Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Noah and Anxiety: or what happens when we focus on the wrong thing

This past week's sermon!

So I’m at the JCC working on my elliptical and the person to the left of me, a longtime acquaintance, starts gesturing at the TVs. “Ah, I hate it! I hate coming in and seeing these things. It puts me in a bad mood all day.”
She was not angry at TVs themselves, mind you. The electrical rectangles hadn’t done anything to offend her personally. It was, rather, the content on those screens. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC. And what were they showing? We’re all going to die of Ebola. That is, assuming ISIS doesn’t get us first. Or perhaps the various citizens and civil servants of Ferguson? Or the Russian army? Each screen with its own brand and style of hyperventilation, each filling the air with nothing but anxiety and, frankly, nonsense. But there it is, staring us in the face, trying to rile us up to be equally anxious consumers of more anxiety. So we steep in it, increasingly convinced that the world is falling apart, that things are worse than they used to be, that everything is failing around us. So even if we don’t become anxious ourselves, we become cynical, convinced that no good can come of it, that any solution proposed is meaningless, hype, defective in some way, or detrimental; that in fact doing some good is worse than doing nothing.
We are convinced that the sky is falling, or at least there are those working very hard to convince us that the sky is falling. At the same time, we’re being told that there’s nothing to do, nor nothing we can do, about the injustice, inequality or environmental issues that we are facing. Our voices are too small, our actions are empty, our capacity limited. As Leonard Cohen growls, “everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.”
Well if that’s really the state of the world, I don’t believe it. I think that’s the product news media wants to sell us—crises increase ratings, after all. This isn’t to say the world is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, either; of course we have our challenges, and those challenges are real. But I, for one, am tired of being told the problems are too big, the solutions too grandiose. And I am tired of manufactured crises that obfuscate real challenges in our world.
In the Torah portion for this week, in parashat Noach, humanity faced a real crisis: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,  God said to Noah, "I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” Again, we focus on the wrong thing—we are distracted by the Mabul, the flood that will come; we don’t look at the cause of that flood. The problem wasn’t the weather; the problem was the violence—Hamas, by the way, is the word used—in the land.
So it is with us: A few sick people in Dallas from a weak virus masks the thousands dead in Africa, and the lack of support we provide to deal with even more virulent illnesses—more people will die of the flu in America this year than Ebola. ISIS does not currently threaten our border, but it does reveal the stresses in our alliances, and soft thinking by our top diplomats about the Middle East, and reveal how we so often see the other with suspicion. I don’t know what happened in Ferguson; I do know that we have a problem with the way we treat black men, among many, many others who are both actively and passively disempowered in our society. We have challenges, friends, but the real challenge too frequently isn’t the one we’re focused on. We look on helplessly at the problems we can’t fix, taking our eyes off the ones we can and ought and must.
When God commands Noah to build the ark, he is given a strange commandment: to build a “tzohar”, which could mean roof, but also mean ‘skylight’. Who puts a skylight in an ark when the rains are about to come? Someone who needs to know the sun will come out again, and needs to see that sun rise. Someone who needs to see that it isn’t dark out there, that the good guys haven’t lost, that the war is not over, that the challenge remains, but we can step up to that challenge. Gloom may surround us; it may blare at us over the airwaves. But let us make skylights in our lives to let the sun in, for it will return again.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Erev Yom Kippur: The Dash Between the Numbers

