Wednesday, October 12, 2016

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

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

The Exchange of Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777 - Temple Bat Yam, South Lake Tahoe, CA

See to it that You do not Destroy It, for If You Do, There Will be no one Else to Repair it!

In each generation, there are traits that remind us of the past.  Sometimes it is when the ginger hair appears that has skipped a generation or two, perhaps a new baby with hazel eyes and we wonder where they came from.  Even more powerful is when it stretches beyond the visible, and physical characteristics, behaviors or certain acumen are displayed.  Think about a child, a nephew or niece, perhaps a cousin who talks just like a grandparent.  Consider the traits we hold that at different moments remind us of another member of our families.  The strong Ashkenazic tradition of naming our children for past generations is almost a hope for those strong and positive character traits to manifest in the new life, in the babies we welcome to the world.  In each instance, such attributes serve as a legacy in the chain of generations in our families, they become part of the legacy that links us to our past.  Yet we need not leave all to the chance of genetics and nature, but we ought to consider the nurturing environments we create.  There is a rich tradition in Judaism of imparting to future generations the values we pray will endure.  From Jacob’s dying wishes to his children, the tribes of Israel, to Moses’ charge to the Israelites as he nears his death and beyond, we recognize the power of passing on more than eye color and a certain gate in our step.  Perhaps the import of this practice is embedded deep in our own people’s story.  That first moment we stood as one people ready to accept our role as Am Yisrael holds the roots of this practice.  There is a great Midrash that brings into focus the exchange of Torah to us at Sinai: 

When God was finally ready to give the Torah to the Israelites, the heavenly court expressed concern, and God agreed.  How could we trust human beings with the Torah, they wondered.  Finally God recognized that the destiny of Torah itself, its purpose was to be a guide for all humanity.  So God invites the Israelites to offer guarantors for Torah.  We responded, “Our ancestors will serve as our guarantors.”  God responds that they will not suffice, rather bring me good guarantors.  “Our prophets will be our guarantors,” we responded.  Again, God retorted that the prophets are not sufficient either, bring me good guarantors.  We came back saying, “Indeed, our children will be our guarantors.”  The Holy One said:  Your children are good guarantors.  For their sake I give the Torah to you.”

Not only is Torah the text of the ethical will we pass from one generation to the next, but even more Torah has been entrusted to us to ensure there will always be children to inherit it, children to continue our stewardship of the Earth - our common home.  The most profound gift we pass to future generations is the Earth and it follows that we must be sure that what we hand over is in good health. 

It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but on this Rosh Hashanah, let me quote the Pope.  In his groundbreaking encyclical document, Laudato Si - On Care for our Common Home, he wrote about the common good that, “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.”  There is an undeniable link from one generation to the next in the way we live on this Earth.  It is time that we take much more seriously this responsibility.  We have received the gift of this common home, our planet, and the way we embrace and utilize the resources of it will forever be part of the ethical will we bequeath to our children’s children and beyond.  Many of us are familiar with the great story from our Talmud about Honi the Circle Maker.  The tale unfolds as Honi is walking along the road and comes across a man planting a tree.  Honi inquires of him, “What kind of tree are you planting?”  The man responds, “A Carob tree.”  Honi presses further, “How many years will pass to see this tree bear fruit.”  He answers, “Seventy years.”  Honi says, “How is it that you will live seventy years to see the fruit of this tree.”  The man responds, “I found carob trees in the world.  Just as my ancestors planted for me, I plant for my children.”  We must ask, “What are we planting for the future?”  It must be more than our eye color, the shades of our skin and male pattern baldness!

It is clear that of the most pressing issues of justice in our world today is that of Climate Justice.  The preponderance of evidence teaches us that while climate behaves with an ebb and flow, there is a drastic impact our human actions have caused that has now, for multiple generations, altered our world.  The effects are far reaching and daunting…even overwhelming.  The native of this land, the Washoe have said, “The health of the land and the health of the people are tied together, and what happens to the land also happens to the people.”  This is our challenge of today, this is the call of Torah to us in 5777 and beyond, it is to ensure the land we pass on is healthy, it is to ensure that the common home - Earth - we all inhabit can produce for all, it is about ensuring all humanity inherits a world we can all share - for humanity and the Earth are inextricably linked.

On Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, we are charged with the enormous task to understand the impacts of our own actions as individuals in the past year.  We search our deeds, our behaviors and our relationships for moments when we could have reached higher.  It is a time to reset our course in the year about to unfold.  This recalibration requires a measure of sacrifice each and every year.  Sometimes it is the challenge of seeking forgiveness and granting it.  Other times we are struggling with unhealthy behaviors that affect our own bodies and souls…therefore inflicting those who love us.  The issue of Climate Justice is not different, it demands so much of us as individuals within families, within communities and as part of the human race. 

I cannot enumerate the countless ways our consumer choices can have an affect, however small or large, on the climate challenge.  It is beyond this rabbi’s reach to explain the far-reaching impact of this crisis on the world’s poor, on the physical conditions of coastal cities and agricultural communities.  The sacrifices required of us will, dare I dream…dare I pray, become, eventually, opportunities for a better world.  However, the role of our faith is to guide, as Torah for which our children are the guarantors does, to guide us in responding with openness to what is possible.  Our belief in a greater power, be it the Divine, be it collective community, must be the role of faith in this pressing challenge.

Tim DeChristopher, a Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School argues, “I am convinced that our greatest vulnerabilities to climate change are not physical conditions like low-lying cities, but rather our social divisions—classism, racism, and sexism. These divisions make us vulnerable to responding to crisis with fear and hatred rather than solidarity, with competition rather than cooperation. These are the scenarios that turn hardship to horror. This means that even as we revolutionize our energy, economic, and political systems, we must do so in a way that also dismantles classism, white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, and other social evils.”

Just as when we stood at Sinai and offered our children as the guarantors for Torah, we are in such a moment when we must consider this choice again.  For our common home to endure, to continue to breath as we yearn for its clean air, water and land, we must share this responsibility beyond the borders and boundaries that divide.  In the Midrash on Leviticus we understand this reality:  Some people were sitting in a ship.  One of them took a drill and began to bore a hole in the ship under where he was sitting.  His companions said, what are you sitting and doing?  He said, what has it to do with you?  I am boring a hole under my part of the ship.  They said, but the water is coming in and sinking the ship under us all.   

Knowing that this is a shared challenge for all of humanity is the first sacrifice we must all make moving forward.  At the most basic level, what we all have in common is this planet, our Earth.  And while we only live for a blink in the eye of geologic time, our children are our guarantors.  This alone, I believe, forces us to re-examine what divides and move past these barriers.  It demands of us to seek out partners to educate us about what more we can, and must do.  It is about building relationships that become strong enough to effect change and to create the necessary policy to address climate change.  The Citizen’s Climate Lobby is a non-profit, non-partisan, grassroots advice organization focused on national policies to address such change.  It’s mission includes building upon shared values rather than divides.

This day, Rosh Hashanah, is called Yom HaRat HaOlam - The Birthday of the World.  Let us celebrate this anniversary of the world’s birth with a commitment to learn more, to care for our common human home and to build the necessary relationships to effect change. 

A member of our TBY family, Patricia Sussman, is engaged in our local chapter of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.  She wants us all to know that at whatever level each of us can take on, there are opportunities.  She has taught me that Citizen’s Climate Lobby, or CCL, is an international organization with local chapters, one here in the South Shore community.  Their major mission is to adopt a plan which requires Congressional support to reduce carbon emissions, creates jobs and can spark the economy by helping householders offset expenses.  Strategies like this one inspire energy conservation, investment and jobs in alternative energies - benefiting our economy and ultimately, helping to preserve the delicate balance of life on Earth.  The CCL has a solution, they have tools to help us understand and a marketing plan to influence our representatives.    

You can engage in the local chapter and inspire others by helping CCL bring about these national and international policy shifts, or even locally.  Their local efforts are in relationship with our local government:  Our public utility districts, the city council and county to implement climate friendly practices.  This includes seeing current projects and plans that are overdue towards fruition to make our community a model of stewardship and inspire those with climate conscious ideals towards leadership at this local level.

