Thursday, September 27, 2012

And Here's the Morning of Yom Kippur

Just what it says in the title:

A Parable:
A father and his son, travelling together in a wagon, came to the edge of a forest.
Some bushes, thick with berries caught the child’s eye.
“Father,” he asked, “may we stop awhile so that I can pick some berries?”The father was anxious to complete his journey, but he did not have it in his heart to refuse the boy’s request. The wagon came to a halt, and the son alighted to pick the berries. 
After a while, the father wanted to continue on his way. But his son had become so engrossed in berry-picking that he could not bring himself to leave the forest.
“Son!” cried the father, “we cannot stay here all day! We must continue on our journey!" 
Even his father’s pleas were not enough to lure the boy away.
What could the father do? Surely he loved his son no less for acting so childishly. He would not think of leaving him behind—but he really did have to get going on his journey. 
Finally, he called out, “you may pick your berries for a while longer, but be sure that you are still able to find me, for I shall start moving slowly along the road. As you work, call out “father! Father!’ every few minutes, and I shall answer you. As long as you can hear my voice, know that I am still nearby. But as soon as you can no longer hear my answer, know that you are lost, and run with all your strength to find me!”This story, from Art Green’s “Your Word is Fire”, could be about many things: our relationship with God, prayer, how we set our priorities. But it seems to me that it is a story about the choices we make. So frequently we are the child—easily distracted by our daily adventure, focused so much on the fruit before us that God’s voice—the still small voice—becomes ever stiller, ever smaller. To paraphrase our machzor, we, who are caught up in the daily round, focused entirely on our own wants while missing out on our needs. We are heedless to the voice of reason, of meaning, of care and concern for our wellbeing. So enraptured we are in the fruit we are eating—the immediate gratification—that we fail to appreciate eternal values. We are indifferent to all but our own desires, the voice in our own heads. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “Children delight in putting a seashell to their ears. Listening, they hear magically the rush and roar of the waves. What they do not know, of course, is that they are listening to the rushing blood inside their own heads.” Insensitive to the words that call us to higher purpose, we focus too much of ourselves in what is gossamer or effervescent. Indeed, we expect those focused on the greater good, those who, like the father of the story, see the urgency, the need around us, and hold them back, slow them down, make them answer our own desires. 
Look at our relationship with clothes and food. “Instant Fashion”—cheaply made clothes sold at rock bottom prices to fit the moment’s taste—would seem to be a Godsend; new clothing that anyone could wear. In reality, they are many times made in horrific sweatshop conditions, their dyes and materials are not only flimsy but highly destructive to local environments, and they are not sturdy enough to reuse, pass on or donate. They are, essentially, ‘disposable’ clothes, clothing that, like the note to Jim Phelps at the beginning of every episode of “Mission Impossible”, self-destructs.
Likewise we should think about our food choices. A few weeks ago, for our confirmation orientation, the cantor asked a question about Kashrut, where the participants—parents and teens together—were asked to articulate their values. One parent said what many others were thinking: “I just like to eat!” And it’s true. Like Julia Childs, we love to eat. We savor creative flavoring and comfort foods alike. There are more programs on food, restaurants, eating and eating habits, cooking, food production and every other aspect of nourishment that we can imagine or possibly watch in a lifetime. And a discussion of food choices in a religious context is often poo-pooed. Many of us remember Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s sermon at the Toronto URJ Biennial four years ago, where his discussion of sacred eating flew about as well as bricks don’t, to quote Douglas Adams. And many of us are quick to dismiss Kashrut as judgmental, as Orthodox, as meaningless semi-science that has no place at a modern table.
But do we think about the food we put into our bodies? The cellophane we throw away almost thoughtlessly? Do we think about the trucks that brought the fruit out of season to our supermarket? The coffee and chocolate picked by slave labor, often child slave labor? The treatment of those workers picking strawberries and berries in our country—back-breaking work that often exploits migrant workers? Do we regard the treatment of the chicken or cow that adorns our plates? As we clear our plates, do we think about the 40% of food in this country that ends up being thrown away, and the thousands if not millions who go without? 
And there are the choices we make when we interact with one another. I was reminded this week by a true story of the theologian Martin Buber. Once, he met with a student who had a question. Buber thought he was pleasant enough, that he answered the question thoughtfully, that it was a perfectly amicable meeting, but in retrospect wondered if he hadn’t been distracted and showed himself to be distracted. Later he found out that the student he had met with committed suicide. Buber was left to wonder whether, if he had been more attentive, more present in the conversation, he could have done something to prevent this student’s death, and he promised himself he would never be inattentive when speaking with someone again. While we think the consequences of our interactions are less immediate or dire, how often are we inattentive to one another, or to the stranger. How often are we dismissive, focused more on our phones than the person before us. Perhaps our negligence does not lead to suicide, but to be sure it leads to the coarsening of our relationships with others, the commodification of those interactions, and a kind of death of the soul, as the person ceases to be a person but a means to an end.
 This is not to advocate, to be sure, for a kind of hair-shirt relationship with the world; that we need to live lives of unmitigated smugness and self-righteousness, or beat ourselves over everything we do. Kosher traditions and those who revere them often focus too much on how the animal died rather than how it lived or how those who tended it were treated, and the practice has developed an ‘inside baseball’ culture that does more to alienate Jews than give them a sense of sanctity. Often we are focused on our personal budget, and our relationship with others is informed as much by someone else’s behavior as it is our own inner voice. And yet, and yet, what if there were another way to look at our daily choices? 
