Saturday, September 30, 2017

Getting “Woke”- Yom Kippur Morning, 5778

Getting “Woke” 
Yom Kippur Morning, 5778
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel- Denver, CO

My Dear Friends,
A story is told of the untimely death of a man who left behind a young wife.  After the initial period of mourning had ended, the deceased’s widow purchased a grave-marker and set the date for the unveiling.  As the time for the unveiling came closer, the widow discovered, to her dismay, that her husband had not been completely honest with her.  In fact, instead of providing her with financial security, he left her with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt – the result of some questionable investments.   She also found out that he was not entirely faithful to her during the course of their marriage.   As you can imagine, she was devastated.  She was also very angry.  It was too late to cancel the unveiling:  guests had been invited and the stone had already been ordered and carved with an inscription.  She called the monument company to see if anything could be done and they told her that while they could not cancel the stone or erase the engraving, they could add something to the inscription – but it had to one of their “standardized” texts – to personalize it any more would be prohibitively expensive.  She asked for a list of standard inscriptions and eventually she found one to her liking.
The day of the unveiling arrived and the widow came with her friends and family to the cemetery.  When the stone was unveiled, everybody present saw two inscriptions – the old and the new -  side by side, which read: “Rest in peace…..Until we meet again.”
It’s a funny story -but it also belies a hidden truth that calls out to us on this Yom HaKippurim – this day of Atonement.  There are moments in our lives when we are confronted with a truth that we didn’t ask for and didn’t want to know about, but once we hear it or see it, we have no choice but to act upon what we have learned. 
And so, this morning, I want to talk about how we look at the world and how our preconceptions and closely held notions of who we are can sometimes put us in places and positions that take us out of our comfort zones and force us to either live in denial by shutting out the reality in front of us, or rethink our priorities and take a stand for a cause that we know is just.
A good example of this was how, this past week, we all were placed on the sidelines of the NFL watching as players, coaches, pundits and our president weighed in on the practice of athletes kneeling during the singing of our national anthem.  To some, kneeling is sign of disrespect - to our nation and its flag.  To others, it is a powerful form of protest – not against the flag or our nation, but against systematic racism and injustice against people of color that continues to exist in the face of denials by those in power. Both sides have let their feelings be heard – loudly and clearly.  Ideally, the national conversation sparked by this controversy could have paved the way for dialogue and understanding among different communities.  Unfortunately, that does not seem to be happening. If anything, the opposite has occurred.  There are many who delight in and profit off of the division that is being sown, the polarization we are experiencing, and the demonization of the opposition that is taking place all around us.  As I have lamented for some time, dialogue has been replaced by diatribe in our society and civility is paying the price.  We either do not want or are unable to listen to one another anymore.
There’s a phrase that originated in Black culture that I learned in the context of interfaith and inter-religious dialogue.  I am uncomfortably aware that using this phrase could be seen by some as an act of cultural appropriation – but I think that its meaning and history can help us to understand an important and necessary reality that we all face.  The phrase is: 
“Getting woke”
Getting “woke” means that you have been enlightened to important issues that confront us as a society:  issues such as institutionalized racism, religious and ethnic persecution, environmental pollution and economic injustice. When someone is “woke,” they no longer can ignore the inequities that surround them.   The Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, perhaps anticipated and expressed this concept best in the 1960’s when he asked the question: “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”
Moses was Woke.
In the book of Exodus we read how this child of privilege – who grew up in Pharaoh’s household - went out “…to his kinfolk”.  He saw a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave and when he saw that no one else was doing anything to stop the violence, he stepped in and slew the Egyptian[i].
Moses was not alone. If you think about it, “waking up” or “getting woke” is a central motif that has always been present throughout literature and popular culture:

