Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Between the Two:  The Liminal Present of Vayechi and Israel


For those of us who Love Israel and thrive as Americans, we may often feel the pull between the two.  This week in Torah, as Jacob approaches the end of his life, he charges his son Joseph to commit to burying Israel (Jacob) in the land of his ancestors - in Israel.  In the opening verses, Torah employs both Jacob and Israel to name our patriarch.  This key moment in our Torah story speaks to the emotional and historical connection many of us feel to the Land of Israel.  Throughout our history, we have been criticized and sometimes praised for this dual allegiance.  One to the place and countries in which we have lived and even thrived and second to the place and space of our history and our modern redemption Am Yisrael - The Land and People of Israel.

I arrived in Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel) yesterday afternoon and ascended to Jerusalem.  In the last thirty six hours I have toured the Old City, embraced the sights and scents of the Machane Yehudah market, dined on Israeli treats of shwaarma and hummus, felt the emotional tide of Yad VaShem (The Holocaust Memorial) and sifted Temple Mount artifacts…and it has only been thirty six hours.  As this current adventure unfolds, I am once again lovestruck with the Land and People of Israel.  While many of you have heard me share the trials and challenges facing the State and its character over recent years, and yet my love for this place only grows.  This pull that we, as those who live Ahavat Yisrael, Love of Israel, is our reality.

As this week’s portion continues, we encounter the moment when Jacob begins to bless his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48) and creates change.  Israel changes the tradition of the Torah story of blessing the older child first and embraces the reality of the lives’ of his progeny.  He is living a balance between responsibility to his descendants and his ancestors, he is embracing the reality of his moment on this Earth - simultaneously.  The change of the blessing moment is one in which we learn to take hold of the reality before us - knowing that change is always present.  The pull he felt was to ensure the health and even the ability to thrive for his family by dwelling in Egypt and the roots drawing him to be buried back in Israel.  It is this that I am learning from Torah this week.  We are constantly and eternally in the liminal space between past and future and we call it the present.

Being present in this moment and in this place feels so powerful and I yearn to one day share this with you!  Israel is not the only place to thrive as Jews, though, for our Jewish, and secular, lives in America is invaluable to our Jewish story.  Yet, Israel existing is and must be our future.  It must always provide for us that pull for the reality of our story doesn’t just come alive here, it lives…in the present.  The name of this week’s Torah portion Vayechi - “And he lived” (Gen. 47:28) is a reminder of this present.  It is a prompt to allow ourselves to be enveloped between these two, our shared and cherished past, and our bright and promising future.  It is an inspiration to ensure that the present we create allows us to embrace the pull between our love of Israel and to flourish where we are…now.  Vayechi serves to enable us to own that responsibility to chart our steps from the present into the future we respect for what came before and where we are going. 

Vayechi - May we live in the image of Jacob who knew the power of the present, honoring the past and ensuring the future.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem,

Rabbi Evon

PS  I am grateful to the Kramer and Sudman families for sharing their journey to Israel with me and to Sam and Sally, the B’nai Mitzvah students we are celebrating, for teaching me much about this week’s Torah portion.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Chayei Sarah:  Connecting Some Dots from Torah, from Life and a Hopeful Future

This week we experience the end of the first chapter of our Jewish family. The parasha begins as Sarah dies and her burial in the Cave of Machpelah is negotiated by her loving partner Abraham. As the reading concludes, Abraham dies. Near the conclusion of the portion, we read, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.” (Gen. 25:9-10 - Click Here>>> for the whole portion)  

Would it be a true sense of Shalom Shleimut - peace and wholeness that the descendants of these two, Isaac and Ishmael, could join together in this greatest of acts - Halvayat HaMeit - accompanying the deceased? In recent weeks, my heart and soul have ached for our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel. Walking the streets as a Jew in Israel has become more Russian roulette than a journey to the market or to work. With the acts of terrorism spanning the landscape, we find our beloved State of Israel once again in turmoil. The delicate and deadly balancing act of negotiations, peace, compromise and security, safety and life is hanging by a thread.  

Recently, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism released a statement with the following words, “At a time when the Jewish people around the world are celebrating the wonder of Torah, of the time when darkness became light, the escalating violence in Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank causes us great concern. We hope and pray that the holy city of Jerusalem and all of its inhabitants also find light to overcome the darkness.”  (For the full statement Click Here>>>)

Yet, the light is dim and the sparks of hope seem more and more faint. We must ask ourselves what we can do from afar.  How can we influence those in positions of leadership to become Isaac and become Ishmael to unite in a celebration of life, of legacy and of sacred remembrance. For, after all, this is the task at hand.  I do not believe that anyone can claim entirely pure hands for all have retreated to the side of security, safety and life and left the negotiations, possibility of peace and compromise in the past.  
Tomorrow marks the twentieth anniversary (on the secular calendar) of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I cannot help but call our attention to the reality that Yitzhak is the Hebrew for Isaac. Was he attempting to re-create the act of Isaac to join hands with Ishmael in burying our ancestor, their father, Abraham? President Clinton recently memorialized Rabin on October 31st in Rabin’s Square in Tel Aviv.  In his call for peace, he said, “All of you (speaking to all present) now must decide when you leave here tonight…how to finish the last chapter of his [Rabin’s] story.  

We must do the same. We must find ways by communicating to our neighbors, to our elected officials to anyone who will listen that we stand for and believe in peace. We must allow the last chapter of Yitzhak Rabin’s story to be that of his namesake’s - Isaac our patriarch - in coming together…however difficult that may be. For then and only then will peace be possible and have the potential to create lasting security, and life, for Israelis and Palestinians.

