Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Sacred and the Lurid

The Talmud records the following story:
Rav Kahana was a student of Rav. One evening Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav talking and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs, i.e., having sexual relations with her. Rav Kahana said to Rav: “The mouth of Rav is like one who has never eaten a cooked dish before.” Rav said to him: “Kahana, what are you doing here? Leave at once. This is not an appropriate thing to do.” Rav Kahana said to him: “It is Torah, and I must learn it.” (Brachot 62a)
I used to teach this story in order to illustrate how enlightened the Jewish tradition is. The ancient rabbis speak about sex. They discuss how sexual relations are commanded between a husband and wife. It is not a sin, but an enjoyment. It is likewise Torah. Nothing is outside of the religious purview, I would comment.

These days, however, I am beginning to look at such stories in a different light. The Talmud no longer appears enlightened. My tradition no longer seems so open. Rav’s wife is not named. She is instead a dish. And his student must learn how to taste it. My beloved tradition is sexist. And today it appears lurid.

I am exhausted after reading about the decades of sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein. The accusations of rape and abuse are all too familiar. The lengthy list of powerful men accused, and too often forgiven, of committing similar crimes grows with each passing day: Bill O’Reilly, President Clinton, Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cosby, President Trump.

And Abraham. This week we read an incredulous story about our patriarch. Afraid that Pharaoh will kill him when he sees how beautiful his wife Sarah is, he instructs her to say that she is his sister. She is then taken as a wife by Pharaoh. And who then acts heroically? Pharaoh! He says to Abraham, “What is this that you have done? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” (Genesis 12) Still both men treat Sarah as property to be traded between them.

And then there is King David. Yes, the greatest king who ever ruled the Jewish people was, I am afraid to say, a man of similar ilk. One day he spied Batsheva bathing. (Try reading this verse through today’s eyes.) She was exceedingly beautiful. He ordered his servants to have her brought to him. How could she say “no” to the king? I used to ask, “Did she want the king to see her bathing?” I now recant. That sounds like blaming the victim. I repent.

Batsheva becomes pregnant. And so David had her husband, Uriah, who was an extraordinarily loyal soldier in the king’s army, killed by instructing the other soldiers to leave Uriah alone when next attacking the enemy.

The Bible then takes an interesting turn. The prophet Nathan confronts David about his sin. He marches into the palace and shouts, “You are that man.” And what does David do? He could have had the prophet killed. Instead King David says, “I stand guilty.” (II Samuel 12)

How I long for such a response today.

Real leadership is about admitting error. We want perfect leaders. They are not. And they never have been. But these days powerful, and famous, people become products. We construct images. We explain away sins and flaws, using terms such as sexual addiction. We cover up instances of harassment, and even rape. Our leaders begin to believe the images others have fashioned about them. They begin to think that their power allows them to do anything, and everything, they want and desire.

I would have preferred if King David were forced to relinquish his crown.

People will say, “That was then. Times were different. The rules were not the same. You cannot apply today’s values to ancient events.”

The problem is, however, that times have remained the same. We have not marched forward. We have not learned from past mistakes. Too many powerful, wealthy and famous men act in similar ways.

Whether a man is the king, president, CEO, or even an eloquent philosopher (Leon Wieseltier) the women he works with are not there for his enjoyment and pleasure. He cannot grab them. He cannot grope them. With power comes greater responsibility not as far too many demonstrate, greater privilege. The harassment, and the objectification, of women must end now.

Perhaps it is time we read our sacred stories with different eyes. We now better understand the pain of those unnamed and silenced millennia ago and today.

That may be the only way to begin writing a new story—for women, and men.

We Can't Silence the World's Noise

The world is noisy. Even when alone, our phones chime with notifications and reminders. There is little place for peace and quiet.

Recently I was driving through town making my way through a detailed shopping list. The music was loudly accompanying my travels. BB King was singing, “You better not look down, if you want to keep on flying. Put the hammer down; keep it full speed ahead.”

I looked up to see the sun beginning to set.

