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Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Yom Shlishi, 2 Adar 5777

From Rabbi Bigman...

From Rabbi Bigman...

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon October 12 2016/5777

on Wednesday, 12 October 2016.

YOM KIPPUR MORNING SERMON

OCTOBER 12, 2016

RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN

 

On the cover of a recent edition of the “Detroit Jewish News,” there was a grid of faces – three at the top and three at the bottom -- a la “The Brady Bunch,” with the photos of six Detroit-area rabbis. In the middle row was the title “The Bracha Bunch!” with the subtitle “In a New Year windfall, six congregations welcome rabbis new to their pulpits.” The article notes that three of the rabbis are serving Conservative congregations, two are serving Reform congregations, and one is serving a Reform/Renewal congregation. In a sidebar, there is a brief article about the new rabbi serving Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor.

That makes seven new rabbis in Michigan this year. But wait – there’s more! The article does not mention the new rabbi at the Conservative synagogue in Kalamazoo nor the new rabbi here in East Lansing, at M.S.U.’s Hillel. That’s nine colleagues who are new to Michigan just in the last few months. That’s a lot of change!

Of the nine rabbis, five of them are replacing rabbis who have retired. Most of these rabbis were ordained in the mid-70’s, meaning they have each served the Jewish people for approximately 40 years.

Here at Shaarey Zedek there has also been a lot of change this past year or two. We have had a number of congregants move to other communities in order to be closer to their children. Cantor Schiffer and I have officiated at funerals for far too many of our members these past two years as well. Families are grieving the deaths of their loved ones. While never forgetting their loved ones, the mourners must find ways to carry on, to continue to live their own lives to the fullest while still missing their loved ones.

Their grief is our congregational grief as well. Our congregation is changing and we, too, must find a way to carry on and adapt to our losses. A decade ago we had quite a few members who volunteered to chant Torah and Haftarah for our Shabbat morning services; today we have a handful. A decade ago we had flourishing committees: a strong, active Tzedakah Committee; parent volunteers who helped with our youth group; and an active Cultural Committee planning programs for our congregation such as our annual Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and more. Today those groups still exist, but it is getting more and more difficult to find volunteers to take the lead. (I should also note that it is also more difficult to find the financing to provide for such programs.)

Prior to the High Holy Days each year we ask for help in taking out of the pews the Shabbat prayer books and chumashim and replacing them with the High Holy Days prayer books; after the High Holy Days we need to return the chumashim and Shabbat prayer books to the pews. It’s a struggle to get volunteers to help with this important yearly task. Also, over the years I have trained approximately 20 people to serve as ushers and greeters for worship services; today only a handful serve on a regular basis. This is our reality now.

Cantor Schiffer and our administrator Patty Warshaw counted over 130 congregants to invite to the Sensational Seniors Tea that took place at the end of September. The Seniors Tea was sponsored by our Caring Community. “Seniors” were defined as people over the age of 70. Some of these seniors still volunteer here at Shaarey Zedek, for which we are most thankful, but we cannot continue to rely on the senior members of the congregation as much as we currently do.

It is time for our younger members to step up, to volunteer at synagogue and religious school events, to be active members of our various committees, Sisterhood, and youth group, to work with the staff to serve the needs of our congregation. As I noted on Rosh HaShanah evening, we are a family here at Shaarey Zedek and we need to support each other in this our congregational home. Our congregation cannot exist without volunteers. We will not be able to continue to offer the types of services, programs, and education that our members deserve.

My friend Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis once wrote that “volunteering…is not just about helping to get a particular job done, rather it is also about community building and creating a sense of belonging. It is about each person giving of him or herself to make our community a warm, inviting, and vibrant place.” [United Hebrew Congregation bulletin, February 2012]

Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur -- do not separate yourself from the community.” This important teaching, attributed to the great Hillel, who lived in the first century B.C.E., reminds us of our obligations as members of a community.   The eleventh-century French commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi, the most famous of all commentators, commented on Hillel’s statement, explaining that one should not separate oneself from the community when it is experiencing difficulties so that one can be united with it when it experiences joy. One must not hide away during the difficult times and only share the joyous times with the community, but rather, one must be part of the community through thick and thin.

Rabbi Zev Leff wrote in his commentary on Parashat Nitzavim: “One of the benefits of being part of the community is that as part of a united entity one’s individual failings may be overlooked. ….One benefits by strengthening his connection to [the community]. But he cannot reap the benefits from the community without accepting the concomitant responsibilities.” [Parashat Nitzavim, “Do Not Separate From the Community,” aish.com]

All of these commentators – Rabbi Rosenberg, Hillel, Rashi, and Rabbi Leff -- remind us that if we fail to see ourselves as part of something bigger, if we fail to see ourselves in relation to other people, then not only will we lose something special, but so will the community. Our community – our congregation – needs you.

G’mar chatimah tovah!

May you be inscribed for a good year!

Kol Nidrei Sermon October 11, 2016/5777

on Tuesday, 11 October 2016.

KOL NIDREI SERMON

OCTOBER 11, 2016

RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN

 

At the end of this month, it will have been two years since our congregation joined with Temple Sinai in Toronto for a trip to Israel. My classmate and friend, Rabbi Michael Dolgin, along with our tour guide-educator Zvi Levran, put together a wonderful trip. You may remember that on the first Shabbat home I noted that I was anxious already to make a return trip to Israel. Indeed, I’ve been trying to figure out a way back there ever since!

The parashah that we will read at tomorrow morning’s Reform worship service comes from Parashat Nitzavim, which was the portion we read a few weeks ago, from near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. This Torah portion is always read in all synagogues just before the High Holy Days and for Reform Jews, as I mentioned, we read portions of it again on this holiest of days. One of the reasons it is read at this time of year is because the Hebrew root “shuv,” meaning “to turn” or “to return” is found seven times in verses 1-10 of Chapter 30 in the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew root “shuv” is also the root of the word “teshuvah,” which we usually translate as “repentance,” as in “Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah,” the Ten Days of Repentance.

The first five verses of the thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy state:

When all these things befall you – the blessing and the curse that I have set before you – and you take [v’hasheivota] them to heart amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished you, and you return [v’shav’ta] to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed [God’s] command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then the Lord your God will restore [v’shav] your fortunes and
take you back in love. [God] will bring you together again [v’shav] from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you
. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there [God] will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and [God] will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. [30:1-5]

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, shared the teaching of Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (late 19th century Russia) in her commentary on this portion, titled “A Jew is a Jew, No Matter How Far”:

Why does [verse 3] repeat the word ‘return’ [v’shav] twice? The reason is that there are two types of exile and two types of people in exile. ‘The Lord will return your captivity’ refers to those who are in exile and who feel it constantly, and who long to return to Eretz Yisrael. Those will be the first ones who are returned to Eretz Yisrael. However, ‘[God] will have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from among all the nations’ refers to those Jews who have made their peace with their exile, and who feel quite comfortable where they are. They, too, will be returned to our land.

…Today, too, there are Diaspora Jews who feel endangered and who long for the relative safety of Eretz Yisrael… Yet half the world’s Jewish population still resides outside of Israel -- most in North America, where we find life safe and comfortable. We take inspiration and enrichment not only from Israel, but also from two thousand years of the Diaspora’s cultural, religious, and scientific achievements.

[Rabbi Korotkin continues:] Rabbi Meir Simhah wrote that we, too, “will be returned to our land.” But must that mean only aliyah? Can we not legitimately support Israel, spend time in Israel, embrace the Zionist cause, but live elsewhere? Reform Judaism’s own statement of support for aliyah begins with the sentence: “Progressive Judaism believes that Jews can live fulfilling and meaningful lives in any part of the world.”4 Perhaps the translation of our verses found in [the Reform Movement’s chumash or Torah commentary] The Torah: A Modern Commentary is closer to the truth. After all: God will “bring us together,” imbuing us with a sense of peoplehood no matter where we are and providing a shield against those who may disparage Diaspora Jews for our choices.

4. “Aliyah—Immigration to Israel,” http://www.reformjudaism.org/aliyah-immigration-israel

This concept of returning to the Land is a difficult one for American Jews. After all, as Rabbi Korotkin notes, we Jews tend to live comfortably in this country. The United States was founded by people who came here to live life according to their own religions and to their own interpretations of those religions. Due to this religious freedom, Jews have flourished in this country.

As much as we may love Israel, I have to admit that some of the things that the Israeli government has done – or not done – in giving non-Orthodox Jews the same rights and privileges as the Orthodox have made it difficult to be fully supportive.

And yet – we must be just that: supporters of Israel. We must support its right to exist, its right to have safe borders, its right to be a haven for Jews from around the world who need or want a safe place to live as Jews. We must continue to support the Israel Religious Action Center, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and other organizations that support and fight for the rights of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews in the State of Israel. [list of organizations to be found on the table in the lobby]

In August, Rabbi Josh Weinberg and Rabbi John Rosove, the President and Chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, respectively, and Gideon Aronoff and Ken Bob, the CEO and National President of Ameinu (Our People)*, respectively, wrote an article titled “Why Progressive Jews Mustn’t Give Up on Zionism.” It reads, in part:

…We affirm progressive Zionist values. And those values mandate activism in order to ensure that Israel is both a democracy and the national home of the Jewish people.

…Since its establishment, Israel has meant many things to many people: a haven from persecution, a catalyst for Jewish renewal and a place where the rhythms of civic life are Jewish rhythms. We regard the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s laboratory of Jewish ethical living, one that has seen unparalleled achievements and successes, as well as considerable deficiencies and failures. We regard the founding of the state as a consummate historic opportunity, to test the efficacy of Jewish ethical values, institutions and the diversity of Jewish peoplehood all while holding onto political power as a sovereign state.