I do not know how. I do not have an idea of when. But, I hope, I pray that when my children visit Israel, they will see a place, a sacred place this is home, a safe, security and thriving home, for all its inhabitants.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


After three years Abraham went to see Ishmael his son, having sworn to Sarah that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt. He arrived there at midday and found there the wife of Ishmael. He said to her: Where is Ishmael? She said to him: He has gone with his mother to fetch the fruit of the palms from the wilderness. He said to her: Give me a little bread and a little water, for my soul is faint after the journey in the desert. She said to him: I have neither bread nor water. He said to her: When Ishmael comes [home] tell him this story, and say to him: A certain old man came from the land of Canaan to see thee, and he said, Exchange the threshold of thy house, for it is not good for thee. When Ishmael came [home] his wife told him the story. A son of a wise man is like half a wise man. Ishmael understood. His mother sent and took for him a wife from her father’s house, and her name was Fatimah. Again after three years Abraham went to see his son Ishmael, having sworn to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt. He came there at midday, and found there Ishmael’s wife. he said to her: Where is Ishmael? She replied to him: He has gone with his mother to feed the camels in the desert. He said to her: Give me a little bread and water, for my soul is faint after the journey of the desert. She fetched it and gave it to him. Abraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, for his son, and thereupon Ishmael’s house was filled with all good things of the various blessings. When Ishmael came [home] his wife told him what had happened, and Ishmael knew that his father’s love was still extended to him, as it is said, “Like as a father pities his sons” (Ps. 103:13). 

As I revisit this Midrash in studying parashat Vayera, I am hopeful that we, as a Jewish people, can, as our ancestor Abraham, revisit our Arab neighbors.  How can we begin to mend the deeds of the past?  How can we begin again a conversation ended in so many ways?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Adventures in Judaism: Frontiers of Modern Jewish Life

Adventures in Judaism:  Frontiers of Modern Jewish Life
Yom Kippur 5776 - September 23, 2015

What was your last adventure?  Was it a trip that you had planned for a long time?  Perhaps, your last adventure was the unexpected phone call from an old friend…the catching up, re-living of past experiences and rekindling of a great bond.  We know that adventure, at least for most of us, involves the unusual and some level of excitement.  But, what are our ways of adventuring…what comes to mind when you hear the word:  Adventure?  Is it something that is passing?  Episodic?  An experience with that quality of thrill alone, or does it entail more?  Adventure can be the beginning of something, the initiation of a passion, the spark that occurs when there is something new happening or even the continuation of a lasting journey of sorts. 

Believe it or not, we are on an adventure here today.  The work of these Holy Days demands of us something that is unusual, it even involves the hazards and pitfalls of self-reflection and, I would argue, it is exciting and enterprising too.  We adventure to do the work of Teshuvah, we continue the tradition of our ancestors…continue in the footsteps of Abraham, who he himself was certainly on a journey of excitement, thrills and the unknown.  

Abraham was not just an adventurer, he was our iconoclast.  He, our Torah teaches us, was not afraid to rock the boat.  He broke the mold of what it meant to worship, to connect with the spiritual and to experience something beyond and more than ourselves alone.  The best example is the Midrash of Abraham destroying the idols and it is so ubiquitous in our tradition; so much so that some are surprised to learn it is not even in the Torah narrative.  This tale has been shared in different ways, but ultimately, the story remains the same, the moral inspiring us to understand that Avraham Avinu - Abraham our Father contested cherished beliefs, he pushed the status quo and in destroying the images of gods, the graven images carved by his father Terah, that he set out on the journey to explore the frontiers of spirituality, of what we now call religion - Our Judaism.  The story goes:

Abram’s family made images, idols, and sold them in the marketplace.  One day, Abram was charged to mind the shop.  A powerful and middle-aged man walked up and requested to purchase the mightiest of idols.  Abram reached high up on the shelf, seeking to find what the man sought, and handed him one of the sculpted images.  As the man paid the money, Abram asked him his age.  Seventy years of age was his reply.  Abram said, ‘woe to the man who is seventy yet prostrates himself before this thing that was made but yesterday’.  The man, now angry, demanded his money back and returned the idol. 

At an early age, our forefather understood that something was not right.  Terah, Abram’s father was certainly unhappy as he continued such behaviors.  The tale continues:

A woman came carrying a bowl of fine flour offering it to the gods in Abram’s family’s shop.  At that moment, Abram grabbed a stick and smashed the idols, all but the largest and placed the stick in the hand of that larger idol.  When his father Terah returned he demanded, ‘who did this to the gods’?  Abram told him that when a woman came with a fine offering, the idols fought over it.  Terah chided his son, ‘are you making sport of me?  These cannot do anything!’  He responded, ‘You say they cannot.  Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying!’

This Midrash, this story about the stories in Torah, paints the picture of our progenitor as one who not only pushes the boundaries, but later goes on to explore the frontier.  He sets out to explore and discover more. 

From this first story of our Jewish journey, we inherit the foundation for seeking.  We are bequeathed a heritage of looking for those frontiers, exploring them and making meaning out of our own lives and times.  Judaism began with Abraham’s rising up to the status quo, becoming not just an iconoclast, but our iconoclast.  Judaism is our journey.  It is our way of finding adventure and discovering the frontiers of Modern Jewish life.

What we know as Jewish life is our frontier of sorts.  For example, the synagogue as we know it:  Community center, religious school, worship led by a rabbi, etc. is actually a young model, it is but only a fraction of our Jewish history.  In each place we have found ourselves living, throughout our storied history, we have re-imagined the ways we can connect with the Divine, to engage with the commandments and to live that we call Judaism. 

Today, while many adventures in Judaism continue… I sometimes feel as though we are in the boring part of the story, the lull just before the climax perhaps.  We might even consider the Jewish world, certainly in America, to have become complacent with our way of doing:  Business as usual.  We ought to think about our Jewish lives as an adventure; we ought to be considering where we can find the new untouched frontiers and how to reach them.

