Thursday, September 16, 2021

A Letter To My Daughter: Kol Nidre 5782

My Dear Friends,

This past summer, I taught a class called EmanuElders . All of the participants were over the age of 50. According to the Mishnah , when we have experienced 5 decades of life we can give advice to others.  During our 6 sessions together, we studied the book of Ecclesiastes, (or Kohelet) and each participant was given an opportunity to write an Ethical Will – to a family member, a dear friend, or to the community at large. An Ethical Will is a document in which the writer shares the values they want to pass on to their loved ones, community or anyone who cares to read it. The process of sitting down and writing helps us to think about what is truly important in our lives and provides a beautiful way to share a legacy of love and caring with the next generation. If you have never written an ethical will, I would encourage you to do so. You don’t need to be over the age of 50 and I’m happy to talk to anyone who wishes to learn more about the process .

Some of the participants in the EmanuElders class will be presenting their Ethical Wills to the Congregation at our 1st day Sukkot morning services on Tuesday, September 21st at 11:00 AM– outdoors in our tent and congregational Sukkah, and I invite everyone to join us – either in person or online - for what promises to be an inspiring way to begin the festival.

The last time I wrote an ethical will was 27 years ago, when Ethan was born: 

    on Rosh HaShanah; 

    on Labor Day and 

    on his Due date.  

This was the first and only time during the 34 years of my Rabbinate that I was not at Rosh Hashanah services. But 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon that was both a letter and an ethical will to my newborn son that spelled out my hopes, fears and dreams for his life. I have never written another one since…until now.

As many of you know, next month, our daughter, Elana – Ethan’s older sister - will be standing under the Chuppah with her beloved Greg, and I will have the supreme honor of officiating at their wedding. While I’m told that members of our clergy team have placed bets on how many minutes into the ceremony it will take until I am a blubbering mess – I am committed to making sure that this will not happen and that I will be able to make it through the ceremony without losing it….too much. Their wedding was supposed to have taken place last October, but, like so many others planning weddings, we made the difficult decision to wait another year – hoping that our isolation would be long gone by now and that we would be able to celebrate without any restrictions…. Obviously, the reality of this Pandemic means that we will be taking additional precautions involving proof of vaccines and testing, but we are determined to safely celebrate together no matter what happens. As you can imagine, this has been a central focus of our lives, and so, on this Kol Nidre Eve, I ask you to indulge me as I present my second ethical will – this time to my daughter on the eve of her wedding.

My Beloved Elana,

In less than a month we will be standing together under the Chuppah. Writing this seems almost surreal – how can your mom and I be old enough to have a daughter who will soon be married to the love of her life? We could not have asked for a better son-in-law than Greg – he loves and cares for you, he is brilliant, kind, gentle and funny - and we have grown to love him as another son. Last month, you celebrated your 30th birthday – just about the same age as your mom and I when we were married in Minneapolis 32 and a half years ago. This time of waiting for your wedding have been difficult, and yet, it has also given us an opportunity to step back and think about what is truly important in our lives– and in yours as well. 

I know that I am addressing you in public on this holiest night of the year and that my words will be heard by hundreds, if not thousands of others – so, I will do my best to try not to embarrass you…too much. The truth is, I feel a special responsibility to speak to you before your wedding because you always say that Ethan is our favorite child – I wrote one for him – and so, to even things out you will have one as well.

And for the record, you ARE our favorite daughter…

I must confess, I am glad that you are not here in person– even though right now you are just a few blocks away - watching this service online with our family at our home while you, Greg and Greg’s wonderful mother, Lee are visiting from New York. I don’t think I would be able to get through these words if you were sitting here in this sanctuary. As my colleagues will tell you, I have found that the older I get, the harder it becomes to hold back tears – and not only at intense times like tonight, but at silly ones as well – like watching TV commercials or hearing songs from my childhood. I also find myself weeping during powerful moments – like Rabbi Hyatt’s amazing Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon – or at especially poignant life-cycle events. But increasingly, I also tend to get choked up at weddings….. Every time I’m blessed to stand under a Chuppah with a couple, I can’t help but picture you and Greg – surrounded by the most important people in your life – seeing the love, excitement, and joy that you both radiate when you are together. But I promise that I will do everything I can to hold it together at your wedding – at least through the ceremony.

Lani – I don’t need to tell you that it’s hard to be a rabbi’s kid. Throughout your childhoods, you and Ethan have often been in the spotlight. I’ve written, spoken, and sung about you in public. You’ve been the subject of many a sermon. You are often prominently featured in my social media posts. Lots of people know things about you – and you have no idea who man of them are - especially in a congregation like Temple Emanuel that is so big and that truly loves and wants to be part of the lives of their clergy. Eleven years ago, when we moved to Denver, you were a sophomore in college – living away from home. Even though we set up a bedroom for you and filled it with your stuff, you only lived here full time for a few months one summer. As such, Denver and Temple Emanuel really don’t feel like home to you – and that makes us a little sad. But - you’re a New Yorker now – and I have never seen you more fulfilled. So, in the balance, mom and I are happy for you; and besides – we now have an awesome place to stay when we come to New York.

