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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gall Bladder Blues

This past Monday, I had surgery to remove my gallbladder.  As surgeries go, I'm told, its a relatively simple procedure.  They used a laproscopic technique that was minimally invasive so my recovery is going well.  I hope to back at work by the end of the week - slowly..... 

Here is a poem/song that I wrote about it.  The first half was written the night before.  Last stanza was composed the first day of my recuperation. 

Gall Bladder Blues 
(c) November 18, 2014
By Rabbi Joe Black

They're going to make four small incisions
And pump me full of air
Then they'll take a look inside me
To see what's wrong in there

They'll gas and dull my senses
and with a twisting of his wrist
The surgeon, deftly dancing
Will do what he does best

How my body has betrayed me!
How dare it act alone!
What gall it takes to play me
Like some 3 card Monty clone

It's hiding 'neath the paper cups
And slipping side to side
Now you see it now you don't
As it takes me for a ride

Sometimes it sits contented
With a mind that's all it's own
Until it strikes with claws extended
And makes its presence known

And when it all is over
And the offensive organ's gone
And I walk about when healing's done
With savings overdrawn.

Will I change the way I see things
Will my voice be somewhat strained?
One part is gone
A useless thing?
The source of so much pain.

God made us all with wisdom
Some are happy some are sadder
I, for one am quite content
To get rid of my gall bladder.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Standing With Israel - Yom Kippur Morning, 5775

Standing With Israel
Yom Kippur Morning – 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, a Jewish man once visited the great zoo of Moscow. To his amazement he found a lion and a lamb sleeping together in a cage. The man went to the zoo keeper, a fellow Jew, and said, "Comrade, this is amazing! The Messiah has come. How else can you get a lion and a lamb to lie down together in one cage, much like the prophecy of Isaiah?"

"It's easy," said the zoo keeper. "We put a new lamb in the cage every day."

I tell you this story today, on Yom Kippur morning, because
- as a Jew;
- as a Zionist;
- as a lover of peace and a believer in peace;
- as a person of conscience who grieves the loss of life – no matter whose life it may be;
- in the aftermath of one of the most difficult summers we can remember experiencing – most of us from a distance – but some of us from very close quarters;
- and in anticipation of what will follow, 
I cannot stand idly by while the world tries to paint Israel as a devouring lion while, at one and the same time, forcing her to play the role of a sacrificial lamb.
I also cannot remain silent when I see the Jewish State vilified around the world – and in this community – for reasons that range from a naïve desire for peace to basic anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism.
This past summer, as you all know, Sue and I – along with Janet Bronitsky and Mark Suprenand – led a group of 44 members of our congregation on a life-changing trip to Israel.  We arrived at Ben Gurion airport on June 27th and immediately became immersed in the miraculous reality that is the modern State of Israel.  We witnessed first-hand how the Jewish State was created out of the dreams and hard work of visionary Chalutzim – pioneers.  At the same time, we encountered our ancient history as a Jewish people – in the archeological excavations of Masada and the City of David; and in the hills of Tzfat and the beauty of Jerusalem.  We experienced the vibrancy of modern Tel Aviv and the solitude of the Negev.  We met with and learned from an array of teachers and visionaries who make up the multi-ethnic quilt of Israeli citizenship.  And – oh yes – while we were there, a war broke out…..
This past summer we watched the funeral of three young boys who were brutally murdered at the hands of terrorists for no reason save that they were Jews.  We also learned of a horrific crime committed by Israeli Jews against a Palestinian Muslim boy who was burned to death in a racist rampage.  We heard about missiles being fired from Gaza by Hamas terrorists and we witnessed the ramping up of police and military security.

On the day that most of the members of our group left Israel for the United States, Operation Protective Edge was officially launched by the Israel Defense Forces.  Sue and I stayed on a few extra days to visit family in northern Israel.  We saw on TV how the Iron Dome System intercepted deadly missiles that were fired – not only on the southernmost communities of Israel, but also on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem  - the economic and spiritual heart and soul of the Jewish State.  We saw how Sue’s cousins’ kibbutz – Sasa – prepared to welcome families from S’derot and Ashkelon into their homes. These were families who needed rest and respite from constant bombardment and fear in the wake of Hamas’ missiles.  We saw how innocent Palestinians in Gaza were trapped in their homes, schools, Mosques and hospitals while terrorists used them as human shields for launching their deadly missiles – knowing full well that Israel’s retaliation would result in innocent civilian casualties.  We saw how the IDF did all that it could to minimize collateral damage in its attempt to eliminate the terrorist threat posed by Hamas – broadcasting in advance the locations of its attacks – asking civilians to leave – even calling them on their cell phones to warn them of the danger they faced.  We saw the maze of tunnels that Hamas had dug beneath Gaza– tunnels which used cement and other building materials that the world had donated to Hamas for the purpose of rebuilding  schools, hospitals and mosques –but instead were appropriated for the machinery of death and terror.

We returned home to a cacophony of voices surrounding the war.  Yes, our community let our voices be heard.  But we were not the only ones.  The streets of Denver were filled with anti-Israel protestors – like every other State in the Union and around the world.  I feel gratified to know that, while some of these voices were loud and obnoxious, they had little true impact on our elected officials who stood by Israel in her time of need.
Jewish Colorado sponsored a rally in support of Israel that was held here in our sanctuary.  Almost every seat was filled.  There were other rallies and actions within the Jewish community as well - some were sponsored by far right groups – others were held by organizations on the far left.  Some supported Israel and called for the death of her enemies.  Others were quick to condemn – using much of the same rhetoric that those supporting Hamas have used.  It is clear that, despite the grave situation that Israel and World Jewry faces, our American Jewish community is not united around a single narrative or perspective.