Today we read parashat Nitzavim, or ‘standing’, and it asks us quite pointedly: “what do you stand for? What are your values and choices?” In this portion, Israel stands on the shores of the Jordan River. They have a choice to make: to enter the land God has promised, the land that has been for them and their ancestors merely a dream. But it’s not just the choice to enter the land; they must also enter a relationship with God, not one of servant and master as they had known in Egypt, nor one of abstractions, as we often imagine God today. Rather, a relationship of mutual trust, a relationship of love, a covenantal relationship based on Sacred Obligations to each other, and between Israel and Adonai. And Moses lays the choices out pretty clearly: “I have set before you today life and good, and also death and evil…choose life that you might live.”
It’s pretty clear why we read this text on Yom Kippur: today is a day about choices. The choices we made in the past year, and the choices we are going to make as we stand on the shore of a new one. Kol Nidre reminds us that we are not always free in the choices we make—often we feel backed into a corner by the realities of our life situation, our relationship with others, previous experiences, our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. And often no matter how much we want to turn, to change our behaviors or habits—to change our choices—we are paralyzed by the seemingly overwhelming nature of what lies before us. Like the child in the story, we have ceased to hear our father’s voice, and we look among the paths of the bushes eager to run but not sure where to go. 
But the text of Torah reminds us that we shouldn’t overthink it as well. "For this commandment that I command you today," Moses insists, "is not beyond your understanding, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, nor in the seas beyond your reach for the Word is very near to you. Carry it out with your mouth and with your heart.”
No, we cannot always choose the situation we find ourselves in, but we can choose how to respond to that situation, how to regulate ourselves, how to live in such a way that our morals and values challenge us meaningfully, where we can focus not only on our own needs but the needs of others. We won’t be perfect in our choices; we will make mistakes, but that is the adventure of life. Edwin Friedman, in his book “a Failure of Nerve”, illustrates quite well what can happen, and what we fear, when he discusses the Age of Exploration: 
“Throughout this period of exploration, trips are beset by the unforeseen. Frobisher’s ship is frozen in Hudson Bay. Columbus is told by natives in what is now Panama that there is another large body of water on the other side of the Isthmus, but he must meet another ship and has to leave it to Balboa to discover the Pacific. Verrazano ventures out of the range of the long bows on his ship and is captured and killed by cannibals in the West Indies…Drake, after navigating the Magellan Straits, is driven south, off course, and discovers the tip of South America, but his fate does not always come up “heads.” When he passes the Golden Gate, the fog keeps him from discovering San Francisco Bay. The most serendipitous event of all, of course, is the discovery of America itself. After all, Columbus was really trying to reach Japan, and he died thinking he had.” 
But, they took the risks. Those same explorers were willing to make choices that challenged them, were willing to be wrong, because the risks were greater than the rewards. Surely we could sit here, eating our berries, safe and content, and change not at all. We could wait passively for our parent return in order to hoist us back up on the wagon, kicking and screaming. Or we could make the choice ourselves, we could take the risk, choose a path, accept that we may stumble, but in choosing hear the voice again. 
You know, the violinist Yitzchak Pearlman was on the Colbert Report just last week, and it reminded me of a story from one of his performances from a number of years ago, recounted by Rabbi Wayne Dosick. As many of you know, Perlman was stricken with polio as a child, which left him able to walk only with braces on both legs and crutches. When he plays at a concert, the journey from the wings to the center of the stage is long and slow. 
Perlman was scheduled to play a difficult, challenging violin concerto. In the middle of the performance one of the strings snapped…the orchestra immediately stopped playing and the audience held its collective breath. The assumption was he would have to put on his braces, pick up his crutches, and leave the stage…after a brief pause, Perlman set his violin under his chin and signaled to the conductor to begin.
One person in the audience reported what happened: “I know it is impossible to play a violin concerto with only three strings. I know that and so do you, but that night, Isaac Perlman refused to know it. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing in his head. At one point it sounded as if he were re-tuning the strings to get a new sound that had never been heard before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence that filled the room. Then people rose and cheered. Perlman smiled, wiped his brow, and raised the bow of his violin to quiet them. He spoke, not boastfully, but quietly in a pensive tone. “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” 
He could have given up, could have stopped the performance to fetch new strings. Perlman could have done a lot of things. He took a risk on himself, the orchestra and his audience. He did not choose to break a string, he did not choose to have polio; these were thrust upon him. In that moment, he chose again to rise to the challenge, to find out how much music he could still make with what he have left.
So now we stand on the cusp of a new year, and we have to decide how much music we can make with what we have left. We have an opportunity to make new choices—choices about what we eat, about how we dress, about how we treat each other, about how we make the choices we make, how we live in our world. Do we choose to focus on our own wants and desires, or on our needs and the needs of others? The choice is clear, and it is not so difficult—we know what is right and good; it is not in the heavens or across the sea, but in our very heart and mouth. May we, on this day, cease eating the berries of selfishness, heed the voice of holiness that calls to us every faintly. May we, in this New Year, make the kinds of choices that lift us and our world ever higher, choosing to be our very best selves. May we run with all our might to catch up on the road to redemption.   

