SERMON FOR PARASHAT KI TISSA 2019

SIGNS OF OUR FAITH

When my friends in Ann Arbor heard I was coming to Arizona in late February, many commented that I must have planned it so I could be here for the beginning of baseball spring training. That they would say this surprised me a bit because my friends should have known that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in baseball spring training… in Arizona, that is. My team, the World Champion Boston Red Sox, has spring training in Fort Myers, Florida and, to quote Yehuda HaLevi, in an absolutely irreverent way, when it comes to this weekend regarding baseball libi b’mizrach v’ani bisof ma’arav“ “my heart is in the east and I am in the furthest reaches of the west”. 

         I mention this because, as you will probably hear on more than one occasion in our study session later and you might even hear it in the remnants of my accent, I am a proud Bostonian and proud New Englander and the fact that I have lived in the Midwest for over 30 years doesn’t change that. 

         But, I also mention it because I want to take you for a moment to a particular spot in New England that I hope many of you have visited. It is my starting point today for a discussion on one verse, in fact one word, in today’s parasha. 

         One of the most iconic symbols of New England was found in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There, on the edge of a mountain cliff, nature had carved the unmistakable image of the face of a man staring resolutely over the valley below. The Old Man of the Mountain was the symbol of the state and a popular destination of pilgrimage for families like ours who drove the three or four hours to visit the Old Man once every summer. 

         Sadly, in 2003, the Old Man disappeared. The stones which had made up the profile fell off the mountain due to erosion and the passage of time. It was such a sad event that it inspired me to write a Yom Kippur sermon on loss and memory, a sermon which I treasure to this day. 

         But, today, I mention it because I want to share some beautiful words written by American statesman and author Daniel Webster about the Old Man that curiously are echoed in a particularly meaningful traditional commentary on Ki Tissa. Daniel Webster wrote, in words which are not inclusive by today’s appropriate standards but I will share them as he wrote them: 

Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe, jewelers a monster watch and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the mountains of New Hampshire, God almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men”.

         Now, let’s move from New Hampshire to 19thcentury Belarus and the famous Torah commentator and ethicist Israel Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim. I doubt very much that he read Daniel Webster’s words but he might as well have. Writing about the observance of Shabbat, he wrote (and this is my translation): The Shabbat is a symbol and a visible sign that the Torah dwells in the heart of the person who observes it. A sign hanging on a house makes known the business or craft of the person who lives there. As long as the sign is on the house, even if the person is away, we know the person is still performing the craft. When the sign is taken down, it shows that the person is no longer living or working there.  Similarly, he writes, as long as we keep observing Shabbat, the sign of being a serious and committed Jew is present in our homes.

         If he hadn’t read Daniel Webster’s words, what prompted the Chofetz Chaim to talk about signs and symbols hanging outside a home relating to Shabbat? He is reacting to the fact that in two places in our parsha, one of them the paragraph we recognize as the Veshamru, Shabbat is referred to as an “ot”, a sign, between ourselves and God of the deep relationship that we have and observance of Shabbat is a visible and tangible symbol that we take that covenantal relationship seriously. There are other mitzvot that are referred to as “ot” the tefillin, and brit milah for example but the words are expanded in the veshamru paragraph: baynee uvayn binai yisrael ot hee l’olam,it is an eternal sign between me, says God, and the people of Israel. 

         I am going to take issue with the commentary of the Chofetz Hayim in one particular way but before I do, let me say that I think he is absolutely correct in one very important way. Shabbat isa sign, a sign that we are willing to compromise one of the most precious commodities we have as 21stcentury human beings- time- and dedicate it to observance of our ancient tradition. It is a sign that we are willing to let other aspects of our lives wait- that they aren’t of that utmost importance that they can’t be postponed or missed altogether. Whatever one’s relationship with Shabbat is: whether you observe Shabbat fully according to halacha or make some smaller compromise, having a family or personal custom of making Friday night special or coming to shul on Shabbat morning, or in any way making a sacrifice to observe even part of Shabbat, it makes a critical statement in the face of a world which seemingly can’t wait for anything or anyone, a reality which, in the internet and instant communication age has had such a deep and often negative impact on our lives and our relationships. Shabbat tells the world: we can wait.

Shabbat has followed our people for millennia and we have held onto it with joy and commitment. One more baseball reference, I promise the last one: baseball pitcher Jim Bouton once wrote: “You spend half your life holding on to a baseball and then you find out it was the other way around all along”. Well, he must have listened to the thinker Ahad Ha’am who said: “More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel.”  It has kept us distinct. It has kept us returning to our origins, once a week and Shabbat has kept us recognizing the potential for sanctity, patience and a slower pace in an increasingly rushed world. 

And so, we stand firm on this beautiful overlook reached by our weekly pilgrimage. We stand resolutely holding this ancient, yet renewed tradition as the world passes by.

         But, there are limitations to this idyllic picture of Shabbat and I believe that the statement of the Chofetz Chaim, as beautiful and meaningful as it may be, is a bit dangerous or at least lacking in one sense. While it is true in so many ways that a commitment to Shabbat is a sign of a sincere and committed Jew, we must be careful. 

As important as ritual is, we need to train ourselves to look far beyond ritual traditions as the evidence of our commitment to Judaism. As important as they are, as essential as they are, we need to look beyond Shabbat, beyond brit milah, beyond tefillin, beyond kashrut. We need to look elsewhere as well: to the ethical and moral traditions of our faith for they must be every bit the reflection of our seriousness about being a Jew as the observance of any ritual commandments. They must be an “ot” as well.

         We may not want to put a flag out on our front porch to advertise our ethical behavior but, as individuals, and as a people, adherence to our human values of seeking justice and peace and mutual respect among human beings which are rooted deeply in our tradition must also be every bit the “ot”, the clearly visible sign of a well led Jewish life. Without these, the rest lose all meaning. 

         Shabbat is only important if it inspires us to prepare for the other 6 days of the week to fulfill our responsibilities to community and to the world. 

And, that raises one other aspect of this discussion. The paragraph of veshamru indicates that the Shabbat is a sign between God and the people of Israel. The truth is that Shabbat represents a “private” celebration between the Jewish people and God. This isn’t to say that only Jews are welcome in shul or that we reject the idea of sharing the day with those outside the Jewish community. It means that the concept of Shabbat as a commandment, as a mitzvah, as an “ot”, a sign of the covenant, only applies to Jews.

         But, when we turn to the issue of ethics and values and make reflection of those values a sign of our seriousness about our faith, we can more easily join hands with those of other faiths as equals to work for the betterment of the world. Shabbat unites the Jewish people and that is crucial. But ethical behavior is a way to reach out our hands to others and unite with all to improve the world. 

         All of Judaism is a balance. We need ritual and we need ethical behavior. We need our moments as a people and we need to be part of the story of a world in search of repair.  

         Shabbat is a great place to start and an essential part of a Jewish life. But, neither it, nor the other ritual aspects of our tradition, can exist in a vacuum- are the be all and end all Shabbat must inspire us to move forward in our lives observing the ethical traditions as keenly as we observe the ritual traditions. The Torah speaks of returning lost objects, helping animals in distress, honoring our parents as it teaches about observing Shabbat and the holidays. The Torah intertwines and them so must we. 

         Let me conclude then by paraphrasing and giving a bit of a Rashi to Daniel Webster’s words: There in the mountains of New Hampshire, God almighty hangs out a sign to show that there God makes resolute human beings of strength. 

         Shabbat allows us to hang out a sign saying that here we have a Jewish home. 

         That is important to be sure. 

         But, we must hold just as dear, just as important, the elements of our tradition which declare to the world: here, in our homes, here in our communities, here in our lives, God almighty has created a human being and each of us is responding to that creation by resolutely acting like a mentsch.  

Sermon for Parashat Vayiggash.

COMING NEAR

 

This week’s Torah portion begins with a rather simple phrase which carries with it significant opportunity for discussion. Vayiggash Eilav Yehudah, “Judah came near to Joseph.” I have interpreted this phrase in the past in many ways but today, I want to use it in a different way inspired by several commentaries which offer this idea.

By coming near to Joseph, Judah in fact may be viewed as crossing a line, intruding upon Joseph’s space in a way that protocol would not allow for someone appearing before a person of power. By coming near, Judah reaches beyond his space and, in a sense, forces Joseph to confront him.

It is reasonable to consider whether Joseph would have revealed his identity at this moment had Judah stayed in his place. Perhaps he wouldn’t have. Perhaps Judah crossing the line forced the issue and led to Joseph’s action.

Ramban, Nachmanides, offers a beautiful interpretation of the phrase that we say prior to beginning the silent Amida. Adonai Sifatay Tiftach: “God, open my lips and my mouth shall speak your praise”. He says that the word sifatay can be understood not only as “lips”, which is the p’shat, the intended meaning, but as related to the same Hebrew word which is used for “the banks of a river”. He says that we must widen our banks and reach beyond what we perceive as our limitations and must break through barriers if we are to truly find new and meaningful ways to praise God.

