Friday, October 10, 2008

Kol Nidre Sermon

TGIS (Thank God It’s Shabbat)
Shabbat Shalom!

It is always wonderful to see so many people here on a Friday night. Temple Sinai is a loving community of Shabbat worshippers …. [Rabbi Litwak interrupts]

Excuse me, I have just been informed that tonight is Wednesday. [Crumple up fake page of sermon and throw it backwards to Rabbi Litwak.]

Shanah Tovah!

It is always wonderful to see so many of you here on Yom Kippur. As we begin what is considered the holiest of days, we treat ourselves a little differently tonight.

On most days we take good care of our bodies. We eat healthful food, we wash our bodies and brush our teeth. On Yom Kippur we fast, refraining from food and water for our insides, and soap and water for our outsides. Yom Kippur is a day of abstention.

Most days we wear whatever we find in the closet. Tonight we pay attention to how we look. Some of us wear white, some will not wear leather, some even wear a kittel, the traditional garb worn on only two occasions in a lifetime: under the Chuppah when getting married, and under the lights of our sanctuary when greeting God on Yom Kippur. Many of us will wear a Tallit and Kippah, perhaps for the only day this year. Yom Kippur is a day of mindfulness of our appearance.

Most days we find ourselves focused on the events of the present. We focus on our immediate goals and how we can accomplish them as fast as possible so we can move on to the next goal. But not Yom Kippur. Tonight we reflect upon the past. We take stock of our shortcomings and we pray for a better year than the year that just ended. We think carefully on how we can improve ourselves to make this year a year of blessing. We apologize for our past misdeeds, and we work to improve our bad habits and imperfections. Kol Nidre is a night of reflection, while Yom Kippur is a day of repentance.

Most days we spend our time at work. On this High Holy Day we spend time with family and community. We turn off our cell phones and disconnect from the professional world. We focus on our spiritual gains and we pray. For 364 days out of the year, we focus on the routine; but on Yom Kippur we focus upon the Divine inside us all.

You know, Yom Kippur is kind of like Shabbat! [Retrieve crumpled paper.]

In fact, the Torah describes Yom Kippur as a day of complete rest: Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. On Yom Kippur we read Torah and Haftarah just like on Shabbat, and the Haftarah includes the reminder from Isaiah to “call the Sabbath "delight," The Lord's holy day "honored";” in order to seek favor from God.

Where Shabbat does differ from Yom Kippur, though, is in oneg Shabbat, the joy of Shabbat. On Shabbat we enjoy Challah, wine, meals with family and friends, a mid-day schluff, and of course the double mitzvah… (You laugh, but it’s in the Talmud!) On Shabbat we increase our bodily pleasure so that we can increase the pleasures of our souls. We are told to remember Shabbat, honor Shabbat, and keep it holy. Like on Yom Kippur we are not to work on Shabbat, but with a slightly different impetus.

Yom Kippur is Shabbat shabbaton lachem, the Sabbath of Sabbaths for you. Saturday is Shabbat ladonai elohecha, Sabbath for Adonai your God. Every Friday night as the sun sets, we are sanctifying a moment in time that serves as a declaration of our faith in God.

In the 2nd chapter of Genesis we first hear of Shabbat. God spends the first chapter of the Torah creating. Light and darkness, earth, water, sun, moon, stars, plants, and animals. In six days God creates heaven and earth. On the seventh day God rests.

Genesis 2:3 explains, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation.”

And there, in the second chapter of the Torah, God creates the weekend.

I think about our calendar. With the calendar we measure time through planetary movement. In one day the earth rotates on its axis once. In one month the moon revolves around the earth once. In one year the earth revolves around the sun once. And yet there is nothing in the cosmos that delineates a week. We have to work out weeks on our own. The week is the only calendrical measurement of time that is not determined by movement of astrological objects. The only one!

That means we can observe days, months, and years. There is ebb and flow to them. It gets dark and light. The moon grows and disappears. The planet gets colder and warmer.

We cannot observe a week happening. No star or planet makes it clear that a week has gone by. We have to pay attention to know what day it is. How many of us go back to work on a Tuesday after a long weekend and say, “Today feels like a Monday!” Even with the calendar in front of us it is sometimes hard to keep track.

The week is not planetary time…it is God-time. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. A week is a Torah-mandated measurement of time!

So celebrating Shabbat becomes a declaration of our faith in God. We stop working because God stopped. And God stopped because God wants us to stop.

In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the daily human quest as a conquering of space. Heschel describes how we build things and acquire things, and these things take up space in the world. We understand our achievements through how we have used our space. Look at what I have built, look at what I own, look at what I can buy. Often we conquer space at the expense of time. We use our days to the fullest of their capacity. In conquering space, we lose time.

My friend Brian joined the US Army after he graduated college. Years later he would describe with great agony some of the perils of Basic Training. Of course, in Basic he had to do a lot of push-ups. He told me that unlike the movies they didn’t have to do 50 or 100 push-ups at a time. They had to do push-ups to Muscle Failure. His drill sergeant would make them push until they were unable to push any more. They would fall on their faces, exhausted, and do it again the next day.

This is exactly how many of us work in our professional lives. We push and push until we cannot so much as open an email, then we drive home, collapse, wake up, and start all over again.

If we keep it up we will cause problems worse than muscle failure. We will have mental and spiritual failure. Eventually something has to give. If we refuse to take time, time will find a way to catch up to us.

The Torah gives us a way to take time. We are commanded not to work on Shabbat. Outside of the restriction against kindling a fire, it does not teach us much more than that. Honor it, remember it, sanctify it, and don’t work. What does that mean?

In the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat lists 39 malachot—39 activities that are not allowed on Shabbat. No plowing, grinding, tearing, writing, baking, cutting, lighting a fire, etc etc. You can probably find a complete list on Wikipedia. These 39 malachot are derived from the work done making bread, making clothing, tanning animal hides, and building the Temple. In strict practice today you either find behavior tailored to allow following the rules, or acrobatic manipulation of the law.

For example, in Israel most hotels place what looks like a mini-package of tissues in guest rooms on Friday afternoon. These are not for blowing your nose, but for use after relieving yourself. Pre-measured toilet paper prevents the observant Jew from tearing on Shabbat.

Some people will put timers on their lights, water heaters, and televisions. That way they can derive the benefits from light, hot water, and their favorite program without actually flipping the switch on Shabbat.

Perhaps we think of these as silly and/or hypocritical. Why waste material and packaging just to not rip toilet paper on Shabbat? Isn’t being environmentally conscious more important to us today? And a timer seems like a waste of energy. If we are not home, the lights still go on. Even more to the point, why is it ok to use the electricity if it is not ok to turn it on?

These manipulations of everyday activities are not done to skirt halachah. The special toilet paper, Shabbat timers and elevators, walking from place to place, not carrying things, and everything we do or do not do on Shabbat serve to make Shabbat special. This is sanctifying Shabbat—making it Holy.

Perhaps this is not what works for us, but to the traditional Jew it makes perfect sense. Our task, then, is to find ways to make Shabbat meaningful for us.

This past November at the URJ Biennial convention in San Diego, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, offered some of his thoughts on Shabbat and how to make it Holy again. Shabbat worship is an integral part of our week. In Rabbi Yoffe’s words,
Reform Jews [keep] Shabbat because they need Shabbat. In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating…. For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible. Our tradition does not instruct us to stop working altogether on Shabbat; after all, it takes a certain amount of effort to study, pray, and go to synagogue. Be we are asked to abstain from the work that we do to earn a living, and instead to reflect, to enjoy, and to take a stroll through the neighborhood…. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.
He explained the centrality of Shabbat worship to Judaism, especially to Reform Judaism. We have a need to focus less on the restrictions of Shabbat, and more on the joy, celebration, and worship.

In 1991 the CCAR Press published Gates of Shabbat, a Guide for Observing Shabbat. In this book, Mark Dov Shapiro describes three types of Shabbat worshippers, three examples of how to take a break on Shabbat and make it holy. He calls them The Walker, The Museumgoer, and The Painter. The Walker serves as the more traditional Shabbat observer. He spends no money and uses no technology. He will go to the park or take his canoe out on a local river. He will picnic at the beach or study with a group of friends. The Walker “puts aside the so-called necessities of modern life and uses Shabbat… [to do] something positive through thought, leisure, and friendship….”