These are troubling times indeed.  For Jews in America and throughout the diaspora, the question of how we relate to the State of Israel has never been more complex.  In a recent article in the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein writes about the fact that some American rabbis are thinking about avoiding talking about Israel over the High Holidays because of the divisions in the American Jewish community. Some rabbis have been sharply condemned by their membership for daring to criticize certain aspects of Israeli policy.  In other communities, Rabbis have created conflict because they were reluctant to join in with members of their congregation in condemnation of Israel[i].  This, my friends, is cause for alarm.  As we are seeing in so many other areas within society – from the media, to our school systems – especially in Jefferson County - , attempts to censor legitimate discourse is the first step on the road to ignorance at best and totalitarianism at worst.   As I said from this pulpit last Rosh HaShanah, it is vital that all legitimate voices be heard in the conversation around Israel and her neighbors. 

Peter Beinart, a well-known leftist Jewish thinker has taken the issue of speaking from the pulpit about Israel even farther.  He writes that it is inappropriate for Rabbis to speak about Israel at allnot because of the controversy it might engender, but rather because most of their congregants have access to the same information as their clergy for learning about the complexities of the situation[ii].  According to Beinart, rabbis have no business talking about Israel.  That should be left to the academics, the politicos and people like….himself.  He writes that instead of preaching about Israel, rabbis should instead teach Torah on the High Holidays.  

While I often disagree with much of what Beinart writes, he is correct in saying that Rabbis should teach Torah on the High Holidays.  But I virulently disagree with him when he states that Israel has no place on the pulpit.

So let’s look at the Torah portion that we heard chanted so beautifully this morning.  In Deuteronomy 29:9 we read the following: 

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel,This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;
your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers…..

In other words, the entire community of Israel was standing before God – united - as we are today on this most sacred day.

In chapter 30, verse 19 of Deuteronomy, we read the following:
This day, I call upon heaven and earth as witness before you: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.

One of the aspects of these specific pieces of Torah that have always fascinated me is the fact that there is no equivocation whatsoever.  God calls all of us together.  We stand at rapt attention.  God tells us that we have a simple choice: 
Good or Evil.  Life or Death.  Blessing or Curse. 
Boom – that’s it. 
It’s pretty simple.
Black and White.
Everything is clear.  Our choices lay in front of us. 
That was probably one of the last times in our entire history that all Jews could agree on one thing.
Today, the choices faced by the Jewish State are in no way clear or self-evident.  As the Israeli author and scholar, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in a recent essay in the New Republic:
“I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state,” [he writes] … “That there won’t be one and that there will be one[iii].” 
Throughout the last 66 years that we have prayed for peace in the Middle East, Israel has been willing to give up territory, release prisoners who have murdered her children, even shake the hand of sworn enemies for the sake of true peace.  The Jewish State has had to take risks in her quest for Shalom. Some of those risks have born fruit – even if the pay-off is a bit shaky at times.  Egypt and Jordan, while not what anyone would call “friendly” to Israel, still have upheld the peace treaties that were negotiated.  Other risks – such as Lebanon and, of course, Gaza have not played out so well.

Over the years, pundits, politicians and average “Jews in the Pews” who cared have shared a wide variety of strong opinions vis-à-vis Israel and the peace process.  They range from those who feel that giving up one inch of territory is a sin, to the other extreme that questions the necessity and validity of having a Jewish state in the first place.

I find it fascinating that while we, who consider ourselves to be Israel’s supporters cannot agree on what it means to be a loyal, supportive or critical of Israel, our enemies have no such qualms.

Israel is consistently demonized by her enemies: on college campuses in the United Nations, in the media,

Make no mistake about it, my friends, these are troubling times, not only for the state of Israel, but for the Jewish people as a whole.  This past summer we have watched as Israel was attacked – not only by Hamas rockets and terror tunnels, but in the world press, at national conventions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), at meetings of academic organizations and labor unions, on college campuses and on the streets of major capitals around the world.

We have witnessed a world that is quick to boycott, divest, sanction and condemn the Jewish state for so-called “Crimes Against Humanity” while turning a blind eye to far more horrific actions taken by Governments like Syria, Egypt, Iran, China and  North Korea, to name just a few – not to mention the rise of a Frankenstein-like hybrid of Radical Islam and Fascism called the Islamic State that has left a path of death and destruction in the wake of achieving its goal of creating a new Islamic Caliphate.

We also have witnessed the natural progression of a virulent anti-Zionism morphing into classical anti-Semitism with chants of “Death to Israel” quickly evolving into “Death to the Jews!”  We have witnessed bombings and shootings in Jewish institutions and the beating of Jews on the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, Rome[iv], Brussels[v], Budapest and throughout the European continent[vi].

Our Torah teaches is to “Choose Life” so that we and our descendants might live.  It sounds so simple – but, when it comes to Israel, each choice can become an existential nightmare.  Perhaps Prime Minister Netanyahu said it best in 2006, following the end of a particularly brutal conflict in Lebanon when he stated on the floor of the Knesset: 

"The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.[vii]

While I do not always agree with everything that Prime Minister Netanyahu says or stands for – especially in regards to settlement expansion and his hands-off approach to religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel – these words ring true and help us to understand exactly what the State of Israel is facing on a daily basis.  Just because this last war has ended in a cease-fire and Hamas appears to be crippled, there can be no cause for rejoicing.  There are many others who are ready, willing and able to continue the fight.

So how should we, on this Yom Kippur – this holiest of all days – approach Israel?  Despite the rise of Anti-Semitism we have witnessed around the globe, most experts agree that the United States is still the safest place for the Jewish people the world has ever seen.  We can sit back and watch without getting involved in Israel and it probably won’t change our external lives at all.  In addition, recent studies have shown that fewer and fewer American Jews find Israel to be an important part of their Jewish identity[viii].  When we factor in age and affiliation with a synagogue or a religious movement, the numbers are even more disturbing.