Here's my Kol Nidre sermon.
 Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                        Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
--Walt Whitman
 Just outside of Camp Harlam there’s a tiny cemetery, the Dotter’s Corner Cemetery Association. It sits on a hill with a gorgeous view overlooking the Pocono Mountains, the stones facing east toward the dawn as it rises over the trees. If you’ve ever been to the Chapel On The Hill at Harlam, the view from this cemetery is a very close second. The field—barely the size of a back yard—is filled with an amazing collection of stones. Some date back to the early 19th century, and clearly belong to the original Dotter family, whose farm they must have stood upon. Others reflect the evolution of the community: civil war veterans, children who died of the Spanish flu. Names like Serfass and Bruch and Martini and Schwartz reflect the diversity of the community.  Some stones are ornate, with images of the deceased, or of their careers (lots of trucks and farm equipment). Others are marked with only simple stones, marked only with initials, or sometimes a piece of slate with no name, a cross made out of iron pipe. In a few cases it’s only the plastic signs left by the funeral home from the service itself, going back to the 1970s. 
It’s a humbling place, this cemetery on Dotter’s Corner, on this hill facing the dawn. When I’m at camp I walk through it most mornings, looking at the names and the dates, or the iron cross or the piece of slate, and wondering the story of the person beneath that stone.
Every stone has a story, be it in Kresgeville or Wilmington, or Arlington, or anywhere. When we look at a marker or a headstone, we focus on the name and the dates: the year of birth and the year of death. But the most important mark in the stone is none of those things, nor any slogan or blessing that may be found; it’s the dash between the years; because it is in that dash that the story of that life is found.  In that dash are all the games the person played as a child, his relationship with his parents and friends and siblings. In that dash are his illnesses and injuries and defeats. In that dash are his first loves and broken hearts, his days of boredom and moments of learning. In that dash are the careers he made, the family he loved, the opportunities he missed. In that dash are the cars he drove and the violence he experienced, the mundane moments and the profound moments and the silly moments.

I have these same thoughts every time I go to our cemetery, or the one on Foulk Rd. I look at the stones and recognize the names of people I’ve buried, and I remember their stories. I remember our conversations and conversations with their families. I remember how they lived their values, how they cared for their loved ones, how they thought of themselves and how others thought of them. I think of those stories that reside in the dash between the numbers on their stones. That is why we are so heartbroken at Holocaust memorials and tombs of the Unknown Soldier, at mass graves of the innocent dead, at monuments by the sea. For they are dedicated to those whose names we will never know, whose dates are left blank, and whose stories are too often swept into the eddies of time, unspoken and unremembered.  And without those stories, without the dash between the dates, we are nothing. 
And you know something? Each of us, every one of us, will be marked by a stone, with our name at the top, and our dates of birth and death underneath. The question is, what will fall in the dash for each of us? Who will remember our story, and what story will they remember? Will we be remembered for blessing or curse, for helping someone in a time of need, or an unkind word that cut to the quick? Will we be remembered for our vanities or for our sacrifices? I raise this not to be morbid, but to tell a truth. It is others who will tell our stories for us, whether we like it or not—our friends, our family, our children and grandchildren, and we’ll never know if they get it right. But we do get to decide what happens inside that dash, how we live our lives, how we live up to our values so that perhaps, when others see that dash on our stones, we will be remembered for blessing.
Tomorrow we will stand and confess our sins, our mistakes, the times we went astray. We will recite Unetaneh Tokeph, which reminds us that we do not control the dates of our lives: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die…” We wish we had some control over those numbers, but we do not, and we chafe and groan and rail at how unfair life seems. And tomorrow we will also hear the words of Moses, who tells us that we should choose life that we may live. Not life in general, but what sort of life is worth living! We cannot choose the numbers on the stone, but we can choose what happens inside the dash. We can choose a life worth living. What is the life we will choose? What is the life we are choosing? No one has control over that but us, each one of us. And we owe it to those stones that await us to live our lives most fully. 
The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse. Tonight we recommit ourselves to writing that verse. May we write them with care. Amen. 

