Posted tagged ‘Yom Kippur’

Elusive Happiness

September 18, 2013

I wish to talk with you about happiness.  Now I know that happiness seems like a rather odd topic for such a solemn holy day as Yom Kippur.  It is not a subject that one would readily identify with the classical themes of Yom Kippur, they being sin, repentance, and atonement.  One would think that it is hard to talk about happiness in a room full of fasting people.  Yet, after giving it some thought I have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day – and by that I do not mean the Neilah service, the Concluding service, the end of this day – but at the end of the day, Yom Kippur is actually very much about happiness.

Several years ago, one of the members of our congregation, in the midst of a conversation we were having, remarked to me that whenever someone asks him, what was the best period in his life, when was he the happiest, he would respond that now is the best time of his life.  He has never been happier than he is now.  That was quite an amazing statement.  How many of us, in all honesty, could say the same thing about our lives?  That these days are the best days of our lives?  There may be some among us, but most people tend to wax nostalgic.  For some reason or other we find it comforting to think back to what we like to call “the good old days,” that time in our lives when we imagined ourselves to be at our happiest.

That is not to say that most of us are terribly unhappy.  Some are, but most are probably not.  Though we may not be terribly unhappy, we tend to capture our happiness in fits and spurts.  We take it when and where we can find it.  Much of the rest of the time, we seem to hover in a realm between happiness and unhappiness, feeling not much of one or the other.  Just existing.  Often are the times we ponder dreamily about finding happiness; ultimate happiness.  How great life would be if only this would happen or that would happen.  For happiness can be an elusive prey.  We spend so much of lives grasping at it, sometimes successfully and some­times not.

All people are in search of happiness.  No one really wants to be unhappy, no matter how grumpy they may appear on the outside.  Indeed the grumpiest and dourest of people are usually those who have met with the greatest frustrations in their search for happiness; so much so that they appear to have given up the quest.

Unless we are among that privileged minority that can proclaim, as did the congregant I mentioned earlier, that these days are the happiest days of our lives and that we could not be happier, then we need to seriously re-evaluate where it is that we have been seeking our happiness.  Perhaps we might be, just like in the words of country western song, “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong place”[1] but in our case it has been looking for happiness.

Happiness is not monolithic.  Not all happiness is equal.  There is that experience of happiness that lasts for the moment, however long that moment might be, and then there is that experience of happiness that resides with us perpetually.

As we take this Yom Kippur opportunity to seriously examine the conduct of our lives, we must include in our introspection the manner and the means through which we have sought out happiness.  For if we discover that our quest for happiness has in some ways been misdirected then we must consider the possibility that such a misdirected quest for happiness can also throw off our quest for personal self improvement; that perhaps some of the lack of lasting happiness that we find in our lives is directly or indirectly related to where we have fallen short so far in our Yom Kippur inspired attempts to lift ourselves up to a higher level of human existence; that in order to make of ourselves better people, we need to do a better job of sorting out in our search for happiness that which is momentary from that which is lasting.

In our search for true happiness it is all too easy to mistake the momentary for the lasting.  After all, momentary happiness can be far more readily available and its rewards can be more immediate.  It can offer us great pleasure and do so quickly.  The trap is that before we know it, the pleasure has faded.  It may not be gone, but it is greatly reduced often to the point where we take it for granted.

Consider vacation trips, for example.  I love to travel.  I know many of you do as well.  For weeks, if not months, I look forward to those trips.  Right now the Cantor and I are excited about the possibility of visiting the Garfields in their home in Ireland next summer.  When it comes to such vacations, the departure date cannot arrive soon enough.  Finally it does arrive, and I am off on my trip, a trip that seems to go by in a flash.  Next thing I know, I am packing to go home.  Then I am on the airplane.  Then I am walking in the door of my apartment, weary, with luggage in hand.  Next day, I am back at work; my long awaited vacation over too soon, as I re-enter the daily grind, almost as if I never left.  Of course I have the memories and the pictures – whether or not I will look at those pictures in a year is another story – but while they are nice, they are not the same.  The vacation was a pleasure of the moment.

I am not ashamed to admit it.  I love my toys, especially the electronic ones like my big screen TV and my laptop and my cell phone.  They give me a lot of pleasure.  But the strange thing about it is that as much as I love them, they never seem to be enough.  I love my big screen TV, but I wish I had a surround sound system and a blue ray player.  I love my laptop, but I wish I had one that was faster and could do more things, yet not be as heavy for when I travel.  I love my Samsung cell phone but I wish I had a phone with longer battery life and better voice recognition.  Whatever I have, it just never seems to be enough.  While they fill me with pleasure, in the end they still leave a void.  That is momentary rather than lasting happiness.

Who doesn’t like a new car?  There is something about that new car smell and the excitement of all that glitz and glitter and all those little extras.  I knew someone who never really cared for a new car.  It was my father.  He and my mother drove clunkers.  Growing up, all my friends’ parents periodically pur­chased shiny new cars, but not mine.  It used to drive me crazy.  “Why can’t we get a new car?” I would incessantly whine.  “Why?”  my father would retort.  “A car is just something that takes you from one place to another and ours get us there just fine.”  I think back on those conversations now and realize how true were the words attributed to Mark Twain who reportedly said “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”  My father, in his wisdom, was quick to recognize that our love of new cars is yet another of those examples of momentary happiness.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not against momentary happiness.  I enjoy it.  I wouldn’t give up my big screen TV for all the tea in china, even without the blue ray player and the surround sound.  And I still look forward to vacation trips whenever I can take them.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with momentary happiness.  It is just that we have to understand it for what it is  – a temporary high, if you will – and not confuse it or try to substitute it for true and lasting happiness.  We should not get so lost in our acquisition of these temporary pleasures that we sideline our search for the sources of happiness which will not fade with the passage of time but rather will stay with us and lift us up; lift up our spirits, lift up our sense of self esteem, and lift us up as decent human beings.  While the happiness of the moment can be fun – and that’s OK because everyone deserves some fun in their lives – still our search needs to focus on the happiness that stays with us.