I put my list aside and drove a few extra miles to a dead end street where I could watch the sun set over the Long Island Sound....

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pink Shabbat

What follows are my remarks from Friday evening when we marked Pink Shabbat, in partnership with Sharsheret.

To be honest I struggled with what I might say on this Shabbat when we are marking Pink Shabbat and the Jewish connection to breast and ovarian cancers. I am not a physician. I am not a scientist.

Many know that 1 in 40 Jewish women, as well as men, of Ashkenazi descent carry the genetic mutation that makes it far more likely they might develop these cancers. This mutation increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 80% and ovarian cancer by 40%. To put this in perspective only 1 out of 400 carry this mutation in the general population. These sobering statistics affirm what we know. I am sure every single member of our congregation could list off a number of names of friends, or family, who have been affected by these cancers. You don’t need me to remind you of how many people this effects or that it affects Jews in disproportionate numbers. So what more can I say? There must be more to say.

I thought better to speak about what I know best, Jewish values.

The first value is that of shmirat haguf. Judaism believes that we must care for our bodies just as much as we might care for our souls. We think that religion is all about taking care of the soul, but the body is equally important. Our bodies are a reflection of the divine and are therefore holy and must be cared for. They are not temples to be worshipped, or admired in the mirror, but must instead be tended to. Our health is in our hands—well, at least in part.

With all this talk about genetic mutations one can develop a fatalistic attitude. It is destiny. It is fate. It is genetic. But such an attitude would be a betrayal of much of what our tradition teaches. We care for our bodies because they are holy vessels. We take care of our health not because any one of us can stave off death, but because this is what you do with such a divine gift. We cannot succumb to the notion that it really does not matter what we do because it is already imprinted in our DNA. Besides if there is one thing that categorically reduces the risk of cancer it is exercise. Of course it's not fool proof, but if we are to take care of God’s gift of the human body then this is what we are commanded to do. This is what we must do.

That being said no matter what we do everyone will be affected by illness. The human body is imperfect and its lifespan unpredictable. Unlike the soul, which can perhaps be perfected, the body cannot. This is why medicine is much more of an art than an exact science. So what are we to do when struck by illness? First of all get a good doctor. That is what our tradition states. In fact some of the greatest rabbis were doctors. Moses Maimonides is but one example. He may best be remembered as a rabbi, but he was a doctor first. This was his day job.

Second, lean on friends. It is a mitzvah to visit the sick. It is called bikkur holim. According to Maimonides a friend’s visit lifts 1/60th of their pain. It is a mitzvah that supersedes all others. A visit can truly help people and lift their spirits. Too often people think that they have to go it alone, that they must be stoic. We are hesitant to discuss other people’s illnesses for fear of engaging in gossip or betraying a confidence. We live in an upside down time. The most intimate of details are shared on social media but yet we are hesitant to share when people need other people the most. That is the power of community. That is the central message of our tradition. No one should ever have to go it alone.

Years ago, a good friend’s mom was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. We did not know what to do. So I called Sharsheret, this wonderful organization founded years ago to support Jewish women and their families. Sharsheret means chain or connection. I called to get names and numbers to give to my friends. I did not even realize it then but I also called so that I could talk to someone about Ruth. I realized something important in reflecting on that moment. No one can carry others alone. No rabbi, no friend, no husband or partner can help shoulder the burden of another’s illness by themselves. An organization such as Sharshert can help to carry us. It can give us strength. That is why we have such organizations. That is why we have synagogues.

Battling an illness is not supposed to be about stoic heroism, but instead about leaning on family, friends, community, doctors and organizations. If there is message we should remind ourselves of this evening it is this. There is strength, and healing, in community. We may not yet be able to undo genetic mutations but we certainly can support more friends. We can certainly reach out to others. We can certainly recognize when all we might require is a friendly, and understanding, voice on the other end of the phone.

