Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Why?  To Belong, To Do What We Do & To Be Community
Yom Kippur 5779

Imagine for a moment that you were not here, not sitting in this sacred space, in those seats, next to these people, on this Yom Kippur day, the holiest day in our Jewish calendar.  Where would you be?  What would you be thinking… watching… doing?  Now, considering these fresh ideas and thought experiment in your mind, and ask yourself why you are here?  Why have you chosen to be here?  In this place?  At this moment?  Ponder the motivations, the inspiration and the drive for being here, in this sacred space, at this exact moment during the Jewish calendar. 

When was the last time you shared that with someone?  When, if ever, have you explored with others, Jews and non-Jews, the why of your Jewish identity and participation? 

In asking this question, the why, we are searching for reason and purpose.  The spiritual drive to plan our Fall Season with these Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe - as the anchor is for some a function of not being able to imagine being anywhere else.  For others it is the realization that our heritage, our identity calls to us from deep within to be Here…Now.  Maybe it is about striving to learn something new, about ourselves, about our world….about Judaism.

Earlier this month, Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, wrote a piece published in the Wall Street Journal.  It was titled:  Why Go to Synagogue Once a Year?  The tag line of the title:  Some Jews only show up for the High Holy Days.  They’re still getting a lot out of it.  He shares varied responses about people’s motivations.  Like, “A nagging sense of obligation…”, or “…they renew their ties to family,” he reported.  He was clear to point out the motivations of different age groups writing that, “Millennials who normally value their independence seem to relish the opportunity to sit in the same row of the synagogue with their parents like they did as children.  For older Jews whose parents may no longer be alive, the familiar melodies of the High Holy Day liturgy and the unique rituals of the services may evoke memories of childhood.”  Wertheimer shares a number of perceived benefits felt by many attending these Holy Day services.  Yet, it is something in the comments that truly caught my attention.  One respondent shared the following: 

When I was a little girl I went to services with my dad every Shabbos. We belonged to a Conservative shul and he was their sole Torah reader. One Rosh Hashanah I noticed a larger crowd than we normally see and tugged on my dad’s Tallis. I asked,  “Dad who are all these people?”

We all join in this ritual of these special days for our own reasons, for our own purposes.   Some come to connect with an ancient tradition, seeking a space in time to reflect and consider.  Others are here to be with you, to be with each other - our Temple family.  Still others seek to carry on and perpetuate this ancient gift of our Jewish heritage.  And some even are here because that God idea of a Divinity sitting in judgment on this day, however far off from our daily understanding of the world it may be, urges us to be present and live out this ritual.   

So, I have to wonder what this respondent’s father said in return.  Did he engage in a conversation about “why” we come to this place, these synagogues?  Or perhaps this father took his daughter around to meet those she did not recognize, encouraging her to learn from them about their motivations, their ‘why’s. 

I remember vividly my first high holy days away from home.  In college, in Madison, WI, we had an amazing resource in our Hillel House.  Yet, after that first Rosh Hashanah away from what I knew, I immediately booked a bus ticket to Chicago for the following week.  I went to join my grandparents, may their memories be for a blessing, to be with them on Yom Kippur.  That following week, I found myself not in the familiar confines of my home congregation, but rather seated in the second row, on the rabbi’s side - because that’s where we sat since the building was built - with my grandparents and my aunt.  The magnetic pull to this place, not the physical structure of the Temple, but to being with family, in the familiar embrace of loved ones, was strong.

For many of us, the sense of community is the answer to ‘why’ we are here.  We are drawn by the familiar embrace.  It is the community, the prayers themselves, the words of Torah we will hear that pulls us at this time of year.  It is a search for meaning, a spiritual connection to what these holy days offer us that brings us to this moment.  It is the connection to the person on your left, to the person on your right - take a moment now, acknowledge those share this moment with them. 

When we speak about community we recognize it as a noun.  It is a ‘thing’, it is a collection of individuals with shard values, purpose, perhaps even mission.  Yet, in Hebrew we can use the word for community - קהילה - as a verb too.  In the Book of Exodus, as Moses is shepherding us out of Egypt, Torah teaches us that - ויקהל משה - that Moses communitied the community.  When we ask the question as to ‘why’ we are here, what draws us not just at this time, but throughout the year to connect with our Jewish identity, it is a verb - it is active - we are doing community. 

Engaging in this exercise of these High Holy Days is not only about reciting these ancient words and living out the rituals; it is not only about the reflection and introspection demanded of us at this time of year; it is not only about seeking meaning, spirituality and connection.  This is also about our sense of belonging, about a passion we have for being a part of this people.  In my mother’s words, we are in search of a self-identifiable sense of belonging.  Mom, I asked, what does that mean?  It is, she said, the drive within us to self identify as a Jew by experiencing, by experimenting with rituals, with values and with the relationships that bind us to this people.

Sure, we can explore this on our own.  Many of us do.  There are many here who frequent this space and engage in Jewish life, learning and practice on a regular basis.  There are others who spend most of their time in other communities, like our own, engaged in our treasured Judaism.  And, there are still others, who are like those flocks of people that Wertheimer is referring to in his article who come once, or a few times a year.  This is not at all a condemnation of our individual choices.  Let me be clear, and let me say this positively.  I am honored, I am delighted, better - we are honored and delighted that each and every one of you is here, in this moment.  And, I hope we’re all asking ourselves this question about why we are here, now.     

When we ask this question of ‘why’, when each and every one of us asks this question we sensitize ourselves to the reality of community, to our longing for belonging.  Dr. Kenneth Pelletier of the Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention writes,  “A sense of belonging appears to be a basic human need - as basic as food and shelter.  In fact, social support may be one of the critical elements distinguishing those who remain healthy from those who become ill.”  The response to the why for many of us just might be this sense of belonging.  We are here to be connected, to embrace and be embraced by those around us because it feels good to know we belong.  We all know the entirely cliche idea of being a member of the tribe.  Yet, this kind of tribe, so long as it does not breed isolation, builds us up with confidence in who each of us is as an individual, as part of a people and as part of humanity. 

At the risk of breaking out in song, “Sometimes you want to go, Where everybody knows your name.”  This time of year, this space, draws us to belong, to check in so that the knots holding us together are checked, tightened and re-tied.  When we stand for the Kol Nidre, we do so as a community.  We know that our individual moments of misdeed and wrongdoing are before us to remedy, yet we are built up even strengthened by navigating this reality with those around us, a community, a people to whom we belong.  During the Vidui, our liturgical confession, we utter words in the first person plural - V’al Chet She’Chatanu - for the sin WE have committed.  This is a communal, people-hood action.  The exercise of these days is done in the circles of community to which we belong.  Perhaps, the why for our presence here and now is because we belong.

Often, and perhaps this is many of us here now, we as Jews express our reason, our purpose for being here, engaged in this ancient, even archaic series of rituals is because it is what we Jews do.  We cannot imagine being anywhere else on this Day of Atonement.  This is born out of the shared history of our people and the heritage of our faith.  Even more, it is the memory that is collectively ours that stirs our neshama - Jewish soul - during this extended moment of the High Holy Days.