Where can this lasting happiness be found?  The answer to this question is really where happiness and Yom Kippur substantially intersect.  For what is the ultimate purpose of Yom Kippur?  Not just to examine the dark side of our character and our actions, our sins and our failings, but rather to do so in order to help us in the task of re-inventing ourselves as better people, kinder people, more loving people, people who seek to make a positive difference in the lives of others; both those whom we personally know and with whom we share our lives as well as those whose faces and names are unknown to us but with whom we share this planet.

Where is lasting happiness to be found?  Well, it is not in objects and possessions.  It is not in nicer houses and newer cars, in fashionable clothing and the latest electronics.  In the final analysis, it is to be found in people and relationships, and within ourselves.  It is to be found in love, in its many manifestations.

My son Joshua was born 30 years ago in California, in Silicon Valley, birthplace of the computer revolution.  In those days it was a land of hopeful start-ups and massive material success.  Soon after his birth, I rushed out of the hospital to put the finishing touches on the invitations that the Cantor and I had de­signed for his brit milah ceremony and then I rushed the proof to the printer.  After all, having only an 8-day window, we needed to get them printed and mailed as soon as possible, so great was our desire to share our joy with others.

Upon my return to the Cantor’s hospital room, a nurse took me to the window in order to show me some­thing.  Just about the same time that Joshua was born another boy was born as well.  Like me, no sooner was that baby born than his father also rushed out of the hospital.  Upon his return, he took his wife to the window and proudly pointed to what the nurse was now showing me – a brand new Mercedes parked in front of the hospital, wrapped in an enormous ribbon and bow.  Pointing to it, he announced to his wife, “This is for you!  My way of saying thank you for giving me a son!”  That guy just did not get it.  He could not even tell his wife that he loved her and that he was full of joy at the prospect of them building a family together.  He could not do it without the aid of money and material possessions.

It not the things in our lives that make us the happiest, and keep us the happiest.  It is the people in our lives that do so.  It is our relationships – including our relationship with God – which grant us the gift of enduring joy.  That is, if those relationships are positive and healthy.  Yom Kippur calls upon us to strengthen our relationship; to build upon the relationships we currently share, to heal the relationships we once enjoyed but for whatever reasons now are broken, and to seek to create new relationships with people we barely know and even with people we have never met.  In order to do so, we need to make of ourselves people worthy of relationships; people with whom others wish to relate.  Decent people.  Honorable people.  Sensitive people.  Self-sacrificing people.  Virtuous people.  Loving people.  Such people also happen to be happy people, really happy people, not just happy for the moment but happy for the lifetime.  Happy because they are rightfully proud of the people they are and the life they have chosen to lead.  Happy because they have earned the respect and love of others.  Happy because they have come to share their lives in so many ways with so many people.

If we take the messages of Yom Kippur to heart and sincerely act upon them, we will discover that they carry us down the path to happiness, real happiness, lasting happiness.


[1]“Lookin’ for Love,” by Wanda Mallette, Bob Morrison, & Patti Ryan, performed by Johnny Lee.

Fueled By Regret

September 16, 2013

I wish I was perfect.  Not so much “perfect” in that I would be the handsomest man alive or the most intelligent or a phenomenal athlete or a virtuoso musician or vocalist, or even the most eloquent speaker and writer.  Rather I wish I was a perfect person, personality and character-wise.

I wish I always was attuned to others and sensitive to their needs.  I wish I always knew the right thing to say and when to say it, and when to keep silent.

I wish that I could more appropriately express what is on my mind and in my heart, sharing what I think and how I feel in such a way that I don’t permit the emotions of the moment to take me where I really don’t want to go yet still be able to communicate effectively enough that my messages are not misread or misinterpreted by others.  I wish I was better at telling people how much I love them, how much I care for them, how much I appreciate their being in my life.

I wish I could better channel my anger; not extinguish or bury it but channel it toward productive ends rather than disruptive or destructive ends.  For anger is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be a force for good if it inspires us to confront injustices – small or large – and work for constructive change.

I wish I could be truer to my values, doing a better job at “practicing what I preach” so to speak.  It is not that I don’t really believe what I say, but it is so easy to get distracted and re-directed, often misdirected, and then there is all that ego which so readily gets in the way.  Indeed, I wish I could do a better job at putting my ego aside, spending less time thinking about myself and my wants and my needs and more time thinking about the wants and needs of others.

I wish I was both more consistent and more flexible.  I know that seems like a contradiction in terms but it really isn’t.  Ideally, consistency should rule.  In every situation, we would know where we stand, and others who know us, would be able to anticipate it as well.  In our consistency they would come to trust us.  But life isn’t ideal.  Life can be messy.  The rules don’t always provide the best answer.  So at times we have to be able to bend and go with the flow.  We have to be able to adapt.  The trick is in knowing when to be consistent and when to bend.  The rabbis of the Midrash tell us that when God was considering creating humanity, there was a heated debate among the angels.  They were divided into two camps, those who opposed the creation of humanity and those who supported it.  Those who opposed humanity’s creation did so on the grounds of justice, in that they foresaw that often human beings would be unjust.  As for those who favored humanity’s creation, they did so on the grounds of mercy, in that they foresaw that many would be the times when human beings would demonstrate great compassion.  In the end, God decided to create humanity but to do so in a balance between justice and mercy.[1]  That is still my challenge.  How can I better balance justice and mercy in the decision making of my life?

Speaking of balance, I wish I could better balance my time.  Time management has never been one of my strong suits.  Days seem to fly by, yet when I consider how much time I have frittered away, one way or another – time which could have been used far more productively – I have no choice but to realize that I have no one to blame but myself.  Yet our time is such a precious commodity, all the more precious for the demands upon it far outweigh the supply.  Everyone wants a piece of our time and everyone deserves a piece of it; our family, our job, our friends, our community, our world, and of course, also ourselves.  Yes, we need to make time for others but we also need to make time for ourselves.  So how do we make the most of the little that we have?  How do I make the most of the little I have?

I wish I could be more organized.  One look at my desk provides ample testimony to what degree chaos rules my life.  I look at those whose desks are clear and neat, where you can actually see the wood of the desktop and I am filled with wonderment.  How can they do that?  Life can be a hectic and overwhelming enterprise.  In one way or another we are all jugglers and it seems that the number of balls we are ex­pected to keep in the air at any given time only increases.  Rarely, if ever, do they decrease.  Some people prove to be great jugglers.  Others not so much so.  Most of us fall somewhere in between. Oh, but to be one of life’s great jugglers!  What a pleasure that would be!