Doing The Best I Can: Yom Kippur Morning

Friends: below you'll find my second sermon for Yom Kippur.
Who am I? I am me.
Where am I? I am here.
When is it? It is now.
What am I doing? I’m doing the best I can. 
The time has come. The gates of prayer and repentance are open; they have been open for ten days. Today is the last day. Soon, too soon, as the sun descends, as we ourselves grow exhausted physically and emotionally and spiritually, the gates will begin to close. We have had a whole year to make amends, to correct our wrongs, to look deeply within ourselves and do the hard work of turning toward the right path, the path we know is right. Now we have had a week-and-a-half sprint to the finish line, an intensive. The year is new—will we be new, or bogged down by the same old same old, the same rag and bone shop of the heart that weighs us down year after year, the same old hurts, the same old grudges, the same old patterns of behavior? Or will we seek to change our ways, to change ourselves, to realign our expectations within and without? Will this be a new year, or same stuff, different day? 
Who am I? I wish I could say I was new and renewed, but I am not. I try, I strive, I work against my nature. Perhaps this year I can tweak at the corners some little habit or tic; but I am me. And I don’t want to accept me for who I am. I don’t want to own it. I want the idealized me, the platonic me, the me I want other people to see. But what would it mean, instead, for me to accept myself? Not accept what’s wrong in order to change it, but be totally aware and pay attention to who I really am, what my needs are, where my soul lives, rather than focus so much on what I think other people need to see? Would I be happier? Would I be more at peace? Instead of fighting against my nature, would I then give myself the opportunity to do real transformation? We read in Torah this morning—God’s expectations are not in heaven, nor across the sea. They aren’t baffling or beyond our reach—my reach. God’s expectations are in my heart, in my mouth. If God’s expectations are within, why do I continually look outside? Nachman of Bratzlav wrote: the day you were born is the day God decided the world couldn’t exist without you. If God needs me in the world, me, why can’t I accept that—why won’t I accept me? What am I afraid of? So we pray with all our hearts for things to be different. We hope that prayer, repentance and charity will change our lives, change ourselves. But as Alan Lew writes: “The liturgy, however, makes a very different claim, namely that prayer, righteousness, and Teshuvah will not change what happens to us; rather, they will change us. We will understand what happens differently… Spiritual practice won’t change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.” And I would add: spiritual practice doesn’t change me; it helps me see and accept the real me. 
Where am I? This year I treated myself to a new tallit, a new prayer shawl. And rather than the beracha on the Atarah, rather than the blessing, I had my favorite words of Torah embroidered: Achein yesh Adonai b’makom Hazeh v’anochi lo yadati—surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it, the words Jacob says when he awakens from his dream. They are the words I live by, they are my maxim, the realest truth that I know. God is here, in this place, in EVERY PLACE, and we, to quote Chaim Stern, walk sightless among miracles. We are caught up in our daily habits and routines and are blind to each others’ true selves and the spark of the divine each of us brings forward. Or, perhaps, we stifle that spark, afraid that others will not understand or appreciate it, or fear it. We are surrounded by God in every moment, for we are surrounded by each other, and we know that God is present only through us. But we tune God out. As that great rabbi Yoda says, we are always somewhere else, always thinking about the future, and never where we are, and what we are doing. 
When is it? Who can tell? We fill up our schedules, and our children’s schedules, to make sure we appear busy, to make sure we are busy, for if we rest but one moment we might reflect on how we are squandering the holiness of our lives. We are blind to the day of the week; every day is the same, filled to the brim, and each one ends the same, with our collapsing from exhaustion. We bring our work with us on vacation, our phones are at our sides constantly, our laptops ready to go. We miss what is in front of us because we are afraid that if we looked and saw and took a snapshot of the moment, it might be too late. We think time is linear; that our lives are straight lines that shoot out toward the horizon. But they are not. Yeats had it right: the years are gyres, spinning us again and again back to the same moments. There is no perfect time; it is never too late. There is always now. Every moment is Sinai. We stand this day, not only us but all those who ever were and all those who ever will be. That is what our Torah teaches. We need merely to be fully present in that moment. 
What am I doing? A story by Alan Lew: Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot—secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms. All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba’al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man... He choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba’al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously—how utterly—he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept. All right, you’re hired, the Ba’al Shem said. But I don’t understand, the man said. I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah. So the Ba’al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba’al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax—the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, wherever he may be—the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” 
I want to have all the answers. I want to change the pain other people feel. I want to be God’s partner in every way. Yehuda Amichai sat looking at his children sleeping and whispered to himself, “I am not God, I am not God.” Nor am I. Nor are any of us. I am going to fail, but in my failure I pray that I find the key. 
The time has come. We are here in this place, in this moment, unabashedly and truly ourselves. We stand—sometimes in our own ways, making our tshuvah, our returning, harder for ourselves.  We are brokenhearted. Good. That means we have the ax in our hands. “The heart is always breaking, the gates are always clanging shut. It is always the last minute.” Now is the last minute, the last minute as the gates are open to pray and be with all our hearts. So I ask you to join me in meditation and prayer, the prayer I recited at the beginning:
 Who am I? I am me.
Where am I? I am here.
When is it? It is now.
What am I doing? I’m doing the best I can.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775: A Congregation Of Learners

Once there was a student who struggled with his learning. (I know, right?) His father watched and grew more and more exasperated. He cajoled, he threatened, he took away every privilege he could think of but nothing seemed to motivate the child, who slipped further and further in his studies. Finally the father brought his son to the teacher. He complained mightily how nothing worked, nothing motivated him, and he expected the teacher to show his son what for. The teacher looked at the student, and said, ‘leave, I’ll take care of this.’ The father, satisfied that his son would learn real discipline left the room. The teacher went over, wrapped his arms around the student, and held him close for a very long time.

