Thursday, October 22, 2020

Walking and Sauntering

Henry David Thoreau in his seminal essay, "Walking" idealizes going for a walk in the woods. The purpose of such an endeavor is not to reach a destination but instead to be at one with nature. He recommends these walks should be at least four hours long. We should saunter through nature.

Sauntering, he explains, is derived from the Middle Ages when people wandered about the Europe, asking for charity, in their quest to journey to "a la SainteTerre," the Holy Land. He writes:

This is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.... For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land.

And while I am troubled by the term crusade for it conjures negative connotations in my Jewish heart, I find his idealism deeply uplifting. Every walk is a religious quest, a pilgrimage, to a far-off destination, where insights, discoveries, and even revelations are found during the journey rather than at the moment of arrival.

God calls each of our heroes as they walk. Moses discovers God in a lowly bush as he is shepherding. God appears to stop him in his tracks. There is movement in these calls. The first words Abraham hears are: "Lech lecha-go forth." This week, we read "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6) What does the Torah mean by this walking?

The biblical commentator, Sforno, who lived in fifteenth century Italy, responds: "Noah walked in God's way trying to be helpful to others, and to instruct them and if necessary, to rebuke them, as our sages pointed out." This is the typical Jewish answer.

Walking means to follow the Jewish path, to walk in the path of our ancestors. In fact, the Hebrew word for law, halachah, comes from the very same root as walking. It would be better to translate halachah as "walkway" for that is what the word implies.

The path is laid out before you. Follow it. Stay on the walkway. And this is how Jewish interpreters have long understood the phrase "walked with God."

The Hebrew verb is written in the reflexive. It therefore implies, walk with God and find yourself. This is exactly what our ancestors set out to do but our commentators failed to understand. Our biblical heroes forged a path for themselves while walking.

Back to Thoreau. The truth emerges on the walk. The revelation is discovered when you go for a walk. It does not have to be four hours, but you need to set out with no destination in mind and no route laid out. The meandering path through the woods, or the wilderness, can be an act of self-discovery, and perhaps it can even be an elucidation of inherited traditions. Then again nature offers revelation in what the eyes see, the ears hear and the nose smells-all while on the walk.

Henry David Thoreau concludes: "So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."

Saunter towards truth.

Meander forward.



Friday, October 16, 2020

This Is Very Good; We Could Be Very Good

I have a life-long fascination with the Northern Lights. Their luminous beauty inspires me.  I have long wanted to travel to Iceland or Scandinavia, or even Alaska to see this winter spectacle. A bat mitzvah student recently reminded me that they are also called aurora borealis. She too is fascinated by them and wants to see them with her own eyes. She helped to rekindle my fascination with their beauty.

To my eyes, these lights appear as evidence of God’s handiwork.

“God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1)

Then again scientists teach us that solar flares send microscopic particles hurtling toward the earth. These protons and electrons then bounce off the atmosphere and gather around the poles. These excited particles create energy that then produce the dazzling display of light with flashes of green and the occasional pink. This is the same principle that produces the colors in neon signs except in that case plugging the sign in an electric socket causes the electrons to bounce around the gas inside the tubes.

That is at least my rudimentary understanding of the science that causes this incredible natural phenomenon. I relish in the beauty of nature.

The awe-inspiring heavens stop us in our tracks. We marvel at the multitude of stars in the nighttime sky. We are unable to count the millions we can see. God agrees and shares my sense of awe. “And God saw that this was good.”

On the sixth day, after the creation of human beings, the Torah reports, “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.”

And yet we often fail to live up to “very good.” In fact, the remainder of the Torah is evidence of our failures to live up to God’s expectations. Not to give away next week’s story, but there is a flood. Why? Because people are flouting rules and the earth becomes filled with lawlessness. Soon after that is Sodom and Gomorrah. Then, Abraham nearly sacrifices his son. Very good? You decide. Moses gets angry—a lot. The Israelites complain—again a lot. They create a Golden Calf. That’s very bad and nowhere near very good.

The Torah is one example after another of people, heroes and villains alike, falling short. We could be very good, but time and again we are not. The concluding note of creation, that God found it very good, seems to be a set up. God saw that we can be very good. And the Torah then describes all the ways in which we are not—and perhaps points in the direction of how we can live up to the promise of very good.

But sometimes I don’t want to wade through all of the struggles and failures. And so, I look up to the heavens and behold the stars. Nature can serve as an antidote to human ills. Can the Northern Lights inspire us to do better?

Do they prompt us?  Even though we are often not very good, there is still plenty of time to do good. 

And God waits to say once again, “very good.”

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Torah Cannot Be Torah Without Us

It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)

Recited at the conclusion of the Torah reading service, these verses from Proverbs reinforce the centrality of Torah in Jewish life throughout the ages. They remind us that the Torah, the story of our people, is to be prized and revered.

The beginning of the Torah service, too, when the scroll is paraded through the congregation in a ritual known as hakafah offers us an opportunity to demonstrate our love of Torah – with kisses. As the Torah passes through the aisles, it is customary to reach out to touch it – with a hand, a prayer book, the corner of your tallit – and then to touch that object to your lips....

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Dancing in the Torah's Words

Given the growing controversy surrounding the celebration of the Jewish holidays in New York City’s Hasidic enclaves and our brethren’s apparent disregard of health directives, I joined with hundreds of other rabbis and signed a letter supporting the government’s efforts to do what is necessary to protect us from the Coronavirus. As I said on Yom Kippur, I believe Judaism is adamant that health takes precedence over the observance of holidays. And I remain disappointed, and disturbed, by my co-religionist’s response. 

That being said I am really going to miss our typical Simhat Torah celebration. I love it when we unroll the scroll around our sanctuary, and then get to journey from the last verses describing Moses’ death to the Torah’s first verses detailing the creation of the world. To be honest Simhat Torah is my favorite holiday. Not only does it represent that the exhausting set of Tishrei holidays are behind us, but it affirms that all my dancing is not only required but laudatory and even holy. 

Moreover, Simhat Torah represents what is central to my spiritual life, the study of Torah. It means that once again I will have the opportunity to discover something new in the words and verses of the Torah. I get to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs with new eyes. I can look at our going out from Egypt and our crossing the Sea of Reeds through lenses now colored by this year’s experiences. I wonder how for example six months, and counting, of social distancing and mask wearing will influence my thinking. I look forward to what new discoveries I might uncover in the Torah’s words. 

What new revelations will become illuminated as I unroll the scroll to these portions once again? 

This is Judaism’s central question. It reflects our principal faith statement. Read the Torah year in and year out. Examine its verses. Pore over its words. Meditate even on its letters. The Torah may appear not to change, but you have. And the fact that you have changed makes all the difference. 

That’s what makes the Torah new all over again. We are renewed, and even restored, by reading the same book with new eyes. The Torah becomes new each and every year because of our new eyes. 

I look forward to what new revelations might appear in the coming year.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Holiday Set List

The Hebrew month of Tishrei offers quite the set list! Immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Sukkot. This holiday begins tomorrow evening and marks the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and living in these temporary shelters.

This month provides us with a record setting concert. Year after year it is the same. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Sukkot. Simhat Torah. There is an interesting tradition that even before breaking Yom Kippur’s fast, one is supposed to place the first board on the sukkah. Like the best of concerts there is no pause between songs. We move from the introspection of Yom Kippur to the rejoicing of Sukkot. The two holidays are bound to each other. The joy of Sukkot takes over.

The inwardness of Yom Kippur is transformed by the earthiness of Sukkot. We let go of our sins and wrongdoings. We turn to the world. Whereas Yom Kippur is all about prayer and repentance, Sukkot is about our everyday world. Its mandate is to celebrate our everyday blessings.

What is its most important mitzvah? Leishev basukkah—to live in the sukkah. We are commanded to eat our meals in the sukkah and even sleep in the sukkah. For one week our lives move from our beautiful homes to these temporary shelters. The sukkah must be temporary in its character. If it is too comfortable then it is not a sukkah. If it provides too much shelter, then it defeats the meaning of Sukkot.

