Posted tagged ‘God’

Gun Violence: A Personal Reflection

January 17, 2013

As I write this, our nation is embroiled in a heated debate over whether or not to limit the Second Amendment rights regarding gun ownership.  This is a debate far too long delayed in our land.  Every year has brought new tragedies born out of the barrels of guns while our legislators have waffled and buckled under the tremendous pressure placed upon them by the gun lobby.  This failure to act sadly has been reinforced by the toxicity of the temporary attention span of the American public as the outrage over each and every mass murder has too quickly faded from memory and has morphed into renewed apathy while we have redirected the focus of our attentions to the latest drama reported and exploited by the news media. In fact, just the other day, I mentioned to someone the movie “Bowling for Columbine,” only to receive the response, “Columbine?  What is Columbine?”  However, now that the American people have suffered such a trauma and are feeling so outraged by the slaughter of so many little children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it would appear that finally those in favor of some form of gun control may have gained some traction.  Maybe, but I am a pessimist.  I have to wonder how concerned about this issue people will be a month from now; in six months from now.

It is no secret where I stand on this question.  Of course, I could take this opportunity to regale you with all the argumentation offered by those who share my views on gun violence but I suspect that in so doing, I would be offering very little information that you have not heard before.  Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to share with you something a bit different.  I want to share with you why for me this is such a personal issue and not just another topic for debate.  I wish to share with you a painful story from my past.

From 1977 to 1982 I served as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Lincoln, Nebraska.  I was a young rabbi, filled with enthusiasm and idealism.  I threw myself completely into everything I did and the congregation just ate it up.  One of my projects was running a one-man Jewish Studies Academy (that is what I called our adult education program).  One night a week, every week, I taught two different mini courses of 4 to 5 sessions duration, maybe offering 10 courses in a year.  It was fairly popular, attracting non-Jews as well as members of the congregation.

One such non-Jewish student was a young divorcee who, while never broaching the subject of conversion, attended every class and most services.  She quickly became an “unofficial” member of our congregational family, surrounded by a growing group of Jewish friends, my wife and I included.

This woman had two sons, both teenagers; one was around 13 years old and the other 15.  They were nice boys but understandably troubled by the breakup of their family.  Then one day tragedy struck.  After school the two boys brought two girls to the home of their father while their father was at work.  Both boys were trying hard to impress the girls.  So the older brother ordered the younger one to do some menial household chore.  Not to be shamed in front of the girls, the younger brother refused.  The older brother insisted. The younger one continued to refuse.  Then the older one went to a closet and pulled out a rifle.  He pointed it at his brother’s head and said something to the effect of “Do what I say or I’ll blow your head off!”  Not to be intimidated, the younger brother continued to refuse.  So the older brother pulled the trigger and did just what he said he would do, shooting his brother in the head at close range and killing him.  A 20th century reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel.

Here I was, a young, inexperienced rabbi, feeling as though I was expected to offer sage counsel and support to a women who had one son lying dead and the other in jail, guilty of the murder of his brother.  All because their foolish father kept a loaded rifle unlocked in his house.  But what could I say, what could I do in the face of such profound tragedy?  There are no words that could even begin to take away that mother’s pain.  There is no wisdom that could even begin to make sense of that horror.  All that I could do was to be a presence.  Obviously, those events continue to haunt me to this day.  God seemed absent from the world at that moment.  Today I understand that God was not so much absent but rather exiled from the world at that moment; exiled not just by the act of violence itself but also by the various human choices which ultimately contributed to that act of violence, including the legislative choice to allow that young man access to the gun with which he slew his brother.

Limiting access to guns won’t eliminate the problem, for the problem is a complex web of contributing factors, but, God willing, it will reduce the number of victims.

A personal confession.  Prior to these events, I was one of those Americans who shared our apparently national love affair with guns.  Being raised in the ’50’s & ’60’s, how could it be otherwise?  The heroes of my childhood were the cowboys and the frontiersmen who constantly flashed across both the silver and the TV screens of that day; Davey Crockett, the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Marshall Matt Dillon, Paladin, and of course John Wayne, just to mention a few.  As a child, I was the owner of a veritable arsenal of toy guns.  While never a hunter, even into my college years, I loved to target shoot in my back yard with a variety of BB pistols and rifles.  But having witnessed up close this parent’s nightmare, from that day to this, I have never again fired one of my weapons.

Evangelizing Jews to Judaism

June 18, 2012

A few years back, I invested myself into reading all 12 volumes of the LEFT BEHIND series; that best selling series of novels built around the beliefs of certain evangelical Christians concerning the future period of time between the “Rapture” – when all truly believing Christians will be physically taken up to heaven – and the Second Coming of Jesus.  I read these books because I felt it important to get inside the minds of the evangelicals.  I felt that we Jews need to know what these people believe, and particularly what they believe about us, especially considering how significantly their influence on American society has increased, not to mention the number of copies of each of those books which were sold, and therefore the large number of people who resonate the the theology expressed in those books.

One of the things that is abundantly clear from these books is their burning passion to evangelize Jews to Christianity.  Indeed, while these books described their desire to bring everyone to their beliefs, when it comes to the Jews, their hunger for our conversion is nothing short of obsessive.

It is in this light that one of the great ironies of our time is that it some of our most ardent allies when it comes to Israel are evangelical Christians .  It is this irony which has ignited many debates in the Jewish world over whether we should embrace these evangelicals as our friends when it comes to Israel – under the rubric of “a friend in need…” or distance ourselves from their support of Israel, in light of their apocalyptic designs for Israel and for us.

For centuries upon centuries, we Jews have been greatly distressed by the attempts of Christians to bring us to Christianity.  Throughout that time, various Christian groups have employed many strategies to “save our souls for Jesus.”  Indeed, throughout most of that time, they turned the political power of their societies against us in pursuit of this goal, attempting to convert us through coercion , persecution, expulsion, and even execution.  Therefore, when put in a historical perspective, the attempts of contemporary American evangelicals to bring Jews to Jesus are pretty innocuous.  Yet their efforts continue to concern us.

I propose that the efforts of these evangelicals constitute little, if any, threat to the American Jewish community.  It is not that the evangelicals are not sincere in their aspirations.  They are most certainly sincere.  Nor is that they are not energetically invested in their efforts, for once again, they are most certainly energetic in their pursuit of our souls.  Rather, they pose little threat to us because of the nature of the American Jewish community itself.

For the evangelicals to be successful in their conversionary tactics, their Jewish targets must possess some basic desire for a religious expression in their lives.  American Jews need first to be concerned about the well being of their souls before they can start to worry about in what manner can their souls be saved.

Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of my co-religionists do not possess such desires or concerns.  The nature and the well being of their souls is probably one of the last things about which they are worried.  They truly consider themselves Jews, but for them, being Jewish is more of a tribal thing than a spiritual one.  They are Jews, but for all intents and purposes, they are a-religious.  Indeed, even the nature of their tribal affiliation can be vague and tenuous, as is evidenced by their lack of involvement, support, commitment, and knowledge of such tribal organizations and issues as the Jewish Federation and the State of Israel.  They are Jews, but the nature of the thread that binds them to their Jewishness is thin and frail, and when it comes to spiritual matters, it is practically non-existent.