  •   From Jacob’s ladder to Hamlet’s ghost;
  • From the black and white of Kansas to the technicolor splendor of the Land of Oz;
  •  From Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s letter, to Oskar Schindler’s list      
our collective unconscious is indelibly linked with the idea that once we see the world as it really is we are forced to make a choice about whether we can accommodate the new reality with which we are confronted. Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahmani, is quoted in the Talmud as saying: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are[ii].”
A few years ago, I read an interesting book called Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlife by David Eagleman. It’s an easy read - consisting of 40 short contemplations about what the afterlife might be like. This is not a religious text – Eagleman is a neuroscientist, not a theologian. In his essays, God exists – but not in a way that we might recognize. Sometimes God is portrayed as a married couple, or a committee, or an entire species of dimwitted creatures that created us by mistake. In one essay, God is the size of a bacterium. In another there is no God at all and people in the afterlife battle over stories of God’s non-existence.
I want to share one portion of one of Eagleman’s essays. He writes:
When you die, you feel as though there were some subtle change, but everything looks approximately the same. You get up and brush your teeth. You kiss your spouse and kids and leave for the office. There is less traffic than normal. The rest of your building seems less full, as though it’s a holiday. But everyone in your office is here, and they greet you kindly. You feel strangely popular.
Everyone you run into is someone you know. At some point it dawns on you that this is the afterlife: the world is made up of people you’ve met before.
Eagleman continues to expound and expand on this concept – and it soon becomes clear that all the choices you made in this life are played out for eternity: the people you connected with in this world are the only people that exist in the next world. If you limited yourself in life – death is also limited. After a while – you see just how shallow or deep your life really was.
Eagleman’s afterlife is the world we create for ourselves. If we worked to make the world a better place – than the afterlife is a better place. If not – it is lonely, isolating and monotonous. How many of us currently live our lives in a narrowly defined, carefully crafted cocoon? How hard do we work to prevent ourselves from seeing, hearing or getting involved in things that make us uneasy or uncomfortable? How often do we change the channel when we hear news that upsets us?
The great theologian and social activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “…indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, … in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[iii]
Elie Weisel taught: The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.[iv]
When we recite the Al Chet prayer – one of the key sins we confess is:
Al chet she chatanu lifanecha – b’imutz ha lev
“For the Sin we have committed against You by hardening our hearts.”
In other words, on this Yom Kippur we need to acknowledge the fact that when we harden our hearts to the truths around us, we sin against God and ourselves.  In order for change to occur; in order for our lives to be truly meaningful - we need to be committed to changing ourselves.  That is what this sacred day of Yom Kippur is all about. 
As we read a few moments ago in our Haftarah for Yom Kippur:
"Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?[v]"
Judaism teaches us that we have the ability to change the world – one action at a time. With that ability comes responsibility

  • to speak out when we see injustice
  •  to act when we can make a difference
  • to refrain from doing nothing when confronted with the need for change.
It is for this reason that I want to share with you a small portion of a statement published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis that many of my colleagues from within the Reform Rabbinate are also sharing during the High Holidays this year. It is entitled: 
One Voice for the New Year, 5778
The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”
Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry any moral abdication of people in leadership who fuel hatred and division in our beloved country.
This is not a political statement.
We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.[vi]
I share this statement this morning not because of political philosophy, or liberal or conservative leanings, but because I cannot be silent when I see moral equivocation in the aftermath of neo-Nazi thugs marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. 
I share this statement because I see women being debased and degraded and their right to choose how they will take care of their own bodies is threatened. 
I share this statement because I see rights of my LGBT brothers, sisters and congregants threatened.
I share this statement because I see freedom of our press weakened by accusations of “fake news” that echo dangerous patterns of governmental repression against which we, as a nation have fought and for the sake of protecting, too many of our finest have died.
I share this statement because I am worried about the rise of anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia and intolerance that is plaguing our country and that has not been forcibly condemned by those whom we have chosen to lead.

I share this statement this morning aware that it may upset some of you.  If it does, that was not my intention – but instead of stewing over your feelings, or writing a anonymous note or email – call me.  Let’s sit down over a cup of coffee and talk to one another.  We may not agree, but at least we can disagree in a way that reflects the holiness and humanity that God has implanted within us.
I am aware that intolerance is a two-way street.  There are many on the left and the right of the political spectrum who have contributed to the climate of distrust and division that infects our nation.  There is a great deal of work to be done to bridge this divide.
My dear friends, this next year will be filled with challenges and opportunities. For those who are troubled by inequities - here in our own nation and around the world, we cannot sit silently. We are compelled to act.
As Jews, we are tasked with Tikkun Olam  - repairing our world. Today is about getting “woke” – about asking difficult questions about whether or not we did all that we could to bring about change.  We need to look at one another with compassion and understanding – regardless of who we are, how we voted, what we believe – how we live and how we love.  We can start by working together to make a difference.
Imagine what the world would be like if every person in this sanctuary went out of their way to volunteer or make a difference for two hours a week. Just two hours... Imagine what we could accomplish! I know that many of you do give of your time and resources in the community – you help those in need - you feed the hungry, you volunteer for Family Promise here at Temple or Habitat for Humanity. You sit on boards and share your knowledge and resources.  One thing that I want to ask of all of us as we continue the vital work of repentance and renewal that is the hallmark of this holy day:  The next time you read a tweet, or feel wronged, or find yourself overwhelmed by a feeling that nothing will ever change, do something to make the world a better place.  Volunteer. Send a letter to a loved one.  Call your mother…whatever you can do to change the negativity that surrounds us to something positive.  If you are “Woke” then use your awakened state to make the world a better place.
May the promise of this holy day help us all to bridge the gap between the world as it is – and the way that the world is supposed to be.
Amen - Gmar chatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed for an awakened  blessing in this New Year.