The Museumgoer also stays away from work on Shabbat, but this Jew is willing to drive and spend money, but she puts limits on how her money will be spent. For example, she will not go shopping on Shabbat, but she will drive to and pay the admission for a day at a museum. Shabbat for the Museumgoer is made holy through freedom from necessity. Her activities increase in holiness when she shares them with her family and friends. Of course, these activities can all be done on a day that is not Shabbat. For Reform Jews, what makes these activities special for us is the intent as we do them. We honor Shabbat by refreshing and giving new life to our soul. No chores or errands are allowed.

The Painter is a very different example of a Shabbat observer. God stopped the work of creation on Shabbat and rested. We are to follow God’s example with our rest. Painting can be considered a form of creating, so how does the Painter justify his Shabbat ritual? He uses the book of Deuteronomy, in which Shabbat is described as a reminder of our liberation from Egypt. Therefore, it makes sense to the Painter to allow himself to feel liberated as well. An activity like painting, even though it is not halachically shabbes-dik, can be the perfect restful antidote to the meetings and appointments of the work week. As long as the activity is not something we get paid for during the rest of the week, engaging in some form of art allows the mind to relax while the hands move the brush.

There are many ways to honor Shabbat and sanctify our day of rest. As a gift to the Union, Rabbi Yoffe gave us 52 suggestions. The Gift of Shabbat Box from the Union for Reform Judaism contains a deck of cards, each with a creative way to celebrate Shabbat. Everyone who attended the Biennial in San Diego received a Shabbat deck. Tonight, we are giving a Shabbat deck to each of you. As you leave this evening, please pick up one deck per family from the ushers.

Some of the suggestions will be meaningful to you, and some will not. All of them will get us thinking about how to bring the Shabbat experience into our lives as individuals, as families, and as a community.

Now, I have been playing card games since I was 5 years old, and I know that with 52 cards you can play hundreds of different games. We are going to play a little game this year with our cards. And I am not only referring to the Poker tournament on November 1. Every Friday night as we kindle the Shabbat lights we are going to draw a card from the Gift of Shabbat deck. The following Shabbat, we will briefly describe how that particular card can add meaning to our lives here at Temple Sinai. So when we draw the card that says, “I try to do something cultural on Shabbat afternoon…” the Museumgoer might hear about it and tell us about her Shabbat ritual. Then she or the clergy might tell the congregation about it the following Friday night, just before we draw the next card from our deck.

With the Gift of Shabbat Deck, there are infinite possibilities to enhance your Shabbat experience and engage in sanctifying Shabbat as a community. We will continue to celebrate Shabbat together, and we will find more meaningful and exciting ways to make our Shabbat holy. If you already have a regular Shabbat activity that you do, share it with us. Include your Temple Sinai family in your Shabbat ritual. Perhaps what is routine for you will be inspirational for someone else.

If something happens to you on a particular Shabbat that makes you aware of its holiness, tell us. We want to involve as many people as possible in our exploration of Shabbat worship over the coming year.

Temple Sinai is going to be playing with Shabbat this year as well. We will still offer our beloved programs like Tot Shabbat and Friday Night Live. Tot Shabbat will have one minor change. Instead of 7:00 Tot Shabbat services, we will begin our Tot Shabbat experience at 6:00. After a brief, under-5-friendly service, we will enjoy a Shabbat dinner together here at Temple Sinai. Often these programs will feature one or two of our ECE classes singing songs they learn from Miss Pat, and everyone is always invited to enjoy. Adults should be accompanied by a child.

Our Friday Night Live services are always well received. Cantor Kruk rocks the house, and the ruach is palpable. We will continue Friday Night Live every other month—even numbered months—on the third Friday of the month. This month we celebrate FNL on October 24, which is Shabbat Bereshit. What a way to begin our Torah cycle!

On odd numbered months we are going to try something new. The third Friday of each odd-numbered month will be a Family Shabbat. Family Shabbat nights will begin at 5:30. Family Shabbat services are come-as-you-are, family-friendly, and relatively short. Whether you are coming from work, the gym, or soccer practice, everyone is welcome. Our Family Shabbat experience will tap into our summer camp Shabbat memories. We will lead with guitars and storytelling, creating a tangible, visceral experience that our children and adults will love. We hope you will join us in just one month from now on November 14 at 5:30 PM for our first Family Shabbat.

Friends, this is a major, seed-changing task that lies ahead of us, and some of you will be asked to help. The lay leader, perhaps better than the rabbi, can implement this kind of change to restore Shabbat to its rightful place. At Rabbi Yoffe’s suggestion, Temple Sinai will create a Shabbat Task Force—a cadre of Temple Sinai partners who will meet weekly for eight weeks, experiencing Shabat at Temple Sinai and at other local synagogues. They will learn from the best practices of Shabbat worship and report back to the Jewish Living Committee and the clergy. We will then weave the suggestions of the Task Force in to our own Shabbat worship experience.

The more we experience Shabbat, the more we will understand how Shabbat rest can be liberating.

Tonight is Kol Nidre. It is a night full of spirituality and meaning. Our challenge is to bring some of the Kavannah—the intention—of Kol Nidre to our souls every week.

Tonight we think about the vows we have broken and those we have renewed. Let us make a communal vow to make Shabbat observance, in some way, a central part of our Jewish identities for the coming year.

Tonight we dream. We remember the past and dream of the promise of a rich future. Our dream tonight is of a meaningful Shabbat. Shabbat for us will be a day of rest, a day of revitalization, a day of connection with our loved ones.

On this Yom Kippur, this Shabbat of our souls, we embark on a journey of many chances to experience Shabbat Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath, every week.

So again, I bid you all Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Day II

My Trip to the Creation Museum
I never expected all the dinosaurs.

As we rode in the taxi entering the grounds of the museum, they were the first things we saw. Bronze statues of dinosaur skeletons graze all over the vast lawn in front of and leading up to the Creation Museum.

In 1994 Ken Ham set down the plan to build a museum dedicated to creationist theology, and the belief that the world literally was created in six 24-hour days, like it says in the Torah. He strove to build a reasoned, logical defense to those who would question creationism. We’ll get to this later. 13 years and seven million dollars later, he built the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. It’s about 15 miles south of Cincinnati, so while the CCAR Convention was gathered in Cincinnati this past spring, I had to see it for my self. I invited two other rabbis to grab a cab with me, and soon we were there. Looking at the dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are a running theme throughout the Creation Museum. There are statues of dinosaurs, animatronic dinosaurs, and a movie about dragons—who are really just leftover dinosaurs. This is contrary to what I knew about creationists. They think dinosaur bones are all fake, right?

It makes for an extremely kid-friendly museum. Think about it—how many kids do you know who are fascinated by dinosaurs? The way they tell it, dinosaurs were created on the sixth day, just like all the other land animals. So when God put all the creatures in the Garden of Eden, the dinosaurs were there with them.

The first room in the museum has an eerily lifelike pair of animatronic men squatting on either side of a partially uncovered dinosaur skeleton. One is an elderly, white-bearded caucasian, and the other is a young-looking Asian man. The old white man narrates a film about their archaeological exploits that plays on a loop. He explains that he believes that the world was created in six 24-hour days, while his friend believes that the earth is [say with a chuckle:] billions of years old.

What struck me about this display is the comforting figure of the Santa Claus-like white man with the message from the Bible, as compared to the Asian “archaeologist,” who believes in a process of evolution that took eons.

The Asian man is the “other,” and that he is far eastern is likely a conscious choice. Asian religions are the farthest theologically from Christianity. They are unrelated to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So in the very first exhibit, a perception is established. There is certainty and comfort in the creationist message, in contrast to scientific theory. They are only theories, after all, Santa Claus reminds us. The creationist message is delivered in a nice, calm, soft spoken voice that reminds us of our grandfather. The “others” believe that which is alien, foreign, and not like us. It was an extremely clever presentation, and very scary.