Central to this definition of the sukkah is the schach, the roof. One must be able to see the stars through its lattice. So what does one do if it rains? What happens to living in the sukkah if the weather is uncomfortable? The rabbis are clear in their answer. Go inside! A temporary shelter cannot protect us from the rains. A temporary shelter should not protect us. Its fragility is part of its message.

Even more important than the sukkah’s temporary quality is the joy of the holiday. It is no fun to sleep outside in the rain. It is no fun to be eating outside during a late fall sukkot. One’s joy would be diminished. First and foremost, this day is about rejoicing. We rejoice in the gifts of this world. We celebrate the bounty of creation.

Living in these temporary shelters helps to remind us of these blessings. After a long day of fasting and praying, Sukkot comes to remind us of the blessings that surround us each and every day. Sitting outside in our sukkot, we look at the blessings of our homes. We relish the blessings of nature. We rejoice in fall breezes, the changing of the leaves and the full moon that will peer through the lattice tomorrow evening.

We breathe a sigh of relief after the exhaustion of beating our chest and examining our ways. The moon brightens the evening. We sing and laugh as we gather around the table in our sukkah. We rejoice!

The set list continues next week with Simhat Torah…

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Look in the Mirror: We Can Do Better!

My sermon "The Need for Soul Searching" from Yom Kippur evening also appears in The Times of Israel. 

The glass mirror before which we spend a good deal of our time as we prepare to venture out into the world or these days, present ourselves on Zoom, was invented in the early 1300’s. Prior to this people polished precious metals that only gave them an inkling of how they appeared to others. Imagine looking at your reflection in the waters of a lake. This gives you a rough approximation of how you might appear in ancient mirrors. Glass mirrors by contrast offer an accurate measure of how others see us. We stand before the mirror and ask ourselves if our grey hairs are showing or the outfit we are wearing is flattering to our figures or prior to that Zoom call, do we have any food stuck in between our teeth.

I have been thinking about mirrors and the technological leap they represent. Seeing ourselves more accurately, being able to hold a mirror so close to our faces that we can glimpse even our pores, helped to give rise first to an explosion of portrait painting and now to a heightened sense of individual rights. For our ancient rabbis, from whom we draw inspiration and wisdom, the mirror was not like our mirror. It was only an approximation of our appearance. And so, they saw our reflection more in how we behaved toward others rather than how we looked. For them the mirror was not about appearance but instead about how we acted. Our hands, when doing good, became a reflection of the divine image with which each of us is created.

And so, during this season of repentance, I wish to look into their mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Yom Kippur is devoted to heshbon hanefesh, self-examination and soul searching. This fundamental Jewish value is central to strengthening our souls. As difficult as it is, this soul searching, and self-examination offers needed medicine for this difficult and trying year. We stand before God and admit our errors. We make amends for our wrongs. We say, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…. We are guilty.” We beat our chests and proclaim, “We have gone astray.” Although I have done plenty of wrongs and you have also committed errors, we never say it like that. It is always, we. “Al cheyt shechatanu… for the sin we have sinned.” And so, on this day soul searching is not an individual undertaking as much as it is a communal confession. How can we do better? What must we change?

The Need for Perserving Life

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.

Part 3 in our return to Jewish values series. Preserving life—pikuach nefesh.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement which emphasizes personal ethics and the importance of refining one’s character, was a leading thinker in nineteenth century Lithuania. Beginning in 1846, the world faced a cholera pandemic that spanned nearly fifteen years. He was still a young scholar at the time, when the epidemic first reached Vilna. He decided to focus all of his energies on saving lives. He argued, and as Judaism teaches, pikuach nefesh—the preserving of life—takes precedence over all other commandments, most especially ritual observances. He enlisted his students to help care for the sick. He rented a building that served as a makeshift hospital for 1500 people. He became enraged when his fellow rabbis argued that Shabbat and holiday observances should take precedence over health measures.

He publicly declared that everyone should listen to doctors first and foremost.  When physicians advised people that they should not fast on Yom Kippur because that might weaken them and make them more susceptible to disease, Rabbi Salanter did the most dramatic thing of all. He issued a ruling that said every Jew should eat on Yom Kippur. He did not stop there. Afraid that people would not heed his advice, he traveled from synagogue to synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, with wine and cake in hand, recited the kiddush and then ate in front of everyone. Some reports suggest that Salanter did not leave each synagogue until he was sure everyone had also eaten.

And so, this year’s decision to hold services online and not in person was easy. Of course, it was emotionally difficult. We miss each other. We miss being together. But from the perspective of Jewish law and the guidance it affords, the decision was easy. Health takes precedence. I am even tempted to take out a pastrami sandwich and eat it on this Yom Kippur to add an exclamation point to this teaching. Health is first and foremost.

Moses Maimonides, the great medieval thinker—he wrote books of philosophy and law— illustrated this point in a different manner. He was also by the way a physician. If, on Yom Kippur, someone says, “I am too sick to fast,” and doctors examine the person and determine, “It’s all in his head. She is healthy enough to fast,” and the person still proclaims, “I am too sick to fast. I must eat,” ignore the doctors and listen to the person. He rules, it is better to err on the side of caution. It is better to be extra careful when determining matters of health. The observance of the holiday takes second place to health. Pikuach nefesh wins.

I could offer plenty more examples from our tradition, of instances where Judaism says in effect, “Break Shabbat for the sake of saving life.” Judaism is crystal clear about this despite how some Jews presently behave.

The tradition goes even further. We are commanded not simply to choose our health over the demands of Jewish ritual, but to care for others. The Torah states: “Lo taamod al dam reacha.” This is usually translated as “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” Judaism understands this verse, as well as others, to mean that we have an obligation to save someone’s life. Do not stand idly by. We are not allowed to walk by when we see someone in danger. Do not look away when someone’s health is in jeopardy. We have to try to help. We have to at least call EMS. We are not allowed to say, “It’s not my problem. Or, it’s not my business.” The health and safety of others is very much our business and our mitzvah. To be even more dramatic, if you see someone struggling to swim and in danger of drowning, you cannot say, “I don’t know how to swim. Or, I don’t know her. Or, he should not have been swimming in the first place. Or, they are not Jewish.” Instead we are commanded to ask, “What can I do to help?” It is as simple as that. You have to help save a life. You have to help preserve life.

One of the things that is most striking about our response to our current pandemic is the newfound realization that our health is dependent on the health of others. If the person standing next to me in the supermarket cannot afford to get proper health care, then my health is impacted. If people standing next to me at the gym decide that the rules of social distancing are too cumbersome and limiting for them, then my health might be put at risk. If people sitting to my right and my left at the restaurant now seating 25% of its occupancy feel that the rules about wearing masks are some infringement on their individual liberties, then my health is potentially endangered. Never have we had such a glaring example that even though I may have access to the best doctors, and I may follow all of the state’s guidelines, my health and well-being is tied to everyone else’s health. Rich and poor, law abiding and law evading, are bound to one another in one single family of people.

Lo taamod al dam reacha—you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. We are commanded to care for others. The health of every human beings must become each and everyone’s concern. Our individual soul’s heath is dependent on the health of other souls. The pandemic should offer us a great unifying cry rather than divide us into class and sects, New Yorkers and Texans. We are in this together, whether we recognize it or not. And we are in this for some time. And so, we must exercise resolve. Don’t let your guard down. Why? Because other people’s lives are in your hands. Wearing masks when you are in situations in which you are going to bump into others—whether they be family, friends, or strangers, staying home if you have a fever, not congregating in large groups is about the health and safety of everyone. My health, your health is the community’s responsibility. This is our God-given duty.

Part of the reason why we are so divided is that we are not all doctors like Maimonides or trusting of experts like Salanter. Scientists and physicians should be taking the lead. Listen to the scientific consensus. The bubbe meises to which some of our brethren cling (look no farther than Brooklyn) will not help to lift us up out of this plague. Lo taamod al dam reacha! Care for one another as if your own life depended on it. Why? Because it is what Judaism demands of you. And because your life actually does depend on it. The Talmud teaches: “If you save a life, you have saved an entire world. If you destroy a life, you have destroyed an entire world.” Every person, every human being, is an entire world. And we are each responsible for these many, many worlds.