[i] Exodus 2:11-12
[ii] Talmud Bavli - Berakhot 55b.  Whether or not this is a proper translation of Rabbi Nahmani’s comment – which referred to our understanding and interpretation of dreams is under debate.  This quote was also ascribed to Anias Nin in her essay, “Seduction of the Minotaur.”  Cf.
[iii] AJ Heschel, "The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement" (1972); later included in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (1996)
[iv] US News & World Report (27 October 1986)
[v] Isaiah 58:6-7
[vi] Adapted from the statement:  “One Voice” Written by Rabbis Elka Abrahamson and Judy Shanks – edited by Rabbi Karen Kedar.  As of this writing, over 400 Reform Rabbis signed on to this statement and many delivered it from their pulpits.

On Becoming An Orphan. Kol Nidre 5778

My Dear Friends,
I want to begin this evening with a story.  One Yom Kippur morning, Rabbi Resnick noticed little Adam was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it.
The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, "Good morning, Adam."
"Good morning, Rabbi," replied the young man, still focused on the plaque. "Rabbi Resnick, what is this?" Adam asked.
"Well, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service."
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam's voice was barely audible when he asked: "Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service?"
It’s an old joke…but I still like it.
The truth is, these sacred days – from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur – take us on a journey that explores the essence of our mortality. The messages of these High Holy Days, in their purest form – are about life and death.  Think about it:  10 days ago we celebrated the birthday of the world.  We reveled in the new-ness of creation.  Rabbi Immerman’s powerful and poignant Rosh HaShanah sermon- dedicated to his soon-to-be born child – inspired many of us to tears as we shared in his and Jenny’s hope, fear and joy in anticipation of new life.  As he so beautifully taught us, on Rosh HaShanah we say: “Hayom Harat Olam” – on this day the world was created.
On Rosh HaShanah we are reborn. We are called to action – to make a difference – to do the work of Teshuvah and prepare ourselves for the awesome power of THIS DAY – This moment – yom ha kippurim – the day of Reckoning.
While Rosh HaShanah is all about celebrating life, Yom Kippur is about coming to terms with death.  The traditions surrounding this sacred day both reflect and revolve around our own mortality.

  • We recite a confessional similar to what our tradition teaches is said upon a death bed. 
  • We refrain from eating and focusing on the physical 
  • We deny ourselves – in essence, we rehearse our own death.

The Kol Nidre prayer – chanted so beautifully by Cantor Sacks, is preceded by the ancient formula:  B’yeshiva Shel Malah, u’vyishivah shel matah, anu matirin l’hitpaleyl im ha-avarynaim:
o   In the heavenly court of judgement, and in the courts here on earth, we are permitted to pray with “Avaryanim”.
In previous years, I have talked about the meaning of the word, Avaryanim.  It usually is understood as referring to those who have committed Averot - transgressions, but there are other possible translations.
Another way to understand the meaning of Avaryanim can be found in the most basic translation of the word.  The Hebrew word, Avar – the root of Avaryanim – means “that which is past.” In this light, the prelude to Kol Nidre can thusly be translated: 
o   In the heavenly court of judgement, and in the courts here on earth, we are permitted to pray with “those who have passed on”.
You see, Yom Kippur is not only about confronting our own death, it also is about acknowledging the fact that those whom we love are also mortal.
One of the truths of synagogue life is that people like to sit in the same seats every year.  As we gather together in this sacred place, at this holy time, I see so many faces of men, women and children who, over the past 7 years have become an integral part of my life and that of our congregation. I know where to look for you – in the same seats, every year. And yet, I can also see there are also faces that are no longer here.  We have lost many wonderful members of our community over the past year. So many of us tonight are thinking about loved ones who used to sit among us – but who are now among the Avaryanim – the ones who have passed on. 