Erev Yom Kippur

I hope you had a meaningful Yom Kippur and your own annui hanefesh--be it fasting or some other form of self-denial--allowed you the clarity of mind and spirit to perform your own repentance.

Below you'll find my Erev Yom Kippur Sermon. I hope you find it meaningful.

There’s a famous story of a rabbi watching a tightrope walker performing his acrobatic act between two very tall buildings. The rabbi watched him from his place on the street for a long time, over an hour, until some passersby asked the rabbi why he was staring at this acrobat, rather than doing something ‘important’. 
The rabbi looked at them and said, “I’m absolutely amazed by this man. How does he do it?” So the rabbi waited for the acrobat to come down from his high wire, approached him and said, “I’ve been watching you for hours. It’s amazing that anyone would devote themselves to something like this. What’s your secret: how do you not fall?” The tightrope walker thought for a moment and said: “there is no trick to this. I can only look in front of me and go forward. If I think about what’s behind me, I’ll slip and fall. If I think about the rope, or my balance, or falling, I’ll fall. If I think about the money I’m earning, I’ll lose my concentration, and fall. I can only look ahead and move one step at a time toward my goal. It is in that way that I survive.” 
This is my fourth Rosh Hashanah here at Congregation Beth Emeth. It’s also my 10th High Holidays since my ordination as a rabbi at the Plum St. Temple in Cincinnati. (I know, I’m surprised too.) And as this anniversary approached I began to think more and more about what I’d learned, about what it meant for me to be here. And as I thought about my time here, I thought more and more about the story of the tightrope walker. For the rabbinate—really, all of life—is a kind of tightrope, a kind of acrobatic act, and while the stakes are a lot lower—for most of us, failure in an activity doesn’t mean literally breaking our necks!—there is still that sense of trying to maintain my balance, at least for me. 
So, permit me to spend a little time working through the words of the rabbi as a way of sharing my learning, how I understand us, what I’ve learned in this place, four high holidays on. 
First: you can’t think about what’s behind. You and I know how hard this is to do. We live all our lives looking over our shoulders, living in retrospect. One of my first rabbinic conferences I stopped by the table where my parents and their friends, my dad’s classmates were dining. It quickly occurred to me that they were swapping jokes and stories that were seemingly unchanged from my dad’s ordination. In that moment, they were a bunch of rabbinic students hanging out in the Bumming Room (yes, that was the name of the room, and it was actually named after a guy named Bumming, I’m not making this up). A few years later I was at a different conference, and I discovered that my classmates and I were swapping stories and jokes that dated back to my ordination. 
We think backwards. Just think of your home, the mementos from places you’ve traveled, photos from family vacations. Marisa and I are ‘stuff’ people: we are surrounded by things and have attachment to things that remind us of this or that gathering or moment in our lives. On top of that, I have an excellent memory, which means that when we ask Elishai to make a pile of toys he wants to donate, he dutifully picks up stuff he doesn’t play with anymore, unremorsefully, while I muse on who gave him that toy car, the first time he played with that puzzle. 
While it’s wonderful to reminisce, and sometimes quite important to remember (we are commanded to do so repeatedly in Torah), it’s also true that memory or history can hold us back, keep us from walking across the tightrope. We fetishize our past, and if you don’t believe me, look at any Norman Rockwell piece, or ask my father about the contents of his father’s furniture store that we inherited, including the fire extinguisher, a giant, dusty red thing, which sat in our garage ready to be used for 30 years. I can assure you that no matter how much my father loved my grandfather, that fire extinguisher was not going to do a whole lot of good when the need arose. To paraphrase our prayerbook: the past can only tell us who we were, it cannot tell us who we are meant to be. And as Jews—Reform Jews especially—it is our task to move forward, to progress, to not be satisfied with what was. Therefore, the pictures of the confirmation classes on our walls are meaningful not only because they allow past generations of students to muse over their youth and ill-thought-out hairstyles, but because they inspire future generations as well. The chair from the old Washington Street Temple Bimah found new life, first as the Twinning Chair and now as our Kisei Eliahu, our Elijah’s chair for brises and baby namings; but in between those uses it sat unloved and unattended in a storage area. It is good to lovingly remember the old sanctuary, but to cast the new one as lacking while failing to remember how the heater noisily interrupted every bar mitzvah (when it worked at all) is an act of idol worship. The past is a helpful guide, but only when it inspires us to move forward, not when it holds us back. 
Second: you can’t think about the rope, the balance, or the possibility of falling.  The devil, we are told, is in the details, and too be sure we spend a lot of time going over the details of every little thing in our lives and in this congregation. And details are a necessary and important part of our lives. It’s hard to get through our days on banal generalities, though apparently it is possible to run for office on them. One year, here at the high holidays, I got confused as to which Torah was rolled to the right section. It was brought out, placed on this lectern, the Torah readers brought up…and suddenly we realized we were staring at a lovely bit of Torah that would have been perfect for some other holiday. Thankfully Cantor Stanton swapped scrolls while I stalled, explaining the portion ad nauseum, and probably most people didn’t notice, but it was a reminder of the importance of details. 
That said, we can get ourselves lost in the details as well. Years ago I did a wedding for a young couple who looked and felt radiant: they were so excited to begin this life stage together, so excited to be celebrating with family and friends—until the bride noticed she had spilled the tiniest drop of something on the bodice of her her ivory dress. It was nearly invisible to the naked eye—you had to look at it with an electron microscope to notice it—but like George’s sweater with the red dot from Seinfeld, she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. And of course, this was right before the processional, literally moments from when we were supposed to walk beneath the chuppah. “Rabbi” she wailed, “My dress is ruined! What do I do?” At which I looked at her, smiled, put her hand in the hand of her groom and said, “sweetie, you go out there and get married.”  That one, unnoticeable detail was about to ruin her ability to have any sense of perspective, and as a result ruin her wedding day. Instead, she moved forward, and two kids and many sleepless nights later, she and her groom are still happily together, her stained dress sitting in a closet, a good punchline at family get togethers.
Details are important, details are necessary, but they must not be used as a drag on our hopes or aspirations. So often we hear the question, “how are we going to do X?” be it a project, a program, a course, a service. “How are we going to publicize, and deal with this detail, and this safety concern, and this piece and that piece?” To borrow the title of a book, the answer to how is yes. If attention to detail—talk of the rope, the height, the balance—stymies, encourages passive behavior, or blame, or compels us to undermine someone’s efforts for whatever reason, then we need to rethink our efforts and our commitments to each other. But if we can say, “we will find a solution to these issues and we will move forward together”, then we restore balance for ourselves and each other. 
Third and finally: one step at a time. It sounds both a lot slower and a lot easier than you might think. This year we bid farewell to Neil Armstrong, a person who took what was, seemingly, an easy step—he merely walked backwards off a ladder. Never mind that the ladder led to the lander “Eagle” and it took 3 days traveling through space to be able to take that step! But Armstrong himself never liked being called the first man to step on the moon; he much preferred to be the first person the land on the moon, to steer the spacecraft safely upon lunar soil, always the test pilot. 
And of course, before he could steer the craft that led to the step, there was the trip itself, the launch, the hours and days and months and years testing and re-testing equipment, experimenting, training pilots and astronauts, calculating courses and trajectories and planning, planning, planning. It was never one small step, or a giant leap; it was always hundreds of thousands of pieces culminating in that triumphant moment.   There were plenty of reasons not to go ahead. NASA couldn’t be certain of what would happen, whether the equipment would work, whether there was enough fuel. Despite the rose-colored hue of history, there was NOT general consensus in the US that we should spend that kind of money on this adventure. At any point, a politician could have pulled funding, an astronaut could have pulled out of the program due to an appreciation of his own mortality, or, as John Glenn called it, that pile of ‘low bids’ could have just exploded. And yet, the leadership, the scientists, the pilots, the engineers all had the vision to move forward, to take those thousands of tasks upon themselves so Armstrong could take his giant leap. 
Life is an adventure, and putting one foot in front of the other takes effort and a willingness to take risks. Just as every step the tightrope walker takes could be his last, so too every action we take is a choice with consequences; once we choose one path, the other disappears from our view. Just as Armstrong’s Giant Leap was really the culmination of all kinds of other activity, so too are our lives and our actions, our choices; one built upon the other. 
So, what are the implications in terms of congregational life? First, it means that, while we respect our history, we are not beholden to it. With deep appreciation for what those who came before us did, we must chart our own course in order to create meaningful community. Otherwise, we’re a museum, a fossil. Second, it means that we must be willing to take risks, to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes, to be forgiving of those mistakes, and work together to work out the details. Nothing emerges fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ head; it requires real effort, and working together to create the kind of community we want. Finally, we must have the vision in order to move forward, even if moving forward is hard, even if moving forward isn’t always popular. 
How do we do this? We do it together. As you may have noticed, you received a sticker, or have seen car magnets or other paraphernalia with the Beth Emeth Crown and the word “B’yachad”, which means Together. Congregational life is different from the high-wire act in one respect; we don’t take it alone. We do it in community, but community is more than just paying a fee (though there are some who may feel that is enough already!). it means making a commitment to your fellow congregants to meaningfully engage, regardless of age, gender or experience. It doesn’t matter if you’ve always been Jewish or have come to Judaism but recently, or have not yet chosen Judaism. It doesn’t matter if you are my son’s age or my father’s age or my grandmother’s age. It doesn’t matter if your life is busy now, or was busy with the life of the synagogue before. It doesn’t matter if you’ve belonged to this congregation for a month or a hundred years. What matters is that we are here, all of us. Our leadership has a vision, one that I share: of intergenerational programming, bringing us all together in learning, in social justice, in tzedakah, in community, in worship and sharing our lives together. That means experimenting with different kinds of programming and asking people to step forward out of their comfort zones. It means remembering our history and our tradition but moving forward to answer the needs of today for our congregants of all ages and backgrounds. It means moving forward aware of the details but not stymied by them. It means having a spirit of adventure about our Judaism, about this congregation and our place within it. No tricks, no gimmicks; just keeping our balance moving one foot in front of the other. Because, as my teacher Michael Walzer reminds all of us in Mishkan T’fillah: wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;, that there is a better place… a promised land; “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” And There is no way to get from here to there Except by joining together and marching. B’yachad, all of us marching together. May this be God’s will, may this be our action, Amen!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Erev Rosh Hashanah

And here's my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon.

