January 23, 2019

SOUL BITES: Highlights from Shabbat Sermons

Photo from Pixabay.

Rabbi Ari Lucas, Temple Beth Am

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations that the Hollywood mogul had serially abused women sexually, and repeatedly created situations where women saw themselves as having to choose between submitting to his unwanted advances or give up any hopes of a career in Hollywood; in the wake of all the publicity his actions were getting, many women have taken to social media and posted: “MeToo”. And the floodgates opened.

In Parshat Noah, God opens the floodgates of the heavens in response to the corruption He witnesses on Earth. The text tells us vatimalei ha-aretz hamas – the land was filled with hamas. We’re not certain what the word hamas means in the Bible. In other contexts, it appears to mean corruption or injustice. Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator on the Bible claims that hamas refers to stealing and “taking women by force.” According to his interpretation, some kind of sexual violence leads God to regret at having created the world such that God chooses to start over with one family.

The way we speak and behave are reflections of the choices we make. The earth may continue to be filled with hamas – way too many stories of sexual violence. But God has promised never again to purify the land with floodwaters, so the responsibility falls to us – the rainbow after the storm – to do the work of pursuing justice and uprooting evil from our land. Let’s continue that work together.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah

This week’s Torah portion, Noah, has a verse that has become a foundation for the spiritual and mystical approach to prayer. In Genesis 6:16, we find God saying to Noah, “Make a tzohar (light) for the teivah(ark).” The Hebrew word “tzohar” has two basic interpretations in the Talmud: “radiant gemstone” and “skylight”, but they both mean “a source of light.”

Jewish commentators have creatively mistranslated the word “teivah” in Genesis 6:16, that refers to Noah’s “teivah” (ark), as “word”, so that we can read this verse “put a light in the ark” as “make a light for the word.”

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that when one places the radiant light of consciousness into a word of the prayer book (or any sacred text, for that matter) one perceives “worlds, souls and divinity.”  The letters, the pronunciation of a word of the prayer book or the Bible, are a vessel that holds an inner depth.

I think that one must first have some experience in a contemplative practice so that one can reach deep within. We have to be able to create that skylight of consciousness to illuminate the hidden chambers of holy words.

And we must take the time to enter into the holy books like a spelunker. It is dark in there, and the journey inward is tough, and maybe boring, but then you detect that the atmosphere has changed. You find yourself in this cavern, thick with souls, words and divinity.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, Mishkon Tephilo

Most people forget it’s there, but at the end of Parshat Noach is the story of the Tower of Babel.  The Torah states that for many generations after the flood, the people of the world were unified in both language and matters – namely, building a tower to challenge the heavens.  God – worried there’d be no end to human achievement if this trajectory continued uninterrupted – decides to confuse the people, “so that no one would understand the language of their fellow” and thus cease being so productive.

However, the Hebrew word for “language” is “Safah”, which can relate to a culture’s unique language or the collection of words a person speaks. And the word for “understand” here is “Shama”, which is more often translated as “listen.”  With this in mind, one could translate this line so that it reads “no one would listen to the words of their fellow.”  In other words, God knew the best way to keep us from achieving greatness would be by having us not listen to one another.

We often get so caught up in our own narratives that we fail to listen to the narratives of others.  As Jews, our tradition teaches us that no one should go to bed hungry, sleep without a roof over their head, or suffer without medical care.  However, as humans, we may differ in how we prefer to achieve these goals. Imagine how much more we could achieve if we saw the Tower of Babel not as a punishment, but as an invitation:  if we actively listen to one another, nothing can stop us from achieving whatever we desire.

Helena Lipstadt (Guestspeaker), Beth Chayim Chadashim

A rainbow always comes as a surprise. Usually after rain and when the sun comes out. What do you say when you see a rainbow? “Wow,” “it’s unexpected,” “magical,” “beautiful.”

Ten days ago I was in Poland. It rained nearly the whole time I was there. My friends and I were walking around in the drizzle and suddenly we turned around and saw a rainbow in the sky behind us. Wow! The rainbow made us feel happy and hopeful.

This was my sixth trip to Poland in six years. It is the place my family comes from. In the middle of the 20th century, Poland was the site of an enormous flood of anti-Semitism. The Polish Jewish community was almost completely destroyed in this flood, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. There was no ark to hold this community.

I never expected to find rainbows in Poland but I did. The rainbow – an ineffable combination of fire and water – is shocking in its possibilities. It is once again a sign of change, of hope, of beauty. A surprise, when it appears. Everything depends on our being able to see it. See it and remember our time of floating together above the flood in one, life-saving ark.

Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple

I’m going to talk about Harvey Weinstein.

We read this morning the story of Noah, which by the way, if you read the verse carefully, is in part about sexual immorality. But we don’t know the name of Noah’s wife. It isn’t until Abraham comes along that [Sarah], the female partner is named. Just as the female partner is named in the original intention of creation with Adam and Eve and then somehow falls out of the picture. And that is a lesson, both in how easy it is to erase and how important it is to restore. About how often through history women didn’t have names and voices and position and power, and what that can mean.

When you sexually violate someone, you are taking part of the core constituent of their identity, part of their soul and saying it’s yours and not theirs. Remember the biblical word for sex is yada – to know – to know someone. So what are you saying when you violate them? “I know you. And you’re worthless.”

When you have monsters of ego and desire, it is our responsibility as Jews, as human beings, not to just laugh over stories like this or have a prurient interest or to read about them because after all it’s interesting, but to be outraged and to speak up and to say how wrong it is.

It is a long way from Noah’s wife to Sarah. We are the children of Sarah. It is our job to teach that to the world.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR

It strikes me this year is maybe what’s happening is that the story of the tower of Babel is coming to drive home the lesson of Noah, that there’s power in community but the real danger comes from uniformity. It comes from when we’re all so busy working for some greater goal that we’re silent when we see things happening along the way that are cruel, that are indecent, that are simply wrong.

The world sometimes finds itself upside down. Sometimes what’s normative is what’s wrong. And what’s right is to stand up and to speak out against whatever that pervasive culture is. Whether that culture is in the White House or whether that culture is in the studio offices.

This is incredibly hard to do because these challenges sometimes lose us friends, and they sometimes lose us our jobs. They sometimes lose us opportunities and deals. But resistance is built into the Jewish ethical and moral and religious system.

We’ve seen over the last few weeks exactly what’s at stake when everybody knows what’s happening but few, too few, are willing to speak about it. We’ve seen the dangers of silent complicity. The Torah of Noah is that it’s not enough to just stay decent and to not join in to the evil.

It’s not enough to just be good in times like these. We also have to find the courage to defy God, to defy colleagues, to defy authorities, to defy anyone who’s willing to contribute to the normative practices that are so toxic in our current climate.

