Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Simhat Torah

We belong to a tradition that values learning and education. A book is central to our existence. And so we read this book cover to cover in one year’s time. We pour over the words of our Torah week after week. On Saturday afternoon we begin reading and studying the week’s portion and the following Saturday morning we finish the portion. And it is this that we celebrate on Simhat Torah. On this day we unroll the Torah scroll and conclude the reading cycle and then immediately begin again.

There is no pause in our study, no break in our schedule.

We dance and celebrate that we are privileged to once again reach this milestone, that we can once again clutch the scroll and read its words for another year. That which defines us, that which is our essence is celebrated on this day. Pouring over the letters of a scroll is what makes us Jews and what binds us as a Jewish people. We are made Jews each and every day we open this book. We study and learn.

What does it mean to be dedicated to learning and education? Are we to memorize the words of our sacred text? Are we to be able to recite its stories and its laws by heart? That is not our task. It is instead that we read and discuss, chant and debate. The Torah’s words are the starting point, the beginning of the Jewish discussion. The answer does not end with its words, but rather begin in between its lines.

That is why the Jewish ideal of study is l’shma, for its own sake. We study with no other goal in mind but to learn and expand our horizons of understanding. We listen to the interpretations of our friends sitting across the table. We remain open to different understandings.

There is of course the faith that our study will lead to right action. The Talmud reports: “Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action.” (Kiddushin 40b)

Still our tradition has long argued that this need not be the goal we bring to the conversation and debate. If we enter the study hall with an open heart, if we open the scroll for learning’s sake, then good will emerge. That is our faith.

And so we dance and sing in celebration of this day. It is a joy to study. It is a joy to learn.

It is an immeasurable joy to mark the beginning of another year holding a book in our arms.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Parenting Advice

In my Yom Kippur evening sermon I meditated on technology and its implications to the world of prayer.  What follows are some more insights about smart phones and their potential damaging affects on our children.  I admit it is from the most unlikely of sources, but the wisdom is still sound and worth noting.

Louis C.K. offers this parenting advice: "I'm not here to make them happy....  I'm not raising the children.  I'm raising the grown-ups that they're going to be."

Judaism might reframe this.  Our tradition reminds us that our goal is not happiness but goodness.  Our task as parents is to raise menschen.  Joy is a byproduct sometimes, but not always, of doing right.  Joy and happiness are not as well always synonymous.  Happiness can be realized by what we often call self-fulfillment.  Therein lies the danger.  The self can too often be fulfilled at the expense of others.

That is why looking into the eyes of others and not into the screens we hold in our hands is the better way to nurture the joy that sometimes comes from pursuing the good.  And our tradition would add: even if I do not find this joy, or my child does not, at least someone's hurt has been lifted and goodness has been gained.

Joy should not be our goal.  It results from other actions.  It is only sometimes achieved.  Adding good to our world is instead our sacred task.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


As a follow up to my Yom Kippur morning sermon let me provide concrete ways we can take action.

For those who are interested in supporting the Jewish community’s efforts to reach out to the nearly two million Syrian refugees I urge you to read more at Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief.  Take note as well that Israel is quietly lending aid to Syria’s refugees and even bringing some injured Syrians to its hospitals for medical treatment.

Our hearts are again broken by the senseless tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington DC.  We join in prayer asking for healing for the families now transformed into mourners and the injured now struggling for restored health.  I know that you join me as well in sorry and worry about the devastation in Colorado.   Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster is an excellent address to direct our concern and help.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


As I watch the devastating pictures from Colorado, I am reminded again of the power and fury of nature.  Too often, in these past years, we find ourselves at nature’s mercy.  The holiday of Sukkot is a reminder that nothing we build, nothing we create with our own hands, is as permanent as it seems.

For one week we are commanded to live not in our sturdy homes but in frail, temporary huts.  If these structures can withstand a strong wind, or rain, then they can no longer be called sukkot.  They must be temporary.  The roof must be thin enough that stars can be visible in the nighttime sky.  If every drop of rain is kept out then it is deemed a house and not a sukkah.

The holiday’s origins trace back to our wandering in the desert wilderness.  There we lived in temporary structures as we struggled to wed our freedom from Egypt to the commitments found in the Torah.  All journeys are filled with trial and difficulties.  All travels are moments of vulnerability.  This is what Sukkot represents.

It reminds us that not everything is in our hands.  Nature is beyond our control.  Just as a mere wind can knock down a sukkah so to a storm can lift a home off its foundations.  No roof can protect us from all evil and harm.  Sitting in our sukkot we remember this.

On Sukkot we read from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, called in Hebrew Kohelet.  The book opens with the stark words: “Utter futility!—said Kohelet—Utter futility! All is futile!  What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?”  The book reinforces the message that all is like a mere breath.  Even the homes to which we devote so much time and energy and expense are fleeting.

What then is the Jewish response to this fragility and angst?  Embrace it. Build a temporary structure.  Eat your meals there.  Sleep in the sukkah.  Rejoice in your festivals.

Celebrate, despite all of life’s vulnerabilities.  No wind or rain, storm or flood, can ever banish a song from our hearts. 

Recall, the heart is far more sturdy that even the most well built homes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sure It's Complicated

What follows is the sermon I just delivered on Yom Kippur morning.  Again I scheduled this to post prior to the start of the holiday.  The delivered version might differ slightly from the written word.

A colleague writes her sermons in June and then prays that nothing new or extraordinary, or tragic for that matter, happens in the world forcing her to revise her erudite words or even discard a well-written sermon entirely. It is good therefore that I write my sermons much later. So now at this last possible moment I wish to offer a few words about contemporary events and what Judaism can offer us as guidance.

I have one contention and several illustrations. I believe that as Jews we are called to improve the world, that we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering and pain of others. While our first concern is to the pain of fellow Jews our Jewish heart must be stirred by concern for all human beings. All are created in God’s image and all are deserving of life. It is therefore un-Jewish to use as an excuse for inaction, “It is complicated.” The world is indeed complicated, but too often complication and ambiguity are held up as reasons why we cannot get involved. Involvement and concern are our Jewish responses to the world at large. The world’s troubles can be exhausting but the throwing up of our hands and exclaiming, “They will never change. It can never be fixed.” are the most un-Jewish of responses. We do not believe that the future is already written, that everything is fated. It is this sin, the sin of “We can do nothing” that we must banish from our souls on this Yom Kippur. The world can indeed be changed. History can be written by our own hands. So that is my contention at the outset. And now the illustrations. First an example that does not involve life and death.