Over the past five months, the first months of my retirement, I have been doing many classically rabbinic duties. I have been teaching here at Beth Israel and in Detroit and planning for scholar in residence opportunities. I have also had the sad duty of officiating at funerals here at Beth Israel. But, in addition to all these, it has been Ramban’s interpretation which has inspired me over the past few months and will hopefully, God willing, in the years ahead.

I have had the opportunity to reach beyond some boundaries which the full time rabbinate present in order to seek new ways to respond to the spiritual yearnings which sometimes can get shunted aside when doing the critical, meaningful day to day synagogue work that must be done.

I’ve found that meaning by taking some time to learn more about subjects that interest me through online courses in classical music and art history. I have taken time, and this has been easier since the baseball season ended, to do some reading and studying on subjects which have interested me from a spiritual standpoint in recent years: areas of science such as astronomy and genetics and considering how these affect my concept of faith in God. I’ have also pursued a bit more deeply an interest in an area which has fascinated me since I was a teenager: the phenomena that are referred to as “paranormal experiences” and to more seriously consider whether our minds and our “consciousness” can actually cross boundaries that we might have thought impossible.

But, through it all, one experience has meant the most to me and any of you who are Facebook friends of mine or who have asked me the simple question: “What are you doing these days?” and seen my face glow when I share the answer know full well which experience I’m referring to.

I have the greatest volunteer job I could ever imagine. I have become an exhibit guide at the Toledo Zoo, working mainly in the primate exhibit. Who hasn’t dreamed of working at a zoo? And, the other day when a young girl asked her mother a question about one of the animals while I was standing nearby and the mother said; “I don’t know, why don’t you ask the zookeeper?” and pointed to me, I almost cried.

I can not cross the boundaries set up at the zoo to protect the visitors and the animals. I still stand on the outside. But. by visiting often and helping those who come to the zoo to understand the animals better and to help them enjoy their visit, I am able to celebrate a spiritual experience of a different kind once a week.

Watching these animals, in particular, the gorillas and the orangutans, has left me absolutely ecstatic at times. I love watching the two babies, Wakil, the 3 year old orangutan  and Mokonzi, the gorilla who recently celebrated his first birthday as they explore their limited world and interact with the others in their family grouping. But, while they’re funny and delightful, there is something else going through my mind.

I think about the sense of wonder that they display- and that I’m feeling- and realize that some of that sense of wonder has been dulled over the years by the routine of daily life and this experience has reignited in me that sense of childlike awe in God’s creation. Abraham Joshua Heschel said we should live our entire life in awe and wonder. I like to think I have fulfilled that instruction to a degree. But, I know it hasn’t been as prominent in my mind as it should have been and I’m glad to let these animals  inspire me to remind me of the wonder of the world.

And then, there is Leela, the favorite animal of many frequent Toledo Zoo visitors. Leela is a 15 year old orangutan and she is beautiful. But, what is most important about Leela is that she interacts with visitors. When I comes to visit her, she comes over and sits down and knocks on the glass, sometimes offering what looks like a kiss, and graphically shows me the food she has partially eaten which I take to be a gesture of friendship.

Frequent visitors and volunteers know that Leela is fascinated with cell phones and loves to watch videos, staring intently at the pictures. But, what has astounded me is that when I look into her eyes, I feel like I’m crossing some kind of boundary between my world and hers.

I sit on the little bench against the glass where she often sits and I talk with her and I believe she listens and maybe even understands. This isn’t unusual as I feel that way about looking into our dog, Sami’s eyes and, when they let me, our cats’ eyes as well. But, I didn’t expect it from an orangutan and it has touched me in ways I can’t describe.

Each time I go to the zoo, I say a bracha which our siddur tells us we should say when we see a creature of outstanding beauty: Baruch Atah..Shekacha Lo B’olamo, “Blessed be God who has provided such beauty in the world”.

This is a critical bracha because it reminds us that we should not relate to God only as the God who gives the Torah but also as the source who created the world, in whatever way we imagine that.

 

There is a beautiful commentary on the phrase from the creation story when God says: “Let us make the human being in our image according to our likeness”. The plural, say some commentators, indicates that God was talking to the animals asking them to contribute the physical characteristics to the creation of the human being.

Usually when we think of crossing spiritual boundaries, we think of reaching further away from our physical bodies and reaching to more “heavenly” realms. I do think that way, of course, but  I have also found that the opposite, reaching out to build a relationship with these and other animals, our physical relatives, has touched me on a deeply spiritual level that I didn’t not expect.

As much as I love Torah and cherish that which distinguishes us as Jews, I also cherish the world around us and I embrace that which unites us with all other people and the animals which surround us. My trips to the zoo as well as my reading on scientific issues focus my mind on the God of creation and I find that tremendously spiritually satisfying.

None of this is meant to imply in any way that I have given up working with human beings. I love to teach and study Torah and I have begun to work on a second book which I know Leela will not be able to read.

Still, there is something about those eyes that have helped me look more deeply into my soul and for that I am deeply grateful.

There is an ancient Jewish text called Perek Shirah, which suggests a Biblical verse for each element of the natural world, sun, stars, plants and, of course, many animals.

For example, the book  teaches that the elephant says words from the Shabbat psalm, psalm 92: “How great are your works O God, how profound are your designs”.

The Lion says: God will go forth like a mighty warrior.

And the final animal mentioned in Perek Shirah is the loyal dog who says words we recognize from Mah Tovu: Come let us prostrate ourselves and bow down.

The book does not contain a verse for a gorilla or an orangutan. But, I will suggest one word: Vayiggash, “He came near”.

I came near and in doing so, something significant was revealed that might not otherwise have been.

 

 

A Journey to the Border. Sermon for Parashat Vayishlach 2018

I have always found one specific aspect of the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel to be particularly fascinating. The Torah records that “Vayavayk esh eemo”, a man wrestled with him. It is not Jacob who initiates the wrestling match. It is forced upon him. He doesn’t seek it out as troubled as he might have been. The fight comes to him.

I had not anticipated traveling to Texas last week. While I have expressed great concern about many of the administration’s policies and perspectives and shared my disdain for the language and the rhetoric that we have heard, I hadn’t anticipated traveling 1,700 miles to stand in a desolate field next to the Mexican border protesting one specific administration policy. But, having heard the story of the camp in Tornillo, and considering that we were nearing Thanksgiving, the holiday which is supposed to reflect the highest of our values as an American people, I felt deeply that in many ways that, as a nation, our ideals, and our values are being threatened and I had to accept the challenge to join this struggle in a more active way.

Before I describe the experience and share my thoughts, I want to share two disclaimers. First, there were many, many more, including Rabbi Josh Whinston from TBE who did all the hard work to make this happen and who made the long drive from Ann Arbor doing the important work of raising awareness along the way. I sacrificed very little to make this trip but I was proud to join the group and to represent Beth Israel Congregation in this critical journey.

And secondly, I do not want my  remarks this morning to be considered a general presentation on the issue of immigration and asylum. These are very difficult issues and I do believe our nation needs a reasonable, responsible policy in these areas. This morning, I am referring only to some specific aspects of these issues in which I feel we are on the wrong track and the policies which are wrong and must be changed.

So, what happened and what did I learn?

There were three major elements to the one day “action”. The first was a visit to the Mexican border at El Paso/Juarez. We were greeted at the border by several clergy who were working with immigrants and those seeking asylum and heard from a member of El Paso city government, Peter Svarzbein. He is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and he talked to us about how closely intertwined the two communities- El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico- are and how the rhetoric that attempts to encourage fear among US citizens concerning immigrants and asylum seekers is damaging this long standing relationship that both communities depend upon. He said that he was proud of us for standing up for a more fair and more ethical policy at the border and then, while we stood under the entrance to the Paso Del Norte Bridge which connects the two cities over the very narrow Rio Grande, he led us in a familiar song he learned from camp,“Kol Haolam Kulo Gesher Tzar M’od”. The words of this song: “The entire world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to be afraid” sounded so ironic. Singing that song while standing in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two cities and countries was jarring.

We then proceeded to walk across the bridge into Mexico. We did so because our guides in Texas wanted us to see the migrant asylum seekers who camp out on the bridge because, due to pre-screening,  are not able to get close enough to the US border to declare their intentions to seek asylum to escape the danger they face.

It came as a surprise to everyone, including the individuals leading us on this part of the journey that there were in fact, no asylum seekers on the bridge. Some said that perhaps they had been sent to shelters because of the cold (temperatures in the 30s). Others though speculated that the advance publicity of our journey with the accompanying press might have led to the removal of individuals. We will never know. But, I consider the latter to be more likely.

What we do know is that this nation is severely restricting the granting of asylum to individuals fleeing threats of death in their home countries. I do not believe in an open border nor do I believe that the US should accept every individual for asylum without investigating their situation but the entire tone of this administration to be so increasingly restrictive as to allow so few to be granted asylum goes against the concept of asylum and the principles and values of this nation. It is inhumane and completely insensitive to the realities so many people face.

