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Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Strangers

The holiday of Sukkot is an agricultural festival. In ancient times we built temporary shelters so that we could spend our days out in the field harvesting the Fall crops. The Torah also suggests that we lived in these booths during our wanderings in the wilderness and they therefore remind us of our journey from freedom (Passover) to revelation (Shavuot). Rabbi Akiva believed that these temporary booths symbolized God’s protective shelter over us. For one week we are commanded to eat, and even sleep, in the sukkah. The sukkah should never be built so well that it keeps out rain. In fact, one is supposed to be able to see the stars through its roof. The sukkah’s temporary quality reminds us of the fragility of our lives. Spending time in the sukkah helps to reconnect us to nature. Sleeping in the sukkah teaching us gratitude for the beautiful homes in which we live. We are to invite guests into our sukkah and share our meals with them. The tradition suggests that everyone who is fort
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Get Angry, Be Joyful

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.  We require the emotions of anger and joy to face life's uncertainties.       A Hasidic story. When the seer of Lublin was a child, he lived near a forest. Almost every day the young boy ventured off into the woods by himself. His father, who was basically a tolerant and understanding man, didn’t want to interfere with his son’s daily excursions, but to be honest, he was concerned. He knew all too well that the forests near their home could be dangerous. One day the father pulled his son aside and said, “I notice that every day you go off by yourself into the forest.” He continued, “I don’t want to forbid you from going there, but I want you to know that I am worried about your safety.” The father added, “Why is it that you go there, and what is it that you are doing there?” The boy responded, “I go into the forest to find God.” His father was deeply moved by his son’s spirituality. “That’s beautiful my son,” he said. “A

Embracing Change

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening in which I argue that only change will ensure the Jewish people's survival. Let me tell you about our people’s survival. It is captured by a story from nearly 2,000 years ago. It involves the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, the most catastrophic event the Jewish people ever experienced, until the twentieth century’s Holocaust. It is the story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, Yohanan was secreted out of town by his students. They carried him to the Roman general’s camp in a coffin. There he negotiated with Vespasian that Yavneh be spared so that a rabbinic academy could be established there. Why did he need to sneak out of Jerusalem? Because his Jewish compatriots might very well have killed him. So divided were the Jewish people during those years that he feared for his life. He was a known critic of the Sadducees who stubbornly held fast to the ritu

Zoom Stories

What follows is the meditation I offered at this year's Yom Kippur Yizkor service reflecting what I learned at Zoom shiva.   This year was a difficult year. Our congregation suffered many losses and far more than past years. This year was also a strange year. We observed shiva more often than not on Zoom. Because of this there was a regular shiva minyan in my home for months on end. And yet, even though I sat by myself in my study I strangely, and perhaps even miraculously, felt surrounded by hundreds of people. There, we huddled together on my laptop screen, all trying to bring a measure of comfort to grieving friends. This was not the shiva I had come to know in my thirty years of being called rabbi. In the past this is what I instead observed. More often than not people would arrive and find their way to the kitchen. They would exchange sometimes uncomfortable “Hello’s” and “It’s so sad.” They would talk about the weather’s latest storm or the maddening traffic, or a

Grief is Like the Ocean

The following meditation was included in our Yizkor memorial book.  I composed it after listening to a friend describe her her waves of grief. Bonnie Tsui writes, “Not everybody is a swimmer, but everyone has a swimming story to tell.” (Why We Swim) Grief is like the ocean. There are days when the waves come crashing down upon us. There are other days when the water appears calm but then an unexpected wave knocks us off our feet and holds us down as it crashes overhead. We struggle to the surface and gasp for air. And then there are days when the waters are tranquil, and we can float on its gentle current and be carried by a sea of pleasant memories. Grief is like the ocean. No day is the same. We have no choice but to go out and swim into the waters. We have no choice but to recount our tale.

On Yom Kippur, Lift Our Chair

In Jerusalem’s Breslover synagogue, located in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, there is aa beautifully carved ornate wooden chair placed near the Ark. No one sits in it. The chair once that of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of this Hasidic dynasty. In 1808, in the days before Rosh Hashanah the butcher of Teplik Ukraine made this gift for the rebbe. The rabbi was so impressed with the craftsmanship, and most especially with the fact the butcher spent so much of his free time during the prior six months making it, that Rebbe Nachman loved to sit in the chair. He felt that the kavvanah, intention, of the butcher helped to lift his prayers. After the great rabbi’s death, this chair became a symbol of the Breslover Hasidim. How it found its way to Jerusalem is the stuff of legends. There are two stories. The first is most likely closer to the truth. During the Cossack pogroms of the 1920’s, Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Lippel cut the chair into pieces in order to carry it to safety. He wal

A 9-11 Prayer

In the days and weeks, and even months, after 9-11, I could still recall images of the towers burning and crumbling, the cinder and ash enveloping downtown, the many pictures of the people missing, and buried, and the firefighters killed, first adorning the fences of New York, and then the pages of The New York Times. But mostly I remember the sky. I recall thinking what a beautiful, regal blue the sky was on the morning of that dreadful day. I also remember how empty the sky was in the days that followed. It was empty of planes, save the occasional military jet or helicopter. It felt even empty of birds. It appeared emptied of sounds. The country too was empty of words that could fill the void, that could comfort us in our horror, that could assuage the first responders’ hurt. Sure, we offered memorial services, we shared songs and poems and even prayers—as if those could somehow fill the emptiness the families who lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daug