Saturday, December 14, 2013

Loss of a Hero

Some may say heaven has another angel tonight.

Some may say it was meant to be.

Some may say his suffering ended tonight.

We will all say no one should have to bury their child.

I am not a part of this story.  I did not know his family except for a handshake and a quick conversation.  "You did this project? So did I! You blog? So do I!" That was about it. We exchanged blogs and emails and went our separate ways. I was a silent observer, enjoying the way she wrote about being mother and clergy at the same time.  I imagined similar situations with my kids, just a little younger than hers, just a child shy of her brood.  I followed and read, though I never responded.

When Sam Sommer was diagnosed with leukemia, his struggle became a struggle for many of his parents' friends and colleagues. They all supported them, watched in waves of hope and desperation as Sam's health showed signs of improvement that went away.  Into the hospital and out of the hospital, only to go back again.  Treatments and tests, attacks and remission, thousands of prayers going out to the little boy whose name appeared on hundreds of Mi Shebeirach lists.

I am not a part of this story.  I never met Sam, but I felt a connection through his mother's words.  I felt like I understood the strong little kid who loved Superman and had more strength than any seven-year-old should ever need to have. I watched silently as his diagnosis grew bleak and his time drew near.

Tonight a family lost their son, brother, grandson. A community lost its little superhero.

I am not a part of this story, but I am so entrenched in it that I was inspired to raise money by shaving my head this coming March.  I secretly hoped that Sam would be able to see thirty six shining bald heads, inspired by his story, and that he would know how much of a superhero he was.

Sam Sommer taught me that, even though I am not a part of his story, he will always be a part of mine.

Zichrono livracha. His memory and his story will always be a blessing.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Changing the World: Rosh Hashanah 5774

I hope you have all seen the recent movie “Lee Daniel’s The Butler.”  If not, spoiler alert: the boat sinks at the end.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a character based on Eugene Allen, who went from working the cotton fields as a boy in Georgia to serving eight American presidents as a White House Butler.  Inspired by Will Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post Article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” the movie shows the quiet power of the invisible forces in our lives.

In the film’s exposition, Cecil Gaines sees his mother raped and his father shot by one of the plantation owners under whom they toiled.  In a brilliantly acted display of pity combined with condescension, the matron of the plantation takes him into the house and trains him to be what I will rephrase as “House Boy.”  She tells him that when he enters a room to serve, he should not so much as breathe.  The room should feel empty when he is in it.  The training to be invisible in a room combined with his own sense of anticipating the needs of those he serves make him the perfect butler.  So perfect that in the movie he is eventually sought out by the White House staff to serve President Eisenhower.  As he is trained by the White House Maitre D’, he is again reminded that a successful butler makes a room feel empty when he is in it.

Cecil spends 34 years going in and out of the Oval Office.   He is regularly confided in by the eight presidents he serves.  President Reagan calls him a member of the family, which lets us know that he enjoys a level of confidence that no other low-income American has.  It is this level of confidence that gives him this quiet power.  He served the White House in a time when the country was just learning about equality.  When Cecil left the White House he had to use separate water fountains and bathroom in public.  Segregation was the norm, and the men he worked for, by asking him personal questions, had their eyes opened to the problems with how America treated African Americans.

It is also a study of power and its contrasts.  As Cecil serves in the White House, his son   Howard joins protests.  He sits at the counter at Woolworth’s, rides the Freedom Bus, gets arrested and beaten over and over by standing up vocally for equal rights.  He even becomes a politician who speaks out loudly for civil right in America--and eventually for the desegregation of South Africa.  But Cecil and his son are not the only images of contrasting power.  Lyndon Johnson sits on the toilet asking for prune juice, JFK jokes about the 103 aspirins he takes daily to keep his Addisons in check, and a butler sits as a guest at a state dinner.  Cecil Gaines stands in a darkened Oval Office next to a blood-stained Jackie Kennedy as he powerlessly pleads, “Please tell me how I can help you?”  A look of triumph quietly creeps across his face as he tells his direct boss Mr. Warner that the President has pre-approved his request for a raise that Warner just rejected.  Director Lee Daniels does a brilliant job contrasting those who fight for their civil rights with those who serve the most powerful people in the nation.  The power of keeping your head down and working hard versus the power of rising up and fighting for your rights are regularly interplayed in dialogue and montage.  