On Rosh Hodesh Av, the day that begins the intense mourning period for the destruction of the Temple, I accompanied my wife and 300 other women, as well as some 50 men, and joined Women of the Wall for their monthly prayer group. Women of the Wall is a 25 year old organization with one simple purpose. It advocates that women should be allowed to pray at the Western Wall. They argue that they should be allowed to read from the Torah scroll and wear tallisim. They have been met with opposition and until recently prevented from doing so by Israeli authorities. Over the years women were even arrested for praying there at the Wall. Now Israel’s courts have ruled that the State cannot prevent women from praying. So the ultra-Orthodox have stepped in to prevent them from observing Rosh Hodesh. We were called Nazis. A few eggs were thrown. My friend’s daughters were spit on. We continued to pray. We sang, “Ozi v’zimrat yah—my strength and songs to God will be my salvation.” (Psalm 118:14)

The morning began, ironically enough, at Liberty Bell Park where the police insisted we gather before traveling to the Wall. There we boarded buses for the short drive to the Dung Gate. We were accompanied by police cars and then escorted by officers through the entrance to the Western Wall plaza. Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, leaders had bused girls to the Wall ahead of our arrival and filled the women’s section with 5,000 young Haredi girls. The police determined that it would be impossible for Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel and so they only allowed the group into an area just inside the entrance. We stood in a group, enclosed by police and their barricades, and surrounded by thousands of screaming Haredi men on one side and women on the other. They shouted at our prayers. They blew whistles to drown out our singing of Hatikvah.

I never imagined that in the sovereign Jewish state my wife and I would require police protection to pray as we have done all our lives. I felt as if we were the young African American students struggling to integrate a high school in the American South of 1957. The tragic circumstance of the Wall is that it has become a Haredi synagogue. Too often the State has colluded with Haredi leaders to enforce their mode of Jewish prayer on others and more significantly to legislate their form of observance in all public places.

Natan Sharansky recently argued that the Kotel, the Western Wall, belongs to the entire Jewish people. All Jews should therefore be allowed to pray at this national treasure as they deem fit. His proposal of building a third area at the Wall for pluralistic prayer would be a welcome change. For years the Wall that our prayers imagine unifies the Jewish nation instead divides my family. When I first went there I could not stand with my mom. When I next touched its stones I could not stand with my wife Susie, and then some years later not with my daughter Shira. My son Ari and I stood on one side. Susie and Shira stood on the other.

On that day this summer I decided that I could take the tentative steps to change what must be changed. I dream of praying at this ancient site, standing alongside Susie, Shira and my mom. Why should this be such a fanciful vision? I could have said, “Israeli politics is too complicated. The ultra-Orthodox parties have too much control. They will never cede even partial control of the Kotel.” Instead I chose to try. I chose to pray as I would want my children and grandchildren to be able to pray at the Western Wall. As the beautiful, and intelligent, Rabbi Moskowitz (for our new members I am not talking about myself but my wife) said, “Our prayerbooks were our banners, our psalms our protest songs.” Sure it’s complicated. Inaction, ambivalence, indifference, are not possible choices for the Jewish conscience.

So now, as promised, my thoughts on Syria and the crisis there. You may be thinking, that’s complicated. So was every other historical crisis, and atrocity. In 1944, when the atrocities of the Holocaust were becoming clear, Jewish leaders requested that US forces at least bomb the railroad tracks leading into Auschwitz. Here is the Assistant Secretary of the War Department’s response. It is signed by John J. McCloy.
After study it became apparent that such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources. There has been considerable opinion to the effect that such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans. (More vindictive than gas chambers and crematoria!?) The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian motives which promoted the suggested operation, but for the reasons stated above it has not been felt that it can or should be undertaken…
I don’t know how we look back on our own history and not cry in pain over the massacres in Syria. I cannot say as Alon Pinkas, an Israeli diplomat said, “Let them bleed and hemorrhage to death.” (NYT, September 5, 2013) And Abraham chastised God when God revealed the intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city…” (Genesis 18) True it is a civil war and not a methodical genocide. Nonetheless over 100,000 have been killed. Over 2 million are now refugees. Sure there are bad guys on both sides. Make no mistake some of the rebels are worse than Assad. They only lack the means and resources to realize their murderous ideology. Still we cannot turn a blind eye. I refuse to remain a mere witness. The use of chemical weapons calls us to action. The danger that these weapons can fall into the hands of Hezbollah or that their use can embolden Iran are real, but the moral justification remains our obligation to relieve suffering. We cannot speak of atrocities only when it is our people who are the victims. We have a moral obligation to fight the use of weapons of mass destruction because their singular purpose is to massacre. I am not of course a military strategist. I cannot know if cruise missiles or a clandestine SEAL operation would be more effective. I can only say what is our moral right and even more importantly our moral duty. At this point our main goal should be to prevent further atrocities and massacres. Punishment and justice comes last. First is the relief of suffering. Sometimes, when evil exists, our only recourse is military means.

I am not naïve to the challenges. Will we empower Islamist forces? Will we strengthen Hezbollah? Will we endanger Israel? Will Jewish leaders be blamed when such a military venture leads to unintended consequences now that AIPAC is lobbying Congress for action? Let me be forthright. Military action always leads to some unforeseen, and unfortunate, results. I have often wondered about the term surgical strike. If surgery were so precise why must one sign a lengthy release form before going under anesthesia? (That is said with all due respect to my many friends who are surgeons.) There is no such thing. There is nothing so neat and tidy when war is involved. Still this cannot be held up as an excuse for inaction. We must never allow the knowledge of the difficulties and challenges to color the moral calculus of good and evil.