For more years than anyone dares count, Myrna Lawrence has been that embracing, calming, loving presence. Every year the students return knowing that Myrna will be there to encourage them, motivate them, and sometimes rebuke them, but always in a loving and supportive way. She has a way of bringing out the best in her students, be it in the classroom or the bar mitzvah lesson. She has calmed the nerves of many an anxious parent wholly focused over their child’s performance, while Myrna redirected that focus quietly and subtly to the child’s growth as a human being and a Jew. She has had the blessing of seeing students who knew her as Mrs. Pollack come back as teachers and as parents of new students themselves. And now, after more than thirty years in education and more than a decade as our Religious School director, Myrna is retiring. It is a rest well earned, and her legacy here is secure, having touched the lives of so many people—parents and children—in our congregation. It is bittersweet, as it places us at a crossroads, a crossroads between who we are and who we want to be.

Change, as Myrna has often joked, is a four-letter word, at least in this congregation. We get nervous about new directions. We are very proud of our history, and, as befits a more than century-old community, often focus on preserving who we are rather than thinking about who we might become. And with those challenges in mind, I feel like this moment provides us an opportunity, and as we begin our search process, we must embrace that opportunity to think about learning in our congregation.

Notice I didn’t say ‘the religious school’ or ‘education’; I said learning; congregational learning, lifelong learning. One of the reasons I came to this congregation is because of its varied and joyful learning experiences: the school and bar mitzvah programs to be sure, but also confirmation, youth group, the adult education programs, brotherhood and sisterhood, our speakers, the choir, and all the independent learning groups scattered throughout the community. Each one is wonderful and engaging, and each one has been cut off from the other, removed into its own peculiar silo separate from the rest of the congregational experience. I know this, and you know it too. I know this by the way many of you began to tune out the minute I mentioned the religious school. ‘What does that have to do with me? My kids are grown, out of the house; I did my part, after all.’ I know this by the way parents and younger empty nesters hear the words ‘adult ed’ or lifelong learning and assume we’re talking about someone else, someone other than them, someone retired, older, with different interests and needs. And I feel this most palpably in those brief moments when those siloes come down; when a confirmation class kid comes to Torah Study, when the 7th grade comes to hear a Brotherhood speaker, when an older person comes to volunteer in a classroom or offers to teach, or just comes to participate in a program supposedly geared toward the parents. In those moments I see a brief image of who we might be: a congregation of learners.

What is a congregation of learners? It’s a congregation that starts from a place of learning. Okay, rabbi, you put the words in a different order, what does that mean? It means that we become a place of curiosity, that doesn’t assume answers but asks questions, indeed a place that omeid b’she’elah, that stands as a question mark, that seeks out opportunities to engage from a place of inquisitiveness.
The obvious way to see what that means is as a place of solid, engaged, and interactive learning experiences. We should ask ourselves, why don’t religious school, adult education, sisterhood, brotherhood and youth group do more joint experiences? I’m not talking about surrendering ownership—each group does different programming that is incredibly successful and meaningful—the brotherhood speakers, the adult education classes, Torah study, books & bagels, etc. And each is good at saying the other, non-obvious participant is welcome. But that’s not the same as cross-pollenization. Why aren’t there more opportunities for the kids and adults to learn together? Why aren’t there more moments of shared learning? Why isn’t there more interactive learning? Not all of us learn with our tuchus in a seat—why isn’t there more art, more movement, more DOING? Why aren’t there more opportunities to learn with the other congregations, or the JCC, in a collaborative fashion? Because kids and adults can’t learn together? Because it’s too hard to find people interested to teach or engage more through movement or tactile learning than discussion? Because we’re just too different from the other congregations? Let me share three experiences that suggest otherwise.
When Beth Ranauto, one of our parents, sat down with me for coffee last fall (a conversation that emerged from my invitation to all religious school families to sit down one on one), she mentioned that she feels her most spiritual when she’s moving—yoga, but also hiking and running out doors, and she said wistfully “I wish Shabbat could be more like that. Why can’t Shabbat be outdoors moving?” To which I responded, why couldn’t it? So we planned a Shabbat hike for a Saturday morning. No Torah study, no service, but a hike with moments of meditation and study, and a Torah reading and Kaddish all built in. We’ve done three now, and each one has seen around 30 people—twice as many as we get on a typical Shabbat morning—and different people than might have come to a conventional Shabbat experience. There was Torah learned, there was Shabbat experienced, but out in the world, allowing us, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to pray with our feet.