Case in point:  For the last several years I have joined with my evangelical neighbors in their “Night to Honor Israel” programs.  I figure that if I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my Roman Catholic neighbors in attempts to address the blights of war, poverty and homelessness, in spite of our significant differences over such issues as women’s reproductive rights, then I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my evangelical neighbors in our support of the State of Israel, in spite of our differences over several sensitive social issues such as same-sex marriage.  From these “Night to Honor Israel” experiences I have garnered three interesting insights:  1) That there are evangelicals and then there are evangelicals.  There are those evangelicals whose faith compels them to save the souls of the Jews by bringing them to Jesus, and then there are those evangelicals whose faith instructs them that of all the people on the face of the earth, the only ones that do NOT need to be brought to Jesus are the Jewish people, for the Jews are the people of Jesus and most beloved in the eyes of God.  2) That the commitment of these evangelicals for the survival and well being of Israel is indeed profound; more profound than that of far too many American Jews, and 3) That when at these events, as we all talk about our commitment to Israel, while the evangelical speakers address their commitment to Israel in religious terms, often quoting the Hebrew Scriptures not just for illustrative purposes but rather as absolute proof texts, the Jewish speakers invariably frame their remarks in terms of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood and rarely, if ever, mention God and scripture.   For these Evangelicals there is an eternal and indestructible relationship between the State of Israel and God.  Ironically, for the Jewish speakers there seems to be little if any connection between Israel and God.  Spirituality does not seem to play much of a role in this matter, or in any matter, for so many of our Jews.

So the evangelical Christians can try as they may to bring Jews to Jesus but they are plowing and sowing their seeds in infertile soil.  In presenting their case to such Jews, they might as well be speaking in tongues for these folks possess little, if any, spiritual vocabulary and perhaps even less of a sense of spiritual connectedness.

But this is not necessarily all bad news.  While we need not worry about our co-religionists being evangelized to Christianity, we should be seriously considering how we, as a RELIGIOUS community, can more effectively evangelize our fellow Jews to Judaism.  After all, while the threads that bind them to Judaism are thin and frail, they still exist.  There is something within them that helps them to see their Jewish identity as something important enough not to let go of it.  Right now, it may not be important enough to play an on-going role in their lives; it may be something buried deep within the background of their consciousness, but still something is there.  It has not disappeared all together.

This is where the synagogue comes in.  For the synagogue is the Jewish RELIGIOUS institution.  Though one of the roles of a synagogue is a communal one, that of being a “Beit Keneset,” a House of Jewish Assembly, we are NOT just a Jewish community center.  We are NOT just some sort of Jewish ethnic society.  We are far more than that.  We are a “Beit Tefilah,” a House of Jewish Worship, and a “Beit Sefer,” a House of Jewish Study.  Our primary mission is a spiritual one.  It is to promote Jewish spirituality; to empower and enable our members to connect with God in very Jewish ways.  To that end, our secondary mission is an educational one.  It is to provide opportunities for Jewish learning so that our people can have access to the tools necessary to accomplish our primary mission.  As far as Jewish communal activities are concerned, they are but our tertiary mission.  The Jewish community WE build is suppose to be built around our shared spiritual values.  It is the function of Jewish Federations to build a Jewish community around our shared ethnic values.  In the synagogue, we are supposed to be coming together as a community to enhance our worship and study experiences; to find ourselves drawing closer to God in a both a personal and communal way through prayer, study, and the performance of mitzvot, both ritual and ethical.  Back when I was growing up, the organization, Religion in American Life, used to run TV ads stating, “The Family the Prays Together Stays Together.”  It is in that way that a synagogue is one big family.  We need to pray together if we are to stay together.

Therefore, the mission of every synagogue is and should be to evangelize Jews to Judaism; to build upon the tenuous connection that most Jews have to their Judaism; to strengthen and enrich those bonds in powerful spiritual ways.  It is our responsibility to enable our people to evolve Jewishly; to take them from identifying themselves as Jews by birth to a place where they will identify themselves as Jewish by choice; to help them to come to appreciate that being Jewish is meant to be more than a mere accident – something we are stuck with – but rather it can be something that positively impacts upon our lives on a daily basis.

The other day I was looking through a book entitled THE ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR SURVIVAL KIT.  It is one of a growing genre of books aimed at Jews who get little or nothing out of their Judaism.  Such books operate under the assumption that Jews think doing things Jewish is a waste.  In fact, a few years ago, the Wednesday morning book group in my synagogue studied such a book whose title says it all.  That title: “HOW TO GET MORE OUT OF BEING JEWISH EVEN IF:  A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above!”  There is no question about who is the target audience for that book!

Anyway, I was looking through this book about making the High Holy Days more meaningful, especially for those Jews who are basically clueless as to what Judaism is all about, and I came upon the author’s analysis of Jewish education.  He stated that Jewish education should be answering the questions, “What,” “How,” and “Why”.  What aspect of Jewish practices are you studying?  How should you observe them?  And why should you observe them?  He then went on to say that traditionally, synagogues and religious schools have focused their efforts on addressing the “What” and the “How” but have failed to adequately address the “Why”.  For example, they teach that on Pesach you hold a Seder.  That is the “What.”  They then go on to teach that when you hold a Seder, you are expected to do A, B, & C.  That is the “How.”  Where they fall down is that they fail to adequately teach, “Why do you hold a Seder?  Why do you eat matzah, charoset, and bitter herbs?  Why do you have a cup for Elijah?”  You get the idea.  There is a failure in teaching the deeper meanings behind the actions.  That, by the way, is why I have always loved being a Reform Jew, for historically, Reform Judaism has instituted many changes in Jewish life in order to pay more attention to the Why.  For example, when I attend traditional Jewish worship services, they being all or primarily in Hebrew, even though my Hebrew skills are of such a level that I can understand the meaning of the prayers being offered, still I walk away feeling empty because I cannot help but think of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the worshipers in those sanctuaries have no more of a grasp on the meaning of those prayers than if those prayers were being offered in Klingon or Martian.  They may love the sound of the Hebrew and the feel of the Hebrew, and even the thrill of being able to “decode” the Hebrew characters of the text, but that is simply the “What” and the “How.”  The “Why” is nowhere to be found in such worship experiences.  Since prayer is speaking to God, how sad it is that they do not even know what it is they are saying!  Reform Judaism on the other hand felt it imperative to introduce praying in the vernacular as well as in Hebrew so that our worshipers can know what they are saying when they are speaking to God.  Our traditional prayers have meaning – deep meaning – and understanding what we are praying – what we are saying to God – that is the all important “Why”.

I share all of this with you because I agree and I disagree with this author.  I agree with his claim that by our better understanding of the meanings of behind religious practices those actions will start to come to life for us; that in order for our rituals to have any vibrancy in our lives, we need to understand their deeper meanings.  It is in such understanding that our rituals possess their great power.  However, where I disagree with the author is in his claim that all of our synagogues and our schools have failed to teach those meanings.  With this, I disagree strongly.  For there are many synagogues and schools in which they are being taught.  We do teach them, and we will continue to teach them.  The problem is not that we do not teach these things but rather that we can teach them till the cows come home, yet all our efforts will be to limited purposes if the vast majority of our people continue to refuse to avail themselves of such education.

This is the real challenge which we face in evangelizing Jews to Judaism.  It is the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”  Offering classes and programs is not the problem for us.  We can do that.  They can take many shapes and forms.  We are flexible if flexibility truly helps us to meet this need.  But how do we get our people to drink the water from the well of Jewish knowledge?  How do we awaken in them the desire, nevertheless the hunger, to learn more about our faith and our heritage?  They exercise and watch what they eat to safeguard the health of their bodies.  How can we awaken within them the realization that they need to safeguard their spiritual health as well?

I teach a B’nei Mitzvah Family Class.  In anticipation of their special day, every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his or her parents are required to attend this 8 session course.  While most groups going through this class are a mix of those who are  synagogue regulars and those who are not, the majority generally are not.  You do not see them at services.  You do not see them in adult education classes.  If you see them at all, it is more likely at social functions.  During these classes, we explore the meanings behind Bar & Bat Mitzvah and related topics such as “What is a mitzvah?” and “What are meanings of the rituals found in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service?”  Invariably, most of these people find themselves deeply engaged in these sessions.  For these brief moments they come to see their Judaism in ways they have not seen it before, and they find it very meaningful.  The challenge facing our synagogues is how do we build upon this?  How do we engage such people in further Jewish study when there is no gun being held to their head – “Take this class if you want your child to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service”?  How do we engage others in such meaningful study?

