Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, two of the greatest comedians of all times, performed a famous routine entitled, “Who’s on First?” Abbott was attempting to transmit the names of the members of the baseball team, unfortunately for Costello, the names of the players are not really names, but questions.
“I dunno” is on third base. “What” Is on second. And of course, “Who” Is on first.
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” asks Costello. “Who’s on first?”
“Absolutely,” answers Abbott.
“Who?” says Costello
“Yes,” says Abbott.
“Look,” shouts Costello in exasperation, “At the end of the week, when you pay the first baseman, who gets the money?”
“Every dollar of it, and why not? The man’s entitled to it; he earned it,” answers Abbott.
The routine goes on, never done the same way twice. Fascinatingly, Costello cannot understand the “answers” because the “answers” are question words. The humor is that Costello cannot see in front of him what is obvious to the audience.
This comedic routine exemplifies what we know about life. Many times we will wander through life not fully aware of what we are engaged in and looking at. For example, we often hear words not realizing that they can have more than one meaning such as – sanction (permit or impose penalty), left (remaining or departing), seed (to seed a lawn or remove the seeds from fruit) or fast (holding firm or moving quickly). Usually, we believe we can gather from context what we are hearing, but oftentimes even the context leaves us feeling lost as we attempt to complete the narrative between the words in our own heads.
While this lesson rings true in life, it is all the more so evident in our usually feeble attempt to understand our sacred text. We see the words written on the page and while we know what they mean we don’t understand them.
One of the many lessons taught by Rabbi Lawerence Kushner is: “The reason we have such a difficult time speaking to God is not God’s fault; the syntax of our language is the culprit.”. In Hebrew, the term dvar is both “word” and “thing.” For us as Jews to relate to God is to interpret the Words of God in our sacred literature and find ourselves within the text.
In the case of Moses, while God is in the mundane places, Moses stood there staring into the bush for some time to see that it was not consumed. If you stare at a fire, it takes time even to burn kindling and realize it is being consumed. For Moses, it was a test to force him to slow down to see the bush was not actually being consumed. For us, this story teaches us to slow down and breath so we can see what is occurring around us.
There are layers of understanding to the stories in our sacred text. Each layer is both a chronological effort to understand how people at various points of history interpreted such texts like Rashi, Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov; an effort to understand the simple basic meaning of the narrative; an attempt to find another hidden more spiritual meaning and, lastly, how we see these stories function in our lives.
By understanding these texts in the same fashion as Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, we can start to unlock the many layers that exist surrounding the text.
As we enter the High Holiday period, I pray that we are open to starting to unlock the various layers of tradition found in the text itself. May this thought help guide us to relate more deeply to the Divine and create a more enriched sacred community.
As we prepare for Passover, most of us clean as if there is no tomorrow. We scrub, we get rid of all of the leavening in the house – find the frost bitten dried bread in the back of the freezer among other things including the stale Cheerios under the couch. We review our recipes handed down to us from our families and attempt to make Matzah Balls that are eatable, light and fluffy. We strive to make a passover dessert that will not weigh us down and attempt to bring joy to those around us.
As Jews living in 2018, we take the Exodus narrative almost for granted. We know it, we have seen the movies made about it – we are “experts.” But throughout the entire Jewish Bible – including the Writings, the Prophetic Literature and the Torah itself – we read repeatedly a value that this story strives to teach us – “Love the stranger for you yourself were a stranger.”
In his recently published book, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, biblical scholar Jeremiah Unterman writes that “…it is startling that the legal portions of the Torah contain more than fifty references to the resident stranger….”
Why are we taught that this value is so essential to who we are as a people? I believe it is connected to a mitzvah which is equally hard for us to understand – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
James Kugel, in his book The Bible As It Was, argues that the mitzvah: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ did not necessarily apply to all human beings; nevertheless, it was seen as a great general principle and the epitome of the Torah’s commandments concerning relations among human beings.”
How can we love our neighbors if they are strangers? How can we ensure that our Houses of Worship are open to all people if they are still seen as strangers or other or different? What better way to make someone not a stranger than to break ‘matzah’ with them.
This practice was described when the book of Chronicles was written (approx. 4th Century BCE) as to how to celebrate the Passover meal. There they harmonized between two completing sources from the Torah: Deuteronomy where we boil the offering and Exodus where we roast the offering. The author writes that: “They boiled the passover sacrifice in the fire as prescribed.” (2 Chron 35:13). What this indicates (in addition to rewriting the text) is that the different Torah texts were reconciled to harmonize the differences and refocus onto the meal itself. The author of the book of Chronicles was writing to his community and he wanted to be relevant more than wanting to always be accurate. He wanted to focus on the fact that everyone in the Land of Israel was present with King Josiah who was observing the Passover festival for seven days and they did this as a nation together. The emphasis I believe was together.
