanu-El)

Other politically active rabbis agree that partisan political opinions don’t belong in a sermon — and especially not on the holiest days of the year.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., protested Trump’s 2016 speech at the AIPAC conference while wearing a prayer shawl. But he studiously avoids talking politics in synagogue.

Herzfeld’s first sermon focused on his experience volunteering to clean up Houston following Hurricane Harvey. His Yom Kippur sermon will be about the Charlottesville rally, but it won’t mention Trump. And though he has titled the sermon “Removing Our Walls,” Herzfeld insisted to JTA that he is not alluding to the border wall with Mexico that Trump has proposed.

“This group of Nazis was trying to put up walls between different communities,” he plans to say in the Yom Kippur sermon, referring to the marchers in Charlottesville. “If we are an ‘us against them’ world, an ‘us against them country’ and an ‘us against them community,’ then we are all in big trouble.”

Davidson is one of several prominent rabbis who used their pulpit on the holiest days of the year to criticize the president. Some are open about their politics and said opposition to Trump was either a matter of consensus in the congregation, or his actions have been too egregious to ignore.

“This isn’t a time for us to be silent or to be too careful not to offend anybody,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, an independent congregation in Los Angeles. “But instead, it’s a time for us to speak as clearly as we possibly can about the dangers we are facing as a community and a nation.”

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Brous in her sermon accused Trump of making America “a place in which anti-Semitism is condoned by the state.” She also criticized establishment Jewish organizations for not speaking out enough against Trump for what she said are rhetoric and actions condoning the white supremacists.

Brous has opined publicly about her politics in the past and delivered an invocation at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration. Her second-day Rosh Hashanah sermon this year advocated reparations for African-Americans.

“Many of our Jewish institutions failed to find the words to condemn the spike in anti-Semitic attacks that coincided with the 2016 presidential campaign,” Brous said in the first-day sermon, adding that they “failed to speak out against white nationalist sympathizers — men who have trafficked in anti-Semitism and racism for years — becoming senior White House officials.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor speaking to his Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif. (Courtesy of Creditor)

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in Manhattan, likewise accused Trump of cozying up to anti-Semites. Her whole congregation opposes the president, she said, so calling him out was not a risk.

“I don’t think everyone agrees with me on everything, but overall our congregation is horrified at what’s happening in our country,” Kleinbaum said. “As Jews who are all immigrants, we’re horrified. As gay people, we’re horrified at the gender violence.”

In May, Trump signed an executive order allowing clergy to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit. The order effectively repealed the Johnson Amendment, which threatened the tax-exempt status of religious institutions if they appeared partisan.

While a range of Jewish groups criticized the order as eroding the separation of church and state, Trump characterized it as an expansion of freedom of religion.

Another rabbi unafraid to get political, Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, sermonized about not becoming ensnared in the now-endless stream of headlines and presidential tweets. While he stressed that his point was not to be consumed by any one issue, his sermon did criticize Trump’s policies on immigration and climate change.

He also spoke about the virtue of mixing religion and politics, which has been a hallmark of his career. An outspoken advocate for immigrant rights and gun control, Creditor announced recently that he would be leaving his pulpit to become a full-time activist.

“I think the posture of religion has always been within the world,” he told JTA. “Even the most devout of religious communities all band together to vote in certain patterns, act in certain patterns to influence the world. To abdicate that responsibility is to become islands and ultimately self-idolize.”

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles’ Rosh Hashanah sermon: Building our boat


Creation. Genesis 1:1-2.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. The Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.

What would that look like, if you were to paint it, the Spirit hovering over the waters? Van Gogh’s somersaulting spirals, a sky-born Chagall figure, cherubs hovering over Venus as she lies across the surf?

I love the word ‘hovering’ here, the Hebrew, merachefet, connotes a fluttering, a disturbance of air caused by wings, the rippling of gossamer gowns.

Hovering takes enormous energy. The hummingbird’s wings beat furiously. It takes immense movement and speed to appear still. The disappearing blades of a helicopter. Imagine the neutronic force it would take for God to suspend over the waters for immeasurable eons, a colossal zeppelin consumed in infinite black.

The opening of Genesis speaks nothing of noise, just darkness, until the word is spoken, “let there be,” a rippling of air, and a bolt of light, and Bang… 

An eye is opened, colors emerge, squid-ink blue, spearmint green, there is light, and sight, the original Holy See, meets the original living sea. God sees the mirror below, as Narcissus hovering over a lake, enraptured by what looks back. And God said, “It is good.” 

Genesis is careful not to call the sun or the moon by their names, rather Torah refers to one simply as the greater light and the other, the lesser light, to dissuade their worshipers. Torah was intent on debuting one God, Orchestrator of all of Creation. God set that luminary to hover over the day, and that one to hover over the night, mere ornaments suspended in space…but the waters are something else entirely.

The waters were there from the beginning, darkness upon the face of the deep. The Spirit of God upon the face of the waters, God and the elemental ocean, face to face, Lord and Leviathan. One could argue that in Torah, the devil is the deep blue sea.

The water is frightening. An 18th century aphorism reads, “Those who would go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for a pastime.”

Yet it calls us. So much of our language is born of our experience on the sea. To be groggy, three sheets to the wind, to get on board, to get underway, to overhaul, to know the ropes, a loose cannon, hand over fist, feeling blue, toing the line, a square meal, to be pooped, to let the cat out of the bag, to be dressed down or held over a barrel, tacky, tipsy, slush fund, scuttlebutt, swamped. Our encounters with the sea put an indelible mark on our psyche.

Our people were reborn as a nation when they emerged from the Sea of Reeds. Our prophet Jonah was reborn when the mouth of the sea spew him out. Moses’s name means ‘Drawn from the water.’ When one converts to Judaism, one is reborn through the waters of the mikvah.

The ancients knew the power of sea and storm. They were rightfully afraid. It is a place of birth and a place of death.

In Panama Beach, Florida, earlier this summer, in July, two boys, 8 and 11, were swept away by a deceptive rip current churning below the surface, screaming and flailing 100 yards from the shore, a young woman and her wife, strangers to the boys, were the first to try to reach them, soon the boys’ mother, father, nephew and grandmother were in the water, also caught in the rip current. There was no lifeguard on duty. Amidst crashing waves, and gulping seawater, the family was sure they would die. After struggling for twenty minutes, people on the beach started shouting to form a human chain. Eighty people, of all races and nationalities, some of whom couldn’t swim, linked arms, and one by one started pulling people toward the shore. After an hour, the grandmother, still in the water, had a massive heart attack, her son-in-law and nephew struggling to keep her afloat while keeping their own heads above water. As the sun was preparing to set, at last, all ten of the stranded swimmers were safely back on shore. Everyone survived.

In Sierra Leone, this August, flash floods ravaged the land, leaving over 400 confirmed dead, over six hundred still missing. One of our temple guards, Mohammed, who is from Sierra Leone, showed pictures and video his brother sent him from home, our heads over the screen of his phone, we watched Muslims and Christians create a human chain to rescue people in an SUV balancing on a ledge, as a mud river roared underneath.

Insurance companies call floods, hurricanes, hail, tsunamis, wildfires, tornados, earthquakes, Acts of God. An “Act of God” is defined as any accident or event not influenced by man, although claimers might reconsider man’s influence when it comes to the catastrophe of climate change. How billions of careless acts of man accumulate to cause a so-called “Act of God.”

In this increasingly polarized political climate, littered with the tweetstorms and mudslinging, it is in the midst and aftermath of real storms and mudslides that we see acts of godliness. When our fortresses are stripped of walls, and our foundations upended, we are reacquainted with the power of humanity to help, linking arms. Act of God giving way to acts of good.

And we cling to the images of people helping people the way a flood victim clings to the side of a boat. Look! An undocumented immigrant helping his family just like a white American helps his family! Look, we are the same! Look, Christians and Muslims! Look, a black man carrying a white child, and a white woman carrying a black child! We cling to these images for dear life, as if therein lie all the evidence we need that we are all going to be okay. The angry torch carriers, the barbed wire border walls, the erosion of human rights, the eruptions of violence and hate, the shooting deaths, it’s all going to be alright, because look, black, brown, white, holding each other up, that’s who we really are. We can form a human chain and save this family after all.

However, all it really proves is that we are good at helping each other in a crisis. But we already knew that. That’s nothing new. The deeper message, that we keep forgetting, is the need to prepare before the crisis.

We need to be both Jonah and Noah. Jonah who told the people of Ninevah to repent, saving them from a flood of wrath, and Noah who built an ark for when it came. We need to work to prevent the next flood, while at the same time, building our boat for when it inevitably comes.

We don’t have the luxury of wondering if the next floods will happen. We know they’re coming.

Genesis 6:14. Make yourself an ark… you shall make the ark with compartments.

We need to build our boats now. And everyone needs a different kind of boat, to stay afloat on the particular flood that’s coming for them.

For some, it’s the flood of financial debt, compounded by new regulations, compounded by inflated healthcare, or lack of accessible healthcare, compounded by debts and loans, or crushing mortgage, or job loss, caught in rip currents of delinquency notices and collection calls, struggling to keep one’s head above water while the heart is seizing up, with no strength or will or dollar left to buoy one up. But we are less motivated to form that human chain to reach those who are drowning in debt.

For some, the flood is deportation from the only home and family they know to a wilderness in which everything is foreign, including the language. They need a boat, and the boat is made of pro-bono help with filing DACA renewal paperwork for those who qualify, and for those who don’t qualify, their boat is built board by board, with every call placed to senator or congressperson, the boat is sanctuary, the boat is policy, the boat is a clear path toward security and protection. But we are less motivated to form that human chain to reach the undocumented.   

For some the flood comes in the form of the rising tide of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. Wrathful people adrift on the face of a deep sea of rage and misinformation. Angry men and women, some with swastikas, some waving confederate flags, people unmoored by their own fears, insecure, lashing out against anyone they perceive as threatening a nostalgic way of life that never truly existed. They need a boat, too. A board built of education, and relationships, better anchoring. But we are less motivated to form that human chain to reach those whom we hate.

For some, the flood is anxiety, blood pressure rising as flood waters rising, who can’t look away from coverage of every terror attack, every defacement, every new intimidation, every new menace, they need a boat as well. A sense of appreciation for all that is going right, a sense of purpose, a path to apply oneself to make a difference, the tools to cope, and to transform fear into creativity and productivity.

Our boats are built in part by belonging to a community that values one another. And the more you participate in that community, to more you fortify the boat you are building, and the stronger and more flood-ready it becomes.

When you come twice a year, you have built for yourself a Jewish raft, two logs and some hasty boards, and a raft can save your life to be sure. But it is in the continuity of connection that turns a raft into an ark, tapping into the ancient blueprints, supportive hearts and hands, shared values, every relationship securing another sailor’s knot, so that the rigging can weather any storm.

Our first boat is constructed by our parents. Then it’s up to us to continue to live in the boat and make improvements, or, when we discover the boat cannot meet our beliefs, construct a new boat.

Make yourself an ark, Torah says. With compartments. Not just for oneself, but to bring onboard others who need help.

Make yourself an ark. Make yourself an ark. You are the ark. We are the ark.

And when we build our boats, we include rudders and sails. Tides change and winds shift, and our boats need to be versatile enough to move with them. We all need more resiliency. We need to be able to steer, and to adjust the sails when needed.

I have been captain of the good ship Isaiah for ten years, and I have loved it. And together we’ve navigated rough and calm seas peacefully and successfully, sharing leadership with phenomenal temple presidents, staff and volunteers. It has been a privilege and an honor to be at the helm. I was on the crew before becoming captain for seven years. This is my eighteenth year at Isaiah.   

A good captain knows how to read the weather. Temperature, cloud formations, surf. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky at morning, sailor’s warning. I have spent a long time studying and charting the path of this congregation, reflecting on my own path, in concert with the community. In the past two months, since relocating from the large and spacious captain’s quarters to the vibrant bustling education suite, I have learned so much, from a different vantage point, everything looks different, and I find it thrilling, invigorating, wind in my hair, an explorer.

I love looking at the horizon through my fellow clergy’s eyes, and I love having the opportunity to be creative with programming, to find the demographics who may be underserved and lift them up, to have the space to contemplate the long-term future of our holy community by building its endowment, to learn alongside lifelong learners, to write, to share ideas. I am content, deeply content with having completed one significant leg of this voyage with you, and being part of preparing for the next. Together, we are adjusting our sails, to move gracefully with changing tides and shifting winds. With star-charts and weather apps, some good soul intuition, deeply wise co-captains, and each other, we are bound to discover great things together.

The word ‘shana’ in Hebrew means year, but it also means ‘change.’ So when we say, ‘Shana Tova’ to each other, we are not only saying “Have a good year,” we are also saying, “Have a good change.” What change will you work toward this year?

Make yourself an ark.

We are the ark when we build not borders, but bridges. We are the ark when we build not separations, but support. We are the ark when we build not contention, but confidence. We are the ark when we build not sarcasm, but security. We are the ark when we build not towers, but trust. We are the ark when we build not feuds, but friendships. We are the ark when we build more compassion, more kindness, more generosity, more understanding, more patience, more joy, more thoughtfulness, more equality, more love. We are the ark when we build upon our best values, when we reflect on ourselves, adjust our sails, make room for others, support and celebrate each other, practice equanimity so that when the floods do come, our inner waters remain calm.

We are sailing over some choppy seas. Darkness on the face of the deep. We don’t always know what lurks beneath, but together we can be prepared for any adventure, until that day when the ark comes to rest, arms linked not to save but to sing, God’s Spirit hovering over us with all the colors of the rainbow.


Zoë Klein Miles is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles.

Some High Holy Days sermons become words to live by


Jennifer Stempel, a Los Angeles-based writer, changed her approach to life after hearing a High Holy Days sermon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Stempel was shul-hopping when the wife of a Temple Emanuel rabbi gave her and her husband tickets to the synagogue’s holiday services. Little did she know that Temple Emanuel Rabbi Jonathan Aaron would deliver a sermon that, inspired by “A Complaint Free World” — a book by Will Bowen that posits that people can transform their lives if they stop complaining — would have such an impact on her.

Aaron concluded the sermon by challenging his community to go the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without complaining. If they caught themselves complaining, they were to start their 10 days over again. They could keep track of it with bracelets that read, “Be Complaint Free,” distributed to all 1,200 people in the sanctuary that day. He told people to wear the bracelets on their right wrist, and if they caught themselves complaining to move their bracelets to their left wrist.

The sermon so resonated with Stempel that she asked the rabbi for a copy of it and even shared it with her friends who were therapists, with the suggestion that their patients might get something out of it.

Nearly a decade later, she remembers the sermon.

“For me, personally, it was a very profound experience,” she said. “I felt like this was the first time I was engaged in a High Holy Day sermon. I was challenged and I actually took action from it.”

Every year, rabbis across Los Angeles attempt to deliver High Holy Days sermons that will leave a lasting impression on their congregations. The test, perhaps, is whether years later congregants can recall — and live by — what their spiritual leaders said.

In 1992, the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, did not recognize the rights of gay people to be ordained as rabbis. Moreover, it prohibited its rabbis from officiating same-sex marriages. This, despite the fact that it had been two decades since the Reform movement had admitted Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), an LGBT synagogue in Los Angeles, into what is today known as the Union of Reform Judaism, an umbrella organization for the Reform movement.

It was against this backdrop that Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spiritual leader of Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), set out to determine whether homosexuality actually was the sin some believe it is described to be in the Torah, which says one man is not to lie with another. He visited BCC and spent time speaking with some of its congregants. He read many scientific studies on the subject. On erev Rosh Hashanah in 1992, he delivered a sermon that addressed his movement’s position on gays in a sermon titled, “Morality, Legality and Homosexuality.”