After we crossed the border back into the USA, I asked one of our guides, Diego, what the one thing he would like me to tell people when I returned. He said: “We’re used to the fence, we’re used to the guards. But, we’re not used to the soldiers and we’re not used to the increasingly confrontational and horrendously disrespectful language used at the border even to US citizens.” Diego, a US citizen, born in El Paso said that on several occasions, he has been stopped in his hometown at traffic stops and asked to show his identification. He said, pointedly, that I would never be stopped.

We then moved on to the principle purpose of our journey; to stand witness outside the gates of the tents set up to house teenagers at Tornillo 45 miles away. Many of those children were brought to Tornillo in the dark of night from other shelters which had become overcrowded. While we were there, several busses with their windows covered drove through the gates so they continue to come. Many of these young people have contact information for their family members in the US but, in most cases, the connection has not been made and restrictions are placed on such contact. And, for some who can make contact, family members are fearful to reunite with their children because of a change in policy which, as they seek this connection, may leave them open to having their status in the US threatened So, as a result, even though the “family separation policy” is said to have stopped, it is de facto still happening and more than 1,000 children sit indefinitely in this tent city. There is supposed to be a limit on how long they should be separated but because the tents are on federal land there is a loophole that permits longer, indefinite stays.

So, we were there to demand that these children be reunited with family. They are not criminals. They do not deserve this type of incarceration and separation. Some were old enough to have traveled to the US alone, some who came with families and were separated from them. Now, they are in a tent city and we know very little about what is truly happening inside. There are some very unsettling reports about what is in fact happening in these camps but entrance and observation is restricted so it does remain a mystery.

The scene for us at Tornillo was truly both heartbreaking and uplifting. There were about 75 people as part of the group led by the rabbis and other clergy from Michigan and cities along the way of the caravan. We were joined by others, including clergy from the area and, most impressively by a large group of high school students from a Catholic school in El Paso. They walked in behind a banner holding the most beautifully worded signs calling for more respect for immigrants and for the unification of families.

The gathering lasted about an hour and the scenes will remain in my memory for a long, long time and you can watch them online. We heard emotional speeches by people who have been to Tornillo every day for months to stand witness and inspiring messages by the clergy. The group consisting of many faiths and all ages sang songs in Hebrew and English and most, including notably these high school students, wiped away tears as we contemplated what was happening in our name.

The group asked to enter the camp but, as expected, this request was denied. But, we were there. And those in charge knew we were there.

It is not easy to get to Tornillo. Look online and see it what it looks like. It is a desert, which of course evokes memories of our own history. It is no coincidence that this is where the children are housed- far away where few see even the structures which contain them. But, we made the trip there to tell them, even if they could not see, that they were not forgotten.

We then returned to El Paso and spent hours in service projects directly aiding those who were in shelters awaiting resolution of their situation. I was part of a group which shopped for and served a dinner to more than 100 people of all ages who looked so tired, so desperate and yet, as you might anticipate, so grateful that someone cared.

I recognize that immigration is a very difficult issue.

But, some things must change.

The belligerent, hate mongering, divisive and racist tone, the militarization of the border and the use of the issue for political advantage can not be the American way.

And, for God’s sake- and our own-, there are the children, left alone in tents. How can we stand idly by and not respond?

And so we did, but we must do more. We must raise our voices as I did in the meeting of the Interfaith Round Table this past week. We must address this issue, as we will do, with our elected officials in meetings beginning this week.

This is not America. The lighted lamp that shines beside the golden door that our ancestors entered, can not be allowed to be extinguished.

We can be wise without being cruel.

We can be protective of our nation while still living up to our better angels.

And, we can never punish or abuse children in this way.

It is interesting that Jacob’s son, Joseph, also had an experience with a stranger which we will read in next week’s Torah portion. The Torah says that a stranger found him and told him that in order to find his brothers he must walk a different path. It is interesting that just like with Jacob when the stranger wrestled with him, this stranger found Joseph and told him a new path was needed.

We didn’t see these children. But, we felt their presence.

In a sense, they found us to tell us that we need to follow a different path as a nation.

We must listen.

 

Note: The organization that the group partnered with in El Paso is Annuniation House. You can read about their work and how to make donations to support this work at/annunciationhouse.org

 

SERMON FOR THE SPECIAL SHABBAT OF REFLECTION AND CELEBRATION

This past Shabbat, I was honored during the Shabbat morning service as I prepare to retire from the position of rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation. The service included special group aliyot and participation from members our Interfaith organization, the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County. It was a truly an unforgettable morning for me.

Here is the sermon that I delivered.

FROM 1968 to 2018 

First, I want to take this opportunity to thank the members of the planning committee for your efforts in planning this morning’s service. I am truly honored and deeply appreciative.

Fifty years ago this morning, I stood as a bar mitzvah on the bima of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts. KI, at the time, was one of the strongest congregations of the Conservative movement and I will say some more about that during our conversation following the kiddush. However, a Bar Mitzvah at KI was not such a big production. The Bar Mitzvah said the Torah blessings, chanted the Haftarah and read an original prayer. That was all. There were no exceptions.

Compared to Beth Israel where the bar or bat mitzvah is encouraged to lead more of the service and to share his or her personal thoughts in a d’var torah, the process of writing the bar mitzvah prayer at KI was somewhat perfunctory as I recall. We had a meeting with the assistant Rabbi who, in essence, told us what to say and, more importantly, what not to say. And, each prayer was very much the same.

Believe it or not, I found my prayer a few months ago as we were going through some old family documents and I will share it with you this morning.

God, king of the universe:

         On this Shabbat as I take my place as a Bar Mitzvah, I am proud to become a part of the long and wonderful Jewish history. I pray that I may live a meaningful life based on the Torah and the Jewish traditions. As I grow older, I pray that I may be able to continue my studies so that I can become an active member of the Jewish community.

         I pray that my parents, grandmother, brother and my teachers who have taught me about my heritage and have given love and guidance, will be blessed with long life and peace.

         May I be able to help my fellowman while I strive to improve myself. I pray that the day will come when all men will learn to help their neighbors and respect one another so that there may be peace and progress in the world.

         Amen.

I love that line about becoming an “active member of the Jewish community.”

The prayer is certainly nice. But it is not very personal. It probably could have been given by any of the 30 or so b’nai mitzvah that year.

But, it was a start.

14 years later, almost to the day, I was given another opportunity to read a personal prayer as I was chosen by my classmates to write and read a prayer during our Jewish Theological Seminary ordination ceremony.

Reading it today, on this Shabbat, as I look back on 36 years as a congregational Rabbi, and 30 years here at Beth Israel, one sentence is particularly important to me.

Avinu shebashamayim, tzur Yisrael v’goalo

Our Heavenly Father, Rock and Redeemer of Israel.

We stand before You and before Your people prepared to assume the awesome responsibility of leadership. Before we take our first steps, we pause to ask that Your blessings of health and peace be upon our teachers whose dedication will be reflected in each word of Torah which we teach. We also ask Your blessings upon our families whose love and support have brought us to this day.

And, finally, for ourselves, we ask for patience, respect and dedication. May we, who began the road to this day with dreams, ideals and aspirations, remain dedicated to those dreams and goals. May you grant us the wisdom to realize that we can best achieve the goals we set for ourselves by remaining dedicated to our responsibility: teaching our communities by example the values of Torah, Avodah and Gemillut Hasadim, Torah, service to God and acts of lovingkindness.

         Amen.

The line that means the most to me, 36 years later, is “May we who began the road to this day with dreams, ideals and aspirations, remain dedicated to those dreams and goals.”

While I won’t claim that each and every hour of every day of the past 36 years has been a spiritually elevating moment and reflective of Torah, Avodah and Gemillut Hasadim, I can honestly and sincerely say to my 27 year old self that I have never forgotten that that goal is what the rabbinate is about.

And, for that, I am proud. But, more than proud, I am grateful.

I am Grateful to God and I am grateful to you.

You have inspired me to teach Torah. You have continued to make our services and religious ritual the centerpiece of the congregation and you have responded to the call to make this congregation known for acts of loving-kindness and efforts for tikkun olam, repairing the world.

I have not done it alone. I could not have done it alone. I want to thank the staff of the Congregation, present and past for all that you have done for our synagogue and the community and all you have done to inspire me personally.

I want all of you to know that when those days came when I was tired or a bit cynical or just not living up to the challenge I set for myself in that prayer, it was your encouragement, your smiles, your questions and challenges, and even the sadness that you trusted me enough to share, that reminded me of why I chose to be a Rabbi and how fortunate I am to have come to Beth Israel.

I can never put into words all that you mean to me.

I have written another prayer, a special prayer for this morning, a prayer of thanks and with that I will conclude.

Boraynu shebashamayim,our creator, modeh ani lifanecha, I am grateful to You.

I am grateful for the inspiration you have given me. I am grateful for the health that I have been blessed with and the energy and patience to continue to try to fulfill the obligations I took on decades ago.

I am grateful, O God for your Torah and for the ability to teach and inspire others with its wisdom: the most important gift we have, as Jews to share with the world.