Is Israel important?  Does it have a place on the pulpit?  Does it belong around our break-the –fast tables and in everyday conversation?  Or are we weary – and we wish it would just go away so we don’t have to worry about it.

My friends, you all know my answer.  And yet, I’m going to say it anyway.  Let’s set aside the historical, spiritual and emotional connections that Jews have had with the Land that we call the State of Israel for a moment – and let’s focus on the following four fascinating facts about the Jewish State:
·         Israel is almost finished building a cyber/Technological center in Beersheva in partnership with several multi-national corporations that rivals what the United States has built in Silicon Valley; what Russia, China, India and any other nation has built to date.  Israel will soon be a cyber super power[ix].
·         By end of this decade, Israel will be weather independent for its water through the use of pioneering and proprietary desalination technology that it is exporting around the world[x].
·         Within the next decade, Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field will have will have the capacity to revolutionize the energy supply around the world. Israel will have enough natural gas to remove Russia from its current position as the prime supplier of energy for Eastern Europe.  It already has entered into deals to supply gas to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority[xi].
·         Israel has already become a global leader in bio-tech, nano-technology and computer science.
Now imagine if you could build a nation from scratch that could guarantee that it would feed its own people, provide water for agriculture and human consumption, be energy independent and become a technological innovator in multiple areas – while maintaining, at the same time its Democratic, principles, defending its borders against hostile enemies and retaining a centuries old tradition of spiritual and religious values.  You’d be impressed wouldn’t you?

I firmly believe that Jewish life and the Jewish people are inexorably linked with the State of Israel.  We need Israel as much as she needs us.  We need to travel to Israel. We need to learn as much as we can about Israel and we need to support groups and organizations that work on her behalf.

Last year, as you will recall, I spoke about the need for all partners in the Zionist enterprise to have a seat at the Table of communal discourse.  I still believe this.  In the next few weeks you will be receiving information about two major events that will be held here at Temple Emanuel – one will be sponsored by J-street and the Other by AIPAC.  These are not our programs – they are being held in our building – but it is important that we hear from all sides of the pro-Israel spectrum.   I’m also very happy to remind everyone that, once again, the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council –in conjunction with all of the congregations, Jewish Colorado and CAJE are once again offering iEngage. If you have not had the opportunity to take advantage of this special opportunity to learn more about Israel and engage in open and educated discussion about the issues surrounding the Jewish State, I urge you to do so.  Information about iEngage is in all of our educational materials, our website and Facebook. 

I also plan on attending the annual AIPAC policy conference that will take place in our nation’s capital on March 1st through the 3rd. I hope that many of will join with me as well. I am proud of the fact that many national and regional leaders of AIPAC have come from our congregation.  This year, more than ever, we need to show solidarity with Israel.  The AIPAC policy conference is one of the best ways that we can show both the State of Israel, and our own elected officials that we stand with Israel.  Remember, if it had not been for AIPAC’s efforts, the Iron Dome Missile system that saved thousands of Israeli lives may not have been in place.  Please join me in DC this year.  It is an amazing experience to spend 3 days learning and lobbying our leaders about the vital importance of the partnership between the United States and Israel.

My friends, today is a day when we focus on those aspects of ourselves and our souls that truly matter.  None of us is perfect – and neither is the State of Israel. But, as I said last night, perfection is not a Jewish value – perspective is.  WE have both the ability and the responsibility to learn about, visit and show our support for the Jewish state. 

Today, our Torah teaches, we are given a choice.  Let us choose life – for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.

The Ticket - Kol Nidre, 5775

The Ticket
Kol Nidre– 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black

My Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago, Sue and I drove Ethan to the airport to begin his second year of college at the University of Texas.  Now those of you who have ever said goodbye to a college student know very well that, as much as you want to pretend that it’s no big deal….it is a big deal – you’re saying goodbye to your kid for at least 3 months.  Each year of college is one year closer to your child becoming an adult and leaving the nest for good.  And as we drove, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t going to get upset.  I tried very hard to be nonchalant – and so, as a way to avoid my feelings, I peppered Ethan with questions:
  • Who’s going to pick you up at the airport?
  • Did you forget to pack anything?
  • Will you call us when you get to Austin

And then there was one more question:

  • Why is that police car behind me with his lights flashing?

And then I looked down at my speedometer…..

It turns out, I was driving 70 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour construction zone…on Pena Boulevard…

Now, of course, we all know that EVERYBODY speeds on the way to the airport!  I wasn’t going any faster than the other cars around me.  But I got caught.  I was distracted by trying to pretend that I wasn’t upset about Ethan leaving for college…..

After the policeman gave me the ticket, I started to rationalize – to myself, to Sue and Ethan – to God, perhaps….  After all, I wasn’t doing anything that anybody else wasn’t doing! 

Then I got angry. How dare they issue me a ticket?  Don’t they know who I am? I’m an important member of this community! I’m the Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanuel!  I’m the president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council!  I’m a Chaplain for the Colorado State House of Representatives.    I could fight this – and probably win.  I have friends in high places.

And then I looked over at my son – with thte smirk on his face – on his way to college.  I asked myself, what behavior am I modeling here?  What am I teaching my children?  Am I above the law?  Is anybody, really?

I shut up – and when I got home, I paid the ticket.

No matter how important you might think you are – that speed gun doesn’t - or at least shouldn’t recognize anything other than the fact that you were driving over the speed limit and you have to pay a fine.

What an important lesson for me to learn in the weeks prior to the High Holy days – leading up to Yom Kippur!