President Obama is ambivalent about American military power. Some of his ambivalence is well founded. We have failed in our dream of bringing democratic governments to the Arab Middle East. The Arab Spring is no spring. It offers few buds of rebirth. It appears more like a long, cold winter is approaching. There are limits to our diplomacy. Recent history reminds us that there are limits to our intelligence about WMD. There are limits to what we can achieve by military means. Our army must first and foremost protect our country and its citizens. Secondly we have a moral responsibility to help those suffering and being slaughtered. Regarding the most recent developments about the Russian proposal to turn over Syria’s chemical and biological weapons to international inspectors we must support this. I don’t trust Putin or Assad but we must give this proposal a window of time to test whether or not it can succeed. The Torah reminds us that before waging war we must first offer the city terms of peace. “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it shalom.” (Deuteronomy 21) That’s Torah! We must not remain ambivalent. We cannot just throw our hands up in the air and exclaim, “It’s complicated.”

Again, I turn to Leon Wieseltier, who offers a lucid and incisive commentary on this crisis and who has been writing of our obligation to get involved well before we saw evidence of the use of chemical weapons. He writes: “The idealization of ambivalence is a version of the search for perfection, for a wholly clean conscience, when no such human immaculateness exists and not even just causes are perfect causes. Evil is certainly unambivalent. So it is good to be warned of all the impurities of power; but we are forgetting that power, our power, may be used for good and high purposes.” (TNR, August 27, 2013) Rabbi Tarfon said millennia ago: “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor. V’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena. It is not your duty to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.”

Let us learn from history. A few short weeks ago we marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. On that day in the struggle for civil rights Martin Luther King offered the famous words, “I have a dream.” No less significant, although certainly not as well remembered is the man who spoke immediately before Dr. King. That was Rabbi Joachim Prinz. His words are worth recalling at this juncture in history. He said:
I speak to you as an American Jew…. As Jews we bring to this great demonstration… a two-fold experience – one of the spirit and one of our history. In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity. From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom.…. When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent….
He was of course speaking about a different problem and crisis, but his words haunt me. How many times do I sit at my kitchen table, eating my breakfast and reading the newspapers about the massacres in Syria, or the starving children in West Africa, or the growing poverty among immigrants to our own country? And then I get up from my table as if the day is no different than any other. The letter from the War Department rings in my ears. “The operation would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources.” We are again in danger of becoming onlookers, mere witnesses to history, when our calling and sacred duty is so much more. There were voices then, as there are voices now, who call every problem complicated, every crisis unsolvable. That is not our legacy. We are a people of action.

During that same struggle 16 rabbis were arrested on June 14, 1964 in St. Augustine, FL. They had gathered there at the request of Dr. King to come and pray with the black ministers and parishioners. I am proud to say that one of the many rabbis who officiated at Susie’s and my wedding (there was nearly a minyan of rabbis) was Rabbi Murray Saltzman z”l. They were arrested for eating with Blacks. Blacks and whites were forbidden from even sitting together. That night they sat in jail and wrote together these words:
We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away…. We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.
The greatest danger is the loss of faith in our capacity to act. You bet it was complicated. They obviously risked being jailed. Who knows what their synagogues’ presidents said? We can never say there is nothing that can be done. When there is injustice we speak out. Where there is suffering we take action. That is our legacy! That is our Jewish obligation.

That is as well the lesson of Zionism and the State of Israel. Despite its imperfections, it is the realization of the dream that changing history is possible, that the fate of the world is in our hands. Sure it was complicated building a democratic nation in the inhospitable Arab Middle East. Sure many voices counseled against taking matters into our own hands and settling the land. And yes, it is going to be terribly complicated to forge a peace with the Palestinians but again that cannot be an excuse. To say “We have no partner. We can do nothing.” is a betrayal of our heritage.

I conclude with a story that begins a short drive from the Western Wall. It is the story of Tel Aviv, a city that was only a 100 years ago a beach and is now a cosmopolitan, crowded city of 400,000. In the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area there are some 3 million people.

Susie and I were there for our last Shabbat in Israel to celebrate our 25th anniversary. (Aww!) We attended Shabbat Services at the port, where a new liberal synagogue meets: Beit Tefila Yisraeli. It is the JCB of Israel. Ok, perhaps I am exaggerating, but there is wonderful music and singing there. As the sun is setting over the Mediterranean the congregation sings Eli Eli, Hannah Senesh’s beautiful poem and song, “My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of man.” Imagine this scene. There were hundreds of Israelis, and a lot of American rabbis, sitting in plastic chairs facing not towards Jerusalem but to the West, to the sea. There were nearly ten musicians sitting in front of us to accompany our praying and three more to lead the singing. The entire service was as well signed for the hearing impaired. I was captivated by the signing. He moved his hands to the beat of the drums. He signed the rhythm of the music. His hands appeared to caress the waves behind him.

I do not know if he volunteered or was paid. I imagine some might have even said it would be too complicated to sign rhythm and beat. “There’s too much music.” they perhaps said. Some might have argued that it was not worth the effort to convey music to those who can only feel its presence but not hear its songs. That was not their response. It is complicated has never been our answer.

I refuse to give this statement voice and countenance no matter what problem I am tackling, no matter what struggle I am facing. If that had been our view, we would not have rebuilt a nation, and carved out a new and different future in the State of Israel. If that had been our view we would not have advanced the rights of African Americans in this nation. If that had been our view so many of our relatives would have not begged and borrowed their way to this country and built a comfortable life for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. If that remains our view we will not create the possibilities for peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. If that remains our view the slaughter will continue, the world will become more dangerous, and we will remain but onlookers. If that remains our view our most holiest of places will remain the province of a few and not the rightful heritage of an entire people.

The world is indeed in our hands. And we are forbidden from making excuses. We have heard these excuses throughout our long history of suffering and oppression. It is complicated must never again be uttered from our lips. Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor. V’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena. It is not your duty to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Why We Pray

What follows is the sermon I just delivered on Yom Kippur evening.  I scheduled it to post prior to the start of the Yom Kippur holiday.  