I have many regrets.  So many things I wish I could have done better.  So many ways I wish I had taken the opportunity to demonstrate myself to be a better person.

I have regrets.  We all have regrets.  I suspect that many of us have shared regrets; that some of my regrets are also some of yours and that some of your regrets are also some of mine.  And if there is anyone among us who thinks to him or herself, “I have no regrets!” then surely they are deluding themselves.  For we all are human beings, and part of our nature is that we are imperfect.  We make mistakes.  We do not always live up to our potential.  There are always ways in which we can do better.  We all have, or should have, regrets, and if we don’t that is not because we are so perfect but rather because we are so flawed that we have blinded ourselves to our own shortcomings.

This somber holy day of Yom Kippur offers us a very special gift; the gift of the possibility of a new beginning for our lives.  We can come to the synagogue and sit and pray, and maybe even fast, and suffer, and then leave, walking out of this building’s doors the same person who entered through them.  Un­changed.  Or, we can choose to take the message of Yom Kippur to heart and believe that we can change; and embrace the opportunity to change – change for the better.

But how do we begin that process of change?  We begin with regret.  Before we can change, we have to confront our lives, as we have lived them so far, and acknowledge that we have been less than we could have been.  We must acknowledge that we have regrets.  More than acknowledge them, we must number and catalog our regrets; creating our own personal laundry list of them.  For until we are ready to come face to face with our regrets, we can never change.  We can want to change.  We can hope to change, but we can never really change.

I know that it is hard to face the fact that we have been less than we could have been.  Believe you me, it was no easy task for me to lay out before you my regrets, and harder still knowing that the list I shared with you is incomplete; that there are those which are buried so deep, I could not even give them expression.  But nobody ever promised us that there is an easy path to change.  Change is hard, and it can be painful, but if we are willing to face the hardship and endure the pain, it also can be well worth it.  Anyone who has ever worked out at a gym or gone on a diet knows from whence I speak.  But truth be told, while strengthening our body is a good thing, strengthening our character is a wondrous thing of manifold greater significance.  For while all the efforts that we invest in diet and exercise may make us thinner, healthier, and stronger, they do not change the people are; only the bodies we inhabit.  Yet traveling the path laid out to us by Yom Kippur – the path that begins with regret and moves toward repentance, atone­ment, and hopeful forgiveness – can make of us better people.  When you think about it, if you had to make a choice, which would you prefer?  To be known as a thin person or a good person?  A strong person or a decent person?  A physically fit person or a person worthy of respect?  Of course we don’t have to choose between them.  We can, if we so choose, be both thin and good, strong and decent, physically fit and worthy of respect.  But even if we possessed both, of which would we be prouder?

So let us seriously take this Yom Kippur opportunity to consider those aspects of our lives which we sincerely regret.  Let our sense of regret fuel our energy for change.  Let us commit ourselves to the work of making ourselves, not perfect, but better in the coming year.  Let us commit ourselves to transforming today’s regrets into our building blocks with which we will build of ourselves better people as we march into our future.


[1] BERESHIT RABBA 8.

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.

A Hole in the Heart: A Yizkor Sermon

September 29, 2012

Many years ago, my friend, Dr. Amir Arbisser, and I used to get up at the break of dawn 4 to 5 mornings a week in order to go walking in our neighborhood.  In fact, we used to go walking so early that if my wife awoke in the middle of the night, for reasons many people awake in the middle of the night, she would go back to sleep not in our bed but in the bed in our guest bedroom just so I would not disturb her in the morning as I awoke and prepared for those walks.

However, there was one Friday morning when things did not go precisely as planned.  When I awoke, I felt a bid odd.  As I was getting dressed, my left side went numb.  I knew I was in trouble so I went into the guest bedroom to get help from my wife.  However, after I entered and turned on the lights and received the expected reprimand from her, matters took a turn for the worse.  For when I started to tell her about my problem, much to my surprise I found that I couldn’t.  I had the words perfectly formed in my mind but my mouth just would not utter them.  I tried once.  My wife asked, “What’s wrong?”  I tried twice.   My wife said, “Tell me.  What’s the problem?”  After the third failed attempt, I stood there and found that I only was physically capable of saying one word, and that word is one that is inappropriate to utter in a sanctuary.  And even that word I spoke with slurred speech.

Well, my wife got the message and she immediately phoned Amir, who rushed over and drove me to the hospital; my wife needing to remain at home with our two children, Shira & Josh, who at the time were too young to be left home alone; our third child, Helene, not even having been born yet.  As Amir will attest, in the car ride to the hospital I made several attempts to expand my vocabulary but all I could produce was that one word, over and over again.

While Amir and I were driving to the hospital, my wife had called Larry Satin, of blessed memory, who at that time was the President of my congregation.  He rushed to the hospital so fast that he practically beat us there.  As Larry was ushered into my cubicle in the emergency room, my numbness was starting to fade and my vocabulary was just starting to expand.

I spent the weekend in the hospital as the doctors conducted all sorts of tests and I progressively regained my abilities.  In the end, I was told that I had suffered from a transient ischemic attack, which is just doc­tor talk for a temporary stroke.  In explaining the cause of this attack, the doctor showed me my echo cardiogram.  He told me that it appears that I have a hole in my heart, between my right and left ventri­cles.  From this he deduced that a small blood clot shot through the hole from my right ventricle to my left one, and then traveled to my brain, and there remained until it dissolved.  Being told that you have a hole in your heart can be rather frightening, but the doctor calmed me by explaining that all babies are born with holes in their hearts but that over time those holes close.  However, in about 10% of the popu­lation, the hole never completely closes.  Yet not to worry.  All I need do is take one adult aspirin every morning for the rest of my life and that should eliminate any danger of a future attack.  And so I have done for all these years.

When one considers the physical hole I have in my heart, and that I share such a hole with 10% of the pop­ulation, and that while it cannot be corrected, it is easily relieved by a daily dose of a common over-the-counter medication, having such a hole is really no big deal.  However, that type of hole is only one type of hole in the heart.  There are other types of holes in the heart as well.