In part, it said, “It is one thing to quote a verse. It is another thing to look into the pained eyes of a human being. I’m not dealing with words, and I’m not dealing with texts. … I do not regard these people as sinners or their love as abomination. The God I have been raised with is el moleh rachamim — God who art full of mercy — and the attribute which Jews are to emulate is that of compassion.”

Stephen Sass was seated in a pew that day. He was both a member of BCC and of VBS. He was in a same-sex relationship. What he heard made an impact on him.

“To hear him saying, ‘If this is what the tradition is saying, the tradition is wrong and we need to do something about it,’ that was very groundbreaking,” said Sass, an attorney and president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time, there was a conspiracy of silence where nobody would talk about that,” he said. “Even then in those days, people at BCC would not be identified by their last name; they would just use an initial because they could lose their job or their family.”

Schulweis’ sermon paved the way for the acceptance of gay Jews in the Conservative world. A support group for gays and their families launched at VBS. Eventually, same-sex couples could join the synagogue together as members.

“The Reform movement had made those strides and in a way the Conservative movement was just catching up,” Sass said. “He took this on. He didn’t have to, just like he took on so many issues.”

In 2004, Schulweis, who died in 2014, made another deep impression with a High Holy Days sermon titled, “Globalism and Judaism.” In it, he asked where Jews who said “never again” to the Holocaust stood as a genocide was unfolding in  Rwanda in 2004. Janice Kamenir-Reznik, then an attorney who was an active volunteer at VBS, was in the sanctuary that day. She was struck by Schulweis imploring his congregation to open a newspaper: “You can’t close the newspaper once you believe in a global God,” he said.

“It fortified the theology I had developed anyway about the relevance of Judaism and the relevance of Torah to daily life,” Kamenir-Reznik said. She went on to co-found Jewish World Watch — an anti-genocide nonprofit organization that is active in Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo — with Schulweis.

Last year, Emily Alhadeff, a Seattle resident and member of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the largest Reform synagogue in the Pacific Northwest, was transfixed as Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen delivered a sermon on Rosh Hashanah about postpartum depression.

“It wasn’t my first dance with depression, and I’ve dealt with anxiety throughout my life. But when the crash came, I felt completely alone and deeply ashamed,” Cohen said in the sermon.

Alhadeff, a chef and founder of Emily’s Granola in Seattle, said the rabbi’s willingness to make herself vulnerable was transformative. 

“This idea — this strong woman having to confront her congregation — I just found it to be so powerful,” Alhadeff said.

Cohen, a Los Angeles native who joined Temple Beth Torah in Ventura this year, said she was nervous about opening up to her congregation that way. She did not know how people would react to a sermon that called on eliminating the stigma around mental illness. So when the community erupted with applause at the end of her remarks, she was at a loss for what to do.

“I was so taken aback, I looked down uncomfortably,” she said. “I said something that mattered. It was really amazing.”

Effective sermons are speaking to the realities of the times, Stempel said.

“What’s going on in the world, the sermon should take that into account,” she said. “I think you should be talking about a universal truth, something everybody in the room can relate to on some level.”

Of course, a profound sermon for one person is a dud for another. Stempel acknowledged that her husband did not respond to Aaron’s “complaint” sermon in 2008 as enthusiastically as she did.

“He likes to complain,” she said.

High Holy Days sermon: Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback on Civil Discourse – 5777


These Days of Awe are about so many things – renewal, return, repentance. They are also about reflection. The High Holy Days provide an opportunity to think about the year that has passed, the ways we have changed, fallen short, perhaps even exceeded our expectations.

This past May, I had a wonderful and inspiring opportunity to reflect on the passage of time. It was my twenty-fifth college reunion.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Did he say college reunion? Surely he meant, high school or perhaps elementary school? I mean, come on, look at him?!?”

But, alas and indeed, I was graduated from university in 1991, and my reunion was an opportunity to reflect on continuity and change in the school, in my classmates, and in myself.

Although the campus included new buildings, programs, and even entire departments, in other ways, it felt like very little had changed. My classmates have actually held up pretty well so I recognized most of them. The muggy East-coast weather of late May was – unfortunately – all too familiar. Yet in other ways, student life was quite different, and in some respects almost unrecognizable. And what has changed most radically on campus is this: how students connect and communicate with one another and the wider world.

 

I was fortunate to have two special guides into today’s college culture: my brother’s son and my sister’s daughter, both of whom were graduating with the Class of 2016 at that very same institution. Through the eyes of my niece, Grace, and my nephew, Jacob, I learned much about both the promise and pitfalls of the way communication takes place on campuses today.

My generation was the last to graduate university without email. We didn’t have cell phones either or cable TV in our dorm rooms – and we liked it! Of course, Grace and Jacob and all of their classmates have access to laptops and WiFi during lectures, and their smartphones, like ours, are ubiquitous.

My niece and nephew taught me about an even newer mode of communication on campuses today: YikYak, a social media app that I’d never heard of before. YikYak was launched in 2013 as an anonymous social media application that is limited to a small geographical area. Users create a discussion thread that can only be joined by others within a five mile radius, with results that can quickly spiral into any number of directions. Grace told me that some students like using YikYak during lectures in order to comment – anonymously – on the quality of the lesson and even, sadly, on the appearance of the lecturer. (By the way – I hope that none of you are live-commenting on my sermon today. But if you are – please be kind – it’s the Day of Atonement after all.)

Sadly but predictably, YikYak on some campuses has at times become a forum for hate speech, with students posting racist, sexist, and antisemitic comments. On several campuses around the country, university officials have tried to ban the app with limited success.

Of course, its anonymity is precisely what attracts many users to YikYak. One social media expert describes the phenomenon as “identity fatigue” – internet users’ growing “weariness with having their digital communications attached to their real-world personas and thus susceptible to public scrutiny.”

In the words of YikYak founder, Brooks Buffington – that’s his real name by the way – “Once you have a[n online] profile, you’re expected to act a certain way. People only post the best, most beautiful parts of their life on Instagram. On YikYak, you just put something out there, and if it doesn’t resonate with anyone, it’s not a reflection on you.”  

Judging by YikYak’s user numbers and the growing popularity of other anonymous social media applications, students increasingly wish to be able to say whatever they want without consequences. You can insult a teacher or a fellow classmate or share a racist or sexist comment without having the sentiment attached to your real-world persona – that is, your self. No need later to scrub your facebook or instagram profile before a job interview – none of these statements will reflect poorly on you.

But here’s the thing – our words matter. How we use them is a reflection of what we believe, of what we value, and, ultimately, of who we are.

And we find ourselves in a moment when words are being used in ever coarser ways – even when they are not being used anonymously. In this year’s heated political environment, there seems to be no minimum standard of decency – we slide lower and lower from boorish, ill-mannered behavior to a level of incivility that is unprecedented.

We ask ourselves – how should we respond to language that is being used which is demeaning to women, disabled persons, Muslims, and minority groups? How do we respond as a nation to language which goes far beyond “lewd” to that which is misogynistic and even violent?

This kind of speech should concern us deeply.

And it trickles down, doesn’t it? It permeates and shapes our culture, our daily lives, and even the lives of our children.

It’s not enough that college students are experimenting with anonymity and consequence-free speech, just last week I received an email from my daughter’s high school alerting parents about a new smartphone app called “AfterSchool”. It’s a social media application created especially for teens that will allow them to post anonymously about one another. After a comment is posted, the student about whom the post was directed is notified and can then see what was said about him or her. It’s not hard to imagine how terribly destructive a piece of technology like this might be in a middle or high school setting.

If we fail to speak up, to advocate for discourse which reflects our values, to say “not okay” to speech which is hateful and violent, we are helping to create a colder, meaner, coarser world which will, inevitably, make us and our children colder, meaner, coarser people.

Now – make no mistake – I believe deeply in a vibrant and open exchange of ideas. Professors, students, indeed all of us should have the freedom to address challenging topics, even if others feel uncomfortable doing so. And I believe it is our right, at times our obligation, to attack positions held by others that are at odds with our core principles. But that doesn't mean that we are permitted to abandon propriety, manners, and respect for the humanity of the other in the process.

In these Yamim Noraim – these Days of Awe – we think about the state of our world, the state of our nation, and, most personally, the state of our own souls.

And then we think about how we can make things better, how we can improve ourselves, our communities, and our world.

So how can we elevate the conversation? How can we share our perspectives honestly and openly without descending to name calling and personal attacks? How can we exercise our right to free speech in a way this is wise, kind, and informed by our belief that all people are created in God's image?

Three lessons from our tradition:

  1. Words make worlds – that is, words do matter.

  2. A person is a world – that is, every person matters.

  3. It can be done – that is, people can disagree, argue, stand for different things and still be civil, respectful. In fact, they can even be friends who help each other to grow and be better.

Lesson one – words matter. According to our tradition, the universe is created through speech. Genesis 1:3 – the very beginning: “And God SAID, ‘Let there be light’ – and there was light!”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

Part of our daily morning liturgy describes God as:

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם.

God is: “The one who spoke and brought the universe into being!”

And it’s not just God’s words that count – our words do, too. The childhood adage that “Sticks and stones may break bones but names will never hurt me” has no place in the Jewish tradition. According to Jewish law, words can cause tangible damage to one’s reputation, affect one’s livelihood, and inflict emotional distress. The sages teach that embarrassing someone with our words is like spilling blood – it’s like committing murder.

Fully one-quarter of the Al Cheyt prayer – the prayer we said moments ago in which we beat our chests as we confess our many transgressions, relates to sins connected to speech including most specifically:

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה:

“For the sin we have committed against you through the words of our mouths.”

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בִּלְשׁוֹן הָרָע:

“For the sin we have committed against you through gossip and slander.”

In Judaism, words have weight. They are not abstract, immaterial things. In fact, a word is called a “davar” in Hebrew which also means “thing.” They are real. They can wound and they can heal. They can create and they can destroy.

Friends: the way we talk to each other or about each other, what we email and text and post, how we respond (or fail to respond) to speech that is hateful: in all these ways we are communicating values. We are declaring what we stand for and who we are. And Judaism doesn't know from “identity fatigue” – our tradition does not glamorize the anonymous critic or the unattributed quote.

And let me be perfectly clear: in our tradition, wherever you are, whatever the context – in a Sanctuary, on a bus, in a locker room – our words still count. What we say and how we say is, in every setting, a reflection of who we are.

Lesson two – every person is a world; all people have inherent worth.

The rabbis of the Mishna ask why it is that God created the world through one primordial human-being: Adam. God could have created the world fully populated. The rabbis teach us:

“Humanity was first created as one person – Adam – in order to teach you that anyone who destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a single life is as if he saved an entire world.”

A person – every person – is a world: even our ideological foes, even our political opponents, even those whose world-view we find deplorable, have fundamental worth.

This sounds a lot easier than it is. Of course – every person has fundamental worth – in principle.

But in practice? The guy who cut you off on the 405 on your way to Temple? He’s an idiot!

And the lady in the express checkout aisle at Ralph’s with 16 items in her cart when only 15 are allowed? She’s a wretch who should be banned from the store!

And what about those nutjobs who support the candidate that you’re against? Morons! Cretins who should move to Russia – or Mexico – already!

If we take this lesson seriously, if we truly believe the notion that a person is a world, we have to find the way to talk to those with whom we disagree, even with those who have wronged us, with respect and with dignity. We have to accept that our ideological foes are in fact part of our family, descendants of Adam HaRishon, our primordial ancestor.

And, friends, part of my vision for Stephen Wise Temple is that it will be a gathering place for passionate, yet civil, dialogues and group conversations. The wisdom of our tradition can help us grapple with complex issues  relating to morality, public policy, national politics, and our beloved State of Israel.

We can do this more successfully if we believe – truly believe – that each person is a world. Each person has value.

Lesson three – it’s possible. We can argue, debate, disagree in profound ways and still be respectful. Despite our differences of opinion, we can be civil and we can even be friends.

The Talmud tells us of a dispute between the great sages Hillel and Shammai and their descendents. They debated and fought over a contentious matter for three years. Interestingly – the Talmud never tells us what they were fighting about! Perhaps the lesson is that the details ultimately weren’t that important (they usually aren’t).

Finally, a heavenly voice cried out: “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halakha – the legal ruling – is according to the reasoning of Hillel.”

  • “אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן! והלכה כב”ה.”

That is to say, both sides have made good points but Hillel’s argument wins the day.

But then a question is raised: “Since the heavenly voice declared that both arguments are the words of the Living God – both arguments have merit – why privilege Hillel’s argument?”

And listen to the reply – it’s not about the quality of the argument, it’s about Hillel’s character. It’s about how he and his disciples act towards their opponents.

Says the Talmud: “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. They even went so far as to teach Shammai's opinions first.”

Not only is it possible for ideological foes to engage in discourse without killing each other or resorting to name-calling, they can even remain friends.

In the 1980s, House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were fierce ideological foes. O’Neill was an Irish-Catholic from Boston, active in Democratic politics from the age of 15. Reagan was a Protestant from Illinois who gained fame as an actor in Hollywood. After becoming a Republican at the age of 51, he served 8 years as Governor of California and 8 in the White House. O’Neill once called Reagan “Herbert Hoover with a smile,” and referred to Reagan’s plan to cut benefits for early retirees as a “despicable” and “rotten thing to do.” Reagan in turn accused O’Neill of liberal demagoguery.

But after this particular disagreement, President Reagan phoned the Speaker of the House to clear the air. O’Neill famously replied: “Old buddy, that's politics–after 6 o'clock we can be friends; but before 6, it's politics.”

More recently, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent 23 years together on the U.S. Supreme Court, invariably opposing one another’s views. In 1986, Scalia became the first justice of Italian descent, a practicing Catholic and social conservative who frequently ruled against abortion rights, affirmative action, and gun control. In 1993, Ginsburg became our nation’s 2nd female justice, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who has been of the most consistently liberal justices on the bench.

Yet not only did Scalia and Ginsburg have the utmost respect for each other professionally, they were also the best of friends: along with their spouses, they attended opera, travelled the globe, and spent every New Year’s eve together for over two decades. After Scalia died this past February, Ginsburg spoke publicly about how their disagreements made her better. How her world was richer, and how she grew as a person and a judge because of their friendship. Had she decided to “unfriend” him the moment his arguments challenged or offended her, her world – and ours – would have been smaller, impoverished, “less.”

Or how about the Bushes and the Obamas? Unlikely friends perhaps, but friends nonetheless. Just last week we saw the beautiful image of Michelle Obama embracing George W. Bush at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Why have they become so close? After all, Democratic President Barack Obama’s first victory was in no small measure a repudiation of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration.

Here’s how David Axelrod, one of President Obama's former advisors, understands it:

“President Bush was very gracious to us during the transition, and he has been unfailingly gracious and respectful since.” He recalled President Obama telling him that the Bushes “had taught him lessons in how to be a former President.”

Sounds familiar, right? A deep kavod for one’s political or ideological foe. A graciousness, a respect, an openness to learning from the other.

Here’s something that might give us hope: just as political culture can become coarser and more disrespectful, so too can the pendulum swing the other way. And we can be part of that change – as individuals and as a community. We can model civility and respect in our own behavior even in online and social media settings and we can demand it of others including our elected officials and those who would seek higher office.

We can cherish and celebrate the wonderful diversity of Stephen Wise Temple which includes members and guests from all over the world with different backgrounds who bring different perspectives and points of view but who share a love of Judaism, Torah, Israel, and community.

And – perhaps most important of all – we can be a bit more humble about our opinions, postures, stances and world-views. We just might be wrong some of the time, maybe even much of the time.