Over the last quarter century, the landscape of Jewish life has found its spirit of adventure once again.  There are countless examples of non-traditional and exciting adventures in Judaism that explore the frontiers of Modern Jewish Life.  Most are aware of programs like Birth Right and the American Jewish World Service.  Lesser known, but still very much on the national stage are programs like PJ Library and Godcast.  All worth checking out if you are not familiar.  When we consider the ways that we embrace and live modern Jewish life, it is crucial to recognize, and I say this often, no one has ever been Jewish on September twenty third, two thousand fifteen before…until now.  We are the first to be here at this moment in this place.  It - our Judaism, and therefore WE must always embrace the frontiers we find ourselves standing upon.  Judaism is the continuation of Abraham’s journey; so where is the adventure?

These shifting sands of Judaism are partially explained by the recognition that the reality of each new day is a frontier, but there is more.  Since the Mishnah, around two hundred of the Common Era, leaders of our people have expressed concern for the next generation; just think about the adage:  Oh, kids today!  It is this desire that creates the most important realization, and it is not that far off from that moment when Abram smashed his father’s idols.  That is the realization that while we inherit the Judaism of our parents and grandparents, we must sift it for our own meaning, inspiration and connection.  Some might call it our parents’ baggage, but what if we considered it our luggage? 

Rabbi David Hartman taught us, “Judaism imposes a vital task on the parents:  to tell the children their people’s story.  What the child does with this past, no parent can decree.  Parents provide their children with luggage.  Whether the child will open up the suitcases and use their contents is beyond the reach of parents.  They have no right to enter the child’s future.  Parents must aim at instilling memories that haunt the child an entire lifetime; their bequest is a weight of generations, an awareness that one’s biography began with Abraham and Sarah.”

So what began with Abraham?  It was a first class adventure.  It was seeking the frontier, embracing and using it to inspire future generations.  The PJ library program, for example, provides books and music to children and families, teaches us a new way to look at Jewish literature.  In their own words, “…families in hundreds of communities across the United States and Canada are able to explore the timeless core values of Judaism through books and music.”  They have over two hundred communities actively using PJ Library with over one hundred twenty five thousand subscriptions and through this, more than five million books have been mailed to interested Jewish families…for free.  These families are given the opportunity to unpack their luggage in new ways, because someone explored the frontier.

In the last sixteen years, Taglit - Birth Right has helped more than half a million participants experience a ten day educational trip to Israel.  Creating a Jewish identity that is linked to Israel and Israelis has been crucial in establishing the next generation of our Jewish community, here in the United States and abroad.

These examples could go on.  There is a plethora of programming across the country that explores these frontiers, that lives adventures in Judaism.  Most of you know about my own involvement with Adventure Rabbi:  Synagogue without Walls.  We are an innovative Jewish community that engages in physical adventures as well as of the mind.  If you have not read any of Rabbi Jamie Korngold’s, the founder of Adventure Rabbi, books, consider this an endorsement.  We strive to provide programming, holiday celebrations and Jewish education that inspires, excites and leaves people wanting more. 

But the frontier does not end there.  Even our community here on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe is a frontier.  Of the Jewish communities that exist and thrive in tourism driven economies, we are unique and have something to be explored, something that we must offer the many Jews who come to visit the Jewel of the Sierra - Our Lake.  For the last four years, we have welcomed visitors to hike with us on Shabbat in the summer, to Ski with us in the winter and teens to spend a Shabbat here in our building - learning and solidifying their Jewish identity.  Last year, we ran our first adult retreat program - sharing our community as a future pillar of our programming and sharing our Jewish frontier with others.  In the coming years, we are calling on all of you to be a part of this adventure.  To explore this frontier of modern Jewish life, we will be providing Jewish programming for groups coming to visit, to retreat and to recreate.  We know that each of us has a unique offering to what this programming can and should be.

Part of this journey includes the building project, and you can read about it in your High Holiday handout.  But it extends far beyond the physical.  It is about how we take seriously the model Abraham laid out for us at the beginning of our people.  It is about our own teens serving as hosts, our membership volunteering to lead and run programming and tapping the resources of our amazing surroundings here in Lake Tahoe, and to explore how even our small and mighty Temple Bat Yam community can be a frontier of modern Jewish life.

Between this Yom Kippur and next, what will your adventure be?  How will you build this frontier for modern Jewish life?  I hope that each of us will be inspired to make our community with a regional reputation for quality, exciting and innovate Jewish program.  It begins by recognizing the legacy of Abraham and Sarah - being adventurers ourselves.  It will continue when we create a synagogue identity - together - that is built on our already strong sense of place and adds to that by playing host.

In April, we will once again welcome teens and adults for two separate retreat programs from the Sacramento region.  We will likely be playing host to a family retreat form Reno in November too.  These, we hope, are the beginning of the way we can enhance our own Judaism, by sharing it with others.  Now, we can ask how next year, at this time, how will we be part of an adventure?  It has been, it is and it will continue to be my privilege and honor to share these journeys with you - all of you - into the future.   Whatever our adventures in Judaism will be in the coming year and beyond, I want to be here to learn about them with you, and our Bat Yam community will experience whatever unfolds?

May this New Year 5776 be full of explored frontiers and be its own story of a renewed connection to Abraham’s initial journey. 

Shanah Tovah!  