There is a concept in our Judaism of the shalshelet hakabbalah - the chain of tradition.  When we return at this time of year, when we celebrate Jewishly the cycles of life, when we study Torah, when the Jewish calendar is lived through and by us, we are solidifying our link in that chain.  In his recent book, A Passion for a People, Avraham Infeld, a renowned Jewish Educator, author and thinker shares a story about this link and what binds us together through our shared story.  He writes about his arrival on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem to begin his studies in Physics:

On the first day of school, I was walking towards the physics department, and all of a sudden I saw an extremely beautiful young lady walking toward the history department…. so I decided to major in Jewish history instead… and today, she is the great-grandmother of my great grandchildren!  I just had to explain the change of plan to my father.  I sent him a letter and, in those pre-digital days, I got a telex back, greatly annoyed.  Not with me, but with the Hebrew University.  “What??” he wrote, “the Hebrew University has a department of Jewish history!  Are they crazy!  There is no such thing as Jewish history!  Jews don’t have history.  We Jews have memory!”

Infeld went on writing:  Today I know that my father was 100% correct.  Memory and history are related but not the same, and memory is the base of Jewish identity…A Jew is a person who remembers what happened to the Jewish People in the past; a Jew is a person who is strictly forbidden from suffering long-term memory loss!    

What Infeld teaches with this insight, is that we are not able to unlink that chain.  While many stray from the rituals, the rites and even the visible testaments to our place in that chain, we are part of it.  When we ask the question of reason and purpose, the why about our engagement in this treasured heritage, for some, the answer is:  Because we remember it is our shared memory, our shared past and honor it by ensuring our link is strong. 

Whether it is belonging or the simplistic response of because we are supposed to be here that draws us in and embraces us, there is more.  Judaism represents for us, also, the possibility of learning, growing and becoming through our presence.  Not only on these High Holy Days, but by plugging into Jewish life.  This tradition of ours provides us an array of tools, of practices and even beliefs that when engaged with, can enhance our quality of life.    

When we are open, and willing to explore the sense of community, the feeling of belonging, the collective memory we answer this question of why.  We can eat challah and light the Hannukiyah, we can ask the Four Questions and donate to Jewish organizations.  And these are crucial to this Jewish people’s existence.  Yet, when we learn and engage, when we create and evolve our Judaism through our own learning we expand that answer too.  We cannot only light those lights and recite those words because we belong to a people who does this and does that.  We must not only taste the foods that bring a sense of nostalgia and support Jewish causes because it makes us feel we belong.  We must also ask the why during those moments too.  In this way, in the exploration of why, we have the potential for Judaism to not only survive but also thrive. 

Simon Sinek, the personality behind the third most watched Ted Talk, provides us a paradigm shift.  He explores the idea of asking this crucial question of:  Why.  He teaches that every organization, each person perhaps, operates on three levels:  What we do, How we do it and why we do it.  We are really good at knowing the what and the how, he says.  What do we do?  We celebrate Jewish holidays, prepare our children for B’nai Mitzvah, support one another and celebrate together.  How do we do it?  We have rituals and cultural foods, we use the Hebrew language to prepare our young people and we mark time and lives with celebration and support in times of grief and mourning. 

Because we belong?  Because its what Jews do?  Yes…and there is more.  If we can learn, if we can explore and if we can respond to this question on ever deeper levels, we can discover greater meaning in our Judaism.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Alan Rabishaw reminded his congregation:  That call to Abraham to go forth was a challenge of faith that inspired him to pursue a faith we now call Judaism—a faith in which God actually needs human beings to create a world where elevating others is at the heart of life’s purpose.  Torah, God, sacred journey must lead us to love each other, or it leads nowhere at all.

When Torah teaches us that Abraham and Sarah, and those inspired by their message will be a blessing, we discover part of our Why.  We learn that we are to be blessings in what we do and how we do it.  Using and engaging with Judaism and Jewish life enables us to realize our ‘why’ of being blessing.  Rabbi Jonathan Blake wrote in a D’var Torah about the meaning of Synagogue:  God migrates to and from the world of human affairs in accordance with our ethical attentiveness or inattentiveness. Behavior matters more than a building. Indeed, the fulfillment of mitzvot on behalf of others, compassionate action for people in pain, and tzedakah for people in need can all make God's Presence more noticeable in the world. And the synagogue is the primary Jewish engine for organizing people into communities of caring. 

This place, the physical space we felt compelled to enter on this Holy Day is the “engine for organizing” us, the Jewish people, so that we can care…so that we can study and learn, live and celebrate, share and teach our Judaism.  When we ask the question of “Why” we enable ourselves to be open to all of our possible responses.  In asking others about their “Why”, we can discover what drives us forward as community, as a people.  When belonging is expressed and felt, when we do Jewish because it is just what we do we are beginning to own our reason and purpose as members of this collective memory some call Jewish history. 

When our ranks swell at this time of year, we recognize there are many answers to this question of “why” and something about this time of year, this particular ritual of the High Holy Days illicit such a response.  Maybe it is belonging.  Perhaps it is just what we do.  May we allow this space, the literal space of the synagogue and the spiritual space of community and peoplehood, stir us to answer this question of why.  May we respond by learning more an more to be blessing and elevate others.  May we answer that call to be communitied as a community of caring.  May whatever led us here, today, continue to lead us to cherish this treasured heritage to continue the journey of being the Jewish people.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May We all be Sealed for a Good Year
Good Yontif and Shanah Tovah

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Share in our Human Story Because of our Fundamental Dignities: 
Overcoming ‘Other-ness’  — Rosh Hashanah 5779
Rabbi Evon J. Yakar

While some of this may be apocryphal, the gist of the story remains.  That is the story of how the United States Information Agency decided to send a theater production to other nations in the late 1960s choosing a show that most represented American values and beliefs.  One piece, it is told, debuted in Russia, was show cased in Germany, Austria and its tour concluded in Japan.  This production, this musical, was none other than Fiddler on the Roof.  Following the debut, a Tokyo theater critic wrote, “Still not quite sure why this would be so popular in America.”  Following this, he continued to write, “Because the story is so Japanese!”

Stories often have a life of their own.  From one perspective, the tale of Fiddler is one of old and new country, it is a tale of minority and majority.  Yet, it is also a tale of family, a family drama that is, apparently, ubiquitous across cultural divides and one that bridges over language barriers.  Story telling is, while not uniquely so, a fundamental Jewish activity.  It is through stories, those from our Torah to those of our lives, that we embrace important values and are embraced by their plot.  We are embraced because when we hear them, and perhaps when we tell them too, we feel a part of the story, we envision ourselves as part of them, as one of the roles, perhaps more than one of the roles throughout our lives, over our life span. 

