Archive for the ‘Rosh Hashanah’ category

The Middah of Zechirah: A Yizkor Sermon

November 3, 2016

Throughout these High Holy Days, we have been exploring the spiritually powerful world of Mussar as we have examined just a few of the Middot – the God desired attitudes or character traits – which have the ability to heal our souls and permit more divine light to shine into our lives, and through us, into the lives of others.

During these brief moments of Yizkor – memorial – when our thoughts and hearts turn to the loved ones we have lost over the years, I would like to introduce yet one last Middah, the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance.  For after all, that is what this particular service is all about.

As I stated in earlier sermons, and just this morning, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to the other, with the Middot seeking to help us find the ideal spot along that continuum at which we can establish for ourselves the most effective and uplifting set point for our personal attitudes.  When it comes to the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance – that set point is to be found somewhere between the extreme of a purging from our memory of any thoughts of those who are no longer with us, and the extreme of a total and debilitating obsession with our memories of those who have departed this life; between the extreme of moving on with our lives as if those people never existed and the extreme of being so lost in our sense of loss that we find ourselves incapable of moving forward in our lives.  As is the case with all such continuums, as explained by Mussar, both extremes are destructive to our character, yet elements of both extremes are necessary for our spiritual survival.  The Middah of Zechirah seeks to help us discover the sweet spot along that continuum which combines that best of both perspectives in such a way that our memories of loved ones are neither lost to us nor seeking to drown us in an oceans of sorrow; in such a way that we can hold the memories of those we loved, and continue to love, near and dear to our hearts as they come to serve to brighten our lives rather than darken our days.

In our search for this Middah, we need to confront what might be for many a rather uncomfortable fact; that we fear extinction.  The nightmare we never speak about with others is the one in which we not only no longer exist in this world, but it is as if we never existed at all.  All the evidence of our having been here is erased.  If someone were to mention our names, the common response would be, “Who?  Never heard of him.  Never heard of her.”  That our life would have been the realization of Shakespeare’s words:  “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more:  it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[1]

If that is what awaits us at the end of our days, then what is the purpose of the struggle?  Why do we grasp so tightly onto life?  Why do we invest so much energy into it?  Physical energy.  Emotional energy.  Why do we care?  Care about ideals.  Care about others.  Care about ourselves.  If it all comes down to nothingness, non-existence, why not just give up the ghost and end it now?

We all want our lives to mean more than nothing.  We all want to leave our mark before we are gone.  We all want to make some sort of difference; leave some sort of legacy.  We all want to be remembered.  Zechirah.  And just as we want to be remembered, those who came before us wanted to be remembered as well.

But how can we expect to be remembered unless we remember?  Why should we, in good conscience, expect those who follow after us to do more for us then we, ourselves, did for those who came before us?  We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

There are those who claim, “Memory is a very personal thing.  I keep it in my head and in my heart and that is all I need to do.”  But remembrance is more than mere memories locked away in our brains, hidden from the world at large; hidden even from those closest to us.  Remembrance isn’t something that is exclusively passive.  It needs to be active as well.  We need to act upon our memories as well as harbor them.  We need to bring them into our lives and not just keep them locked away in our hearts.

One way that we can engage in such active remembrance is, of course, through ritual.  That is precisely what we are doing right now by attending this service.  But this is only one such ritual, and it is a once-a-year commitment, and we can do it for all our loved ones together at once – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and God forbid, children.  We all know that there are other rituals as well which we can be observing, such as lighting Yarhzeit candles and saying Kaddish on the Shabbat nearest the Yahrzeit, attending such services as festival Yizkor services and Kever Avot.  Visiting the graves of our loved ones and saying a prayer.  Giving tzedakah in their memory on their special days, such as birthdays.  Now there are those who believe that by our observing each of these rituals, we enable the souls of our loved ones who have returned to God to experience feelings of joy and love not unlike how they felt when physically alive, we celebrated with them their special times, such as birthdays and anniversaries.  It would be kind of like sending them a spiritual greeting card.  Maybe that is so.  We cannot know for sure.  However, what we can know, and what we can experience, is whether or not it impacts their heavenly existence, it can impact our earthly existence.  Taking the time and the energy to observe such rituals in their memory can touch our lives in much the same positive and loving way that we experienced in celebrating their days with them when they were with us.  There is a tangible spiritual uplift we can feel when we take the time to light a Yahrzeit candle for them, say Kaddish for them, go to visit their graves.  Such deeds bring out our memories and draw us closer to them.  They have the power to heighten the feeling of their continuing presence in our lives.

While those special days with their special observances are very important, when it comes to our actively engaging in Zechirah, there are other opportunities as well – daily opportunities.  At the hands of those who are gone, we received manifold gifts; gifts that far exceed any material inheritance they may have passed on to us.  These are the gifts of the spirit.  These are the gifts which may not have added to our estate but they have added greatly to our character.  The wonder of these gifts is that we can keep them the rest of our lives yet freely share them with others and they would not diminish one iota.  Indeed, with every act of sharing, they grow.  And they grow all the more wondrously if, when we share them with others, we also share something about the people who gave us those gifts in the first place; introducing to those whose lives we bless, to those who blessed our lives.  Introducing them as if they are standing right alongside of us; a chain of tradition, if you will, of blessings.  You may have heard of “paying it forward”.  Well, we can pay it forward and backward at the same time.  In so doing, we can keep both the legacy and the memory of our departed loved ones alive and vital in this world.

Not every one of us is destined to have our names inscribed in the history books and remembered for time immemorial but that does not mean that we are destined to fade into nothingness.  Each and every one of us leaves a legacy; a legacy of our choosing.  And each and every one of us carries upon our shoulders the responsibility to transmit to others the legacies that have been left to us by those we loved.  We are the keepers of each other’s legacies.  In so doing, we are the ones who determine whether or not the fate of others is destined for extinction in this world or for an unbroken chain of memory and gift giving stretching far into the unforeseeable future.  The power of Zechirah – Remembrance – is in our hands and may we always make the most of it.

[1] Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth”, act 5, scene 5.

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The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut: A Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

October 5, 2016

Last night I announced that I planned to dedicate the remainder of this year’s High Holy Day sermons to a sharing of some of the potentially life altering lessons of Mussar.  And so I shall.  But before I can do that, an introduction to Mussar itself is in order so as to put these lessons into an understandable context.  If you wish to enter into a deeper exploration of Mussar – and I hope you will – then I cannot recommend highly enough the book EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis.  It has inspired me and I know it will inspire you.[1]

The word Mussar literally means “correction” or “instruction” and also has become one of the more popular words that is used today for “ethics.”  Back in the second half of the 19th century, in Lithuania, Rabbi Israel Salanter started a movement of Jewish study which centered upon examining our ethical values and how they can influence our behaviors and therefore our lives, especially our spiritual lives.  That movement came to be called the Mussar Movement, and it remains alive and well today.

Rabbi Salanter came to understand that Halachah – Jewish law – could only take us so far in our quest to develop healthy spiritual lives.  For Halachah addresses our behaviors; our actions and our restraint from actions.  It calls upon us to adopt a system of Mitzvot – a discipline of sacred behaviors – which can have the effect  of raising us up to a higher spiritual plain.  But the performance of Mitzvot, as he and all of us have observed, can easily devolve into become a mechanical and meaningless routine.  Therefore there needs to be something deeper within us, which drives the Mitzvot and keeps them alive, fresh, and meaningful.  And this is precisely where Mussar comes in, for while Halachah addresses our behaviors, Mussar addresses the underlying attitudes which inform our behaviors.  And for Mussar, our attitudes are fundamentally a function of our souls.