Lani - there have been too many times when the demands of my rabbinate have meant that I had to miss some of your important occasions. But, as often as I was called away, I also have powerful memories of when we were all together – moments that were as ordinary as driving to school, sharing meals, or going on vacation.  But there were also times that were transitional and transformative – that shaped you – and that shaped your mother and me as well– while we watched in wonder as you took on challenges and set off for new adventures that forever changed your life. Sometimes they were joyous –and sometimes they taught you (and us) painful but important lessons:

    Your first day of Kindergarten

    Watching you chant Torah beautifully at your Bat Mitzvah

    Your frustrations and triumphs in gymnastics

    Middle school…(enough said…)

    Travelling to Israel for the first time to study for a semester abroad

    High School Graduation

    Dropping you off at College

    Graduating from College

    The ups and downs of relationships 

    Moving to New York and finding your artistic and professional passions

    And soon, you will be standing under the chuppah with your bashert – your beloved  - Greg.

You may not have even been aware– but during those moments, time felt like it was standing still for us – as though a doorway into some unseen corridor had opened and Mom and I stepped back and watched as something wondrous – something holy – was taking place that was beyond our comprehension. 

Philosophers and Anthropologists have a name for moments of transition and wonder that take us away from the conscious world into moments of in-betweenness.  It’s called the “Liminal.”

Liminality is a term used to describe the psychological process of transitioning across boundaries and borders . The root “limen” comes from the Latin for threshold; it is literally the place in the wall where people move from one room to another. In anthropology and religious studies, liminality is defined as the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.  

    The moment just before a bar or bat mitzvah is called to the torah for the first time; 

    The instant that a glass is placed on the ground just before it is shattered at a wedding; 

    The seconds before the first cry of a newborn baby

    The painful sound of dirt hitting a coffin at a grave 

…these are all moments of liminality .

In a very real sense, Lani, these past 18 months of dealing with the pandemic have brought us all to a liminal place and time where we are constantly not what or where we were, yet also not where we needed to be. We have all been caught in the “in betweenness” of waiting, worrying, and wondering if we will ever be able to get back to normalcy – whatever “normal” might mean.

I know you Lani – you don’t do well with ambiguity. At work, you have been given a lot of responsibility to oversee and create big projects - and you’re incredibly good at what you do. You love to meet deadlines and you are happiest when there are few surprises. Patience is not your strong suit. You have an elaborate vision for your wedding, and it will be beautiful and holy – but there are so many factors that are out of our control right now that every one of your buttons are being pushed on a daily basis.

As your father, I wish I could wave a magic wand and assure you that everything will be perfect – but I can’t. Sue, Lee, and I will do everything in our power to make your day perfect – and, truth be told, it will be perfect – not because of the flowers, or the band, or the food, or your dress, or even who can or cannot come – but because you both will be there – and your love is something stronger than any ceremony.

The Torah portion that we will be reading tomorrow begins with the words:

Atem Nitzavim Hayom – Kulchem…”- “You are all standing here today…before Adonai Your God .”

A lesson I’ve taught before is that the Hebrew word, Nitzavim does not only mean “standing” – it means standing at attention, alert – open, aware, and prepared for whatever comes next. To stand “Nitzavim” means that we have stepped outside of the now and entered liminal space and time. At the end of the parasha, when Moses tells the people: “I call Heaven and Earth to witness before you this day…choose Life!” the Torah uses a rhetorical device called a Merism that contrasts two extremes to emphasize the power of the moment.  In this case, everything that exists between the Heavens and the Earth (which is everything…) is frozen in time as all of Creation is impacted by God’s presence and power.

Tonight is the holiest night of the year. On Kol Nidre everything is supposed to come sharply into focus. The next 24 hours are about stopping all that we do.  We pause. We reflect. We fast. We refrain from daily pleasures and tasks. We remember. We stand, “Nitzavim” as our actions, shortcomings, hopes, and dreams are paraded in front of us. We pledge to do better in the year to come.

Many people chose to wear White on Yom Kippur. Some people choose to wear a Kittel  – a special white, robe-like garment that that is traditionally worn on three occasions:

    At your wedding – standing under the Chuppah

    On Yom Kippur

    At your funeral – as a burial garment.

Why these three occasions?  Because – our tradition tells us – this is when we are closest to God – when we have the clearest picture of the holiness that has been gifted to us – as well as the fragility of life itself.

This day teaches us to focus on what is truly important in our lives:  It’s not about what we have, but who we are. It’s not about what we do – but who we do it with. In the liminal moments of our lives – right now- we are given both an obligation and an opportunity: to look deeply into ourselves and our souls and assess the status of our relationships, our values, and our contributions to society. If we find ourselves lacking in any of these areas (and all of us are…), we are called to perform acts of Teshuvah – of turning – of repentance.

Lani – I know I haven’t always been able to be there for you when you needed me.  For that, I ask your forgiveness. I need it. But I would also ask you – and everyone listening to these words tonight - to focus on the holy work that we all need to do- and consider where we may have strayed and missed the mark.

Each year, on Kol Nidre – I urge everyone to find ways to make amends – to fix what is broken in our relationships and our lives. This day is a gift – a moment of liminality during which we are charged and challenged to change. If viewing the brokenness in our lives, our relationships, and our world does not drive us to alter our course and perform the sacred act of teshuva – then we are not living up to the necessity of Nitzavim. 

And so, I say to you tonight, my dear daughter – whom I love so much - and to everyone listening or reading these words: Choose Life. Make Amends. Work to fix the brokenness that is all around us. If the past 18 months have taught us nothing else, we know just how fragile and precarious our lives can be – and how our expectations can easily disintegrate in front of our eyes. When all is said and done, what sustains us during the difficult times are not our possessions, but our passions; not where we live, but who we love; not what we acquire, but how we aspire to be better, not the goals we set before ourselves, but the sacred souls that give our lives meaning and purpose every day.  And so, I implore us all, once again: 

    Tell the people you love that you love them.  