Throughout the museum there is only one path, so it can only be navigated from beginning to end. Before it gets to the creation story, there is an exhibit about the Bible itself. It mostly describes use of the Biblical canon in various communities, most notably that of the Jews. One display has three different versions of the Pentateuch. The first was a reproduction of a stone with ancient proto-Hebrew carved into its surface. The second was a reproduction of a Greek scroll. The third was an actual Torah, marked with a plaque describing it as a scroll from Poland rescued from the Holocaust. I leaned in to inspect it, and discovered that it was open to Genesis 32, the story of Jacob wrestling the angel.

As I read, I thought of how clever the museum’s design is. Hebrew and the display of ancient languages gives validity to the museum’s message. If the words on this scroll were written in a language that the Jews still use today, it stands to reason that the message in the scroll must be fact, right?

Even cleverer is the precise scene to which this Torah was opened. As Jacob struggles with the angel, so does the creationist struggle with the other who challenges the Biblical message.

Before long, a woman I did not know saw me staring at the text and said, “It looks like it’s upside down, doesn’t it?”

I couldn’t resist showing off. I pointed to where I was reading, “it says here, vayivater ya’akov l’vado, and Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn. It’s the story of Jacob wrestling the angel.”

“Where did you learn that?” she asked.

I got a little nervous at this point, “I have a Master’s degree in Hebrew Literature,” I told her quickly. While this is true, I suddenly felt the need to run away into the next exhibit.

From there on in the museum, Hebrew text is prominent. Sometimes it is used like the Hebrew word Metushalach—as a nametag of sorts on the desk of the animatronic Methusaleh. Other times it is in the background of still and electronic displays all over the museum. Consistant use of the Hebrew language serves as a validation of sorts. Every time Hebrew is on display, it is an implicit reminder that this stuff “really happened.”

After the museum’s version of the history of Torah, we get to the Biblical account of creation. We read this story today during our Torah service. God creates the world in six days. Light and darkness on the first day, water and sky on the second, land and plants on the third. The next three days God spends filling the creations of the first three days. Sun, moon, planets, and stars on the fourth day, birds and fish on the fifth, and land animals on the sixth, including the first human being. The Bible does say that after six days, “The heaven and the earth and all their array was completed…” (Gen 2:1). We heard Cantor Kruk chant those very words. They are very much a part of Jewish tradition. This is Rosh Hashanah, after all, and we are celebrating the birthday of the world.

So how do we reconcile what we know about the universe and how it works with what it says it in the Bible? For that I look deep into the wisdom texts of our age, and one of the most venerated scholars known to modern Americans. That’s right, I speak of Indiana Jones. In the third Indiana Jones movie, Dr. Jones writes the word “FACT” on the chalkboard, and says to his students, “Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall.” Understanding the wisdom of this statement, I often tell the opposite to my sixth grade Bible students. I tell them that facts can be empirically proven through evidence or observation. Truth, according to my definition, is dependent on belief. The Bible is concerned with truth, not facts. Truth is not beholden to logic or reason. We can believe something fully, to the fullest extent of our being, and have absolutely no proof of it.

Remember I said we would get back to the Creation Museum’s “reasoned, logical approach” to answer those who question creationism? This is an attempt to use a system of facts to prove a truth. There is a movie in the Creation Museum called, The Created Cosmos. It is a planetarium-style film, during which the viewers are treated to a tour of the universe as we know it, starting on earth observing the planets and stars, then moving out into space, past our solar system, out of the Milky Way, and eventually as far out as humanity has been able to observe at this point. While looking at the view from millions of light years away, the narrator attempts to prove that the earth is 6000 years old. He says:

Critics claim that it is impossible for the light from these galaxies to reach earth in only 6000 years. They claim that these galaxies prove the universe is billions of years old. But in fact there are several different ways to get light to travel these distances in a short period of time. These include gravitational-time dilation, altered synchronous conventions, and others.

This is logic and reason. Gravitational-time dilation, altered synchronous conventions, and others. After the movie, I asked the two I was with if they had every heard of these. Since none of us had, we looked up these supposed proofs up on line. We found gravitational time dilation, but could not find altered synchronous conventions. Since I was in my home town, I called my high school physics teacher to verify the information.

Gravitational time dilation is a theory that claims gravity is stronger when objects are closer to large objects, therefore light moves faster when close to planet-sized objects. When light moves faster, it distorts the way time is perceived. The proof used for this theory is that when an atomic clock, the most accurate type of clock there is, gets placed on a mountain, it moves slower than an identical atomic clock on the ground—closer to earth’s gravitational field. The problem with this theory is that this is not a measurement of time moving slower; it is a measurement of clocks moving slower.

According to my teacher, another problem with using this theory is that in order for light to travel millions of light years in less than 6000 years, it would have to travel on a path that skirts hundreds of millions of large planetary objects—large enough and close together enough to alter the speed of light. These objects would have to be visible to have this kind of impact, and we cannot see them.

Well, it sounded reasoned and logical before we looked it up. Or at least it sounded like fancy scientific jargon.

One more “proof” from the Creation Museum: While traveling through the Biblical story, we come to a replica of Noah’s Ark. The miniature ark is about three feet long. In the middle of the ark is an open door, with a platform attached to a tiny staircase. On the platform stands a teeny tiny Noah, guiding the animals two-by-two into the ark. The animals walking up the platform include a pair of elephants, a pair of giraffes, and a pair of triceratops.

Oh, yes. The dinosaurs are still around with Noah. You see, according to the museum, the fossilized dinosaur bones that we find in different layers of the earth are real. They just aren’t millions of years old as science claims. On a plaque in the Noah exhibit, it says:

Because things were buried in sequence during the flood, it left a pile of rocks and sediment each time and gave the appearance of layers of strata, which is why scientists misinterpret the layers of strata as coming from different era.

So fossilization was not the result of millions of years of pressure from layers of earth. According to the Creation Museum, fossilization happened in 40 days due to the tremendous pressure from the Great Flood. The extinction of dinosaurs happened slowly over the following two thousand years, with only one or two dinosaurs left by the middle ages—which spawned dragon legends so prominent throughout the world. Presented to the museum-goer as reasoned and logical.

This presentation does elicit questions in the mind of the thoughtful observer. What about carbon-dating? Why haven’t archaeologists found dinosaur bones that are younger than the Flood? And of course: What are you people smoking? Sadly, I had no representative from this culture who I could ask. I did hear a father’s reaction to his daughter’s questions. We were in the Tower of Babel exhibit, and I heard him yelling at her. “Stop asking so many questions!” he scolded her. “Just listen and pay attention. You don’t question this stuff, this is God’s word.”

Throughout the museum, there are monitors with God’s word on display. On every monitor, Biblical quotes flash on the screen while a voice reads the quotes aloud. Each of these screens has different texts, but over the same background. The background is a Torah scroll opened to the very beginning, the chapter we read today. On every monitor the Bible quotes are read across a Hebrew background—the original Hebrew text on a Torah. Remember, Hebrew serves as validation.

Here’s the problem: The Torah on every monitor is upside-down. Mistaking the letters like the friendly woman at the Torah display, the confused designers created a display of upside-down Torah throughout the entire museum.

I am reminded again of high school science. In anatomy class, we learned that the human eye is an amazing instrument for capturing light. It is able to detect different colors of light, adapt to different intensities of light and dark, and focus differently for objects that are far away or up close. When an image hits the optical nerve, however, that image is upside-down and 2-dimensional. The brain then flips this image, and uses information from both eyes to create the 3-D, right-side-up view of the world we enjoy. Without our brains working properly, we would see the world upside-down and flat.

The same is true with any information we take in. There are generally three sides to any story: yours, mine, and the facts. If we hear only one side of the story, we cannot possibly understand it properly. This is even the case when we watch the news. There is no such thing as an unbiased reporter. Opinions are disguised as information, and the medias feeds us constantly with lie after lie, scandal after scandal, anything that sells commercials. The media plays to our anxieties by presenting upside-down images on a screen of rendered half-truths.

When we hear a story from any source, our job is to do our due diligence and check the facts. Don’t trust what you learn from television, radio, emails, or even this bimah. Use your brain. Check the facts.

