Sermon Saturday Morning
- Shabbat Shalom
- We have, at last, reached the end of the Book of Genesis. The time of the Patriarchs is closing and a new period of Jewish history will begin with the Book of Exodus next week. The family of Jacob will become “B’nai Yisrael” the People of Israel. The rest of the Torah will be about the history of this remarkable nation and how it shaped, through its God and through history, the course of Western Civilization. For now, we have this final pastoral scene, of the aged and blind Jacob, offering his blessings to his children as he prepares to die.
- The final face of the Israelites takes shape in our Parsha. There are to be thirteen tribes, not twelve. Jacob carves out an extra portion for his favorite son, Joseph, assigning two tribes that are named after Joseph’s sons. There will be no tribe of Joseph, instead there will be a tribe of Menashe and a tribe of Ephraim. Usually we talk about twelve tribes because the tribe of Levi was assigned no land and had no territory it could call home. I should note that the tribe of Levi was considered to be a very spiritual tribe; they are the tribe from which the priests, the Cohanim, will be taken and the rest of the tribe will serve in the Mishkan and the Temple. And yet, Jacob, in this week’s parsha, has nothing good to say about Levi and Shimon. Jacob considered them to be violent and vengeful. It is always interesting how these character traits play out over the life of the tribes.
- Finally we see the prophecy of Abraham beginning to play itself out in the life of his great grandchildren. God had promised the first patriarch that his descendants would become like the stars in the sky, more numerous than can be counted. Abraham, however had only one son who followed on the path of God. That son, Isaac, also had only one son who will follow the proper spiritual path. Jacob now has twelve sons and they will all stay on the path that Abraham created. There is a Midrash that Jacob was worried that his sons, like his father and uncle, would stray from the worship of the one God. His sons reassured him saying, “Shema Yisrael, H’ Elohaynu H’ Echad” “Listen (our father) Israel, H’ is our God, H’ alone. We are not like your family, divided between monotheists and idolaters, we all worship the one God.”
- The parsha almost begs us to see the difference between the advice Jacob gives his children and the advice King David gives his son Solomon in the Haftara for today. As I said before, the Haftara reads like a script from the Godfather movie. The king is advising his son how to reward and punish those who were friends or enemies of the king. The touching words of Jacob are contrasted to the political reality of the Israelite royal court.
- On these clear cold Florida nights, we too can look up at the stars and see for ourselves what Abraham was shown thousands of years ago. The stars today are as beyond counting as they were for the Patriarch. We can estimate the number of stars in the sky, but counting them is still impossible. The number of stars we can see constantly changes based on the quality of our vision and the amount of lights that are on the ground near where we may be standing. I guess that too is just like the Jewish people; we often can’t agree on who is to be counted as a Jew and who should not be counted. It is as hard to know how many Jews there are in the world as it is to count the stars in the sky.
- But there is a lesson for us in the stars that shine overhead. Rabbi Levi Meier, a rabbi and psychotherapist in Los Angeles, points to the commentary of Rashi on Abraham’s stars. Rashi notes that God lifted Abraham “above” the stars, to view them from the heavens rather than from a vantage place on the earth. According to the Midrash, Abraham, who was still Avram at that time, had learned from his knowledge of astrology that Avram and Sarai would never have a son to call their own. God then tells the patriarch that what he knows from astrology is incorrect. It is true that Avram and Sarai will not have a child, but God will change their names and thus change their destiny. Rabbi Meier of Los Angeles stays with this metaphor. Abraham does not look up to the stars to find his destiny, rather, from his vantage point above the stars, he can see a destiny not ruled by the mechanics of the planets. Abraham discovers that his life depends on God alone, and not on any astrological sign.
- The lesson for us should be clear. Other people may look to astrology and say that they were born under one sign or another and that this sign controls their destiny. Other people may look to their horoscope to see what is in their future based on the movement of stars and planets. But the Jewish people do not rely on the stars; we are “above” the stars. There is only God who rules our destiny.
- The Talmud notes that a fortune teller was once giving predictions about the future. Two rabbis came and asked the fortune teller to predict their future. The fortune teller refused, saying that since they were Jews, the rule of the stars does not apply to their lives. In another place a famous fortune teller one morning, while walking with a rabbi, pointed to a group of workers going off to collect reeds from the river. He said, “That man who is walking in the lead will die before the sun sets today.” As the sun set, the workers left the river with their bundles of reeds for their warehouse to lay out the reeds to dry in the sun the next day. The man in the lead was still very much alive. The fortune teller was amazed and stopped the man in the street asking to look inside his bundle. The bundle was opened and inside a very poisonous snake was coiled around the reeds. A blow from the rabbi’s walking stick was the end of the snake but his friend the fortune teller could not understand how the man could pick up the reeds and bundle them without getting bitten by the snake and dying. The rabbi asked the man if anything unusual had happened that day. “No,” replied the worker, a bit shaken by the events, “The only thing that happened was that one of the other workers came to the river without a lunch because he had no money for food. So I shared a part of my lunch with him.” The rabbi turned to his friend the fortune teller and said, “It seems that an act of kindness has overruled the stars.”
- Here we are at the first Shabbat of the New Year; 2012. There are some people who think that this is going to be a very bad year. According to the Mayan Calendar, this is the year when the world will come to an end. ( I even know some people who think that Mitt Romney winning the Iowa caucuses is a sure sign that the world is coming to an end!) I can’t speak for the entire world but I do know that the Torah teaches us that we are not subject to fate or destiny. Neither nature nor nurture determines how our life will unfold. Each and every day, our destiny is molded by the decisions we make, to live a religious life of caring, kindness, concern and holiness or to live by our wits, putting ourselves at the center of the universe and doing only those actions that will serve our needs. Each and every day we have the power of repentance to not only turn our life around but to turn our destiny around as well.
- In Judaism, our fate is always in our own hands. We may not be able to prevent disaster and disappointments in our lives but we don’t have to let the tragedies change the kind of person we aspire to be. As the proverb says, we can’t change the direction of the wind but we can change the set of our sails. If we keep our goals in mind, to live a live of blessing to ourselves, our families and to our communities, we can sail in any weather and against all storms to arrive at the destination we desire. It is not our fate to be something less, nor is it beyond our grasp to reach for the stars. Through Torah and acts of kindness, we can create a good name for ourselves in this world.
- Rabbi Meier says “During the day, and at night, the choice is always yours. If you see yourself as existing under the stars, you might feel that you have to accept your predetermined fate. However, if you look down at the stars, you will find yourself empowered, as you create your own destiny.
May God bless us this year, with the strength, health and wisdom to fashion for ourselves a destiny worthy of being a descendant of Abraham, and may we live in joy, the lives we create for ourselves, as we say….
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM
Sermon Saturday Morning
- Shabbat Shalom
- Biblical commentators all struggle with a startling question in the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is not hard to understand why Joseph’s brothers are angry with him. He is a spoiled boy who seems to take delight in tattling to his father all the deficiencies of his brothers. He has dreams of being the family ruler in spite of his being the second to last child, with ten other brothers ahead of him in line to lead the family. That the brothers only sell him into slavery and not kill him is only a quirk of fate. Almost any one of the brothers (except maybe Reuben and Judah) were ready to murder the boy and murder his dreams as well.
- Of the twenty-one years he will spend in Egypt, the sages say that he spent seven of those years as a slave in the house of Potipher. The next seven years he was in prison. Only in the final seven is he raised to the rank of ruler in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Five of those years he prepared for the famine to come. At the end of the seventh year, his brothers return and he is set to have his vengeance. First he accuses the brothers of being spies, and imprisons his brother Simeon. Next he sets up Benjamin to make him look like an ungrateful thief. Unable to return to their father without his beloved Benjamin, Judah steps forward to plead on behalf of his youngest brother. And we see the results; Joseph and his brothers are reunited and all is forgiven.
- So what is the big question? Why did Joseph wait so long to contact his father? When he was a slave and a prisoner for 14 years, we can understand why he never contacted Jacob. Even so, it seems as if he could have sent a message back to his father somehow. But certainly when he is raised to leadership, why does he not immediately send a servant to tell his father where he is and what has happened? If they had such a close bond, you would think that he would get word to Jacob as quickly as possible. Yet, for all of 21 years, there is no attempt by Joseph to contact his father.
- The great Bible scholar, Nechama Leibowitz offers a striking answer. Joseph, sold into slavery is expecting his father, at any minute, to ride to his rescue and save him from his fate. Day after day he must have waited, thinking to himself that when Jacob comes, these people who are his masters will finally pay for the way they treat him. But as the years go by, Jacob never comes. Joseph becomes angry and bitter. Maybe he is thinking that the whole plot to sell Joseph into slavery was his father’s idea. After all, Jacob was the one who sent him on his ill fated mission to check up on his brothers. Maybe his father never really loved him at all. Slowly he stops waiting for his father and begins to plot his revenge should he ever get the chance to get even for all that they have done.
- For 21 long years he has plotted what he would do to his family should they ever show up in Egypt. After all, Joseph’s great grandfather had come to Egypt during a famine. Joseph would wait until they were helpless and then he would have his revenge on all of them, Jacob, and all of is brothers, except of course, Benjamin, who was too small to be in on the plot. Benjamin was his only full brother, both the sons of Rachel. He would snatch Benjamin for himself and then have his revenge.