The power one person has to change the world.

Tomorrow morning we will read the beginning of the Torah, which is fitting for Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah begins with God creating the universe.  God makes light and darkness, water, air, land, plants, and all kinds of animals, including human beings.  Last night I announced that our Study Theme for the year is going to be change.  So why not start big, with changing the world?  In Judaism changing the world is often referred to as tikkun olam.  Anyone who has attended a Jewish summer camp, taken part in Religious School, or attended services more than twice a year has heard this phrase before.  It has a tendency to be overused as a catchphrase for social action.  Tikkun olam does work as a term for social action, but the phrase originates from a Kabbalistic story about the creation narrative.  The 16th Century Mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria tells the tale of what happened before God started to create.

Before the creation of the world, God was everywhere, filling every space.  God wanted to create the world, but to do so God needed to make room for creation.  God had to withdraw from God in an act called tzimtzum.  Much like when we take a deep breath of air and compact our organs around our lungs, God’s essence was compacted around the edges of the space created by the withdrawal.  Rabbi Luria compares it to an emptied flask of oil that retains a sheen from the oil that was once there.  This God-oil, as it were, begins to drip, and it needs to be contained, so God creates vessels to hold the essence of God.  Alas, because of the power of God’s essence, the vessels shatter, and tiny shards of the Infinite explode throughout the universe.  These tiny sparks are hidden throughout the universe, and whenever we do an act of kindness for another human being, we bring two of these sparks together.  That act is not just healing the world, but healing ha’olam, healing the eternal.  Every time we make a positive change in the world we are healing God.

Lisa Greenberg changed the world.  If you don't know Lisa, she is our youth director and 8th/9th grade religious school teacher.  Our teens are at a critical moment in their lives.  They are thinking about college, about socializing their way through high school, and they don't have a lot of time to think about being Jewish.  Lisa keeps Jewish living on their radar.  She makes Judaism fun.  She makes it easy for our kids to be a part of the CBT community, and she keeps them wanting Jewish contact in their lives.  That is changing the world.

Rabbi Andy Koren changed the world.  In the summer of 2007 Rabbi Koren and I were serving as faculty at Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA.  We were talking one evening about New Orleans and the devastation caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It was almost two years earlier that so much of New Orleans was wiped out, and there was still so much to be done.  He asked me if I would be interested in bringing some kids to New Orleans to do some clean-up work.  I immediately said yes, and though we both seemed excited about the prospect I didn’t hear from him for about three months after that.  He called me up and asked if I thought I could get five teens to join his synagogue on a trip to the Big Easy.  He had 15 signed up, but he needed 20 to make it a viable trip.  A week later I had 8 kids ready to go, so the week after Thanksgiving we took off for a long weekend that would change our world.

While we were there we met the Carters.  Phyllis and Joe Carter worked as a teacher and a pharmacist’s assistant, respectively.  They had lived a nice life in a two-story house that they owned.  They had converted it into a duplex so their daughter and her family would have a place to live.  In 2003 Phyllis retired a few years earlier than she had planned so that she could focus on fighting breast cancer.  Joe retired in 2005, a few months before Katrina hit.  They had a retirement fund, a small savings, and they shared expenses with their daughter.  When they evacuated their home before the hurricane, they didn’t bring much with them.  They had been through storms before, and usually the warnings were false alarms.  So they went to Phyllis’ sister in Mississippi and waited it out.  By the time we met the Carters, they had used up all of their insurance.  The money they got paid for repairs and much of the flood damage, but they had more expenses than they anticipated, especially since they were robbed three times during the building process.  Joe took to sleeping in his truck in the driveway to deter thieves, and they worked on to fix their home.  One thing Phyllis promised herself was that she would save their retirement fund.  They could use the insurance money and use their savings, but she didn’t want to use their retirement money because she worried about having to go back to work, especially since her daughter had found work in Mississippi and decided to stay there.  So she decided that she would forgo painting the house, because they just didn’t have the money.  Her contractor told her that if they did that they couldn't get insurance for the new house because paint is more than aesthetic--it also gives a layer of protection against weather and wear.  Faced with a terrible decision, she decided she would have to bite the bullet.  She was walking out to greet her contractor, ready to tell him to paint the house, knowing it would put her in debt, when the phone rang.  Standing in her driveway, she answered the phone to learn that we were on our way.  We were bringing paint and supplies, and a crew of more than 20 workers to paint the Carters’ home.  Over the two days we worked on their home, we learned their story, learned that she was Lil’ Wayne’s third grade teacher, that she values learning just as much as Jews do, and that she has an incredible sense of humor.  Joe didn’t talk much.

