November 18, 2018

A Prayer for Geshem is More Than Just Asking for Rain

Photo provided by National Park Service

On Shemini Atzeret, we not only celebrate the eighth day following Sukkot, and remember our loved ones during yahrzeit, we also pray for rain. Rain— for those who have not seen it in months or even years— is water that falls from the sky in copious amounts. It quenches our thirst, hydrates our agriculture and cools us off on sweltering hot days

Los Angeles and its residents might not be as familiar with the concept of rain, but we are no strangers to the heatwaves that hit us daily. After experiencing (and surviving) my first summer living in the valley, I wondered how anyone could bear to live like this. I’d like to thank my A/C for being there in my time of need.

The dry, intense heat was nice to my frizzy curls, but not kind to my demeanor. I found myself more agitated by my friends; short-tempered to random strangers and even snapped at those I loved. I wondered where my bubbly midwestern personality went. Then it dawned on me: I was angry because I was hot and hadn’t seen or felt a cool rain in months.

Brian Lickel, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, once said that when people are hot they tend to get cranky.

“It makes people more prone to anger,” he said. “It makes people more frustrated, and it makes decision making more impulsive. And that can lead to altercations that escalate to more extreme levels of aggression.”

Though it seems obvious, when temperatures climb, and rain is nowhere in sight, we tend to become “hot-headed.” Rain, or lack of it, has an impact on us.

My heat-driven anger made me think of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing.” It’s set during one of the hottest days of the year where heat is used to turn the anger up to an ultimate high. Fights break out, gunshots are fired and chaos fills the screen, all because social tensions were met with rising temperatures. Lee isn’t the first person to use this cinematic trope but he did make a lasting impression with it.

Heated arguments can not only turn ugly faster but stay with a person forever.

It’s why this holiday aligns so nicely with the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to start fresh with a clean slate, help us forgive and ask for forgiveness. Sukkot lets us enjoy the harvest and the outdoors by gathering with family and friends.

Shemini Atzeret lets us pray for the rain that will tend to the earth and help us when we will need the most: spiritually and literally.

Growing up, my Bubbie always told me that we needed the rain whenever we got it.

“Look, it’s feeding the plants, it makes them feel good,” she would say while offering me another piece of Mandel bread.

She loves the rain because it floods (no pun intended) her home with color. I think she liked the rain because it gave her a break from watering her large and beautiful backyard garden.  

Rain is able to cool us off so we can think more clearly.  It’s a wet, heavy blanket that falls and hits us right on the head to make us work through our current emotions.

It can nourish us while lending the strength to move forward in the new year.

We ask God for rain where rain is not seen. Rain isn’t seen where there is tension. Rain is not always seen on the days we forget our 5779 resolutions.

This year we will be angry, hurt and want to hold a grudge. It’s unavoidable because we’re imperfect human beings.

It’s why we need to listen to my Bubbie and enjoy the rain when it comes — and pray for more of it everywhere.

Of course, here in Los Angeles, we might only get an inch of rain while many around the world will get hit with disastrous amounts. This year while asking for raindrops, we should let Shemini Atzeret remind us to cool off when we get too hot.

When we feel like yelling, causing a scene, or about to do things we will regret, take a deep breath. Stay present. Imagine a cold front with rain clouds sweeping in to bring our inner temperature down, granting us to resolve the conflict.   

On Monday when many go to shul they will say or hear a prayer for geshem (rain in Hebrew). The importance of this prayer is not just to rejuvenate the world, it’s to symbolically rejuvenate us.


Erin Ben-Moche is a Los Angeles journalist and the digital content manager at The Jewish Journal.

 

‘The Leftovers’ and God’s Cosmic Hug

The month of Tishrei had always been a riddle to me until I saw HBO’s television series “The Leftovers.” 

In the heart-racing opening scene of the pilot episode, two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears in a rapture-like event called “The Departure.” The show then immediately jumps ahead to the three-year anniversary of The Departure and exquisitely explores the struggles of those left behind after The Departure.

Their core struggle can be distilled into the following: “Are you OK?” “I am OK.”
“It is going to be OK.” “You are going to be OK.” Everyone is broken by The Departure and feels a profound sadness that threatens to destroy them. There is no escape from this sadness. There is only trying to “be OK” with it. 

This is the soul of “The Leftovers.” It is also the soul of real life.

Societies are built on the faith of tomorrow. Without faith that today’s work will pay off in the future, work becomes an overwhelming burden. People are driven by the need to feel they are going to be OK. We dress up our opinions with fancy arguments and airtight logic, but in the end we choose the option that makes us feel safest.

“Societies are built on the faith of tomorrow. Without that, the work becomes an overwhelming burden.”

Pro-gun rights activists believe they are safer with fewer restrictions on gun ownership. For gun-control activists, the reverse is true. The racist is motivated by the (false) conviction that safety can be found only by living with his or her own race. The pro-diversity progressive is motivated by the conviction that we are safer when all people are treated as equal.

“The Leftovers” distills this idea by raising the stakes. Someone who feels safe now would have a much harder time feeling so if 140 million people suddenly disappeared.

Only one thing in “The Leftovers” can unburden others from their debilitating anguish: a hug. Holy Wayne, a cult leader and pedophile, exorcises the demons of ambiguous loss with a genuinely compassionate hug, as if to say, “I feel your pain, I share in your pain and I am here to help carry your pain. I cannot tell you everything is going to be OK, but you are not alone.” 

Like everything in “The Leftovers,” it is unclear if the hugs are magical or a placebo. Regardless, they work.

The month of Tishrei begins with the High Holy Days funneling Jews into their synagogues for long days of prayer and introspection. I call Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur indoor holidays. A few days later, Sukkot flings us outdoors. For one week, there is a mitzvah to eat, drink and sleep — to live — in a flimsy hut. Sukkot is an outdoor holiday.

The two halves of Tishrei are also a contradiction of emotions. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are somber days as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Who will live? Who will die? Then, a few days later, Sukkot flips the mood completely. The Bible calls Sukkot “The Festival of Joy.”

How do such opposing pieces fit together in one single month?

Praying for our lives as we stand in judgment can leave us with a lingering sense of dread and fear. The melodies are haunting, the liturgy is dark and apocalyptic. Worst of all, our verdict is sealed in the Book of Life but we have no idea if we are written in it. We try to have faith that the coming year will be a good one but we do not know if we will be OK. The existential ambiguity can be paralyzing.

A few days later, when we enter the sukkah, we are surrounded by mitzvah, enveloped by its makeshift walls and meager thatched roof. The sukkah is God’s cosmic hug. God is not going to tell us we are going to be OK, but God’s hug has the power to unburden us.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Doing the Right Thing Is Still a Good Choice

Not long ago, I caused a bit of consternation in my modest social media world when I suggested that there might be another way to look at Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, other than as a strong and brave feminist icon. I pointed out that she had an adulterous affair with a married man whose wife had just given birth and Daniels hadn’t done a damn thing about it until circumstances created an opportunity for her to leverage a little blackmail gelt. In doing so, and by keeping the money and failing to go public about the payoff in real time, she became uniquely complicit in the corruption of a U.S. presidential election. She didn’t appear to me to be doing the right thing.  

More recently, at the U.S. Open, Serena Williams demanded the head of an umpire who had the temerity to enforce the rules. First, the umpire warned her (for receiving coaching), then he docked her a point (for racket abuse) and, finally, he penalized her a game after her verbal outburst toward him became abusive (she called him “a thief,” among other things). She went on to lose the U.S. Open match, a Grand Slam final — 6-2, 6-4 — and received minor fines for each infraction.  

Williams immediately made this a “feminist” cause celebre, arguing that no male player would be treated the same way. She said the umpire’s taking a game away for her calling him “a thief” was “sexist.” Tennis icon Billie Jean King jumped to Williams’ defense, tweeting: “When a woman is emotional, she’s [considered] ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions.”

After the tennis match, Williams’ coach admitted he had been “coaching on every point” by signaling to her from his seat in the stands, even though coaching is strictly prohibited in Grand Slam events. “Everyone does it,” he said. However, after having been thumped in the first set by her opponent, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, and even after the first warning, Williams was leading, 3-1, and in control of the second set — but apparently not of herself. So, it was the 37-year-old, 23-time Grand Slam victor who melted down and cost herself the match, and it was first-time champion Osaka who had her moment in the sun stolen by the player she idolized, a player who also went on to tell the umpire, “You will never, ever, be on a court of mine as long as you live.” Interestingly, in the age of the #MeToo movement, that kind of threat should sound ironically familiar here in Los Angeles, where it almost always comes from men of power, directed at women of less power.  

It would seem, then, that perhaps it’s power, not gender, that rules our emotions. And when we lose control of ourselves, even the best of us will say and do the worst things.

Williams is probably the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, and those of us who are huge sports fans have applauded her exploits for two decades. Just the fact that she was out there in a Grand Slam final at the age of 37 — not to mention a year after giving birth and after multiple surgeries for blood clots — testifies to her fortitude and skill.

“Wouldn’t it be better if everyone just abided by the rules and the rules were uniformly enforced?”

But she screwed up. She didn’t become “hysterical,” just as in all the years John McEnroe berated officials did I hear anyone refer to him as “outspoken.” He was a “brat” and a “jerk” and, by the way, he defaulted his way out of the 1990 Australian Open, a Grand Slam event, for an escalating variety of abuse toward an umpire. And it’s not Williams’ first time violating the abuse rules. In her 2009 semifinal match at the U.S. Open, she lost on a penalty point after berating a lineswoman.

In the cases involving Daniels and Williams, people will continue to debate who did the right thing. Was it Daniels for standing up to Donald Trump after the election, or should she have told what she knew when it might have made a difference in whom would govern the land? Was it Williams for standing up for herself, or the umpire for upholding the rules and not allowing himself to be abused?

Daniels broke no laws. She sued Donald Trump to get out from under a nondisclosure agreement she believed was negotiated in bad faith; just because the target of her actions is Trump doesn’t make it right. For Williams, she broke the rules and then doubled down and made her violations worse. There’s a rule against coaching during Grand Slam events. Is “everybody does it” a reasonable defense? Did it work with your mom and dad when you were 12? Probably not. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone just abided by the rules and the rules were uniformly enforced? Heck, in golf, an official walks the course with every group, and if he misses something, the players call the penalties on themselves.  

We just concluded observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On the former we say it is written, and on the latter it is sealed. We think about the life we lived in the previous year, the decisions we made, how we treated people, what kind of success we prioritized, and to what extent we lived up not to our own expectations but the expectations of halachic-based rules — objective standards set for us, not by us. We ask not to be judged according to what other people did or did not do but by what we did or did not do in the eyes of God, and we promise to try to do better in the next year.

Those are tough rules, and the best of us fall short every year — which doesn’t make the aspiration any less valuable or the rules any less important.


Mitch Paradise is a writer-producer and teacher in Los Angeles.  

Love for My Daughter vs. Fear of Yoga

Photo by Pexels

The website for “Home for the Weekend — a yoga retreat in Idyllwild taking place in early November — could not be more charming. Soft-focus photos of a lovely log cabin (with rocking chairs on the porch!) trade places with pictures of gently flexible young women in yoga poses, a campy Idyllwild road sign and the majestic San Jacinto Mountains.

The reassuring copy of the website echoes the holistic vibe of the visuals. Participants are promised an experience that will return them home to themselves. There are hiking trails. One can gaze at the stars. There will be breath work and meditation. And, of course, there are the two yoga sessions per day, led by a trio of certified young yogis — Erin Ward, Leah Schlackman and Emma Goldman. No grungy hippie hangout, “Home for the Weekend” is upscale enough to provide catering provided by Honey Hi, the pre-eminent sustainable food eatery in Echo Park.

What Jewish woman could resist the prospect of returning home to herself after the monthlong rampage of holidays beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Simchat Torah? 

And so I signed up. 

I enjoyed approximately five hours of happy anticipation only to find myself beset by galloping anxiety, my mind working overtime. What was I thinking? Me? An overly analytical New Yorker stuck in a high-altitude area with a cohort of cosmic (and skinny) Los Angeles millennials? 

After the initial glow of imagining myself sleeping a log cabin came the dread: What about the daytime? I would have to wear yoga pants in public, twist my body into painful contortions and eat overly virtuous food!

Would there be booze? Would there be anyone my age? Should I shlep a stash of coffee from Zabar’s? Where was the nearest hospital?

And that is how I found myself, during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, sitting in a downtown Manhattan yoga studio known, minimalistically, as The Studio, wooden blocks beneath my butt, straps bound around my hips, shoulders thrust back. My daughter Emma — yes, the same one running the Idyllwild retreat with her pals Erin and Leah — trusses my upper arms behind my back, tight and yet tighter. Sitting in front of me, Abbie Galvin, a master restorative yoga instructor, nods her approval. As Emma pulls the straps, I envision myself as a carved figurehead on a ship from days of yore, chest defiantly greeting the wind, hair streaming behind me, sailing fearlessly into the future.

“Would there be booze at the yoga retreat? Should I shlep a stash of coffee from Zabar’s?

“So good!” exclaims Abbie, watching my face intently. “Look how you open up! How does that feel?”

Feel is exactly the right word. Since I entered Abbie’s realm, my hyperactive mind has put itself on snooze mode and I am awash with feeling. New feeling. Something profound has shifted within me. Though my limbs have been rearranged — and held in place — I feel comfortable and calm. Both lungs work in concert, drawing in air competently and evenly; a team effort. My shoulders relax, relieved of a great burden. A long-ago feeling of security blankets me.  

“Fantastic,” I report, with a smile. “I feel great.”

The private restorative yoga session with Abbie was an early birthday gift from Emma, who has studied with Abbie for years and intends to incorporate her restorative practice into “Home for the Weekend.” Noting my reaction to her upcoming retreat, Emma decided to take matters into her own hands and enlist Abbie.

The rest of the hour flows like warm honey. Abbie reads my body and posture, interpreting, gently correcting, guiding. Emma assists, lifting my hips, adjusting my shoulders, fixing the angle of my chin. 

“Wait a second,” I say to Emma as we bound down the stairs at the end of the hour. “This is yoga?”

“Yep,” says my yogafabulous daughter, my teacher, beaming with pride and happiness at my enthusiastic embrace of her practice. We walk together down the Bowery, Great Jones Street and West Fourth Street chattering.

“Feel less nervous?” Emma asks me as we enter Think Coffee. “Yes!” I sing out. She looks at me intently. “You know, you can take another private session with Abbie if you freak out anytime between now and November.”


Shira Dicker is a writer-at-large and publicist captivated by contemporary culture.