The Torah’s holiness code from which that verse about standing by the blood of your neighbor is taken, opens with the following words: “You shall be holy.” And then it goes on to offer a lengthy list of ethical commands. There are the obvious: “Do not steal.” And the not so obvious: “Leave the gleanings of your field for the poor and the stranger.” It is fascinating that the holiness code is by and large defined by ethical precepts and not ritual commandments. Holiness is first and foremost derived from how we treat each other. For years, I thought the concluding verse: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance and honest weights” offered a simple message. If you go to fill up your car with gas you have to trust that a gallon is a gallon. That sticker on the gas pump emblazoned with the official seal of New York State’s Weight and Measures department means more than we think. It signifies an objective truth.

Why is this the last word of the holiness code? Why does the most well-known chapter of the Torah detailing this litany of ethical precepts, one found in the exact center of our holy scriptures end with something so seemingly mundane? For years the explanation alluded me. And then, recently, it occurred to me like a revelation. It’s almost as if the holiness code likewise has that sticker appended to its conclusion. If we cannot agree on what a gallon is then everything begins to unravel. In our own age, the meaning of this verse has become glaringly apparent. Society is built on trust. There have to be objective measures upon which we all agree. I can’t tell you how to accurately determine if a gallon of gasoline is exactly a gallon, but I trust that someone who knows how to is doing exactly that.

And this points us toward a way out of our current crisis and how we might find ourselves sooner rather than later on the other side of this pandemic or at the very least more unified in our collective response to the virus. Listen to experts. Sure, doctors don’t always agree with each other. And the world’s experts have been stumped by the Coronavirus. Sure, even the most brilliant and experienced scientists are discovering something new about this virus every day and revising their understanding on a regular basis. But you have to trust the scientists, or we are never going to get through this. Like everyone else I have read far more about viruses than I ever wanted to, but my new-found knowledge does not make me equal to the expert who has spent a lifetime devoted to studying these microscopic organisms. Read Facebook posts less and follow the CDC guidelines more. Some might claim that the CDC has become politicized and that it has changed its mind about wearing masks or the transmissibility of the virus, but we disavow science to our own peril. Of course, scientists revise their understanding as they learn more. Yes, they even change their minds. But the Torah proclaims: “You shall have an honest balance and honest weights.” And that means follow objective wisdom. Listen to the scientific consensus.

The glue holding that sticker to the pump is losing its grip. I am watching—and this sometimes frightens me more than the virus itself—as this sticker gets peeled off bit by bit. The only way to get out of this is by trusting experts. Scientists are going to make mistakes just like every other human being. But listen to the counsel of our tradition. Follow doctors’ advice. Run after Rabbi Israel Salanter’s example.

But that’s not the whole story. Over the course of the past six months, people have said, more often than I can count, “As long as you have your health.” And at the beginning of the pandemic I heard in this cliché an affirmation of the Jewish dictum of pikuach nefesh. You must do everything, and anything, to preserve life. Health takes precedence over Shabbat. Health is more important even than Yom Kippur. But as the pandemic grew longer, and as the weeks became months, I began to hear a question mark at the end of this phrase. “As long as you have your health?” people began to ask and then later some even started to add, “As long as you have your health. Isn’t that right, rabbi?” And those questions left me wondering. Maybe that’s not all there is to it. Of course, if one is faced with debilitating pain, little else matters, but there is more to life than easily and effortlessly drawing a breath in and out of our lungs.

And this is why I admire Rabbi Salanter so much. He understood that there are two sides of the nefesh. Last night we explored what an honest accounting means, what true soul-searching entails, that this is how we refine our character and build a more ethical life. This morning we explored the physical health of the soul. The two are intertwined. Working out at the gym, guarding your health, must go hand in hand with caring for the spirit, for sustaining the inner life. And all of this must be done in the context of loving friends, and a caring community. Kehillah is the framework for exploring the soul and caring for the soul. As long as you have your health is only half the story.

You need to take care of the spirit as well and that does not just mean the difficult soul-searching I spoke about. We need to restore and strengthen our spirits. We need to bolster our faith. On Shabbat, the tradition teaches us, we are given an additional soul, a neshamah yetirah. Yes, the Hebrew language provides us with an additional word for soul. Neshamah comes from the Hebrew meaning breath. On Shabbat some extra spirit is breathed into each of us just as it was when God breathed the breath of life into the first human beings. Our breath serves as a constant reminder of the physical and the spiritual. Our spiritual health is of equal importance to our physical health. This too is not an individual pursuit, but a communal responsibility. This is why Shabbat is celebrated with our community—even when it is virtual. We depend on others to uplift us with our shared prayers and songs. This is why the Shabbat table is the quintessential Jewish space. It is not the synagogue that is central but the table around which you now gather that sustains us and feeds the soul.

We breath in that spirit of Shabbat. We gain strength from our community. We search within and explore how we can do better. We search without and discover how we must protect others and safeguard their health as well as our own. We are reminded again and again, most especially during these difficult and most trying of years, that we are sustained by the very same values that have nurtured our people for centuries. Pikuach nefesh—preserving life. Heshbon hanefesh—soul searching. And kehillah—community. Hold on to these values. Double down on committing to them. Gain strength from them. They will help us to surmount any and all challenges.

And so, I conclude with a prayer. May the coming year indeed be a year of health, a year of spiritual renewal, a year of honest self-examination, and most of all, a year when we can return to wrapping our loving arms around one another. And, may that day be very soon. 

Yahrtzeit Candle Meditation

What follows is my Yom Kippur Yizkor service meditation.

I began these High Holidays with a meditation about blessings. Judaism has a blessing for everything. Whenever we eat—an apple or hallah, when we see the beauty of nature—the ocean or a rainbow, when we celebrate a holiday—Passover or Yom Kippur, when we light the candles on Shabbat, we say a blessing. When we say the words of our tradition, we awaken our consciousness and fill our hearts with gratitude. That is the purpose of the blessing. But there is one item for which we don’t say a blessing.

When lighting the yahrtzeit candle. One might think this is because we are not feeling very thankful in the moment. The pain of our loss still stings our hearts. Still, this cannot be the tradition’s thinking. At the moment when we are confronted by the death of a loved one, we say “Baruch dayan ha-emet—Blessed are You Adonai our God judge of truth.” So why would the tradition not prescribe a blessing for this candle? Why has a tradition that has words for everything and anything chosen none for that moment when we light the yahrtzeit memorial candle.

Perhaps it is because there are no perfect words to say at this moment. Silence is the only response. The tradition proclaims by its silence. Let memories fill the heart. Let tears stream down the cheek. I offer a poem

There are two tears.

There are the tears of pain.
These tears burn our cheeks when death stands before us, when the weight of the heartache and loss feel crushing. These are the tears of despair when we feel like we will never be able to live without our loved one. We look back at these tears and wonder how we ever summoned the strength to place a shovel of earth into our loved one’s grave.

Later the tears of memory begin
to roll down our cheeks.
These tears do not sting.
Instead they are sweet.
We find that we laugh and smile
when recalling stories of our father or mother,
husband or wife, brother or sister, son or daughter,
grandfather or grandmother.
These tears bring with them the memories of loved ones.
They hurt, but do not sting.
Their taste is not the salt of bitterness
but the sweetness of memory.

There will always be tears. 
Some will sting.
Others will be sweet.
These later tears will bring with them
memories,
stories,
images, pictures, words and
values.
We cry when we remember.

But we also gain strength from these tears.
We discover
our tears are no longer incapacitating, but
restoring
resuscitating.

Let silence speak.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Blessings for the New Year

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah evening.

People think that blessings happen to you. This is what I also always thought and believed. In fact, this is how I ordered my spiritual life. Blessings find you. They capture you at the unplanned, and unexpected, moments. For years I held on to this idea.