- What changes Joseph’s mind? Why does he, in the end forgive his father and his brothers? It is true that Judah gives a heart wrenching speech designed to make even the hardest man cry, but, he also says something that shocks Joseph to his core. Judah mentions, for the first time, at the beginning of his speech, the fact that they all believe that Joseph is dead. That he was killed by a wild animal. I don’t think Joseph heard the rest of that speech. When he hears that Jacob has thought, all these years, that Joseph is dead, Joseph realizes why Jacob had never come looking for him. Joseph had assumed that they all hated him. But they never came looking because they thought he was dead. It was a possibility that Joseph had never considered. His anger disappears, his thoughts of vengeance dissolve and Joseph breaks down into tears.
- “I am Joseph” he says at last. “I am not dead, you sent me away in anger but God clearly wanted me to be here to do good.” Joseph suddenly sees, for the first time, the hand of God in his life story. Everyone and everything had been a part of God’s plan to save the life of his family. The dreams, the slavery, the prison, all of it, just part of a destiny ordained by God. After 21 years of pain and hatred, Joseph finally finds the love in his family he has always wanted.
- I like to tell this story because it is not just the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is our story as well. We experience difficult moments in our lives and we are quick to blame others for our struggles in life. We get angry; we rehearse how we will get even for the misdeeds that caused us so much hurt. Maybe we became estranged from our parents because they always wanted to control our lives. Maybe we are nursing a grudge with a brother or sister who was not there for us when we needed them. Maybe we have been hurt by our children because they seem to be so unconcerned about our welfare. Maybe we had a best friend who turned out to be unreliable. We can be just like Joseph. We are so sure we know all the answers, all the reasons why others have let the terrible things happen to us. And we review the hurt, day after day, to make sure that we will never be tempted to forgive them.
- But like Joseph, we don’t always know all of the story. Maybe it is better sometimes that we don’t. If we really knew the fears our parents lived with; if we really understood the difficult decisions our brothers and sisters had to make; if we could understand the awful choices our own children have to make as they struggle to deal with issues in their own families; if only we could see how our best friend cried the day he realized that he could not help us in our time of need. . . Could we still carry so much bitterness in our hearts?
- I have been a Rabbi long enough to know that there are some people who are unreliable and too self centered to think of anyone other than themselves. I can tell you that if you are itching for revenge against such people, you are wasting your time. They really don’t care about you or what you wish you could do to them.
- So the real question that we need to contemplate as our secular year prepares to end and as 2012 is about to begin is “Why do we want to carry that kind of anger and hurt into the newyear?” Why should we think we understand everything when it is likely we understand nothing. We don’t really know the intentions of others and we certainly don’t know what God has planned for our lives. What if we judged others charitably, assuming good motivations rather than an evil plot against us? What if our anger is all about a misunderstanding? What if the others never really knew how much we were hurt? Because, if they really knew, they would have indeed come when we called.
- Joseph’s troubles began with a multicolored coat. Maybe that is the metaphor that we are looking for. We naturally use our clothing to make ourselves look good. We can look at ourselves standing naked in the mirror, and find we are embarrassed about who we are and what we look like. We choose our clothes for the day to hide what we are ashamed of.
- But our clothing can be more than just a cover for our embarrassment. Our bodies are also a gift from God. What we may see as signs of decline, wrinkles and gray hair, others see as signs of perseverance and wisdom. Joseph may have hidden his insecurity as a youngest child under the gift from his father, but when he is dressed royally again, this time by Pharaoh, he is ready to assume the responsibilities that come with the tunic. So too when we are ready to accept ourselves for who we are, we can wear our clothing as a statement of the strong inner person we have become. When we give up the garb of the “person who has been wronged” we can begin to wear a wardrobe of understanding and love.
- Just because we have reacted to someone with anger, does not mean we have to be angry. Just because someone has been unkind or rude, we don’t have to give back to them in spades. We don’t need to understand why others do what they do to us. We need to love them anyway. Maybe they will come to repent the way they treated us, maybe not, but we will always be the one admired for our patience, our kindness and our concern. It is not about letting others take advantage of us, instead, we need to learn our lessons and move on with our life. Taking the anger into another year will not change the past nor will it let us heal. Maybe those others who hurt us don’t deserve our forgiveness, but we should forgive them anyway. If not for their sake, for the sake of our own peace of mind.
- Let us wear the coat of menchlichite, of a kind, caring and compassionate human being. And let us resolve to wear it every day in the year ahead. Let us be guided in the new year not by anger but by understanding and love. In this way we can make the secular new year not only a good year, but a year of making ourselves and our world a better place. Let us forget the hurts of 2011 and concentrate on the ways we can heal the hurts of others. If we can just do this one thing, 2012 will be a great year indeed.
May God help us get past the anger and find the love in our hearts as we say ….
AMEN, SHABBAT SHALOM AND A HAPPY SECULAR NEW YEAR
Sermon Saturday Morning
- SHABBAT SHALOM
- On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my neighbors, on both sides of my house, got together and started putting up their Christmas lights. Lorraine always makes her house festive and beautiful without going over the top. This year, in exchange for help in putting up her own lights, she worked on my other neighbor’s house as well so I now have on both sides of my home beautiful reminders of the spirit of this holiday season.
- You don’t have to go far to find homes lit up for the holiday season. Between now and January, many neighborhoods are beautifully decorated. This week, however, new decorations went up, decorations in honor of Hanukah. I know that there are some homes that go all out, putting up lights and displays in honor of our festival of lights. It makes a certain kind of sense to decorate our homes with lights at this time of year. Hanukah celebrates light during the darkest days of winter. On that one level alone it seems appropriate on Hanukah to “light up the night”.
- Rabbi Lori Foreman, a colleague of mine in New York, once noted that there was a time, long before electric lighting, when people spent most of their nights in the dark. We are so used to having all the lights we need in our homes, but in the not too distant past, candles were just a small circle of light in the darkness. When the sun went down, candles would give people a chance to finish whatever they may be working on, but it was unusual to stay up late. Candlelight could not push back the darkness for long. People would just go to bed early and wake again at first light.
- Hanukah was the major exception to this. The holiday may actually be older than the story of the Maccabees. There is a Midrash that the first human beings, Adam and Eve, got more and more concerned as the days grew shorter. They thought that perhaps the world was coming to an end; that eventually the sun would disappear never to return, leaving them and all the animals in perpetual darkness. Adam then lit a candle to bring some light back into the night. Each night he lit another candle and soon he noticed that the days were getting longer again. At first he thought that by lighting the candles, he had reminded to sun to come back to the world. Eventually he realized that the length of the days and nights were just part of the natural order of the world. He continued to light the candles, however, as a sign of anticipation of the return of light to the world.
- Historically, Hanukah is a very complicated holiday. We like to think of these days as a commemoration of the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks. It is not that easy. The war the Maccabees fought was as much a battle against the Jewish people who had adopted the religion of the Greeks as much as it was against the army of Antiocus IV. It some ways it could be seen as a religious revival among the pious against those who had assimilated themselves into Greek culture.
- On another level, Hanukah marks the beginning of a theocracy in Israel. For a thousand years, the house of David ruled in Jerusalem and the descendants of Aaron, served as priests in the Temple. The Hasmonian dynasty, begun by Judah Maccabee and established by his brother Simon after the war, was the first time the priests had taken on the kingship of the Jewish people. They easily succeeded in establishing Judaism as the official religion of the land, but they insisted that Judaism should be what they said it should be. The Hasmonian dynasty for example, was not supportive of what the Rabbis thought Judaism should be. Later Hasmonian kings, especially Alexander Jannai, persecuted the Rabbis. Many Rabbis were killed in these persecutions. Later Hasmonian kings engaged in a civil war that eventually lead to the hated Romans coming and taking over the country. No wonder later Rabbis were not very fond of Hanukah as a commemoration of the Hasmonian victory. The story of the jar of oil is a nice way of deflecting the meaning of the holiday away from the bad feelings the Rabbis had for the priest/kings of the Hasmonian dynasty.
- Maybe Hanukah is also about Judaism delayed. The Temple was rededicated after being defiled by Antiocus. Long history taught the Jews that the standard re-consecration ceremony was usually done the week before Sukkot. Hanukah, with its eight days, could be a delayed celebration of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The eight days were seen as a familiar way to traditionally mark the renewal of the sacrificial service in the restored Temple.
- In the end, the story of the last jar of oil, which should have lasted one day, but through a miracle lasted eight, has now become the real meaning of Hanukah. The little light that grows each night until the darkness is defeated, could symbolize the few Maccabees who grew in strength until they were able to defeat the dark power of the Greeks. Or maybe it is the small light of faith that overcomes the dark forces that drive us away from God. Or perhaps it is the light of God that illuminates our journey through the darkness of our world; a small flame that grows and grows until our path in life becomes clear. Or, perhaps, like Adam and Eve, the candles represent our hope that no matter how much darkness there is in the world, lighting candles will push back the darkness until the light of day returns.