The Sins God Can’t Forgive

If Harvey Weinstein went to synagogue on Yom Kippur hoping God would forgive him for his hideous sins against women, he’d be out of luck. Sorry, pal. God may be all-powerful, but he’s not powerful enough to forgive us for the hurt we inflict on others — whether it’s a horrible sexual assault or a hurtful comment.

This is not a new idea. I’m guessing most of us already know that if we hurt someone, the only one who can forgive us is the person we aggrieved. God can’t do it for us.

Still, it does feel awkward to acknowledge a limit to God’s power. After all, this is the Creator of the world, the almighty God of miracles who redeemed us from slavery and gave us the Torah at Sinai. How can there be any limit to this limitless divine power?

I brought this up when I spoke at Kol Nidre at the Beverly Hills Community Synagogue, and it stirred some discomfort. If we hadn’t yet received forgiveness from anyone we may have hurt this year, I said, all those appeals to God in the Yom Kippur prayer book wouldn’t be of much help.

For 25 hours on this holiest of days, I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind. It was as if God was telling me: “If you sinned against your parents, your siblings, your children, your friends, your colleagues or anyone else this year, please don’t come to me. I can’t forgive you, David. You’re on your own.”

“Learning how to stay humble when we’re sure we’re completely right is a difficult and holy act— one that I’m still working on.”

I felt alone with a God who was sending me to a place other than where I was. I kept thinking throughout the day of the people I may have offended this year, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t taken care of all that before entering Yom Kippur. From the reaction I received to my talk, I don’t think I was the only one.

As the day wore on, though, my guilt was replaced by gratitude. I realized more than ever the genius of the idea: God takes human relationships so seriously that he nullifies himself to help us work on them. How blessed we are, I thought, to be part of a tradition that doesn’t let us off the hook when we hurt one another; a tradition that compels us to repair our relationships without leaning on our Creator.

But what damages our relationships in the first place? As I mentioned in my talk, a big part is our obsession with “being right.” That certainty can blind us to hurtful language. If the price of being right is to hurt others, isn’t that too high a price?

I spoke about “being right” versus “doing right.” If my kid makes a mistake and I’m consumed with being right, I’m more likely to respond with anger. If my kid makes a mistake and I’m thinking of doing right, I’m more likely to respond with kindness.

Being right feeds our egos; doing right feeds our souls.

So many of us have “been right” this year about so many things. The chaos of our politics and the breakdown of decency and democratic norms have triggered enormous anger and emotion. I’ve seen how some of that anger has infiltrated relationships. When I asked a large audience on Yom Kippur, “How many of you have had nasty arguments this year over politics?” most hands shot up. What made those arguments so nasty? Maybe each side was sure they were completely right.

“God takes human relationships so seriously that he nullifies himself to help us work on them.”

Learning how to stay humble when we’re sure we’re completely right is a difficult and holy act— one that I’m still working on. But if conveying even strong views with humility can reduce the amount of toxic and hurtful language in our community, it’s more than worth it. 

Hurtful language jeopardizes the most valuable asset we have— our relationships. As Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said in a holiday sermon, “When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid—double down on your relationships.  Cherish them.  Nurture them…Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart. Double down. Make things right with the people you love.”  

I can only thank God for giving us perhaps the most powerful lesson of our tradition: What counts more than anything for our Creator is how we treat one another. If you ask me, that may be God’s finest moment.

Yom Kippur Yizkor: Lessons From Monty Hall

burning memorial candles on the dark background

Editor’s note: Below is a condensed version of a talk Sharon Hall gave before the Yom Kippur Yizkor service at IKAR. 

Ten days before my mother [Marilyn Hall] died last year, my sister, brother and I were gathered at her bedside singing the Beatles catalog. She strained to look at us as we  harmonized and she seemed to smile when we broke into “Here Comes the Sun.” One of her nurses pulled me aside and said, “You need to let her go. All the attention has her attention and she can see that you don’t want her to leave and she doesn’t want to disappoint you. So figure out a way to say goodbye.”  

This was a gut punch. I couldn’t do it. Neither could my siblings. I said, “Mom, we know that you’re still going to be the helicopter mother you’ve always been, you’ll just be
here in spirit. Pick your sign to let us know you’re still around. Are you going to be a random white feather? Flashing lights? Ringing bells?” She nodded her head and we leaned in.

“Lights,” she said weakly. And so it was settled. My mother’s presence would be known when lightbulbs flickered. 

A few days later, at her shivah, we asked Hillel Tigay, our chazzan at IKAR, to play some Beatles music during our silent prayer. My Orthodox cousin from Israel turned to his sister and asked, “Is this a shivah or a summer camp?” At that very moment, a string of fairy lights embedded in a hedge of ficus trees, lights that had not worked in eight years suddenly came alive. The bulbs flickered in glittering syncopation. Our entire family freaked out. We told the guests about my mother’s deathbed agreement. We were all in awe. If my Israeli cousin could have crossed himself, he would have.  

In the ensuing days and months, I became strangely attached to that hedge. There were more flashing-light moments. It was like a party trick. It got a little weird. I would embrace the ficus branches like Kevin Costner in his cornfield, trying to conjure her. 

Talking to the ficus had become my ritual. It wasn’t scary or depressing. It was about light and chlorophyll and oxygen and life. Even with no lights, it was a practice that created a space to see and feel Marilyn Hall’s presence — not her absence.    

“Many told me that dying on a Yom Kippur Shabbat was reserved for holy men. Now, Monty Hall was an amazing guy, but I think he chose that moment to go because he was trying to dodge Yizkor.

My father [Monty Hall] died exactly one year ago. On Shabbat. On Yom Kippur. Right after Rabbi [Sharon] Brous’ sermon. My phone blew up. I made my way past 1,300 Jews in white when it all faded to white. I don’t remember how I got to my father’s house to meet the mortuary van. I don’t remember much at all about that day.  

Monty and Marilyn Hall (Photo provided by Sharon Hall)

Many reached out to tell me that dying on a Yom Kippur Shabbat was reserved for holy men, for the pious and exalted. Now, Monty Hall was an amazing guy for lots of reasons, but if you want to know the truth, I think he chose that moment to go because he was trying to dodge Yizkor. 

My father was allergic to grief. He was from the “buck up” generation. I never heard him recite the Kaddish out loud. It barely escaped his lips as a whisper. He couldn’t metabolize his grief over the death of his beloved wife of 70 years. We understood but we were frustrated that this final chapter would be filled with denial and anger, and for him was devoid of spirituality.  

So when I was asked to stand here today, I thought, yes! I want to embrace this ritual. I want to take my dad’s yahrzeit as a day to make space for grief.

So, Dad, we’re not going to dodge Yizkor. You made this day all about you and so you will never miss it again. And you’ll get to see Mom, because at IKAR, Neilah always ends with a light show.


Sharon Hall is a television producer, mother of two sons, wife of Todd Ellis Kessler, and proud daughter of the incomparable Marilyn and Monty Hall.

Speaking Truth to Power — Ours

For much of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky’s talk last Shabbat afternoon on “Speaking Truth to Power,” I got really pumped up. The leader of Bnai David Judea Congregation was discussing biblical characters who spoke truth to the ultimate power — God — and how God listened and bent and forgave. Using talmudic texts, Kanefsky went through several examples, including three in which Moses challenged God and God responded: You have taught me something.

I could see where the rabbi was going. Jews are people of dissent. We don’t accept even the highest authority blindly. We are urged to question and challenge and argue in the search for justice and truth.

What perfect timing, I thought. We are living in chaotic times when people holding the levers of authority in government and corporations keep failing us. Kanefsky did not say a word about politics or current events, but he didn’t have to. The title of his talk said it all. We must have the courage to rise up and speak out against injustice. That is the power of our voice.

If Moses himself can speak truth to his divine leader, then certainly we can speak truth to our own leaders.

The idea of fighting injustice has been a theme of several Rosh Hashana sermons this year. At Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein gave a rousing sermon decrying the state of our country under President Donald Trump and urging his flock not to stand idly by. Similarly, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of the IKAR community, called for “Building a New America” with a renewed sense of purpose.

“These are trying times,” she said in one of her sermons, “but we must not let exhaustion or cynicism dull our senses. Our history has taught us: either you work to dismantle oppressive systems, or your inaction becomes the mortar that sustains them. Together we must build America anew: fierce, fair and full of promise; equipped to hold us in all our diversity, complexity and beauty.”

“Instead of leaving the synagogue all powered up and ready to march on Washington, I left ready to march on myself. When have I been too dogmatic this past year? When have I failed to listen?” 

That is why I was pumped up by Kanefsky’s talk. I sensed that the rabbi was empowering his flock to take on the leaders who were failing us — to fight injustice during these extraordinary times by speaking truth to the powers that be.

But, I must confess, I was expecting a little more. Kanefsky wasn’t giving a sermon, per se. He was giving what is known as the annual Shabbat Shuva drash, which occurs on the Shabbat afternoon between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For many rabbis, it is their most important talk of the year. 

I’m pretty sure I haven’t missed a Shabbat Shuva drash from Rabbi Kanefsky since I moved to the Pico-Robertson area 12 years ago. He always seems to come up with a fresh and provocative insight. My kids tease me because I tell them the same thing every year: “I can’t believe he was even better than last year.”

So, as much as I enjoyed the theme of speaking truth to power and connecting it to God, I didn’t feel I was being challenged enough. It was more of an important reminder than a provocative insight.

Maybe you can see where this is going. When it came time to conclude his talk, Kanefsky took a deep breath and turned the tables on us. Yes, speaking truth to power is important, he said, but the real power is us. If God can be moved, so can we. If God can change his mind, so can we. If God can listen and forgive, so can we. Referencing more talmudic texts, he spoke of God not just as a target for our dissent but as a voice we can emulate.

Instead of leaving the synagogue all powered up and ready to march on Washington, I left ready to march on myself. When have I been too dogmatic this past year? When have I failed to listen? When have I failed to bend and forgive?

“Speaking truth to power is important, [Kanefsky] said, but the real power is us. If God can be moved, so can we. If God can change his mind, so can we. If God can listen and forgive, so can we.”

None of this is a substitute for the important work of fighting the injustice all around us and not standing idly by. Kanefsky has done more than his fair share on that front. Rather, I saw Kanefsky’s message as an opportunity to take a timeout during these Days of Awe to focus on my inner life. The outer and the inner are equally essential.

Maybe because my life this past year as editor-in-chief has been so focused on the outer life, Kanefsky’s message especially resonated with me. And my kids are still teasing me, because you know what I told them.

Man Who Allegedly Threw Rock Into Polish Synagogue During Yom Kippur Services Arrested

Screenshot from Twitter.

A man who allegedly threw a rock into a Polish synagogue in the city of Gdansk during Yom Kippur services on Sept. 19 was arrested by Polish police on Sept. 21.

According to the Associated Press, the 27-year-old man was arrested at a village south of Gdansk; he did not resist arrest. The police have not given a motive for the alleged perpetrator.

Security footage of the incident shows a man wearing jeans and a black shirt throwing a rock into the window of the New Synagogue at around 6 pm local time on Sept. 19. The rock fell into “the atrium where women waiting for neilah — the final prayer of Yom Kippur,” according to the Jewish Religious Community in Gdansk’s Facebook page. No one was hurt.

Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk, said in a statement that he “categorically rejects” the rock-throwing.

“I apologize to the Jewish community of Gdansk,” Adamowicz said. “In the city of Freedom and Solidarity, we respect all religions and do not accept acts of hooliganism.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said, “The attack on Gdansk’s New Synagogue is shocking and dismaying in itself, made all the more distressing by the fact that it took place on Yom Kippur, evoking the terrible tragedies that occurred in German-occupied Poland during the years of the Holocaust.”

New Synagogue was among the synagogues that were attacked on Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, where almost 100 Jews were killed and thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were vandalized and destroyed.

A Holiday Cake That Brings the Love and Saves You Time

By the time sukkot rolls around, many home cooks may be feeling burned out from the constant stream of preparations they have been making for large family dinners and gatherings from Rosh Hashanah through the break-the-fast meal after Yom Kippur.

Even though I’m a chef and caterer, I also feel pressure when I host special meals. In many respects, I feel that expectations for a meal at my house are higher than they would be at the home of someone who isn’t a professional chef. Also, isn’t this the time of year when we ask ourselves hard questions and meditate on the past and the future? Thinking about what we need to do differently and what habits and thoughts aren’t serving us anymore is hard work. 

It’s so important to recharge yourself because you’re not very useful to anyone else if you’re exhausted and running on empty. I’m not saying you shouldn’t cook that special fish dish or kugel that’s traditional in your household, but do you have to cram one side of the table to the other with specialty foods over the holidays? 

I say no. Your kids, your spouse, your parents, your friends — they love you for more than your cooking. They love your company, your hugs, your kisses, your humor and your caring face. All the therapy in the world won’t help you hold on to your relationships if you take for granted your primary sources of joy and happiness. Imagine if everyone concentrated on themselves and their loved ones. Then imagine what a better place emotionally and spiritually your environment would be if people took care of themselves, felt special, and even pampered themselves a little.

When facing challenging and busy times, less is more. Keeping things simple and easy can help you find moments of calm and sanity. Rather than taking on more, even if your family relies on you to execute the holiday menus, it’s important to take a breath and think about your well-being. It’s one thing to want to please everyone in your life; it’s another to be so stressed that you forget yourself completely. 

If you are hosting people for Sukkot, make only dishes that are simple and enjoyable for you. If your specialty is complicated and time-consuming and you are overwhelmed — stop! Readjust your plans. Ask guests to bring a dish or buy prepared cuisine.

There is no shame in saying no, either. Don’t be the person whom everyone counts on for holidays if you feel crushed by the burden of cooking. Trust that the people who love you would rather have you vital and happy and dancing around your kitchen than to eat the most delicious thing you could possibly offer them. 

“Your kids, your spouse, your parents, your friends — they love you for more than your cooking.”

While I’m not suggesting that you forget about everything that makes the holiday feel special to you, I am giving you permission to do less. Take a page out of the French playbook and make a simple dessert or, better yet, buy one.

According to baker extraordinaire Dorie Greenspan, who lives part of the year in Paris, the French don’t bake at home much. This makes sense because why would you try to compete with the amazing patisseries on every corner? But when they do, most everyone has a yogurt cake in their arsenal.

I’ve been making this one for years, not knowing that it’s a French staple. It’s easy enough that even after I’ve been at work and on my feet baking fancy pies and tarts for days on end, I can still manage this cake. I’ll call it my “charity begins at home” cake because it’s barely baking at all and every ingredient is probably already in your pantry. It’s also such a winning cake for a casual holiday table because it’s rather plain and will remind you of days gone by when Entenmann’s and Sara Lee were the only choices instead of the 4,000 brands available in stores today. It also has a homey, endearing split on top when it comes out of the oven. 