Leon Wieseltier, the writer and thinker, once wrote: “Serendipity is how the spirit is renewed.” He wrote those words years ago when bemoaning the closing of his beloved record store. He taught that we are losing the art of browsing. We no longer wander into a record store or a bookstore and discover something new and wonderful. I admit. It’s been years since I went to a bookstore—or even seen a record store—and found myself lost in the poetry section, sitting on the floor, trying to decide which of the many newly discovered poetry books I might purchase—or asking the record store employee which Blues CD he might recommend to add to my collection. Those serendipitous moments sustained my spirit. They renewed my soul.

It’s the casual meeting, the unplanned encounter that restores us. At least that is what I thought. That is how I believed it is best to approach a spiritual life. I gravitated toward the meeting that was unexpected. I gained more sustenance from the chance encounter. That casual discussion in the lobby of our synagogue or the random debate at the oneg renewed me; the new friend made when we were both on a delayed flight to Los Angeles. I marveled about that experience. An upended journey transformed into a blessing by this chance encounter.

But then in March all this came crashing to a halt. The unexpected, the unplanned, the unchoreographed, came to frightens us. The serendipitous bumping into a stranger no longer electrifies our spirit; it terrifies the soul. We rush past the chance meeting so as to minimize contact and avoid the potential for contagion. We no longer linger. We no longer meander through occasions. Life moved online....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

The Need for Community

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon.

Years ago, when my children were very young, and I was not so old, Susie and I both had to officiate at separate occasions. And so, Ari tagged along with me and Shira with Susie. It was a baby naming. After officiating at what would now be a twenty-year-old’s ceremony, I told my then five-year-old he could go outside and play with the other young children. Later I was told by the grandparents the following story. The other children apparently asked Ari who he was and why he was there. He was the only kid who was not family at the event. Ari explained, “My dad is the rabbi.” The children looked at him quizzically. “What’s a rabbi?” one asked. “What does a rabbi do?” another one of the kids said. And Ari responded, “He goes to parties.” I have held on to that story for some time. As funny as it sounds, and apparently as easy as my job appears to five-year old’s, Ari was serious. And he points us toward an important, Jewish message.

Since Purim, and the middle of March, I have felt like I have been officiating at your sacred occasions with an arm tied behind my back. I could not offer a hug of consolation at funerals. I could not embrace you when we shared joyous occasions. (I am of course the guy who even hugs his electrician after he finishes his work.) And I miss the essence of my calling and the defining element of our congregation and our people. I do not mean to suggest that we should not be social distancing or that we should not be wearing masks. Health comes first. But at this moment, I am missing a great deal. Like you I just want to wish 2020 away. And even though we could not, or should not, have made any other choice for these High Holidays, standing in this sanctuary without you, is like trying to lift a thousand-pound weight alone. Our prayers are really only our prayers if you join in, if we sing together. So, I hope you have been singing loudly because that is what we need more than ever. I miss seeing your smiling faces. I miss marching the Torah around the congregation during the hakafah and catching up with every one of you. At this moment most especially, I miss seeing you gathered with family members and friends. And I am left to imagine you sitting in front of your computer screens or TV’s and smiling back at me. This year is a year like no other.

And so, my sermons will be different than other years. On these days, I often speak about contemporary issues like antisemitism, but this year I really only have one question for this moment and for this hour. How are we going to get through this? And by this I don’t mean the upcoming election. I mean instead how are we going to get through a year in which everything is turned upside down, in which we have had to master online learning, how to estimate six feet, how to safely get together with friends, when and where to wear masks, and how to evaluate risk on daily, and evenly hourly, basis. I will wander into contemporary events, and offer present examples to illustrate my points, but there really is only one big question that is vexing our souls.

We are scared. We are frightened. We are worried. We wonder when, if ever, we will be able to wrap ourselves around our friends, and even strangers, and swirl around in a sweaty, celebratory hora. So, here is my answer to that question. Here is the response required of us. We should return to our Jewish roots. Let us take comfort and gain strength from the Jewish wisdom of ages past. I admit. It’s not a particularly original idea and it may not seem like a creative notion, but I am a rabbi after all, and I have found our tradition’s wisdom to be the best medicine for any crisis.

This morning I wish to make the case for Jewish values. Why do Jewish? Because this is what we need right now. And so, this sermon is in truth one big long, sermon but in three parts.

I am going to offer three Jewish values that we need more than ever and that I am certain if we hold on to even more tightly, we will not only get through these months—and may it not be years—of struggle, but will find ourselves with renewed strength on the other side. And here are those three values: kehillah—community, heshbon hanefesh—soul searching, and pikuach nefesh—preserving life. We need to return to some basic Jewish values. This morning I will explore one, kehillah—community. You will have to come back on Yom Kippur for the other two.

#1. Kehillah. Community. As far as Judaism is concerned, we only realize our full potential in the company of others. The solitary ascetic is an ideal of other traditions but not of ours. It’s not just because the ascetic does not enjoy a pastrami sandwich. It’s mostly because the ascetic sets him or herself apart from others. You can’t really do Jewish by yourself. You are supposed to study with others. And you are supposed to pray with others. There is nothing more emblematic of our people than the hora. It’s what makes a Jewish wedding a Jewish wedding, or at least what used to make a Jewish wedding.

I often teach couples that as much as they might be worrying about what they should have for the appetizer course or what the band should play for the first song or if table ten got their lambchops on time, it’s not their job to make sure their guests have a great time, but the guests’ job to makes sure the couple dance at their wedding celebration. It is a mitzvah of the highest order to make sure a wedding couple dance, called in the tradition gemilut hasadim, a deed of lovingkindness. When we do this, we imitate God. God ensured Adam and Eve’s happiness when making sure they danced at their wedding ceremony. This is what our tradition imagines God does. God pushes a loving couple together and helps to swirl them around in a circle of happiness.

And I offer all this not to make the many couples I spoke with about rescheduling their 2020 wedding ceremonies feel remorseful, but to remind all of us that it is others who lift our lives, that is the company of family and friends, the community that make our events holy. We have had to reimagine how to include others in new and different ways these past few months. Not having a grandparent in our sanctuary at a bar/bat mitzvah and not having the throng of friends at a wedding is not what any of us expected or even what Judaism urges, but health takes precedence. And so, we gathered on Zoom. This is not to make us feel even more forlorn, but to remind us of what is most important to our faith and what is most enduring about our Judaism and what will also get us through this. Things most certainly look different this year, but they will always be animated by the values that nurture us. Kehillah—community—sustains us.

In Hebrew the word for community or congregation is kehillah. It is derived from the word kol—voice. Scholars suggest this is because the community was called together. The voice gathered us. I think it is instead because our voice is only a voice when it is heard by others. You may be more comfortable singing in the shower, but you’re not heard from there. Only when you are heard does your voice have resonance and power. Only when someone responds to your pain, or joins with you in song, is your soul transported by healing or lifted even higher with joy. The best prayer is when you are with others. Sure, you can pray by yourself (although I would not recommend singing the Shema in the shower) but if you really want to pray you need a minyan. The mourner’s kaddish is only supposed to be said in the company of others. Judaism says, “Don’t mourn by yourself.” And again, although I would have preferred to wrap my arms around friends in their hour of grief, the pages and pages and pages of friends assembled on the Zoom gallery for shiva was a powerful image to behold.

There was the kehillah. There stood the congregation—standing together as one although separated and apart. That is the “we” we need to reclaim. That is the “we” we need to wrap our arms tightly around.

I still miss you. And I find myself imagining who I am going to hug when this is all over. Which of my many friends will I run to wrap my arms around? I imagine that the handshake might never return—all those articles about the many germs on the ends of our fingers will leave some lasting scars—and the kiss on the cheek may become a thing of the past as well, but the hug can return. So, who will you hug first? It does not have to be me, but it can be if you want. I just hope each of us has a similar, lengthy list of friends who we will run to wrap our arms tightly around.

When the world seems spinning out of control the best medicine is to return to our roots, to go back to the wisdom of old. One of those roots is the power of community, the Jewish value of kehllah. Let the memories of our standing together, of our singing together in one voice, of our dancing together in a whirling circle sustain us.