In just over a month we are going to vote. Voting itself is easy. It takes only pushing a button. What happens before pushing the button is the important part. It is our duty as American citizens to vote with our brains. We do this by thinking first about our values. What is important to us? How do we react to the issues of 2008? How important is one issue over another?

Then we look to see which candidate is a more suitable representation of our views. Based on using our brains, not on believing the stories we are told.

The dinosaurs are long gone. By using my brain and taking in as many sides of the story as I can, I have come to the conclusion that the Earth is in fact much, much more that 6000 years old. The Torah is not a history book about the past. It is a guide to teach us how to live right now. It is full of exhilarating stories about our mythological ancestors and how they overcame tremendous odds to succeed as God’s special people. We can learn from the examples of the great faith they had in God to get them through the difficult times.

One of the lessons from the Bible is that before us at every moment there are choices, and if we choose wisely we will live well. The choices we make are not always as clear as good over evil. More often they are between good and better. It is not always easy to tell which is which. The answer only becomes clear when we use our brains.

May we all use the coming year to ask good questions of anyone who presents a truth to us. May God grant us the wisdom to not take anything at face value, no matter how good it seems. May we use our minds to discover the facts that will lead us into a sweet, healthy, and prosperous 5769.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Clothing The Naked

In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, the beggar Nachum asks the character Lazar Wolf for alms. Lazar Wolf hands him a coin and says, “Here is a kopek, Nachum.”
Nachum responds, “One Kopek? Last week you gave me two!”
“I had a bad week, Nachum.”
“So?!? If YOU had a bad week, why should I suffer!?!”

Things are tough right now for Americans. And while we have bad weeks, bad months, or even a bad year, Carlos and Juan have had it worse.

Carlos grew up in Arkansas, where his middle class parents gave him everything they could, which wasn’t much. In his teens he developed a rebellious streak. He began fighting with his parents, mostly about his desire for freedom and independence, or rather his desire for what he believed freedom and independence were. When the fighting came to a head, Carlos fell into a deep depression and ran away from home. He was 16 years old.

Carlos fell in with a bad crowd. He joined a gang, got into drugs, and began stealing. His depression continued, and he decided to run even farther. He soon found himself here in Miami. But he again found solace in drugs and alcohol. This time he became an addict, living on the streets, sleeping in parks and under overpasses, and trying to avoid any police contact.

One night Carlos was attacked by two young men who stabbed him 47 times and left him for dead. He went into a coma, and contrary to doctors’ predictions, he came out of it after three months.

When he was released from the hospital, he found himself at Camillus House, a non-profit organization that works to keep people off the streets and in a safe haven. Camillus House took him in, gave him a room, hot meals, health care, doctors to talk to, and most importantly: support.

Today he is 24 years old. Thanks to Camillus House, Carlos got back on his feet, stopped using drugs, and even went to school. He even rekindled a relationship with his parents thanks to their guidance. He lives in Miami in a studio apartment that his parents helped him secure. He splits his free time between studying for his culinary school exams and volunteering at Camillus House. Carlos wants to make sure that he can prevent as many people as possible from going down the path that nearly killed him. He knows from experience that Camillus House provides that kind of help to people like he was.

Juan is eight years old, and the middle child out of seven. He lives in San Ramon, Nicaragua, a little ways north of Managua. San Ramon is a small city, with a population of 23,000 spread over about 300 square miles. The local hang out is a small pharmacy that sells different tea leaves for every medical ailment from skin rash to TB. San Ramon is known as the location of La Chureca, the largest landfill in Nicaragua.

La Chureca is the dump where Managua sends its garbage and it is the site of Juan’s family’s home. Juan, his parents, and his six brothers and sisters live in a two-room home on the landfill. All nine of them sleep in the same room. The parents and two youngest children share a bed, and the other five sleep on the rock floor. When it rains, the floor gets wet where they sleep. The bathroom is separated only by a curtain, affording little privacy. The kitchen is a wood stove, which must be watched carefully lest the cardboard walls ignite from a spark. This is not an unusual case, it is just the way many people live in La Chureca.

Like the other 1500 residents of La Chureca landfill, Juan goes to work with his father and older siblings every day. To them, work means collecting scrap metal, glass, and anything else they can sell to recycling centers. Juan offers a heartwarming smile when he finds what he calls tresoro, “a treasure.” He displays the kind of grin that makes you sad to see it because you know how infrequent his smiles must be. Today it is a jar of baby food with only a bite or two missing.

Navigating the workplace means walking over broken glass, metal shards, splintered wood, used syringes, and biomedical waste. Every now and then pockets of gas from decomposing waste below the surface will ignite causing an explosion, hurdling loose trash like shrapnel through the air. The children of La Chureca are known as los ninos de la basurera, or “Children of the Garbage.” They grow up with no clothing, no shoes, and their skin is extremely dark due to overexposure to the sun and lack of exposure to water for getting clean. These conditions lead to many incidents of cancer and physical and mental disabilities.

Recently Juan received help from caring individuals who donate their time, supplies, and money to the people of La Chureca. You see, Juan had a tumor in his brain. With no access to medical care and no ability to pay for care if there was access, Juan’s cancer spread into his eye and jaw. The treatment for his cancer happened in Managua, where doctors were able to operate and remove the tumor successfully. While Juan was in surgery and recovery, his mother had to stay at a shelter nearby, not unlike a Ronald McDonald House.

San Ramon is trying to build housing to keep los ninos de la basurera out of La Chureca and in safe living conditions with their families. Despite the deplorable living conditions, the people living in the landfill still have a will to survive, a strong sense of community, and a tremendous work ethic. But they need help.

The Torah says, “The poor will always be with us” (Deut 15:11). Judaism is grounded in a realistic view of the world. We know that while we may have lofty ideals of healing the world, and bringing peace and prosperity to the four corners of the earth, we are far from that goal today. Whether we look to Miami, Managua, or beyond, the poor are always with us.

In ten days we will fast for a day. Some people are lucky to fast only once a week. On Yom Kippur we will pray and study, asking God for forgiveness for what we may have done this past year that has missed the mark. We will read the words of Isaiah, who will ask if such a fast is enough. Isaiah describes exactly what kind of fast God wants for us:

To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke; To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin (Isa 58:6-7).
According to Isaiah, if we behave as such, God will look favorably upon the people. If we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked we will gain God’s goodwill. As a prophet, that was Isaiah’s job. Prophets spoke out against societal norms in favor of reconciling humanity and God. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The prophet was an individual who said ‘No’ to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism.” He adds, “The prophet is a person…who suffers harms done to others.” More than others, the prophet is able to understand the will of God and to translate that understanding to his fellow human beings.

This is more than an intellectual understanding. The prophet is touched by God to the core of his being and is able to know better than others the will of God and how that will should be manifest in our world. The prophet offers God’s words to the people with emotion and anguish. Although standing apart from the people, the prophet is one with the people, so words which condemn them condemn him as well.

Like the prophets of old, we hear the stories of Carlos and Juan and we feel their pain. We watch the You Tube videos and Dateline stories and tear up while sitting on the couch or at the computer. We do not want the world to be so full of anguish.

Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and noted psychiatrist, wrote “being human means being conscious and being responsible.” In other words, we are obligated to observe the world around us, and to react to injustices when we have the power to lessen their impact. When we hear of the suffering of the widow, the orphan, and the poor, it is our responsibility as human beings to do what we can to ease their suffering.

The Talmud tells a story of Roman governor Turnusrufus challenging Rabbi Akiva: If God loves the poor, why doesn’t God feed and clothe them? Rabbi Akiva responds that it is our duty to care for them. In order to be partners with God, we must be responsible for the well-being of all God’s creation.

We understand today that dire situations are not always the result of bad behavior. Some people make mistakes that cause their situations, but not all. Some people are born into poverty. Some people’s lives are destroyed by hurricanes or other natural disasters. Some find themselves too old to compete with their colleagues, then too old to be hired in their trained profession. Whatever the case, it is our duty to lift up the downtrodden, to work as God’s earthly partners, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.

How do we do this? How do we make a difference?

By cleaning out our closets.

