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Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Strangers

The holiday of Sukkot is an agricultural festival. In ancient times we built temporary shelters so that we could spend our days out in the field harvesting the Fall crops. The Torah also suggests that we lived in these booths during our wanderings in the wilderness and they therefore remind us of our journey from freedom (Passover) to revelation (Shavuot). Rabbi Akiva believed that these temporary booths symbolized God’s protective shelter over us. For one week we are commanded to eat, and even sleep, in the sukkah. The sukkah should never be built so well that it keeps out rain. In fact, one is supposed to be able to see the stars through its roof. The sukkah’s temporary quality reminds us of the fragility of our lives. Spending time in the sukkah helps to reconnect us to nature. Sleeping in the sukkah teaching us gratitude for the beautiful homes in which we live. We are to invite guests into our sukkah and share our meals with them. The tradition suggests that everyone who is fort

Get Angry, Be Joyful

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.  We require the emotions of anger and joy to face life's uncertainties.       A Hasidic story. When the seer of Lublin was a child, he lived near a forest. Almost every day the young boy ventured off into the woods by himself. His father, who was basically a tolerant and understanding man, didn’t want to interfere with his son’s daily excursions, but to be honest, he was concerned. He knew all too well that the forests near their home could be dangerous. One day the father pulled his son aside and said, “I notice that every day you go off by yourself into the forest.” He continued, “I don’t want to forbid you from going there, but I want you to know that I am worried about your safety.” The father added, “Why is it that you go there, and what is it that you are doing there?” The boy responded, “I go into the forest to find God.” His father was deeply moved by his son’s spirituality. “That’s beautiful my son,” he said. “A

Embracing Change

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening in which I argue that only change will ensure the Jewish people's survival. Let me tell you about our people’s survival. It is captured by a story from nearly 2,000 years ago. It involves the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, the most catastrophic event the Jewish people ever experienced, until the twentieth century’s Holocaust. It is the story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, Yohanan was secreted out of town by his students. They carried him to the Roman general’s camp in a coffin. There he negotiated with Vespasian that Yavneh be spared so that a rabbinic academy could be established there. Why did he need to sneak out of Jerusalem? Because his Jewish compatriots might very well have killed him. So divided were the Jewish people during those years that he feared for his life. He was a known critic of the Sadducees who stubbornly held fast to the ritu

Zoom Stories

What follows is the meditation I offered at this year's Yom Kippur Yizkor service reflecting what I learned at Zoom shiva.   This year was a difficult year. Our congregation suffered many losses and far more than past years. This year was also a strange year. We observed shiva more often than not on Zoom. Because of this there was a regular shiva minyan in my home for months on end. And yet, even though I sat by myself in my study I strangely, and perhaps even miraculously, felt surrounded by hundreds of people. There, we huddled together on my laptop screen, all trying to bring a measure of comfort to grieving friends. This was not the shiva I had come to know in my thirty years of being called rabbi. In the past this is what I instead observed. More often than not people would arrive and find their way to the kitchen. They would exchange sometimes uncomfortable “Hello’s” and “It’s so sad.” They would talk about the weather’s latest storm or the maddening traffic, or a

Grief is Like the Ocean

The following meditation was included in our Yizkor memorial book.  I composed it after listening to a friend describe her her waves of grief. Bonnie Tsui writes, “Not everybody is a swimmer, but everyone has a swimming story to tell.” (Why We Swim) Grief is like the ocean. There are days when the waves come crashing down upon us. There are other days when the water appears calm but then an unexpected wave knocks us off our feet and holds us down as it crashes overhead. We struggle to the surface and gasp for air. And then there are days when the waters are tranquil, and we can float on its gentle current and be carried by a sea of pleasant memories. Grief is like the ocean. No day is the same. We have no choice but to go out and swim into the waters. We have no choice but to recount our tale.

On Yom Kippur, Lift Our Chair

In Jerusalem’s Breslover synagogue, located in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, there is aa beautifully carved ornate wooden chair placed near the Ark. No one sits in it. The chair once that of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of this Hasidic dynasty. In 1808, in the days before Rosh Hashanah the butcher of Teplik Ukraine made this gift for the rebbe. The rabbi was so impressed with the craftsmanship, and most especially with the fact the butcher spent so much of his free time during the prior six months making it, that Rebbe Nachman loved to sit in the chair. He felt that the kavvanah, intention, of the butcher helped to lift his prayers. After the great rabbi’s death, this chair became a symbol of the Breslover Hasidim. How it found its way to Jerusalem is the stuff of legends. There are two stories. The first is most likely closer to the truth. During the Cossack pogroms of the 1920’s, Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Lippel cut the chair into pieces in order to carry it to safety. He wal