We connected with the Carters and enabled them to live in the home they own in the city they love.  We brought together their Divine Spark with ours, and healed that part of the universe.  All because one person said, “Do you want to go on this trip with me?”

One person has tremendous power in Jewish teachings. The Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save the entire world (B. Sanhedrin 37a).  We are commanded to ignore all negative commandments--all the “thou shalt not’s”--if we can save one life (B. Yoma 84b).  Just as one person merits being saved, one person can do incredible things.  Examples of this permeate our texts.  Sure, we know all about Moses and Joseph and Noah.  David defeats Goliath.  Esther saves the Jews from Haman.  Yael single handedly takes down Sisera.  Elijah defeats 300 priests of Baal.  Rabbi Ishmael dies in silence while being tortured knowing God will destroy the world if he screams in pain.  The fate of the world has been changed time and time again by one person.

Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Hannah Senesh, Nelson Mandela.  They all changed the world.  They all saved lives by their actions.  Each of them was just one person.  One person can make an impact on the entire world.  Perhaps they were just in the right place at the right time.  Thankfully, we have many opportunities to be in the right place at the right time with Congregation B’nai Tzedek.  We can change the world.

There are so many opportunities with CBT to be that one person who saves the world.  When my family and I spent our High Holy Days in Cincinnati, OH, Wise Temple would give us these paper bags on Rosh Hashanah, and we would have ten days to fill them and bring them to the synagogue.  We would fill them with non-perishable food items that Wise would donate to a local food bank.  My parents would take us shopping in between morning and afternoon services on Yom Kippur.  We thought it was fun to go shopping on Yom Kippur, especially since we were shopping to give to the less fortunate.  When I got here I learned that we do exactly the same thing!  Today you found paper bags on your pew.  These are not just to keep you from getting splinters.  Fill them up and bring them with you on Yom Kippur.  Since many of us will spend the day not eating, we can buy enough food for a day, and then give it to those who don’t get the nourishment they need.  This is an easy way to save a life and change the world.

Any one of us can change the world.  I would love to organize a trip for Congregation B’nai Tzedek to rebuild in New Orleans.  We feed with the homeless, clean up swampland with an environmental group, and build homes in areas wiped out by the flooding.  This gives us the opportunity to work at a personal level with homeowners,  a communal level with New Orleans’ homeless population, and on a global level by working to help the environment.  Talk about changing the world!  If we can get just ten families from CBT to go to New Orleans, we can partner with other organizations who would like to join us.  I even know of some families in Miami who would love to meet us there.

Probably the best thing we can do to change the world will be on March 23.  March 23, 2014 will be B’nai Tzedek’s next Mitzvah Day.  Our Social Action Committee has spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to bring people in to the synagogue to work as a team for the Orange County community.  Mitzvah Day in the past has offered various activities available for different groups of people.  Project Linus made no-sewing-required blankets for children who are away from their families.  Hygiene kits were made and donated to the Southwest Community Center.  There was cleaning of beaches and books, and donating of blood.  Activities for senior citizens, teens, and young families.  Activities that allow the whole community to lend a helping hand.
Some people scoff at the idea of a Mitzvah Day.  They criticize the idea that people are doing Mitzvot, the important deeds God commands of us, only one day a year.  I agree with this critique.  I do not think Mitzvah Day is an occasion to say, “I’m done,” and sit on the sidelines for the rest of the year.  I see it as a springboard of opportunity, a chance to find out first hand how much it means to help where help is needed most.  I see us building community, sharing time together on a Sunday, using our hearts and hands to heal the world.  I see us changing the world together.
We can be that one person who changes the world.  We don’t have to hope that we will some day be in the right place at the right time.  A right place is at CBT. A right time is on Mitzvah Day: March 23, 2014.  Soon you will learn details about Mitzvah Day from our monthly bulletins or weekly emails, or read about it in flyers from your children’s religious school teachers.  Please sign up early so we can plan accordingly.  Even better, let us know now that you would like to help plan a project on Mitzvah Day.  Perhaps you have a cause that stirs your passions.  You may be an animal lover, a blood and marrow donor, or just someone who wants to help.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.  We can help each other change the world.