This is where we need to turn to our synagogue “regulars.”  We do not need to sell them on the power of Jewish worship or on the power of Jewish study.  That truly is preaching to the choir.  For they have already discovered these things.  They come to Shabbat, not because of any requirement but rather because it fulfills them in very special ways.  They attend adult education classes, not because of any requirement, but because the knowledge and the insights they receive from those classes enriches their lives.  They fully know from whence I am speaking.  They know that it is the power of Jewish worship and study which fuels their sense of engagement in this Jewish community.  Indeed, it fuels their sense of engagement in the greater human community.

That makes them our best representatives to the the Jewish people at large.  Rabbis such as myself could deliver this message to our fellow Jews who do not seem to know what these people know – We could deliver it day after day; we could deliver it standing on our heads – and most would react by thinking, “The rabbi is just blowing smoke.  What do you expect a rabbi to say?”  But if they could hear it from their fellow Jews; if these inspired Jews were the ones who went to their fellow Jews and said to them, “Come join me at Shabbat services.  Come with me to this class or that class” and these inspired Jews told them why they find Shabbat services so meaningful; what it is they find so compelling about Jewish learning, then perhaps – just perhaps – what these inspired Jews have to say about these passions of theirs will start to ignite similar passions in their apathetic fellow Jews.

The American Jewish community needs some serious evangelism of its Jews to Judaism.  While we rabbis and cantors can offer to this efforts our knowledge and our expertise, there are no greater evangelicals – no people better suited for this task – than inspired lay people; Jews who love Shabbat; Jews who are thrilled by Jewish study; Jews who revel in their life in the Jewish community.  Jews who understand that their involvement in such Jewish activities does contribute significantly to making them both better Jews and better human beings.  This is their time.  They are the key to the Jewish future.

Stages

June 10, 2012

We live our lives in stages.  I have found myself having to confront and make peace with this reality as of late, as my wife and I have started the long and arduous process of dismantling our home of 27 years, as we prepare to sell our house and downsize to a 2 bedroom rented condominium.  Considering where we are in our lives – with all our children now living away from home, and indeed my wife living primarily in Detroit – this dramatic shift makes sense.  Why maintain a 4 bedroom house, when most of the time only one person is living there, with that number only growing to 3 every other weekend.  So ends the home ownership stage of our lives and so will begin the stage of returning to smaller dwellings.  Yes, returning.  For when we first were married, 37 years ago, for three years we lived in rented apartments – in the newlywed stage of our lives – as we eagerly looked forward to, and saved for, that time when we would enter our home ownership stage, and the raising of a family.

Yes, we live our lives in stages.  If we are blessed, then most of our journeys from stage to stage are joyous adventures; starting school, no longer needing a babysitter, getting a driver’s license, going off to college, getting married, buying a home, giving birth to children, watching our own children travel through their own set of stages.  Even the stages in the later periods of our lives can be wondrous adventures, such as grandparenthood and retirement.  Yet, when all is considered, the various stages of our lives have more to do with what we make of them than what they make of us.

Still, even as we live so much of our lives in stages, there are – or should be – certain constants present as well.  Love should be one such constant.  It can grow, as we enfold more people into our circle of love, but we should work very hard never to let it diminish or disappear.  Our love for our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, their spouses, their children, our relatives and friends, should never be treated as stages in our lives.  We should never grow out of love with these people who have found a place in our hearts and in whose hearts we have found a place.  Yes, there will be days when we find that our feelings for these people will either rise or wane, but they should never disappear.

The same should hold true for our feelings toward God, faith, and the Jewish people.    Belief in God, our practice of religion, and our attachment to the Jewish people should never be considered as a stage or a phase in our lives.  We should never find ourselves saying, “Yes.  Jewish living used to be important to me.  I used to pray.  I used to study.  I used to be involved in the Jewish community, but since then I moved on.  I’ve grown out of that phase.”  God, faith, the Jewish people are not meant to be likened to the width of our ties, the length of our skirts, the style of our hair, or even the type of car we drive or the home we live in.  Connecting with God should be more of a continual desire than whether or not we feel that minivans are still functional in our lives.  Rather we should approach our relationship with God, faith, and the Jewish people more in the manner in which we approach our relationships with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our family, our friends.  Like with those relationships, our bonds to God, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people, will over time change, evolve, and hopefully grow.  There will be good times.  There will be bad times.  There will be those times when these relationships raise us up to the heights, and there may be times as well when we find them bending almost to the breaking point.  Almost to the breaking point; but we should never let them break.  For when they break, whether or not we realize it, we break as well.

Just as with our loved ones, no matter how busy our lives may be, we need to carve out time to be with God and the Jewish people.  For if we do make time for them, we will find that just as with our loved ones, there is miraculous healing and strength to be found.

Counting Jews

May 30, 2012

This past Shabbat, we began the reading of another book of the Torah.  In Hebrew that book is called BAMIDBAR, which means “In the Wilderness” but in English it has another name – NUMBERS.

Why the difference between the Hebrew and the English names?  It is a matter of culture.

In the ancient culture of the Jewish people, books, and indeed weekly Torah portions were named after the first significant uncommon word in the text.  Tonight’s text begins with the statement “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe bamidbar Sinai” – “Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”  While, of course, the words “Adonai” and “Moshe” are unquestionably more significant than “bamidbar,” still since so many sentences in the Torah begin with the phrase “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe” we skip it and go to the next significant word.  Ergo “Bamidbar.”

The English title of Torah books follows the Greek tradition of giving them names which are more reflective of their content and theme.  Indeed, with the exception of the book of NUMBERS, the more familiar names of the other books of the Torah are actually their Greek names – GENESIS, EXODUS, etc.

So why is the book of NUMBERS called the book of NUMBERS?  Because it begins with a taking of a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness.  This census is taken in the second year of their sojourn in the wilderness and it is taken tribe by tribe, and included all males twenty years of age and older.  According to the text, the total count was 603,550.

This is not the first time in our history that Jews were counted.  There is an earlier census in the book of EXODUS which comes up with an identical number.  Then, of course, we see in the very beginning of the book of EXODUS that the number of Jews accompanying Jacob into Egypt were 70.

It would appear that counting Jews is a longstanding practice among out people; one which we still seriously engage in today.  It remains very important for us to know the numbers: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?  6 million.  How many Jews live in Israel? – 5,931,000.  How many Jews live in the United States? – 6,588,065.  How many Jews live in the Quad Cities? – approximately 800.  How many Jews belong to Temple Emanuel? – Approximately 155 households.  How many Jews attend our religious school? – 63.  How many Jews attend Shabbat services – sadly usually under 20.  There is no question but that in Jewish life we are always playing the numbers game.

But perhaps for all these millennia, we’ve had it all wrong.  Perhaps rather than focusing our attention on counting Jews we ought to be focusing it on whether or not our Jews count.

This, my friends, is both a private concern and a community concern.

Privately, each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, “As a Jew, how much do I count?  Have I made my life into a Jewish presence?  Have I consciously applied my Jewish values in the daily conduct of my life?  As a Jew, have I stood up and been counted, when it really counts?  When my days on earth are over and I am physically gone, will my presence on this planet have counted for any good?”  It is simply not enough for us to be counted among the Jews.  If our lives, as Jews, are to have any purpose whatsoever, then we need to be counted on as Jews.  We need to be there, living our lives as lives of mitzvot, both the ethical mitzvot and the ritual mitzvot.  We cannot just talk about Torah.  If we are to count as Jews, we need to live Torah.