This recipe is adapted from Greenspan’s. I use one of her tricks when making this loaf that will make you happy (see recipe). I’m going to pass down the secret with a wish that you serve this under your sukkah this year. You can dress it up and make it fancier by cubing it trifle-style and layering it with berries or coconut whipped cream, but honestly, no one will complain if you serve it as is.

I make the cake in two small loaf pans, but you can make it in one standard 9-by-4-inch pan. It also freezes well, so you can double the recipe to have a spare on hand for when people drop by for coffee or tea. It comes out like a light pound cake with a slightly orange flavor and a comforting, cakey crumb.

Here’s to being more generous with your time this Sukkot — time for yourself. 

YOGURT CAKE

Rind of 2 clementines (use lemon or orange if you wish)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup plain yogurt (or vanilla-flavored or Greek yogurt)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup neutral-tasting vegetable oil
2 tablespoons raspberry jam (optional)
2 tablespoons honey, warmed

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Greenspan’s trick: Take the rind of both clementines and rub into the sugar with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and the citrus scent hits your nostrils. Rubbing releases the oils in the rind and makes the cake zing with flavor. 

In the same bowl, add the yogurt and mix well. Add the eggs and vanilla and whisk until smooth.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and add them to the egg/yogurt mixture in batches, or until you no longer see flour. Then, switch to a spatula and fold in the oil until the batter is smooth and shiny.

Pour into your loaf pan and spoon jam (if using) onto the batter using a knife to disperse the jam and create some swirls.  Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry or with just a few crumbs.

Glaze the cake with warm honey after it comes out of the oven for that nice holiday touch.

Cool for 30 minutes and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm or cold. Store in refrigerator in a sealed container.  


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda. 

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Five Rabbis on Yom Kippur

 

 

Today, we gathered for you the five Torah Talks that we have in our archives on Yom Kippur.

And don’t forget to read the thought provoking article about Yom Kippur on bicycle.

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Arie Folger, Vienna, Austria

 

 

Rabbi Burt Visotsky, New York

 

 

Rabbi Meir Azari, Israel

 

 

Rabbi David Gelfand, New York

 

 

Rabbi Walter Homolka, Germany

 

 

 

 

 

Table for Five: Yom Kippur

Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

One Question, Five Voices: How do we make an atonement that lasts?


Miriam Yerushalmi
Director of SANE (Soulful Advice for a New Existence); marriage and family counselor; author of the “Reaching New Heights” books.

Yom Kippur is such an awesome holy day that some people have the misconception that God expects only perfection from us and judges us accordingly. Not so! God wants us to do teshuvah, repentance, to return to the truth. HaShem is not focused on our reaching perfection; it’s the process of teshuvah that counts. 

To be at peace with this process of becoming our truest self is the best aid to successful positive change. The way the land of Israel was acquired — territory by territory, piece by piece — teaches us how to achieve our best selves: step by step. 

Yes, teshuvah revolves around minimizing our faults as much as possible, but this involves forgiving ourselves with mercy and developing ourselves with joy. 

On Yom Kippur, HaShem bestows upon us extra strength to accomplish all of this and more. 

The Yom Kippur prayers feature the verses listing the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy. With this recitation, not only do we beseech HaShem to judge us with compassion through the medium of these attributes, but we also focus on emulating these holy attributes — remembering always that they are qualities of mercy, not strictness. HaShem wants us to treat ourselves with the same compassion we hope to receive from Him. With our own compassion, we arouse God’s compassion. This frees us from the toxic burden of guilt that can lead to stagnation and worse. 

With peace, mercy and joy, we can reach our Divinely orchestrated potential.


David Sacks
The Happy Minyan of Los Angeles

Most people approach teshuvah — or change, or even better, return — in the following way: These are the things I need to do more of, and these are the things I need to do less of. Makes sense. 

The problem is, when we focus only on our actions, it often doesn’t work. Maybe it does in the short term, but usually not over the long haul. Why? Because before I examine my deeds, the first thing I need to decide is who it is I want to be. Once I decide with all my heart that this is the new me, the choices I make will be different.

How do you know? Because you yourself will want them to be different. Because your old behaviors will be inconsistent with who you are now. 

This is one of the cornerstone teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, which is you are where your thoughts are. Imagine you want to go to a new place. There are two ways to get there. The first way is to lug all your belongings there. The second, easier way is you just go there and then send for your stuff. The first process is extremely labor intensive. The second process is much easier. I just pick the place I want to go and there I am. 

Use these precious days to craft that vision of the better you, and then let your deeds paint the portrait of who you are now. 


Shaindy Jacobson
Director of the Rosh Chodesh Society of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute

It is said, to err is human, to forgive is divine. Each of us has the capacity to fuse the human with the divine. 

You may be familiar with these words penned by Ernest Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms”: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.” 

Yes, while life may break us, it’s what we do with the pieces that matters most. Think of atonement as a circle. In fact, the word for “forgiveness” in Hebrew is mechila, which is related to the word machol, meaning “circle.” Life is a circle, encompassing all our relationships, deeds and experiences. With the occurrence of a negative action, the circle is broken. With your atonement, the break is mended. 

When the circle is again complete, you are embraced by the wholeness of God and all His creations, of which you are, indeed, an integral part. 

The gift of lasting atonement is the birth of hope. It takes far greater effort to rebuild a relationship after it was fractured than to build it in the first place. But when you succeed, the rebuilt entity is so superior that it can never be broken again. 

As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”


Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

The Yamim Noraim are a time of heightened spirituality and self-reflection that stand out from the rest of the year. But how do we carry the energy of these holy days with us once Yom Kippur ends? 

A beautiful practice gives us insight into how we can make our atonement lasting. The Rama records that immediately after Yom Kippur ends, we begin building our sukkah for Sukkot. When our preparation for Sukkot is on the heels of Yom Kippur, one mitzvah is juxtaposed with another. Why do we do this? Because the sukkah reminds us of what God put us in the world to do, of what we were saved for at Yom Kippur. And if we are clear on this mission, we can more easily brush off the temptation to fall back into our old ways. 

As Jews, we are called to build “sukkat shalom” — God’s dwelling place of peace in this world. A sukkah is warm, welcoming and accessible. It represents God’s clouds of glory, God’s loving presence that led us in the desert and that continues to guide us through our lives today. If we are busy with the holy work of creating peace, wholeness, warmth and awareness of God, our atonement will not only be lasting, but expansive, constructive and worthwhile. And so, as Yom Kippur ends, let’s ask ourselves, what does it look like for each of us to build God’s “sukkat shalom”? 


Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org

My pal Sal wants to achieve everlasting at-onement. I figure he must mean being at one with God, since God is the only one who is everlasting.  

I mean, you know those moments of bliss in life that you want to hold onto forever — and then they’re gone as though they never were, often with more pain than gain. Because nothing in this world is ever everlasting.  

But a mitzvah is not of this world. A mitzvah is a glistening droplet of infinite light extracted from the divine. We bring it alive in our world, through a partnership of divine providence and free will. Yet, even as this mitzvah plays out through our hands, it remains a mystery beyond our grasp. 

And so the moment of a mitzvah is a moment of at-onement everlasting. A moment with family and guests at my Shabbos table. A moment of binding myself with my God with those black leather boxes. A moment of a helping hand, a kind word, an ear lent to a broken heart on behalf of my Creator. A moment of swimming in the endless waters of the wisdom of His Torah. 

If I could make every moment of my life into a mitzvah moment, I would always be at-onement. But even if I fall away and disconnect from that eternal source — may God protect me from myself — that moment of my life remains my everlasting moment of at-onement. Nothing in this world or the next can ever take it away. It is, indeed, the only thing I truly own. 

Holy Days in the Hospital

Last December, I was a “guest” at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a week that felt like an eternity. Every day I prayed that I would be well enough to go home and every day brought new problems. It was impossible to keep the dark thoughts at bay.

One of the most important things that kept my spirits buoyed was a visit from Senior Rabbi and Director of the Spiritual Care Department Jason Weiner, along with one of the other Jewish chaplains. They came with little prayer cards, get well wishes, and they helped allay my fears.

It was an absolute blessing at a time when I was feeling incredibly vulnerable. So how much more vulnerable must someone feel to be in the hospital during the High Holy Days — a time when we are supposed to confront our mortality? I reached out to Rabbi Weiner to ask.

“It’s a very difficult time for people, it’s a lonely time,” Weiner said. “It’s a time when they want to be with their families or want to be in the synagogue.”

At this time of year in particular, Weiner said there are so many conflicting emotions for patients, “especially on Yom Kippur, when there’s so much talk about the Book of Life and the Book of Death. Often an existential crisis comes up and patients wonder if it’s a bad omen if they’re starting their year in the hospital.”

“Often an existential crisis comes up and patients wonder if it’s a bad omen if they’re starting their year in the hospital.”
— Rabbi Jason Weiner

 

Weiner said his job is to listen to patients “and let them articulate their fears and provide support and compassion.”

Patients sometimes ask him, “Does this mean I’m likely to die this year because I’m in the hospital over the High Holy Days?”

Weiner said, “I tell them ‘There’s no Torah source that says that.’ I’m more likely to say, ‘Why is that on your mind right now?’ and then explore it with them and help them through it.”

Weiner and his staff do a lot to help make the holidays special for patients. Sometimes they reserve rooms and have entire families come in for Rosh Hashanah dinners. The hospital’s kitchen prepares a special kosher meal and hands out apples and honey and sweet cake. There are pre-recorded High Holy Days services that patients can watch on the television from their beds, and the chaplains will blow the shofar in every room where patients request it.

“We try to give the patients extra TLC and talk about the holidays,” Weiner said.

For those who are well enough to leave their rooms, they can attend services. While the hospital has on average 180-200 Jewish patients over the holidays, services have to be moved from the chapel to the Harvey Morse Auditorium because close to 600 people attend.

“The services are geared for the patients,” Weiner said. “They sit in the front row and we have their nurses with them. But we also have a lot of [Jewish] staff who are working attend, as well as past patients and even people who live in the neighborhood.”

Weiner leads the services himself with Cantor Jordan Gorfinkel, and the hospital has its own machzor in Hebrew, Hebrew transliteration, English and English commentary. The services are truncated. “We call it a learning service,” Weiner said. “There are full Torah readings and a full shofar blowing, but for the prayers, we skip around a bit.” On Yom Kippur afternoon, however, there are full services.

“We try to [hold services] in a way that Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated will all feel comfortable,” Weiner said.

The full Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur is something Weiner cherishes. “There are so many tears because people are literally praying for their lives.” He recalled a particularly moving moment when he saw two women hugging and crying. “One said, ‘I was praying for your husband,’ and the other said, ‘I was praying for your son.’ It was so profound,” Weiner said. “And really meaningful.”

Kol Nidre LIVE 2018

Worshippers will come together September 18 at 6:30 p.m. for a Yom Kippur service led by Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva.

The service will be broadcast worldwide and later archived at kolnidrelive.com. Viewers will be able to follow the service in a downloadable prayer book, and connect via commenting with fellow “congregants” around the world.

Kol Nidre is the evening service of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, will fast and/or will attend services on this day.

Sign up for Kol Nidre LIVE updates!

 

[Support this program by donating to Nashuva]

Levy, a rabbi and best-selling author, whose latest book is Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, was ordained in the first class of women at Jewish Theological Seminary. She founded and leads Nashuva, Hebrew for, “We Will Return.” Nashuva is a post-denominational, non-membership community open to all that meshes spirituality with social action.

You can also preorder the new CD: Heaven on Earth – Songs of the Soul

Tribe Media Corp. is dedicated to improving the world through media. Our brands include Jewish Journal, jewishjournal.com, and the Daily Roundtable.

Check back on this page for updates!

 

 

1965: When Dodger Sandy Koufax Didn’t Pitch Game One of the World Series

Ending a 29-year-old drought, the Los Angeles Dodgers will finally compete in the World Series, this time against the Houston Astros; the first game is tonight. To commemorate this fete, let’s take a look back when Jewish Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax made Dodger history in the 1965 World Series.

1965 was a landmark season for the Dodgers. During the playoffs, Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs; it was the fourth straight season Koufax tossed a no-hitter. His legendary performance helped the Dodgers advance to the World Series vs. the Minnesota Twins.

Game One of the 1965 World Series coincided with Yom Kippur and Koufax famously decided not to pitch on the holiest day of the year. Koufax, who didn’t consider himself an observant Jew, told ESPN in 2000: “There was no hard decision for me. It was just a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”

In Koufax’s stead, future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched Game One. The Twins scored seven runs in the first three innings and went on to an 8-2 victory. Drysdale told Dodgers manager Walter Alston, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.” Koufax returned to the mound to pitch Game Two and the star pitcher led the Dodgers to a World Series victory.

Koufax wasn’t the only Jewish Dodger to observe Yom Kippur in lieu of playing a game. Right-fielder Shawn Green skipped a significant game in 2001 and, according to Sports Illustrated, consulted Koufax before making the decision.

Here’s a list of Jewish Dodgers throughout the years:

History of Jewish Dodgers

It's been 29 years and finally the wait is over. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the World Series! Game One starts now vs the Houston Astros

Posted by Jewish Journal on Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How Judaism Helps Us Regain Our Balance

Each period of history has a title bestowed by historians, one meant to reveal some key characteristic of that age. Thus, the medieval period is the Age of Faith; the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason; and the 19th century is the Age of Progress. The name for our age, I would venture to guess, is the Age of Busyness.

Everybody is busy. Americans routinely complain that they work too many hours — and they do. They complain that they have too little time to spend with their children — and they’re right. They complain that they have little time left for quiet reflection, for learning and for celebrating.

Well, actually, they don’t complain about that — because they don’t have enough time to notice its absence, or because they’re so busy that they no longer miss it.

But part of being human, part of living our lives fully, is the inner need to grow and to explore and to play. Contemporary psychology tells us that people continue to grow throughout every phase of their lives, and that the playfulness of children continues into adulthood, as well. To be human is to play, to change and to grow.

Where, in our serious culture of business, work and productivity — or in its flip side of infantile recreation and foolish escapism — do we make room for adult play, adult study and adult growth? America’s Achilles’ heel is its excessive busyness, which spawns equally excessive foolishness to blow off steam.

We’ve lost our balance.

The place to recapture what we have lost is to be found in Judaism’s unparalleled ability to sanctify time. Through the observance of Shabbat, of holy days and festivals, our tradition provides a timeout for adults — not to lose ourselves in fantasies or escape, but to rediscover ourselves and the depths of our own creativity and love. We immerse ourselves in sacred time in order to live better and more fully during the rest of our days.

Now that the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are behind us and we emerge out of our sukkah booths back into our busy, contemporary lives, our immersion in rest, renewal and community is our passport back into a better way of living our lives. Instead of “spending time,” Judaism gives us the gift of learning to savor it.