On this day, we are told, we stand in judgment before God.  Everyone is equal on Yom Kippur.  It doesn’t matter what we do, who we are, what titles we hold, how much money we make.....all of us are mortal.  All of us have sinned.  Many of us have driven above the speed limit......  All of us need to go through the process of teshuvah – turning and repentance.  And that’s not easy.  And that’s why we’re here tonight.

Yom Kippur is the day that levels the playing field.

On Yom Kippur, our tradition teaches, each of us comes to the Synagogue with our bag of sins – our collection of misdeeds from the past year.  All year long we add more sins to our bag.  Some of us carry small little peckelach – little sacks.  Others are carrying steamer trunks.....  But we’re all carrying something.  We don’t like to look at our baggage.  Most of us avoid it at all costs..... and yet, at some point we need to open it up, examine what’s inside, fess up to what we’ve done and ask for forgiveness.  We need to say “I’m sorry” – to God and to one another.

Jewish tradition teaches that Teshuvah – repentance - is a process – it is not something that is done lightly, easily or, for that matter, for profit. The great medieval sage, Rambam – or Maimonides -- articulates in Hilchot Teshuvah—the Laws of Repentance, the steps one must take in order to bring about full teshuvah/Repentance.  Just as a twelve-step program for people with addictions can pave a path towards recovery, so too can a Maimonidean “five-step” program show us the way to a better life.

The first two steps in doing Teshuvah are recognition  - admitting to ourselves that we did something wrongand renunciation – resolving internally that we will never repeat what we have done

These are the acts of looking into the mirror and facing ourselves as we really are – warts and all.  They are often the most difficult of the steps in this process because they are so counterintuitive to what society teaches us.  We tend to measure ourselves by external, rather than internal metrics.  Admitting wrongdoing is seen as a weakness when we compare ourselves to others.

A story is told of a young boy who was sitting  at a restaurant talking on his cell phone.  He dialed a number and asked to speak to Dr. Ginsberg.  The boy said: 
"Hello, Dr. Ginsberg, how would you like to hire a boy to cut the grass and run errands for you?  Oh, you already have someone?  Are you satisfied?  You are?  OK.  Goodbye." 
As the boy was getting up to leave the restaurant, the manager stopped him and said: 
"Listen, son, you seem like an enterprising and hard working young man.  I could use someone like you around the place.  If you're looking for a job, you can work for me." 
"Thank you sir," the boy replied, "but I already have a job." 
"But didn’t I hear you asking Dr. Ginsberg if he needed someone to work for him?" 
"Well, not exactly,” replied the boy, "you see, I'm the boy who works for Dr. Ginsberg and I was just checking up on myself." [Thanks to Rabbi Barton Lee for this story...]

So much of our time is spent comparing ourselves to others!  We want to know how we "measure up".  We play this game in all areas of our lives:  at work, at play.  Even in our families.  And all of this is fueled by the messages - the sales pitches - we receive every waking minute of every day.  If we are to believe what we see on Television, what we read in the many "self-improvement" books that fill our bookshelves,  what we hear from “experts” who have simple answers to life’s complicated problems.... we can have perfect homes, perfect families, perfect jobs and perfect teeth.  We can live in perfect communities where the roads are always free from repair, where crime is nonexistent and the air quality index is above average.  We can drive the perfect car and wear perfect clothing on our perfect bodies.....All we have to do is find the right secret for success.  And those secrets are within our grasp – for the right price.
As silly as it sounds, when our impossible dreams do not come true, our souls are in turmoil.  We hide our true feelings, fears and frustrations.  We also refuse to see that this inner turmoil is controlling us and forcing us to go to great lengths to compensate for them. 

But when we own up to our actions and admit our faults and our frailties, we actually show our strength. That’s why we teach our children that telling the truth about what they did is praiseworthy even if the deed itself was wrong or even illegal (like speeding on Pena Boulevard....).

Once we have gone through the difficult process of looking deep into ourselves and our souls, Maimonides’ next two steps teach us that we have to look outside of ourselves, publicly acknowledging our hurtful actions and actively asking for forgiveness. 

I recently  received an e-mail from someone I hadn’t heard from in a long time – someone with whom I had lost touch over the years.  The heading on the message said:  “L’Shanah Tovah.”  I opened the e-mail and saw that it was not only addressed to me – it was a mass-mailing sent to a group of friends and acquaintances.  The text of the e-mail was as follows:

“In the spirit of Elul, if I have done anything in the past year which caused you any hurt, embarrassment, pain, or difficulty, or was offensive to you in any way, I humbly offer my apologies and ask for your forgiveness.”

I must say, I was saddened when I read his e-mail.  But at least it wasn’t a tweet…. While the spirit of message may have been genuine, it was not a true act of Teshuvah.  The fact that it was contained in a mass-mailing was bad enough, but the truth is, it didn’t accomplish anything other than possibly allaying his personal guilt.  To state:  “If I have done anything that may have offended YOU.....” puts the onus on the one who was offended – not the person asking forgiveness.

I have been guilty of doing the exact same thing - not in e-mail form, but in words that I have spoken.  Before each High Holiday service, those who will be participating in the service or sitting on the Bema gather together in the Green room behind the sanctuary for a short prayer.  Just before we begin the prayer, I thank the participants for all that they do for Temple Emanuel.  And then I ask their forgiveness for anything that I may have done to hurt them over the course of the year.  In reading my friend’s mass-e-mail, I recognized my own words in his remarks.  And so, I will try to enumerate those aspects of my own failings when I ask for forgiveness in the future.

And this brings us to the next step.  Maimonides teaches us that the third step of Teshuvah is putting into words exactly what we have done wrong.  We acknowledge our misdeeds – first to a trusted friend, colleague or loved one – in order to find the proper words.  But then, in the fourth step, we are required to go directly to the person we have wronged, acknowledge how we have wronged them, and ask them for forgiveness.

