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
images, pictures, words and
We cry when we remember.

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

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.