Perhaps each of us will find the strength to be that person for someone else. Then all of this pink will have taught us something.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

God is in the Details

I have been watching The Weather Channel a great deal lately, perhaps too much. The news is at times frightening. There are days that feel apocalyptic. There are fires. There are hurricanes. Let us not forget about our fellow countrymen in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands! There are tornadoes. And there are floods.

This week we read about Noah and the flood that destroyed the earth. It is a classic tale. It is a well-known story. This apocalyptic flood represents an age-old fear. After the waters recede God promises never again to destroy the earth because of humanity’s evil deeds.

The earth is entrusted to our care. We are commanded to be nature’s protectors.

Have we heeded the command? Have we taken to heart our sacred task?

Recently I watched an enthralling video about Yellowstone National Park.

Years ago a pack of wolves were reintroduced into the park after years of absence. We had once thought wolves to be a dangerous nuisance.

The wolves’ reintroduction caused what scientists call a trophic cascade. Given that the wolves sit at the top of the park’s food chain their presence caused a ripple effect throughout the park’s ecosystem.

To cite but one example, the wolves killed the deer that ate the grass. And then the fields regenerated. (A positive Chad Gadyah moment?) The banks of the river stabilized. And the course of the river even began to change. The course of the rivers and lakes are ours to care for. The flood is within the reach of our responsibility.

A few days ago I watched the sun set over Huntington Harbor. I found a quiet spot overlooking the harbor’s lighthouse. I listened. It was low tide and I could hear the birds dropping clams on the rocks in order to crack open their shells. The crickets chirped loudly in anticipation of the approaching darkness. The waves gently lapped at the tall grass on the shore.

I closed my eyes. I could hear the sunset.

And I could hear God’s promise, renewed.
So long as the earth endures,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night
Shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22)
The rhythm of the natural world follows its accustomed path. It can hinge on one small detail.

It rests in our hands.

Friday, October 13, 2017

When the Student is the Teacher

On Simchat Torah, we read the concluding words in Deuteronomy and without skipping a beat, start all over again with the first chapter in Genesis. With one breath, we read about Moses’ death and with the next, about the creation of the world. It is how we order our year; it is how we order our lives.

Several years ago, a close family friend died. Throughout his long life, Jerry had served as a mentor to me. Recently, his grandson, to whom both my son Ari and I have grown close, shared a surprising discovery: a stack of correspondence between Jerry and me they found when they searched through his library. His grandson scanned the letters and emailed them to me. They remained there, on my computer, unopened.

Until yesterday....

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Simhat Torah's Joy

Many people think that Yom Kippur with its fasting and solemn prayers is emblematic of our Jewish tradition. It is actually exceptional among our holidays. People as well think that the mourner’s kaddish is Judaism’s most important prayer. It is again unique.

Far more typical is the joy of Simhat Torah. Far more commonplace are the blessings associated with food. So important is eating that a mourner is commanded to eat when returning from burying a loved one. So significant is joy that it is a mitzvah to dance with the bride and groom at their wedding.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, writes (and this is among my favorite poems):
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read or write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that—a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
The Jewish tradition attempts to be exacting about joy. It provides us with precise days for our rejoicing.

We are nearing the end of our whirlwind of holidays. Sukkot is called z’man simchateinu, a time of our rejoicing. Nothing is greater than the rejoicing of these precise days. Sukkot comes to a rising conclusion with the holiday of Simhat Torah, the day we begin the Torah reading cycle again. There is no greater blessing than to be able to begin the Torah again. It is therefore a day of great singing and dancing.

There are so many days in our calendar when we are commanded to rejoice. Our happiness is mandated. In the tradition’s eyes, our joy is made precise. Even when mourning brushes up against a festival, the seven days of shiva are abbreviated. Communal joy supersedes personal tragedy. This is the tradition’s view. It is not to say of course that this is how people might feel. Yet Judaism insists, again and again, joy is required, celebration mandated, dancing commanded.