A 9-11 Prayer

In the days and weeks, and even months, after 9-11, I could still recall images of the towers burning and crumbling, the cinder and ash enveloping downtown, the many pictures of the people missing, and buried, and the firefighters killed, first adorning the fences of New York, and then the pages of The New York Times. But mostly I remember the sky. I recall thinking what a beautiful, regal blue the sky was on the morning of that dreadful day. I also remember how empty the sky was in the days that followed. It was empty of planes, save the occasional military jet or helicopter. It felt even empty of birds. It appeared emptied of sounds. The country too was empty of words that could fill the void, that could comfort us in our horror, that could assuage the first responders’ hurt. Sure, we offered memorial services, we shared songs and poems and even prayers—as if those could somehow fill the emptiness the families who lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daug

The Book (Revue) Never Closes

Years ago, Leon Wieseltier wrote about the closing of his beloved music store. He wondered what the world would be like when he could no longer wander into the store and discover an album for which he did not even know he was looking. He wrote: “Browsing is the opposite of ‘search.’ Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance.” Tomorrow evening Huntington’s Book Revue will close its doors.   Even before we moved to Huntington, we would pilgrimage there in search of books. I don’t know all the details about why it is closing. There has been plenty of online debates, and accusations, about how this was allowed to occur. I do know this. It saddens me. It is one more sadness piled on to a year of sadness. There were countless evening outings when we would end up in Book Revue. Often, after finishing dinner at a

Judaism and Abortion Rights

What follows is my sermon exploring Jewish teachings about abortion rights from the second day of Rosh Hashanah services. I know I professed a desire to talk about everything that happened last year, but I am afraid I only have time to tackle the events of this past month. That about sums up this year. Every month felt like a year. And so, this morning one more discussion about contemporary events. Given the recent decision of the US Supreme Court to let the Texas law stand that effectively blocks access to abortions after six weeks, I thought it important to lay out the Jewish view of abortion. After the holidays, we will host a panel examining this recent Supreme Court decision and Roe v. Wade. We are fortunate to have among our members Robin Charlow, a professor of law at Hofstra University and Lauren Riese Garfunkel, a Board member of the National Council of Jewish Women. They will help walk us through the constitutional issues and what more can be done in the fight for

Changing Our Perspective

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning services.   Shanah Tovah! May it be a good year, a sweet year. May it be a year of health and happiness. And may this coming year not be as exhausting or as consequential as the one in the rearview mirror. Let 5782 be ordinary. I can’t remember a year in which so much happened. I don’t even know where to begin. Should I talk about antisemitism? Hurricanes? January 6th? Abortion rights? Israel’s ongoing battles—on Gaza’s border, in the university and at Ben & Jerry’s? This maddening pandemic that we thought would already be behind us? Afghanistan? You know I would like to say, “All of the above!” That of course is way too much for one sermon. Well, it was way too much for one year! Let’s turn around and examine the past. Let’s figure out what Jewish lessons we can discern from this painful year. On this Rosh Hashanah let’s focus on the outside world. Let’s look at contemporary events. Judaism offers us help

How to Help

Hurricane Ida has now passed through the New York area and left destruction and hardship in its wake.  It is difficult to believe that more people were killed in our own area from what was no longer a hurricane than when the storm made landfall in Louisiana as a category 4 hurricane.  I pray for those who were injured.  I pray most especially for the families of those who lost their lives.   If you would like to lend support to those in need, I recommend giving to these organizations:  Nechama: A Jewish Response to Disaster World Central Kitchen These organizations are already in Louisiana helping people rebuild, providing temporary shelter and feeding those who need food and even water.  People are hungry!  Let us help our fellow Americans.   As I became aware of those organizations who are providing help to people in need within our own area, I will share that information as well.   Give to those in need.  Pray for their healing.

Wash Your Hands

As we near the High Holidays and approach this period of introspection and repentance, I offer this prayer: Let us cast away the sin of deception, so that we will mislead no one in word or deed, nor pretend to be what we are not. Let us cast away the sin of vain ambition which prompts us to strive for goals which bring neither true fulfillment nor genuine contentment. Let us cast away the sin of stubbornness, so that we will neither persist in foolish habits nor fail to acknowledge our will to change. Let us cast away the sin of envy, so that we will neither be consumed by desire for what we lack nor grow unmindful of the blessings which are already ours. Let us cast away the sin of selfishness, which keeps us from enriching our lives through wider concerns, and greater sharing, and from reaching out in love to other human beings. Let us cast away the sin of indifference, so that we may be sensitive to the sufferings of others and responsive to the needs of our people everywhere. Let u