…Diaspora Jewry is a partner in assuring Israel’s viability as a democracy and a Jewish state, and its security as a sovereign nation. Our role in the Diaspora is different than that of Israeli citizens, but it is no less important. Indeed, our two centers need each other’s wisdom and support.

…We would like to suggest an unconditional relationship to Israel. That means, like family, when we see troubling trends and abhorrent behavior, rather than disavow the entire enterprise, we prefer to roll up our sleeves and get more involved.

Similarly, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Zionists must actively engage non-Jewish Israelis to address the real tensions within Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Making Israel both more democratic and more Jewish is a serious challenge, but it is the essential struggle of Zionism…

Ultimately, our vision of progressive Zionism -- which is embodied in the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Zionist movement’s Jerusalem Program -- is one grounded in hope and action. And we will continue to strive to fulfill this vision to ensure a just, secure and peaceful future for all Israelis, and an Israel that can be a dynamic inspiration to Jews around the world. [August 3, 2016]

As we begin our fast this evening, as we examine and make amends for our negative deeds of this past year, as we resolve to do better this new year, may we also resolve to support the State of Israel, despite what some may consider its flaws. No person and no country are perfect. That’s our struggle, especially at this time of year: figuring out how to do better. We are Yisraeil: the one who struggles with God.

Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisraeil, v’al kol yoshvei teivel -- May this new year bring peace to us, to the State of Israel, to the People of Israel around the world, and to all peoples of the world, and let us say: Amen.

* “a national community of progressive Jews in North America which mobilizes Jews who seek opportunities to foster social and economic justice both in Israel and in North America”

Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning 2016/5777

on Monday, 03 October 2016.

ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNING SERMON

OCTOBER 3 & 4, 2016

RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN

There once was a little boy who wanted to meet God, or so the story goes. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so he packed his suitcase with cupcakes, several cans of root beer and started on his journey.

When he had gone about three blocks, he saw an elderly woman. She was sitting on a park bench watching the pigeons. The boy sat down next to her and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed the lady looked hungry so he offered her a cupcake. She gratefully accepted and smiled at him.

Her smile was so wonderful that he wanted to see it again, so he offered a root beer as well. Once again she smiled at him. The boy was delighted!

They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling without saying a word.

As it began to grow dark, the boy realized how tired he was and wanted to go home. He got up to leave but before he had gone no more than a few steps, he turned around and ran back to the old woman, giving her a big hug. She gave him her biggest smile ever.

When the boy arrived home his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked, “What has made you so happy today?” He replied, “I had lunch with God.” Before his mother could respond he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile in the whole world!”

Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home. Her son was stunned by the look of peace on her face. He asked, “Mother, what has made you so happy today?” She replied, “I ate cupcakes in the park with God.” And before her son could reply, she added, “You know, he is much younger than I expected.”

[The American Rabbi website, “Pearlson’s Pearls 5777,” author unknown]

Can you imagine a sweeter story than this? (Pun intended!) Two people finding God in the other. Simply being present with each other, sharing some cupcakes and root beer, they found God.

Each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). We learn this in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “And God created the human in the image of God; in the image of God, God created the human; male and female, God created them.” [v.27] So often, in our daily interactions, I fear that we forget this simple teaching, we forget that God created each person in the divine image.

Imagine how wonderful our lives would be if each of us took a moment to see God in the other before we open our mouths to say something! Imagine how wonderful our world would be if each of us acted with derekh eretz. Derekh eretz literally translated means “the way of the land.” It is the term we use to describe good manners, common decency, civil behavior. One way I read it described is “the behavior to which all thoughtful and decent people should aspire.”

Our religious school students learn about derekh eretz from the get-go. They learn about it in kindergarten and first grade and then again in the second and third grades. I asked our youngest students during our weekly t’fillot on Sunday mornings recently what they were learning at religious school. They told me that they were learning about derekh eretz. Many of them told me that it means to share their things with others, to be nice to others, and so on.   One of the religious school materials from Torah Aura Productions teaches derekh eretz this way:

Derekh means “a road.” Eretz means “the land.” Derekh Eretz is “the right way to go.” Following the rules is part of Derekh Eretz. Being polite is part of Derekh Eretz. Acting with kindness and treating other people with respect is Derekh Eretz, too. It is Derekh Eretz to help others whenever we can. Derekh Eretz is the way a good person behaves. [Torah Aura, BJL: Mitzvot]

This sort of reminds me of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. The problem is that while we may have learned in kindergarten to be polite, act kindly, and treat others with respect, as adults we sometimes (maybe often?) forget those lessons.

In our political discourse, especially this year’s elections, some of the candidates have just been so mean, obnoxious even. Last month we heard a lot about the governor of Maine, Paul LePage. He left a message on the voicemail of one of Maine’s legislators saying he wished he could challenge the legislator to a duel and point a gun at his forehead. If that wasn’t bad enough, the language that he used in referring to the legislator was so inappropriate that it had to be bleeped out when it was reported on television news. Governor LePage must not have learned about Derekh Eretz when he was in kindergarten.

In our professional and personal lives, unfortunately, we find this lack of Derekh Eretz as well. Whether it’s between colleagues or spouses, employer and employee, parent and child, treating each other as anything other than made in the divine image is unacceptable. Plain and simple.

I have learned that, although admittedly I didn’t count it up myself! -- there are approximately 200 teachings in the Talmud and Midrash about derekh eretz, about how to treat others. [“Torah Im Derech Eretz,” Wikipedia] Obviously, the Rabbis wanted us to know how important this teaching is! One of the most famous of those teachings comes from the Midrash: Vayikra Rabbah 9:3. It is quite a lengthy text, but I will do my best to summarize it for you:

Rabbi Yannai was taking a walk and he saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai invited the man to join him at his house, where they ate and drank together. Rabbi Yannai spoke to the man about many important Jewish texts but realized that the man had no knowledge of any of them. The man didn’t even know how to say the blessing over the wine! Rabbi Yannai chastised the man for his lack of knowledge. The man told him that while he may not know about the important Jewish texts, he was a good man: He told Rabbi Yannai that he had never heard gossip and repeated it, nor did he ever see two people quarreling without helping make peace between them. It was then that Rabbi Yannai realized what a grievous mistake he had made: “You have much derekh eretz and I treated you so improperly!”

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, a Reconstructionist rabbi, serves the Temple Chai community in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a Chaplain (Colonel) in the United States Army Reserve. She writes and publishes extensively. In her sermon about Derekh Eretz, she asks, “What is the ultimate goal of Jewish life?” Her answer: “Judaism does not suggest that the highest goal is to withdraw from life and to live a life of contemplation and solitude. Rather, it challenges us to live with all the frustration and temptations of life in the world, and to find a way to elevate every moment, to seek the holiness in our smallest gestures and behaviors.”

Whether it is offering a stranger a cupcake and some root beer, opening the door for someone, sharing our toys, or lending a hand to another, remembering that each of us is made in God’s image and treating others as such is one of the highest commandments we can observe. Let us resolve on this New Year’s Day to see others as godly, as being made b’tzelem Elohim, and to always treat them as such in every aspect of our lives.

Shanah tovah!

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening October 2nd

on Sunday, 02 October 2016.

ROSH HA-SHANAH EVENING SERMON

OCTOBER 2, 2016

RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN

I love the Olympics! For as long as I can remember, I have always especially enjoyed watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I love watching all of the countries – this year there were 207 countries – entering the Olympic Stadium. I especially love watching, and, yes, I have to admit, in the privacy of my home, cheering on the American and Israeli teams as they enter the stadium.

This year there were many highlights for the American team: 121 total medals, including 46 gold. Five of those gold medals were won by Michael Phelps and four by fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky. Our national team really ruled the pool. Sadly much of the swim team’s success was overshadowed by the inappropriate and embarrassing conduct of swimmer Ryan Lochte.

Lochte and three other swimmers were out for a night on the town after finishing their races. Lochte seemed to be the ring-leader and he reported that he and his buddies had been held at gunpoint by robbers posing as police officers. The police in Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics took place, determined that they were not held at gunpoint, but rather that they vandalized a gas station. Subsequent reporting indicates that neither version – Lochte’s nor the police’s – seems to have been totally accurate.

Days later, Ryan Lochte “apologized” in what some have called a “fauxpology.” He said, in part:

 

I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend – for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics…

 

It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country – with a language barrier – and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave, but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself… I accept responsibility for my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons.

 

First: what took so long for Lochte to apologize? And second: Why didn’t he tell the true story right away? It seems that Lochte has an excuse for everything. He shouldn’t have been in the position he was in in the first place. But since he was in that position, why didn’t he just admit it from the get-go? “Look, I messed up. I shouldn’t have done the things I did. I apologize to the United States, Brazil, and the International Olympics Committee for my behavior.”

When we apologize we must be sincere. We must really mean it. Ryan Lochte never seemed to really mean it. He said some of the correct things – such as taking responsibility and learning from his mistakes – but his facial expressions and tone of voice indicated that they were simply words without much substance to them.

This past month, the month of Elul, we have been asking forgiveness from those we have hurt this past year. Beginning tonight and for the next ten days, we ask forgiveness from God. We must be sincere for true repentance requires such.

Probably the best “feel-good” story of the Olympics happened on the track with two runners that you’d probably never heard of before the Olympics: American Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. The two fell during a 5,000 meter heat. Instead of getting up and continuing her run, D’Agostino got up and then helped Hamblin up, urging her to keep running. Then Hamblin did the same for D’Agostino as she stumbled. D’Agostino ended up finishing the race on what was later diagnosed as a torn ACL.

Even though the two runners had never met, they helped each other finish the race. In interviews both women noted how helping each other was more important than winning the race. “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin told the Associated Press. “I’ve never met her before… And isn’t that just so amazing?  Such an amazing woman.”

