Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 11, 2013
Recently I was studying with a family the concept in Judaism of Chosenness.  It is a difficult idea to think of our people as the Chosen Ones.  Throughout our history this has been a challenging description of our particularism, but it has also given us the charge to rise up, to be better than we were the day before...simply because we are Chosen.  Yet, I have trouble with this idea and I am not sure if the issue of having been chosen lends us a false sense of elitism or whether ti developed as a survival mechanism.

In the course of learning with this family, we explored the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael.  We examined passages from our Tanakah, our Midrash and from Islam's Koran and even Christian Scriptures as they all related to Abraham and how he was chosen to begin this movement...the one we now call Judaism.  Over the course of our hour plus session of learning, we did not reach an answer or conclusion about whether Chosenness is about being better - elitism or a survival mechanism.  However, one thing we did realize, one important realization we had was that the story, that of Abraham, has survived.  It has survived with such staying power that it has led to other major world religions, it has been commented on by countless people throughout history and this fact, that the story survives means the people survivies.  The realization we had was that when the story survives the people survives.

Judaism lives on with such strength today because we keep the story going.  Not simply retelling it, but adding layers to it in each generation...each week on Shabbat when we study a new portion.  Over the last couple months, our Torah study group at the Temple has grown by leaps and bounds.  Not entirely in numbers, although it is now regularly attended by a great group of learners, but certainly in discussion.  Our debates, our learning and our growing adds story to our story...that is what keeps Judaism alive, vibrant and blossoming.  I'm not sure what we were chosen for, if anything at all.  But, one thing we do well is discuss (read:  debate) Torah.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address.  As I heard, at various times over the past couple of days, words from President Lincoln's famous address I am reminded just how impactful his words became.  For a two hundred and seventy word address, they are quite profound. (1)  I recall asking teachers over the years how long a particular assignment or essay needed to be.  The often heard response, and something I now say to Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, is that it is about quality not quantity.  Well, Lincoln, sure taught us that lesson.  The timing, the event itself, the country's needs at the time, President Lincoln's charisma, or any number of factors play into the staying power of the address.  However, it is episodes like this one that are pointed to as a turning point in history.  Simply by the way his words have been remembered, do we recognize that dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg became not only an important monument to the lives lost, but a monument in time.

There are many events, or points on the timeline of history that remain as turning points.  They are dates we all remember, like 1776 and 1492.  Perhaps it is the year 164 BCE, the first Hannukah that sticks out in our mind this year.  Just as timely, it was Abraham Lincoln who fixed Thanksgiving as a National Holiday on the final Thursday of November beginning in 1863, and maybe that represents a turning point.  And while Thanksgiving seems to be a fixed date, so many have asked what is with Thanksgivingukah!  The convergence of Thanksgiving and Hannukah may mark a turning point too.  (Read more about this phenomenon by clicking here>>.)  Well, not really!  Its importance, that of the overlap, certinly isn't of great significance like the address, like 1776 or 1492.  But, it certainly has marked a great coming of age for American Judaism and popular culture.  The widespread curiosity has certainly been fascinating.  

Profound moment in history or not, turning point or not, this reality certainly provides for an interesting overlap of themes.  Hannukah, a celebration of lights, Jewish identity and the miraculous brings rich traditions in each Jewish home.  Thanksgiving certainly has its share of family traditions, regional observances and the like.  One commonality is the way these two holidays bring families together.  The Thanksgiving table can ring as one of the great gathering places in Americana.  The Hannukah party (or parties in some families) brings a similar gathering to mind.  As we prepare for the Great Thanksgivingukah of 2013/5774 I hope we all enjoy great opportunities to be with family, friends and community.  
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Evon

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wednesday November 13, 2013

You know…the more I study in Judaism, the more time I spend studying texts, perusing colleagues’ and fellow Jews’ divrei torah I realize a couple of things.  First – boy, do I have a lot to learn!  But, as Jews we know that our main task in life is to learn, from these texts, from life, and from each other.  The other thing that continues to strike me as strange, things that really turn me around is finding out that things are just not as simple as I learned them in Sunday school.  I mean – that whole God is everywhere and no where thing at the same time…that worked when I was 5…now it is just mind-boggling.  Oh yeah, that whole Noah’s ark thing…two of every animal.  Really?!?!?!  So, this list could go on.  For me it is not so much about the reality of it, or the miraculousness of it, but rather what we learn each time someone from our long shalshelet hakabbalah – chain of tradition, offers a new insight or a different view.

This year, so it is with our Parsha – Vayishlach.  Jacob departs the house of his father-in-law, sends messengers ahead to check out Esau and we find the famous story of Jacob wrestling with the divine being.  The story is familiar.  We think about Jacob’s two great encounters with the likes of divinity.  First, in his flight from Esau he dreams of the ladder, the angels going up and down.  Now, upon returning and seeking reconciliation he sends his family forward and returns to the Jabbok River.  There, on the shore of the river Jacob wrestles with…as it says in one verse an איש – meaning man.  Yet, later, just six verses later as Jacob names the place Peniel because he has seen God - אלוהים, as the verse states, “כי ראיתי אלוהים פנים אל פנים – for I have seen God face to face.”1  So, back to Sunday school – I grew up believing – as I was taught – that Jacob wrestled with an angel.  So, which is it?  Is it another human being?  An angel?  Or actually God?

What I learned in Sunday school suddenly becomes more complex.  And, for me it is not about whether it is actually God, or an angel, or perhaps another human being, but rather what each of those possibilities can teach us.

The text that really gave me a new understanding this year comes from the Midrash that teaches that Jacob’s sparring partner was actually another man – or at least related to that man.  Hama Bar Hanina said regarding the “man” who wrestled with Jacob, it was the guardian angel of Esau.  To this Jacob alluded when he said to Esau, later, “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”2

So, in his effort to once again confront his brother, Jacob must overcome his anxiety about this encounter.  The apprehension is so much that Jacob engages in this mystical struggle with all that Esau is – but in the form of an angel.  Jacob is doing everything he can to prepare for this moment.  Ramban teaches us about this epic confrontation that, “one brings gifts and sacrifices to worship God, and Jacob also brought gifts and offerings to placate his aggrieved sibling.”  Furthering this idea, Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, “perhaps what the Torah, and Ramban, are pointing out is that we communicate best not by relying on superficial devices of words, and thoughts, but rather by allowing our deepest parts to respond to the presence of the other.”3

The guardian angel of Esau – this description of that mysterious sparring partner on the shore of the Jabbok River opens up a whole new view of relationship.  I loved this story when it was about wrestling with God or an angel…any old angel.  But now, the guardian angel of Esau – this is different.  When that divine being takes on the title of Esau – it is an “other.”  And, as Rabbi Artson teaches us it is about allowing our deepest parts to respond to the other.  So, Jacob once having prepared for the actual confrontation, with Esau’s angel, he can allow that deepest part to respond – in the presence of the other Esau himself.

There is just something about human interaction that requires our attention.  There is something hidden within our being that necessitates our entire being – that deepest part must respond. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches us that, “Abraham, Moses, and the prophets taught not a Jewish truth, but a human truth.  God has chosen only one dwelling place in this universe and that is the human heart.”4  It is this God within that we respond to when we are truly in the presence of another.  It is all of these that Jacob wrestled with – he began his journey of wrestling with God as he set out on his journey seeking to establish his life and a relationship with God.  It is an angel on the shore of the river – and eventually he struggles to be present, truly present before Esau – and only then was their reconciliation possible.  Jacob had to ready himself not for whether he saw God, an angel, or an angel in Esau’s face – but rather he had to be ready to be seen by the other – truly seen.  It is most important that we are cognizant of how we present ourselves – not our clothing, possessions, accomplishments, or titles – but rather are we truly enabling others to build stronger and more lasting relationships with us.

When we walk into a room full of strangers we prepare one way, and into a room of friends we present differently.  What matters most is how aware we are of ourselves – are we enabling others to see the deepest part.  Knowing that all of us created בצלם אלוהים – In God’s image and as Rabbi Sacks teaches – with God dwelling in our hearts – when we know this, then that deepest part can respond to the other.  Jacob may have seen angels moving about on that ladder.  On the shore of the Jabbok, Jacob may have confronted Esau’s angel, or God Godself, perhaps it was even Esau himself.  But, it is not about what Jacob saw, but rather how was he seen –  the reconciliation, the building of a stronger relationship was only possible when Jacob presented just himself – after all those gifts, after all the words, and thoughts of preparation – it was just Jacob and Esau.  They were face to face – for in both of them dwelt God – in their hearts.  May we all find that deepest part of ourselves – that place where God dwells – and share it with others building stronger and lasting relationships.