Just as we need to make sure that we count as individual Jews, we also need to insure that our Jewish community also counts, and counts as a Jewish community.  Just as we as individuals need to be there, our Jewish community needs to be there.  As a community, we need to be up front and visible, presenting to the world around us a model of what it means for a community to operate according to Jewish values.  We need to make of our community, a community which is proud of its Judaism; not just privately or secretly proud but publicly proud.  As a Jewish community, we have nothing to be ashamed of.  Quite the contrary!  We should wear the badge of our Jewish identity with pride.

Just as we, as individuals, must have our every action influenced by our Jewish values, so should we as a community have our every action influenced by those values.  Our community should be driven by those values.  We should not wait for others in the general community to signal for us what is the right thing to do.  Our Jewish tradition informs us as to what is the right thing, and as a community we should act upon that information, even if it means that sometimes we stand and act alone.  By conducting our Jewish communal life in this way, that is how we make our Jewish community count for something; count for something good and something truly Jewish.

When Jews come to the synagogue to observe Shabbat, by our very presence in the sanctuary on Shabbat, we have not only been counted in our minyan, but more importantly, we have made ourselves count as Jews.  We have made ourselves count as Jews because our very presence raises up the sanctity of Shabbat; this day declared holy by God from the very first week of Creation.  We have made ourselves count as Jews by actively affirming our intimate connections with the Jewish people, our Jewish heritage, and our special Jewish relationship with God.  Accomplishing all of that – taking such actions as to help us to better count as a Jew – is far more important and far more meaningful than merely being counted as a Jew; being considered Jew number 13 of 21 who happen to have attended the Shabbat service this week; than being Jew number 35 on the Temple membership roster.

And just as our presence in the synagogue on Shabbat is a demonstration of how we can count as Jews, more that merely be counted, so is our presence at such Jewish values activities as adult education and Tikkun Olam activities also demonstrations of how we can count as Jews.  For when, for example, in the Fall, the members of my congregation walk in the CROP Walk Against World Hunger, while the numbers of our congregants who walk are impressive, still it is not so much the numbers who walk but rather that all of us who are walking, are walking for a cause; are walking for a cause very much in consonance the teachings and values of our faith.  In so walking, we are demonstrating those Jewish values in action.  In other words, in that moment, as Jews, we count.

My prayer for all of us is that as we continue to travel the course of our lives, we will forever strive to live Jewish lives that count.

Standing at Sinai Today

May 19, 2012

This coming week, my congregation will join with our neighboring synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, to celebrate the festival of Shavuot through the ritual of Confirmation for four very special young ladies: Gabrielle Gellerman, Michelle Larsen, Shai Mally, and Rachel Whiskeyman.

Confirmation is a life cycle ceremony which came “late to the game.”  It was the creation of Reform Judaism, with the original intention being that it would replace Bar Mitzvah.  The desire of those early Reform Jewish leaders was to move Jewish education beyond the age of 13, for at that time Bar Mitzvah marked the end of Jewish education for most Jewish children.  By placing Confirmation at the conclusion of 10th grade, they added three years to our children’s religious school studies.  These are a very important three years when you consider that these three years mark a period of significant growth in a child’s intellectual and emotional development.  It is during these three years that our children become far more capable of maturely understanding the fine nuances and complexities of Jewish beliefs.  They have finally reached a stage in their lives when it is no longer necessary for Jewish educators to “dumb down” and simplify the teachings of our faith so that they can understand and appreciate them.

The maturity of the students by the age of Confirmation was a very important consideration in framing this ceremony.  It was precisely because of their increased maturity that our early leaders decided to place the Con­firmation service on the festival of Shavuot, the third of our three major Pilgrimage Festivals, when in ancient days, all Jews made pilgrimage to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.  They chose Shavuot because of what Shavuot means to Jewish life.  It is nothing less than the festival of “Matan Torah,” of “the Giving of the Torah.”  It is the festival when we celebrate our people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah directly from God.

Through their celebration of Shavuot, and particularly through the act of Confirmation, our young people stand at Sinai to receive the Torah.  With somewhere between 10 to 12 years of formal Jewish studies under their belts, these young people, with full intention and a body of knowledge based up their studies and experiences, stand at Sinai and say: “Yes!  I willingly and joyfully accept the responsibilities and the gift of Torah; the gift of living a Jewish life, Jewishly connected to God, the Jewish people, and the world.”

Confirmation is a beautiful thing.  However, it is easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that Confirmation, and the power of the festival of Shavuot, are only intended for our religious school’s graduating 10th graders.  In truth, it is not only for them but it is also for all of us as well.

On Yom Kippur morning, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah, out of the book of DEUTERONOMY: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem, rasheichm shifteichem, zikneichem v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisraeil.  Tapchem, n’sheichem, v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, meichotev eitzecha ad sho’eiv meimecha.  L’avrecha bivrit Adonai Elohecha uv’alato asher Adonai Elohecha koreit imach hayom… V’lo itchem levadchem Anochi koreit et a brit hazot v’et ha’alah hazot.  Ki et asher yeshno po imanu omeid hayom lifnei Adonai Eloheinu, v’eit asher einenu po imanu hayom.” – “You are standing this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every man in Israel, your children, your women, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water – to enter into a covenant with Adonai your God, and into His oath, which Adonai your God makes with you this day… But it is not only with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath.  For with those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.”

This is a very important text when it comes to appreciating the Jewish understanding of what transpired at Sinai.  In order to unpack and decode it, we have to understand that the rabbis viewed every single word of the Torah as being sacred and important.  There was no literary fluff.  Nor could the Torah contradict itself.  When it appears to do so, that contradiction needs to be resolved.

So what does this text teach us about that moment when our people stood at Sinai?

The first thing that the rabbis point out is that the text reads “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing this day, kulchem, all of you.”  Why, they asked, does the Torah include the word “kulchem – all of you”?  Would it not have been enough just to say “You are standing this day”?  What meaning does the word “kulchem – all of you” add to the text.  The answer that the rabbis give is that it means “all Jews”; not just the Jews alive at that time but also all the Jews throughout the generations, those of the past and those yet to be born.  Every Jew, for all time, stood at Sinai.

But if that is the case, then later on, there seems to be a contradiction in the text, for the Torah continues to read, “those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.”  If there are Jews who are “not here with us today,” then how can all Jews be there?  The rabbis resolved this apparent contradiction by stating that the Jews who were not there, were just not there physically.  However, they were there spiritually.  All Jews throughout the generations were there, standing at Sinai, spiritually, if not our bodies then at least our souls.

We – each and every one of us – were present for Matan Torah, for the Giving of the Torah.  I was there.  You were there.  Every single Jew in our congregation who is not with us tonight to observe Shabbat was there.  Every single Jew in the Quad Cities.  Every single Jew in the world.  We all stood at the foot of Sinai.  We all heard God’s voice recite the words of the Ten Commandments; the same words which our Confirmands will read out of the Torah scroll during their special service.  And even more important than having heard, we also accepted.

While Shavuot is the festival of Matan Torah – the Giving of the Torah – there is yet another side to that equation.  It is Kaballat Torah – The receiving, and accepting, of the Torah.  A gift can only be given if it is also accepted.  Otherwise it is not a gift.  As important as it was that God gave us the Torah, it was even more important that we accepted it.

When we talk about standing at Sinai, we are talking even more about our acceptance than about God’s giving.  It is nice that God wanted to give us a gift.  It was very generous of God.  But it is essential that we accepted that gift, and with it we accepted all the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with that gift.

Shavuot is a time when we are supposed to remember all the commitments that we made when all those years ago, we stood, as disembodied souls, united with all the souls of all the Jews for all time, at the foot of Mount Sinai.  It is a time when not just our children but also we, ourselves, are expected to confirm our devotion to the fulfillment of those commitments.  On Shavuot, we stand with all Jews, and we stand before God, and we say: “Yes!  I am a Jew, and I will live my life as a Jew, in thought and in deed, in beliefs and in values.”