This has been a very difficult year for our family.  Amos Rosenbloom, Sue’s father - my father in law – died in April. Two months later, my mother, Sophie Black, was taken from us.  Death and loss have been very prominent in our thoughts. This year, I stand in front of you, for the first time, as an orphan.
It seems strange, at 58 years old, to be calling myself an orphan, but the process of coming to terms with the finality of losing both parents – no matter how old you are or they were -- is both sobering and startling.  For those of us who were lucky enough to have parents who lived to a ripe old age, while intellectually we understood that one day they would be gone, the pain of loss after having shared the blessing of their presence for so long is still palpable.
My mother was fairly healthy until she had a stroke one day after we celebrated her 91st birthday.  4 months later she was gone. Prior to her stroke, we used to talk on the phone several times a day - and she would invariably call me at the worst possible time – usually in the midst of a staff meeting.  My colleagues would joke whenever my cell phone would ring and say “Hi Sophie” before I answered her call. Sometimes she would have a question for me, or she would have important news to share. But as the realities of aging meant that her world grew smaller and smaller, her calls were less about sharing information than they were about just wanting to hear my voice. Sue thinks that, in hindsight, perhaps she wanted to gift me with hearing her voice. 
As inconvenient as her frequent calls were at the time, I miss them.  To this day, I still find myself instinctively reaching for my phone to call her – or wanting to share a sermon or article with her that I have written. She was my biggest fan. Her phone number is still on my speed dial and I haven’t been able to remove it just yet. I still have several of her voice mails on my phone as well.  I can’t bring myself to erase them. 
The truth is, I’m not ready yet to be an orphan.  It’s still too raw.  There is a reason that, in Jewish tradition, a clearly defined path of mourning is set before us.  There are specific steps that take us from the shock of the immediacy of death, through the pain of the funeral, to the 7 days of Shiva, the 30 days of Sheloshim and the 11 months of mourning until the Yahrtzeit.  Not everybody chooses to observe each phase of the traditional mourning process. But the wisdom of our tradition is powerful in the way that it helps us to process our loss.  As your rabbi, I feel incredibly humbled and honored to have been able to help many of you walk the same path.  As Sue and I follow it now, we feel blessed to have had many of you by our sides who have provided comfort and consolation during the immediacy of our parents’ death and continue to send notes and check in with us to see how we are doing.
As I thought about what I have learned and continue to learn as I make my way on this journey of mourning, I focused on one of the central prayers in the High Holiday Liturgy – the Unetaneh Tokef - that compels us to contemplate our own mortality during these 10 days of coming to grips with both life and death.
“Unetaneh tokef k’dushat hayom”  it teaches.Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.” Today God sits in judgement:  Who shall live and who shall die?”
For those who have lost loved ones since the last time these words were uttered, the message of the Unetaneh Tokef is painful. It also is very real. 
This year, in preparing for this sermon, I found new meaning in the text. There was a message that was hiding in plain sight – but I could not see it without the perspective of loss.  The last words of the prayer are:
Uteshuvah, Utefillah, Utzedakah maavirin et roa ha gezerah
 But Repentence, Prayer and Righteous acts -- temper judgement’s severe decree.
It’s important to note that the text does not say that these three actions change God’s decree.  Our mortality is not subject to bargaining or manipulation.  The text teaches that these three acts temper God’s decree.  The truth is, it’s hard to accurately translate Ma-avirin in English.  It comes from the same root as Avaryanim – the word about which I spoke earlier.  Its root is also Avar - to pass.  Perhaps, in this light, the Untetaneh tokef is being addressed – not only to our awareness of our own finitude – but also towards how we might confront the death of those whom we love.
Perhaps these three actions: 
  •  Teshuvah – repentance,
  • Tefillah – Prayer, and
  • Tzeddakah – righteous acts,
can help those of us who mourn pass through the stages of grief and come to terms with our loss. Maybe this powerful prayer is teaching us how to live our lives as we become increasingly aware of our own mortality and that of those whom we love.

So with this understanding, let’s explore together what this means for us on this holiest of nights:
Teshuvah, which we translate as “repentance,” also means “return.”  The process of returning and repenting forces us to go back to our roots – to trace our actions that led us from wholeness to brokenness. 
One of the difficult tasks that faces every orphan is settling one’s parents’ estate.  In addition to certifying death certificates, closing bank accounts and insurance policies, we also go through personal papers and records.  In the process of sorting through my mother’s things, my sister and I discovered that she kept everything - and I mean everything. She was a librarian – so she kept a veritable treasure trove of report cards from elementary and Hebrew school, letters from camp, attendance awards, artwork, embarrassing photos, old papers from high school and college and just about anything else you can imagine – all catalogued and in the proper place.
The process of emptying out the remnants of a lifetime’s worth of possessions also brought back a flood of memories.  An image that will be indelibly linked in my consciousness is that of my sister, Nina and me, and all of our children and spouses, sitting on the floor with piles of papers – deciding what we needed to keep and what could be discarded.  There was a lot of laughter.  There were quite a few tears as well.
For several years, my mother wrote and delivered an address at her synagogue about her memories of living through Krystallnacht – the “night of the Broken Glass” when, on November 9th, 1938 – as a 12 year old girl - she witnessed Nazi thugs parading through the streets of her city, Leipzig, Germany - smashing the windows of Jewish-owned businesses, burning Synagogues and chanting anti-Semitic tropes – some of the same chants that we saw and heard on the streets of Charlottesville, VA this past month. Each one of these memories is both powerful and painful. Finding and re-reading them together as family was both discomforting and cathartic.  As I wrote in the eulogy that I delivered at her funeral, I am thankful that, at the end of her life, my mother was not aware of the political upheaval that is taking place in America.  I don’t think that she would have been able to handle her fear of history repeating itself in this, her beloved adopted country.
But the process of returning that Teshuvah represents is not only limited to pouring through old records and artifacts.  Part of our task as mourners is also reclaiming relationships.  My father died 6 years ago, but the truth is that the man I remember from my childhood and early adulthood was taken away from us many years before his heart stopped beating.  His memories were stolen by the cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease.  The last few times I saw him, he didn’t recognize me.  Part of the process of returning – of Teshuvah - that I now find myself engaging in revolves around remembering and celebrating who he was when he was in his prime.  I remember his beautiful voice as he chanted Torah in our synagogue. I remember his laughter and the twinkle in his eyes – as well as the joy he felt in playing with his grandchildren.
When our loved ones are alive, we see them in the present.  We see their decline as death approaches as well.  If there is a blessing to be found in orphanhood it is in the capacity to recapture the memories of our parents in their prime – full of life without the debilitating indignities of disease.  Returning to these precious memories is an essential part of the mourner’s path that can be defined through the process of Teshuvah.

