Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Invocation delivered to the NV State Senate March 7, 2017

Rabbi Evon J. Yakar
Invocation - Nevada State Senate 79th Session
March 7, 2017 - 11am - Nevada State Capitol

March 7, 2017
Good morning to all of you and thank you for the honor of being here today.  Even more I express my gratitude to you for your efforts on behalf of the citizens of the State of Nevada. 

On Sunday, Jews around the world will mark the holiday of Purim, celebrating the heroine Esther from the biblical narrative bearing her name.  It is a tale rivaling some of the greatest stories.  It is full of good versus evil, life and death and the triumph of the spirit.  Each year, when we recount this story and read the Scroll of Esther, we are reminded of one character who does not appear.  God is absent throughout the entirety of the account.  As Esther garners the courage to stand up for her identity as a Jew, to save her people, she does so drawing on her own strength and sharing the truth, exposing the reality around her.  It is a moment in our history when we recognize the imperative to seek the truth around us and to stand up for our beliefs, our values and life. 

While God, at least by name, does not appear in the Book of Esther, it is the Divine acting through each of us that helps us discover the truth and to know the realities of our lives.  We ask that the same power that Esther held may be found in each of us, may it be found in each of you as you do this sacred work of governance.  As this time of year in the Jewish calendar draws near, may this legislative body honor the power invested in it by seeking truth, by standing up for beliefs and values that ensure a healthy, vibrant and sound tomorrow for all the citizens of the State of Nevada and our Nation.

We pray:  HaMakom - May the One Who is Ever Present, grant each of us the power to discern truth and to honor it; may we know the strength implanted within us all to stand for our beliefs and our values.  Amen

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Shared with the TBY Community on January 29, 2017


This greeting, ‘shalom’, is a word with which most of us are familiar.  Its meanings include:  Hello, Goodbye and Peace.  Yet, there is a deeper meaning to this word and that is connected to its Hebrew root:  Shleimut, meaning wholeness.  Right now, at this moment in our national history as Americans and as Jews I am praying for Shleimut, wholeness.  This feeling is in direct response to the decisions of our national leadership to separate us from our American values that guide us as a beacon of hope, freedom and possibility.  All of us at some point in our history are descendants of immigrants and many of us claim refugees as ancestors.  For many among the American Jewish community, Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty remain a strong reminder of this past:

“…Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It is this value inscribed on our shore that has served as a constant reminder of the American Jewish Experience and one we MUST continue for all those in need.  Certainly an eye towards the security of our nation must always see clearly, yet our character as a nation is corroded when we fail to live up to this highest of ideals.  Even more, we are reminded of our own z’man cheruteinu - time of our freedom (Passover) when we consider the ways our country must continue to serve as shelter for refugees around the globe.  Part of that Passover story is what we are reading in Torah this week in parashat Bo (click here>>>) as we conclude the plagues and prepare or liberation.  Last week, at Torah study in the valley, one learner raised an intriguing question:  What would the 11th plague have been had Pharaoh not heeded long enough to allow our escape?  I fear we may be battling one possible answer to that question today.  The problem, serving as a sign, of complacency and divisiveness around our values is plaguing us now. 

As we learn in Torah:  When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34).  It is our ultimate responsibility to protect against this apathy by standing up for our American and our Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, of caring for the refugee and upholding the foundational principles that under-gird our Jewish identity and our American ideals. 

I beseech all of us to consider our President’s recent executive order titled:  Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” (click here to read the text>>>)  And, while considering its text in theory and its potential in practice, I ask us to respond based on our values.  Our Reform Movement of Judaism’s Religious Action Center has provided us a statement to consider in forming our own autonomous position - click here>>>.  And, should you choose to act, here are resources to contact your representatives - click here>>>. 

At this moment, during which I believe we will all be judged by future generations for our action and inaction, we are reminded of our words of our sage Hillel:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, who am I?  And, if not now, when? (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)  We all share this Earth, and while countries and countless other realities may divide us at times, we must balance our human connections - our wholeness.

B’Kavod - Respectfully,

Rabbi Evon

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Be like Abraham and Speak Up!