Unfortunately the most common hole in the heart is one that eventually strikes every person on the planet and for which there is no simple over-the-counter remedy.  The hole that I speak of is the hole that is left in our hearts whenever someone near and dear to us passes away; whenever death steals from us some­one we love.

We who gather on Yom Kippur to offer the Yizkor prayers all have been inflicted with such holes.  Some of us have endured one of them.  Some of us have endured several of them.  We know from experience that much like the physical hole in my heart, they never completely heal.  With the passage of time, they may shrink, as measured by the intensity of the grief we experience on their account, but they never really go away.  They always are there to sting us from time to time, sometimes sharply and sometimes slightly.  But sting us they do.

We can never know when something we encounter in the course of our daily living will trigger a memory – a precious memory – but even with the pleasure of memory, there is also the stab of loss.  “I wish Mom could have seen this.  I wish Dad could have been here for that.  So-&-so would have really enjoyed this.  I can just imagine what so-&-so would have said about that.  This song reminds me of her.  This place reminds me of him.”

All mourners know from whence I speak for we all have shared such expe­riences.  We all have felt the anguish of losing a loved one and we all have struggled with the challenge of managing our pain and getting on with our lives.  After each of my parents and my sister died, I did not smile for a year.  But eventually I did find the capacity to smile again.  I am sure that each mourner can share similar observations about their own grief experiences.

Recently I sent a condolence email to a colleague I have known throughout my rabbinic career.  When I was a rabbinical student interning in a synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, he was the associate rabbi.  He lost his mother, a woman who had lived a full and rich life of 96 years; a Jewish mother who not only had the pleasure of seeing her son become a rabbi, but her granddaughter as well.  He responded to my email, thanking me for my words of comfort and then said, “I don’t have much to complain about but still I’m sad at my mother’s passing.”  For you see it matters not how long we had our loved ones with us, or even the manner in which they died.  Even under the best of circumstances surrounding their passing, they leave us with a hole in our hearts.  We live our lives knowing that the time will come when we have to let them go, but still when that time arrives, even under the best of circumstances, in the end they are yanked from us, taking a piece of our hearts with them.

And we are left to heal, some of us knowing and others of us not realizing that we will never fully heal.

O how we wish we could effectively address these holes in our hearts as easily as I address my physical hole.  How we wish we could take some spiritual-emotional over-the-counter remedy which will make everything all right.  But no such remedy exists.

Perhaps the absence of such a remedy is actuality a good thing rather than a bad one.  For perhaps the soul is not that much different from the body.  While there are many pains which our bodies can experi­ence that we can relieve through dosages of one drug or another, still every once in a while we can find ourselves sitting in a doctor’s office, with our doctor telling us that for the pain we are experiencing there is no cure.  Medication can only bring us partial relief.  The rest is a matter of learning how best to live with our pain.  And so we learn how to carry on with life, listening to our pain; learning from our pain.  As a result we learn how to maximize the quality of our lives through letting our pain teach us what we can do and what we can’t do.  Our pain helps define us, or perhaps redefine, us.

The spiritual-emotional pain we feel born of our loss is really not that different.  Because it is a pain we will always carry with us to some degree or another, and like our incurable physical pain, we have to learn how to listen to it.  We have to learn how to learn from it.

What can be learned from such pain?  First of all, we can learn that love really does transcend death.  Our love for those we have lost never leaves us and we sense it most keenly when we feel the pain of our loss; when it hurts us that they are physically gone from our lives.

When we feel such pain, instead of striving to shy away from it, let us strive to delve into it.  “What is it that ties this moment to that relationship as expressed by the pain I am feeling now?  What was it about that person’s character and personality which causes me to miss them now so much that it hurts?”  For it must be something good, otherwise we would not be missing them at all.  As we embrace that connection – that tie in – we also should be embracing the realization that the very cause for our pain of the moment is precisely one of the aspects of our relationship which was so very precious.  In its own way, our pain is the very measure of how valued that person was in our lives and remains valued in our lives.

From our pain we need to learn gratitude.  Gratitude for all those things about our loved one that we now miss so much that it hurts.  As we find ourselves refocusing from our pain to our gratitude, our pain itself will lessen and our joy will increase.  We will find ourselves remembering how happy we were when in the company of these dear ones.

As we find ourselves transforming our pain to gratitude, we also will find ourselves beginning to learn a very important Yom Kippur lesson; the lesson of change; the lesson of personal growth.  For as we ex­plore what it was about our loved ones which has given us cause to be so grateful for having had them in our lives, we should also be realizing that these are some of the same attributes which we should wish to emulate and incorporate into our lives so that others, whose lives we touch, will find themselves likewise grateful for having us as part of their lives.

In their own very special way, these holes in our hearts, born of the loss of those we love, are very differ­ent that the physical hole in my heart.  For when it comes to the physical hole in my heart, its effect needs to be counteracted, and I do so with a simple drug.  Yet when it comes to these spiritual-emotional holes in our heart left by loved ones now gone, their effects should not be counteracted, but rather channeled.  For out of these holes pours love and gratitude, and if we so will it, a road map to a better, happier, more loving future for ourselves and for all those others we know and love and with whom we continue to share our lives.

May God help up to learn from our pain and thereby grow into better human beings.

The Sin of Standing Idly By

September 28, 2012

It was back on Rosh Hashanah evening of 1999 that I presented to my congregation a very unsettling sermon entitled “Summer of Hate; Winter of Challenge.”  It was all about how the Summer of 1999 was marked by hate crime after hate crime; act of violence after act of violence, many, but not all of which, were targeted at fellow Jews.  The most famous of those acts of violence was the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.  But beside from the Columbine shooting, during that summer there were also synagogue burnings in Sacramento, California, a noted member of a hate group going on a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana, targeting Jews, African Americans and Asians, and another hate group member entering a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, a suburb of  Los Angeles, in order to shoot Jewish children in a day care program.  It was an extremely violent summer and it was time for us as Americans to put an end to hate and particularly gun violence in our nation.

This coming Spring, my congregation will celebrate with two wonderful young ladies as each will become a Bat Mitzvah.  When I gave that sermon back in 1999, those two young ladies were not yet born.  Yet here they are, each one preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah, and we Americans are still faced with some of the same dreadful problems as confronted us then, gun violence being one such problem; a major problem.