Not everyone is going to have the president’s ear like Cecil Gaines.  We might not be able to march on Washington or ride the Freedom Bus.  We might not recognize every opportunity we have to do tikkun olam, to repair God’s infinite presence.  But those opportunities are out there all the time.  If we recognize an opportunity and seize it, we will make a huge difference.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For indeed that's all who ever have.”

Sparing Change: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

I have led services all over the place.  Miami, FL; Cincinnati, OH; Fairbanks, AK; Moscow, Russia; even in Jerusalem.  I have worshipped in sanctuaries, chapels, social halls, woods, mountaintops, beaches, and campfires.  But this is something completely new to me.  The last synagogue where I worked was nice, but this is really fancy.  Wood chairs, marble floors, and a hot tub!

I have never before had to cover things up to make the worship space Judaism-friendly.  This is a big change.  And the space isn’t the only thing that is different this year.  You are.  All of you are a change from what I have gotten used to over the last seven years.

Oh, where are my manners?  Please allow me to introduce myself.

My name is David.  I am a husband, a father of three, a native Cincinnatian, a fan of theatre and film, a beer maker, a cook, and a rabbi.  It was suggested to me by the board of trustees that I spend this entire time slot, this whole Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, introducing myself and telling the congregation all about who I am.  Well, friends, it is fitting this time of year that we offer our apologies.  So to the Board of Trustees, I am sorry.  Perhaps a few people would like to know a little bit about the new rabbi.  Maybe everyone.  But not me.  If you want to learn more about me, come in and say hi.  Meet me for a cup of coffee or a beer.   Come to my home for a meal.  A High Holy Day sermon should not be about the person speaking, it should be about the High Holy Days!

So tonight we gather for Rosh Hashanah.  It is the Jewish New Year, the beginning of the calendar year 5774.  Some attribute Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of the world.  There’s a story you may have heard.  It starts, “Let there be light,” from the book called Genesis, where God’s utterances begin the process of creating the world.  That happened  today, according to legend.  5774 years ago  today on the Hebrew Calendar, which corresponds roughly to October 6, 3761 BCE, if you believe that kind of thing.  

I don’t.  

Reform Jews believe strongly in the concept of personal autonomy, both in the sense of how to follow Jewish law and how to interpret Jewish teachings.  Science is simply too compelling for most Reform Jews to believe that the world is 6000 years old instead of 42 million years old.  We have changed the ancient thought process, developed new ways to study the world.  We no longer need to rely on stories and legends to learn.  There is carbon-dating, archaeological findings, and of course: logic.

Rosh Hashanah is the time of year when we, in partnership with God, get to rebuild our world anew.  We take time for introspection, to consider the past year and how we have lived our lives.  Have we been the people we really want to be?  Have we fulfilled our promises to our friends? Or family? Ourselves?  Have we worked as hard at being alive as we have at making a living?  Have we adhered to the expectations we would set for others?  Rosh Hashanah is a time to look at the way we were, think about how we want to be, and change.

Change is a difficult concept to embrace Jewishly.  So often we laud tradition in Jewish practices.  We hear that we are a religion that is thousands of years old.  We read and reread texts that are easily 2000 years old.  We perform many of the same rituals that our people have been performing for generations.  We quote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof to show how important it is: “Tradition!”  But listen closely to what he actually says:
Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat... how to work... how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, "How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell you!
[pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition... and because of our traditions... Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
He sings and dances about tradition.  He quotes the Bible, extolling the virtue of our ancient traditions, usually incorrectly.  This quote and others like it that keep Tevye praising tradition qua tradition, occur at the beginning of the movie.  By the end of the movie, all three of his daughters have relationships that are increasingly against tradition.  He picks up his family to move out of the town they have traditionally lived in for generations.  He even dances at a wedding--with his wife!  So the movie as a whole is not about how great tradition is after all.  Even Tevye, the stalwart supporter of all things tradition, changes.