Tefillah -prayer – does come easy to most of us.  When we pray, we look inward and take stock in ourselves and our souls.  Prayer is one of the most personal acts that we can perform. It is also one of the most public. If prayer is talking to God, faith in God means affirming that someone is listening and that someone cares about who we are and what we have to say.
Becoming an orphan can lead us to prayer.  When our parents are living, we know that we are not alone: there is someone who loves and cares for and about us unconditionally.  Even when illness robs them of their ability to function, their physical presence assures us of where we came from and, hopefully, reminds us how we learned to love others by their example.  When they are taken from us, we need to find an avenue to replace that assurance. 
When we pray, we reach out to something beyond ourselves.  While prayer can be a solitary experience, Judaism teaches that it is vitally important that we not pray by ourselves, if possible.  Prayer is best experienced and carried out in community.  The act of saying kaddish - of standing up and exposing our grief – supported by those around you – is both agonizing and affirming.  When we pray we are not alone.  In confronting death, we reach out to the Source of Life and stand together with others who support us in our time of grief.
After we buried my mother in Chicago, we returned to my sister’s home for Shiva.  My sister is Orthodox and lives in a neighborhood that has the process of comforting mourners down to a well-oiled machine.  Friends had arranged food delivery and set up prayer-minyans for every day of the week except Shabbat – when, according to custom, Shiva is suspended.  Since my mother was a member of a Reform congregation, we had multiple services in Nina’s house – one for mom’s Reform community – with mixed seating, and another for the Orthodox community – with men and women separated. When Sue and I returned to Denver, our closest friends and colleagues organized services in our home so that we could pray in the midst of our community.  I will never forget the feeling of warmth we felt - knowing that we would not be alone in our grief. It gave us great comfort.  We experienced the same feeling when Sue’s father died earlier in the year and our friends rallied around us that time as well.

The third and final mitzvah listed in the Untetaneh Tokef  is, Tzeddakah – Acts of Righteousness.
In many ways, Tzeddakah is the ultimate act of coming to terms with loss.  Our actions reflect our values. Our values are bequeathed to us by those who gave us life. When we give Tzeddakah in the form of money, or when we perform acts of righteousness, we are carrying out the legacy of love that we have received.  As an orphan, I now realize that I am taking my place as an elder in my family and community.  As a parent, I understand that I have a responsibility to teach my children by example as my parents taught me.
My parents, while not wealthy, understood the importance of Tzeddakah – of righteous action.  They were very generous with their limited resources. They showed my sister and me, by example, how to help others in need.  They also taught us to speak out when we saw injustice and cruelty perpetrated by others.  The best way that I can honor their memory is by continuing to act in ways that they would – sharing what I have with others and not being afraid to call out and stand up to injustice wherever and whenever I see it.
There is a great deal of comfort in knowing that when I carry out the values bequeathed to me by my parents, I am celebrating their lives.

Uteshuvah, Utefillah, Utzedakah maavirin et roa ha gezerah
But Repentence, Prayer and Righteous acts temper judgement’s severe decree and help us to remember and honor those who have passed on.

My Dear Friends, tonight I speak to you both as your Rabbi and as an orphan.  For those of you who still have loved ones in your life, hold them close.  As I say every year from this pulpit on Yom Kippur – if you have any unfinished business– if there are words that are unsaid, if there are hard feelings or discord between you and the ones closest to you – what are you waiting for?  Life is too fleeting and precious to allow petty grudges  - or even our legitimate grievances – to keep us from giving and receiving the love that God gave us to share.  All of us are Avaryanim  - we are sinners and we are mortal.  Someday, we, too, will pass on. Don’t wait until you are an orphan to tell your parents that you love them.  Celebrate and share your love today and every day.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be inscribed for a blessing in the book of life.
And call your mother.