At Shavuot this past year, we were exploring how we could make it more meaningful, when the Cantor suggested that, since the holiday is commemorated with a ‘flower offering’ we plant something, maybe at a local nursing home or the like. Sonia Sloan suggested that we reach out to local community gardens that might need volunteers. That led us to a meeting with local leadership (herded by Sonia’s boundless energy), and dozens of people descending on Harlan Elementary school with supplies, tools, food (always food), and energy, to sing some songs and share with each other and with our local community. We got dirty with the students, none of whom were Jewish, and we explored what it meant to connect to a holiday and to Torah in a very different way—living Torah rather than just talking about it. And again, it brought out folks who would never have come to a Shavuot service, or a conventional study session.

Finally, this summer, Beth Emeth, along with Adas Kodesh and Beth Shalom, took a trip to Israel together. 33 participants from three congregations, including 7 children aged 6-14. Total age range was 6-80-something. So many things could have gone wrong, and everything went right. Conservative and Orthodox and Reform got along beautifully. Older participants adopted the kids like they were their own nieces and nephews.  From time to time we split apart—while the adults went to Yad Vashem, the kids went to the biblical zoo, and the like—but there was a sense that we were learning, each at his or her own level, together.

We could say those were unique, one-off experiences, and that’s true. But it also tells me that we can capture that energy and experience it in all our congregational programs. There’s no reason the 80 year old can’t learn with the 8 year old, no reason we can’t turn the learning experience on its head, no reason we can’t engage with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community and wider community. No reason that we can’t build relationships with each other even as we learn and explore Torah together.

Those examples are a good start. I’m getting excited just talking about those programs and their potential and I hope you are too. But there is more to being a congregation of learners. As I said before, it’s not just about the programs, it’s about the attitude. We must stand not as if we know all the answers but bring forward good questions. That’s true about Torah and Jewish practice, but it should also be true about our interactions with each other. We should be curious about one another, engaged with each other in fellowship. The best study groups are the ones where, like Cheers, everybody knows your name, and people are genuinely concerned for each other’s welfare. While it’s certainly true that nosy is Delaware for “I care about you”, and the more private among us might chafe, part of being a congregation of learners is learning not just about the subject material but each other. I’m not speaking about more programs or organized projects. I’m talking about noticing when a participant isn’t there and calling her up to make sure she’s okay. I’m talking about offering rides to one another. I’m talking about sharing photos of grandkids and stories about trips and asking for help with work or the number of a favorite babysitter. I’m talking about being genuinely interested in one another’s welfare.

What does that have to do with learning trope or Talmud or listening to a speaker? When we engage with one another, when we’re curious about each others’ lives, that’s where trust happens. And when we trust one another, that’s when we can go deeper in to learning—we can encourage each other to challenge and push and get beyond our limits. That’s when we become a real community in the fullest sense of the word.

So what would that look like? I’m not entirely sure, but let me paint a picture for you. Imagine for a moment a congregation filled with opportunities to learn: weekly Torah studies, ongoing learning experiences, and short or even episodic encounters, classes for children and parents and adults, Jews and non-Jews, led by clergy, by laypeople, by teens. Imagine some of those offerings being collaborative, where instead of one person at the front of the room telling people what and how to learn, the participants shared their best selves and supported one another. Imagine if there were online materials—not just schedules but articles, videos, interactive materials—that were posted that supported those experiences. Imagine if all those learning experiences were held together with a theme that stretched from religious school to adult ed to youth group, sisterhood and brotherhood. Imagine if they were open to the community, and we cross-listed our programs as well as learning experiences throughout the community with our own. Imagine if there were opportunities for adults to learn with the kids and kids—especially those post bar mitzvah or confirmation—to come learn with the adults. Imagine if, through these experiences, we grew close to one another, building relationships, friendships between and among generations. Imagine if these experiences led us to build deeper understanding within ourselves, that what we learn cultivates in us different ways of interacting with the world and how we see our Judaism. Now imagine this vision was being shaped and guided by a person, a director of lifelong learning, who was knowledgeable, loved this congregation fiercely, and loved the learners who are a part of it. And by learners, it is understood that everyone in the congregation, from the newborn babe to the 100-year old great grandfather, is a learner. And loved and embraced each learner the way Myrna does, speaking to them in the way they needed, embracing them for who they are and gently nudging them to go further, deeper, to challenge themselves.