    Our rabbis of old ask an important question.  They wonder what was the difference between Abraham and Noah.  We may wonder why this is such a crucial question.  Yet, when we look at the rise of both characters in our Torah past, we see similar accolades.  About Noah, Torah teaches, “Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his generation.” (Gen. 6:9).  And about Abraham, in last week’s portion, we learn, “Abraham was to walk in God’s ways and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1)  At first glance, they are similar, almost seeming to be on the same level.  Yet, Noah was blameless in his generation.  There is a stark difference for when we pay closer attention to the generation of the flood, we are reminded that it was referred to as corrupt and lawless (Gen. 6:11).  When the rabbis ask about the difference between Abraham and Noah, they understand the value of how others view our deeds and learn to compare and contrast the behaviors, attitudes and values of the two great people.  Abraham’s legacy grows even more in this week’s Torah portion when he stands up to God.  It is the moment when he argues with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In this episode of Torah, we learn a great deal about Abraham and the legacy he leaves to us, what we must do in our own age.  Abraham stood up to what he saw as an injustice, a moment when he questioned God and said, “Shall the judge of all the Earth not deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25) 
    This past week has provided us (okay inundated us) with opinions, views, anxieties, events, hatred and so much more on the national landscape.  It is becoming harder (as if it wasn’t already hard enough) to sift through the information overload and make informed, educated and value based decisions.  There is no secret that every source has some form of bent that must be understood, at least a little.  As Sunday rolled into Monday, much of the Jewish world was up in arms about President-Elect Donald Trump’s engagement of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.  This discontent is certainly also strong within our own community as I have responded to communication from our community members asking for a congregational response.  It is not within my desires, nor is it legal, to speak for our community.  Yet, I have been led to the belief that our community would like to know my response and whether it is echoing that of many Jewish organizations.  So, I DO NOT speak for the congregation, but rather to our community as a friend and community member.
    There is much that each of us must do to make our own informed decisions.  However, I was inspired by a wise colleague of mine who put the reality clearly before me.  What I read made it abundantly clear that this appointment may be an act of appreciation and loyalty.  Yet, this individual bears the responsibility of communicating ideas and ideals antithetical to our Jewish value system.  As the executive of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon bears responsibility for the hateful content of the site.  With hateful headlines appearing under his leadership, it is enough to question and, for me, to speak against his role in our government.  Some examples of such titles are, “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer,” “The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple:  Women should log off,” or “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.”
    When titles, and the accompanying articles, express hate, prejudice, racism and beyond, we must be vigilant to the way such information is understood, used and justified.  It is our responsibility as Jews to always stand up for the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the oppressed….anywhere.  Now, the purveyor of these “news” headlines and their hateful messages is engaged as a strategist for the highest office in our government and I must, as did Abraham, stand up and speak up.  Whatever Mr. Bannon’s personal beliefs, he is culpable for spreading problematically hateful words.  Our government, for and by the people, is no place for him.  As Abraham questioned God, as the judge of all the Earth, I urge Mr. Trump, as our President-Elect, to relieve Mr. Steve Bannon, so that our government is not fettered by hateful rhetoric, or worse hateful behaviors.

Rabbi Evon

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Yom Kippur Shacharit Welcome 5777 (Oct. 12, 2016):

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In the long run, men hit only what they aim at.  Therefore…they had better aim at something high.” 

This morning, our presence with our selves and others, our prayer individually and collectively is about the work we engage in to become our best self.  Setting goals and aiming towards our potential is part of that work.  In the Hebrew language the verb “to be” is only articulate in the past tense and the future tense.  Perhaps this is an awareness that at each moment, we are always in between those two states.  We are always becoming.  With that in mind, it is our reality that we ought to constantly be aiming for something; I would argue that ought to be ourself, our best self.  Consider the space of Yom Kippur, this day long moment as the yearly station to pause, to be in the present, just for the moment, in order to once again aim at something high. 