Friday, September 22, 2017

"If" - Erev Rosh Hashanah - 5778

[i]My Dear Friends:
L’Shanah Tovah!  Welcome.  Welcome Home!
Socrates was reported to have said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Along these lines, I recently heard a story about a gorilla that escaped from the Bronx Zoo.  They searched for him everywhere.  At last, he was discovered in the New York Public Library.  Zoo officials were summoned.  They found the gorilla sitting at a desk peering intently at two books open before him.  One book was the Bible; the other -- Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”  The zookeepers asked the gorilla what he was doing.  The ape looked at them and replied, "I'm trying to figure out whether I am my brother's keeper, or my keeper's brother."
This is the time of year when we focus on what is important in our life.
One of the key phrases we hear repeated several times during these 10 days of repentance can be found in the Amidah prayer: 
Zochreynu L’chayim, melech Chafetz b’chaim, L’ma-ancha, Elohim chayim.
Remember us unto life, O Sovereign who delights in life, for Your sake O God of life.
Zochreynu L’chayim – remember us unto life...
A few years ago, a major life insurance company created a slogan that took the word LIFE and focused on the two small letters in the middle: “IF”.
The basic theme of their campaign was that life is full of “ifs” and uncertainties.   The “If” campaign was all about the unknowns, the risks, the doubts that plague us all.
While I certainly do not want to be perceived as selling life insurance from the Bema on Rosh Hashanah, this time of year always brings me to the “if’s” in my life. 
“If” is one of the shortest words in the English language, but it also is one of the most important.
Without “if” – nothing can happen
If – by itself doesn’t mean a whole lot, but when other words are inserted before or after it, “IF” takes on new meaning and purpose.
Tonight, at this time of self-reflection, I want to talk about three ways that we use the word, “If”:
·         “WHAT IF”
·         “AS IF”, and
·         “IF ONLY”
Each of these short phrases has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, the world around us, and the sacred community that we are building here at Temple Emanuel.
Nothing in this world would ever be achieved unless or until somebody uttered the words “What If?”
Every invention and innovation began with a “what if”
Think of the incredible advancements in society over the past century:
§  Einstein asked: “What if we try to find a correlation between Energy and Mass?”
§  Susan B Anthony asked: “What if women were granted the right to vote?”
§  Somebody, once upon a time, wondered: “What if we combined peanut butter and Jelly between two piece of bread?”
§  You get the picture…
It is in the realm of the “What if?” that we find the capacity to dream, to envision, to build and to create. Without “What if’s,” our lives would be radically different than they are today.
When we say “What if?” we begin to envision new possibilities and seek new modalities of interacting, creating and implementing change.
When we say “what if” we allow ourselves to look at what lies in plain sight – but remains hidden because of our inability or fear to uncover the truth
Saying “What IF?” is also about taking risks:
Our Rabbis painted a picture of Abraham as a “what iffer”.  He was the first person to realize that idolatry made no sense.
There is a famous midrash that taught that Abraham’s parents owned an idol store.  One day, they left him in charge and Abraham took a hammer and smashed every idol in the store except the largest one.
When his parents came home, they looked at the carnage in their shop and cried out: “What Happened?”
Abraham replied, “It was horrible!  The idols got into a huge fight and that big one over there killed all of the others!”
His parents said: “What are you taking about?  They’re just statues – they can’t fight!”
“Well, what if you stopped praying to them and looked for the true source of creation?” he replied.
It was after this epiphany, our Rabbis taught, that God called to Abraham and said: “Lech Lecha” – go forth.
Without “what ifs,” the world would be a very different place.
120 years ago, on August 29, 1897 Theodore Herzl convened the 1st Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland.  He had the audacity to ask the question:
What if we create a Jewish State?  His words: Im Tirtzu, Ain Zo Agadah – If you will it, it is no dream – became the underpinning for the Zionist movement and the Modern State of Israel.
Every major achievement in life began with a “what if.” 
All of us say “what if” at some point in our lives:
o   “What if I ask my her to marry me?”
o   “What if I start a new business?”
o   “What if we start a family?”
o   “What if we move to Colorado?”
o   “What if the Broncos win another Superbowl?”
“What if’s” are full of excitement.  But without them, nothing would ever be accomplished in our world or in our own lives.
The second short phrase I want to talk about tonight is: “AS IF”
We cannot all be in the “What if” mode all the time.  For dreams to take root, we need partners who are willing to work to make those dreams a reality.  Most “What if’s” can only come to fruition when we unite with others who share our dreams.  We then enter the realm of “as if”. 
When we say “as if”, we commit ourselves to affirming that others’ dreams are akin to our own.  We then work together to bring them to life.
When Abraham and Sarah heeded God’s call Lech Lecha” – “go forth,” they brought along a large convoy of people.  Their entire household accompanied them on their journey to the unknown.
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the people followed him – not always willingly, but they crossed the Red Sea and journeyed to the promised land, nonetheless.
Our tradition teaches that the reason that we wandered for 40 years in the wilderness was precisely because the Israelites that left Egypt did not have the capacity to say “as if” to Moses’ “What if we succeed?” Instead, they focused on the question: “What if we fail?”  It took an entirely new generation to see the power of his vision.
Often, the very act of sharing in and supporting someone else’s vision – even if it isn’t what we might normally do – forces us to see the world anew and take on that vision as our own.  Our actions determine how we behave and think.
There’s a story about a Rabbi who was known for his wisdom and common sense.  People would come to him for advice and, more often than not, he would have something important to teach them.  It just so happened, that in the same town where the rabbi lived there was a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  Many years before, the monastery was thriving.  It had attracted the best and the brightest young men who wanted to come and study. Pilgrims and spiritual seekers from all walks of life who used to flock there to learn from the monks. They also had a dairy business which produced some of the finest cheese in the region.  Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, things began to change.  Fewer and fewer students came to study.  The dairy business began to fail.  Soon – it closed altogether.  This caused a great deal of stress at the Monastery.  As the monks grew older, they also became more frustrated with one another.  They grew angry and morose.  People would come to visit and feel the tension in the air.  They never came back a second time.  Soon, the number of pilgrims and visitors slowed to a trickle.  The situation was becoming dire.  As a last resort, the head of the Monastery came to the Rabbi to ask his council.
The Rabbi said: “Before I give you any advice, I’d like to spend a few days among you – to get to know you better.”
 And so, the rabbi moved into the monastery for a week – observing the brother monks in prayer, study and work.  He saw how they snapped at each other and how this demoralized and decimated their membership.
Finally, after the week was over, the Abbot – or head of the monastery came to the Rabbi and asked him what he saw.
“I have no advice to give you,” the Rabbi said.  “But I did learn something amazing while I was here.”
“What was that?” asked the Abbot.
“One of you,” the rabbi said, “is the Messiah!”
“One of you is the Messiah!”
“But who?” asked the Abbot.
“That I am not allowed to tell you,” the Rabbi said. “But you can tell no one what I have shared with you.” And with that, he bid him farewell.
The Abbot was amazed!  Who was it?  He had known his brothers for years – and no one had given the slightest hint that they were God’s chosen one.  He began to look at them in a different way.  Each time he saw one of his compatriots he asked himself the question: “What if He’s the One?”  He began to treat each brother “as if” here were the Messiah. Soon, the rest of the Monks began noticing that their Abbot was being so kind to them – and they, in turn, started to be kind to one another.  Visitors who came noticed it too – soon, they began to see more young men wanting to come and study.  Their dairy business was reopened.  People began to flock to the monastery to experience the love and joy that radiated from within its walls.  Soon, it became prosperous again. 
My friends, it is only when we see the potential for holiness and greatness in others that we can share in their dreams and make them a reality. We need people to commit to and support the vision of our community.  We need to live our lives “as if” the “what if’s” we receive from others are our own.  No great change can occur unless and until the majority of community is willing to work alongside one another “as if” the vision for which they are striving is already in place.
And finally: “If Only”
The saddest usage of “if” is when it is followed by the word “only”.  These 2 words convey a realization of opportunities missed, relationships squandered, and mistakes that were never corrected. 
·         As a rabbi, I often hear “If only’s” at the end of life:
o   If only I focused more on family and less on work
o   If only I told her how much she meant to me when she was here – now that she’s gone….
o   If only I learned from my mistakes
o   If only I had listened more and tried to be supportive of others’ dreams…
All of us make mistakes, most of the time.  All of us miss chances to make a difference, to connect with the ones we love, to take advantages of opportunities, to help the “what if’s” of others’ to become a reality.
Our task is to learn from our “if only’s” so that we can grow and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
We also need to learn to take risks in support of the greater good of ourselves and our community.
So what does this mean for us – for Temple Emanuel – for our Kehilla Kedosha – our sacred community?
As you know, a lot of change is taking place in our congregation.  Tomorrow morning, in his high holiday address, our president, Mark Idelberg, will detail the many wonderful ways that we are growing and changing.  This growth poses both opportunities and challenges.  In order to continue our progress, we will need more resources. When you listen to him – take the time to marvel at the breadth and scope of what we have accomplished – and we want to accomplish in the future.  Temple Emanuel has always been an innovative and creative force in the Reform movement.  We have not only survived but we have consistently thrived in a rapidly changing world where the purpose and function of the Synagogue is in constant flux.  The main reason that we have been able to grow and flourish is because we have never been afraid to ask the question: “What if?”
Think about it:

  • 69 years ago, we asked the question:  What if we were to become the very first congregation in the United States to open our own summer camp? This only occurred because of the generosity and vision of the estate of Maurice Shwayder.
  • 36 years ago, in 1981, Rabbi Foster asked the question: “What if we offered free Jewish Education to unaffiliated Interfaith Families?”  From this question came the Stepping Stones to A Jewish Me program.  It was revolutionary for its time.
  • 17 years ago, we asked the question: “What if we created a new experience called “Shabbat Unplugged?”
  • 6 years ago we asked: “What if we create Rosh HaShanah Unplugged?”  this was soon followed by Shema Koleynu on Yom Kippur morning
  • Last year we asked: “What if we invited homeless families into our community as part of the Family Promise program?”
  • 8 months ago we asked the question: “What if we redesigned our religious school program to better meet the needs of our congregation?” This resulted in creating new options in place today for learning and engagement that have a greater degree of flexibility for our diverse community.
  • We also asked the question:  What if we re-envision Erev Shabbat worship and bring many different populations in our community together?”  After much study and discussion, we changed the timing of our Friday night worship – moving it from 7:30 to a 6:00 start time. We also integrated family worship into the beginning and end of services, making them more multi-generational. Although it has only been a few weeks since this change was implemented, the response has been overwhelming.  Over the past 3 weeks our Feiner chapel has been overflowing and most Friday nights we need to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the overflow.
Each of these changes came about because someone said: “What if?”.
Not every innovation is successful. Success depends on a multitude of factors – but nothing is possible unless a vital and forceful percentage of the community is willing to act “as if” the dreams of others are their own.  Sometimes we fail – but as long as we learn from our mistakes we can be flexible and adjust to the realities we face.
Here’s something to think about:  In 7 years, Temple Emanuel will be celebrating our 150th anniversary.  In an environment when many synagogues are shrinking and desperately trying to hold on to what once was – we are thriving because we understand that our task is to look ahead and imagine what will be. 
The world is changing – and if we don’t adapt to these changes we run the risk of becoming yet another footnote in the story of a beautiful past.  We cannot afford to say: “If only” we saw what was coming.  Now is the time to look ahead and anticipate, as best we can, the challenges and opportunities that lie in our path.
Now this does not mean that everything must change – of course not.  Last year, at this service, I talked about the message of Rav Kook – the first Chief Rabbi of the modern State of Israel who taught: 
HaYaSHan yitchadeysh, v’ha-Chadash Titkadeysh
May the Old be renewed and New be Made Holy
In asking our “what ifs,” we can both celebrate our past and innovate for the future.
We are blessed with a incredible legacy of excellence - of spiritual depth, educational seeking and tikkun olam.  We pride ourselves in the Kehilla Kedosha – the sacred community - that we have created over the years – and we continue to create today.  We celebrate life’s greatest joys together and find comfort in difficult times.  That will never change. 
And yet, allowing things to continue as they always have been is no longer a viable option.  We live in a time of great change.  Look at the major Jewish institutions in the Denver Jewish community: 