In order to better appreciate Mussar you need to understand Mussar’s approach to the soul.  First of all, in Mussar we do not possess a soul, as if it were something apart from us that could be surgically removed like a kidney, but rather we ARE a soul.  It is our soul which makes us into distinct individuals.  All our physical attributes can change, and many do.  My hair is growing gray.  I used to have a 28” waistline.  Yet we remain the same people.  Even identical twins possess their own individuality.  It is the soul and not the body that is the seat of our individuality.

While the soul is one, it does have three aspects to it.  That is just like us.  Each of us is one individual but still, there are many different aspects to who we are. For example, I am a rabbi, a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a teacher, a community volunteer, an American, a Jew, etc.  So it is with the soul.  The three aspects of the soul, as identified by our tradition, are the Neshamah, the Ruach, and the Nefesh.  The Neshamah is the inner core of the soul.  It is the very essence of the divinity within us.  Therefore it is inalterably holy and pure, and that can never change.  The Ruach is, for lack of a better term, the life force within us.  It is the Ruach that animates our body and impacts, and is impacted by, our physical condition.  Then there is the Nefesh.  The Nefesh is the center for our personality traits and our attitudes.  The nature and condition of our Nefesh can be altered by the choices we make and the actions we take.  It can be stained and it can be cleansed.  You could compare the relationship between the Neshamah and the Nefesh to that of the sun and the weather.  The Neshamah is like the sun, always radiating light and heat, and the Nefesh is like the weather, sometimes letting the holy light and heat of the Neshamah into our lives and sometimes blocking it out.

It is with the nature of the Nefesh that Mussar is most concerned, the goal of Mussar being to help us develop a healthy Nefesh, so that each of us can reside, so to speak, in the spiritual Sunbelt.

Mussar calls the character traits of the Nefesh, MiddotMiddah in the singular.  Middah literally means a “measure” and in this context, it is the measure of our attitudes.  It is our attitudes which inform our actions.  If we embrace one attitude we will act in one way but it we embrace another attitude, we will act in quite a different way.

Mussar envisions our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to another, such as from greed to generosity.  Both ends of such continuums can be equally destructive.  So, for example, excessive greed can cut us off from all human relationships while excessive generosity can lead us to giving everything away to the point that we can no longer survive.  What we need is to find some sort of combination of both extremes, where they each moderate the other in such a way as to establish the ideal mix.  So, for example, that we become generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of the less fortunate yet remain greedy enough to restrain our altruism in such a way that we keep sufficient means to sustain and maintain ourselves and our families.  Achieving such ideal mixtures is the function of the Middot.

The principle which governs how we determine where along the continuum the Middah should reside is to be found in the Torah portion we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.  It comes from LEVITICUS, chapter 9, verse 2, in which God states, “You shall be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.”  The proper mix – the Middah – is the one that leads us best to a high state of holiness; to spiritual self-improvement; to a cleansing of our Nefesh and a release of more sacred light into our lives from our Neshamah.

Now we are ready to examine our first Middah; the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  This Middah seeks to help us grapple with the issue of trust in our lives.  Trust, like all the other attitudes as viewed by Mussar, exists along a continuum.  On one end of that continuum is a trust which is so absolute that how can we consider it anything other than gullibility?  Those individuals who live on that end of the continuum believe everyone they meet and everything they hear.  As such, they are forever ripe targets for those who seek to take advantage of them.  On the other end of the continuum is such an absence of trust that it is nothing less than paranoia.  Those people believe no one they meet and nothing that they hear.  So Mussar, tells us that somewhere in between those two extreme is the ideal balance of absolute trust and absolute distrust.  That meeting place is the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut deals particularly with the level of trust we invest in our fellow human beings.  This is not just a challenge for the gullible and the paranoid among us.  This is a problem each and every one of us faces.  I suspect that for most of us, hardly a day passes when we do not find ourselves in situations which call upon us to make judgements about other people.   And if we were to be honest with ourselves, how often it is that we find ourselves all too ready to jump to our own conclusions, most of the time thinking the worst of others; we are so ready to embrace the negative.  We are so ready to ascribe an evil or selfish intent upon the actions of others.  “They wanted to hurt me!”  How we can savor a juicy piece of gossip!  The darker the rumor, the more ready we are to believe it and how ready we are to pass it on to others.  Our tradition even has a name for this.  We call it Lashon HaRa – “the Evil Tongue”, and of it the rabbis said that it is a sin worse than murder, for the murderer only destroys one soul but the purveyor of Lashon HaRa destroys three – his or her soul, the soul of the subject of the tale, and the soul of the one who listens to it.

But don’t feel too bad, don’t beat yourself up about it, for just this summer I found out that it’s not all our fault.  It turns out that there is a whole branch of psychology called Evolutionary Psychology.  Science Daily describes Evolutionary Psychology in this way:  “Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.”  In other words, there are certain aspects of the human psychological makeup which have become almost instinctual within us as a product of the process of evolution.  Our readiness to think the worst about people is part of that phenomenon.  Our brains are hotwired to expect the negative and that tendency can be traced back to the earliest days of human history when the world was a very hostile place and we always needed to be on our guard if we were ever to survive.  That is why, still today, it is part of our makeup that our anger tends to linger while our gratitude quickly fades.  We tend to cling to the memories of how others have hurt us and suppress those memories of how they blessed us.  We are so ready to forget and throw away all the good times because of one bad time.

That being said, our Judaism has always taught us that we are much more than our instincts.  There are times when we need to transcend our instincts – rise above them – in order to make of ourselves better people.  And this issue of trust is one of those times.  And that brings us right back to the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for that is precisely what this Middah calls upon us to do; to rise above our instinctual urges to assume negative intent in the actions and the words of our fellow human beings.  For Dan L’Chaf Zechut literally means “Judge others according to a scale of merit,” or in more colloquial terms, “Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt.”  In spite of our psychology, and maybe even our biology, we have to get over our instinct to rush to judgement and assume the worst of others.

We have to stop ourselves from automatically thinking negatively and say, at least to ourselves, and even better to others as well, “Wait a minute!  I know this person.  And knowing what I do know about this person, do I really believe that this person was capable of doing that or saying that?  Do I really believe that this person intentionally wanted to hurt others?  Could it be that this report is faulty or exaggerated, or some of the facts are missing?  You know, generally speaking there are two sides to every story.  I sure would like to hear the other side before I am ready to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.”

Overcoming this instinct of ours to generally think the worst is a real challenge.  In fact, there are very few people I have known who have ever become masters of it; who somehow inoculated themselves from such massive negativity.  One of them was my mother, and another was a person who lived in this community and has since passed away.  Many of you knew her.  Martha Stone.

For many years, our adult education program included a Wednesday morning book study group.  We called it “Sefarim” which is Hebrew for “Books.”  Among its members were Martha and Alex Stone.  From 10:00 to 11:30 every Wednesday morning we gathered in the Temple Library and seriously studied books of our choosing.  Of course, as is common in study groups that have met over time, and in which the participants get to really know each other more than just in passing, there were mornings when book talk was sidetracked by community talk, particularly about this or that hot button topic.  Invariably, when one person or another, in a fit of aggravation, complained, “Did you hear what so-&-so did or said?” and then went on to recount the offensive remarks or actions, Martha was always quick to jump in and say “Wait a minute.  Maybe that person was trying to say X instead of Y.  Maybe that person was trying to do A instead of B.”  She always gave people the benefit of the doubt.  She always assumed that their intentions were good, and not evil, and she always tried to make others see that as well.  She always chose to see the good in people rather than the bad.  She was the personification of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  And how I admired her for it.  How I always wished that I could be more like her.