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Subdue & Till, Conquer & Tend - Elevating All of Who We Are

Subdue & Till, Conquer & Tend - Elevating All of Who We Are
Erev Yom Kippur - Kol Nidre 5776 - September 22, 2015

You can’t dance at two chuppahs with one tuchus.  For those less familiar with the yiddish-isms, you can’t dance at two weddings with one behind!  This timeless adage expresses both the simplicity and the complexity of our lives.  The human experience, certainly in the hustle and bustle of our modern lives, is one fraught with so many competing commitments.  There are so many moments in our lives when we are forced to decide, so many different places to be.  On a base level, have you ever paid attention to the reality that cereal occupies an entire aisle at the grocery store?  Do we really need that many options?  Choosing between things as simple as cereal and toothpaste can sometimes be overwhelming and by most accounts these are inconsequential.  What about the big ones?  What about decisions concerning higher education and medical decisions?  The challenge of choice is not a new phenomena, rather an ancient one.  Our great sage Hillel is famed for teaching us:

אם אין אני לי מי לי, וכשאני לעצמי מה אני
If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I?

Hillel elevates this challenge to the natural tension between being selfish and selfless….seeming opposite sides of the spectrum.  The choice he presents could be used as a decision making framework to understand the impact of our choices.  These questions are our human challenge...every day.  They actually emerge in the story of creation, early in the Torah story.

At the very outset of this story, we encounter this well known story of creation.  The six days of work and the day of rest - Shabbat.  The clearly defined and well articulated creation of the world and its inhabitants.  This isn’t the only version, though.  The story continues with a second account of the creation of humanity in the second chapter of Genesis.  Most of us learned the first story in our young lives but may not have been exposed to the more challenging aspects or the contradictory accounts.  In the first chapter of Genesis we experience the creation of the first human being, male and female both are created.  Yet, we may be less aware that the whole rib removed from Adam to create Eve part of the story, is actually a different and distinct creation story.  These tales, their details and distinct parts can be a framework for understanding our lives, what drives us and inspires our passions.   

While the outcome of the two accounts is similar, it is their details that remain distinct.  In the first, it is בצלם אלוהים - in the image of God that human is created.  Both male and female are created in that very moment.  The task of this first human is וכבשה ומלאו את הארץ - to conquer and fill the earth - to rule over the other creatures.  The second chapter tells quite a different tale.  It is a moment when the Divine forms man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life - making him a living soul.  The charge this time around is different too.  Here it is לעובדה ולשומרה - to till and tend the earth.  The third big detail to notice, is that in the first chapter, male and female are created together - at once - created in relationship.  While in the second chapter, the story relates how the first human yearned for relationship, and required a counterpart, an עזר כנגדו. 

Our Jewish tradition has expounded in beautiful ways highlighting the importance of each account.  One commentary from the Talmud touches on the human struggle between good and evil.  Explaining that in one story (Gen. 2:7) a simple word choice teaches that we have both desires within us.  The desires for good and for evil are in constant struggle…within us…think cartoons:  angel versus devil on your shoulders.

The great Bostonian Rabbi known as the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik outlined and gave articulation to this reality of being human in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith.  In it, he outlines this discrepancy in the Torah narrative.  He describes the first being from chapter one and the second from chapter two, not as separate created beings, not as two different kinds of people.  The Rav weaves brilliant commentary together with a compelling description of our own human experience using these two divergent tales to expose the duality of being human.  He describes them as two parts, which each of us holds within.  It is about the duality of being man; it is about the dichotomy of being woman. 

To describe these parts of ourselves, Soloveitchik names them Adam I and Adam II.  Whereas Adam I, he says, is the creative doer, the one made in God’s image meant to subdue and conquer the natural world, Adam II is less concerned with the “how” of the world, the achievement, but rather the “why”.  This second part of us yearns for deeper and deeper understanding, is compelled by awe, wonder and bliss and…eventually humility.  That humility expressed when Adam II yearns for the עזר כנגדו - that helpmate and counterpart.  (pp. 13ff and 21ff)

So, what do we see in ourselves?  Do we live the life of the Adam the first, creating, doing, earning and succeeding?  Perhaps we are more Adam the second, always in search of meaning, sometimes at the expense of values venerated by economics and our culture of success?  That is ultimately the question we find ourselves asking as we understand this seminal text of our Torah.  We, at this time of year, must yearn to know ourselves just a little bit more than we did at this time last year.  The key moment of this evening’s act one to Yom Kippur is the Kol Nidre.  While it may be in the formula of a vow, it has taken on the meaning of prayer.  It is more of a pre-nuptial with our future self.  We ask for forgiveness before we have even failed.  We lay out in the formula of Kol Nidre that we know we are only human, that we will struggle to reach our best self, albeit with honest effort, we will still discover our mortality.  Not necessarily in the ultimate sense, but rather in that we are merely mortal - we are human - we will err and make mistakes and not live up to all we promise to ourselves and others.  Soloveitchik points this out as the foundation of being human - that we have competing desires - each and every one of us. 

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author of The Road to Character, elaborates on these same notions.  For TBY’s Book Club November selection, we’ll be engage in what he teaches and shares in this piece.  Brooks contextualizes Soloveitchik’s Adam I and Adam II in language that we can truly grab on to.  Adam I, he writes, is the resume driven one, while Adam II is driven by the eulogy.  If you consider this juxtaposition for a moment, and consider the last resume you read or prepared and the last good eulogy you experienced; what did you read, what did you hear?  Think also about how you can find programs online and examples for how to build your resume, but do we have self-help literature about creating a great eulogy for yourself?

The resume Adam, harnesses the values and qualities uniquely suited for the marketplace, Brooks writes.  This component of us seeks to build, to create, to achieve and to succeed.  The eulogy values driven, Adam II, does as well, but wants more than being someone who does good, she wants to be good.  This is made of the deeper depths within each of us.  It is who we are at the core of self, made from the nature of our relationships, the moments we are bold, loving and dependable.  These are the words we yearn for less on our resume but certainly to be spoken in our eulogy. 

