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Showing posts from September, 2015

Sukkot Tastes and Smells

The holiday of Sukkot is marked by joy. In fact during ancient times it was the most important holiday—more significant than even Yom Kippur. During Sukkot the first and second Temples were dedicated. There are two primary observances. We build a sukkah and eat our meals there. Some even sleep in their sukkah. We do so for several reasons. These booths remind us of the fragility of life. They must be temporary structures. They also teach us about our connectedness to nature and to God’s creation. After the loftiness and almost otherworldliness of Yom Kippur (such is the delirious state created by a day of fasting and praying), we are returned to this world and our dependence on God’s creation. We also wave the lulav and etrog. To be honest, this is a rather bizarre ritual. We hold together a palm branch, two willow and three myrtle twigs along with one strange looking lemon like fruit, the etrog and wave them in six directions, signifying that God is all around us. To be h

My Refugee Blues

What follows is my Yom Kippur morning sermon exploring the refugee crisis. A few weeks ago I saw my Jewish dreams wash ashore. It was the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach that shattered those visions. It should have been the hundreds of thousands of other deaths. It should have been the press of some 60 million refugees struggling to escape persecution and war, hunger and famine. Instead it was one child. I watched as this little boy was carried ever so gently from a beach that serves in most years as a destination for tourists and vacationers. Unetanah tokef kedushat hayom. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. The family had set out on a thirteen-mile journey across the Aegean Sea to make their way to the Greek island of Kos. Their boat capsized. The boy’s five-year-old brother and mother also drowned. His father, Abdullah, survived. Here is

Becoming Reform

What follows is my Yom Kippur evening sermon about what it means to be a Reform Jew. Let’s talk about Reform Judaism. In July 1883 the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati ordained its first class of American Reform rabbis. Four men were ordained—women would not be ordained until almost 100 years later. The founder of the college, Isaac Mayer Wise, was very proud. He had successfully created a seminary to serve all of American Jewry—both the traditionalists and radical reformers were present. He had succeeded in implementing his vision of only one modern American Jewish movement. Look at the names he coined, Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. None of these names declared Reform. (It is by the way “Reform Judaism” not “Reformed Judaism.” We have done nothing wrong to require a reformed path.) All the names proclaimed a unified American Judaism. After the ordination ceremony the group of newly minted rabbis, their teachers and families adjo

Church Pews

What follows is the letter I sent to my congregation about our decision to celebrate two of our High Holiday services at St. Dominic Catholic Church. Our synagogue building cannot accommodate the larger numbers who attend these services. I am proud of my congregation for embracing this decision. My words proved true. We found our services deeply meaningful. I look forward to our observance of Yom Kippur. Sometimes practical challenges illustrate important philosophical principles. Our decision to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Morning services at St. Dominic is such a case. Judaism teaches that the place is secondary to the moment. We sanctify time rather than space. It is far more important when we gather rather than where. What transforms ordinary days in the calendar into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that we join together as a community. What matters is that we sing our prayers together. What matters is that we learn Torah. These are the acts that sanctify the d

Yom Kippur Sands

Annie Dillard writes: The more nearly spherical is a grain of sand, the older it is. “The average river requires a million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles,” [the American physicist] James Trefil tells us. As a sand grain tumbles along the riverbed—as it saltates, then lies still, then saltates for those millions of years—it smooths some of its rough edges. Then, sooner or later, it blows into a desert. In the desert, no water buoys its weight. When it leaps, it lands hard. In the desert, it knaps itself round. Most of the round sand grains in the world, wherever you find them, have spent some part of their histories blowing around a desert. Wind bangs sand grains into one another on dunes and beaches, and into rocks. Rocks and other sands blast the surfaces, so windblown sands don’t sparkle like young river sands. “We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more ancient than we imagine; and yet at the same time everything is in motion,” [the French paleontol