Not only were both D’Agostino and Hamblin amazing women, embodying the Olympic spirit, but our women’s gymnastics team was also amazing. The team -- consisting of Temple Beth Avodah of Newton, Massachusetts member Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez -- won the women’s team gold medal, along with three individual gold medals for Simone, two silver medals Aly, one silver for Madison, one silver for Laurie, and one bronze medal for Simone.

Simone Biles was the women’s individual all-around winner. As amazing as 19-year-old Simone was in competition – and she really was amazing! --, her efforts were partially overshadowed by a slight controversy regarding her parents. Her dad, Ron, is Simone’s biological grandfather. After his daughter gave up custody of Simone and her younger sister, they went through various foster homes. Ron and his wife Nellie adopted them when Simone was six years old.

Al Trautwig, one of NBC’s gymnastics commentators, made reference to Simone’s parents and said that they were her adopted parents, “not her real parents.” This made many viewers, including me, furious. Adoptive parents are not biological parents, but they are most definitely real parents.

As many of you know, I have two younger siblings – my sister Jill and my brother Kevin. One of them is adopted. And unless I told you which one is adopted, you would never know. The three of us are siblings, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if we were born of the same parents. As kids we did all of the same things that other siblings do: we played together, we fought, we made up – and now as adults, although we live in different states, we do our best to support each other and to see each other whenever possible. Our parents taught us to always stick together and so we siblings have seen each other through marriages and divorces, through back surgery and knee surgery, through life’s ups and downs. Why? Because we are family, plain and simple, and that’s what families do: they take care of each other.

You know, we strive to be a family here at Shaarey Zedek, too. I often refer to our congregation as a family because I hope that all of us feel at-home here. One of the dictionary definitions of the word “family” is “all the people living in the same house.” That’s us: we’re all in the same house, the Shaarey Zedek house.

It doesn’t matter whether we are Jews-by-birth or Jews-by-choice, whether we are observant Jews or non-observant Jews, or whether we are non-Jews who have found a spiritual home here. None of that matters for we are family. We are the Shaarey Zedek family. We don’t all have to like each other; we don’t all have to agree with one another; but we do have to respect each other, be nice to each other, and stay together. Especially in a Jewish community the size of ours, we must stick together and support each other. That’s what the Jewish people have done throughout our history.

As we begin this new year, I pray:

May each of us always feel welcome here. May we always feel loved and supported here. May this building be our home and these people our family.

And may this new year of 5777 be a happy, healthy, good year for each of us and for our congregation, and may it be the year that our world finds peace.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

May this be God’s will.

Shanah tovah!

Rabbi's Bigman's January 2016 Commentary Letter

on Friday, 08 January 2016.

This month, on January 25th, we will celebrate what might appear to be one of the most unusual holidays of the Jewish year: Tu Bishvat, literally “the 15th of (the month of) Shevat,” but better known as the New Year of the Trees. The Mishnah designates this date as the birthday of the trees. It was important in ancient days to know how old a tree was in order to observe certain mitzvot. In the days of the Temple, these and offerings were made based upon the new fruit of the trees; fruit gathered from the previous year’s produce could not be used for the current year’s offering.

After the destruction of the Temple, we found other ways of celebrating Tu Bishvat. For example, today we might plant trees in Israel under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund or participate in a Tu Bishvat seder.

Trees are a symbol of life and, indeed, the Torah itself is called the “Tree of Life.” By celebrating this holiday, we are connected to Israel, to nature, and to our Torah. Many today, see this holiday as sort of a Jewish Earth Day, a day which reminds us to take care of the environment.

In his commentary, “This Was Not Just a Matter of Chance,” Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz teaches the following:

“...There are three key values our traditions teach us about caring for the environment.

One: The World Is Not Ours to Do with as We Wish – It Is God’s

The Psalmist sang that the ‘the earth is the Eternal’s and all that it holds’ (Psalm 24:1). As mortals we are reminded by our traditions that we take ‘possession’ of the earth not as its owners, but merely as renters. To take seriously the no on that we lease the land from God means that we are not completely free to do with it as we wish.

In Genesis 2:15 humans are commanded to ‘work’ and to ‘keep’ the earth (l’ovdah ul’shomrah). The Hebrew laavod really means ‘to serve’ and also has the implication of ‘to pray.’ Caring for the planet, therefore, is an act of worship of the Divine. And lishmor means ‘to guard.’ Here again, the choice of words is significant. A guard does not own what he or she is watching, but only is entrusted with its care. That is our task – to watch over a world that we bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

Two: We Do Not Control the World, We Are Part of It

Shabbat is the day of rest, a me set aside to avoid labor, and among the categories of work traditionally avoided on Shabbat are sowing and plowing (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). In essence, one is not allowed to garden, not even to water plants, on Shabbat. The reason can be explained in its historical context: in the biblical world most Israelites were farmers, so caring for the land was work. But this law has a deeper ethical intent. On this day we are not allowed to alter our environment, to do anything that makes us think we control the world. Rather, on Shabbat we are to humbly appreciate the beauty and majesty of the world around us...

...What is important is the ethical value of Shabbat as a day to connect more deeply with the natural world and its own rhythm.

Judaism’s belief in one God, the Creator of the universe, demands a sense of unity to all existence...we are forced to the conclusion that we are one with the world around us.

Three: We Must Be Responsible in the Exercise of Our Power

Every living thing changes its environment. Humans alone, however, have the ability to exert such far-reaching changes on the earth as a whole. But with this power comes responsibility.

Judaism teaches that we are stewards of our planet. Stewardship implies a unique role and place that we humans occupy, but it does not mean we can act at will. In the biblical account of the Creation, after humanity is created God says, ‘Fill the earth and tame it’ (Genesis 1:28). The word v’chivshuha (translated in The Torah: A Modern Commentary as ‘tame’), generally translated as ‘master’ or ‘subdue,’ is o en misunderstood as a sanction on to do to the environment whatever we wish. The fifteenth-century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno clarifies what God implies here – that we must use our intelligence to protect the world...” [“Reform Voices of Torah,” Parashat Bo, January 26, 2009 / 1 Shevat 5769]

Wishing you and your loved ones a Happy Tu Bishvat!

YOM KIPPUR MORNING

on Wednesday, 23 September 2015.

YOM KIPPUR MORNING

SEPTEMBER 23, 2015 

In a few weeks I will turn the big “five-oh.”  Yep, that’s right – I’ll be turning 50, I’ll reach the half-century mark.  And you know what that means, right?  Time for a colonoscopy!

My colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, recently wrote on the ReformJudaism.org blog an entry which he entitled “What’s Jewish about Getting a Colonoscopy?”  He noted that

Most people cringe at the mention of this invasive procedure.  Most everybody seems uncomfortable discussing something even minimally connected to our nether region orifices… 

Yet our intestinal passageways are critical to the smooth functioning of our bodies.  We can’t enjoy a delicious meal, or a tasty evening of wine and cheese, without having a way to digest and remove the processed waste.  As we age, we need to be ever more cognizant of “the pipes and the plumbing.”

…It’s a mitzvah to go get your colonoscopy.  It’s short-term discomfort for long-term gain, and the discomfort we face in preparing beats the alternative if a polyp or cancer goes undetected. [July 29, 2015, www.reformjudaism.org/print/126211]

 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a well-respected scholar of (amongst other things) medical ethics, and a theology professor at the American Jewish University, teaches that God

not only created us but literally owns our bodies throughout our lives and even in death.  It is as if we were renting an apartment:  we have fair use of the apartment during the time of its lease, but the owner can and usually does demand that we take reasonable care of the apartment and certainly that we not damage it.  So, too, God, according to the Jewish tradition, demands that we take care of ourselves.  This is not an option in the Jewish way of thinking of things; it is a duty we owe to God so that we can serve God in everything we do. [“Caring for Our Bodies in Life and in Death,” Parashat Ki Tetse 5775]

 

A little over a year ago, when she turned 49, Julie, with whom I have been friends since we both moved onto the same street at the beginning of seventh grade, determined to lose 50 pounds by the time she turned 50.  And she did!  She changed her eating habits and began to exercise.  She looks amazing and like a totally different person!

A little over two years ago, in May 2013 (according to my Runkeeper app!), I started walking.  Walking is supposed to be great exercise and since I’m not much of an athlete, it made sense to start here.  The idea was simply to get in shape (although I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds while I’m at it!).  For the first few months, I walked outdoors once a week with my walking partner; since then I have tried to not only do my outdoor walks, but also to walk indoors to my Leslie Sansone “Walk at Home” DVDs.  With the exception of the six months following my broken kneecap incident in February of last year, I have been walking several times a week since then.  Pushed by my walking partner, I have completed two 5k walks – one on December 31st and one this past April -- and one 10k walk -- which was just about a month ago.  I have reached goals I never even knew I had!

In our various prayer books for the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and week days, there is a prayer which is traditionally said in private, but which has made its way to the morning liturgy.  The English translation of this prayer is “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who fashioned humans with wisdom and created within [them] many openings and many cavities.  It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You.  Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

This prayer is known in Hebrew as “Asher Yatzar” and is first found on page 60b of the Talmudic tractate B’rakhot (Blessings).  This page of Talmud begins with the fourth-century Babylonian sage Abbaye teaching that one should say the words of this blessing after using the bathroom.

Our ancestors understood the importance of taking care of our physical bodies, even to the point of telling people to thank God after going to the bathroom!