Yet we also must remember that the values of Shavuot were never intended to be bottled up into one holiday celebration.  The holiday is to reinforce for us a lifelong, day-to-day commitment.  Just as our commitment to freedom should not be limited to the observance of Passover, and our commitment to repentance and atonement should not be limited to the observance of Yom Kippur, so our commitment to living our lives guided by the principles of Torah should not be limited to our observance of Shavuot.  Rather, from Shavuot, we should be renewing our sense of how beautiful and inspiring it was to stand at the foot of Sinai, in the presence of God, and to hear God’s commanding voice, and to be filled with that strong sense of this is how I wish to lead my life.  If we can accomplish that, then perhaps – just perhaps – we can find ourselves every day – every morning we wake up – filled with wonder of standing at Sinai.

The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer

February 26, 2012

There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services.  Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away.  Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity.  Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure.  Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole.  Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening.  There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God.  At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.

To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat.  For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God.  They are Jewish.  They probably believe in God.  But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.

But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer.  We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so.  The rest is up to them.  As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer.  It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.

This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.  While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences.  Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.

First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd.  “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case.  I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real.  They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.

That aside, I found the workshop  – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening.  It was some­what meditative, but it was more than mere meditation.  I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting.  For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclu­sively, if not exclusively, personal.  While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.

But back to the workshop.  At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath.  As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pro­nounce the actual name of God.  It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.

Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God.  So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.”  “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.”  There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name.  That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part.  The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.

Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.”  So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise.  She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it.  Hold it as long as we could.  And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.”  Dear reader, try that now then do it again.  “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe.  When you think about it, God is present in our every breath.  Every time we exhale, God is there.  For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.

Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.”  So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.”  Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.”  With our breath, we are praising God.  Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.

There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service.  For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!”  Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it:  “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”

This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique.  What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective.  For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take.  God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful.  It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us.  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God?  Wherever you let God in!”  When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.

So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue?  Why come to services?  I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer.  It was back in my New York days.  In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray?  I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’  To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling.  People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray.  The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.

It is not unlike our love for our dear ones.  We know we love them.  We feel our love for them con­stantly, but we don’t always express it.  We don’t always marry word and deed to intention.  We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them.  Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts.  So it is with Shabbat and worship.  It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.

Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers.  It makes them meaningful.  It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven.  And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath.  They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts.  For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.

Chasing Twilight

January 6, 2012

Last July, my part time Cantor, full time U.S. Army civilian employee, wife, Gail, was transferred, along with her entire department, from the Rock Island Arsenal to the Army installation in Warren, Michigan.  So now she lives most of the time in Detroit while I continue to reside in Davenport, Iowa.  Gail comes home for approximately 36 hours every two week, over the weekend.  Being a rabbi, I do not have the opportunity to visit her nearly that often.  So, when Winter Break arrived this year, and our youngest, Helene, came home from her first semester at college, Helene & I jumped at the chance to go to Detroit to visit her mother and my wife.

As Helene and I were driving home from our visit – a seven hour drive – day morphed into night, just like it says in the MaAriv Aravim prayer where it describes God as “rolling light away from darkness.”  Since we were traveling westward, even though we were engulfed in the darkness of the new night, across the length of the horizon, we could still see that strikingly beautiful band of the flaming orange sky of sunset.  As we continued to move at highway speeds, I pointed out to Helene that the band was growing larger, the further west we traveled.  There­fore, at least theoretically, if we drove fast enough, it could be possible for us to travel from night into twilight.  As Helene was quick to point out, “Time Travel.”  We could go backward in time instead of ahead.  That is a mind blowing thought!

But when you think about it, all too many of us spend far too much of our lives aspiring to do just that – go backward in time – but on a far larger scale than a mere step from night into twilight.  We fantasize about turning the clock back not just a few hours but rather several years.  We yearn for the past; the “good old days,” as we are so fond of calling them.  We yearn to return to a time in our lives which we perceive as having been both simpler and happier; when we were better and so was our life.  Indeed, such perceptions become the fodder of many of the political candidates who are quick to proclaim that the present stinks and what we need is to return to the glories and the wonders of the past.

In our journey through life, our memories are fascinating companions.  They most certainly have the capacity to be warm and wonderful, but they also can be remarkably deceptive.  That so many people idealize the past is a testimony to such deception.  For if we are to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that while there are many good things to remember about our past, there is also much we choose to forget.  We choose to forget it either because it was truly painful or because, in light of today’s standards, it was simply a less comfortable way of life.  For example, who would want to return to the days before such dishwashers or clothes dryers or air conditioning, nevertheless cell phones, computers, and the internet?  Being as antique as I am, I remember them all, and far more.  I remember scrubbing dishes and pots in the sink.  I remember my mother hanging up the laundry on the clothesline in our backyard and praying that it would not rain.  I remember laying uncomfortably awake at night in my bed, soaked in sweat, unable to sleep.  I remember sitting on the stairs of my home, talking on the telephone, tethered to its base by the line connecting the handset.  I remember writing sermons on legal pads, with all sorts of scratch outs, circled texts, and arrows, meant to direct my secretary for when she had to type it out for me.  Of course, I remember far lower prices but I also remember even lower income levels that made those items at those low prices all the more unattainable.

My point here is that yearning for a return to the “good old days” is even more elusive and futile than racing down the highway trying to recapture the twilight.  The past is the past.  That our memory re­frames it with a focus on all that was good and pleasant about it is a gracious gift but not an accurate presentation.  Rather, we need to live more in the moment.  There is nothing we can do to recapture the past but there is much that we can do to reconstruct the present; to transform our present into a far better time in our lives.  By so doing, we have the power not only to impact our present but also our future and the future of those whose lives we touch.  While the “good old days” can be a mixture of fact and illusion, if we so choose, we can create for ourselves the “good new days.”  We can make today the best day of our lives and tomorrow even better.  The choice is ours.

Sacred Sites

December 9, 2011

Last Shabbat, the Torah portion, “Vayetzei,” included the very famous passage of Jacob’s Ladder.  According to the text, in his flight from the wrath of Esau, his brother, Jacob reached a point at which he could travel no more and decided to spend the night.  So he went to sleep, taking a stone and used it as a pillow.  While asleep he had an amazing dream.  He dreamt that where he slept there was a ladder, with its foundation in the earth and its top reaching heaven.  On this ladder he saw angels, going up and down.  God stood next to him, speaking to him of grand promises for the future. When Jacob awoke he was filled with awe, declaring “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”  He was certain that this place was none other than the house of God – in Hebrew, Beit El – and the gateway to heaven.  And so he named the site Beit El, or as some may be more familiar with the anglicized version, Beth El.

As I was pre­paring my D’var Torah, pondering how filled with awe Jacob was when he awoke, I found my thoughts drifting to the very concept of sacred sites; places which seem more conducive for spiritual experiences; places which seem to offer a special connection between heaven and earth.  Some might think that humbug but I truly believe that such sites exist.  For example, I know that when I have been privileged to be in Jerusalem, and I have prayed at the Western Wall, I have felt especially connected to God.  I felt that there, for whatever reasons, heaven was more open to receiving my prayers, and that there, for whatever reasons, I was more open to hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence.  Don’t ask me to explain why, for I cannot.  I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those experiences were real.  I also know that I am not alone in having such experience.  People of faith across the globe have identified hundreds of such sites.  It is to such sites that so many of the faithful make pilgrimage.  Beit El is but one of them.

When it comes to Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the rabbis were quick to note an oddity in the text.  For according to the text, the angels were going up and coming down.  Since angels are believed to reside in heaven, logic would dictate that the angels would be going down and coming up, not the other way around.  As you can imagine, this inconsistency gave rise to countless rabbinic interpretations.  So I wish to add mine to the list.

Perhaps what makes a site sacred is that on it the search for sanctity must start here on earth and reach up toward the heavens.  Only then can that sacred connection descend down the ladder and touch the earth.