It’s a lofty vision, in some ways not so different from what we are already doing this year and previous years, and in some ways very, very different indeed. And we as a congregation are going to be looking for someone who can create this vision, enhance it, make it their own, and put it into practice with love of Torah and love of Israel and love of each of us, every single one of us. I know we can find that someone. We have a search committee, led by Susan Detwiler, and a leadership team filled with competent people, loving people, knowledgeable people, each committed to what’s best for us as a congregation. They’ll be looking for someone who is organized, thoughtful, visionary, knowledgeable, a mensch. They’ll be looking for someone who is most likely clergy, a rabbi, who can engage the tradition and be a presence on the bimah even as he or she is a presence in the classroom and engage the individual, the family, the community. They’ll be looking for someone who can lead us to be a congregation of learners, looking to engage with each other and create loving community with one another.

I can say without hyperbole that this search will be one of the most important things we do as a congregation. It points us in a new direction, and has the potential to be transformative. This is more than just a new school director, or keeping our kids engaged; this is about nourishing each and every one of our neshamot, our souls. This is about each of us being Myrna, the teacher that embraces all. This is how we will continue to serve the Delaware Jewish community for generations to come.

Rabbi Eliezer said: In the light that God created on the first day, a person could see from one end of the world to the other. When God foresaw the misdeeds of future generations, God hid this light from them, reserving it for the righteous of the future.

Asked the disciples: "where was it hidden?"
He replied, "In the Torah."
They asked, "If so, will the righteous find something of this hidden light when they study Torah?"
He replied, "They will find and continue to find."
They asked, "If so, what should the righteous do when they find some of this hidden light in the Torah?"
He replied, "They should reveal it in the way they live." (From Martin Buber's Or HaGanuz)


The light is there, waiting for us to reveal it—through our learning, and through our actions, through our sharing. We will reveal that light as we pursue lifelong learning, a director of lifelong learning, and may we find and continue to find in that light not only Torah, but each other. Amen. 

Erev Rosh Hashanah: We Still Have Hope

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion and on the opposite mountain I am searching for my little boy. An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father both in their temporary failure. Our voices meet above the Sultan's Pool in the valley between us. Neither of us wants the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels of the terrible Had Gadya* machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

I don’t like flying. I am, honestly, afraid of flight. The idea of getting into an aluminum tube held aloft by physics alone sends my heart racing. It’s been like this for a long time. The only thing that calms me down is reciting t’fillat haderech, the travelers’ prayer, and reciting psalms that begin ‘shir Hama’alot’—a song of ascents. And when I am absolutely convinced I am going to become a statistic, I plead that I have too much more work to do.

This is an irrational fear, one rooted in nothing more than my own anxiousness. Today, I have other fears that, once upon a time, I would have thought irrational, even inconceivable.

Today I fear for Jews around the world and at home being attacked exclusively because they are Jews. I fear individuals and groups attacking Jews or those believed to be Jews, with the express purpose of doing them harm because they are Jews. I am afraid that our People is under assault in a way we haven’t been in 70 years.

Today I fear for the survival of the Jewish state, a fear my generation has never known. I fear for its survival against an insidious evil that is sweeping across the Middle East. I fear inaction or worse, wrong action from a West that has lost the ability to differentiate right from wrong, up from down.
Today I fear that well-meaning people of faith and without faith, who see suffering and want to accept easy morality tales, who subconsciously continue to use Jews and the Jewish State as the blank canvas to cast all they find repugnant in their own countries, are giving succor to anti-Semitism. In doing so, organizations like the Presbyterian Church USA that have so often been our natural partners in social justice are needlessly unspooling decades of good will and good work that may never be repaired, certainly not in this generation.