Tevye reminds me of the mother with the roast.  Perhaps you know the story.  A young girl is watching her mother cook a roast.  The mother cuts off both ends of the roast before she puts it in the oven to cook.  The little girl asks why she does that, and the mother doesn’t know, so she calls her mother.  Her mother tells her that that is the way that grandma used to do it, so you should probably call her to find out why.  So the woman calls her grandmother, and asks why we cut the ends off the roast before we cook it.  The grandmother says, “Well, when your mother was young, our pan was smaller than a roast.”

If only Tevye really knew his Bible.  Perhaps instead of misquoting Moses and making up passages, he would be very interested in Deuteronomy.  I am thinking specifically of Deuteronomy 30:12, which we read just this weekend in Parashat Nitzavim.  It says, lo bashamayim hi: “It is not in Heaven.”  The “it” this verse refers to is the collection of laws and instructions that we call the Torah.  The verse continues to say that it is not in heaven so that people will not be able to claim that Torah is too far away to access.  It is not in heaven, nor across the sea.  It is in your mouth and your heart.  Close to you, close to all of us.

The rabbis of the Talmud use this verse in a wonderful story about a group of rabbis doing what groups of rabbis did best back then: arguing.  They are arguing over a particular oven and whether it can be considered a kosher oven or not.  Rabbi Eliezer, a wise and venerated scholar, believes it is kosher, while everyone else does not.  Rabbi Eliezer to perform miracles to prove his point.  A tree uproots itself out of the ground and moves, but the other rabbis say, “You cannot prove the law with a tree!”  A river flows backwards, but the other rabbis say, “You cannot prove the law with a river!” and so on.  Finally, a voice comes down from heaven to declare that Rabbi Eliezer is correct in this and all matters.  Then Rabbi Yonatan, another venerated scholar, stands up and shouts, “Lo bashamayim hi!”  It is not in heaven.  It is not up to a Divine voice to determine the way Torah applies to us today!  You gave it to us!  You told us it is ours to interpret, in our mouths and hearts!

And so the Divine presence….leaves.  And when Elijah the prophet later asks what God’s reaction was to this humbling moment, Elijah says that God was laughing, saying “My children have bested me, my children have bested me.”

This is what our tradition teaches us.  That real tradition is to change tradition.  Just as tradition for the sake of tradition does not serve our Judaism, neither does change for the sake of change.  The point of the Talmudic story is that the rabbis were in a heated debate.  Their discussion probably lasted hours about this one oven.  They were learned men, serious scholars of kashrut and all Jewish law.  And they were locked in debate because when we take the time to seriously engage the text, we can come to understand what it meant when it was written, and thereby we can understand what it means to us today.  They didn’t need another voice, even the voice of God, to tell them what to do because it had been done before.

In the words of the great 20th Century American Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, “the past gets a vote, not a veto.”

When a traditional colleague scoffs at Reform Judaism, I often ask why he (it is usually a he) is so against Reform Judaism.  An Orthodox rabbi once answered me, “Because your movement is named for change, and you don’t change what has worked for thousands of years.”  I asked who he viewed as the first Reform Jew, and he suggested Rabbi Isaac M. Wise.  While perhaps Rabbi Wise is one of the greatest reformers of the movement, he was not the first Reform Jew.  The first Reform Jew, I suggested, was Yehuda Hanasi.

Yehuda Hanasi, or Judah the Prince, was a 2nd Century rabbi.  He was known in the Talmud simply as “Rav,” because his teachings were so well known.  He is today considered to be the person who single-handedly compiled the Mishnah.  My Orthodox friend smiled and clapped me on the shoulder, thinking I was joking, which is too bad.  Yehuda Hanasi did something extraordinary for his time.  He took a dying religion, one that had just suffered one of its greatest losses in the destruction of the Temple, and revived it with his ingenuity.  He created a system of studying the laws of Torah that held it in such high esteem that, when combined with daily prayer services, replaced the sacrificial worship from the defunct Temple.  The Holy Temple no longer existed, and Judaism needed a reboot.  It needed to be changed.  So he raised a myriad of disciples and taught them Torah.  He taught them a different way of looking at Torah laws.  His way was to debate, to discuss the laws and answer questions about them, so that the words of the ancient scroll would be relevant to modern life at the time.  He was the first Reform Jew.

