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Celebrate Passover Together!

 

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.

Happy Passover!

 

 

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Words Have Power! – Yom Kippur Morning

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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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5]   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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8]

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.

 

 

 

 

[1] https://theunboundedspirit.com/heaven-and-hell-the-parable-of-the-long-spoons/

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth

[3] Mishkan HaNefesh, Evening Yom Kippur Service, confessional prayer P.86-87

[4] BT Baba Metzia 58b

[5] Emanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity

[6] https://storiesforpreaching.com/building-bridges/

[7] Agnon, S.Y. Days of Awe. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. p. 22. Parable attributed to Rabbi Hayyim 12 [Halberstam] of Zans (1793-1876)

[8] Mishkan Tefilah p. 591, Aleinu prayer – creative translation.

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The Warmth from My Mom

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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.”[1]

 
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.

[1] Yom Kippur Readings, Inspiration, Information, Contemplation. Ed. By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins Jewish Lights 2005. P. 191

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The Heroes Inside of Us – Erev Yom Kippur

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Any idea who said the following movie quotes:

 

Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? – Spider-Man

 

What about:

Some believe that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things. Everyday deeds by ordinary folks that keeps evil at bay – Gandolf

 

Lastly:

 

“All you need is faith and trust and a little pixie dust” – Peter Pan

 

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if those characters were real and could make all our problems disappear like pixie dust floating in the air?  Or what if Gandolf could magically appear and help us stop the dizzyingly fast changing pace of the world.  Or maybe if Spiderman was real and saved people from experiencing crime.

 

Unfortunately, we do not live in a Hollywood movie, we live in a world that is a little messier.  A world where crying and laughing can happen almost interchangeably.  Where we can feel as if we are overwhelmed and alone one minute and ecstatic the next.  A world where we wonder what else can happen?

 

One of the most exciting parts of movies is that we can image ourselves as if we are the super heroes.  We can pretend that we can jump off the building to save someone or stop a speeding train.  We can rescue a failing relationship with a kiss and a hug.  Or we can save the whole world with gun.

In the real world – true heroism can cost you not only your life, but the life of those you love.  Most people when faced with tough decisions will turn a blind eye to their problems rather than face it, until the moment when turning a blind eye causes more pain than dealing with the actual problem.  Even when we deal with the problem at times we try and resist.

 

But the heroes in Hollywood never back down.  I am not sure if it is because they are free of specific faults or simply they are stubborn. How real is that approach to life?  Perhaps by looking elsewhere we find a more realistic approach to problem solving.  The Bible offers several examples and they are different from today.

 

We don’t find the biblical heroes to be free of fault. All of them had fears and were at times reluctant to do the right thing.  Even the quintessential Jewish hero, our prophets, didn’t always do the right thing. The prophetic power did not allow them to predict the future rather they saw a more nuanced present. They saw all and heard all the bells and whistles where we might only see or hear part of the picture.

 

When we look closely at the Bible it is not physical strength, or even being a great orator, which made somebody a hero. It was not their beauty or charm.  There is only one Sampson after all.  Rather for Jews, the greatest biblical heroes were the ones who were driven by personal concern and acted to the highest ethical standards.  This expression of heroism was carried later into the middle ages.

 

The Shulchan Aruch, a classical medieval book of Jewish law, opens by declaring that one should arise every morning “as a hero” by preparing to do God’s will.  Heroism, in Judaism, occurs when we are faced with life’s challenging situations and choose to do the right and good.  Even in the most challenging moments of trauma or feeling threatened, being able to reach for the best – those individuals are true heroes.  Those who strive to improve the world incrementally every day – they are the ones who deserve in Judaism the title tzaddik or righteous one.

 

Are there heroes around today?  In many senses we are living out in society what Martin Buber described best as an “I-It” relationship.  There is a utilitarian approach to life were individuals and objects are used almost interchangeably.  It is amazing that we can be surrounded by other people and yet feel totally alone. We are surrounded by social media and other ways to amuse ourselves and depersonalize our lives.

I bet that when I’m lying on a bed preparing to die I’m not going ask myself how many hours of Netflix did I livestream? Or how many games of candy crush did I play?  I have a feeling that my thoughts will be directed toward something else entirely.