To my family: Ellen, Avi, Mickie and all of the animals as well, Modeh ani lifnechem, I am grateful to you in more ways than you will ever know for your patience with me, your inspiration to me, for the glow in your eyes which reminds me every moment of every day that I am so fortunate. You remind me every day that life is a miracle and that we must find ways to make the most of that life every single day.

And to the members of Beth Israel Congregation, Modeh ani lifneychem, I am so, so grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to be the rabbi that I always dreamed of being.

As you take your first steps to the future with a new leader, I pray you will never forget that a synagogue is about Torah, Avodah and Gemillut Hasadim. Learn Torah together, serve God together, change the world for the better and most importantly, take care of each other and treat each other well.

 

 

 

Sermon for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day 2018

 

WE MUST SPEAK

 

 

Occasionally, I have written a sermon which started out appearing to be about one subject when, in fact, it was really about something else altogether.

I used that approach on my first Kol Nidre at Beth Israel 30 years ago. My sermon began with some thoughts on prayer but it really was heading in a completely different direction.

I began by focusing on a single word which is added to one of our most familiar prayers during the High Holy Day season. In the Kaddish we usually say that God is l’ayla mikol birchata above all of our attempts at praise. But, on the High Holy Days, we say God is l’ayla u’layla, above and beyond any attempts at praise.

I discussed in that sermon why we express an increased distance from God on the days when we are supposed to be closest to God, standing in judgment.

I asked: Is this merely another paradox to wrestle with, another contradiction to add to the long list of conflicts in Judaism?

I don’t think so.

I think those words are meant to remove obstacles to prayer rather than discourage us.

Here is how I explained it then: “If we keep in mind that God is l’ayla ul’aya,if we express the idea that that the words do not do justice to praising God, it helps us to feel more comfortable to say the words in our hearts that must be said. For by admitting that nothing we say will even begin to serve as proper prayer and praise, we realize that there are no magic words and with that pressure removed, we have no excuses, we feel free to express our thoughts.”

Then, continuing with the prayer theme for just a few more minutes, I provided four excuses that people who claim to want to pray might use for not saying words of prayer, none of which I believe, are legitimate excuses.

First: “:I don’t know the words to say.” In that case, say the words in your heart.

Second: “I may say something wrong.” There are many traditional Jewish texts which teach that there can be nothing wrong when we speak the words in our heart.

Third: “I can’t say what I hear others saying so I just don’t think about God.” There is no uniform belief about God in Jewish tradition. We are all over the map in how we conceive of God and of prayer and no matter how strange you may feel your theology or view of prayer is, I can guarantee you that someone in Jewish tradition has voiced the same thoughts.

And, finally: “Who am I to say anything to God? I’m not worthy”. We have every right to praise, to scream out, to be angry, to be thankful. We are God’s creation and we can, in fact, I believe we must, speak to God.

I expressed my belief that despite all of the obstacles, we must continue to try.

But, it was at that point that my sermon took a surprising turn.

I told the congregation that although I hoped that people found that thought provoking, my goal that evening was not really to talk about prayer.

 

I pointed out that those same four excuses: “I don’t know what to say, I may say something wrong, I believe something different, I have no right to speak”, are excuses that Jews often use for not talking about another subject, near and dear to our hearts, and that is the State of Israel.

My sermon that night changed direction and became a plea for people to express their opinions about Israel. I said that not talking was a way of losing connection with something important to us: “We must speak the thoughts lest the feelings disappear. We must speak in order to keep the emotion flowing or we will begin to lose the emotional attachment to Israel”. We will, if we are silent, stop caring. And I believe that today even more strongly.

I absolutely believe that it is essential that we talk about Israel and what it means to us as Jews. We must express our pride and praise and our disappointments and concerns.

And of the many things that have brought me great satisfaction over the past 30 years, Beth Israel’s reputation as a place where people can express their thoughts on this critical part of our lives as Jews is high on the list.

I am proud that we have done what synagogues should do. We have taken 5 congregation trips to Israel, co-sponsored an interfaith tour, participated in several federation missions, given scholarships to dozens of young people to travel and study in Israel, hosted an annual Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day ceremony, for the community, taught our religious school students about Israel and proudly proclaimed our emotional connection and concern for the state. We have strengthened our connection in the face of the horrendous vigil that has been such a horrible burden for all of us.

But, through it all, we have done something else. We have provided opportunities for people to talk, freely, to each other. We sponsored a class from the Hartman Institute called Engaging Israel which addressed some of the most thorny issues facing the State and our relationship with it. We have hosted a monthly conversation with members of Zeitouna, a Palestinian and Jewish women’s dialogue group. We have brought in speakers to speak about various human rights issues facing Israel, including Rabbi Arik Ascherman who will be in Ann Arbor at the beginning of May, and I have frequently used my time on this bima to praise Israel for all of its accomplishments and it all means to us and to raise critical moral and ethical issues which we, as rabbis, as Jews, can not ignore.

I know the latter point hasn’t sat well with everyone. Some ask: why should people hear criticism about Israel in the synagogue? My answer always has been that I would much prefer that these issues be raised here in what I hope is a spirit of love and concern rather than only being raised by those who seek to defame the State. I want our young people, especially, to know that those who say that Jews all express a “party line” about Israel are wrong: that there are vibrant conversations about Israel going on in many areas in the Jewish community, including the synagogue.

That Israel is not perfect is, in and of itself, no shame.  No country is. The shame occurs when the issues are not addressed and when those who honestly feel that Israel can do better don’t say it because they don’t know what to say or they fear may cause disunity or they may say something wrong or they fear they have no right to speak. These are not valid excuses. We can and must talk. And, even more importantly, we must listen. Even if we hear words that we don’t agree with, as long as they are expressed respectfully, we must listen.

Today’s parsha begins with the words: Vayihee Bayom Hashmini“And it came to pass on the 8thday”. The 8thday, the day after the tabernacle was dedicated was a day of celebration until Nadav and Avihu offered strange fire and it consumed them.

 

As Israel begins its 8thdecade, it is time for a great celebration, so much has been accomplished, so much to be proud of.

But, as Israel enters its 8thdecade, the existence of the state is at stake. It is at stake not only because of legitimate and real external security concerns but also because of misguided internal policies. And, it is not only Jews who would label themselves progressive saying this. Ronald Lauder, president of the American Jewish Congress, wrote a piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago called “Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds” and was subtitled: Why I fear for the Nation I Love. This article made it clear that issues of concern, including, among others, the settlement policy, the failure to achieve a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and the extreme power wielded by the ultra orthodox in disenfranchising non-Orthodox Jews are not left vs. right issues and are not raised only by people who are ambivalent about Israel. More and more staunch supporters and lovers of Israel are raising the same issues that some of us have been speaking about for years. I am encouraged by this trend and pray that it continues.

There is a Midrash that says that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was that they each brought incense separately and didn’t communicate with each other, standing apart from each other, each in their own world.

There is a great lesson here.

I believe that what is needed to prevent disaster in Israel is a determination on the part of all sides to talk to and listen to each other: Jews and Israeli Arabs, secular and religious Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. This is not naive. In some places it is happening and those sparks must grow in the years to come to be a positive constructive flame and to avoid destructive fire.

And, here, we must speak to each other from our hearts and be willing to raise the issues that others shy away from.

As with prayer, there are no excuses that should keep us from talking.

I hope and pray that this will always be what Beth Israel stands for.

I hope and pray that we will always talk.

And I hope and pray that more will listen.

 

WE WERE AS DREAMERS

SERMON FOR PARASHAT BESHALACH  JANUARY 27, 2018

 

 

There may be some words missing from this week’s parasha.

Then again, there may not be.

As the people stand desperately in front of the sea with the Egyptian army closing in, God says to Moses: Mah Titzak Alay: Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it.

The question about missing words comes down to this. God says: “Why do you cry out to me?” but we see no evidence of Moses crying out to God.

Some commentators have argued that the Torah omitted Moses’ prayer because it showed a desperation or anger that was not appropriate for Moses. But, there are two other possibilities that would see this story as being complete without the words of any prayer of Moses.

First, in the verses before God’s words, Moses gives a short speech to the people which ends with these words: Adonai Yilachem Lachem: God will battle for you; hold your peace.

So, perhaps God is saying to Moses: “Why do you cry out about me?”, not necessarily to me. God would be interpreting Moses’ expression of faith in the divine as an indirect plea for God to act.

The other, and in my mind, more convincing interpretation is that not all cries to God are audible. Moses might have engaged in silent prayer at this time, pleading with God for help.

But any way you read this, God is having none of it. He tells Moses to act instead of praying, aloud or silently. The Midrash goes further.

One interpretation from the Talmudic tractate of Sotah says that Moses was taking too long praying and God said to him: “Yidedai Tovim Bayam v’atah ma’arich batifila, my children are drowning in the sea and you are saying a long prayer?” Apparently the people were also impatient with Moses’ prayer and were trying to escape through the sea. No one, except Moses, saw this as a time for lengthy prayer.