At the end of the school year this past May, Ivania and Rodney Max called to talk to me about an idea they had. Ivania travels occasionally to her native Nicaragua, and she told me about los ninos de la basurera like Juan. She showed pictures and videos, told stories, and helped make me conscious of their story. She asked what we could do to help them. Could we ask our congregation for clothes, toiletries, and medicine? Could we go even further?

We added another dimension to the Maxes’ suggestions. We are already conscious of the struggles of people like Carlos who rely on Camillus House for food, shelter, and care. Miamians know about the work they have been doing in our community since 1960. Just in case, Camillus House offers free meals, showers, medical care, and addiction treatment for Miami’s needy. They become the brethren of the broken, giving creature comforts, rehabilitation, and hope. Now we Miamians are also conscious of La Chureca and their struggles. We know we are responsible for our local community, and our global community. The Maxes thought we should find a way to help both at the same time.

So that is exactly what we did. We put boxes in the lobbies—the main entrances to the synagogue. Big wardrobe boxes with little signs that said, “Please drop your clothing to give to the people of Managua and Miami.” With very little advertising, almost completely word-of-mouth, the response was tremendous. In one month, we collected piles of clothes that we split between Camillus House here in Miami, and La Chureca in San Ramon. When Camillus House picked up their portion, we knew there was a lot, but the shock came when we weighed the boxes to ship to San Ramon. Temple Sinai sent the Maxes to La Chureca with 800 pounds of clothes and supplies. 800 pounds!

That’s amazing!

And we can do better.

Two years ago, I watched with great pride as Temple Sinai filled a mock apartment ten times over with living needs over the High Holy Days. I knew I had found a congregation of justice pursuers who are conscious of the plights of others, and who act responsibly toward them.

Tonight I ask that you act again. I believe that we, as a congregation, will be able to fill the stage behind you with one ton—2000 pounds of clothing by Yom Kippur this year. One ton of clothes for the needy in Miami and San Ramon. For a congregation of nurturers like you, this should be an easy task.

With your program tonight you were given a list of five simple steps to help you find clothing you do not need.

Step One: sort through your closets and drawers. When was the last time you cleaned your closet? Pesach? …of 1984? We could all use a cleaner bedroom, and having clean closets always makes me feel like I have so much more space when getting dressed in the morning. So open your closets and drawers and see what you have forgotten is in there.

Step Two: Make a pile of the clothes you no longer want. Err on the side of donating it. As a rule, if you have not worn something in over a year, get rid of it. And please remember, the 80s are not coming back. Someone will be thankful for your gold lamay pants matching jacket.

Step Three: Sort through the pile. Something tells me this step is more for the men. If it looks like something that would look better as a dishrag, cut it into squares and leave it in the shmata drawer.

Step Four: Fold your donations. Wash them if necessary. Make your donation presentable.

Step Five: Bring your donation in to Temple Sinai! Put your folded clothes on the stage in the Social Hall, and we will update you throughout the High Holy Days as to how much we have collected. I look forward to seeing us reach our goal of a ton of clothes in ten days.

The boxes in our lobby have been decorated by the 5th grade class with the help of our art teacher, Tina Ohayon. In the boxes and on the stage, we will be collecting clothes, toiletries, and toys. Please try to bring in neatly folded clothing, as it will make them much easier to donate.

In the main office we will be collecting monetary donations. The money we collect will be used to defray the cost of shipping to San Ramon, and to buy medical supplies in Nicaragua.

There is a hidden sixth step as well. For anyone who has the desire, the Maxes are offering an opportunity to travel with Ivania to San Ramon to hand our gifts to the people of La Chureca. If you are interested in joining the Maxes on this mission, all you need is a plane ticket, and they will take care of the rest. Please let me know, and I will make the connection between you and the Maxes.

We are in the middle of a financial crisis in America that has the media screaming about the Hoover administration and another Depression. Like Nachum said, if WE had a bad week, why should Carlos and Juan suffer?

Give what you can, and clean out your closets to help clothe the naked.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Parashat Ki Teitze

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt -- how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Deuteronomy 25:17-19

We are halfway through Elul, the month during which we are supposed to be preparing for the High Holy Days. We are immersed in our self-contemplation, searching our souls to determine how we can be better people in the next year. It is a time of asking for and giving forgiveness. Not only is it incumbent upon us to seek to reconcile with those we have wronged, it is our duty to forgive those who have wronged us.
So how do we deal with this passage of Torah right in the middle of our preparations? How do we handle the command to blot out an entire people? Surely the next generation of Amalekites had nothing to do with the attack in the desert on our way to Mount Sinai. Are we to understand that some wrongs are unforgivable?

Amalek’s “big sin” is often cited as taking advantage of the weak, slow, and overburdened Israelites. The real issue is that they were “undeterred by fear of God.” The Amalekites had no respect for the humans they were fighting, hence their dishonorable tactics. No thought toward the human beings in a battle is equated with no acknowledgement of the Divine spark within them. The Israelites are commanded, conversely, that God requires of them “Only this: to fear Adonai you God…” (Deut 10:12). Without fear of God, we lose our humanity because we do not acknowledge the godliness within ourselves.

We have ruach elohim within us, and we have Amalek at times. During Elul it is our responsibility to seek that Divine spark within, recognize the times we have behaved like Amalekites, and wipe out those aspects of our behavior. Then we must seek the times when we behave with reverence and awe in our hearts, and strive to live the way we know we can.

Do not forget!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Parashat Shoftim

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
Deuteronomy 17:14-17
After wandering through the desert and witnessing God’s miracles and fighting for the Holy Land, we still will be exposed to the other people and the way they govern themselves. So of course we might want a king of our own. How nice of God to be understanding and allow us to learn from their examples. After all, without a ruler there is chaos, and we need to have order to be able to follow God’s laws. Remember, God’s punishments are to the third and fourth generation, not necessarily to the current one. A king punishes immediately, and only those who are judged to have done wrong. R. Shmuel says that the role of the king was to physically protect the Jewish people. So the implication is that God’s rule over us is a spiritual one.

But if the king is chosen by God, why do we need the rest of the criteria? Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels explains that these limitations are set to prevent an abuse of power, and to keep the kingship from becoming and exploitative institution (from his D’var Torah for AJWS). But perhaps the most important limitation is just after our pericope: When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll milifnei hakohanim halevi’im, “[by] the Levite priests” (Deut 17:18).

The translation of milifnei as “by” by JPS leaves a little to be desired, but “from before the Levite priests” makes no sense. It should be understood as, “according to the interpretation of the Levite priests,” which would require the king to have Levite advisors around him constantly in order to live and rule according to Torah law. This interpretation brings to light what a brilliant piece of legislature the Torah is. The writer says to the reader, “You can have someone in power in addition to me, as long as my representatives are right there, making sure you don’t get too powerful. It seems like the origin of checks and balances. I wonder if it worked as well then as it does today….

Thanks to Bob Sugarman for your help with this week’s D’var Torah.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Parashat Re'eh

If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, "Come let us worship other gods" -- whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced -- from among the gods of the peoples around you, either near to you or distant, anywhere from one end of the earth to the other: do not assent or give heed to him. Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him; but take his life. Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death, and the hand of the rest of the people thereafter.
Deuteronomy 13:7-10

Throughout Jewish tradition the danger of worshipping other gods has taken many forms. The Midrash of Abram smashing his father’s idols is one of the first, giving us a demonstration of how we should behave around idols. Moses gives us another demonstration, reacting with such anger at the idolatrous Israelites dancing around the golden calf that he smashes the tablets given to him by God. The third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make a sculpted image,” is arguably the first commandment that actually is a command, illustrating its high priority in monotheistic worship of God. The poetry of Isaiah denounces “non-gods” and decries illegitimate devotion, so that even the idea of anything other than God is as condemnable as praying to other gods.

Earlier in Parashat Re’eh we read that God will choose a place for us to worship so that we will not be tempted by the profane locations of other religions (Deuteronomy 12:5), but never before have we heard such a harsh punishment for idolatry. Should they attempt to lead us astray, we must pursue even our closest friends and family members. Not just destroy their work like Abram or get angry at them like Moses, but seek to kill them.