- My friend Rabbi Yaakov Thompson in Sunrise, wrote this week in the Jewish Journal, “I believe this is the most inspiring aspect of Hanukkah. We celebrate the bravery of a group of our ancestors who had to face a monumental decision: What does being Jewish mean? Is it only a label, one that can be discarded if need be? Is it something so deep that I refuse to live without it? Most of us are lucky enough not to have to face that question ourselves. What is incumbent upon us is to reflect on the courage of those who did face such a decision. When we celebrate Hanukkah, we celebrate the strength of their faith and the resolve of their decisions.”
- We do face the decision of how to live Jewishly every day. When we decide to come to shul on Shabbat, we are making that decision. When we decide to put our Hanukia in the window for all to see, that too is a decision to live a Jewish life. We decide to live our Jewish life any time we light Shabbat candles, invite friends to a Shabbat dinner, spend the day in shul on Yom Kippur and when we hold our own Passover Seder. When a member of our congregation tells me that they will NOT be in shul on Shabbat because friends or family will be coming to visit, that too is a Jewish decision, a decision to put Judaism aside for the day. But faith is not something we can have one day and ignore another.
- Many times I am asked by those who attend synagogue regularly why so many of their friends choose not to attend services. I suppose that there are many excuses given by Jews who don’t want to be connected to their faith. When we don’t want to be involved, one excuse is just as good as another. Rabbi Thompson reminds us that this too is a decision, one that makes assimilation possible and a decision that will undermine all that Judaism stands for. There were two sides in the fight of the Maccabees. There were the Hellenists who decided that it was easier to live a Greek life rather than a Jewish one; and those of the pious who refused to say that their faith was, in any way, inferior to that of the surrounding culture. At this season of the year, we celebrate the victory of the faithful over the conformists. A victory that has made all the difference in Judaism from their time until today.
- It is a good thing that we live in a free country. It is a good thing that we have the freedom to worship God as we see fit. It is a good thing that our government does not dictate to us, as the Syrian Greeks did some 5500 years ago, how we should worship and which rituals we must reject. But freedom of religion means that we have to choose every day, to see the world through our Jewish eyes and live our lives by Jewish values. When we light these lights at this time of year, and put them in the window where the whole world can see them, we are saying that we have made our choice and we are prepared to live with the consequences of our decision.
- As we contemplate the meaning for Hanukkah that we prefer, this week is a good time to go out and see the lights in our neighborhood. Not the Christmas lights that adorn the houses of our Christian friends, but to go out and see the Hanukah candles that are burning in Jewish windows in honor of this beautiful holiday. Take the time to notice your Jewish neighbors. Take the time to wish them a happy Hanukah. We don’t get the chance to proclaim our faith in public very often. Perhaps after years of persecution in Europe and around the world, we can’t be blamed if we usually keep our faith as a private matter. But on Hanukah, we can celebrate in pubic our victory over the darkness. As we walk the streets each night, let us notice how the light keeps increasing. As Rabbi Foreman writes, “These candles are a statement of hope and faith during the darkest time of the year, a visible sign to ourselves and to others of our ability to overcome hardship and adversity.”
- As we contemplate our own lights and those of our neighbors, let us thank God for the freedom to practice our faith in peace, for the determination of Jews who fought to preserve our religion in the face of every foe and let us thank God for all the miracles that God performed on behalf of our ancestors in ancient times at this season of the year. She’asa Nissim L’avotaynu bayamim Hahem lazman hazeh.
AMEN, SHABBAT SHALOM AND A HAPPY HANUKAH TO EVERYONE.
- Shabbat Shalom
- One of the most puzzling aspects of the Book of Genesis is the nature of its main characters. One of my colleagues once challenged me by noting that there is not one person in the entire book that you would want to have as a friend. Abraham and Sarah are not very nice to Hagar and Ishmael. Isaac and Rebecca play favorites with their children and conspire against each other so that their “favorite” child gets all the benefits. Jacob’s household is filled with intrigue, jealousy, sibling rivalry, deception and anger. And these are the founders of our people!
- And when it comes to faith, they are also not very faithful to God. Abraham and Isaac resort to lying when they fear for their lives in a foreign land. Jacob gets what he wants by deceit. They all seem to think that they will have to act to secure God’s blessing for their children and not trust that God will make everything turn out okay in the end. And I guess I would feel bad that these first families of our religion are not very nice people but when we compare them to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah and Lot, they really are a significant improvement. Still, our matriarchs and patriarchs have a long way to go to meet any basic definition of holy or spiritual people.
- But before I answer the question about why God chose this family to introduce what will become Judaism into the world, there is a more basic question that needs to be asked. What is the Torah trying to tell us with the story of these families that reads like a soap opera or a tele-novella? How are we supposed to react to their scheming, lying and deceptions? Or perhaps we should each ask ourselves the question, what am I to think when God blesses people whom I don’t approve of?
- While we have pretty good idea about the lives of our patriarchs, we have less information about other people in history and about others who live nearby. I think that we have to be careful when we look at how God blesses others. First of all, sometimes it is easier to see the blessings that others have and not see the blessings that exist in our own lives. It is always dangerous for our well being to see the advantages that others have and not see the gifts that are ours. We often put down our strongest assets and instead covet what we think others have.
- Maybe this is why our society is so addicted to gossip. We have this primal need to know that others who are wealthier than we are, who are more beautiful than we are, who have more in their lives than we will ever have, also are more miserable than we are, have more unhappiness in their lives and are squandering the blessings they have. When we see famous people making a mess of their lives, we get this smug satisfaction that we may not be rich and powerful but we have it better than they do.
- The problem of course is that wealth, fame and beauty are not necessary ingredients to mess up one’s life. There are, of course many rich and famous people who are happy, well adjusted, who love their spouse and children and who are also generous, kind, charitable and socially conscience. We don’t need to leave the confines of King’s Point or Coral Lakes to find divorce, misery, unhappy lives, pain and sorrow. All of these things can happen to everyone, no matter if they seem blessed or not. Our first realization, therefore is to understand that when we see someone who seems to be blessed, we need to understand that they may not really be as blessed as we think they are. Or, conversely, maybe they are more worthy of God’s blessing than we know.
- Another aspect of God’s blessing is that we are not really in a position to realize that what may be a blessing to one person may not be a blessing to someone else. I know a story of a man who was working at a summer job at a ranch and was unhappy with the quality of the food that was being served. He complained about the food constantly until another older man, a holocaust survivor, reminded him that compared to what was served to the inmates in Germany, this was a feast. How can we who have never been blind understand the blessing of sight? How can we complain that we have a loud and boisterous family when there are so many who have nobody to care about them in this world? My wife was shopping in Publix and the price of something she wanted to buy would not come up on the register. The cashier asked Michelle if she knew what the price of the item was. Michelle said that she had no idea of the item’s price. The cashier responded, “It is a blessing not to have to know the price of something before you buy it.” It was a stark reminder that not everyone can buy what they want, eat out when they want and travel where they choose. In these hard times we must not forget to count blessings that we take for granted.
- I believe that we need to pay more attention, not to the trashy people who mess up their lives, but to the real menchen of the world who overcome their challenges and rise above their misfortunes. We find very little published about the families that overcome great sorrow to find meaning in life. I have a very good friend whose son died in a tragic medical mistake at a hospital. Rather than sue everyone involved, they set out to do good in the name of their son. They have donated, over the years, millions to causes they believe in and have helped raise millions more. Yes, it is true that some families descend into a dark pit of despair that tears apart their family and their lives when tragedy strikes. But I find my inspiration in the families that rise above the pain and sorrow and bring good and joy into the lives of others. I read a story once about a couple who gave a huge donation to a good cause in the name of a son who had died in the war. Another woman, in the audience heard the donation and said to her husband, “let’s make a similar donation in honor of our own son.” Her husband was puzzled, “But our son didn’t die in the war.” “Exactly,” said his wife, “We need to give in thanks for that blessing.”
- Going back to my original question; what are we supposed to do when God blesses people whom we don’t approve of? First of all, we need to remember that we are not God. It is not for us to judge who is deserving of blessing and who is not. We don’t always understand why God does one thing or another. What we really need to do is to learn a lesson about the blessings we find in others, a lesson we can bring into our own lives. We need to see in others what makes them worthy of God’s blessing and then discover how we can bring that lesson into our life and the lives of our family. We always need to look close to see if what we are observing is a real blessing in their lives or perhaps it is a terrible curse that they bear. What you would consider heaven, might be hell to someone else. We may think it is wonderful to sit down in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon with a beer and watch a football game, but for someone who grew up in a home with an alcoholic mother or father, football and beer may call up terrible memories. We need to be careful about judging others until we fully understand what it is like to walk in their shoes.
- So what happens when we do understand their lives? We have a record of the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We know from the Bible what motivated them and their wives to do what they did to themselves and to others. Why does God bless them when their lives are so far from the Bible’s idea of the perfect family? How could God justify some of the terrible things they did?