Michael Twitty, a proud Jew and the author of The Cooking Gene, a book that is part culinary history and part memoir, and that suggests cooking and food can help to heal our country’s racial tensions, offers insights about our community. He says, “For me the negative situations that I have incurred cannot and will never outweigh my positive experiences. When we are at our best, we look out for each other. You don’t want any Jew to be alone. To not have a place at the seder table, a place to break the fast. In Judaism, being together is more than just community building, it is human sustaining. You are part of a family.” One might expect that Twitty would feel otherwise. He converted to Judaism some fifteen years ago. And for those who don’t know as well, Twitty is Black and gay. His words take on even deeper meaning. Let his idealism and vision restore our hope. He proclaims, “Judaism is more than just community building, it is human sustaining.” Michael Twitty is right. Kehillah sustains our spirits.

Recently I read a fascinating story. Some chutzpadik Israeli scientists at the Arava Institute decided that they should plant the 2,000-year-old date seeds discovered in the ruins of Masada. I would have thrown out those shriveled, ancient seeds. Instead they planted them. And a few weeks ago, they harvested the dates from those trees. Granted it took a little modern ingenuity to help this process along. Yet this image is one that I am holding on to, and that is sustaining me through these months of struggle. I looked in amazement at these photographs. There were people enjoying the sweet dates harvested from 2,000-year-old seeds. This is the same healing balm afforded to us. We have the seeds. They need not be excavated or unearthed. Here they are.

And I promise the sweetness will likewise return. True friendships will survive without parties and hugs. Caring, warm and loving, communities will outlast setbacks.

Remember these days when we could not hug. And promise me this. Let it not scar you but instead remind of how precious friendship is, how divine human touch can be, and how stirring the power of community will always be.

Kehillah—community will carry us beyond these difficult and painful days.

Finding the Lights

What follows is the story I shared on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

This morning, I offer a Jewish story.

In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople. He was a very wealthy man and wanted to use his fortune to enrich the community for years to come. After much consideration, he decided to build a synagogue.

He told the townspeople what he had set out to do and everyone became really excited. “But there’s one condition,” he said, “You cannot see the plans for the building until it is completely finished.”

Soon the work began with architects and craftsmen working for days on end. Materials were carted in and there was a constant racket as they worked. But as the nobleman warned, no one was allowed to see what was being designed inside. After this went on for weeks, everyone began to wonder what their new synagogue would look like. Would it be like that first sanctuary in Jerusalem with gold and silver, crimson, and blue? Would it have a huge menorah, an eternal flame, stained glass windows? Would the seats be in rows or in the round, the bimah high or low? The Ark rounded or square?

The people could hardly wait to see what was being built for them!

Finally, after several months—now you know for sure it’s a fictional story, an announcement went out that the synagogue was completed, and a great cheer erupted across the town. The nobleman called everyone to come as he would finally reveal what the synagogue looked like.

When the people came and started to look around, they marveled at its beauty and how perfectly it was designed. They sanctuary was exquisite, the ark awe-inspiring. There were even corners, nooks and crannies everywhere in which the townspeople could gather. It was a good kibbitzing kind of congregation. The ark was indeed inlaid with gold, the huge menorah glistening, and the stained-glass windows bursting with color.

But as the sun was setting, the synagogue began to grow quite dark and someone asked, “Where are the lamps? How will this place be lit? How will we see the words in our prayerbooks at night?”

“Aha! I’m glad you asked,” said the nobleman. He pointed to brackets, which had been placed on the walls throughout the synagogue building. Then he began to give every family in the town a lamp, which they were to bring with them and light each time they came to the synagogue.

“Each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be unlit. This is to remind you that whenever you do not show up, especially when the community needs you, when your fellow members require your presence, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

A beautiful story, that offers a powerful message. Yet, this may seem like a strange story to share on this Rosh Hashanah given that you cannot be here in our synagogue. But it may be the most important story we could share this year. Here is why.

If you think a synagogue is a building, then you are wrong. We are a synagogue—even though this year we are gathered in many different homes. We are a congregation—most especially this year. We are a community. We are a kehillah kedoshah—a holy community because of the light we offer each other and the light we can bring to the world. Of course, the light burns brighter when we are together, when we are dancing and singing together, but the light of our congregation must never remain confined to these walls. It must reach out to one another. We must always care for one another. We must bring the light to others.

It is a curious thing that for most of my twenty some odd years of serving as your rabbi we did not have a building and a sanctuary of our own. We wandered throughout the North Shore of Long Island observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays and rejoicing at simchas. But those years taught me the most important lesson I would ever learn and the teaching we might most need for this moment.

It is you that makes a synagogue.

I know you are missing this place on this day most especially, but don’t let anyone ever tell you that it is only here where Jewish life is most felt. The lights that illumine our synagogue community are exactly where you sit. Hold on to that. Allow that light to lift you up and carry you to a year of peace, renewal and most of all, health. Shanah tovah.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Kol Nidre's Mystery and Power

Kol Nidre is a mysterious prayer. Scholars suggest its origin may very well hearken back to the belief in magic found in ancient Babylonia some 1500 years ago. Its language is striking. “Let all vows, resolves and commitments…be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone.” It has even provided the basis for antisemites to say, “See you cannot trust the word of Jews. Look at what they say on their holiest day.” Controversy surrounds its words. 

Yet its haunting melody and its majestic accompanying rituals are what transports us. The drama of the open Ark, the Torah scrolls adorned in white, and our congregation’s leaders holding these scrolls close to their hearts, lift our spirits. The cantor’s chanting of its words—irrespective of their meaning—stirs our souls. We hold fast to the melody. (And we acknowledge that no one sings it better than our cantor!) We cling to the mystery of Kol Nidre. 

I turn to the words of the mystics whose teachings I often find mysterious but whose insights carry me through the power of this, our most sacred evening of Yom Kippur. 

Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century mystic, offers a parable. It is a foundational teaching of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. He teaches: 

At the beginning of creation God spoke; and primordial light infused all existence, contained in radiant vessels. 
And intention arose in the mind of God: to create a being capable of choice, able to distinguish good from bad, holy from profane. 
God breathed in and withdrew—tzimtzum—and for the smallest moment was absent, to make space for human beings to develop their godly essence, as expressed in the divine intention: “Let us make the human being according to our image.” 
Utter darkness reigned; the forces of chaos tore at the cosmos; the vessels were broken. All creation threatened to fall asunder. 
At that instant, when darkness was complete and creation was in peril, the human being came into existence. 
And God breathed out again, filling the universe once more with splendor. 
But what of the rays of light that escaped from the broken vessels—were they lost forever? 
Now the fusion of the divine intention and human potential became clear. For human beings are able and thus commanded to retrieve the wandering rays of light—those entangled in darkness, lost in unlikely corners of the universe. 
Each act of kindness, each effort to be human in inhuman circumstances, returns a spark of light to its Source. 
The rays of light are everywhere. And when all have been retrieved and uplifted, the messianic time of peace will be upon us. (As quoted in Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe)

 I take heart in the message. We must uplift creation. 

And I find myself again and again drawn to the modern mystic Leonard Cohen z”l. Listen to his Anthem: “There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything). That's how the light gets in.” Is this perhaps a modern rendition of our ancient words? 

I pray. When the words and music of Kol Nidre reach your ears, may you find your strength renewed. We are going to need it more than ever during this upcoming year. 

We must lift up these rays of light. 

That’s how the light gets in! 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Rosh Hashanah from Home

This Rosh Hashanah will be like no other. The Cantor and I will be standing in our sanctuary. And you will be watching our services on your TV's, computers or even iPhones. You will be participating from your homes.

If you have not yet registered to access the livestream link, please do so on my congregation's website.  Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening with services at 8 pm and then morning services on Saturday and Sunday at 10 am. Children's services are on Saturday at 1 pm. We will gather for in person Tashlich services at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park beach on Saturday at 4 pm. Please wear a mask and bring breadcrumbs so that you can symbolically cast your sins into the Long Island sound.

Judaism teaches that our homes are a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary. The meals that we share, the blessings that we recite, the love that we discover there, help to sanctify our homes. Our tradition has never believed that you can only observe Jewish rituals in a synagogue, or that Jewish bests can only happen in our beautiful sanctuary. In fact, it is the day of Rosh Hashanah that is holy, not the place where we observe it. Judaism sanctifies time not space, we teach over and over again. This year we are really going to have to take this principle to heart.