And those truly passionate and looking for even more opportunities, the CCL can help you become a champion of something in the works already or own an effort that is sidelined waiting for your leadership. 

From a small commitment to becoming a leader within CCL, we all can, and have a Jewish responsibility…a human responsibility, to ensure the world, our common human home is healthy.  In the first chapters of Genesis, we learn about the creation of the world.  At some moments, God calls the works Tov - Good, even at the conclusion, on the sixth day, God beholds the works of creation and says, Hineh Tov Meod - This is Very Good!  Let us make sure our world continues to become the “tov” - the good God calls our world at its beginning. 

This summer a student of mine researched the meaning and history of Jewish art.  In an amazingly articulate expression of what he learned, he claimed that creation is God’s work of art.  Taking it further, this work of art is the Earth we inhabit, the world for which we are stewards and the home we share with all humanity.  Its beauty is seen and felt throughout our lives, yet we are called to action.  The action of raising our common voice to protect this original work of art.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we read, “Consider the work of God; for who can make that straight, which He has made crooked?”  To this the rabbis respond in the Midrash, “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said:  Look at my works!  See how beautiful they are - how excellent!  For your sake I created them all.  See to it that you do not spoil My world:  For if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

In this year, 5777, on this Rosh Hashanah, let us all commit to learn more, to care for our common human home and to build the necessary relationships to effect change, for if we don’t, there will be no one else to repair it.

Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah 
Yom Harat HaOlam - The Celebration of our World

To celebrate is to honor.  Today is the celebration of the anniversary of the Creation of the World.  Whatever we believe about the origins of our amazing planet, we ought to celebrate its existence.  In that celebration, we ought to honor it too, we are charged to recognize our role as stewards and caretakers of our planetary home.  This is no easy task, for we share the gift of our Earth with more than seven billion others.  If we think getting along with our neighbors is difficult, what about our partners in our stewardship of the Earth?  Yom Harat HaOlam - The Day the World was Created is one name for this day, Rosh Hashanah.  This is our opportunity to set our intentions in caring for our world…perhaps the connection to this season is just that - working on that partnership with our fellow stewards, our fellow human beings - overcoming the barriers that separate us to ensure we continue to have something to celebrate.  And in those connections, in recognition of the world we are blessed to inhabit, we can discover a way to care for our shared home.

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Evon
A Welcome for Rosh Hashanah Morning

There is a fellow who owns a jewelry store in Israel. One day a nine year old girl walked into the store and said, "I am here to buy a bracelet." She looked through the glass cases and pointed to a bracelet that was $3,000. The man behind the counter asked her, "You want to buy that bracelet?"
 "Yes," she replied.
 "Wow, you have very good taste. Who do you want to buy it for?"
"For my older sister."
"Oh that is so nice!" the storekeeper replied. "Why do you want to buy your older sister this bracelet?”  "Because I don't have a mother or father," the little girl said, "and my older sister takes care of us. So we want to buy her a present, and I'm willing to pay for it." She pulled out of her pocket a whole bunch of coins that totaled just under eight shekels, a little less than two dollars.

The fellow says, "Wow! That's exactly what the bracelet costs!" While wrapping up the bracelet he said to the girl, "You write a card to your sister while I wrap the bracelet." He finished wrapping the bracelet, wiped away his tears, and handed the little girl the bracelet.  A few hours later the older sister entered the store. "I'm terribly embarrassed," she said. "My sister should not have come here. She shouldn't have taken it without paying." "What are you talking about?" the storekeeper asked.  "What do you mean? This bracelet costs thousands of dollars. My little sister doesn't have thousands of dollars - she doesn't even have ten dollars! Obviously she didn't pay for it.”  "You couldn't be more wrong," the storekeeper replied. "She paid me in full. She paid seven shekel, eighty agurot, and a broken heart. I want to tell you something. I am a widower. I lost my wife a number of years ago. People come into my store every single day. They come in and buy expensive pieces of jewelry, and all these people can afford it.

When your sister walked in, for the first time in so very long since my wife had died, I once again felt what love means."

He gave her the bracelet and wished her well.