In other words, it’s not enough to say, “If I have harmed you in any way, I didn’t mean it....”  We need to name our transgressions and own up to them.  We need to make ourselves vulnerable.  We need to let down our guard and face those whom we have harmed. 

True Teshuvah can have no ulterior motives.

True teshuvah must come from the heart – from an acknowledgement that we have hurt someone and we cannot move on until we address the fact that we have created that hurt.

Over the past few weeks, we have watched the leadership of the NFL come to terms with the fact that too many professional atheletes have a problem with domestic abuse.  The way that Commissioner Goodell has dealt with the problems in his league has come under a great deal of scrutiny.  Was he truly apologetic at first?  Did he and the teams under his umbrella  fully accept responsibility for the problems they faced or did they do just enough to satisfy the public’s desire for change? Time will only tell…..

True teshuvah involves risk.  It means that we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection – it means we need to be vulnerable. But nothing worth getting in life comes without some risk.

There are people we know who will do almost anything to avoid having to face the pain of their own inadequacies. 

The Haftarah we will read tomorrow afternoon is one of the most powerful and confusing stories in the Bible - the book of Jonah.  If you remember the story, God calls to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh and proclaim that the city will be destroyed if the Ninevites do not repent.  Jonah decides to flee.  He boards a ship and sets sail for Tarshish.  A great storm shakes the boat and Jonah is thrown overboard.  Immediately, the waters are calmed and Jonah is swallowed by a fish.  For three days he remains in the belly of the fish until he is spewed forth on dry land - at Nineveh:  the very place from which he was fleeing. 

Why do we read this story on Yom Kippur afternoon?  There are many reasons.  Jonah, when first confronted by the size and scope of his task, flees in terror.  The message of the story is that, try as he might, Jonah could not run away - for his problem was not that he had an onerous task to perform - no, his problem was that he was trying to run away from himself.  The book of Jonah teaches us that, no matter how hard we try, eventually we are going to catch up with ourselves - and we are going to have to deal with our mistakes and missteps – it can’t be avoided.

Another reason we run is that we are afraid that, by showing our true selves, we might become repulsive to those around us – especially those who love us.  And this is the greatest mistake that anyone can make.  Love is not based on perfection.  It is based on perspective and acceptance. 

We hide our true selves for fear of rejection.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes the following:
To love is to accept with enthusiasm that which is less than perfect.  It involves the willingness to accept imperfection and to accept it enthusiastically, not in a spirit of long suffering self-righteousness.  Anybody can be stirred by perfection; you have to accept perfection because it makes an unassailable claim on you.  You have to admire it, but you cannot love it.  It is only by reaching out and accepting, without disdain, the less-than perfect that we show our capacity for love. [I’m not sure the source of this quote. It is either from Rabbi Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be?A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness or from an article or sermons that he wrote. I could not find the source.]

If everyone were perfect, we would have no need for Yom Kippur.  We would have no need for prayer, for this synagogue, for community. We wouldn’t need audacious Hospitality!!!  We would all be complete.  We would all be content with ourselves and nothing more – for what could perfection ever need from another person or institution, or idea.  If we were all perfect, we would all be bored out of our minds.  If we only allowed ourselves to interact with perfect people – no one would be here right now.

We are not perfect.  We are flawed.  For this reason we need Teshuvah.  We need to be able to say “I’m sorry” – and mean it – really mean it.
There is a subtle irony in the fact that, just before Cantor Heit chanted Kol Nidre so beautifully tonight, we proclaimed:  “Tonight we are permitted to pray with sinners!”  The truth is, every interaction that takes place in our lives happens in the company of sinners – we all sin!

No, we are not perfect – we are flawed.  As a result, we also need to be able to forgive those who come to us – afraid, vulnerable, weakened by their own self-awareness, desperately needing our forgiveness.

A story is told about the famous Nazi Hunter, Simon Wiesenthal:

            There was a man living next to Weisenthal in one of the DP camps after the war.  One day, the man borrowed $10 from him and assured him that he had a package coming from a relative any day - and would positively pay him back the next week.  At week's end, he had an excuse for not paying, and the next week he had an even better one, and so it went on for almost a year.  Finally, one day the man approached Weisenthal with a $10 bill in hand and said:  "My visa has just come through.  I'm leaving for canada tomorrow,  Here's the $10 I owe you."  Weisenthal waved him away and said:  "No, keep it.  For $10 it's not worth changing my opinion of you.”

The story rings true, doesn’t it?  So many times, we get so invested in our hurts, our slights, our anger, that we find it difficult to let them go.

Somewhere here tonight is a man who is painfully remembering how he was deceived a partner in business, or a parent, a child, a lover, or friend.....and that memory is like a hot coal – burning angry red in the pit of his stomach.

Somewhere here tonight there is a wife who is so angry at her husband that she is ready to leave him. 

Somewhere a son is seething with resentment that his mother could treat him so badly.  

Somewhere a parent has written off a daughter for her misdeeds. 

Somewhere there is a friend who is deeply hurt by another. 

Somewhere, everywhere – we all have been wronged.  For just as we have sinned, we also have been sinned against by others.

We hold on to our grudges.  They become familiar, habitual, a part of us – and they steal from us our ability to see the holiness – not only in others, but also in ourselves.

Our task – on this Yom Kippur – is to find the strength to ask for forgiveness – and the ability to forgive when we are asked. 

But what is even more important, we are also charged tonight with forgiving those who will not admit that they have wronged us – who won’t or can’t ask for forgiveness – and that is the most difficult task of all.  We need resolution – and when it is not forthcoming –we are trapped by our emotions.  When we hold on to our anger, our resentment, our sense of righteous indignation, we also are allowing ourselves to be controlled by these feelings that sap our capacity to move on and channel our energy from hatred and anger into love and compassion.