Indeed, the serious concern over this issue in our country even predates the birth of these young ladies.  In my congregation, three years before I gave that sermon, a young man by the name of Daniel Werner made gun violence, in the form of drive-by shootings, the topic of his Bar Mitz­vah speech.

Now it is 2012 and we have just endured another summer of violence; violence pouring out of the barrels of guns.  There was the shooting in the moving theater in Aurora, Colorado.  There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee.  There was the shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.  There was the shooting in front of the Empire State Building.  This summer’s gun violence was a shocking testimony to how broad based is this problem.  Today, resorting to using firearms as a means of expression is not just to be found in the realm of the political or social radicals.  There are many different kinds of people who pick up guns and pull the trigger as an expression of their own inner turmoil.  The shooter in Colorado used a gun to give expression to his own mental illness.  In Milwaukee, the shooter used it to express his prejudice against minorities.  In Washington, the shooter used it to express his anger at those who promote a conservative social agenda.  In New York, the shooter used it to express his frustration with events in his personal life.  And these only represent the incidents of gun violence that have merited the attention of the national news media.  They are but only the tip of the bloody iceberg of gun violence in America today.

Let me share with you some statistics, and I hope that these statistics disturb you as greatly as they disturb me.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes issues an annual Global Study on Homicide.  In its latest report, issued in 2011, the United States ranked 15th in the world in gun related homicides.  This report is rated by the number of gun related homicides for each 100,000 people in a nation’s population.  For the United States, the number is 4.6 for every 100,000 Americans.  The nations who rank higher than us are to be found primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some in Eastern Europe.  However, when it comes to affluent nations, the United States ranks number 1, with no one else coming close.  In fact, the affluent European nations typically have a rate of 1 per 100,000, if not lower.  For example the rate for France is 1.4; for the United Kingdom, 1.1; for Italy, 1.0; for both Spain and Germany, 0.9; and for Switzerland, 0.7.  We Americans love to brag about our being #1, but this is a first place prize which should shake us to our very core.

While the United Nations report focuses on crime, and in this case homicides, there also has been a study done by the United States Center for Disease Control.  Theirs is a study of shootings in America, criminal and otherwise, fatal or not.  According to their findings, approximately 105,000 Americans are shot every year (104,852 in 2010) with approximately 31,500 of them being killed (31,347 in 2010).  This averages out to 287 Americans shot every day, 86 of them fatally.

When it comes to the number of Americans killed by guns every year, it may surprise you to learn that the number one cause of fatal gun deaths is not homicide.  It is suicide.  In 2010, while 11,493 of our fellow citizens were murdered with guns, 18,735 Americans use guns to kill themselves.  Several years ago, my brother-in-law was one of them.  He was a manic depressive who went off his medication.  He owned a pistol to protect his business.  But in a depressive state, alone in his house, he sat down on the couch in his family room, put the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The remainder of the annual gun deaths are categorized as either unintentional, undetermined or the result of a legal intervention, which I imagine is their way of saying that these people where shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties.

This study also points out that beside from those Americans who die at the barrel of a gun, every year there also are approximately 73,500 people who are shot but not killed (73,505 in 2010).  When we add up those numbers, we arrive at the devastating annual figure of approximately 105,000 Americans who are either killed or injured with a firearm.  This is nothing less than a profound national tragedy.

When we who live in the Quad Cities watch and read the news reports about all these shootings, we have a tendency to think of them as always happening someplace else, like in Colorado or New York.  Yet we in Iowa and Illinois are not immune to this disease of gun violence.  It touches our states and our communities as well.  According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report, there were 21 firearms related murders in Iowa in 2010 and 364 in Illinois.  During that year, there were other crimes such as robberies and aggravated assaults in which firearms were used as well.  But we do not need to turn to the statistics com­piled by the FBI to know that guns are killing people – often children – in our community.  All we need do is open the newspaper and watch the TV news.  In fact, just the other day one of my congregants – Linda Golden, who is a high school teacher in Rock Island, Illinois – was telling me about having attended a funeral for a student in her school who had been shot to death.  I would like to say that such shootings are rare in our community, but the fact is that they are happening far more often than we dare to admit.  But since they are not happening to our children, but to other peoples’ children, we tend to pay them scant heed.

Why am I talking to you about gun violence on Yom Kippur?  This is supposed to be a deeply spiritual day during which we plumb the depths of our own souls – when we take inventory of our lives – when we confront our own personal sins and shortcomings, and hopefully resolve to repair and correct them.  Where does gun violence fit into any of that?

The violence born of guns which plagues our nation – which draws our attention and breaks our hearts from time to time over the years, when there is a Columbine or a Granada Hills or a Virginia Tech, or an Aurora, Colorado, or a Sikh Temple shooting – is a corporate, national sin for which there must be both repentance and atonement.  Whether we realize it or not – whether we accept it or not – corporate national sins, especially in this nation which prides itself on being the great democracy, are also personal sins.  They belong to each and every one of us, just as much as all the sins we list in the “Al Chet Shechatanu” prayer; just as much as all those other sins which we may not have found listed in the High Holy Day prayer book but which each of us might have privately listed as we pondered our personal weak­nesses and failings and as we aspired to improve upon those behaviors in the year ahead.  As members of a democracy we do not possess the luxury to be able to say, “That’s the nation’s sin.  It is not mine.”  For they are ours.  For in a democracy, the sins of the nation become the sins of each of its citizens.  Why?  Because we create the nation.  We create it and we recreate it every single election day.  The people who make the decisions and take the actions, or fail to take the actions, which determine the very nature of our nation are the ones who come election day need our votes – our approval and our support – which in turn bestows upon them the power to mold our nation’s present and fashion its future.  So if our elected officials have allowed this nation to wallow in the sin of gun violence, we have no one to blame but ourselves, for we have permitted our elected officials to allow this tragedy to be reenacted time and time again without their making any effort to alter or stop it.  Yes, often they go to the sites of what the media luridly describes as “masacres” and they attend the funerals and they may even wax eloquent in their eulogies, but they do nothing to stop it.  Their tears are crocodile tears, and it is our fault – we, the voters – for we let them get away with it.