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Erev Rosh Hashanah: a Blessing of Gratitude
 In spite of myself, this summer, I found myself staying up far too late to watch the Summer Olympics. In spite of their lack of sensitivity to the 40th anniversary of the Munich games and the terror that accompanied it, in spite of the fact that we were watching something that took place 6 hours earlier and was viewable (or at least readable) thanks to the power of the internet and therefore knowing the results, despite my personal allergy to hype (you can’t take the punk out of the kid, after all), I found myself watching Women’s Gymnastics of all things. And, like much of the world, I watched five young women dominate in the team competition, winning gold for the first time since 1996. If you remember a few months ago, they were dominant, such that one sports writer exclaimed that they could have sat in the middle of the mat for the floor routine and read a good book and still win. And they were led by a Jewish girl from Needham MA, a member of the reform Temple in that community, Aly Reisman, who did her floor routine to Hava Nagilah. She was the team captain, which meant, as one journalist wrote, it was her task to ‘see clearly through the fog of media frenzy and expectations from coaches, USA Gymnastics, fans, friends and family.’ It was her duty to ‘maintain resolute under extreme circumstances’. 
And yet, and yet, at the end of her floor routine, the last one for the event and for the team, you could see finally, as she stuck her landing, the expression of emotion. It wasn’t just an expression of joy or completion or exhaustion—or of watching her parents completely lose it in the stands, as Jewish parents are wont to do—it was an expression of gratitude, of thankfulness. And then, as many of us know, she repeated her performance on the floor mat later to win another gold. As wonderful as that second showing was, I want to focus on that moment at the end of the team competition. Whatever the score, you could tell she knew she and her team and gone through an amazing experience for anyone, never mind a nice Jewish girl from outside Boston. 
This evening we invoked a new year, a year full of potential, and we have prayed for new blessings, for that potential to be realized for our people, our country, for Israel, for ourselves. We have begun the hard, sacred work of Cheshbon Nefesh, of taking stock of our souls, our personal selves, looking to see how we can improve in 5773, how we can do more or do better. And most years, this would be a time for me to preach about a new initiative, a spiritual realization, a new bit of Torah. I’m not going to do that tonight. Oh, it will come: there will be new programs to promote, new ideas and ways to engage—this is me, we’re talking about, after all. But tonight, as we let go of the previous year, I think it’s important to express our own gratitude, our own thankfulness for this moment. Before the book of our lives are opened, before we go through the ledger of our souls, let’s take a moment to give thanks for what we have and how we’ve come to this moment. 
So these are my blessings, with inspiration from Rabbi Harry Danzinger, my teacher. These are my expressions of gratitude for the past year: 
Today I was raised from my bed by my son, excited for a new day, for all that he has. I woke next to a woman who supports and encourages me, and who I in turn strive to earn her partnership. This afternoon parents who are healthy and vibrant came to my home and join us here now. Certainly I grumbled about the hour as I got the leash to walk the dog, and I’ve rushed about all day to prepare for tonight. But I am blessed with a loving family, deep and friendships that have lasted a lifetime, colleagues who have served as my teachers and support, and a meaningful connection to many within and outside of these walls.. For my family circle, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God!
In this past year we’ve all complained that the room we were in was the wrong temperature. Indeed, many of us have complained in the last hour that the room we are in is either too hot or too cold, but we have a roof over our heads, protected from the elements; we know security and shelter beyond what millions around the world could ever dream of. For the roof over my head, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God!
Certainly we have complained about one meal or another this year, our experiments with kale chips or this or that restaurant were, in retrospect, not the best ideas. But we did not go hungry. Indeed, many of us can look to our pantries and an embarrassment of riches. We have the luxury of choosing whether to go to the fancier supermarket, or get our vegetables from the local farm, or to eat out, to be vegetarians or vegans or kosher or eco-kosher or eat anything that satisfied our appetites. For every meal, baruch atah Adonai, thank you god! 
Some of us experienced illness or injury—sometimes a sniffle or bruise, others were put into the hospital. There were accidents, including two car accidents in my life this past year, daily dangers that cause our hearts to race. Some of us were bereaved this year, losing a loved one or a friend. We may have experienced failure great or small. But we are here, we found the strength to go on, to get support. For strength beyond imagining, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God! 
And there were days free of illness, injury and death. There were days of success, of growth, days when everything went right, when we lived up to our ideals and hopes, when there was no tragedy no sadness, no drama. For every day free of trouble, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God! 
There were days when we enjoyed friends and family, when I got to watch my son play on the playground, completely fearless. There were moments of shared laughter and tenderness, of insight and thoughtfulness; celebrations, simchas, accomplishments and heights gained. And there were moments of simple, honest, and meaningful companionship. For each of those moments shared, baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
We are surrounded by a congregation that is increasingly active, in a beautiful building, with members of all ages finding meaning in Torah, in study, in community, in bringing a meal to a friend or a stranger, in leadership, and in prayer. We are nourished as a sacred congregation by staff and volunteers for whom this is family in the purest, most real sense of the word, and give of themselves fully for its benefit. For this congregation full of love and spiritual growth, her leaders and supporters, baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
We live in a community that continually punches above its weight. From the activism of our citizenry to a Jewish community that strives for real connection and fulfillment of the idea kol yisrael aravim ze ba zeh, All Israel is responsible for each other. We have a JCC filled with love and engagement, a JFS serving our whole community, Jew and Gentile alike. We have a nursing home filled with loving caregivers, congregations that work together to help create meaning, multiple opportunities for study and connection, A Federation that strives to bring everyone together, support for Israel through active leadership in Federation Israel Bonds, AIPAC and J-Street, a plurality of voices striving in different ways for the same goal: to serve the needs of all in Delaware. For this Jewish community, greater in strength than it realizes, Baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
On any given day, I engage in multiple conversations about Judaism, movies, and music, the 80s, the news and other ephemera. I listen to musicians I’ve never heard of, share articles with friends and colleagues that challenge me, communicate with friends new and old, and hear old Jews telling jokes, all from my laptop computer. I have seen new media emerge to give the voiceless a voice, to bring awareness to struggles and challenges, and to give people a means to face those challenges within a community we couldn’t have imagined. These technologies are allowing people to become creators rather than just consumers; writing, creating art and music, working with craft and sharing their wares—and themselves—through these new media. And, for those who are stuck on the road or are homebound due to health reasons, this service is being shared through that same development in media, an impossible idea only a generation ago. For all that technology allows me to do, for all the connections it allows me to maintain, and for the ways technology has broadened my horizons, baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
We live in a world where Jews have had a sovereign state for 64 years, a country that, in spite of terror and war, and sometimes in spite of itself, has made the desert bloom, has become a leader in technology and medicine, and now entering the world of renewable energy. A country that old and young Jews alike, from around the world increasingly feel a strong connection to, a homeland for Jews not only to flee oppression but to visit in droves to learn about and deepen their connection with their people and their faith. We live in a world where Hebrew is a spoken language, where a diaspora community of Jews and Gentiles from around the world support her, a world in which the Economist was able to write that, despite the charnel house of Europe of the 1940s, Israel as a nation and a people has not just survived, it has thrived. For our Jewish homeland, for our Jewish people, Baruch atah Adonai, Thank you God!
Some of us have suffered this year. Some of us have known successes great and small. And all of us have reached this moment thanks to miracles great and small: a supportive friend, the right words spoken at the right time, a chance to be in the world, a moment of clarity and understanding, a helpful stranger. For each one of those miracles, baruch atah Adonai thank you God! 
We have begun a new year, we have said goodbye to the old. We pray for new blessings in this new year, to leave behind old hurts. But we carry with us the thanks for the blessings we have received, and face the new day with gratitude. Blessed are You, Adonai, for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this most amazing day, every day. Amen. 