Given that we will not be together and that you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah from the comfort of your homes, I wanted to offer some suggestions for how you might make your home feel more like a sanctuary. Think about which room in your house would be best to help you feel like this is a prayer experience. Discuss this with your children. Entertain a debate about this question. And then watch from there. If you are able to stream the services to a TV, do so. If this is a technological leap for you then don't do it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.

Still this is not a Netflix movie, so I would not recommend a bowl of popcorn by your side to watch services. Then again do what you are comfortable doing and what will help you make this into a meaningful and uplifting experience. If you usually wear a kippah and tallis in synagogue then put them on. If you like to dress up for services, then do so. I know no one will see how stunning you look, but it might help to get you into the right frame of mind. But certainly, don't make outfits a fight with your kids. Let them enjoy the service and take in the music of our prayers however they are comfortable.

If you like to follow along in the prayerbook then have your prayerbook open or download the Kindle or free Flip versions.  Some of the prayers will be shown on the screen. Sing along, and sing really loudly, when you see those words. Listening to our cantor will help to lift your spirits. But singing along with her will add to your experience.

God hears all prayers wherever they might be offered—and however they might sound. When it comes to prayers it's first and foremost about the words and the intentions.

When we light the Rosh Hashanah candles on the bima, you can light your candles. When we drink the kiddush wine, you can drink some wine. Of course, you can start earlier with the wine if you like. And by all means have a plate of apples and honey, and maybe even a round hallah, waiting to enjoy for what will be your own private oneg.

If you are watching these services by yourself, and you're missing the opportunity of seeing your fellow congregants, then call them or FaceTime them before or after services. And if you know congregants who are watching services by themselves then call them before or after services. Or even call them during services. If kibbitzing with friends during services is part of what makes Rosh Hashanah enjoyable then do it.

The only rule for this year is that we need to grab as many opportunities as possible to lift our spirits.

May these services help to strengthen our spirits. May this Rosh Hashanah help to carry us toward a year of health.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Finding Kindness

This week was a good week.

I discovered a poem.

It was revealed to me as I turned through the pages of our new prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev. It called to me as I prepared for the upcoming High Holidays.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I endeavored to learn more about the poet who until this blessed hour was unknown to me. Naomi Shihab Nye was born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American who traced her lineage back to Germany. Nye spent her teenage years moving between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.

I learned more about the inspiration for the poem. While traveling on her honeymoon in Columbia, the bus on which she and her husband journeyed was robbed. A man was killed, and all of their belongings were stolen. Left alone when her husband went searching for how to get themselves out of this mess, she met a stranger who listened to her tale, despite her broken Spanish, and offered sympathy and compassion in return.

The poem emerged. It was if it scribbled its own words in her journal.

I started wondering.

Is every revelation born of serendipity? Is compassion best felt from those we least expect? Can kindness only be learned through pain?

The Torah declares: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31)

Is the Torah’s journey of pain intended to teach kindness and compassion?

I recognize. This is not the poem the Torah intended. And yet I remain thankful for the teaching.

I remain grateful for small discoveries—and poems that uplift a week and offer reminders that kindness can transform us, and even something so seemingly small as listening to another’s pain can redeem our burdens.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Say Your Blessings Slowly

This week we read a lengthy list of curses, beginning with what the Torah imagines to be the worst kind of people: “Cursed be the person who misdirects a blind person on his way.— And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be the person who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.— And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27)

It continues with a list of what will befall those who disobey God’s command: “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” And an abbreviated list of blessings that those who heed God’s mitzvot will enjoy: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28)

The theology is crystal clear. Obey God’s commandments and blessings will follow. Disobey God’s mitzvot and you will see a long, detailed list of curses. It is not a very comforting thought. The graphic curses are in fact frightening. They make one recoil. Perhaps they even make people uncomfortable with the Torah and its stark theology. I for one don’t find the threat of cures a particularly effective way of motivating me to do good.

The tradition appears to recognize this dilemma. When chanting this portion, the Torah reader chants these lengthy curses in a very soft voice and in a rushed manner. To recite these curses in a loud and commanding voice would be to suggest a confidence in this theology. It would be to affirm something we experience to be false. Everyone can cite examples of people who follow all the commandments and yet experience far too many calamities and likewise those who appear to subvert the rights of the stranger and appear to enjoy untold blessings. And so, what do we do? We recite these words in hushed tones.

It is almost as if the tradition is instructing us to dwell on the blessings and rush past the curses.

The Hasidic master Simhah Bunim of Pshischa notices something more. He teaches that these detailed punishments are only attached to one specific command. He hears the Torah shouting: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”

Perhaps the rebbe is correct. And all we require is the ability of the Hasidic masters to rejoice with even the most meager of blessings. They teach. All it takes is the posture of joy and gladness.

And I am beginning to detect how to begin and how to reorient this cursed year. Quickly, and softly, detail the curses. Slowly, and loudly, enumerate our blessings.

And then let joy and gladness fill your hearts.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Indifferent No More!

We offer prayers of strength and healing to our fellow Americans who are only beginning to survey the devastation from Hurricane Laura.

This week we read, Ki Tetzei, the Torah portion containing the most commandments. According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, 72 mitzvot can be discerned from this week’s verses. They offer detailed instructions for how to reach out to others, of how we might best express our concern for other human beings. These rules are about inculcating the value of compassion for our neighbors.

This principle is illustrated by one example: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow… so too you shall do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22) The tradition adds several exclamation points to this commandment when it rules that anyone who finds a lost object or animal and does not try to return it to its rightful owner is considered a thief.

The wisdom is clear. If, when finding an object, we say not, “Look what I found!” but instead ask, “To whom does this belong?” we begin to fashion a wider circle of concern. Our failures to correct injustices, whether they be small or large, begins with our indifference. How do we begin to turn toward others and not away?

This week we were confronted by the image of a black man shot by police officers. While the specifics of this case remain obscured, we join in offering prayers for Jacob Blake’s recovery. We pray that his Milwaukee home might soon find peace. We pray for strength in behalf of those who raise their voices in protest. One fact remains startlingly clear. Black men, and women, are far more likely to suffer violent deaths at the hands of police than their white neighbors. I have known this truth for some time, but I feel as if I have only begun to see it this summer.

I shall not remain indifferent.

Do the many objects adorning my home, that bring me a measure of comfort and peace, really belong to me or are they better meant to be shared with others? Does my continued silence, and the seemingly petty efforts to correct past failings, constitute the thievery our tradition admonishes us against?

I shall not remain indifferent.

I desperately want to look away. This is not the America I know. This is not the America I love. But as I am learning more and more this is the America my neighbors know. This is the America they find difficult to love. My dream is tarnished by their pain.

I turn to the wisdom of our tradition. But even Moses Maimonides is failing me. And so, I turn to other voices.

Maya Angelou, the American poet and civil rights activist writes in her incomparable poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth”:

…We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

The miraculous is the neighbor I wish to ignore. I can no longer turn away. I must not turn aside. Their pain must become my pain.

Do not remain indifferent.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Rearrange the Furniture

A familiar Yiddish folktale.

Once upon a time in a small village lived a seemingly poor unfortunate man who lived with his wife, his mother, and his six children in a little one-room hut. Because they were so crowded, the once loving couple often argued. The children were rambunctious, and often fought. In winter, when the nights were long and the days were cold, life was especially difficult. The hut was full of crying and quarreling.

One day, when the poor unfortunate man couldn’t take it anymore, he ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “things are really bad, and only seem to be getting worse. We are so poor that my mother, my wife, my six children, and I all live together in one small hut. We are too crowded, and there’s so much noise. Help me, Rabbi. I’ll do whatever you say.”

The Rabbi thought for a long while. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man, do you have any animals, perhaps a chicken or two?” “Yes,” said the man. “I do have a few chickens, also a rooster and a goose. “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the chickens, the rooster, and the goose and bring them into your hut to live with you.” Although the man was a bit surprised, he said, “Of course, Rabbi. I will do whatever you say.”

