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The Heroes Inside of Us – Erev Yom Kippur

Image result for superheroes

 

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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Unity Matters Now

On November 8, 2016 this country elected a man to the presidency who has never held public office. He has never served in our military. No major network or news group predicted his win. This historic event has troubled many. Some have expressed anger and rage, while others are confused and fearful. The future is unclear and for this reason my thoughts go to a story in the book of Samuel.

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Yom Kippur Yizkor Thoughts

One of the greatest gifts of Yom Kippur is that we take the time to be contemplative, to be present with one another, to bare our souls to God and to remember our loved ones who have gone before.  This Yizkor service gives us an opportunity to remember that we are simply a link in the chain of tradition stretching back to Moses.  We are individuals woven into the fabric of humanity and the greater world – something that can be easily forgotten as we go about our busy days.
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Getting Ready for Yom Kippur

Every year we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. The reading in the afternoon marks a dramatic conclusion for a day of fasting, praying, and introspection. A time in which we truly reconsider our lives, our deeds, and how to best return to God. Often times we are blind to the things which we really need to repent for. Sometimes we can be blinded by greed, selfishness, insecurities or even our ego. It is an extremely painful thing to realize that a mistake was made. Sometimes that realization can only happen years after that incident occurred when our emotions are finally at ease and our insecurities are at a rest.
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