Hillel was careful to learn and examine the arguments of his foe so much so that he was able to teach Shammai’s opinions himself. This is a type of radical empathy – a deep commitment to understanding the argument, thinking and maybe even experience of the other. Justice Ginsburg once spoke publicly about a time when Scalia showed her his dissenting opinion in a case before she had finished the majority opinion. She said, “I took this dissent, this very spicy dissent and it absolutely ruined my weekend.” She then made some changes to her own argument as a result.

This is hard to do – in principle and in practice. It requires an open heart, an open mind, humility, empathy, and the belief that the other has inherent kavod – dignity.

Here’s another thing that gives me hope. I wrote my niece the other day and asked her to share some of her thoughts about civil discourse. She wrote me a beautiful letter which included this insight into the type of empathy required to make respectful dialogue possible: You have to accept the fact that – as she put it – “you can't know everything or even most things about another person but you must assume that their lives … are as full and unknowable as your own, therefore they are valid and deserving of dignity, respect, and the benefit of your doubt.”

Friends – as we confess our many sins, as we examine our shortcomings, let’s commit ourselves to a more respectful dialogue. Let’s affirm the power of words themselves and then resolve to use our words more carefully. Let’s remember that every person is a world – every person deserves to be treated with kavod, with humility, and with empathy. The lives, experiences, and beliefs of others are indeed “as full and unknowable” as our own. They are deserving of “dignity, respect, and the benefit of” our doubts.

If we believe this, if we live this principle day by day, we can build a culture in which we communicate, and even disagree, with mutual respect. If we live this principle day by day, our communities, diverse though they may be, will be more unified than ever before. If we live this principle day by day, we will enjoy the fruits of meaningful, civil discourse–whether on Facebook, or Face the Nation, or even face to face.


Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is Senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple.

Kol Nidre sermon: Rabbi Zoë Klein – 5777/2016


OPENING RAP

I am contemplating the one percent, but I want to prevent the presumption that I meant the same one percent over which conventional contenders for president frequently dissent and resent. That’s not my intent, nor is it, for us, time well-spent. I’m lamenting a different one percent, that fragment of contaminant that corrupts the whole movement, that one bad apple that spoils the whole barrel. When you are trusting and receptive and a segment is deceptive, that one lying percent, that vile speck, that defiles the rest. In the present tense, on this day we repent, between heaven-sent instruments and shifts in government, representatives hell-bent on ascendancy, the descent of decency, the number of malcontents versus those who willingly consent to misrepresentation, to the extent that our nation is increasingly content with the fraudulent. Fakeness has become sacred and the actual is sacrificial on the altar of entertainment. The nonfactual, the amusing aggrandizement of character over the virtue of character’s content. While we orient ourselves to enter the New Year, venting our discontent, weary of establishment, weary of the next newsworthy event, hiding in the basement, pacing on the pavement, spent, bent, dented, tormented, we must practice discernment as we wrestle with that which is true and that which we only invent.

SPEAKING TRUTH

Back in ’08 a presidential candidate, who was a successful attorney, a senator, much loved, was revealed to be having an affair, suspected of fathering a child with his mistress. He denied the affair. He denied that the child was his. He denied everything. Until he couldn’t anymore.

At which point he said, “Being ninety-nine percent honest is no longer enough.”

For that candidate, that one percent of dishonesty included an affair, a child he did father, paying an aide to pose as the father, and an attempt to falsify paternity tests.

“Being ninety nine percent honest is no longer enough.”

Well, when is it enough? We live at a time when candidates for the position of Leader of the Free World speak, tweet, debate and are fact-checked in real time, and if their Truth-O-Meter score is 57 percent true or mostly true, much of the public is satisfied.

That’s 43% magical-thinking story-for-hire leprechaun-unicorn liar-liar media-wire headline-hoarding pants-on-fire deception, which to many today, is apparently okay.

Steven Colbert calls it “truthiness.”

 

Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument…claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. We are a divided nation. Not between democrats and republicans or conservatives and liberals. We are divided between those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.

And that is dangerous.

It is dangerous to think you “know with your heart” without regard for truth. Some of the people who intend to hurt you the most, are masterful at earning your trust and getting your heart to believe.

How do we ever know the truth? We live in an era when more than speaking truth to power, we have to get power to speak the truth.

THE AGE OF PHONINESS

Years ago my daughter, who has beautiful curly hair, hated her beautiful curly hair. She wanted straight hair. So I took her to get a blow out. She was happy and looked sleek. The next morning she woke up, looked in the mirror, and the curls were back. With a blood curdling shriek she shouted: “It’s all a lie!”

I wondered how to console her, because she was kind of right. It is all a lie.

I recently baked a batch of homemade calzones. I was proud. They looked pretty good. I took a picture. I used Photoshop to add a summer filter before posting it. Now they looked really good. The weight listed on my driver’s license is true. When I was in my twenties. The hair color changes. Resumes are enhanced. Diplomas are doctored. Idols are airbrushed. Reality shows are staged. Profiles are pretend. “Based-on-a-true-story” simply means that the script was inspired by life on earth. We are living in Holden Caulfield’s nightmare. The Age of Phonies.

Everyone carries an iPhoney, our portal into a hive-mind digitalism, where the stroke of a keyboard snowballs into an ephemeral impression, snowballs into a viral myth, snowballs into an un-curated encyclopedia of non-facts nonsense with enough buy-in and truthiness that it is permanently chiseled into the stone slab of our societal superego.

Facts are old-fashioned.

“[Truth] is dead. And we have killed it. What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”

 Of course, I plagiarized that last thought. That was Nietzsche. I just substituted Truth for God. And when Nietzsche said in 1882 “God is dead” he was talking about how the advances of the Age of Enlightenment would lead to a rejection of universal moral law, the rejection of values, and here we are, on our festival of atonement, playing our sacred games, in the Age of Entitlement, the Age of Entertainment.

CONFIDENCE VS TRUSTWORTHINESS

We’ve mistaken confidence for trustworthiness. When a leader is certain of his or her choices, even if there are no facts to back them up, people follow. Stiff-necked certainty is valued more than intellectual integrity. We have a culture in which leaders hardly apologize for anything. Similar to the ancient belief that sovereigns cannot change their minds lest they lose their status as demi-gods. Like Passover’s Pharaoh whose dogged posture brought plagues on his people and cost him his son, his wealth, and his army. Like Purim’s Ahasuerus who decreed the murder of all Jews on a particular date, and whose pigheadedness prevented him from annulling the decree. Rather, he issued a second decree empowering the Jews to preemptively strike at their neighbors. The deified dictator has blood on his hands, and there’s not enough water to clean them.

Our Torah, that shining vision that emerged out of the Iron Age, was concerned with the trustworthiness of Israel’s leaders. Torah outlines the parameters of kingship. In Deuteronomy 17 it is written:

              

“[The king you set over you] may not acquire many horses for himself…and he shall not take many wives for himself lest his heart go astray…and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself. And when he sits upon his royal throne…this Torah…shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear and respect the Lord his God…so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers and so that he will not turn away from the commandments.”

Torah was trying to safeguard the people from an untrustworthy leader, one whose heart was distracted by women and horses and money, one who cared more for his own wealth and glorification than the wellbeing of the people. A leader must not be so high and mighty, that he, or she, is above all others, nor above the Law. The leader must hold this Torah to heart, maintaining respect for an absolute morality, for the highest Truth, for a living God.

Truth matters. And God is alive.

LYIN’ EYES

Lies don’t go over so well in the Torah. Abraham wasn’t exactly transparent when Isaac said, “Where’s the lamb for the offering, Dad?” Abraham answered vaguely, “God will see to it, my son.”

Jacob dressing up as his brother Esau to trick their blind father leads to animosity and bloodshed throughout the ages. Later in life, Jacob’s own sons lie to him, when they say his son Joseph was torn to death by wild beasts, when in fact they had sold him to the Ishmaelites.

However the rabbis say there are times when the plain truth can be overly injurious. 

In the Torah, Sarah is 90 years old when she learns that she is to have a child. She laughs, and says, “Am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” It’s a funny reaction, actually. She seems less perplexed at the idea that at her age she may in fact carry a child than she is at the question of her husband’s performance. God reports this to Abraham, but changes some of the details. God says, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” That is not what Sarah said. She did not say, “Old as I am.” She said, “Can my husband really give me enjoyment?” Big difference God…How could God get it wrong?

The rabbis say that this is an example of the priority of Shalom Bayit, keeping peace in the home. Every now and then, a small fib in order to preserve the peace of the home is good. In fact, Talmud gives examples of when it is preferable to lie. What does one sing before a bride? Even if she is lame and blind, one is to say how graceful and beautiful she is.2 Talmud says that if you are late to synagogue because of sexual relations with your wife, and people ask you why you were delayed, you should ascribe your tardiness to something else.3  A lot of you are late to synagogue. Some are apparently so engaged you don’t show up at all. Makes me wonder.

I would argue that shalom bayit, peace in the home, is not about fibbing. It’s not necessarily about dishonesty. It’s about delivering honesty on a cushion of tenderness. You might think the bride is unattractive, but her partner doesn’t, and when we learn to perceive through loving eyes, we are elevated.

Paul Simon as a song called Tenderness with the lyric: “You say you care for me, but there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty. You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.” And yes, Otis Redding, I know you have a song too, and I agree that we should try some.

Honesty plus tenderness equals trust.

Maybe we are inherently untruthful. We all learn to lie at a very young age. Cross-culturally every human being tells the very same first lie when some nosey nudnik interrupts our playtime and asks, “Did you make something in your diaper?” and we take a moment to calculate the risks and rewards, our discomfort against our self-determination, and answer, “No.”

The Chassidic rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was born in 1717. As he grew, he became more and more confident that he would merit eternal life. He said, “When I arrive at the gates of Eden, they will ask me: Did you learn enough Torah? I will say: No. Then they will ask: Did you pray with enough fervor? I will say: No. And then they will ask: Did you fulfill the other commandments as you should have? I will say: No. Finally they will ask: What of your good deeds? I will say: I had none. And then they will say: What an honest man! Come in!4

Even in paradise, an honest person is a rare find. But honesty isn’t a backdoor to forgiveness. Just because one decides to tell the truth after committing innumerable secret sins, doesn’t mean the gates of atonement just burst open. It doesn’t mean you have become a trustworthy person because after years of denial you now say, “I made a mistake,” although it’s a start.

THE EMOTIONAL BANK ACCOUNT

Marriage and Family Therapist Sheri Meyers writes that trust is the belief that “I am safe. You are safe. The world of us is safe.”

To rebuild trust, she writes that one has to be “dependable, consistent, responsive and comforting.” She suggests when the relationship feels like it’s stuck and struggling, remember to stop and ask yourself the following question: “How would love respond?” 

Rebuilding trust requires a lot of understanding, humbleness, and stamina. Alan Morinis writes, “A heart cannot hold both fear and trust at the same time. When we cultivate trust, we inevitably loosen the grip fear holds onto our heart. Cultivating trust, love becomes possible.”

Steve Covey introduced the idea of the Emotional Bank Account. He taught that we create a personal “emotional” bank account with everyone with whom we have a relationship. This account begins on a neutral balance. Over time, we make deposits and withdrawals. But instead of units of monetary value, we deal with emotional units. These emotional units are centered on trust. When we make emotional deposits into someone’s bank account, their trust in us grows. And as a result, our relationship grows. If we can keep a positive reserve in our relationships, by making regular deposits, there will be greater tolerance for our mistakes and we’ll enjoy open communication with that person. On the contrary, when we make withdrawals and our balance becomes low or even overdrawn, mistrust develops. When we break our promises to others, we make major withdrawals from their Emotional Bank Accounts. Also, not arriving on time, not following through, not attending to the little things, or living up to the words we speak. We make mistakes. That’s part of life and learning. When appropriate, sincere apology keeps Emotional Accounts in the positive, allowing you to maintain the balance.

It is hard to trust once your trust has been broken and the Emotional Bank Account is raided and empty.

NASATA V’NATATA

In the Talmud, Rava, who lived around the year 300, said: At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in your business?”5

The first thing? Really? Not about your piety, your charity, your relationships, your scholarship? But about your trustworthiness in the marketplace?

There are systems in this world, many, where dealing honestly with one another is not a high priority. Where girls are offered jobs overseas and then are lost in the sex trade. Where bribes corrupt organizations and obstruct every avenue toward justice. Where everyone and everything is for sale, and no one is safe.

We are a network, a symbiotic relational push-and-pull give-and-take system. We are all on the same boat, and if I drill a hole under my seat it affects you. We are connected. Everything depends on trust.

Every time the light turns yellow and we step off the curb, we trust that cars are going to slow to a stop. Every time we make a deposit in a bank, we trust that our money is safe. Every time we enter our credit card number, our social security number, we trust it will be used correctly. Every time we get a root canal, we trust the professional holding the drill. Every time we drop our kids off at school we trust that they are in caring hands. Every time the mechanic tells you what is wrong with your car, every time the contractor says “we’ve encountered a problem,” every time you hire a dog sitter, every time you click here, every time you step out of your home, every time you knock on a door and say trick or treat, every time you turn the corner to capture a rare Pokémon, every time you accept a drink at a party, every time you receive a diagnosis you are trusting others to be honest and tender and not take advantage of you. Everything depends on trust, however, collectively we have an increasing sense of betrayal. A fear that it’s all rigged anyway.

There is great mistrust between people and the politicians who are supposed to represent them. Great mistrust between communities and the police who are supposed to protect them.

We are suspicious that we are being “gaslit” manipulated into questioning our sanity. Politicians regularly saying, “I never said that,” even though we’ve heard the tapes. Police saying, “it didn’t happen that way,” even though we’ve watched the videos. The repetitive denials even of that which has been captured on film or tape are designed to chip away our trust in ourselves, and like Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight, we worry that our accurate observations are actually wrong. And we might be insane. We are encouraged to dismiss scientific data. We no longer trust our FBI, our attorney general. We fear everything is rigged.

We are weary of trusting. Every time the light turns yellow, we assume that cars are going to speed up to try to beat the red light. We are suspicious of banks, learning of unauthorized accounts in our names. We are weary from every time we were told by doctors and dentists, “This won’t hurt at all,” and it hurts. We are suspicious when we go in for an oil change and the mechanic says we need a new radiator. We have been betrayed by companies that have labeled their food kosher or organic when they are not. By merchants who sell diamonds that are fake. By being overcharged and scammed.

TRUSTWORTHINESS

We crave leaders who are trustworthy. Leaders who will work to restore and rebuild trust, who are “dependable, consistent, responsive and comforting.” Who are understanding and wise. Who have pure “hearts of service.”

Trustworthiness means I believe the world of “us” is safe. I believe you won’t hurt me. That you won’t abandon me. That if you send my child to war, it is for a noble reason and you will protect them. That there is as much transparency as public safety will allow. That you know where we are going and I won’t be left behind. That you recognize my inherent worth, even when I’m disabled. That you recognize my inherent beauty, even when I’m deformed. That you treat me with dignity no matter my income, race, gender, sexuality, or citizenship. That I merit your care. That you will discern without bias.

We’ve mistaken confidence for trustworthiness, when confidence is just one’s own measure of one’s perceived grandness, while trustworthiness is the universal measure of a good person.

Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in business?” That’s what our tradition says is the first question we are asked in paradise. What if that was the only question that was explored in the debates? Have you dealt honestly? Are you trustworthy? What Torah, what Law, do you hold against your heart that reminds you every day of an absolute morality, a highest truth? That is more precious to you than the accumulation of lovers, horses and money?