Shana Tovah: Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon 5773

Friends: I've received requests for copies of my sermons this past holiday. Here's yesterday's sermon, slightly edited to protect some identities (speaking in a room in Wilmington is one thing, putting it out into the ether is another). Enjoy!

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5773: Homelessness and Family Promise 
I want to share a story of my first encounter with homelessness. It involved a friend of mine named T-, and it’s not what you expect. 
T- and I were classmates in high school. He was built like a rubber-band, with all the energy that went with that. If you were to define T-, you would call him a nudnik. He was always playing pranks, pulling hijinks, getting us in good-natured trouble, but you couldn’t be mad at him. He would smile that broad smile and that was it. He was a good singer, loved to draw, wanted to be an artist professionally, but lacked that so-called artist’s temperament. He was always fun to be around. Sure, he had trouble with his parents—have you met a 16 year old kid who didn’t? Certainly it didn’t seem any worse than any of us had. 
That changed when he ended up on my doorstep, without shoes. He and his parents got into a screaming fight over something entirely forgettable—even then I thought “you got into a fight over THAT?” Instead of grounding him, or letting it blow over, or something else to indicate the complete lack of severity, the complete adolescent nature of the fight, his parents kicked him out of the house as he was. No wallet, no shoes. He managed to bum a ride from a friend to my house. He had dinner with us, and then we made phone calls around until we found a buddy who could take him in for a couple of days, let him crash on the couch. I don’t remember if I drove him over or if the friend came and picked him up. 
After he left, I remember being furious. Not at him, not really. And while I was mad at his parents, they weren’t what was eating at me. Something made me angry, and it took me a long time to process why. T- was homeless. No, he wasn’t living on the street, ragged and mad-looking. He wasn’t some pathetic urchin as out of a Victor Hugo or Dickens’ novel. But there he was, without the security of knowing where he was going to lay his head, dependent on friends until his parents cooled off and let him back home (which they did finally after some time), knowing that the presumption of warmth, support and love that comes with a home are as gossamer and transient as a fight between a teenage boy and his parents. 
T- wasn’t who I would think of when I considered homelessness. When I thought of the homeless as a teenager I mostly thought of Sir, the old guy who hung around the pizza place my friends went to in Hyannis. We never—I never—knew his name. He was the stereotype of a homeless individual: dirty, bearded, with a crazy look in his eye. He reminded me of the song Mr. Wendell by Arrested Development that was popular at the time. We called him ‘Sir’ because he was always very respectful when he spoke to anyone: yes sir, no sir. If we bought him a coffee or a slice he would call us ‘scholars and gentlemen’, and we’d have conversations with him, where he would share the kind of street-wisdom a punkish middle-class kid would appreciate. Clearly some trauma had happened in his life and so he ended up on Main Street when he wasn’t at the Red Cross shelter. And isn’t that all homeless people? Mad, addicted, harmless (unless they’re dangerous), easily ignored, the subject of pity or scorn?
T- made me realize that homelessness is a fate that can afflict those who do everything ‘right’, who are feeling tremendous shame and anxiety at their status. The homeless person is anyone who has lost the security of having a roof over their heads, a place to call their own. It could be any one of us. That day, it was T-. 
I won’t belabor the point that we as Jews have an obligation to care for the homeless. I think most of us understand this is self-evident within Judaism, and everyone from the Torah itself to the rabbis of the Talmud to Maimonides to the rabbis of today speak of the mitzvah, the sacred obligation, to relieve those in need of the stress of their situation, to help them recover and get back on their feet. Again and again Torah exhorts us to protect the widow, the orphan and the strangers in our midst, to provide opportunities for them to support themselves, and who are these individuals—who is the stranger in our midst—if not the homeless? Maimonides’ highest level of tzedakah is, in fact, where the giver allows someone to become self-sufficient, to get back on their own feet. Most remarkable is that those who are homeless or otherwise benefit from tzedakah themselves have to give to charity. Why? For two reasons: one, because they themselves need to have a sense of dignity, and because no matter how bad off they may be, there is someone in a worse situation, as impossible as that might seem.  And in fact I have found those who are homeless—including some members of this congregation—to be among the most giving, the most compassionate, the most understanding of the trauma and displacement of homelessness. 
I’m not merely speaking of the displacement of not having a home. I’m also talking about the displacement of being invisible. How often I see the homeless individual on the corner of 202 and Silverside looking for help, and how often do people turn aside. How often do we encounter the homeless in our cities and we withdraw as much as we can from that individual, all but turning ourselves inside out to avoid them. Not only is that unkind, it is against the teachings of our faith. Again, Maimonides exhorts us that if a poor man request money from you and you have nothing to give him, you should speak to him consolingly. And the Shulchan Aruch goes even further, stating that you should not only speak lovingly to the individual but avoid scolding them as well; and the Midrash teaches that even if we have given already, give again a hundred times!
Of course, we know this. We have worked hard as a congregation to treat the symptoms of homelessness: gathering food for the Delaware Food Pantry, donating materials, school supplies, helping shelters like Sojourners only a few miles from here and places like the Emmanuel Dining Room. Our kids have packed meals, our b’nai mitzvah and their families have worked the breakfast mission, and our brotherhood has built homes with Habitat for Humanity. But treating the symptoms, as good and important as it is, doesn’t help end homelessness, merely ameliorate the conditions. It doesn’t add security and safety for our homeless families; to borrow a sports metaphor, it earns us another down, but doesn’t move the ball forward. 
And the fact of the matter is, homelessness is a problem that can be solved in this state. There are 6000 people throughout the year in Delaware, nearly 2700 of them children, a 23% increase in the last two years. We can reduce that number significantly, we can even get it down to zero, but we cannot do it alone. It will take all of us working together; not only we as a Jewish congregation, but all the houses of worship within the 9th ward. 
That is why I’m thrilled to announce an initiative, a partnership that we, Congregation Beth Shalom, Hanover Presbyterian, Penninsular McCabe, Shiloh Baptist and other houses of worship will be engaging, one with a group called Family Promise. 
For those who don’t know the organization, it is a faith-based group, started by a synagogue in Philadelphia,  that seeks to get homeless families on their feet. So often families have trouble going to shelters together—they’re unable to bring teenage boys or the fathers with them due to perceived security risks, or there aren’t the right kind of materials or support systems in place, or simply aren’t enough beds. Family Promise of Northern New Castle County helps homeless families with children move toward lasting independence by providing a safe place to eat and sleep, intensive care management, life training support and encouragement. And they do this through a network of congregations that hose these families in their churches and synagogues. They are not a shelter, placing the homeless outside our view, hidden from reality. Rather, they give them the opportunity to feel a part of a community and know the love and support of families who are like themselves, except those volunteers still have homes. 
How does it work? Starting in January, Penninsular McCabe church just up the road will be hosting families, numbering perhaps a dozen people, for three weeks scattered throughout the year—once in January, in May and again in September. We, along with Beth Shalom, Hanover Presbyterian and other churches, will provide support for McCabe, volunteers who will do things like help prepare Breakfast and Dinner, drive Family Promise’s van to drop off and pick up the residents to Family Promises’ location, where the kids get picked up for school, the parents get to their jobs or do job hunting, learn new skills, where they can take showers and do their laundry, and search for permanent housing. There are opportunities to spend time with the families and keep them company, buy groceries for meal making, washing the bed linens between stays, and even staying overnight in the church to make sure everyone is okay. These families are vetted by Family Promise in advance; they are people just like us, except one thing—they’ve lost their homes. In some cases, they’re just as surprised as we would be. They need love and support and care, and to feel normal. While sleeping in a church or synagogue for a week isn’t exactly one’s idea of normal, we will do what we can to turn classrooms into bedrooms, to keep families together, to help them get back on their feet. 70% of Family Promise families end up on their feet and in permanent housing within a year, indeed within 83 days; which of course provides more opportunities to help move furniture and get those families into houses and apartments. 
It sounds daunting, but it really isn’t. We’re talking about one morning or afternoon driving a van, a couple of nights making dinner for a dozen people, or doing some extra grocery shopping, hanging out in a church for a few nights to keep some folks and their kids company. It’s something any of us could do, and I’m hoping it’s something all of us will take a turn doing.  All volunteers are trained, there is no proselytization allowed (in fact Family Promise has turned churches down because bringing the ‘good news’ was more important to them than helping these folks). This is an opportunity to move that ball forward, to partner with our brothers and sisters, Jews and Non-Jews in Wilmington to reduce that number, to heal some terrible wounds in our community, wounds that can heal, and that must heal. 
To learn more about Family Promise, you can go to; their executive director, Carolyn Gordon, who some of us might know through the IFSAC meal packing that we do with Christ Church every Fall and Spring, will be with us on Sunday, September 23rd at 9am to speak with us further, and there are postcards (flyers) on the table as you leave. Each one has information on how you can sign up to help with one or more tasks. If you’re looking for a way to give of yourself to this community of Wilmington, a way to work in partnership with our brothers and sisters of all faiths, if you’re looking for a mitzvah project, if you just want to give back, this is another way to do it and a way that I hope you will take seriously. 
Arik Einshtein wrote: “you and I can change the world. Others have said it before, but it doesn’t matter, for you and I will change the world.” T- is now a successful artist. He designs characters for video games. He teaches. He has a beautiful wife and daughter. Not every story of homelessness ends that way, but we can help make sure there are more T- in this world. You and I may change the world. Please join me and my family, with the other people of faith of the Ninth Ward, and we can change the world for the better. Amen.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Oh, one more thing