My Father Was Lost

Once settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites are instructed to give thanks for their harvest. In what is perhaps the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration, the Torah commands them to make an offering. “You shall leave the first fruits before the Lord your God and bow low before the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 26). Prior to bringing these offerings, the Israelites recite an encapsulation of their history proclaiming that it was God who brought them out of slavery to the land of Israel.  This recitation begins with the words: “My father was a fugitive Aramean—Arami oved avi.” The English lacks the Hebrew’s alliteration. It also disguises the power contained in these three words. The first word uttered is: Aramean. My father was not an Israelite. He was a foreigner. The implication is clear. The land is borrowed. It belongs to God. It is not owned or possessed. This is why the land’s harvest is shared first with God and then the stranger. “And you shall enjoy, together with the

Lost Together

The Hebrew month of Elul began on Sunday, August 8th. According to Jewish tradition this day begins a forty-day period of introspection and repentance that concludes with the beautiful Yom Kippur Neilah service. We belong to a remarkable tradition. We believe that human beings are capable of change. We believe that we have the capacity to mend our ways. No one is perfect. All have erred. Let us take these precious days to mend our failures. This is the grand purpose of the upcoming High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of September 6th. (Yes, this is early and very soon.) A Hasidic story that I learned from Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Reb Chaim Halberstam of Zanz once helped his disciples prepare for Elul and its goals of teshuvah (repentance) and tikkun (repair) by sharing the following tale. Once a woman became lost in a dense forest. (Obviously this was before the advent of Google Maps.). She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got mor

Gates of Justice

In ancient times, the court room was the city’s gates. In fact, archeologists have uncovered stone benches attached to gates of biblical cities where judged sat, heard cases, and issued rulings. It is unfortunate that most contemporary translations render the Hebrew “shaarecha” as your settlements rather than the more literal “your gates.” The Torah proclaims: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements (shaarecha) that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deuteronomy 16) The Bible’s intent is clear. Your gates are where justice is established. Why else would the Torah also instruct us “To write these words on the doorpost of your house and on your gates?” It is because justice begins, and ends, at the threshold of a house or a city. This is why justices sat and ruled at the city’s entrances. When people debated matters of law, or had difficulties they could not resolve, they are supposed to g

Get Vaccinated! It's the Jewish Thing to Do

Can we talk about vaccines? Not the science part, but instead the Jewish piece. Judaism believes that our primary responsibility is towards others. We are taught to think about the community’s needs first and foremost. A few illustrations. Attending services is about the fact that others need us to be there. We do not say, for example, the mourner’s kaddish except in the presence of a minyan of ten people. Being there is so that others can stand and mourn. While services are most certainly meaningful and uplifting to the individual, the tradition sees their import in the “we” rather than the “I.” Our prayers are in the plural because we are only one when praying with others. Even dancing at a wedding is not so much about how the spirit (spirits?) move us but instead about making sure the couple dance and celebrate on their wedding day. It is a religious obligation to make sure that the wedding couple rejoice. I dance in large part to lift others on to the dance floor. No one can be h

Earth's Bonds

The Torah, and the Book of Deuteronomy in particular, argues that if we care for God’s commandments, if we follow the mitzvot, then the land will in turn care for us. In fact, the second paragraph of the Shema, reminds us: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God, and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.” (Deuteronomy 11) In other words, follow God’s mitzvot and then it will only rain when it is supposed to rain. Nature will follow its proper course if we listen to God. (As if it were that simple!) Too often people think that observance means lighting candles, wearing a tallis, or reciting the Shema. It also entails ethical mitzvot: loving your neighbor, giving tzedakah or honoring parents. We forget the agricultural commandments that are also part of our sacred literature. We are commanded to leave the gleanings of the field for the poor and the stra

Please God! Help Us Bring Peace

For all his successes and triumphs, our hero Moses is denied setting foot in the Promised Land. Because he grew angry at the Israelites and hit a rock, God states that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel. This week Moses begs God to change this decree: “And I pleaded (vaetchanan) with the Lord… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 4) The commentators are bothered by Moses’ behavior. They think it is unbecoming that Moses pleads. How can the great Moses sink to such a level and beg, they wonder. His words seem undignified for a leader. They wonder as well how Moses can question God’s judgment. The medieval writer, Moses ibn Ezra, suggests that even in this instance, Moses, who the tradition calls “Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our teacher,” is offering a lesson. And what is it that he teaches the people? It is a lesson about the supreme value of living in the land of Israel. It is as if to say, “To be able to live in t