Sunday, April 22, 2018
Yom Rishon, 7 Iyyar 5778

From Rabbi Bigman...

From Rabbi Bigman...

Kol Nidrei Evening – 5775

on Friday, 03 October 2014.

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.

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.


SEPTEMBER 24, 2014  



"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!

Kol Nidrei ~ 5774

on Friday, 13 September 2013.

Kol Nidrei 5774 

September 13, 2013

This is the story of Peggy and Joe and their son, Andrew.  Peggy and Joe live in Vienna, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.  Years ago, they decided to adopt a child from Guatemala.  They chose Guatemala because they liked the culture, it was relatively close to the United States so they could visit often, and, most importantly, Guatemala allowed prospective parents to start a relationship with the child while the adoption process was pending. 


Peggy and Joe met the child they named Andrew in December 2007 when he was four months old.  They fell in love with him immediately and visited him numerous times, but then the most unexpected thing happened:  Guatemala shut down international adoptions on January 1, 2008 amid allegations of fraud, kidnapping, and other crimes!  They shut down all adoptions at that point.  Andrew’s case got caught in the red tape and he couldn’t come to this country, but Peggy and Joe kept fighting for the right to bring their son home.  As Peggy noted, “Once we started [the adoption process], he was our son.  So you do anything you can for your family.”


Peggy moved to Guatemala in August 2008, shortly before Andrew’s first birthday, to take custody of him during her maternity leave.  They had been told that Andrew’s adoption would take place in a few months.  Well, Peggy’s maternity leave ended without the adoption being finalized.  In July 2009 Joe moved to Guatemala using a six-month leave from his job.  His six-month leave came and went and still Peggy and Joe couldn’t bring their son home to Vienna.  Joe left his job to live with Andrew in Guatemala, with Peggy visiting monthly and the family Skype-ing regularly to keep in touch.  Andrew’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles visited him as well.


In August 2012 Andrew was taken away from his home with Joe, the only home he knew, and put in an orphanage.  The rationale behind putting Andrew in the orphanage?  Guatemalan law stated that the only way the adoption process could continue was if the child did not live with the adoptive parents.  Now here’s the really fascinating part:  The Guatemalan government did a psychological report on Andrew and noted that taking him away from Peggy and Joe would be harmful to him, and yet he was placed in the orphanage anyway!  When Peggy and Joe tried to visit him at the orphanage, they were turned away, being told that Andrew needed to get used to not seeing them.  The Guatemalan judge also threatened to put Peggy and Joe in jail, claiming that they had violated international adoption law.


Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the founding co-chair and Board President of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and co-chair of the Congressional Foster Care Caucus, became involved.  With the help of her and others, Andrew was back home in six days.  Six days may not seem like a lot of time, but for a young boy removed from his home, it was an eternity and Andrew was traumatized by his time away.  For quite a while after his return from the orphanage, Andrew always had to be in the same room as Joe since he was afraid that he was going to be taken away again.


In April of this year – yes, 2013 -- Peggy, Joe, and Andrew finally boarded a plane in Guatemala and arrived home safely in the United States.  They were greeted at the airport by Senator Landrieu, Andrew’s grandparents, and other family members.  All told, Peggy and Joe lived apart for 1,698 days – that’s over 4 ½ years!  That’s half of their married life!


I’m pleased to tell you that Andrew has adapted quickly to his new home in Virginia and is leading a normal six-year-old life.  A few weeks ago, just prior to Andrew’s sixth birthday, his mom posted the following on her Facebook page:  “Everyday Andrew tells [Joe] and I that ‘this is the greatest day ever.’  Andrew is clearly wiser than his almost 6 years and I need to follow his philosophy on life.” [Monday, August 5, 2013]


Out of the mouths of babes, huh?  This young boy, who lived apart from at least one of his parents for most of his life, who was taken away from the only family he knew and placed in an orphanage, who had so much happen in his young life, has a great attitude, that not only his mom should follow, as she noted in her Facebook post, but that we all should follow.  Today is the greatest day ever!  And not just because this particular day is Yom Ha-Kippurim -- Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement --, but because every day is, or has the potential to be, the greatest day.


As we gather here tonight, on this Kol Nidrei evening, this holiest evening of the year, we would do well to remember Andrew’s teaching:  “This is the greatest day ever.”  And tomorrow is the greatest day ever.  And the day after that and the day after that and the day after…  Every day is the greatest day ever.