The sad reality is that we do not need to dress our young people up in uniforms and send them to foreign soil in order to suffer massive American casualties.   We only need to send them to high schools and colleges and houses of worship and movie theaters, for in our current gun environment they could just as easily fall victim in those places.  My daughter, Helene, and her friends love to go to these midnight movie premieres, like the premiere of the Batman film in Aurora at which that horrible shooting took place.  But as the Aurora shooting shows us, when one goes to such a premiere, one takes one’s life in their hands.  Are any of us so foolish as to believe that while it can happen in Aurora, Colorado it cannot happen in our own community?  Of course it can!  For it is as easy for an unstable person to acquire the firepower in most American communities as it was for James Eagan Holmes to acquire it Aurora, Colorado.  And if that were to happen in our own community, God forbid, then the sin would be upon our heads because we allowed those in power to remain in power while do nothing to protect our children from lunatics with guns.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah the text commonly called The Holiness Code.  In it there is a verse – Leviticus chapter 19, verse 16 – which states “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”  This is the sin for which we must repent and atone; the sin of standing idly by while all our neighbors who have become victims in all of these shootings, time and time and time again have bled and died while we have remained silent.

This past summer, soon after the shootings in Aurora, the members of our new Quad Cities Interfaith Fellowship struggled with the question of how can our community of faiths put our various faiths to work so that as a united faith community we can say, “Enough already!  Too many have died and died need­lessly.”  So we have started to address this issue.  Our first step was to write a letter to our various elected officials, both local and national, expressing our concern.  An edited version of that letter appeared in Sunday’s Quad City Times  But that is not where our efforts will end.  Indeed, in the wake of the Milwaukee shooting we gave our full support to the local Sikh community.  Next month we will be meeting to look at future action steps.  One thing seem certain.  We wish to place a special emphasis on gun deaths in our own community.  As we develop our action plans, I pray that many others will join us in our efforts.

For far too long, we all have known about this blight upon our society.  We have condemned it.  We have mourned it.  But we have not taken sufficient action to alter it.  When you think about it, it is a disgrace that the two young ladies who will celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah this Spring were born into an America in which we, the people, were aware of and distraught about the loss of life in our society because of the proliferation and accessibility of firearms, yet here it is 13 years later, and nothing has changed.  The killing remains ongoing and indiscriminate.  It is not enough for us to pray that the day will come when a child becomes a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah and does so in an America which knows no gun violence.  We have to work for that goal as well.  We have to make our elected officials understand that we, the citizens of America – that we, the potential victims of future gun violence in our country – will no longer tolerate their empty promises and gross inaction.  Together, may we create an America where we no longer fear that we or our children may be shot and killed simply because we were walking down the street or attending a worship service or going to a movie.

Life Is Too Short…

September 27, 2012

My wife and I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in the Summer of 1977 where I assumed my first solo pulpit and my wife began serving the Reform congregation in Omaha as its cantor.  We were extremely fortunate in that in both congregations we quickly made many close friends.  In fact, today we still keep in regular contact with several of them.

One set of friends that we made in Lincoln were two wonderful people who, for the sake of this article, I will call Ann & Mark.  They were older than us, but then again in those days, who in the congregation wasn’t, other than the students in the religious school?  Ann always seemed to know the right thing to do.  She was always there for the temple, and there for us.  Mark was a successful professional who loved to read and who loved to engage in some of the most profound conversations.  During our 5 years in Lincoln we spent a lot of time with Ann & Mark talking, laughing, dreaming.  Each of us valued our friendship dearly.

Then it happened.  It was in November of our last year in Nebraska.  I was training their youngest daughter for her Bat Mitzvah.  One evening the four of us were out for dinner, and of course one of the main topics of our conversation was the family’s plans for the big event.  It was in the midst of that conversation that Ann asked my wife if during the cocktail hour, she would sit on a stool and perform folk music for the guests, coffee house style.  She told us how much she loved listening to my wife sing and that it would mean so much to them if she would sing during their party.

The request caught us flatfooted.  My wife has never been that type of entertainer.  While in high school and in camp she performed in some musicals and some operas, she never got involved in anything like cabaret singing.  And when it came to folk music, she has never been a big fan.  In fact, the only thing like a folk song that she knew how to play on the guitar was “Charlie on the MTA.”  And now, over 30 years later, I can tell you from recent experience that is still the case, for while we were in Anchorage this Summer, there was a folk singer performing at the bar in our hotel.  Somehow or other he got my wife to pick up his guitar and sing for the crowd.  After she played “Charlie on the MTA” she went straight into Debbie Friedman music.  The room which, as you can imagine, was full of non-Jews did not know what to make of it while the folk singer thought it was great.  In any event, with Ann & Mark’s request before her, feeling like a fish out of water, my wife told our friends that she wasn’t comfortable doing that, her repertoire of music being primarily Jewish liturgical music and not folk songs.

It was not long after that we learned that Ann & Mark were upset with us because my wife would not accede to their request and I did not prevail upon her to do so.  Her refusal hurt them.  We, in turn, became upset with them for placing an unrealistic expectation upon my wife and for allowing this matter to injure our relationship which had been such a strong and positive one.  Yet that was the way it was and sorry to say, we spent our last 6 months in Lincoln, Nebraska at a distance from these two people with whom we had shared such a lovely friendship.

But that was not the end of the story.  Both we and the Ann & Mark shared a very close relationship with another couple, who, for the sake of this article, I will call Joan & Ken.  Indeed, barely a weekend would pass when Joan & Ken and my wife & I wouldn’t be doing something together – usually eating, but sometimes going to a play or a concert.  Well, a little over a year after we left Lincoln, Ken was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 6 months later he died.  All of us in our group of friends were devastated by his passing.  For my wife and I, there was no question but that we were flying in from California for the funeral.  We arranged to stay at the home of another family with whom we were close.  As we discussed over the phone our plans with that family, they informed us that Ann & Mark were hosting a dinner for all of Ken’s friends.  We winced.  During our Lincoln-bound journey, my wife and I wondered what it would be like to walk into their home that evening.

So we found ourselves standing at their doorstep and we hesitantly rang the bell.  Ann answered it.  There were no words that were spoken.  There was only loving embraces.  I must tell you that even as I was entering these memories into my computer as I was composing this article, tears were welling up in my eyes and running down my cheeks.  Our dear mutual friend was dead and in the light of our shared loss how insignificant our former differences with Ann & Mark proved themselves to be for both couples.