The Talmud teaches that “rejoicing on a festival is a religious duty.” What a remarkable idea! A day devoted to a special kind of joy. The rejoicing of the festival has little in common with sitting in a dark room staring passively at an on-screen fantasy, or risking life and limb to thrill ourselves into forgetting what drones we’ve become. The rejoicing of the festival is not one of escaping, but one of returning to our own centers — our own families, friends, community and God.

As it says in the Talmud: “Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘One has nothing else to do on a festival except to eat, drink, sit and study.’ Rabbi Joshua said, ‘Divide it — devote half the day to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of prayer and study.’”

Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships.

What a fascinating way to rejoice. Recall that the word “recreation” involves creating something anew — in this case, our own souls. By spending part of the day together in prayer, song and Torah study, we rebuild our identities as messengers of God and as bearers of God’s covenant. We restore our sense of belonging in a specific synagogue community and in the Jewish people worldwide. Having restored that essential base, the rabbis of the Talmud then tell us to take the rest of the day for feasting and spending time with those we love.

What a marvelous blend of devotion and relaxation, of heightened identity and then simply being.

What this regimen of holy days and festivals makes clear is that mastery of our work — rather than allowing our work to master us — requires setting clear boundaries and limits to our chores and our work. Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships. By rejoicing with one another on these holy days, festivals and on Shabbat, we declare ourselves to be free in the service of holiness and goodness, of Torah and togetherness.

After the end of the fall holy days, take the lessons of the shofar, the fast and the sukkah with you into our busy world. Remember that we each are children of royalty, and we thrive best when we thrive together. 


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

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 Joshua M. Aaronson’s Yom Kippur sermon: Jonah and Me

One of the inspirational parts of our tradition for me is that as I move through life and as times change, different Biblical personalities resonate with me.  For many years, I felt a great kinship with Jacob.  As a young man, his character flaws threatened to overwhelm him.  Yet, with the passage of time, he transcended his own weaknesses.  I found his transformation inspirational.  His example held out for me the possibility that even I could get out of my own way long enough to transcend my many flaws.  This year Jonah resonates with me.  I feel as Jonah.

וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־יוֹנָ֥ה בֶן־אֲמִתַּ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:

ק֠וּם לֵ֧ךְ אֶל־נִֽינְוֵ֛ה הָעִ֥יר הַגְּדוֹלָ֖ה וּקְרָ֣א עָלֶ֑יהָ כִּֽי־עָלְתָ֥ה רָעָתָ֖ם לְפָנָֽי׃

Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

וַיָּ֤קָם יוֹנָה֙ לִבְרֹ֣חַ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֨רֶד יָפ֜וֹ וַיִּמְצָ֥א אָנִיָּ֣ה ׀ בָּאָ֣ה תַרְשִׁ֗ישׁ וַיִּתֵּ֨ן שְׂכָרָ֜הּ וַיֵּ֤רֶד בָּהּ֙ לָב֤וֹא עִמָּהֶם֙ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.

וַֽיהוָ֗ה הֵטִ֤יל רֽוּחַ־גְּדוֹלָה֙ אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם וַיְהִ֥י סַֽעַר־גָּד֖וֹל בַּיָּ֑ם וְהָ֣אֳנִיָּ֔ה חִשְּׁבָ֖ה לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר׃

But the LORD cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.

God calls Jonah to undertake a great mission, a mission that a first blush, should honor Jonah.  God chooses Jonah to go to a city in which the people are known to be sinners and proclaim judgement upon it.  God asks Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that unless they repent and turn toward God, God will punish them.  This should be easy stuff for Jonah, a man of wealth and substance.  Who wouldn’t want to do their civic duty, as it were?  Yet, Jonah flees from this opportunity and heads to the port of Jaffa and sets sail to Tarshish—the opposite direction as Nineveh.  When I have the chance, I stand at the port of Jaffa, I look at the boats and I imagine I see what Jonah saw; I ask myself, ‘what was Jonah thinking?’

Jonah was a man in the midst of an existential crisis.  For Jonah, the world was not a happy place.  Jonah looked around and saw a world of sinners, a world without hope.  That God could forgive their sins was of little consequence to Jonah.   What good, Jonah asked himself, was humanity if they were doomed to a life of sinning and repenting and sinning again—even if God is a merciful God, a God who forgives?  Jonah was pessimistic about the world.  Jonah also feels powerless.  Sure, God can forgive, but what can a mere mortal do?

I feel a bit like Jonah. The world feels heavy.  It’s hard to be optimistic.  Perhaps I am projecting my own uneasiness about the world onto the rest of you, but I think—in fact, I hear this from you—that I am not alone in feeling this way.  And, I’ve observed that this isn’t a statement about politics; everyone seems to feel the stress of the world more keenly at this moment.  In the past two months alone, we’ve witnessed storms and earthquakes that killed hundreds of people and laid waste to countries from Mexcio to the Eastern Carribbean.

I know that every generation faces unprecedented challenges.  Surely, these times are no more turbulent than the Middle Ages, than the Civil War, World War II or the 60s.  Is our own era qualitatively different or is it merely different because we live in it?  I cannot answer that question.  I can say, however, that in my lifetime, as long or as short as you think it’s been, this moment feels different than others.

To begin with, the mighty wind blowing upon the sea is exponentially stronger because it is amplified by deluge of information that inundates our senses literally every minute.  The devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes would be traumatic no matter the era, but in this day and age, we witness these events in real time.

The natural human tendency is to be feel the bad more acutely than the good.  So, like Jonah, the weight of information that inundates us tends to skew, at least in our own minds, negatively.  Faith in humanity is hard to muster watching bickering politicians, insane dictators, spoiled athletes and self-absorbed celebrities 24 hours a day.  Is faith in humanity justified?  Or, is humanity doomed to consistently sink to the lowest common denominator?

For Jonah, his cynicism about humanity causes him to flee.  I can understand that.  I feel that way too, sometimes.  And yet…we know there must be something more at work.  We know that the story of Jonah cannot possibly be about cynicism and powerlessness…for Yom Kippur itself is about redemption and optimism.

As all of you know, after Jonah is thrown from the boat, he is swallowed by a whale.  He spends three days and nights in the whale’s belly.  What happens to Jonah there is this:  Jonah resets his moral compass.  He focused on that which is true and enduring—in Jonah’s case a call from God, and in doing so, Jonah could regroup and do the right thing.  Jonah learns that without a moral compass, we are adrift in a sea of chaos without any clear hope of finding our way.  We feel helpless. We are treading water and getting tired.  At times, we feel we cannot stay afloat for even one more minute.

And, then…and then, we see an image of some guy—and let’s be honest, it’s a guy we normally would never know or have in our circle of friends, taking his own boat to help people stranded by the floods.  And then…and then millions of dollars in aid flow in to ravaged countries.  And then, in the midst of all this angst about the NFL, there’s a guy named J. J. Watt and it turns out not only has he done an amazing mitzvah for victims of the floods in Texas, he does this kind of thing all the time.  In these acts, I find my moral compass reset.  For in these acts, we see the highest common denominator at work:  one human reaching out in empathy to assist another human in need.  There is no concern for race or nationality.  No one stops to ask who you voted for; no one cares about your position on health care or gun control.  Humans connect with humans not on the most basic level, but on the highest level:  the shared human hope that even when everything is lost all is not lost.  Living another day is always a better option than not.  The hope of tomorrow is a powerful beacon that calls us, as we read in the Torah portion for Yom Kippur, to choose life!  And in witnessing these acts, true acts of lovingkindness, our moral compass is reset.

The challenge is in the coda to the Jonah story.  Jonah does one true and good thing:  he preaches to the people of Nineveh to repent and they do.  Yet, when his disdain and cynicism for humanity get the better of him, Jonah heads for the hills to await the what inevitably happens:  the fall of humanity to the lowest common denominator.  For after the redemptive stories of heroism and sacrifice during the floods and earthquakes, we humans tend to fall back to the lowest common denominator just like Jonah.  The stories on our social media feeds of one human connecting with another in grand gesture of the human spirit are too quickly replaced by bickering, political grandstanding and bullying that seem to me unseemly in spirit and petty in the face of mother nature’s unstoppable force.

Why is it we need a massive earthquake or a sequence of category 5 hurricanes to bring out the best in humanity?  Why do we need a tragedy to reset our moral compass?  And, why, once our compass is pointing in the right direction, do we as humans so quickly veer off course?  These questions weighed heavily upon Jonah—they weigh heavily upon me.  Sure, when you’re threatened with God’s wrath, it is easy to do the right thing.  Our moral compass always points in the right direction when humanity is threatened with extinction.  But, what about when we are just going about our day-to-day lives?  Can we imagine the world if at every moment the human spirit soared as high as it did in the aftermath of recent natural disasters?

Judaism imagines that world.  The entire point of Judaism is to elevate the human spirit to the highest possible denominator.  Judaism is the North Star for our moral compass. Yes, we frequently veer off-course, but Judaism and specifically Yom Kippur hold out the possibility for us to reset our compass and get back on the right path, even and perhaps especially amidst the raging seas of the modern world.

This day—Yom Kippur—this day is a microcosm of the great existential crisis faced by Jonah.  This morning we read profound and stirring words of optimism:  we stand this day as one community, asked to do something, exactly like Jonah, that is within our ability.  We’re asked to reset our moral compass.  The Torah itself tells us the task is possible:  ‘this commandment I command you this day is not too hard for you…choose life!’

This afternoon, we shall read the book of Jonah…the story of a man weighed down by chaos of the world, a man riddled with cynicism and doubt; a man bereft of faith in humanity.  Jonah is a man who is drowning in the flood, but ignores the boat coming to rescue him.

This is the challenge of this day.  Yes, we see the destruction of the flood and the devastation of the earthquake.  And, yes, we see the acts of lovingkindness that reveal the greatest spirit of humanity.  The world can be both these things…today we must choose which world we will create.

You can choose to be Jonah.  You can wallow in cynicism; you can believe that humanity will always revert to the lowest common denominator.  You can abandon all hope and give in to the rising tide of the flood. In doing so, not only would you abandon hope, you would abandon Judaism itself.

For as long as I serve this holy congregation, if there is only one teaching that you remember let it be this:  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 antisemitism, 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.

There is a famous quote, attributed originally to Debussy and in my version, it goes like this:  How do you play the notes so fast, someone once asked a famous pianist…and the answer, ‘oh, the notes are easy…it’s the space between the notes that are difficult.’

We Jews live in the space between the notes.  Everyone is beset by problems.  How we live between those problems, those calamities, those horrors…this is when we Jews are at our best.  We Jews are forever the man with the boat coming to the rescue and seeking a new beginning.  Let this be our way for the New Year.

Rabbi Noah Farkas’ Yom Kippur sermon: Clap Along if You Feel That Holiness is the Truth

It might seem crazy what I am about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care, baby, by the way
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

What a catchy tune.  My kids dance like crazy when it comes on.

Now it might seem crazy what I’m about to say and I might be full of hot air, but I’m not a balloon. Even though my wife sometimes calls me a buffoon.

Yom Kippur is not supposed to be a sad holiday.  We have other holidays that are sad.  We have Tisha B’Av, a night and day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the Temple.  It takes place in the middle of the summer because nothing says summer vacation better than being told to put down your margarita to mourn the loss of building 2,000 years ago.

On a much more serious note, there’s Yom HaShoah, where we read the names of the victims of the holocaust.  It is a serious day indeed.  Even Passover has its elements of anger like at the end of the Seder we open the door for Elijah, the harbinger of the messiah and we recite “Pour out your wrath” upon those that seem to keep the world from redemption.

Yom Kippur, however is not a sad holiday.  Even though we take a moment to remember the one’s we’ve lost along life’s journey, the purpose of Yom Kippur is not be in mourning. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to be angry, or completely down on ourselves.  It is a day of personal evaluation and of bringing to the surface of vulnerabilities and our mortality, but once the great shofar is sounded at the end of the holiday we are supposed to dance and sing.  The very first thing you are supposed to do after you break your fast is to put the first pole in the ground for Sukkot, the most joyus holiday on the calendar.  (Orach Chayyim 624:5 and 625:1) Yom Kippur is not a sad holiday.

In fact it’s a holiday that through the process of fasting and praying will make us more joyous and ultimately more holy as people.

Which is what I want to focus on with you for a few minutes today.   I want to think through what it means to make your life happy and to see if happiness is really the truth as the song says or if happiness is part of a greater plan for your life to make you more holy as an individual.

For starters there’s the idea of “being happy.” It’s an emotion usually based on something that is happening to you.  Happiness is based on your happenings.   It’s triggered by by something on the outside and shapes the way you feel in a particular moment.

For example, I’m at my birthday party and I get a cake and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy.  I’m at my son’s birthday party and he gets cake, and I sing “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy for him. I’m at my son’s friend’s birthday party and he gets a cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday” and I’m happy because I know I can leave soon to get back to watching football.    Happiness is a feeling that happens to you based on your surroundings.

So let’s take a trip where you are surrounded by happiness.  Let’s go to the happiest place on earth.  Disneyland.  I’m there with my family and everyone is having a great time.  We ride the rides, eat ice cream, get a few souvenirs and everyone is happy. Until of course we leave the park, sit in traffic for hours and then I get my credit card bill for how much we spent on tickets, ice cream and souvenirs.    Then I’m not sure I’m so happy.

That is to say that being happy is not only based on your surroundings, but that it is also temporary. It’s ephemeral. It oozes out of us as soon as we stop feeling it.

Where does this idea of being happy come from? How did we get to “Happiness is the truth?”  It comes from ancient Athens, the founders of philosophy, democracy and the gyro sandwich.  Aristotle one of the forefathers of philosophical thought wrote two books on ethics. Eudaimonian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics, both extraordinary works of erudition.  His idea first principle in both books is that happiness or what he calls eudaimonia is itself the greatest goal in life.  He knows this because as he “says it is complete and self-sufficient, being the end of all of our practical undertakings.” What he means is that we can arrive at the conclusion that happiness is the most important thing in life because everything that we choose do, we do for some greater purpose – except happiness.

I’ll explain it this way.  It’s like the kid in a math class who ask.

Child: Why do I have to learn math?

Parent: “So you can get good grades”

Child:  “Why do I need to do that?”

Parent:  “So you can go to High School?”

Child: “Why?”

Parent:  “So you can go to college.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can get a good job.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can have a nice home and go on vacation.”

Child: “Why?” 

Parent: So you can be….happy.

Each idea leads to another and another until he comes to rest on the greatest purpose in life, the function of being a human, which he writes is to achieve happiness.  Happiness is “self-sufficient” and the “ends of life’s goals.”