Shabbat Shalom

1 Genesis 32:31.
2 Genesis Rabbah 77:3 on Gen. 33:10.
3 The Bedside Torah:  Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams.  By Bradley Shavit Artzon & Miriyam Glazer, P. 58.
4 Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan.  A Letter in the Scroll, p. 191.  

Friday, November 8, 2013

Friday November 8, 2013

This week, we read a Torah portion (Vayetze) that among many lessons reminds us of the divine presence.  It is the story of Jacob's flight from his brother Esau.  We hear the tale of Jacob's dream of the ladder, with angels ascending and descending to and from heaven.  Upon waking, Jacob exclaims how God is, "present in this place, and I did not know it!" (Gen. 28:16). This is an important component of Jewish theology and the various understandings of divinity.  The ever-present God that is in everything is something many of us have been taught from an early age.  

Yet, there have been many times throughout our Jewish history that events cause us to question this theology.  The Holocaust during World War II was one of those times.  This weekend marks the anniversary an event that many consider the "official" beginning of the tragic events that befell our people during World War II.  Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, occurred 75 years ago in 1938.  It is viewed as a turning point by many because of the state sponsorship of the violence that appears to have taken place.  Whatever the case may be, this commemoration reminds us of a time when recognizing what Jacob did after his dream becomes more difficult.  How is that we can recognize the divine presence amidst such awful events and unthinkable acts of vilence and hatred?  

This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves.  But, just as Jacob had to recognize that only he had responsibility for his actions in the story that continues in Torah over the coming weeks, I, too, have evolved my theology to realize that evil exists in others' acts.  The divine presence is something we bring into the world when, and only when, we recognize the beauty that is possible in our actions and behaviors.  As we celebrate Shabbat this week and mark the 75th anniversary of this horrific period in world history, may we all commit ourselves to always work for the positive and embrace the divinity within each of us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Evon

Thursday, October 31, 2013

October 30, 2013

As the holiday of Sukkot drew to a close a couple weeks ago, a big transition occurred in the traditional prayer service.  Daily Jewish prayer includes a plea, a supplication for moisture - different forms of precipitation.  Since our ancient prayers originated in the Ancient Near East, with Israel especially in mind, they consider the normal weather patterns of that region.  From Pesach until Sukkot, the prayer is for the dew to rise up from the vegetation.  While from the end of Sukkot until Pesach, we insert a prayer for the winds and the rain to return.

With a pre-Halloween snow storm, preceded by the wind stripping the Aspens of their golden leaves this prayer certainly seems to make sense at this time of year.  The prayer, at its core, is our people's recognition of how tied into the seasons we are as human beings.  The water cycle is something that we are deeply connected to here in the west.  Not just the tourism engine that drives our town, but certainly fire hazards and overall well being our environment.  Our Jewish tradition not only recognizes this connection to the natural world, but understands that some is beyond our control.  When it stretches beyond our reach to truly affect it, we turn to the divine mystery of this beautiful created world, hence the prayer. 

Yet, there is much we can do.  Simply by being conscious of our resources, teaching our  young people about this deep connection between Judiasm and nature and by celebrating the rain (or snow) in its season!
October 23, 2013

Over the last couple of weeks, our Torah story has displayed moments of our ancestors best character, and their worst.  We have seen moments of righteousness and moments lacking.  This week, our matriarch Sarah has the portion named for her chayei sarah - the life of Sarah, yet in the opening verses we learn of the end of her life.  It is a itme of great transition as Isaac becomes the next in the chain of our ancestors.  There is another tale of greatness from one of our ancestors in this week's story line as well.

When Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac we become witness to what our tradition considers the pinnacle of chesed - kindness.  It is a a kindness that exceeds all others.  It is the moment when Eliezer is resting by the well, that Rebecca, the soon to be bride of his master's son, offers water not just to provide water for Elizer but also for his animals.  This exceeding act of care for another is what our tradition points to as the example of true chesed - kindness.

When I examine our community and consider the ways we reach out to one another, I am consistenly proud to be part of such a kehillah kedosha - sacred community.  It is a collective that often lives this kind of kindness.  The rides offered to others, the care you all take for our building, for things as simple as washing the tablecloths and taking out the trash are all wonderful acts.  They are the seeds of chesed.  To allow this plant to grow, we often reach out and help others in our wider community through social justice.  Other times we support within during times of need and celebrate at times of joy.  One additional way to water and tend these seeds of chesed is through our caring committee work.  Many of you have attended these gatherings and there are more to come.  This is one additional way we can ensure our TBY family continues to stretch beyond the walls of our beautiful building and the bonds of Jewish connection are always strengthened.
October 16, 2013

In this week's Torah portion, Abraham stands up for his view of righteousness.  He argues with God over the number of righteous people that might be living in Sodom and Gomorrah.  He questions God's sense of justice in decreeing destruction for the two cities.  In the end, it is decided that there are not even ten righteous people there.  While the annhiliation of these two cities leaves much for interpretation and debate, it is this moment of standing up to leadership, to God in the case of Abraham, that seems to ring loudly as the message this week for me.

As we endure day after day of our government failing to work, failing to fulfill their jobs, on every side of the "aisle" I hear the words that Abraham spoke to God, "Shall the judge of all the earth not deal justly?" (Gen. 18:25)  When I read this verse this week, it sounds something like this, "Should those charged with working on our behalf not even get their basic job done?"

The message rings as an opportunity for us to follow in Abraham's footsteps.  To call out to those who represent us and simply say, get the job done.  Do what you can to represent us, your constituents, but most importantly repair our reputation as a fiscally responsible nation.  This to me seems to be the common message.

It is not every week that a Torah portion echoes so clearly our current events.  Yet, standing up to injustice, speaking loudly for what matters to us is Abraham's message, and right now it is unjust that 1000s of workers are laid off, furloughed during the shutdown, that access to services, parks and other "non-esential" programs is denied and that our full faith and trust in our government is being sullied.

As this reality continues, I urge all of us to contact our representatives with a simply message:  Do your best to represent us, your constituents, but get the job done and get it done today.  That is living in the footsteps of Abraham.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur Morning - Signs, Wonders & Marvels - Miracles or Seized Opportunities