Martha clearly understood what we all need to understand.  People aren’t throwaways.  Every human being is both precious and fragile.  Except for the relatively few truly evil people in the world, the vast majority of us are spending our lives, trying to do the right thing, or at least the right thing as we see it.  Granted that sometimes we get so lost in our pursuit of our version of the right, that we wind up doing the wrong thing; the wrong thing for what we believe to be the right reasons.  We all, every once and a while wander off the path.  We all can miss the mark.  That is why our tradition uses the word Chet as one of the words for “sin” for “Chet” literally means “missing the mark.”  But at the end of the day, right or wrong, we are trying to do the best we can.  This is why the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut is so important.  For in this imperfect world populated by imperfect people, if we are going to measure each other, we need to measure each other on the scale of merit rather than on the scale of demerit.  We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt or we will wind up tearing each other apart.  Only then can we raise ourselves up to a higher spiritual plain as we begin to heal the world rather than destroy it.

One last thought.  For those of you who have accompanied me for all or a good part of my 32 year Quad Cities journey through the High Holy Days, you know that it has been my tradition to focus my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon on some lesson we can draw from the Torah portion – the Akedah – the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.  I would be remiss if I were to abandon that tradition this year, of all years, for my last Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon before you.  So consider this.

Today’s Torah portion presents us with an Abraham who also could embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for even though he had to check and double check God’s instructions about offering Isaac up for a sacrifice, in the end he did not resist it nor did he turn his back on God and walk away.  He planned to go through with it.  Why?  Not because he was an unfeeling father and not because he did not love Isaac dearly.  But rather because, based upon his knowledge and experience of God, he trusted God implicitly.  Knowing the type of god God is – living in a world that was filled with those who believed in many harsh and brutal gods – when it came to his God, Abraham was trusting and faithful enough to embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  Knowing that his God is a God of justice and compassion, he gave God the benefit of the doubt, truly believing that everything would work out for the best.  And it did.  Maybe one of the reasons that we read this story as we begin the new year is because, perhaps in this coming year, we will learn to become more like Abraham, trusting in the good of others and every ready to offer them the benefit of the doubt.  Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

AMEN

 

[1]  So much of my knowledge of Mussar is drawn from my studies of Alan Morninis’ book, EVERYDAY HOLINESS, and the book TEACHING JEWISH VIRTUES:  SACRED SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, by Susan Freeman, that I am no longer certain where their teachings take off and my “original” thought begins.  I share this with you in the spirit of the Middah, B’Shem Omro, “Giving Proper Acknowledgement of Sources of the Knowledge We Share With Others”.

It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

October 4, 2016

Every year we join our fellow Jews around the world in making our annual pilgrimage to the synagogue in observance of the High Holy Days.  But what is it that draws us to this place on this night?  On any given Shabbat, with the exception of special events, there are far, far more empty seats in this sanctuary than there are those that are occupied.  But tonight, the seats that are filled clearly outnumber the seats that are empty.  It is not that we are alone in this experience.  The same could be said of most houses of worship – Jewish and otherwise – across our land.  The non-Jews too have their special days on which their people flock to their sanctuaries in numbers far exceeding their Sabbath worship attendance.

But why is that?  I know that if I were to go around this sanctuary right now and ask each and every one of you individually, “Why did you come here tonight?  What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue” that I would receive an extensive and varied collection of responses.  While as diverse as those responses would be, I suspect that the majority of them would have something to do with connecting with one’s fellow Jews or somehow affirming one’s personal Jewish identity.  “I do it because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.  They go to services on the High Holy Days.”

Now I am sure that there are those of you who feel that way; that there are those of you who feel truly, in your heart of hearts, that “I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do on the High Holy Days” is reason enough to be here tonight.  But is it really?  At one time, maybe it was, but is it now?

I can tell you, not only as a rabbi whose rabbinic career is drawing to a close, but more importantly, as a Jew who has spent his life in the synagogue – and not just any synagogue, but in the Reform synagogue – no longer is that answer enough.  At one time, observing the High Holy Days if, for no other reason than “I am a Jew and this is what Jews do,” meant truly observing them.  It meant, not just going to a service here or a service there and feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to our Jewish identity, but it meant truly setting aside these days for us and our families as Jewish days; as days on which we withdraw from our engagement with the rest of the world and maintain our focus on who we are as Jews.

As a child growing up in New York City in the ‘50‘s and the ‘60’s, it was utterly unthinkable for my Classical Reform Jewish father to attend the Rosh Hashanah Evening service and then go to work on Rosh Hashanah Day, or to go to work after the Rosh Hashanah Morning service, and you could count on the fact that on Yom Kippur my parents spent the entire day in our synagogue, and they were far from alone in that.  And so it was with us children as well.  There was no question in my house as to whether or not I was going to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even for part of the day, for I was not.  If I had even broached the question with my parents – a highly unlikely scenario – they would have had none of it.  Like my parents, I was not alone in this.  For all of my religious school friends, it was the same.  We were in the synagogue for all of the services, sitting beside our parents.

Yet if my parents and most of their contemporaries were asked back then the question I asked you this evening – “What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue?” – many of them, including my parents – or at least my father – would have given the same answer “Because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.”  But that was then and this is now.  For many of my parents’ generation grew up as Orthodox Jews who later discovered Reform Judaism.  My father’s grandfather had been a noted Orthodox educator back in Europe.  Theirs was the generation that experienced both the agony of the Holocaust and the ecstasy of the birth of Israel.  Their Jewish identity was indelibly impressed upon them by the forces of history and family tradition.  Therefore a more active observance of the High Holy Days was a natural expression of their Jewish identity and a product of their experiences and upbringing.

But we are not them, for our experiences and our upbringing are not theirs.  Today, the number of Jews who set these days aside and make it clear to the rest of the world that “You are just going to have to do without me on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” is dwindling.  And it will continue to dwindle, especially as so many of our children are raised in households which choose to send then to school rather than to services on the High Holy Days.

It is not that we are bad people, or even bad Jews.  It is just that with the passage of time, the world has changed and for many Jews, being Jewish and going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days simply because that is what Jews do, is no longer enough of a reason to seriously dedicate more than perhaps a portion of these days to that part of us which is Jewish.

Of course I am certainly prejudiced on this matter, but I believe that the High Holy Days, and indeed Judaism and Jewish life itself, are too important, too precious, not only to us as Jews but to the world, to be allowed to dwindle away into nothingness.  There is a good reason why we have survived for 4,000 years in spite of the efforts of all those who have tried to destroy us.  There is a good reason why we – who have always been so few in numbers – have made such a significant impact upon not only the history of humanity but upon the culture of humanity.  And that reason is to be found enfolded into the very fabric of the Judaism we have come to this synagogue tonight to observe.  It is inherent in Judaism itself and it is both expressed and promoted in our observances and our values.  It is the Jewish perspective on what it means to be a part of humanity.  It is the Jewish call for building a better world on the foundations of compassion and right behavior.  It is the Jewish expectation that we constantly strive to make of ourselves better people.

It is vital for Jewish survival that we come to acknowledge that in the 21st century, doing Jewish things because this is what Jews do is no longer a compelling argument for us to continue to pursue a Jewish life.  There are just too many distractions and to be quite frank, many of them are simply more appealing.  They touch us in ways that are deeper than blindly following some traditions because our parents and grandparents did so.  So if we are to keep our Judaism alive, we need to seek out a deeper meaning in doing so.  Something that moves us.  Something that inspires us.  Something that touches our hearts and our souls, and fills us with a higher sense of purpose.

But where can that be found?  Where should our search begin?  Perhaps we need to go back in time, to a time before the reason Jews did Jewish things like observing the High Holy Days was just “because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do?”  When the reason Jews lived a Jewish life was more substantive than just keeping certain traditions alive for the sake of tradition; when Jews were bound to their Jewish identity by more than just a thin thread stretching back into their past but rather they were bound by golden cords that not only stretched back into their past but also wove intimately through their present and then travelled forward into their future.

So maybe we need to go back in time and ask those Jews “What is it, not just about the High Holy Days, but about Judaism itself that drew them to the synagogue and inspired them to live Jewish lives?”  While some of them still might say, “Because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do”, most of them would say something different. Most of them would talk about something that we today don’t spend enough time talking about, or even thinking about, for that matter.  They would talk about God and their relationship with God.  For them, God was a real player in their lives.  They felt connected to God in ways that we have somehow lost.