Then, there is another midrash, this one from Vayikra Rabbah, which contains one of my favorite expressions in any piece of rabbinic literature. God says to Moses; if you don’t do something, no one will do it, concluding with this beautiful phrase: Ayn Hasha’ah mitzapah elah lach, the hour waits only for you. Everything is set, God says, for salvation: “This moment is in your hands. Act.”

God tells Moses that he has the power to find a path forward for these people. Enough talk. Enough prayer. Enough delays. Clear the path for the people.

As all of us have watched the give and take and the frustrating, lengthy, verbose to say the least, discussions that have taken place in Washington DC over the last few weeks. Much of that has focused on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals which offered a path to citizenship for children of those who entered our country illegally but who have grown up here, many not knowing any other home.

The plan which was rescinded by the Trump Administration is viewed favorably by the vast majority of Americans according to polls and has enabled so many young people, called dreamers, to achieve their dreams of an education and employment, benefitting them and our nation greatly.

The immigration debate is a serious one and I acknowledge that there are many sides. But, about this there should be no debate. DACA is not only advantageous for those dreamers, it is also just plain right.

Our Rabbinical Assembly and many other Jewish organizations have supported this act with the hope that a path to citizenship can be cleared for these individuals. This reflects the spirit of our nation’s dedication to immigrants and reflects the memory of our own family stories of immigration.

It is right.

God says: “This isn’t the time for lengthy prayer. It isn’t the time for lengthy deliberation and vague promises about what I can do. It’s time to act and the hour waits for you.”

As congress deliberates and shuts down the government and as the president vacillates, saying one thing one day and one thing the next or tying DACA to significant cuts in immigration and as all of the discussions drone on, the lives of so many young people hang in the balance. While they are not drowning in the sea, until the path ahead is clear, they stand desperate for hope.

The hour waits only for you, God said to Moses.

I think it’s time for all of us to say those same words to the leadership of congress and the president.

Too many lives lie in the balance while you engage in lengthy words.

It’s time to clear a path forward.

But, there will be no divine miracle. It is in their hands.

 

Moving Towards Greater Light Hanukkah 2018

 

 

Hillel taught: “Light the Hanukkah lights increasing one by one each night.”

And his disciples explained: “Ma’alin b’kodesh v’ayn Moridin”. Always increase in matters of holiness, never decrease.

Shabbat Shalom and hag Hanukkah Sameach.

Let me say clearly before I begin my brief d’var Torah this morning that this is most certainly not a matter of Democrats vs Republicans. Nor is it matter of Liberals vs Conservatives.

It is a matter of the soul of a nation.

This past Tuesday, voters in Alabama, albeit by a very thin margin, took a stand against racism, against hatred and exclusion of LGBT individuals and families, against the breaking down of walls between church and state, against anti-Semitism, against hatred and persecution of Muslims and against an individual who was the subject of numerous allegations of horrible impropriety and I don’t need to be more specific. They rejected those who said that political goals outweigh horrendous statements and allegations of scandalous actions in one’s personal life.

The election was too close: much too close. The numbers of people who supported the defeated candidate and the shameful endorsements of those who were willing to overlook the actions and the statements and the allegations are more than troubling.

But, in the end, a critical statement was made.

We are in the middle of the holiday of Hanukkah. The hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menora sits, like the world, half in light and half in darkness.

Maimonides, in his laws of teshuva, laws of repentance, taught us to view our lives always as perfectly balanced between righteous deeds and sins so that we see that any one action can tip the balance.

Likewise, we must view our world as perfectly balanced between right and wrong, good and evil, destruction and redemption so that any one act can tip the balance.

I would hardly consider the election in Alabama to be the act which will lead the world or our nation to redemption. But, just like the little jug of oil which shouldn’t have been enough to light the Temple and spread light to the world, it is the raw material of something much greater.

So tonight, as we light the 5th candle, we should be eternally grateful that Rabbi Hillel won the argument about how to light the Hanukkah menora. Others wanted to light the lights in the opposite way, decresing the light each day. As we stand half in darkness and half in light, let us be thankful that tonight our ritual brings us to greater light.

Let us light the light which banishes hatred and bigotry, the light which opposes sexual harassment and abuse, the light which encourages respect and honesty, the light which teaches that religious rituals and language aren’t just actions and words but must touch the very hearts of our souls and change our lives and the life of the world for the better.

A little flame produced a major light.

We can not, we must not let the light go out.

 

Parashat Hayey Sarah 2017

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

 

One of my favorite phrases in the Siddur is: Va’ani Tifalati. Taken from Psalm 69, the words can be translated in many different ways. I have always found great meaning in this translation: “As for me, this is my prayer.”

As I considered the topic of my sermon for this week, I thought about a line from a song written by the late Jim Croce. In a song entitled “Which Way Are you Going?”, he wrote these words: “Words once honored turn to lies.”

It is true that there are certain words that once seemed perfectly honorable and acceptable to say suddenly begin to resonate poorly and can even become the object of ridicule. Such is the case today in many circles with these 3 simple words: “thoughts and prayers”.

After the horrendous tragedy which took place in Sutherland Springs, Texas this past Sunday, it seems that anyone who dared to say those once honored words: “our thoughts and prayers are with the families”, was being chastised. “We don’t need thoughts and prayers. We need action.”

And I agree 100% we most definitely do need action.

But, thoughts and prayers can help as well.

Let me share with you once again, as I know I have done many times before, my favorite thought concerning Jewish prayer. I do not know where I heard it stated as simply and clearly as I intend to do this morning although a lengthy commentary by the 19th century Torah commentator, the Malbim, seems to get to the same point in a rather roundabout and subtle way. You can find that commentary in Nehama Leibowitz’ Studies in Bereshit.

When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is sent by his master to find a wife for Isaac, he says a prayer “may the one who offers water not only to me but to my camels as well, let her be the one you, God, have chosen for Isaac”.

What kind of prayer is this? What is this prayer about?

Reading it closely, we discover that Eliezer is not asking God to pick the woman and let him know who it is by having her ask to water the camels. Rather, he is saying to God: ”I have made my choice. I will choose the one who is kindhearted enough to offer to water my camels and I hope you agree”. In essence, he is saying that he is making this choice because it is consistent with the values that his master had taught him and he feels it will find favor with God.

Eliezer is not asking for a magic sign. He is instead reaching deep inside and deciding which course of action is best and hoping that it coincides with God’s will. He is not praying to God to release him from the responsibility to act. He is praying that he be wise enough to make a good choice. The object of the prayer is not to make God act, rather to have the wisdom and the courage to act in accordance with what he believes God would want.

 

So, prayer need not entail asking for external, divine help for our problems. Prayer really means marshalling our own forces, convincing ourselves that we can at least attempt to solve a problem and building up strength and courage to overcome the obstacles in the way. It isn’t always enough but, as part of a bigger package, it is definitely worthwhile. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said; “Prayer may not save us but prayer may make us worthy of being saved”.

Telling someone who is in pain that he or she is in our thoughts and prayers after suffering a loss is truly a compassionate thing to say and I will not refrain from saying it. It does mean something essential to some people and it brings a sense of support and concern which can be so deeply helpful to an individual in pain.

And when we face a difficult issue, while prayer is not a substitute for action, prayer can encourage us to face the challenges of life, gather up our strength and do what must be done.

Prayer is not a replacement for action, it is a call to action.

When we gather here on Shabbat morning and when any congregation gathers in any faith, the community expresses a yearning for more meaningful lives and for a better world. We reach out to God to inspire us to try harder, to dig deeper, to see more clearly and to act more decisively.

Gathering in prayer is a call to action.

And we so desperately need action. Our nation’s leaders must face up to the terrible plague of gun violence in our society and do what has to be done to effectively address the issue of the horrible proliferation of guns in our nation, especially guns the types of which no individual should have any access to.

How many more tragedies will it take before our leaders act?

Action speaks more loudly than prayer. But, let’s not be so quick to dismiss the power of prayer. Prayer allows us to reach deeper to find the wise way to act and in this case thoughtful, considered introspection can, I believe, lead to only one conclusion, that we must change the way we think and act about guns in our nation. There is no choice. There is no option. It is what God would want and it is what we must do.

Those mourning in Texas, in Las Vegas, in Charleston, in Connecticut and on and on and on and on must always be in our thoughts. They inspire and demand our prayers and our actions.

May we have the strength to stem this terrible tide of violence and death. May our leaders and all of us gather the courage and the strength to do what must be done.

As for me, that is my prayer.

And I know I share it with so many of you.

May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts and, most importantly, the works of our hands that those meditations inspire, be acceptable to you O Lord.

Amen.

KOL NIDRE 5778

KOL NIDRE 2017

A MOST ESSENTIAL VOW

Kol Nidre touches us in many different ways.

There are many well-known stories about what it has meant to individual Jews over the centuries.

Here is one famous story.

At one time in his life, the famed Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig had decided to convert to Christianity. He went to synagogue one last time. It was Kol Nidre night. He heard the prayer and it touched him so deeply that he changed his mind about conversion.