- I think that this lesson is one of the most important in the entire Bible. The issue is not how could God bless those who were so flawed. The real issue is that God does bless them, in spite of their flaws. Abraham struggles to make sure that Isaac will inherit God’s blessing even though Abraham already knows that, no matter what may happen, God has promised the blessing to Isaac. At the beginning of the parsha this week, God clearly tells Isaac and Rebecca that the younger brother will rule over the older one. Why did Rivka need to resort to deception to make sure that Jacob got what God had promised? And why would God make that kind of a promise to bless a liar and con artist like Jacob? Clearly God sees more in Jacob than his actions as a young man. As he learns and grows, he matures into the the kind of person who is more worthy of the blessing.
- We sometimes forget how young and reckless we once were in life. We have to stop and remind ourselves about the really dumb and dangerous things we once did when we were too young to really think about the consequences. We got lucky and didn’t get caught, didn’t get arrested, and learned important lessons from these mistakes, lessons that, when we pause to think about them, make us shudder about how close to the brink of disaster they once brought us. Tragedy has made us stronger. The mistakes we made, have made us wiser. We know what it means to rise above our faults and still live lives filled with meaning and compassion. God knows we are not perfect, and God has blessed us anyway, with food on our table, with a roof over our heads, with friends, synagogue, faith and family. What better blessings could we ask for?
- No-one deserves tragedy in their lives, but tragedy comes to us anyway. How we respond to the tragedy can be a source of pain or a source of blessing. That is always our choice. We can make our pain into blessings for others if we choose to rise above our hurt and seek ways to ease the hurt of others. Blessings are not something that we see in someone else and wish we had what they have. Blessings are that which helps us rise above what we might be so that we can be so much more. Judaism teaches us that each and every one of us has over 100 reasons to say a blessing each day. One hundred blessings that we need to acknowledge before God each and every day we are alive. We don’t need to covet what others have, we only need to open our eyes to who we are and what we can be. If we can just do that which will bring meaning into our life and joy into the hearts of others, then we will clearly see how richly God has blessed us.
May God bless us everyday and may we treasure each and every blessing in our lives as we say….
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM
Sermon Saturday Morning
- Shabbat Shalom
- One of the difficulties that many people have with the study of the Bible is that there is so much inside the text that is very hard to comprehend. There are many people who get stuck right from the beginning, with the creation story, trying to figure out how a seven day creation has any meaning in our world of Darwin and the dinosaurs. Adam and Eve and their eating of the forbidden fruit, why does God punish them so severely? If there are only three people in the world, Adam, Eve and their son Cain, who does Cain marry? The list goes on and on. We want to read the Bible as the story of the beginning of humanity but it is not a coherent narrative. If God wrote the Bible then why is it so difficult? If God didn’t write the Bible, why do I care at all what it says?
- I am not going to answer those questions today; I want to call attention, to another difficult text in the Torah. For centuries, Jews and non-Jews have tried to understand the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. How does a father go to sacrifice his son? How could Abraham raise a knife to his son’s throat? What kind of a God asks a father to sacrifice a son? The Torah calls this a test, but what kind of a test does God need to understand humanity? If God already understands us, why does God need to make the test?
- Most of these questions we can dismiss rather easily. The Torah does not teach us history nor does it want to be an accurate recording of what goes on in the world. The Torah is a book of morality; it tries to tell us, directly or through parables, what we should do and what we should not do. Sometimes, when we face difficult choices, we need to know that while there may not be any one right answer, there are some wrong answers. We need to be able to identify the wrong answers and focus on making good decisions. So what is the lesson that we are supposed to learn from the Akedah?
- Some say that we are supposed to carry away from this story that God does not want us to sacrifice our children. The purpose of the story is to show that animal sacrifice is permitted but human sacrifice is not. If this is the real purpose then clearly Abraham failed that test. God was asking Abraham to stand his ground, to refuse to sacrifice his son, to tell God that if he was required to sacrifice his son, then he would withdraw from the covenant between Abraham and God. Let God give the land to someone else.
- Abraham, of course, does nothing of the kind. Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, so he gets up early the next day and takes what he needs from the house; takes his son and heads out to the place where he will sacrifice the boy to God. When Isaac questions his father about what is to happen, Abraham does not fill his son in on the reason for the journey. I don’t know if Isaac figures out what is going to happen right then or if he finds out just before he is put on the alter. Either way, Isaac can’t be happy with the news. In the end, the story is about Abraham and not Isaac. Abraham leaves alone. His son will no longer travel with him. Abraham will remain alone; his wife dies when he returns home and even God will no longer speak to Abraham, not even to console him on the death of Sarah.
- But in the end, the story is not even about Abraham. We must never lose sight of the real purpose of the Torah, to teach us valuable lessons in life. The main character in the story may be Abraham, but the real focus of the story is us. We are Abraham. We are the ones being asked to sacrifice our children. How do we respond to that call? What must we do to pass God’s test?
- During the eleventh century, Europeans gathered to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. On their way to the Middle East, they found cities with Jews in the Rhine Valley. Why go all the way to the Middle East to kill unbelievers when there were Jews right there in Europe who didn’t believe in their religion? Entire cities of Jews will be slaughtered before the governments who were supposed to protect them, finally move against the Crusaders. Whole families, who are given the “choice” to convert to Christianity or die, choose to die by their own hand rather than be tortured by the enemy. Many of the parents said to their children before they killed them with their own hands “Go tell Father Abraham, that he was told to sacrifice one child to God, we are sacrificing all our children. His sacrifice was a test, ours is a reality. If Abraham merited blessings, so too do we deserve God’s blessing.”
- Is it really a surprise that after the Holocaust, where over one million children were killed, suffocated and burned, that the first thing many survivors wanted to do was to have more children? They had made the ultimate sacrifice but they were prepared to live on, and see to it that while they could not prevent the death of so many children, they would not give up on the eternity of the Jewish people. This past week was the anniversary of Kristalnacht, the night of broken glass, that marks the beginning of the slaughter of our people in Europe. Our parsha, in one respect, declares that we are the end of that dark story. We are all not survivors, but we are all the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.
- However, I don’t believe that the Akedah is a story about rising from the ashes, about the resurrection of our people after the sacrifice. That would be a very dark story, darker than most other stories in the Torah. There has to be another way to see what Abraham’s journey has to say to us.
- I know that we all think that we would never sacrifice our children to God, like Abraham, but I am sometimes not so sure that we really mean it. There are times where life would have us sacrifice our children and we are tested in those moments as Abraham was tested.
- There are people who sacrifice their children for their own needs. These people hold their children back when they want to go out and find their way in the world. These parents feel that it is more important that they stay with us, that they show their love for us by never leaving us. “How can you leave me after all that I have done for you?” They ask. They ask their children to sacrifice their lives to care for the selfish needs of the parents.
- There are other parents in our country, who sacrificed their children for their career. In the name of getting ahead, making more money and being a better provider, they were never there for their children. They sacrificed the needs of their children for their own career advancement. They were never there to see their child’s accomplishments, nor were they there to dry the tears of frustration and defeat when their children were hurt. How many children never knew a parents love because the parent was too busy “sacrificing for their children”. Little did they know that in reality, they were sacrificing their children.
- Finally, how can we blame Abraham for not loving his son enough, when there are those whom we know who, for all kinds of absurd reasons, stop loving their children. In the heat of anger, words of hate and frustration are spoken and a rift opens up between parent and child. The hurt cuts so deep that they are prepared to cut all ties to their children, to sacrifice their love for the anger of a moment. Pride becomes more important than love, and we sacrifice our children while we wait for an apology. Yes, I know that sometimes children are the ones who create the rift between us. Sometimes they create the rift that rips apart our family and our hearts. We did not push them away, and it is their anger that enforces the separation. Still, no matter what or why, we must never let go of the love and the hope that someday that gap will be bridged. Maybe we can’t force them to love us and to forgive us, but we have to be always open for a child who wants to find his or her way back into the family. A parent should not be the barrier to a child who wants to come home.
- The Akedah teaches us, in the end, that nothing should sever the connection between a parent and a child. Life is a long and sometimes difficult journey, but we must never let go of our child’s hand. Yes they have to grow and go their own way. Yes they have to find love for themselves, find a spouse, raise a family, understand what it means to be a parent. But we must always have our hearts open to them, to be able to look them in the eye and share love. Abraham may not have actually sacrificed his son on the alter to God, but just raising the knife was enough to create the rift between father and son.
- I believe that there is another way for this story to end. The Jewish Poet, Danny Siegel tells his own story of what happened on the mountain top so long ago. He says that he prefers the story to end with Abraham turning to Isaac, realizing what an awful thing he is being asked to do, and then throwing all the instruments for the sacrifice on the ground and saying to his son, “Forget it Isaac, lets go home.” Before we lose our temper with our children, before we compound the mistakes that we make by defending self or sacrifice over family, before we create a rift so great that it will take years to bridge the gap, let us take a deep breath, let the love we have for our children fill our hearts. Let us throw down all that would stand between us, hold out our hands and say, “Forget it my child, lets go home!”