My friend, congregant and fellow community member made a thing. Specifically, a website guide to the contemporary Jewish women's experience. If you're exploring Jewish life this is a great resource and you should follow along. I know I'll be doing so.

#BlogElul: the last week

So this week was a reminder of my own human frailty, in the best sense of that concept (if that's possible).

Last Friday I found myself suffering from nausea and dizziness so severe I couldn't stand or walk without collapsing (or running to the porcelain gawd). It was, thankfully, a sinus/inner ear infection that was ruining my balance: it surely made me miserable but nothing antibiotics and a serious decongestant couldn't solve, given enough time. And blessedly I'm surrounded by incredibly supportive family and reliable colleagues, like Rabbi Brian Eng and Cantor Mark Stanton, who filled in for me Friday and Saturday morning last week, so I could let the drugs take hold before the bar mitzvah and Selichot services.

This was followed by the first day of religious school, which was AMAZING, with so many new and familiar faces and a real sense of community. In that same day, I had my first rehearsal for my Rosh Hashanah Torah readers (who are awesome), confirmation orientation, and a beautiful wedding in Philadelphia.

We also suffered a terrible loss in our congregation as a longtime member passed, and was memorialized yesterday.

And there was wonderful 'regular' work: meeting with colleagues (in both Jewish and interfaith settings), bar mitzvah meetings, easing the minds of new parents in the religious school, some Jewish Values Online work, and a few building issues ('cause you know, it's a synagogue, there are ALWAYS building issues).

And personally, this was the week that was most transitional for my son in Kindergarten, as the novelty wore off and he really began to adjust, with all the struggles that go with hat.

All this in the midst of the last pieces of High Holiday prep. To say that something had to give would be an understatement, so the blogging fell by the wayside.

I suppose I could have tweeted more little things here and there, but as much as I've learned to enjoy that venue, I still prefer the 'longform' approach of a blog. In the same way that it takes 15 minutes for a rabbi to clear his throat (was that an Arnold Jacob Wolf z'l joke?), it takes more than 140 characters for this rabbi to flesh out his thoughts, at least. Even if I may just be sharing a quote by Heschel or a Hasidic story.

So, as we enter the last Shabbat of 5772, allow me to offer my sermon for tonight as a way of anticipating the new year and to complete my Elul 'assignment', and as penance for my absence from the past week. Look to this space for my High Holiday sermons as they go 'live'.

May your new year be one full of blessing, of peace and of meaningful choices, of acceptance and justice, of engagement and love.