I cannot imagine an example of when this commandment may have been followed through. At the same time, it serves as a declaration of just how serious this “no other gods thing” is. Monotheism was an innovative religious practice when the Israelites were learning their religion. Harsh punishments declared for ignoring the most important practices strengthen the magnitude of the law. We never intend to do harm to our loved ones. The purpose of the text is to show them that there is very little if anything in this world more important than devotion to God and God alone.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Parashat Ekev

Parashat Ekev begins with a reminder that if we follow the commandments God will reward us with blessing. Standing at the Jordan, the Israelites could see before them the greatest of the blessings God offers: the Holy Land. In Deuteronomy 8:7-9, we read that the land is
“a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; 9 a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing…”

This land that the spies found to be flowing with milk and honey also will provide seven species of valuable produce for consumption and trade. Next we are told that the stones of the land will yield iron, and that copper can be mined from the hills. It is a sharp contrast to desert life, where the land provided nothing but scorpions and snakes, and where the hills gave us sand and more sand. It is hard to imagine a better reward to a generation of people who have never known anything but desert life.

The next section, immediately following the description of this amazing land, reminds us of desert life again. Beginning with verse 12 we hear an admonition to not forget the travels in the desert. It would be easy after living in this prosperous land to not remind the future generations about the trials of the forty year journey through the desert. Why bother them with the difficulties of the past when we can enjoy what we have today? The Torah answers this very question.

We are commanded not to forget that God brought us out of Egypt. God led us through the wilderness, gave us water and food where there is none to be found. God would not let our clothes wear down or our feet swell. We did not have to worry about the day to day. We had food, water, and clothing provided for us by God. It was a miraculous time.

In the Promised Land there will still be food and water, but humans will grow and harvest the food. Humans will draw water from the wells. After a little while in the Promised Land it would be easy to believe that the crops that we grow and the water we draw are from our efforts alone. We might forget that the figs, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives, and honey are gifts from God.

So we are commanded to never forget the wandering in the desert. A reminder not that we have had it so rough, not a chest beating for all we have endured. This is a reminder that everything we have is a miracle from God. Remember the miracles in the desert? Remember the water flowing from a rock and the manna falling with the dew? We still live with miracles! They just are not as blatant as they used to be, so we are commanded to remember the miracles of the past in order to acknowledge the miracles of today.

During prayer services we remind ourselves of this in the Modim section of the Amidah. We thank God “for your wondrous gifts at all times, morning, noon, and night.” We also remind ourselves of this when we pray nissim b’chol yom, the blessing section for our daily miracles. Reminders in our liturgy and our Torah are there to keep us from thinking that everything we do comes from our power. The gifts of having food and water, sharing time with our loved ones, and providing the basic necessities for them are miracles.

May we all be able to realize the miracles of every day, big and small. May we find that as we work towards perfecting the world, we acknowledge God’s work with our hands. May it be God’s will that we continue to be instruments of making miracles.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Parashat Va'etchanan

The Reubenites and the Gadites named the altar "Witness", meaning, "It is a witness between us and them that Adonai is our God."
(Joshua 22:34)

Gabriel had his four-year check up this week. Not a big deal—it was mostly looking in the mouth, ears, and eyes. The usual doctor stuff. The one thing that was different this time was Gabriel’s first hearing and vision test. He passed both with flying colors and sounds, so no worries. The hard part was getting Gabriel to take the tests.

The first test was for hearing. He had to put the ear phones on and listen for a beep in one ear or the other. We tried to make a game out of it. “How fast can you raise your hand after a beep?” “Great job!! Two points for Gabriel!!!” (You use a lot of exclamation points when talking to a four-year-old.) When the nurse was finished, she took off the earphones and told us that his hearing is great. Never one who lets people go without a joke, I asked, “What can you tell us about his listening?” She responded, “Try being interesting,” without skipping a beat. I must have been the 1001st time she had heard that one.

This week in Parshat Va’etchanan we read the Shema, our Jewish credo. It’s the first prayer we memorize in religious school. It’s the beginning of the instructions written in our mezzuzot and our tefillin. “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone,” is how it is translated in “Gates of Grey.” The first word, shema, is the command form of the verb lishmoa, “to hear.” We are commanded to hear that we have one and only one God, and we refer to God as Adonai. Hear. Not listen, just hear. Like Gabriel’s hearing test, it leaves us wondering about the difference between hearing and listening. It makes us wonder why the word is not hitbonen “concentrate,” or hakshiv “pay attention.”

In the book of Joshua, chapter 22, Joshua sends the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh back to their land holdings across the Jordan River. Before they cross the river, the three tribes build a “great conspicuous altar.” This angers the other tribes, as they believe the altar is for worshipping other gods. The Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites explain that they built the altar not as hillul hashem (so to speak), but for future generations, so that if the tribes in the Promised Land were ever to question the validity of the outer tribes’ stake in Klal Yisrael, the altar would serve as a witness. In fact, they name the altar “witness,” as it says in Joshua 22:34 (see above), and the inner tribes are pleased.

Just like the “great conspicuous altar” served as a witness to the future generations of the Reubenites and the Gadites, the Shema serves as a witness to our future generations. The words of the Shema are as familiar to our Jewish youth as the Pledge of Allegiance is to most American youth. We pass these words down from generation to generation, reminding ourselves and our children to keep the words of the Shema on our heart and minds, to write them on our doorposts and in our phylacteries, and to discuss them and teach them at every opportunity. When we go into any synagogue, anywhere in the world, we can be assured that the words of the Shema will be recited aloud. We feel at home when we hear the familiar words of our liturgy, even if different nusach is used. Any Jewish person who walks into any synagogue is welcomed by the familiarity of the words we say, which serve as our testament. The Shema is our way of proving, as it were, the validity of our faith in God, and our connection to the Jewish people.
There is a textual link to this idea in addition to the theological one. In Joshua 22:34, they build the altar as a witness that “Adonai is God.” In the words of the Shema, we declare that Adonai is God. We are commanded specifically to hear, but there is a hidden command in the verse. The enlarged letters ayin and dalet in the first and last words of the Shema spell the word eid, or witness—the name of the altar built by the Reubenites and Gadites. The implicit command is that we are to use this creed as a witness for future generations. We need only hear the shema, and we have witnessed the faith of generations past. So too will our grandchildren’s grandchildren witness our faith every time they hear the Shema, wherever they are. These six words hold such meaning that our faith is reaffirmed every time we read them, every time we utter them, and every time we hear them.

Just by hearing these six words, we serve as witnesses. Sometimes when we hear we are being passive, just letting sounds flow into our ear. With the words of the Shema, we cannot hear them without listening. It is culturally impossible for us to just hear these powerful words, so we are commanded to hear them, and God knows that when we hear these words, we are connected as a people of faith. Just letting the words enter our ears makes us a part of a people that has survived generations.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Parashat Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:12-13
12 How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! 13 Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads."

The first thing that struck me about this choice for our continuing chevruta is the first word in Hebrew: eichah. With Tisha B’av this coming Sunday, and Megillat Eichah in our purview, I have to point out that this is an appropriate pericope to study indeed (Thanks to Rabbi Brad Levenberg for suggesting these verses).
Back to the text, Moses bewails the need to share in the leadership of the Israelites in a review of Parashat Yitro where his father-in-law tells him the same thing. Moses appoints a leadership team to help him. In sharing in the responsibilities of managing the Israelites, Moses hits on an extremely important aspect of Jewish Life: We cannot be alone.
So too on Tisha B’av, our day of mourning when we lament over the tragedies that have befallen our people age after age. We do not eat, and mourn on a personal level by how we treat our bodies. But that does not suffice. We gather to mourn and pray. We read aloud the words of the book of eichah, “How lonely sits the city Once great with people! She that was great among nations Is become like a widow; The princess among states Is become a thrall.” We sit lonely, but not alone.
When we are at our most desperate, we call on our community as Moses does when he appoints leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands. When we are mourning personal or communal losses, we call on our community to cry with us. When we are feeling lonely, we call on our community to remind us that as a Jewish people, we are never alon.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Save a Life (Sermon delivered 7/11/2008)

"If you will heed the LORD your God diligently, doing what is upright in My sight, giving ear to My commandments and keeping all My laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, ki ani adonai rofecha for I the LORD am your healer."
(Exodus 15:26)

Just before our silent prayer this evening we prayed for healing. Every Shabbat we take the opportunity to interrupt our regular worship service to ask for healing on behalf of those in our lives who are suffering from some sort of illness. Every day, as a part of the daily Amidah, we ask God to heal our friends, our family, ourselves. As Modern Jews we straddle two worlds: the world of science and the world of faith. We understand that we should go to the best doctors available for healing. Even the Talmud requires it. Yet we say Mi Shebeirach every day, even on Shabbat.