    Long ago, Shlomo, a simple spice merchant, lived in Marrakesh, in Morocco.  He made his living by buying spices from different dealers and then selling them to his neighbors in the Mellach - the Jewish ghetto in Marrakesh.  He and his family lived a comfortable life and there was always enough food on the table for everyone, especially on holidays or on Shabbat.  Even enough for the passing beggars, who were never turned away empty-handed.  Shlomo, who was a pious and believing man, would always call out to Rabbi Mordechai Ben Atar, as was the custom, when going through the arched gates of the Mellach.  Rabbi Mordechai Ben Atar was known to perform many miracles, and his name was often called out by people for protection from evil or for good luck.
    Soon war broke out in Morocco and many items became scarce in the Mellach.  However, nothing was more scarce than spices.  Among the scarcest of the spices was black pepper.  Any black pepper that was found was either sold at outrageously high prices or confiscated.  The police would routinely make searches among all the spice sellers and if they found any black pepper, they took it, and then put the merchant in jail.  Shlomo felt that it was important to try and find this spice because it was one of the main spices used in Moroccan cooking.  He tried his best, but the only spice he could find to sell was red pepper, which was bought and sold for very little money.  Then suddenly, as if in answer to his prayers, there was a rumor of a new shipment of spices outside of the Mellach.  Without much hesitation, Shlomo hired a driver with a horse and wagon and left to meet the shipment.  As he rode through the main arch of the Mellach, he touched the side of the wall and called out to Rabbi Mordechai Ben Atar to watch over him.
    When he reached the market, he saw sack after sack of spices being unloaded.  He approached the supplier and asked what spices were being sold.  “Only black and red pepper,” answered the man in a booming voice.
    “How much for the red pepper?”  asked Shlomo.  “Fifty dirhams per sack.”  “And how much for the black pepper?”  Shlomo asked.  “A thousand dirhams per sack.” 
    Shlomo did not know what to do.  Should he buy more of the red and sell it for little, or should he buy the scarce black pepper?  If he bought the black pepper, he would make more money but would also risk being arrested or losing all his expensive merchandise, and possibly his whole business. 
    He decided to take a chance and bought twenty sacks of black pepper.  The man in charge, however, was very greedy and decided to take advantage of Shlomo.  he loaded nineteen sacks of the precious black pepper onto Shlomo’s wagon and, when Shlomo wasn’t looking, he substituted one sack of red pepper.  Shlomo paid for the twenty sacks of black pepper and began his return journey.  As he approached the gates to the Mellach, he saw police everywhere.  It was a surprise inspection of everyone’s wagon.  Shlomo’s mind raced with possibilities of what to do.  But, there were no real possibilities.  “Stop!  Check the sacks in that wagon!”  ordered the captain pointing at Shlomo.  Sitting under the arched gate, he called out to Rabbi Mordechai Ben Atar to help him.
    One of the officers approached the wagon and climbed onto the sacks of pepper.  He randomly chose one and knifed it open.  As Shlomo thought the worst, the officer yelled, “Let this man through!  He only has red pepper.” 
    Shlomo couldn’t understand what had happened.  He knew he bought black and not red pepper.  When he arrived to the Mellach, well inside, he stopped and check the sacks.  Indeed the one that was cut open had red pepper, but all the rest still had the black pepper he thought he had bought.  He realized he must have been cheated by the merchant.  And then, he thanked Rabbi Mordechai Ben Atar for watching over him, it was truly a miracle! he exclaimed.1
    A miraculous event, a life, a family, a business saved because of a cheating merchant.  Is this really what a miracle is?  Shlomo recognized that he was spared because of the cheating merchant replacing one of the bags of black with red pepper, yet he still calls it a miracle.  We can call miracles simply something that are wondrous...and yes, this tale is truly such an event.  Our story, the story of our people, is filled with such miraculous events, such stories of phenomenon that often pass our understanding, and even exceed our modern sensibility as authentic, as real.    
    The miracles in the Bible are the record of our people’s past experiences with the natural world being altered...altered by God.  Perhaps the greatest of them all, that moment on the bank of the Red Sea.  Our people, as the prayerbook says, “still bent from oppression,”  stood in a brief moment of despair.  Moses, the newly minted leader, unsure what to do.  And the midrash teaches us it was Nachshon ben Aminadav, unafraid, who stepped in up to his nose and only then did the sea part.  Our tradition regards this moment, when God responded, as the text goes, hearing the Israelites plea, as the greatest of miracles.  Am Yisrael - the People of Israel - witnessed a great miracle, it was awesome, but not for everyone.  In Exodus Rabbah, we learn about Reuven and Shimon’s different view.  “They noticed only that the ground under their feet was still a little muddy-like a beach at low tide.  “Yucch!” said Reuven, “there’s mud all over this place!”  “Blecch!” said Shimon, “I have muck all over my feet!”  “This is terrible,” answered Reuven.  “When we were slaves in Egypt, we had to make our bricks out of mud, just like this!”  “Yeah,” said Shimon.  “There’s no difference between being a slave in Egypt and being free here.”  “And so it went, Reuven and Shimon whining and complaining all the way to freedom.  For them there was no miracle.  Only mud.  Their eyes were closed.  They might as well have been asleep.”2
We have a choice.  They had a choice.  Were these miracles, or seized opportunities to recognize the power in our world?  Shlomo knew full well the cheating merchant swindled him out of one sack of black pepper, yet he exclaimed, “it was truly a miracle.”  And the Israelites, upon reaching the other side of the Red Sea, sang in joy to God - מי כמוך באלים יי מי כמוך נאדר בקודש נורא תהילות עשה פלא- Who is like you among the gods, O Adonai?  Who is like you wondrous in holiness?  Awesome in praise, doing wonders and marvels!  But not all of them...Reuven and Shimon, they saw it differently.  They failed to seize the opportunity to see the wonders around them - being freed from slavery and all that meant to our people.
    It is our opportunity to be seized, especially on Yom Kippur, to take advantage of what has been laid before us...what continues to fill our interactions each and every day.  We can engage with the events in our lives looking up, engaging with the wonders around us - considering them as miraculous, like Shlomo and the Israelites.  Yom Kippur, this seemingly endless day, provides us with an extended moment to recognize every deed, every interaction, every encounter provides us the potential for a miracle.  While our people’s story is full of miracle moments, signs beyond understanding, wonders beyond explanation, what purpose do these events serve?  How can we make sense or meaning out of them? 

From the Flood to the Ten Plagues, from the event at Mt. Sinai to the earth swallowing Korach - and everything in between, these stories are often used to express God’s role in the story.  They invite God as a character in the Torah narrative that changes the course of history, that enacts punishment and that interacts with human beings.  On this Day of Atonement, we utter many prayers that beseech the Divine for similar intervention.  Yet, this is not the only belief in our Jewish tradition.  Many of us are challenged by this theology, this personification of a God that interacts, that intervenes in our lives, our world.  In one Talmudic tale, miracles are used to attempt to prove a point.  Amongst the great debates of our sages, one stands out as a turning point for our understanding of miracles, or events, wonders, and signs that are beyond our comprehension. 

In tractate Bava Metzia of the Talmud, we see an argument over the purity of an oven.  The majority of the sages say that the oven is unclean.  Rabbi Eliezer, however, thought that the oven was clean, and therefore okay to use.  Eliezer said, “if the halacha - the right legal position, is with me, let this carob tree prove it,” suddenly, that tree uprooted itself and the tree flew 400 cubits from its location.  The Sages were not convinced, so he said, “If the halacha agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it” and the water began to flow in the opposite direction.  The sages were still not convinced, so Rabbi Eliezer called upon the walls of the study house, and the walls began to crumble and fall (until they were told it was none of their business), and finally, Rabbi Eliezer called for the Heavens.  At that moment, the Bat Kol, the heavenly voice exclaimed that Rabbi Eliezer was indeed correct. 

After what can only be described as an amazing turn of events, you can imagine the Sages who had declared the oven impure weren't quite sure what to do, but Rabbi Joshua had the answer.  He quoted Deuteronomy, part of our Yom Kippur Torah reading, saying, “לא בשמיים היא, it is not in the heavens,” and the oven was declared impure, following the majority, and going against Rabbi Eliezer, his miracles and the Heavenly voice.3   

In this moment, after all the miracles Torah recounts had been done for our ancestors and for us, the sages reply, “It is not for heaven to decide!”

It is for us to decide.  And despite the prominent role of what we refer to as miracles, extraordinary phenomena, distinguished from normal and usual events, in our Torah narrative, there is no biblical Hebrew word for “miracle.”  Ronald Isaacs, author of Miracles:  A Jewish Perspective teaches us that the closest related words are מופתים - wonders and אותות - signs.4  We also have the word often translated as marvels - נפלאות and the word for miracle most of us are probably familiar with, נס as in נס גדול היה שם - the words on the dreidel - a great miracle happened there.  So what exactly are we do decide?  We are charged to understand the role of these wonders, signs, marvels and miracles not just in our storied past, but also in our world today.  Left to decide whether we see them, if we seize the opportunities to embrace the power we have as human beings.  With many names there are many understandings.  There are those, especially among our Biblical ancestors, who regarded the miracles as literally true and authentic.  Today, many of us look at them as inspiring allegory, as parables and perhaps as metaphors for something - a lesson to be learned.

The Rambam, the great teacher of our tradition regards miracles as something a bit different.  It was his rationalist approach that took issue with things that seemed to suspend the natural laws.  We have to remember that while our ancient ancestors took for granted that these miracles can and do occur, “a miracle was not thought of as a suspension of natural law, since, before the rise of modern science, there was no such concept that required suspension.”5  Maimonides found this tension, as he was the greatest scholar of Judaism, of the text and the tradition, yet he was also a learned man in science, medicine, astrology, philosophy and all the subjects of his day.  He regarded miracles as anything than changes the course of history, however big or small. 

For many of us Shlomo was saved from the police as he smuggled black pepper into the Mellach because of happenstance, because of the cheating merchant.  For others, even for Shlomo himself it seems in the story, it is his prayer to Rabbi Mordechai Ben Atar for safe passage that is answered, a miracle wrought by the saintly rabbi.  And still others strive to explain the parting of the sea as a strong wind event, something occurring, albeit abnormal, that does not suspend the laws of nature, but causes us to see it and understand it differently.  This is the many names, and many understandings.
In our own era, these miracles have been understood in even new ways.  It was Mordecai Kaplan who built upon the Rambam’s semi-rationalist approach and the reality of the modern age and saw in the concept that God performed miracles for the sake of the righteous holds something important for us to learn from.  It lifts up the idea that responsibility and loyalty to what is right is something for which we should, well..move mountains.  It is the telling of the stories of the miracles themselves, of changing the course of history through them, that is what we should be paying attention to. 