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Parashat Nitzavim
 It hovers in dark corners before the lights are turned on. 
It is the mouth that inflates the lungs of the child that has just been born. 
It is the singular gift we cannot destroy in ourselves, the argument that refutes death, the genius that invents the future, all we know of God. 
It is the serum which makes us swear not to betray one another. 
I am, of course, speaking of Hope, at least as the poet Lisel Mueller imagines it. It’s a word that has, of late, gotten ill use. And we know why: we look in our world, in our communities and wonder to ourselves how the barbarians are seemingly at the gates, how we live in a world that has gone topsy-turvy, that any thought of ‘hopey-changey’ stuff is at best irrational exuberance (as Alan Greenspan might say), and at worst, hokum.
This is especially true in this season, as we bid farewell to one year and welcome another, as we prepare ourselves for Cheshbon Nefesh, the accounting of the soul that comes with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time of introspection, and like students asked to grade their own work, we find ourselves lacking. Or, as a friend recently posted, Introspection... that's usually a word that means, "What did I do wrong?” But hope, as we just heard, is essential, and constant.  As much as we dwell on our misdeeds and mistakes in the past year, there is also the possibility of turning, of teshuvah, of asking “how might I improve?” 
This week, in Parashat Nitzavim, which is also our portion for Yom Kippur morning, after Moses reminds Israel of the choices before them, and fulminates against idol worship or self-congratulatory self-worship, he then says, “Surely, this mitzvah which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens…neither is it beyond the sea…no, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” 
It’s one of the most beautiful phrases in all of Torah, a reminder—no, a loving embrace—that reminds Israel and all of us that our goals—God’s goals—are not so daunting, that we are not so distant from the promised land, that we have not been set up to fail. Rather, our ‘is’ and our ‘ought to be’ are closer than we think, than we give ourselves credit. And as we move through the High Holidays, and do the real work of teshuvah, of repentance, we should remember that we are not defined by our mistakes, but rather how we choose to repair them.

Raba said: at the final judgment we are asked:
Were you honest in business?
Did you set aside time for learning?
Did you look beneath the surface?
Did you ponder the inner meaning of what you saw?
Did you live with hope? 
We await judgment, we prepare for atonement. May we live with Hope. Amen. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

#BlogElul Day 19: Beginnings

It is possible to summarize the Creation story as a set of answers to some basic questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because in the beginning God created. Why is there what there is and not something else? Because he created heavens, earth, sea, land, stars, moon, sun, plants, animals, and humans. And why do we have the Sabbath? Because when God was done creating he rested. At this point, though, we circle back on ourselves. Why did God rest? Because he wanted to create the Sabbath. We still don’t know why the Sabbath should be a part of Creation...
It begins as simply as a folktale and ends with the magnificence of church-organ Bach. Along the way, it offers a tantalizing glimpse of ancient science. P (The Priestly Author) doesn’t just tie the material world to the creativity of his First Cause; he categorizes God’s creations. There are sea and sky and land; fish and birds and animals; beasts that run wild, beasts that can be domesticated, and beasts that crawl; and, of course, humans. P doesn’t limit himself to the physical, either. His God creates the temporal, too, though he doesn’t so much call forth the units of time as divide them one from the other. Light he creates, but then he divides day from night, allotting much light to day and a lesser amount to night. Evening is winnowed from morning. There is one day, then two days, then three, then six.
The most remarkable feature of P’s protoscientific narrative, though, is that it leads us with every weapon at the poet’s disposal—rhythm, repetition, parallelism—toward its conclusion: the seventh and final day. This is no accident. P is working out the details of a monotheistic cosmos, and the Sabbath would seem to be an essential element of it. Behold creation in all its magnificence, P appears to be saying. This can’t be the work of some squabbling, inconsistent, all-too-human gods. It can only be the work of the one God who dwells beyond time and space, light and matter. The Sabbath is that dwelling.

Shulevitz, Judith (2010-03-18). The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

#BlogElul Day 18: Love

A good topic for "Chai", and of course, some more A.J. Heschel (z"l).

The basic dignity of man is not made up of his achievements, virtues, or special talents. It is inherent in his very being. The commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18) calls upon us to love not only the virtuous and the wise but also the vicious and the stupid man. The rabbis have, indeed, interpreted the commandment to imply that even a criminal remains our neighbor (Pesahim 75a). 
Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1997-05-16). Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays (p. 370). Macmillan. Kindle Edition. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

#BlogElul day 17: Inspiration

For those who missed it, here's the text of my article for this month's Jewish Voice, in which I talk about the rally and service held the Sikh center in the wake of the shooting last month in Wisconsin. It was an inspiration to behold; what inspires you?  
Late, late late.
That’s all I could think about as I parked my car and speed walked to the Sikh Center of Delaware on Wednesday, August 8th.

I had been invited by Mona Singh of that community to come and participate in a candlelight vigil honoring those who had died in the terrible shooting at Oak Creek Wisconsin only a few days earlier. With their permission, I circulated it among colleagues (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) and within the community. Now, after getting horribly turned around, I was showing up 20 minutes into the program, and I felt terrible.

But as I walked down the road passed parked cars, I saw the number of Siegel JCC magnets on the bumpers, and I began to feel  better. And as I walked into the parking lot (the event was held outdoors to accommodate all the folks who came out) my anxiety melted.

I saw friends from the Jewish community, including Connie Kreshtool, Hayim Weiss, Susan and Mark Detwiler and others. I saw my friend Russ Bohner from Christ Church Christiana Hundred and Tia Hammer, the community organizer from Hanover Presbyterian. I recognized nuns, leaders from various other faith groups, staff from the Governor’s office, New Castle County, and Senator Chris Coons. I saw a sea of vivid orange of the head-coverings given out by the Center for those without a head covering; many Sikhs and non-Sikhs were wearing them respectfully, and that gave the moment a sense of brilliance, despite the noise from S. Dupont Highway.

The Senator stood up and spoke of shared values and of the celebration of those values. He pointed out that vigils were being observed at the White House and elsewhere. And then he said something incredibly profound: he spoke of feeling G-d present in that moment.

And G-d truly was. G-d was present in the smiles of children playing and in the words of prayer sung in Punjabi, the rituals observed without any sense of embarrassment or apology. G-d was present in the words of prayer spoken by civic officials and clergy. G-d was present as Father Russ and I took to the podium together, out of real friendship and affection for each other, and out of a sense that our prayers could, should, be interwoven at such a moment. And G-d was present as we gathered afterwards for a shared vegetarian communal meal (very important to Jews and Sikhs alike), breaking bread together: Christians, Muslims, Hindu, Sikhs and Jews.

Shailen Bhatt, Delaware’s Secretary of transportation and himself Indian and Hindu, spoke of their shared value of Seva, of selfless service. We know the term as Avodah, which carries the double meaning of service; both ‘worship’ and ‘work’. That vigil was service in the best sense: it was worship—prayers of hope and remembrance offered for the dead, the wounded and those stricken with hate. But it was also the beginning of work; the work we need to do to make sure G-d remains present in our encounters with one another. And that work never stops.

By the time I got back to my car, I wasn’t so worried about being late. I was sweaty from being outside, the taste of indian food still on my tounge; and I was filled with a new sense of hope. I have reached out to Mona Singh and invited his community into the interfaith work we do at Beth Emeth already; a new chance for seva. And as we move from High Holidays into a new year, may this connection, born of tragedy, inspire us to selfless service. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

#BlogElul day 6: Wonder

'nuff said.