We believe that God is rofeinu, our healer. For many of us the Mi Shebeirach is the most intense prayer experience we have over the course of any given week. Expressing our hope that our loved ones will be healed may or may not help them heal. There are studies that show that when a person knows people are praying for healing, something happens physiologically and they are able to heal. When a person is unaware that people praying for them…we do not know. But even as Modernists, we are certainly open to the possibility that God has an active role in the healing process.

At the same time, we understand that God no longer serves as the miracle worker of the Biblical stories. We know that God must follow the laws of nature, and if a person is injured or contracts or inherits a disease, that person must deal with it as nature demands. That might mean taking the appropriate medicines, a regimen of physical therapy, or enduring years of waiting for an organ donor. These processes may take days or years. They may be done alone or require the help of an entire community.

Sometimes, though, we can take steps in advance to help the process of healing. The Talmud says that when a person saves one life, it is as if they saved the entire world. You can try to save a life by doing nothing more than putting a Q-tip in your mouth.

Mira Elias was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia on July 6, 2004. She had treatment and thought it was gone, but a year later she found out it had come back. Then, in November that year she did receive a miracle. Only her miracle came not in the form of a burning bush or a parting sea. Her miracle is named Tzivya. On November 4, 2005, Mira received a blood stem cell transplant from Tzivya, and just two months ago the two of them met for the first time. In Mira’s words, “Because of Tzivya I am alive today and able to look forward to my future.”

Michael Faust was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia in March 2004. He spent months traveling the globe from New York to Australia looking for someone who could help him with a cure. In February 2006, after nearly two years of searching, he was matched with a bone marrow donor, also named Michael, and they too were able to meet two months ago. In Faust’s words, “Michael has given me a great deal more than blood stem cells. He has given me another chance to be with my family, another chance to get back on the tennis court, another chance to start my own family, another chance to accomplish my dreams and most importantly, he has given me a second chance at life.”

Maybe you have heard similar stories. Perhaps you have read about them on line or seen a feature on a news program. We love to watch these stories, we might even tear up in sympathy or in joy. There is a way to do more than watch. We have an opportunity to try to save a life. We can register with Gift of Life.

Gift of Life is a bone marrow registry started in 1991. In its first four years, over 60,000 registrants of Eastern European Jewish descent signed up to be donors. Today, Gift of Life manages a registry of over 120,000 bone marrow donors and a bank of over 800 umbilical cord blood units. They have facilitated transplants for over 1,500 patients in need, and processed over 18,000 searches for patients worldwide. One in 1,000 of the donors in Gift of Life's registry are called to donate their marrow or blood stem cells each year, and I was called this week. I signed up in 2006 at a drive at Hebrew Union College. I wrote down my name and address, swiped my inner cheek with a Q-tip, put it in a hermetically sealed container, and that was it. Until this weekend.

I received a letter on Saturday that I was a potential match for a 7 year old boy in desperate need of a blood stem cell transplant. I was to call the Gift of Life and check my email for a consent form. I called on Monday and had a lovely conversation with their interviewer Amanda. She asked me health questions for about 20 minutes, and told me to send in the consent form as soon as possible. Time, of course, was of the essence. By Wednesday Amanda had called to speak to me again. Because of a melanoma I had four years ago, I am not a match for this boy. Honestly, I feel like I’ve been dumped. My blood will not be used to save his life, and he must keep searching. My opportunity to be someone’s miracle will have to wait.

Though I am unable to help this particular boy, I have an unusual benefit that other potential donors may not have. I have a pulpit and a blog. I can teach you about this opportunity and convince you to sign up. I do hope I get called again. Until then I pray that you will sign up to be the next miracle. Go to the Gift of Life web site. Since saving a life is a Mitzvah that supersedes Shabbat, go home tonight and register on line.

The patients on the recipient list have been praying fervently for God to serve as their healer. They pray for a miracle every opportunity they get. God no longer splits the seas or makes the dry bones dance. God works in more subtle ways. God works through us. God today is Adonai rochecha, Adonai our healer, through scientific advances and through our willingness to donate blood stem cells and bone marrow. We have the opportunity to put out a helping hand to people like Mira and Michael. Sign up for Gift of Life, and one day you might be God’s next miracle.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Yizkor Shavuot Sermon

This is from almost a month ago, but it is the sermon I delivered on Shavuot this year. Enjoy!

When God gave Torah at Mount Sinai, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, no angel stirred a wing, no seraph sang. The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak—the whole world was hushed into breathless silence. It was then that the voice went forth: anochi Adonai elocheicha, “I am the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:2).[1]

The world was in perfect silence that morning when we stood at Mount Sinai. Last night when we dedicated Ingrid Roskin’s sculpture of the Ten Commandments in the Bloom Lobby, I was reminded of a Kabbalistic Midrash about the revelation experience. It stems from an argument about how many commandments were revealed at Mount Sinai.

In the Torah, just after the section we read today, in verse 15 of Exodus 20, the Israelites tell Moses they will do whatever he tells them, and that he should go and talk to God. “Do not let God speak to us anymore,” the Israelites say, “lest we die.”

The midrash begins with a debate about whether this verse is out of order in the Torah. The rabbis involved in the discussion suggest different positions for the verse, moving it backward through the list of ten. “It should go after the ninth commandment.” “No, it should go after the eighth!” “The seventh!” etc. etc.

Reading this Midrash, we would think that once it gets to the suggestion to put this verse after the first commandment, it would be over. But that is just the point where it starts to get really clever. We read that the Israelites could only stand to hear the first word of the commandments, the word anochi, or “I.” Once God declared the one-ness of God, the Israelites needed no more convincing. The power of God’s voice speaking just one word was a complete revelatory experience. Just by God declaring God’s presence, the Israelites had complete faith and agreed to God’s commandments. All it took was one word.

But another rabbi says, “No, it wasn’t after the first word, it was after the first letter.” The first letter in the word anochi is an alef. What does alef sound like? It is silent. So by saying that the Israelites could not handle hearing God’s voice after God spoke the alef means the experience was intense when God spoke silence. When God prepares to speak, takes a breath, as it were, and pronounces only an alef, the world stood still. The Israelites were convinced. The revelatory experience was complete.

We are taught that when the Israelites received the Torah, it was not just the Israelites living in the desert at the time who were there at the mountain. When God revealed Torah, every Jewish soul was there at the foot of Mt. Sinai. All the souls that were yet to be born, and all the souls that had already passed on— every Jew was there that day.

The revelation of Torah allows us to come to a moment in time when we all stood together. Our past, our present, and our future, standing as one and declaring our faith in God and Torah: na’aseh v’nishmah. By standing with the souls of those yet to be, we acknowledge that we will be faithful to God and God’s Commandments in all of our future generations. By standing with the souls of the departed, we remember that our ancestors merited this pact, and it is our responsibility to uphold it.

Most of us do not remember standing at Sinai, but we were there. We were there in the ancestors who raised us with our sense of community. We were there in the form of people who were our teachers. We were there in the bodies of the family we love.

As we move into Yizkor, our service of memory, we move from ancient memory to recent memory. We remember the loved ones who stand with us at all points in our lives. We do not only remember the moments of thunder and lightning and shofars blowing on a mountain top. We also remember the moments of silence, when not even a word was needed to know that those we love, love us in return.
[1] Exod. Rabbah 29:9

Thursday, April 10, 2008


In Parashat Shemini (Lev. 9:1-11:47), we read about the priestly inauguration, the downfall of Nadav and Abihu, and the list of fit and unfit animals for human consumption. The parashah ends with a reminder that we are to be holy because God is holy, and that the dietary laws are written here to help us distinguish between the tamei and the tahor, translated often as “unclean and clean.” The words actually refer to the ritual purity of the animal, not the sanitary nature of the beasts. The Torah does not allow humans to ingest anything impure. Doing so would take us out of the state of holiness that we strive for.