Nowhere is this more evident than at a wedding. Again, it is a mitzvah to dance at a wedding celebration. The sheva brachot, the hallmark of the tradition’s wedding ceremony, echo Amichai’s words: “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who created joy and gladness, bride and groom, pleasure, song, delight, laughter, love and harmony, peace and companionship…”

And then we wrap our arms around each other, circling in a hora until we finally leave the party saying, “It was a great evening. I have no words.”

Is it such a blur?

Or can our joy indeed be made precise?

Let’s see on this Simhat Torah!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Who We Honor is More About Shaping the Future

People memorialize their dead in many different ways. More often than not they etch the names on stones along with a few, selected descriptive traits. I have read, “Loving father, husband, brother and grandfather.” Rarely do I see the individual’s profession listed. “Adoring mother, wife, sister, grandmother and great grandmother.” These memorials are not testimonies to how people saw themselves or even how they defined their lives. Instead they are about how the mourners wish to remember them.

It matters little in fact if the world at large saw them as adoring or loving. It matters little as well if they were on occasion not even so loving and adoring to their own family. These stones are about memory. They are not about history. They are about how we honor our dead. They are about how we fashion the remembrances that help us to tell the stories about what was best in those we love. They are not about telling a child who is named for a beloved grandfather about the occasional struggles with anger her namesake once contended with.

Honoring the memory of a grandfather is not about remembering history. It is much more about the future than the past....

Thursday, October 5, 2017

No Time for Gun Violence

During Sukkot we read the words of Kohelet:
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for killing and a time for healing… (Ecclesiastes 3)
No! This week, I reject these words.

I am old enough to have witnessed monumental cultural shifts that I never imagined would come to pass. In fact I attended high school in the days when people thought drunk driving would forever be a part of our culture. Schools were accustomed to the grim task of comforting students after a teenager was killed when driving under the influence. But then Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded and the world began to shift. By the time my brother graduated from high school, four years later, parents and their teenage children had begun to adopt different attitudes.

Drunk driving was no longer viewed as acceptable. The term designated driver, unknown and even derided during my high school years, became commonplace. Of course people are still killed by drunk drivers. And teenagers still do dangerous things. This problem, and its tragic consequences, can never be completely eradicated. But the number of deaths has declined. More importantly, the culture of acceptance was by and large erased.

I am saddened that 58 people were murdered, and over 500 injured, by a lone gunman in Las Vegas. I am angered that such massacres have become commonplace. I am outraged that I read the papers and watch the news as if such events are to be expected. My acceptance of these massacres is an outrage. Our acceptance is damning.

It is possible to change our culture.

It is possible to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for people to stockpile guns and ammunition as if they are preparing for war. I recognize that many people see gun ownership as a fundamental right, but it should be obvious that no rights are absolute. There can be sensible limits. There can be reasonable controls.

How about this for starters? If the weapon, or the ammunition, is designed for the military then it can only be used by the military and not purchased by an ordinary citizen. How about required safety classes? How about aggressive licensing? Guns are lethal. We should be able to safeguard people’s constitutional rights while better ensuring the safety of all citizens.

When I was in high school we became accustomed to the occasional tragic news story following the weekend of parties. It was all too familiar. That is no longer so commonplace. That is no longer deemed acceptable.

Instead our children are now taught lock down drills. Why is this deemed acceptable?

I am old enough to remember, and still young enough not to be resigned to fate.

The world can change. The world must change.

Long ago the rabbis debated whether Kohelet’s words should be called sacred. They argued about this peculiar biblical book. It is unsettling. It suggests that all our pursuits are futile. It opens with the declaration: “Utter futility! Utter futility! All is futile!” It is depressing in its fatalism.

Today it mirrors the words of countless politicians and pundits.

Why did the rabbis argue about this book? It is because it runs counter to the Jewish ethos still echoing in our ears from the High Holiday prayers. We can change. We can make amends. Our lives are in our hands. Our destiny is for us to shape.

In the aftermath of yet another massacre I will no longer accept what has become all too commonplace. It is not only about the shooter’s psychology. It is also about how many weapons he was so easily able to amass. It is these weapons that transformed his killing into a massacre. The countless attempts to understand his motives undermine the more important efforts to bring about meaningful change.