    Reach out to those who need you.  

    Ask for help from those who want nothing more than to be there for you.

    Make amends with those who have hurt you – and to those whom you have hurt as well.  

    Find ways to make a difference and try to bring healing to our world.

Our task – at this liminal moment of vulnerability and accountability is to seek the holiness in our lives and work to make our world better.

The Kol Nidre prayer that we heard so hauntingly beautifully chanted by Cantor Sacks and stunningly performed by our choir and musicians is always recited just before Sunset.  The timing is important. It cannot be light, and it cannot be dark. A story is told of a rabbi who asked her students, “How do we know the moment when night ends and day begins?” One student suggested, “Is it when a person can distinguish a sheep from a dog in the distance?” “No, “said the rabbi, it is not.” A second student ventured, “Is it when one can distinguish a date tree and a fig tree from afar?” “It is not that either,” she replied. “Please tell us the answer,” her students begged, “How can we determine when night has ended, and day begun?” “It is when you look into the face of a stranger and see your sister or brother,” said the rabbi. “Until then, night is always with us.”

My Dearest Elana – and everyone with us tonight – the next 24 hours will give us all an opportunity to step away from our daily lives and shed light on what is most important in our lives. Let us use these liminal moments to resolve that we will make connections and forge new pathways of learning, growth, and self-exploration. May we all work to find the holiness in ourselves and those around us. May our prayers bring us closer to God and to one another.

Lastly, I promise that I won’t make you the centerpiece of another sermon…for a while at least. I’ll save the next ethical will for our Grandchildren.    

No pressure…. 



Saturday, September 11, 2021

Amalek and 9/11 – 20 Years Later - September 10, 2021

 Dear Friends,

There are moments in our lives that define us – as individuals, as a nation and as a people. Once we experience them, we are forever changed, and the impact of these experiences shapes our future for generations.

·        I was not alive on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. 

·        I vaguely remember November 22, 1963 – the day that JFK was assassinated. 

·        But I vividly remember Yom Kippur  -- 5734 – October 6, 1973 – when Israel barely survived a surprise attack by her neighbors.

·        I remember November 19th, 1977 – when Anwar Sadat stepped off an airplane onto the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport.

·        I remember January 28, 1986 when the Space shuttle Challenger, exploded in midair.

·        I remember November 4, 1995 -- when Yigal Amir murdered Yitzhak Rabin in cold blood.

·        And we all remember how, 18 months ago, we closed the doors of our synagogues, schools, business and sheltered in place in order to protect ourselves from COVID 19…..

These moments have defined us and will continue to do so throughout our lives. Anyone over the age of 26 probably remembers exactly where you were twenty years ago tomorrow - on September 11, 2001 as we watched images of terror play out in real time.  As we sat and cried out in disbelief and anger when pure hatred showed itself – with the destruction of the twin towers; the gaping hole in the side of the pentagon; and the carnage and bravery on that lonely field in Pennsylvania – our lives were changed in an instant – our nation was changed – nothing was the same.

As I thought about what I would say tonight on this auspicious anniversary, I remembered words from the book of Deuteronomy  that we read three weeks ago that speak about how we are commanded to remember and deal with the memories of our enemies – in particular the arch-enemy of the Israelites – Amalek. These words are also read on the Shabbat before Purim – called Shabbat Zachor – Haman was a descendant of Amalek.

The Amalekites waged a war of terror on the children of Israel as they fled slavery in Egypt. They did not attack the soldiers. They attacked the weak and tired stragglers at the back of the camp. Like all terrorists, their goal was to incite fear and panic by inflicting as much harm on innocent civilians as possible.

In Deuteronomy 25: 17-18, we find the following:

1.     Remember (zachor) what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt...

2.     You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.

3.     Do not forget!

Three commandments:  Remember.  Blot out.  Don’t forget!

These three commands, on the surface, seem to be contradictory – Remember to forget! Blot out to remember!  Don’t forget to stop forgetting and remembering….It’s confusing.  It doesn’t make sense.  But if we look closely, these words have a vitally important message for all of us – especially on this 20th anniversary of our national tragedy.

This first commandment is ZachorRemember. This weekend is a time of remembering.  We remember that fateful day, 20 years ago that changed our world.

But how should we remember?  What are the proper ways to hold on to something so awful, so painful, so life-changing? 

The answer is by telling our stories.

We Jews are well versed in the art of remembering - of recalling our pain.  Every year on Pesach we tell the story of slavery that led to redemption.  On Yom HaShoah we remember those who perished in the madness and horror of Hitler’s final solution.  On Chanukah, Purim, and Yom Ha-Atzmaut we remember and retell our history – the battles, struggles, triumphs and tragedies. On the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av – Tisha B’av – we fast as we commemorate our loss and the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples. Even at our most joyous moment – under the Chuppah – we break a glass to recall the suffering of our people. By talking about what we, as a people have experienced, we create a sacred narrative that becomes part of our very being.

The events of September 11, 2001 have become inexorably linked with our national consciousness.  To remember that day - to tell the painful stories of our past; of bravery and battle; of courage and compassion – is to affirm both the fact that we were not defeated by terror – but also to acknowledge that we have been changed.

The second Commandment tells us to “….blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Is this wise? Can we truly erase a memory?