You can draw a straight line from ancient Athens and its philosophers through the Western canon of intellectual thought all the way until today.  The most popular class at Harvard is called the Happy Class.  Over eight hundred students enroll every year.  They fill the largest lecture hall on campus twice a week.  The only purpose of the class is to learn to be happy.

Hundreds of songs on itunes, like the one by Pharrell Williams who says “clap along” either have the title or subject matter as happiness. On the TED website, where all rabbis go to learn to give a sermon, There are over two hundred TED talks on the subject.  On Amazon there are over 20k books on happiness available for purchase.  We go to McDonalds and eat America’s most popular fast food dish – “Happy Meals”  After work we go to where everyone knows your name to for “Happy Hours”  and some people I hear go to other places for “Happy Endings.”

Americans we know are obsessed with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because we look out at the world and we feel anxious.  Whether it’s internationally with the threat of nuclear war from North Korea.  Or domestically with the politics of our country. Especially as we realize that there are strong forces that try to make us more divided.  Or even closer to home with fear and anxiety that permeates everyday life.   There are those in this room who have a fear of getting fired. There are those in this room that have a fear of not making enough.  Fear of not having a big enough bank account. Fear of being shamed for your life choices or just for who you are.  Fear of going back to work after having a child because you leaving them with a stranger.  Or fear of staying home after having a child because it will set your career back.   Or maybe someone in our family is getting sick and we are not sure how to take care of them.  Or there is mandatory retirement at your company but you feel like you’re not done with your life’s work.  There is a lot of anxiety that permeates every corner of our lives.   And we know intuitively that we need something more.  We need a release from the anxiety and pain.  We need something to make us smile. We look out at the horizon and are searching, searching almost messianically for what we call happiness.

Don’t think that Judaism doesn’t care about joy.  Not everything we sing is in the minor key.  Judaism says, being happy is important.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously for example said,  mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid. “  It is a great mitzvah to be happy all the time. (Likkutei Maharan, Part 2:24).  The word simcha is mentioned nearly two hundred times in the Tanach and nearly a thousand times in rabbinic literature.  An overflowing cup of wine on Friday night is a symbol of unending joy.  You are not allowed to make kiddish angry.  If a bride walks by your shop on the day of her wedding you must stop your work. Stop everything  and dance for her.  It is a commandment to rejoice with the bride and the groom. (Talmud Ketubot 17a) If you are invited to bris, you have to go.

Jewish humorists are some the most famous comedians in history.  We love to tell jokes:

Did you hear the one about the chicken and the salmon who go for a walk?  I know it’s a tough visual. The chicken and salmon go for a walk, and as they walk they see a big sign outside a restaurant: “Lox and Eggs Breakfast for Charity.” The Chicken says, “Come on, let’s go in, looks like fun!” The salmon hedges and says,“I don’t know.” The chicken says, “Why, what’s holding you back?  C’mon it’s for a good cause!” The salmon says, “Look: it says “lox and eggs.” From you they want a contribution, from me they want commitment!”

Or this one….

Rabbi Ben Simmons was fed up with his congregation. So, he decided to skip the services on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and instead go play golf.

Moses was looking down from heaven and saw the rabbi on the golf course. He naturally reported it to God. Moses suggested God punish the rabbi severely.

As he watched, Moses saw Rabbi Ben Simmons playing the best game he had ever played. The rabbi got a hole-in-one on the toughest hole on the course and then again on the next hole.

Moses turned to God and asked, ‘I thought you were going to punish him. Do you call this punishment?’

God replied, ‘Who’s he gonna tell?’

Or how about this one…

There was the Jew that went camping.  Spend the night in Yosemite and woke up in the morning to a glorious sunshine.  He goes out of the tent and puts on the Tallit and Tefillin.  He begins to pray.  Thank you God for such a glorious day. For making me free.  And just then a huge bear comes out of the woods licking his chops.  The man knows that he’s breakfast.  So he raises his hands and says, Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the world!  Please, please, I know my end is near, please make this bear into a Jew a good Jew.

He closes his eyes and begins to Shema Yisrael.  He opens his eyes and he sees that bear has put on a kippah and is covering his eyes in prayer as well.  Thank God!  Moshele says!  I’m saved!  The Bear is a Jewish Bear!  He listens closer to hear what the bear is praying:  The bear sings: Hamotzi Lechem min haaretz.

Telling food jokes on Yom Kippur, oy.  Everyone ok?  Anyone hungry?

We love being funny and having fun. We love being happy!  It’s not just you that feels that way this compulsion for happiness.  There was an economic survey back in the 1970s that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know– in a long period of economic growth where incomes were rising and debts falling– did having more money in your pocket made you happier. Questionnaires of this sort have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, you can track happiness and life-satisfaction to income.  The more you earn, the more things you can own, and the happier you can become. This is true for both individuals and whole countries.  On the other hand, when the data is reexamined through the lens of behavioral economics and psychology, a paradox emerges.  While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did the rising sense of meaninglessness.

Therein lies the paradox of our lives.   The more things you try to own the more you realize that you cannot find meaning in it.  The more you ask yourself, “What do I need to feel happy?” the more you are disappointed when you have have that thing. As one billionaire said, “How many more pairs of jeans do I need to own to make me look good? I already have one for everyday of the week.”

What emerges from these studies is that our sensibilities adapt to the things we own.  Every purchase of material goods we make can add to our satisfaction, but only for a short period of time.  You quickly  get used to your new car or purse and soon feel just as empty as you did before you bought that new thing.  The more we ask “what do I need?” the more we feel that we need.  It is what Freud calls being driven by our instincts or our passions.  We create a cycle of desire…pleasure…desire….pleasure.   Until we look back at our lives, and wonder what it was all about.

Deep down our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

Ultimately to me, trying to find enough happiness is a like trying to get enough sleep.  It’s something that we tell our friends we don’t get enough of, that we are always looking for more of it, and when we finally have it, we are never awake enough to know it.

Trying to live life as Aristotle says, by setting up happiness as life’s ultimate telos, or goal, and then crafting your entire life around that goal by drugging our way there or buying our way there or vacationing our way there is our inheritance of being in a Western culture. Athens has had a lock on the Western mind for thousands of years.  Rational philosophy, utilitarian philosophy, existentialism, and American pragmatism are all thought palaces built on the foundations of Athens.

But Jews are not Greeks. Athens is not our capital.  Jerusalem is.  Judaism has always said that our lives cannot be reduced to the mere biological cycle of need and satisfaction.  Being happy is not life’s primary goal.  As Kohelet, the author of the book Ecclesiastes teaches, “Come now, I get mixed up with joy and experience pleasure,” and behold, it too was vanity. Of laughter, I said, “It is mirth” and concerning joy, “What does it accomplish?” (Ecclesiastes, 2:1-2) Kohelet was no cranky old man.  He was full of life and wisdom.  Kohelet travelled the world, learned from the greatest of teachers, earned great riches. Some say he was King Solomon.  He had seen it all – being poor and rich – wise and foolish.  And yet, his holy wisdom says to us that happiness leads to futility and meaninglessness.  If he were alive today he would be one of us. He would have gone to a nice college.  Got a graduate degree.  Made a living.  Stayed at the Ritz on vacation.  He has a wine collection, got good seats to Hamilton, the best tea times at the club, and a box at the bowl every summer, yet he felt in the end that all his travels and his wealth brought ephemeral joy, but in the end it had accomplished nothing.   Does this sound familiar to any of us in this room?

That is because life is more than the circle of pleasure, desire..pleasure…desire.  You are more than a biological creature, more than what Freud said about how you are driven by instincts.  The vital drives of sex, food, power and all the time we spend trying to satisfy  those needs do not, according to our rabbis, describe the fullness of our existence.

The material desires are part of each human being, but they cannot fully describe the experience of being human.

Our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

It is the philosophers of Athens teach us that happiness is the greatest good because it is the only thing we do for it’s own sake, but it is the sages of Jerusalem that teaches us that what happiness is not life’s goal.

It is holiness, that is life’s goal.

The purpose of life, says our tradition, is to be not only happy, but to be holy.

What then is holiness?

It is hard to teach this in a straightforward manner, so Think of it this way.  The kids this year in our day school are doing the Wizard of Oz. Remember the movie?  It’s starts out in Kansas and everything appears to be alright.  They have a nice farm, good family not without its problems, but for the most part everyone is ok.  Except, that there is this one thing that nobody notices. It permeates every corner of their lives. It is in every frame of the movie, it is behind every breath and furtive look.  Yet not a single character notices that the are living their lives in black-and-white. It’s only after the storm when the house goes flying in the air and lands somewhere in munchkin land does Dorothy open the door to the house and wanders outside does she see the world in color for the first time.

That’s what holiness is.  It 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 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 you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer in broadcast in black-and-white but in full streaming technicolor.

It is hard to approach this directly, so let me try again with another story.

When my zayde died, we gathered together for shiva at his home.  After a couple of nights, one of the cousins stands up and says, Can I tell zayde’s favorite joke?  She proceeded to tell it and the family started laughing contagiously.  Then another member of the family stood up and told another family joke.  One after another for 20 minutes amidst their sadness we found laughter.  We were on the floor in stitches.  That’s not because we were happy.  We were able to live in joy and sadness at the same time. Darkness and light comingled together into the admixture of our lives.  We were not happy in a happy moment, we found ourselves to be in a holy moment.

A few years later Sarah and I were married.  At my wedding, Sarah and I stood under the chuppah with our family, and we took a few moments to remember our fallen loved ones including my Zayde.  Just imagine on this beautiful Sunday we stood under chuppah and said prayers for him, remembering this sweet man who poured his life into our. We all cried.  I cried.  Because we were not just experiencing happiness as a couple, but holiness.  When you mourn for your family under the chuppah. That’s a technicolor holy moment because you begin to see the world through a prism that refracts all of life moments into one.

The same is when we had our oldest daughter, Meira.  We named her after my Zayde.  And amongst the most joyous feelings of new beginnings we took a moment to remember him again by sharing a few of his virtues we wished to see in her. I was sad and happy and excited and nervous.  A full spread of colorful emotions painting the world with God’s paintbrush.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim. Bringing light into darkness and darkness into light.   Mourning into dancing, and death into life, precious sweet life once again.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim.

It’s ok to laugh in a shiva house and cry under the chuppah and mourn at a baby naming. It’s not only ok, it’s holy.

Holiness is the fullest expression of our flourishing.  It is finding the colorful background behind the grayscale of our lives.

How do we find holiness?  Jews don’t believe that God makes a map for your life.  We are not predestined to heaven.  God does not set a fated path before each us.  Nor does God even know the outcomes of our choices, otherwise Yom Kippur makes no sense.  What is the use of taking the field and playing the game if everyone, even the fans know the outcome.  God is not a map maker.  God does not have a plan for your life.  That is your responsibility.

God does, however, provide us with a blueprint.  A blueprint tells you how to build the house.  Where to put the beams, what kind of shingles to use and where the plumbing and electricity go.  A blueprint never tells you what paintings to put on your walls or what sports team to follow.  It never tells you which melody to use when you sing your children to sleep.  Or what kind of tortilla to use for ‘Taco Tuesday.’ Blueprints are plans for an environment, an ecosystem in which those holy moments can be found. The blueprint is the background and you are the foreground.

According to the midrash, the Torah is God’s blueprint. (Bereshit Rabbah 1:4)  God uses the Torah to set out the foundations of the world.  The Torah gives us commandments and tells us the many stories of our people, but at it’s center is a single character that matters more than Abraham and Sarah or Moses and Miriam. At  the very center of the Torah is the most important character – so important that the whole world depends on it.

At the center of the Torah is the story of you.

The story of where you come from, of what is the nature of being human, of what is demanded of you, needed of you, and how you can give to the world.

God ordains the sacred times but it is up to you to make them holy.
(Leviticus 23:2) The Torah sets out the blueprint for the house and it’s up to you make life in the house.

The Torah teaches us greatest dimension of difference between holiness and happiness.

Aristotle asks, “How do I find happiness?” “What fulfills my desire?”  “What frees me from pain?”  “What gives me pleasure?” “What do I need?”

The Torah asks, “How do you find holiness?”  “How do you free the pain of others?” “How are you needed?”

Holy moments are not about your needs, but about how you are needed.

You don’t marry someone to make you a better person, it’s because you are needed by your partner so that they feel loved. They need you.

You don’t ask for forgiveness to make yourself feel less guilty, you ask for forgiveness so that the other person no longer has to feel the pain you’ve caused. They need you.

Tzedakah is a holy virtue.  You shouldn’t give money to charity because it makes you feel good and happy, or to get a tax deduction, it’s because the poor need you, they cry out to you.  When you break their fetters of oppression, their shackles of poverty and slavery says the prophet Isaiah (58:6-12) on this holiest of days, you become holy through them.  They need you.

That is how you become holy.  By being needed.

The Torah does not say, Smechim Te’hu,  “You shall be happy” Because life is not lived in black-and-white. God’s blueprint says, Kedoshim Te’hu, (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be holy”, with all it’s ups and downs.  With happiness and sadness. With life and death.  In life’s fullest dimensions and colors.  Holiness breaks the cycle of desire and pleasure by transcending ourselves to be more godly.   To be like God who is holy.

This is the central task of your life.

The world, according to the Talmud was created for your so that you know that you are part of something dramatically bigger than your personal needs. (Sanhedrin 34a).  Being human and finding significance, and indeed happiness, cannot happen solely by the fulfillment of your desires, but instead in the realization that you are needed. The Torah’s blueprint for your life is only the foundations, the parameters of your days on earth.  It gives you some guidance, but at it’s heart it asks of you this most central question.   “Are you needed?”

Your life is the answer to this question.

In 2011, the Nobel Laureate and author Toni Morrison, spoke at the Rutgers University commencement.  She said, “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

Yom Kippur is our commencement day complete with robes and funny hats.   Yom Kippur is also our holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is the holiday when we free ourselves from the cycle of desire and pleasure in order to achieve something greater, something more than our own short-lived happiness.  We fast our bodies so we can feed our souls.  We wear no leather, nor display wealth of any kind for we know that materialism is no substitute for holiness.  We spend the day away from work and our physical needs choosing instead to reflect and look inside ourselves so that we may grow.  We are all trying not just to look good but be good. Be holy.

Both Athens and Jerusalem say that you and I are the most important thing ever imagined.  But where the Greeks say the goal of life is to be happy, our sages say it is to be holy.  To build a life of holiness where your needs are met by meeting the needs of others.  Where we can build a synagogue community of caring and sharing.  A place that dips into the wellspring of our ancient tradition and say at almost any given moment, that we are doing holy work.  By belonging to a community, making a commitment to a community that says it’s mission is to create holiness in the lives of all people.