I fear that Israel, in its grief and anxiety for the future, may be losing its moral core. I fear that in mourning children, Israel and Israelis are lashing out with rage. That in defending itself righteously, voices of intolerance and hate in Israel are gaining strength, and in supporting settlement building by fringe elements, Israel is losing the ability to speak truth to power.

Today I fear that children in this country are not safe. Jewish children, black children, white children, are not safe. We have allowed our fears to isolate us and violence to tear communities apart. A person is shot blocks from the synagogue and no one says anything; even the residents of the apartment complex are too concerned to get to work to worry about the blood stains on the street. We look at each other with suspicion, and assume the worst; of our teachers, police officers, of people different from us, of people we’ve known for years.

I fear the voices that say it’s too late to save our world: we are too violent, our political system too broken, our climate too polluted, our world too competitive.

I am even afraid for me and my colleagues, rabbis who want to speak out about Israel from a nuanced and thoughtful perspective, but are convinced they will be shouted down, or ignored, or even have their job threatened because they are perceived as having the wrong stance on the Jewish State.
And it’s not only my fears. I speak with teens who are afraid about what has been happening in Israel, who don’t understand why their friends don’t see what Hamas is doing. Teens who are combating anti-Semitism in places like Ridgefield, New Jersey and Pine Bush, New York, places with large Jewish populations where nevertheless, kids are assaulted and verbally abused and swastikas are painted on walls and school administrators respond too often with a shrug.

Friends, there is a generation growing up with fear, who are increasingly convinced of the bleakness of the future in a way we haven’t seen in some time. They are afraid, and that fear is partly our doing. We have become paralyzed ourselves. We don’t know how to act, we aren’t sure of the right steps to take. We don’t want to do the wrong thing for fear we will fail. And we are told again and again that there is no hope—there are no partners for peace, that Europe, to quote Sylvan Schwartzman, is “a bloody trap.” That people are the way they are, that injustice is a natural part of the world, that the only thing people respond to is strength, and by strength we mean force. We sacrifice our hope and moral compass to defeat that which is hopeless and morally bankrupt. We fight fire with fire.

Tomorrow morning, you and I will read a story about a goat and a child; we will read a story about sacrifice in the hills of Jerusalem. We will read a story we call the Akedah—the binding, but perhaps should be called the Nisa—the Test, when Abraham takes his son Isaac (though some say Ishmael), his only, his beloved, his first born, to offer on the mountains of Moriah, the mountain later called Zion. It is a test I fear we are still taking in Jerusalem, one still involving children, sacrifice, and our temporary failures.

It would be so easy for us to give up. To give up on the well-meaning critics of Israel: the Presbyterians and the college students and the Europeans. It would be easy to give up on the Palestinians themselves, their hearts clearly filled with hate and rage and fear. It would be easy to give up on Israel, even; to divorce our love for the Jewish people from the Jewish homeland. Perhaps it’s even better to tune out the entire Middle East, to change the channel whenever news about Syria or Iraq comes on.

It would be easy for us to give up hope that things may ever change, to harden our hearts, to assume the worst, to let our anger and fear and angst rule us when we talk about Israel. That may be the hardest part of the test we face.

Friends, just as Isaac was bound, so are we bound. Just as Abraham was tested, so are we now tested, and while the answers elude us, we must keep at it with our hearts open, or we will surely fail.
Now is not the time to give up hope in a Jewish state. Now is not the time to give up hope in the Israeli citizen craving peace—perhaps not Shalom, wholeness, but at least sheket—quiet. Now is not the time to give up hope on the Palestinian who nurses his hurts and wounds but is still has a place in those hills. Now is not the time to give up hope on our neighbors and the non-Jews in our lives and assume each would wear a red armband were this the 1940s.