In our liturgy, we find prayers that, directly or indirectly, remind us of that.  In the evening we pray the Hashkiveinu prayer which begins with the words:  “Hashkiveinu, Adonai Eloheinu, l’shalom, v’ha’amideinu, Malkeinu, l’chayim – Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed.”  We ask God to allow us a good night’s sleep and to give us a new day tomorrow.  In the morning we are to say:  “Modeh ani l’fanekha, Melekh chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’khemlah, rabbah emunatekha – I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy:  how great is Your trust.”


These prayers say, in effect, “this is the greatest day ever – and thank You, God, for letting me have yet another day, and thank You, God, for helping me to know what a great gift this is.”  Each of us has our share of difficulties, but we are blessed to wake up each day.  Thank You, God, for this gift.


I don’t think Andrew is a Talmudic scholar yet, but his comment to his mom reminds me of what the Talmud teaches about living our lives to the fullest:  “R. Chizkiyah said in the name of Rav: You will one day give reckoning for everything your eyes saw which, although permissible, you did not enjoy.” [Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12]  In other words, be grateful for and take advantage of all of the wonderful gifts you have been given. 


Rabbi David Wolpe, in his book Why Be Jewish?, writes about this idea to, as he translates the text, “indulge yourself in all things permitted to you.”  He notes that pleasure or enjoyment is permitted, even promoted, but that “Judaism also asks that it be disciplined and sanctified…  Our impulses cannot be indiscriminate.  We have to channel their expression.” [p. 22]  Whether we are talking about our sexual impulses, our eating habits, or other human impulses, “the calm, slow wisdom of moderation is the Jewish path,” Rabbi Wolpe writes.  “The Jewish path means living richly and yet being one’s own master.  Judaism allows us to rejoice in this world, to sample its pleasures, without losing our spiritual center.” [p. 23]


In other words, “today is the greatest day ever.”  It has the potential to be so, if we just set our minds to it.  We can – and must – rejoice in this world and sample the good in it.  As this day of repentance, this day of prayer and fasting, comes to an end tomorrow evening, please remember Andrew’s lesson tomorrow -- and the day after that and the day after that -- to make this day, each day, the best we can, to enjoy the gifts that have been given to us.


I’m looking forward to meeting Andrew soon.  I will give him a big hug and thank him for reminding me of this important lesson.  I’ll also give his parents, Joe and my cousin Peggy, big hugs, too!  May they be inscribed for a good year and may you and your loved ones also be inscribed for a good year.


G’mar chatimah tovah!


Rosh Ha-Shanah Mornings ~ 5774

on Thursday, 05 September 2013.


SEPTEMBER 5 & 6, 2013 

Did you hear the news this summer?  A baby boy was born!  No, it wasn’t the messiah, but by the way the media covered his mother’s pregnancy and then his birth, you could be forgiven for thinking so.  This baby boy was born on the other side of the pond, as they say, in England.  At the end of July, His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was born, third in line to the throne of England, behind his grandfather Prince Charles and his father Prince William.

I must admit that I don’t understand what the big deal was, at least outside of Great Britain.  By the way the American media covered Kate’s pregnancy and George’s birth, you would have thought that George was the next King of the United States!  I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that we fought a war specifically to avoid being subject to the rule of England.  Something about “taxation without representation” and all that.

Despite my not really caring about the royal birth, I have learned a lot about it just from watching the evening news or reading the newspaper and magazines.  One thing that I found especially fascinating was that people were betting on what the baby’s name would be!

After the prince’s name was announced, two days after his birth, there was all sorts of commentary about the names that were chosen.  “George,” of course, was the name of many British kings, including the current queen’s father, King George VI, and her grandfather, King George V.

I learned that “Alexander” and its feminine equivalent are also popular royal names.  King George I’s daughter was named Alexandra and the current queen’s birth name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary.  The name “Louis” is thought to be after Lord Mountbatten, uncle of Prince Philip and second cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II.  This child sure does have a lot to live up to!

Earlier this year there was a great deal of speculation about another person, not just what his name would be, but who he would be.  On March 13th we learned who he would be – Jorge Mario Bergoglio – better known by his new name and title:  Pope Francis, the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church.  This new pope is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas, and the first from the southern hemisphere.  He is also the first to choose the name “Francis,” in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Saint Francis is known as the patron saint of animals; he also cared a great deal about and devoted his life to the poor.  The new pope clearly chose this name for a reason:  to remind people of the important work of taking care of the poor, something which he has been doing his entire career.  Now he has an even greater stage – world-wide – from which to teach this lesson.