Now I also understand that there are some actions that are truly unforgiveable.  Victims of abuse have shared with me their struggle to move on and rid themselves of the anger and fear that they feel when they recall the actions of their abusers. Those who have had loved ones harmed or even murdered by others must deal with both their grief and their anger. But some of these brave souls have also have shared that, through hard work and the support of caring individuals, they can move beyond the fear and hatred.  They understand that holding on to anger and resentment  keeps them linked eternally  to the person who caused their pain in the first place.  This is not an easy process – it takes years of difficult and painful therapy – but it can be done…. These chains can be broken.

Maimonides final step is resolution.  What happens when we are confronted with the same opportunity to sin for which we have asked forgiveness?  Will we succumb?  Will we find the inner strength to resist the temptations that lie in wait for us?  This is the final test of the process of teshuvah. 

A story is told of a rabbi who on the eve of Yom Kippur asked his students, “How far is it from east to west?”  One student eagerly responded, “Hundreds of miles!”  Another shouted, “No, thousands!”  A third proudly replied, “Twenty-two thousand! That’s the circumference of the globe.” 

The rabbi shook his head then calmly spoke, “My children, the distance from east to west is just one step.  Just put one foot forward and turn yourself around.”

Tonight all of us are equal before God.

Tonight we need to pay the fines and move on.

Tonight we recognize, renounce, confess, apologize and resolve to change our deeds.

And so, my friends, once again – as I do every year – I ask you:  To whom do you need to ask for forgiveness?  Who do you need to forgive – whether they ask you for it or not? 

Now is the time – don’t wait until it is too late – that is the message of these Yamim Noraim – these Days of Awe –and especially this holiest of days when we stand before God – in all of our weakness, our mortality and our potential for holiness. Do it.  Ask for and grant forgiveness.  Don’t allow fear, guilt, resentment or anger to control you.  These five steps can and will change your life and your relationships.  I promise.

May we all find the strength within ourselves to take the necessary steps towards Teshuvah.  

And may we learn to drive the speed limit – especially on the way to the airport!.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah


Friday, September 26, 2014

The Sweet Taste of Engagement: Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5775

My Dear Friends,

L ‘Shanah Tovah! 

It’s so good to see you here tonight.  Welcome! 
I want to begin this evening by telling you one of my favorite stories.  Many of you, I am sure have heard this story before, but it bears repeating.  The story is about two people – a baker named Yankel who had a reputation that reached far and wide for his delicious challah.  The other was an impoverished tailor named Shmulik – who had a large family – but could barely keep enough food on the table.

The story begins at a Shabbat morning service.  The Rabbi gave a VERY long and VERY boring sermon (as some rabbis are wont to do….) that dealt with the intricacies of the 12 loaves of Challah that the priests were required to keep in the holy of holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was a brilliant sermon – it was so brilliant that no one understood it – and Yankel the baker, along with most of the congregation was lulled into a sleepy stupor.

After the Rabbi finished his sermon and the congregation woke up, the baker went home to his wife for Shabbat lunch.  “So what did the Rabbi talk about this morning?” she asked.  Now Yankel had not been sleeping throughout the entire sermon.  He heard little bits and pieces as he drifted in and out of consciousness. “I think,” he replied, “…that God wants me to put 12 loaves of Challah into the ark.”  And so, being a pious Jew, and always doing what his Rabbi told him, the next Friday morning, he baked an additional dozen loaves, and brought them to the Synagogue in the late afternoon –just before the beginning of Shabbat.

As Yankel walked into the empty sanctuary and stood in front of the ark with his sack of Challot, he had to admit to himself that he was feeling rather foolish.  He opened the ark and prayed:  “Ribono Shel Olam – Master of the Universe, I am a simple man.  I am a pious man.  I never knew you liked challah – but if the rabbi says this is what I’m supposed to do – then I’ll do it.  I hope you like it.  Have a Gut Shabbes, God!”  Then, the baker closed the ark and went home.

Not two minutes after Yankel left the synagogue, in walked Shmulik the poor tailor.  Now this had been a particularly difficult week for Shmulik.  His wife and 13 children were hungry.  Whatever few coins he could scrabble together by sewing and mending did not begin to meet their basic needs.  He was at wits end.  Finally, in desperation, he went to the only place he could think of to find solace and comfort:  the synagogue.  He walked up to the ark and began to pray with all his heart:  “Ribono Shel Olam – Master of the Universe!  I am a good Jew.  I try my best to feed my family – but I just can’t make it anymore.  God, I’m at wit’s end.  I need Your help.  I need a sign!  Please God – help me!”  And at that moment – he bumped the curtain of the ark and -- you guessed it, out fell a loaf of Challah...  Shmulik quickly found the other 11 loaves - and with grateful prayers, he kissed the ark curtain – and ran home to his family.

The next morning, at services, Yankel was very nervous.   All night long he had wondered what would happen during the Torah service when they opened the ark.  Would his Challot still be there?  Was he a fool for thinking that the Rabbi told him to put Challah in the ark?  The moment came.  The doors open and... no challah!  It was all gone!  Not a crumb was left!  The baker was overjoyed.  “Next week – cinnamon raisin!” he said - half out loud and half to himself.

The next week – at the same time – Yankel came with a dozen freshly baked challas.  He lovingly placed them into the ark, kissed the curtain and said:  “God, I’m so glad you liked my challah.  I promise:  as long as You eat them – I’ll bake them.”
He left the synagogue and went home.
Five minutes later (you guessed it!) in walks Shmulik.  He humbly approached the ark and prayed:  “Ribono Shel Olam—Master of the Universe:  Last week – You performed a miracle for me and my family.  I took the Challahs home – I kept 2, sold 8, gave 2 to Tzeddakah and had enough to feed my family for a week.  Thank you, thank you!  But You know God – things are still tough.  Is there any chance you could perform another little miracle?”  He opened the ark: “Cinnamon Raisin – My favorite!” said the tailor.