Brooks writes that our lives are filled with this perpetual self-confrontation.  Yet, there is a problem he contends:  We live in a society that favors Adam I and forgets the second.  It is a human existence that not only forgets, but fails to nourish the eulogy builder and falls flat in modeling the skills to articulate, express and even live such values regularly.

On this day, perhaps more than any other day of the year, we find ourselves asking the big questions.  The meaning questions of life are drawn to the foreground as the liturgy motivates us to sift through our thoughts about ourselves.  We may be focused on one moment in the past year, or even further back on our personal timeline, weighing and considering a choice we made.  For others of us, we are examining a pattern of behavior that we know is the root cause of challenged relationships.  Perhaps we are pondering how others have treated us...even interacted with us in the past year and examining our own role in those exchanges. 

At its core, Yom Kippur ought to inspire us to such reflection.  It is after all about our relationships.  For the liturgy constantly reminds us that for sins between us and the Divine:  בין אדם למקום, we can work through that in our own ways.  But, for transgressions between us and another human being:  בין אדם לחברו, we must engage in that work - Teshuvah. 

Yom Kippur is about relationships - all of them:  With God, with others and even with ourselves.  This day of days, this Shabbat Shabbaton - Sabbath of Sabbaths is the day long experience that provides us a framework for engaging in this work.  The season of the Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe reaches its crescendo at this moment of the Kol Nidre service.  These questions and fundamental components of our reflection also inspire us to understand our own drives, and to question our motivations.   

Just as the story of creation is rendered twice, each with its own understanding, we have to look at both.  Each one explains a set of purposes we may find within ourselves.  Soltoveitchik contends, quite rightly I believe, that both sets are within each of us.  They are the duality of being human.  The push and pull we feel, often when competing commitments and choices present themselves, is because both are part of that perpetual self-confrontation. 

David Brooks employs these parts as not just in confrontation, but that one is better than the other, working by different logics, he says.  The first Adam, he says, is the logic of economics while the Adam II explores moral logic.  He goes further, teaching us that Adam I builds on our strengths, as we are guided throughout our early lives, especially in this country, but Adam II fights our weaknesses and through those challenges, our character is built.    

So, on this day, on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, we ought to ask ourselves which do we think about most?  Which matters most?

I have a better question though:  How do we elevate both? 

How do we harness the creativity, the drive for success, the economically driven passions within, to ensure we care for ourselves.  Adam I, helps us answer Hillel’s first question:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me? 

Adam II, our inner focused self, the moments we are more deeply committed to character, when we yearn for relationship and connectedness is our response to Hillel’s second question:  If I am only for myself, what am I? 

Interesting that Hillel concludes with, “what am I?”  Not with the “who”.  We, perhaps, become less than human when we forget this second part of the question.  This is the task of Yom Kippur.  This is the time to engage and re-engage in what it means to be ourselves, to use our Jewish tradition to help us understand the foundation of what it means to be human.  Hillel’s final question:  ואם לא עכשיו אימתי - And, if not now, when?

Now!  Yom Kippur is the time to sift and discover what’s behind our deeds, our actions and our behaviors.  It means that we have a drive for more…always wanting to succeed, as defined by the world around us, our context.  It means we also have a drive, one that may be relegated in our current milieu, to seek counterparts, relationships, build community, a drive to build the character that we want lauded when we are gone from this earth. 

Yom Kippur confronts our mortality in this way.  If forces us to elevate all of ourselves, to be both Adam I and Adam II, to:  Subdue & Till together, to Conquer & Tend simultaneously.

May this day of days, give each of us the space to elevate what is tucked away, to look deep within and discover the Adam we are hiding and to ensure the parity we uncover in this year is more balanced than last year.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May We all be Inscribed for a Good Year, Tzom Kal - An Easy Fast and Shanah Tovah!

Israel's Security: A Paradigm Shift Rosh Hashanah 5776

Israel's Security:  A Paradigm Shift
Rosh Hashanah 5776 - September 14, 2015

Let’s Make a Deal!  You know the game show…the one from the sixties and reinvented in the last decade.  Contestants dressed in crazy costumes bouncing on stage as they weigh the decision in front of them.  They’re often given the choice of a direct, clear win.  Take this check, plus this check and one more, who’s amount remains a mystery…  Or, choose what’s behind curtain number two!  Mystery exists on both sides.  You don’t know the total of the money you’ll receive if you take the checks.  Nor, do you know what is behind the curtain.  It is filled with the moments when a contestant gambles on the curtain, passing up on a couple hundred dollars, and wins a trip to Barbados!  And, the less exciting moments when one chooses the checks, only to reveal an exciting prize they will not receive.  Or the zonk, as they call it.  When the contestant passes up on the sure bet of some amount of money to win what is behind the curtain.  And as the curtain is drawn it reveals, one of my favorite prizes, a car pool!, which is an old truck decked out with no engine, a baby pool in the truck bed complete with lawn chairs. 

Let’s Make a Deal!  The opportunity to choose…the element of chance is the unknown.  This past summer, I felt more and more like the Jewish world has been attempting to play this game when it comes to the Land of Israel.  Yes, the talk of the Iran Deal, only reaching crescendo in recent days, is a big part of that.  But, I unequivocally, will not be talking about it from the Bema. 

I’m talking about a different deal - one that has been made over and over again in recent years.  The deal I believe that has been made is related to Israel’s security.  Let me be clear.  I am a staunch Zionist and one who works to practice ahavat yisrael - the Love for Israel on a consistent basis.  From traveling to Israel, participating in Zionist organizations and to educating about our connection and responsibility to the State of Israel, Israel remains on my mind each and every day.  I am ever aware of the imminent threats to Israel’s security.  Those that come from within her borders and those from the rhetoric of the geo-political stage as well. 