IN GOD WE TRUST

On our dollar bill it reads: “In God we trust.” The touchpoint of our entire network of exchange reminds us that we are bound to a trusteeship with God, that our life is our true asset, our breath is our capital, our soul is our fortune.

God leases everything to us. The Torah is the Deed, which we seal with our good deeds, and our good deeds inspire other good deeds, and accumulate interest. For some God-knows-why reason, God sees trustworthiness in us, and God appoints us the trustees. And we are renewing that trusteeship right now in the Book of Life.

In the book of Jeremiah it is written: “Blessed is the person who trusts in God for he shall be like a tree planted by waters…it shall not be anxious in the year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit.”6

In Judaism trust (bitachon) and faith (emunah) are related. Maimonides says that one first needs faith in order to trust. Faith that there’s something more than this, that somehow I am part of something bigger than me, faith that though the reason is hidden, it exists. Faith that although I don’t have control over everything, there’s a purpose.

On the dollar bill there are also scales, stamped over the number. During the gold rush, assayers would put the nuggets brought to them by prospectors on one pan, and weights on the other.

EQUAL WEIGHTS AND MEASURES

The Torah is very insistent about our use of equal weights and measures.7

It is the basis of a stable and just economy. On Wall Street and on Main Street and on your street.

Lady Justice is blindfolded as she holds the scales. She is not biased when weighing innocence and guilt. Ron Wolfson wrote, “The underlying notion of helping others is the call for justice in the world to right the scales, to bring up those brought low and be compassionate toward others.”

Can you be trusted to use honest weights and measures when judging others? How about when judging yourself? Some people are easy on themselves, taking their own good intentions into consideration, while they are hard on others. Some are easy on others, and much harsher on themselves.

BEING TRUSTING VS BEING TRUSTWORTHY

Too much trust can be dangerous. We would be foolish to trust everyone. But trustworthiness is not dangerous. To be on time, respect boundaries, act with sincerity, deliver honesty with tenderness, create safe environments, keep confidentiality, these are what make you trustworthy, sought after, admired and adored.

Success depends on how much you’ve cultivated other people’s trust in you.

A person should not trust everyone. Hopefully you have a community of people you do trust, friends, handypeople, medical people, teachers, dog-walkers, advisors, clergy. And as you expand the circle of people you trust, I encourage you to look outside your demographic. If you are in a new job, look to a retiree for advice and mentorship, one who you don’t see as a threat, but who has a wealth of wisdom and success to relay. And if you are of an age where you find yourself saying, “Kids these days!” and “We are doomed!” look to a millennial who can tour you through the changes and show you it’s not as scary as it seems.

You should not trust everyone. But everyone should find you trustworthy. The goal isn’t to trust everyone because not everyone is worthy of your trust. The goal is to be trustworthy, that your legacy be good and proud and just.

If everyone finds you trusting, you are vulnerable to being played for a fool.

If everyone finds you trustworthy, you are beloved and a precious jewel.

If everyone finds you trusting, there will be bottles that say “drink me” and cakes that say “eat me” and ads that say “buy me” aplenty with little good to show for it. If everyone finds you trustworthy, there will be people who always want to be with you, who will seek your guidance and wisdom, who will entrust you with their dreams and stories, and you will have an abundance to show for it.

At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in business?” Rava did not say trust everyone. He didn’t promise that everyone else will have honest weights and measures. He said you need to be trusted. You have to have honest weights and measures.

We look at ourselves in the mirror. Do we say, “It’s all a lie,” weighing ourselves against the false measures presented by our glossy, materialistic world, shallow and fragile as the mirror itself? (She likes her curls now, by the way.) Or do we take the time to bolster our trustworthiness, exercise compassion in that heart, excise judgement from that mind.

Ask yourself, can you be trusted? Some of us can be trusted to be total blockheads every time we speak. Some of us can be trusted to take a wrong turn at every fork. Some of us can be trusted to ruin every opportunity. That’s not the trustworthiness I mean. Rather, can you be trusted to keep those who depend on you safe? Can you be trusted to do no physical harm, and to do as little emotional harm as is possible?

Ask yourself, can you trust yourself to make decisions that are healthy for you? Can you trust yourself to keep yourself safe, to do yourself no harm? To not beat yourself up for every self-perceived short-falling, to resist constantly comparing yourself to others, to be good to yourself and grateful for who you are and where you are? And if you are disappointed in yourself, and the path to lifting yourself up seems too slippery and steep, can you consider “How would love respond?and try a little tenderness?

In this new year, may our leaders merit our trust through their words and their actions. May trustworthiness become a value that once again matters, a lot. May trustworthiness be our measure, more than confidence, charisma and quotability. May we invest the time in building our own trustworthiness, for a trustworthy person is a treasure to all. May the real time fact-checking Truth-O-Meter soon register 100 percent.

On this Day of Judgment, the angels are the assayers, and they weigh that which is precious in us, and they measure the reach of our deeds. Our property is our good name and it determines the acreage of our influence. Every time we default on a promise, we break a trust. But we have the chance to regain it, starting now. Today is all about taking an accounting of our deeds. This is your moment to open a new emotional savings account.

“Blessed is the person who trusts in God,” spoke the prophet Jeremiah. And blessed is the person in whom all can trust. May fear loosen its grip on our hearts, and love become possible again. Amen.


Rabbi Zoë Klein is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

This is water: On making meaning, making choices and making a difference


Good yontif!

So there are two young fish swimming in the ocean. Just doing their thing, tooling along, when they happen to meet an older fish going the other way. He nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How's the water?”

After exchanging pleasantries, the two young fish swim on for a bit and then one looks over at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”

The point of the story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities right in front of our faces and all around us are sometimes the ones that are hardest to see and discuss.

Why a fish story on this day of fasting?

Well, the point of these Days of Awe is to help us see the most important realities, the things that should matter most to us, the things that should be most important in our lives. And then, our tradition wants us to make a choice. Our tradition wants us to decide – to choose, this day – to live our lives in a way that is consistent with these values, these most important realities, these things that, like water to a fish, literally make our lives possible.

I want to begin with a few personal stories about what, for me, are the deepest realities, the “water” of my existence.

Story number one: Omaha, Nebraska

I’m nine years old. It’s Sunday afternoon. And I’m excited. You see, every Sunday my father makes rounds at the hospital, bringing one of his kids along to help. And this week is my turn. I love being in the car with him – the yellow Chevrolet Camaro with bucket seats, Neal Diamond on the 8-track.

We talk. Sometimes he tells me stories of his childhood.

It’s amazing to watch him with the patients. He is gentle. He listens carefully. He reassures them. I love that he introduces me as his assistant, the “Young Dr. Zweiback.”

And then we drive to my Grandpa Joe’s house. It’s where we eat dinner every Sunday night. Usually steaks grilled over hot coals and hickory chips, even when there’s snow on the ground. Grandpa Joe puts out his delicious gehochte liver. I spread it on a trisket – it’s heaven.

Gathered around his dining room table – never in front of the television – we tell stories, we tell jokes, we argue. We laugh. And sometimes we cry – we’re a rather emotional bunch.

The people who matter most to me in the world – my mother, my father, my sister, Rosie, my brother, Adam, my grandfather, my aunt and uncle, cousins – they are all there. Every week, they are present.

(And, better yet, since it’s 1978, and there are no cell-phones to distract us. We are, in fact, fully present.)

I am swimming in the “water” of family.

Story number two: Shwayder Camp, 10,200 feet above sea level, half-way up the Mt. Evans road, approximately 60 miles from Denver, Colorado

I’m sixteen years old, my current height, 40 pounds lighter. A strong gust of Rocky Mountain air practically knocks me over. I have a mullet but before you judge me, remember, it’s 1986 and, I gotta be honest, I’m rocking that mullet.

I’m a Junior Counselor and I’m having the summer of my life — discovering who I am and what makes me truly happy. I feel completely at home in this place, living on Jewish time. Beginning and ending meals with a blessing. Making prayer – spirituality – a regular part of my daily life. A cabin-full of 8 and 9 year old boys who look up to me, and who, sometimes, even listen to me. It’s a place where our love for one another, for the Jewish community, for Torah, for nature, for God, is alive and real.

“The way I feel in this place,” I think to myself, “is how I want to feel for the rest of my life.”

I am swimming in the “water” of community and spirituality and nature.

Last story: South Hill, Virginia, two weeks ago.

I’m with two of my daughters, participating in America’s Journey for Justice with the NAACP, a thousand-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington D.C. for a fair criminal justice system, unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has joined with the NAACP on the journey and rabbinic colleagues from all over the country are taking turns carrying a Torah scroll every step of the way.

I walk for a bit near the front with a man named Middle Passage. He’s 68 years old from Colorado, a Navy veteran who fought in Korea and Viet Nam. He’s marched every day of the journey, always at the front – dread-locks, dark shades, cowboy hat – and always proudly carrying an American flag.

At one point, I’m marching slightly out of formation and Middle Passage looks and me and says, sternly yet kindly, “two-by-two, young man, two-by two!”

His sense of duty, compassion, and concern for the well-being of all of the participants on the journey, even as he advocates for the larger goals of the march, is uplifting.

On, September 12th, right before Rosh Hashana, at mile 921, Middle Passage collapsed and died.

His death touches me deeply. I didn’t know him well but our short time walking together, participating as partners in a common cause, connects our lives. The choice he made – his commitment – inspires me.

I am swimming in the “water” of justice and empathy for the pain and the struggle of others.

When we reflect on the core stories of our lives, the stories that give our lives meaning, we sense the water; we come to understand more deeply the most important realities, the ultimate values that should be guiding our lives.

And this is what we’re supposed to be doing, by the way, especially on these Days of Awe. It’s our task to perform what our tradition calls cheshbon ha’nefesh, an accounting of our souls. We are to look deep inside of ourselves, and ask: are we living our lives in a manner that is consistent with what matters most to us?

We all know that family and friends are the most important things in our lives, but how often do we fail to be present, truly present, for those we love the most?

We all know that without community, we would be lost but how often do we fail to make the needs of our community a priority in our daily lives? How often do we show up for community even when it’s not convenient, even when we’re tired, even we don’t feel like it?

We all know that nature uplifts and inspires us, connects us with our Creator and sustains us, literally making our lives possible, but how often do we find ourselves in nature, appreciating the miracle of this world? And how often do we make a real effort to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil that nourishes us?

We all know, and our Jewish tradition is clear on this, that most of the blessings we enjoy come to us not because we are deserving, but because we are lucky. Not because we are clever, but because we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. But how often do we commit ourselves to sharing those blessings with those who will come after us?

We all know there are causes for which we must march, principles for which we must fight, but how often do we make the time to stand up for what we believe, even when it’s inconvenient or downright hard?

These days are meant to help us see the reality more clearly. They are a mirror that we hold up to our very lives. The sound of the shofar, the prayers we recite, they call us to introspection.

And more broadly, beyond this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, this Temple helps us see the water. What Stephen Wise stands for, what it teaches, what it celebrates and what it memorializes, these things awaken us to the most important realities.

It’s what a Temple is supposed to do. According to our tradition, every synagogue must have a window. A Temple is not meant to be a cocoon, a sanctuary from reality. A Temple is supposed to help us see reality more clearly, see the water more clearly and then inspire us to act out those values and change the world.

Once we see the water, we must make a choice – a choice about what we will worship. The novelist, David Foster Wallace, the author of the fish story with which I began, frames it this way:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping.

Everybody worships.

The only choice we get is what to worship.

And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough.

Never feel you have enough.

It's the truth.

Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.

They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.”

Wallace is right. We get to decide – we , in fact, must decide – what we will place above all else. What will be the ultimate reality of our lives, the “water” in which we will swim?

And how will the choice we make shape our behavior? How will it be reflected in the way we spend our time and our money?

Friends, what will we worship in this New Year of 5776?

Will it be family? Community? Wisdom? Will it be goodness? Service? Kindness? Love? Will it be God?

Our tradition knows it’s a choice. This is why every Yom Kippur we read from Parashat Nitzavim: We stand together this day before God, all of us – men, women, children, strangers in our midst. And in this moment of standing together – it’s what the word Nitzavim means after all, standing – we have to choose what we stand for.

God tells us: “I call heaven and earth to witness this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse! Therefore choose life, וּבָחַרְתָּ  בַּחַיִּים -that both you and your seed may live…”

One commentator, Rabbi Eliezer Davidovits, asks what sounds like an obvious question: So, nu, who would choose death? What kind of choice is this? Life or death? I choose life! Who wouldn’t?

Here’s the insight: it’s not a choice between life and death. It’s a choice about how we will live our lives.

It’s a choice about what we will see, what we will notice, what we will pay attention to, how we will devote our time, our resources. This is the choice we make. We get to choose what we will worship.

We all want to live – every creature does. Our task, our primary challenge, is to have the courage, the strength, the energy and the commitment to choose to live our lives well.

I am grateful, truly grateful, to have this glorious tradition of ours that helps me to choose. And I’m thankful for Yom Kippur and its liturgy, the time we spend here together in contemplation. It helps me to choose.

And, I’m grateful for you, dear friends, because you help me see the water, you help me choose.

The values you cherish, the devotion and dedication you display, inspire me.

Everyday in small ways and in great, big illuminating ways, you inspire me.

When you pick up each other’s children after school and care for them as if they were your own. Or when you drop off meals during an illness or show up for a shiva minyan. When you come early to set-up or stay late to clean-up or volunteer countless hours planting a garden or planning a program.

And, little ones, precious children, you inspire me, too. When you dream big and try to make a difference by building a lemonade stand to fight cancer or by writing a book and raising a million dollars to find a cure for your best friend’s liver disorder.

When you smile at the new family, making a special effort to help them feel welcome, inviting them into your home for Shabbat dinner.

When you hold each other’s hands in a hospital room or hug one another tightly when the unthinkable happens.

I witness it every single day…

Friends, if we can just see the water and make good choices in this New Year, we’ll be blessed with lives of meaning and purpose and we’ll make the world a better place.

And not just for us but for all people, as our Torah reading for Yom Kippur has it, “from woodchopper to water drawer,” for all Israel and for the strangers in our midst, even for refugees from the nations of our enemies.

Our choices will shape our behavior and we’ll live up to the highest calling of our tradition: L’takein olam b’malchut Shadai! To heal the world in partnership with God.

I’m deeply honored and incredibly excited to be on this journey with you as your new Senior Rabbi. This is an amazing place and I’m lucky – so lucky – to be able to help write the next chapter in the history of Stephen Wise Temple, following in the footsteps of my supportive and generous predecessors, Rabbis Zeldin and Herscher, surrounded by incredible colleagues, gifted Clergy, educators, and staff.

I am blessed, truly blessed to be swimming in these waters of meaning and purpose with you.

One final story: Yom Kippur, the Jewish year of 5791, fifteen years from now. Right here, Stephen Wise Temple

We all look pretty much the same except maybe even – it’s not fair to contemplate – maybe even a bit more handsome, just a bit prettier (stronger and healthier, too!).

But it won’t just be us – there will be others here, too. This place is a big tent. Those who built it, opened the flaps for us, and so we shall do for others.

In 5791, we’ll know each other even better, we’ll be closer because of the time we’ve spent with one another, the meals we’ve shared, the journeys we’ve taken, and the mitzvahs we’ve done together.

Some of the kids chanting Torah in 5791, haven’t even been born yet but they’ll grow up right here in our Temple, in our Schools, and we’ll say, perhaps with a few tears in our eyes, “Those are our kids! Look at the menschen they are becoming!”

It will be another story about the water of our lives, about the ultimate realities that matter most to us. It’ll be a story about what we choose to worship and how that choice inspires us to make our lives better, our community stronger, and our world more whole.