Names.  “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”  That may be true in Romeo and Juliet’s world, but in Jewish tradition names are very important.  Parents often spend months considering what the name of their unborn child will be.  In Jewish tradition, Ashkenazic Jews name their children after deceased relatives, usually after loved ones who have lived long lives, lives filled with doing mitzvot.  Parents tell their children about their namesake so that the children will learn of their ancestor’s good deeds and use that as an example as to how to live their lives.  Sephardic Jews, in general, name their children after living relatives for the same reason -- so that they can be examples to the child of how to live a good life.

Many scholars have pointed out that in the Bible a person’s name represents his or her personality, as well as the aspirations of his or her parents. For example, Avram and Sarai were re-named by God.  By adding the Hebrew letter hay to their names, symbolizing God’s presence with them, their names became Avraham and Sarah (Abraham and Sarah).  The name Jacob, Ya’akov in Hebrew, comes from the Hebrew root ayin-kuf-vet, which can mean both “heel,” as Jacob was born holding on to the heel of his twin brother Esau, and “protection,” symbolizing the desire for Jacob to receive God’s protection throughout his life. [Etz Hayim, p. 147]  Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby boy she finds in The Nile River Moshe, because she “drew him out of the water.” [Exodus 2:10]  However, our Etz Hayim Torah commentary notes that “She intended it as ‘the one who is drawn out (of the water).’  Moshe is active in form and means ‘one who draws out,’ a name that fits his future situation (of drawing the people out of Egypt)…” [p. 323]

According to the midrash, one of the main reasons that the Israelites were freed from Egypt was that they did not change their names:  “Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of four things:  because they did not change their names; they did not change their language; they did not go about tale-bearing; and they did not engage in immorality.” [Vayikra Rabbah 32:5]

Similarly, Rabbi Pinchas Peli noted in his commentary Torah Today:

One of the main factors that kept the children of Israel together as one people and merited their being liberated, was…the fact that they did not change their original Hebrew names, trying to acculturate in Egyptian society.  “They came to Egypt as Reuben, Shimon, and Levi – and stayed as such.” [pp. 55-56]

Their names connected them to the people from whom they came, reminding them of their history, reminding them of the lessons which their ancestors taught.

There is an oft-quoted midrash that teaches that “there are three names by which a person is called:  one which their parents call them, one which people call them, and one which they earn for themselves.  The last is the best one of all.” [Midrash Tanchuma, Vayakheil 1]

What does it mean to earn a name for ourselves?  How do we do that?  The midrash  itself answers that question:  “Every time a person increases their good deeds, they earn themselves a new name.”

My parents named me “Amy,” after my great-grandfather Abraham.  (I would have been named “Adam” if I had been a boy.)  “Amy” comes from the French and Latin meaning “beloved.”  My Hebrew name is Avigayil (Abigail), meaning “my father’s joy.”  In the Bible, Abigail is the wife of Nabal the Calebite from Carmel and later becomes the second wife of King David.  According to 1 Samuel 25, Abigail is…described as beautiful and intelligent.  “The rabbis depict Abigail as a wise and practical woman, capable of acting at the right moment and in the right way.  She saves [King] David from committing unnecessary bloodshed...” [Jewish Women’s Archive, “Abigail:  Midrash and Aggadah,” by Tamar Kadari]  So, as you can see, Avigayil is definitely the appropriate name for me!  (Ha ha!)

The name my parents gave me is “Amy,” and the name – or perhaps more accurately, the title-- which others often call me is “Rabbi – my teacher,” a title I earned after many years of study.  I hope that I fulfill the definition of teacher:  “One who shows or helps a person to learn how to do something; to provide a person with knowledge or insight.” [paraphrased from Webster’s New World Dictionary]  That’s what I try to do every day:  provide some knowledge of our religion and its beautiful traditions.  Webster’s Dictionary defines “rabbi” as “a scholar and teacher of the Jewish law; now, specifically, an ordained Jew, usually the spiritual head of a congregation, qualified to decide questions of law and ritual…” [emphasis added]

So I am “Amy” and “Rabbi,” but the name I want to earn for myself is, as the midrash teaches, “doer of good deeds.”  In keeping with our tradition, I hope to do my part to make the world a better place.  This is my daily challenge.

And so on this new year, I ask you:  What are the names you want to earn for yourself?  And how are you going to get there?

Shanah Tovah U’m’tukah!

A good and sweet year to all of you!

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening ~ 5774

on Wednesday, 04 September 2013.