Even before Talmudic times, our ancestors understood how important this was.  The great teacher Hillel, who lived in the first century B.C.E., one day took leave of his students.  They asked him, “Master, where are you going?”  He replied, “To do a pious deed.”  They asked, “What may that be?”  He replied, “To take a bath.”  They said, “Is that a pious deed?”  He replied, “Yes.  If, in the theaters and circuses, the images of the king must be kept clean by the person to whom they have been entrusted, how much more is it a duty of a person to care for the body, since we have been created in the divine image and likeness.” [Vayikra Rabbah, cited in “Some Jewish Quotes From Over the Centuries Related to Bodily Health,” compiled by Simkha Weintraub]

The Talmud teaches us that it is forbidden to live in a city that has no bathhouse. [Mishnah Kiddushin 4:12]  [And] In Tractate B’rakhot we learn that we are to drink plenty of water with our meals [40a].  The Alexandrian philosopher Philo, who lived between 20 B.C.E. and 40 C.E., noted that “The body is the soul’s house.  Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?” [cited in Weintraub]

In his seminal work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides, the twelfth-century physician and commentator, wrote in depth about how to take care of one’s body:  from how much sleep to get every night, to what positions to sleep in; from what foods to eat, to what season of the year to eat them; from when to bathe, to when to have sexual relations. [Hilkhot De’ot Chapter Three]

Sh’mirat HaGuf, literally “guarding the body,” is a value which can be traced all the way back to the Torah.  In Deuteronomy 4, as Moses is speaking to the people before they enter the Land, he tells the people to “take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” [v. 9]   Our Etz Hayim Torah commentary notes that “This verse has been used in contemporary times to declare smoking and unhealthy eating and drinking to be practices that violate the Torah.” [p. 1008]

Rabbi Dorff, whom I quoted earlier, teaches that we “have a fiduciary responsibility to our Creator to treat [our bodies] with respect and appreciation, caring for them…through living life in a way that promotes our physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual health.” [ibid.]

This new year is a good time to resolve to be Shomrei HaGuf (guardians of our bodies), to resolve to do what we can to protect this amazing gift. 

And so I conclude this morning with part of an alternative reading paired with the “Asher Yatzar” prayer in our new Mishkan HaNefesh prayer book:

[Dear God:]

You have taught us:
Guard yourselves well; take good care of your lives.

Your word calls to us:
Do no harm to yourself!  Do not weaken or exhaust yourself!

In gratitude for the gift of our bodies,
we pray for a year of renewed health and replenished strength.

May caring for our bodies become our daily practice.
May we be attentive to our need for proper food, sleep, and exercise…

Baruch Atah, Adonai, rofei chol basar u’mafli la’asot.
We praise You, Holy One, for wondrous acts of creation and healing.

As we all say:  Amen!

Kol Nidrei Evening

on Tuesday, 22 September 2015.

KOL NIDREI EVENING

SEPTEMBER 22, 2015

Take a moment to look around you…  What do you see tonight?  Or perhaps I should say “who” do you see tonight?  I see a sanctuary full of members, guests, and visitors.  I see a room full of people who have come tonight for a variety of reasons, seeking a variety of experiences.  I also see a sanctuary of “new” and “old” faces: 

  • I see people who have just joined our congregation in recent months and for whom this is their first High Holy Days with us.  We welcome them with open arms. 
  • I see people who have been members of Shaarey Zedek for 30, 40, 50 or more years.  We are honored that they have found their home here for so long. 
  • I see people who are becoming Jewish or who have recently become Jewish.  We are thrilled that they are now part of our family. 
  • I see people who have not yet formally joined our congregation.  We look forward to welcoming them as part of our Shaarey Zedek family.
  • I see family members of our congregants who are in town to observe these holy days with their loved ones.  We welcome you to East Lansing and to Shaarey Zedek.
  • I also see some of my East Lansing Area Clergy Association colleagues.  Some of my colleagues have been with us during various services throughout these High Holy Days.  I am honored that they have chosen to worship with us during these Ten Days of Repentance.

It is wonderful that all of you have chosen to be with us tonight.  We are fortunate to have you as part of our Shaarey Zedek family on this holiest of nights.

As you looked around this evening, you may have noticed something else:  We are missing many people tonight.  I’m not referring to those members who have chosen to be in other congregations in order to worship with their family members, nor am I referring to those whose health does not permit them to be with us tonight.  (We keep them in our prayers.)  Rather I am thinking about those people who have left our congregation.  This year, in particular, we have experienced great loss:  Many of our members have moved out of town this year to live closer to their children – I think there’s a mini-Shaarey Zedek in Chicago this year! –, some have retired and moved away, and others, sadly, have passed away.  We miss them all.

This year I have officiated at or attended far too many funerals.  It is always my honor and privilege to be with families when they experience a loss, but this year it seems as if there have been many more than in the past.  Long-time members, former members, and the death of my own uncle last month – too, too many.  If I have counted correctly, we have had thirteen members or former members die since the last High Holy Days, including our beloved rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Morton Hoffman.  Each one of these people  is sorely missed by their families and by our congregation.

As you can imagine, in light of all of these deaths, I have written and delivered many eulogies this year.  I have also heard several eulogies delivered by family members and colleagues.  Last month, Betty Krohngold delivered a brief but beautiful eulogy for her husband Jacob. With her permission, I want to tell you what she said.  (These are my words, not hers.)  Betty told us at Jacob’s funeral that she had no plans to ever marry again after losing her beloved Bob several years prior to meeting Jacob.  But Betty was put in touch with Jacob, a recent widower.  After meeting him, she had several of her friends in Detroit (where Jacob was living at the time), check him out.  Each of her friends reported back that Jacob was a kind man.  Kindness was all that Betty wanted and so after a period of dating, Betty and Jacob were married.  They were blessed with 27 years of married life.

When Betty told me this story privately, and again when she told the story at Jacob’s funeral, I was reminded of a book that was written this year.  I haven’t read the book, but I have heard and read a great deal about it, as you probably also have.  It is called The Road to Character by David Brooks.  In the book Brooks discusses the two sets of virtues that each of us have:  “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” 

“Resume virtues” are those skills that you bring to the job market and “eulogy virtues” are those by which you want people to remember you.  You were kind, generous, had integrity; you were charitable, thoughtful, warm, loving; you made people feel good about themselves, and so on…  What Brooks calls “eulogy virtues,” I would simply call virtues or qualities.  These are traits which you hopefully develop and live by throughout your life.

Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin z”l, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, author, editor, and congregational rabbi, wrote a beautiful passage that is quoted in our prayer book, Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning:  “When we are dead, and people weep for us and grieve, let it be because we touched their lives with beauty and simplicity.  Let it not be said that life was good to us, but rather that we were good to life.” [p. 30b]

On this Kol Nidrei evening, as we begin our fasts, as we review our deeds from last year, let us also resolve this year to focus on those virtues by which we want to be remembered:  to be good to life, to be good to others, to be good to our world.

Another prayer, also found in Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, abridged and adapted by Rabbi Chaim Stern z”l from Rabbi John Rayner z”l, says it all:

Let us treasure the time we have,

and resolve to use it well,

counting each moment precious – a chance to apprehend some truth,

to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil,

to relieve some suffering, to love and be loved,

to achieve something of lasting worth.

Help us, God, to fulfill the promise that is in each of us,

 and so to conduct ourselves that generations hence

 it will be true to say of us:

            The world is better, because for a brief space, they lived in it. [p. 23b]

Rosh Ha-Shanah Mornings

on Monday, 14 September 2015.

ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNINGS
SEPTEMBER 14 & 15, 2015

A story is told about Yankele the water carrier who always complained about the burden not just of the water he carried but also of the hardships he endured.  When asked by his Rebbe how things were going, he complained how much his shoulders ached from so much schlepping over the years.  None of his children ever helped, he kvetched, as they were too busy studying Torah, and his wife was always after him to do so many chores when he got home.

Sometime later the Rebbe again asked Yankele how he was doing and the Rebbe got a very different response.  This time Yankele said, “You know, I really can’t complain.  My shoulders ache, but they haven’t given out.  Thank God I can still work.  My children are bright and doing well in their studies.  And as for my wife, if she didn’t ask me to help her do things around the house, I wouldn’t know how much she needed me.  So, thank God, I am blessed and doing well.”

The Rebbe’s students were amazed by the transformation and asked the rabbi what had changed in Yankele’s life to make things so much better.

The rabbi explained to his disciples that nothing had changed, but that Yankele had taken his advice and come to see his tsuris – his troubles – as a blessing.  The story of his life had changed for him because he chose to view things differently.

Rosh HaShanah is our chance to change how we do things or, at the very least, how we look at our life.

I wouldn’t be the first rabbi to acknowledge that the new year is a type of “reset” button.  It’s a “start over.”  It’s a time to clean the slate.  Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, the rabbi of the Conservative congregation North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, has put it this way:

As we all know, in electronics and technology a reset button is a button that can reset a device.  On our personal computers it clears the memory and reboots the machine forcibly.  It allows us to start over.  We are given another chance.  But in order to do so, we must first recognize our mistakes and then act to clear the slate. Then, and only then, can we reboot and start over again, hopefully, this time, to do the right thing.

Many times I love the reset button for it allows me to literally start from the very beginning without my previous mistakes being present. Other times, it bothers me that when I press that reset button I lose everything and must start from the very beginning once more having lost some memory data. From a Jewish perspective, the reset button, Teshuva, the act of repentance, allows us to recognize the past without it being totally wiped out and, at that same time, to begin again with a clean slate. If we take it seriously it is the best of reset buttons. [“Teshuva,” Rosh HaShanah sermon, 5774 / September 4, 2013]

 

Conservative Rabbi Richard Plavin of Beth Sholom B’nai Israel in Manchester, Connecticut, pointed out to his congregants that

The prayers we read tonight and throughout this season all refer to this day as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.  The [traditional] Torah readings describe this as a day on which God remembers individuals – Sarah, Abraham, Hannah, [and] Hagar.  All the readings reinforce the notion that God takes note of the individual, not just the group, and that God wants each of us to look within ourselves.  We are to examine our actions in the year past and consider what we need to improve.