By learning our eternal values (Torah), by reaching deep with our own souls (Avodah), by connecting to others (Hevre) and by growing in spirit by growing the spirits of others through acts of loving kindness (chesed). For without them the world cannot stand. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

Our community is not a country club nor is it a business it is a kehila kedosha, a community of holiness.  Were we can never settle for happiness.  Because our lives are so much more colorful than that. Be with us. And you can clap along if you feel that’s what you wanna do.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

This was originally posted on Valley Beth Shalom’s website

Rabbi Ken Chasen’s Yom Kippur sermon: Time, Temperament and Turning

Most everyone I know who gets in their regular exercise by running, as I do, has their marathon story. I mean, if you’re determined enough to destroy your feet, your ankles and your knees in the name of physical fitness, you’re surely determined enough to do it for 26.2 straight miles at some point in your life. I have countless family members who have that photo of themselves crossing the finish line. I have friends with the photo. Our former rabbi, Leah Lewis – she has the photo. I had to have it, too.

My marathon story goes back to 2001, when I was living in New York. I’d been a fitness runner for years by then, and I decided that this was my time. My temple had just hosted the rabbi of the fledgling Reform movement in the Former Soviet Union, and we learned that he had to serve four different communities, separated by many hundreds of miles, with a combined budget of just $72,000. I remember thinking to myself: “I’m going to double their budget this year. I’m going to run the New York City Marathon, and I’ll get my congregants to sponsor me… to the tune of $72,000.”

The hubris of a young rabbi. $72,000 would have been a mighty mountain to climb if I’d promised my congregants I was going to end world hunger with their money. For the purposes of building Reform Judaism in Kiev, let’s just say I had identified an ambitious goal. But undeterred, I set out to train. I called up a congregant of mine who had run the New York City Marathon several times, and I asked him what I needed to do to transform myself from a 4-mile kind of guy into a 26-mile kind of guy. He helped me find the right running shoes, learn the right hydration patterns. But most of all, he taught me that the challenge of running a marathon isn’t actually the running of the marathon. It’s getting to the day of the marathon in one piece. He explained that I would need to be very disciplined about how I built up my mileage, or else I would end up injured, and that would be that. So he laid down the law. You can only run four days per week. Most of those runs shouldn’t be longer than four or five miles. Only once per week can you attempt a distance longer than that. You can never attempt to run a full marathon in practice… in fact, you’ll never run more than 19 miles until it’s the day you have to run 26. You must stretch. You must ice. These are non-negotiable rules, I was told.

Some of you know I can be a little competitive when it comes to athletic endeavors. So of course, I decided that the rules were for mere mortals. I started training, and I got that runner’s high. I felt my cardio capacity growing explosively. I was indestructible. And indestructible people who have a busy congregation to run can 2 get by, I figured, with just a little stretching, and maybe with icing just when there’s an abundance of time. One day, still more than four months before the marathon, I headed out for a 12-mile practice run. And I was feeling it. My heart fitness was so great, I was barely breaking a sweat. I could have kept running forever.

Long about the three-mile mark, I felt a pretty sharp pain in my right knee. “I’m a marathoner,” I remember thinking. “There’s supposed to be pain.” So I kept running. Nine more miles. By that night, I couldn’t walk down the steps in my house without a rail.

The doctor told me I had iliotibial band tendinitis. That’s a fancy medical term for what happens to idiots who pile on too many miles thinking they’re indestructible. He said that if it was just about my heart health, I was ready to run the marathon already. But I had to stop running immediately and let the tendinitis heal, or I’d never make it to the starting line. “But I can’t just stop,” I protested. So against his better judgment, he permitted me to cross-train – to ride a bike and use a StairMaster… fitness activities that involved no running, so I could maintain my cardio readiness while waiting for my body to heal.

Only my body never healed. Every time I tried to resume running, usually sooner than doctor’s orders, I would try another long run, and like clockwork, each time at the seven-mile mark, my knee would flame. This went on for months, until I finally surrendered, accepting that the Reform Jews of Kiev would have to get by without me.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that our lives are a lot like training for a marathon. The hardest part is just getting through the process in one piece. You have to be really disciplined about how you build up the miles. You have to stretch. You have to ice. Otherwise, that will be that.

Or at least that’s how it often feels. Being a rabbi – your rabbi – means that I am often called upon for “marathon training counsel” when you face the longest runs of your lives. When the marriage ends. When the business collapses. When the doctor’s news is devastating. When your child suffers. When the money dries up. When you stumble away from the grave and enter that incomprehensible tomorrow.

Most of us aren’t so good about stretching and icing while weathering the lifeshaking moments. We tell ourselves, “Just keep piling on the miles. Keep going. Be active. Be strong. Be indestructible.” Of course, our very essence as humans is that we are destructible. Try though we may to flee that fact, we have this day to offer its sober reminder. We are destructible – it’s guaranteed, in fact – so how we navigate the forces that take us apart has an enormous impact upon what our short lives will be like, and sometimes even upon how long our short lives may last.

And let’s be clear – the forces that take us apart aren’t only in our personal lives. Some of them are in our collective life. I have spoken with so many of you about this, and I can see it in your eyes even now. The state of our country and our world, beset with a growing tribal hatred that threatens our serenity, our safety, and the very character of our nation, is literally savaging our souls. We aren’t sleeping as we should. We’re on edge, afraid, hostile. And we feel like we can’t even afford a moment’s respite, because everything is just too tenuous to permit looking away. And so we’re caught up in a relentless tension pulsating in the public sphere – and feeling like our only option is just to keep pushing, keep fighting, keep piling on the miles.

I’m not sure if there’s a special name for iliotibial band tendinitis of the spirit. I am sure that most of us are suffering from it. And it means that our souls can barely walk sometimes, and yet we keep forcing them to run. Like the young mom who recently told me, “I can’t have even one more new burden placed upon me right now… I will snap.” A lot of us feel that way.

So what can we do about it? Well, these holy days have included a number of answers that we, your rabbis, have sought to propose. On Rosh Hashanah eve, Rabbi Berney urged us to seek refuge from a violent and scary world by more intentionally choosing words and actions that reduce the dangers, especially to women. The next morning, we considered how “rehumanizing” others – particularly those with whom we disagree – can free us from the hatred that is being stoked inside of us. Last night, Rabbi Ross reminded us of how our trust and faith in being a part of something bigger than ourselves can be a source of tremendous sustenance and comfort. Our tradition is, of course, filled with wisdom designed to help us get through the process of living in one piece – to help us build up the miles in a way that makes us stronger, not more feeble.

This morning, I want to propose three more disciplines, drawn from our tradition, for finding equanimity and resilience when we are pushing ourselves through the longest runs of our lives. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list; so much of our tradition is aimed at this goal that it would be impossible to share all of Judaism’s insights on the subject. But these three, I believe, are well suited to this particular moment, when the collective public marathon and the separate personal marathons of our lives are converging in a manner that demands some conscious strategy for self and soul preservation.

It so happens that the three all start with the same letter… three Ts. The first discipline is time – and by this, I mean Judaism’s profound understanding of time and our positioning within it. Many great Jewish thinkers have attempted to describe the Jewish concept of time, but my favorite to have done so in recent years is my dear friend, colleague and former classmate Rabbi Yael Splansky, who serves as senior rabbi of her 4 longtime synagogue in Toronto. Rabbi Splansky wrote these words two years ago as part of her announcement to her congregants that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in her early forties at the time – a wife and a mother, and also her community’s spiritual leader. So she knew that her news was going to land hard. To create the context for revealing her diagnosis, she wrote the following: “Jewish resilience is a distinct kind of resilience. It has to do with time. When the Jewish People is faced with adversity, our greatest evidence that we can endure it is the past and our greatest motivator to endure it is the future. We can carry on because generations before us have proven that we can; we must carry on because future generations depend on it. This is a kind of faith that even the most unattached Jew carries with him wherever he goes. It’s a faith that resides not in the neshama (the soul), but in the kishkes (the gut).”

Rabbi Splansky is suggesting a version of faith that is hardwired into us Jews, even the most God-averse among us. Her teaching reminded me of a story written by the legendary giant of modern Hebrew literature, Shai Agnon. In his story Pi Shnayim, “Twice Over,” he describes a man paralyzed by a decision he has to make on Yom Kippur eve… which of two tallitot he should wear to services. One was a tallit he inherited from his father-in-law upon his death. It was wrapped around one of the many holy books his father-in-law left to him from his majestic collection. This tallit held the power of the past – when wrapped inside it, he could hear the voices of his ancestors and feel the old world reaching to him. The other tallit had no such history. He had purchased it for himself when he made aliyah to Israel, and he imagined it carrying the story that was still to come in his life – the future that was yet untold. It would someday hold the kind of gravity and power for others that his father-in-law’s tallit held for him.

So there he stands, with Kol Nidre eve beckoning, and he needs to choose. Will he wear the tallit of his past or of his future? He suffers over his decision, laboring over every imaginable angle worth considering. Finally, in an act of surrender, he simply closes his eyes, grabs for whichever one happens to land in his fingers, and he rushes off to the synagogue. The trouble is: when he gets there, the sanctuary is empty. He had agonized for so long that services were over. He had missed Kol Nidre because he couldn’t choose between the tallit of his past and the tallit of his future. And he describes himself as “an apothecary, so long at work mixing powders for a drug, that in the meantime the patient dies.”

This is what Judaism teaches it is to be paralyzed by the present. When we are most demoralized and overmatched by the moment, feeling overwhelmed by the consequence of the instant, Judaism, with all of its rituals and blessings for moments in time, is there to remind us to wear both tallitot at the same time. Past and future – for the present, no matter how enormous it may seem, is situated amid so much more. The past reminds us that we can endure. The future reminds us why we must endure. Not to fix it all, but to do our part.

It is exactly as was taught by Rabbi Splansky, who thank God is now well again. And with both tallitot draped around our shoulders, hugging us in our moments of greatest fear and doubt, we are steadied enough to see: the matters that are plaguing us have been experienced and discussed and lived through for thousands of years. And with just a little humility before the grand rush of time, we can look to the future with tremendous hope, even in our darkest hours, because our small contribution to advancing love or peace or wisdom – we can still make it, even while dying. Our brushstroke on the painting of the human story.

A second discipline – having to do with our temperament. When we are most troubled either by dark challenges in our personal lives or in the world or both, we are often inclined to become pretty dark ourselves. It feels frivolous, unserious – maybe even oblivious – to remain light. But our tradition has long pointed to the corrosiveness of that impulse. Not only does it make us more miserable than we need to be. It makes us less effective, less capable of inspiring ourselves and others.

When the great 20th century Orthodox rabbi, Aryeh Kaplan, was asked whether the Talmud had jokes in it, he replied, “Yes, but they are all old.” So perhaps our ancient rabbinic literature is not your best source for cutting-edge humor, but that doesn’t mean it devalues humor. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Talmud records the story of a rabbi named Beroka Hoza’ah, who would from time to time be visited by the prophet Elijah when he was in the marketplace. Once, he asked the prophet, “Is there anyone in this marketplace who has a share in the World to Come?” Elijah answered, “No,” but soon, two men walked by, and Elijah said, “These two… they have a share in the World to Come.” So naturally, the rabbi rushed over to ask them what they did for a living. “We are comedians,” they said. “When we see people who are depressed, we cheer them up. And when we see two people quarreling, we strain hard to make peace between them.”

I can’t say whether our people’s historical propensity for comedy was a response to that teaching. What I can say is: when our tradition teaches the importance of laughter, even in times of great trouble, it’s not suggesting some sort of gratuitous silliness. After all, one of the deepest spiritual voices of Jewish history, Reb Nachman, famously taught, “It is a great mitzvah always to be happy.” Now, you have to understand that Nachman had his own well-chronicled struggles with depression and despair, so he surely wasn’t arguing for mindless giddiness. He was encouraging the discipline of retaining a lightness of soul – one which unlocks our capacity to deepen human connection and possibility, and to disarm conflict, just as the marketplace comedians in the Talmud strove to do. And let’s be honest – you already know that Nachman was right, because I’ve seen you… laughing through your tears while telling a story at the bedside of your dying loved one… leaning on your sense of humor when you lost your job… bursting out in laughter while sharing remembrances at the shiva house. We don’t laugh because we 6 don’t understand the seriousness. We laugh because it is a great mitzvah always to be happy, and we discover that if our souls are able to touch joy while facing the height of the pain, we will remain able to touch joy while living with the pain.

If this still feels tone deaf to the difficulty of this moment in our world or in your personal life, consider the following excerpt from an obituary that was written last year upon the death of the Holocaust’s survivor of all survivors, Elie Wiesel: “Mr. Wiesel,” it read, “was liberated from the Buchenwald camp as a 16-year old but at his funeral he was remembered for a legacy little known by those outside his immediate circle: he loved to laugh.” Indeed, news reports about the funeral described the eulogy delivered by Ted Koppel, who was one of Wiesel’s close friends over many decades. He told listeners about how funny Elie Wiesel was – about how they were always working to come up with ways to make each other laugh.

If times weren’t too dark for Elie Wiesel to retain a lightness of soul, it’s certainly not too dark for us right now. For the sake of bringing peace and changing hearts, including our own, let us strive to follow his example.

Which leads us to the third discipline – the one that brings us all here today. In Hebrew, it’s called teshuvah. In English, we often translate it as “repentance,” but what it actually means is “turning” – as in “turning” ourselves back toward our higher impulses, realigning our actions with our values. That’s what this season of the High Holydays, with its crescendo on this Day of Atonement, is supposed to be about. Most of us think about this as an exercise in guilt – a rigorous time of admission and often shame over what we’ve become and not become. Sounds like the kind of activity more likely to drain our resilience than restore it. But that’s not what our sages teach us to see in these days. To them, teshuvah – turning – was about rebirth… our rebirth… and what could be more renewing for our souls than that?

The great pioneer of the Musar movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter, pointed out that “the Midrash teaches, ‘Everything that came into being during the six days of Creation requires improvement’… Our world is a world of transformation. When we are improving and refining ourselves, we are in concert with the Divine plan – fulfilling our purpose for existing in this world…. Not only is the human being created for this purpose, but he is also given the ability… to attain this supreme goal.” That’s what Rosh Hashanah was supposed to trigger for us. We were to be as new creations ourselves – birthday of the world, birthday of us – and then to spend these first days of our new lives working tirelessly to transform.

Every single one of us knows how hard it is to live up to that vision. All you have to do is think about “those sins.” You know the ones I’m talking about – the ones you now accept as habits. They’re the sins you think and pray about every year, because they 7 don’t change. You feel ashamed of them, but in truth, you’ve learned to tolerate them in yourself. You’re not so keen on tolerating them in your children, who have learned them from you, or in other people throughout the various corners of your life. But in you, they’ve become regrettable expectations. You annually announce to yourself your intention to defeat them. And then you’re back again a year later, sitting here with them in embarrassment, just as you did the year before.