We tell our stories to accept the realities that lie in front of us.  For some, the act of remembering is a path towards healing.  For others, however, it serves a different, perhaps more devious purpose.  When the act of telling our story is used as a tool to invoke and provoke fear or anger or despair by erasing parts of our history – what remains can be used to manipulate and control. The image of the collapsed Twin Towers – once a symbol of power and prosperity – has, all too often, over the last twenty years –been used to create a sense of panic and unease – to cast doubts on our strength as a nation.  It has also been used as a rallying cry for isolationism disguised as patriotism. 

To do this is to desecrate the memories of those who died on that day and in the conflicts and catastrophes that have followed.  If this twenty-year anniversary is about healing – and I believe it must be – then we, as a nation and as individuals, must move beyond the emotions of September 11, 2001 – and find a way to utilize the sense of national unity, pride and strength that we felt as we gazed upon the ashes of destruction and vowed to rebuild.

How do we remember and erase a memory at the same time? A close reading of the biblical text offers an insight into specifically what is to be remembered, and what is to be forgotten. "Remember what Amalek did to you," followed by "blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens." This, our tradition teaches, suggests that we are to remember our experiences (where we were when we heard, the images of the falling towers, the names of those who were lost), but we do not focus on the enemy itself: we shun from dwelling on the sick strategies of the murderers, or their story, glorifying them through conspiracy theories or turning them into martyrs. On the other hand, we also are not to use their evil to create demonic stereotypes of all Muslims.  It was their narrow-minded hatred – not their faith that drove them to kill.

When, 10 years ago, our Navy Seals tracked down and killed Bin Laden, far too many people rejoiced in the streets.  I was troubled by this reaction.  While Bin Laden’s death brought some closure and, perhaps, dealt a powerful blow to his followers - as a nation, we should never rejoice in the death of others.  This  cheapens us.  Some might say that it puts us in the same category as our enemies  who cheered when the towers fell.

Last month, as we saw the last American troops leaving Afghanistan – ending our nation’s longest war - we also saw the triumphant Taliban taking their place. While the world is unquestionably safer today than it was when we first went to war, we do not know what the future will bring. Were we successful? Were the trillions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost, countless personal freedoms stripped away and our international reputation devastated as a result of that war worth it? Only time will tell. War is messy – especially when the ends are far removed from the original intent.

The commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek teaches us that we should focus on his conduct – not his character.  This does not mean, of course that we turn a blind eye to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism – of course not. With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, new dangers await. The unfortunate realities of the world in which we live means that we must remain vigilant and prepared.  But it does mean that we also should focus on finding ways to strengthen our society.  Rather than looking for devils in the debris, we should search for heroes in our homes, our synagogues, our halls of legislation.

Another way to blot out the memory of Amelek is to seek ways to quell the potential for evil that resides in each of us.  Especially during this Shabbat Shuvah – when we have emerged from welcoming in a New Year and we now anticipate the solemnity and power of Yom Kippur - we are acutely aware of our own shortcomings.  The best way to defeat evil is to see it in ourselves and not allow it to control us and how we see the world.

The final commandment in this passage is “LO TISHKACH” – do not forget.  How do we remember and not forget? My nephew, Rabbi Ari Hart, writes the following:  

“The Ramban again offers insight when he writes that zachor, remember, happens with the mouth through speech, but lo tishkach, don't forget, happens with the heart. According to the Ramban, telling the story with only cognitive awareness is insufficient -- we must experience the loss. For some, like those who lost loved ones, there's no way to avoid the heart when remembering tragedy: there is no day, anniversary or not, when they do not feel the pain. Others fortunate to not experience that constant pain must find ways to connect to the memory in both our heads and our hearts. This ensures that we don't just learn from trauma on an intellectual level but that we internalize the lessons into our hearts and will, transforming how we act in the world.”

In other words, when we turn our hearts to the process of “not forgetting” – we are also making a pledge to take that memory and use it to guide us in envisioning and creating a society that truly reflects our highest ambitions and attributes.

Remember. Blot Out. Do not forget.

These three ancient, seemingly strange and contradictory ways of memorializing trauma in a collective consciousness offer profound insights into how to respond to trauma. On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, may we find ways to do all three, telling our stories to bring healing, erasing evil around and within us, and integrating the trauma's unique truths into our fullest selves. May we learn from our pain and work to repair this all-too imperfect world.

May we all be blessed with a year filled with growth, renewal and hope for a better future.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu V’Tecychateymu – May we all have a good year – filled with healing and blessing - and may we be written and sealed into the Book of Life for the future.

Amen - Ken Yehi Ratzon

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Uncertainty. Rosh HaShanah Morning, 5782

L’shanah Tovah!

I recently read a story about a man named Robert Jones who relied on his GPS to navigate to a location in West Yorkshire, England. The "road" on which he was driving began to steepen and narrow, but still he plugged on. "It kept insisting the path was a road," he later explained, "so I just trusted it." Jones only realized how wrong he was when his car drove through a thin wire fence just inches from a 100-foot drop. He managed to get out safely, but the car remained balanced precariously – teetering over the edge. It took a recovery team nine hours to haul it away, and Jones was given a court citation for driving without care and attention.

If you google “GPS Horror Stories” (as I did preparing for this sermon), you can find hundreds of anecdotes about hapless drivers who blindingly followed their Satellite Navigation systems and found themselves stranded in precarious situations.

I’m pretty sure that many of us have had similar experiences. I certainly have:

• The first time Sue and I drove to Aspen for a late-summer wedding about 9 years ago, we found that our GPS had routed us through Independence Pass. We were in a convertible at the time and weren’t expecting to see snow .... While it was quite a beautiful drive, we could have done without the hairpin turns, freezing temperatures and heart-stopping drops on either side of the road.