Dear friends, this Rosh Hashanah we come before Almighty God. With sincerity, we express our devotion and dedication. We recommit and renew our relationship with the Divine, the Mystery of Creation. We empty out our pockets and try to give the little we have. With a broken heart we resolve to do a bit more.  We say, "I'll pick up the phone and call someone who is lonely. I will study some Torah daily. I will be more scrupulous about my observance, etc. etc."

And, like the store owner, God sees our devotion and says, "You know what? You have touched my heart. I want you to be blessed with a sparkling year of blessings.

May each of us go to great lengths at this season of renewal and when our efforts reach their capacity, may we share our brokenness, so that we can begin to be mended for the New Year!  Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Evon

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 - Temple Bat Yam, South Lake Tahoe, CA

You Can’t Do it All!  And You Can Do a Lot!

It was just over a week ago that my dear friend, whom many of you know, Rabbi Ken Kanter called to wish me a Shabbat Shalom.  As we chatted, he asked how my writing was coming along for, well, for tonight.  I said:  I haven’t written a word yet….just staring at the computer.  Then he asked, “Well, what are you trying to write about?”  To which I responded:  Focus!  While this struggle was my own in the moment, it certainly pervades all our lives, our world.  We are constantly struggling to put the right attention where and when it is most needed and that’s what these days of awe are about.

I should say that in that particular moment, I was not simply staring at a blank screen.  I was engaged in the emails landing in my inbox.  There was a list of phone calls I was considering returning, I was readying for the Shabbat celebration we had approaching with one of our young people becoming Bar Mitzvah.  Oh yeah, I of course always have one chief procrastination activity going on too and at that moment, and since we are in the season of confession, I was cycling our winter jackets and ski pants for their yearly wash and waterproofing…priorities you know!  I am sure, at least I hope, I’m not alone in that there are always many things on our plates vying for our attention. 

There is a Chasidic teaching from the 18th century that occupies page three of our Machzor, the first entry of the meditations for the High Holy Days.  It teaches us, “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world.”  Too often, it is not the hand held before our eyes, but rather the countless tasks, obligations and varying commitments filling our lives that blur our vision. 

It is fascinating to me that in a world full of buzz words like mission and vision; in a world inundated with strategic planning workshops we are simultaneously surrounded by the pressures of multitasking.  Even more, we are oft praised for taking on so much even at the expense of excellence.  It makes me think about the computer screen that sat before me when Rabbi Kanter called.  I had at least seven windows open.  One, my web browser, had at least five different tabs competing for my attention. 

Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son in the 18th century, “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” While this generational advice survives from three centuries ago, we seem to have found ourselves continuing this struggle. 

I recently heard a story that brought this challenge into focus.  It was a moment for a group of three close friends embarking on an adventure.  They set out with only a rough plan to explore some of the natural world together - too experience the radiance and wonders of the world around us.  As they focused more on their plan and set out, they engaged in a conversation of meaning about countless other opportunities they hoped to seize, but work, family….and life simply occupied their attention and often side-lining other adventures.  Silence set in as one friend said to the others, “Well, you can’t do it all!”  As their time together unfolded, they laughed, shared challenges and dreamt of future experiences…they did a lot in a short two day adventure…you could say they climbed mountains together.  You see, for these three friends, packing their days, their lives with as much as possible was the normal pattern of life..trying to fit it all in, to take on more…  Yet, that moment of silence spoke volumes.  It was acquiescence at first, a reluctant acceptance that not all can be done.  But this grew into a deep respect and even an appreciation for the moment - the adventure at hand.  It was an appreciation for what IS possible.  It was a moment of hyper focus to realize that trying to take on everything, to live multitasking, may actually be a barrier to seeing life, it blocks the vast radiance and secret wonders that fill our lives…our world.

From the technology that lives in our pockets and the connectivity it affords to the amazing opportunities we yearn for to fill our lives, the distractions are all around us. 
We are all guilty of such inattention, or what the field of psychology has come to identify as “continuous partial attention”.  We live this way throughout the year; at the High Holy Days, our attention seems to shift.  Its not always perfect by any stretch of the imagination, yet at this season, we as Jews throughout the world gather at the same time to engage in what Joel Grishaver, a great Jewish teacher, has identified as a power of Judaism.  He teaches that, “Judaism is about punctuating time, sometimes it is a comma, other times a period.”  Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, the Yamei HaTeshuvah - Days of Repentance, represent a full stop period.  Their power lies in the opportunity we are given to begin the next phrase in the story of our lives, the life that will continue when the final blast of the shofar signals the conclusion of Yom Kippur ten days from now. 