Since last December, a youth opera program wrote and ran multiple showings of “Moses.”  An opera based on “The Story of Moses.”  It is the story we know well of slavery and freedom, of oppressor and oppressed of refugee and the search for home.  This national epic of ours holds various perspectives and engages its readers, in this case the audiences, in recognizing that these perspectives can be viewed as our own OR belonging to others.  Yet, without the whole story, without each role following its script, the story fails, it comes apart at the seams.  Without Pharaoh as head taskmaster and without God hardening his heart a stitch comes loose.  Without Moses demanding a shift of paradigm, of power and of control the threads come further undone.  Without a promised destination of a better tomorrow, yet another stitch comes loose.  The story of Moses works precisely because it can be told from all of these perspectives.  The sense of “other-ness” is a reality in the tale and yet only once that other-ness fades, and each player recognizes each other player as human, as valuable, as honorable, as unique can that promised destination of a better tomorrow come into view. 

I read about this opera last month in the New York Times.  While it may come as a surprise, it is from the Bavarian State Opera’s youth program in Munich.  It is a production embracing the stories of born and raised Bavarians as well as the Kurdish, Greek, French and Arabic speaking refugees and immigrants.  These youth actors embrace this production and the roles they play in the story because, as they say in their own words, “We tell the story of Moses because it is actually our story.”  And others chimed in:  “The story of Moses is also my story,” echoing in their various mother tongues. 

For some of us when we heard about what we may view as the co-opting of our Moses, our Exodus, our national origin story, we may distance ourselves, we may create division and other-ness.  In Germany, of all places, where we, the Jews, were distinguished as so much of an ‘other’ this opera was written, produced and show-cased.  Even more, the realities of the embattled international debate surrounding refugees, immigration and residents around the globe being exposed through our story may make it even harder to embrace.  Yet, this is just the purpose of such an exercise, of art imitating life.  It is in the sharing of the story, the stories we hold and the stories our lives create that other-ness can be supplanted by same-ness.  We can share the story by telling our own and listening to others’.  Yet we can go even further in sharing of the stories themselves; sharing especially the human story, a story that belongs to each and every one of us.  Regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, of gender, nationality or value perspective we are all part of the creation we celebrate on this Rosh Hashanah, we are all included when our ancient rabbis command us Kavod HaBriot  - to Honor all Creations.  We are all included when we say that humans are B’Tzelem Elohim - created in the image of God.  And from these Rabbi Yitz Greenberg points out the way our Jewish tradition argues that every human being is endowed with the same three fundamental dignities of infinite value, equal value and infinite uniqueness.

Uniqueness, however, does not mean separate.  When we separate ourselves with walls rather than link with bridges, when we focus on us and them and when we fail in sharing our stories we remain as eternally other rather than knowing that we are empowered by what ties us together.  On this Rosh Hashanah, we must use the words our tradition provides us and the texts before us to honor all others, to treasure the divine spark in each other and to notice these fundamental dignities. 

In the beginning of our story, in the stories of Abraham we know well the model of hospitality our ancestor creates for us.  At the moment of his vulnerability, after his own brit milah, Abraham runs out from his tent to greet three seeming wanderers in the desert.  From this our tradition codifies a blueprint for how we ought to engage with others.  Abraham and Sarah are consummate hosts as they wash their guests’ feet, feed them and provide a place to rest.  Yet, these wanderers share in this story because we can understand the tale as guests too.  Our recent guest Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, points out in his time on the podcast Judaism Unbound that Abraham in that moment didn’t even realize they were bringing something to him.  From his perspective, he was bringing warmth and welcome, yet as it turns out, as the story unfolds they were coming to change his life.  In this story of hospitality we can recognize overcoming that sense of ‘other-ness’ and embracing all others as valued creations; we discover it is a two way process.  Jacobs illustrates for us the Reform Jewish principle of Audacious Hospitality with this Torah story.  He goes on to teach us that when we embrace others and share in the experience, as Abraham did, we also welcome their ideas, even their agitation, their insights and their love.  This is sharing in the story of being alive - the human story.  This sharing is a way of honoring both our part and that of others in our world.  This is what our rabbis strove for with this principle of Kavod HaBriot - Honoring all Creations.  This ideal is borne out of our deeply held belief that we are all B’tzelem Elohim - created in the image of the Divine. 

We each hold within that divine spark and for that reason alone each and every person is more than ‘other’, we are in a way, the same.  The unfolding story of human life and experience must include the ways we share in the inheritance of being in God’s image.  It cannot stop at that wall, that barrier of being ‘other’. 

Rabbi Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, recently wrote an important piece charging us to overcome this inclination of ‘other-ness’.  In the context of opining our obligations to others - to strangers, refugees, neighbors, to the world he wrote:

The tradition teaches that Jews bear special responsibilities to those nearest to us—family, community, and the “stranger within your gates”—and have obligations as well to all human beings, every one of whom is created in the image of God. Identity in this vision of the self is not a zero-sum game: me versus you or the group, our group versus all others. The human heart has many chambers. Our minds are enriched from multiple sources. So too our souls.

The complexity of being Jewish demands of us an allegiance to our peoplehood, and we surely treasure this connection.  Rabbi Eisen also argued that we are part of larger wholes:  Our city, our country, humanity, our world.  He puts before us the balance we must discover between our identity as part of the Jewish people and our identities connecting us to the wider community and beyond.  This balance is one way we honor all creations.  We fail when we act cruelly, when we degrade the other.  Not only is this a diminishment of the divinity of our neighbors, it is a degradation of our own selves too.  It diminishes our humanity as the opposite of the example Abraham and Sarah provide us.  In not acting to honor all others and recognize this spark we lose the opportunity to gain their ideas, their agitation, their insights and their love. 

In our own time, this is even more consequential.  In our charged reality of division, of walls and tribal-like identities, we are quick to distinguish and point out ‘other-ness’ in place of the possibility of connection.  Our obligations to all human beings begins with Kavod - honor, it grows from recognizing the reality of B’Tzelem Elohim -  being created in the image of God, and demands of us a different strategy than this label of other.  Even in argument and debate, we have something to gain by striving for sameness, for connection rather than ‘other-ness’.  When we focus on what divides it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern positive and healthy ways forward.  Yet, in the sharing of our human experience, our shared story, we can gain more and more clarity of that promised destination of a better tomorrow.  Our Jewish tradition teaches us with the instruction that the angel of victory and the angel of learning cannot be in the same room at the same time.  Our rabbis are cautioning us to strive towards learning, to leave behind the drive to win, to be right.  When we engage with our neighbors, our fellow human beings for the sake of understanding, for truth, for learning we all gain.  As the sage Rabbenu Yona teaches:  If I argue for the sake of truth, then if I win, I win.  But if I lose, I also win, because being defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory.  I am enlarged.  I learn something I did not know before.  When we acknowledge and embrace the possibility that we share with others and overcome that sense of ‘other-ness’ we engage in that two way process Rabbi Jacobs teaches, and as Eisen writes, we are enriched from multiple sources, and so too our souls. 