And so, then as now, we will choose life – וּבָחַרְתָּ  בַּחַיִּים – so that we, and our children after us, and their children after them, will find meaning and goodness, kindness and purpose.

May this always be the story of our lives.

Conversation with the angel of death [1991]


The letter from Lillian came between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“I am writing to you as both my friend and my rabbi, driven by the deep sadness and sense of disconnectedness that has gripped me since this morning's Rosh Hashanah service.

Until this morning. I know the central liturgy of the holiday well, but before this year I had approached it in an abstract, intellectual manner. This year, I could not do so. Several months ago I had surgery for cancer, and I felt very keenly as I approached these days that in a real sense my fate for the coming year has been written, if not in a book of judgment, then in my own body. I look forward to health, but I may not be granted it. As I read, the questions of the service were familiar: “How many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die?” But the response — “repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severe decree” — for the first time carried a terrifying implication. It seemed to me as I read this that my own liturgy was binding my fate to my behavior, that my illness, seen in this light, has been the result of some terrible unknown transgression, and that the ultimate punishment for failure to discover and correct it could be my death.

I do not believe this — not with my head nor my heart. Nevertheless, as a committed Jew who takes language very seriously and believes in community prayer, I would be forced to repeat this central cornerstone over and over should I attend services for Yom Kippur. It seems today that my choice is a terrible one: to flagellate myself emotionally by joining my congregation or to spare my feelings by isolating myself from my family, my friends, my community. It is a choice I never believed I would have to make.

I know there must be others in our congregation who sit suffering silently, as I did today, who wish to join Jews around the world at this time but find the price too high to pay. I do not write expecting an easy answer; holocaust literature has taught me there may be no answer at all. I write instead because I must, because to muffle my sadness and my anger will destroy something in the commitment I have worked so hard to build. I write from pain, hoping that from the expression of my dilemma will grow some insight, some way to cope.”

There are times when religion is a matter of life and death. When it is not about getting the right seat in the sanctuary at High Holy days, or the convenient scheduling of the Bar Mitzvah or the catered wedding. There are times when religion, God, faith, prayer are truly taken to heart. Conversations around the hospital bed cut through the intellectual subtleties of theology into hard core of being, the amenities of wishing each other “a good writing and sealing” for the New Year. Facing sickness and death, our own or our family's or our friends, the foundations of our being are shaken. We pray differently then and we think differently then. We pray and listen hard. Lillian's letter would not let me go.

SANDRA IN THE HOSPITAL

Around the same time I received the letter, I was informed that another congregant, Sandra, was seriously ill. At our first conversation, Sandra began softly,

“Please, Rabbi, don't lie to me. I have a fatal form of leukemia, and I know that I am dying. The doctors have been frank with me. I have two small children who go to your school. I love them and they love me. I have wonderful parents and a marvelously supportive husband. But I cannot make sense of it all. I don't ask 'why me?', but 'what for?' Life for me has been drained of all meaning. What have I these remaining weeks or months to live for. My children have given me so much meaning. I looked forward to being their mother. But I know now that I will not be able to raise them. My future has been cut off.”

She told me that when she was in the hospital before Rosh Hashanah, a Rabbi had visited her and blown the shofar for her in the grim hospital room. She was grateful. He inquired as to the nature of her illness and then asked whether it was her practice to light Sabbath candles. She said she did and he answered, “Well then, you have nothing to worry about.” He meant it as an assurance. But she thought, “What would he have said if she had answered no, or if he had asked her if she kept kosher?” At any rate, Sandra turned away from him, buried her head in the pillow and sobbed.

I thought of Lillian's letter and Sandra's resentment. But Sandra was too agitated and too ill for theological discussion. She was inconsolable and I wanted to make her better, to cheer her spirits. A book was brought to my attention, a best-seller by Dr. Bernie Siegel, a surgeon. The book is entitled Love, Medicine, and Miracles, and its subtitle read “Lessons Learned About Self-healing From A Surgeon's Experience With Exceptional Patients.”

In my eyes Sandra was an exceptional patient. The book was filled with statistics, evidence, anecdotal accounts of patients successfully coping with death-threatening cancers, and cases of multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, AIDS. Here were terminally ill patients who beat the odds. Resilient, adaptable, confident, with an unquenchable will to live, they defied the gloomy prognostications of their doctors, stuck their tongues out at their lugubrious predictions and refused to curl up and die.

These were the exceptional patients who refused to go gentle onto the operating table, whom — according to Siegel — doctors don't like because they are inquisitive, demanding, aggressive, “bad” patients. These are the patients who don't venerate the physicians or surgeons as M. D.'s — an acronym, cynics say, for Medical Deities, and who if they are not satisfied, change doctors.

Before reading the book, Sandra told me of the doctors' terrible prognosis. I told her that doctors are not prophets and that according to the Sages, “Prophesy in our times has fallen into the hands of children and fools.” “Sandra,” I said, “remember doctors are not Gods.” Sandra liked that, told it to her doctor who responded, “Well, neither are Rabbis.”

Now I had a book written by a surgeon of oncology to shore up her spirits. The book I gave Sandra started out with a bold statement from Norman Cousins' Anatomy of an Illness, “Patients divided themselves into two groups. Those who were confident they would beat back the disease and be able to resume normal lives and those who resigned themselves to a prolonged and even fatal illness.”

Those who had an optimistic view had a higher percentage of “discharged as cured” than the others in the tuberculosis sanitarium where Cousins was sent. There appears to be a “physiology of optimism.” There are peptide molecules in the body releasing “wonder drugs within”: endorphins, interleukims, interferons.

I've liked Norman Cousins ever since I heard about his advocacy and practice of watching Marx Brothers films as a form of therapy. My own cardiologist, I decided, has no sense of humor. Siegel throughout maintains that “instead of turning fighters into victims, we should be turning victims into fighters.” The book is sprinkled with success stories of exceptional patients whose attitude and will gave them hope and extended their lives. I meant the Siegel book to help her. But it boomeranged on her. The book angered, then saddened her. I re-read the book this time through Sandra's eyes.

THE VICTIM'S GUILT

For Sandra, the success of the exceptional patients was her failure, their victories her defeats, their cures her misery. “What's wrong with me. I have tried, God knows I have tried. I have gritted my teeth. Taken the chemotherapy, the medicines. I have given love and been loved in turn. Why can't I will myself into wellness like those others?”

Psychological literature speaks of “survivors' guilt”, those tortured by their good fortune to survive while others fall. Soldiers who have seen their buddies wounded and killed while they leave the battlefield unscathed; survivors of concentration camps who witnessed the suffering and murder of their fellow inmates while they are spared. Sandra was suffering from “victim's guilt”, the guilt of the failed, the ordinary, unlucky, condemned. She couldn't forgive herself for her unexceptionality.

I read it again and then read Siegel's new book, Peace, Love, and Healing, a clone of the first book, to better understand Sandra's reaction. There Siegel quotes with favor a novelist who writes that “Illness doesn't strike randomly like a thief in the night. Certain kinds of people at certain points in their lives will come down with certain ailments. You can almost predict it.”

He cites Ray Berti, a college professor at Massachusetts battling throat, bone marrow and other types of cancer for fourteen years, who finally sees the light. “The critical thing for me was when I said to myself, 'Ray, somehow or other you're causing it. I am the cause.'” Paradoxically, the book which intended to offer her morale, to rid the patient of passive dependency, delivered a double whammy. First, she felt responsible for her lack of attitude that made her susceptible to the disease, and now she felt responsible for not snapping out of it.

I understand Siegel's argument that patients become too acquiescent, passive, and dependent; that patients frequently abandon their responsibility. The reversal of that dependence was popularized two decades ago among psychological cults. As one of the celebrated psychologists put it, “I am me. Therefore everything that comes out of me is authentically mine because I alone chose it. I own everything about me. My body, my mind, my eyes. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my fears, my triumphs, my failures, my mistakes. I own me and therefore I can engineer me. I am me and I am okay.”

If you are indeed all that, you have no one to blame but yourself, you are the cause. I have a rabbinic friend who a few years ago found himself immobilized, his bodily movements painfully restricted. The paralysis was shown not to be organic. He consulted all kinds of doctors and psychologists and was recommended to a psychologist whose specialty is hypnosis. After going there, he told the doctor, “I'm not being helped.” “You will be helped,” said the psychologist, “when you're ready.” So the failure to recover was a failure of will. Not can't but won't blocks your cure.

Paul Cowan, the author, in his last article for the Village Voice (May 17, 1988) before his own death from leukemia, commented on the need to confront the awesome, mysterious power of his disease. “Otherwise, if the leukemia cells re-enter my bone marrow, I run the risk myself for relapsing and if I continue to weaken, of raging at my psyche instead of fighting back.” The dark side of faith in will is self blame.

THE DOUBLE EDGED SWORD OF WILL

This is part of the new tyranny of the will. We live in a climate of desperate voluntarism. We are raised to believe in the omnipotence of the will. We have been read to in our childhood and pass its theology onto our children. The little engine chugging its way up the mountain with the endless refrain: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” until triumph flashes, “I knew I could.”

We live in a popular culture of will and wish. Peter Pan reaches out to the audience to have it pray with the hands to revive Tinker Bell. And we do it. Faith will revive. Faith will resurrect. Faith will redeem. Faith will cure…if you only believe yourself into recovery. Will is the secular form of faith. Will can move mountains and remove illness. Things just don't happen. We choose them. We make ourselves sick and well.

So Siegel declares, “Psychologists long ago discovered that emotions can be modified merely by adopting the facial expression of a contrary emotion.” Indeed Dr. Paul Ekman of U.C. at San Francisco distinguishes 18 anatomically different types of smiles. It calls to mind Dr. Smiley Blanton, a popular psychologist, who would convince his audiences that with their cooperation, he could convert their sadness to happiness. He would instruct his audience to smile and when they parted their lips and showed their teeth, challenged them to be simultaneously sad. “When you smile,” he concluded, “you control your emotions.” Smiling has made you happy. Photographers have developed this philosophy into a photogenic technique. “Look happy Rabbi,” they instruct me, asking me to stop eating and stand behind the other seated guests. I don't look happy because at the moment I'm not happy, and smiling is not the appropriate expression now. “Say cheese,” the photographer advises. I obey and later, after the film has been developed he boasts that he had captured my happiness. Others, seeing the picture, comment on my joy. In truth, however, the photographer had not immortalized happiness, he had only captured “cheese.”

The triumphalism of the will ignores what wisdom understands: the limitations of will. I can will my smile–I cannot will my happiness. I can will my eating, I cannot will my hunger. I can will going to sleep, I cannot will my dreams. I can will knowledge, I cannot will wisdom. I can will my self-assertion, I cannot will my courage. I can will shaving, combing, dressing up–I cannot will my joy. I can will purchasing flowers, perfume, candies–I cannot will love. I can will fasting, the recitation of the litany of transgression–I cannot will remorse. I can will opening the prayer book and Bible–I cannot will belief. “A wink is not a blink.” One I will, one I do not. I can will many things, but I cannot will my will.

During my own past illness, I recall feeling frightened and sad and later at night turning to a channel which fortuitously, was showing “A Night At The Opera,” a Marx Brothers classic, Norman Cousins' counsel did not work with me. I did not laugh. The Marx brothers were not funny, nothing was funny. I could not will feeling funny. Should I have felt failure because of my inability to laugh? How have I no sense of humor now that I need it?

A JEWISH VIEW OF WILL

Judaism celebrates freedom of will. It has from the time of the Bible on struggled against pre-destination theologies, against fate. But there is a deeper wisdom in Judaism — a Reality Principle — that knows the limitations of will. Judaism present s more balanced portrayal of the human condition.

“By dint of force are you born. By dint of force you die.” And that helps me interpret differently the “who shall live, who shall die?” prayer that troubles Lillian.

“How many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague?” I do not know. For these matters are not matters of will–neither my will, your will, or God's will. For me the litany refers to natural events, births, deaths, accidents, sicknesses over which I have no control. They are not God's punishments or rewards. What then are they? If they are not the “acts of God” are they the acts of the Devil?

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b) is helpful here. It refers to “the ways in which Nature pursues its course.” The Talmud uses this expression in arguing against a simplistic explanation of patently immoral events. The sages ask, “Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and then sowed it in the ground. Clearly it would be right for that wheat not to grow. That would be the 'din', the judgment were this a case brought to the rabbinic courts. But 'the world pursues its own natural course and as for the fools who act wrongly (i.e. for those who stole the wheat) they will have to render an account.'” They offer another illustration: Suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor's wife. It would be morally right that she should not conceive but we must acknowledge that “the world pursues its natural course and as far as the transgressors who act wrongly are concerned, they will have to render an account.”

I understand the sages to be cautioning us not to confuse biology with morality; not to confuse the procreative process with the process of the law; not to confuse physical laws of nature with moral laws. Every event has a cause but not every cause is morally determined. Every event has a reason for occurring but not every event has a purpose in occurring. The cancer I have is not God's curse for my sin. The heart attack is not God's punishing rod to whip me into repentance. Not all events are judgments.

There are consequences to my taking a contaminated needle for the sake of transfusion. My contraction of AIDS is a consequence but a consequence is not a punishment, and a reason explaining why a sickness occurs is not a moral judgment. The infant born addicted may be a consequence of the substance abuse of its parent, but consequence is not purpose or judgment or justification for the addiction. Such distinctions must be drawn if we are not to condemn ourselves to lives of masochistic dread and guilt or to turn God into an indiscriminate punisher.

Nature is not God. And to treat nature as if it were God would convert every fact into a moral judgment. An earthquake into God's smoldering anger against sinners, rainfall into a reward. That outlook breathes a spirit animism that sees ghosts in rocks and waters, in lesions in the skin and leprous rashes. That theology turns sado-masochistic. Unintentionally, it turns God into a mysterious sadistic God and man into a masochist with a taste for suffering.

Those who seek desperately for justification of evil and suffering frequently turn to the “Helen Keller defense” popularized in a poem. “At birth deny a child vision, hearing and the ability to speak and you have a Helen Keller. Raise him in abject poverty and you have an Abraham Lincoln. Stab him with rheumatic pain until opiates are needed and you have a Steinmetz.”

The truth in the argument is that there are people who can make virtue out of necessity, who can transcend suffering and use it to spur them on to greatness. The falsehood in the argument is in pointing to heroism and courage as justification for human suffering, agony and death. That mentality would argue that poverty is good because it gives people an opportunity to be charitable; that sickness is good because it offers medical science challenge, that suffering is good for it tests character. With some theologies, the facts of sickness, suffering and death are converted into divine intention. Purpose is read into calamity by interpreting it as either God's punishment or God's reward. What “is” is turned into what “ought to be.”

Dr. Siegel writes, “I suggest that patients think of illness not as God's will but as our deviation from God's will.” He thinks patients must acknowledge “the absence of spirituality” in their lives. To avoid blaming God and therein the assumption of the patient's responsibility, Siegel inadvertently turns the patient into a scapegoat.

To see in illness a deviation from God's will is a retrograde piety. Who shall end up in hospital or hospice and who shall remain healthy is not a matter of will, divine or human. If it were, life would be filled with false guilt, blame and accusation. Sickness would justify the infantile unending taunt: “It serves you right. You get what you deserve.” Susan Sontag (AIDS And Its Metaphors) recalls painfully the fictions of responsibility that attended her becoming a cancer patient. Cancer was regarded as a disease to which “the physically defeated, the inexpressive, the repressed” are particularly prone.

BLAME

This society is saturated with the need to blame, to find fault. It is as if there cannot be any explanation of events without someone to fault. How remarkable the Talmudic insight “nature pursues its own course.”