We can no longer align ourselves with Kohelet’s resignation.
There is a time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing.
This did not have to be such a time! I will not share in the author’s fatalism. I say instead, “A twisted thing can indeed be made straight.”

I am old enough to have witnessed monumental cultural shifts that I never imagined would come to pass. I therefore believe that change is still possible. I am young enough not to place faith in Kohelet’s pessimism. I refuse to be discouraged by his resignation to fate.

We must instead have faith that the world can change. We must believe that we are destined to be the agents of such change.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Meditation on Mourning and Loss

What follows is the meditation I shared at the start of our congregation's Yizkor Memorial Service.

It is often the smallest of things that remind us of those we love. It is often the seemingly insignificant that grab you and create those pangs of loss. More often than not they also provide the spark for the largest of memories.

A little over a year ago my Uncle Bob died. He was my father’s older brother. His death followed a lengthy decline. In the scheme of tragedies that I witness his death could not, and should not, be called an injustice. He lived a long life filled with accomplishment and surrounded by family.

Like many, and most especially those in my family, he had some idiosyncratic habits. Among them was a love of large, leafy hostas. And so I think of my uncle every spring when I see those bluish, green leaves begin to unfurl.

He also only drank tea, never coffee—and never those fruity flavors but what he deemed the more authentic Earl Grey or English Breakfast. The water had to be brought to a boil, not in a microwave, but in a kettle, on the stove. And then after allowing the tea to steep for the required minimum of five minutes, he would take the tea bag out of the cup and wind the string tightly over the bag and around the spoon in order to squeeze every bit of tea out of the bag. And then he would say, “Steven, I need a plate to put my spoon and tea bag on. To this day, I never brew tea in the microwave.

You would never imagine that spying a stranger in a Starbucks taking the tea bag out of his tea and then wrapping a spoon around the bag to likewise squeeze out every ounce of tea could bring one to tears over a year later, but such is the journey of mourning and loss. It is the smallest of things that serve as reminders and that awaken those feelings of longing. You ache for those things that you once might have even found annoying and frustrating. It is those small things that sometimes only you knew but that made the person you loved who they were.

Remembrances are everywhere. Lessons are easily grasped. They can even be seen in a stranger’s cup of tea. Sparks of lives remain with us always.

We hold on to the smallest of things, and the largest of memories.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Searching for Myself—on a Bicycle

What follows is my Yom Kippur Morning sermon about what should truly define our lives.  Hint: it's not my triathlon medals.

Some good news for this Yom Kippur. Perhaps you have already heard this. This coming May the Giro d’Italia, the famous, although unheard of outside the cycling world, three-week Italian cycling race will begin not in Italy but in Israel. Yes, that’s right, in Israel! In fact the first day of the race will finish outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Day two will travel from Haifa to Tel Aviv and then on the third day the riders will race from Beer Sheva to Eilat. And then the teams will board planes to finish out the remaining eighteen days of racing in Italy. There, the finish will be held in Vatican City. I realize that my enthusiasm and excitement about this may not be shared by everyone except a few people or even anyone, so let me offer some background and perspective—and perhaps some justification for my passion.

First of all a number of recent articles have stated that cycling is the new golf. Just look at the Peloton craze if you want some additional evidence. More and more people are taking this sport up. It seems more in keeping with our fast paced technological era than the slow game of golf. Along with triathlons, cycling’s popularity is growing in leaps and bounds each and every year. You must realize by now that your rabbi is a trendsetter. I was gluten free well before it was a thing. 21 years ago no supermarket had gluten free aisles. Back then most restaurants thought gluten free meant the food could have no sugar. And I have set other trends as well. I was bald well before Michael Jordan started shaving his head. And I of course always thought that being Jewish was cool—that is long before Madonna decided red bendles were fashionable and Jewish mysticism was fascinating. So hang on.