Of course one of the reasons that they felt more connected to God was because they felt more dependent on God.  There was so much in their world that they did not understand.  Why some people were struck down by dread diseases.  Why, at a moment’s notice, a storm could utterly destroy the livelihood and even the life of a family or an entire village.  So much seemed out of their control and therefore must be in the control of another, and that other was, in their minds, God.  So they feared God, or more precisely, they feared offending God.  They even called these High Holy Days the Yamim HaNora’im – the “Days of Awe” with the Hebrew word for “Awe” being the very same word as the Hebrew for “Fear.”  So prayer was very real to them.  It was a desperate attempt to communicate with a Divinity that was present in their daily lives, and by so doing hopefully change their future for the better.

We are most certainly not that people and the God whom they feared has little if any place in our lives.  Yet we would be sorely mistaken if we were to convince ourselves that the only God they believed in was the God to be feared. Quite the contrary, for their God was anything but one dimensional.  From the very beginning of Judaism, God was, and remains, a colorful and complex character.  As the High Holy Day prayer describes God, Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.”  Powerful enough to be feared, like a king or a queen, but also loving and compassionate, like a caring mother or father.  Yes, these Jews feared God but they also loved God.  For God was not just the deliverer of punishments but also the giver of gifts. The gifts of life, of health, of food, of love, of beauty, of wisdom, of truth, of understanding, of knowledge, and of the abilities to learn and to create.  Indeed, they clearly understood that when it came to Judaism, it all begins with God.  From the moment of our people’s birth, when God first called to Abraham, Judaism was primarily about establishing a positive, healthy, and mutual relationship with God.  Without God, Judaism must fade away, for God is the foundation stone of everything that Judaism stands for.  Without God, Judaism becomes a meaningless and empty exercise, as empty and meaningless as the words in the prayer book when read by someone who chooses to watch the clock rather than search for a personal connection to God in the prayers.  For our Judaism – and for these High Holy Days – to have real meaning, we have to accept that it all begins with God.

Most Jews would agree that there is no more important a text in the Torah than the Ten Commandments.  The power of the Ten Commandments has not only touched the soul of the Jewish world but of the Christian world as well.  Our two faiths share the Ten Commandments, or so we think.  But believe it or not there are differences between the way the Christians read them and the way we Jews read them.  For the Christians, the first commandment states “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me,” while for us Jews, the first commandment is “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”, period.  For us, it is the second commandment that reads “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Christian version is obviously a commandment.  It instructs to action – “Have no other gods before Me.”  But what about the Jewish version?  It appears to be a declarative statement – “I am the Eternal your God…” rather than a commandment.  Where is its call to action?  Well its call to action is implied and it is essential for everything else which follows; for all the other commandments to have any meaning.  The implied commandment is simply this:  Take this statement to heart and accept it as the foundation for all that follows.  Accept that God exists and that we as Jews live in a sacred relationship with God, and that all the other commandments, all the other expectations of actions and values that are found in the Torah and grow out of it across the ages, are but functions of that relationship between us and God.  They are there to define our role in that relationship.  They feed that relationship and in so doing draw us personally closer to God.

Over the past several years, I have found it odd indeed that people are interested in talking about and seeking spirituality but not so interested in talking about and seeking God, as if the two were completely separate experiences.  But they are not.  Spirituality is far more than just a good feeling about ourselves.  It is about our reaching out for God and God touching our lives.  How so?  Our tradition teaches us that we human beings are not like any other creature living on the earth for we possess something very special; a soul.  The soul was implanted within us by God in order to enable us to connect with God.  It is our divine umbilical cord, if you will, for it enables spiritual energy to flow between us and God.  But that spiritual energy does not flow freely.  It flows at our choosing.  We control how much or how little we receive; how wide or how narrow that umbilical cord is.  If it were solely up to God, the flow would be constant and vast, but God gave us the gift of free will so that we could choose how much or how little we would let God into our lives.  There is a Hasidic saying that “there is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  Sadly, for too many, that is exactly what has happened.  They have turned their control valve and limited the spiritual flow to a trickle, if not closed it off completely, and in so doing, abandoned themselves to being guided primarily or solely by their base animal instincts.  They have starved their souls from the spiritual nutrients they need.

But this need not remain the case.  We can open that value, reach out to God, and feel God’s presence in our lives.  We can feed our souls and in so doing grow as more spiritual and better human beings.  How do we accomplish such a feat?  That is what a better part of our Judaism is about.  It is about how we can connect with God and let God into our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.  Through the Torah and our sacred teachings, we have been given the owner’s manual to the soul.  We have been instructed on how to awaken and strengthen our souls so that we can come to live our lives in an ongoing relationship with God.  Not just on the High Holy Days and not even just on Shabbat, but rather on a day-to-day basis.  For whether we realize it or not, our day-to-day lives are lived in a relationship with God.  However it is up to us what the nature of that relationship will be.  We can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which strengthen the bonds between us and God or we can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which weaken those bonds.  It is up to us.

This past year, here at Temple Emanuel, I taught a series of mini-courses on what our tradition calls MussarMussar is the companion to Halachah.  As Halachah constitutes a body of Jewish laws which lead us to right actions, Mussar constitutes a body of Jewish virtues or ethical perspectives which liberate our souls and enable us to adopt sacred and healthy life attitudes.  While Halachah instructs us about what we should do while living in a sacred relationship with God, Mussar instructs us about how we can better mold our attitudes so that they ultimately instinctually guide us into right behaviors and therefore transform our lives into an active partnership with God.

While the building blocks of Halachah are mitzvot – sacred actions – the building blocks of Mussar are middot – sacred values, sacred attitudes.  I am dedicating the remainder of my High Holy Day sermons to exploring various middot in the hopes that we will begin to understand that if we choose to strengthen our souls by taking on sacred attitudes, then that can lead us to living lives filled with sacred actions, which in turn will connect us more strongly to God and help us to grow into the type of people we aspire to become.

Once we perceive of our lives as being lived in a sacred partnership with God, then we will find that there are far more inspiring reasons to come to the synagogue on the High Holy Days than merely because we are Jews and this is what Jews do.