Elsewhere Dr. Siegel contends, “I feel that all disease is ultimately related to a lack of love…that all disease is ultimately related to the inability to give and accept unconditional love.”

That bit of generalizing philosophy unintentionally adds insult to injury. Sandra loved deeply, loved her family, her friends; she was involved in the synagogue, with the developmentally disabled. She was gifted with social conscience. Inadvertently, Siegel ends with blame of the failed patient for not having the right kind of self-love or altruism. He is caught up in a secular guilt trip.

LILLIAN'S LETTER

I return to Lillian's letter and to the conversation I had with her. For her the “who shall live and who shall die?” prayer sent a shiver in her, a threat of future punishments for past transgressions. And the more hopeful conclusion that repentance, prayer, and charity would avert the evil decree rubbed salts in her wounds. Had she not lived, repented, prayed, and been charitable before she contracted her illness? And is that illness a “decree,” a verdict, a judgment upon her from up high? How should she understand the prayer? How do I pray the “netaneh tokef?”

For me the Netaneh Tokef questions with which the prayer opens means that there are areas in life over which I have no control. It confesses my creatureliness, my dependence on nature. There are amoral features in nature which should not be explained as if nature were a rabbinic tribunal. Part of the prayer expresses the Jewish reality principle. I accept the laws of nature, the withering of the leaves, the breaking of the boughs, the miscarriages in birth, the congenital and non-congenital disease. I accept the limitations that nature places on me. Moreover, Judaism does not encourage me to pray for a suspension or modification of the laws of nature. Judaism's reality principle calls prayers that seek to reverse the laws of nature, that pray that what events take place did not “tefillat shov”, vain, empty prayers. Jewish faith is not magic.

Much as I would desire it I cannot pray away the damage done to my heart nor pray away the tumor from my colon nor will the growth of arms and legs onto my paraplegia.

But that wisdom of acceptance is not the acceptance of impotence, that reality principle does not paralyze the proper areas and functions of my mind, heart and will. That is the meaning of “turning, prayer, and charity.” Those are the areas over which I do have control. I cannot alter the world of nature outside, but I can effect the world within. As Albo in the Ikarim asserts, my prayer actions do not change God; they change me. (IV Chapter 18)

Maimonides (Hilchoth Avodah Zarah 11-12) offers a crucial distinction between the healing of the body and the healing of the spirit (refuath ha-guf; refuath ha-nefesh). “To read a scriptural verse or place a Torah or a pair of tefilin on a child so that he may sleep is not only the way of diviners and fortune tellers, but it uproots the Torah — for they who practice in this manner make the Torah a healer of the body whereas the Torah is a healer of the spirit.”

Jewish faith-healing does not pretend to cure the cancer with the willful laying on of the hands. God is not found in the leukemia. God is found in the character and meaning latent in the patient. Meaning is not in the deafness or blindness or muteness or lameness–that is nature's course, not God's will.

When Sandra asked what meaning in the life remained to her which was tied up to her raising her children, we explored the possibilities of meaning. Sandra agreed that she wanted to raise them to be strong, to help them learn how to cope with the abrasiveness of life, how to face the challenge of adversity. Are these not the wishes of a mother?

“Your children, Sandra, know how sick you are. And you are teaching them lessons they will cherish the rest of their lives. Sick and suffering, you teach them how to love, how to cling to faith. Living, you teach. Dying, you teach dignity, courage and meaning. And so it is with your husband and your family and your friends. Sandra, you are meaning. There is a midrash that informs that 'the righteous are informed of the day of their death so that they may hand the crown to their children.'”

I would not lie to Sandra or Lillian or to myself. Who shall live or die, how long I shall live is not in our control. And God whom I worship is no enemy of mine, no implacable, inaccessible Judge. God is my ally, my strength and my friend. And as I tap into the curative forces within the soul into which God breathed life, I may make my life a blessing. Tshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah cannot save me from death, but they can give me more life.

Italy expelling Moroccan imam who called for killing of Jews


Italy is expelling a Moroccan imam who called for Jews to be killed.
Raoudi Aldelbar, the imam of a mosque in the town of San Dona di Piave, near Venice, was filmed during a sermon there last month saying, among other things, “Oh Allah, bring upon [Jews] that which will make us happy. Count them one by one, and kill them one by one.”
The video clip of the sermon was posted on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute and later shared on social media.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said he had ordered the “immediate expulsion” of Aldelbar “for seriously disturbing public order, being a danger to national security and for religious discrimination.”
The decision was made after counterterrorism, police and other security experts had examined the video and investigated.
Alfano said it was “unacceptable to pronounce a speech of clear anti-Semitic tone, containing explicit incitements to violence and religious hatred.” He said his decision to expel the imam would serve “as a warning to anyone who thinks that in Italy one can preach hate.”

High Holy Days: Sermons take a chapter from writer’s book of life


In 1963, Richard Levy was in his mid-20s and in his last year of rabbinical school when he was sent on an internship to a synagogue in Jasper, Ala. About the time of Rosh Hashanah, not far away in the town of Birmingham, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African-American place of worship, and four girls were killed.

Segregation ruled in the South and African-Americans lived in awful conditions, violence targeting blacks was common, and tensions between white and blacks were high. And there was Levy, finding himself on the pulpit during the High Holy Days, with an audience of Southern Jews looking to him for inspiration. 

Did this 20-something have the life experience to give an effective sermon under such turbulent circumstances? 

Levy, now a faculty member at his alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), found that he was able to inspire people, despite his age and the fact that the civil rights movement in the South was happening around him. And it changed him, too.

“My experience in Jasper as a student rabbi with contacts in the Jewish community added hugely to my own life,” Levy told the Journal in an interview.

Every year during the High Holy Days, prominent rabbis in the community offer up sermons that are stirring, emotional and meaningful. These clergy have been doing this for years, if not decades. 

But what of the student rabbis who give High Holy Days sermons? Every year, HUC-JIR, American Jewish University and the Academy of Jewish Religion, California — local rabbinical colleges where students embark on programs to be ordained as rabbis — send their students to congregations as part of internships, or student pulpits, that are intended to give them hands-on experience. This includes delivering sermons during the holiest time of the year.

Jaclyn Fromer Cohen, who is entering her fifth and final year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR this fall, pondered the question of whether the limited life experience of students hinders their ability to give an effective sermon of such importance. Yes and no, she said. 

Last year, the 29-year-old from Brentwood gave the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at Pacific Palisades congregation Kehillat Israel, and she plans to return to the Reconstructionist synagogue this year to do the same. 

Cohen says she understands the ambivalence that congregants who are older — sometimes several decades older — might have sitting in a synagogue while a student in his or her 20s links life wisdom with Jewish text on the biggest days of the Jewish calendar. 

“You stand in front of the firing squad and hope for the best,” she said. 

The trick, Cohen continued, is to realize one’s age and limitations, rather than overcompensating for them and pretending to have lived more than one has — and to draw from what one has experienced, all the while remaining humble.

“I am very much aware of what I’ve been through, and I am very much aware of what I haven’t been through,” she said. “I am not going to speak in a way that says, ‘I’m a 29-year-old, and I have been through X, Y and Z, and now I will talk to you because [I know everything].’ I don’t think most people do that.

“But I do think what I try to do is I try to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had life experiences, the people I’m talking to have had their own, the person sitting next to the person I’m talking to has had their own. We come with our respective baggage and our respective things and our skeletons in the closet.’ And I try to honor that, and I try never to speak to things I don’t know,” she said.

This thinking has worked for her so far, she said, reporting that congregants offered positive feedback to her sermon that connected a contemporary issue — gun violence — with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, which Cohen says is the “first mention of love in the Torah.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has given more than 40 High Holy Days sermons at one of the largest Conservative congregations in the area. He said that those who wonder if student rabbis have sufficient life experience to be giving High Holy Days sermons is a completely valid concern for an outside party to have.

Valid but also ultimately irrelevant, he argued. To give a good High Holy Days sermon — or any sermon, for that matter — one needs two things: an in-depth knowledge of Torah and an open heart, Feinstein said.

“It’s not you speaking, you are channeling Torah. If you are saying something important, from the heart, about the human condition, and you are talking about how Torah is bringing wisdom to this, then people will listen to you,” he said. “You can’t speak on your own. You don’t know. What do you know about these things? But you have something important from the world of Torah to say, and people have come to hear your Torah, and that’s what they hear.”

Sometimes students will make the mistake, however, of overcompensating for their age, said Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who works with rabbinic students on sermons as an HUC-JIR instructor on homiletics, a required course for students that focuses on the development of sermons. The mistake these students make is trying to make up for experience by overloading their sermons with traditional text that, to the unschooled people in the audience, sounds like a foreign language. In such cases, “sermons become academic presentations,” he said.

As for Levy — the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus — his days of student pulpits are long behind him. 

In some respects, however, Levy says students have an edge over seasoned rabbis.

“Freshness always bring an advantage,” he said. 

And if the student takes that freshness, is humble, aware of his or her lack of life experience and still fails to connect? 

“They’re still students,” he said. “Hopefully people [will be] forgiving or understanding.”

Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy


It’s not often that a rabbi’s High Holy Days sermon is interrupted by a standing ovation. But that is what happened — twice — when Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, dedicated his sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to explaining why he was changing a long-held position and would from now on officiate at interfaith weddings.

“It’s almost like it opened the dam and the waters are just flowing,” Rosove said, describing the reaction both that day and in the week following. “People are crying at synagogue and at the nursery and day schools. I’m getting e-mail after e-mail of gratitude. It’s quite remarkable — a phenomenon I did not expect.”

Rosove recounted in his sermon a long process of decision-making that ultimately led him to go with his intuition.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire,’ ” Rosove told the 1,000 or so people gathered in the main sanctuary of the Hollywood Boulevard Reform congregation.

The Reform movement allows rabbis to make their own choice as to whether they will officiate at mixed-faith marriages. About 50 percent of marriages involving a Jew are now intermarriages, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Later surveys have reported that around 25 percent of children in intermarried families are raised as Jews, compared with about 98 percent of children raised in all-Jewish families. 

At Temple Israel, about a third of the 1,000 member units are mixed-faith families, and Rosove estimates about 175 members are not Jewish. The temple has worked to embrace non-Jewish members and mixed families.

In his 25-minute sermon, Rosove explained how he has always struggled with declining to officiate at the weddings of clearly loving couples — even his own family members — when one member isn’t Jewish. That decision has become more difficult recently, when the people he is saying no to are people he’s known their whole lives — he was there for the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation and family funerals.

“My ‘policy’ of officiating only when both partners were Jewish was based upon voices from Judaic texts and tradition, teachers and mentors who taught me that I was ordained a rabbi to help fulfill three vital purposes: to preserve the integrity of the Jewish covenantal relationship with God, the viability of the Jewish family, and the survival and continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. Those voices have sounded inside my head for decades along with the voice that commanded, ‘Thou shalt not officiate at an intermarriage ceremony!’ ” he said.

Rosove said he now believes he can fulfill those purposes in an increasingly diverse Jewish world by making Judaism a central component from the moment two people become a family.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said. 

Rosove placed some conditions on the weddings he will preside over. The couple must be connected to the synagogue and must be jointly committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education. The non-Jewish partner may not be active in any other religion, and Rosove will not co-officiate with clergy from another religion.

Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), says many rabbis in their 50s and 60s have recently changed their position on intermarriage. 

The Reform movement itself has moved to a more neutral position in recent years. Officially, the last resolution on the books is from 1973, and it opposes rabbinic officiation at mixed marriages, stating that interfaith marriage is contrary to Jewish tradition. It also recognizes that each rabbi will make his or her own decision. But in the last several years, the movement opted not to introduce any new resolutions on the topic.

“It’s not a yes or no, up or down question. It’s far more nuanced. The approach we are taking at CCAR is that our role is to help the rabbis process the question in a way that works best for him or her,” Fox said.

From 2008 to 2010, a task force worked to produce materials that offer the rabbis information and resources when making this decision and when counseling couples. Fox estimates that Reform rabbis nationally are split evenly on whether they officiate at interfaith weddings.

Rabbi Laura Geller at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills says she didn’t officiate at interfaith weddings for the first 30 years of her rabbinate, but her experience with highly committed, mixed-faith families caused her to change her mind.

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, also a rabbi at Temple Israel, said that she struggles with this issue, and that she believes a couple can’t really know whether they are committing to a Jewish life when they are getting married, but will know later, when they join a synagogue or enroll kids at school. At that point, when they show up at temple, she is ready to fully embrace them, she said. But she is not willing to perform an intermarriage and gamble on a promise.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said he does not officiate at interfaith weddings, and he believes it is possible to say no in a way that people feel respected. 

He wonders whether “asking a non-Jew to stand under a chuppah, break a glass, utter traditional blessings, etc., is as disrespectful to the non-Jew and Judaism as asking a Jew to take communion in a church is to the Jew and Christianity,” Leder wrote in an e-mail. 

Rosove said he has already scheduled several weddings since the sermon. One young man who grew up in the synagogue had called him over the summer, and he had already met with the couple and is satisfied that they will raise a Jewish family. Another couple, married 15 years, asked him to perform a recommitment ceremony. 

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the more welcoming atmosphere would lead more of the non-Jewish members of Temple Israel to convert. 

Longtime Temple Israel member Darcy Vebber converted there in 1999, some 15 years after she was married. She was asked to lead a task force on the role of non-Jewish members in the congregation about 10 years ago, but the topic of weddings wasn’t even on the table, because the group knew Rosove’s policy. She says she was stunned and delighted by the rabbi’s change of heart.

“A friend of mine, for whom this is a pressing issue, feels a sense of relief, I guess in the same way that you would when any family member who you love fully accepts you,” Vebber said.

High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words


5772Conscience 

by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.

A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightning, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.

So, no excuses. You and me! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — you cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”

So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the imams’ fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.

On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?

The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t simply permissible to be an optimist, it’s a mitzvah and it’s mandatory!

Which of the two is the Creator of the universe — an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!

Rabbi and author Benjamin Blech is serving as guest rabbi at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills for this year’s High Holy Days. This excerpt is from a Return 

by Rabbi Zoë Klein

National sermon in Malaysia calls Jews the ‘main enemy’


The official government sermon delivered in mosques across Malaysia called Jews the “main enemy.”

The sermon, prepared and distributed by the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department and delivered on March 30, said that “Muslims must understand Jews are the main enemy to Muslims as proven by their egotistical behavior and murders performed by them.”

It also called on community leaders to increase the awareness and understanding of the importance of Jerusalem, referring to it by its Arabic name, al-Quds.

“The honor of al-Quds and the al-Aksa mosque must be defended by all Muslims, as it is holy land that must be blessed,” the sermon said.

The sermon “makes a mockery of Malaysia’s Constitution, which promises that religions other than Islam may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement. “Further, it puts to the lie the repeated calls in international bodies by Malaysia’s prime minister, Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib, for religions to forsake intimidation and violence. It threatens the few Jews in Malaysia and millions beyond its borders.”

The following day, an officially sanctioned state seminar, “Strengthening the Faith, the Dangers of Liberalism and Pluralism and the Threat of Christianity towards Muslims. What is the Role of Teachers?” was convened by the Johor Education Department and the Johor Mufti Department, which required 55 schools to send two religious teachers each to deal with the “threat” of Christians to Malaysian Muslims. 

In light of the two incidents, the Simon Wiesenthal Center announced a travel advisory to Malaysia, calling on its Jewish and Christian supporters “to re-evaluate any travel plans to Malaysia, whether on business or as tourists.”

The center also said it will ask the U.S. State Department to launch its own investigation of state-sponsored religious bigotry in Malaysia.