I begin with a familiar story. Once there was a man who lived in a town that was often flooded by the local river. On one occasion, as the waters began to rise the authorities urged residents to evacuate. The man refused. He wanted to stay in his home. He believed that he could ride out the storm. In addition he had an unshakable faith in God. As the waters reached the steps of his home, the police came by in a rescue vehicle and urged him to join them. He refused, saying, “God will provide.” The waters of course began to rise and fill the first floor of the house. Neighbors came by in a boat and again urged him to leave and travel to higher ground. He again refused saying from the second floor window, “God will rescue me.” Finally the waters rose so high that the man had to retreat to the roof. A Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead and lowered a safety harness to pull him onboard but again he refused, waving it off and muttering to himself, “God will answer my prayers and I will survive.” Soon the waters covered the roof of the house and the man eventually drowned. He arrived in heaven with a soul filled with doubt. He was welcomed by God. The man blurted out, “God, why didn’t you answer my prayers?” And God said, (everyone) “First I sent a car, then I sent a boat and finally I sent a helicopter.”

This story—or joke—illustrates an important observation about prayer. The answers to our prayers are not always what we expect. Miracles are not as we read in the Bible and as recounted by our tradition. Sometimes we are God’s instruments. Sometimes we help to fulfill other people’s prayers.

I have been thinking about our prayers and the meaning of prayer. As you know we are piloting the Reform movement’s forthcoming High Holiday prayerbook that we are using this evening. Part of being a Reform congregation is that our prayers and our prayerbook are renewed on a regular basis. Contemporary musings and new understandings must be added to our ancient prayers. That is part of the essence of Reform. I hope that some who are here this evening will volunteer to provide concrete feedback to the prayerbook’s editors. On Rosh Hashanah we discussed our prayers for peace: Shalom Rav and Sim Shalom as well as a powerful biblical story: Hannah’s prayer for a son.

In just about every way Jewish prayer runs counter to our contemporary culture. Let me lay out the conflict of prayer in the modern era. There are three ideals of Jewish prayer: 1. There are set times for our prayers. 2. There are fixed texts to recite. And 3. We say our prayers together, with others. I would like to meditate on these ideals and the conflicts they represent. To be honest I don’t have all the answers sorted out, but I think it is important to raise the questions our contemporary times raise. If we are going to be committed Jews in the modern age we have to address the questions of prayer. For centuries prayer has defined us. It has bound us together. So we had better start asking the questions and formulating at least partial responses and answers to why pray and why pray as Jews.

1. Conflict #1. There is a set time to offer our prayers. There is shacharit, minhah and maariv on a regular day. There is the morning, afternoon and evening prayers. The opening debate in the Talmud in Masechet Brachot is if you have to say the Shema in the morning, when is it too late to say the morning Shema? In other words when have you missed your opportunity, and in Jewish terms, obligation, to say the morning Shema? We have our Shabbat prayers that begin Friday evening at sunset and our holiday prayers that begin on appointed days. It would make no sense to gather for Seder in December or to light the menorah in April. Our prayers are structured around hours. That is the Jewish ideal. There are set times to say our prayers. You can’t say the prayers whenever you want. You can’t change the date of Rosh Hashanah, as much as we might have wanted to this year. You can’t say the Shema in the afternoon. You can’t light Shabbat candles on Thursday evening even if it is more convenient. That is the conflict.

We belong to a generation that gets to do whatever they want when they want to. Let me illustrate with one of my favorite pastimes—no, not cycling, but Netflix. The release of “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” series is the beginning of the end of a shared, appointed hour. Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to demonize Netflix. I love it. I can watch old classics as well as recent releases whenever I want. With the advent of streaming I can watch whatever I want, whenever I want. Last year, following the High Holidays and as a release from their pressures, I watched the entire season 1 of “Prisoners of War,” the Israeli series on which Showtime’s “Homeland” is based. Seasons 1 and 2 are actually on Hulu if you are interested. In three evenings I “binged” on TV. Netflix has of course capitalized on this change in our viewing habits and released their series all at once. Gone are even the days when you have to program your DVR. As I shared on Rosh Hashanah evening, sometimes I make the mistake of calling my parents between 6:30 and 7 in the evening. They always pick up the phone and say, “Steven (it is not Steve when I have made a mistake) we can’t talk now, the news is on.” I want to shout, “But it’s on the Internet. Check your inbox.” Who is still bound by that external clock? Rarely do I even watch “The Daily Show” at its appointed hour. I almost always watch clips the next day. But just because I can watch when I want does not mean I should watch when I want. The question for our age is what is lost when each of us just follows our own individual schedules divorced from the pulls of the world around us and then immune to the concerns of others?

Shabbat is ushered in by the setting of the sun. It is not dependent on my schedule, but instead on the rhythm of nature. When we follow God’s timetable we become attuned to nature and the world rather than ourselves. The holidays remind us that there are requirements beyond my own, there are obligations that transcend my family’s, there are needs beyond what I want, when I want.

2. Conflict #2. The Jewish tradition has given us a siddur filled with prayers written by generations of poets. Let’s take Sim Shalom for example. Although authored during the rabbinic period nearly 2,000 years ago, the core of this prayer, the priestly blessing, hearkens back to Temple days. Then the priest would conclude the sacrificial service with the words: “Yvarechecha Adonai v’yishmarecha…May the Lord bless you and keep you…” We might prefer the words of John Lennon or be more comfortable or even inspired by the words of “Imagine all the people...” but they do not span thousands of years. When we join in song, singing together the words of Sim Shalom, or Shalom Rav in the evening, we join with prior generations of Jews. It is the words that connect us. Our melodies have certainly changed, but the words remain the same. I am certain that few if any other congregations are blessed with such a rousing Adon Olam with which to conclude services. Part of the prayer’s power is not just our cantor’s voice or Natalie’s fingers but that every synagogue throughout the world is singing these words. If we changed everything, and especially every word, we would lose that connection. With Jews throughout the world we sing the concluding verse, “Adonai li v’lo ira—The Lord is with me; I shall not fear.”

The words are our link to others. The theory of any tradition is that the past is wiser, that the generations that preceded us were more spiritually aware. We rely on their words, on their wisdom. We look back to others in order to learn how to express ourselves. We read others in order to discover the words that too often escape us. Shalom, peace continues to elude us, but the words of our prayers need not do so.

