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.
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.
This five-session class is for students new to Talmud study. We will begin by defining “the” Talmud (hint: there’s more than one!) and how it developed, as well as the role it plays in Jewish life today. We will also look at examples of Talmud text (in English transla on, of course!).
You are welcome to bring your lunch to eat while we are studying the Talmud together.
There is no fee for this course, but registra on is requested. Please contact Rabbi Bigman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 351-3570, ext. 2, to register.
January 8, 2016 by belin1964 • Uncategorized •
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!
Aging with a Plan
based on the new book by Sharona Hoffman
Session 1: Aging with a Plan: Sunday, November 1
Introduction to Aging with a Plan with author Sharona Hoffman
Services for Aging; Living Arrangements as We Age
Session 2: Sunday, December 6 ~ Practical/Logistical Decisions
Wills, Trusts, Living Wills, Advance Care Directives and Planning
Durable Power of Attorney; Funeral Arrangements/Burial
Erica Holman, LMSW, LNHA, CDP – Presentation
The Congregation Shaarey Zedek Social and Cultural Events
October 11th ☕️Coffee Talk! Chazzano® Coffee Cupping Party
October 25th ❤︎ The Diary of Anne Frank at Riverwalk Theater
November 12th ✿ Dinners for 8
January 15-16 ✡ Scholar-in-Residence
The Congregation Shaarey Zedek Social and Cultural Events
October 11th ☕️ Coffee Talk! Chazzano® Coffee Cupping Party
October 25th ❤︎ The Diary of Anne Frank at Riverwalk Theater
November 12th ✿ Dinners for 8
January 15-16 ✡ Scholar-in-Residence
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:
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!
Congregation Shaarey Zedek
1924 Coolidge Road
East Lansing, MI 48823