The very word Reform means change.  We are involved in a movement called Reform Judaism, which holds educated change as one of its core concepts.  Not just change, my friends: educated change.  Change meted for a purpose, and with intention.  Change made to improve the world, bring us closer to one another, and enhance our relationship with God.  

A quick look-up of the word “change” at lists 38 different meanings.  To make different; to convert; to substitute.  Most of them have subtle differences from one to another.  For example, definition #8, “remove and replace” like changing a baby is different from definition #15 “switch outfits,” as in changing clothes.  Perhaps the difference here is whether we do it to ourself or to someone else.  Some definitions are completely different.  Definition #24 is “a harmonic progression from one tone to another,” while definition #30 is “coins of low denomination.”  We can change our mind, change our name, or change the course of history.  It is precisely this flexibility that makes it fitting to use “Change” as our study theme for the 5774 programming year.  

You might want to ask me, “Rabbi Young, what is a study theme?”
I’m so glad you asked.

A study theme is a theme that we will use throughout the year to inform our various programs, lessons, divrei Torah, and more.  It is helpful to us as a congregation because, in the midst of all this change--new rabbi, new office, new sanctuary set-up--there is a thematic constant.  Yes, I am thoroughly aware of the irony of change serving as a constant, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun.

So as we move through 5774 together, expect to see changes, but also expect to learn about change in Judaism.  When did some of our changes happen?  What is the impetus for certain changes?  Why do some things never change?

I hope you will join me on this journey as we explore change.  A community that studies together grows together.  As we work to change ourselves into the very best version of us that we can be, may we also work toward the positive changes that will keep us strong as a holy community.  Let us not be like Tevye, ignorant of the law and clinging to the past.  Let us be like Rabbi Yonatan, shouting, “Lo bashamayim hi!” to the Heavens as together we discover what positive changes are available to us.  Let us be like Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, engaging in serious conversation with like-minded, passionate friends who know that innovation is in our heart and in our mind.  It is up to us to learn it, and do it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

29 Elul

Many thanks again to my colleagues who helped with this project:
Rabbi Rachel G. Greengrass from Temple Beth Am in Miami, Florida; Rabbi Bradley G. Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia; Rabbi Eric G. Linder from Temple Israel in Athens, Georgia; Rabbi Alan E. Litwak from Temple Sinai in North Miami Beach, Florida; and Rabbi Daniel N. Treiser from Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater, Florida. 

A New Year’s Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy
I'm good at making resolutions, but not always good at keeping them. There are so many goals I'd like to achieve, so many changes I'd like to make. I pray to You, God, for strength. Teach me how to live a meaningful life, to comprehend my true promise, to understand why You have put me here. Let this be a good year, God. A year of health, blessings, love and peace. Amen.

May you all have a wonderful, sweet, prosperous, and healthy 5774!

Shanah tovah!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

28 Elul

The New Year is a time to reflect and to make goals/resolutions for a better tomorrow.  Reflection is hard; resolutions are often abandoned.  So, here is an exercise Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen once suggested to a patient of hers that I believe we can all learn from; review the events of the day for 15 minutes each night and ask the following questions:  What surprised me today?  What moved or touched me today?  What inspired me today?  By doing this, we begin the practice, not only of reflecting, but of finding life's blessings.  As we practice, finding those blessings becomes easier and easier until we actually live lives in which we notice blessings as they happen. . . let reflection bring us all to a place of awareness of just how blessed we are.

Monday, September 2, 2013

27 Elul

 From Harold Kushner:

"A non-Jewish friend once asked me, 'Harold, what do Jews pray for?' I answered, 'Jewish prayer is less a matter of praying for, and more a matter of praying with and praying to.' As the theologian Martin Buber put it, when we pray, we don't ask God for anything. We ask God for God. We invite God into our lives, so that the actions we take will be guided by a sense of God's presence."
Many of us will gather for Rosh Hashanah in just a few days.  May we remember these words when we open the Machzor... and hopefully find God waiting for us to finish the sentence.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

25 Elul/26 Elul

In my Friday afternoon rush, I seem to have neglected the posting for this Shabbat, so a double portion to start the week!

