Monday, August 30, 2010


The Jewish tradition offers us so many ways to engage.  Studying our history, our sacred texts and our Hebrew language could each occupy a lifetime of work.  Social Justice and Bikkur Cholim (caring for those who are ill) have become full time positions in American congreations.  Jewish music is yet another area that comes to mind.  This list could go on.  Yet, there are many people who find their way of engaging in Judaism, their home in Jewish life, in the sanctuary.  Prayer, Jewish Prayer is an immeasurable part of our tradition, of our religious lives.  So, as I prepare for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and 5771, I am curious about something.

Why do you attend services?  Why do you celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  What motivates you to ensure you have a place to pray, to see others in your synagogue community and be present?

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Wishing everyone a year of health, happiness and prosperity.  May you enjoy countless moments of learning and growing.

Shanah Tovah U'Mitukah,

Rabbi Evon

Monday, August 16, 2010

Relationships are a Reason to be Jewish

There are moments in my rabbinate that stick out as reminders of why I do this work.  I just returned home from one of those experiences.  The motivation to share it in this space of my blog came from my desire to use this place to respond to, not necessarily answer, the question, ‘Why Be Jewish?’  First, it may be important for me to share why it is even a question because for some, you either are or you are not.  Yet, today, in America, I believe the reality is different.  There is a choice.  Rabbi Jan Katzew articulated it well when he wrote in a piece presented to the Symposium on Jewish identity last fall that, “We are free to live as Jews and we are equally free not to live as Jews.”1  As American Jews we actively make a choice about Jewish life.  We no longer live in the shtetl, or on the lower east side.  There are no longer restrictions on the professions against Jews, or for admission to universities.  We can lead a completely American life, achieve as much as our neighbors, and this freedom makes Judaism a choice.  Rabbi Katzew continued, saying about the freedom we are afforded in America that, “The price of freedom is responsibility and we share the responsibility to make Judaism a compelling choice in a culture replete with choices.”2

So, now we must respond.  And, a response to this question came to me over burgers with former Confirmation students.  I discovered that the relationships that tie us together as a community, as a people through shared experience, is why we should be Jewish.  That is one reason we should engage with synagogue life and organized Jewish community.  There is a sense of belonging that makes a difference in peoples’ lives.

Three weeks ago, I bumped into two former Confirmation students.  When they were in my class, it was my first year as a rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix.  They were, to put it diplomatically, “active” students.  Yet, they were two of the five I brought to Washington DC for our Confirmation trip.  These two young men demonstrated a serious commitment to Jewish life, although they may not say it, nor was it easy to spot.  It was not until three weeks ago during our passing conversation about one of them going off to school that I noticed it.  They asked me, “So, when are we going to dinner...I am leaving for school?”  I jumped at the chance and tonight we enjoyed burgers, fries and great conversation.  They were curious what it was like to officiate a wedding.  While they kept saying thank you to me for dinner and for taking the time, I could not express enough thanks to them.  I am grateful that our relationship was strong enough and meaningful enough for them to care.  During our time together, I shared my reminiscences of them, our time in DC, and my hopes for them moving forward.  It was later in the conversation that they expressed to me that the class (Confirmation) was important to them.  These two young members of our community openly shared that it was that tenth grade experience that keeps the Jewish experience on their minds.  I firmly believe that one should be Jewish because of the relationships and community that results when we embrace the shared past and a future that is intertwined.     

1 Reflections on Jewish Identities, 2 Ibid.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Seeing the Words

It is both compelling and daunting to share one’s own ideas and opinions.  It is especially so when you cannot see the reaction stretch across the reader’s (or the listener’s) face.  But, I guess that does not matter.  Franz Rosenzweig once wrote to Martin Buber, “For a word does not remain its speaker’s possession; he to whom it is addressed, he who hears it, or acquires it by chance—they all get a share of it; the word’s fate, while in their possession, it is more fateful than what its original speaker experienced when first uttering it.
So I guess it does not really matter in the end, for once an idea, a word, an opinion is shared, it is given life.  This reality motivates me to share my ideas, words, and opinions with anyone who cares to listen and read.  
I intend to use this blog to write about Torah and other Jewish texts.  The interesting and moving life-cycle moments that I am honored to share with others will often motivate me to share my experience.  I look forward to sharing thoughts on Israel and the challenges and triumphs of the Jewish State.  The events that shape our lives and the world we are responsible for are often on my mind so I intend to use this space to react and hear your thoughts as well.  The burning question, though, that pervades my work as a rabbi in 2010, living in America, is “why be Jewish?”  So without diving into that now, it leads me to the final two areas that I look forward to sharing thoughts on and that is living Jewishly and living Jewish values, or middot. 
So, I leave now having only opened the door.  And I leave you with a piece from the Torah portion for this week.  The opening of the portion, Re’eh, begins:  See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.  The unique formulation of the command, ‘See’, is in the singular.  Yet, later in the verse, ‘before you’ is in the plural (2nd person).  The Jewish tradition comments how this teaches us that the mitzvot (commandments) were give to the entire community as a group (‘see’ is in the singular second person), while each of us is given the choice about committing ourselves to the tradition (‘before you’ is second person plural).  

So, we could read this opening verse as:  See, all of you, the Jewish people, who have received the mitzvot as a way of life, there is a choice for each of you as individual Jews to choose your path.  Is this not the ultimate challenge of Jewish life?  Sure, we can make our choice about commitment, observance and living Jewishly, but who does it affect?  Is there not an endless chain of effects based on the decisions we make?  We must make the commitment to living Jewishly, and our individual choice is inextricably tied to the reality expressed in the opening of the parasha - see, all of you - collectively.  For the heritage belongs to all of us together.  We have been given this beautiful tradition, it must be integrated into your lives, as individuals and as a community.  May this week bring you opportunities to SEE the diverse ways Judaism is yours, as an individual, and also ours - Am Yisrael.
See - the opening word has so many ways to be understood.  That word no longer belongs to the author of Torah, to God, to Moses, to the sages of our Jewish tradition.  As Rosenzweig wrote, anyone can have a share of it.  See these words, take them, improve them, make them your own - just please share your own thoughts too!
Evon J. Yakar, August 1, 2010