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening 5774

September 4, 2013

Shanah tovah! Happy new year and welcome -- welcome home! Tonight we begin our ten-day celebration, our annual ten-day family reunion. We come home to be with each other every year at this time. Just like other families, some of us have been in touch with others regularly throughout this year, others we haven’t seen in a while. Some of us know a lot of people here and others know a few, if any. Some of us have been part of the Shaarey Zedek family for years; for some this is the first time you are joining us in our home – your home. No matter which category you fit into, b’rukhim ha-ba’im – welcome! Welcome home! It’s wonderful to see you!

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, teaches that

The synagogue has always been the home base for the Jews. No matter how religious or how secular, Jews know that the vault that safeguards our values, our community, and our identity is the shul. By returning to the synagogue during the Days of Awe, by affiliating with a congregation, we pledge our renewed loyalty to God, Torah, and to the Jewish people…

[“Already Forgiven,” September 23, 2006 / 1 Tishrei 5767, www.ajula.edu]

Shaarey Zedek is our home. Each of us comes from a different place, a different background, and yet something draws us here tonight as we begin the new year. Jews around the world flock to synagogues at this time of year, each with his or her own reasons for coming. We are drawn here – to our synagogue -- to be with our people.

The word “synagogue” is a Greek word meaning “a bringing together, an assembly.” And, indeed, that is one of the three traditional definitions of a Jewish congregation: we are a Beit K’nesset (a house of assembly, a house of gathering); we are also a Beit Tefillah (a house of prayer) and a Beit Midrash (a house of study).

A congregation cannot be just one or two of these; it must be all three: a house of assembly, a house of prayer, and a house of study. No other Jewish institutions, as worthwhile and important as they are, provide all of this. As our president noted in his remarks earlier this evening, this is where it all happens. The synagogue is the mainstay of Jewish life. The synagogue is our home away from home.

What do we do here during these ten days? We use these days to consider what we have done and who we have become this past year. We contemplate the gap between our highest ideals and our actual behavior. We seek to make amends. Rabbi Artson suggests three tools that Judaism offers us in accomplishing our task:

  1. The tool of tefillah, of prayer, to give us the script to call out to the holy one and to let our souls soar on the ancient and time-tested words and melodies.
  2. The tool of kehillah, of community, to strengthen each other and to nurture each other in our unfolding as Jews and as individuals.
  3. The tool of tzedakah, [of righteous giving], building a just world through charitable contributions to the agencies and causes that help repair the brokenness of the world.

First, tefillah (prayer): Some of us struggle with the words of our prayer book. I don’t mean the Reform version versus the Conservative version, but rather the traditional High Holy Days prayers and imagery that evoke God as the shepherd assessing the flock, deciding who will be inscribed in the Book of Life and who in the Book of Death this year. And yet despite these very legitimate difficulties and struggles, which have gone on for centuries, there is still something special about hearing those unique and distinct melodies, praying the words that our ancestors, our families, have prayed for generations and generations and generations.

Second, kehillah (community): We support each other during these Days of Repentance, these Days of Awe, allowing all of us an opportunity to “check-in,” to review our actions, all with the support of a community. By coming together and repeating the ancient prayers of confession -- where we say “for the mistakes we have made,” instead of “for the mistakes I have made,” allowing all of us to confess publically, but without embarrassment -- we offer ourselves as each other’s kehillah, each other’s community, each other’s support system, each other’s “safe place.”

And finally, tzedakah (usually translated as “charity,” but more correctly translated as “righteous giving”): This, the third of Rabbi Artson’s “tools,” allows us the opportunity as a congregation, as a community, to make the world a bit better by doing our collective best to help others.

The late Conservative rabbi, Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, wrote the following about this time of year:

…There is something more to Rosh Hashana than asking God for favors. This is a time to evaluate our lives… this is a time to recall our achievements and our failures. This is a time to ask: “What is life all about anyway?”

            The High Holy Days represent the “spiritual pause that refreshes.” Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur signal us to STOP…LOOK…LISTEN! It is time to stop running, to look at yourself, to listen to your life.

[“How Much Time Do You Have?” in The American Rabbi, December 1979, vol. 12, no. 3, pp.15-16]

And so we come to the synagogue during these Ten Days of Repentance to do just that: to stop…to look…to listen. We stop, just for a little while, to review our lives, to ask ourselves the eternal question: “What is life all about anyway?”   We look to our community to provide support, to hold us up when we are down. [And] we listen to the teachings of our tradition, the teachings of our people. These Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe, help us to evaluate our lives, to remind ourselves of what is really important in life.

So welcome home, my friends. Welcome home. May this congregation be your home away from home. And may these Days of Awe be for you the “spiritual pause that refreshes.” May they provide you with what you need to make this new year a shanah tovah, a good year, a year filled with sweetness, a year of happiness for you and your loved ones.

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