Summer 2015 saw a string of violence that has me deeply concerned about Israel’s security.  And these events, I have surmised are tied to and indirectly a result of the constant pressure to secure Israel.  We are in need of a new deal, a new kind of security; one that will require a paradigm shift in how we think about Israel’s existence, her security and Zionism as a whole. 

In early July, David Azoulay, Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, and a member of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, said, “The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem,…I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”  Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected these comments.  Yes, others condemned them and then, they seem to have faded from the stage.  But have they?  Azoulay remains.  He also went on to state that Reform Judaism is, “a disaster for the State of Israel.”  And, yes, Netanyahu admonished Azoulay publicly, while his government restored, “radical Orthodox control of conversion and kashrut in a series of decisions that undid decades of progress toward religious equality.” 

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the President of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote in early August, “This highlights the frightening depths of the problem:  extremist ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists are now more emboldened than ever and Israel is increasingly held hostage by a hostile, intolerant approach to Jewish diversity.”  What has become a mainstay in Israeli leadership, of forming governments by partnering, and forming a coalition against one opponent, has fostered the forging of relationships with the religious right for the sake of safety…security.  But it begs the question I am asking:  If we are so hyper focused on securing Israel, what is it that is actually being secured? 

These partnerships create a status quo that is constantly perpetuated without asking this question.  Securing Israel includes nurturing the character of the State.  This is being forgotten and the proof is written in events, hateful and harmful acts against other human beings. 

On Thursday July thirtieth, the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade saw its usual protests.  Yet, violence ruled the day as a repeat offender, a member of an ultra-orthodox community, feeling emboldened perhaps by the swing in the religious right’s increasing governmental power, stabbed six marchers, one of whom died four days later from her wounds, Shira Banki - may her memory forever be a blessing.  The repeat offender, Yishai Shlissel served ten years for stabbing marchers at the 2005 pride parade in Jerusalem, released only weeks before this year’s parade.  The security of Israel has been paramount in campaigns at home and abroad.  It has been heralded as the most important issue to the detriment of competing issues of social, religious, economic and democratic character.  Even Netanyahu expressed the connection to security when he spoke words of condolence to Banki’s family saying, “Shira was murdered because she bravely supported the principle that each one can live their life in honor and security.” 

However, the same security spoken about here was not the same as security for all of Israel, it is one spawned by partnerships with extremism, seeking to ensure the Land of Israel is only for Jews; but rather, it ought to be a security for all human beings living in the land.  One that accounts for housing security, economic security, the security of our religious freedom and so on.  This summer of events continued with the horrific attack by Jewish terrorists on the Dawabsheh home in Duma, in the West Bank.  The attack that left two young parents and their toddler lost forever from life and a four year old severely injured, may their memories be for a blessing.  These attacks and such violence within and without the Jewish community of Israel are stemming from the same seeds, seeds of extremism that while it certainly is not sanctioned by the government, it is given expression every time security is the only political issue and every time Judaism is restricted to only one community and ruled by one group in the Land.  As Adam Bronfman, the president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, recently wrote, “The road to a society where Palestinian children are not burned to death by Jewish religious terrorists and where LGBT Israelis need not fear for their lives by expressing their truth is the same road.”

The deal that has been made in the last decade plus in Israel has been about placing security at the forefront, even at the expense of other issues facing its democracy.  Yet, the reality, is when you only look at one part of the deal being offered, you fail to account for the whole.  It is a deal where not only both options remain a mystery, but in the course of opting for one issue time and again, the character of the State of Israel has been marred. 

As Fania Oz-Salzberger, and Israeli writer and history professor in the University of Haifa’s Faculty of Law, and the daughter of novelist Amos Oz, recently wrote, there are three futures for Israel.  While cautioning at the outset of her article that political imagining is mostly a reflection on the present and is wrought with so much serendipity, she proceeded nonetheless.  She cautions a future impacted from the outside - the imminent threats that must always, ALWAYS, be considered.  Yet her two other futures illustrate the point I am attempting to make - that in securing Israel from the outside and establishing a myopic view of what Israel is politically and religiously fails to truly secure the State, it undermines the founding principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which stated Israel, “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and, “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” 

Oz-Salzberger writes that the current trend in Israeli leadership, coupled with the challenges in leadership of the Palestinian community and the international community, will lead to an Israel, “Democratically conquered by an irreversible majority for nationalists and populists, leaning on the demographic growth of zealotry, pitching Jewish violence against Palestinian violence in a permanent danse macabre, Jerusalem - a euphemism for the religious right - will eventually defeat Tel Aviv - a euphemism for the religiously progressive and secular.” 

It is the third of her futures that must represent the paradigm shift for Israel.  It is one that must encounter some things beyond the Jewish community’s control for sure, a willing and able partner in the Palestinian leadership and an international community willing to engage both sides…equally.  Yet, Israel must re-imagine its own place in this three part dance.  And, we, here in the United States, must recognize we play a crucial role as well.  We are not the lead nor the follow, but perhaps we can play the right music to enable this future to be realized. 

It requires Israel to know that its American Jewish partners, many if not most, are proud Reform Jews, and much to the dismay of Minister Azoulay, we ARE Jewish and not a disaster but a blessing for the State of Israel.  It must also go further in that we must pressure, through organized efforts and Jewish movements, the Israeli government to not only condemn Jewish terror within and without the Jewish community, but every member of government connected with such acts must be held accountable…unequivocally. 

There are ways that we, thousands of miles away, can be part of the band playing the right tune.  For some of us, it is taking the responsibility seriously to speak out about these issues, ensuring that while security remains important as it relates to Israel, it must not remain the only issue.  We must recognize that to be truly secure, we must nurture the character of the State of Israel to reflect the multi-layered reality of what it means to be Jewish.  As the former Member of Kenesset and the President of the Israel Democracy Institute Yohanan Plesner wrote, “Judaism is not a first name; it is a family name that includes diverse individuals and groups who define their connection to religion in a variety of ways.”