If that be the case then we human beings have it within our power to create sacred sites and not just stumble upon them by happenstance, as did Jacob.  Indeed, for millennia we human beings have been engaged in the quest to create such sites; the Jerusalem Temple, Stonehenge, the Ka’ba in Mecca are just some of the more famous ones.  There are countless others, as we continue to create them today.

Not as famous, but potentially as spiritually powerful, can be any church, any mosque, any synagogue.  Indeed, that is why so many synagogues are named Beth El, or as in the case of my own congregation, Emanuel, which is the anglicized version of the Hebrew Imanu El – “God Is With Us.”  Yes, a synagogue can truly become a powerful sacred site.  Within its walls, God can truly be felt to be “with us.”  But, as with the angels and Jacob’s ladder, in order for the sanctity to be realized, it has to begin here on earth, with our reaching upward toward heaven.  Then, and only then, will we begin to feel the effects of heaven reaching downward toward us.

How is this accomplished?  It is accomplished by many individual acts of will.  It is accomplished by each and every one of us actively choosing to make our site a sacred site.  We do so by acts of kavanah – acts of spiritually focused intention.  We do so by consciously deciding that within these walls everything we do or say must be done or said in the service of God.  Before we act, before we speak, we need ask ourselves: How will our words, how will our deeds serve to bring God closer to us and to those around us?  Most certainly, if we dedicate our every word and our every deed to reaching up toward heaven, then heaven will lovingly descend upon us.  Then we, like Jacob will be able to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place!”

The Blessing of Being Different

November 9, 2011

The Torah portion “Lech Lecha” is aptly named, for it means “You go!” in the command form.  It opens with God’s very first instruction to Abraham.  That instruction is for him and his household and his followers to leave their native land and go to a place of their own, which will be given to them by God.  Today we call that place Israel.

When you think about it, this is not just the very first instruction which God gave Abraham but it also is the very first instruction which God gave to us, the Jewish people.  “Go!”  Separate yourselves from that which is familiar and make of yourselves a singular and unique people.  In other words, “Be Different!”  Be different from all those who surround you.  Be different and be proud.  How prophetic were God’s words to Abraham, for as we know now, 4,000 years later, throughout the millennia, one of the primary hallmarks of being a Jew has been, is, and most likely will continue to be, being different; being different from everyone else who surrounds us.

We all know that being different has been for us Jews both a blessing and a curse.  There is an old Yiddish maxim which I love to cite.  “Schwer zu sein ein Yid und schayne zu sein ein Yid” – “It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.”  Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced both sides of that equation.

There is no question but that we have known the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew all too well.  So many of our holidays commemorate our having survived the attempts of others to crush or even destroy us.  Passover celebrates our redemption from slavery in Egypt.  Hanukkah celebrates our reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple to God from the Syrian Greeks who turned it into a house for pagan worship.  Purim celebrates the undoing of Haman’s plot to execute the entire Jewish population of the Persian empire.  Yom HaShoah memorializes the six million Jews slaughtered as a result of the genocidal plans of Nazi Germany.  Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel, and its survival, both in its War of Independence when the Arab world vowed to “drive every Jew into the sea” and through all its subsequent wars, each time defeating a foe who would see it completely destroyed.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destructions of the Temple by both the Babylonians and the Romans, as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Nor is our familiarity with the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew limited to our knowledge of past history.  Unfortunately, we continue to experience it first hand as well.  We experience it every time Israel has been attacked by terrorists bent on its destruction, yet the rest of the world remains silent about such attacks while they are ready and eager to condemn Israel for defending its citizens.  We experience it every time one of our children is been put into the situation in a public school in which they find themselves forced to sing words of faith which are contrary to ours.  We experience it every time the schools hold standardized testing such as the SATs or the ACTs on Jewish holidays; or for that matter, home­coming celebrations on our holidays.  We experience it every time employers balk at or flatly refuse to grant their Jewish employees time off in order to observe Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  We experience it every time someone starts to rant about what they call “The War on Christmas” simply because some businesses attempt to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in America celebrates that holiday.  We experience it every time someone insists that America is a “Christian” nation, meaning that the rest of us are not true Americans but rather some sort of tolerated guests.  We experience it every time we attend a public gathering in which a prayer is offered and the person offering that prayer chooses to close it with a statement like, “in Jesus’ name we pray.”  We experience it every time social pressure calls upon us to desert the observances of Shabbat and the holidays in order to engage with our neighbors in secular activities, for if we truly want to be accepted by others, we have to minimize if not abandon that which marks us as Jews; that which makes us different.

Yet even while being different can be a tremendous burden upon us as Jews, there is the shayne side – the beautiful side – as well.  That, too, we have experienced.  Who can deny the beauty of a Passover seder?  As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving as we gather round the dining room table for our Thanksgiving feast, and it is nice.  But the Thanksgiving feast pales in comparison to the seder.  There is wonder and magic and beauty to be found there.  So much so that even our Christian neighbors envy us our seder celebrations.

Who can deny the overwhelming joy of watching a child – especially when it is one of our children – becoming a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah?  How justifiably filled with pride we are, and more importantly, how justifiably filled with pride our children are, at such a special occasion.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.  Not just the parties, for anyone can hold a big party.  They envy us the dedication and achievement of our children.  They envy that our children are so ready and capable to stand up in public and profess their bonds to our people and our faith.  I know that, for this is what I so often hear them say while standing in those Bar and Bat Mitzvah receiving lines.

Who can deny the power of a Jewish wedding?  All weddings are beautiful but there is something very special about Jewish weddings.  The rituals speak straight to the heart.  There is the chupah, symbolizing the home and the new family unit that this couple is creating.  With a roof but no sides, it is an open home, welcoming all who care for the happy couple, with both sets of parents standing beside them as well as their friends and siblings.  There is the wine, symbolizing our prayers that the newlyweds’ lives together be both sweet and joyful.  There is the ketubah, the wedding contract, symbolizing the commitments that are necessary to create a lasting marriage.  There is the breaking of the glass, symbolizing the seal of sanctity that has been placed on the union they have created.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our wedding rituals.  I know this because often, after conducting an interfaith marriage ceremony, the non-Jewish parents, who often at first were hesitant about participating, approach me to tell me how beautiful, meaningful, and inclusive, they found the whole experience to be.

Whether we choose to realize it or not, there is a message embedded in all of this.  That message is that when we affirm our Judaism, when we celebrate our Judaism, when we elect to stop being afraid of being different and willingly embrace that in Judaism which makes us different, there is great beauty to be found there.  At the end of the day, that which makes us Jews different is not a curse, but rather a blessing; a profound blessing.

While we seem to be able to uncover such blessings in the big Jewish events in our lives, those are not the only places in which such blessings reside.  For if we but seek them out, we will find that they permeate all of Jewish life; the big moments and the small ones as well.

Recently, I explored with the students of our religious school the practice of reciting the prayer “Modeh Ani” upon waking up in the morning.  It is a simple prayer and easily chanted.  In translation the text states, “I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust.”  What a wonderful way to start each and every day – thanking God for the gift of another day of life!  For when we go to sleep at night, there is no guarantee that we will wake up.  That is why it is a Jewish practice that right before we go to sleep we recite the “Shema”, which according to our tradition is supposed to be the last words a Jew utters before dying.  So when we do wake up in the morning, “the Modeh Ani” reminds us that each day is a gift.  What a wonderful, positive thing it is for us to start each and every day, recognizing that it is a gift and should be treated accordingly.  It is a blessing that our Judaism teaches us to approach each and every day with an attitude of gratitude.

The same holds true for saying the “Motsi” whenever we sit down to eat.  In a world filled with starving people, Judaism teaches us to appreciate the blessing of having food with which to sustain our bodies.