Shabbat morning sermon, post-Hurricane Harvey

Volunteers search for evacuees through flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston on Aug. 30. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

This sermon was delivered by Congregation Brith Shalom Rabbi Ranon Teller on Shabbat morning, Sept. 2, after Hurricane Harvey. Congregation Brith Shalom hosted members of Congregation Beth Yeshurun because its building was badly damaged and the homes of four of its rabbis flooded.

The formula is simple and clear: Those who didn’t flood help those who flooded. That’s it. That’s how we move forward. The partnership between our synagogues is a demonstration of this formula and dictates the strategy we need to move forward as a Jewish community, as a Houston community and as individuals.

The floodwaters were random. The flood was chaos. Our partnership and the strategy to help those in need bring order. It doesn’t matter which synagogue was affected; it doesn’t matter which rabbis and congregants were affected … it could have been me, it could have been our shul. And if it had been our shul, you would have done the same thing, and I’d be speaking from your bimah today. So, thank you, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, for being here to remind us of that equation.

Rabbi [David] Rosen and Rabbi [Brian] Strauss are here on the bimah. Both of their homes flooded and here they are in their suits and ties and shoes. Together, you are both inspirations and beacons of hope. You represent order in the face of chaos.

My home didn’t flood, but both of my next-door neighbors’ homes flooded. We took them in during the storm for a harrowing night without power, huddled together on our second floor. Last night, as I left my house to come to shul, in my shiny shoes, suit and tie, my neighbors were standing in mounds of wet garbage, throwing away most of their stuff, and packing a U‑Haul with the few possessions that escaped destruction. I walked over to console them, and they spoke the three words that I’ve been hearing over and over again: “It’s just stuff.”

Bellaire never floods. But, by Sunday afternoon, our street had lost power and both houses on either side of us were flooded. Because our house has two stories and is new-ish construction, it hadn’t flooded … yet. We were braced for the floodwaters, but so far they had stopped short of our doorstep.

Our neighbors practically fell through our doorway, exhausted, soaking wet, with their essentials on their backs. We helped them dry off and set them up in our second-floor bedrooms.

We had lightly prepared for the flood with some extra batteries, food and water, but now that it looked like the waters were on their way in, we set to work. First, we brought the important documents upstairs. Then, we brought up everything else we could lift. The floodwaters were still rising. The water filled the street, the sidewalk, our front yard … it was a river from our doorstep to the doorstep across the street. We were trapped. It was time to shelter in place.

It was time to consider survival strategies. The limbic brain kicked in. Ten people and a dog. Food! The power had gone out hours before. The food in the fridge would go bad at some point soon. Let’s cook the chicken! We’ll need protein to survive. We have a gas stove and matches. No electricity necessary.

We cooked all the chicken from the freezer to start our survival adventure on full stomachs. We turned on our flashlights, set the table, and sat down do eat our last hot meal before the floodwaters breached the front door. Ten people and a dog. We ate, went upstairs, said goodnight to our neighbor-guests, and comforted the children. We were ready for the flood.

The floodwaters never came in. The following day, the waters began to recede and we were able to evacuate until power and safety were restored. We were some of the lucky few. Yesterday, I checked in with one of our neighbors. His home was demolished and he and his family were loading up a U-Haul truck with the few possessions that had survived. We exchanged a few polite comments. Like the rest, he reassured me that, “It’s just stuff,” and he thanked me for my hospitality.

Then, he reported that his church took in water and asked me about my synagogue. I told him that it was dry, and with a tinge of survivor’s guilt, I added, “I can’t explain it.” He replied, “C’mon, rabbi, I think we both know what happened … ” I smiled uncomfortably at the suggestion that because of my rabbinic status, God had protected my family and me, my home and my synagogue from the flood. I smiled and politely took my leave.

On the short walk back to my dry home, my neighbor’s comment inspired my first opportunity for rabbinic reflection. There had actually been a moment before the flood that might have been appropriate for prayer. We were gathered around the table, eating what we thought might be our last full meal together before we went into flood survival mode. I could have gathered us in prayer. I even recalled it having crossed my mind. But I didn’t. I didn’t pray to God to save my home from the water. I was occupied with my preparations. I was occupied with the safety of my family. I was preparing my house for the flood. I was wrapping the couch in tarps. I was gauging the height of the water. I was texting the authorities to prepare an evacuation plan in case the floodwaters reached the second story of our house or we ran out of food. I was not in prayer mode. Except for once … when it was time to sleep.

The guests were set up in their rooms. My wife and our four girls (including our dog, Jessie) were in Ariella’s room, and my son, Jake, and I were in his room. The house was quiet and it was still raining. I told Jake that if by some crazy chance we didn’t flood the next morning, I was going to put on my tefillin and daven the most grateful and heartfelt Shacharit of my life. And that’s what I did.

We don’t pray for God to work for us. We pray for us to work for God. We don’t pray for God to modify the laws of physics and the science of meteorology. We pray to God to help us intensify our response and our compassion and our empathy. Our rabbis teach that planet Earth acts independently of God’s will. In the Hebrew, the rabbinic quote is poetic: “Olam noheg k’minhago.” It translates to something like, “The world turns on its own” or “The world pursues its natural course.”

During a flood is not a time for prayer. As Moses learned before crossing the sea, when it’s time for action, we don’t stop to pray. During a flood is time for action. But, after the flood, for the overwhelming relief effort, prayer is essential.

Before Shabbat, as we were preparing for last night’s service, I turned to Cantor [Mark] Levine and asked, “Are you sure we should be doing this right now? Maybe we should all be helping someone clean out their house.” In the end, it’s a judgment call, and I’m still not completely convinced we should all be here, but I do know this. There is some deep truth to the flood survivor chorus we’ve been hearing: “It’s just stuff.”

The floodwaters came and went. We mourn the loss of over 40 lives. And we who are here today … survived. And now, the relief effort and the healing and the mourning are just beginning. It is a process that will take a long, long time. Today, the process begins, and we’re going to need everything that religion has to offer to rebuild. We’re going to need everything that community has to offer to rebuild our synagogues. We’re going to need everything that prayer has to offer to give us the strength and the determination and the constancy to rebuild our homes.

We’re going to need chesed. We’re going to need leadership and unity. We’re going to need God and all the goodness that God represents. We’re going to need God and all the goodness that God manifests in this world.

Ribono Shel Olam, we have felt separated from You. You have hidden Your face. The deep, dark waters of chaos rose up and smashed Your handiwork of order and justice. Help us to find our way back to You, Adonai, our Rock and our Redeemer. For those affected by the flood, we pray for restoration and healing.

For those not affected by the flood, we pray for strength and determination and wisdom. We pray for compassion. We pray for understanding. We pray for the ability to help others and keep ourselves free of judgment; to meet needs that are rational and nonrational, defined and undefined, typical and idiosyncratic. We pray for mercy and lovingkindness.