A favorite Midrash: “The light of God shone throughout the entire first Shabbat.  As Shabbat came to an end and darkness grew, Adam and Eve became fearful, for they had never known darkness.  Huddled close together as the day drew to a close, God gave Adam and Eve a spark of Divine creative insight.  They reached down, grabbed two stones, and banged them together to create fire.  Staring at the flames created with their own hands, they exclaimed ‘Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Borei M’orei Ha’eish- Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, who Creates the light of the fire (the blessing for the candle at Havdalah.)’”  (based upon Pirke deRebbi Eliezer and B.Talmud Pesachim 54a)  Jewish tradition teaches that we are partners with God in the creative process of the universe. We have the power within us to create incredible things.  Are we aware of these powers?  For what might we use them?

A young man speaks with his rabbi. Rabbi, I'm depressed because I have made so many mistakes and committed so many sins. I feel very far from God.
After hearing this, the rabbi shows the man two identical pieces of rope. The rabbi starts cutting the first rope. When we make a mistake, we do shorten the distance between ourselves and God. Like you, I've also made many mistakes.
The man says, But you're the rabbi! Surely you are close to God!
At this point, the rabbi takes the cut pieces of rope and ties them together. He places the two ropes next to each other and says, When we do t'shuvah, we repair the damage we did. Son, look at these two ropes. The one that was cut is now shorter. This is how t'shuvah works. When we successfully perform acts of t'shuvah, we shorten the distance between ourselves and God.

Friday, August 30, 2013

24 Elul

Tunneling Through

One of my favorite places in Jerusalem is Hezekiah's Tunnel.  It is a tunnel that was dug underneath the City of David just outside the Old City walls. Its name comes from the story of its origin, namely that it dates from the reign of Hezekiah of Judah (late 8th and early 7th century BCE).  According to 2 Chronicles 32, by closing off the sources of water outside of the city and diverting the spring water through the tunnel into the city, King Hezekiah assured that Jerusalem would have water during a siege by the Assyrians. 

According to an inscription found in the tunnel, the 533 meter tunnel was excavated by two teams, one starting at each end and then meeting in the middle. "And this is the way that the tunnel was cut through: Each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, there was heard the sound of a man calling to his fellow, and there was an overlap in the rock on the right and on the left. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed the rock, each man toward his fellow, axe against axe, and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1200 cubits…"

Along with the amazing technological accomplishment of creating such a tunnel, I think there is a wonderful message for us during Elul.  Sometimes we need to cut through a lot of hard stuff to get to a point when and where two sides can come together.   Hezekiah's Tunnel is dark, cold, and wet, with some twists and turns.  But, when two sides are committed to the effort, it can be life saving.

What relationship of yours needs to be cut through and are you willing to pick up a hammer?


Thursday, August 29, 2013

23 Elul

A congregant told me that he was asked about T’shuvah (repentance) by his granddaughter.  He was thinking about how to explain it to her when he cut himself shaving.  He got a little blood on his shirt, and though his wife told him about it, he decided to leave it for later.  Sure enough, by the end of the day he had let the stain slip his mind, and try as he might to remove the stain, it faded but left a permanent mark on his collar.  It was then that he realized how he could explain it to her.

Just like the stain on his collar, if we make a mistake in life we should take care of it right away, lest it leave a stain that will be with us forever.  Yet like the words of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like [new] wool.
(Isa. 1:18)
We are reminded that we can cleanse ourselves, no matter how stain-soaked we have become.  At the same time, the sooner we deal with our “stains,” the easier it is to get out the scarlet and crimson on our souls.
(DNY-Inspired by Marcos Fintz)