The same holds true for all those opportunities offered to us to say the “Shehechiyanu”; all those times in our lives which are special and unique.  For this prayer is not just for lighting the first candle on Hanukkah or just for Bar and Bat Mitzvah services and weddings.  Our lives are filled with “Shehechiyanu” moments, if we but recognizing them and feel moved enough by them to sanctify them with the prayer.  Our Judaism teaches us that there are special moments in our lives which call for a special blessing.

The same holds true for the observance of Shabbat.  There are those Jews who think of Shabbat as one of the most onerous burdens placed upon us as Jews, and so they choose not to observe it.  But then there are those Jews who choose to observe Shabbat, and in their observance they discover, not burden but blessing.  They discover that Shabbat Shalom, the peace of Shabbat, is far more than some empty words with which Jews greet each other on this day; that enfolded in Shabbat can be a profound sense of peace, if we but choose to access it.  That Oneg Shabbat, the “joy of Shabbat” is far more than just a snack of coffee and cookies after the services; that there is a true sense of joy to be found in taking this weekly opportunity to affirm ourselves as Jews, proud of being Jews, connected through Judaism to our fellow Jews and to God.  Shabbat can be an enormous blessing offered to Jews week after week after week if we but choose to pick it up.

These are but just a few simple examples of how those aspects of Judaism which makes us different from others are not to be feared or resented but rather embraced, for it is precisely that which makes us different from others which is also that which enables us to sanctify our lives, both in the big moments and in the small ones.  While there is no denying that which makes us as Jews different from others can, at times be a curse from which we can suffer greatly, it is all the more true that what makes us as Jews different can be, at all times a blessing.  To be a Jew is to receive the blessing of being different.

The Perfect Day: A Sermon for When Yom Kippur Falls on Shabbat

October 12, 2011

How many people here have ever participated in a guided visualization?  Raise your hands.  My first experience with guided visualizations was – and this shouldn’t come as a surprise – back in the days when I served a congregation in California.  Well, if you haven’t had such an experience up until now, after tonight you can proclaim to the world that you have done one.

For those of you who are uncertain about what a guided visualization is, let me explain.  What I propose to do is take you on a journey, but not a journey in which we actually physically leave this building or even our seats.  The journey I wish to take you on is one that will take place totally in our minds.  I am going to try to help you to relax and open your minds, so that you can better imagine this journey as I describe it to you.  I know that sounds very touchy-feely – very California – and it is not something the we reserved Midwesterners do easily, but I want you to give it a try nonetheless.  I want you to drop your defenses and your scepticism, and open yourselves up to the possibility of such an experience.

So the first thing we need to do is relax.  We need to put our bodies and our minds in a relaxed and open state.  There are things that we can do to help bring that about, so here is what I want you to do.  First of all, I want you to sit up.  Uncross your arms and put them at your sides.  Uncross your legs and plant your feet flat on the ground.  Now close your eyes and keep them closed.  I will tell you when you can open them.  Now, we are going to do a breathing exercise.  Bear with me.  This will help.    I want you to take a deep breath in, hold it, and now very slowly let it out through your almost closed lips.  Let’s do that again.  Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out.  And one more time.  Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out.  Hopefully by now you are feeling somewhat more relaxed.  You should be feeling little if any tension in your muscles.

Now that we are more relaxed, I will walk you through our journey, describing it in some detail.  What I want you to do is picture in your mind what I describe to you.  Not just seeing the scene, but experiencing the feelings as well.

It is a beautiful early Fall morning.  The sun is shining and you can feel the warmth on your skin.  It is warm but not hot.  It feels nice.  It feels very nice.  You are walking in a forest.  It rained the night before and you can smell the fresh damp earth.  That luscious musty smell.  The trees around you are green, but they are starting to change color.  Some sooner than others.  The green of the woods is speckled with oranges and yellows and reds.  Ahead of you, you see that the trail opens up.  You see the increasing light in front of you.  As you continue to walk toward the light, you find yourself entering a lovely glade, with a pond.  You stand there, looking at the pond.  Its water is still.  It is like a mirror.  You gaze upon it and see the reflection of the glade and the sky in the water.  You feel the warmth of the sun on your face.  It feels great!  You hear the chirping of birds in the background.  As you look around, you see some hills in the distance.  The sky above is blue with a few scattered puffy clouds.  You are taking it all in.  You are at one with the beauty.  It is as if you entered a landscape painting and have become part of the painting.  It is better than a painting.  You are transfixed.  You never want to leave.  It is a perfect moment.

When you entered the forest, you were carrying many burdens in your heart; worries and concerns about money, work, family, friends.  But as you stand in this glade, breathing in the sweet fresh air, with the warmth of the sun on your face, you begin to feel the weight of those burdens lifting.  Your heart seems lighter, freer.  You are at one with the beauty that surrounds you.  You feel a connection between you and the beauty which surrounds you; between you and the glade; between you and the sky; between you and the chirping birds.  You are filled with a certain sense of awe at how wondrous all this is; and a certain sense of gratitude.  The pleasure of the moment is a gift and for it, you are grateful.  In this grateful moment, you somehow feel a bit more connected to the artist; to the Giver of the gift; to God.  You are happy as you realize that the One who would grant you such a gift must care for you; must love you; must want you to be happy.  You stand there, filled with a sense of peace; a peace that comes from your connectedness to all that surrounds you.  You sense that you are a part of something greater than yourself, and in so sensing, you never felt better.

It is time for you to leave the glade.  You need to walk back through the forest, and back to your home and your life.  You turn and start down the trail.  But this time, you do not carry with you the burdens with which you entered the glade.  Rather you carry the memory of the sun on your face, the fresh smell of the air, the song of the birds, the beauty of the pond.  Your heart is light rather than heavy.  Ahead of you, you see light.  You are coming out of the woods, heading toward home.  Your journey is ending.

You can open your eyes now.  I hope that you permitted yourself to experience the journey, or at least parts of it, and in having done so, found it refreshing; an oasis of peace in a stressful life.

If you opened yourself up to the possibilities of this journey; if you permitted yourself to visualize being in the forest and the glade, taking in the warmth, the beauty, the peace of the moment; if you allowed yourself to become immersed in this imaginary sojourn,  then whether not you realize it, you also allowed yourself to experience just a hint of what Shabbat can be like in our lives.  For like the glade, Shabbat, too, can be an oasis of peace, beauty, relief, and connectedness; a welcome, blessed, and rejuvenating escape from our all too demanding and draining weekday lives.

But like this guided visualization, only those who are willing to open themselves up to possibility of the experience of Shabbat can benefit from it.  I know that among you this evening there were some, maybe many, who resisted this experiment.  They sat in their seats, refusing to engage in it, perhaps thinking to themselves, “What kind of narishkite is this?  This is silly!  This is a waste of my time!”  But I expect, indeed I hope, that there were some among you, even if just a few, who were not as cynical and as closed; who were willing to engage in the spirit of the moment, and in so doing, did discover it to be a somewhat pleasurable experience.  So it is with Shabbat.  There are those Jews who choose to close themselves off from the Shabbat experience, perceiving of it as an inconvenience or even a burden.  It, too, they view as narishkite and a waste of their time.  But then there are those Jews who choose to embrace the Shabbat experience, and in so doing discover it to be not a burden but rather a relief; not a waste but rather a gift – a precious gift – one they look forward to receiving week in and week out.