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal 5775

October 31, 2014

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu! May each and every one of you be inscribed for manifold blessings in the coming new year!
Every year I open our High Holy Day worship by appealing to you to support the various ways in which our congregation joins in the fight against world and local hunger. Often in the past I have shared the heartbreaking statistics of how many of our fellow human beings – men and women, the elderly and little children – have been ravaged and slaughtered by starvation. Often in the past, I have pointed with great pride to the statistics of our own congregation’s effort to fight hunger; how much money we have raised, how many pounds of food we have collected, how many have walked in the CROP Walk. All of that is valuable information which deserves to be shared. But tonight I want to go in another direction.
For years I have taken this opportunity to promote our hunger programs and I suspect that by now most of you have figured out that I am passionate about these efforts. But I never really have shared with you why I am so passionate; why this particular issue touches me so deeply and why I am so urgent about it touching you as well.
One need only glance at me to realize that hunger has never been a personal challenge in my life. When it comes to food, my problem has never been too little, but too much! In my 64 years, I do not think that a day has gone by – with the exception of my annual Yom Kippur fasts – in which I have ever seriously gone without food. But that very fact, in and of itself, has helped to make this such a pressing issue for me, in very much a High Holy Days way – Guilt!
Maybe it is because I am one of that generation who were told by our parents to clean our plates at meal times because there were starving children in China. Of course, none of us could understand how not leaving food on our plates could help to feed starving Chinese children, but still the image was imbedded in our minds. While we have full plates and full stomachs, there are plenty of others on the planet who do not. So many years later, standing on the bathroom scale, unhappy with the tonnage it shows, struggling unsuccessfully with the many temptations, how can one not feel guilty about over consumption when there are starving children in China and Africa and Southeast Asia and in practically every city in our own land of plenty, including in our own Quad Cities?
I have a few pleasures in my life – God, family, the big screen and the small screen, and food, not necessarily in that order. But it troubles me to no end that when it comes to food, it is not so much for me an issue of sustenance but rather of pleasure, while there are literally millions in our world for whom food is hardly a matter of pleasure but actually a matter of life and death While I am not so naive as to believe that by my eating less they, in turn, will eat more, I do know that it is nothing less than one of the greatest of obscenities for me to continue to eat my fill without doing what I can to fill their empty bellies, and perhaps to save their lives.
Now you may not be as food centered as I am but I doubt that any of you really ever go hungry, except by your own choosing. We all fill our baskets at the supermarket and probably visit restaurants quite regularly. We never really want for food nor do we truly know what it means to want for food. But at this time of the year, when we are supposed to be taking serious stock of our moral selves, how can we, in good conscience, choose to turn a blind eye to the mitzvah opportunities that are before us to do some of what we can to relieve the life threatening hunger pangs of our co-inhabitants on Planet Earth?
So once again I encourage you to join in our congregation’s efforts to ease the suffering of the starving multitudes.
I call upon you to once again support our efforts on behalf of the annual CROP WALK Against World Hunger. We need walkers, we need donors, and of course, we need those who will do both. This year’s Walk will take place on Sunday, October 5th – the day after Yom Kippur. How fitting! The Walk will beginn at 2:00 p.m., starting from Modern Woodman Park. Bring your children. Please, bring your children! Some of my fondest memories of parenthood are of sharing these walks with my children as they learned to put into action the mitzvah of feeding the hungry. On the tables in the lobby, there are Walk forms. Please sign up to walk or pledge or both.
I call upon you to once again support our collection of non-perishable food items. For years, we have taken this time between Rosh Hashanah and Simhat Torah to collect food on behalf of our local Riverbend Foodbank. So next time you are in the supermarket, buy an extra grocery sack or two of non-perishable food and bring them to the Temple Library. As you do so, please remember that what we collect will help to feed fellow Quad Citians who are so desperately in need.
I call upon you once again to make a contribution to that very important Jewish organization, MAZON. MAZON was the first exclusively Jewish organization created to address the issue of hunger. Their goal, as expressed in the words of their mission statement, is “To provide for people who are hungry while at the same time advocating for other ways to end hunger and its causes.” You will find a self-addressed donation envelop for MAZON in your prayer books. I encourage you to make a donation equal to what it would cost to take the members of your household out for one dinner at a restaurant.
And finally, I call upon you to support the efforts of our Tikkun Olam Committee throughout the year, as they periodically prepare and serve meals for Café on Vine, one of our community’s meal sites for the homeless.
May the pleasures that we receive from all the blessings we enjoy in our lives also fuel our passion to ease the suffering and introduce some pleasure into the lives of those who are far less fortunate than are we.

Abraham and Isaac are Us – Moriah is Jerusalem

September 27, 2014

In the past, I have been asked, “Can’t we read some other section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah? The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is so difficult to listen to. Indeed it is frightening.” While I have always appreciated these concerns, I have never acceded to these requests.

Why? Perhaps partly because, having been raised as a Reform Jew, for all of my childhood and much of my life this was the only Torah text to be found in our High Holy Day prayer book for Rosh Hashanah. You must remember that in those days, Reform Jews never considered the possibility of observing a second day of Rosh Hashanah and therefore needing a second Torah portion. In fact, the rabbis who framed the old UNION PRAYER BOOK intentionally chose this text in spite of the fact that in traditional synagogues it is read on the second day and not the first. Why? Because they had ideological problems with the traditional text for the first day. While it does include the birth of Isaac, it also includes Abraham and Sarah driving Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, out of their camp to live or die in the wilderness. That, they found that to be morally questionable.

30 years ago, when GATES OF REPENTANCE was published, it did include a second Rosh Hashanah Morning service, for those who choose to observe a second day. However, for that service, they still did not include the other traditional Torah portion but rather they inserted the story of Creation. Still I stuck with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, partly because of nostalgia and partly because this is a story about Jews while the Creation story is about a time before there were Jews. Now, in this new prayer book,     MISHKAN HANFESH, they have chosen to include, not only today’s Torah text and the story of Creation, but also the other traditional Torah reading and a fourth reading as well.

But still, I am deeply tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. That bond exists not just because of nostalgia, nor even just because it is a story of the early days of our people, but also because of the presence in it of Mt. Moriah. For Mt. Moriah would later be called Mt. Zion, and upon that mountain would be built the sacred city of Jerusalem. This story is so compelling because, from the earliest times of our people’s existence – 4,000 year ago – it binds the generations of Jews – Abraham and Isaac and all the generations to follow – to the land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Jerusalem.

Granted, it is not an easy story. It is one fraught with danger and heartache, sacrifice and tears. But that is part of the price that we Jews have had to pay throughout the ages for the privilege of having a land of our own. Jews for 4,000 years have tended to agree that it is a price well worth paying.

Throughout the ages, we have called it the Promised Land, but more accurately we should have called it the Land of the Covenant. For, from the very beginning of the Jewish people – when Abraham and God first struck a deal which would establish forever the unique relationship between our people and God, a central part of that deal, that covenant, that brit, was that there would be this land which God would give us as homeland for all time.

So today we read from the Torah some of our earliest history and what do we see? Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; standing and praying on the site of the very heart of Jerusalem; the site where both Temples would eventually stand.

As Abraham and Isaac stood on Mt. Moriah, there were others who inhabited that land as well; people such as the Amorites, Hittites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. But all those people are gone. They have disappeared from the face of history and not a trace of them remains, other than some sporadic archaeological finds. But we Jews, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, remain. We still exist and throughout the centuries, whether living on that land or in exile, the bonds between us and that land have remained unbroken.

2,700 years ago, when our people were dragged into exile in Babylonia, the Psalmist sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” For 2,000 years, while in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in our worship we prayed daily for our return to Israel. 69 years ago, on April 20, 1945, on the first Shabbat after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a British radio reporter shared with the world his recording of the surviving Jews singing “Hatikvah” – “The Hope”; the song that would become the national anthem of the State of Israel. Throughout our history, whether we were living on the land or off of it, we never forgot Jerusalem; the cords that bound us to the land of Israel may have been stretched but never broken. In the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet and philosophy, Yehuda HaLevi, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

What I speak of is a sort of mystical magnetism, yet I know that there are those among us who do not sense it. When considering vacation destinations, Israel may not even make the list and that is a shame. It is a shame because for most Jews – indeed, for most Christians – but especially for most Jews, once they have spent any time in Israel, they understand from whence I speak. They feel the magnetism. They become connected – in spiritual ways connected – to the land and its people. They come to understand that the Jewish people and the land of Israel are inseparable no matter where we live.

I share all this with you because this past summer has been a very difficult and trying time for Israel and for all of us who love Israel. Indeed, it has been a trying time for all Jews, whether we love Israel or not. While Israelis has suffered under the constant barrage of Hamas missiles, needing to flee with very little advanced notice into their bomb shelters, we all have suffered as we have witnessed, and perhaps experienced, the dramatic rise in the levels of antisemitism throughout the world as a direct result of Israel’s war with Hamas. But even as I say that, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it truly as a result of the war, or is there something else at work here?”

For years there have been those who have claimed that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being antisemitic. Of course, that is, at the least, a horrible overstatement. That someone criticizes Israel in no way automatically means that they hate Jews. We Americans, of all people, should understand that, for we are constantly criticizing our own government but that does not mean that we do so out of hatred. But perhaps what those who equate being anti-Israel with being antisemitic are trying to say, though saying it poorly, is that while there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel, just as there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any nation, there are still those individuals and groups who use their socially acceptable criticism of Israel in order to mask their socially unacceptable attitudes of antisemitism. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, expressed this eloquently when he wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is antisemitc, and not saying so is dishonest.”