The Giro is like the Tour de France and is a twenty-one day race in which approximately 200 cyclists compete, racing over 2,000 miles and climbing mountains whose roads sometimes first need to be cleared of snow. Most significantly, it is watched by over 750 million people throughout the world. That is far more than our signature American event, the Super Bowl. And after this past weekend, and the accumulating evidence about concussions, we may soon be in search of a new American sport.

In addition to the more familiar Tour de France there is also a grand tour held in Spain every year. And although there is a tradition that these events occasionally begin outside of their home countries, no tour has ever started outside of Europe—until now. To be honest I am still holding my breath about what will be the Big Start in Jerusalem. A number of the teams are sponsored by Gulf States. Articles have already appeared in the European press speaking about “sport washing.” I worry that BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) supporters might pressure tour organizers to change their plans, but thankfully I have not read about any such concerted efforts. And I actually subscribe to several cycling magazines. Teams have to start making plans, build their rosters and fashion strategies based on the course. Team Sky could very well be led by Chris Froome who I am sure you know won both this year’s Tour de France and Spain’s grand tour. And the image of him racing on his custom made Pinarello bicycle outside of Jerusalem’s Old City’s walls is almost too exciting for this cycling obsessed rabbi to imagine. Let that image be the counter point to Rosh Hashanah morning’s sermon. And just think; if your rabbi was not such a trendsetter you might not even know about this great news.

But wait, there is more. This year’s race will honor the memory of the Italian cycling legend, Gino Bartali who won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948 and the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946. In addition he won the Giro’s mountain stages a record seven times and stood on the winner’s podium over 170 times. In fact he was one of the pioneers in developing the derailer that so many of us depend on to climb hills. He accomplished these feats despite the fact that he could not compete during the most promising years of his career, those spanning World War II.

Yet it was precisely because of what he did during those years that he is being honored. It was during those years that he helped to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Gino Bartali began working for the underground in September 1943 after the Germans occupied much of Italy. During this time over 10,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps. 7,000 died there. His clandestine job was to smuggle false papers to help Jews hiding from the Nazis. And so Bartali rode from Florence to the outskirts of Assisi and back again, with these smuggled papers hidden in his bicycle’s frame. He convinced the Nazi soldiers guarding the road that he was on a 235-mile training ride. When he was stopped he would protest the soldiers’ efforts to examine his bicycle too closely saying that it was perfectly calibrated for maximum speed and that they should not even touch it. He rode this route at least 40 times. On other occasions he also rode to Genoa, which is 145 miles from Florence, where he would pick up money to distribute to Jewish families. (Those are some really long Strava segments.)

Florence was liberated in August 1944 so by my calculations he rode over 10,000 miles in one year’s time. His efforts helped to save some 800 Jews. It was also recently revealed that Bartali hid a Jewish family in his cellar during that painful year of the German occupation. Giorgio, then a young boy, still remembers the day the British entered Florence and he was able to leave Gino Bartali’s basement and walk the city’s streets. “I went out and saw a British soldier with the word ‘Palestine’ and the Star of David embroidered on his shoulders. (The soldier was a member of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.) I went up to him and started to hum the Hatikvah. He heard me and spoke to me in English. I understood that we were free, thanks to Gino…”

Yad VaShem researched the details of Bartali’s story in order to determine whether the cyclist merited the designation of Hasidei Umot Ha-Olam, Righteous among the Nations, the highest honor given to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. To be honest, some of these more extraordinary details are debated by scholars. Nonetheless, Yad VaShem determined that Bartali deserved the designation of Righteous Among the Nations. His efforts helped to save Jewish lives. Witnesses testified to this fact. In 2013 Yad VaShem planted a tree in his honor among the forest of trees honoring these righteous gentiles. Gino Bartali did not live to see this recognition. He died in 2000. He remained humble and even secretive about his clandestine, and dangerous, wartime efforts. On one occasion, however, he offered a few words about his remarkable deeds. Bartali said, “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."