The reason we hold a book in our hands when we pray is that we believe our words have weight. We belong to a tradition that values words. Herein likes the conflict. So many of us no longer read with a book in our hands or the paper spread out on the table. We have kindles and iPads. I love my kindle. I can carry hundreds of books with me. I can have my newspapers and magazines delivered to me wherever I might be. Still I tend to read more broadly when the paper is opened up on my kitchen table. Then I also read the articles next to the articles that I have turned the page to read. With these e-Readers our reading follows our pre-conceived interests. Leon Wieseltier offers this distinction between browsing and search. He suggests that our wisdom is diminished because we no longer browse. Gone are the days when we wander through a bookstore or record store. He writes: “Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations.” (TNR, January 11, 2012) For my children their universities’ beautiful libraries are primarily study halls. They are not what they were for me: places of discovery. I discovered there Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Insecurity of Freedom. It was near the book I was searching for by Martin Buber. On that day of discovery I sat on the floor of the stacks reading Heschel. We discover ourselves in the words of books we did not know we were looking for. If everything becomes virtual how will we learn what we do not know we need to learn?

We belong to a generation in which words are cheapened. Anyone can post anything, right or wrong, factual or not, valued or not. It is not true just because it is on the Internet. To make it to the shelves of a university’s library meant that the words held meaning and conveyed certain truths. My children search on their laptops. Anyone can create a blog. ( The siddur is about words that have been measured against history. They have stood for centuries. They have been recited by generations. I have long argued that the Bible and siddur are our people’s Jewish survival guides. You want to know how to remain a Jew. Carry these two books with you. Read their words. Study their passages. They are the secret to our survival. But they also hold the keys to human survival. It is in books, in words measured on a page, that the spirit is restored.

What happens when words are no longer measured, when the words of prior generations are no longer valued, when our words become virtual and then ephemeral? Will our world be richer or poorer because we no longer look to the aged, to parents and grandparents for wisdom but instead to Google? The Internet might in fact be an extraordinary repository of knowledge, but wisdom is gained by years not by the accumulation of facts. That is what is held in your hands. Even though we may not be able to translate the kaddish prayer word for word, could there be any other words that could mark our grief? Could we celebrate a wedding without the words “Siman tov v’mazel tov.”? Words gain poignancy and weight through the generations.

3. Conflict #3. Ours is a highly individualized and personalized culture. Judaism values the needs of the community over the individual, the prayers of the group over the single person. Prayer with one’s congregation becomes the corrective to the over indulgence of inwardness. While cute, and at times adorable, is it good for us to post selfies all the time? And can someone please tell me why I need to see pictures of my friends’ dinner entrees on Facebook? I am all for self-discovery and individual rights but the group is where we attain meaning, the community is where we achieve greatness. That is the Jewish view. We pray with a minyan, a quorum of ten. We recount our sins on this day of Yom Kippur using “we.” It is not that everyone of us has committed the same wrong, but instead that we are strengthened by “us.” And we are weakened by saying “me.”

Back to Netflix and TV. It was not so long ago that we gathered to watch TV together. Now I can watch TV by myself on my laptop, again whenever I want. Community was once, and not so long ago, bonded together with weekday discussions of “Did you watch the Sopranos this weekend? That whole cell phone thing was amazing.” Such a discussion seems like ancient times. Now, when asked “Did you watch ‘Orange is the New Black?’” I respond with “It is in my queue.” And by the time I get around to watching it, the discussion is lost and the ties that bind one to others begin to fray. With the exception of football and sports, everyone is on a different schedule. It used to be that my friends and I gathered in my basement to watch MTV (I assure you, we did nothing else) and waited with excitement for a debut music video and then later might watch Saturday Night Live. We laughed together. We critiqued the videos together. We were bound together around that TV. Now videos are posted on Timelines and in boxed to each other rather than viewed at the same time, in the same place—together, with others. Friendships and community did appear more palpable than today’s virtual, online friends. Ask any kid who goes to sleep away camp where their best friends are made and they will most likely tell you those at camp. Part of the reason why has to be because there are no iPhones and laptops at camp. You still have to talk to each other face to face. You have to work out problems by talking rather than texting. I know I have said that before, but it is worth repeating. Maybe we should limit the computer and iPhone use a little more. How can you learn the all important “we” if existence is defined by me, and my iPhone?

I am sure by now some might think that I am against change and innovation, that I don’t recognize the virtues and gifts of the modern, technological age. This is not the case. I love gadgets. But the pace of change is so quick that the questions have barely kept up with the innovations. We are unprepared for Google Glass! Our children will be the most self-photographed generation in history. Our task on this day is to ask these questions, to explore the implications of where we are heading. I do not believe that rabbis should stand before you and say, “Change is bad. The future is doomed.” But let’s at least talk about what is changing. Our infatuation with gadgets comes at a cost. Let’s ask ourselves what is worth preserving. Our humanity is not necessarily enhanced by all technologies. Existence and meaning cannot be, and must not be, defined by computers and iPhones. They are but tools. That is part of why we need prayer.

Prayer helps to lift us out of our own individual concerns and look to the needs of others, to the requirements of the community, and the welfare of the world. Still we come to synagogue with our individual requests. We want instant gratification, an immediate response, and a quick fix to what ails us. That is not Judaism’s view. A certain familiarity with the rhythm of the prayers is required. There is not the expectation that a spiritual awakening will occur the first time one attends or even the second. There is not the suggestion as well that each and every time one will feel something.

The role of the shliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, is to lift our prayers. No one can of course sing like our cantor. Our prayers are carried on hers. She lifts us. Sure you can pray by yourself. Sure you can work out by yourself. But you might never finish the last mile on your own. Your prayers might never reach heaven if standing alone. In community we tend to ask for that which will benefit all. We rejoice together. We sing together. Prayer helps to restore balance and perspective. In a world that sees the individual as first and foremost we require a corrective. We need reminders to look out for others. Prayer calls us to what is truly important and lasting. It is not me. It is instead us.