 

Recently a congregant came into my office following Rosh Hashanah to discuss my sermon on anti-Semitism among other things. She shared with me that she spoke with her family and that she knows that most rabbis spoke about anti-Semitism across the country. She also shared with me that she is very fearful of North Korea, climate change, her life moving and marching faster than she ever imagined it would among other things. I realized in listening to her that what she was describing was a feeling of loss of control. She felt like the world was happening to her. She is just like you and me. How many of us feel that the world happens to them here in this room tonight?

 

What she was asking was how, recognizing the fragility of life, can she find the correct grasp to grip life knowing that it will not be enough to hold on.

The great Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear it all.”

I think the question though is how do we walk one foot in front of the other? How can we be our own hero?

Can we rescue ourselves and still acknowledge,

We are afraid at times.

We are crying out.

And we, at times feel alone.

 

I want to share with you the story of Hagar and ask that we think about things from her perspective.

 

Hagar was an obedient and kind servant who served her mistress faithfully.  When asked to do an extreme thing – to be a surrogate mother – she agreed to do so.  Yet Sarah became distrustful and jealous.  She then started to abuse Hagar.  Eventually she convinced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert with a bottle of water and some bread.  Her pain is almost palpable to us today as we imagine walking in her shoes and being cast off, facing death. Yet the Bible did not offer her voice up to us expressing fear or doubt. We are only clued in when all the water in the bottle is used up, and she places her son under one of the desert shrubs and moves away so that she cannot hear him cry.

 

We read: “she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.” (Genesis 21:16).

 

We can almost see and hear her crying out.  She asks only that she not hear her child suffer, knowing that she cannot control the situation.

What a powerful cry!

 

Similarly, we can look into the psalms and hear the existential pain of human existence contained within the text itself.

 

“My God, my God, you have forsaken me, but why?

When I cry out to you, why are you so far away from me?

I cry my grief, my pain, my loss throughout the day;

but no one comes to answer me.

All night I cry out longing to be heard

but you’re not there.”

Psalm 22:1-2

 

There are times when we all experience feeling as if we are cast out from family, community, our job or perhaps as being the victim of a natural disaster or a crime.  The feelings of alienation and loneliness can almost swallow us up.  Again, Psalm 22 offers a vision: “but I’m a worm, less than human; scorned by men, despised by people. (Psalm 22:7) and I have to admit, it is in those moments, having a superhero would just be fantastic.  But, what I have learned more than anything is that we are our own superhero.

 

What the psalmist does next is almost breathtaking.   The psalmist shares that there is a shift, a moment when he moves from crying out in pain, to reaching toward God.

 

“But You, O LORD, be not far off; my strength, hasten to my aid.

Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog.

Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me.” (Psalm 22:20-23)

 

There is a moment when the psalmist asks God for help.  There is a moment when Hagar reaches out asking for help.  There was a moment when my congregant reached out.  What does it mean to reach out to God in 2017 and ask for help?

For me the answer is clear to this question is found in your faces looking back at me.  One of the most powerful images that Rabbi Kushner has shared with us, is found on the pages of Mishkan Tefilah in the Friday night service.   He shares with us is that at any moment we can be an angel.

“…we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High.  They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often even unknown to themselves.  Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now.  We would not be the way we are now.  Never forget that you, too, yourself may be a messenger.  Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes.”[1]

There are times when I am an angel for you and you are an angel for me.  There are moments when you are a hero for someone and you may not even be aware of it.  We bring light and hope to those around us simply by being present.

By reaching out for help in engaging in the difficult process of teshuvah, we can better repair the relationships around us.  Or by reaching out for help when we feel overwhelmed by life’s circumstances, we can find heroes.  No person is an island and no real hero can function on their own.  For us to be the heroes of our own life’s story, that story must include the lives of those we love around us, helping us to grow and become stronger.

 

In Superman on the Couch, Danny Fingeroth states that we are all heroes. He writes:

“A hero can be said to be someone who rises above his or her fears and limitations to achieve something extraordinary. In the real world, firemen who race into burning buildings, soldiers who advance in the face of enemy fire, astronauts who launch into space despite the high odds of lethal outcome, are often the standard by which heroism is measured.

On another level, a teacher who, day after day, attempts to educate under adverse circumstances, an accident victim who, despite pain and enormous difficulty, persists in relearning lost skills, or a physician who ministers to AIDS patients in plague-stricken, third world nation can all be considered heroes. They fight the odds, and sometimes beat them.