So if the story, the change, the general trajectory of the plot is the key, then we must ask how this plays out in terms of this day...the Day of Atonement.  If all of the stories within our tradition that we consider miraculous, or describing wonders and marvels are brought about by God, then it makes sense that we continue that imagery on this day.  The prayers, the penitential statements we utter, the confessions we articulate are directed to that same source of the miraculous.  We are asking for something to change, to change the course of history, our personal history.  We can view this as an alteration of what would be the outcome if, and only if, we were truly fearful of some form of divine retribution.  But I think it is safe to assume that we do not believe it happens that way, if it ever did. 

This still leaves us begging the question about what is the change, what is it that we want the miracle, the magic that happens on this day, to change.  Yom Kippur, this seemingly endless day, provides us with an extended moment to recognize every deed, every interaction, every encounter provides us the potential for a miracle.  The change is the miracle, but it is not the change brought about in a supernatural way, by a being beyond our comprehension.  It is the change within each of us.  It is the power each of us holds to make that change through our own lives, our own ways of living. 

Simply taking the time out of our day, an entire day out of the year, away from our technology, our jobs, our hobbies...whatever it may be, that is certainly one form of the miraculous; but it is more, it is using this extended moment to recognize that every deed, every human interaction, every encounter provides the opportunity to make a change...a change for the better.  What is the human miracle?  It is Teshuvah...the ability to change and to allow change, that is forgiveness.  When we engage with the challenging words and thoughts of this Day of Atonement, Teshuvah is the ability to be a miracle - to be something different, to change the course of our own history and be that better human being.  Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, wrote, “A miracle cannot prove that which is impossible.  It is useful only as a confirmation of that which is possible.”6 

It is our Torah portion for this Day of Atonement, it is our sages in arguing over the purity of an oven who exclaim לא בשמיים היא - It is not in heaven, it is not for heaven to decide.  It is for us to decide.  Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement affords us the opportunity to recognize that human miracle, the ability we have to seek and grant forgiveness, to alter our way of being in the world, to turn - תשובה and recognize that every moment in the coming year provides signs, wonders and marvels...they are either miracles, and for some that is important, or their are seized opportunities to recognize a change in the course.  In the year 5774 let us all take the time to seize the opportunity to recognize our human power, our human ability.  Let us all be authentic in our recognition of that capacity that sets us apart from the rest of the creation and bring that miracle into our reality.

Shanah Tovah - G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May the New Year be a Good Year for all of Us!

1 The Miracle of the Black Pepper, in Chosen Tales:  Stories Told by Jewish Storytellers, ed. Peninah Schram.  Page 286.
2 Ex. Rabbah 24:1.  Adapted from Ronald Isaacs’ Miracles:  A Jewish Perspective. 
3 Bava Metzia 59b, Babylonian Talmud.
4 Page 1.
5 Jewish Views on Miracles, by Louis Jacobs -
6 3:24.

Friday, September 13, 2013

 Kol Nidre - B'racha V'Klalla - The Reward and....

   Growing up, Shabbat morning almost always had a special breakfast.  Except of course, when Yom Kippur fell on Shabbat.  If it wasn’t home baked, it was usually made from challah from one of our favorite spots...and there were a few.  We would all work together to enjoy challah french toast.  Now, in our family there were actually a few different kinds.  And I’m not talking about raisin versus plain.  It was my brother and sister who liked their challah french toast crispy, what I would have called burnt in those days.  And my mother and I, we liked our french toast still a bit gooey.  The egg batter still soaking on the inside of the thick cut challah french toast.  I know, I know all of this food talk is unfair, but think about the great reward of our communal break-fast at the end of the waiting! 
    There were also a few different ways to “dress” your thick cut challah french toast in my family.  There was the rare, and I mean rare occasion when it called for a dollop of sour cream.  Not usually my preference.  Then there were the syrup days, nothing fancy just regular aunt jemima syrup drizzled over a mound of the thick cut challah french toast.  And then the white granulated sugar, poured generously over that same mountain of gooey goodness.  I remember those Shabbat mornings fondly.  I remember, too, that morning my sister said jokingly to me as the syrup streamed out of the plastic spout on the bottle onto my french toast, “if you’re going use so much syrup, why don’t you just drink it!”  So what is a twelve year old boy to do in response to his snarky older sister?  That’s right...  I proceeded to hold the entire bottle upside down above my hinged open jaw and squeeze as hard and fast as I could! 
    Just then, because Jewish mothers have eyes in the back of their head, my mother turned around from the stove top gasping at the sight of my gluttony and screamed, “Evon Joshua!”  “uh oh, middle name this must be bad, I thought to myself.”  “If I ever, EVER, catch you doing that, you will NEVER see the inside of an ice rink again!!!!”  Now I’m not quite sure to this day what that chosen punishment had to do with the crime.  But, I do know it was probably the worst punishment this guy, who still plays hockey today, could think of...  Hockey was my escape.  It was where this twelve year old boy could take out all his anger, his angst and not get in trouble for it.  It was my sport of choice, my passion.  Needless to say, I slammed that syrup back onto the table promising to never try that again...and this was one boundary I was never going to push.  The reward of hockey for me was far too important, and the prospect of a punishment banning me from the ice, was far too terrible to imagine. 
    There are many reasons the High Holy Day season draws so many of us to Temple.  There are countless motivations that stir the Jewish soul to ensure the proverbial Book of Life has us inscribed for good.  No matter what our Theology states, and it makes no difference what our view of God may or may not entail, there is a sense of the cosmic order being aligned for us as Jews on this day, the Day of Atonement.  It is aligned as THE TIME to make the sacred pilgrimage to the Temple to utter centuries and millennia old words that articulate our hopes for a better year, our fears about the past year.  On Rosh Hashanah we speak out...we speak to what our world is calling our for, what it is asking of us; but on Yom Kippur we look inward, we examine how a sense of reward and punishment drives, motivates us to engage.  The day gives voice to our wants for ways to better ourselves and it spells out clearly that reward and punishment are at least part of what we are feeling on this sacred day.  And while this ancient imagery is so present, we know there will not be any lightning bolts for those choosing not to fast, there won’t be natural disasters created as divine retribution, there is still a strong sense of reward and punishment.  Our Torah portion on this day, this Shabbat Shabbaton - Sabbath of Sabbaths puts forth quite clearly - “See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil.”1  If the divine retribution part of the equation, the punishment is lacking, we must seek to understand differently how the punishment still plays a role.  The reward we can certainly articulate - the benefits of living in community, living our great Jewish tradition, ensuring it is passed on from one generation to the next.  But what happens to the other side of that equation, the punishment, the curse?  Bracha v’klalla - blessing and curse may no longer be exactly what is articulated in the text.  The choice of life and good or death and bad, of blessing or curse is in our hands the texts says.  On Yom Kippur, on the Day of Atonement we engage in recognizing that the reward and punishment are realized in our own actions, when we engage in what the day presents us with:  The opportunities to evaluate our teshuva - our turning, our tefillah - our prayer and our tzedakah - our righteousness.      

    The challenging words of the Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer that questions what the year truly holds for each of us, pervades the theme of this day.  A poem written about a thousand years ago epitomizes the Holy Days.  It is the troubling passage that reminds us of all that we cannot control in our world, in our lives.  It thrusts us into the reality of what it means to be human...that whether they are rewards or punishments, things befall us, things happen.  The Unetaneh Tokef forces us, even if for a brief moment, to cede power, for that’s what its title means - give over to the power of this sacred day.  But, I must ask the same question I did about reward and punishment.  If the equation is a bit broken - to what are we ceding power?  Helen Plotkin recently wrote in the Tablet mag, a Jewish online journal, that the “poem ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ reminds us that we can change our own character, even if we cannot completely control our future.”2  We are ceding power to the human reality that we cannot control everything that occurs in our world, but we can control our character.  Yom Kippur is the opportunity to center ourselves to be able to respond, respond with our character.  The middle section, the most difficult part of the Unetaneh Tokef begins:
    On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
    How many shall pass on and how many will come to be.
The list continues to that crescendo we are all too familiar with:  ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה, But Repentance, prayer and righteous acts-righteousness deflect the severity of the decree.   The system of reward and punishment goes through a paradigm shift with the utterance of this poem, this prayer over the last millennia.  The reward is life itself it exclaims.  Unetaneh Tokef reminds us of the opportunity to continue becoming our best selves, to discover our authentic self.  The punishment, well those are beyond our control, but we can respond to all those that seem, that feel like a punishment by engaging in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah - they give us control of the person we aim to become.
    TESHUVA - Our Jewish tradition teaches us much about the role of repentance.  We learn about the stages of this process laid out by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah.  He guides us to think beyond the wrongful acts we may have committed but to think deeper about our character as well.  Maimonides wrote, “Do not think you are obliged to repent only for transgressions involving acts such as stealing, robbing, and sexual immorality. Just as we must repent such acts, so must we examine our evil feelings and repent our anger, our jealousy, our mocking thoughts, and our excessive ambition and greed. We must repent all of these.”3
On the High Holidays the kind of teshuva, repentance in which we engage to do this work, to develop our character so that we can respond better to the uncontrollable in life is different.  We can apologize, make amends and seek or grant forgiveness all year long.  However, there is a nuance to the uniqueness of these days of awe.  Teshuvah תשובה means “repent.” Well kind literally means “return.” The goal of our work at this time of year is to return to the source. “Repent” is from the Latin meaning “to feel the pain again.” That certainly is one part of the teshuvah process (when we regret our past actions), but the overall goal of teshuvah is profoundly simple – return to who you really are, to what some call your “essential self” and an authenticity of self.  There is also a distinct component to the spiritual work on this day.  That is the Vidui, the confession.  The public confession of Yom Kippur holds special power.  On one hand it could be done in community for fear of individualized punishment, a request for it to be diluted amongst the whole people.  Or, better, there is something added when we do this in public, not in community, but as a community.  We acknowledge that the balance of reward and punishment is something we bear together.  The teshuva process charges us to confess and so this first step, done with the support of our community surrounding us leads us in strength and confidence to the next steps. 