This is difficult, and often seems impossible.  We are challenged when our neighbors, those we often see as ‘other’, come with different perspectives, alternative views and values.  Yet, as Jews, we are moored to first principles that guide our decision making, and our approach to how we honor creations, how we recognize the divinity within all human beings.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is a modern authored rabbi whose storied career includes bridging the divide between Judaism and Christianity.  Much of his teachings rest on the concept that every human being, every soul has three fundamental dignities.  Drawing on our sacred Torah and ancient texts, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg contends that Judaism endows each soul with three fundamental dignities. We are all of infinite value.  We are all of equal value.  We are all infinitely unique. 

From this premise, it must be recognized that bridges are better than walls; that same-ness overcomes ‘other-ness’ and it must be that we have a share in the same story.  It is not far off from the insight offered to us from the late Senator John McCain when he wrote:  We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.  We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.  

This is certainly no easy charge.  That of Senator McCain, nor the demand of our Jewish tradition as Rabbi Greenberg elucidates to see past the ‘other-ness’ and recognize the infinite and equal value as well as uniqueness of all.  When confronted with human beings that cause us to raise our guard against the other, we must find, or better we must create the way around that divide.  It is not only the responsibility of our neighbors to come towards us as the desert wanderers in the Abrahamic story, but also upon us to, like Abraham, rush out to meet them.  When contention enters our sphere of life, we must use the many chambers of our human heart that Rabbi Eisen reminds us reside within.  It is upon each and every one of us to mine within ourselves our innate ability to uphold these fundamental dignities, to see the divine in all and to honor. 

On Rosh Hashanah and during these Days of Awe we are given this gift of renewal, of re-adjustment and a time to focus inward so that we may rise to build those bridges and honor those connections we share in our human story.  If we leave this place unchanged, or unready for it, or if we come back next year at this time unchanged, unable to overcome, just a little bit, our anxieties of ‘other’ then this, not my words, but this work of these High Holy Days, has not worked.  We must work for that promised destination of a better tomorrow. 

We do this when we hold fast to our values, our beliefs and stand up for them, while opening our hearts to learning from all - even others.  For that is the path to overcoming that ‘other-ness’.  This challenging task is possible when we know that our story of Moses, our people’s origin story is one holding many perspectives that ought be recognized and treasured and shared.  Our sages ask the question in the Mishnah of ‘Who is wise?’  And to this they respond, ‘הלומד מכל אדם’ - the one who learns from everyone - not just from every Jew, not just from every one with whom we agree, but every one.  It is so, because of the infinite and equal value of all and the uniqueness of all.  So, as we turn the page in the Book of Life into this new year of 5779, it is upon us to respond, not with apathy, with disconnection nor with ‘other-ness’; but rather with connection, with an extension of heart to share our story, the story of being human so that we may recognize what is possible, that another’s ideas are gifts that enrich.  May we overcome the sense of ‘other-ness’ that divides so that we may all be strengthened and so too our world.  May we return to this place next year changed because we have learned from those who were once other.

Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah

Monday, December 11, 2017

Rabbi Evon's Letter to SLT City Countil - December 11, 2017

On December 12, 2017, the South Lake Tahoe City Council has on the agenda the rental of a city property to the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless.  There are many and varied opinions, running the entire gamut on this issue.

Rabbi Evon J. Yakar

December 11, 2017 -  23rd Kislev  5778

Dear South Lake Tahoe City Council Members:

Over the past three years, I have taken great pride in serving on the Advisory Council of the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless.  This has been a great source of pride in large part because of the relationships cultivated along the journey and because of the strides we have made to serve the needs of our wider community, especially our neighbors struggling with homelessness.  In this work, I have learned a great deal about the growing social ill of insufficient housing, the related community problems and the hearts of our community.  There are countless concerns and challenges in any social justice endeavor AND countless positives and opportunities.  One moment that has stuck with me is the realization that it has become socially acceptable to sweep this problem “under the rug”.  Under the guise of statements like:  I just don’t want “them” near our children, or Those homeless people are just free-loaders, and even Why can’t they just get a job?, we move on to the next topic of conversation.  To accept this is to ignore the reality.  It demonstrates an ignorance of the underlying issues and challenges, as well as of our communal and human responsibility for our neighbors. 

I am deeply concerned for the safety and security of our community members and visitors.  I am well aware of the disturbances caused by people throughout our City and surrounding South Shore community.  Some, in opposition to sheltering the homeless, have mentioned the vagrancy in general as leading to other public nuisances such as defecation and urination as well as public intoxication and violence.  These are very real concerns and not one member of the Advisory Council or Board of the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, or among the many volunteers, has, in my presence, diminished these very real realities.  There are also very real fears related to our youth and their proximity to our neighbors who may, or may not, display these negative behaviors.  As the father of two young children and a Rabbi in the community responsible for many youth on a regular basis, I, too, share this anxiety.  Yet, when I lump together “the homeless” with these negative behaviors I become guilty of naiveté, at best, and prejudice at worst.  On the community level, we ought to avoid this type of judgment.  So I must learn from this and discover a new way of response.   

It is because of these concerns, fears and anxieties, not despite them, that we, as a community - as a city - must see those struggling with homelessness as our neighbors.  In the
words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, when he spoke immediately preceding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream” speech who said, “Neighbor is not a geographic term.  It is a moral concept.  It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”     

It is in this way, that we must allow the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless to find a location for this winter season.  To live our collective responsibility includes the demand to allow local community members to shelter those in need of shelter.  It means stretching beyond our comforts so that basic needs, such as shelter, are met.  This is a commitment I demand of myself and expect of others. 

As someone who holds a position of leadership, I often struggle to move beyond this seat of comfort and strive to demonstrate leadership.  It sometimes happens, in such a role, that I barricade myself with the comfort of the position.  Yet, I know this is not my charge, nor living up to the expectations I hold for myself.  Rather, it is when I rise from that seat of comfort, even when standing in a room full of others still sitting down, and attempt to lead, that my community, both Temple Bat Yam and beyond, and I are succeeding.

This is such a time; it is a time to stand even as others remain seated.  Now, I call on you, our elected leadership, to model for us the ways we can meet the challenges of homelessness, as numerous California and US municipalities are doing,.  I urge you to support, in all ways possible, the rental of the city property on Rufus Allen Boulevard to the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless. 

I am grateful for your service to our community.


Rabbi Evon J. Yakar


Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tolerance, Intolerance & Identity: Who We Aim to be As Individuals, as Jews and as a Nation Yom Kippur 5778 - September 2017

Tolerance, Intolerance & Identity:  Who We Aim to be As Individuals, as Jews and as a Nation
Yom Kippur 5778 - September 2017
Temple Bat Yam & North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation

Listen to these words.  Think about the where, the what, the when maybe even who.  Consider what they could be about, their setting and their time in history.