What is particularly fascinating about this story is that, to my knowledge, this prolific author never explained why Kol Nidre moved him to reaffirm his Jewishness. He left it as a mystery. But, he later is said to have taught that hearing the Kol Nidre prayer helps us all to measure how we have grown as Jews over the past year.

Tonight, I will speak about what I believe to be the best mechanism we have to grow as Jews. It is the aspect of our faith that, more than any other, has kept me spiritually energized in my choice of career for over 40 years. To this day it continues to bring me a thrill and the joy of discovery. It is a pursuit that I will carry with me no matter where my future travels take me.

That pursuit is the study of Torah.

 

Kol Nidre: All vows.

The prayer that begins the Yom Kippur service, the prayer whose melody moves us so deeply and brings such deep and lasting memories, the prayer that touched Franz Rosenzweig’s heart and touches our hearts as well, is not a prayer at all. It is, in actuality, a dry legal statement releasing us from vows we might have taken last year or might take in the year just begun, depending on how we interpret it.

The vows referred to are those vows between ourselves and God. The vows are those that might have been made in a moment of distress or even sincere spiritual fervor. Apparently, our rabbis felt that God understands that some promises made to God are made in the moment and should not have lasting repercussions.

But there are some vows to God that we can’t be released from and one of those is the vow our ancestors made in our name at Mt. Sinai: the vow to love and to learn Torah.

On several occasions in the past few years, I have dedicated a High Holy Day sermon to teaching Torah. Tonight, on the holiest night of the year, I will do so again.

But, unlike past years when I used the text as a way of demonstrating how rich Torah study can be, this year I will teach a text which puts that study into a context: a context of faith and of ideas. I am doing this because I sincerely hope that my words will encourage you to embrace the study of Jewish text more deeply than you have done to this point in your life.

To do so is absolutely incumbent on every Jew.

Be assured I’m not suggesting that you spend inordinate and unreasonable amounts of time fully absorbed in study denying personal responsibility and refraining from interacting with the world. That would be a desecration of all the good that Torah can do as the life we live in the world, the good works we do are much more important than the time we take studying. But, taking time to study and wrestle with our traditional texts provides a grounding that inspires us to take our responsibility in the world more seriously and gives everything we do a foundation of deeper meaning.

Studying Torah is the quintessential Jewish act.

Besides, I sincerely believe that it gives God great pleasure when we fulfill our vows to study Torah and anything that pleases God is good by me. There is an old story about a woman who wanted to wish God something for the new year and she finally decides that the best she can come up with is to wish that God should have “nachas fun de kinder”, satisfaction from the children. I firmly believe that God sheps nachas, gets great satisfaction when we do good things, when we act with compassion and when we study Torah.

So, on this Yom Kippur evening, let us fulfill our vow.

Please open up the machzor to page 99 and you will find the text at the bottom of the page: the blessings that are said when one has an Aliyah to the Torah. You will hear them 8 times tomorrow morning as you do every Shabbat. But, this evening, I want you to listen to them more carefully and understand and appreciate them more deeply.

So, I am going to chant them slowly. You are welcome to join me but keep in mind that I am going to chant them very slowly.

How many times have we heard those words and that melody?

In fact, the first question people often ask is: “Why do we have to hear it so often? It just makes the service longer. It seems the only reason to say them over and over is to give more people a chance to be up on the bima”.

That’s what I hear often and believe it or not, that is exactly the reason we say the blessing so many times.

Obviously, reading from the Torah, like any Jewish ritual merits a blessing. But, originally, during Talmud times, the blessing was only said once during the Torah reading. Each section of the Torah was read by a different individual. The first to read would say the opening blessing before he read while the closing blessing would be said by the last reader after he read. The blessings bracketed the Torah reading, beginning and end and were chanted only once.

But, over time, fewer people had the ability to read from the Torah and the process was changed: the Torah reading was done by one particular reader or a group of specially trained individuals. Then, in order to make sure that the Torah reading still reflected a truly communal celebration of the covenant, people would be called up to say the standard and easily learned blessings before and after each reading. So, by structuring the reading this way, more people participated.

But, the repetition doesn’t in any way minimize the role of the person saying the blessings.

When you stand next to the Torah reader and hold on to the scrolls, the atzei hayim, the “trees of life” as they are called and say these familiar words, you are providing the theological and spiritual context for the reading. You aren’t telling everyone what is in the Torah. The reader does that. But, you are announcing what Torah means and that is just as important as what is written in the scroll.

I want you to look at the three most important words in these blessings, words which I will translate more literally than the way they appear in this translation.

Those 3 words are the 3 past tense verbs that appear in the blessings: bachar, in the first blessing natan which appears in both blessings and nata in the second blessing. We say that God bachar chose us from among all peoples; God natan, gave us the Torah; God nata, planted within us eternal life.

These three verbs are central to the understanding of the blessings and unite them into a consistent theme.

And I believe they are in chronological order.

Let’s look at each of them individually.

The first: Asher bachar banu God chose us from among all peoples.

This concept of the “chosen people” is so important yet so unfortunate when its importance is minimized and so dangerous when it is misused.

Many are uncomfortable with the “chosen people” concept in our egalitarian world and feel it is inappropriate. How can we claim that God chose us from the other nations and faiths with the implication that we’re better than others? This concern has led some to change the wording of the traditional blessing and to eliminate completely the concept of chosenness.

Alternatively, there are those who embrace the concept with great enthusiasm and boundless pride, leading to a sense of entitlement and superiority, believing that whatever they do is fine with God because they are Jews and that the universe has to adjust itself to the desires and dreams of God’s chosen ones.

I believe that both of these approaches are dangerously wrong. We shouldn’t deny this concept and we should never use it as a cry of triumphalism.

My teacher at JTS, Rabbi Neil Gillman, once said something that I have never forgotten about the chosen people idea. I’m not sure he would have taught the same thing months or years later but he did teach it to us back in the 1981 and it’s the answer I still used when I am asked what I think it means.

Rabbi Gillman taught us that he believed that every serious adherent to a theistic religious faith by definition believes he or she is among God’s chosen people in the sense that they are worshipping and acting in the way God has chosen.

What a great answer! God has chosen different faiths to teach different lessons.

Other religious traditions have been chosen to bring other ideas to the world: for example, absolute faith in God, the importance of meditation and introspection or a commitment to universalism. We can learn from all of these by respecting and learning from other faiths.

While I believe that other faiths can teach the world so much, I firmly believe that the gift we have been chosen to bring to the world is the inspiration that comes from reading a sacred text, discovering its mysteries and its depth, and taking its message of justice and the potential holiness of a community to a world in desperate need of redemption. This is our gift from God. This is our charge as Jews. This is what we are chosen to do: to study Torah and to use what we have learned to do our part in bringing the world to a better place.

I’m not at all hesitant to say it. I believe God bachar, chose us to learn and act on Torah.

Now, the second verb, natan, God gave us the Torah.

I don’t know what happened at Sinai. But, I believe something monumental did and we must believe in that moment of revelation and then find the inspired texts which elevate us, which inspire us, which move us to something greater. When we allow those texts to move and challenge us, we demonstrate our desire to be more than just a physical being. We commit ourselves to being a mentsch with a conscience, with a heart, with a soul. Every day that we leave our sacred books closed, we deny the importance of a gift that has been given to us however we imagine the source of this gift. And even those who don’t believe in God the way I am speaking tonight can find great meaning in Torah. There is never a theological litmus test when it comes to engaging in Torah study. Everyone can learn.

While you will hear in a few minutes that I believe that we are justified in using a present tense verb, that God is still giving us Torah, the past tense here is critical. By using the past tense: God “gave” us the Torah, we recognize that we are not starting from square one. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants who can inspire us with words that were written for our benefit, whether 2500 years ago or last week. We remind ourselves that we are not walking an entirely new road but taking possession of an inheritance intended for us. We remind ourselves that the moment that united all of us as Jews occurred when we all stood together at Sinai. We all started from the same place and moved forward in our own way so no Jew’s approach to Torah is more valid than any other.

Each of us has the memory of Sinai inside of us because God natan gave us the Torah.

But, I believe we have another memory about Torah, a mythic, legendary memory.

That is reflected in the third verb, nata, God planted within us life eternal.

What could that mean?

As I mentioned, I believe these three verbs were placed in chronological order. God chose us, at the time of creation, or Abraham or Moses, it doesn’t matter which. God then gave us the Torah at Sinai. So, when, after that, did God plant within us life eternal?

Let me tell you my answer by means of a bubbe meise, an old story.

How many of know what a philtrum is? The philtrum is the small ridge under the nose. I read some interesting ideas as to why we have a philtrum from an anatomical perspective but many of you know the real reason why we have one.

We have a lovely legend that just before a baby is born, an angel comes along and strikes her right there, leaving this depression.

Actually, this bubbe meise has its origin in the Talmud.

There is a beautiful Talmudic legend that while a fetus is in the womb, it is taught the entire Torah and just before birth, an angel comes along and strikes the fetus on the lips and the Torah is forgotten.