What I learned from Desmund Tutu


I was nervous about going to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu this past Sunday at All-Saints Church.  I was nervous because, despite his remarkable life story, which of course includes fighting and winning the battle against apartheid in his homeland, South Africa, he has made comments in the past about Israel and the Palestinians that have made him unwelcome in the mainstream Jewish community.  So, in choosing to attend the service, sit in the VIP section up front, alongside other dignitaries, interfaith leaders and Hollywood actors, among others, rather than stand outside with a picket sign, as I imagine some in our community would have rather me do, I was nervous about what I might hear from this renown voice for civil and human rights, especially in light of the fact that just 2 days earlier, the United States had chosen to veto a U.N. resolution calling the Israeli settlements illegal, even though our stated foreign policy agrees with that resolution, not to mention all of the unrest and turmoil in the greater Middle East.  I sat anxiously, surrounded by Muslims and Christians, and because it is an Episcopal Church, a few Jews as well, and waited for Bishop Tutu to preach. 

He is about to turn 80, but he has a presence and fortitude that belies his age.  Not much more than 5’4” tall, a higher pitched and sweet sounding voice emanates from his throat, overlaid with an accent that sometimes makes him hard to understand.  He rose to speak, looking out over the capacity filled church, including hundreds watching on video monitors outside, and gave us the following message: God is holy, therefore we are all holy; we are God carriers, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys.  He told us that each human being, no matter what color of skin they have, is created in God’s image, therefore is a piece of God, therefore is holy, therefore deserves respect, dignity, compassion and love.  It was a message of deep spiritual depth, one that he brought around for just a moment, at the very end, to today’s reality.  More on that to come.

Bishop Tutu was echoing the scriptural reading of that morning, one that we Jews are really familiar with: Leviticus 19, known in our tradition as the holiness code.  It is here that we get some of the more famous lines about how to live a life of holiness, as the Torah calls us to ‘kedoshim t’heeyu, you shall be holy, ki kadosh ani adonai eloheichem, for I, Adonai your God am holy.”  Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t insult the deaf, don’t hate your brother/sister in your heart, don’t hold a grudge or take revenge, and of course, love your neighbor as yourself.  He preached that we have become desensitized to the notion of holiness, for which he placed no blame, but stated as fact.  Do we see the face of God in every person that crosses our path?  Do we remember the teaching, in the Jewish tradition he said, that tells us of the midrash that an angel walks in front of our every person, no matter man or woman, young or old, straight or gay, black or white or brown, Jew or not, an angel walks in front of us and announces, “make way for the image of God, make way for the image of God.”  We are all God-carriers, he kept repeating, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys.  And, we don’t remember it.  Tutu asked what the world would be like if we all believed, truly believed, the words of our respective scriptures, the words that we hear in synagogue, church, mosque, shrine, or other “places of worship,” that tell us this week in and week out.  Would we kill one another, would we hate one another, would we destroy one another, if we truly believed the words of our tradition?  Would we kill others if we believed it was killing a part of God every time?  What do you think? 

The Torah offers us a pathway to think about this idea of holiness, of course, in the same section that was read that morning, Leviticus 19.  That got me thinking about an idea, one that crystallized during my weekly meditation sitting group here at PJTC.  There is a difference in life between living ethical and living holy, between setting up a society that seeks fairness and equity and a society that goes further and seeks holiness amongst the people.  In parshat Mishpatim, which comes after the experience at Mt. Sinai, we get pages of laws, rules and guidelines for establishing ethical communities, from treating slaves fairly (which was a huge improvement for the time), restitution for damages, civil law, injury law, fair treatment of workers, money lending, caring for the poor, as well as not mistreating the stranger, widow or orphan, a running theme in the Torah.  I noticed something interesting in this whole section: only at the very end, and really in relationship to not eating flesh torn from the beasts of the field, does it say anything about being holy.  These laws are what God expects of us humans in building a community, the ethical import of differentiating ourselves from the animals.  We need laws to function more efficiently and in safety; we need laws to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and dignity.  But, these laws say nothing, really, about being holy.  For that, we need Leviticus 19.

One Saturday morning, an old, shabbily dressed man happened to be walking through an elegant suburb when he spotted a huge, beautiful synagogue. He entered during the service, and took a seat in the rear pew.  The well-dressed congregation was unnerved by his appearance. As he was leaving the service, the rabbi told the old man, “Before you come back again, please pray and have a talk with God. Ask God what God thinks would be the proper clothes for worshipping in this synagogue.”  The next Saturday the old man returned to the synagogue in the same shabby clothes. After the service, the rabbi again asked him whether or not he had talked to God about the appropriate attire for synagogue.  “I did talk to God,” the old man replied. “God told me that He wouldn’t have any idea what was appropriate attire for worshipping in your synagogue. God said that’s because God’s never been in here before.”  This little joke illustrates what Leviticus 19 has to offer in regard to holiness.  Unlike Mishpatim, in this part of the Torah, in the parsha called Kedoshim, literally meaning holiness, we are exhorted to dig deeper into ourselves and work to create a society that is not just fair and just, but truly holy, emblematic of God here on Earth.  “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God am Holy,” is how the parsha begins.  It then goes on to teach about about the Sabbath, the danger of idol-worship, tells us to leave the edges of field for the poor, not to swear falsely by God’s name, not to steal from one another, not to put a stumbling block before the blind or insult the deaf, to deal with rich and poor alike with justice, don’t stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.  And then comes the really big ones: Don’t hate your kinsfolk in your heart, don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge, love your neighbor as yourself.  And, over and over again, the phrase ‘ani Adonai, I am God,’ is repeated, reminding us of the source of holiness.  And unlike the laws in Mishpatim, I see these moral clarion calls of holiness exhorting us to raise ourselves higher and higher, to truly be what Tutu called God carriers, to go beyond ethical and fairness in laws and to seek pathways of living that elevate us beyond human capacity and into the true realms of being created in the image of God.  We are holy when we work to eliminate hate from our hearts, for there is no law against that; we are holy when we don’t insult the deaf, for there is no law against that; we are holy when we turn away from revenge or holding a grudge, for there is no law against that.  We can’t legislate holiness, it is the truest essence of being created in the image of God.  We are God carriers, and this is our mission in life.  It is not enough to create ethical societies, for that is just the beginning.  Laws are needed, for sure, but holiness, kedusha, is what makes us “a little lower than the angels,” (Psalm 8:5) as the psalmist says.  We are angelic when we overcome hatred and love the stranger, love our enemy, not because we are legislated to do so, but because we are God carriers.

After 20+ minutes of his sermon, which kept everyone rapt in attention, Tutu said, again, we are all God carriers, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys.  Then he said, “Even Mubarak.”  The Palestinians, the Jews, Americans, Arabs, South Africans, all of us are God carriers.  And that is the hard lesson he was driving at, which he said explicitly at the end.  It is easy to love those similar to you, to love those you already love.  To be holy, to be God carriers, he said, is to love those you don’t like, even those you hate.  To find the spark of holiness, the spark of God, in every person, in every human being.  In that, the archbishop, knowingly or unknowingly, was calling to mind the great Chassidic masters, particularly the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman of Bretslov, both of whom called us to love our enemies, to pray for those whom we despise, and most powerfully, when we see evil in others, use it as a mirror to see what is wrong with ourselves.  That was all Tutu said about the situation today, leaving us to imply, infer and distill his message, so my nervousness was for naught. 

The power of this message was driven home for me, finally, at the end of our meditation class on Tuesday, when I shared my insights.  One of the women who comes regularly, and is a Shoah survivor, breathed a deep breath, looked at us and said the following: “In my darkest days in the concentration camps, when I was losing hope, I thought to myself, there must be some humanity in Hitler, perhaps when he is listening to music, the music he loved so much, maybe at that moment, for a split second, he is human.  And that gave me hope to try and keep living.”  We all sat in shocked silence, for who could say that other than a survivor and not be vilified, not be seen as sick and twisted.  So, I will leave as Desmond Tutu left it, when he said “we are all God carriers, we are all God’s stand-ins, we are all God’s viceroys.”  And he sat down.  And so will I.  Shabbat shalom.

Jewish interfaith leaders urge Shabbat sermon about Islam


A group of Jewish interfaith educators is asking rabbis to talk about Islam next Shabbat.

A letter signed by six prominent rabbis and scholars points out that Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, falls on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In light of the controversy over the Islamic center planned for near the New York site, the letter asks rabbis and rabbinical students to “speak out against the bigotry that has erupted,” and promote the ideals of religious freedoms for Muslims as well as Jews.

Rabbis in leading positions at the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative seminaries, as well as the rabbinical school at Hebrew College, signed the appeal.

It reads, in part: “The proposal for the ‘Mosque at Ground Zero’ that turns out not to be a mosque and not at Ground Zero has brought to light this simple fact: We Americans need to know a whole lot more about Muslims and their religion.”

VIDEO: Palin Pastor: ‘Israelites’ run the economy




Yes, he says ‘Israelites’! (MSNBC)

A pastor who blessed Sarah Palin’s run for Alaska governor said Christians should emulate “Israelites” and run the economy.

The 2005 video of South African Pastor Thomas Muthee laying hands on Palin, the Republican vice-presidential pick, surfaced this week on the Internet.

Muthee precedes the blessing with a sermon calling for Christians to assume control in seven areas of society.

“The second area whereby God wants us, wants to penetrate in our society is in the economic area,” he said in the sermon. “The Bible says that the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous. It’s high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations. That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the — you know — if you look at the Israelites, that’s how they work. And that’s how they are, even today.”

The pastor also calls for Christian control of schools.

“We need God taking over our education system,” he said. “Otherwise we, if we have God in our schools, we will not have kids being taught, you know, how to worship Buddha, how to worship Mohammed, we will not have in the curriculum witchcraft and sorcery.”

Do-it-yourself High Holy Days sermon


You think you have it bad? What about your rabbi, who has to work weeks — no, months — to prepare a High Holy Days Sermon. You think it’s easy writing a speech that people will remember for the rest of the year? Well, then, why don’t you and a friend write your very own with our MadLibs [R] version. First ask your partner to supply the missing words. Then read the completed sermon aloud … and enjoy.

To my _____ _____ and _____ of Congregation _____ Israel, I’d like to wish you a _____ New Year.

On this very _____ day, let us take time to _____ back on our _____ lives.

I want to begin with a _____ story about Rabbi _____ ben _____, may he rest in peace, from the old city of _____. You may remember how this man sacrificed his _____ for the sake of giving _____ every week.

And you may also remember how his children, _____, _____, and Eliezer had to make _____ sacrifices, but the important point to remember is that “for every mitzvah we are blessed with _____.”

Which is why this year, I would like every person to adopt a new mitzvah, like _____. Also, you should stop _____.

But, we cannot simply rely on God alone to make the world a better _____. We must also ___________________________________________.

And we can’t _____ the world on our own. We must come together and _____ together.

We must also remember our _____ in Israel, who always needs our support. That’s why you must take the blue _____ under your seat and donate $_____.

With this _____ membership gift, we can _____ our connection to _____ through Temple programs such as _____, _____, and the building of a new _____.

For a mere $_____, we will send you and _____ to Israel for a _____. If you’re not a member, now is the time to _____! We need your support!

Remember our responsibility to _____, as it says in the book of _____. “Do unto _____ as _____ would have done unto you.”

This extremely clear message will help you reach _____ With that in mind, I wish you all a _____ and _____ New Year.



(adjective)

(plural masculine noun)

(plural feminine noun)

(Hebrew word)

(Insert guttural Hebrew/Yiddish word. Make one up if you don’t know one.)

(adjective how you feel in synagogue)

(verb)

(epithet)

(adjective how you feel in synagogue)

(Hebrew name)

(foreign word)

(place of your last vacation)

(your most valuable possession)

($ amount)

(favorite number)

(Cantor’s name)

(name of insect)

(miracle)

(favorite activity)

(household chore you hate)

(noun)

(Orthodox: insert mitzvah between man and God; Conservative: insert mitzvah between fellow men; Reform: insert political cause; Reconstructionist: insert environmental cause; Atheist: insert favorite sport.)

(verb)

(same verb)

(noun)

(amount you cheated on taxes last year)

(adjective you’d like people to call you)

(verb)

(favorite religion)

(obscure sport)

(social activity)

(luxury item)

(this week’s lottery jackpot)

(favorite actor)

(time you need vacation)

(verb)

(dead comedian)

(name of disease)

(animal)

(same animal)

(name of a casino.)

(adjective)

(adjective)

What will your rabbi be talking about?


“Too late. To be continued. Get over it.”

Rabbi Laurence Goldmark, of the Reform Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, can summarize his main High Holy Days sermon in just those eight words. After 29 years at the shul, he plans to retire next summer, and he wants to take this season to reinforce those three fundamental themes, which he believes define his rabbinate.

Rabbi Laura Geller, of Reform Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, will launch a Greening the Synagogue campaign in her Rosh Hashanah sermon, springboarding off a Judgment Day question posed by the fourth-century Babylonian sage Rava. While Rava inquired about involving ourselves in procreation, Geller plans to reframe the question, asking congregants to reflect upon the world we will leave for our children.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy, of the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, spent nearly four weeks this summer in a rabbinic leadership program at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute. On Rosh Hashanah, she will talk about Israel at age 60 — comparing the reality versus the dream. While her overall theme is to explore the notion of “one people,” she believes the relationship between Israel and America must be “a two-way street.”

In sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throughout Southern California this year, rabbis will continue to exhort their congregants to look inward and outward, to reflect upon and repair themselves, their families and communities, the nation and the world.

Almost every rabbi interviewed for this article said they will discuss the timeless High Holy Day theme of teshuvah (repentance), and examine American Jews’ ever-important relationship to Israel. Many will talk about global warming and the environmental consequences, and for some, though not an easy subject, the war in Iraq is on the agenda.

But it is often the case that the most successful sermons, the ones deemed most inspirational and most powerful, are those that emanate directly from the rabbi’s heart. “It has to be spoken from the truest place of a rabbi’s being,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Feinstein described the process of creating a sermon as “a profound work of teshuvah for the rabbi.” He said the process forces rabbis to sit down with himself or herself and really examine where they are this year, what matters to them and what motivates them.

Feinstein’s two sermons will focus on Israel and its 60th anniversary and on the question of power and powerlessness.

Feinstein worries that most Americans have given up on their ability to affect the condition of our national existence — and even our communal existence — and have become very private.

“This is a terrible sign for our democracy and a terrible spiritual disease,” he said. He wants his sermon to motivate people to engage in “significant acts of volunteerism,” which he believes is the remedy.

It isn’t easy to write these sermons, and to help facilitate the process, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California holds an annual High Holy Days seminar, which this year took place on Aug. 14 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. More than 100 rabbis from synagogues extending from San Luis Obispo to San Diego attended, as well as about 35 student rabbis from the three local seminaries.

This year’s seminar featured Valley Beth Shalom’s Feinstein as both morning and afternoon keynote speaker, talking about the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) as a window to change our lives and our world and also discussing the challenges and opportunities of preaching and teaching about Israel at 60. The seminar also offered six different workshops, from Rabbi Richard Levy’s “Troubling Passages in the High Holy Day Machzor” to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila’s “Revolutionary Traditionalism: Reading Theology in S.Y Agnon” (for a review of the book by Bouskila, see p. 21). Each participant selected two sessions.

“[The purpose] is to spark interest in ideas they’ve been turning around, to provide stories for mini-sermons and divrei Torah and to debunk the popular myth out there that rabbis copy sermons lock, stock and barrel,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Diamond also added that the finest sermons combine some kind of serious engagement with Jewish text and Jewish tradition with a specific issue of the day or a personal issue that people are facing.