And hey, God, this may run counter to the sermon I just delivered, but some sunshine and a cool breeze couldn’t hurt. And together we say: Amen.

Rabbi Ranon Teller is the spiritual leader of Congregation Brith Shalom in Bellaire, TX. Reprinted with permission of author.

Prisons of our own making

Rosh Hashanah, 5776 

We think of Passover as our time of release, but these ten days are even more crucial to your freedom.  Passover is about our people’s emancipation.  These days are about you and me, each one of us one by one by one having our day with God.  It’s personal and everything is being weighed right now. 

The zodiac sign for Tishrei is Libra, the scales of judgment.  One rabbinic commentary teaches us that your greatest accusers during these days of judgment are the soul sparks that have fallen away from you because you failed to make use of your awesome potential.  Your soul sparks become your prosecutors today!  You’re in shock, you didn’t see it coming–And you say, “But I’m innocent?  What did I do?”  And your soul sparks reply in one voice: “It’s not what you did, it’s what you didn’t do…”  Your unlived goodness, your unlived generosity, your unlived forgiveness, your unlived potential is crying out to you today.  Can you hear it?  How do you clear your good name when it’s not a false witness, it’s your own soul that’s testifying against you?

We’ve come here today to hear out our souls accusations, we’re here to heal the very path of our lives.  Because our tradition tells us that it’s possible to be sleepwalking through life and to not even know it.  Yes you can repent for a sin but what can you do if you can’t even see what you’re missing.

It’s possible to be in a prison and to not even know it, to be locked up and to not know the confines you’ve grown to accept.  And the shofar is blowing today to wake us up and help us break out of whatever trap we’ve fallen into.  Like a chick making holes in its shell this is our time, your time, we’re here to be reborn and to shed the shell of whatever is restraining our souls from fulfilling their true mission on earth.  That’s what Teshuva is, it’s getting out of our entrapments, the deadening patterns, the story lines, that seem impossible to break free of, and to come home to our true selves.

The tragedy is, most of us are living inside prisons of our own making, we’ve locked ourselves in.  Some of us are trapped in the prison of ambition,some in the prison of envy.  We are prisoners of fear, prisoners of desire.  Living with cruel jailors, unforgiving, unrelenting jailors.  And all the imagery of this season is about unlocking and opening.  We are here for ten days to learn how to unlock the gates.  We keep praying to God to open the gates, but God is whispering the same words to you and to me, “Pitchu Li” open the gates for Me.  God holds the keys to many gates, but there’s one set of keys that God doesn’t have.  Those are the keys to your heart and to your mind.  God has already unlocked the gates of the upper world, the question is: are we ready to open our gates?  Heaven’s gates are spread open, it’s our gates that are closed!

So count these gates with me, the ones we are here to open:

1. Widen your vision

2. Let go of resentment 

3. Soften your heart 

4. Face down your fears 

5. Turn your intentions into action 

6. Let go of self-defeating patterns

7. Open up 

8. Say I’m sorry 

9. Say I forgive you 

9 days, 9 gates, we are here to unlock them one by one.  The last gate, the 10th gate, is perhaps the most difficult of all.  Every day God keeps knocking on your door “Listen Israel, return my children, open up.”  Our ears can’t hear it, but our souls are taking it all in.  And that’s the final gate, the 10th gate, we are here to unlock, we are here to let God back into our lives and into our world.  Welcoming God back isn’t a scary proposition.  God is saying, “It will be ok, everything will be ok.  You are not alone.  I am with you.” 

It’s a new year, Nashuva!  Are you ready to unlock the gates and step into a new time of blessings?  Sweet days.  Close the door to last year’scurses and the pains of your past.  We are here to get out of prison, to step into a lived life, lived potential, lived goodness

Let’s step into a new reality together with God in our lives… Shana Tova!

High Holy Days: Los Angeles rabbis share their sermons for 5776

Some of Los Angeles' many renowned rabbis have shared their High Holy Day sermons so that we can all learn from their wisdom.

The Jewish Journal welcomes the sermons of all rabbis from this year's High Holy Days. Please submit to sermons@jewishjournal.com, and please include a photo of the rabbi. Thank you.

Rabbi Zoë Klein
Temple Isaiah
Reclaiming JEW

Rabbi Sharon Brous
Wide awake: A spiritual response to the collapse of compassion

Rabbi Kenneth Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple
Our story … Our mission … Our fight

Rabbi John Rosove
Temple Israel of Hollywood
Fighting for the soul of the Jewish people

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am
On faith, belief and God

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David-Judea Congregation
The search for meaning

Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation
Walk with me: The Akeidah as a call to communal support


Rabbi Laura Geller
Temple Emanuel
Return, reboot, reload

Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Valley Beth Shalom
Rescuing God

Rabbi Jocee Hudson
Temple Israel of Hollywood
Two seconds: An exploration of racial (in)justice and privilege in the United States

Rabbi Kalman Topp
Beth Jacob Congregation
Going to bat for every Jew

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh
Temple Israel of Hollywood
Power plays

Rabbi Naomi Levy
Prisons of our own making

Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Temple Beth Israel
… For you were slaves in Egypt



Two Rosh Hashanah services by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

Life Saving Judaism:

A week ago, one of my dear friends from childhood, Camp Ramah and rabbinical school, lost his wife after a courageous three year battle with breast cancer. She was 42 years old, brilliant, successful, witty, cultured and a mother of two young sons. My wife Franci and I were two among hundreds in the pews last Sunday, crying and listening about a life that was taken far too soon, reflecting on our own lives, as people often do at the death of someone in a similar stage of life. I still want to say what I had planned to say this morning, but for me, the message has been intensified. I dedicate this sermon to the life and memory of Erin Williams Hyman z’l and to my dear bereaved friend, Rabbi Micah Hyman.

I am no stranger to death or funerals, as you can imagine, for that is the lifecycle moment I officiate at most in my rabbinate. But somehow I am never fully prepared for what I might hear about a person in their eulogies. Of course, the contents of a eulogy are closely related to what these holy days are all about: how do we live, what do we give, how will we die, and what will we leave behind. In just a little while, we will hear and pray the mighty Unetanetof, and we will say, “mi yichye u’mi yamut, who shall live and who shall die.” This prayer is not a threat, but a wake-up call to the overarching question that faces us: with the free-will that I have been given, and with the circumstances of my life, am I living to the best of my ability the life that I want to live?