On Rosh Hashanah morning we studied the story of Hannah’s prayer. Hannah prayed for a child. She went to temple and poured out her soul. The Bible says: “V’hi marat nefesh v’titpaleil al-Adonai u’vacho tivkeh—In the bitterness of her soul, she prayed before the Lord, weeping and crying.” Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk because of how she was carrying on. He scolded her. She then explained her torment. He said, “Lchi l’shalom. Go in peace. And may the God of Israel grant your request.” The Bible reports that God remembered Hannah and opened her womb and she gave birth to Samuel, the prophet, who later anoints the great kings of Israel. I had often read this story as an illustration of the biblical, and later rabbinic, paradigm: pray really hard and God will give you a miracle. But this seems remote and almost, I dare say, fantasy. Over the years I have wondered if the story is not a cruel torment for those struggling to have children. But this year I discovered that the meaning of the story is not in the apparent answer to Hannah’s prayer of a son. It is instead found in the verse that immediately follows her prayer. As soon as Eli offers his words of comfort, as soon as she has poured out her pain, it is reported: “So the woman left, and she ate, and she was downcast no longer.” That is what prayer can offer. She was downcast no longer. (I Samuel 1)

Do you want to know why pray? It is because no matter the century, no matter the technological advances, prayer reminds us that the moment matters, the word has import, and the community continues to lift us. No new device will ever be able to provide what has sustained us for millennia. When we are downcast sometimes all that is required is a song and a prayer.

L’chi l’shalom. Go in peace. And may the God of Israel grant your request.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Yom Kippur

I have great admiration for Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix. Part of the reason is that Netflix is transforming how we watch and enjoy movies. I can watch all manner of films and TV whenever I want. There is an excellent collection of foreign movies as well, and especially Israeli cinema, to be found there. And now with the advent of streaming I can watch these films wherever I want.

Still that is not the primary reason why I like Hastings. It is instead how he dealt with Qwikster. You may recall that in 2011 Netflix proposed dividing the company in two. Netflix would offer streaming and the new Qwikster would become the DVD by mail service. Hastings also advocated raising the price for these services. Thousands of angry emails poured in to the corporate offices. Nearly 800,000 subscribers dropped Netflix in the fourth quarter of 2011 alone. The stock price dropped from a high of $299 to $53.

So what did Reed Hastings do? He publicly admitted his mistake. He apologized. He changed course. I am sure he had advisors who counseled him against this. I am sure there was at least one expert who suggested that the CEO should never publicly confess his wrongs and admit such an error. A CEO should always exude confidence, right or wrong, they perhaps said. That is not what Hastings did. That is why I admire him. Netflix has rebounded and is now on the road to a successful year. Although it has not regained its original stature, the lesson remains the same. Thus the Talmud counsels: “In a place where the repentant sinner stands even the wholly righteous cannot stand.”

You should love a person who admits their mistakes. And that about sums up Yom Kippur. People too often think that Yom Kippur is about fasting and denial. That is but a means to an end. The intention of the fast is that we are to look away from our desires and look instead at what we might repair and change. It begins with “I’m sorry.” It starts with admitting our mistakes. The goal of this High Holiday is to say “I messed up” and return to basics.

When Reed Hastings was asked what advice he might offer to others he said, “Don’t get distracted by the shiny object. And if a crisis comes, execute on the fundamentals.”

No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. The greater crisis comes when not admitting wrongs, when not offering an apology. Yom Kippur is about our return to the fundamentals of admitting our mistakes and correcting our wrongs. Let us learn this lesson well and be confident in our ability to change rather than holding fast to some fanciful vision of perfection.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Learning from the Whirlwind

What follows is the sermon I delivered this Rosh Hashanah Morning. This was programmed to post prior to the start of the holiday and the delivered version will as always contain some minor changes, but for those who wish, the written text follows. By the time you are reading this I hope to say that the sermon was met with resounding nods of agreement and most importantly, a rekindled resolve to act.  If it stirred the pot then let it only be for good and in the hopes of building a better future together.

Let us begin with a familiar biblical story. It is the story of Adam and Eve. According to the Torah, God created Adam from the earth and Eve from his rib. God placed them in the Garden of Eden with only one instruction. You can eat from any fruit or vegetable you want except those from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. You know the ending. What is the first thing they did? They ate. “Shira and Ari, we are going to leave you home alone tonight. You can watch whatever you want on TV. Just no HBO after 1 am.” And if you believe that the TV was off and that my children were in bed by midnight, then let me tell you about a talking snake. And the Torah relates. The serpent said to the woman, “Did God really say, you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” And so the snake convinces the woman to eat the fruit. It is not an apple by the way except for in medieval Christian art, but instead, according to Jewish tradition a pomegranate or etrog. She likes it and gives it to Adam and he eats it and also likes it. What’s not to like about a fruit picked fresh off a tree? Only one problem. God said, Don’t eat it. And now they ate. They gained knowledge, which I always think is a good thing. God confronts them. God says, “Ayekah? Where are you?” Do they admit their wrongs? No, of course not. Adam says, “The woman who You created, she made me do it.” Eve says, “It was the talking snake.” That’s a good one, Shira and Ari. “We forgot to turn the TV off.” Blame the talking snake. Own up. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Correct your failings. God banishes them from the garden and says, “Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3)

And now we know. Cursed be the ground because of us. Is there any lingering doubt? Do we dare reject science? Our world is no longer Eden. So let me state my claim at the beginning. Climate change is affecting our world. Is the memory of Hurricane Sandy already a distant memory?

Let me offer but a few reminders. Here are the numbers for our own Long Island. According to FEMA, over 95,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, most by the waters of the devastating storm surge. Nearly 40,000 of those suffered damage greater than 50% of their value. In the weeks that followed we volunteered to help our neighbors. Our congregation partnered with Nechama, a Jewish disaster relief organization, and helped a family with the ugly and messy task of removing waterlogged floorboards. This particular family lacked insurance and so we helped them with those tasks that involved unskilled labor. Ari and I pried up board after board of their dinning room’s wooden floor and carted couches and chairs filled with water to the curb. Most remarkable of all is that we worked alongside not just other congregants but a young man who drove to Long Island from Minnesota and used his two weeks of vacation to volunteer and help out after Superstorm Sandy. Most nights he slept in his car. He worked each and every day of his vacation to help out complete strangers. He appeared motivated by nothing other than a deep sense of altruism. Would we have given up our vacations to help his community if the situation were reversed? On another day I drove to Long Beach to volunteer at FEMA’s disaster relief center. I was overwhelmed by what I saw. The beach parking lot was filled with mountains of trash and debris. The piles of cut trees at the end of driveways and those collecting in Huntington’s parking lots was little in relation to all of these household belongings, furniture and appliances piled along what was only weeks before our beautiful Long Island beaches. 4.4 million cubic yards of debris had to be cleaned up from the Island following the storm. Many of us were without power for weeks. In fact over 1 million customers lost power. Who could forget the gas shortages that followed, the maddening frustration of having to wait in lines for such a basic necessity and then still being unable to find gas? Should I continue? Do we wish to relive those weeks? I ask, has our beloved island been effectively rebuilt? We have restored power and rebuilt boardwalks. But rebuilding is not the same as preparedness. I read that LIPA can now communicate better with repairmen when they are in the field. But better communication and improved emergency management is not the long-term thinking and planning I envision. We have repaired our beautiful beaches and carted away the debris. But the ocean and the Long Island Sound will find its way into our towns once again.