Yom Kippur Shacharit Intro to Unetaneh Tokef 5777 (Oct. 12, 2016):

In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, our moment of holding our mortality before our own eyes, we read, “Our beginning is dust and our end is dust; we struggle for our bread; our days are as a shadow that passes, a fading flower; a cloud passing by, a dream soon forgotten.”  And yet the fullness of life can be realized when we embrace this reality and transcend beyond.  This move beyond this challenging reality is to embrace all that is good, right and just in our lives and in the world around us.  We will always, I fear, be surrounded by events, experiences and people that challenge us.  Hardship, sadness and unfullfilling moments, though, can serve as the motivation to reach for more, to control what we can.  At the conclusion of this piece of liturgy, we find a three part recipe for this human realm over which we can affect our lives:  Repentance, prayer and charity, for these, when intertwined with what we cannot control, represent the forces for good.  When we recognize our ability to turn, for teshuvah, to offer prayer - a time for introspection and meditation on what is right and acts of gemilut chasadim - loving kindness and grow those moments in our lives, then, perhaps then the balance of our days is filled with the good.  May the shadows that pass be a reflection of all that is good in our lives, in our world. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Kol Nidre 5777 - Oct. 11, 2016 - Temple Bat Yam, South Lake Tahoe, CA

The Exchange of Forgiveness

There is a story about the great Rabbi of Brisk.  This is the place that gave rise to the Soloeveitchik rabbinic dynasty, regarded and respected for both their scholarship and menshelekeit.  The story goes that the rabbi was traveling on a train homeward.  A salesmen boards the train and occupies a seat in the same car as the Rabbi.  Not recognizing the great community leader, the salesman treats him poorly.  He is rude and does not greet him in return, he is curt if he responds at all and disrespectful.  When they arrive in Brisk, and the salesman suddenly realizes whom he has offended, ignored and treated rudely, he begs forgiveness repeatedly, trying to make good, and yet the rabbi firmly rejects him.  He finally asks the Rabbi’s son to intervene, and the Rabbi explains to his son that he cannot accept the apology, that he is not in a position to grant forgiveness.  The Rabbi’s son, says, what could you possibly mean, the salesman thought you were but a common man.  Ah….ah…. the rabbi said, that is why I cannot forgive him, it is to that man that he should apologize and seek forgiveness.

The Rabbi in this story helps us understand the difference between apology and forgiveness…firstly that we cannot expect forgiveness, it is as Marjorie Ingall recently explained that forgiveness ought to be understood as a gift and after all, we don’t ask for gifts.  But more so, the apology the rabbi deems necessary in this moment is to the imagined person the salesman offended.  You see, while the rabbi may have been deserving of more respect, the intentionality of the transgression was to treat a commoner poorly and therefore it is to that man an apology should be offered and that all ought to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Kol Nidre, is the name given to this evening’s service; which derives its name from the hallowed words of the prayer itself - Kol Nidre…all our vows.  These words motivate us to consider the best and the worst of ourselves.  This evening is designed as the opening act of this day long retrospective…a tour through the last year if you will.  As the day unfolds, we engage in liturgy that gives us the framework to sift what we notice during that introspection and eventually to moments of confession, strategies for reparation and the setting of intentions moving forward.  We rise at the day’s conclusion renewed for a New Year, committed, we hope, to reaching towards our own potential.  Yet, it does not come without effort, without intention or without an exchange.

The rituals of this day are about the art of living.  We must understand that life is a work of art, and we are the artists.  We are charged to create a masterpiece of our life that holds in the balance our deeds, our character, our intentions all in a way that reflects the human being we aim to be.  Part of that creative work is the dance of living in relationship with others and simply because we are human, we err, we make mistakes.  Because of this reality of living as human beings we ought to pay close attention to the challenge of how we respond when errors are made, how we apologize and how we grant forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is an exchange, for it is a gift we offer when we are ready.  It is more than the acceptance of an apology.  Our Jewish tradition provides us a framework for understanding different modes for such a gift, and they are unique in what they require of us, when granting forgiveness and when seeking it. 