Even for others, traveling to Israel to support in person the Reform and Conservative Jewish institutions with presence, involvement and solidarity becomes a way to demonstrate that these voices not only matter, but are also crucial to the future of the State and its security.

ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America maintains as one of its eight core action statements:  Advocating for and enhancing the State of Israel as a Jewish, pluralistic, just and democratic society.  When we do this, we work towards security that is not the bi-product of a one-legged deal, but rather a stool firmly upon multiple legs:  Security, yes, but also religious freedom, political freedoms, and all the principles outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. 

Let’s Make a Deal!  Let’s make the deal that for us Israel’s security remains firm and our commitment is steadfast.  Let’s make the deal that as Jews, as Reform Jews, our commitment to Israel’s security is based on economic, social, religious and political security for all within Israel’s borders so that the dream of Zionism is not only willed, it is lived.  When I was in High School, my mother hung a poster in the entryway that celebrated Theodore Herzl, the founder of Modern Zionism’s, famous teaching, “Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agada - If you will it, it is no dream.”  It hung in the entry way I surmise, because it was not just about that dream within our home or on the outside, it was about ensuring both the exterior and the interior, the soul and the body lived in concert. 

Securing Israel includes nurturing the character of the State of Israel.  May each of us re-imagine our commitment to Israel in 5776 to ensure our voice is part of Israel’s secure future.

Sinai, Sacred Text & Two Tanachim - Erve Rosh Hashanah 5776

Sinai, Sacred Text & Two Tanachim
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 - September 13, 2015

In the small shtetl of Kock - known to most as Kotzk, north of Lublin, Poland, a small Jewish community was established in the 17th century.  This was the long time home of the great Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk - the Kotzker Rebbe.  There are so many great lessons our tradition has gained form the Kotzker Rebbe’s legacy.  We learned that while the dwelling place of God is throughout the world, his teachings enlightened us to know that God truly dwells wherever we let God in.  From his teachings we recognize so much of our role…that while God may take care of our souls, it is upon us to care for our bodies and our world. 

In the shtetl of Kotzk, Jews embraced his teachings, they took upon themselves the heritage of the Hasidim.  In the decades leading up to the Second World War, many of the Jews of Kotzk recognized that their future was becoming more and more grim.  They began dispersing, seeking family connections abroad - fleeing Europe.  There is a tale of one family, whose name has been lost to history, but their tale remains strong.  The patriarch of the family had decided to remain in Kotzk and face whatever reality came his way.  As part of his decision, he commissioned two beautiful Tanachim, Jewish Bibles, to be printed and bound with a beautiful ornate cover.  Their bindings were identical, complete with stones inlaid, silver etchings and adornments hinting at the beauty of the story and teachings of our People held within their pages.  This man called his two granddaughters to his home as they were readying to leave for America.  As they had done many times before, the three of them sat and studied Torah together.  While many were learned Jews in Kotzk, it was new and progressive to engage daughters and granddaughters in the study of Torah, yet, this man understood the power of learning and the potential of our story - its value to everyone.

This particular morning, they studied the story of our ancestor Abram.  They began with the story of Lech Lecha - Go Forth.  The twelfth chapter of Genesis when Abram hears the call and heads out on the sojourn that began our story…that eventually leads us here to this moment.  They engaged in exploring the moment with Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah.  That transition when they become the progenitors of our great tradition, Our People - Am Israel - The People of Israel. 

At the end of their time together, the grandfather excused himself for a moment, saying he had something for them to carry along…to treasure upon their new lives in America.  Both granddaughters had been married and one already had a young child.  Their beloved Zeyde returned with the two Tanachim, the two Bibles.  He unveiled them and displayed them to his granddaughters and to the obvious awe and wonder on their faces.  He explained that his purpose was to ensure they treasured learning, stories and Torah in their new lives equal to and beyond the treasures shown on their covers, their bindings.  He hoped and prayed they would instill in future generations the importance of Judaism.

As they concluded their study in tears, emotional at what was sure to be their final goodbye, they embraced and the two woman walked to their homes arm in arm sharing their anxieties and hopes about the days and years ahead.  They committed to stay together as long as life would allow.  A few months later, they both arrived in the New Country.  One settled in Chicago and the other with the young child in Milwaukee…nearby to one another and close enough to even share family simchas.  As the years passed they instilled in their own children the importance of Torah, of Judaism and of leading good lives.  Some time after the two women had died, their great grandsons were preparing for their Bar Mitzvah celebrations.  The two tanachim had been passed through the generations, each family embracing Torah in their own ways and treasuring these possessions.  Upon the occasion of their upcoming Bar Mitzvahs, the two grandsons, these cousins, were given as gifts the tanachim by their grandparents.  Their families decided they would study their portions from these gifts together.  As they sat together, they opened their Tanachim and one boy was wowed by the yellowed, but beautifully intact pages.  He could easily see some pages were read heavily through the years and others barely touched, but the binding was well broken in.  His cousin began to open his Tanach, realizing the binding had barely, if ever, been stretched.  As he opened it, many of the pages had withered almost completely away…to dust.  Its fragility was apparent from a lack of use….  It had been treasured too much, kept only in safe keeping, barely if ever read, studied or used.  Its lack of use had made it illegible. 

The great sage of the Mishnah, and probably the one with the most fun name, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught us:  Turn it and turn it for everything is in.  Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.  Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”  In this teaching, we recognize our tradition’s way of valuing study, and in particular the study of Torah.  It is a story, a collection of teachings that guide our way.  While many of the laws and commands may have become outmoded through the years, they remain the backbone and foundation of our Jewish tradition.