We require a fundamental shift in our thinking. Everything we have done as enormous as these tasks have been is still but small changes. We have eaten of the fruit. Have we gained any new knowledge? Have we learned something new? This is my focus for this morning. What should we have learned from Hurricane Sandy?

The hurricane should have been a wake up call that we can no longer live as we have, that our bargain with nature has failed. We look to generators as if they are permanent fixes, we write about tree removal as if it is redemptive, but so much more must change. We cannot buy a peace with nature. We cannot build walls high enough to protect us from the sea. Nature will win. And yet we go on as if our only plan is a prayer that this storm was in fact once in a lifetime storm. I am not a prophet but I remain convinced that it was not. I remain certain that such storms are the makings of a new and different future for which we are ill prepared.

I am convinced that much of the changes that we see are due to climate change. Perhaps there are among you skeptics, so let me offer some evidence. This past year CO2 measurements in the atmosphere surpassed the scientific red line of 400 parts per million and yet again there was just an article in the day’s papers. According to climate scientists our environment will become increasingly unstable the longer it remains above 350 ppm, a number we passed in 1985. Everyone is aware of the science. True, some discount it. But the evidence is nearly unanimously accepted by scientists. These greenhouse gases make for an increasingly unstable world. Weather patterns change. Ocean levels rise. If they rise only by inches catastrophic consequences can follow. An inch more added to the oceans can mean the difference between a storm surge flooding a city or not. I recognize that some might still be unaccepting. Only last week there was an article that insurance companies are beginning to factor climate change into their risk models. They are beginning to look to complex computer programs to model the future rather than historical examples. In assessing their risk, and of course their investment, they are factoring climate change into the equation. But still we go on with our lives as if Hurricane Sandy is but an aberration the likes of which we will never see again even as our friends on the South Shore are still struggling to lift themselves out of this disaster. If you are still unconvinced, I would refer you to Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment. I had the privilege of having dinner with its director, Dr. John Spengler, and a number of its faculty this summer. I was impressed with their strategy. Too often questions of science and reason become mired in politics. This school remains singularly devoted to science. It evaluates the risks, costs and benefits of energy production in scientific terms. Read their paper on the costs to human health of coal power. Learn there that coal generates almost half of the nation’s electricity, but 4/5 of greenhouse gases caused by utilities. In case you still wish to read more, there are flyers with more information.

Science, and even businesses, are tilting towards the need to change our ways. What lags behind? Our political system. And even more importantly, ourselves. Mayor Bloomberg is pushing a plan for how New York City will deal with climate change yet I still have not read of such a plan for Long Island. Here we need one grand plan not hundreds. We remain fractured into towns and villages. Let me say this loud and clear. Unless we find a way to transcend the divisions and the interests of a Long Beach and a Brookville, a Syosset and a Fire Island we will never be ready for nature’s next storm. When it comes to addressing these environmental changes there should be no small local interests but instead unified, communal gestures. Why did we spend millions of dollars to fill in the newly formed breach on Fire Island? This served only a small, local interest. There are days when I feel as if Long Island politics have become akin to my halcyon days when my brother and I would furiously try to stay ahead of the ocean’s waves as we dug tunnels in the sand. The sand of course kept collapsing our tunnels no matter how hard we worked, no matter how high we built the sand castle’s walls. Unless we are able to develop a new approach for all of Long Island nature will win again. Let me correct myself. Nature will always win. But if we make strategic decisions that are in the interest of all of Long Island we will be able to continue to call this place a home. Otherwise all we will leave for our children and grandchildren are private islands powered by personal generators. How I wanted my own generator during the days and weeks following the hurricane. And I do remain grateful to all those who offered us help during the storm, from a hot shower to warm bed, from Wifi to TV’s football games. But a generator is not a communal solution, except perhaps if it is mandated for all gas stations. It is only a private inheritance. Long Island desperately needs a grand, strategic plan. I continue to believe that we are called not to preserve our own private way of life but to make our lives, and the lives of our neighbors, and our world, even better.

What can we do? It is not only about advocating for clean power over coal or LED light bulbs over incandescent. It is not only that every new building project should be green. It is not only about driving less and car-pooling more. Of course small gestures can help. How many times do we meet friends at restaurants rather than sharing a ride? The notion that our lives are independent and private, that community is only an assemblage of “likes” is erroneous. We are bound to each other. No fence, no town borders will create a safe home for ourselves and our children. We require instead a change in attitude. It is a fundamental shift in how we lead our lives.

Let us take counsel from our tradition. For thousands of years our Jewish tradition has taught that we are custodians for our world. It begins with the command to Adam and Eve. While we are certainly allowed, and even encouraged, to enjoy the blessings of this world and while we are obligated to improve our world, we are also commanded to care for nature, to protect the world for ourselves and future generations. The tradition calls this baal tashchit, do not destroy. We are forbidden from wasting or destroying anything. It begins with the food that we throw out after meals and especially parties. It moves to the unnecessary extra miles we drive in our cars. The Talmud argues about the location of factories and in particular tanneries. They must be placed a significant distance from town and never on the west from where the prevailing winds in Israel blow. Even though this industry was crucial in the ancient world, our rabbis recognized their fumes were also dangerous. (Baba Batra 2:9) The parallels are obvious. The concern of the ancients should be our own. Advances in technology and knowledge should not mean a diminution of concern for nature but instead a heightened awareness of our attachment to the natural world.