Maimonides adds to the dietary laws. He reminds that food is for maintaining the body’s health and not for pleasure. He instructs not to eat until full. He explains the order in which food should be eaten. He also delineates six food groups:
Meat and Protein
Sweets, Oils, and Fatty Foods

Maimonides recommends that a person should eat more foods from groups 1-3 and less from groups 4 and 5, and as little as possible from group 6. This is nearly identical to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “Food Pyramid” of recommended daily servings of the food groups. The FDA recommends 6-11 servings of grains, 3-5 servings of vegetables, 2-4 servings of fruit, 2-3 servings of dairy and meat, and sparing use of fats, oils, and sweets.

The difference between Maimonides and the FDA comes in the intent of the dietary restrictions. The FDA is concerned with health for the sake of being healthy. Maimonides is, like the Torah, concerned with connection to God. He declares explicitly in Mishneh Torah:

Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God—for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if one is ill—therefore one must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger.

(Hilchot De’ot 4:1)

To Maimonides maintaining a healthy body is a direct link to maintaining a healthy mind, which in turn is a direct link to being open to God.

As a people, Jews take every opportunity to sanctify the eating experience. As it says at the end of Parashat Shemini, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Rabbi Litwak spoke last night about how the biblical dietary laws are for the purpose of being holy. In addition to the biblical dietary laws (if we follow the laws of kashrut), we say blessings any time we eat, including before and after each meal. We eat special foods on certain holidays, and no food on other holidays. We dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah, bless the seven species indigenous to Israel on Sukkot, and imbue our meal with symbolism on Pesach. All of our practices with food serve the same purpose. Every time we are about to feed our most basic desire—physical sustenance—we take a moment to acknowledge our most complex aspiration: Our connection to God.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


“Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.” Moses does go into the Tent of Meeting in Numbers 7:89. This is easily explained away by saying that the cloud would lift when God summoned Moses so that he could enter the Tent of Meeting, then it would return when Moses left. Rashi translates “because” as “when,” and other commentators follow his lead, making the second clause a modifier for what would seem like a disagreement with different verses of Torah, which of course cannot happen, ever.

I am still left with a question, though, about God’s presence in the tent. That God can be held to one location is a dubious assertion at best in my opinion. God is everywhere and fills everything. There is godliness within us and saturated into the fiber of our universe. So to declare that God’s presence fills the Tent of Meeting is redundant, because God’s presence fills everywhere. Therefore, there would be no lack of space for Moses in the Tent of Meeting because we already occupy the space of God’s presence just by being in the world.

It seems to me that the cloud serves as a symbol of God’s presence at rest. If the community was up and moving when the cloud was up and moving and at rest when the cloud was at rest, it would stand to reason that when the cloud was at rest God was not ready for business, so to speak. Or even better, God wanted Moses to take leadership in his own hands and not consult God for every aspect of Israelite life. Keep in mind this comes just after Moses’ face-to-face encounter with God. God gives Moses a once in a lifetime glimpse into the very real presence of God, and he is not to rely on it regularly. When the cloud is there, Moses remembers that he can do this on his own. He can lead the people into the Promised Land and complete their journey from Egyptian degradation into liberation in Israel.

Friday, March 7, 2008


The commandment to keep Shabbat appears 10 times in the Torah. Often we do not understand exactly what that means. “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy” (Exod 20:8 et al). Do no work because, “in six days Adonai created Heaven and earth and on the seventh day God rested” (Exod 20:11). We are vaguely aware of all kinds of things we don’t do on Shabbat, some of which seem a little ridiculous to our modernist point of view.

“On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exod 35:2). The appearance of Shabbat in this week’s Parashah seems to be a non sequitur. Before we get to this point Moses is re-receiving the Torah from God. He comes down the mountain with his Hi-Pro glow, gathers the Israelites, and reiterates the commandment for keeping Shabbat just before going into the description of collection of goods for building the Tabernacle, hiring inspired contractors for building the tabernacle, then actually building the Tabernacle. The Shabbat restriction seems out of place.

The Rabbis of the Talmud take this out-of-place (which they cannot believe is out of place) pericope to serve as a reminder that the work that is prohibited on Shabbat includes all of the work necessary for building the Tabernacle, from paying for it to laying the finishing touches. They come up with 39 activities that are forbidden on Shabbat, and many of the restrictions that do not get specific mention in Torah are derivatives of the idea that the Israelites are reminded of Shabbat just before they begin the Tabernacle’s construction.

When we step back and think about exactly what the Israelites are engaged in right now, it becomes clear that the Shabbat reminder fits perfectly here, as do the 39 restrictions. The Israelites are about to build the Tabernacle, the place where God’s earthly presence will dwell. It was the single most important thing they would build in their life time. They spent years building for the Egyptian Pharaohs, building places of worship for idolaters. Now they finally have an opportunity to build something for their God, for their worship. God knows that the Israelites will put everything they have into the building of their own Tabernacle, and Moses reminds them of the command to keep Shabbat so that they do not get carried away and forget why they are building the Tabernacle in the first place.

Even for the modernist, Shabbat is critical in the scope of living a Jewish life. Shabbat is the day that God took to rest because God knows that we have the tendency to get lost in our work. We do not take all of our vacation days, we don’t take breaks or stop for meals, we go to work sick, we push ourselves to the limit. Written into the system is a day to focus on ourselves and our families. We do not do what we do on the other six days. We spend time with each other or alone, relaxing, learning, reading for pleasure, and shifting from the mundane into the holy. Even if what we are engaged in is the most important thing to us, Shabbat supercedes.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Parashat Ki Tisa

In a scene of personification extraordinaire, God “walks” past Moses, covering him with a “hand” so that Moses will not see God’s “face,” but only God’s “back.” Knowing that God cannot walk, has neither hand, back, nor face, we are left with a tremendous ability to interpret here, and as the centuries have passed, the commentators have taken this opportunity often.

Rashi (in one of the more laughable and yet more famous Rashi-isms) says that “My back” means that Moses can see the knot in God’s Tefillin. Saadia Gaon calls it “The end of God’s light,” implying that we cannot know God from the beginning, only from the end. Ibn Ezra points out that it is a metaphor, but does not explain it, instead choosing to talk about other metaphors and draw parallels. Bechor Shor explains the metaphor as incomprehensible, since we cannot look God square on. My personal favorite comes from a combination of Ralbag and Sforno. Gersonides interprets “my back” as “events that I leave in my wake,” and Sforno teaches that Moses will see how the actions of the world below originate with God above.

When we see God’s back, therefore, we are seeing the results of God’s work in the world. Sforno describes in another commentary a footprint left in the sand. We no longer see the foot, but we know one was there. So too with God’s work in the world. We see the events God leaves in God’s wake, like the Israelites saw with the plagues and the Sea of Reeds, like Noah saw in the rainbow, and like Elijah saw in the still small voice as God passed by the mouth of his cave. The difference between the Israelites, Noah, and Elijah is that the Israelites and Noah needed huge, glaring signs of God’s presence, whereas Elijah recognized the soft murmuring sound as God’s true voice.

When God’s presence is glaring and in our face, noticing God is easy. We thank God for a miraculous recovery of someone’s health, for the fingers-of-God that pierce a cloudy sky and warm us on a dreary day, and for the epiphanies we get when studying a difficult topic. We do not always recognize God’s work in the every day, in water we drink, air we breathe, or light we use to see. As Sforno reminds us, everything in the world below originates with God. It is our job to take notice, to recognize the still small voice that calls to us from what seems like the mundane aspects of life.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Welcome to Rabbi Young's blog.
Feel free to post questions and comments about my 8th grade class, public speaking engagements, or anything happening at Temple Sinai. I will do my best to keep this blog up to date with the many happenings at Temple Sinai.
Keep checking in, and check out for more details of temple events!
-R. Young