When I was growing up, my parents would host a big family dinner every Sunday afternoon.  After religious school, all sorts of relatives would descend upon our home.  My mother loved to cook, so every Sunday was like Thanksgiving as we crowded round the dining room table, which was filled to overflowing with a variety of delicacies.  One of those delicacies was sweet potatoes topped by toasted marshmallows.  Everyone would devour them; everyone that is except me.  I would have none of it.  They would urge me on, saying, “Just try it!  You’ll love it!  It taste like candy!”  But I was convinced that they were lying.  It was just a trap, for nothing as orange and vegetable looking as that could ever taste good.  So for years and years, I refused to let sweet potatoes touch me lips.  That is until one day, at a Thanksgiving dinner, as an adult, I permitted myself to be persuaded to at least give it a try.  So I placed as small a morsel as possible on a fork and put it to my lips.  And you can guess the rest of the story.  It was delightful!  Everything that all those people at those family dinners said about sweet potatoes was right on the money.  For all those years, I had denied myself that wonderful treat!  Now that was a waste!

Shabbat is the sweet potatoes on the serving table of our lives.  We can convince ourselves that Shabbat – as I had convinced myself that sweet potatoes – is something to be avoided.  But in so doing, we deny ourselves a very special treat; something that can bring so much pleasure into our lives.

Now I know that there are among you those who are thinking, “Whose he kidding?  I’ve been to Friday night services?  Where’s the pleasure outside of the oneg?”  But I strongly caution you.  Do not equate Shabbat with Shabbat services.  While Shabbat services are a part of Shabbat – an important part of Shabbat – they are not the totality of Shabbat.  Shabbat is not just an hour and fifteen minutes on a Friday night.  That’s right, an hour and fifteen minutes, shorter than even a Disney movie.  Shabbat is a whole day.  Traditionally, 25 hours.  It is prayers – it begins and ends with prayers – but it is far more than prayers.  It is the creation of an oasis of peace and beauty and freedom and love in the midst of what often can be a tempestuous week.  That is why we Jews greet each other on Shabbat by saying “Shabbat Shalom,” may the peace of Shabbat embrace you.  It is, or can be, a cherished opportunity to reconnect with our loved ones, our fellow Jews, our God, and with ourselves.

As many of you know, I am a strong advocate of sending our children to Jewish summer camps.  Invariably, when you ask these children who attend these camps – who love attending these camps and go back year after year – “What is it about camp that you like the most?” they do not tell you it is the boating or the water-skiing or the water slide or the climbing tower or the horseback riding.  They say, “It’s Shabbat!”  When you ask them “What is it about Shabbat which is so special?”  They will tell you about the special Shabbat dinner and the singing and the dancing that follows.  They will tell you about being able to sleep late on Shabbat morning, and having an unprogrammed day of freedom and relaxation, in which there are activities available which they can choose, or choose not, to partake in.  They like being off the clock.  They like being able to take some control of their lives rather than having others control it for them.  If they want to go swimming, they go swimming when they want to go swimming and not when someone else is telling them, “Now is the time to go swimming.”  Yes.  Shabbat is about freedom and leisure.  The great theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it so well when he said that Shabbat is not a time “to do” but “to be.”

Many of you may remember our former congregant, Dick Gottlieb.  Several years ago, Dick offered me some truly sage advise.  He said, “Henry, you have to take time to sharpen the saw.”  What is “sharpening the saw?”  The analogy that he drew was with someone who is sawing wood.  That person goes along, sawing and sawing, cutting more and more wood.  But eventually his blade starts to dull, and the wood cutter discovers that even though he is expending more and more time and energy, the result is that he is cutting less and less wood as his blade grows duller and duller.  So he invests himself longer and harder into his task, but contrary to his desire, his productivity continues to decline.  What he needs to do is, rather than trying to continue to cut wood with a dull saw blade, he should stop his wood cutting altogether in order to take the time necessary to sharpen his saw.  We all need to sharpen our saws.  We need to break from the routines of our lives in order to refresh ourselves, so that, when we return to the tasks at hand, we can do so with renewed physical, mental, and spiritual vigor.  Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to sharpen our saws.  It gives us the chance to break with all the demands that drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually during the rest of the week; to put them on hold and say, “Not today!  Today is not for meeting your needs but rather, for meeting mine.  It is for recharging my battery, so that I can better face you in the week to come.”

In the course of my life, I have observed many Shabbatot.  I have observed them in Iowa and New York, all over the country and in many places around the world, including in Israel.  But the most perfect Shabbat for me was – believe it or not, not in Jerusalem, nor was it at camp – but rather it was a Shabbat that our family spent with our traditional cousins in Minneapolis, Joyce & Robert Warshawsky, one Thanksgiving weekend several years ago.  To me that Shabbat stands out in my mind as an ideal; as a goal to strive for in Shabbat observance.  As I describe it, some of you may find yourselves surprised, for it was not what you might have expected to hear from me.
The Shabbat started, of course, on Friday night, with a typical traditional Shabbat dinner, replete with flowers, candles, Kiddish and challah, the blessing of the children, along with the “Eishet Chayil,” the praise of the women, and a luxurious meal.  There was singing and schmoozing around the dinner table long into the evening.  Believe it or not, we did not go to services that night.

We did, however, go to services the next morning.  It was a rainy day.  So our cousin, who belongs to both an Orthodox and a Conservative synagogue gave us a choice of where to pray.  When we put the ball back into his court, he chose the Conservative one because we could drive there, while we would have had to walk to the Orthodox synagogue without even being able to carry umbrellas.  The service was nice.  Long, like most traditional services, but it was followed by an excellent luncheon.  Besides, it felt good to spend the time with other Jews – even though, aside from my family, they were all strangers to me – praying familiar prayers, singing familiar songs, strongly sensing that we shared something special with these people which we shared with few others in our lives.  On top of all that, the rabbi’s devar Torah was a good one, providing much food for thought.

By the time we got back into our car, the rain had stopped.  We drove back to our cousin’s house where we spent most of the afternoon lounging around.  We took naps, read books, sat around and talked, and much to my surprise, considering our cousin’s traditional leanings, even watched a movie; if memory serves me correctly, “The Mask” with Jim Carey to be precise.

Later in the afternoon, we went for a walk around a nearby lake.  We walked, we talked, we sat on benches.  We simply enjoyed being together and being outdoors.

We went back to the house, hung out some more, until it was time for Havdalah.  We held that brief service with its powerful symbolism, and as we doused the candle into the wine and sang “Eliyahu HaNavi” our Shabbat drew to a close.

Now that may not sound like much, but it was so peaceful.  Nothing was forced or demanded, one way or the other.  No pre-torn toilet paper or lights on timers.  It wasn’t about prohibitions but rather about relaxing and being together.  It was about centering ourselves and disengaging from the hectic pace which can overwhelm our lives.  In its very simplicity, that Shabbat was truly an oasis of peace and rest for the body and the spirit.
I share all this with you because tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Shabbat as well as observe Yom Kippur.  Contrary to what some might think, that is no small thing.  It is a big thing.  For Shabbat, the most frequent of Jewish holy days is also the most sacred of Jewish holy days.  Even more sacred than this High Holy Day of Yom Kippur.  Not only is it the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments, but its very frequency significantly contributes to its sanctity.  For one can never dream of nurturing a healthy spiritual life by merely dedicating one or two or three or four days a year to matters of the spirit.  Our souls, and our relationship with God, and with our Jewish identity and our Jewish people requires more continuous and consistent care.  And that is where Shabbat comes in.

On Yom Kippur, we are called upon to confront our sins and seek to repair them.  We consider ourselves a community of sinners.  One of the sins we need to confront is our neglect of Shabbat, and in so doing, our failure to foster our own spiritual lives.  In so doing, we not only sin against God and the Jewish people, but we also sin against ourselves.  Each and every one of us, whether we recognize it or not, needs Shabbat.  We need the peace that it brings and the healing that it brings and the unity that it brings.

On this Day of Atonement, may we truly repent our neglect of Shabbat and sincerely commit ourselves to atone for this sin by striving to make Shabbat a part of our weekly lives, by not only attending services – though that would be nice – but also by electing to break with our weekly routines on this day, setting it aside for the refreshment of body and soul and for the renewal of our relationships with our loved ones, with our Jewish people, with God, and also with ourselves.