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace [DO NOT READ:  as envisaged by the prophets of Israel]; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; (Israel’s Declaration of Independence).

What do you think?  Do they sound familiar?  Nod, raise a hand if you have a sense of their origin.

These words stand among the ideas and the ideals that have shaped the institution of Democracy, along with so many inspirational statements that have outlined clear visions of our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations.  Great thinkers, leaders, theologians, politicians, activists and countless others continue to give rise to the frameworks in which we experience life:  The service clubs, our businesses, government and so on.  These words could have been written by numerous thinkers in recent centuries.  Yet, they are the founding words declaring the Modern State of Israel in 1948, less than seventy years ago.

These words craft in our mind a nation founded on the democratic principles we cherish.  They speak to a tolerance, an acceptance of the other unequivocally.  Surely, in the aspirational moment of declaring independence, hopes are articulated and they require work to be realized.  For certain, Israel has and continues to be at the forefront claiming these human values in many ways and not so in others, there is room for improvement and growth.  America, our home, our own expression of these cherished values lives these growing pains too.  Following the events in Charlottesville, we spoke here in this congregation, in this room, about our fears, our anxieties, our frustrations, our anger about the clear and present feelings that these ideals were not being lived, or worse they were being abandoned.

Following that Shabbat, I wrote a piece for our local paper and shared the following:

This great nation we call home, the United States of America, has been a bastion of tolerance which has been tested in every generation. Through the generations this evolving society stretches its arms wider in an effort to uphold this idea.  But the question plaguing me, perhaps all of us, at this moment is whether or not tolerance has run its course. In other words, is tolerance always possible?  I learned last month, in attempting to devour every article, blog post and interview I could, that tolerance, however, does not mean being tolerant of those who preach intolerance. There are limits to this value. Tolerance cannot spread its arms wide enough to include and embrace the intolerant. (

This clarion call is real.  It demands our attention to understand who we aim to be as individuals, as Jews and as a Nation.  Can tolerance versus intolerance be a litmus test for us?  When national debates rage and fill our senses to their limit, we must ask which are intolerant; which resonate exclusivity rather than tolerance and inclusivity.  When Israel struggles to uphold equality for all valid and authentic Jewish religious expressions, let alone those of its citizens and neighbors, we must ask:  Is it a picture of growing tolerance or a non-starter of intolerance.  Our great sage, Bachya Ibn Pakuda, wrote in the 11th century:  Days are like scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.  Do we want our scrolls to be inked with the growing pains of tolerance or do we aim to inscribe our days in the Book of Life with isolation and intolerance?  It is about a conversation that must continue.  I spoke to you about listening on Rosh Hashanah, true active and generous listening so that we can grow and evolve as individuals, as a society in the ways that will foster a future that we can and will be proud of.   

Yom Kippur, this day of days, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, I believe, is a contributor to this conversation too.  The hallowed and, sometimes if not always, challenging words of this day both articulate a vision of a life well lived, a community well maintained AND almost more importantly create the avenues to understand our missteps, failures and growth left to be experienced. 

The words of the Kol Nidre itself may be the best example.  The opening volley of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, gives us the script to say:  May all the commitments I make be absolved if after honest effort I am unable to fulfill them.  When I asked my dear friend and Dean of the Hebrew Union College, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, about the value and import of the Kol Nidre he responded, “Oh my - where do I start!?”  he said, “The Kol Nidre is the most amazing piece of our liturgy of the High Holy Days in the sense that it forces us to face our humanity in the face of a perfect divinity (construct).  It has everything to do with our human inability to live up to our own expectations of ourselves.  In this text,” he went on, “we are finally forced to come to terms with our failings and our inability to commit to keeping our word to ourselves and to others.”   

Yes, this Day of Atonement is about the missteps, and it is ALSO about the aspirations.  It is about examination of our values, of the way we live, the way we want to live and the way we ought to live.  It is about using the microscope the day provides to observe our world, the institutions we cherish and what they both need from us to continue as God’s partners in shaping Creation - which is the totality of human experience.

The national identity in our country is certainly being obscured by the headlines, by the behaviors of some and the words of others.  Keeping pace with the societal changes and natural ebbs and flows of our human experience shakes the very ground we stand on.  Yet, we know that change is the only constant.  And, over the course of time, we know too that the guidelines that frame our communal life need constant examination and revision, for Yom Kippur is not solely about our own personal accounting.  Inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial, we read: 

"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." (Southeast Portico of the Jefferson Memorial, -Excerpted from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.)  

And in our own Jewish tradition, we resonate this reality.  Our sourcebook and what binds us to one another, our story - Torah, is celebrated on the holiday of Shavuot in the Spring - what we call Z’man Matan Torah - the Time of the Giving of Torah.  And note this is the giving of Torah, not the time Torah was given…in the past.  Rather it is an ongoing, living and breathing reality.  So too, it is with how we embrace, how we live and uphold this ideal of tolerance.  It must and will always be a moving target that will be reached in some moments and missed in others. 

The heightened concerns, the very real concerns, about anti-semitism, about hate speech and violence is shaking the moral compass of our nation.  The experience over the last year and longer, is making it increasingly difficult to discern where this arrow of that compass points.  Not necessarily because we are less aware of where we stand, but rather because the institutionalization of these sources of hate, of anti-semitism of intolerance has grown and gained strength.  As Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar in Los Angeles so poignantly articulated to her community on Rosh Hashanah,

“Charlottesville did not happen in a vacuum - it is the inevitable outcome of racism being met with anything short of forceful, explicit condemnation.  There’s a reason white supremacists didn’t wear hoods to march in streets this summer.  They didn’t feel that had anything to hide…” (

When intolerance becomes enshrined above tolerance; when fear, exclusion and denial of the other is the first offering rather than, as we shared, listening and exploring what we can become together, then tolerance hasn’t run its course, rather it has been abandoned.  And this, my friends, is a very real concern.  It is our reality, that is teetering between intolerance, isolation and fear on one side and tolerance, acceptance and learning on the other.  It is up to us to know how we can lean towards tolerance and to shape our future with the materials of our own rich history entwined with that of those with whom we share this nation, this Earth. 

Sometimes, though, this litmus test of tolerance versus intolerance can be harder and more difficult to apply.  Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists and White Nationalism is easier to identify as a source of intolerance than other forms of protest. 

Surely we’ve all been surrounded by the ongoing and very public protest of professional football players and other athletes.  I recall moments not too long ago when we, as a culture, bemoaned the way we uphold professional athletes as role models, yearning for more and better behaviors from them.  Well, we’ve arrived in a sense.  What began down the highway from us in San Francisco has snowballed into a real, and crucial, national debate.  The NFL versus the President is a conversation growing louder faster than fingers can tweet.  From one perspective, it may seem like a controversy that will fade, maybe its not worth our energy.  Or, perhaps this is another expression of tolerance versus intolerance. 