We call that move toward improvement Teshuvah.  This is a uniquely Jewish concept that means so much more than its simple translation of repentance.  It implies turning, and returning.  The image is of a road, a path, a way in life from which we have strayed, and now we are asked to consider how we may return to that path, to the foundational values of our faith, to our God and to our loved ones.  The purpose of Teshuvah is to repair our relationships and to cause us to reorient our way of life such that it may become aligned with the teachings of our heritage.  There is a passage in the Midrash that says that God created Teshuvah before [God] created human beings.  God knew that we would not be perfect and wanted us to have the means to make up for our shortcomings and repair the errors we would inevitably make.

What a great gift God gave us in the concept of Teshuvah. [“Hitting the Reset Button,” Rosh Hashanah sermon, September 4, 2013, emphasis added]

The new year is our opportunity to have another chance.  We get to look back over the past year and get a chance to do better this year.  We get to hit the reset button!  We get a “do over”! 

This doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want each year with the understanding that we can atone at the High Holy Days and start fresh.  Not at all!  Indeed, our tradition notes that we must genuinely repent.  “What is genuine repentance?  When an opportunity for transgression occurs and we resist it, not out of fear or weakness, but because we have repented.” [Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1]  But if we do make mistakes again this year – and we probably will – we’re human after all! – we can hit the reset button again next year.

What a wonderful gift we have:  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  Throughout these ten days, we look inside and ask ourselves “Am I the type of person I want to be?  Am I the type of person I should be?”

I will conclude this morning with the wise words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi, author, and president of CLAL -- The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership:

Rosh HaShanah offers an important alternative to the dominant culture’s common responses to past events we wish we could have handled differently or seen to a better conclusion.  Rather than naively wishing the past away, as many new age gurus would have us do, or holding onto stubborn self-righteousness which sees change as a sign of weakness, as so many others would have us do, Rosh HaShanah celebrates the possibility of endless second chances without pretense regarding the past.

We can all add a new page in the book of our lives — one which like the addition of a new page in any book, neither erases or undoes what came before it, but one which can transcend those earlier pages and the stories they contain.  Each of us gets a second chance — a chance to return to the person we most want to be and a chance to live the life we most deeply desire…  [“Celebrating Second Chances on Rosh HaShanah,” thejewishweek.com, September 11, 2012, emphasis added]

 

May the new pages we add to our books this year be ones of sweetness and goodness, filled with good actions, good health, and much happiness.

Shanah tovah u’m’tukah!
      Wishing you and your loved ones a good and sweet year!

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening

on Sunday, 13 September 2015.

ROSH HA-SHANAH EVENING

SEPTEMBER 13, 2015

“Space:  the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Its continuing mission:  to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” 

Do you recognize these words?  This is the opening narration to the series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”  Spoken by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (actor Patrick Stewart), these words, slightly altered from the original “Star Trek” series, set the tone for the episode which is to follow.  “The Next Generation” is set in the 24th century, approximately 100 years later than the original series.

There are often “marathons” of “Star Trek:  The Next Generation” on television and sometimes I find myself sitting through several episodes.  Recently I viewed an episode that I didn’t recall seeing before:  It is called “Time Squared” and it was the thirteenth episode of the second season of “The Next Generation.”  It originally aired on April 3, 1989.

In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise encounters a shuttlecraft drifting in space.  After receiving no response to its hails, the Enterprise uses its tractor beam to bring the shuttlecraft into the ship.  Crew members are surprised to find that the shuttlecraft has the same name and registry as one of the Enterprise’s own shuttlecrafts!   They are even more surprised when they open the shuttlecraft’s door and they find an almost-dead double of Captain Picard aboard!

After the double of Captain Picard is brought to sickbay for treatment, it is discovered that the shuttlecraft’s internal clock is about six hours ahead of the Enterprise’s own chronometer.  The crew’s officers meet with Captain Picard to determine what their course of action should be.  Captain Picard tells his officers that “[we must] prepare for our rendezvous with ourselves.” 

Captain Picard then goes to sickbay to interrogate his future self:  “What went wrong?” he asks the other Picard.  “You know, don’t you?  What did you do?  What happened?  Why did you leave the ship?  Don’t turn away.  Look at me!  Picard, look at me!”  Picard can’t answer Picard; as time goes on the future Picard becomes more aware and coherent, but he still cannot communicate with the original Picard.  Eventually Captain Picard determines that he must do the opposite of what the double did in order to save his ship since whatever the double did ended poorly, with the double Picard as the only survivor from his ship. 

The Picard from the future attempts to leave the Enterprise, but the other Picard cannot allow him to do so:  “Captain Picard!” he yells to his double.  “I cannot allow you to leave.  Before we can go forward, the cycle must end.”  Captain Picard then kills the other Captain Picard and everyone aboard the Enterprise is saved.

As I viewed this episode, I was struck by Captain Picard’s admonition to “prepare for our rendezvous with ourselves.”  To rendezvous, of course, means to meet or assemble at a certain time and place.  It seems to me that this Rosh HaShanah holy day is exactly that: our annual rendezvous.  Every year we assemble at this time:  the first day of Tishrei.  Every year we assemble at this place:  our synagogue.  We rendezvous with our congregational family as well as our individual selves at this time of year.  We begin anew.  What a wonderful opportunity we are given each year!

Captain Picard told his crew to prepare over the next several hours to rendezvous with themselves.  So, too, do we prepare for our rendezvous, only we have more than a few hours to get ourselves ready.  We have an entire month, the month of Elul, the month leading up to these holiest of days, to prepare ourselves.  And if we haven’t done the necessary work of reviewing last year during the month of Elul, we have this wonderful gift of the next ten days, these Days of Awe, in which to do so.

If we went astray in some way last year, we decide how to do better this year.  We resolve not to repeat our mistakes, or as Captain Picard noted, “before we can go forward, the cycle must end.”  We must put a stop to whatever made us do the wrong thing in the past and then move forward into the future.

I pray that as we rendezvous with ourselves at the beginning of this new year that 5776 will be a good year for each of you and for our world.  Or, as they say on “Star Trek”:  Live long and prosper!

April 2015 Commentary Message

on Thursday, 16 April 2015.

"Being Jewish is a gift, not a burden..." Leonard Nimoy

On February 27th, we learned that actor Leonard Nimoy died at the age of 83. Mr. Nimoy was most famous for playing the role of Mr. Spock in the 1960's television series "Star Trek." He reprised this role in the "Star Trek" movies and served as director of several of those films. Mr. Nimoy also directed 1987's highest grossing film "Three Men and a Baby."

As I shared with the congregation at worship services on March 6th, I attended a program in Ann Arbor in 1997 entitled "Celebration of Jewish Arts." I was privileged to hear Leonard Nimoy speak on the topic of "Spock in the Diaspora." For about an hour Mr. Nimoy regaled the audience with stories from his childhood and from his professional life. Throughout his speech, Mr. Nimoy noted how his Jewish background influenced and affected him.

Nimoy's parents came to this country from the Ukraine in the early part of the last century. His family, which included his older brother Melvin, was a very close-knit, Yiddish-speaking family. He grew up in predominantly Catholic Boston and felt the isola- tion of being part of the minority.

Mr. Nimoy spoke at great length about the half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock. He noted that there are some parallels between Spock and what he called "the classic diaspora image of the Jew":

The diaspora Jew is someone outside of his own culture, always being an alien in somebody else's country, in someone else's society... The original concept of Mr. Spock was that he was a sort of chosen alien, the outsider; he was the one who was not at home, the one who was half-Vulcan. He is not totally at home on his own planet because he is half-human and he is not at home on the Star Fleet ship because he is half-Vulcan. He has to find his own identity. In that sense, he is a diaspora character. ["Spock in the Diaspora," January 29, 1997]

Because of his own personal background, Nimoy felt particularly close to Spock and even added one specifically Jewish symbol to Spock: the famous Vulcan hand sign.

When Mr. Nimoy attended synagogue as a young child, he was fascinated by the kohanim, the members of the priestly tribe, as they would drape their large tallitot (prayer shawls) over their heads and offered the threefold blessing, which comes from the Book of Numbers, as they raised their hands. Leonard Nimoy's father always told him that he was not allowed to look at the kohanim as they blessed the congregation, but of course he did. He used to go home from the synagogue and practice this symbol in his bedroom, over and over again.

Mr. Nimoy spoke that day in Ann Arbor of the many different roles which he had played during the course of his career. For instance, did you know that he was the skinniest Tevye ever in a version of "Fiddler on the Roof"? He played a variety of Jewish characters, including Golda Meir's husband in "A Woman called Golda," a Holocaust survivor in the Turner Network's "Never Forget," and the prophet Samuel in a production entitled "David" (the story of King David). Mr. Nimoy noted that at least one director did not want to work with him because the director felt that Nimoy couldn't portray a Jew! Of course, that director only knew Nimoy as Mr. Spock. The director didn't know that Nimoy considered being Jewish his "secret weapon." It gave him an understanding of these characters that other actors did not have.

One thing that particularly struck me about Leonard Nimoy's speech, and which has stayed with me throughout the years, was his comment that he looked for opportunities to portray Jewish characters. He said, "I carry my Jewishness with me." It was   part and parcel of who Leonard Nimoy was. Even those characters, like Mr. Spock, who were not Jewish characters, were imbued with Jewishness by the actor. The qualities which he learned as a young boy growing up in a Jewish home were the qualities he looked for in his roles: characters who are ethical, responsible, and hard-working. The values that his parents taught   him, while they may not be exclusively Jewish values, Nimoy noted, are values that are reflected in Judaism.

I carry my Jewishness with me...," said Leonard Nimoy. "Being Jewish is a gift, not a burden [and] I treasure that identity." Who would have thought that Mr. Spock could teach us such an important lesson?!