I absolutely love that legend about us learning Torah in utero and I believe that the phrase in the Torah blessings which says that God planted within us life eternal could actually be a reference to that story. There couldn’t be a more dramatic expression of “planting within us”.

So, Torah was within each of us from our earliest days. Before we became an independent life, before we had even the status of being fully alive according to Jewish law, our tradition tells us that Torah was planted in our kishkes.

It’s just a legend so don’t take it literally. But, take it seriously enough to ask one question. If it’s so important, why did the angel take the Torah away from us?

It is simply because were it left inside of us, it wouldn’t be our Torah. Had the angel left the Torah we were taught there, it wouldn’t be our Torah, it would be the Torah of the teacher who put it there. Even if the teacher who put it there was the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, as the text in the Talmud seems to imply, it wouldn’t be ours.

In simple computer terms we all can understand, I believe the angel hit select all and delete and left the empty file there.

The file named Torah lies there waiting to be filled. There is something empty inside of us that has to be filled and it has to be filled with our Torah.

It has to be our Torah and it becomes our Torah when we refill that file, that vessel that once contained the holy words, with our own view of Torah, our own understanding of the words of our tradition.

When our b’nai and b’not mitzvah stand on this bima and tell us how they understand the section of Torah they just chanted, they create their own Torah. And so it is for anyone who comes up with a new understanding or who adamantly disagrees with a text: who screams out at God for commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or reinterprets the archaic and misguided approach of Leviticus regarding homosexuality. It is the same when a couple chooses a beautiful phrase from Song of Songs and places it on their wedding invitation or on their ketuba as Ellen and I did or analyzes a traditional text from a modern psychological perspective. When we put our personal stamp on one of the stories or teachings of our tradition, we refill the Torah file with our own thoughts and we make Torah our own.

This is our legacy.

When we refill that vessel with our own version of Torah, we are doing exactly what every human being does in the course of his or her life. We start with the DNA given and move forward as individuals affected by environment and experience. When a Jew studies Torah, she takes the DNA from the past, not just the communal past, but the past that has been planted in her kishkes and uses that foundation to become the person she chooses to be.

This is why the blessings end with a present tense verb: notayn, God gives the Torah. The Torah is constantly being given. It is an ongoing process that each of us must fulfill in our lives, it is a vow from which can not be released.

 

So, why have I chosen to speak about this tonight on this Yom Kippur?

It is because this Yom Kippur is, needless to say, particularly emotional for me.

As I enter my final year as rabbi of this wonderful Congregation, I have been thinking quite a bit about what has been most important to me over the past 30 years.

Of course, being with you, supporting and guiding you through joyous and lihavdeel, difficult times, has been the most important. But, right behind it and very close, has been the joy of teaching of Torah in many different settings from this bima to religious school, to lunch and learn, to divrei Torah on the bus during our many memorable trips to Israel to our Shabbat morning Shabbat limmud, to adult education classes.

A Rabbi’s job is to be a teacher and the thirst for knowledge and the respect for learning among so many of you in this community has made teaching Torah here a delight for me and I sincerely thank those of you who taken advantage of the many opportunities for us to learn together. You have challenged me to continue to think, to search for interesting sources more diligently, to analyze the text more deeply and to listen to many different perspectives more respectfully. It has been such a privilege to learn from you.

 

I am so grateful because of all the vows a Rabbi makes, the one to learn and teach Torah is the one I cherish most deeply.

But, the vow is not just for Rabbis.

God chose us, gave us a gift and planted within each and every one of us and we must respond.

May you continue to come to the bima and praise God as the one who planted the love of Torah within us. Then, may you act on it.

On this Kol Nidre night, may we all commit ourselves to fulfilling that ancient vow to study Torah and thus, always, always, continue to grow as Jews.

 

 

TO WRESTLE AND TO DREAM

SERMON FOR ROSH HASHANA 2017

TO WRESTLE AND TO DREAM

 

The song consists of only six simple words: six words sung over and over again.

But those words have been sung at such significant moments.

– in the life of the State of Israel when the existence of the state lay in the balance.

– by Jews in the former Soviet Union who sang them, quietly at first and then more loudly and defiantly as the years went along.

– at bar and bat mitzvah and wedding parties as guests twirl around in a hora.

And, three weeks from tonight, on Simchat Torah, we will sing them out with pride outside the synagogue so that everyone will hear.

Six short words.

Sung over and over again.

Place after place, time after time, year after year.

Please join in singing them with me.

Am Yisrael Hai. Od Avinu Hai.

The people of Israel, The Jewish people live.

They are words of exultation and joy celebrating that our people’s glorious past, as important as it is, has led to something more critical: a present and, God willing, a strong future. And, now more than ever, we need to sing those words and embrace those words and live that promise.

I only translated the first phrase Am Yisrael Hai. That phrase we understand.

But, what do we make of the second phrase?

Od Avinu Hai. Our father still lives.

What does this mean? Who is “our father” that is being referred to?

Look it up and you’ll very likely find the explanation that “our father” refers to God.

But, it does not.

Avinu, “our father”, in this phrase does not refer to God. It refers to the patriarch Jacob, our patriarch, who was also known as Israel.

The phrase is a reference to a Talmudic text. In the Talmudic tractate of Ta’anit, we read that Rabbi Yochanan said something very strange: “Our father Jacob never died”.

Rabbi Nachman answered him bluntly: “So why did they waste time eulogizing, embalming and burying him?

Rabbi Yochanan responded metaphorically: “There is a verse in the prophet Jeremiah which compares Jacob, Israel, to his descendants. So, as long as his descendants remain alive, Jacob, Israel, remains alive”.

Thus, am Yisrael hai, od avinu hai.

The people of Israel live and therefore, our father, Jacob, Israel lives.

We keep Jacob alive when we, as a people, stay alive.

That’s what the song says.

At least the way we sing it.

But, I disagree.

I think the song, and Rabbi Yochanan, have it backwards.

We do not keep Jacob alive.

Jacob keeps us alive.

It is only if we keep the spirit of our patriarch alive that our people’s future, at least its meaningful and vital future, will be assured.

We can only live meaningfully as Jews if we truly live as the descendants of Israel.

This is my thirtieth Rosh Hashana on this bima. Twenty-nine years ago this Rosh Hashana, I delivered my first two High Holy Day sermons at Beth Israel and I still believe deeply in the message of those sermons.

I spoke that year about Jacob, Israel, and the two aspects of his life that should define who we are as Jews.

On the first day, I spoke about Israel the wrestler. On the second day, I spoke about Jacob the dreamer.

Jacob, our father, was given the name Israel, the one who “wrestles with God”, when he struggled with an angel on a dark lonely night. He serves as a model for us to always wrestle with the world, to confront difficult questions in the name of our tradition and faith, to not be satisfied with simple answers to complex issues or reduce Judaism to a children’s game.

And Jacob, our father who dreamed of a ladder rising to heaven is also a model for us. He calls on us to set our sights higher, to rise above the disappointments and cynicism of today to believe in and work for a better tomorrow for us and for the world.

As long as we keep Jacob alive, as long as we keep wrestling, as long as we keep dreaming, our people will truly stay alive.

That was my message on Rosh Hashana 1988 and it is my message today.

However, in my first moments as rabbi here, I didn’t want to be specific about which issues we should be wrestling with. I had to get to know the congregation and the congregation had to get to know me before I went too deeply into specifics. So, I spoke more in generalities.

That was wise then.

But, today, I want to go far beyond the generalities and speak about four issues which I have been wrestling with for years and which I believe we, as Jews must wrestle with now and in the future, here and throughout our Jewish world.

There are so many issues to choose from but I have chosen four, representative of different aspects of what it means to be a Jew.

Four issues that are worthy of wrestling with.

First, and this one is the proverbial elephant in the room, I have been wrestling with the issue of rising Anti-Semitism throughout the world and here at home. I have steadfastly maintained optimism regarding our nation and the safety it provides for us as Jews and I still trust in the safety and security of our peoples in this nation despite recent trends. I still trust in the political and judicial systems and the good will of the majority of Americans.

But, even I have begun to wonder in ways I never thought I ever would. When I entered rabbinical school Anti Semitism was, for the most part, far away and back then. Not any more. Hatred of Jews seems to be much more common and we must confront it and must accept its deepening reality.

We must protect ourselves.

We must be vigilant.

But, I believe that as we wrestle with our fears, we must keep two thoughts in mind. First, we can not become insular and care only for ourselves. We need to continue to be involved in community efforts, to know our neighbors, to share their fears and concerns, to build alliances and to be part of the American society. We must respond and join hands and stand up and speak out when anyone in this nation is targeted.

And secondly, we can not teach our children that our Jewish identity is wrapped up in potential victimhood. No matter how much we may fear, we need to concentrate on making Judaism mean something elevating and sanctifying in our lives, not just a flag waving identification in defiance of a hate-filled world. How we balance our needs for self-preservation with a determined effort to deepen our appreciation for Jewish learning, for spirituality, for observance of the mitzvot is absolutely one of the most important struggles we face.