According to the story, this went on for 20 years.  Every Friday afternoon, Yankel would bring the Challah, and just after he left the synagogue, Shmulik would come to claim it.  Until one day – the Rabbi stayed just a little bit later than usual.  And Yankel came a little bit early.  You can imagine the Rabbi’s surprise when he heard a voice coming from the sanctuary.  He peeked in and he saw the baker standing in front of the ark. 

“God, sorry about last week,” said Yankel.  “We had an accident at the Bakery.  Somebody switched the sugar and the salt.  My guess is that Your Challahs didn’t taste very good.  I promise it won’t happen again.  Have a Gut Shabbes!”

As he turned to leave, the Rabbi stepped out from behind the shadows:

“What do you think you’re doing!!??”  asked the Rabbi.

“I’m giving God Challah,” replied Yankel.

“You can’t do that!  That’s blasphemy!  God doesn’t eat Challah!”

“Well, you were the one who told me to do it!”  said the baker.

They would have gone on arguing for several more minutes, except for the fact that they were interrupted by someone else entering the synagogue.  The Rabbi and the Baker hid themselves so that they wouldn’t be seen.  Shmulik walked in.  He went up to the ark, and, before he opened the curtain he said:

“God, I don’t mean to be picky, but the Challah tasted a little funny last week…”

He reached into the ark, and started loading his sack with the 12 freshly baked loaves.

Just then Yankel jumped up and screamed:  “What are you doing with those challahs?”

“They’re mine!” said Shmulik.  “God baked them.”

“God didn’t bake those Challahs, I BAKED THEM!”  said Yankel.

And at that moment, the Baker, the Tailor and the Rabbi realized what had been happening every Friday afternoon for the past 20 years.

Now there are several endings to this story.  The first ending is that Yankel and Shmulik were so ashamed and embarrassed that they never set foot into the synagogue again.

The second ending is that the Rabbi said to Yankel:  “You thought you were baking Challah for God.”  And then the Rabbi said to Shmulik:  “You thought God was baking challah for YOU.”  Now your task is to give it directly to each other.

Normally, when I tell this story, I use the second ending.  It’s nice.  It’s cute – it works for small children.  But the truth is that the first ending – when both Yankel and Shmulik never set foot in the synagogue again - is much more realistic than the second.  It doesn’t take much for people to find a reason to leave a synagogue….and Yankel and Shmulik had a pretty good reason to stay far away.  AS a matter of fact, the percentage of Jews who are affiliated with a Congregation is rapidly decreasing.

If we look at national trends there must be plenty of powerful reasons that people are staying away from synagogues.   Here at Temple Emanuel, we have been very fortunate.  Instead of getting smaller, our numbers are staying steady – and, we’re even growing a little bit – and we should feel good about that.  Our religious school is overflowing and last summer we sent over 40 students to Israel on IST.  But I have no illusions that, just because our demographics are bucking national trends, we can rest on our laurels and keep things as they are.  If we are to remain vibrant as a congregation we need to commit ourselves to finding new and engaging ways to ensure that we are not allowing ourselves to become complacent.    

Secondly, numbers aren’t everything – especially when it comes to worship. Think about it - we have approximately 2,000 households in our database – that’s about 6,000 individual members.  And yet, on any given Friday night, we rarely fill our small chapel.  It’s very clear that our current worship offerings are either not compelling or not important to most of our members.  Even on the High holidays, our numbers are dwindling – with some notable exceptions:  Our services at Shwayder Camp on 1st and 2nd day Rosh HaShanah are overflowing.  We had to close reservations due to space concerns on both days.  Similarly, we have made the decision to hold our Rosh HaShanah Unplugged and Shema Koleynu services in the sanctuary because we could not accommodate everyone who wanted to attend those services in the social hall.  Why are these prayer experiences growing and others are not?  I believe it is because they break new ground and provide an entrée into the sacred and somewhat scary world of connection that traditional Reform Shabbat services do not offer to many members of our congregation.  Of course, to some members of our congregation - these services are very powerful and beautiful.

It wasn't always this way.  In the past, we joined Synagogues because that was what we were supposed to do.  To be Jewish meant to be part of a congregation.  It meant attending services and actively participating in all areas of congregational life.  The Synagogue was not just the place where we prayed, it also was the center of our community.  We identified as Jews by and through our synagogue affiliation.

Today, synagogue membership is one of many choices that we can make as to how we will spend our discretionary income and time.  Should we go to services or out to dinner?  Should we go on vacation on join the Shul?  Should we join the synagogue or the JCC?  There are as many – if not more –reasons NOTto  become part of a congregation as there are to become a member.

A story is told of a young rabbi who stood on the bima delivering his Yom Kippur sermon. Wanting to make a strong impression he banged on the lectern as he loudly delivered the first line of his sermon, “Every member of this congregation will die someday!” He paused and looked around at the somber look he had put on everyone’s face. His eyes settled on one man in the front row who responded differently from everyone else. This man was grinning back at him! Certain the man in the front row had not heard him, the rabbi again thundered, “I tell you that everyone in this congregation will one day die!” He looked down at the front row and saw that the man was still smiling. One last time the rabbi shouted, “True it is that eventually everyone in this congregation must die!” Seeing that the man’s grin had only grown larger, the rabbi paused and asked, “Excuse me sir, are you amused by that idea?”

“Oh no,” replied the man, “I’m not amused. I’m relieved… You see, I’m not a member of this congregation!”

I’ve been a rabbi now for 27 years.  For the first 20 years of my rabbinate, I was taught and I taught others that the best way for a synagogue to operate was to design and offer the most innovative and creative programming possible. The more options we had, the more successful we would be. Temple Emanuel surely has a history of amazing and creative programming for which we are regarded in the highest esteem throughout our movement and beond.