Most commonly in our tradition, we find the forgiveness of סליחה - slicha - a pardon.  Yet this is not a complete pardon, Rabbi J.H. Hertz says, “Pardon is not the remission of the penalty, but the forgiveness of the guilt and the removal of the sinfulness.”  Our literature invokes this for the accidental sins, or sins of omission and lower-level offenses.  We also find מחילה - michilah - a canceling.  By extension, this refers to the remission or canceling of a debt.  This one is most similar to what we know as the pardon granted a criminal.  Rabbi David Blumenthal writes that, “Mechilah is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.”  He also points out that this is not a full reconciliation between the injured and the injurer, rather it is reaching a conclusion that the injurer no longer owes. 

This day, however, gets its name from what the Bible calls - יום הכיפורים- Yom HaKippurim, Yom Kippur from a mention in Leviticus when we understand this day as the moment when all Israel will receive atonement for our sins.  This type of forgiveness - כפרה - Kapparah - is a covering…it is a purging of the wrongs committed.  The challenge with this form for us, is that it is only granted by God. 

There is a fourth kind of forgiveness that embodies this notion as an exchange best.  It is the moment when our mistakes and misdeeds are carried away.  נשיאה - Nisiah - is when the forgiveness granted, carries away entirely the experience.  What is so powerful in this type, is when we understand that our actions carry weight, they entail a burden.  Rabbi Dalia Marx, from the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College, teaches us about the work of the contemporary Israeli philosopher, Yotam Benziman who argues, “that the proper and only way to mend an injury is through "dialogic forgiveness." Both the offender and the offended carry the memory of the injustice. For forgiveness to occur, they must integrate it into their life fabric, and grow from this painful place. Rather than putting the hurtful act "behind us," or separating the deed from the doer by condemning the action but acquitting its perpetrator, or leaving the act unowned (as if what a dear one did was wrong, but she is still the same loving person), Benziman proposes a forgiveness process based upon remembering it.”

The liturgy of this day is profound.  That crescendo moment of the Unetaneh Tokef, when God is writing and sealing in the Book of Life, the prayer itself reminds us that, “God remembers deeds long forgotten.” 

Our charge is to make all our experiences part of our lives, despite how hurtful they are to us when we have wronged or been wronged.  It is not our place to cover up and simply forgive and forget, but remember and integrate into our lives, into that masterpiece we are creating of our life.

Each of us knows the challenge of discovering those moments when we ought to say those most difficult words:  I’m sorry.  We know, as human beings, all too well how hard it is to realize and even utter them, let alone say them with sincerity.  The process of teshuvah - repentance is hard, it is more than words and it entails a process of learning, of growing and of reaching towards those deserving our efforts.  When this part of our humanity is real, it means harm has been done.  Our hearts are, in a way broken.

Take this symbol of the heart, the seat of our emotions…it is a simple shape that symbolizes our ability to love, to fear, to know anxiety, to re-build relationships that require mending.  When we injure another (crease the heart), we affect our own; when we are injured too (crease the heart again), our heart is affected.  The journey of life is not always easy and we live through much.  (crumple the heart)

As we’ve learned, our tradition provides many avenues for repair, for reconciliation and the process of teshuvah - repentance can be the iron for a creased heart.  It is a rigid process that requires preparation.  Its warmth can be just enough to be welcoming, but it certainly must be handled with care.  Eventually, though, with honest, pure and wholesome efforts our hearts can take their proper shape, their rightful place as the seat of our emotions.  (Flatten the heart)

This is done when we find those difficult words offered from our own lips:  I’m sorry.  Yet, there is another side to this heart, just as with our own.  (Flip the heart over)  This other side is when we are not searching for those difficult words of I’m sorry, but rather when we have the power to forgive.  At this season, we often focus on our role of the wrongs committed AND it is also the time we ought to understand the exchange required in forgiveness.  When we are able to, when we understand and accept another’s teshuvah journey we too bear the burden of granting forgiveness.  We engage in that nisiah - that carrying away.  As we learned from Rabbi Marx’s teaching about the philosopher Benziman’s argument we, “…must integrate it into [their] our life fabric, and grow from this painful place.”  The carrying away is the gift we offer in exchange for the apology.  It is our responsibility for living in relationship with others.  It is NOT for us to hold over another’s head, or bring up in the next argument or ten years from now, simply a profound moment of growth in the relationship.