It is Yom Kippur and I chose to share this story with you because I believe that it can speak to the meaning of this day.  For Yom Kippur is a day when we are supposed to confront ourselves with all of our flaws and shortcomings.  It is a day when we are supposed to take stock of our lives as we have lived them up until now and seriously ask ourselves, “Where did I go wrong and what could I have done better?”  And most important of all, “What am I going to do about it?”  For if we neglect to do these things, then Yom Kippur is really little more than one long, uncomfortable, perhaps even boring, day in a synagogue.  If we fail to confront our errors, both the small ones and the big ones; if we fail to admit to the pettiness which can so often drive our lives off course, then we will remain unchanged, and in this case unchanged means unhealed, while Yom Kippur is all about healing.

I chose to share this story with you because while this story is very personal to my wife and me, it also is all too universal.  There are so many other who have stories in their own lives that in their own way are quite similar to this one.  I suspect that there may be several reading this article who at one point or another had dear friends or family, with whom they suffered a falling out; a breach in the relationship which never healed.

I happen to be one of those people who loves movies.  Well, there is a movie which if you have never seen it, you should.  It is called “Avalon.”  It is about a Polish-Jewish family that comes to America in the early days of the twentieth century and strives to obtain the American dream.  In the beginning, the family was wonderfully extended with aunts and uncles and cousins, all caring for and taking care of each other.  Holidays were major family occasions.  But by the end of the film, we see one lone nuclear family on Thanksgiving, eating their Thanksgiving dinner on tray tables in front of the television.

Friends and family are so important in our lives, or they should be.  Yet somehow, all too often there are those of us who let them slip through our fingers for reasons not even worthy of recounting.  In the movie, the big family break occurred over a family Thanksgiving dinner.  Everyone was sitting around the table waiting for an uncle and aunt to arrive, but they were late; extremely late.  Finally the host said, “Listen the children have to eat.  We cannot wait any longer!” and he started to carve the turkey.  Of course it was then that the uncle and aunt arrived.  When the uncle saw that they were carving the turkey without him, he was furious and he stormed out.  Is the carving of a turkey worthy of the dissolution of a family?  I don’t think so.  Yet that scenario, with its own particular details and nuances is replayed time and again in the real world, with real people, family and friends.

Yom Kippur is here to warn us that life is too short for us to allow ourselves to get caught up and trapped by minor squabbles and differences; to grant to so many little things the power to dismantle that which is truly positive, meaningful, and important in our lives.

There are a thousand cliches that tell us the very same thing.  Cliches like “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”  But because they are cliches, we tend not to give them much credence.  But when all is said and done, their message is a vital one for us, for they warn us over and over again, “Don’t lose sight of your priorities.”  Learn to recognize that which is major and that which is minor, and don’t let the minor destroy the major.

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of a professor who brought a pickle jar to class one day.  He set it on his desk, in front of his students, and then took large rocks and proceeded to place them into the jar.  When the jar could hold no more, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full.  They responded that it was.  Then the professor proceeded to take pebbles and pour them into the mouth of the jar.  Once again, when no more would fit, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full and once again they said that it was.  Then he proceeded to pour in sand.  When the sand reached the top of the jar, he asked his question yet again, and his students replied that indeed it was full.  At this point, he poured in water right up to the brim.  He then asked his students what the jar has to teach us about life.  Several responded that from the jar they have learned that there is always room for more.  “No,” he said sadly, “that is not the point.  What the jar has to teach us is that you have to put the rocks in first, for if you don’t there will be no room for them afterward.  And the rocks, they are the biggest, most important things in our lives.  They are our priorities.”

Every day of our lives we are confronted with multiple situations, and unfortunately, sometimes conflicts.  At these times, we need to focus on the rocks; the important things in our lives.  We must let them guide our choices, our actions, our words, our thoughts, and, of course, our emotions.  If we do so, then our chances are greater that we will not fall victim to the petty.

Our loving relationships are far more important than many of our opinions, yet why do we so often choose to sacrifice our friendships because of this issue or that issue over which we find ourselves in disagreement with the people we care about?  Yes there are some opinions that are not just opinions but in actuality true basic life principles – principles for which it is worthy to endure sacrifice.  But let us be honest about it.  The differences of opinion that more often than not result in driving wedges in our relationships are not of that caliber.  They are merely differences of opinion concerning opinions about which we have chosen, often for reasons unknown even to us, to dig in our heals and not let go until we have won.  It becomes for us about victory and defeat rather than right and wrong.  Years ago, Barb Arland Fye, the publisher of the “Catholic Messenger” taught me that when we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this the ditch I wish to die in?”  If the answer is “yes” then we are contending over rocks.  If the answer is “no” then we are squabbling over sand and water.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to help us learn how to distinguish between the rocks and the sand and the water.  For when we elect to sacrifice wonderful relationships for sand and water, we are committing a sin against those we are cutting off and against ourselves as well.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to push us along the path of healing broken relationships.  We all know that two of the most difficult words to say in any language are “I’m sorry.”  But it is precisely those words, sincerely spoken, which contain the healing balm we all so desperately need.

Ann & Mark, my wife, and I were most fortunate for we were able to heal our relationship.  But to do so, we had to pay an excruciating price; the tragic loss of our dear friend.  I suspect that when we embraced, in Heaven Ken was smiling, for at least some good came out of his suffering and his passing.  But to this very day, my wife and I miss him terribly.  While we are grateful for the healing his passing brought to our relationship with Ann & Mark, we will regret for the rest of our days that the four of us could not have brought about that healing on our own.  Yom Kippur attempts to teach us that healing need not be born of tragedy.  It can be born of choice.

Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal 2012

September 18, 2012

I serve a congregation that is very dedicated to the work of Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World, what many people call Social Justice.  One aspect of our Tikkun Olam programming is to place significant emphasis on hunger issues during the High Holy Days.  To that end, I open our Rosh Hashanah evening service with an annual Hunger Appeal.  Below is the text of this year’s Appeal.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu!  May you all be inscribed for blessings in the Book of Life!  As I extend to you our traditional holy day greeting on this Rosh Hashanah, I ask you to pause and reflect upon it, even if just for a moment.  What does our tradition tell us to seek – to aspire to – on Rosh Hashanah?  Blessings.  We yearn for our lives and for the year ahead to be filled with blessings.  Yet when we think about it, how can we deny that our lives already are extremely blessed?  We cannot.  We have homes that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  We have closets full of clothing and pantries, refrigerators, and freezers filled with food.  Our community is teeming with grocery stores and restaurants, and most, if not all of us, are more than capable of frequenting them when we please and purchasing whatever our hearts desire.