Zikhrono livrakhah – May Leonard Nimoy's memory be a blessing. May their memories of him be of comfort to his family and may our memories of him remind us not only of his talents, but also of the lessons he taught through word and deed.

Yom Kippur Morning – 5775

on Sunday, 05 October 2014.

YOM KIPPUR MORNING – 5775
OCTOBER 5, 2014

Two great men died this summer:  First, Robin Williams, comedian, actor, and philanthropist, committed suicide on August 11th at the age of 63.  Then, three days later, on August 14th, Leonard Fein died, of natural causes, at the age of 80. 

I know that everyone in this sanctuary has heard of Robin Williams:  Some of us remember him from his “Mork & Mindy” days, while others of us remember him as the English teacher in “Dead Poets’ Society,” the Genie in “Aladdin,” the title character in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the therapist in “Good Will Hunting,” or as Theodore Roosevelt in the two “Night at the Museum” movies.  

Others of us remember Robin Williams as the co-founder, along with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, in 1986, of the yearly Comic Relief program, benefiting the homeless.  His death was sad not only because he was so young, but also because of the circumstances that led him to take his own life. 

I’m less sure that everyone in this sanctuary has heard of Leonard Fein.  Mr. Fein was the founder of “Moment Magazine,” MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger, and the National Coalition for Jewish Literacy. 

As “Moment Magazine” notes on its website, it

was founded in 1975 by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and acclaimed writer Leonard Fein….Moment is not tied to any organization, denomination or point of view and offers a balanced accounting of the Jewish experience in America.  As Fein proudly declared in the premier issue, Moment would include diverse opinions “of no single ideological position, save of course, for a commitment to Jewish life.” 

 

Of course, most of you know about MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger, as our congregation is a synagogue partner of MAZON, and we collect monies year-round, but especially now during these holiest of days each year.  MAZON was founded in 1985 by Leonard Fein on the heels of the Ethiopian famine.  He wanted MAZON to be a bridge between our Jewish community and, as noted on the organization’s website, “the desperate need felt by millions of hungry people around the world.

 

In the late 1990’s, Leonard Fein took on another issue:  illiteracy.  In response to the need in our country, Mr. Fein founded the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy.  The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy’s mission statement notes that it

is the organized Jewish community’s vehicle for mobilizing volunteer tutors and reading partners for at-risk children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.  Our mission is to bring the skills and the concerns of America’s Jews to bear on the scandal of illiteracy by effecting a dramatic increase in the organized Jewish community’s involvement in the fight against illiteracy and in the number of Jews involved in that fight

 

Dr. David Ellenson, the Chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and its president from 2001-2013, wrote about his friend Leonard Fein:  

He provided a model of what it meant to be to be a mensch – a Jewish human being.  He made me want to do more, to be a better person...  In his hundreds and hundreds of columns, in his academic books and in both public and private talks, [Fein] prodded and provoked Jews to do more.  He taught that we could never be satisfied with either the state of the world or the condition of the Jewish people, and he goaded us constantly with his brilliance, his fearlessness, his directness, his ethics and his passion.  He took seriously the biblical command to offer rebuke to our people when reproof was needed – which he always felt it was. He taught that tikkun olam, the repair of the world, was always possible and demanded we strive for repair and improvement of ourselves, the Jewish people and the world.

 

As Rabbi Ellenson points out, Leonard Fein taught us how to be a mentsch, how to be a good person. 

In the 30th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, it says:

Truly, the Lord is waiting to show you grace,

Truly, God will arise to pardon you.

For the Lord is a God of justice;

Happy are all who wait for God. [v. 18]

 

The author is referring to the End of Days, when all will recognize the one God and will follow God’s teaching.  At the end of the verse, it literally says “Happy are all who wait for Him” – in Hebrew the words “for Him” are one word:  “lo.”  “Lo” is comprised of two letters:  the letter lamed and the letter vav.  As you know, each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent; in this case, the letter lamed is the number 30 and the letter vav is the number 6. 

In the Talmud [Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], and later further developed in Jewish mystical teachings, the number 36 represents the number of righteous people alive in the world at any given time.  So, we learn that there are 36 people waiting for / working “for Him,” for God.  The Rabbis taught that it is due to these 36 people, known as the lamed-vavniks, that the world continues to exist.  But here’s the catch:  No one knows who the lamed-vavniks are, not even the lamed-vavniks themselves! 

Are you a lamed-vavnik?  Or you?  Or you?  Were Robin Williams or Leonard Fein lamed-vavniks?  I don’t know – and neither do you!  That, our tradition tells us, is the point.  Since none of us knows if we are one of the 36, or if the 36 even exist, we all must strive to act as if we are one of the 36.   

Psalm 118 contains the words “Pitkhu lee, sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah – Open up for me the Gates of Righteousness (sha’arei tzedek, the name of our synagogue), that I may come to praise God.”  A midrash on this verse says: 

[At the Time of Judgment] in the Future World, everyone will be asked, “What was your occupation?”  If the person answers, “I used to feed hungry people,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who fed hungry people, may enter.”…“I used to give water to thirsty people,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who gave water to those who were thirsty may enter.”…“I used to give clothing to those who needed clothing,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who gave clothing to those who needed clothing, may enter.” ...and similarly, those who raised orphans, and who performed the mitzvah of tzedakah, and who performed acts of caring, loving kindness.  [Midrash on Psalms 118:19]

 

Yes, this theme of tikkun olam is one that you often hear from me.  Why on this, the holiest day of our year?  Because this is our charge, our challenge, as is noted in the haftarah from the Book of Isaiah which we read each year on Yom Kippur morning: 

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?

Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable?

 

No, this is the fast I desire: 

To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.

 

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. [Is. 58:5-7, translation from The Jewish Study Bible] 

 

This is the challenge that each of us faces.  We face it as individuals.  We face it as a community.  When asked “What was your occupation?” I pray that you and I will be able to say “I helped those in need.”  May we answer this question proudly, not just at the end of our lives, as noted in the midrash, but also each and every day.

Kein y’hi ratzon – May this be God’s will.

Kol Nidrei Evening – 5775

on Friday, 03 October 2014.

KOL NIDREI EVENING – 5775
OCTOBER 3, 2014

I received an e-mail from a friend last year that said, in part, “What follows is worthwhile… It was written by Regina Brett, 90 years old, of Cleveland, Ohio.  She wrote, ‘To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me.  It is the most requested column I’ve ever written.  My odometer rolled over to 90 in August, so here is the column once more.’”

I was curious, so I did a little bit of research.  I learned that Regina Brett is a columnist for the “[Cleveland] Plain Dealer” newspaper and the “Cleveland Jewish News.”  No, she is not Jewish (I know you’re wondering – as was I!), but she is married to a Jewish man.  And no, she is not 90 years old.  Her home page on her website says:

 “You don’t look 90.”

 

People constantly tell me that.  Why?  Someone keeps sending out an email announcing that I’m 90…

 

The Internet aged me. The day before I turned 45, I wrote a column of the 45 Lessons Life Taught Me. I added five more lessons when I turned 50. My Life Lessons ended up e-mailed around the world. Only someone changed my age on an email to read: “Written by Regina Brett, 90 years old.” Then someone attached a picture of [a] lovely old lady to the email. No, that dear senior citizen isn’t me.

 

For the record: I’m only in my 50’s…

 

...I hope to see 90.  After having breast cancer at 41, I’m thrilled to grow old.

 

…The lessons reflect what I learned from life as a single parent for 18 years, struggling to find the right partner in life, battling breast cancer and healing the bruises from a bumpy childhood.  And they reflect what I’ve learned from readers [in] my 27 years as a journalist.

Here are some of the lessons I particularly liked:

“2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.
5. Pay off your credit cards every month.
6. You don’t have to win every argument.  Agree to disagree.
8. It’s OK to get angry with God. [God] can take it.
9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.
10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.  [I can vouch for that!]
11. Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.
13. Don’t compare your life to others’.  You have no idea what their journey is all about.
22. Overprepare, then go with the flow.
28. Forgive everyone everything.
30. Time heals almost everything. Give time time.
31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.
32. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will.  Stay in touch.
38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.
39. Get outside every day.  Miracles are waiting everywhere.
42. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.” 

Now some of these may seem trite or even silly to you, but I think they teach some good lessons – or are good reminders -- about how to live our lives.  As I noted in my Rosh HaShanah evening sermon, in Parashat Nitzavim, which we read two weeks ago on Shabbat morning, September 20th, and portions of which we will read in tomorrow morning’s Reform Service, it states: 

You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every one in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp…to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day…And it is not with you alone that I make this sworn covenant:  I make it with those who are standing here with us today before our God, and equally with all who are not here with us today.

 

See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil…I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live… [Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-20, translation from Gates of Repentance, 1996 edition] 

We are given the choice to choose “life and good, or death and evil,” but we are urged, we are told to “choose life…that you and your descendants may live.” 

So when Regina Brett also tells us that

“1. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.
3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.
20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.
25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.
27. Always choose life.
35. Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.
41. Don’t audit life.  Show up and make the most of it now.
46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.
50. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift,” she’s reminding us, in a different way, in a different forum, what we learn in our Torah:  “Choose life, choose the blessing.”  And it’s not enough to simply choose life, but to live life, too, to choose to do the blessing, to choose to be the blessing.

In several places in our Torah God tells us of our choice between blessing and curse, good and evil.  God gives us the choice to choose between the two, giving us the ability to select for ourselves, even though God urges us to choose the good and helps us to follow that path.  God does not require perfection from us, but rather that we try our best, that we strive to do good and to keep away from evil.  If we try to achieve goodness, then God will not leave us alone; God will be there for us during our life’s journey.