The Kotzker Rebbe was once commenting on the verse from Psalms, “For the distance of East from West, have our sins distanced God from us.”4  He asked, “What is the distance of East from West?”  he answered his own question and said, “The distance of East to West is the turning of one’s own head!  If we simply turn around, and turn to God, and call, God is there.  Prayer, requests and petitions - those follow.”  It begins with the ‘turning’ the teshuva.  The next component is that of prayer.

    TEFILLAH - The Kol Nidre prayer itself is a great example of this reality.  It is the piece of liturgy that allows us to be human.  While it is essentially a legal formula, it has become the fixed prayer that highlights the entrance into the Day of Atonement.  This medieval legal formula creates room for honest effort, true striving to live up to the expectations we make for ourselves and the ways we put ourselves out there.  Yet, it also leaves plenty of space for when we don’t.  When the obligations to which we commit become too much for us, for when life gets in the way or we simply cannot live up to the spoken expectation - this is our safe out...but only after honest effort. 

    What would be the purpose of such a piece if we were not concerned with the punishment?  Certainly there is in the back of our minds the reality of consequences...what happens when we don’t...when we can’t...when we are unable?  The Kol Nidre prayer offers us on this day, the moment of pause to consider how all of this plays into that equation of reward and punishment, of blessing and curse.  It allows us the time to consider how we will grow into meeting the expectations we set for ourselves, or not.  Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, Dean of the Cincinnati Campus of Hebrew Union College taught that Kol Nidre, “...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, 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.”5  Just like the Unetaneh Tokef, we are charged to understand that we will not be perfect, that we must find a keen sense of what it is that we truly can have control over.  In that discovery is both the reward and the punishment, the blessing and the curse.       

    In our Shabbat prayerbook is found a poignant quote, “pray as if everything depended on God, act as if everything depended on you.”6  It is this idea that helps us recognize that while teshuva is one step, one component over which we do have control in our lives, and prayer - the way we engage with it is another, ultimately action is required.  In the Talmud, in tractate Berachot there is a section with a litany of the various rewards for certain actions, for prayer and for attending celebrations and many others.  One short part reads, the primary reward for fasting [on Yom Kippur] is for the tzedakah - the charity [and righteousness that results and is] given to the poor.7 
    TZEDAKAH - On Yom Kippur, our third step in taking control of what we can, of building, or re-building our character is tzedakah.  It is said in this Unetaneh Tokef prayer that this is the third component to deflecting the severity or the badness of the decree that is to come in the year ahead.  The first two are largely individual acts.  We begin to make the commitment to turn - teshuva.  Then we engage in the liturgy - the prayer, which begins to reach out to others, for it is done in community, with community.  Now, at this stage, in fully understanding the balance of bracha - blessing and klalla - curse, we move to fully engage with others.  The acts of tzedakah give us more control to be in support of humanity, of others. 
    Most of us were always taught and maybe still hold fast to that idea too, that tzedakah is charity.  It was the extra change your dad pulled out of his pocket as you left  the car for Sunday school, or the jingling change in the pushke - the JNF collection box on your kitchen counter.  Its meaning is actually much broader.  It is best understood as righteousness and justice.  When we give to others with the understanding that this is seeking, establishing what is right and just - that is to share the blessings we receive, that is taking control of what we can.  That is recognizing that reward is in the process.

    The prophet Micah exclaimed, “God has told you what is good and what Adonai commands of you, to do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.”8  Tzedakah is giving generously yes, but it is incumbent upon us, it is the expectation to ensure justice and righteousness exist in our world.  The other two steps, the other two ways to deflect the severity, the badness of the decree...the seeming punishments of the year...are active choices, tzedakah is different.  It is incumbent upon us.   

    This is what we will be doing over the next day.  Finding the place of these three ways we can build our character, the ways with which we can respond to what befalls us in the year ahead.  We must balance how this Day of Atonement is the most intimate and personal of days...yet we are here as a a collective, we must strike that balance.  In one sense the punishment is fasting.  Something many of us are doing together.  But it is more so engaging in this three part journey.  It is not meant to be easy.  Turning into our authentic, best, our essential self requires admission, acknowledgement - that is hard.  But, eventually we will eat!  And, the ultimate reward is that as the door closes with Neilah and we turn power over to the universe, to the mystery of creation and say seven times for clarity - Adonai Hu HaElohim - Adonai is God and then, tomorrow night we will know we have done what we can.  We have taken control over what IS up to us to control.  That is the reward.

Tzom Kal - An easy and meaningful fast and G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May all be Sealed for Good in the Coming Year.

1 Deuteronomy 30:15. 2
2 Need a Reason to Repent?  The Answer - No Matter Who You are - Can be Found Here.  Helen Plotkin, September 3, 2013.
3 Maimonides commenting on Isaiah 55:7, “Let the wicked forsake his way, the unrighteous his thoughts.”
4 Psalm 103:12.
5 A personal discourse I had with Dr. Cohen in August 2008.
6 Mishkan Tefilah.
7 BT Berachot 6b.  The emphasis and some additional words are my own based on my interpretations and study with Rabbi Joel Simon.  We understood the connection to be that charity/righteousness results from a fasting observer in two ways.  One is that s/he will have food to give away and the second is the intensive prayer experience will result in better behaviors, for which a reward is merited.  
8 Micah 6:8.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Rosh Hashanah Sermon September 5, 2013
Rosh Hashanah 5774

Religious Equality, Freedom & Gender in Israel - Come to Israel

On May 11, 2010, a thirty year old woman was standing at the bus station in Be’er Sheva Israel.  It was seven thirty in the morning at the central bus station.  As she awaited her bus, a Haredi - ultra-orthodox - man seemed to be staring at her.  As his gaze continued to point in her direction, she realized he was fixated on her arm.  The thirty year old woman prays each morning with a tallit and tefillin and the latter sometimes leaves imprints on her pale forearms.  The woman, Noa Raz, was well aware this might irk someone from an ultra orthodox background, but she never expected him to over step the bounds of his version of modesty, let alone what was about to happen next. 