• About 15 years ago, I was driving in Israel (which is in, and of itself, quite a harrowing experience) from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and my rented GPS took me on a winding road with no exits or turn-offs that ended at a Military checkpoint outside of the Palestinian City of Ramallah. This was during an unusually tense time. When I stopped the car, I was greeted by several Israeli soldiers, in full military gear who were pointing their M-16 automatic rifles at me...... I quickly explained my predicament and after they checked out my story they shooed me away with a warning to get better directions next time.

One of the lessons we learn from these stories and experiences is that, even when we think we know where we are going; when we feel that we have the technology and the expertise to navigate uncharted territory - there are always aspects that are out of our control. Of course, this does not only apply to travelling from place to place. Any time we experience the unexpected and sometimes traumatic events that overwhelm and force us to accept our limitations, we come face to face with the realization of how uncertainty shapes our understanding.

This morning, I am going to talk about uncertainty.

Over the course of the past 18 months, our lives have been uprooted on multiple levels. The fact that last night we could not congregate in person and now this morning we are meeting both in a tent and online – when we were so looking forward to praying together in our beautiful and newly-renovated sanctuary - is but one of countless reminders of the uncertainties we face on a daily basis.

As we attempt to navigate the twists and turns of COVID-19 – as a congregation, a nation and as individuals, it feels as though we are navigating without clear guidance – there is no GPS, compass or even a map to show us the way. While we have relied on the best information we could obtain from our medical authorities and best practices of other congregations and institutions – all guided by our Jewish Values - the decision to cancel indoor services at Temple was incredibly difficult – especially since we made the painful decision to restrict unvaccinated children under 12 from participating in in-person services and programs in order to protect them, their families and the most vulnerable in our community from potential infection.

And the truth is, no one can say with perfect certainty that the risks associated with gathering are truly severe- all we can do is listen to educated, qualified experts and do our best. We are living in times of uncertainty.

While most of the feedback and responses we have received about this decision were very supportive, there were some who have shared their displeasure, anger and frustration in less “friendly” terms. I get it – I really do. We are all stressed. We all wish that this insidious pandemic would just disappear so that we can go on with our lives as before. As I shared with our Temple staff, professional and lay leadership in the aftermath of the announcement – we need to understand that any responses we receive need to be filtered through a pastoral, not a procedural lens. People’s responses reflect their pain and frustration. Our emotions are raw. We’re tired. We’re scared. Lashing out is a natural, if not necessarily productive response to uncertainty.

• I’m thinking about the mother who spent the entire year with her children at home – trying to make zoom school interesting - all the while worrying about the impact of the loss of normalcy: no playing with friends, going to birthday parties or sitting unmasked with their classmates in the classroom.

• I’m thinking about the elderly man who lives alone and feels isolated and disconnected from the world around him.

• I’m thinking about how many of us were unable to be with loved ones during the holidays, celebrate special occasions, travel, or attend concerts, plays and other cultural events.

• I’m thinking about the countless weddings (including my own daughter’s), B’nai Mitzvah services and celebrations, Funerals and so many other important life-cycle events that had to be cancelled, postponed, radically transformed and re-shaped into a virtual format because we could not all be in the same room together.

• I’m thinking about how much hope we had when we received our vaccinations – and how hard it was to deal with the fact that we may have been overly optimistic, due to a myriad of factors – including the fact that many chose not to receive their vaccines – resulting in new cases that have overburdened our hospitals and taxed our health care workers – with the overwhelming majority of serious cases involving the unvaccinated.

And I’m also angry about the partisans, prognosticators and pundits who spread propaganda and manipulate fear by creating conspiracy theories to rally their followers around the flag of individual rights and personal freedom – all the while ignoring the essential values of Kehillah – community and Pikuach Nefesh - the preservation of life – and I’m thinking about how many lives could have been saved had we listened to reason and science instead allowing this disease to mutate, evolve, disrupt and destroy so much.

And in addition to COVID-19, we have also witnessed a myriad of other crises that have had a profound impact on us and our world.

Our Climate is changing in front of our eyes. The damage inflicted by wildfires and the clouds of smoke that have darkened our skies; the hurricanes and floods that have overtaken our cities; the drought that is threatening both the livelihoods of farmers and the stability of our food chain are just a few examples. But Climate Change is not only impacting the United States. Every nation is touched by it: From Australia’s vanishing coral reefs, to wildfires in Greece and Turkey, to the melting of the polar ice caps, we are all interconnected in a Global eco-system that, if not protected, will transform and reshape every aspect of life on our planet.

And perhaps the most dangerous crises our nation and, indeed our world are facing are those of intolerance and autocracy. Americans are increasingly divided as a nation. The “slash and burn” tactics that have been implemented in every level of political, social and religious discourse have given way to absolutism in our politics, belief systems and moral positioning. This, in turn, has created an environment where intolerance is the norm - providing fertile ground for the promoters and creators of xenophobic, racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic propaganda – on all sides of the political spectrum – left and right. Those who are threatened by frank and painful discussions around sexuality, White Privilege, and tolerance often do all that they can to shut down healthy discourse in favor of partisan talking points. Similarly, intersectionality – the belief that all injustice is connected across racial, religious and cultural lines – while, in principle, a worthy ideal, has unfortunately, also given a few loud voices a platform upon which hatred and intolerance have been spread as well. In a world where absolutism is supreme there can be no compromise, there is no place for uncertainty. And as a result, we find ourselves feeling increasingly disoriented as we confront the unknown and the unexpected with no clear road map to help us address the multitude of problems that we are facing.