Of course, there are some situations over which we have no control.  We do, however, have the choice as to how we see these situations and how we respond to them.  We may never understand why some people die at a very young age or why we lost a job or why important relationships fail.  But we do have control over how we respond to these situations.  The Torah reminds us of this in telling us to choose the blessing, the positive, and the good. 

I conclude with the wisdom of one of our high school students, who posted the following on Facebook this past week:

One thing I noticed about life is that it’s very routine.  We have everything set out in front of us, knowing what paths we need to take.  I’ve come to realize exactly how boring a routine life is, [w]ith our lives scheduled and timed perfectly. 

 

However, I want my life to be spontaneous and daring.  Taking chances and doing random things at unplanned times…  I want to live a life worth living.

Words of wisdom, indeed! 

May God give us the strength to make the right choices, to choose to be the blessing, to choose to live a life worth living. 

Kein y’hi ratzon – May this be God’s will.           

Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning – 5775

on Friday, 26 September 2014.

ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNING – 5775
SEPTEMBER 25 & 26, 2014

A few weeks ago I read an article in the most recent edition of “The CCAR Journal:  The Reform Jewish Quarterly” [Vol. LXI, No. 4, Fall 2014] entitled “At the Turning:  Reflections on My Life.”  The title intrigued me:  the idea of turning is central to the High Holy Days period and the month of Elul which precedes it.  I became even more intrigued when I saw that it was written by Dr. David Ellenson, who served as president of my alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from 2001 through the end of this past year.

In looking back over his life, Dr. Ellenson noted that “The forces that have animated my life and work cannot be understood without recourse to my family and my past as a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and the multi-layered world I experienced.”  He shares some remembrances of growing up in a small Jewish community in Newport News, Virginia.  Many of these memories are positive and yet, he states, “…I was…a Jew and that was ‘the rub.’  I never felt I fully belonged.  My being a Jew in a Christian world made me an outsider and different from the time I was a small boy, an observer even as I was an eager participant in the larger world.  It left me feeling alienated even as I was overwhelmingly social and active.” [p. 98]

Rabbi Ellenson describes several professors during his undergraduate, graduate, and rabbinic studies who deeply affected his lifelong course of study as well as how he lives his life as a Jew. 

His journey reminded me of the journey of our ancestors, as depicted in our Torah.  They, too, were outsiders, enslaved because they were outsiders and were perceived as being different.  Freed from Egyptian slavery after hundreds of years, our ancestors journeyed for forty years in the wilderness.  As recorded in the 33rd chapter of the Book of Numbers, they encamped in 42 places.  Although this seems like a lot of places in a forty-year timeframe, Rashi, the eleventh century French commentator, tells us that only during the first and last years were the Israelites constantly on the move; during the remaining 38 years, they encamped at 20 places. “The list of place-names reminds us that during most of the 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites were living normally at one oasis or another for years at a time.” [Etz Hayim, pp. 954-955]

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, the associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, noted in her commentary to this section that

Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechi’el Michael Malbim (1809-1879, Eastern Europe)…asked why…the Torah enumerate[s] all the different stops…  He says that while the Jews lived in Egypt they were surrounded by reminders of their time in Egypt, and at each stop they made in the desert, they were immersed in experiences -- some of their own making and some as a result of the enslavement and persecution [by] the Egyptians -- of defilement, disappointment, degradation, and obstinacy.  The purpose, Malbim says, of the long journey was to rid the Jews of exactly those contagious and dangerous elements that could threaten their fulfillment in the land of Israel.  At every stop they discarded, as it were, another part of their defilement.

[Rabbi Peretz continues:] …only after going out of Egypt and leaving pieces of it behind in each subsequent stop can the Exodus ultimately be complete and the Israelites move forward into the Land of Israel.  Likewise, in our individual journeys, each of us has those places (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that we have been.  And, like our ancestors in the desert, some of those places have left us with our own anger, fears, resentment, disappointment and challenges.  But, also like our ancestors of so many years ago, unless and until we look to where we have been and face ourselves honestly and humbly, we cannot possibly let go that which blocks us from growing and experiencing our own journey’s promise. [Shabbat Parashat Matot-Ma’ase, 28 Tammuz 5764, “Journey Back Into the Future,” www.ziegler.ajula.edu]

Today is Rosh Ha-Shanah, the New Year, the beginning of our Ten Days of Repentance, the Ten Days of Awe.  This is the time set for us each year to look back upon the past year to see where we went wrong and to make amends.  It is also the time for us to see where we were correct, to see where our behavior was positive, where we helped others, where we did mitzvot. 

I’d also like to suggest that this High Holy Days season is a time for us to look back not just on this past year, but upon our entire lives, as Rabbi Ellenson did – to see who influenced us and to note experiences which made us who we are today.  As I look back upon my own life, I know that my family greatly influenced me.  I know that there were certain teachers and professors who influenced me.  I note with great affection the rabbis at my home congregation who taught me through word and deed what it means to be a rabbi.  I see relationships – people! – and professional experiences which affected me in ways too innumerable to count.  Even my recent fall on the ice and subsequent experiences with recuperating and learning how to walk again, all make me who I am today.

Do I ever wonder what life would be like if I had made different decisions or if different circumstances had taken place? Of course!  And I’m sure that each of you has asked yourself this same question.  It’s impossible not to look back at earlier parts of our lives and wonder “what if?”  At the same time, I do not regret one decision I made or one thing that happened to me.  The circumstances weren’t always easy – and, indeed, some of them were downright difficult and painful (physically and / or emotionally) – but I don’t regret them.  Those experiences made me who I am today.

At this New Year I not only look back to see the past, but I also look forward – with hope and prayer for this coming year.  I am anxious to see how it turns out.  And so, as we begin this new year of 5775, my wish for you is that the New Year will be a good one for you, a time to move forward, a time to cherish each and every day, a time to appreciate the people in your lives, a time to enjoy life.

And so I wish each of you a shanah tovah u’m’tukah -- A good and sweet new year!

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening, 5775

on Wednesday, 24 September 2014.

ROSH HA-SHANAH EVENING – 5775

SEPTEMBER 24, 2014  

“KOL OD BA-LEIVAV P’NEEMAH
NEFESH Y’HUDEE HOMEEYAH
UL’FA’ATEI MEEZRAKH KADEEMAH
AYEEN L’TZEEYON TZOFEEYAH.
OD LO AVDAH TEEKVATEINU

HA-TEEKVAH BAT SH’NOT ALPAYEEM
LEEH’YOT AM KHOFSHEE B’ARTZEINU
ERETZ TZEEYON VEE’RUSHALYEEM.”    

"So long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost – the hope of two thousand years:  to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

These words, I hope, are as familiar to you as “The Star Spangled Banner.”  They are the words of the Israeli National Anthem, “Ha-Tikvah (The Hope).”  The lyrics of the anthem are based upon the nine-stanza poem “Tikvateinu (Our Hope),” written in the late 1800s by Naphtali Herz Imber.          

Imber’s poem and the national anthem itself beautifully describe the almost 2,000-year wait to return to the Land of Israel, to freely live in the land of our ancestors.

This Jewish claim to the Holy Land dates back to the Bible.  In the Book of Genesis, God commands Abraham:  “Go forth from your native land to the land that I will show you…I will give this land to you and your offspring.” [12:1]  Reference to this covenant between God and the Israelites is found many times in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible).  In fact, I found a list -- on a Christian website no less! -- of 168 references in the Jewish Bible to the Israelites being given this Land by God – and twice in the Christian New Testament! [http://www.differentspirit.org/resources/land.php] 

Regardless of whether you believe the Tanakh was given by God (and thus believe in its perfection and the teaching that the Land was promised to the Jewish people by God, as is traditionally represented), or as a book written by human beings, there is no doubt that our Bible greatly influenced how we saw our relationship with the Land of Israel throughout the generations. 

In the book Inside Judaism, well-known and well-respected author Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch, author of The Jewish Book of Why and The New Name Dictionary, amongst many others, notes that

Claim to the Holy Land became ingrained in the Jewish psyche in spite of the fact that for almost two thousand years the land passed through the hands of conqueror after conqueror:  Romans, Christian Byzantines, Crusaders, Egyptian Mamelukes, and others.  During that period there was a minimal Jewish presence in Palestine, especially in the four holy cities:  Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed, and Hebron.  Jews who lived outside the Holy Land nonetheless expressed a yearning to be there in their daily prayers.  If this did not materialize in the near future, they affirmed, it most certainly would with the coming of the Messiah. [p.266]

 

Fast-forward to the late 1800’s:  In 1896, Theodor Herzl published his book The Jewish State and in 1897 he convened the First Zionist Conference in Basel, Switzerland.  Twenty years later, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote, in what has become known as the Balfour Declaration, that Britain supported the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.  In 1920 the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to govern Palestine.  

In 1947, the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations, drew up borders for a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine.  As we know, the Jews accepted the deal, but the Arabs refused it.  Israel declared itself a nation on May 14, 1948 and was immediately attacked by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.  The State of Israel thus was born in 1948 and Israel has been in war after war since then, the most recent being this summer against Hamas.  (Technically, the situation with Hamas was not declared an official war; Israelis refer to it as Ha-Matzav, the Situation.)  If the Arabs had just said “yes” when offered the deal back in 1948, think of how different things would be today, how many lives would have been saved – on both sides. 

As you know, this summer it was discovered that Hamas had dug tunnels that reached into Israel.  Plans were to bomb Israel on Rosh HaShanah.  Had these tunnels not been discovered, and then destroyed, who knows what the situation would be like today during these High Holy Days, who knows what we would be feeling, who knows what type of sermon I would be delivering today.  I shudder to think how many more lives would have been lost had Israel not had Kippat HaBarzel – the Iron Dome.