Indeed, do we not all, at one time or another, as the alarm clock rings and we steel ourselves to face another day in the struggle that life can be, regard ourselves – even as we laugh at the assessment – as the heroes of our own lives? There are days when simply taking the subway to work and getting through the day seems like the triumph of Gilgamesh, or the Green Lantern, for that matter.”[2]

 

That moment under the bush, Hagar was a hero.  Hagar reached out.  God responded to her cry and helped her:

 

We read: “God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” (Genesis 21:17)

 

We can all be hero fighting to do great things or simply good things or simply make a good choice.  Superman fought for integrity, Batman justice, Spiderman responsibility.  They chose to fight for something that was meaningful to them.  Reaching out is a heroic thing.  Responding to others cry is a heroic thing. Making good choices is a heroic thing.

 

We are not like the heroes from Hollywood in the sense that we cannot change the world on our own.  But we can change who we are by engaging in the challenging process of teshuvah and welcoming other people to participate with us in that process.  When we humble ourselves enough to ask for help we are a hero.  At that moment we are like a biblical hero.  We are Moses receiving help from Jethro to make a functioning justice system or Abraham receiving help from Sarah to be hospitable.

 

Together, through the process of teshuvah and humility, we can be heroes.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that belief in God is an antidote to narcissism. “Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the centre of our world. God is… When we place the self at the centre of our universe, we eventually turn everyone and everything into a means to our ends… (but) when God is at the centre of our lives, we open ourselves up to the glory of creation and the beauty of other people. The smaller the self, the wider the radius of our world.” Shoftim, Sep 2016

 

May we recognize that we can be the hero not just of our story, but the supporting hero of someone else.  Both roles are essential and both roles ennoble us and those around us to a better life. May this year be full of heroic moments in all of our lives!

 

 

[1] Mishkan Tefilah, p. 143

[2] Superman on the Couch, p. 14.

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Fall is fast approaching and it is time for us to get ready.  Break out the hammer, the nails, the fall decoration and start to think about the holiday of Sukkot.

This holiday, once considered to be, “the holiday,” is almost upon us.  According to the Torah, on this holiday we should “live in booths (sukkot) seven days…in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:42-43).  These booths are intended to remind us of God’s beneficence in the world around us.  Exodus 23:16 explains this connection further: “…and the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field” — it is a holiday of immense joy, when we celebrate the harvest God gave to us.  The centrality of this holiday is present in other biblical texts such as Nehemiah, Ezekiel, and I Kings, where Sukkot is referred to simply as Hehag–“The Holiday.”

Yet, for many of us today the focus is on the High Holidays and not necessarily on the holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah that happen after.  This is a holiday dealing with creating a hut, celebrating agriculture and remembering our journey in the wilderness.

Lets take the time this Sukkot to reach out and build a sukkah of openness and forgiveness. During the high holidays we’ve engaged in one of the hardest tasks, teshuvah.  We not only examined ourselves, we have asked forgiveness from those who we have hurt.  In order to be effective in making amends we’ve had to request forgiveness and look into the sorrow we caused inside of the eyes of someone else.    This is why in Jewish tradition there is a belief that the repentant sinner stands at heights higher than even the greatest tzaddik.

Growth is required in acknowledging one sins, seeking to repair the damage, and changing one’s path. True repentance comes from a deep desire of re-engaging into a right relationship with others and God.  That realignment will bring great joy.  The pain of sin has been transformed and now we celebrate in the sukkah the joy of healing.

Teshuvah is a journey, one of growth, transformation and healing.

The Holiday of Sukkot deals with these theme through rituals, from building a sukkah, to celebrating in local agriculture, to welcoming in the stranger, but mostly celebrating the journey – a journey toward our highest self.

May this be a festival of great warmth, happiness and celebration!

Happy Sukkot!

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We are part of this universe

We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Such an elegant statement from a well renowned physicist regarding our place in the universe. His statement is not that different from one found in the Bible – that we are created in the image of God. Inside of us all is a piece of the Divine since we are all created according to His/Her likeness.

One deep question, as we enter this high holiday season, are we living up to the fact that inside of us is a piece of the divine? Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said: “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” In other words, are we living up to the gifts that God has given us? Are we using the talents and passions that ignite our souls?