What we have been witnessing is a dark combination of the Thomas Friedman ‘anti-Israel / antisemitism’ formula side-by-side with a toxic, blatant, endemic antisemitism which has taken advantage of the war to come out of the shadows and reveal itself in the light of day.

When respected bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution to divest from Israel, even in a limited fashion, and didn’t even consider framing a resolution in which they would take a stand against Hamas firing thousands of rockets directed at civilian targets in Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When the Metropolitan Opera insists upon producing and performing a work which seeks to justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered a wheel chair bound American Jew who simply was on vacation with his wife, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When during the war, the news media gave extensive coverage to the suffering of the citizens of Gaza but gave only meager coverage to the extent of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or to the multiple efforts made by the Israelis to forewarn Gaza civilians of imminent attacks so that they could get out of harm’s way, or to the various ways in which Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as human shields so as to protect their own fighters while creating a humanitarian crisis which they would then use as propaganda against Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke.

Yet we have witnessed the other type of antisemitism as well, and in frightening ways. When those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war besieged a synagogue in Paris, filled with Jews who had gathered for no other reason but to observe Shabbat, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in Berlin those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war started chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone,” that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in New York those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war took their demonstration to the streets of the Diamond District, knowing that most of the jewelry exchanges located there are Jewishly owned and operated, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When someone in our own community plastered a gruesome anti-Israel poster on every utility pole surrounding our own synagogue, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly.

What can we learn from all of this? We learn that there is a certain irony in the fact that while some or many of us may have, for whatever reasons, lost our sense of intimate connection with the land and the State of Israel, it is our enemies who remember and continue to recognize it. Of course, they do not see its positive values but rather see it as fuel for their hatred of us. We, on the other hand need to embrace it and trust it. As throughout our history, our connection to Israel has been an integral component of Jewish identity and of our unique relationship with God, it remains so today. As we believe, and I hope we believe, that our relationship with God has produced for our people an elevated values system; one which lifts up justice and living the ethical life, then we have to trust that it is that very same value system that serves as the foundation of Israeli society – that Israel truly is a Jewish state and not just because it is populated by Jews.

We need to embrace that perspective, for once we do so, we can begin to prepare ourselves for how to respond to Israel’s detractors. We can begin to formulate our answer to the question of whether or not in the recent war, and in recent history, Israel has been placed in the role of the victim or the villain.

In our search for that answer let me leave you with some thought-starting questions:

Which party in the recent conflict has been deeply invested in peace and historically and consistently committed to finding a two-state solution, and which party has consistently and adamantly refused to sit at a negotiating table?

If Israel is not interested in making peace with its neighbors then how do you explain its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, its 2000 offer to the Palestinians of 97% of the disputed territories, and its 2005 total withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza?

Which party in the recent conflict used its rockets to protect its children and which party used its children to protect its rockets?

Which party in the recent conflict invested billions of dollars in constructing bomb shelters to protect its people and which party invested billions of dollars in constructing terror tunnels?

Which party in the recent conflict made extensive efforts to forewarn civilians on the other side of coming attacks?

Which nation in the Middle East does the most to protect religious freedom, the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, and the rights of all minority groups within its borders?

If you honestly seek the answers to these and similar questions you will have begun the search to determine who indeed is the victim and who the villain. Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that Israel truly is a Jewish state, in values as well as in name; that it seeks peace, not war, with its neighbors and prays for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side as friends rather than as enemies.

Sacrificial Offerings

September 17, 2013

As those of you who have shared Rosh Hashanah with us over the years know, every Rosh Hashanah morning I dedicate my sermon to a theme born of this morning’s Torah portion – the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac.  Over the years, I have drawn many lessons from various aspects of this text.  I have found meaningful messages in the roles of Abraham and Isaac, the roles of the servants who accompanied them, whom are tradition identifies as Ishmael and Eliezer; I even have found meaningful messages in the roles of the donkey and the mountain.  My Akeda sermons have been finessed and nuanced in numerous ways.  However, this morning I want to do something just a little different; a little different yet something old and classical.

I want to turn to one of the primary interpretations of this Torah text, as found in our tradition.  For the ancient rabbis were quick to see this strange story of Abraham and Isaac on top of Mount Moriah as being first and foremost a story about sacrifice.  That is what I want to talk about this morning – sacrifice.

There are those who say that this account was included in the Torah as a polemic against human sacrifice; a practice that was very common among many Near Eastern religions in Abraham’s day, and throughout the biblical period.  In fact, just beyond the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is Gei-Hinnom – the Valley of Hinnom.  As testified to by such great prophets as Jeremiah and Isaiah, it was in that place that Canaanite idol worshipers offered up their children to Moloch, the god of fire.  For the ancient Israelites, it was a place of fear because of the horrors that took place there.  It is even said that one of the ways Israelite parents would discipline their children was by telling them, “If you’re not good, I’m going to send you to Gei-Hinnom!”  It is spoken of in the Talmud as Gehenna, and there it is considered a frightening place of fire and death.  Indeed, Christ­ianity would draw heavily upon these images of Gehenna as it fashioned its own concept of Hell.

Therefore according  to some interpreters, this morning’s Torah text is meant to serve as a powerful Jewish rejection of those sacrificial practices.  For there is Abraham, willing to serve his God by physically sacrificing his child just as so many around him actually did sacrifice their children in the service of their gods.  Yet, at the very last moment, as the knife is about to fall, God’s angel shouts out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy nor do the least thing to him!” in a crystal clear statement that God is not interested in human sacrifice; that such an act is abhorrent to God.  For God, animal sacrifice is quite sufficient as Abraham finds a ram to offer in place of his son.

That is one interpretation of this story.

Yet for many of the ancient rabbis, this text was so much more than a proof text as to why Jews don’t prac­tice human sacrifice.  For understanding, they ask an all important question:  If God did not want human sacrifice, why did God ask it of Abraham in the first place?  God simply could have said to Abraham:  “I forbid you and those who follow after you from sacrificing children.  It is abhorrent to me, even worse than bacon!”  For these rabbis, there had to be more to the story than just a rejection of a religious practice which was common among Abraham’s neighbors.

For these rabbis, the heart of the story rests squarely on God’s request and Abraham’s response.  God asked of Abraham to surrender that which was most precious to him – “Take your son, your only child, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on a mountain that I will show you” – and Abraham was willing to do it without question or doubt because he believed in God so completely that even in this he would obey.  For these rabbis, this text challenges us, asking, “Look what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in the service of God.  What are we willing to sacrifice – not only to God, but also generally in the name of those ideas, or principles, or causes, in which we claim to believe and to which we claim to be committed?  Indeed, are we willing to give to anything until it hurts?  Even more simply, are we willing to give as well as to take, and if so, are we willing to give as much as we take, or even more?

These questions remain as pertinent today as they did when the ancient rabbis first posed them; perhaps even more so.  We are Jews who live in a time and a place of extreme blessings, and not just as Jews but as Americans.  No matter how much we complain about the state of the economy and taxes and the cost of gas at the pump, our lives are far more comfortable than the vast majority of people on our planet.  They are also far more comfortable than most of those of the generations that came before us.  I think of my own parents, of blessed memory.  It was only toward the end of their lives that they were able to enjoy such luxuries as an air conditioned home or a microwave.  Going out to a restaurant was a real treat for them while admittedly, I eat more meals in restaurants than I do at home.  For them, a vacation was going camping in the woods while for me, a vacation usually involves getting on an airplane.  I can only speculate as to how amazed they would be if they were around today to witness the marvels of dishwashers and K cups and computers and printers and cell phones and I Pads and cable or satellite tv – My father loved to watch tv.