In Parashat Nitzavim, which we just read at services this past Shabbat morning, and portions of which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur morning, it states:

You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every one in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp…to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day…And it is not with you alone that I make this sworn covenant:  I make it with those who are standing here with us today before our God, and equally with all who are not here with us today.

 

See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil…I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live… [Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-20, translation from Gates of Repentance, 1996 edition]

As Jews we are taught to value life, not just for Jews, but for all people.   I believe that is why we have such a difficult time understanding what Hamas does.  Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, noted this in his recent commentary on Parashat Re’eh.  Rabbi Diamond notes:

In its recent conflict with Hamas, I believe that Israel trie[d] to do the right thing.  I have great trouble wrapping my understanding around a group that prides itself on its terrorism:  a group, whose charter calls for the eradication of another group of people; a group, who uses its people to protect its fighters and weapons; a group who has such an apparent disregard for its own people’s lives. [Parshat Re’eh 2014, Mekor Chaim]

I understand that not all of us here today agree with the actions of the current Israeli government, just as we do not all agree with the actions of our own American government.  It’s not important whether or not we all agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government.  What is important is that we support the State of Israel (Medinat Yisraeil) and its right to exist and have safe borders.  No more should Israelis – of any religion -- have to run to shelters, no more should Israel have to go to war to keep its people safe.  As Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, once said, “We don’t thrive on military acts.  We do them because we have to – and thank God we are efficient.” [“Vogue,” July 1969]  Her words ring true just as much today as when she said them in 1969.

 In my January article for the “Commentary,” I entitled my column “Why We’re Going to Israel.” I began my article by listing five reasons why we were organizing a congregational trip to Israel, although there are plenty more reasons than just five.  The five I listed were: 

  • Because Israel is an amazing country.
  • Because Israel is the place where so many of our stories took place.
  • Because in Israel we can walk down the streets and see Jews and Jewish things wherever we look.
  • Because in Israel the holidays during which stores, offices, and schools close down are Jewish holidays.
  • Because Israel is the Jewish homeland.

As Jews, we are connected to Medinat Yisraeil, the State of Israel. Some of us have family and friends there.  Some of us have traveled there or studied there.  I can’t wait for our congregational trip, which begins a month from now.  I can’t wait to walk where our ancestors walked, to return to Jerusalem where I lived during my first year of rabbinic school, and to see members of my family.

Living outside of Israel may make us feel like there is nothing we can do to help Israel and her citizens.  I know that I felt that way this summer and I’m sure many of you felt this way, too. There are many organizations we can support which support Israel, every day, 24 / 7, but especially during times of conflict.  You may find a partial list of these organizations on the table in the lobby.

I conclude this evening with a prayer written by my colleague, Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, which he titled “A Prayer for the Jewish New Year”:

May we hold lovingly in our thoughts

those who suffer from tyranny, subjection, cruelty, and injustice,

and work every day towards the alleviation of their suffering.

 

May we recognize our solidarity

with the stranger, outcast, downtrodden, abused, and deprived,

that no human being be treated as “other,”

that our common humanity weaves us together

in one fabric of mutuality,

one garment of destiny.

 

May we pursue the Biblical prophet’s vision of peace,

that we might live harmoniously with each other

and side by side,

respecting differences,

cherishing diversity,

with no one exploiting the weak,

each living without fear of the other,

each revering Divinity in every human soul.

 

May we struggle against institutional injustice,

free those from oppression and contempt,

act with purity of heart and mind,

despising none, defrauding none, hating none,

cherishing all, honoring every child of God, every creature of the earth.

 

May the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and all peoples

know peace in this New Year,

And may we nurture kindness and love everywhere.

 

And let us say:  Amen.

Shanah tovah!

 

 

Yom Kippur Morning ~ 5774

on Saturday, 14 September 2013.

Yom Kippur Morning 5774 

September 14, 2013

 

“Through thirty and more centuries, he has wandered about on earth,
He has seen far-flung empires crack and crumble,
and mighty peoples dwindle to naught...
With their kings and priests, their tyrants and princelings.
They have marched over him in vainglorious pride –
only to fall and die by the roadside.
But he, the Jew, still lives on…”

These words by Rabbi Lewis Browne, from his 1926 book, Stranger than Fiction:  A Short History of the Jews, are the opening words on the website of Two Cats Productions, producers of the documentary, “The Jewish People:  A Story of Survival.

I recently had the opportunity to watch this film on our local PBS station.  Narrated by Martha Teichner, senior correspondent for CBS News, the one-hour documentary seeks to explain why, in Rabbi Browne’s words, “They have marched over him in vainglorious pride – only to fall and die by the roadside.  But he, the Jew, still lives on…”

The film begins with the following narration:

The Jewish people, their journey is one of history’s most improbable survivals.  Beginning as just a tribe of desert nomads in the near east some 40 centuries ago, they developed a new religion based on a relationship and covenant with one God.  For millennia they have wandered the world almost never at home, temporary inhabitants of foreign lands.  Their story has included enslavement in Egypt, captivity in Babylon, exile from their land, destruction of their capital city, and centuries of anti-Semitism.  Indeed, they could be gone, but they’re still here.

The film traces back the origins of our religion to Abraham, citing how he developed a relationship with a single God.  The first source we have is the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), which was, as presented by the film, a book written as a document of faith.  Dr. Christine Hayes, professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and chairperson of its Department of Religious Studies, focuses on Talmudic-Midrashic studies and Classical Judaica.  She is also a specialist in the History and Literature of Judaism in Late Antiquity.  She notes that

The Torah is one crystallization of oral traditions that had become sacred to the community…  Law for the ancient Israelites included every imaginable aspect of life from the way you sowed your crops in the field to how you distributed charity to marriage relations, personal status laws, everything that we think of as civil and criminal and penal law, but in addition, moral law and religious law.  There wasn’t an area of life that was outside of God’s interest and concern…

The Torah, because it is such an anthology of so many different kinds of materials, became a resource then for Jews in later times.  When they needed to comprehend what was happening in their own experience, they could find any number of prior reflections on the meaning of suffering, the meaning of history…

The documentary explains that the Temple in Jerusalem became the center of life for the Israelites and survived for some 400 years until the early sixth century (B.C.E.) with the arrival of the armies of Babylon…  The Babylonians destroyed the Temple. 

Dr. William G. Dever, an archeologist and professor, specializing in the history of Israel and the Near East in Biblical times, notes in the documentary:  “The Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem is destroyed, the Israelite and Judean peoples are exiled….   As an archeologist, as far as I’m concerned, that should have been the end of the story, but [instead] it was the beginning.”

Shortly following the destruction of the First Temple, the Second Temple was built.  In 70 C.E. it too was destroyed, this time by the Romans.  In other circumstances, the destruction of the main focal point of a religion would have killed the religion, too.  But not with the Jews!  Civilizations have come and gone, and yet here we are thousands of years after our religion was founded, still surviving, still moving forward! 

With the destruction of the Temples, our practices, as dictated in the Torah, such as how to observe festivals and holy days, which included bringing offerings and sacrifices to the Temple, could no longer take place.  For example, if we were observing this Yom Kippur day back in Temple times we would be bringing fire offerings to the Temple as it notes in Leviticus:  “‘Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement.  It shall be a sacred occasion for you:  you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord; you shall do no work throughout that day.’” [Lev. 23:27-28]

Furthermore, with the destruction of the First Temple, the diaspora began.  The Jews now lived outside of Jerusalem, making it difficult, if not impossible, to make the regular journeys to Jerusalem to make the offerings and sacrifices.  So even before the Second Temple was destroyed, our ancestors had begun to change our mode of worship from a sacrifice-based one to a prayer-based one.  So while we no longer bring fire offerings to the Temple on Yom Kippur, we still practice self-denial in the form of fasting and we still bring ourselves and our offerings – in our case, offerings to support the Tzedakah Committee’s food and toiletries drive – to our temple.

Jodi Magness, also an archeologist and professor, notes that:

The reason that Judaism was able to survive as a religion, survive the destruction of the Second Temple, and the fact that it’s not rebuilt soon after the destruction, what makes Judaism different from other ancient religions is that Judaism not only included the component of a sacrificial cult in a temple building, but also a set of laws….  So really it was the observance of the laws of the Torah, which enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple. [emphasis added]

So the end of the building, the end of the land (Eretz Yisraeil), didn’t have to be the end of the tradition.  In fact, it could be argued that the diaspora gave birth to the concept of Am Yisraeil, the people of Israel, the community of Israel.

Becoming Am Yisraeil, a group of people following the same teachings and traditions, allowed us to survive the tragedies and calamities that befell our people, from the destructions of the Temples to the Crusades to the Holocaust.  We should have disappeared and yet our ancestors adapted to new situations and new lands, developing new ways of observing our religion.  We survived because we continued to learn from our sacred texts…we learned from our history…we learned from our stories.

Which brings us to today and to our community and our congregation.  During these ten days, we have been brought together by Judaism – our own religion or that of our partner or of our children.  We have come here these past ten days to be part of a larger group, to be part of a community. 

We have survived as a people because of our history, because we study the stories of our people, stories we tell over and over, through lifetimes, through generations.  We continue to do that today, to tell the stories, to live our lives guided by our traditions.  We come together for life cycle events – whether they be celebrations or sadnesses.  We come together for holy days and festivals.  We come together to learn, to study the beauty that is Judaism.  We face challenges together; we become stronger together. This is Judaism and this is Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Congregation Gates of Righteousness. 

And that’s why we have gathered here over these past Ten Days of Repentance.  As I noted on Rosh HaShanah evening, we have come home during these High Holy Days.  We have come here to learn, to pray, and to join together as a loving family.  This coming together is why we have survived these many years and this is why we will continue to not only survive, but flourish.

Welcome home!  Let’s not wait another year to see each other again.

G’mar chatimah tovah!

May you be sealed for a good year!