When we aim to live Jefferson’s prescient words about the progress of the human mind and hold dear the reality of our aim to live tolerance and ensure its place on the mantle of the future we are creating, protest will certainly remain as a critical and effective tool in our belt.  Let me be clear, I am not going to express an opinion about the how, the when or the where of these public statements.  But, I will state clearly that this conversation, this debate, this kind of protest is exactly what should engage our intellect and our souls as we examine which of the arguments uphold tolerance and which preach intolerance.  That is a task for each of us on this day of Yom Kippur. 

When I began these words, I shared the sacred words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  A statement of aspiration, a vision of a future for our beloved State of Israel - a place I hope to visit with you this June - please join me.  Yet, there too, this litmus test must be applied.  I firmly hold that I do not deserve a vote in the State of Israel.  I am a Zionist, I am an Ohev Yisrael - a lover of the Land and People Of Israel.  And while I do not get a vote, I do deserve a voice - is it our Jewish State.  It is one founded on these principles of tolerance, equality and acceptance, in its own words, “irrespective of religion, race or sex.”  And yet, over recent decades there is an increasing volume of protest among and between Jews.  This, to me, is one of if not the most pressing issues facing the State - that is its Jewish identity.  Some in this very room have family members who fought boldly for the right to a Jewish State and in order to remain so, it must continue to aspire. 

This summer, the State of Israel reneged on its promise of equality at the Western Wall, a struggle our Progressive Jewish friends, and some of us, have protested for, have yearned for.  The growing intolerance we are experiencing by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel towards our Judaism is simply unacceptable.  It, in my mind, does not pass this litmus test of tolerance versus intolerance.  The ongoing struggle over the status of conversion in the State of Israel continues to be problematic as well.  We long for the day when those committed to engaging with Judaism and becoming Jews will be fully, unequivocally accepted as such in the Jewish State…this commitment is enshrined in those words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

In our own country and in our beloved State of Israel aspirations towards our Democratic principles will always evolve, there will be always growing pains throughout our lives and those of our grandchildren.  And, they will require our effort to remain within reach.  One way we have to respond as we realize these very real and challenging growing pains of democracy is to learn, to understand better from where we are coming. 

In our Mishnah, Akavya ben Machalelel taught:  Reflect upon three things and you will not succumb to sin:  Know from whence you came and to where you are going, and before whom you will give an accounting. (Mishnah Avot 3:1)

To know from where we came is to know our past and that of previous generations.  To know where we are going is to know that, though our physical lives will end, we will bequeath a world, a society, a community to our descendants.  And, before who will we give an accounting?  Surely before God, the Mystery of Creation, whatever is our belief.  But it is also before the world, before others - those with whom we share this Earth.

I don’t believe it is enough for me to talk form the bema and you, in your seats, to listen.  I don’t believe we, as Jews, are those kind of people.  This is the year for US to learn, for US to challenge, for US to interpret.  Let us commit to investigating together this year.  So, as we move closer to celebrating Israel’s 70th year, over the coming months, we will examine the past decades of our own nation and that of Israel together.  We will share from this bema perspectives to question and learn, we will engage in discussions as we study text and Torah and we will create formal opportunities to learn.  We will look at our Reform tradition’s track record with regard to issues of justice, we will reflect them in the mirror of our American and Israeli history and in this way, we will gain tools to shape our future - to know where we are going, so that when we stand here next year in judgment of our world, ourselves, our community we will be doing one part in crafting the world we want.  We will be becoming the individuals we aim to be as Jews and as a nation. 

G’maru Chatimot Tovot - May we all merit goodness, on our behalf and that of our children, in the coming year.  Shanah Tovah.

YK Kavannot 5778

Kol Nidre Welcome 5778 (Sept. 29, 2017) - TBY
Between Kadesheinu & R’tzei

Jennie Jerome Churchill, the mother of Sir Winston Churchill, said, “Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light.”  In the embrace of Yom Kippur, as we examine ourselves, our deeds our own souls, it is also a time to ensure those around us are loved as they deserve.  It is a time to ensure every other human being and the souls in our communities are embraced for all they good they are in our world.  Let us find the light within ourselves, so that when we look upon others, their best deeds, their best attributes shine bright enough to light our way together into 5778.

Yom Kippur Morning 5778 (Sept. 30, 2017) - NTHC

On this day of Yom Kippur, as we ponder the State of our Souls, let us consider also the way we engage with others, the way we care for and love our fellow human beings.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught, “It is easy to criticize others and make them feel unwanted.  Anyone can do it.  What takes effort and skill is picking them up and making them feel good.”  Let us find ways to pick others up.  Let us find ways to make others feel good.  Not so they will do the same for us when in need, although that would be nice, but because it requires of us the deepest kind of love.  It demands of us the highest of our character.  And then, when we embrace the highest of our own character, what ripples outward like a stone thrown into a pond, will be far greater than we could have ever imagine.  For, after all, that is the power of this day. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

RH Kavannot II & III

From Tree Stories, A Collection of Extraordinary Encounters:  “Think Like a Tree” by Karen I. Shragg

Soak up the sun
Affirm life’s magic
Be graceful in the wind
Stand tall after a storm
Feel refreshed after it rains
Grow strong without notice
Be prepared for each season
Provide shelter to strangers
Hang tough through a cold spell
Emerge renewed at the first sings of spring
Stay deeply rooted while reaching for the sky
Be still long enough to
hear your own leaves rustling
Be still long enough during these days of awe to hear our own deeds reflected in those around us.  Help us understand our impact on the life unfolding around us and embrace the uplift of Rosh Hashanah and the challenge of Yom Kippur.

The Akedah Revisited

The Akedah narrative - one of the great Master Stories of the Jewish textual tradition - tells the story of the binding of Isaac on an alter by his father Abraham in response to a request from God.  It is a fast-paced narrative of events:  Abraham’s readiness, setting out for Mount Moriah; the child’s question, “Where is the ram for the burnt offering?”; the father’s answer that God will provide, the binding of Isaac itself, the vision of the angel admonishing Abraham not to harm the boy; and the appearance in the brambles of a ram caught by the horns.  Teaching us further on this piece of our history, the great Israel poet, Chaim Gouri wrote the following poem entitled, Yerusha - Inheritance:

The ram came last of all; And Abraham did not know that it was the answer to the question of the boy, who is his foremost strength at the twilight of his life.
The old mane raised his head; When he saw he was not dreaming a dream, and an angel was standing by, the sacrificial knife fell from his hand.
The boy, released from his bonds, saw his father’s back.
Isaac, as recounted, was not offered up in sacrifice.  He lived a long time, experience the good, until the light of his eyes grew dim.
Nonetheless, that hour he bequeathed to his descendants, an inheritance.  They are born and the sacrificial knife is in their hearts.