The second paragraph of the Shema speaks of the rewards and punishments for not observing the commandments. For years the Reform movement removed this from our prayerbooks. But on closer examination we discover an insight from our tradition that is sorely needed for our own age. “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.” (Deuteronomy 11) The rewards here all have to do with nature. If we observe, it will rain when it is supposed to rain. Our tradition is intimately tied to nature. So many of our holidays are tied to the seasons and to agriculture. Passover is for example not only our redemption from Egypt but also about the barley harvest. Now that we are no longer farmers we have lost this connection embedded within our beloved tradition and we are poorer for it. We have come to believe that our holidays and our celebrations are divorced from nature, that we can live an isolated existence celebrating our sacred occasions, comfortable in our homes, protected from the storms. Hurricane Sandy changed that. Superstorm Sandy should have awakened us from our slumber and shocked us to change.

To be fair I also discovered something that was good in the midst of the whirlwind. I rediscovered the value of hachnasat orchim, hospitality. Our patriarch Abraham is viewed as the model for hospitality. Three strangers come to visit him. They will soon announce that he and Sarah will become parents. He welcomes them in and prepares for them a meal. Ok, truth be told, he instructs Sarah to cook for them. He slaughters the calf himself, but she had to do all the cooking. The Torah reports: “As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘My lords... Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves...’” (Genesis 18) And what does our tradition make of this? The Rabbis teach: “Hachnasat orchim is greater even than welcoming God’s presence.” (Shabbat 127a)

Once the storm clouds receded from our island, we ventured into the streets. Many of our neighborhood streets were impassible. We walked and visited with neighbors with whom we had only waved when racing down our blocks in our cars, hurrying to our next scheduled activity or meeting. Now, the power was off. The TV’s were silenced. The Internet was muted. There were no schedules to keep. There could be no meetings. All we had was our small neighborhood. We met people for the first time. On those cold evenings there was nothing to do but gather at the one house that had a warm fire and good wine. There we talked and of course complained. There is nothing like complaining to bind people together. And yet as soon as the power was restored we returned to many of our old ways.

Like Adam and Eve, we seem to think we can forever live in Gan Eden. God asks again, “Ayekah?” Where are we going? Back to the talking serpent. The lesson of the Torah is not that snakes can talk, but that nature has a voice. It speaks. It tempts us with its beauty and grandeur. It lulls us into thinking that we can tame it, that we are its master. It deceives us like the serpent. Now we have new knowledge. The storm has passed. The floodwaters have receded. We should have learned that eventually the ocean will always win. We should have known that the winds will beat us back. “And then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind…” (Job 38) Have we listened?

Like many I traveled to the beach this summer. More often than not I find the ocean’s water and waves restorative. But this year I noticed something different. Each morning when we arrived at the water’s edge, carrying our beach chairs, coolers, footballs and towels, I discovered that the beach had been remade. One morning the sands were flattened and we could tip toe into the salt water. Another morning there was a small shelf at the water’s edge from which we could jump into the waves. And still another morning the high tide had left a small pool in which my young niece could comfortably wade. I thought to myself, “If this is the power of the sea on a calm day, if the beaches’ sands can be remade day after day when its waters are calm, how much the more so when whipped up by the winds of a tropical storm.” Who are we to think we can fight its fury and waves. The psalmist declares: “The ocean sounds, O Lord the ocean sounds its thunder, the ocean sounds its pounding. Above the thunder of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea is the Lord, majestic on high.” (Psalm 93)

Still, even the power of King David’s words will not still my worries. Thus the only question that should remain on our lips, “What new knowledge have I gained? How must my life change? How must our community change?” We know the future will be different. But we only want to rebuild. We want it to be just like it was. Will we continue to build castles of sand or will we summon the courage and fortitude to build something different, and greater, although perhaps smaller, for our children? Will we respond to the thunder of the ocean’s fury and not once again offer the soothing mantra “We will rebuild!” but instead join together to build a new and different and even greater future? I offer this prayer. I cannot pray that the every storm will veer out into the open sea and will never again touch our shores. We do not pray for what is impossible. Instead I pray, may we summon the strength to build something even greater, and safer, and more lasting of our home, of our Long Island.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rosh Hashanah

Many have asked why the High Holidays occur so early this year. I can’t remember a time when they fell so close to Labor Day. In fact the first night of Hanukkah occurs on the same evening we will be gathering with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. This will never happen again. So although the timing of our fall celebrations is very unusual there is an internal logic to our holiday cycle. The Jewish calendar is a combination of a lunar and solar calendar. Our secular calendar is solar and is 365 years long. The lunar year is 354 days. The secular calendar dictates the seasons. The Jewish holidays are tied to both history and the seasons. Sukkot for example commemorates our wandering in the wilderness as well as the fall harvest. If we only followed a lunar calendar then our year would lose 11 days relative to the solar calendar and then Sukkot would eventually occur in the summer and then winter and then spring until finally returning to its proper season. 

We therefore add a leap month every two or three years in order to keep the holidays within their proper seasons. So Rosh Hashanah can occur sometime between the beginning of September and the beginning of October. We will add this month in the coming spring between Hanukkah and Purim. By the time Passover arrives we will celebrate our seders in the middle of April. And so although Rosh Hashanah feels early the rhythm of the Jewish calendar always helps to orient our lives. Rosh Hashanah always arrives in between late summer and early fall. It occurs as the seasons are shifting and turning. And that is part of its message for our lives.

The power of Rosh Hashanah is conveyed in the beautiful and haunting Unetanah Tokef prayer. “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day; it is awesome and full of dread. For on this day Your dominion is exalted, Your throne established in steadfast love; there in truth You reign.…” It concludes with the words, “Our origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.” The prayer’s purpose is to remind us of the power of humility and the goal of turning our thoughts inward towards repair.

We are of course not always given to humility or to bowing in awe. But that is prayer’s purpose. That is its lofty goal. We can only achieve greatness if we correct our failings. We can only reach out to others if we recognize our flaws and give voice to our mistakes. The High Holidays are where we begin. We begin this process of repentance and repair by shouting praises toward heaven.

To begin that effort I urge you to watch this brief video by Carl Sagan. In it he explores the vastness of the universe and the pale, blue dot we call earth. It is perhaps even more humbling than our prayers. That is the place we must begin—the pale, blue dot we call earth and the reorienting qualities of humility and awe in standing before heaven. Our efforts to change always begin with a shift in perspective.

Shanah tovah u’metukah—A good, sweet new year!