The poor unfortunate man hurried home and took the chickens, the rooster, and the goose out of the shed and brought them into his little hut. When some weeks had passed, life in the hut was worse than before. Now along with the quarreling and crying there was honking, crowing, and clucking. There were even feathers in the soup and goose poop on the floor. The hut grew smaller, and the children bigger.

When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it any longer, he again ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you should see what misfortune has befallen me. Now with the crying and quarreling, there is also honking, clucking, and crowing, and even feathers in the soup. Rabbi, it couldn’t get any worse. Help me, please.” The Rabbi listened and thought. At last he said, “Tell me, do you happen to have a goat?” “Oh, yes, I do have an old goat, but he’s not worth much.” “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the old goat into your hut to live with you.” “You cannot possibly mean for me to do this, Rabbi!” cried the man. “Come, come now, my good man, you must do as I say at once,” said the Rabbi.

The poor unfortunate man shuffled back home with his head hanging down and took the goat into his hut. When some weeks had gone by, life in the little hut was much worse. Now, with the crying, quarreling, clucking, honking, and crowing, the goat went wild, pushing and butting everyone with his horns. The hut seemed even smaller, and the children appeared bigger. When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it another minute, he again ran to the Rabbi. “Rabbi help me!” he screamed. “Now the goat is running wild. My life is a nightmare.”

The Rabbi listened and thought. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man. Is it possible that you have a cow? Young or old it doesn’t really matter.” “Yes, Rabbi, it’s true I have a cow,” said the poor man fearfully. “Go home then,” said the Rabbi, “and take the cow into your hut.” “Oh, no, you cannot mean for me to do this, Rabbi!” cried the man. “Do it at once,” said the Rabbi. The poor unfortunate man trudged home with a heavy heart and took the cow into his hut. “My Rabbi is surely crazy?” he thought.

When some weeks had gone by, life in the hut was even worse than before. Everyone quarreled, even the chickens. The goat ran wild. The cow trampled everything. (And the poop, well that should not be detailed.) The poor man could hardly believe his misfortune. At last, when he could stand it no longer, he ran to the Rabbi for help. “Rabbi,” he shrieked, “help me, save me, the end of the world has come! The cow is trampling everything. There is no room even to breathe. It’s worse than a nightmare!” The Rabbi again listened and thought. He offered words of support and sympathy.

At last he said, “Go home now, my friend, and let the animals out of your hut.” “I will, I will, I’ll do it right away,” said the man. The poor unfortunate man hurried home and let the cow, the goat, the chickens, the goose, and the rooster out of his little hut. That night the poor man and all his family slept peacefully. There was no crowing, no clucking, no honking. There was plenty of room to breathe. The children no longer fought. And there was no longer anything for husband and wife to argue about. They just wrapped their arms around each other, smiling and breathing in the peace that had enveloped their home.

The very next day the poor man ran back to the Rabbi. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you are so wise. You have made life sweet. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, and so peaceful. My home is filled with blessings! You have restored joy to our hearts.” (My retelling is based on It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folktale by Margot Zemach.)

Sometimes all it takes to see our blessings is a little rearranging.

Blessings are more about perspective than fact. Shaping this perspective is the essence of the Jewish command to recite blessings. We say a blessing so that we are more apt to count our blessings, so we are more likely to see our blessings.

Perhaps for these High Holidays that will be like no other, all we need to do is a little rearranging. Then our blessings will become clearer. Perhaps it is as simple as rearranging the furniture.

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, beginning the forty days of repentance that culminate in Yom Kippur’s final shofar blast. Let the rearranging begin. Let us turn toward one another. Let us begin the task of shaping our perspective. Let us begin this new command of transforming our homes small sanctuary.

These days blessings are harder and harder to see, but they are still there, all around us. It may be as easy as moving some things around.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Build Your Own Temple

The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that worship in general, and the sacrifices in particular, cannot be performed in sanctuaries throughout the land, but must instead be centralized and moved to one location. That location will later become Jerusalem and its Temple. “When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you… then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish God’s name…” (Deuteronomy 12)

Why would the one God need to be confined to this one place? Moreover, how can God be limited to one location? Historians and scholars have puzzled over this law. Biblical scholars suggest that the reasons for this law are political. In their view it was written during a time when Israel’s leaders wanted to centralize worship, and power, in the capital. The Book of Deuteronomy reflects this philosophy.

Moses Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that sacrifice is an inferior form of worship. Prayer is the ideal. Over time Jewish law works to limit sacrifice. Deuteronomy is therefore a step in this educational process. Before eliminating sacrifice entirely, it is limited. Sacrifices can only be performed in this one location.

Sefer HaHinnukh, a medieval commentary, offers an interesting explanation. It suggests that a sanctuary can only inspire people. It does so if it is unique and unparalleled. When we can do something anywhere and everywhere it loses its power and grip over our lives. This is of course why the Western Wall is such a powerful place and why it holds greater meaning to far more Diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews. For us it is a place of pilgrimage. For Israelis it is their backyard.

Yet, with the destruction of the Temple in the second century, Judaism became purposefully decentralized. Many rituals were moved to the home. Each and every home became a sanctuary and is called by our tradition, mikdash maat, a small temple. The sanctuary became not so much about location but instead about experience. Place became secondary to time. This is how Judaism remains. We mark days as holy.

The Israeli songwriters Eli Mohar and Yoni Rechter capture this sentiment when singing about Tel Aviv, a city that a mere 100 years ago was only a patch of sand.
My God—here we have no Wall, only the sea.
But since you seem to be everywhere
you must be here too.

So when I walk here along the beach
I know that you are with me
and it feels good.
And when I see a tourist
beautiful and tanned

I look at her not only for myself, but also for you
because I know that you are in me
just as I am in you
and maybe I was created
so that from within me you can see
the world you created
with new eyes.
In Tel Aviv there are no ancient walls. And yet this city is also holy becomes it teems with renewed Jewish life.

Thus, wherever we might find ourselves we mark Shabbat as holy. This day is called by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a sanctuary in time.

And so, wherever these words might find you, whether we see each other in person or virtually, I wish you and your family, a Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

No More Tests and Trials

Really? Another calamity? Now you throw hurricanes at us too.

The Torah responds: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts…” (Deuteronomy 8)

And I shout back, “No more tests.”

Our prayer book adds: “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”

Why must there be so many hardships? And why must there be any hardship at all? How do these challenges purify our hearts? At the very least can these difficulties be spread out. Why does tzuris appear to come in successive waves? Just when we feel like we are gaining enough strength to stand up again another wave comes crashing in and knocks us down.

The tradition suggests that the righteous are tested even more than the wicked. Abraham was, for example, tested not one time but ten. Who then would we want to aspire toward righteousness? The tradition counters that what makes people truly righteous is that they do not seek the title of tzaddik. They do good for its own sake. They do not wish to acquire status and stature. Their suffering becomes added proof of their righteousness.

Still these days I find myself wanting to run in the other direction. 2020 is exhausting. It is bedeviling. Enough! No more!

Then again if we are able to find meaning in even the most difficult of challenges, and amidst this current piling of incremental difficulties, we will better for it. When we are tested our hearts grow stronger. The problem is not these tests and trials. It is found instead when we offer meaning and lessons about other people’s challenges. When we offer a cliché to a friend, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Or when we try to interpret someone else’s pain or explain away their difficulty, we add to the pile of tzuris. In that moment, when we think we are offering a healing explanation we do more harm than good. No one wants their pain to be justified.

During Tuesday’s storm our beautiful apple tree was uprooted and fell on our neighbor’s property. Yesterday our neighbor walked over to our house so we could strategize about the tree’s removal. I had never met Dan before. I only saw his family playing on the other side of our fence.

Perhaps a new friendship will take root. After five years of living on either side of the fence a tropical storm forced us to strike up a conversation.

The wilderness, and the tempestuous challenges found therein, is indeed where life is lived. It occupies the majority of the Torah. There is no Torah found after this last book of Deuteronomy when we cross over to the Promised Land. Our Torah is only discovered in the hardships of the wilderness.