May God always turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents and may there always be love in our homes and in our lives as we say …
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM
Shemini Atzeret Yizkor
Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
- Hag Sameach
- Yizkor always comes at the end of major Jewish Holidays. If we pause to think about this, it is a rather surprising time for Yizkor. When we think of holidays we usually think of celebrations, festive meals, impressive synagogue services, and the scope of Jewish history. With all the joy of the holiday we might think that it would be out of place to dwell on those who have died. After all, the pain in our hearts never really goes away. We learn to live with the ache in our hearts and we try to move on. Why should we pause our holiday festivities to remember the dead?
- But Judaism looks at our holidays differently. All through the year we can busy ourselves with our work, our family, a host of distractions, clubs and organizations so we don’t have to dwell on the memories of those we have lost. But the hardest times of the year, when the memories can no longer be suppressed, is on holidays, when we gather together and there is an empty chair at the table. The family table now has one less setting. The friends gathering have one less companion to share the joy. The normal course of conversation will eventually include memories of holiday celebrations when our loved ones were still alive.
- Yizkor gives us a time to pay attention to these memories. They cannot be the elephant in the room, filling the space but nobody is allowed to talk about it. There is no reason to tell someone “Don’t think about who you have lost, it will dampen the mood of the holiday” because it will not help to deny the feelings. Jewish ritual has us confront our memories, we gather in synagogue and we recite the words of Yizkor to help sharpen what we desire to remember.
- Judaism gives us this time, at the end of the holiday so we don’t have to struggle to forget; we have this time aside to remember. The dead may not be able to be a part of our holiday, but their memory and the lessons they taught us are a priceless possession and these memories rightly belong in this small part of our holiday service we call Yizkor.
- Psychologists tell us that repressing the memories does not make them go away, they always come back, sometimes when we least expect it and sometimes at inappropriate times. We all need a year or more, they tell us, to fully heal from the pain of loss. Long before psychology, however, Judaism understood that death is not an evil that has to be avoided as if it were a plague. It is a natural part of life and it is not to be feared. It just takes time to heal. No matter how calm or traumatic a death may be, Judaism teaches us that that we have duties to those who have died and we have duties to ourselves as we journey through the “valley of the shadow of death”. We cut short these rituals at our own peril, cutting us off from the source of our healing.
- So many people think Shiva is a bother because it is so long; a whole week of sitting and mourning. At a time when we want to be far away from people, Judaism teaches us that we need to be with people. We need to hear the stories of our loved one told by others and they need to hear our stories too. It is not a time to go to work, or run around doing errands all over town. Shiva teaches us that we need to stop our life and first let the healing in. The healing that comes when our friends and family gather to support us in our hour of pain. Everyone I know who has sat Shiva for the whole seven days, is always glad that they made the decision to sit. There is no reason to rush. There is no reason to be somewhere else. We sometimes feel we want to hurry and remove all the memories of this painful death right away but Judaism has us wait, until our hearts have begun to heal before we begin to go through the possessions of the deceased. Jewish ritual gives us all the time we need to mourn our loss and slowly ease back into the routines of daily life. Shiva ends with a walk outside, symbolizing our re-entering the everyday world.
- Sheloshim, the 30 day period that follows the funeral, is directed to our emotional state. We may be ready to get back into routines, but some aspects of life still feel strange when we have recently suffered a loss. Parties and music just feel wrong when we are mourners. How can we say Kaddish three times a day and then turn around and attend a concert or dance at a wedding? Sheloshim gives us extra time to stand apart until we are ready to rejoin the rest of society.
- For an entire year, we are given the responsibility to pray on behalf of a parent or loved one. We still have to face a year’s worth of celebrations; birthdays, anniversaries, favorite holidays, long weekends, all of these will give us reason to cry anew and Kaddish helps us travel a minefield of memories that sometimes can trip us at surprising moments. Finding a way to get to a minyan and say kaddish is an action we can do to honor the one who has died. Maybe it is impossible to say Kaddish every day, but in our quest to say Kaddish daily, we are not remembering the dead so much as we are remembering why they made such a difference in our lives. The Kaddish is not about death, it is about the glory of God, the God who sends us healing, the God who comforts us for our loss and the God who gives us the strength to go on.
- What is surprising, however, in this comforting passage that we call Jewish mourning, is that there is no ritual for the end of the year. We say Kaddish for our 11 months, we observe the first Yahrtzeit but it will be just like every other Yahrtzeit; there is nothing to set apart the first one. One day we are still saying Kaddish, the next it is all over. Should there be a ritual for the end of Kaddish? Should there be a special ceremony for the first Yahrtzeit? We don’t have one now but perhaps we can create one that will bring us the comfort we need at that crossroad from mourner to one who’s sorrow has healed.
- On the one hand, maybe there can be no such “end of Kaddish” ritual. We never really fully heal from our loss. Sometimes, we will find ourselves crying when we see an object that reminds us suddenly of the one who is gone. For the rest of our lives we will think of who we have lost and we may even catch ourselves wishing we could talk to them, get some more advice, share another secret with them just one more time. Maybe there can be no ritual because the pain never really ends, we just learn to live with our loss weighing heavily in our hearts.
- And yet we understand that this is a moment that somehow needs to be marked by Jewish ritual. An important part of our life has come to an end, the active mourning of the death of a loved one, and a new part is just beginning, normal life infused with important memories. It seems as if we need to mark this transition. From this time on we will only have Yahrtzeit and Yizkor to get us through the year.
- Maybe this is the time to start to write a personal memoir of the deceased. Maybe this is the time to begin to record the memories of our parents so that their grandchildren and great grandchildren will know something about the generation that is gone. It may be that a baby born soon after the death will be given the name of the one who has died. What a wonderful legacy our memories can be to the child who one day will grow up and come to know important lessons from the life of their namesake. Showing the child who carries the name pictures and lessons from the life that has gone, can inspire the children to carry on the lessons learned into the next generation.
- If our parents left for us documents about their lives and the meaning they found in their activities, I am sure that we will have read this ethical will soon after the death. But at the end of the year, maybe it is time to read it again. If they did not leave such a document, maybe it is time to write it on their behalf, to record the lessons they taught us when they were alive, a document we can then read to the next generation and maybe even read to ourselves on important dates in the future; for example, when a grandchild marries, or on the Yahrtzeit or each year on their birthday. The written document becomes a legacy of their life that we can share as we wish with others.
- Maybe we need to recite a blessing when Shiva is over. Maybe the shehechiyanu should be recited when we light the Yahrtzeit candle for the very first Yahrtzeit; we’ve made it through a difficult year and are ready to begin a new phase in our life; or perhaps we should again intone “Baruch Dayan Emet” and affirm, a year later that God is a righteous judge. Another possibility is perhaps we should say a blessing over a new article of clothing, symbolic of the torn garment or ribbon that marked the beginning of our mourning. I know a man who had a jacket that he tore when his mother died. When the mourning was over, he sat down and sewed up the tear. The jacket was repaired but the scar was still visible, a reminder of the days of sorrow that had ended. Rabbi Naomi Levy noted that death makes us feel finite, but we are comforted when we realize we are part of something infinite. A person may die, but their memory lives on as long as there are those who remember.
- So as we rise for Yizkor, let us contemplate what might make up for us, a ritual to mark that day when the tear in our heart was healed and we went on, scarred but still standing, emerging from the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” and back into the sunshine at the top of a new mountain. Maybe it is not too late, we can still write a memoir of our parents or loved ones, as a testament for our own children and grandchildren. Passing on the lessons we learned, is our connection to eternity. Yizkor is here to remind us of memories that have shaped our lives. Let us use those memories and weave them permanently into the tapestry of our family’s memory.
May we always be blessed with good memories and may we do all we can to keep these memories alive as we say …
Amen, and Hag Sameach
Let us rise at this time, for our Yizkor Service
Yom Kippur Yizkor
2011 – 5772
Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
- Shabbat Shalom and Gemar Tov
- There was a Hasidic Rabbi who insisted that everything in the world had a lesson in it if we would only look closely and learn. His students were skeptical and put the Rabbi to the test: “What can we learn from the Telegraph?” they asked. The Rebbe replied, “Every word is counted and charged.” “What can we learn from a train?” asked the students? “One hot one can pull many cold ones.” was the Rebbe’s answer. “What can we learn from a telephone?” asked the students. “What is said here is heard there.” replied the Rebbe. The Rebbe thus taught his students not that the world is as important as Torah, but that Torah incorporates the whole world.
- This past year was the year that the terrorist Osama bin Laden finally met the justice he long deserved. He was killed in a United States commando operation, his body removed from his home, positively identified and then buried at sea lest later terrorists make his tomb a place of pilgrimage. The commandos who were chosen for this special raid in Pakistan were members of the elite Navy Seal Team Six. The commando team that trains to do operations that otherwise would be impossible. Not one of the team members was hurt or killed in the operation and they became instant heroes in our country, even though they are so undercover that we are not permitted even to know their names.
- Rabbi Wayne Allen, my colleague in Toronto recently sent out a sermon where he does something similar to the Hasidic Rabbi in my story. He found some important lessons in the soldiers of Seal Team Six. Just about the same time as the raid in Pakistan, a former member of Seal Team Six, a man who retired from the unit before they were sent to kill bin Laden, wrote a book about the team and how they train to become the elite of the elite among our commando forces. Howard Wasdin was interviewed by Time Magazine about his book and in the answers he gave inspired Rabbi Allen, and frankly they should inspire us all.
- The first thing Mr. Wasdin noted was that the Seals trained every day, carrying fifty pounds of equipment and firearms and told to run up and down stairs all day long, learning how to clear rooms of potential threats. They keep up this training day after day until they are summoned to go on a mission. Many people are surprised that what makes a commando better than any other soldier is that he trains daily over and over again. What makes Seal Team Six so special? It is not in the psychology of the men or in their hidden talents, but that they train relentlessly so that they are prepared for whatever may come. They don’t have super-human traits, they don’t have sharper reflexes or better skills than anyone else, they just never stop learning and practicing.
- What should we learn from this constant training? We should understand that the soldiers don’t consider this training boring, useless or monotonous. The members of the team understand that their training could be the difference between life and death as well as to the success or failure of their mission. By sharpening their skills, they know that they are ready for whatever they may encounter when called upon by their country. So Rabbi Allen notes that the first lesson we learn from Seal Team Six is that “Training, and practice and repetition do not make us bored they make us better.”
- There is a story of two men with little education and culture who decided to visit Paris and the Louvre museum to see what all the fuss was about the art there. As the docent took their tour through the artwork, they were not very impressed with what they saw. Every painting evoked a comment like “my grandchildren can paint better than this” or “I’ve seen better colors at the paint store” on and on they “critiqued” the paintings until finally the docent could take it no more. “Gentlemen, let me tell you that every painting in this museum has been examined and critiqued by some of the greatest artists and critics in the history of the world. Each painting has passed their test and been chosen as one of arts greatest treasures. They are not here for you to judge them. Instead, they are here to judge how cultured you are.”
- If you were to ask any of the thirty men and women who are the core of our “Minyanaires” why they come to minyan every day, day after day, in rain and heat and in spite of busy days, I think they would give you the same answer as the soldiers of Seal Team Six, the daily recitation of prayers, the study of Jewish texts and the practice of Jewish ritual every morning and every evening, does not make them bored, they will tell you that it makes them better. Their daily Jewish practice makes them better parents and grandparents. It makes them better Jews and human beings. It is not monotonous or repetitive; it is part of the essence of life and living. They don’t look at the siddur and say “What kind of a silly prayer is this” or “I can’t believe I am reading this stuff. They don’t say, “I read this Parsha already” or “What has this lesson to do with my life?” They know that the siddur has passed the test of time. That centuries of scholars found meaning and important lessons in each page of the Mishna and Midrash. They understand that each ritual is designed to help someone rise spiritually higher and higher. Prayer, Study and Ritual help us to see the world from God’s point of view. It is this kind of practice, if we make it a regular part of our life, that can help us deal with all the challenges that life throws at us. When we pray every day, when we learn Torah, when we take upon ourselves the regimen of the daily rituals that define a Jewish way of life, this is the kind of training that helps us to face tragedy and uncertainty, to confront our fears and to overcome disasters. It is the lifelong practice of Judaism that is always there for us to help us, throughout our life, move forward.
- The second thing we can learn from the Navy Seals is that their training is designed so that they can learn to react instantly and reflexively. The term that former Seal Wasdin used is “muscle memory” that if we practice some activity enough, our muscles will eventually respond with the speed of our reflexes. Wasdin noted in the interview that even ten years after he retired from the Navy Seals, his muscle memory was so good that at a shooting range he still could group all his shots within a quarters diameter of the bull’s-eye. Athletes also use this kind of muscle memory to improve their performance and reactions in their competitions.
- Clearly Judaism is not about “muscle” memory, but Rabbi Allen notes that our religion is instead about “goodness” memory – that is repeating acts of nobility, kindness and compassion so that they become second nature to us.” The Rabbis of the Talmud did not live in a fantasy world. They knew from personal experience that the world can be a hard place and that people will do what is in their own best interest and trample underfoot whoever might get in their way. If humanity was created with two inclinations, a good inclination and an evil inclination, a yetzer tov and a yetzer ra, the sages understood that the inclination to do evil, the yetzer ra was by far, the strongest of the two. If human beings were to want to be good, we would need to find a way to nurture and support our yetzer tov, our good inclination.
- That is the role of Torah, the role of Jewish law. When we know what God wants of us we can use that instruction, that call from God to be better, to overcome our evil nature. We want to take our better nature and we want to be able to activate it reflexively. We have to not only know that we are to treat our neighbor as we would treat ourselves, but we need to practice the acts of kindness called for until those actions become instinctive. We need to notice when a friend is missing from services, we need to immediately call them to find out if they are OK. We need to offer them what they might need in order to quickly come back and take their seat. They may need someone to take them to the doctor, someone to pick up something from the pharmacy, someone who can help them get to a beauty parlor or to the supermarket. Maybe they need a ride to shul or maybe they just need a friend to sit with them at the kiddush and listen to what went on in their world this week. I know that sometimes we all are there when we are needed but if we are to learn the lesson from Seal Team Six, we will need to respond with our own “goodness memory” acting instinctively and reflexively to provide for others all that they need.
- The third lesson from the Seals is the lesson of teamwork. There is no one person in the world that can do these missions by themselves. Each member of the team not only has his own role to play on a mission, but he must know many other roles he might have to perform should the mission have unexpected problems. The missions are too complex and demanding for one man alone. There was only one soldier who shot and killed Osama bin Laden, but it was the members of his team that made that shot possible. Judaism is all about the obligations we have to each other. The Talmud teaches, “All Jews are responsible for each other” and our entire faith is built around those responsibilities.
- At a recent program, my friend and colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula noted that the Kol Nidre service that we attended last night is a service to release us from our obligations. At Kol Nidre we solemnly release the entire congregation from the vows and promises that were made in the past year. Rabbis like to teach that this release is only for vows and promises made to God, and that the vows between us and our fellow human beings are not annulled on Kol Nidre. But Rabbi Kula took this lesson a bit further. He asked us to think about all our obligations and what it would mean to be released from them. What would it mean if Kol Nidre was saying to us “I release you from your obligations as a parent. I release you from your obligations as a spouse. I release you from your obligation as a brother or sister. I release you from your obligations as a friend. I release you from all your obligations from your organizations. I release you from all your obligations from life.
- How does it feel to be released from all our obligations, from all our vows and promises? Maybe for just a moment there is a feeling of release, but it doesn’t last long. The only people who have no obligations are the dead. We the living are defined by our obligations. So let us reaffirm our obligations, but let us reaffirm them one by one. Are there obligations that we gladly reaffirm? Are there some obligations we would prefer to leave behind? When we reaffirm an obligation we suddenly realize how important it is to us and we can no longer take it for granted. Do we take our obligations as a spouse, a parent, a friend or as a Jew seriously enough? What can we do in the new year to show how important these vows are in our lives? It is important to show how much we appreciate the vows we have taken.
- The final lesson from Seal Team Six is that without the ability to plan and anticipate we are all doomed. It is not enough to know where we are and what we can do. We have to be prepared for whatever might come. When the Seal Team attacked the compound in Abbottabad, one of the two helicopters had an engine failure and crash landed. The Navy Seals had anticipated all the things that could go wrong so they were able to complete the mission using just the second helicopter. How does the nursery rhyme go… for want of a nail the Kingdom was lost? Seal Team Six had a backup for every nail.
- Jewish wisdom literature tells us that wisdom is the ability to foresee the outcome of an event. The patriarch Jacob, on his deathbed tells his sons, “come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come” Rashi, the great Torah commentator notes that “He desired to reveal Israel’s future but the Divine Presence withdrew from him”, in other words, Jacob wanted to tell about the future but all he could speak about was the present. Judaism does not believe that the future can be seen by human beings; astrology, Tarot Cards, tea leaves and other ways to see into the future just don’t work. The reason they don’t work is because the future does not exist until we make the decisions that give it existence. The future is just the consequences of our present.
- There is a story about a man named Sam who was going to work one morning when he saw his neighbor dressed up and walking down the street. “Good morning, where are you going all dressed up today?” he asked. The neighbor looked at the man with a puzzled look, “ I am going to shul, it is Shavuot today, did you forget that today is a Jewish Holiday”. Sam was stunned. He HAD forgotten the holiday. If he would not have met his neighbor he would have gone to work and violated an important holiday, one that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Sam was very upset. He went to daven in shul but his mind was elsewhere. He just could not believe that he could have forgotten a major Jewish holiday. When the holiday was over he went to see his Rabbi and told him what had happened and asked to be forgiven. The Rabbi looked at Sam and said, “You made an honest mistake and for that you don’t need to be forgiven. But I sense that there is more to this story than just being forgetful.” Sam sighed and said, “I just can’t believe that I could forget such an important thing. How could I be so distracted that I almost forgot a major Jewish Holiday?” The Rabbi put his hand on Sam’s shoulder, “When something is important to us, we always find a way to remember. If this is so important, than you will find a way to make sure you never miss a holiday again.” Sam realized the Rabbi was right and finally figured out a way to make sure he never missed a Jewish holiday again. He quit his job and took the position of gabbai at the synagogue. Working in the shul, he never again had to worry about forgetting Shavuot or any other holy day.
- Wisdom is not knowing the future, it is creating a future that we can be proud of. It means, like Jacob and his sons, knowing who we are and what are our strengths and weaknesses so we can prepare for whatever the future may hold. If we are forgetful, we can plan to have reminders of the things we wish to remember. If we are shy we can learn from others to be more outgoing. If we are afraid of public speaking we can join a club like Toastmasters to learn the art of making speeches. If we never had the chance to go to Religious School we can sign up for Adult Education. If we never learned to daven, we can find a teacher to train us. If we always wanted to read a haftarah, then there is always a way to acquire the skill. We can compensate for all our deficiencies if we take the time to plan for the future. If we can envision what can go wrong, we can also envision how to make it right.
- If we are serious about having a good new year, we could learn a lot from the lessons of the Navy’s Seal Team Six. Faithful practice of Judaism, with daily prayer, study and the practice of Jewish rituals. Reflexively acting for the good of the world. Seeing our obligations and vows as our commitment to the “team” of the Jewish people and looking ahead to make our faith stronger and safe. This works not just on a personal level, it will also work to make the Jewish People better as well. Just as the soldiers of Seal Team Six not only make up a successful anti-terrorist squadron, but they make our country stronger, so too if we do our part for our people and our faith, then Judaism will be the stronger for our efforts.
- Thirty-five years ago, in 1976 we took pride in Israeli Commandos who rescued 102 hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Then as now, the lessons of practice, sharp reflexes, teamwork and planning made that rescue mission one that is still remembered as the most effective counter-terrorism raid in modern history. Perhaps we also remember with pride and honor the commandos of the Palmach that made possible the modern state of Israel thirty years earlier. At the beginning of the twentieth century all Jews looked with pride to the early Zionists who were the first Jews to settle in what was then Palestine. In every generation the lessons of practice, trained reflexes, teamwork and looking to the future made modern Judaism possible. If we wish to secure the blessings of our faith to future generations, we need only follow the lessons of our ancestors, the lessons of the modern Seal Team Six. If we can make these lessons part of the core of our religious life, we will create a strong, vibrant faith to pass on to the generations yet to come.
May the lessons of faith, mitzvot, peoplehood and preparation serve us this year and every year as we say … Amen and Gemar Tov
- Jews do not set foot in the future without acknowledging the past. We cannot enter the new year without remembering the lives that have past, the lives of those we loved, the lives of our parents, loved ones, mentors and heroes who shaped our lives as much as we have shaped the lives of those who will follow us. On every major Jewish holiday, we cannot end our celebration until we have remembered the empty seats at our table, the empty chairs in our synagogue and empty places in our hearts.
- Before we turn our gaze to fully embrace 5772, let us take this time of Yizkor, this time of memory, to call to mind those who made our lives possible and our faith strong. Perhaps there are still lessons as we remember their lives that can help us as we enter a new year.
Please rise as we prepare for the prayers of Yizkor
Kon Nidre Sermon
2011 – 5772
- Gemar Hatima Tova – May we be sealed for a good year.
- In the Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a, there is recorded a dispute among the sages. Rabbi Eliezer was a lone vote against all of his other colleagues. On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument but they did not accept them. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” Immediately the carob tree was torn 100 cubits out of its place … “No proof can be brought from a carob tree” the sages replied. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “if the law agrees with me let this stream of water prove it.” Immediately the stream of water began to flow backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water.” the other Sages responded. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “If the law agrees with me let the walls of this study hall prove it.” Immediately the walls began to lean. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, “When the scholars are engaged in a dispute, what right do you walls have to interfere?” So they did not fall in deference to Rabbi Joshua but they did not stand straight in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “If the law agrees with me let there be a sign from heaven.” Immediately a divine voice was heard saying, “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer since in matters of the law he is always right?” Rabbi Joshua arose and quoted the Torah saying, “Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.” (meaning that the Torah had already been given at Mt. Sinai so we no longer pay any attention to a voice from heaven and we follow instead the Torah Law, to follow the majority.) … Rabbi Natan later asked Elijah the prophet what did God do when Rabbi Joshua rebuked him? Elijah replied, “God clapped the divine hands in joy and shouted, ‘My children have defeated me, My children have defeated me!’
- Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven. The law is not in heaven. It is here on earth. It is here where human beings can see it, read it, contemplate it, discuss it, argue it and confront it. It is not in heaven. We look at the scrolls of Torah and we see a holy book. We see a sacred text. We see words given to us by God that are eternal and unbreakable. On Yom Kippur we examine our lives against what the Torah demands of us and we pray that our violations of the law, our sins of the past year, be forgiven by a compassionate and understanding God. But the Law is not in heaven. It is here. The Torah, in Parshat Nitzavim that we read just last week, reminds us that it is not far away so that anyone would have to go and bring it back. It is not in heaven that someone has to go up and bring it down. It is right here, near at hand. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- The Torah is here for us to consider and to interpret. There is no law that is unchangeable over time. Life is full of transitions and variations. People find new ways to live, die, entertain and do business. The law must keep up with the changes. Traffic laws for the horse and buggy era cannot be used in the age of automobiles. Shabbat laws about fire may or may not apply to electricity and electric appliances. Jewish Law is not in heaven. It is right here with us and as Rabbi Eliezer discovered, that the Sages can make it mean what they want it to mean if there is a good reason for Torah to change.
- Who has the right to interpret Jewish law? Is it a duty only for pious Jews, learned Jews, observant Jews? Perhaps we can learn Jewish Law from any Jew who has something to teach us. Nathan Cardozo, in his blog reprinted in the Jerusalem Post wrote: “ For Jews to bring their fellow men back to Judaism there is a need to celebrate the mitzvot that the “secular” Jew has been observing all or part of his life, not condemn his failure to observe some others. … The foundation should be humility, not arrogance…There is little doubt that “secular” Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a large number of commandments. Many of them may not be in the field of rituals, but there is massive evidence that interpersonal mitzvot enjoy a major commitment by “secular” Jews. Beneath the divisiveness of traditional commitment lie underpinnings of religion such as compassion, humility, awe and even faith. Different are the pledges, but equal are the devotions. It may well be that the meeting of minds is lacking between the religious and non- religious Jews but their spirits touch. Who will deny that “secular” Jews have a sense of mystery, forgiveness, beauty and gentleness? … Each of these is the deepest of religious values.”
- All Jews have something to teach us and we have things to teach them. We can learn from every human being on how to bring values and ethics into our study of Torah. We have to find the teachers and we have to identify the lessons. It does not matter if the person is Jew or non-Jew, learned or unschooled, smart or clever; we all have something we need to teach each other about Torah. It is neither for God to teach us or for us to follow what is in the past. Lo Bashamiyim Hi – The Torah is not in heaven
- We think of the Torah as the great unifier of Jews, that all Jews follow the Torah. It is the common denominator that unites us. But how we interpret Torah is very different across the denominations. Why do we have different kinds of Jews? What possible use could there be for the different communities of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, Sephardic, and the Jews who opt out of our religion? Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary recently wrote in his blog, “Why do we need denominations? Because substantial differences among Jews, for all the hurt and damage they engender, are not only inevitable but, on balance, essential to the survival of our tradition. The Torah opens opportunities to Jews and makes demands upon Jews that shape the ways we think, eat, celebrate, mourn, raise our kids, treat our spouses, do business, stand before God and work to repair the world. It matters greatly how these gifts and responsibilities are pursued. Will women be fully a part of Jewish learning, practice and leadership? Will Hebrew, Shabbat and kashrut be central pillars? Will Jews stand simultaneously apart from and as an integral part of the larger society and culture? Will we take on the discipline of ritual practice – and insist that it remains inseparable from an ethical practice of individual virtue and social justice? These and other dividing lines among our movements are not trivial; compromise concerning them is not always possible. One cannot be all things to all people if one wants to be a Jew.”
- It is precisely our commitment to Torah that makes denominations possible and healthy. It opens conversations and debate; it gives us many different interpretations so we can contemplate for ourselves how we will interpret the law. Many people find this strange. Why should we struggle to make moral and ethical sense of the law? If we don’t engage in this struggle with Torah, others who see themselves as “most pious” will come and wrest control of Jewish law claiming to speak in God’s name so that no change will ever be possible. It is not for God to tell us anymore what is right and what is wrong in Jewish law, Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- In a recent commercial for spaghetti sauce, a woman, taking a blind taste test, picks out a different sauce than her usual choice. It makes her wonder about all her other choices. When the world changes, when life calls, we too are called to make difficult choices between what is familiar and traditional and what is clearly the right thing to do. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner served for many years in Sudbury, Massachusetts until his recent retirement. In his new book, “I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego” he writes about how he came to decide an important point of Jewish Law. He writes, “A decade before my decision, I had got myself into an argument with an Orthodox friend. To tell the truth, I have forgotten most of the details. It had something to do with how to treat someone. I explained my position; he explained his. His position struck both of us as, at best, ethically tenuous. “How can you say such a thing?” I asked. “I have no choice,” he replied, “It’s the halacha – Jewish Law.” Not wishing to be disrespectful, I allowed him to have the last word. But later, alone in the car, I found myself continuing the argument: “Oh, and because you claim you have no choice, that’s the end of it? You are off the hook? I’m supposed to cave in, back away in shame before the tradition? No (I wished I would have said), you choose to believe what you want and you choose to do what you do. First comes life, then comes law. You are still responsible. … the test of my resolve came a few years later when two members of my congregation asked me if I would help them consecrate their – what shall I call it? Union? Commitment? – gimme a break, it was a marriage. What could I say? “I’m not permitted?” “I’m sorry the tradition doesn’t allow it?” “My hands are tied?” “Excuse me while I hide in a book?” Of course the tradition is sacred; of course it has more to do with God than any of us can imagine; but it can never be an excuse for not looking another human being in the eyes or oneself in the mirror. … I guess I believe, in retrospect, that it was commanded of me.”
- What does it mean to be commanded? Are the commandments a path from which we must not stray or do they teach us lessons in right and wrong that we can translate into modern life? When life changes, the law too has to change. And while Moses did bring the tablets down from Mt. Sinai, the law is not written in stone. It is written in our words and deeds and how we translate the Torah into our personal lives. In the end, we once again see, when it comes to Torah, Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- The list of elements of Jewish Law definable as morally questionable grows longer all the time. What should be the role of women in Jewish ritual? Should Jewish marriage expand to include gay couples? Can a modern Kohen marry a convert? Should women be permitted as a witness on Jewish documents? Is it enough to say that a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or does Judaism today require a greater commitment of learning and piety? Should women be rabbis and cantors and torah readers and Shalichot Tzibor, prayer leaders for the congregation? What happens when ancient venerated Jewish law demands of us to act in ways that violate our basic feelings of humanity? Rabbi David Hartman, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi at Yeshiva University, struggles with these two poles in Jewish life as he tries to find the right and ethical way to live. In his book “The God Who Hates Lies; Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition” Rabbi Hartman writes, “I felt while in yeshiva that I was always on the right path, a true authentic historical path that nurtured the Jewish people and gave meaning to their everyday life. I never confronted with any depth, the idea of God or how one comes to accept a life devoted to the service of God. … For example, we never asked second-order questions: [such as]… What part of the tradition should be ascribed to revelation, what part to human creativity and what might be the implications of how this question is answered for the development of communal religious practice? … In response, I developed a theology, based on the concept of covenant, that understands the relationship between God and the Jewish People as one of intimacy and partnership. This covenantal model … describes a religious anthropology characterized not by slavishness and a howling sense of inadequacy in the face of an infinite commanding God. Instead it resurrects the vital and precocious religious spirit of the Talmudic Rabbis, who understood that the implementation of God’s will amid the complex considerations of human society and the psyche requires, at times, the full and fearless assertion of our intellectual independence. … The new stage of covenant would bring forms of personal and collective religious dignity yet unknown in Jewish history. Not only was the Torah no longer in heaven, as the Talmudic Rabbis declared, having been given over to human hands at Sinai; so too , the covenantal understanding of [the State of] Israel’s rebirth taught us that the direction of history was now included within the scope of human responsibility.”
- Why should we be called to give up our critical faculties just because we want to be good Jews? Past generations of rabbis not only studied ancient texts but also brought to bear on Judaism the modern issues that they confronted. If our Judaism forces us to live one life when we are in synagogue and to have another life when we are at home or on the job, that will not be a meaningful version of our faith. We need to practice our religion with an open mind and not with a closed book. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- Judaism is not just an intellectual faith. It is a faith that demands us to worship with every part of our body. The sages ask the deeper questions about what is a human being and for what purpose were we created. Jewish mystics see our lives as an important part of repairing our world and making it a better place. Rabbi Arthur Green, in his book “Ehyeh; A Kabbalah For Tomorrow” writes on the importance of humanity to the mystical structure of the world. He says, “Neshama is … breath. It is the place of connection between God and person, or between the small self of individual identity and the great Self of being. It is the aspect of us that never separated from our Source, that did not let go of its divine root in the course of that long process of individuation and alienation that we call human life. … The “journey” to God is nothing other than a return to our deepest self. The task is to seek out that innermost reality, to find it and to reshape the rest of our lives around that return. … How do we learn to forgive ourselves? And how do we use religion as a tool for greater self-acceptance rather than self-torment and guilt? Out of the mystical tradition, I believe, the Ba’al Shem Tov learned and taught that you should always keep your eyes on the big picture. We should not let ourselves get too caught up in the details nor let the means become ends in themselves. Despite what is often taught (and misunderstood), Judaism is not all about the details. It’s about loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, making the universe one and doing it through joy and celebration of life. That’s a pretty tall order. So we had better get to it and not let ourselves get distracted on the way. When religion gets in the way of those essential values, instead of being a vehicle to share and express them, it is time to reexamine where we stand.”
- When it comes to sorting out the mitzvot and trying to put some kind of order into how they should fit in our lives, Rabbi Green is telling us that loving God is paramount, the rest is only details. There are many Jews who seek to find God in the religious minutia of Jewish Law. That somehow if one seeks perfection in practice, it will bring us closer to heaven. Rabbi Green teaches, however, that religion must not get in the way of true, essential values. When it does, then it is the religion which must give way. Life is not a text; Life is the way we choose to live the values we cherish. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- The essential commandment of the Torah is “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God am holy.” We are not God, we don’t create our own reality. We have to live in the reality of this world, a place of confusion, chaos and complexity. How can we be holy? How can our faith call us to action when the actions themselves sometimes seem so divorced of holiness? How are we to know what we are supposed to do? Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president of CLAL, the Center for Leadership and Learning, in his book “Yearnings; Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” has written, “The sages taught that holiness is available to us in every moment, in every place. We often miss these moments because they can be subtle and get lost in the routine of life, or we may repress them because holy encounters sometimes can be unsettling, at times terrifying. Majestic and awesome one day, ordinary and sweet on another, only to be messy complex even chaotic on yet another. Holiness isn’t a state to be reached: it’s an ongoing act of creativity like the origins of the universe. … And the messes are the point. Joy and sorrow, good and evil, greatness and triviality, hope and anxiety, the ideal and the actual: the ability to live with these seeming contradictions and the ambivalence and tension they create is what gives rise to wisdom. Our most chaotic periods can be catalysts for understanding. Even our daily frustrations and desire, when we bring them to the surface and wrestle with them, can imbue our lives with meaning. And our moments of wonder and awe, of sheer delight can be so much greater when we’ve celebrated the multiplicity of life.”
- Holiness finds its source in Torah. Torah is based on life. Life is messy. Holiness too, then is messy and the easy answers are not found in the text, but in how we struggle with all that life throws our way. When we have to choose between two difficult choices what will be the determining factor of which is right and which is wrong? Sometimes we have to choose between two rights and sometimes we have to choose between two wrongs. We choose, we evaluate the decision and we try to choose better tomorrow. That is the path we travel to bring ourselves closer to holiness and to God. The true path of holiness is not found only in the pages of the Torah, it is also found in how we handle the messiness of life. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- Judaism is not a prison. Almost everywhere we turn, we are told by rabbis and sages that the fundamentals of our faith are not to be found in legal tomes and commentaries. These ancient texts are the guides left for us by our ancestors as they struggled to find meaning in every day and age. But their work is not designed to be the final word on how Jews worship God. We are commanded to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.” That command cannot be reduced to measuring the volume of wine we have to drink at Kiddush and the true text of a service in a prayer book. Just because we have a set of instructions does not mean that it will fit every moment in life. Life changes and so must Jewish Law lest it become fossilized and useless.
- When we talk about change in Judaism, we can see the dynamic of what is happening. It is not that the fundamentals of Torah have changed. We need to keep Torah in balance with our values. When we see women who are accomplished in their professional lives reduced to second class citizens in the synagogue, we know that something must change. When we come to understand that sexual orientation has no bearing on a persons ability in the workplace, in the marketplace, in the synagogue and in family life, then we know that something must change. When we work to create a Jewish State in Israel, based on the values of pluralism, democracy and capitalism and we only have rules for an agricultural monarchy, we know that something must change. In a world where Jews live Jewish lives based on different understandings of Jewish law, why must we insist that there be only one kind of a Jew who is a “real” Jew? When we are the ones written out of our faith as apostates, we know that something must change. If Torah does not change, how will we answer the most difficult questions of values that modern life throws at us?
- What is Torah? If it is not in heaven, what is the essence of this central, sacred text of our people? Our Torah is Democratic, Pluralistic, Open, Diverse, Meaningful, Flexible, Loving and Messy. It is just like our lives are supposed to be. Should we really find this surprising? The Midrash teaches us that Moses took the Torah from heaven because it was directed to human beings and not the angels. Angels don’t eat so they don’t need to keep kosher. Angels don’t work so they don’t need rules of business and interest. Angels don’t get married and they don’t have children. The Torah is not meant to be in heaven, it is meant to be right here, guiding us on a path that will lead us to holiness. The Torah is all that we are and all that we aspire to be. It is not fixed, static, unchangeable or unchallengeable – it is Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
May we challenge Torah this year and may we be challenged by Torah this year and may we be stronger and wiser from our struggles as we say … Amen and Gemar Tov.