Our Torah, our Tanach, and our sacred text, the teachings of our rabbis and tradition, are amazing, sacred and beautiful.  The study and engagement with our story, and its teachings, first and foremost is the task of being Jewish.  We do this in so many ways.  We engage when we join in Torah study, in the formal way.  And ask any of our regular Torah studiers - it can been quite a lively time!  Yet, that is not the only way.  When our parents teach us to honor them - they are teaching Torah.  When we engage in Social Justice, we are sharing what we have learned and inspiring others to Torah.  By being stewards to our world, we live and learn the principles of Torah.  Being Jewish, engaging with Torah is participating in an age old conversation and activity, one that spans generations.  When we consider the views of Spinoza, Maimonides, Shimon bar Yochai, our own Shabbat school and Sunday school teachers, and so many others, we are living that dialogue.  We do this with all those before us at our side, on our shoulders, or us on theirs, we hold them and their ideas and ideals in our minds, our memories and within our hearts and souls.  That is the meaning of Torah study…of what it means to be Jewish today and in every generation.

I often ask B’nai Mitzvah students what makes Torah special.  After all, it is considered so special we read it and read it again each year.  We move at the end of this High Holy Day season back to the beginning to start again.  Many talk about the novels they love and books they read again and again, we can all remember that in recent memory the Harry Potter generation!  The conversations circle and circle the original question, why is it that the text and scripture of our Jewish tradition is held to a different level, given this special place.  Ultimately, the discussion settles in a similar place each time.  We hone in on the reality that as far back in their families as most of them can discern, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents - their ancestors have read, and re-read this same text.  That they link themselves in the shalshelet hakabbalah - the chain of tradition each time we scroll through the Torah. 

Once we establish what makes it different, in marketing terms - the Torah’s point of difference is the simple fact and reality of its longevity, the next question becomes understanding what this means for us today.  It has this status simply because of its treasured position.  So much of this is attributed to its origins…which ultimately raises another round of questions. These are often explored with Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, but this time the parents and even grandparents begin to weigh in.  Recently, our own Torah study group began this debate.  I say began, because by no stretch of the imagination will we resolve or conclude this part of the discussion.

Our Jewish tradition ascribes the level of revelation to our text, the teachings of Judaism.  It was revealed after all on Mt. Sinai upon our people’s exit from Egypt.  The experience of the Exodus was not just about changing our situation from slavery to freedom, it was also, we learn, about the freedom to learn and study, to explore and debate this story of our people, the mitzvot - the commandments of our Torah.  At first glance, this places Torah at one specific moment in time.  It situates the experience of the ink on the parchment as an act of words written…in the past.  But, as most things within Judaism, it cannot be that simple.  Each Spring we celebrate that moment at Sinai, when we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot.  Jewish tradition, from all walks of belief and practice, consider this holiday Zeman Matan Torah - the Time of the Giving of Torah.  What is fascinating about this name is that it is the “Giving” of Torah and not the “Time Torah Was Given or Received.”  It is not only in the past.  Revelation is always ongoing.

How can a text, that is the same each time we read and chant it, be something that is ongoing?  Well, we can listen again to Rabbi Ben Bag Bag’s words for insight.  He is teaching us that revelation happens every time we “turn it and turn it again.”  It occurs when one embraces the text as Divine in origin.  It happens when another questions the missing rewards of the mitzvot.  We find something revealed when we understand Torah and our text as something written by our ancestors, by human beings.  Torah is our people’s memory of our experience and the blueprint for our constantly unfolding story as a people. 

On Rosh Hashanah, we engage in what I think of as the most ancient form of a leadership summit.  Whether in business, non-profit, education or government, leaders work hard to express vision, mission and setting goals.  So many of us here, in our own professional circles, engage at regular intervals, in expressing, stating and re-stating all of these guiding principles.  Companies have yearly retreats to ensure they are adhering to their goals.  Teachers, at this season, return to their classrooms and re-establish their ground rules with peers, with administrators and certainly with students.  Whatever the setting, staying focused, creating shared vision and agreements are paramount to attaining success and efficiency. 

Rosh Hashanah is truly not that different.  In the book of Nehemiah we learn about this ancient practice and tradition: 

“All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month [Rosh Hashanah]. And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law.”     

This was the space and time to re-engage, to commit to the constant unfolding of our story.  Ezra and Nehemiah gave the people the opportunity to stand as one, re-connect and re-affirm the covenant of what it means to be part of this people.

So if this is the moment, what is it that Torah gives in return for us treasuring it?  What can we consider this re-affirmation to be about?  For some of us it may be one of the three traditional concepts of Rosh Hashanah:    God as Creator, God as Ruler and/or God as Judge.  Yet, for others it is our responsibility to the tradition, to our ancestors who gave us the gift of Torah and must carry that forward.  And even for others still, it is the task of learning, gaining perspective and turning Torah until we see it anew each time.

What does Torah mean for us today?  Is it the treasured possession, the one held only in safe keeping whose binding is rarely if ever stretched?  The one that withers away, and atrophies form lack of use?  Or, is our Torah the one that is yellowed, a bit tattered, maybe missing a few of its in-laid jewels and stones, but one still legible?  Legible so that we can continue exploring and elaborating on its meaning and import. 

Torah means instruction.  On Rosh Hashanah, and throughout the year, we are to question not the origins of this amazing and beautiful text, not whether or not we adhere to its commands - to the letter, but more so about our re-affirmation of that covenant, that bond among the Jewish people.  To continually contribute to our story - being part of the mishpacha - the family of the Jewish people.  To turn the words of Torah again and again to ensure the lessons of our past and that they may continually inform our lives. 

In 5776 may we commit to ensure our Judaism is not the one so guarded it becomes dried out, unusable and disintegrated, but may our Judaism be the one that is supple, loved…and used.

Shanah Tova U’Mitukah