In the Torah portion that we just heard so beautifully chanted, we grapple with the difficult and disturbing story of the Akeydah – the binding of Isaac. As I was preparing for this sermon, I realized that the theme of uncertainty is woven throughout our narrative. In Genesis, Chapter 22, verses 1 and 2 we read:

Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.”

Notice how God never tells Abraham where he is going with Isaac – God just says – “...offer him up on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Truth be told, this is not an unusual occurrence in the Torah. When we first meet Abraham, God calls out to him and says: “Lech Lecha” – go a land that I will show you. But it didn’t begin with Abraham and Sarah.

• In the first interaction between God and Humanity in the book of Genesis – God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of knowledge – but never tells them why.

• Noah builds an Ark at God’s command, but truly does not have any idea what will happen and how the flood will unfold.

• Sarah is told that she will bear a child in her old age, and then God almost takes him away from her.

• Moses and the Israelites wander for 40 years with no clear direction...I could go on, but the message is clear: Uncertainty is part and parcel of the human condition.

How many of us, over the course of this past year have felt lost, adrift, unsure of where we are going? How many of us have wished for a magical end to the uncertainty of this insidious disease that has disrupted every aspect of our lives? If only we could know for certain what the future would least we wouldn’t have to deal with the fear of the unknown.

It is for this reason that the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that Cantor Sacks chanted so beautifully this morning is so compelling - and so disturbing. On the surface, it’s message of “Who shall live and who shall die...” presents us with a radical, deterministic theology. It implies that- yes: there IS an answer to the question of uncertainty: everything is in God’s hands. Our lives are all part of a pre-ordained plan. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed...” The idea of a God up in heaven watching our every move- “...making a list and checking it twice- looking to see who’s naughty or nice...” seems to be teaching us that nothing really matters - God is judging us and once our fate is sealed, we cannot change it. But then, at the very end, we read:

ותשובה, ותפילה, וצדקה מעבירים את רוע הגזרה

And Repentance, prayer, and charity temper the divine decree.

In other words, even though it appears that God has already decided our fate, we still can have an impact on Divine will through righteous actions. We don’t know what the future may bring, but we can prepare for the unknown – if we direct our hearts, minds and resources towards the good. What we do- how we live- how we care for one another literally can change the course of history. We can never be sure – but we can also never stop trying.

The unetaneh tokef can easily be dismissed as medieval mumbo-jumbo, and yet there can be a deep and powerful truth hidden in its words. You see, one of the things I love most about Judaism is that fact that we don’t have answers for everything – but we have a lot of questions. When I meet with bar and bat Mitzvah students to help them write their Divrei-Torah (Speeches), we begin every meeting with what I call a “Big Jewish Question.” “Ask me anything about Judaism,” I tell them. “It doesn’t have to be about your torah portion or becoming bar or bat mitzvah.”

I love these big Jewish Questions. Sometimes, they are easy to answer:

• “Why do we wear a tallit?”

• “What do you have to do to become a Rabbi?”

• “How come services are so long?”

But eventually, without fail, many, if not most students will ask me this:

“What does Judaism teach about what happens after we die?”

“Great question,” I respond. “But you’re not going to like my answer. The truth is you can find just about any belief in the afterlife in some aspect of Judaism.”

• Heaven and Hell? – Check.

• Reincarnation – yup

• Purgatory – big time

• Nothing at all – you bet.

Our Rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Foster is fond of answering that question in the following way: “I don’t know where we go after we die because I have never been there and... I’m in no hurry to find out...!”

While some people might be frustrated by the lack of clarity in Judaism’s eschatology, I find it strangely comforting. You see, I believe that you learn more about a religion by the questions that it asks, than the answers that it gives. “What happens after we die” is AN important Jewish Question – but it is not THE Jewish Question. THE Jewish question is: “How do we make the most of the gift of life that God has given us while we are alive?” What happens next is in God’s hands, not ours.

Rabbi Menahum Nahum Twersky, the 18th century Chasidic Master and author of the book, Me’or Einayim, taught: “Once you study Torah [and absorb it,] you realize that you actually know nothing. The culmination of knowledge,” he wrote, “is the awareness that one does not know, that one cannot know, that some truths remain just as hidden as they were in the beginning.i”

I don’t necessarily want a religion that gives me answers, I want a religion that teaches me to ask questions... to embrace the mysteries that surround us on every side and live in the liminal state of the unknown. For

• Without mystery, there is no beauty

• Without mystery, there can be no growth or discovery

Maybe, instead of trying to defeat the unknown, we should embrace it. In truth – life’s uncertainties become a catalyst for our pursuit of purpose: for when we confront mystery we open a doorway to discovery, creativity, surprise, joy and wonder. Every work of art; every symphony, every painting, every song begins with an empty canvas or an empty page, and from that emptiness - beauty emerges as an act of faith that is guided by an unseen hand.

Those who claim to have the exclusive answers to life’s unanswerable questions make a mockery of humanity and our potential to discover holiness through the gifts that God gave us in the first place. We, who are limited in our understanding of the mystery and complexity of Creation must choose how to live based on a desire to make our lives – and the lives of those around us – consistently better. That, my friends, is Judaism in a nutshell.

The poet, Lynn Ungar wrote the following:

There isn’t a right answer.

There just isn’t. The game show where the bells ring and the points go up and the confetti falls

because you got the answer

is a lie.