Just imagine if this year, you managed to break that cycle with even one of “those sins?” Imagine what it would feel like to transform yourself – to transcend yourself? It would be one of the greatest accomplishments of your life. It would revolutionize your relationships with the people you love the most. And it would prove to you the capacity for human change – right at the moment in our world when we so desperately need to believe again in that capacity. Want to change a broken world? Start by asking yourself: “Who am I to change a broken world?” Maybe if you can change the broken you – and I, the broken me – we might truly believe that redemption is possible for the broken we.

This is precisely what the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber meant when he wrote: “In the (person) who does teshuvah, creation begins anew; in his renewal the substance of the world is renewed.” That’s the power of this day, this season. Use it well – then take it home, turn it into real change, and kindle in yourself an optimism about what is possible for all of humanity that will revive your flagging hope. If ever there was a moment for doing the real work of human change – this human’s change – this is that moment.

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.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, we are taught: “God said, ‘Since you all came for judgment before Me on Rosh Hashanah, and you left (the judgment) in peace, I consider it as if you were created as a new being.’” You made it. The new year is here, and you’re in it. Be a new being.

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.

Las Vegas Embraces Torah in Time of Tragedy

An interfaith vigil in response to the Las Vegas shooting was held at Guardian Angel Cathedral nearby the Las Vegas strip.

Three days after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the Jewish community there headed into Sukkot, and the words recited at evening prayers, Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha — Spread over us Your shelter of peace — never seemed more apt.

Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, spiritual leader of 600 families at Congregation Ner Tamid in nearby Henderson, Nev., held a small vigil on Oct. 2 alongside the community’s sukkah that was still under construction.

“I wanted to have an outdoor vigil,” Akselrad told the Journal, “because when you looked up, you could see the stars and see how small we are, and there has to be something greater we can draw upon and give us courage.”

His Reform synagogue also plans to host a fundraising concert called “Vegas Strong in Song” on Oct. 15 for the victims of the attack, in which 58 people died and more than 500 were injured. The event will include Jewish performers from around the country.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah, which holds services in Las Vegas and has about 100 families as members, said that during Sukkot services “we acknowledged that life is certainly as fragile as a sukkah. In lieu of any kind of a sermon I might have given, I acknowledged that sometimes words are inadequate and gave my congregation the opportunity to break out in small groups and simply share what they had been going through since the massacre.”

Jewish Federation of Las Vegas President and CEO Todd Polikoff said he was proud of the community and its response to the shooting.

“Whether it’s been collecting food and water for people, donating blood, or the upcoming concert, our community has been nothing short of miraculous and has responded to those in need,” he said.

Mintz personally called every family in her congregation after the attack.

“It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragedy for this to happen, but it happened instantaneously,” she said. “The interfaith community, especially, became galvanized, and rallies and vigils sprung up all over the city.”

Among them was the interfaith vigil at Guardian Angel Cathedral just off the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 2, which Akselrad helped organize. “I spoke at so many vigils last week,” he said, but noted that his mantra at each of them was the same: “I choose to love love more than I want to hate hate.”

He said he spoke of what it was important to remember and what should be forgotten: “I don’t want to remember the name of the [shooter]. I want to remember the acts of courage and faith and of love. And the emphasis will be not that this was the worst tragedy, but that there were heroes who came forward in a time [they were] needed most.”

Beyond dealing with the physical needs of the victims, it became a priority in the Jewish community to make sure area children felt safe. P’nai Tikvah member Arlyn Katz said that in addition to the phone call from Mintz — who has two adult children and one who is 10 — she received an email on how to talk to her children.

“I was really grateful for that,” she said.

Mintz’s youngest child, Kayla, had to deal with a particularly close connection to the tragedy: The secretary of the dance academy she regularly attended was shot twice in the chest and hospitalized in critical condition as of Oct. 8. The secretary’s 13-year-old daughter was shot in the arm.

“When I woke up to get ready for school, I was really scared. That was a hard morning,” Kayla told the Journal.

While local public schools were closed the day after the shooting for security reasons, the private Jewish day school Kayla attends held classes as a result of the security already in place there. However, the school’s social worker came and spoke to the children, and the first hour of classes was canceled.

“It was a really heartfelt hour,” Kayla said. “It was emotional, but they kept asking us how we were and tried to calm us down.”

During Sukkot, Akselrad said he spent time doing a “trust walk” with the 15- and 16-year-old youths at Ner Tamid. The teens wrote prayers, wishes and poems and hung them in the sukkah. “They talked about their hope for healing and no more gun violence,” Akselrad said.

Yonina Kronfeld Schnee, a P’nai Tikvah member and special education teacher who lived in Israel for more than a decade, said the community came together following the shooting spree.

“I always felt safer in Israel than anywhere else because Israel is more prepared for things like this,” she said.

Journalist Chris Sieroty had attended Yom Kippur services at Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul in Las Vegas, and was staying at the Mirage on the Strip for a conference when he heard sirens on Oct. 1. Initially, he thought nothing of it. 

“It’s Vegas,” he said. “If you’ve lived here long enough, you always hear sirens on the Strip.” 

But then his phone started buzzing. It was his niece who lives in Israel and is in the army calling to see if he was safe.

“I thought, ‘What’s she doing calling so late?’ so I didn’t pick it up,” he said. “But then I looked out the window and saw all the police, and the Strip was empty.”

He later realized that was because everyone had run into the casinos. Sieroty said he tried to get downstairs to see what was happening but the Mirage wasn’t letting people move about due to the concern that there might be another active shooter in the area.

More than a week after the shooting, the community now is focusing on how to move forward.

“The shooting affected everybody, and I suspect that the shock and the grief that initially fell over the city will give way to a plethora of other emotions, including anger and hopefully action,” Mintz said. “The prayers that sprung up will hopefully become what Abraham Joshua Heschel said: We will pray with our feet.”

Mintz said she hopes that will translate into “some sort of change that includes common-sense regulations for both firearms and for mental health.”

Akselrad echoed Mintz’s sentiments, adding, “We have to get involved in whatever we can do to help stop this horrific violence that guns cause.”

Polikoff said the Federation is thinking about “the long game.”

“We’re working with the Israeli Trauma Coalition and hoping to bring some of the Israeli expertise out here to help people deal with the trauma, the mental trauma,” he said. “The physical trauma will heal, but those first responders and those who were there that night are going to need help in the future, whether they know it now or not.” 

Letters to the Editor: Rob Eshman, David Myers, forgiveness and Holocaust deniers

Rob Eshman’s Fans Give Him a Shoutout

I will be one of those people who will miss you, Rob Eshman. Your column was always the first thing I read when I opened the Jewish Journal (“The Last Column,” Sept. 29). I truly enjoy your perspective and the many things happening locally and in the world.

Many people think your viewpoint is slanted, but I have found you to be the common sense in the middle of the controversy. Your column has often made me think about how I feel about something, about whether I agree or disagree. I like that. If you decide to have a public email commentary, I would love to be included.

Thank you for your many years of Jewish Journal involvement. It has been your column that has kept me reading the Jewish Journal because I live in the eastern area of Los Angeles County and do not get involved in most the Jewish happenings around the city.

Myra Weiss via email

I’m so sorry you’re leaving the Journal.  (Maybe you’ll write an occasional opinion piece, for old time’s sake?). Even though I feel like I should begin my cover-to-cover reading of the Journal with the rabbinic column on the weekly Torah portion, in reality I’ve always turned to your column first.  They are so insightful and to the point. I don’t know what I’ll do without my weekly fix.

You have led the Journal exactly where it needs to go.  May you find whatever you do next to be rewarding.

Phyllis Sorter via email

In his final column, Rob Eshman announced he is leaving as editor-in-chief and publisher of the bravely open Journal, reassuring the Journal’s faithful readers that the most “Jewish” worldview is an honestly open worldview that the Journal’s staff and readers can, as a complex yet unified community, benefit by if they maintain their grounding in the Judaic belief that “God is One,” while creating an increasingly complex world. Eshman states that the role of the Jewish journalist is to publish stories that reflect the complexities and uncertainties of living, knowing that in publishing stories regarding the complexities of even the smallish Jewish world, one will receive negative responses from somewhere — the Jewish communities in the United States, in Israel or even the small Jewish community in Iran.

A Jew must be courageous in the face of complexity, diversity and even anti-Semitism, yet have sufficient humility to accept those conditions without losing faith in ehad (unity). “Complexity within the context of unity” should continue to be the editorial policy of the Journal.

William E. Baumzweiger, Studio City

How about pitching your personal story as a modern Jewish contemporary replacement to parenthood? That way, the ache in my sad heart would weekly be replenished! Your parents have raised a fine human being. You have been a godsend as well as a blessing to my husband and me. Surviving daily now in this bleak age of that man occupying the White House is horrifying as well as preposterous. But your column (Marty Kaplan’s often, as well) have embraced our hearts, fears and humanism. But asking you to hold back your obvious talents is selfish.

I simply want my letter to be one more of the many you have already received saying you left me in tears and take with you my heart. 

You are never alone or unloved.

Elaine Kretchman via email

Your last column, not surprisingly, was deeply reflective, filled with gratitude and hope. You sound ready for the next (unknown) chapter in your life.

Thank you for enriching us every week with your humanity, your intelligence and your informed reporting. Your column helped me gain perspective on complex issues facing us during turbulent and confusing times in the news.

You will be missed.

Perla Karney via email

I love the Jewish Journal for its ability to reflect different points of view. And the most nourishing in form and content has been Rob Eshman. He will be missed, particularly by this Bronx Jew.

Also, Danielle Berrin’s column (“A Conversation With God,” Sept. 29) reflects humor and wisdom. It’s a distinct pleasure to read a column that makes me smile, think and experience a spiritual backbone.

Rick Edelstein via email

L’shanah tovah to you and your family, Rob. I know that I will miss you on jewishjournal.com and look forward to hearing somehow about your future endeavors. You are doing a wise thing, I think. This is a good time to make a change. I let go of the trapeze at just about the same age as you and I ended up grabbing on to some good bars on the other side.

Howard L. Hoffman via jewishjournal.com

Rob, I am a major Eshman fan, which you know, and although I am also a David Suissa fan because David is a mensch through and through with a heart as big as the Jewish world, I found myself reading your columns weekly often to learn what I thought about this, that or another issue. So, I will miss you in these pages, but am glad that we are friends and I hope that that friendship will continue until we’re both really old men — I have 10 years on you, by the way, but who’s counting? Gmar chatimah tovah v’hatzl’cha b’chol dar’checha!

Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood, via jewishjournal.com


David Myers Is Qualified for His New Job

Let’s see if I have this right. David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, becomes CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York, and is deemed by some people to be unfit for that position because they don’t like some of his political positions, not because of his credentials.

My reply, in the words of the Distinguished Professor of Tennis John McEnroe, is, “You cannot be serious!”

Stephen J. Meyers via email


Why Should I Ask for Forgiveness?

I am a Jew and I don’t like nor participate in Yom Kippur. I am a decent person throughout the entire year and there is absolutely no reason for me to participate in a holiday during which I am required to repent for the monstrous acts that I have committed all year long. None exists for me.

Now, I do know many Jews who have been horrible, lying cheats all year long. On Yom Kippur, they fast and attend shul. I ask myself, do they ask forgiveness from God or do these lowlifes consider cheating, etc., as nothing particularly offensive? I spent my Yom Kippur day enjoying a sandwich outdoors and gardening, and I felt completely at ease with myself.

Alexandra Joans, Los Angeles


Science vs. Holocaust Deniers

We never need to fear the Holocaust revisionists (“Rare Holocaust Photos Resurface in North Hollywood Home,” Sept. 29). The secret lies in the paper that the Germans used to print their images. Most of the companies that made the went out of business around 1945. Using fibers, taken from the photographic paper that the Germans used to make their images, today’s science and technology can trace almost to the exact year, month and country from where the images were printed. Because of this, Holocaust deniers can rant all they want about doctored images, but the truth is revealed in the paper, much like the words are revealed from the Torah.

Hallie Lerman, professional photographer, Los Angeles

Every Year Coming to Yizkor by Rabbi Janet Madden

Memorial candles

Every year now, in the midst of apples and honey and family recipes and the sweet new beginnings of Rosh HaShanah, I am already looking ahead to Yom Kippur, thinking of the first Yizkor book in which my mother’s name was included and the first Yizkor service in which I, too, was among those mourning a parent. Every Rosh HaShanah reminds me, again, of how every year since that first year, the High Holy Days have been connected to her yahrzeit and private, personal mourning and memories and to the first Yizkor service of the new year. Every High Holy Days brings me the opportunity to remember and mourn publicly, with those newly-bereaved, as I was that year, and with those who have learned, as I have, that there is a beautiful balance between sadness and comfort when we acknowledge our griefs in community.

Of course, I knew long before my mother’s death that the ten days of the Yamin Noramim—the Days of Awe—are filled with reminders of the brevity and uncertainty of life. The liturgies of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur reiterate the reality of our mortality. The Unatana tokef prayer, especially, uses graphic images to remind us of our reality: that even as we wish one another to be inscribed and sealed for a good year, we really have no idea what sorrows and joys await us. But the year that she was diagnosed and we were told that she would not survive more than a few months—and in fact died within weeks—was the first Rosh HaShanah that I had just buried a loved one, and, I think, the first time I understood the Unatana tokef.

Every year since that year, the High Holy Days make me more aware, again, of mortality. Of course, they are supposed to. The High Holy Days are intended to be awesome; they are infused with a sense of urgency that encourages us to not engage in denial, to not postpone, to not avoid difficult conversations and decisions. In heightening our awareness that life ends and that there is never enough time, the process of engaging in teshuvah—of turning, returning and being turned—is intended to disrupt us, to wake us up and shake us out of complacency. The High Holy Days push us to reflect on life’s big questions: who we are, what our purpose is, what our lives mean, how we want to be remembered.

For me, the season of the High Holy Days is also the time that I turn over garden soil, harvest the last of summer crops, plant winter vegetables, and rake up feathers from my molting chickens. I think of this as a naturally pensive time, the turning of the seasons reminding me that I’ve lived through another year and that so many have not. The timing of the High Holy Days means that the natural world itself reinforces the theme of turning and returning: summer has ended, the daylight is changing, leaves are turning colors and falling from trees, the Autumnal Equinox—which this year, in the Northern Hemisphere, took place on the second day of Rosh HaShanah—momentarily balances day and night as exact equals. I like to think of the Yom Kippur Yizkor, the first Yizkor of the year, as the liturgical equivalent of the Autumnal Equinox: the opportunity to balance sorrow with consolation, the past with the present, regret with hope, private remembrances with public commemoration. Perhaps that is the reason why even those who otherwise eschew synagogue attendance show up for Yizkor—because grieving alone is painful and grieving together to reminds us that so long as there is a Jewish community we are not alone.

Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

 

[Ed. Note: We at Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute hope that your holiday season – for those who celebrate – was meaningful and uplifting, and that you have been inscribed and sealed for a good, sweet year full of blessings. To those who engage in the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the broadest sense be granted additional blessings for their participation in this holy endeavor and sacred labor. — JB]

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting roughly in January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).

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Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.

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You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

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If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Swedish Jews celebrate Yom Kippur under heavy security as neo-Nazis march in major city

The far-right Nordic Resistance Movement marches in Gothenburg, Sweden, on September 30, 2017. Photo by Fredrik Sandberg/AFP/Getty Images

Jews in the Swedish city of Gothenburg expressed relief on Monday after a neo-Nazi march on Yom Kippur bypassed the city’s main synagogue and the community received hundreds of messages of support from groups and individuals.

On Saturday, 30 members of the far-right nationalist Nordic Resistance Movement, or NRM, were arrested when they did not follow their assigned route, clashed with counterprotesters and tried to walk toward the Scandinavia Book Fair, the largest literary festival in Scandinavia. Among those arrested was the group’s leader, Simon Lindberg.

Jews had worried about harassment and vandalism during the march, which was rerouted after appeals by the Jewish community that it not pass the synagogue on Judaism’s holiest day. Police presence around the synagogue was heavy, with cars patrolling the area as well as a helicopter and a boat in a nearby canal. The synagogue also provided additional security.

Despite this, Yom Kippur services went on as usual and had a large turnout, community chairman Allan Stutzinsky told JTA.

The Gothenburg community, which is typically under tight security and has approximately 1,000 official members, feared not only the neo-Nazi marchers but potential left-wing counterprotesters, Stutzinsky told JTA earlier this month. People affiliated with the NRM were responsible for anti-Semitic threats that led to the shuttering in April of the Jewish community center in Umea, a city in northeastern Sweden, according to Stutzinsky.

Jews in Gothenburg had worried that the synagogue would be vandalized with swastikas over the weekend, Stutzinsky said. Instead they woke up on Sunday to find that people had drawn hearts with chalk around the building in support.

Amid wide media coverage of the march, the community received hundreds of messages of support from groups and individuals. Stutzinsky, who earlier this month compared present-day anti-Semitism to that in pre-World War II Europe, praised the response.

“The threats exist, but they don’t dominate society. Civil society in Sweden stood up for us in a way that the civil society in Germany didn’t do in the ’30s. We have received a lot of support,” he told JTA.

Last month, the Jewish community appealed a police decision to allow the NRM to march along a route that would have taken them only about 200 yards from the city’s main synagogue on the Jewish holiday. The neo-Nazis had originally wanted to march on the main streets of Gothenburg, but the police offered the alternate route near the synagogue.

After appeals by the Jewish community, as well as several other groups in Sweden, an administrative court in Gothenburg rerouted the protest. The Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress also urged the Swedish government to ensure the Jewish community’s safety.

Still, the fact that the march took place was worrying, Stutzinsky said.

“We have people who openly follow Nazism and who publicly show that they are Nazis and that they have that agenda,” he said of the marchers.

Aron Verstandig, chairman of The Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, said Monday that the incident represented a larger trend of the rise of the far right, citing recent demonstrations across Sweden. On Thursday, Verstandig spoke with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven about the march. Lofven denouncedthe rise of neo-Nazi groups and said the government needed take action to combat such organizations.

Though the far right is worrying, the largest threat to the community comes from Islamist terrorism, said Verstandig, who also serves as chairman of the Jewish community in Stockholm. He cited recent terror attacks against Jewish institutions across Europe, including in 2015 on a synagogue in nearby Copenhagen that left one dead.

The community isn’t going anywhere, but the various security threats take a toll, he told JTA. The synagogue in Stockholm uses more than a fifth of the money it raises from membership dues to pay for security, in addition to members volunteering to patrol the synagogue.

“There is always something you need to consider,” Verstandig said. “If you go to the kosher grocery store in Stockholm and want to buy some ground meat, that meat is more expensive because there has to be security. It affects everything. If you want to go to a Shabbat dinner, we have to spend money on security. It makes it harder.”

As most shuls opt for coins, Kapparot Still Observed in Woodland Hills

Hebrew Discovery Center is one of the remaining synagogues in Los Angeles County to observe kapparot, the ritual killing of chickens performed during the Days of Awe. On Wednesday and Thursday evening, September 27 and 28, the Center continued the ancient tradition, yet again- to the dismay of protesters who picketed, holding up signs, many of them written in Hebrew and Farsi.

“This is a holdout,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, co-founder of Faith Action for Animals. “This ritual has always been a questionable ritual within the Jewish community…there’s no shortcut to expiation of sin.”

Kapparot is not mentioned in the Torah or Talmud. Nobody knows for sure when kapparot started being practiced, but it’s first mentioned in the 9th century by Babylonian scholar Rav Amram Gaon, who said that kapparot is an old tradition. Yet, many rabbinic authorities have since denounced the ritual, including Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Karo, who banned the practice in his Jewish Code of Laws, the Shulchan Aruch.

Today some Orthodox circles still observe the custom…of course, not without backlash.

For Rabbi Netanel Louie of Hebrew Discovery Center, the controversy surrounding kapparot ignites his will to observe the ritual. To him, kapparot is a transference of sins. It cleanses the soul like ginger cleanses the palette.

“If they don’t like chickens being killed, they should protest a KFC,” said a 20-year-old who just observed kapparot with her friend at the Center. (Ironically, there’s an El Pollo Loco directly across the street.) This was her first time doing the ritual. Her friend, however, (donning a tichel, head wrap) said she’d been observing the custom her whole life. To her, kapparot means tradition.

The person observing kapparot will swing the fowl overhead three times while reciting a prayer before a shochet, ritual slaughterer, cuts the chicken’s neck with a ritual knife, a shechita. The blood is drained; the deed is done. 

According to Louie, there is a hierarchy of existence. There is man and, then, there is chicken.

Many local synagogues have given up the ritual in lieu of a sin-absolving alternative: coins are wrapped in cloth and swung over the head three times; the coins are then donated to charity. Down the block, Klein made sure to mention, Sephardic synagogue Haichal Moshe, gave up the practice and opted for using coins instead of chickens. “What kind of Jew chooses killing chickens over using coins?” one protester wrote on a sign.

Last year, everyone got a little too excited. There were some vandalisms. I think there’s a case that’s still going. Two people got convicted, it’s unfortunate,” said Lieutenant Warner Castillo, who was at the scene “to keep the peace.” Ten LAPD officers and three supervisors were also on-duty. Castillo said that The Animal Cruelty Task Force inspected the kapparot site earlier that day, “and they deemed it lawful and it is what it is.”

Kapparot takes place in the alley behind the Center. Israeli techno pounds through speakers as people filter in and out, taking turns observing the custom. The Center built a temporary structure to perform the ritual, which looks like a sukkah, a plywood edifice draped in blue tarp. Hours before the ritual took place, the chickens were fenced off in a coop, supplied with food and water.

About 30 protesters showed up Wednesday evening, one of whom was Israeli-born animal rights activist Ady Gil. “When you’re just stubborn and you just want to do it, of course it affects the neighborhood and it affects the people,” he said. Gil owns an animal conservation down the block. “It’s not even done correctly according to Jewish law because if you do it, you have to actually give the dead chicken to tzedakah, which is charity for food.”

Following Jewish tradition, the chickens, after kapparot is performed, are supposed to be donated to the needy. But since the slaughter conditions aren’t FDA approved, after the ritual is done, the city picks them up in sanitation trucks. Louie isn’t sure what happens after that, but he heard they become fish feed; he won’t disclose how they get their chickens, but he reasons that they slaughter chickens that no longer lay eggs- so they would’ve been killed anyway. To those protesters, that’s besides the point.

This Yom Kippur, a synagogue will read the book of Jonah under a whale skeleton

This skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale hangs at the Whaling Museum in Nantucket, a resort island that was once a hub of the whaling industry. Photo courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

One of the more colorful portions of the daylong Yom Kippur liturgy is the reading of the book of Jonah, an enigmatic narrative of a reluctant prophet, an indignant God and a giant fish.

But because of the service’s timing, relatively few people are around to hear it. So one rabbi is spicing up the reading by holding it under a 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale.

The reading Saturday afternoon will take place at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, located on the Massachusetts resort island. A hub of the whaling industry in the 1800s, Nantucket was immortalized in Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby-Dick” as the starting point for Ishmael’s journey.

“I read it [Jonah] as allegory, but the idea that it could happen captures the imagination more when you see maybe [the whale] is big enough that it could happen,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of Congregation Shirat HaYam (Hebrew for “Song of the Sea”) in Nantucket. “We feel very comfortable going into the sea, but our biblical antecedents had a great fear. They would see great large fish and that would spark the imagination. I felt this would be the ideal place to talk about it.”

The short book is read in its entirety during the day’s afternoon service, coming after the exhausting Musaf service and before the climactic, closing Neilah service. The story is gripping: A man runs away from God, gets thrown off a ship and finds himself living in the belly of an enormous fish for three days. Jonah eventually (spoiler alert!) makes it to the sinful city of Nineveh, where he attempts to save the residents from the wrath of God.

Nantucket has remained connected to its maritime heritage even after the whaling industry faded. Many of the island’s large houses belonged to sea captains and ship owners. The island has hosted dramatic readings of “Moby-Dick,” and some of Nantucket’s wealthy vacationers moor yachts at the dock. The museum chronicles the island’s history and its whaling past. The giant skeleton, taken from a beached whale, is its crown jewel.

Shirat HaYam also hopes to pay homage to Nantucket’s heritage. Following a traditional Hebrew chanting at synagogue, an English reading will take place under the whale, and Bretton-Granatoor will give a lecture about how Jewish sages have viewed sea creatures throughout history.

As the Days of Awe draw to a close, Bretton-Granatoor hopes the reading will instill a biblical sense of awe into his congregants.

“The idea that I can take a biblical book and make it feel real, make it feel tangible, is very exciting,” he said. “The idea that something we read about now is tangible — here’s a whale above us — imagine what the writers of the Bible thought about if they ever saw something this size.”

When Jewish justices got the Supreme Court to shut down on Yom Kippur

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer listening to President Barack Obama deliver his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 28, 2014. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Since 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court has not held public sessions on Yom Kippur. Since the court opens its term on the first Monday in October, it is not unusual for the Jewish Day of Atonement to arrive just as the court begins its public work.

How the Supreme Court came to observe the Jewish High Holy Day is a story about religious diversity on the court, the quiet perseverance of two justices and an unexpected illness.

In an impromptu appearance at a synagogue here last week on Rosh Hashanah, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recounted how she and fellow Jewish Justice Stephen Breyer approached Chief Justice William Rehnquist and explained that Jewish lawyers who had been “practicing their arguments for weeks” should not be required to choose between religious observance and representing their clients before the court. According to Ginsburg, Rehnquist agreed.

But Ginsburg was being respectful of the memory of Rehnquist – cognoscenti have slightly less gracious memories of his role in the change.

There were no Jewish justices on the Supreme Court in the almost quarter century between the resignation of Abe Fortas on May 15, 1969, and Ginsburg’s swearing-in on Aug. 10, 1993. (Breyer joined the court on Aug. 3, 1994.) I appeared before the court as private counsel a number of times between 1971 and 1994, and the Supreme Court clerk was always accommodating to Jewish religious observance. Cases in which I was scheduled to argue orally were scheduled for dates that would not conflict with Jewish holidays.

In 1994, I was scheduled for two appearances during a Supreme Court session in March that included Passover. At my request, the arguments were scheduled so as not to conflict with the first and last two days of the holiday.

A lawyer asking for an argument to be rescheduled was one thing; a Supreme Court justice sitting out an argument was quite another.

Yom Kippur in 1993 and 1994 came in September, so there was no religious conflict during Ginsburg’s first two years and Breyer’s freshman year on the court. But in 1995, Yom Kippur was on Oct. 4 – a Wednesday on which the court was scheduled to hear oral argument. No counsels apparently had requested that their cases be rescheduled. Although the court’s Hearing Calendar had arguments scheduled for that date, they were abruptly postponed. The court took the day off on Yom Kippur, as it has done ever since.

Those of us who followed the court closely and were battling for recognition of Jewish religious rights were curious as to how this happened. The story – as I heard it at the time from a knowledgeable source – did not portray Rehnquist as cordially accommodating to Jewish religious observance.

The account I heard then was that Ginsburg and Breyer had approached Rehnquist after oral arguments were scheduled for that Oct. 4. The two Jewish members asked the chief justice to be respectful of their religious identity and postpone the arguments scheduled for Yom Kippur.

Rehnquist, however, had not accommodated Jewish observance in a 1986 case in which I had argued on behalf of an Orthodox Jewish Air Force psychologist who wanted to wear a yarmulke with his military uniform. Rehnquist had written the Supreme Court’s majority 5-to-4 opinion rejecting the First Amendment claim.

Before she was nominated to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals — along with Antonin Scalia and Kenneth Starr, judges at the time — had voted in favor of the psychologist’s motion to rehear the lower court’s rejection of the yarmulke request. (Following the high court’s rejection, Congress would enact a law, still in effect, that grants military personnel in uniform a statutory right to wear a neat and conservative religious article of clothing.)

In 1995, according to the version of the story I heard, Rehnquist turned down the request of Ginsburg and Breyer to reschedule the court date to accommodate Yom Kippur. He told them that they could, if they chose, absent themselves on Yom Kippur and still vote, pursuant to the court’s practice, after listening to the audio tapes of the oral arguments.

Soon thereafter, however, Rehnquist found that he, too, would be unable to sit with the court on Oct. 4 because his painful back condition required medical treatment on that day.

According to my sources, this gave the two Jewish justices an unexpected opportunity. They approached John Paul Stevens, the most senior justice who would be presiding if Rehnquist were absent. They pointed out to Stevens that if the two of them were not on the bench on Oct. 4, only six justices would sit to hear oral arguments on that day. Although that number is technically a Supreme Court quorum and the absent justices could vote after listening to audio tapes, Stevens agreed that the optics of such a diminished panel would be less than ideal. Stevens then postponed the Yom Kippur session, and the practice stuck.

This year’s Yom Kippur falls on Friday night and Saturday morning, Sept. 29-30, and the court won’t convene until Monday, Oct. 2.

But thanks to Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens, the next time a public session falls on Yom Kippur, a sign of respect for Jewish observance will again prevail.


Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer who has argued 28 cases before the Supreme Court and is on the adjunct faculty of Columbia Law School.