We are a people whose pantries are filled, whose refrigerators and freezers are filled, whose closets are filled, whose garages are filled, whose lives are filled with a bounty of plenty.  Yet when it comes down to it, how much of that plenty are we willing to give up in support of those causes which we claim to be important to us?  How much are we willing to sacrifice?  Abraham was willing to give up his beloved – his only – son because God was important to him.  What are we, who have so much, willing to give up be­cause anything is so important to us?

In this day and age, that is an uncomfortable question for many.  We have so much, but we have grown so accustomed to having so much that we resist letting any of it go.  We do not wish to impair our comfort or even take the risk of impairing it.  While we are willing to give, how many among us are willing to give until it hurts?  How many are willing to give of their bounty to such an extent that it will actually alter, even if just a little, their lifestyle?  How many of us are willing to make such a sacrifice that as a result we would need to deny ourselves one less meal in a restaurant each week or each month, or we would need to hold on to that car for another year or so, or take one less vacation every few years, or find ourselves needing to wear some of last year’s fashions this year?

Now do not think that this whole question of sacrifice is about surrendering material possessions.  Of course that can be part of it but it is far from the whole.  In fact, many find that giving materially is far easier and far less demanding than giving in other ways.

I remember one year when Shira was in college and it was time for the students to move out of their summer apartments and into their winter ones.  Now in Madison, Wisconsin, where Shira went to school, every student moved out on the same day and every student moved in on the next.  So I went up to Madison to help her move.  It was chaos and it was exhausting.  On the second day, as we were moving Shira into her winter quarters, I took a break outside of her apartment building.  Soon I was joined by a set of parents of another student who was moving in as well.  In shared agony, we struck up a conversation in which that student’s father commented, “These two moving days make paying tuition seem relatively painless!”  And he was right!  For while giving away or spending money may be momentarily painful, chances are good that we will be earning more money and the pain will quickly fade.

Giving time.  That’s a whole other story, for our time is not a renewable resource.  When we spend it, it is gone and it is not coming back.  Trust me.  When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder where it all went, and how did it fly by so quickly.  Time is a precious commodity, so it stands to reason that many would prefer to give money than to give time.  But even as our time is precious to us, it is also precious to others.

Our time is most certainly precious to our family.  So many of us claim that our family is the most important thing in our lives.  But is it really?  A good measure is to be found in how much of our time do we devote to them, and how much do we spend in other pursuits.  It is a source of a certain amount of embarrassment to me that when Shira was young, there were too many occasions when she had some special event, and I missed it because I was here at the Temple teaching a class or attending a meeting, or whatever.  What do you think about a dad who lets his neighbor from across the street escort his daughter to a Dad-Daughter Date Night at school?  That dad was me.  However by the time it was Helene’s turn,  I came to recognize how incongruous that was with my values.  I discovered that I could say, “I’m sorry, I cannot attend that meeting because Helene has such-&-such an event” or “I’m sorry but we will not be holding class on this or that date because I need to be with Helene for a program.”

Not only is our time precious to our family but it is precious to others as well.  Worthy organizations with noble goals are always starving for volunteers.  Whether or not people step forward to fill those spots can make all the difference in the success or failure of those organizations, and more importantly, whether or not those noble goals are met.  Just think about our own efforts when it comes to addressing world hunger.  Is there anyone here who would say that they do not give a hoot or a holler about all those people starving across the world?  Of course not.  We all think that it is a shame; a travesty.  We all wish that everyone had enough food to eat.  Yet how many of us are willing to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon in October to walk in the CROP Walk?  The more people who walk, the more money we raise.  The more money we raise, the more lives we save.  It is all a matter of sacrificing a little time in order to make a great difference in the lives of many people.  And yes, pledging some money as well.

We can give of our money.  We can give of our time.  But what about giving of ourselves?  That, perhaps, is the hardest sacrifice of all, save literally giving of our lives.    To give of ourselves means to truly care about something or someone other than ourselves.  It means being willing at times to put them first, before us and our wants and our needs.  It means being willing to step forward, be counted, and even take risks on their behalf.  It means stepping off the sidelines, stop being an observer, and start being a participant in the quest to bring about righteous change in the world.

Walter Friedlieb was Susie Rothbardt’s father, Greg Rothbardt’s grandfather.  Walter was also one of those German Jews who was able to escape Nazi Germany before it was too late.  He knew first hand what it meant to be on the receiving end of prejudice.  I remember so well his telling me with great pride about how he and his Chicago rabbi, David Polish, went down South to participate in a civil rights demonstration, and how, as a result, they wound up in jail.  He could have stayed home in Chicago, reading the newspapers and watching the news, sharing with others his disdain for racial discrimination in conversations over cups of coffee but he chose to act instead of just talk.  He chose to put himself on the line in the cause of racial justice.  He chose to help make change happen rather than just hope for it to happen.  He chose to give of himself, willing to accept the consequences of his sacrifice.  And he did help to bring about a positive change in his world.  How many of us can say of ourselves, we have done the same?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything – and believe you me, Isaac was everything to him – because he believed it was the right thing to do.  To this day, the story of Abraham and Isaac which we read from the Torah just a short while ago, challenges us to ask of ourselves, “What sacrifices would I be willing to make in the name of those people and ideas and values and causes which I hold to be near and dear?  What sacrifices would I be willing to make in order to do my part in making this world a better place for all who live here?”

Inside, Outside

September 15, 2013

It always does my heart good to step out onto the bimah on Rosh Hashanah Eve and look out into the sanctuary and see such a packed house!  Would that it could be so on every Shabbat.  But that’s a rabbi’s fantasy and we all know that the reality is much different.

When I was younger – like all young rabbis – I was convinced that I just needed to find the magic formula to make it so; that if I just tweaked the Shabbat service here and tweaked it there, made this change and that change, that eventually I would come upon the right formula that would bring the Jews flocking back to Shabbat, week in and week out filling the sanctuary as if it were the High Holy Days.  But, of course, I never succeeded.  Very few, if any rabbis, really do.

With the passage of time, I came to realize – all rabbis come to realize – that it is not necessarily that we failed but that there are forces at work here that are only minimally impacted by whatever efforts we take, no matter how heroic, to bring Jews to Shabbat.  That does not mean that we can’t do better.  God knows, we can, and many of us sincerely try!  Sometimes we even succeed in growing the Shabbat crowd.  Yet our success is measured not in miles but in inches; not in hundreds but in 5’s and 10’s.  That is indeed a victory, for more often than not, the reasons that draw you to tonight’s service in such large numbers, and keeps so many of you from our Shabbat services are not so much to be found in what happens on the bimah or in the sanctuary as they are to be found elsewhere.

So why do Jews pack the house on the High Holy Days?  Of course there is no one answer, for there are many reasons.  Different people come for different reasons.

There are some who come because they are seeking spiritual fulfillment.  Reciting the ancient prayers, chanting the sacred melodies, listening to the words of the Torah and Haftarah and the sounds of the shofar tomorrow, have the effect of opening up their souls and strengthening their sense of connection to God.

Others may have be drawn here by the power of memory.  Childhood memories of going to synagogue with their family on the High Holy Days wash over them.  So much so that returning to the synagogue for these services helps them to feel closer to those now gone.

Then there are others – many others – who have come here tonight because there are certain times during the course of the year when their sense of Jewish identity is stirred.  At other times it is there, but pretty much below the surface of their consciousness.  Yet at these times – times like the High Holy Days – it pushes its way up to the surface and ensnares them with a need to assert their Jewish self by coming to the synagogue and gathering – reuniting – with their fellow Jews and engaging in an act that is profoundly Jewish.  It is their Jewish fix, and their need for it is almost instinctual.

There are many reasons which draw us here tonight.  None of them are wrong.  They all are right in their own way.  Each of us has different needs which we seek to fill, and each of our reasons for coming here speak to those particular needs.