The preacher who would assure you of how to attain salvation

is making it all up.

The doctor

who knows just how to fix

what ails you will be sure

of something else tomorrow.

Every choice will

wound someone, heal someone, build a wall and open a conversation. Things will always happen

that you can’t foresee.

But you have to choose.

It’s all we have—that little rudder that we employ in the midst

of all the eddies and rapids,

the current that pulls us

inexorably toward the sea.

The fact that you are swept along

by the river is no excuse.

Watch where you are going.

Lean in toward what you love.

When in doubt, tell the truth.

My friends, the best way to deal with uncertainty is to find ways that you can make a difference:

• Volunteer

• Mentor a student

• Find an issue about which you are passionate and work to repair the world.

Whether it be eradicating racism – as we at Temple Emanuel have worked to do, Protecting a Woman’s Right to choose in light of the disastrous law passed in Texas this past week, Protecting Voting Rights, Preserving our environment, Supporting the State of Israel – even when we disagree...

• Find your passion and work to promote it.

And another answer is to support, build and celebrate community. Be part of

something larger than yourself: Your synagogue, Your neighborhood, a cause or organization you care deeply about - we need each other – we need to support both our searching for meaning and our ability to rise above the instability of the unknown together.

On Rosh HaShanah we proclaim the New Year with the heralding cry of the Shofar. Someone pointed out to me recently that the shofar is shaped like a question mark. When we prepare to blow it, we don’t really know what sound will emerge - it’s a hard and unforgiving instrument to play. What a powerful metaphor for a New Year! Just as we have hopes and prayers for the future, we have questions, doubts and fears as well – we really can’t be sure of what will happen. And yet – we forge ahead – as our ancestors have done before us for thousands of years – with faith in God and in ourselves. We know that it is our questions that propel us to work to hear the Clarion Cry of hope for the New Year – and it is our search for meaning that makes change – real change in our world.

This is our sacred task. As we enter into 5782, let us do so with hope and prayer for new beginnings.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu – may we all be inscribed for a blessing in the new year. AMEN.


i Meor Enayim, Bereshit, page ז"ט. Thank you to Rabbi Andrew Vogel who shared this with me.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Standing up For Choice: Parashat Nitzavim and the Anti-choice Law in Texas

Shabbat shalom!  

I want to begin tonight by sharing a story that many of you know already – it has been widely shared in a video that Sue and I made in opposition to last year’s ballot initiative, Proposition 115 – which was a thinly-veiled attempt to prevent women in Colorado from choosing the type of health care and reproductive resources available to those in need. (Here is the video:

When Sue and I decided to get married 33 years ago, we looked forward to raising our children in a home filled with love and Jewish tradition.   As a rabbi, I had worked with many couples in preparation for marriage and I knew that since both of us were Ashkenzi (East European) Jews, there was a slight possibility that one or both of us might carry the gene for Tay-Sachs – a rare, incurable genetic disorder that results in a painful death within five years of birth.  When I mentioned to Sue that one of us should be tested for Tay Sachs, she told me “Oh – I was tested when I was in College.  I think I am a carrier – but you’re probably not.”  Imagine my surprise when I found out that I, too was positive.  Our genetic counselor explained that, even though both of us were carriers, we still could have healthy children.  With each pregnancy, there was a 25% chance that we would conceive an embryo that would be infected with the disease.  We knew that every time Sue would get pregnant, we would have to undergo genetic testing of the fetus .  We were willing to take the risk and thankfully, 30 years ago we were blessed by the birth of our daughter, Elana.  The weeks leading up to and following the testing were very difficult.  Our fears that we would have to terminate this pregnancy that we so desperately wanted to bring to full term were palpable.  Thankfully, she was a healthy baby.  Our luck changed with our second pregnancy, however.  To hear from our doctor that the embryo that we so desperately wanted to bring to term had a fatal disease was devastating.  Thankfully, at that time, abortion was legal and safe.  As difficult as it was to say goodbye to the hopes and dreams of a second child, the thought of having to care for and bury a suffering child was unbearable.  Termination of the pregnancy was the obvious choice. Sue received excellent care and together we grieved the loss of what might have been.

Three years after the birth of our first child, Elana, we were blessed with a son, Ethan.  Both of our children are healthy.  In 5 weeks, Sue and I will stand under the Chuppah as Elana marries our beloved future son-in-law Greg and, God willing, when they are ready to have children of their own, we hope that they will not have to face the same type of painful choice. Tonight, however, I am worried that their choices may be limited or destroyed.

You see, tonight, in the aftermath of the passage and the Supreme Court’s Cowardly refusal to disavow the disastrous Texas law -Senate Bill 8, the future of a woman’s right to make her own choices about reproduction and health care are in grave danger.

This law, recently enacted by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Governor Abbot – is a travesty and a tragedy for women’s rights and reproductive freedom – not only in Texas, but anywhere that anti-choice activists hold sway of state legislators – since it was upheld by the United States Supreme Court and is perceived as a green light by anti-choice advocates around the country. The Texas law not only criminalizes all abortions after 6 weeks, but also makes it possible for anyone who helped women obtain the termination of a pregnancy liable for lawsuits:  from doctors and medical professionals, to Uber drivers, support staff at health centers and anyone who is remotely connected to the process. Radical anti-Choice advocates now have the power to sue whomever they want – thereby creating a network of spies and informants akin to the worst fantasies of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tour de force, The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the Torah Portion for this Shabbat, Nitzavim – a parasha that is very familiar to us because we, in the Reform Movement also read it on Yom Kippur, we find the following stirring words:

הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19)

The words, “choose life” are quite powerful.  But they also can be spun and defined in a variety of ways. They can used to motivate us to live to our highest potential – choosing God’s loftiest ideals for our daily living and the choices we make, or they can be used as a weapon to narrowly define an agenda of intolerance.