This heart, complete with its creases, its wrinkles, yet re-shaped and holding its proper place in our physical and spiritual selves is part of that masterpiece of our life made through the art of living.

Often the work of art representing our life bears even the less savory moments.  It carries with it the moments we injured another, and it carries with it the opportunities we had to grant forgiveness.  Yet, these brush strokes are integrated into the full masterpiece and when done with care, with intention and a purity of thought we can insure they display in a way that makes them part of the whole, a necessary piece of the larger picture of our lives. 

Consider the famous paintings, each their own masterpiece, that hide other works beneath.  Perhaps most famous are Picasso’s The Blue Room and even Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Often done as a cost saving measure, an artist’s recycling device.  Or even an attempt at a second, third or even fourth draft.  Yet, one of the undecided mysteries of the Mona Lisa remains the subject of the painting itself.  Some have put forth the thesis that the sitter of the painting, the family who commissioned the work itself did not compensate the artist, so DaVinci kept the work and moved on.  While we will never know the full complete story, perhaps this masterpiece, carrying away with it this experience of DaVinci expresses a complex biography. 

Yet, we are so much more, for the brush strokes that comprise our lives are far richer.  Our biographies are the interwoven threads of our life experience, we stitch it together using the material we are given and using the choices we make.  At this time, on this eve of Yom Kippur, at Kol Nidre, we know that we all have opportunities to offer our apologies, to reach out to those we have harmed.  And even more, there is the second side of that heart, the side that requires us to grant forgiveness, while knowing we must carry away part of the experience; it will forever be with us.  Forgiveness represents an exchange for which there are at least two responsible, it requires of us the ability to carry away - the nisiah - and as Yotam Benziman writes, “For forgiveness to occur, [written:  they] we must integrate it into [their] our life fabric, and grow from this painful place.”   

May each of us ensure this year is one during which we integrate all that fills our lives, during which we grow from even the painful and may we own the moments when forgiveness is a gift we can and are ready to give.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May all Discover a Good Year
Introduction to Hashkiveinu - Kol Nidre 5777 (Oct. 11, 2016):

"And if you ask me what the most important thing I learned in medical school was, I will tell you this:  that things can be fixed.  Not only bodies.  Souls, too.  They can be fixed and mended”  ~ Meir Shalev in A Pigeon and a Boy

Not only can we be fixed, but we must discover the time and space to do just that.  Yom Kippur, this day, is about mending.  It is about repairing ourselves, our relationships and our communities.  The Hashkiveinu prayer is the moment during our liturgy that urges us to invite the Divine to spread over us a Sukkat Shalom - A Shelter of Peace.  It is under this canopy that we can discover the mending our souls require.  In this space, when we feel the presence of the Divine, the shelter of community around us we can understand our best self.  Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha - Spread over us a Shelter of Peace.


After Kadesheinu before R’tzei - Kol Nidre 5777 (Oct. 11, 2016):

Reb Nachman of Bratislava taught, “You are wherever your thoughts are.  Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.”

What is fascinating about what Reb Nachman teaches here is that he doesn’t say to make sure your thoughts are where you are; rather he says where you want to be.  It is on one hand a moment of day-dreaming and imagining what is possible.  While from another perspective, it is about ensuring we are thoughtful, that we are intentional about our lives.  This space in our liturgy between Kadeisheinu - seeking lives of holiness and R’tzei - a plea for our prayer to be acceptable we invite the divine into our lives, through our deeds, the mitzvot, and our prayer.
Kol Nidre Welcome 5777 (Oct. 11, 2016):

The word hayt for “sin” is spelled with the letter Aleph at the end of the word. This is interesting because Aleph is a silent letter, and does not even get pronounced. So, a student of the Baal Shem Tov asked his Master why the silent Aleph is even in the word. The Baal Shem Tov responded, “We all know that Alef is the first letter of the alphabet and represents the first cause, root, and essence of all existence – God. The letter Aleph is silent in the word for sin in order to teach us that when a person commits a hayt it is a sign that God’s Presence is not being ‘pronounced’ in his life. The sinner has temporarily forgotten the Aleph of the World.”

May this moment, this long moment of Yom Kippur provide for each of us the space in time to discover the Alef.