In a NYT piece this summer, there was an op-ed entitled, “No Time to Think,” by writer Kate Murphy. She opens this way: “One of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is ‘super busy,’ ‘crazy busy,’ or ‘insanely busy.’ Nobody is just ‘fine’ anymore.” (NYT, July 25, 2014) The piece goes on to discuss how people today, or at least 700 people in 11 different studies whose results were published in the journal Science, reported that “they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.” (ibid.) And in a shocking discovery that grabbed the attention of psychologists and neuroscientists alike, “in one experiment, 64% of men and 15% of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.” (ibid.) The essence of the study shows that no matter what was happening in people’s lives, good or bad, they just didn’t like being alone in their own heads.

Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish thinker, writes about what the sounding of the shofar should awaken within us: “Awake, awake O’ sleeper, from your sleep…Examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness which neither profit nor save, look to your souls; improve your ways and works…” (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 3:4). Listen to that language: “those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times…” What do you imagine were “the follies of the times” in 12th century Cairo? And if Maimonides already was writing about societal foolishness before the advent of the printing press and electricity, not to mention iPhones and Facebook, what does our tradition offer us in the face of today’s overwhelming societal, spiritual and even physiological changes? What does our tradition have to offer to counter the driving narrative that success is measured in dollars, external accomplishments and busy-ness?

In my second year of rabbinical school, I had a conversation over Shabbat dinner that is now infamous among my old friends and colleagues, and which I know I have shared at some point here, about the kind of rabbi I would be. Over dessert on an Israeli balcony, I laid out my position: everyone who wanted to join my synagogue had to agree that for 6 months, they would follow my instructions on how to observe Shabbat, keep kosher, engage with prayer, and partake of other rituals because I firmly believed in the teaching of “na’aseh v’nishmah” – that only in doing can we truly understand the value and reap the benefits of daily Jewish living. After the six-month period, my congregants would fully understand how powerful the traditional observances are, and of course they will want to then voluntarily continue because their lives had been transformed and I would be a Jewish hero leading an exemplary spiritual hevre. And, if new members wouldn’t agree to my conditions, they couldn’t join. I looked up from my little speech and asked my friend, “Great idea, right?” He responded, “Actually, no – no it’s not.”

That was nineteen years ago, and I’ve grown wiser since then. Yet, I still think that some aspects of my theory have merit. Our “insane busy-ness” is one symptom of a spiritual emergency, and as American Jews, I believe we are at a turning point that demands we slow down and access the treasures and tools of the very tradition that bring us together today. So, in addition to the blowing of the shofar to wake you up to the follies of our times, I offer you my own version of the viral Ice Bucket Challenge that I call “The Living Jewish Bucket Challenge.”

Dousing yourself in prayer today, and even more potently, on a weekly basis for Shabbat, takes time and has benefits. It can’t only be at funerals or times of illness or other crises that we look inward, or pray for insight or support, for by then it might be too late to make a difference for us. The tachlis (raw truth) of our spiritual emergency is this: Judaism is one of the oldest religious systems around, but in the United States, this generation is actually one of the most disengaged and seemingly uninterested in Jewish life. Last year’s widely-discussed Pew Report quantified this trend, and here we are, rabbis, cantors and educators, scrambling to figure out how to dump a bucket of ice cold Judaism over our communities.

So, as I do every year, I deeply hope in these few minutes to inspire, entice, excite, and encourage you to see that what we do here, what you can find here is not only a connection to a rich heritage, but a life-saving system that can counter the negative aspects of our fast-paced society and help us to improve ourselves, raise our children and repair our world. Activities in our lives – work, sports, classes, exercise, travel, leisure, everything that consumes our valuable time in modern life — are healthy and good, but in balance and moderation. Psychologist Stephanie Brown asserts in the same NYT article, “There is this wide spread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.” (ibid.)

You can find spirituality and God and calm in hiking, biking, yoga, meditation or any myriad of ways. I know I do. But, the system we are all here to participate in today is a holistic and experiential one that, over time, and with dedication and priority, offers much that is good and healthy, and provides a framework for our lives. Just like hiking, biking, yoga or meditation, if you do Judaism once in a while, it’s nice, but if you do Judaism regularly, it is transformative. Shabbat is about rest, family, singing, eating and thinking. Torah is about questioning and engaging the mind with challenging wisdom, ancient and modern. Tzeddakah is about working for justice and believing that we make a difference. Mitzvot, which you know I don’t translate as “commandments,” are the guideposts that so many of us crave in trying to raise our children and grandchildren in a world with so many negative and unhealthy distractions and temptations. My “Jewish Living Bucket Challenge” is asking all of us to make the inheritance of our ancestors real and alive for us today, here, in community. I officiate at too many funerals, and sit at too many bedsides, where the lack of spiritual connection is lamented, and I implore you not to recreate that experience for yourself.

On my Facebook page last month, I crowd-sourced what people might want to hear about in this sermon. Some of the responses included: how we can live our values in the face of overwhelming societal pressure to care about material stuff? How can we live Jewishly and still be a part of the modern world? How can we appreciate traditions and family customs while adapting and innovating? My answer today is this bucket challenge. Nothing good in life comes for free, including values, rituals, traditions, home or childrearing. Something is necessarily sacrificed on the way to bettering ourselves. That is why in Hebrew, the word for “sacrifice” is “korban,” which actually means “drawing close,” implying that when we “sacrifice,” or give something up, we have the chance to draw nearer to something else, ideally something higher, holier, healthier and meaningful.

Will this be the year that the illusion of busy-ness as success gives way to more space for lighting Shabbat candles and coming more often to one of our synagogue’s many prayer opportunities? Will this be the year that instead of enrolling our kids in even more sports, activities and lessons, we schedule regular time for the whole family to be together in some style of Shabbat? Will this be the year when simple blessings of gratitude are said before and after each meal? Will this be the year that Israel and what is transpiring in our ancient homeland becomes more central on our worldly radar? I chose not to talk about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, but it is worrisome to be sure, and our neglect and seemingly dispassionate interest in Judaism could be interpreted as an affront to what our brothers and sisters are facing because of their Jewish identity. Will this be the year when our Jewish souls, our neshama, take priority and get the attention and care they need and deserve?

The Torah reminds us in Deuteronomy, “But, take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” (Deut. 4:9) Even in the times of the Torah, there was a sense that it would be easy to forget our past, to ignore our traditions, and to not pass them on to our children and grandchildren. That is why this reminder gets repeated over and over again throughout the whole of Deuteronomy. And as I sat in the pews on Sunday at Erin’s funeral, I couldn’t help but think that we need this Torah teaching today now more than ever.