  • Jewish Colorado,
  • the Jewish Community Center,
  • Shalom Cares
  • Jewish Family Services
  • The Rose Foundation
All are in the midst of major change.  Their essential task today is to create pathways for meeting the challenges that lie in front of them.  Temple Emanuel is not facing any crisis or drastic change today, Thank God. But, if we do not plan for the future – if we do not take steps now to ensure that our congregation is vibrant and viable – from a philosophical, programmatic, as well as a financial perspective, we are reneging on our responsibility to those who, 143 years ago – in 1874, said: “What if we create a modern, Reform Jewish presence in Denver Colorado?” – and founded Temple Emanuel.
            And so, I feel it is vitally important that, as we look ahead to the future, we do so from the perspective of anticipating and embracing all the “what ifs” that we can – understanding that there always will be surprises.
            We must continue to explore new modalities of learning – utilizing the incredible resources within our community to help envision the best paths to ensure that our traditions and values will be transmitted to the next generation.
            We need to ask difficult questions about how we are perceived in the community and whether long-held practices and prohibitions are relevant in today’s rapidly changing world.  These include, but are not limited to:

  • The meaning of membership in general
  • Questions about clergy officiation at interfaith wedding ceremonies.  It’s time to begin an honest, frank and open-ended conversation about how this issue impacts our community.  This does not mean that we will change our position, but we need to hear the pain of those who have felt rejected in the past and respond to it.
  • We need to look at our Finances: Is the current structure of dues sufficient to maintain our growing community?
  • Social Justice and Tikkun Olam – Are we doing enough in our community to put our values into action?
There are many other questions as well including
·        The size of our staff
·        Ongoing Leadership development and
·        Our ability partner with other congregations in the community
·        Finally - Our Building itself:  We are fortunate to have such an incredible facility.  And yet, it is aging.  This beautiful sanctuary in which we pray and share so many important life-cycle events is filled during the holidays and for special occasions, but most of the time it sits empty.  It also is not at all accessible for those who are physically challenged.  What if we attempted to find new approaches to use this and many other spaces that are currently underused or in need of updating?
Over the course of the next few years, we must explore these and other vital issues.   Together, we will ask difficult questions of one another with the hope that our “What ifs?” will pave the way for “As ifs” and avoid the “If only’s”.  My friends – change is difficult.  It’s unsettling - but we need to anticipate and address the realities that lie in front of us. These questions will not be answered without a great deal of thoughtful and sometimes difficult deliberation. They also will not be answered overnight – but if we do not address them we are neglecting both our commitment to our past and the promise of the future.
            Our task – our sacred task is to ask “What if?” – of ourselves and of one another, and, in the process of doing so, reaffirm our commitment to the past while opening ourselves up to greater possibilities in the future.
And so my dear friends, before I conclude my remarks tonight, I want to leave you with one final question: “What if one of you is the Messiah?”
L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu – May we all be inscribed for blessing in the book of life.

[i] My Thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Barnie Bricker for the initial idea for this sermon.