Not more than a month ago, some of us studied this powerful text and this connected poem.  We dove deeply into the meaning of this troubling text.  I was overwhelmed with great learning from our community.  I have always read that last line of the poem as the ways in which we, as Jews, are almost always sacrificed - interpret as you wish.  But, my point has been that we are all Isaac, we are all the descendants with that ma’achelet - sacrificial knife in our hearts.  Yet, one of our community, Sandy, taught us it is more.  She said:  We all are almost always Abraham.  In other words, we are both the sacrificed and the one holding the implement of destruction…how will we hear this story this year?  Will we see ourselves as being forced to make sacrifices?  Or, will we be the one holding the implement?
Responsible Listening - Responsibility
Rosh Hashanah 5778 - September 2017
Temple Bat Yam & North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation 

Walking into a preschool room can be a source of anxiety, maybe even fear.  For others, a source of energy and excitement.  The noise, the seeming chaos can certainly feel overwhelming.  But, for those who have been in the presence of truly amazing, patient, loving and skilled preschool teachers, there is an amazing reality in their classrooms.  The respect they hold for the little ones in their care and the love they show them while simultaneously providing structure and healthy discipline is awe-some; it is a balancing act worthy of cirque de soleil.  Their brand of listening and paying attention exudes passion for their work and the responsibility they hold dear. 

I recall a few opportunities to spend time in such sacred spaces, playing, learning and exploring with these young students.  Once, I was charged with exploring the Jewish value, the middah, of Shmiat HaOzen - A Listening Ear literally, but best understood as attentive listening, and I got to explore this with a group of three to four years olds.  With the support and creativity of my mother, my eternal source of teaching ideas, I devised an activity to model the skill of listening. 

It began with me asking questions about the students lives’ and trying to listen to them all share at the same time.  A classroom of fourteen three to four year olds…..all answering questions about their siblings, what their mommies and daddies do for work and even the names of their  pets.  After a few moments of the chaos, I asked them:  What do we need to be able to listen and to hear our friends.  They unanimously agreed that:  All we need is our ears.

So I asked one youngster to tell me more about her dog.  As she started to describe her dog Larry to me, I turned my ear towards her, but focused my attention elsewhere, looking around the room as she talked.  As I did this, she expressed frustration and said that I wasn’t listening.  Immediately, we all identified together and decided that:  To listen, to truly take in what others are sharing with us, we need more than our ears.  Listening we agreed is a full body experience.  Listening is more than hearing.  Listening is more than the vibrations and sounds entering our ears.  Listening demands our attention, our focus and our presence.  Listening leads to learning.  Listening requires responsibility.

On Rosh Hashanah, we find a unique b’racha - a blessing, that we articulate to remind ourselves of our obligation to this skill - to listening.  We recite each and every year as we prepare for the sounds of the shofar:  Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to hear the sound of the Shofar.  We can recite this b’racha, and we can respond with the requisite Amen and simply listen to the tekiah, the shevarim and teruah and even the tekiah gedolah, but we all know our Jewish tradition’s charge that we dig deeper into our liturgy, our texts and even our rituals for deepening meaning.  In his Machzor Hadash, Hershel Matt writes about the shofar blasts:  "The blasts of the shofar call us to repentance, to renew our loyalty to God, to defy false gods, to remember Sinai, to keep the mitzvot, to renew our devotion to the Land of Israel, to recall the vision of the prophets when all peoples shall live in peace, the blasts of the shofar reminds us of the flight of time and to live our lives with purpose.” ( The Sound of the Shofar by Hershel J. Matt, Machzor Hadash p.244)

Matt is making sure that we hearken to more than the sounds of the ram’s horn alone.  These primitive sounds are a call to not only listen, he teaches, but also to learn and then to do.  They are a call to action….they are a call to be responsible in our listening and ensuring we take on the tasks that life presents us. 

Over recent weeks, engaged in my preparations for these Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe, I have found a struggle that is unfamiliar.  My eternal source of inspiration, my wife and friend Rachel, has encouraged me in so many ways, reminding me that this year, there is so much to talk about.  There are so many headlines, news stories, opportunities to improve our community, our nation, the world, to urge our elected officials forward.  And while I agree wholeheartedly, it seems that while there is so much to consider, what has been so unfamiliar in this struggle to work on my high holy day messages, is that it has become so increasingly difficult to discern what really matters, what’s actually happening and what the reliable sources of information are…. and how to take the first steps towards a more just, moral and equitable world from our current reality.   

Listening has become harder and harder.  As we are increasingly overwhelmed with dissonant messages…  Over the last year, and perhaps more, we have been continually bombarded from all directions.   Whether it is politics or natural disasters, international crises or concerns for justice and equality, or whether it is with real news or fake, the kind of information and the quantity is simply overwhelming.   We have witnessed events around our nation while attempting to make heads or tails of the them.  We have been over-loaded with information about the world we inhabit, the world we share with seven point five billion others.  There is no shortage of people lamenting the headlines among the talking heads on cable and network news.  The heated and challenged reality of politics in our great nation has stirred long held beliefs for many, it has ruptured relationships between long time friends, it has given license to those in mental health fields to dub the term Election Stress Disorder.  Some argue the last twelve months has only exposed what has always been there.  The seemingly endless onslaught of information via news, social media, written sources, neighbors, family and co-workers has continued to fuel this kind of stress.

It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to see the good in the world around us.  In the endless barrage of negativity in the headlines, we can easily turn either to despair or worse, in my estimation, to a lack of care and concern.  Amidst the chaotic newsfeed including Iran, Irma, Charlottesville, Houston, North Korea, an embattled president, the Jewish identity of our beloved State of Israel, immigration, building walls while tearing others down…..all demanding our attention, requiring us to listen…to make value judgments.

But what shall we listen to?  How can one even begin to discern the responsibility in the listening, in the hearkening to what is a step forward, just one step, when its so hard to see examples of good, just and right and weigh truth from fiction, real from fake? 

In the story of Creation, in the Book of Genesis, we find an interesting analog to this kind of chaos.  We learn that what we recognize as our world, our Earth, was chaos, it was what our tradition calls tohu vavohu - unformed and void - lacking order.  As the creation story continues with the events of each day, God identifies and labels the evolving natural world around us.  We find the familiar phrase from this story:  וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב, often translated as:  And God saw the light and that it was good.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, points out in his book, To Heal a Fractured World, that there are different ways to understand this moment in our text.  He quotes the nineteenth century Rabbi, Zvi Hirsch Mecklenburg and reminds us of a deeper understanding of this simple phrase.  Mecklenburg taught that the Hebrew ‘ki', translated here in the story of creation as ‘that’ is better understood and more often translated as ‘because’.  Therefore, “God saw, not, ‘that it was good’ but ‘because God is good”. ( Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan.  To Heal a Fractured World.  p. 40.)  When we read it this way, our first understanding of God, in the story of creation, is that God is able to see, to recognize and to listen to the good in the world because God is good.