History's Deals

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, exploring the Iran deal.    In December of 1938 Nicholas Winton, then a 29-year-old London stockbroker, was planning a skiing vacation to Switzerland.   Before leaving he received a phone call from his good friend Martin who urged him to cancel the vacation and come to Prague instead.   “I need your help,” Martin said. “Don’t bother bringing your skis.”   In Prague Winton confronted thousands of Jewish refugees living in appalling conditions. I am sure many are familiar with this story.   Still I want to retell it because this past July Nicholas (Nicky) Winton died after living to 106 years.   I recall his story as well because much of our discussion this past summer hinged around the very question Winton faced.   How do we confront evil?   The stories we tell influence how we evaluate contemporary events and in particular the now concluded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that lifts the sanctions against Iran in exchange for

911 Memorial Prayer

The following is the invocation I offered at Oyster Bay's 9-11 memorial ceremony organized by Senator Carl Marcellino. In this age of terror the ordinary and everyday can become terrifying. Going to work. Traveling on a plane. Walking through Times Square can instill fear rather than offer the revelry for which it should only be known. This of course is the very goal of the terrorists who are bent on murder and destruction. Those we mourn on this day were murdered not on battlefields in far away places but here in our city when sitting at their desks or walking to their offices or running to save their fellow Americans. They set out on that day with ordinary intentions and everyday concerns. And so fourteen years later the ordinary and everyday remain fraught with terror. We have therefore but two responses. They are both located in the heart. They are both to be discovered in faith. First, we remember. Our tears are a reminder of our loves. Our cries are a testimony to t

Darkened Skies, Blue Skies

Below is my article that appeared today on Darkened Skies, Blue Skies: A September 11th Reflection. It was a beautiful August morning, the temperature a comfortable 70 degrees. I was riding on my favorite flat, a road that extends for miles along the shoreline. My legs felt strong, and despite the gusting head wind, I was setting a fast pace. The dune grass blew in the breeze, the waves lapped at the expanse of sand, and when I looked up at the blue sky, I found it absent of clouds. It was a perfect day. I could focus on my riding. I could contemplate the beauty of the moment. And then it happened. The perfect sky – nearly as deep and blue as a September day – reminded me not of the grandeur of God’s creation, but of a morning nearly 14 years earlier. Without warning, the perfect moment was gone, stolen. I was taken back to an earlier day’s blue sky, one that ended in darkness and clouds of smoke and ash. Memories of that terror-stricken day filled my thou

Rosh Hashanah and Traveling Through Mud

A Hasidic story. Reb Meir of Premishlan and Reb Yisreal of Ruzhin were the best of friends, yet no two people could be more different. Reb Meir lived in great poverty. In fact he would often give his few remaining pennies to the poor. Reb Yisrael, a generous and respected man, on the other hand, lived like a king. These two friends once met as each was preparing to leave on a journey. Reb Meir was sitting on a simple cart drawn by one scrawny horse. Reb Yisrael was atop a beautiful coach pulled by four powerful stallions. Reb Yisrael walked over to the horse hitched to Reb Meir’s wagon. With mocking concern, he inspected the horse with great care. Then he turned to his friend and with barely concealed mock and disdain said to him, “I always travel with four strong horses. In this way, if my coach becomes stuck in the mud my strong stallions will be able to free it quickly. I can see, however, that your horse barely seems able to carry you and your wagon on a dry and hard

Selichot, Strength and Forgiveness

Typically Selichot is assigned to the Saturday evening immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah. This year, however, the Selichot service is pushed back a week. A mere twenty four hours before Rosh Hashanah would not provide enough time to ready our spirits for the High Holidays. Thus we find ourselves observing Selichot during the last weekend of summer when the final tugs of the beach continue to beckon us, when perhaps a weekend of golf invites our participation or a myriad of other activities call to us. And so I offer this suggestion. Wherever you might find yourselves on this glorious weekend (I continue to hope it might include Saturday evening at the synagogue) take a few moments to turn inward, take a few precious moments to examine your life and look at your choices. This is the essence of the Selichot observance. We recite prayers reminding us of God’s forgiveness. We meditate on Psalm 27. We pray: “O Lord, I seek Your presence; do not hide Your face from me.” As we d