On the way home from the shiva in Beverly Hills on Monday night, I did something that I have thought about doing for some time but have never actually done. Passing by the homeless tent community under the 101 at Alvarado, instead of driving by, I pulled over, parked and got out, looking to connect with someone and give them the rest of the money I had in my wallet. The first tent I came to belonged to William and Candice. I kneeled down and talked with them for almost 30 minutes. Six months earlier they had been living in an apartment, but William lost his job, they had soaring medical bills, and they ended up on the street. They clearly had some other issues going on, and I can’t be completely sure that everything they told me was true, but they were in their late 50s, sick, broke and trying to make it till the next SSI check at end of the month. I told them that in my work and in my faith, I am trying to eradicate poverty and homelessness, but clearly it is not working very well. They said they were grateful to be listened to, to be seen as humans, to receive empathy and compassion. At one point, William said to me, “Well, how is everything going in your life?” My eyes teared up, I told them that while I had just come from the shiva house of a woman my age that had died, thankfully, by the grace of God, my life is actually going well. And then he said, “That is good. But, if our situations are ever reversed, and you need help, I will try to be there. I would help you.” Humanity on the dark and noisy streets of LA at 10pm on a Monday night. It is because of the force of Judaism in my life that I took the time, after a long day and a draining night, to stop and talk to William and Candace. And in talking to them, I felt God’s presence because I have a practice in my life that helps me to notice God’s presence around me. I have a practice in my life called Judaism, that helps me to slow down, to feel empathy, to take notice. Yes, I could do and feel those things without Judaism, but I would not feel them as deeply, and the experience would not quench my thirst for human connection and deep meaning that comes from thousands of years of wisdom.

Here is the meaning of religion to me: God, the source of all life, pushes us to do more, to be more, to care and cry, to worry and celebrate, to think and improve, to stumble and get up, to be here, committed and conscious, engaged and striving, to be Yisrael, ever-evolving, ever-wrestling, ever expanding members of the Jewish people. Yes, people do good work in the world without being religious, but being a good person or living a moral life are not the same as living Jewishly, and to live Jewishly, we must be engaged in a Jewish community and include Judaism in our life’s priorities. To raise the next generation of Jews to be engaged, knowledgeable and proud, we have to show them that we are engaged, knowledgeable (or learning) and proud. If Jewish life doesn’t meet our needs, then we need to engage with what it is so that we can shape what we want it to be. I know that I will have to be at more bedsides and more gravesides this year, that is part of life. But I sincerely hope the Jewish Living Bucket Challenge will give me the blessed opportunity to see many, many more of you this year, awake to what is most real and dripping with Judaism, on the path of life.

Hope in Dark Times:

From a famous speech, which I imagine many of you will recognize.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address in 1861. The “better angels of our nature” has endured as a classic turn of phrase in the annals of literature. One hundred and fifty years later, psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker has titled his recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. As we look at our world, which seems to be aflame right now, with violence all around, it is hard to imagine that violence overall has declined throughout the course of human history until today, even with the Holocaust and other very recent atrocities. But statistically, it is true.

As we begin our new year tonight, I imagine many of feel the same dissonance that I do. While we wait for the latest iPhone and continue to tell the stories of our summer vacations, enjoying the best of times, the Islamic State militants, a nightmare group of extremists from another time and place, are ravaging innocent men, women and children in northern Iraq and Syria, gruesomely killing American journalists and daring us to respond to their worst of times playbook. I am inspired, however, because according to Pinker’s research, this kind of behavior is viewed by most people of today’s world, including a large percentage of the Arab world, as primitive, disgusting, and unacceptable. And while we can’t yet figure out how to eradicate this kind of behavior, if that is even possible, Pinker suggests that “whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep.” (Pinker, p. 482) I am not here tonight to pronounce policies or suggest military options, but rather to prompt us to not become discouraged by brutality. We have the capacity to rise higher, to access “our better angels,” to stand in front of brutality and declare that we don’t want to live in a world where ISIS or rape or human shields are acceptable. The Torah commands us to “not stand idly by,” and our resolve is being tested. Religion, twisted and misinterpreted, has the capacity to inspire the kinds of violence we have seen throughout history, including in today’s extremists. But, religion has an even greater capacity to move us toward peace, toward inclusivity, toward tempering our worst selves and acting with the what the Torah calls “hayashar v’hatov, the right and the good.”

This year is a big one for our family. Our children will become b’nai mitzvah this December, a journey that many of you have taken yourselves, and one that I cherish as a spiritual leader in helping guide and walk with your families in these profound moments. I am starting to teach my children more directly about the challenges of the world, they are able to read the paper and ask questions, and of course, they have devices of their own that can access information at the click of a button. How do I explain about ISIS? How do I assure them that this kind of evil won’t threaten them? How do I inspire them to want to help others who are not so blessed? We lived in Israel last year, and so they got a view of what it is like to live in a more dangerous environment than suburban Pasadena, although obviously this past summer was much worse and they know it, we talked about it and they could imagine it directly. Seeking to strengthen my own inner compass of hope and faith so that I can pass it on to them with courage and confidence is part of why I needed to talk about this tonight. We are all looking at a world that can seemingly defy our sense of hope and positivity, but if we lose those feelings, if we give in to despair, then the terrorists and bigots win and purveyors of malice and lies and violence win. Standing strong, with hope, in the face of these great challenges, is why I am here tonight, and why I imagine many of you are as well.

One of the more powerful insights of our Torah comes in the story of Cain killing his brother Abel; it is then that God then reminds us that we are our brother and sister’s keeper. In every generation, this primordial teaching is tested again and again. We seek to bend our humanity towards justice and righteousness. Dr. King, in one of his more famous verses, took his understanding of the long arc of history from an 1852 essay by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” (Taken from Pinker, pg. 480) The teachings of our tradition that have been passed down through generations remind me that I am not the first, and I won’t be the last, to fight for justice and peace in the face of violence, discrimination and hatred. Before Pinker, before King, before Lincoln, the great poet and diviner of wisdom, the Psalmist, reminds us that human beings “are but little lower than the angels.” We have been battling the forces of darkness since the beginning of time, and even when we make some progress, we know that the arc is very long and sometimes it bends backwards or sideways in its advance toward goodness and righteousness. While we have overcome serious discrimination in our country, and as Pinker illustrates, we have combatted lynching, segregation and Jim Crow, we continue to struggle with acknowledging the lingering effects of these demons, thereby allowing them to crop up again and again. We have not yet succeeded in fulfilling Dr. King’s dream, and the protests from Ferguson this summer, which are still active as we speak, remind us that blacks in this country are not yet completely free, and that we have much work still to be done. The better angels of our nature call us to keep bending that arc toward justice, to not ignore the pain and suffering of our fellow citizens, and to stretch our bonds of empathy and support so that all people, in every corner of our great land, can one day be free and able to fulfill their greatest dreams and aspirations. In another time and place, it was our people that suffered, and as the Torah reminds us again and again, we know what it is like to be oppressed and to be strangers in our own land. We have come far and we have farther to go.