Zusya offers insight – you can only be you. You cannot be perfect, you cannot be a celebrity, you cannot even be Moses. Perfecting instead of perfection should be our ultimate goal. We love to focus on repairing the world outside of us, but another valuable question is, what about the world inside of us? Are we paying sufficient attention to our own faults and flaws so that we can become a more whole self. Or are we filling our heads with the noise of tweets and Facebook bings? Are we giving ourselves the space and quiet we need to develop the ability to grow into ourselves and thereby become more deeply connected to God. This is one of the major purposes of the high holiday season in our calendar.

There are ample examples in our tradition of people finding their passion at an older age, such as Rabbi Akiva (40) or Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (older). For some of us, we could find our passion and live out our calling earlier in life. But for others to determine what that passion is requires time and reflection. We need to breathe deeply to allow ourselves to see the divine inside of us and ensure that our deeds reflect the intensity that inner spark.

Another way to honor our unique God-given gifts is to engage in the outside world and follow the prophetic call for social justice. When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King he famously said, “I felt like my legs were praying.” Engagement with our textual tradition is not relegated to the synagogue on Shabbat or adult education classes. Rather we are taught we must live out this commandment in our lives and in the world around us. To be made in the image of God, is to act that image out. In acting out that Divine image, we will feed the inner spark.

God commanded Abram to go forth from his native land. His native land was a place of deep comfort. To feed that inner spark, Abram had to move into something rather uncomfortable, scary, and unknown. To live out the image of God in our lives requires us to live the words of Zusya. We must be the best that we can be both in our inner lives and amongst each other in the outer world. Our actions must demonstrate the gratitude we have for the Divinely given gifts deep inside of us.

May you be blessed with a sweet, healthy and happy New Year! Shanah Tovah u’Metukah!

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Life is Precious

I am excited to be returning to the Temple following my sabbatical this summer. I have been inspired, renewed, and energized by my time in Israel. I have been exposed to ideas and texts which are new to me and I cannot wait to share them with you. I have sat with colleagues, read several books, and enjoyed my children. More important I have gained perspective. The words of the Psalmist remind us of how precious life is:

Adonai, you have been our refuge through all generations.
Before mountains emerged, before the earth was formed,
From age to age, everlastingly, you are God.
But humans you crumble into dust, and say “Return, mortals!”
For a thousand years in your sight are as a passing day, a watch in the night.
You engulf all human beings in sleep.
They flourish for a day like grass. In the morning it sprouts afresh;
By nightfall it fades and withers… Psalm 90

We live filled with great potential, fears, dreams, hopes, limitations, and abilities. By focusing on what is absent, we fail to see what we have in our hands. We are like the grass described by the psalmist. We sprout up, are full of energy in the morning, and wither and die at night (our birth and death cycle). At times we experience life encircling us like a gentle breeze, other times life is a fierce storm that might uproot us. But just underneath us is the mountain. This mountain connects us to God. This mountain was present before we were created and will be present after we leave. If we allow ourselves to focus our mind’s eye as if we were the mountain and not the grass then perhaps we might allow the small things in life to blow over us. We might not focus our energy on our limitations, fears, and pains but focus instead on our potential, dreams, and hopes. I hope that the lessons the Psalmist offers is something which we can take to heart and allow us to grow as an individual and as part of a community.

Temple B’nai Sholom is an amazing congregation. It is full of beautiful families who join together when faced with tragedy and suffering as well as happiness and joys. It is a community which supports one another, learns together and grows to become a light to others. This coming year, as we near Tisha B’Av, a holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temple and just before Rosh Hashanah, let us think about how we are like the mountain underneath the grass. Let us focus on the joys and gifts warming us and allow those items which trouble us to simply blow over. By focusing on the words of the Psalmist we will recognize that we are part of something greater than ourselves. We will recognize that in supporting the congregation we will support each other and grow both individually and collectively. May you and your family be blessed with a sweet start to the school year. I look forward to praying, studying, and engaging with you soon!

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Will We Have Faith and Will Our Faith Have Children?

“Rachel is weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” — Jeremiah 31:14

This excerpt from the book of Jeremiah seeks to highlight the pain and anguish that the Israelites experienced upon their exile to Babylonia. Jeremiah stood in the moment of deep pathos. The poetry of Jeremiah describes Rachel weeping and her fear that there will be no more children – there will be no more future. The anguish of wondering about the future when all appears as barrenness and desolation is the fear of loss encapsulated in her very being.

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