Amidst the chaos, the unformed universe in disarray, God creates a world of goodness through God’s own attribute of goodness - God is able to recognize what is good, because of that same quality within.  Perhaps we can too, if what we hold inside is good.  This is our model of recognizing the good in our world, listening to the needs for learning and doing, to make the world better, to decipher the countless and often competing messages inundating us so that we can move towards action that is good, just, right, equitable.  It begins with being able to listen, not solely with our ears, but with our whole being.  Listening as a responsibility, actively so that we may engage more in our world, not less.   

It sounds cliché to just say listening is the answer.  We are reminded at every turn the importance of communication, whether at work, in relationships and beyond, so it may seem obvious that listening is the key to success, to moving forward.  Yet, if it were so easy, maybe we’d be better at it…  We listen to what is comforting, to what agrees with our already established views and beliefs.  But listening, from our Jewish perspective, is not the charge to only hear and heed what suits, but rather, it is even more crucial to listen, to always listen even, or especially when we disagree.  This is a responsibility.

If we only read the agreed upon sources, we aren’t really doing anything…not even listening.  Being knowledgeable and “up” on the realities around us requires energy and effort.  Two weeks ago, two educated professionals who are dear friends, two mothers - Lauren Alredge and Caitlin Quattromani - led me on an amazingly powerful intellectual journey.  During one of my drives between the North Shore and the South, I listened to their short Ted Talk.  One poignant segment of the the talk was Mrs. Alredge sharing what happened while driving her sons to school, and she said, “My younger son says to me:  Mom, we don’t know anyone who voted for Trump, right?”  She goes on to say, “I paused, took a deep breath, yes, we do, the Quattromani’s.”  “and his response was so great, he kind of got this confused look on his face and said, but we love them!”  “And I answered, yes we do!”  “And then he said, but why would they vote for him.”  She continued, “I remember stopping and thinking that it was really important how I answered this question.  Somehow I had to honor our own family values and show respect for our friends, so I said:  they think that’s the right direction for this country.  And before I even got the whole sentence out of my mouth, he had moved on to the soccer game he was going to play at recess today.” ( “How our friendship survives our opposing politics.”  Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Allege - Ted Talks Daily, September 11, 2017.) 

This segment, nearing the end of the talk, highlights exactly what listening, what Shmiat HaOzen - Our Jewish value of listening is all about.  It is about living and honoring our own values and showing respect for those of others.  It is about knowing that we disagree with those we love.  These two women shared over the course of the podcast about their struggles to engage in discourse.  One of them mentions the reality that over 40% of Americans report that the November 2016 election negatively impacted a personal and important relationship.  These two women chose to avoid political debate and rather engage in dialogue in order to maintain their self described bi-partisan friendship.  They identify moments when they may have been fearful to engage, but they chose to ask, then to listen - to dialogue, rather than allow things to fester, to boil over and fuel negative emotions.  This tactic, among others, ensured they were not only listening to each other, but they were learning from one another, they were making more possible.  At one moment, one of the women identifies the importance of listening to what’s unfolding around us for the sake of learning.  She says, “…the most important thing about this conversation is that it happened at all.  Without an open and honest dialogue between the two of us, this would have been the elephant in the room for the next four years, pun intended!”

The art of dialogue is also the art of listening.  It is making sure we engage in the information, don’t shy away from what is uncomfortable, maintain a sense of respect and compassion for others’ ideas.  As the speakers in this talk conclude, they mentioned that they have chosen to be willing to listen even when they disagree and therefore open themselves up to limitless learning.

The learning is, in the end, what really matters.  It is, after all, the ultimate goal of our Jewish tradition as well.  Being engaged in life-long learning endeavors is part of our modus operandi as Jews.  Our tradition reminds us each morning in our liturgy that Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam - the Study of Torah is equal to all other mitzvot because it leads to them all.  When we engage in our tradition, we cannot miss the presence of dialogue, of debate, of listening to one another, regardless of the opinion.  Many of us are familiar with the constant debates in our Talmudic tradition between Hillel and Shammai, each offering different views on ritual, ethical and practical elements of Jewish life.  From the value judgments on white lies, to the treatment of those seeking to learn more about Judaism and even including the type of candles to be used on Hannukah, these two great sages model for us, what Caitlin and Lauren model in their TEDtalk:  That dialogue is about being genuinely curious about each other’s ideas, it is about opening ourselves up to limitless learning.  In fact, one could arguably say that the entire Talmud is based disagreement.  And, the Talmud doesn’t work, it loses its force if we fail to listen to each step of that disagreement, that dialogue, that discourse.

At this season, at the time of the Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe, we engage in many forms of listening.  As we shared, we listen to the blasts of the shofar.  We are called to recognize that these ancient and primitive sounds are a call to action, not for passive hearing, but to listen and heed their call.  As Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalom zichrono livracha taught:  The root of the word shofar - the shin - pey - reish also makes the Hebrew word L’Shapeir - to improve - it is listening so that we can grow, learn and improve.  We listen to the liturgy, we experience the imagery of a courtroom drama unfolding as we put ourselves on trial before the world, God - whatever is our belief - and we listen to our hearts speak truths about ourselves and our world, however uncomfortable it may be at times.  It is not meant to be easy, and nor is listening, true, active and generous listening - it is a responsibility. 

When we pick up a newspaper, when we turn on cable news and when we hear a fellow human being share information, it is up to us to first listen.  Once we are sure we are present, open and actively listening - with our whole being - then we must do the work of vetting, of deciphering the meaning of what we are learning.  How does it stir us towards action?  Towards actions that are good, just and right.  Using God, again, as the model from the story of Creation, if we are upholding our attribute of goodness, if the drive for which we are aiming is towards a more right, just and equitable world, then we, perhaps, are able to listen too, and see, because we, too, are good. 

In a preschool room, the children are innocent, I trust we can all agree on that.  They all have so much to share with their teachers, with their peers.  The noise in that setting can be deafening and beautiful simultaneously.  The balance that is struck by masters of that environment is the responsibility of listening.  It is about a responsible listening for the needs of the students, aiming to the goal of creating a fair and loving environment, it is about accepting everyone and ensuring there is healthy structure and discipline.  So too, it is with our responsibility to be active and engage in the discourse of our communities, our nation and our world.  We must hear and listen to the needs of others.  We must aim for as fair, just and equitable society the moment allows, we must listen to others - no matter how much we may disagree…but listen, wholly and generously.  And, we must be disciplined to be able to be open to the limitless learning that follows.  And finally, this responsibility of listening must stir us to action - speaking out and honoring our family values, our strongly held beliefs so that others will listen too.  We must ensure those who lead and hold positions of power practice that same kind of responsible listening.

Part of our liturgy is the prayer shema koleinu - beseeching God to hear our voice in prayer.  On this Rosh Hashanah, as we enter 5778, I offer the following in addition: 

שמע, יי, לקולות העולם תן לנו את הכח והשכל לשמוע ללמוד ולעשות עם חסד עם אהבה ועם כבוד

Listen, O God, to the voices of the world, give us the strength, the intellect to listen, to learn and to do with compassionate kindness, with love and with respect.  Amen

Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah