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Thursday, September 24, 2015

From Diatribe to Dialogue - Yom Kippur Morning 5776

From Diatribe to Dialogue
Yom Kippur Morning – 5776
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO

Dear Friends,
As many of you know, this past summer I travelled to Israel with a small group of Reform and Conservative Rabbis on mission sponsored by the  American Israel Education Foundation, the educational arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  While we were in Israel, we encountered multiple aspects of Israeli society.  We visited the Knesset and met with a broad cross-section of political leaders:  from Shalom Achshav (peace now) to the head of the settlers’ council. We visited the Palestinian city of Ramallah and sat with Saeb Erekat – the lead negotiator for the Palestinian Authority.  We met with LGBT activists and leaders of the Ethiopian and Israeli Arab communities. We saw checkpoints and border crossings.  We stood on the borders of Lebanon and Syria and literally saw the conflicts in both of these war-torn countries play out in front of us.  In addition to meeting with ethnic and political leaders, we also studied with some amazing teachers.  This was not a “pleasure trip.”  We were going non-stop at least 16 hours a day – and sometimes even longer.  Many of you followed my blog posts over the summer – and I encourage those of you who have not read them to go to the Temple Emanuel website and find them. 

One morning, a few of my colleagues and I decided to wake up early and deviate from our scheduled itinerary.  The day was Rosh Chodesh – the New Moon and the first day of the Hebrew month of Av.  We were in Jerusalem, and Nashot Hakotel – the Women of the Wall -  were assembling to pray.  For those of you who were fortunate enough to meet Anat Hoffman – our scholar in Residence two years ago – you will know that Nashot Hakotel is a group of women who come to the Western Wall on the first day of every month in order to worship together and welcome the new moon.   They are not anti-religious – far from it.  They come from observant Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds.  Their goal is not to tear down the Mechitza – the barrier that separates men and women in traditional prayer, rather, they come to pray together as women and read from a Torah scroll at Judaism’s holiest site.  There is nothing Halachically wrong with this – most scholars agree that women are not prohibited from reading the torah in the presence of other women, but the Rabbinic authorities at the Wall see this as a rebellious and sacrilegious act and have placed multiple obstacles – legal and physical – in their path.
The women rabbis in our group joined Anat Hoffman and several dozen other worshippers in the women’s section (including our own Temple Emanuel member, Judy Altenberg, who was in Israel in her role as chair of the International Lion of Judah conference at the same time).  The men stood behind the women in the courtyard in a show of support.  The sound of women’s voices joined in prayer and song rose to the heavens in the women’s section, and those of us standing behind them began our prayers as well.  Suddenly, from all sides, a sea of black-hatted Ultra-Orthodox Jews surrounded us and began to shout and scream obscenities.  The police quickly formed a barrier between the supporters and the protesters.  I took out my phone and started recording what was happening.  Those of you who have seen the video posted on my Blog know that these so-called “pious” scholars tried to attack us. They cursed us. I tried to engage one of the leaders of the group in conversation.  He spat at me and called me a Nazi.  “Go back to Germany!” he screamed.  “May your name be blotted out!” 

(Here is a link to the Video:

There was a tremendous and horrible irony in the fact that we were at the Kotel on the first day of the Hebrew month of Av.  You see, it was on Tisha B’Av - the 9th day of Av that both the first and second Temple were destroyed.  Our tradition teaches that the destruction of the Temple occurred because of divisions in our community. In the period before the destruction of the second Temple, under Roman rule, the city of Jerusalem was divided into three different factions.  The Pharisees – who eventually became the Rabbis – advocated for a new interpretation of Torah that allowed for adaptation to the modern world.  The Sadducees had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – they were linked to the Priestly class and had the most to lose if the temple were to be destroyed.  The Zealots advocated for war.  They were revolutionaries and, history teaches, were the main instigators of the uprising against Rome. Among the Zealots were a small, but deadly group called the Siccari – or dagger-carriers – from the Latin sicarius.  These radical extremists carried out attacks against Roman soldiers and were so committed to their vision of a pure holy city that they would not hesitate to murder other Jews who did not share their ideology.  

These warring factions were constantly at odds with one another. We know how the story ends:  On the 9th day of Av in the year 70 C.E. the Temple was destroyed by the Romans after the Zealots provoked a war. We lost.  The Jews were exiled from the land of Israel.  We would not be able to return in large numbers for almost 2,000 years.
The Talmud teaches that the reason the Temple was destroyed was not because of Roman aggression – it was our own Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – that did us in.

It was hard NOT to think of the tragic history of Jewish conflict on that morning of Rosh Chodesh Av this past summer.  The hatred and vitriol that we experienced has a long and violent history in that neighborhood.   Whether violence between Jews and Palestinians or, more frequently, Jew against Jew, too much blood and too many angry words have been spoken on that sacred ground.

Unfortunately, our experience at the Kotel was a foreshadowing of what was to be a much more deadly series of events.  Just a few days after we returned from Israel, on July 30th, two horrific attacks occurred – one in Jerusalem and the other in the Palestinian village of Duma.  In the first attack, a deranged ultra-orthodox Jew who, just a few weeks earlier had been released from prison for a similar crime, ran into the middle of the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade with a dagger and stabbed 16 year old Shira Banki and five others.  Shira died a few days after she was attacked.  Concurrently, in a separate attack, an eighteen month old Palestinian baby named Ali Dawabshe was burned to death in his home.  In the weeks that followed, his parents Sa’ad and Reham also died – leaving behind their five year old son, Ahmed who is now an orphan.  This unspeakable attack, by all accounts, was carried out by radical Jewish settlers. These so-called “price tag” incidents have been growing in both frequency and severity.  Jewish terror is very real.
The Siccari have risen again.  Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – is on the rise.
Of course – while we were on our trip, the world did not stop.  While we were inflight to Israel, the Iran Deal was signed and the controversy that has consumed so much of our psychic, political and spiritual energy over the past weeks and months was set in motion. 

For those of you who are waiting to hear me condemn or support the Iran Deal from this pulpit, I’m sorry, but you will be disappointed.   While I am very concerned about the prospect of a hostile and virulently anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and anti-American Iranian regime receiving international legitimacy and anywhere from $50 to $150 Billion dollars in sanctions relief; and while I worry about the prospect of a nuclear Iran – I also believe that an Iran that is subject to scrutiny is better than an Iran that is free to do whatever it wants.
I am neither a politician, a nuclear scientist or a military expert. I am a proud Zionist – and I know that there are many ways to support Israel. There are also more than enough points of view already floating around – we all can read and research and most of us here this morning have already formulated - our own opinions  - hopefully based on research and due diligence.  And I also know that wise people – for whom I have a great deal of respect -  on both sides of this issue  - have deliberated and come to conclusions that have set a process in motion that cannot be stopped. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what my opinion is:  The deal will go through.  It is done. 
As such, rather than focusing on the deal itself, I want to spend some time on this Yom Kippur morning talking about the aftermath of the deal – and why I am very concerned about how we, as an American and international Jewish community, have allowed our disagreements to unleash what I believe is a pattern of dangerous and destructive behavior that could, in the last analysis,  cause great harm to come to the Jewish State and to the Jewish people as a whole.

I never dreamed that the anger and vitriol that my colleagues and I experienced at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Av would make its way over to the United States – but it did.  In response to the Iran deal, passions have run hot and boiled over.  I have read hate-letters and horrific posts online – invoking obscene imagery by calling those who support the deal “Kapos” and “Nazis” – and those who oppose it “War mongers” and “Self-hating Jews.”  Lines have been drawn in the sand.  Friendships have been lost.  There have been death threats levelled against Senators on both sides of the aisle – even against Dan Shapiro – the United States Ambassador to Israel.  I know Dan Shapiro. He’s a nice Jewish boy from Chicago who is fluent in Hebrew and a graduate of our Reform movement’s summer camps.  He is not a threat to the Jewish community.  He is a tremendous asset.

I recently attended a meeting called by Senator Michael Bennett with leaders of the Jewish community in which the Senator painstakingly explained the anguished process that he went through to come to his decision to support the deal.  He shared with us the sleepless nights and countless hours he dedicated to consulting with the leaders of Israeli intelligence, nuclear physicists, military strategists, and many individual, concerned citizens.  He told us of the hate mail that he has received – from all sides of the issue - and how concerned he was about the vitriol that has been invoked both in favor and in opposition.  Whether or not you agree with Senator Bennet’s decision to support the deal – the abuse that he has received is abhorrent.
To those who would use the Iran deal as a crass political weapon to drive a wedge between members of the Jewish community I say, simply, remember the Siccari.

A few minutes ago, we heard the following words read from the torah:

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם רָֽאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“You stand this day – all of you, before Adonai your God:  the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, everyone in Israel – men, women and children; from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.”

All of us stood at Sinai – just as all of us are here today.  We are a diverse and complex community.  We do not now and never will agree on everything – and we shouldn’t.  I have no doubts that there are many different opinions about Israel, the Iran deal and many other pressing issues that face the Jewish community here this morning.  This is how it has always been.  The pages of the Talmud are filled with arguments and disagreements.  But the rabbis were very clear about one thing:  any disagreement that is not “L’Shem Shamayim” – for the sake of heaven – cannot and will not be tolerated. 
There is a poem I want to share with you this morning.  I first heard it when Anat Hoffman was our Scholar in Residence two years ago.  It is called “The Place Where We Are Right” by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

My friends, on this Yom Kippur, let us make room in ourselves and our souls for the ache of ambiguity.  As Amichai teaches:  “…doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow…”  All breakthroughs in science, the arts, and even global politics begin with uncertainty and a willingness to address it.  As Rabbi Immerman taught us so poignantly on Rosh Hashanah, it is only when we acknowledge the facts that none of us are whole and all of us are seeking a common path, that we can use our shared experience and expertise to work together to repair our all-too fragile world.

This does not mean that we must simply hold our collective breaths and wait to see what will happen in the aftermath of the deal. Now is the time for all lovers of Israel to come together and work to ensure that Israel’s safety, security, and moral compass are protected.  We can do this by letting our elected officials know that we expect our government to try to heal the dangerous rifts between the United States and Israel that have emerged during the tumultuous months that have passed.  We also can urge the government of Israel to change its tone and work towards finding paths of common purpose.  Now is not the time for obstinacy and belligerence.  We must move from diatribe to dialogue in order to address the serious challenges that lie ahead.
Get involved.  Whether it be AIPAC or J-Street, Jewish Colorado, ADL, JNF or the myriad other organizations that work to build up the State of Israel, the more we allow our voices to be heard, the greater impact we can have.
And finally, it is vitally important that we travel to Israel ourselves.  Whether for the 1st or the 31st time – it doesn’t matter.  Israel needs us just as much as we need Israel.  Sue and I will be leading an all-ages trip for both first-timers and returnees over Spring break – leaving March 27th and returning April 6th.  I hope that you will consider joining us.
My friends, on this holiest day of the year, may we find the strength and the courage to see the good in everyone around us.  May our differences make us stronger as we confront the very real challenges that lie ahead. 

Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Eulogy Vs. Resume Virtues - Kol Nidre 5776

Eulogy Vs. Resume Virtues
Rabbi Joe Black
Kol Nidre - 5776
My Dear Friends. 
I want to begin tonight with a story.
Two brothers, Sam and Seymour, worked together in a small town.  Over the years, they earned a well-deserved reputation as two of the most callous, corrupt, coldblooded businessmen ever.  They drove other stores out of business; they monopolized commerce; they abused their employees; they deceived their customers.  They used every trick in the book, and a few they wrote on their own, to enrich themselves while despoiling others.  Throughout the city, people despised them.  Their reign of terror lasted many years.

Eventually, as it happens, Seymour died.  Sam went to talk to the rabbi about the funeral.  He walked into the rabbi’s office and declared: “Rabbi, I am prepared to make a gift of five hundred thousand dollars to this synagogue.  But there is one condition.  At my brother’s funeral tomorrow, you have to say that he was a mensch.”  Regretfully, the rabbi replied, “I’m sorry, but there is no way I can do that.  His actions hurt too many people.  The whole congregation will know that I am lying, and I cannot compromise my integrity that way.”  Sam responded, “I will make it a million dollars.”  The rabbi hesitated for a moment, but then he shook his head again and answered, “I can’t do it.  Everyone in town knows how he lived his life.  I can’t say something that is so blatantly untrue, even for a million dollars.”  Sam retorted, “Two million dollars, Rabbi.  I will give you a check right now for two million dollars, if you promise to say these exact words: ‘He was a mensch.’”  The rabbi caught his breath.  Two million dollars was a lot of money.  The things the synagogue could do with two million dollars—the people it could help, the lives it could inspire, the gaps it could bridge.  Finally, the rabbi agreed.  He took the check, immediately deposited it, and wrote the eulogy.

The next day, the funeral was crowded with people curious to hear how the rabbi would eulogize such a man.  At the appropriate time, the rabbi began to speak.  “We all know what kind of a man Seymour was.  He lied.  He cheated.  He swindled.  He had no sense of right and wrong, and he ruined people’s lives without a second thought.  And yet,” the rabbi concluded, “compared to his brother, he was a mensch![i]
Sitting around a table with a family preparing for a funeral is one of the most meaningful responsibilities that I am privileged to perform as a Rabbi.  Over the past few weeks I have had the sad task of having many such meetings.  These are sacred conversations – filled with laughter and tears, joy and sorrow.  When we first sit down together, I often ask families to “Paint a picture with words” about their loved one.  As family members share with me their thoughts, feelings and history with the deceased, a portrait begins to emerge.  We usually start with basic facts, but soon anecdotes and memories come to the surface. These conversations often do not have a linear flow to them.  They ricochet from topic to topic – from generation to generation – depending on the perspective of who is sharing. But once the gates of memory are opened, more and more recollections, reminiscences and beautiful stories emerge.  Eventually, the impact of a lifetime of relationships begins to take shape in front of me:  Personal influences, values, courtship and marriage, parenting, grandparenting, travel, friends, hobbies and talents all come spilling out. 

People are often curious about the process of writing a eulogy.  “It must be hard to write about someone you’ve never met,” they say to me.  My answer is always:  “Not really.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better if I didn’t know the person, because then I won’t have to extricate myself from the text.”  Creating and delivering a eulogy is one of those times when we, as clergy, are able to truly have an impact on people in need.  Our task is to take the love, experiences and relationships of family and friends and put them into words.  If a eulogy brings comfort – it is because the truth has been told.  A eulogy should not “sugar coat” the life of a person.  But it should reflect the overall character of the deceased and help all those who knew and loved him or her begin the journey towards healing.

Some eulogies are more difficult to write than others – especially when things are left unsaid around the table; when traumatic memories or unfinished business cause those left behind pain.  Other eulogies, however, write themselves.  I can always tell when a family’s grief is not blocked by the ache of things left unspoken.  Their grief is palpable, but they have no regrets about the way that their loved one lived his or her life.  Even when death comes too soon – when, God forbid, a young person tragically dies – as we as a community have recently experienced - if he or she left this earth with healthy relationships and a sense of their own self-worth, the pain of grief –while palpable and often paralyzing - can at least be tempered by an awareness of a life that was fully lived – however brief it may have been.

Sometimes these eulogy conversations are heavily weighted towards accomplishments:  jobs held, awards presented, titles and degrees achieved – and these are important – but not as important as one might think.  There is a difference between a Resume and a Eulogy. A resume tells us what a person did.  A eulogy reflects on who a person was and how she lived.

This past summer, I read a book by New York Times columnist David Brooks titled The Road to Character. In his book, Brooks writes about how our vision of success and meaning has changed over the last few generations – beginning in the post WWII era where we formulated the concept of the American Dream.  We have shifted, he posits, from a culture of humility and service to one of self-love that can swing quickly to self-absorption.

All one has to do is look at today’s “Selfie” obsession to find evidence of how much this concept has taken hold.  The cost of focusing on the self can be measured in its impact on the general well-being of society as a whole. 
In a recent article, Brooks writes
“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?[ii]  

Brooks goes on to write about two different concepts that he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.”  Simply put, Resume Virtues are those qualities that are focused on our own accomplishments:  Jobs obtained, salaries negotiated, bank accounts accumulated and awards received.

Eulogy Virtues, on the other hand, are those aspects of our character that will be cherished long after we are gone:  our relationships, our ability to touch other people’s lives for the better, our laughter, our tears, how we made a difference in the world through giving of ourselves to others.

Now there is nothing wrong with striving towards success in one’s business or profession.  Setting up goals and achieving them is an important part of living a full life.  But when our desire for fame and fortune eclipse our connections with family and community; when our self-aggrandizement becomes the be-all and end-all of our existence, we need to take a step back and reconsider our priorities.

Brooks does not make an explicit value judgement between these two differing modes of measuring our lives – but his message is clear nonetheless.  He refers to the great modern Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik’s masterpiece, The Lonely Man of Faith where we learn about two different creation stories in the Torah.  He labels them “Adam I” and “Adam II.”  (One caveat here – when Soleveichik – or I for that matter - uses the term “Adam” or “Man”  “he” , we  means human being – not simply males….)

Scholars have long pointed out that the first two chapters of the book of Genesis tell very different stories.  In Genesis Ch. 1, we are presented with Creation in very broad strokes.  In each successive day, God creates the world as we know it – culminating in the forming of Man and Woman.  Humans are given the mandate to subdue and master nature.  All of the earth’s bounty is created for our pleasure and consumption. The first person – whom Solevetchik calls “Adam I” -  approaches the world and relationships—even with God, in functional and pragmatic terms. Being created in the Divine Image, in this instance, means that Humanity’s ability to conquer the cosmos is our birthright – our destiny.  Simply put, Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature.  Adam I is resume virtues.  This aspect of our self wants to build, create, produce, and discover.  For Adam I, it’s all about status and accumulation.

Adam II, on the other hand, is the main protagonist of Genesis Chapter II. He represents a different kind of person – someone who is looking for meaning and purpose in life. Here we find the story of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge and the snake. Adam II does not rule over the garden, he takes care of it – he nurtures it. He is introduced by the words, "It is not good for man to be alone" – and through his sacrifice of a rib and the creation of Eve he gains companionship and the relief of his existential loneliness.  Adam II has a calling, a sacred purpose; he experiences joy and failure, loneliness and love.  He is tasked by God with naming the animals and establishing relationships – with the entirety of God’s Creation.  While Adam I subdues nature to accommodate his own needs,   Adam II realizes his sacred purpose in life.  He represents, you guessed it, eulogy virtues.

Adam I and Adam II are not polar opposites.  We need both to be fully human.  Our rabbis taught that if we did not have drives for success, power and money, nothing would every get accomplished in our world[iii].  And yet, if our lives are only spent accumulating status, prestige and money in lieu of relationships, service and spiritual growth – we lose our ability to fully appreciate the true meaning of the gift of life in all its glory.

Tonight is Kol Nidre.  For the next 24 hours, we acknowledge our mortality, our fragility and our frailty. We refrain from eating and drinking. We confess our sins – to one another and to God.  Traditionally, Jews wear a kittel on yom Kippur – a white garment that is reflective of a burial shroud.  The imagery is real and jarring.

In the Unetaneh tokef prayer we read:  “You write and You seal, You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.[iv]

In a very real sense, the message of the Unetaneh Tokef is that God is challenging us to ask ourselves:  “What will be written in my eulogy?” 

When we hear the question: “…who shall live and who shall die..” , it’s hard not to think of the conversation that will take place around our kitchen table with the Rabbi or the Cantor after we are gone.  What will our loved ones say about us?  Will they talk about what we did, or who we were?  Will they recite our resume, or highlight our humanity? Will the tears and laughter mix mix together to paint a beautiful portrait or will the conversation be stilted and filled with meaningful and painful silence?

Over the next 24 hours we will contemplate our lives, our purpose, our values and our vision.  We will acknowledge that things are rarely black and white.  We know that there are times when we rise to our highest destiny – when we are selfless in our thoughts and deeds – when, like Adam II, we work for the betterment of our world. But we also know that there are times when we focus on getting ahead, on accumulating stuff, on bending the people and the world around us to our will; when we look at the world around us through the prism of Adam I.

Tonight, our tradition teaches us to take a long and hard look at the question:  How am I living my lifeare you living your life?  Do my actions reflect Eulogy or Resume virtues?  For most of us – the answer will be….. both. They key is how we manage to tip the scales in favor of our humanity and away from our hubris. Some of us may not like what we see.  We may feel that we need to change- to shift our priorities.  But change, as we all know, is difficult.  It’s painful. It’s unsettling.

The same prayer that shakes us to the very core, the Unetaneh Tokef – with its message of mortality – also provides us with a channel for change.  In the very last line we find the following: 
Uteshuvah, U’tefillah, Utzeddakah maavirin et roa hagezerah
Repentance, Prayer and Acts of Righteousness temper judgement’s severe decree.

These three concepts:  Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzeddakah – in a very real sense can provide us with a roadmap that can help us to negotiate the tricky pathways between Adam I and Adam II – our Resume and our Eulogy Virtues.

Teshuvah, loosely translated as “repentance,” requires that we look deep inside ourselves and ask if our actions and our values are in synch with one another.  And when we come to realization that they are not (as is often the case…) we need to work hard to rectify this imbalance.  It takes guts to admit our wrongdoings.  It takes even more guts to ask for forgiveness – but this is our task on this most sacred of days.

Tefillah – prayer – is the act of verbalizing and acknowledging our deepest joys and fears.  Praying is not easy.  It takes concentration and practice to be able to speak to God – however you define God.  But unless we are able to strip away the layers of self-absorption and denial that accumulate over the years, we deny ourselves the ability to be completely open and honest.  True prayer does not change the world – but it can change our souls – when we allow ourselves to let go of the inhibitions and expectations that society places upon us.  Prayer is at one and the same time a solitary and a communal act.  As I said on Erev Rosh Hashanah, one of the key purposes of religion is to teach us that we are not alone.  Jewish prayer takes place within the context of community.  We share our frailties and vulnerabilities with one another.  Our prayers are deliberately written in the plural form:  “Avinu, Malkeynu, Chatanu”:  OUR Parent, OUR Sovereign, WE have sinned…. Not ME, MYSELF or I.  And yet, we cannot allow our communal supplication to overshadow the fact that each of us has fallen short of where we want to be – where we need to be….. And so, we pray – opening our hearts and our mouths as we cry out to the source of mercy and meaning in our world.  When our prayers come from the depths of our souls, we can begin to reflect on who we are and who we truly want to be.
And this brings us to Tzeddakah.
If all that we do on this Yom Kippur is to acknowledge our sins and ask forgiveness – but if we do not leave this sacred place committed to putting our humility and desire for change to work – we have accomplished nothing.  Tzeddakah does not mean charity.  It means Righteous acts.  It means looking at the world, seeing inequity and injustice and doing all that we can to repair the damage that has been done.  It means finding ways to give of your time and your good fortune to build up and support the institutions, organizations and individuals who labor on your behalf to make the world more whole.  Tzeddakah is not merely writing a large check to the Temple (although that IS a start.)  Tzeddakah means that you realize that each of us was put on earth for a reason.  It means transcending the self-centeredness of Adam I and opening the doorway for Adam II –inviting him into your life and committing to emulate what he stands for.
What are you passionate about?  How do you want to make a difference in life? There is a phrase attributed to Socrates that states:  ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.[v]’ Now is the time for us to commit ourselves to creating a legacy of character

My friends – change is not easy.  It involves sacrifice and practice.  It does not happen overnight – but it does requires that each of us take the first step.  Tonight and tomorrow, as we delve deeply into the recesses of our souls, we have a sacred opportunity to commit to changing our lives – our character, our values and our vision.  Now is the time. 

I want to conclude with a story:

Once there was a father who had a son who was very rebellious.  Every day, this boy would test his father through his actions.  He refused to listen.  He rejected authority.  He caused his father great pain.  One day, the father went to the store and bought a hammer and a bag of nails.  He went into his yard and he pounded a nail into the fence post.  Each time his son acted out, he would take another nail and hammer it into the post.  As the days and weeks went on, the nails accumulated until the fence was completely covered.  One day, the boy asked his father about the nails in the fence.  His father explained that each time he disobeyed, another nail would be added.  He also said that, if the boy started to obey and change his ways – every time he saw that happening, he would remove a nail.  All of a sudden, the boy had a change of heart.  He saw the nails and realized the pain he had caused his father.  And so, he began to consciously think about his actions.  He listened.  He began to show his love and affection.  And each time he did this, another nail was removed.  After a short period of time, the nails were all gone.  The father came to his son and told him:  “Son, I’m so proud of you.  You’ve learned an important lesson.”  The son, with tears in his eyes said, thank you father – but as I look at the fence – I still see the holes where the nails used to be.  His father replied – those holes are reminders of the past.  That cannot be changed.  But each time you see them you will be stronger as you look ahead to the future.[vi]

My friends, as we travel together through the rest of this holy day, may we all resolve to find ways to improve ourselves and our souls.  May we find the courage and the character to change – to make ourselves and our souls more complete.  We know that change can be painful.  It means that we acknowledge that the path along which we have been travelling may not be right one for us.   And yet, if we commit ourselves to truly accepting the fact that our lives and our legacies make a difference, then we are making the most of the gift of life that God has bequeathed to each of us.

And when the time comes for our loved ones to look back and tell the story of our life may our eulogies reflect our values and our vision for a better world.

AMEN G’mar chatimah tovah[vii].

[i] Thank you Rabbi Ken Karr for this version of an old joke….
[ii] David Brooks:  “The Moral Bucket List” – NY Times – April 11, 2015
[iii] Bereshit Rabbah 9:7
[iv] Gates of Repentance (GOR) p. 312
[v] Plato, Apology 38a
[vii]I want to thank Rabbis Dan Gropper and Stephen Reich for sharing their thoughts on Brook’s book with me.  I appreciate their generosity of spirit and character.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Three Purposes of Religion: Why We Need Synagogues

Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5776
The Three Purposes of Religion:  Why We Need Synagogues
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Dear Friends,
L’Shanah Tovah!  It is wonderful to see you all here tonight.  For those who come here on a regular basis – thank you for enhancing the spiritual life of our community.  For those who come more sporadically ….welcome!  Welcome home!  Your presence makes our sanctuary all the more holy and this day all the more special.
Each year – mid June, when I begin to think about what I want to speak about on the High Holy Days, like all Rabbis, I face a quandary.  “What should I say?  What do I need to talk about? And more important, what do my congregants and community need to hear from me?
I know I’m not alone.  Every rabbi in every synagogue asks the same questions.  This year, I thought I would try some crowd sourcing.  And so, I posted a request on my Facebook page and asked people what THEY thought I should talk about.  The response was tepid at best….  But then, I posted an article on my page that was floating around the internet about why fewer and fewer Jews were coming to Synagogues on a regular basis – and the floodgates opened up.
Something about that article touched a nerve.  I heard from people all around the country.  Some respondents questioned the relevance of the synagogue in the 21st century.  They talked about “edifice complexes” and a lack of openness within lay leadership and staff.  I read stories of how some people tried to connect but found it difficult or almost impossible to find their place…Yes – some shared that being part of a synagogue was a vital and important part of their lives. Many people posted wonderful things about our congregational community here at Temple Emanuel. But these were in the minority.  I also am fully aware of the fact that people who tend to post on Social Media are often the ones who have the strongest feelings about the topic being discussed. And yet, I must confess - the volume of responses and the pain and anger that many of them reflected were disheartening.
And so, tonight I am going to address the elephant in the room:  Why do we need a synagogue? Why do we need religion? Why do we come to this place every year on the High Holidays and recite prayers, and listen to ancient texts and melodies that, for many of us, do not reflect our daily experience? If the purpose of the Synagogue is to be a religious center, is that still relevant today?  I think it is.  And here’s why.
The first Synagogues came into being around 586 BCE – shortly after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. An exiled people, we were faced with a crisis of monumental proportions.  We no longer could offer the sacrifices that defined our religious lives; we had to innovate in order to survive.  And so, we created a new institution where we could re-shape and (yes) reform our faith.  In the Mishnah, tractate Avot[i] we find:
Al Shelosha D’varim Ha-Olam Omeyd – Al ha Torah, v’al ha Avodah, v’al g’millut chasadim .
The World is sustained by three things:  By Torah, By Prayer and By Loving deeds.” 
This is not only an ancient proverb, it is the mission statement for the Synagogue. From its earliest inception to the present day, the synagogue has been a subversive institution.  It was and continues to be about radical change and reformation.
And it is here in the Synagogue that we experience the meaning and purpose of our faith.

Now you don’t need a building to be Jewish.  You don’t need a sanctuary, or a social hall, or meeting rooms or classrooms.  But you do need a place where Jewish life, culture and tradition are nurtured. You need teachers, Cantors, Rabbis and educators who dedicate their lives to ensure that our values and traditions will live on. You need a place where we can study together and ensure that our most important religious values are both taught and lived on a daily basis. That is the synagogue. It is here that we come to understand our faith and apply it to our lives.
But, just as the Jewish people faced a crisis after the destruction of the 1st Temple, so too, are we facing a crisis today.  2500 years ago, our people were exiled from our land.  Today, we are facing, not a physical exile, but a spiritual exile. For many, the thought of religion as a guiding force is irrelevant.  The moniker, “Spiritual, but not religious,” over the last 10 years has become a buzz-word for over 30% of American society.[ii] Organized religion is increasingly perceived to be irrelevant an increasing number – especially among those under 40.
And I understand why….much of what takes place in many of our synagogues has become stale, rote and irrelevant to a growing core of our community.  And so, like our ancestors before us, we need to take time to reflect and retool ourselves and our institutions in order to make them a central part of our lives.  What happens here in the Synagogue cannot stay here in the synagogue (to mis-quote an oft-used and probably inappropriate ad campaign).  Our task must be to make religious life vital and central to our lives. We at Temple Emanuel are committed to this process of self-examination and reflection. But before we can succeed in that endeavor, we need to be clear about what religion is all about – and how it can be best experienced in our sacred community. 
And so, in a nutshell, here is what I believe are the three main purposes of religion:
·         The first is to teach us that we should not be alone.
·         The second is to teach us that life is a gift.
·         And the third purpose of religion - and the most important of all - is to teach us that we are mirrors.
The first purpose of religion is to teach us that we should not be alone:
Our faith helps us to comprehend the fact that the brief time that we are allotted here on earth is not supposed to be a solo quest.  Relationships are central to what it means to be human.  Life is best experienced with others. 
In Genesis, 2:18 we find the followingLo tov heyot ha Adam l’vado -  it is not good for people to be alone.”  From that moment on – the entire book of Genesis can be seen as a chronicle of Humanity trying to find a way to discover what it means to be in relationship with one another and, ultimately, with God.  Sometimes we are successful, other times we completely miss the mark – but we never stop trying.
Indeed, tomorrow morning, when we read the difficult and powerful story of the Akedah – the binding of Isaac – one of the key themes that emerges from the text is that of Abraham trying to understand what it means to be loyal to both his God and his loved ones. 
Religion – Judaism - provides us with a way to come together for a common purpose, sharing common values, expressing common thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams

Tonight, we have come to this sacred place to welcome in a New Year.  During these Yamim Noraim  - these Days of Awe - our differences are minimized as we engage in the communal process of Teshuvah – repentance – or “returning.”  
If you think about it, this is a highly personal thing.  Why must we confess our sins publicly?  I mean, do we really need to look at our flaws in the midst of a group of people? Why should we air our dirty laundry in front of our neighbors? 
The answer, our tradition teaches, is that we go through this communal process because we not only need to confront our failings; we also need to ask forgiveness from others and to grant it when asked ourselves.  Our tradition teaches that we are required to ask forgiveness from those whom we have wronged.  It even tells us that we are to ask them three times if they say no.  But then, the text goes on to say, we are also required to forgive those who come to US asking for forgiveness – we need to let go[iii].  Why?  To preserve community. To let go of old grudges and move on.  Because life is about being together – creating a sacred community – a Kehilla Kedosha
But even if we do not feel the need to ask for forgiveness – we still need to be together.  Our very presence – in this sanctuary in our synagogue:  sitting, standing, singing, praying…. reinforces the fact that we need one another.  We need to share our lives with others.  We need to see that our fears, our hopes our failures, our Teshuvah is the same.  When we do this, we elevate our souls and together make sacred connections that bind us to one another.  And so, the first purpose of Religion is to teach us that we should not be alone.

The second purpose of Religion is to teach us that life is a gift.
I want to tell you a story: Once, long ago, in a kingdom far away, there was a most unusual custom. When a king died, a special bird, called the "bird of good fortune" was released. This bird flew around the kingdom and the person upon whose head it finally landed became the next king.
In this same kingdom, there was a slave who lived and worked in the king's palace. He was a jester and a musician who entertained the king, his family, and guests by dressing in funny clothing including a cap made of chicken feathers and a belt made from the hooves of sheep and a drum carved out of an old gourd.  Every night, when the King wanted to be entertained, he would call for his slave to come out a make a fool of himself.  That was his job.  That was his life.
It came to pass that the king died suddenly and the "bird of fortune" was released. It circled in the sky some time, while the people of the kingdom watched in wonderment. Finally, it came to rest on the head of the slave, nesting itself in his hat of chicken feathers. Immediately, and to his surprise and consternation, he was declared king of the entire kingdom, and in an instant, the slave was transformed into a powerful sovereign.
He moved from his slave quarters into the king’s palace, donned his royal attire, and sat upon his throne.
For his first royal decree, he had a small, simple hut built next to the palace. Every day, the new king visited the little hut, disappearing behind the door for a short time. Then he would emerge, and lock the door behind him. His ministers and advisors thought this very peculiar behavior, but after all, he was the king now and who would question him?
As the years went on, the new king passed many laws aimed at reducing slavery and suffering. The changes were made gradually - so gradually that no one noticed them. The king was known to all for his kindness and compassion, as well as his peculiar habit of visiting the odd little hut once a day.
One day, after many years, his closest advisor asked, "Your majesty, what is it that you keep in that hut of yours?"
"My most treasured possessions!" the king replied, and he led the advisor into the hut and showed him a cap made of chicken feathers, a belt made from the hooves of sheep and a drum carved out of an old gourd.  There also was a large, full length mirror.
"These are your most precious possessions?" the advisor replied. “They are the trinkets of a slave!"
The king replied to his advisor:  "When you made me your king, I promised myself and God that I would never forget that I was once a slave lest I grow arrogant and haughty, and treat people as I was once treated. Every morning, I come here and dress as I was once forced to dress. I stare at myself in the mirror and wait until the tears roll down my cheeks. Only then am I prepared to leave this hut and rule as a good king should.  These are the most treasured possessions I have."[iv]