I know that this is not the light-hearted, ease you into the High Holy Days sermon that I usually reserve for this evening slot. These are heavy times, for some very dark times, and my heart feels more cracked open than it has in many years. So, while there is profound joy and gladness at being together, for the many blessings of our community, for the safety and security in which we live, we all must dig deeper to find the hope we desperately need to navigate the current state of the world. Our psalm for the season, Psalm 27, ends with one of my favorite lines in the whole Bible. “Kaveh el adonai, hazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el adonai, hope towards God, strengthen and make courageous your heart, and hope towards God.” This is not a passive verse, telling us that we can sit back and wait for God’s redemption. We are to do the hard work of strengthening our hearts, steeling our wills, and with the help of God, the Source of Life, we can become the people we hope to be, create the world we seek and fight back against the evil forces that arise in every generation. For the Torah reminds us that Amalek, the root source of pure evil, the great-grand daddy of all evil, will always be with us in one form or another. My friend Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove writes, “Not just literally, but metaphysically, Amalek came to represent any past or current forms of extreme dehumanization. Be it in the name of nationalism, radical religion or any other cause, that is evil.” Racism and bigotry are manifestations of Amalek, and we must face the crucibles that are driving the protests in Ferguson and Los Angeles and around the country just as forcibly and whole-heartedly as we will try to combat ISIS.

One of the more famous rabbis of the 2nd temple period was Rabbi Tarfon. You know him from the Passover Haggadah, where he, Rabbi Akiva and other major figures of his day, stay up all night discussing the meaning of the exodus from Egypt until their students come and say, “masters, it is time for the morning shema.” Rabbi Tarfon is known also for some of his aphorisms as quoted in Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Ancestors. The one that you probably know is “it is not up to us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from trying our hardest.” I am constantly amazed with how our rabbinic ancestors, some 2,000 years ago, in a totally different time and place from us, understood something as profound as this teaching. These teachers witnessed the rise and fall of the Jewish people, the destruction of the Temple and the recreation of Judaism into its present form. “It is not up to us to the complete the work” – Rabbi Tarfon understood that we cannot always, or sometimes ever, complete a task of personal change or societal development. But, we are called to never give up, to never stop trying to move the needle, even if it is just one small bit. We are but little lower than the angels, as King David said, and we have the capacity to access the “better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln inspired us. We have demons and shadows that prevent us, at times, from accessing those angels, but Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that we can’t ever stop trying.

I leave you with a story that many of you know, the story of Malala Yousafzai, the young girl from Mingora, Pakistan, who dared to stand up for her right to attend the school founded by her father as the Taliban increased control of her region. Beginning when she was 11 years old, she began speaking publicly and blogging about her right, and the right of all women, to an education. Three years later, a man boarded the bus Malala was riding home from school and shot her in the head to stop her activism. But did he stop her? We know he did not. Having moved to Birmingham, England, Malala remains a staunch advocate for the power of education, despite ongoing threats of violence against her and her family from the Taliban. After being twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala wrote, “If I win a Nobel Peace Prize, it would be a great opportunity for me, but if I don't get it, it's not important because my goal is not to get a Nobel Peace Prize, my goal is to get peace and my goal is to see the education of every child.” If a young girl from a poor country can survive being shot in the head and continuing violent threats and not lose hope, can’t we do the same?

We may not finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying. We learn from Pinker that our world is safer and less violent than ever before in human history, and yet for too many, it is not at all safe and it is very violent. Let us go forth from this place with resolve. As Rabbi Tarfon also taught, “The day is short and the work is long.” Together, with hope, determination and mighty spirits, let us face our new year with a commitment to grow, and expand, the wings of our better angels. Shana tovah.

Will the summer of war affect High Holy Days sermons?

Every year, synagogue rabbis face the often-daunting task of coming up with compelling High Holy Days sermons.

This summer’s 50-day Israel-Gaza conflict, during which 66 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians were killed, and more than 2,100 Palestinians died, could make this already difficult activity even tougher as rabbis face large and small congregations, many with differing points of view.

Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi at the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple, for example, will have addressed approximately 8,000 people by the time Yom Kippur is over. Among his sermons will be one about what makes people love Israel and what makes people critical of the Jewish homeland. 

In preparation, he asked himself, “What kind of Israel narrative works today? Not just for people like me, who grew up with Israel, where the love is just in my DNA?” Herscher spoke during an interview in his office at the Bel-Air synagogue. “What kind of narrative works that, when people are more inclined to be critical — how do you make sure that when we are critical, it is in fact a criticism that is grounded and steeped in love?”

By the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around, it will be more than one month since a cease-fire was brokered on Aug. 26. That some time has passed makes it easier to prepare the sermon, said Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, a nontraditional congregation.

“I don’t know what I am going to address, but I do think that the conflict is very much alive in people’s hearts, and they are yearning for some way to make sense out of the incredible pain and confusion that so many experienced over the summer.… The distance between the cease-fire and the holidays gives us an opportunity to speak about it [more clearly],” said Brous, who said she plans to deliver her sermon about Israel on Rosh Hashanah.

As of press time, many rabbis were still mulling over how they might address the topic.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at the Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom, said he was still working on his sermon. “Everyone is sort of stumped,” Feinstein said. Indeed, he had reached out to Israel experts, including “journalists and writers and scholars,” in preparation for his sermon.

But he knows how he will begin. On Rosh Hashanah, he will begin his sermon by spotlighting Rachel Frankel, whose son, Naftali Frankel, was one of the three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered by members of Hamas, an incident that, many believe, sparked the war.

Despite her loss, Frankel extended an olive branch to the Palestinian community in the wake of the death of her 16-year-old son, making her an inspirational figure, Feinstein said.

“It was such a statement of Israel at its best, and I am going to begin my sermon with her. The resistance, the faith, the morality, the sensitivity, that is what I admire in Israel, that is where we have to start and end,” he said.

Frankel also provides a template for how to react to the other side in the face of tragedy, Feinstein said. 

“I am going to yell at my congregation, because I don’t want to hear racism. Not all Palestinians, not all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists, and we have to resist the temptation to become racist. And we have to resist the temptation to be selfish,” Feinstein said.

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, said he also plans to challenge the viewpoints of his community members. During a sermon titled “For Jews, Despair Is Not an Option,” he will ask those in the pews who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to come back into the fold of “legitimate Jewish criticism,” he said.

“If you choose not to come back … critique it, I’ll respect that, but don’t do it as a Jew,” he said. “That’s [one of] the general themes of the sermon,” which Rosove said he will deliver on Rosh Hashanah morning. 

 Perhaps one way to sermonize about Israel is to discuss what’s happening in other parts of the world. A debate about this idea between American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Senior Rabbi Laura Geller played out in the pages of the Times of Israel. 