I am sure that not all Israelites really were able to be present and observe – they didn’t all have the means nor the ability (free time). Yet the priests sang together, the King celebrated and the people enjoyed each other. What better way to enjoy than to eat, sing, tell stories, laugh and simply be together. The celebration of the holiday is reenacting the story of the Exodus yet for me the true meaning is doing it together with others. It is turning them from strangers into friends and family. It is about sharing recipes, tales of the ‘seder that never ended’ and laughing about the time your great aunt made the hottest horseradish ever.
So please enjoy Passover this year by taking the time over the course of the seven/eight days to turn a stranger into a friend, an acquaintance into a family member and a family member into someone you really want to celebrate with in the future and not obligated to have at the house.
One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”
God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.
The man said, “I don’t understand.”
God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another.
This story stands out to me because we live in a culture and society that is “every person for themselves.” We live in a society that allows for unfounded opinions to be an acceptable substitution for observable facts. The Oxford dictionaries word for the year 2016 was “post-truth.” It is an adjective whose definition is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion and appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Our public conversations have become cruel. A place where callous comments and taunts are finding their way into everyday speech. Social media has been contaminated with lies and “fake news.” We are not immune here at the temple from the negative consequences of these words.
The consequences of rumors are painful not only to those who they are about but also the people sharing them. We are in a moment as a society when we are attempting to feed ourselves with very long spoons and the food is failing to reach our mouths. By participating in the rumor mill, we are participating in a society that is making poor choices.
Today is Yom Kippur, the day we must confess our sins on as part of a path to return into a right relationship with God and with each other. And so I confess and use the words of the confessional prayer found in our Machzor:
The ways we have wronged You God, deliberately and by mistake; and harm we have caused in Your world through the words of our mouths
The ways we have wronged You by hardening our hearts; and harm we have caused in Your world through careless speech
The ways we have wronged You through lies and deceit; and harm we have caused in Your world through gossip and rumor.
The ways we have wronged You by judging others unfairly; and harm we have cause in Your world through disrespect to parents and teachers.
The ways we have wronged You through insincere apologies; and harm we have caused in Your world by mistreating a friend or neighbor.
By lacking integrity we have, in the words of a congregant, broken Humpty Dumpty. Individuals have been hurt, though I’m sure the intention behind the words was not to hurt them. We as a society are hurting because of words. The transgression of l’shone hara, gossip, is that at its heart it is a failure of relationships. It invokes a belief that one person truly has the desire to hurt another – it demonstrates a lack of trust. It is essentially lynching the character of a person behind their back and failing to share honestly and openly what we are thinking and feeling.
Verbal wrongdoing strikes at the core of a person. It is considered such a heinous crime because it is impossible to determine the effects which are both deeply personal and yet abstract. For this reason, we learn: “he who publicly shame his neighbor is as though he shed blood.”
The rabbis believe because only God can be aware of the reasoning behind our actions, it is God who takes a “personal” concern. They describe God listening, but especially hearing the prayers of those who were publicly wronged or humiliated.
How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? The flames of fear and suspicion can be fanned with barbed words and deeds. Those flames are feeding fear into our society and our community.
The Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, teaches that once we look into the eyes of another person, we are obligated to that person. We are aware of their sorrows and their joys. We are responsible to them and for them. And so, I would like to ask you to please over the course of today make a friend, look into their eyes and find out who they are. Let us begin by acting with integrity. Let us create a society and community which is kind and loving toward each other.
I want to share with you a story entitled “Two Brothers and Carpenter.”
Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in forty years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.
One morning there was a knock on one of the brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a contractor’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?” “Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor. In fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a wall – an 8-foot wall – so I won’t need to see his place anymore, that would give me some peace of mind.”
The contractor said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.” The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the contractor get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.
The contractor worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, and nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the contractor had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no wall there at all. It was a bridge – a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work – handrails and all – and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand.
They turned to see the contractor hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother. “I’d love to stay on,” the contractor said,” but I have many more bridges to build.”
We often let anger turn into a wedge driving us away from one another. We place our pride and desire to be right before the other person. As human beings, our ego can get in the way of things.
As Jews, we are commanded to be better than that. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Henschel wrote: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I’m old, I admire kind people.” We need to bring kindness and compassion back into the community and society. We owe it not only to those who founded this nation, but also to each other, to work to feed each other and share in the food off the long spoons in front of us.
Let’s use that basis of kindness and love to be the wood that forms a bridge uniting us again. Let’s apologize out of the depth of our heart to those who we have wronged and let’s accept their apology willingly.
I cannot be sure whether this will work or not. And so I will share with you Hasidic parable by the Israeli author S.Y. Agnon which describes my hope:
A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing the way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him in the distance. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself. When they neared each other, he asked the man, Brother, I have been wandering about in this forest for days. Can you tell me which is the right way out?” Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I, too, have been wandering about in here for many days. But… come, let us look for the way out together.”
If we work together we can make this society bloom. In the words of the American author Henry James: “three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. In the third is to be kind.”
Let’s be kind and assume the best in each other.
“May our deeds exceed our speech, and may we never the lift up our hand but to conquer fear and doubt and despair.”
May we strive to be community which is responsible to one another.
May we be a beacon of light to the city bringing compassion and openness through our actions.