In these, and in so many other ways, we are already abundantly blessed.  Yet as the new year approaches, still our prayers are for increased blessings.  For in everyone’s life, there is always room for an additional blessing or two or three.

It is precisely because we are so blessed already that year after year, I unashamedly open up our High Holy Day services with this hunger appeal, to beseech you who already are so greatly blessed not only to seek blessings for yourselves but also to open up your hearts and extend yourselves so that you will to bestow blessings on others as well; bestowing your blessing upon those people in our community and in our world whose lives are so dramatically different than our own, for theirs are so bereft of blessings.

Living in a land of plenty and possessing the abundance that we so fortunately possess, it can be difficult for us to even begin to imagine how the lives of others, not just on our planet but also in our own community, can be so lacking in what we take for granted.

There is a Hasidic story which speaks directly to that point.  It is the story of a poor man whose family is about to face the winter without being able to afford enough to purchase sufficient firewood to see them through it.  So he swallows his pride and goes to the home of the wealthiest man in town, asking that man for a loan in order to acquire the wood.  Well the wealthy man considers the request but in the end decides to deny it because, quite frankly, he could not envision how the poor man would ever be able to repay the loan.  After this rejection, the poor man goes to the rabbi, sharing with him his problems and how the wealthy man responded to them.  So the rabbi goes to the home of the wealthy man.  When the wealthy man answers the door and sees the rabbi on his doorstep, he immediately invites him in.  But the rabbi refuses, saying that what he has to discuss will not take very long, so let us discuss it right here.  The rabbi then begins to speak, and speak, and speak, and speak.  Standing in the open doorway, in the brisk air of early winter, it is not long before the wealthy man is feeling the chill.  “Come on rabbi!  Come inside.  We can sit by the fire and have a nice cup of warm tea and conduct our business.”  “No,” the rabbi responds, “I am almost done so let’s just continue where we are.”  Finally, after more and more talk on the rabbi’s part, the wealthy man becomes quite insistent.  “Rabbi, I am freezing out here!  Please!  Let’s go inside!”  With this, the rabbi turns to the wealthy man and says, “You have only been standing in this cold for a few brief moments, and already you find it unbearable.  How much the worse it will be for that poor man and his family this winter because you could not find it in your heart to lend him the money to keep his wife and children warm!”

Think of that story on Yom Kippur, especially if you are fasting.  As the day wears on, and you get hungrier and hungrier, remember that the day will end and you will enjoy a wonderful break the fast.  Yet throughout this world there are literally millions of people – according to the most recent statistics, 925 million people; one out of every seven people on this planet – who starve, not just one day year, but 365 days a year.  While they starve, we are like the wealthy man, for it is in our power to help them by opening up our hearts, and our wallets, and sharing some of our blessings with them; by making efforts we are more than capable of making which will help to ease their suffering.

While when it comes to hunger issues, we tend to think of the starving populations of foreign lands, particularly in Asia and Africa, the harsh reality is that hunger is no stranger to our own community as well.  It may shock you to learn that 1 in every 6 Quad Citians is a victim of hunger, with children under 18 years of age representing 39% of that population.  For those who receive and depend upon food stamps for their nutrition, the typical food stamp allotment is a mere $1.50 per meal.  How many of us are capable, nevertheless willing, to maintain that type of diet?

All this is why year after year I come to you and I beg you to support our various hunger programs.  And I most certainly do that again this year, but this year with a difference.  In past years, I have regaled you with our own congregational statistics; how many walkers we fielded for the CROP Walk, how much money we raised, how many pounds of food we collected, and how all of that compared to years past.  I know that I find those statistics very meaningful, but I am not quite sure that you do.  Sometimes I wonder whether or not I am boring you with them, and by boring you, hurting the cause rather than helping it.  So this year, I will refrain from presenting those numbers.  Suffice it to say that our congregation has a proud history of stepping up and supporting these hunger programs and I pray that once again, we will prove ourselves up to the challenge.

So I call upon you once again to support our efforts on behalf of the annual CROP WALK Against World Hunger.  We need as many walkers as we can field and we need people to pledge as much as they can.  If you walk, you also can pledge, and if you pledge you also can walk.  This year’s Walk will take place on Sunday, October 7, beginning at 2:00 p.m., starting at Modern Woodman Park – which some of us still stubbornly call John O’Donnell Stadium.  About the Walk, people sometimes wonder whether they have to complete the course in order to qualify for their pledges.  The answer is “No.”  All we ask is that you walk as much as you can.  For well over 20 years, I have walked in every one of these walks.  These days, my health being what it is, walking is not one of my strong suits.  However, with the help of this handy-dandy inhaler, I plan on making at least part of this walk.  I hope you will join me.

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.  As we do so this year, I want you to remember two things: First, that what we collect will help to feed the 1 in 6 Quad Citians who are so desperately in need.  Secondly, I want you to think about all the reports you have heard about how during the coming year, food prices are going to soar as a result of this summer’s drought.  As you consider how that will effect your own pocket books, think about what that means for those who already are having trouble putting food on their family’s tables.

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 approach is a holistic one, as expressed in the words of their mission statement: “To provide for people who are hungry while at the same time advocating for other ways to end hunger and its causes.”  In your prayer books, you will find a self-addressed donation envelop for MAZON.  I encourage you to take it home and seriously consider making a donation equal to what it would cost you to take the members of your household out to 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.

In PIRKE AVOT, we are taught, “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin lehibateil mimena! – While you are not obligated to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it!”  While we at Temple Emanuel, by ourselves, cannot hope to solve the challenge of hunger in our own community, nevertheless in the world, still we should feel it incumbent upon us to do everything we possibly can to contribute our part to that solution.  Ken yehi ratzon! – May it be God’s will!  May it be our will!

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 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.