Harris’ Aug. 17 article, “What I Hope to Hear at High Holy Day Services,” provoked Geller’s Aug. 22 piece, “A Congregational Rabbi Responds to What David Harris Hopes to Hear at High Holy Day Services: Yes…And.” 

Harris wrote that he wants rabbis to address the increase in anti-Semitism in Europe — including incidents in France that are generally perceived as connected to the war in Gaza. He wants American rabbis to reaffirm their support for Israel during sermons.

Geller said Emanuel will do the former during the synagogue’s annual Contemporary Issues forum, where the congregation will discuss “Is It Time to Worry? Anti-Semitism in Europe,” but, she argued in her essay, discussing crises elsewhere is as important as addressing what’s happened in Israel. 

Between terrorist group ISIS’ increasingly worrisome death-grip on Iraq; the demonstrations that erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of an unarmed black male in August; and the more than 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped in April, a lot has happened outside of Israel this summer that is worth discussing, Geller wrote.

Whatever rabbis end up talking about in their sermons, Geller said in an interview, the objective of the sermon should be to move people toward purposeful action. 

“What people really want to hear is a message of hopefulness and that the things we do in the world make a difference,” she said.

Selma’s Sermon

This is a big time of the year for sermons.Last year at this time, I wrote a column called “Words of Awe,” comparing the different styles of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform sermons.I even previewed some of the sermons we could expect to hear here in the hood — and I discussed the Orthodox tradition called Shabbat Tshuvah, which is the biggest and most anticipated sermon of the year, on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur.

The thing is, though, all these big, important sermons are usually given by rabbis.

They’re not supposed to be given by young, pretty, career-driven single Jewish women with a weakness for Italian shoes and vintage Jaguars.

But that is exactly what happened four years ago, on Yom Kippur of 2003, when a rabbi’s daughter named Selma Schimmel got up to speak. She didn’t speak in a shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, but this is a story that can play in any hood.

Selma spoke right after the Torah reading, and just before Yizkor, in a Studio City shul called Beit Meier. Her sermon, as she recalled it the other day in my dining room with kids playing in the background, didn’t focus on High Holy Days themes like spiritual renewal, forgiveness and personal atonement.

Instead, she spoke about ovaries, genetic testing and the BRCA gene mutations.

You see, Selma had an announcement to make that day. A week earlier, she had undergone a seven-hour operation to treat advanced ovarian cancer, which no one knew except her now-late father, the founder and spiritual leader of the Beit Meier shul.

So she and her father had huddled together and decided she had to say something. This was a small community, and the Schimmel name was revered. People worried easily. Twenty years earlier, Selma had been diagnosed at an unusually young age with breast cancer, and three years before that, her mother, the rebbitzen, had died of ovarian cancer.

This was not a time for family secrets. So there she was, in her tailored suit and Italian shoes, recovering from surgery and groggy from pain medications, in front of a standing-room-only crowd that was waiting for its annual Yom Kippur sermon — and she was telling them about her second cancer.

She explained that about 10 percent of ovarian cancer cases have been linked to genetics, typically through susceptibility genes. As part of the genome project, the two BRCA genes, located on chromosome 17, were the first to be identified as carriers of a predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers. When a woman has a mutation in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, like Selma has, she is at higher risk of developing one of these cancers.

Then she got personal.

She explained how about one in 40 American Jews of Ashkenazi descent — who make up about 90 percent of American Jews — is believed to carry the mutant genes, compared with one in 400 for the general population.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, researchers speculate that the genetic mutations arose by chance among the Ashkenazim over several centuries, starting as far back as the 1100s. Under assault by ethnic attacks, millions of Eastern European Jews contracted to a group numbering in the thousands, then expanded again into a population of millions — a “genetic bottleneck” in which random mutations in the small, largely intermarried group are passed down to many descendants.

Selma was one of those descendants, and as she went on with her “sermon” that Yom Kippur day, she seemed to forget that she was in a shul and not a school of medicine. But she was going somewhere with her lecture on mutant genes.

She wanted the people of the community to open their eyes and start asking more questions. She wanted them to look more carefully into their families’ medical histories, and if they suspected anything, to immediately make the necessary appointments.

She also offered to help. As the founder and executive director of Vital Options, an internationally renowned nonprofit cancer support group she started during her first bout with cancer in 1983, she could help answer a lot of questions.

But still, what did any of this have to do with the Days of Awe, the Book of Life or the Day of Atonement?

Selma admits today that when she got up to speak on that day, she came with an agenda. She knew she was about to go in for long-term treatment. She didn’t like the idea of rumors flying around about the rabbi’s daughter. She wanted to put everything on the table, while also enlisting the community in her efforts to help others with cancer prevention and early detection.

In other words, she didn’t really have your basic High Holy Days sermon in mind.

If you ask me, though, I think Selma’s not giving herself enough credit.

Is there a better day than the one when we abstain from all physical sustenance to reflect on the sanctity of the human body and honor the Torah’s injunction that “You shall guard your being”?

During these Days of Awe, when we are instructed to reflect deeply on ourselves and seek personal rectification, is there a better time to be reminded that the miracles that God has given us — which include the human body — also include the gifts of human knowledge, and the obligation to use that knowledge to help care for God’s physical miracles?

We will all hear many sermons during these Holy Days, and I’m sure many will touch on our need to become better Jews and make the world a better place. In the middle of all these noble sermons, however, I hope we’ll remember a simple Holy Days message from a fearless Jewish woman with an antique Jaguar who’s just been diagnosed with her third cancer.

Take good care of what God gave you.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Shhhh … I’m Praying

Am I the only one who goes to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services to listen and participate?

Probably not. But why do I feel that way sometimes?

I realize it would be hypocritical to say I sit (and stand and sit and stand) through all those hours of psalms, songs, sermons and speeches totally focused and absorbed in prayer and pious contemplation. I’m human. My mind wanders. I think about a thousand things.

I read a passage in the Machzor and wonder how it relates to my life. A phrase captures my attention, and I try to understand what it really means. A thought enters my head, and I find myself lost in the liturgy.

But the services are skillfully arranged to bring me back. My mental meandering suddenly stops when the Torahs are removed from the Ark and carried around the sanctuary. My daydreaming ceases when the shofar is blown. The noise of the busy street just outside the synagogue doors seems to fade when I’m tuned in to the rabbi’s broadcast frequency.

And when the Kohanim gather on the bimah and the rest of the congregation turns its collective face away, I am entranced by the haunting sound of the davening.

A synagogue is a house of worship. When we gather there on yom tov and Shabbat, it’s for one reason — prayer. We pray for understanding, consolation, guidance and more. And on Yom Kippur, forgiveness heads the list of what we seek.

We should always feel welcome at our synagogues. But we should remember where we are and why we are there. There will be opportunities to talk to friends following services. There will be hundreds of other days during the year to discuss sports, stocks and other secular subjects.