This evening we have opened a book we see only at this time of year.  We engage in liturgy that uniquely punctuates this season.  Perhaps these rituals are the black INK of the period punctuating our year.  Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, the days between and Yom Kippur must serve as our frame or a model of focus.  We often use this time to create our own Cheshbon HaNefesh - an accounting of our soul, better yet it is more wholesome to engage these days as what I want to call a Cheshbon HaChaaim - an accounting of life. 

We must begin by asking what is the power in these days that not only draws us to this physical space but the spiritual space too.  How do the words we utter at this time of year provide us this model?  No, we certainly cannot do it all!  And, we can accomplish a lot.  The High Holy Days provide us the space in time to do this accounting of our lives, to enumerate the parts of our lives upon which we ought to focus and to ensure the days that follow become imbued with meaning; to find a meaning not diluted by the forces around us competing for our attention.

It is this time of year that, hopefully, our continuous partial attention becomes unified in the religious acts, the rituals that surround us.  Rabbi David Wolpe describes a different kind of sight that allows us so see what is essential - to focus not on what we cannot do, but rather what we are and what we can accomplish.  He calls it Religious Vision and he writes about it by stating: 

Religious vision means seeing beyond what is apparent.  There is a blessing we recite each morning, he continues, thanking God for the marvelous workings of the human body.  The chatimah, the end of the blessing, declares that God is mafli la’asot, that in fashioning the human body, God acts wondrously, that God has fashioned miracles.  The author of that ancient Talmudic blessing, Wolpe reminds us, was Rav Sheshet, who was blind.  Imagine the vision granted to that sage.  He did not see what was visible, but he saw what was essential.  In his life and ours, Rav Sheshet let in the light.

So often, it is easier to allow our focus to be drawn to what seems most pressing, to lose sight of the grander picture, to lose focus on the grandeur of the gift life is.  There is a great Chelm story, you know the village of fools, that points out the importance of looking in the right places.  The tale begins:  It was a great day when electricity came to Chelm. It was still a novelty and so there were only a few street lights on one side of the road.  Still there was electricity.  The people were very excited.  They danced and shouted and rejoiced night after night.  One night, Shmuel was dancing around and suddenly he heard some coins drop out of his pocket.  He really needed that money the next day so he was very upset.  He started looking around on the ground under the street light.  His friend Yosef came over and asked him what he was doing.  Shmuel explained that he had been dancing over on the other side of the road and his coins had dropped out. He really needed the money so he was searching for it.  Yosef asked him why he was searching under the street light when he had been dancing on the other side of the road.  Surely, the coins would not have rolled that far.  Shmuel looked up at Yosef and explained.  “The light is better over here.”

You see, when we put our attention, our continuous partial attention, where it may seem easiest, we fail to focus on the essential.  This Cheshbon HaChaim - accounting of our lives is a process that shapes us and it is hard.  It is this period in the punctuation of the year that enables us to shed light exactly where we need to look. 

In the Mussar tradition of Judaism, the course of study that engages us in the traits of our souls, we are taught that life presents us the curriculum.  Alan Morinis, director of the Mussar Institute, teaches about patience, that if we often find ourselves impatient and feel like we are always in the longest line in the grocery store, then perhaps patience should be the trait we ought to work on.  Let us consider the tools of our tradition, rather than reinventing the wheel, what does Judaism in general and the High Holy Days in particular provide us to unify that attention, to focus on the essential.

We begin these days with the symbol of the ram’s horn.  The shofar blasts serve to awaken us not only to the tasks at hand, but more importantly to the essential work of knowing ourselves.  Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zichrono livracha taught:  Maimonides speaks of the shofar as an awakener.  We want to awaken to a higher awareness that gives us a perspective from which we can see the flaws in the routines of life and how they can be improved.  The word shofar can be derived from leshaper, fixing or improving.  Shapr ma’asehem - repair our deeds:  Shofarot encourages us to repair our deeds.  The awareness provided by the shofar blast enhances our experience of this reflective day.  What do we need to open not just our eyes, but the religious vision Wolpe speaks of, in order to discover what matters.  These blasts awaken, they are the alarm clock of the year.  And if you are like me, the snooze buttons  are tempting, but we have three rounds of shofar blasts to ensure this opening act is heard…to ensure it is experienced. 