When I speak of hope, I don’t speak of blind faith, or naiveté. I don’t pretend that Gaza will suddenly turn into Norway, that Hamas will magically become Canadians. Israel is in a tough neighborhood. Nor will I pretend and wish away the issues internal in Israel; while the majority of Israelis want the Jewish state to be also a democratic state, we have members of the government who are uninterested in nuance. While most Israelis were horrified by the murder of Muhammad Abu Kheder, too many members of the government or political parties within government acted sanguine. And this is not to say anything of the hostility from the settlers in Hebron toward native Arabs. While most Israelis want a two-state solution, many of them are wrestling with the thought that it may be a one-state solution, with another failed state or no-state on their border. All of this in a larger picture of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, Iran, and an intensity of anti-Semitism not seen in the postwar period. When I say hope, I recognize that it’s awfully hard to be hopeful.

Nevertheless, we must have hope. The same hope that Abraham carried in his heart as he brought Isaac, his son, to be sacrificed on a mountain in the desert. We read tomorrow as Abraham says to Isaac, “God will see to the sheep for the sacrifice.”

We must have hope, and we must act on that hope. Hope, not force is the remedy to fear. Hope, not rage, will give us the strength to respond. Not grief, not anger, not even certainty, but hope.
Hope gives us the strength to respond to our non-Jewish friends to show them that Israel is neither an apartheid state nor should be the source of their angst. Hope gives us the will to stand up to the anti-Semite with calm and grace. Hope gives us the power to reach out to the stranger and build community, to plant roots together and secure a future together. Hope makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

We must have hope and act on that hope—in the streets, in our lives, all the time—if we are to see justice done in this world, to see bigotry finally banished not only from public discourse but private thought, to see the world we imagined for our children. We must have hope to see a new religion born on the hill, of freedom and righteousness and equality for all. For if we don’t, if we give in to fear, then the sacrifice will be our children after all, and we will set their future ablaze.
We must remember that Israel’s anthem is “Hatikvah”, the Hope, a hope that has sustained us for millennia. And in singing about that hope, we focus on the wrong words. We emphasize lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion yeriushalayim: to be a free people in our land, the land of Tzion, Jerusalem. That is what we sing the loudest, what we sing twice.  But the most important line is before that, the one responding to the Prophet Ezekiel: Od lo avda tikvateinu: we haven’t given up our hope. We mustn’t give up our hope. We may not give up our hope, for to give it up means to give up on Israel, on our Jewishness, on the world, on each other.


I have read that Israeli soldiers, on their way into Gaza, sang the Hasidic song Kol Ha’Olam Kulo: all the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. We must not be afraid. More than that, we must have hope, hope to see us through the fear, hope to see us through our temporary failure, hope so that our voices return to us, laughing and crying. Od lo avda tikvateinu, we haven’t lost our hope. May it always give us strength, strength to overcome fear. Amen. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#BlogElul Day 29: Return




Shana Tovah All!



#BlogElul Day 28: Give

A basic principle of the laws of property is that “matters [that are only] within the heart are of no significance” (literally: “are not matters”) (See T.B. Kiddushin 49b). If your intention is serious, if you really plan something, say it (italics mine). As long as man has not confessed, his ‘repentance’ is not considered complete. He may think in his heart: “From now on I shall observe the Sabbath, I’ll close my store at the start of the Sabbath, I shall be straight and honest in all my dealings and cheat no one, I’ll study Torah at regular and set times.” All these are commendable thoughts, but as long as they are not expressed verbally, they do not comprise an act of repentance. Confession is the climax of the process of repentance; only after confession has been made can repentance be effective… 
Thus, according to Maimonides, confession is the concretization of repentance. Speech, the verbalizing of confession, endows the thought of repentance with reality. It is the climax and final chord of the long and tortuous internal process of repentance. 
-From On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik By Pinchas Peli

We think of the act of repentance as work, and in many ways, it is; if we're doing it right, if we're really turning within ourselves, turning to those around us, and turning to God, we are exhausting ourselves Spiritually, emotionally and physically. We come away from the experience transformed and, like birth, the effort leaves us drained.

But also like birth, repentance is an act of tremendous generosity. When we verbalize our intent, we are giving ourselves the chance to take our life back rather than let it stew in the sin we have committed. We are taking ourselves seriously, as capable of transformation and renewal, and not forever defined by the hurtful action or word. When we ask for forgiveness, we are giving ourselves over in humility to the person we have offended. And when we forgive, truly forgive, letting go of the offense, we release the person from the sin they have committed.

In these last moments of preparation, think and reflect of who you need to be generous with, and how you can ask for generosity for yourself. What do you need to do to make that happen?