He asked several times with increasing hostility if the imprints were from tefillin.  Raz continued to ignore the man, half out of defiance and half out of preserving the modesty boundary she knew mattered to him.  Clearly frustrated, the man stepped in front of her and demanded to know, “Are the marks on your arm from tefillin?”  Finally, Raz replied, “Yes, they are from tefillin, and what do you want?”1

“Then something happened for which Raz was totally unprepared:  The man grabbed her hand and began kicking her legs, screaming that she was “an abomination.”2 

As Raz realized what the man was doing, a handful of men stood around looking on, it was a lone woman who yelled at the man to leave Raz alone.  She reported that once a few seconds past, she responded herself and it ended quickly.3

Shortly after this event took place, one of Raz’s friends shared the details of the incident with Yizhar Hess, the head of Israel’s Masorti movement - Israel’s version of Conservative Judaism.  “It’s a wakeup call for the State of Israel,” Hess said in a press release.  “We’ve turned into prisoners in the hands of a group of zealots, which considers itself, with the help of some politicians, to be the authentic Judaism.”4  He went on to proclaim that there is no bigger lie than when we hear that Judaism, at least in Israel, belongs to us all:  Secular, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc.5

A year and a half later, Naama Margolese, who was eight years old at the time, was used to walking to school with her friends.  Naama’s family ascribed to what we might call Modern Orthodoxy, or in Israel National Religious.  Those families that adhere to classical orthodox Judaism, practice modesty, keep kosher and strictly observe Shabbat.  Yet most, if not all, of them receive secular education, pursue modern careers and strike a balance between classically practiced Judaism and a modern way of life.  The young Margolese girl may have been used to traveling to school through her neighborhood with her friends, but that was until she began being bullied.  Yet the shocking part of Naama’s story is that the bullying was quite different from the type we battle here in America, in our schools especially.  It was at the hands of grown men, Haredi - ultra orthodox men who began spitting on her, insulting her and calling her terrible names due to her modest dress not being strict enough to adhere to their more rigorous dress code.6

And in June of last year, another modern orthodox woman, Vered Daniel, ventured into a Haredi - ultra orthodox neighborhood to shop.  Taking measures to be a step beyond her typical level of modesty, she wore a long skirt and blouse.  “When she left her car with her infant daughter in her arms, Haredi men screamed at her for dressing immodestly and spat on her.  Alarmed, Daniel ran back to her car, locking herself and her baby inside as the mob battered the vehicle with sticks and stones, shattering a window.”7 

The rising incidents of hatred from the ultra orthodox community in Israel, protecting not only what they view as their turf, but their way of life is alarming.  It is indicative of deeper seeded problems in Israeli society.  The public face of much of this debate, at least from the progressive - non haredi side - has brought the debate, the fight to what many consider the most sacred site in Judaism.  The Western Wall, or the Kotel is seen as the holiest place for prayer.  As the one remnant of the ancient temple accessible to Jews, its proximity to what once was the holy of holies bears a great sense of the sacred for so many.  For others it is the symbol of Jewish sovereignty in our ancient capital that is represented by the Kotel.  The group, Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall, has gained much traction and media in recent months.  For many years they have held Rosh Chodesh - new moon - services for women at the wall.  Women from all walks of Jewish life fill their ranks and are tired of being treated as second class.  For decades now, women at the wall have been prohibited from wearing kippot, a tallit and tefillin.  

It was early in July as the month of Av began, that the Nashot HaKotel were forced out of the women’s side of the prayer section at the wall and making international headlines.  While a recent court ruling in Israel had allowed for their prayer and use of traditional religious garments - tallit, kippot, tefillin, there was a call within the haredi community for women to flood the women’s side to fill it beyond capacity, therefore preventing the women of the wall to engage in their celebration of the new month.8

From a conservative Jewish background, from a liberal and Reform Jewish background and from a modern orthodox background, women are being forced to question their place, not just in and amongst classically orthodox communities, but their own neighborhoods, their country, the country women just off boats from Europe fought for, side by side with their male pioneers and Zionists in the 1940s.  The Nashot HaKotel - The Women of the Wall are not so much fighting over the physical space as much about the public, the cultural memory represented in that space.  It is not just about being allowed to be there; nor is it just about being supported by others to engage in a style of Judaism that is meaningful and in public ways, but it is about women being celebrated as integral to Jewish life.  While many of us in the Diaspora are deeply concerned about Israel’s existential threats, its foreign policy and relations, Israel is also under attack from within.  The internal issues have reached boiling.

A year ago, Anat Hoffman, director of IRAC - The Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism - essentially the Reform Movement in Israel’s social justice office, visited the US.  What she brought in her arsenal for fundraising, awareness raising and overall better, stronger relations among progressive committed Jews in Israel and the Diaspora was the idea, in her own words, that “What’s happening in Beit Shemesh is as big a threat to Israel as what’s happening in Tehran.”9  She was referring to the experiences of Naamah Margolese, the eight year old afraid to walk to school, and Vered Daniel, the women who sought refuge with her infant in her own car.

The challenge, as Hoffman describes, is about understanding that while Tehran, and now the unrest in Syria and Egypt, rising tensions among major powers over Israel’s place in the world, while they all pose major threats to Israel’s physical existence as a State, its own sovereign nation, there is more to be concerned about.  That Israel is deconstructing from the inside.  Without its national character being defined, truly defined as a place for all Jews, what does it become?  What can it possibly stand for? 

What’s happening in the cultural, or for some religious, wars in Israel is at times hard to understand.  “Women are seated readily at Israel’s Supreme Court, but at the backs of certain bus lines [that pass through haredi neighborhoods].  For decades, Israelis tolerated their nation’s dual identity as both a secular and a religious state, in part because haredi influence was largely confined to their own private spaces.”10  But demographic realities are forcing the issue and making it less tenable.  What is most shocking to many, especially students of Zionist history, is not just how quickly this has happened, but that after how the State began, that it is happening at all.

A piece published in the New Republic at the beginning of August speaks directly to this paradox and the culture war.  They describe the unlikely bedfellows of progressive Jewish women with orthodox women and making a case that this is one way Israel can be saved from fundamentalism.  The writers remind us that, “Even before Israel’s founding in 1948, modern Zionists envisioned a state that was a beacon of gender equality.  Zionism, which fused national aspirations with socialist ideology, encouraged the full integration of women into society, while Israel’s small population also made women in the workforce a necessity.  ...women were expected to work and fight alongside men, and working mothers were provided with services to help them do so, such as free child care.  An economic boom after the 1967 war drove yet more women into the labor market.  It seemed a fitting symbol of Israel’s progressive attitudes toward gender when Golda Meir was appointed prime minister in 1969.”11  

Yet, even with a female prime minister, the haredi communities failed to change attitudes.  Men remained, and still do to this day, free from military service.  Those engaged in full time yeshiva study are free from that obligation.  This leaves the numbers in the ultra orthodox community to study Torah, to raise large families that will inevitably tip the demographic voting scales to their own views.

I know that the political and civil unrest of the Mid East looms large.  I am aware that many amongst our ranks have a waning affinity and support for Israel, especially those of my generation.  It is a difficult argument to make for those who have not found their own reasons for living the value of Ahavat Yisrael - Love of Israel.  But this issue, this inner struggle, the current culture war of religious freedom, of gender equality and religious pluralism is important...more so it is imperative for us to care...and act. 

We must recall that among the many reasons Israel matters is because Jewish nationalism, the reality of Israel, celebrates what our people, the Jews, were, are and can be.  Zionism celebrates our right and capacity to do that in our own spiritual and political home, no less or more than any other nation in its own home.  Rabbi Dan Ornstein, of Albany New York writes that it is akin to Robert Frost’s poem, The Death of the Hired Man, “...about a farm hand who comes back to his former employers, a farmer and his wife, to spend his last days before his death.  At one point in the poem, the woman says that, ‘Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to let you in.‘  He goes on to make the case that Israel matters not just because it is the only democracy in the region, not just because of the Zionist experiment - to create, better recreate Jewish life, nor as a haven, but more.  It is about raising up the past, the beauty of our past, culture, religion, memory and breathing new life into it.  Israel strengthens the Jewish people for it is the epicenter.  The heart of the body of Isreal, the people of Israel.  It is where everything Jewish lives, thrives, evolves...where our identity grows and is the “...expression of our deepest values and moral struggles among the family of nations.”12      

But an Israel that fails the test of gender equality, that does not recognize religious pluralism and freedom does not express my deepest values as a Jew.  To me, to us and from our view point as liberal American Jews, proud of our liberal Judaism, this reality on the ground must see change. 

The Women of the Wall are making progress.  Recent rulings by the court system, movement, albeit snail pace, is being made in the Knesset and connections between all walks of Jewish life are being strengthened.  Kolech - Israel’s first Orthodox feminist group has partnered with IRAC - the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.  Their work has led to much of the change that has taken place and is working diligently to continue the work.13 

Supporting these organizations and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism in general is imperative and one way to make our voice heard.  It is one avenue for us, Jews of the Diaspora, to not only give voice to our value of Ahavat Yisrael - Love of Israel, but to ensure She does express our deepest values as Jews and will always be that open door home that has to let us in...let us in and welcome who we authentically are as Jews. 

Just as we would make change in our own country by writing to our representatives, the ministers of Knesset in Israel represent us.  While we do not get a vote, nor do I believe we should, we do have a voice.  They, as the Jewish State, speak for us often and we must be heard.  Share your thoughts, your opinions with those who lead the State of Israel.

Go to Israel, attend a liberal Jewish community, support their work.  Better yet, come with us, members of Temple Bat Yam for a journey to Israel this Spring.  Join with us for a cultural, historical and social tour through Israel.  We will learn about the religious heritage for so many around the world that are rooted in that Land...We will explore Jewish and Christian sites, connect with progressive Jews in Israel and learn how we can do our part to ensure Israel’s religious freedom, pluralism and gender equality becomes reality. 