Once awake, and following this opening act of the Holy Days, we embark together, carrying all the clutter, the emptiness that fills our lives, the countless distractions, in the form of bread crumbs at Tashlich.  The symbolism of this act is profound as it begins these intermediate days before Yom Kippur.  When we identify the essential, when we shed light where it is dark, we can begin to focus on what we can accomplish - to know we can do a lot.

As the crescendo of these Holy Days rings with the sounds of Kol Nidre, we declare our utmost intention to live to our expectations of ourselves.  Yom Kippur leads us on a tour of our own mortality.  It is the clearest illustration that, no we cannot do it all.  The Day of Atonement’s power is not held in this valley, but in the realization of the life we are gifted.  To recognize that we must account for our life by living a life focused on what matters, what must matter to us.  When that day comes, we are engaged so deeply in the work of our individual lives, yet we conclude with a profound uttering of Psalm 118 with a twist.  We evolve the words to become:  Pitchu Lanu Sha’arei Tzedek - Open for US the Gates of Righteousness.  In this petition for the gates to be open, it is our desire to focus our vision on the life ahead, to see what is possible by knowing what matters.  It becomes a profound declaration that we account for our lives, that we enter the New Year collectively.  Open for US, the gates of righteousness.

In combating the forces around us that compete for our attention, in striving to focus and to unify our continuous partial attention it becomes the people around us that share this life with us, that inhabit the world around us not alongside, but together.   

Multi-tasking has become a quality to aim for, yet in learning more about multi-tasking, it is in fact a term from computer science and technology…not for humanity….  What we learn on this day, and must turn our attention to, is that perhaps we leave the multi-tasking and the immediate desire to do it all to the iPhones, computers and tablets.  That we unite our continuous partial attention, using the tools of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days in between to recognize while we can’t do it all, we sure can do a lot….with the right energy, priority and focus.

The High Holidays give us the time to learn and practice how to discover and own the times when we need to single-task, to focus.  Multitasking will continue and always be part of our lives, yet let us use this time to hone our skills for focusing, for recognizing that while we cannot do it all, we CAN do a lot….

May we hear the blasts of the shofar and be ready.  May we sift the deeds and experiences of the past year and find clarity, discover focus.  And may we be ready to stand together at the conclusion of the Days of Awe focused, ready to single-task and discover just how much we can accomplish.

Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah,
Rabbi Evon
Shanah Tovah U"mitukah - On Opening Volley of What this Season is About:

In 1985, Abigail Van Buren, author of Dear Abby, whose real name was Pauline Phillips - a Jewish woman from Sioux City, IA, gave a piece of advice in the form of a question.  The writer asked for Abby’s advice about giving up 7 years and returning to college in order to go on to medical school and become a physician, a life-long dream that had been sidetracked.  The writer concluded:  If I go back to college and get my degree, then go to medical school, do my internship and finally get into the actual practice of medicine, it will take me seven years!  But, Abby, in seven years, I will be 43 years old.  What do you think?  To this Abby responded:  And how old will you be in seven years if you don't do it?

When we stand here at the holidays, on the cusp of a New Year, we work hard to let go of past mistakes, we yearn for our better selves to be revealed.  It is a time during which, maybe, we make excuses for times we did not achieve our desired ends and yet we are given the space, at the High Holidays, to be human.  That is we are given this extended moment from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur to move past the excuses and beyond the explanations and let go…to let go of missteps, of missed opportunities and of miscommunications.  It is a time during which we use our past to illustrate the best picture of ourselves to move into this new year and beyond.  May each of us find in the space of this sanctuary, in the space given to us in the liturgy on the pages and in our connection to those surrounding us in community and in love all we need to let go in order to become ourselves.  Shanah Tovah!

Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Evon