May the love we have for each other bring peace to one another and to those around us.
As together we say: AMEN.
 Mishkan HaNefesh, Evening Yom Kippur Service, confessional prayer P.86-87
 BT Baba Metzia 58b
 Emanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
 Agnon, S.Y. Days of Awe. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. p. 22. Parable attributed to Rabbi Hayyim 12 [Halberstam] of Zans (1793-1876)
 Mishkan Tefilah p. 591, Aleinu prayer – creative translation.
Yom Kippur Yizkor 2017
“Still Warm from an Old Jacket”
It seems that many years ago a little seven-year-old boy and his family were about to leave their native Poland. The day before their departure the father took the little boy to the town where the Rebbe lived so he could receive the Rebbe’s blessing. They remained overnight in the home of the Rebbe, and the little boy slept in the Rebbe’s study.
Staring at all the holy books, the little boy could not sleep. In the middle of the night he saw the Rebbe enter the room, and he pretended that he was asleep. The Rebbe whispered, “such a sweet child!” Thinking the child might be cold, the Rebbe took off his coat and placed it lovingly on the sleeping child.
Many years later, when the little boy became an old man of eighty years, when asked what the source of his kindness and comfort was, he said that seventy-three years ago the Rebbe showed him love and comfort, and placed his coat on him to keep him warm. “I am still warm from that coat,” said the eighty-year-old man.”
The Yizkor prayers that we recite remind us that at many occasions in our lives, many people put their warm coats on us, touched us, loved us, comforted us. Their coats still provided warmth for us today – whether they are living or not – and will continue to do so.
From these coats we are still warm, and we thank them for their love and warmth. May their memory be a blessing.
This year has been a tough year. It is my first high holiday without my mom. I still remember her walking into the sanctuary, smiling warmly. I remember her being here on Hanukkah and loving me and the children. She always answered the phone, text or message and she always was supportive. There have been countless times when my mom gave me her coat.
Our lives are a gift to us, given by those who came before us, who nurtured us and helped us become who we are today. When I think back to all that my mom did for me – the list is very long.
She changed my diapers, wiped my nose, put a Band-Aid on my skinned knee, read me stories and dragged me all over Pittsburgh to every special event for kids available.
She gave me hugs and sat with me helping me with my homework
She taught me how to be responsible and how to be kind through her very actions.
She taught me that to receive good and fair treatment from others only comes by showing self-respect.
She never sat still and was always active in doing something.
The biggest question I have for myself and I’m sure you have it for yourselves is: is my life living up to the gifts that she gave me? Am I worthy of receiving all of the sacrifices she made for me?
After she died, I found notes lying around the house in two places. The cancer diagnosis was made just two weeks prior. In one place was questions about her cancer and the other what she wanted to happen in the event she died. She was, as usual, making lists. They were just a beginning.
A week before she died, she fell and her mentation was off. It was just before the congregation celebrated Purim and I chose not to drop what I was doing that moment. I thought she would be ok. 3 days later, I took a flight out to be with her.
She showed off her nails, which were done a few days before I arrived. But when I was in the hospital room with her, she was both present and not at the same time. Every day for the next four days, I watched her decline, until she breathed her last breath.
It was the hardest thing I have done – holding her hand as she died. I have been there for other people. I have sat with them as they passed. But somehow, when it is your mom, it is different. When you are the mourner it is different.
It is for that reason, I believe, that mourners had their own gate when they went into the Temple. They were different than everyone else. They had been changed by what they experienced.
I am not the same person I was before I climbed aboard the plane to fly out to Phoenix. I am less tolerant of drama now than I have ever been. (That is saying something coming from someone who can be a little bit of a drama queen). But the truth is, I want only goodness and simplicity in my life. I see what Rabbi Ballon meant, when he said that everything he preached was really real only after he was diagnosed with cancer. For me God called me on the day my mom died, just like he called to Abraham. I responded “hineni – Here I am” I am ready to engage more with my faith, with my family and what matters most in life. I am open to really engaging in repentance.
We learn in the book of Proverbs: “He who has regard for his soul has regard for the commandments.” (Prov. 19:16). Our faith is one of discipline, journey, growth and discovery. We are taught that God not only created us, gave us tools and wisdom to rise to our highest self.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “Meaning comes not from system of thought but from stories, and the Jewish story is among the most unusual of all. It tells us that God sought to make us His partners in the work of creation, but we repeatedly disappointed Him. Yet He never gives up. He forgives us time and again. The real religious mystery for Judaism is not our faith in God, but God’s faith in us.”
My mom’s death therefore forces me to ask: What have I done with my life that I should be written into the Book of Life this year? Have I brought hope and healing where despair is? Have I always strived to be my highest self?
The challenge for me is to bring her memory with me into the rest of my life. It is to provide coats of warmth and love to those around me supporting them with love and compassion just as she supported me.
This Yom Kippur I challenge you to live up to the person who gave you’re your warm coats.
 Yom Kippur Readings, Inspiration, Information, Contemplation. Ed. By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins Jewish Lights 2005. P. 191