I love that story!  It teaches a basic truth that so many of us are loath to incorporate into our lives – the realization that life is a gift from God – no matter how bad things get – or how much fortune we accumulate – we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Once we understand this, we have no choice but to work to make the world a better place.  This is a central tenant of our faith.  Every year at Passover, at our seders, we sing the song, “Dayenu.”  We say – if God had only bought us out of Egypt – “Dayenu!” it would have been enough.  But no – God fed us with Manna…”dayenu – it would have been enough, but no, God brought us to Mt. Sinai and gave us the Torah….”Dayenu!” it would have been enough….

My friends, we live in a society that teaches us that nothing is enough.  From an early age, we are bombarded with the concept that we need to hoard and spend ourselves into happiness. And this impacts our relationships as well when we start to judge those closest to us by what they can do for us – rather than by what we can do for them.

Healthy Religion teaches us that life is a gift. And it is in the synagogue that we can share that gift with others – by caring for those who don’t have enough – by being a source of comfort and consolation to those who are in need.  And this brings me to my third point:

The third purpose of Religion is to teach us that we are mirrors.

There is a midrash that relates to the first of the 10 Commandments (which really isn’t a Commandment at all.)  Anochi Adonai Elohecha – I am Adonai your God.   The rabbis comment on the fact that the word, Elohecha (your God), is in the singular – I am YOUR God.  It doesn’t say “I am the God of all of you..” The text is personal, intimate – it is as though is God speaking directly to each of us.  In the Midrash, Rabbi Levi teaches that when God spoke those words it was as if a mirror appeared in front of each person at mount Sinai. They saw their own reflection in God’s words[v].

I have my own take on this Midrash.  Maybe, after the commandments were given, after we left Sinai, we held on to our treasured mirrors and kept them as family heirlooms to be passed down from generation to generation.  But we adapted and changed them.  Instead of using them to see our own reflections, we turned them around and focused them on those around us.

I believe that the most important sentence in the Torah can be found in Genesis 1:27 where we find that:   “…..God created Humanity in the Divine Image.”  When we learn to see the godly, the holy, and the potential for good in every person we meet – we are using our mirrors to improve and work towards perfecting our all too imperfect world.
We are mirrors when we help others to see the Godly in themselves.  
We are mirrors when we look at the person next to us and help them to see God’s presence in their actions, hopes, fears, loves.
We are mirrors when we feel the pain of others and work to ease it through our presence, our compassion and our action.
We are mirrors when we help others to see that they are created in the image of God. 

The story is told: In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who was concerned about the legacy he would leave to the people of his town. The man spent a great deal of time contemplating his dilemma, and at last, decided to build a synagogue. In the course of his planning, he decided that no one would see the plans for the building until it was finished. The construction took quite a long time – much longer than he anticipated.

But at long last, the project was completed. The townspeople were excited and curious about what they would find upon entering their new synagogue. When the people came for the first time they marveled at the synagogue’s magnificence. No one could ever remember so beautiful a synagogue anywhere in the world.

Then, noticing a seemingly obvious flaw in the design, one of the townspeople asked, “Where are the lamps? What will provide the lighting?”

The proud nobleman pointed to brackets, which were strategically placed all along the walls throughout the synagogue. He then gave each family a lamp as he explained, “Whenever you come to the synagogue, I want you to bring your lamp, and light it. But, each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be dark. This lamp will remind you that whenever you are absent, some part of God’s house will be dark. Your community is relying on you for light.”

We come here tonight and our collective light shines brightly. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, how bright or how dark it is inside of these walls depends solely on each one of us.

When we bring our own light to this sacred place – we help others’ to see their reflection in the sacred mirrors we all carry with us at all times.

The purpose of a Synagogue – the Kehilla Kedosha – is to become a place where we bring religious values to life.  It is in the Synagogue that we nurture the best in ourselves and our community while, at the same time, working together to improve the imperfect world around us.  It is here that we learn about and celebrate the possibilities for holiness in our lives.
It is here in the Synagogue that we remember and live out the three main purposes of religion:
·         We should not be alone.
·         Life is a gift.
·         We are mirrors.
Temple Emanuel is not perfect.  There are many things that we can do better.  And yet, we are nonetheless committed to continuing the legacy of innovation, from which the synagogue was born over 2500 years ago.  On this Erev Rosh HaShanah, let us pledge – together – to kindle lights in our hearts and souls – and to work together – to create the most dynamic and supportive community we can be. 
L’shanah Tovah .

[i] Mishnah, Avot 1:2
[iii] C.f. Rambam’s Mishneh Torah – “Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentence) 2:1, This Wikipedia article has an excellent Bibliography of secondary sources as well:
[iv] Thank you, Rabbi Robin Nafshi for the text of this story.
[v] c.f. Schulweiss, Rabbi Harold , In God’s Mirror: Reflections and Essays. KTAV Publishing House, 2003