On a completely different subject, I believe we must wrestle with scientific advancement and new scientific realities, particularly in the area of the life sciences.

For more than 10 years, I have been involved in two different groups comprised of scientists and faith leaders. We have met monthly to explore and wrestle with questions concerning the intersection of faith and science.

During many of our sessions, we discussed new techniques and discoveries in the life sciences: the human genome and genetic therapies, advances in medical treatments, theories concerning genetic basis of human behavior and so many more. These discussions eventually brought us to questions concerning what it means to be a human being, and what, if any, limitations there should be to scientific exploration and human experimentation.

These fascinating discussions about scientific progress have not diminished my belief in God as creator. Rather, the discussions have deepened that belief. Every new piece of scientific information I have been exposed to has made me believe even more in the purposeful creation of the human being and as evidence of the divine.

And, at the same time, I have marveled at the intellectual curiosity and dedication of scientists to reveal and better understand so much of what makes human beings and the world work.

But, the question that comes up again and again for me is how do we remain appropriately humble as human beings, holding firm to our values and our ethics and recognizing that we are not all powerful while at the same time taking advantage of procedures and discoveries which can enhance or extend or better explain our lives. And, how do we decide when to say that progress can be dangerous: just because we can do something, is it necessarily good for us and for the world to do it?

I believe that thoughtful Jews must actively engage in questions such as these. We need to wrestle with what it means to be a thinking, creative human being while still believing in the divine and in the essential importance of the soul.

Thirdly, Jews and especially Conservative Jews have to wrestle more seriously with the reality of intermarriage.

Currently, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement prohibits rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriage ceremonies. I respect the authority of my rabbinic organization and will not do so.

But, like many of my colleagues, I have been wrestling with this issue for years and, as some of you have heard me imply in the past, my thinking has gradually been changing.

I believe without question that the sharing of a religious faith and identity is a great advantage in a marriage and I do believe our future would be significantly more secure if we find ways to lower the rate of interfaith marriage among Jews.

I believe that without question but I also see the world changing and synagogues changing.

We have made many changes here at Beth Israel over the last 30 years as we have wrestled with the reality of intermarriage. We now welcome all family members as members of the shul. We have begun to say mazal tov and to announce interfaith marriages in our bulletin. We will, within the halachic standards of our Torah service, perform an aufruf for an interfaith couple should the couple desire it.

I consider these all to be positive changes.

But, as a Conservative synagogue, we can’t make one critical change: the rabbi can’t stand with the couple and bring the spiritual element to the sacred moment they begin their married life.

So, I have wrestled with this reality for years and I have come to the conclusion that the status quo is wrong.

Let me tell you why.

Let me ask rhetorical questions. Once an interfaith marriage becomes a reality in your family, how many of you have chosen not to embrace the future family member who is not Jewish? How many of you have not done your best to make that individual feel welcome in your family? How many of you considered doing what Jews used to do and sit shiva for the one who intermarries?

I don’t even have to wait for answers. I know what most of you would say because you’ve told me and you’ve shown me.

As parents, as grandparents, you do what you should do and what I’ve told you to do if you have asked: you reach out and embrace.

 

And you hope that your friends and extended family do the same.

So, why should the only person that alienates a Jew and his or her beloved be the one person who could most effectively serve as a positive influence in their feelings about communal Jewish spiritual life?

Why is it the rabbi who has to be the bad guy?

When an interfaith couple approaches a rabbi because they sincerely want him or her to officiate, we should be able to say yes.

We shouldn’t sign a traditional ketubah. We shouldn’t have the language of kiddushin, halachic marriage said under the huppah. We shouldn’t say all of the sheva brachot, the 7 wedding blessings. I believe we shouldn’t co-officiate with a clergy of a different faith. But, after all of the “no’s” we could work out something beautiful and spiritual and we need to.

I honestly have no idea how this will affect us demographically or sociologically. Time would tell. But, I believe it is the right thing to do.

 

Finally, let me bring up one final issue.

We need to keep wrestling with issues facing the State of Israel.

Let me be absolutely clear although I sincerely hope you don’t need me to tell you how I feel after all these years.

There is no wrestling with the question of the legitimacy of Israel.

There is no wrestling with the question of the importance of Israel to our lives as Jews.

There is no wrestling with the sacred responsibility Israel has to ensure the security of her people given terrorism and threats the nation faces.

There is no wrestling with the pride we should feel at the thrilling accomplishments of the state in 70 short years.

Those are givens.

But, if we think that we can ensure a love of Israel among Jews of future generations by merely repeating those well-rehearsed givens while stifling questions and dissent about critical issues, we are wrong.

We teach our children to be actively engaged in ethical, political and philosophical questions of all kinds here at home and then we rush to close off debate when it comes to Israel. And, while it is true that we need to remember and account for the difference between living on the front lines in Israel and living on the sidelines in the Diaspora, how Israel acts does matter to all of us.

And so, we must wrestle with the difficult questions.

How do we react to the exclusion of and discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism which is often accompanied by horrendous libelous speech by government officials?

How do we speak out against the terrible disruption of daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank and Bedouin in the Negev beyond any legitimate security demands?

How do we respond to events in the holy city of Jerusalem when, instead of being a place of dreams, the holy city becomes the setting for an extremist form of triumphant nationalism which denigrates the humanity of the other?

How do we reconcile our justifiable pride at the democratic ideal of Israel with the increasing limits placed on freedom of expression and protest?

Before you criticize me for raising these issues, and I know some of you will, talk to young Jews about what they’re thinking.

We do our children and, I believe, Israel, no favor if we stop wrestling with these and so many other issues and doing so openly and respectfully as a sign of love and concern. I would rather our young people hear those questions from those who love and support Israel rather than from other people in other settings.

And, if we consider Israel to be our spiritual home, not just our political home, rabbis must be role models for wrestling with these issues.

That is and always has been the role of a rabbi.

 

Four areas of wrestling. And there are so many more that I have been wrestling with.

What is the meaning of prayer in today’s world?

Should we make changes in our Shabbat observance to account for the different pace of life today or do we need the “Temple in time” as Heschel called Shabbat even more deeply today?

How should we respond philosophically and ritually to deeper and more complicated questions of gender identification that are being raised throughout our society?

And, the most important question: what do we do about the eighth day of Pesach?

These and so many other questions need to be wrestled with and we can not accept simple answers.

But, Jacob didn’t only wrestle. He dreamed as well and we sometimes have to stop wrestling in the night and take time to dream in broad daylight as well.

Let me tell you a story again. I’ve told it many times.

During my first year in Ann Arbor, I was invited to speak to a class of 13 year olds at the humanistic Jewish Cultural School. I was asked this question by one of the children:

“I’m a secular Jew. You’re a religious Jew. Is there anything we both can believe in?”

I thought for a while and said that there certainly is.

I said that every Jew has to believe that the story human beings are writing in this world will have a happy ending. Every Jew has to believe that the world can be perfected. Every Jew has to believe with perfect faith that there will come a time when all of our precious, most glorious, most impossible dreams, actually come true.

Im lo machar az machratyaim:

If not tomorrow, then the day after.

We must believe.

More than forty years ago, I decided to become a rabbi for three practical reasons and one more general reason. First, I wanted to study and teach Torah. Second, I wanted a career that would enable me to work directly with people. Third, I wanted to find a job which would permit me more easily to live a deeply satisfying personally meaningful spiritual life as an observant Jew on my own terms.

As the song says: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

But, seriously, I also chose to become a rabbi for a more conceptual reason.

I chose to become a rabbi because I am an optimist, an idealist and a dreamer and I really do believe that this world is worth believing in and dreaming for and that Judaism as a faith can help the world be redeemed.

And that hasn’t changed.

So, even as we wrestle and question and debate and struggle, we must continue to imagine that ladder leading ever upwards with us, each and every succeeding generation, climbing one step further up.

As a Jew, I refuse to give up on my dreams.

As a Jew, I refuse to give up on the world.

Sometimes, I feel like I’ve wrestled too long and just want things to be simple.

Sometimes, I feel like being a dreamer is for children or fools.

We all feel that way sometimes.

But, when that cynicism surfaces, I think we should close our eyes and imagine that our father Jacob comes along and taps us on the shoulder and says: “without my inspiration, the Jewish people will not stay alive or at least, their lives won’t be as meaningful. Wrestle and dream, just like I did and our people will flourish and our future will be even better than our past”.

So, that’ brings me back the beginning.

Six simple words. We sing them so loudly.

But we don’t sing them correctly.

 

We don’t keep Jacob alive, Jacob, Israel, the wrestler and dreamer, keeps us alive.

So join with me once again in singing that simple song. But, this time let’s sing it the right way: the other way around.

Od Avinu Hai, Am Yisrael Hai.

Let us proclaim that as long as our father, Jacob, lives and inspires our hearts and minds, we will live a meaningful existence as Jews and our people will truly live.

If our father lives, we will live as well.