For the authors of the Texas law – and other laws like it that are germinating around the country - those who would impose their fundamentalist and draconian definition of when life begins, “Choosing Life” means that the government has both the ability and responsibility to legislate women’s bodies without regard to personal freedom, physical or mental health, abuse, rape, or economic hardship.

For me – the words, “Choose Life” mean that as humans blessed with the precious gift of life, we have a responsibility to live our lives in ways that affirm the highest aspirations of humanity.  It means that we are tasked to do all that we can to show honor to God’s creation and to work together to create communities that both respect the choices and afford us the empathy to understand the difficulties faced by everyone with whom we share our lives. It does not mean imposing our narrow understandings of life’s questions, traumas and values on others – nor does it disavow us from disagreeing on the many complex paradoxes with which we are confronted on a daily basis. While there are clear moral and ethical boundaries that are essential for the creation of a safe and just society, there are also many areas that are too diffuse to be able to concretize clear rules that are applicable in every case. The passions that inflame anti-Abortion advocates cross the line of healthy disagreement and enter dangerous authoritarian oppression of some of the most vulnerable in our midst.

When Sue and I recorded our video in opposition to Proposition 115 last year, we received many emails and letters of support.  People praised us for our bravery and our willingness to tell our story on behalf of all those who are on the front lines of women’s health care and reproductive freedom.  At the same time, we also received many communications and threats that called us “murderers” and evil people who deserved to burn in hell for eternity.

The decision to terminate a pregnancy is very difficult and painful.  It should never be taken lightly.  Let us be clear here: No one is “Pro-Abortion.” To choose to terminate a pregnancy for any reason is traumatic. And yet, I also feel - passionately - that such a decision should be made by individual women – who may or may not choose to consult with family (whenever possible), or clergy, or counselors or even God. But we have no right to legislate such behavior.

The idea that that Government, Church, synagogue, or mosque should be placed in the position of legislating or interfering in the most intimate aspects of our lives is antithetical to the foundation of the separation of religion and state upon which our nation was founded and for which too many have died.

There are those who have struggled with the issue of abortion and, after deliberate and careful analysis – after much prayer and reflection – have come to the conclusion that they cannot support a woman’s right to choose.   While I, personally, do not agree with their conclusions, I respect their deliberation and I feel that the process of dialogue and discussion is vitally important.  We can agree to disagree- honoring the process that has brought us to our own particular conclusions.  But when these disagreements become the basis for legislation that represses and demonizes, a dangerous line has been crossed.

I am speaking tonight, because I am disgusted by the hypocrisy that we witness on a daily basis that justifies the creation of laws that, on the one hand, prohibit a woman from terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and on the other hand, make it difficult for that same woman to receive proper healthcare, nutrition or childcare once that unwanted pregnancy comes to term.

I am speaking tonight because we all have listened to the stories of those who, not so long ago, have had to resort to desperate measures to terminate an unwanted pregnancy:

  • women who were victims of rape or incest; who were emotionally, spiritually, physically or financially unable to care for an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy;
  • Women who were butchered by incompetent practitioners in unsanitary conditions
  • Women who were subjected to scorn and abuse and worse because they were in crisis and had nowhere else to turn.

I am speaking tonight because I am disgusted at the misogyny and gas-lighting that is the bedrock of this and other laws that attempt to silence women’s voices and marginalize their experience. The Texas law penalizes women for taking their reproductive health into their own hands. It says nothing about the responsibilities of the men who are responsible for every pregnancy.

Throughout history, demagogues have always looked for easy targets against which they could spew their fear-mongering – creating demons that represent the evils of society.  This insidious law demonstrates, once again how women   - especially poor women and women of color - have always been a favored target.  We have seen how Far Right, fundamentalist State Legislators have tried to undo decades of progress in women’s health and bring us back to a much darker time.

This law, and others like it, serve the function of shifting attention from the real issues that plague us by claiming to have a singular understanding of God’s will.  Abortionists and loose morals – these are the ills of society.  Forget about poverty, hunger, voting rights, racism, ignorance, abuse, homelessness, climate change, war, pollution (the list goes on and on) – no – those who would outlaw reproductive choice teach us that it is the women who want to make choices about how to take care of their bodies and the courageous Doctors, nurses and counselors who make that possible upon whom we should focus our attention.

My friends, the task that lies ahead of us is clear.  We – as people of faith who stand as a beacon of hope and reason in the face of darkness and disinformation – we must never waiver in our work.  No one knows the mind of God.  No one has a monopoly on faith.

In 3 days, we will be coming together to enter into a New Year – a year that will be filled with both hope and uncertainty. May the coming year, 5782, bring us the strength to address the injustices and challenges that plague us.

The title of this week’s parasha is Nitzavim – which means “Standing Tall.” When we stand together, we are strong.  Our task is to show the world that the stereotypes are wrong.  We need to tell the stories of triumph over tragedy – of how we can work together to eradicate ignorance and prejudice and, in the process of doing so, forge a unified partnership with one another and our Creator to repair our fragile and wounded world.  Soon the Shofar will be calling us to share our Truth and help others hear it as well.  We can do no less.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.