While I am exhausted by this year’s unending tests, I have faith I will emerge stronger and even better.

Your heart is likewise in your hands. Your challenges are yours from which to wrest meaning. You must carve your own path through the wilderness.

But you never know. A new friend might be found on the other side of the fence ready and willing to walk by your side.

Together we can hope, and pray, there is not too much more wilderness ahead.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Rescuing History

Today marks Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating nearly all Jewish tragedies, most especially the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the subsequent 2000-year exile from the land of Israel.

Our weekly portion appears to foretell this cataclysm.
Should you, when you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. (Deuteronomy 4)
Not only do these verses foretell tragedy, they also assign blame. We are the victims of our own wrongdoings. No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah castigates the people and blames them for causing destruction of the first Temple, even though it was the Babylonians who laid siege to Jerusalem. No wonder that some 500 years later, the rabbis again fault the people for the decimation of first century Jewry, the destruction of the second Temple, and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the Romans.

It was all because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the rabbis argued. This provided an opening for Rome to conquer Jerusalem. Jeremiah earlier laments: “Jerusalem has greatly sinned. Therefore, she has become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1) We stand guilty. History is evidence of our sins.

Generations of Jews find blame for historical tragedies in our own actions. “If only we had been more faithful to God. If only we had not disobeyed the commandments. If only…” Such are the explanations offered for millennia. And while there is great spiritual power in seeing historical tragedies as occasions to reexamine our ways, and to look within our souls to discover how we might be responsible and how we might even be deserving of blame, it appears blasphemous when looking back at more recent tragedies. To suggest that the Jewish people are somehow to blame for the Nazis murderous rampage is sacrilege.

It may be in keeping with Deuteronomy’s thinking, but it has no place in my faith. Even the teachings offered by the rabbis explaining this day of Tisha B’Av cannot, and should not, be reckoned with the historical record. Sure, it is always better to ask, “What can we learn? How can we do better?” than to point fingers at some mysterious other. Isn’t that what the Nazis did? “Why did Germany lose World War I?,” they asked. And they shouted in response, “It was because the Jews stabbed us in the back.”

“Why is this pandemic raging throughout our country?” we now ask. Do we say, “It is because of him or her or them?” Or do we ask, “Is it because we think too much about ourselves and not about others?” One answer leads to name calling and despair. The other offers the potential for spiritual growth and change. It may not make for the accurate telling of history, but it can offer the opportunity for repair.

And thus, I resolve. No more blaming of victims. Look within for rescue.

The Torah continues, offering an antidote to its own stark theology. “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples…. But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul…”

When you find yourself distressed and despairing, start up the search once again.

The Hasidic rabbi Menhaem Mendl of Kotzk teaches: “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find God, means ‘you shall find God’; that in itself is enough.”

For now, that will have to be enough.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Waiting for Leadership

I am losing faith in leaders.

I am losing faith in Moses.

He is given to anger. He frequently loses his temper with the Israelites. A few weeks ago, he smashes a rock and God then tells him that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. This week we find him standing on the other side of the Jordan River, offering the Israelites some last tidbits of advice before handing the leadership reigns to Joshua. (The entire book of Deuteronomy is in large part Moses’ farewell address, filled with a lengthy to do list of exhortations: “Don’t forget…. Don’t you ever…. You better not…. Beware of…”)

Moses appears exasperated and even exhausted. I recall that he never really wanted the job. He begs for God to pick someone else. He complains that he is not a good speaker. And now forty years later, Moses appears to be saying, “I told you so.” He castigates the people and exclaims: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself…. How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1) Was his early premonition correct? Did he know that no matter how much he cajoled and how often he prodded, no matter how many times he shouted and how frequently he commanded, his followers would disappoint?

Or is this the natural course of leadership? The gap between the leaders’ expectations and the people’s behavior is sometimes too wide. It pains the leader to even acknowledge or give voice to this widening gap. I am left wondering.

I am certain that during these days I find myself increasingly disappointed in Moses. I am losing faith in his leadership. Why did he not begin with the words, “I am grateful for the privilege of leading you. We have experienced untold heights. We crossed the Sea of Reeds. We stood at Sinai. We have also experienced unimaginable challenges. I admit. Eating manna gets tiresome day after day. Running out of water on more than several occasions was indeed trying. But here we are, at the edge of what will be our new home, standing at the precipice of our hoped-for redemption. Thank you for the honor of calling me your leader.”

Instead he begins with complaints. “I can’t take your complaining and bickering.” He is exhausted by the call. He is tired after forty years. And all he appears able to say is that it’s all their fault. Moses appears unable to share their burden and pain.

The Torah offers a solution. Appoint magistrates and tribal leaders to share the heavy lifting of leadership. Rabbi Larry Kushner comments: “Insulate the leader within a bureaucracy! This is more than the simple delegation of responsibility; it is the creation of artificial, ritual distance necessary for the leader to be able to lead and love.”

Delegating helps to get the job done effectively. No one can, or should, do everything by him or herself. The big job of leading requires the work of many capable hands. Perhaps even more importantly, delegating creates a protective shield around the leader. He is not burdened by all the complaints. She is not beaten up by all the bickering.

When leaders’ hearts become filled with every trouble, they are unable to love.

Thank God for Joshua. He comes on to the scene at just the right time. I take heart in his advice: “Be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1)

That’s what I am going to have to lean into these days.

Chazak v’amatz—be strong and courageous.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Writing Our Own Torah

We often describe the Israelites journey through the wilderness as forty years of wandering, implying that they were forever on the move. And yet the concluding chapters of Numbers delineate twenty places at which they encamped. There is the wilderness of Sin where the manna first appeared and Rephidim where the people complained about lack of water and Moses struck a rock in anger.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that the Israelites were really on the move in the first year when they left Egypt and the last year when they prepared to enter the land of Israel. During the thirty-eight intervening years they were actually living normally at one place or another. They were not constantly on the run, or even on the move. Instead they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land in stages, stopping for even years at a time at one oasis or another.

Often when recounting a trip, we speak about the destination, we paint a picture of what we experienced there. Perhaps we encountered in this place great natural beauty or met unique and wonderful people in that land. And yet the Torah never arrives at its destination. It concludes with the journey’s goal incomplete. Thus, we imply that its chapters and verses are about aimless wanderings. We never arrive so our journey lacks direction and purpose.

And while there is great value in meanderings, in setting off on a walk that offers no purpose than to be accompanied by others or one’s thoughts, this might not be the most accurate description of our forty years in the wilderness. Instead “the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…” (Numbers 33)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, teaches: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”

For the first years of my life I lived in Northern New Jersey, and then we journeyed to the suburbs of Saint Louis and then back again to New Jersey and then back once more to Saint Louis. And then I spent my years of college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then it was off to Jerusalem for the start of rabbinical school and then to Cincinnati to complete my studies where I made the pronouncement, “I will move anywhere but New York.” And then we moved to Great Neck and Dix Hills and now Huntington which are all of course in New York.

Each place, that was more often than not chosen for me by circumstances, offered new adventures: the birth of children and new jobs. Each place offered new discoveries and something even more to learn.

And so now I find myself encamped in Huntington waiting out this unexpected, and unforeseen, pandemic. What will we learn of ourselves? What will we learn of each other? How will we arise from this crisis better than before and better than we can now imagine?

The Torah offers a blueprint for our lives. We find ourselves in its pages.

The destination is always off in the distance, and perhaps even after the conclusion of the book. Life, and meaning, are found in the unexpected places we find ourselves, the places at which we pause. That’s where life happens.

And that is where our Torah is written.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Don't Give the Keys to the Likes of Pinchas

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago, a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And yet, when I visited the church a few years ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently, the authorities fear that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what we’re allowed to do and not do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly, after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is an attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency. I reject the sentiments of Pinchas who killed those he believed defamed God. “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…” (Numbers 25)

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not, they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray.

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so, I find myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently, the situation I admired was not always the case. In the twelfth century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem, gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith, we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Perhaps spiritual truths are gained, and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control. If we are true to our faith we should say, “The house belongs to God alone.”

We might discover that doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.