Effort is its own reward. We are here to do, and through doing to learn; and through learning to know; and through knowing to experience wonder, and through wonder to attain wisdom, and through wisdom to find simplicity, and through simplicity to give attention and through attention to see what needs to be done.
- Ben Hei Hei, Pirkei Avot (5:26ff)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

#BlogElul Day 15: Health

I am fortunate in that I don't have any observations of my own relating to health and the yammim noraim. Thank God my family circle is healthy in mind, body and spirit. I do know that this time of year and the theology of the High Holidays challenge those struggling through health issues profoundly. So I share the words of my father's teacher, Roland Gittelsohn, on "Mitzvah Without Miracles", both to explore the idea that healthy living is itself a 'mitzvah' of a different sort, and the idea that God may not be who we imagine her to be...

Mitzvah Without Miracles
Roland B. Gittelsohn
What can mitzvah mean to a modern Jew who is a religious naturalist? Perhaps a prior question should be: what is a religious naturalist? Briefly, he or she is a person who believes in God, but asserts that God inheres within nature and operates through natural law. A religious naturalist perceives God to be the Spiritual Energy, Essence, Core, or Thrust of the universe, not a discrete Supernatural Being.

What, then, can mitzvah mean to such an individual? Certainly more than custom or folkway, more than social covenant or mores. Mitzvah, by very definition, must be cosmically grounded; it must possess empyreal significance. For the religious naturalist, as for all believing, practicing Jews, in order to have mitzvah –that which has been commanded—there must be a metzaveh, a commander. That commander, moreover, needs to be more than human ingenuity or convenience.
In the mainstream of Jewish tradition through the centuries, this posed no great problem. The metzaveh was God. A mitzvah was God’s will. It had to be performed because God wanted it. It may have made sense to the human mind or not; these things were not important. It had to be done, plainly and simply because God had commanded it.

But how can an Energy or Essence, a Core or a Thrust, command? For the religious naturalist, who is the metzaveh? Answer: reality itself. Or, more precisely, the physical and spiritual laws which govern reality. Mitzvot must be observed because only by recognizing and conforming to the nature of their environment can human beings increase the probability of their survival in any meaningful way. Mitzvot are not man-made; they inhere within the universe. Our Jewish mystics suspected this long ago. Mordecai Kaplan has summarized the view of the Zohar as holding that “mitzvot are part of the very process whereby the world came into being.”

I agree with David Polish…that mitzvot are binding upon us “because something happened between God and Israel, and that some something continues to happen in every land and age.” What makes me a religious naturalist is interpreting the “something” to be a historic encounter between the Jewish People and the highest Spiritual Reality human beings have ever known or felt. No other people has been so persistent as ours in seeking that Reality and its moral imperatives.
It is easy to illustrate the cosmic nature of mitzvot on the level of physical reality. The universe is so constructed that, if I wish to survive, I must have adequate oxygen, nourishment, and exercise. God “wants” me to breath fresh air, ingest healthful foods, and regularly move my muscles. These, therefore, are mitzvot.

No less is true in the realm of ethical mitzvot. Honesty is a compelling mitzvah. Human nature (which is, after all, nature at its highest level of development) is such that in the long run the individual or the social group that consistently flaunts the dictates of honesty risks disaster. The struggle for freedom is a compelling mitzvah. Only the person who is capable of giving and receiving love will ever be fulfilled. These things are true, not because we want them to be and not because they were decreed by a human legislature, but because they are ineluctable aspects of reality. Hence the recognition, acceptance, and observance of them constitute mitzvot.
Most of the mitzvot spelled out in this guide [Gates of Mitzvah], however, deal with ritual observance rather than physical law or ethics. Are they, too, related to cosmic reality? In a less obvious but equally bidning sense than the physical or moral imperatives suggested above, yes. Human nature is such that we need to express our emotions and ideals with our whole bodies, not just our tongues. We need also to be visually and kinetically reminded of our noblest values and stimulated to pursue them. As otherwise lonely and frightened individuals, we need common practices and observances which bind us into meaningful and supportive groups. All of which adds up to the fact that we need ritual as something more than social luxury or convenience. For us as Reform Jews, a particular ritual may not be  mitzvah. But the need for a pattern of such rituals, this—because it grows out of and satisfies our very basic nature as human beings—is mitzvah. And this we desperately need.

A concrete example at this point may be more instructive than further paragraphs of theoretical exposition.  The most elaborate—and perhaps the most valuable—mitzvah in our tradition is the seder ceremony. A supernaturalistically oriented Jew celebrates at his seder God’s miraculous intervention in nature and history.

The seder means no less, however, to the religiously naturalistic Jew, who rejects miracles. Plugging into centuries of his people’s tradition as well as its unique pursuit of freedom, he visually, audibly, and dramatically commemorates that pursuit and rededicates himself to it. His metzaveh is triune: his very special human need to be free, both as a person and a Jew; his equally human need to augment speech with memory and motion in reinforcement of his highest values; and his specifically Jewish need to identify with his people’s destiny.

Permeating our theological differences is the common understanding that God, however divergently we interpret Him, is the Core Spiritual Essence of Reality. In this sense, God is the metzaveh of the religiously naturalistic Jew, who eschews the supernatural not only in theological speculation but also in his approach to mitzvot. He responds naturalistically to his own essence and to that of his universal setting. Mitzvot for him represent the difference between talking or philosophizing about Judaism and living it. They bind him firmly, visibly, to his people and his tradition. They speak to him imperatively because he is Jewish and wants to remain so.

Plaut, Gunther, editor; Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR Press, 1979) 108-110

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Shavua Tov! #BlogElul Day 14: Learning

Imagination, opined Albert Einstein, is more important than knowledge.

That seems like a strange idea, especially coming from a landsman. As Jews, we value, we prize, knowledge and education. Whether it’s for our children or ourselves, we have taken the label “People of the Book” seriously.

But Einstein’s quip should be taken seriously. Imagination and creativity are, after all, ways of expressing knowledge and learning, means of processing information. It is through the imagination that we can grasp complex or even contradictory ideas. Through mental ‘play’, thought exercises (what Einstein called daydreaming), art, literature and music, we not only make sense of the data before us, we achieve some level of ownership as well.

It seems to me that, as Jews, while we strive to know and understand the tradition, the so-called ‘right’ way to do things, we could stand to be more to be playful with the tradition as well, more willing to experiment, to engage in thought exercises about what our Judaism—our community—is and should be about.

Often, we rely on our leadership to engage in that creativity: to play with rituals and readings, to provide resources, to innovate our programming or communication, but this cannot only come from us, from me. You, too, are a creative person. Perhaps it’s in the way you relate to your children, or peers, or parents. Perhaps it’s at work, or in a hobby, or the exploration of art. However you find expression for your imagination, those same gifts can be used for expression of your Judaism and to help your congregation. And those expressions, those ‘thought experiments’ can help us here at the synagogue too.

I encourage you to think about your talents, your creativity, your imagination and consider bringing those gifts to the way you approach ritual, the way you experience your Judaism, and the way you engage the synagogue. Will it be the ‘right’ way to do Jewish? We won’t know until we try!