That phrase sticks with me. Some medals are pinned to your soul. I thought of that phrase the moment I returned home this summer after completing my first triathlon, proudly wearing the finisher’s medal around my neck. My daughter Shira said, “Abba, is that a participation trophy around your neck.” One of the wonders of having children is that they keep you honest. They make sure you stay true to your teachings. They remind you of when you veer. She continued, “I remember once hearing a rabbi’s sermon about how we give out too many participation trophies, about how if we get a trophy for everything we do we never learn how to lose with dignity and grace. How failing and then learning from our failures are even more important parts of life than successes and triumphs.” That rabbi was of course me. My triathlon medals are now in the closet along with all of Shira’s and Ari’s medals and trophies. I was grateful for the reminder. It’s just a race, after all.

The V’Ahavta commands us to teach our children. Lesson learned. Teaching briefly forgotten. It states: “V’shinantam l’vanecha.” This is usually translated as “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” But the Hebrew comes from the word “to repeat.” I have often wondered why it would say we are to repeat these words to our children. Repeating things are often my weakest moments of parenting, when I repeat over and over and over again to my children, “Don’t forget to… Don’t forget to…” My children then get annoyed or frustrated and more often than not the advice gets ignored. But they see what we do repeatedly. They see how we spend our time. They see how we speak to others—most especially how we speak to our own parents. It’s hard to demand respect and love if you don’t speak words of kindness to your own parents and if you don’t wrap your own arms around your own mom and dad. Do our children see their parents speak to each other with tenderness? Children carefully listen to the public pronouncements we make. Those are the greatest, if often unintended, lessons we offer. They study our lives. And they see what kind of examples we proffer. That is what they model themselves after. It is far more important what they see us do and say rather than what we tell them to do, no matter how many times we say it.

Ask this on today’s Yom Kippur. Do we lose our temper with our children, with our parents, with family and friends? I have often thought that anger is a strange thing. People frequently get angry with those they are closest to and care the most about rather than getting angry at the injustices they see in the world around them. We lose our temper with spouses, with children, with friends. We read about the injustices, the atrocities, the tragedies, and the natural disasters in the morning’s paper and then go about our day. Puerto Rico is facing a desperate situation. Rise up and get angry. But I have a schedule to keep and a job to do. And so we get angry not at our teetering world but with those we love. Better to scream at a protest rally than yell at someone we love. This past year I have in fact attended a number of rallies, mostly in support of immigrant rights. I was at JFK airport the day the travel ban was first signed and then again, with a few of my students, in the cold and rain at Battery Park attending another similar rally. I have also traveled to Washington DC in support of the State of Israel when it was under attack and as well in past years to the capital again to speak out against the genocide in Darfur.

There is great value and importance in protest. Religion is meant to fix the world not just repair our souls. Judaism calls to us, “Don’t be silent!” We should do more protesting. We must take action. The world is beset by injustices. We are commanded not to turn away, never to be a bystander. Even better we should get in our car and travel to South Huntington during the frigid days of winter and help feed the hungry and cold people (yes, people!) who are waiting along Route 110 to get picked up for a day of work. That is what Gino Bartali’s example reminds us. You should get angry at injustices. You should get out there and help. Let the world’s injustices serve as goads to action. Get angry less with family and friends. Get indignant about the world’s problems. Rise up! Protest! Direct your anger in the proper direction. And go out there and better the world. Those are the kind of medals we need pinned to our souls.

David Brooks recently authored a book in which he drew a distinction between resume values and eulogy values. Eulogy values are the character traits by which we wish to be remembered. Resume values are those that help us get the next job. They are about the career successes. They are about the added line on a biography, “Triathlete,” that my family insisted I could not add until after I completed my first triathlon. They may appear to be how we spend the better part of our days, but they should not be what define us. What medals do you want pinned to your soul? Sure I want first place. Doesn’t everyone? Does it really matter? Will I instead be thought of as honest? Will we be remembered as kind? Do we remember to say, “Thank you,” for the most ordinary of things? Will we be thought of as giving?