Speak with your feet, give voice to your stand on the internal issues of our State of Israel.

May this year provide us the opportunity and may we seize that opportunity to ensure Israel will always be a home for ALL Jews.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May we all find good in the coming year and Shanah Tovah U’mitukah - A Sweet, Happy and Good New Year!


1 Excerpted and adapted from the Forward’s Blog - The Sisterhood.
2 Ibid. Direct quotation.
3 Ibid.  Excerpted and adapted.
4 Ibid.  Emphasis my own addition for delivery.
5 Ibid. 
6 Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism.  Isabel Kershner.  NY Times Online, December 27, 2011.
7 The Feminists of Zion:  An Unlikely Alliance between Orthodox and Progressive women will save Israel from Fundamentalism.  Allison Kaplan Sommer & Dahlia Lithwick.  August 4, 2013 - New Republic.
8 New Prayer Confrontation at Western Wall.  Alyza Sebenius and Jodi Rudoren.  July 8, 2013 - New York Times.
9 Israeli Women’s Rights Moving to Front of Bus.  Rebecca Spence.  January 25, 2012 - Jewish _20120125
10 The Feminists of Zion:  An Unlikely Alliance between Orthodox and Progressive women will save Israel from Fundamentalism.
11 Ibid.
12 To a Young Jew:  Why Israel Matters.  Blog on the Times of Israel by Rabbi Dan Ornstein.  June 16, 2013.
13 The Feminists of Zion:  An Unlikely Alliance between Orthodox and Progressive women will save Israel from Fundamentalism.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon Sept. 4, 2013
Rosh Hashanah 5774

Reset, Chalkdust & Authenticity

We live in a computer age.  I am sure most of us have been there...know we’ve all experienced that same thing...that same frustration.  As we look back at the past year, I want to look back twenty years ago and I vividly remember it, it was on the first computer machine we had in our home, the first Mac.  It was that hourglass unlike any other.  It was the hourglass with seemingly endless sand.  It would just flip, and flip, and flip and you knew.  Now, at least in the Mac world, it is what many call the pinwheel of death.  Cause that is usually what it means.  Whatever you were working on, whatever efforts you have recently expended are now useless, gone, dead. 

It is that moment when your computer can no longer keep up with you, and you get that symbol and you know that drastic measures must be taken.  You switch to the task manager, you force quit a program or turn to that champion command, the CTRL + ALT + DEL on a PC to reset.  If you work with computers enough, you don’t even need to look to notice where those keys are and you can just strike and hold in that order and soon enough you will be saved from the torture and your computer will reset.

That great programming shortcut, the CTRL+ ALT+DEL, actually has an interesting past.  It was a programmer working on a nascent project at IBM.  According to a recent article I read, David Bradley created this shortcut.  It was designed to save programmers tens of minutes, which would add up quickly for them.  For whenever they hit a glitch or bug and needed a “fresh start” they would have to initiate a series of memory tests with a reset that required a full reboot, but Bradley’s work around, his trade secret saved valuable programming time for everyone.  It was not long before this trade secret for one of the early computers in the early 80’s became an icon.  An icon for a “fresh start.”1

Isn’t that what this season is really all about...a fresh start; it is the CTRL+ALT+DEL of the year.  And the more I consider this analogy, how true this is!  For if we consider the function that this work around, this icon in the computing world was designed for, it is exactly what we engage in during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

Some look at this time and think of it as a clean slate, but that isn’t exactly what this time is for.  It is not the full reboot that David Bradley was trying to avoid, he wanted to leave the memory tests to another time.  When we hit the ‘reset’ button for a fresh start entering a New Year, it is much more akin to the CTRL+ALT+DEL.  It is a chance to start fresh, but WITH the memories, the experiences, the realities of the past lingering and remaining with us.  They become...well...kind of like our teachers.  It reminds me a lot of a chalkboard.  Yes, I am old enough to remember actual chalkboards.  And there just may have been a few times, especially in Hebrew School, when I was in a bit of hot water and had to clean the chalkboard after class.  So I know as kind of an expert, that no matter how many times you go over the board with the eraser, the chalk-dust remains. 

The New Year is not quite a clean slate.  The entire last year must be reconciled, reviewed, understood, even used.  The experiences we carry into the coming year, those leftover smudges of chalk on the board, become our teachers; they are our guides leading us closer to becoming who we have the potential to be.  It is a “quick reset” of a kind, an opportunity to mend broken bonds, to take an accounting of everything that has transpired since this time last year.  This season is all about taking account of the year that is ending, more so than celebrating the new one coming.  We sift that ‘chalk-dust‘ left on the board for the hints of the person we know that we can be, that authentic self that shines through in our better, no best moments.  We realize those parts, those moments when ugliness shone through despite our best efforts, or not. 

At this season, our minds wander through this ancient liturgy.  We aim to make sense of this tradition we treasure.  We struggle, often, as we wade through murky theologies, prayer that calls us to recognize our finite mortality and leaves no room to NOT question our deeds.  We think we know the litmus test for leading...or having led...a good life.  But how to know for sure?  What are the characteristics, the deeds, the words spoken that really matter?  We can, and must, use our sacred texts, our people’s teachings to guide us in this task.   

Our Jewish tradition lists the sins we have committed in our Vidui  - confession.  But it is also about the good we have done too.  We have to find a scale to help us balance, a way to reconcile the totality of our deeds, our character.  Determining the questions we must ask ourselves at this time of year to fully understand its gravity and possibility is the task.  In the Talmud, an image is created of a similar moment on a grander scale, it is the ultimate judgment when that finite mortality is realized.  Sometimes I see it as beautiful and other times terrifying.  My rational mind steers me from this picture as anything but real.  But my yearning to know if I measure up, if we have any real sense of what the recipe for that good life truly is, leads me back to that image.  The great Talmudic sage Rava, who taught in the 3rd and 4th centuries, teaches us that when we enter in for judgement we are asked a series of questions, six questions.2 

Now consider for a moment this season.  Think about the acts of atonement in which we are charged to engage and now think about what we might be asked.  What are the most important questions, the queries that truly identify a woman’s character, that delve into the recesses of a man’s soul?  These six questions posed by Rava in the Talmud might surprise you, yet they are simple and to the point:  1) Were you honest in business?, 2) Did you set times for learning? 3) Did you procreate? 4) Did you anticipate redemption? 5) Did you pursue wisdom? and 6) Did you have the awe of heaven?    

Were you honest in business?  That is the first question.  Not a great question of belief, or faith, but searing right to the core of the issue perhaps.  As Rabbi Ron Wolfson writes, “Look carefully at the text.  It's not just about business.  Its about honesty, integrity, faithfulness.  If you are not honest in your business dealings, can you be trusted to be honest in other relationships.  If you are not honest with others, can you be honest with yourself?  If you are not faithful with others, can your faith in God be trusted?”  No matter what you believe about God judging or not, keeping records of every deed or not, “But would you be willing to concede that, as much as you would like to hide your “unfaithful” business dealings from others, you can’t hide them from yourself?”3  This first question begins the work on character and the second moves to your priorities.

Did you set times for learning?  In other words, it is a question about the priorities you set in your life.  Was intellectual growth, learning to distinguish one idea from another, exploring the value of things other than your bailiwick, what provided you material success, of import in your life?  Where does education rank amongst the activities in which you engaged?

This next question is more than meets the ear.  Did you procreate? Rava says we’ll be asked.  We can hear this question and automatically think about our own children, or perhaps even grandchildren.  Yet, Rashi’s comment on this question opens up so much more packed into it.  He says this is about connection, a connection to the generations.4  In other words, “Did you work to foster connection from one generation to another?”  Was being a link in the chain of tradition of value to you?  The progression to the next question is natural, from understanding how we did or did not link ourselves to the past and the future begs this next one.   

Did you anticipate redemption?  This is where my rational mind wanders a bit.  This is the point when I have a bit of trouble, yet this is not just about a physical, worldly redemption wrought by a Messiah.  Rather, it is a vision of living.  Did we see the world as improving from day to day, year to year?  And was this our responsibility?

Earlier in the questioning we were asked about study, now comes:  Did you pursue wisdom?  In our Jewish tradition we certainly use this word wisdom often.  We must consider the difference between wisdom and education.  We consider those with much experience wise.  However, it is not just having the experience that brings wisdom.  Rather, it is those who combine with the experiences time for reflection and consideration.  So, the question is really asking, did you take the time to reflect upon your experiences?  To draw from them?  To be grateful for having the opportunity to learn from them? 