But I don’t believe this anymore.  The world has changed. Synagogues are now competing with the many other options Jewish involvement that are being offered in our community. People don’t join congregations for programs - we join because when we walk through the doors of a synagogue we feel that we are part of something important, sacred, meaningful and bigger than ourselves.  A synagogue should be a community where we confront, celebrate and come to understand the most important aspects of our lives. 

That is what these High Holy Days are all about – helping us to readjust our lives so that we can focus on what is powerful – not passing; what is sacred – not superficial; what is essential – not ephemeral.  If there was only one point during this service tonight that you were inspired, or pushed to think a little bit differently about what is important in your life, or even felt a little bit uncomfortable because you realized that there are things in your life that are not the way they should be….then you have touched upon the purpose of this sacred time.   But it goes beyond these 10 days in Tishrei – we should strive to find that meaning and purpose every single day of our lives.  And I am absolutely convinced that it is in the midst of sacred community –here in the synagogue – that we find the pathways that lead us on our quests.  My friends, even though we are over three thousand years old, Judaism is a radical faith.  Torah and the Jewish people exist for one purpose and one purpose only:  To provide a framework for men, women and children to understand that we are not alone and, in the process, to affirm that our lives have meaning, purpose and value.  You can’t get that online, at Starbucks or at the gym.  You can find it in the Synagogue – if we agree that we are partners together in creating a community that matters.

This is the most important mission towards which Temple Emanuel can and must strive – creating a sacred community that truly matters.

It is in sacred community that we sustain and continue an ancient tradition that has defined us as Jews, comforted us through centuries of pain and given us the language of rejoicing in the most beautiful moments in our lives.

It is in sacred community that we address the fact that we live in a world that is increasingly isolating.  The more complex and innovative our technology becomes, the more we hide ourselves behind addictive glowing screens that give us the world at our fingertips while, at the same time, dulling our senses to the real world that exists beyond our devices.

It is in sacred community that we address our generational ache for meaning and purpose.

It is in sacred community where we find the holiness that 21st century life, with all of its technological advances notwithstanding, has systematically stripped away from us.

Now I’m not going to claim that, simply by walking through the door of Temple Emanuel you will suddenly find enlightenment – no, that probably won’t happen.  But I can tell you that by joining together with a community of seekers – seekers of wisdom, tradition, community and comfort, we can and will become intrinsically linked with those who came before us and set the stage for generations yet to come.

Over the next weeks and months and years you are going to be hearing a lot about the concept of Engagement at Temple Emanuel.  Our lay leadership and professional staff have made a conscious effort to reshape and refocus our efforts away from simply providing programs and towards creating opportunities for every member of our congregation to connect with others and find more ways to enhance their spiritual, intellectual and social lives. 

Of course, we will provide programs – but we also will be looking to you – our membership – to tell us what it is that you want from us.  Everything we do should be pointed towards the goal of creating an atmosphere of what our President, Ellen Abrams and what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism call “Audacious Hospitality.”  Every time you walk into this building, receive open one of our emails, look at our website or Facebook page, call our phone number or have any contact with Temple Emanuel you should feel, instinctively that you are welcomed and that you have made a connection with something much bigger than yourself.

We want to challenge you:  This is your synagogue – take advantage of what we have to offer.  Come to services.  Take a class.  Learn to chant from the Torah or present a d’var torah at services.  Get involved in social justice and social action.  Visit our library.  Make it your business to get to know our clergy and staff – let us take you out for coffee or you take us out for coffee.  We want to know you – and we want you to know us.

I want to return to our story of the baker and the tailor.  I told you earlier about 2 possible endings.  In fact, there is a third ending as well.  After Yankel and Shmulik realize what had been happening all these years, they go home, dejected.  And yet, the next Friday morning, Yankel the baker, out of habit, baked an additional 12 loaves of Challah – out of habit.  He looks at the loaves and thinks to himself: 

“What if what happened last week was a fluke?  Maybe God really does like my challah!  I’ve got to give it one more chance.”

And so, as he had done for so many years, Yankel walked into that empty Sanctuary on that Friday afternoon and placed 12 freshly baked loaves of Challah into the ark.  And then he prayed:

Ribono Shel Olam:  for 20 years I have come here to bring you the best that I had to offer.  I believed that You took my gifts with love. Through coming to this synagogue, I found my purpose in life.    God, I’m not ready to give up on You – and I’m not ready to give up on my synagogue.  I’m going to do this one more time.  If, tomorrow, when we open the ark, the Challahs are still there, I’ll know that You don’t want them – I’ll be sad.   But if they’re not there – I’ll know that You care. ”

And Yankel kissed the ark curtain and he left.

The next morning, the 12 Challahs were gone. 

And, as the story goes, Yankel and Shmulik, to the delight of God and all of the Angels in Heaven, continued giving and receiving Challah for another 36 years.  They believed that the Challah was a gift to and from God. 

They were right.

There are times in all of our lives when we come to this sacred place and feel completely connected to our community and to the sacred dimensions of our lives.  There are other times that we walk through the doors and we don’t.  And yet, something keeps bringing us back – even if it’s only for the High Holy Days.  That urge to return is a gift from God. It is a sacred connection that comes from being part of a holy community.  Remember – Martin Buber taught us that we experience the Divine through relationships and community.  That is what we at Temple Emanuel aspire to become for every member of our sacred congregation - for when we celebrate our community, if we allow ourselves to be truly open to the spiritual potential within us, we can experience moments of transcendence where we can almost taste God’s presence – and that taste is as sweet as freshly baked Challah.

It’s good to see you here.  Come more often. L’shanah Tovah.