Do we wish to be defined by our individual pursuits and achievements or those that involve others and impact the community and world at large? Are we not only generous with our money, giving tzedakah to the many worthy organizations that uplift our lives but also generous with our time? I have been thinking about this a lot lately. As important as it is to give tzedakah, it is comparatively easier than giving our time. We open our checkbooks and send a check to an organization we support or an organization a friend asks to donate to. Do we give more than was asked of us? Do we give a little more than what we can afford? But giving of our time, this is a more challenging demand. We lead busy lives. We adhere to frenetic schedules. And I am not even talking about our kids. We have to get to the gym in the morning. We have to catch the train. We have dinner plans with friends we have not seen in years. How can we fit volunteering into our demanding days? And yet this is what will be remembered. This is what can define us. Is it our jobs that make us who we are or the time spent laboring on a volunteer board? Is it the time devoted to a synagogue, for example, that gives our lives meaning?

These organizations, which provide our lives with meaning and definition, are dependent on volunteers. I understand that most of us are hesitant to volunteer for something whose time commitment is ill defined and open-ended. How many meetings does it entail? When are the meetings? What is my expected donation? We want to know how we can fit it into our schedules. We are so busy. We have to check emails, text messages and Facebook. We have to shuttle our children to and from this activity and that. We have to work out. And I did not even mention work commitments. How can we schedule volunteering into such a harried paced existence? You should know this. Synagogues are not wholly dependent on the professionals who serve them. So thank you to our president, and our board, and to all those who volunteered before them, and to the many more who will volunteer after them. We could not do any of this without you. And to everyone, sign up to do one task, one volunteer job, in this coming year.

Ask this simple question, how can we construct lives of meaning without giving of our time to others? The time we devote to others, to our community, to our country define our lives. I know it sounds decidedly old fashioned, but I still believe it to be true. We have to figure out how to make more time for others in our busy lives. This is the good we must do. These are the medals pinned to our souls.

There really should be only one question we are asking ourselves on this Yom Kippur. What do we want pinned to our souls? Do we lead lives of honesty and integrity? Do we wish to live a life defined by hobbies and passions or by values and character? There is nothing wrong of course with being an avid cyclist or tennis player or runner or sailor or yogi or even golfer. But our devotion to sports may need some reexamination. These pursuits should not define who we really are.

Judaism demands that we work to bring a measure of good to our fractured world, that we add blessings to the community at large. This is the essence of our New Year greeting, Shanah Tovah. It is a mistranslation to wish each other “Happy New Year” at this time of year. This would imply that our goal for each other is the achievement of personal happiness and individual fulfillment. That is nice but it is not what we most hope for. It is not what the goal of our lives is meant to be. We wish each other Shanah Tovah, a good year. To be good, to lead a life devoted to goodness is a life-long pursuit. It requires as much training and as much hard work as any cycling race or any triathlon.

What are the medals we want pinned to our souls? Ask that question over and over again and then this coming year will indeed be a Shanah Tovah, a good year. It will be a year filled with doing good.

Fashioning the Sacred

What follows is my Yom Kippur Evening sermon about the challenges found at our holy sites.

This past summer I was fortunate to travel to Israel and in particular Jerusalem where I studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute. I remain grateful for my congregation’s recognition of how important it is for its rabbi to renew his learning. During the course of my two weeks I had occasion to visit the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al-Aqsa Mosque. In fact I visited them all in one morning, one right after the other. I continue to reflect on that morning’s visits.

First a bit of history and context. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the silver domed mosque that sits next to the golden domed Dome of the Rock. It figures prominently in virtually every photograph of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to Muslim tradition it is the place where Ishmael was nearly sacrificed by Abraham and to where Mohammed was transported from Mecca on the night journey. In the early days of Mohammed’s life his followers directed their prayers toward Jerusalem. This mosque is therefore the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. This is not meant of course as a discourse on the history of Islam. Instead I wish to convey what I experienced when visiting this site.

It is a vast and expansive complex. When first ascending to this plaza one is stunned by its size. The geometric designs on the outside of the Dome of the Rock are breathtaking. And yet our experience was less than uplifting....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.