And the final question brings us to the ultimate character question, a purpose of life question:  Did you have the awe of heaven?  I think it is safe to say that most, if not all, of us are in Tahoe partly because we love being surrounded by such natural beauty.  Yet, there are some with whom we share this planet that just don’t find that same sense of awe.  A couple years ago, Rachel and I were hiking in Desolation Wilderness and as we approached Eagle Lake from above, a woman was sitting looking out at the beauty and stopped to ask us, “Do you know where Desolation Wilderness is?”  We responded that, “basically you are in it now.”  The woman seemed puzzled and said, “really?  Cause I thought it was supposed to be overwhelmingly beautiful.”  Well, this question is about whether you find awe in our world, are you in awe of the creation that exists around us?  Did you have the awe of the mystery that bequeathed us this amazing and beautiful world to live in?  Do you rightly and consistently express gratitude simply for living? 

So now we have the litmus test, right?  At least one put forth over a millennia ago; a list of questions to measure our lives against.  Each of these six questions provide us the chance to analyze, to rethink our lives, our purpose.  But more, the give us the opportunity to consider our best self and hit CTRL+ALT+DEL to get that fresh start. 

Another way is a practice to assess oneself, to test one’s character; it is an accounting of one’s deeds, actions, words, an inner stock-taking if you will.  Some in our Jewish tradition call this the Cheshbon HaNefesh - An Accounting of the Soul.  This phrase comes to us from the early nineteenth century work by the same name.  It was written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin.  In this work, a Cheshbon HaNefesh is described as a daily practice of examining one’s deeds.  Leffin prescribes a process for discovering your unique practice, so that your undertaking is not only unique but authentic.  It is a reflection of yourself, or the core of your best self.  For if it were just a generic practice we might find a comparison to others, those maybe we look up to as the process.  But, that is not the point.  Each of us may be stamped with the imprint of the original human being, but we are all a varied amalgam of our own human experiences and influences.  We each have an authenticity we must discover, to which we must aspire. 

Once there was a rabbi named Zusya who loved God with all his heart and soul, and who treated all God’s creatures with respect and kindness. Rabbi Zusya studied Torah, kept Shabbat, visited the sick, and praised God for all the goodness in the world. Though he was not a rich man, Zusya gave generously to those in need. Students came from far and near, hoping to learn from this gentle and wise rabbi. Zusya often told his students, “Listen to the still, small voice inside you. Your neshamah will tell you how you must live and what you must do.”

Each day Rabbi Zusya”s students came to the House of Study, called the Bet Midrash, eager to learn what they could from him. One day, Zusya did not appear at the usual hour. His students waited all morning and through the afternoon. But Zusya did not come. By evening his students realized that something terrible must have happened. So they all rushed to Zusya’s house. The students knocked on the door. No one answered. They knocked more loudly and peered through the frost-covered windows. Finally, they heard a weak voice say, “Shalom aleichem, peace be with you. Come in.” The students entered Rabbi Zusya’s house. In the far corner of the room they saw the old rabbi lying huddled in bed, too ill to get up and greet them.

“Rabbi Zusya!” his students cried. “What has happened? How can we help you?”
“There is nothing you can do,” answered Zusya.  “I’m dying and I am very frightened.”
“Why are you afraid?” the youngest student asked. “Didn’t you teach us that all living things die?”

“Of course, every living thing must die some day,” said the Rabbi. The young student tried to comfort Rabbi Zusya saying, “Then why are you afraid? You have led such a good life. You have believed in God with a faith as strong as Abraham’s, and you have followed the commandments as carefully as Moses.”

“Thank you. But this is not why I am afraid,” explained the rabbi. “For if God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Rebecca or Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”

The students were silent, for they understood Zusya’s final lesson. To do your best is to be yourself, to hear and follow the still, small voice of your own neshamah.5
We can only be ourselves, so why aim, strive, work tirelessly to be someone else? 

This is authenticity.  This is what it means to truly engage in the Days of Awe, in this season.  Each year we learn, grow, regress, miss the mark, achieve new things, overcome challenges, fail, succeed...and the list goes on.  This happens every year and each year we stand here, in this moment on the cusp of a new year together to explore the ways we can harness the best of our own person evolving, always becoming our potential.  Each year, our pinwheel spins, our hourglass endlessly flips as if stalled or overcome trying to be someone other than ourselves...  CTRL+ALT+DEL sets back on course to being allow our natural growth and evolution to continue.

Judaism, too, is a process of evolution.  Reform Judaism is authentic Judaism.  Anyone who studies the texts of our tradition would have a hard time arguing that every generation doesn’t add to the law, the stories, the teachings and try to understand what is holy in each generation.  This, our tradition, looking at the questions of Rava, the Cheshbon HaNefesh of Rabbi Leffin and understanding Zusya’s fear of not being authentic, through our eyes is the purpose.  We intertwine ourselves constantly with the past, but being in the present and looking ahead.  This is authenticity.  When we do this and come out ready to move into the new year and confident it will bring us closer to that best self, then we hit those buttons, CTRL+ALT+DEL and step forward as we are ready to do.

As we welcome the year 5774, may each of us find meaningful ways for that reset, the fresh start.  May each of us use the chalk-dust left over on our boards of the past year as teachers and may we come ever closer to the authentic self within.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May we all find good in the coming year and Shanah Tovah U’mitukah - A Sweet, Happy and Good New Year!

1 A Fresh Start, by Virginia Hughes.  July/August 2013, Mental Floss, Vol. 12, Issue 5.  P. 37.
2 Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a.
3 Wolfson, Ron.  The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven:  Reviewing & Renewing Your Life.  p. 10.
4 Rashi on the third question of Rava on BT Shabbat 31a.  His comment is:  היינו חוסן
5 This version of the Reb Zusya story comes from Partners with God by Gila Gevirtz.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Engaging w/ Elul August 30, 2013

This Elul stuff is pretty hard.  Finding the right way, or at least the right way for right now, to engage in this deep introspection keeps leading me down paths that are not my own.  What I mean is that I consider an action, a word shared, an action not done that should have been done and its almost always in comparison to others.  How do I, how does one, only reflect on him or herself?  The spiritual curriculum of taking an accounting of our soul must be authentic to oneself.  It must be the unique checklist for the person you want to, not better:  can be or become. 

Yet, I am not sure what the place is for reflection through the lens of the lives of others.  There must be a communal component. 

May this final Shabbat, the final day before Slichot bring us closer to that fine balance between reflecting ourselves against our best selves and the exemplary parts of others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Evon

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Engaging w/ Elul August 28, 2013

As Caleb, my almost 13 month old son, becomes more and more mobile, faster and faster from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, Rachel and I have implemented our own language to coordinate.  We call it a ‘reset’.  It is that moment one he’s playing, we are both keeping a watchful eye, but also partially engaged in something else.  One will say to the other, can you do a ‘reset’?  And one of us will dutifully and lovingly pick Caleb up and move him to a safer location, just so he can head back in the same direction he intended.  It frees us up for a brief moment to accomplish whatever task was at hand. 

This time of year, approaching a New Year, I am constantly thinking about this notion of ‘reset’.  The idea that the slate of deeds, actions and words can begin again.  Yet, I know that we cannot fully reset the time and wash completely away all of those experiences of the past year.  We can only improve the quality of our ‘reset’ from year to year if each year is full of better, more positive and healthier deeds, actions and words.  For then, the reset is to a higher level each year.

Set your intention today to not just wait for the holy days to ‘reset’, but to make each day an improvement on yesterday.

Make Today a Great Day,

Rabbi Evon

Monday, August 26, 2013

Engaging w/ Elul August 27, 2013

The challenge of teshuvah (true repentance and turning) for me is mostly, I think, in being able to only look inward.  So much of our lives are spent looking at the world, which can serve as a mirror.  We see how others react to us and we recognize something needs to change, or just a tweak.  Either our choice of words, our demeanor, or whatever.  But this inevitably, at least for me, leads down the path of judgment.  Assessing my own behaviors and decisions using the actions of others a yardstick is "judgmental".  This cannot be true teshuvah.  Perhaps, that is where our rich tradition of guiding our ways comes into play, yet it is my distraction.  I know that to not only find the best self moving into the new year, but also to truly raise my life to a higher level, I must also be authentic to only using myself as the yardstick.

It is hard to know what I can be, for I have not yet been.  This discovery is the power of teshuvah.  This is the power of this season in our Jewish tradition.

May your day be one during which you discover just a bit (or hopefully a lot) of your best self!

Rabbi Evon