For veteran Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, returning to Southern California as the new rabbi of Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, the most pressing communal issue is Jewish hospitality and the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Gartenberg will devote his main Rosh Hashanah sermon to the subject, introducing hospitality as the synagogue’s yearlong theme. This is an extension of “Panim Hadashot: New Faces of Judaism,” the program of Shabbat-centered learning and outreach Gartenberg founded while serving as rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Orthodox Young Israel of Century City, will deliver four High Holy Days sermons: on hearing the cry from the shofar and recognizing the pain of other Jews; on parenting as the ultimate gauge of success in life; on the importance of community; and on caring for the poor.

But the sermon he finds most challenging — and the one on which he spends the most time pondering and preparing — is the one he’ll be giving on the afternoon of Shabbat Teshuvah, the Shabbat of Repentance, which this year immediately follows Rosh Hashanah. Hundreds of his congregants as well as others in the Pico-Robertson community will attend the hour-plus presentation, which he has titled “In Search of Spirituality.”

“Spirituality is the key word today, but what does it mean?” Muskin asked. “A lot of people think it just means warm and fuzzy, but it’s a question of really pursuing and trying to find a spiritual direction in one’s life.”

Rabbi Jan Goldstein is inaugurating a nondenominational High Holy Days experience this year, called “Bayit Shelanu,” or “Our House” with singer/composer Debbie Friedman. Their goal is to reach out to Los Angeles’ unaffiliated Jews. The services will be held at UCLA’s Ackerman Grand Ballroom.

7-step set training for spiritual fitness


So you’ve trained all summer in order to show off that tight body at the beach. Well, as the High Holy Days roll around, impressing the opposite sex seems less and less important.

Now it’s time to show off your Judaism at shul so you can impress your rabbi. And if your rabbi is a member of the opposite sex, you can’t lose.

More importantly, now is the time to capitalize on that expensive shul membership and start going to morning minyan once in a while. The New Year is when you can turn your life around.

Let’s get started.

Step One: Test Your Limits

Go to shul a few times before the holiday and see whether you sit can through a three-hour service. If you can do that, you can do anything. If you do, however, feel the need to rest your mind, try to do it during the rabbi’s intriguing sermon. Your mind will absorb the material better. But be sure to stretch when you wake up.

Step Two: Rid Yourself of Carbs

A great way to do this is by tossing a few bread crumbs in the nearest body of water during Tashlich. Tashlich can be a great way to send off your complex sins in one quick swoop. With each passing crumb, let loose your sinful baggage as a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders.

Step Three: Start Lifting

Get into spiritual shape by starting to lift … the Torah. Hagbah will surely impress your rabbi in addition to increasing your participation during the service. The key is to take on more roles and lead more parts. Hagbah is relatively easy and doesn’t require a lot of knowledge of Hebrew. But if you’re still a little unsure, warm up with an ark opening, then shift to hagbah. Once you’ve mastered the art of torah-lifting, wrap it all up with a quick, painless Gelilah. But remember, maintain full control, or you’ll put everyone on a forced diet.

Step Four: Sets and Reps

Start off with three sets of prayer each day at a slow to moderate pace and focus on repetition … of the Amidah. These 18 blessings will truly give you a deeper insight to the religion, while providing you with a deeper connection to God. Getting in the groove of daily prayer is an excellent way to strengthen your bond with The Lord.

Step Five: Training With Grace

Sure machine weights are effective, but the ultimate grace is best achieved with a solid, sincere, bensch. It’s important to get in the habit of thanking God after each meal. And while you’re at it, be thankful for everything else in this world … from when you lie down at night, to when you rise in the morning.

Step Six: Get Toned

Better yet, get atoned. While you’re thinking about the sins you’ve committed this year, think about the ways those wrongs could have been rights. Be regretful for the way you once acted, and do your best to be more of a mensch in the coming year. Set goals for yourself and try taking a jog down the derech eretz.

Step Seven: Gain The Definition You Want

Understand the meaning of what you’re doing. Understand the meaning of prayer, the meaning of religion and the meaning of God. And only when you understand all these meanings will you truly gain definition.

Now just follow these seven simple steps on a daily basis and you’ll really get into that spiritual mindset that’ll impress your rabbi. Its time to turn the Ten Days of Awe into the Ten Days of Awesome.

And if you’re craving a more intense exercise, be sure to check out our other High Holy Day workouts such as, Diet for Your Sins; Practice, Practice, Practice Your Religion; and our special Yom Kippur workout: Don’t Eat and DonAte.

Martin Luther King’s Hollywood dream


Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965
“>Part II, 14 min., MP3, 1.6MB

Temple Israel of Hollywood has had many milestones in its 80 years as a Jewish cultural landmark in our city. One that bears special significance this month, however, occurred on Friday, Feb. 26, 1965 , when the synagogue’s Rabbi Max Nussbaum welcomed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to share the bimah with him and to offer a sermon.

Nearly forty-two years later, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the synagogue will welcome the reverend’s voice back into the sanctuary in a special service on Jan. 12 with The Word Center Church Gospel Singers, as well as its pastors and musicians.

The brainchild of Michael Skloff, a member of the temple’s board of trustees and a professional composer and songwriter, the Friday night service, which is open to all, will feature songs performed by musicians and choir members from both congregations, separately and together.

While interfaith Jewish/gospel services in honor of the observance are fairly common in Los Angeles, Temple Israel’s stands out for its inclusion of a musical piece arranged by Skloff, featuring recorded excerpts of King speaking at the synagogue in 1965. King’s voice will be accompanied by both choirs’ vocals and music played by members of both congregations.

Skloff said he’d always looked for an opportunity to infuse into a Jewish service the level of ecstatic devotion he’d witnessed in gospel churches.
But he said his intent is larger than that, as well.

“I don’t want to wait for some tragic event, for another Rodney King situation … for all of us to think, ‘Well, we really have to get together and heal this rift,'” he said. “We shouldn’t wait. We should always be working on the relationship between the Jewish community and African American community.”

For this new venture, the relationship began with a gathering involving Skloff, as well as Temple Israel’s Rabbi John Rosove and Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom with The Word Center pastors Alan and T. Marvene Wright and choir director Contrella Patrick-Henry.

“By the end of the meeting, we were all sort of kibitzing with each other,” Rosenbloom said. “We’re hoping that this is just the first annual Martin Luther King weekend collaboration, and we are hoping that we’ll be invited to participate in one of their services, although that hasn’t been worked out yet.”

For now, they’re working on the details of the program, which will begin with a song written by Rosenbloom called, “Shechinah Niggun,” and move into the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

“Their soloist and I will start off the service by melding our two songs — melding two songs from our different traditions.” Rosenbloom said. The evening will also include gospel renditions of prayers, like “Adon Olam,” “Romemu” and “Lecha Dodi;” traditional gospel songs, like “This Little Light of Mine,” as well as readings of King’s words by Rosove and both pastors.

The centerpiece of the night will be the musical arrangement of the King speech recording.

“It’s … a historical connection to our social justice work, starting in the ’60s, when Rabbi Nussbaum had Dr. King speak here, [and] our commitment to civil rights at the time, which has continued throughout the life of the temple,” Rosenbloom said.


The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. service will be held Friday, Jan. 12, at 6 p.m. at ” target = “_blank”>LAObserved.com blog. Thanks, Kevin!

“> then he asked a tough question.

Live in the ‘hood: words of awe


I love a good sermon. There’s nothing like the uplift you get from hearing words that go right to your soul.
 
Words on a page can’t do thatfor me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word.You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
 
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it’s more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn’t sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
 
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something “good.” But how do they get there?
 
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It’s empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
 
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
 
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don’t walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
 
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn’t eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for “nut” has the same numerical value as the word for “sin”); why the shofar can’t come from a bull’s horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life — parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. — and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.

If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as “Shabbat Tshuvah” (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be “Like a Good Neighbor…”).
 
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their “label.” Still, it’s clear that there are major differences among the denominations — both of style and substance — which shouldn’t surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn’t arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
 
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
 
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B’nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi’s Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he’s got the Torah sources to back it up.
 
It makes you wonder what’s next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
 
It’s that time of year.
 
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The Genesis of a Holiday Sermon, And Other Stories


How Do Rabbis Choose Their Topics For High Holiday Sermons?

What they don’t do is gather together and get a list of topics from on high. But about a month or so before the major holidays — like Passover and Rosh Hashanah — the Board of Rabbis of Southern California sponsors a pre-holiday conference for rabbis to come together to study as well as become inspired and motivated.

This year’s High Holy Days Seminar on Aug. 15, was one of the biggest yet, with 135 rabbis attending from all denominations. For the first time the keynote speakers were a father and son, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe from Philadelphia and his son Rabbi David Wolpe from Sinai Temple, who discussed themes for the holidays — both timeless and current.

One main topic on the minds of rabbis this year is the situation in Israel. Consul General Ehud Danoch and Jewish Federation President John Fishel spoke to the group about the Israel in Crisis fund and ways to help Israel.

“Rabbis will be speaking about Israel in one major sermon on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, to incorporate texts and ideas and stories and themes, to put this in perspective that would be appropriate for the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis. “The Days of Awe are a time for chesbon hanefesh — introspection and self scrutiny, a time to talk about the war and its aftermath.”

Diamond said the seminar’s goal is to “spark” ideas for the rabbis: “As rabbis prepare their sermons and divrei Torah and Torah commentaries for the High holidays, this is an opportunity to share ideas, stories, texts, and to listen and learn from one another.”

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah, said the seminar gives “rabbis the chance to do personal self-reflection — sermons often come out of our own personal struggles. Reading a text is to challenge ourselves on our own relationship with God, our own sense of teshvuah, and when rabbis go through that process, we are more enriched personally, and hopefully we are better rabbis.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Making Davening Wishes Come True

Do you wish to get more out of your own High Holiday services? Well, now there’s the “I Wish I Got More Out of Services” services, billed as “A Meaningful High Holiday Experience.”

Sponsored by Beth Jacob, a centrist Orthodox community in the Pico-Roberston neighborhood, the service, now in its second year, is a traditional, “halachic” service with separate seating, less cantorial flair and a more explanatory supplement.

“As the High Holidays were approaching last year I realized something important. I don’t like long, boring services,” said Michael Borkow, a writer and executive producer (“Friends”) and the founder of the “I Wish” program. “And for years, no matter what synagogue I went to, that is generally what I experienced on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Services tend to be long because, pretty much everywhere you go, the cantor and High Holiday choir sing a lot; they tend to be boring because nobody explains what’s going on.”

The service is open to all and sees lots of singles and couples in their 20s and 30s. Although it will include English explanations and translations of the songs, Borkow is quick to point out that “this is not a learner’s service — there will be plenty of observant people who daven every day.”

This year, they are importing Rabbi Benzion Klatzko to lead services.Tickets are $150 for all five services. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.

Jesus’ Man Has a Plan


Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?

That’s not a fair question.

There are few people of any faith like Warren.

As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I’d met with Warren’s eloquence, charisma, and passion — but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn’t.

Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.




Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008



The program’s leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor’s first book, “The Purpose-Driven Church” (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren’s Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor’s success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.

There are two aspects to Warren’s success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.

“I spoke with him constantly,” Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.

It is Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives” that Warren replicates in every endeavor — translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let’s pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.

In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.

“It’s the individual cells that make the body,” he told the Sinai crowd. All his church’s endeavors — from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship — work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.

The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren’s devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.

Good for him and his flock — and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year — using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: “Eat the fish and throw away the bones.”

Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.

The success of Warren’s second book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, “The Purpose-Driven Life”turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.

“Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn’t work,” the book begins. “If it did, we’d know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner’s manual — in this case, God and the Bible.” “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.

As Warren pointed out — with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it — it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.

The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe — giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.

I haven’t checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.

“We do not go into this line of work to get rich,” he said. “If you give it to God, he will bring you to life.”

Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he’d just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.

“The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none,” he said.

Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country’s president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.

“This is my kind of service!” he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.

Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.

Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God’s role in our lives: “God created you to love you,” he said, “and to love him back.”

I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man’s organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith — how in the world can we Jews learn that?

Valley’s Toras HaShem Seeks to Lure City Jews Over the Hill


It’s Thursday night at Toras HaShem, an outreach yeshiva in North
Hollywood and some 40 people are here to hear Rabbi Zvi Block’s weekly Torah
portion sermon. Tonight the class includes college-age women wearing long
skirts; a number of septuagenarians; a middle-aged man, who is becoming
Orthodox, and his wife, who is converting to Judaism; and a young mother whose
little girl spends the class drawing pictures on a notepad.

The men and women are seated in separate rows, and everyone
is following along in an English-translated Chumash. Block, a New Yorker,
delivers his talk on the weekly portion with great enthusiasm: he sits down, he
gets up, he walks around the room, he digs with his thumb to emphasize his
points, he modulates his voice, he peppers his argument with telling anecdotes;
he moves the story so briskly through the text that by the end of the 75
minutes, the entire parsha has been explicated.

Block’s scholarship and liveliness have garnered him quite a
following in the Valley. While the city boasts a number of institutions that
seek to familiarize the unaffiliated with Orthodox Judaism (i.e., Aish HaTorah,
Jewish Learning Exchange and the Jewish Awareness Movement), the Valley has
Toras HaShem, which is its only non- Chabad Orthodox outreach organization (the
Valley Kollel offers some outreach classes, but it is primarily a locus for
those already learned.) Although there are some city people who make the trek
across Coldwater Canyon to attend their classes, Toras HaShem is virtually
unknown in the city, which is something that Block hopes to change.

So these days, Block is trying a different sort of outreach.
He wants to reach out to affiliated Jews in the city so that they know more
about the thriving community in the Valley, and he is doing so by organizing a
citywide concert with Shalsheles, the highest-selling Orthodox singing quartet
in the country by Jewish music standards. Block hopes to sell out some 1,700
seats, which would raise $100,000 to benefit Israeli victims of terror, and it
would also raise awareness among city Jews of the classes and services offered
by his institution, and perhaps lure a few of them away from the plethora of
options in the city, to try out life — or maybe just some classes — in the
Valley.

“I think people in the city don’t realize to what extent the
Valley community has grown,” Block told The Journal. “People consider the
Valley as a third choice [to live in], after Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park,
and they are making a big mistake. People in the city don’t realize that the
Valley has between 800 and 1,000 shomer Shabbos families. In our area alone
there are a dozen shuls.”

Block has lived in the Valley since 1977, when he came to
start a Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, then only a Jerusalem outreach
yeshiva. In 1991, the building burnt down in an arson attack (the reason for
the fire is still unknown), and Aish began concentrating its efforts in the
city. Not one to give up, Block, who was also working as the founding rabbi of
the Orthodox Beth Din of the Valley and as the principal of West Valley Hebrew
Academy, collected $1 million in funds to build a building for his own outreach
Yeshiva, and, in 1995, he opened Toras HaShem on Chandler Boulevard in North
Hollywood, in a new building that could accommodate more than 200 students.

Toras HaShem caters to people who have no prior knowledge of
Judaism, and it intends to foster individualist, religious expression in its
students. “We produced kids who were Chasidic-leaning, and we produced kids who
were Zionistic-leaning,” Block said.

The yeshiva encourages its students to go to Israel, Block
said. “We believe very strongly in a powerfully assertive Israel, and so this
concert fits right in,” he said. “It is really an effort to galvanize the city
of Los Angeles on our behalf, and on behalf of Israel.”

The Shalsheles Concert will take place at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets
are available at the 613 Mitzvah Store, House of David and Brenco Judaica. For
more information on the concert, call (818) 581-7505. For information on Toras
HaShem, call (818) 980-6934.  

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