I am easily distracted, I was not blessed with X-ray vision and I have allergies.

I can’t concentrate when the level of chatter among the worshippers turns into a deafening drone. I can’t see the bimah when the tall woman seated in front of me wears a big hat that puts feathers in my face. I sneeze and get a bad headache when I’m near someone soaked in perfume or cologne.

I do enjoy an occasional giggle and other happy sounds of babies and small children in shul. But when the kids cry incessantly, it’s time to take them out for a change of scenery or whatever.

The stress of living in our techno-driven society can be overwhelming. The frenzy of phone calls, e-mails, deadlines and demands can darken the brightest day.

So now, more than ever before, I treasure this time of year. I welcome the breaks from commerce and computers. I appreciate the switch from virtual to virtuous. And I value this chance to recharge my spirit, review my actions and reactions, and reevaluate my goals and the path that leads me to them.

Maybe I’m too sensitive to my surroundings. Or maybe I’m just a chronic complainer who never learned how to pray well with others. But whatever the reason, please humor me. Give me and my legions of co-kvetchers a break this year. Go easy on the fragrance. Turn off the alarm on your watch. Leave your cell phone at home. Shut off the bleeping beeper. Try to keep conversation to a minimum.

It’s all a matter of respect — for these holy days and for your rabbi, cantor and co-congregants.

In return for your cooperation, you’ll get our gratitude and good wishes for a healthy, happy and hassle-free new year.

Something to Talk About

Their subjects will range from anti-Semitism to baseball’s Ted Williams, from the messianic era to Disney’s “The Lion King.” The High Holiday sermons of Orange County’s rabbis will be both as topical as today’s headlines and as traditional as 2,000-year-old tomes.

Rabbis spend weeks ruminating over topics and scouring scholarly texts before putting pen to paper or hunkering behind a keyboard. Last year, of course, their advance work never was never delivered. Sept. 11’s shock wave immediately before Rosh Hashana shredded every prepared text.

This year, the anniversary of the terrorist attack falls between the two High Holidays: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. With fast-shifting events in Israel, spiritual leaders remain a bit leery about committing too early to a subject only to see it turn stale in the wake of a suicide-bombing.

“It’s too precious an opportunity not to be purposeful,” said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Tustin. “It’s the one time I have everybody there.” His intention is “to give them a fix of the joy of belonging. Living Jewishly is countercultural. I want to remind them of why it’s worthwhile and enriching to be in God’s presence in a communal setting.”

Spitz prepared for the holidays by attending an annual sermon seminar in Los Angeles and reading eclectically. He is the rare rabbi whose remarks are extemporaneous. “I just get up and speak it in the moment,” he said, describing his approach as generating the sort of titillation as “high-wire walking.” “Sometimes it’s better than others.”

Others nail down their outlines weeks ahead. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr, a Reform synagogue in La Mirada, was ready in July. Among his topics are the philosophy of author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; anti-Semitism as a guise for anti-Israel sentiment; and the example of congregant Marcia Finkel, who found hope and laughter more effective than antidepressants before dying in June from cancer.

How to keep hope alive is also the focus of one sermon by Rabbi Michael Mayershon of Temple Beth David, a Westminster Reform congregation. His Yom Kippur address about Israel is equally sobering. It asks, “Are we witnessing a funeral for peace?”

A recent trip to Berlin figures in a sermon planned by Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Bat Yahm, a Newport Beach Reform congregation. Visiting a villa where the Nazi hierarchy plotted the Holocaust in 1942, Miller and others attending the legal conference spontaneously held a Shabbat service. “To have those prayers echoing in that room which echoed with ‘Heil Hitlers’ was overwhelming.”

Other Miller topics include the consequences of greed and avarice in corrupting corporate ethics, and the final inning of baseball legend Ted Williams, whose son is seeking his father’s immortality through modern-day mummification.

Another celebrity, Simba, will take the spotlight in remarks by Rabbi Neal Weinberg of Temple Judea, an independent congregation in Laguna Woods. Rather than a coming of age movie, Weinberg sees Disney’s “The Lion King” as a Jewish parable about returning to Jewish living.

Rabbi Rick Steinberg of Irvine’s Congregation Shir Ha Ma’alot, a Reform synagogue, intends to explore spiritually coping with unexplainable events. “The biggest challenge is to give word and voice to things that don’t make any sense,” he said. An example, Steinberg said, is as close as the traditional “l’chaim; it’s a powerful toast. We live for life.”

He also intends to draw a historical parallel to current events. “It’s not the Holocaust. It’s not the crusades. What’s going on is not anti-Israel; it’s anti-Jewish,” he said. “Every Jew no matter where they live is part of that.”

Being realistic about apologies and forgiveness is a theme of Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue, Irvine’s Reconstructionist congregation. “People have this fantasy that forgiveness should immediately transfer grudges and pain. Sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. His Yom Kippur sermon is action-oriented, moving from repairing the soul to repairing the world. “We have to move from the hard work of apologizing and forgiving to the hard work of giving funds to social transformation.”

Taking the least topical approach are the rabbis of two Orthodox congregations.

“I think it’s wrong for rabbis to speak about current events,” said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Yorba Linda’s Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen, although he concedes to bending the rule last year when he spoke about Israel. “It should be about the spiritual themes of the holidays; for the Jews who come to synagogue once a year, to give them that moment to connect them to their heritage and their spirituality.”

Viewing the current conflict through a 2,000-year-old theological perspective is Rabbi Joel Landau of Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation. His sermon will take an apocalyptic tone.

“It seems to be pretty clear that the Messianic era, whenever it is, it’s getting pretty close,” he said. “People ought to take their Judaism more seriously.”

His subtext is the potency of prayer and Jews who are inhibited by religious expression. By comparison to Muslims, he notes, who, no matter the circumstances, devotedly drop to their prayer rugs five times a day.

“Prayer is not a spectator sport,” Landau said. “It’s a contact sport.”

A Message From David Wolpe

It’s a well-known fact that millions of Jews have doubts about the literal veracity of Bible stories.
On April 8, 9 and 15, I gave a series of sermons that emphasized the following point: faith is independent of doubt. I wanted the millions of doubting Jews to know that they can still be faithful Jews and live a life of meaning and mitzvahs.

If scholarly books are written that question the literal veracity of the Bible stories, it does not help our credibility to pretend that they don’t exist. By discussing these books we maintain the Jewish tradition of sustaining faith by seeking truth.

Ignoring the books, on the other hand, conveys a message of fear: we are afraid that science will shake our faith. I don’t believe it should, and that is why I spoke out.

This has always been the official position of the Conservative movement, and I believe it is an important message that can help millions of doubting Jews stay connected to their faith. If you would like cassette tapes of my talks, please contact my office at (310) 481-3318.