Yet we know, or have been told, that there was a time when Jewish life was much simpler.  Jews knew who they were as Jews, and they knew what they had to do as Jews, and they went ahead and did it.  In those days, the synagogue could be as full on Shabbat as it was on the High Holy Days, for Jews were Jews 24/7.  Their Jewish identity never slipped below the surface of their consciousness.  It was always right there on the top.  Some of us had parents like that, or grandparents, or even great grandparents.  But we are not them, just as our times are not their times.

We are truly the product of our own society; the one in which we grew up and the one in which we live in the present.  In so many ways, it has been a society of blessing for us.  As Jews, we do not live in fear as so many who came before us did.  While we may read or hear about the brutal hatred which marred the lives of so many of our ancestors rearing its ugly head in other lands, rarely, if ever, do we witness it in our own.  Here we feel fully accepted.   Clubs and schools and neighborhoods and jobs once closed to our fore-bearers, now welcome us with open arms, and have been doing so for some time.  As we find ourselves fitting so comfortably into the various aspects of the general society, while our sense of being Jewish does not leave us, it continues to fade deeper into our background.  We have come to feel that while being Jewish is part of our understanding of who we are, it is not nearly the totality of who we are, nor does it have to be.  We do not see this as a bad thing.  Indeed, we see it as a good thing, for it is wonderful to be accepted by others.

Yet our sense of Jewish identity can fade so deeply into our background and sink so far below the surface of our consciousness that it can almost disappear.  Not completely, but almost.  It can almost disappear to the point that we know that we are Jews but we are no longer sure of what that even means.  And there, for most of our days, it lies dormant until at special times, under special circumstances, it awakens and it struggles to assert itself, and for but a moment, our Jewish identity becomes important enough for us to do something about it, like going to synagogue, as we do on the High Holy Days.

Back in 1985, Herman Wouk wrote a book about this phenomenon.  He called it Inside, Outside.  It is the story of a American Jew in the mid-twentieth century – Israel David Goodkind – and his multi-generational family, born of Russian Jewish immigrants.  Raised in a household steeped in Orthodox Judaism, with every passing year David moves further and further from his Jewish roots.  He chooses Columbia over Yeshiva.  He becomes an attorney and chooses to be identified as I. David Goodkind, instead of Israel.  Later he even drops the “I”.  He winds up in Washington as a special advisor to the Nixon White House.  All the time he is struggling to figure out who he is as he is torn between two worlds – the inside and the outside; the inside world being the Jewish world in which he grew up and in which his family resides and the outside world being the secular world in which he conducts his professional life.  Which world will take primacy in his life?  How can he strike a healthy balance?

In so many ways, we are David Goodkind.   We have our “inside” – our Jewish side – and we have our “outside” – our secular side, and we, too, can struggle with how to juggle and balance them.  The very fact that we are Reform Jews, rather than Orthodox Jews, in and of itself makes a statement about some of the decisions we have made.  For us, living in the secular world is important.  We want to be in harmony with our non-Jewish neighbors.  We want to share in their lives and we want them to share in ours, and we see absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Yet at the same time, we are not willing or interested in letting go of our Judaism.  We acknowledge, and may even embrace, that side of our identity, and while we can sublimate it, we are not interested in eliminating it.  Yet the allure of the outside world can be so great that either consciously or subconsciously, we can let the inside world – the Jewish world – shrink within us to practically nothing.

So where do we go from here?  In fact here is a good place to start; here, on Rosh Hashanah, when our Jewish sense of self has broken through enough to bring us to the synagogue and has awakened within us the desire to be among Jews.  Here, when we have been reminded of the fact that a not so insignificant part of who we are is that we are Jews.

This is a good time for us to reclaim a better understanding of what it means for us – each of us individually – to be a Jew.  We know that we are Jewish, but do we know why or understand why it is still important to us?  It is one thing to have an identity but it is quite another to understand what that identity means to us.  That’s the quest that we need to start at this time of the year.

Coincidentally, this question of Jewish identity has been a topic of discussion for some months now with­in my own congregation.  We started talking about it in our Ritual Committee when one of our members proposed the idea of holding a Hebrew Naming Service.  That led us to questions like “What do you mean by a Hebrew Naming Service?” and “Why should we do one?”

As the person who proposed the idea pointed out, sad to say, many Reform Jews don’t have a Hebrew name.  In fact, many don’t even know that there is such a thing as a Hebrew name.  Yet a Hebrew name is very important for our own sense of Jewish identity.  It really is an “Inside, Outside” thing.  In a tra­ditional setting, Jews are known by their Hebrew name, while outside of the Jewish community, they are more commonly known by their secular name.  So, for example, to the world at large I am Henry Jay Karp, yet within the Jewish world I should be known as Chayim Ya’akov ben Shmuel V’Chavah.  In many synagogues, if I am called to bless the Torah, my Hebrew name would be the name they would use.  Indeed, on the day of my funeral, when the “Eil Malei Rahamim” prayer will be recited, it will include my Hebrew name as it offers my soul before the presence of God.  For it is our Hebrew name which encapsulates our Jewish identity, over and above our secular one.  To use our Hebrew name is to affirm who we are as Jews.

So why have a Hebrew Naming Service?  To affirm that we are Jewish and embrace our Jewish identity.  We have a handle on who we are as members of the secular society, for our secular name captures our secular uniqueness.  Is it not about time that we get a handle on who we are as members of our Jewish community; a uniqueness which we would be able to capture by taking on or affirming our Hebrew name?

Nor did our congregational conversations about Jewish identity conclude with our Ritual Committee’s discussions.  Rather this question has been carried forward to our Temple Board.  However, their discussion did not center on the question of the Jewish identity of the individual.  Rather it focused on the question of the Jewish identity of the group; in our case, the “group” meaning our congregation.

A significant question was posed.  What is Temple Emanuel’s Jewish identity?  Yes, we are a Reform con­gregation and have been so for almost as long as Reform Judaism has existed in America.  Yet, what does that mean?  Especially in this day and age, what does that mean?  We in Reform Judaism are proud to proclaim that we are a big tent; that because we believe in freedom of choice and personal autonomy, we welcome into our fold all sorts of Jews with widely varying approaches to Judaism, whether it be in the realm of theology, philosophy, or practice.  So, for example, praying exclusively in English is most certainly acceptable within the framework of Reform Judaism, but so is praying exclusively in Hebrew.

Today’s Reform Judaism is not monolithic but represents a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices.  While individuals within our congregation can stand anywhere they choose along that spectrum, there needs to come a point when the congregation itself figures out where we, as a congregation, stand along that spectrum.  Though we wish it could be otherwise, we cannot be all things to all people.  Rather, we must establish a concrete Reform Jewish identity for ourselves as a group, and that identity must, as accurately as possible, reflect the perspectives of as many of our congregants as possible.

Our Board has decided, and rightfully so, that we need to determine for ourselves what is the Jewish identity of Temple Emanuel.  We call the process “Defining Our Congregation’s Approach to Reform Judaism,” and we have a task force assigned to lead us through this process.  For this, we most certainly will need the cooperation and participation of our congregants.  Throughout the course of the year, we will be attempting to engage them in this process through surveys and discussions forums, and in whatever way we can so that they can share with us your perspectives on what makes our congregation a Reform congregation, and on how they would like to see our congregation exemplify our approach to Reform Judaism.

We gather on the High Holy Days because, for one reason or another, we have each of us felt the need to affirm that we are Jews and that our Jewish identity is in one way or another important to us.  Even though this heightened sense of being Jewish may only last us for the moment and may fade back into the background of our lives with the setting sun on Yom Kippur, let us grasp this opportunity to take advantage of our present heightened Jewish awareness so that it feeds our desire to grow our Jewish identity into something that we can more fully understand and appreciate.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it may even come to play a little bit of a larger role in our lives.  May our inside world grow even while our outside world thrives, and may they come to nurture each other.