22 Elul

Often, t’shuvah is thought of as repentance - making apologies. We think about people we’ve wronged in the past year, and many of us contact friends and family members during the High Holidays in order to express regret and sorrow for how we’ve acted. This is incredibly important.
The word t’shuvah means turning. Yes, we turn toward each other to make amends, but there is another way we can think about this important concept.
We should turn to correct our mistakes, but we should think of Elul as a time when we turn to our future selves.
Sometimes, the past parts of ourselves are undiscovered, waiting for an experience or a relationship to help us discover new parts of ourselves. This month of Elul can be a catalyst for these future discoveries. 
As our present selves continue to turn toward the future, let us remember this larger meaning of t’shuvah.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

21 Elul

Psalm 92 is a part of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy, used to welcome the Sabbath into our homes and our lives.  According to the Mishnah, this Psalm was sung by the Levites in the ancient Temple each week before Shabbat began, and is a foretaste of the time when every day will be like Shabbat.  Verse 6 proclaims “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai! Me’od amku machsh’votecha – How great are Your works, Adonai, how very subtle Your designs!”  I tried to take some time this summer to find moments to proclaim this phrase:  Looking out on a gorgeous valley, sitting on the shore watching the waves lapping the sand, listening to the voices of children playing and singing in friendship.  Where else might we discover an awareness of God’s creative process in our world?  How do we respond?


Monday, August 26, 2013

20 Elul

From Rabbi David Wolpe

Why does Lot's wife look back to Sodom? Is it nostalgia, regret, curiosity? Rereading the story I wondered if she simply lacked the strength to begin anew. To survive pain and loss and begin again is both a burden and a blessing. May God grant us the strength and stamina to look forward, to ever begin again.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

19 Elul

Sticking his head into my office for the first time, a 6-year-old saw the various superhero pictures and trinkets that dominate my decor.  He laughed and asked, “Is Superman Jewish?”  I told him that someday he and I could sit and talk about all the ways Superman shows us how to be better Jews.  (And yes, it was difficult for me not to deliver a 6-year-old version of my thesis, but that’s another story for another time.)  Many authors have written lately on Superman’s Jewish roots, intentional or perceived, and many of us have heard the comparisons between Superman and Moses.  But Superman isn’t the only hero with Jewish roots.  The superhero motif (an estranged or orphaned young person getting the call to be something greater who eventually goes on to save their world) is all over the Bible.  From Moses to Samson to King David to Captain America, fictional heroes achieving impossible goals are a constant source of awe and inspiration.  They show us that they can overcome the most adversarial conditions, and they do it in a way that promotes justice while not infringing on the rights of others.  Is there anything more Jewish than that?

Friday, August 23, 2013

17 Elul/18 Elul

Once again, a double portion of Elul Thoughts to last you through Shabbat.  Enjoy!

URJ Camp Coleman is the Jewish summer home for nearly 1000 young Jews from the Southeastern U.S.  The camp is guided by four values:  Kavod- Respect”  Kehilah – Community” “Shalom- Peace” and “Chesed- Kindness.”  These values are found throughout the camp.  Literally, they’re on giant arches near the oldest campers’ bunks, and they make up the sign for every cabin.  But they’re also found in every discussion and interaction that takes place.  Every counselor and most campers can recite them aloud.  When someone does something disrespectful, his or her peers often say “You’re not showing kavod.  The campers learn what it means to be guided by the values of our tradition, and how they can permeate all different aspects of their lives.  What are the values that guide your daily interactions?  Are you aware of them?


The Power We Have

The great 20th century thinker, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught: "If a person were able to survey at a glance all he has done in the course of his life, what would he feel? He would be terrified at the extent of his own power."

Do we have the power . . .

To change the world?  Not likely.

To change our community?  It's possible.

To change ourselves?  This is completely within our reach.

To change someone else?  You can count on it!  We must learn to be careful with how we use our individual power.  We should see our relationship with every person as if it was fragile and you could hurt them or help them. It is. And you can.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

16 Elul

Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?
The tortoise wins the race because of his slow, deliberate movement. The hare takes off at the beginning, but loses steam quickly. 
During Elul, we are like the tortoise, as we also make slow, deliberate steps toward our goals. 
Real change comes slowly. It comes as a result of real, determined work. The hare does not do t’shuvah, the tortoise does.
Each day of these 30 of Elul, let us take a tortoise-like step toward our goal. In our case, however, the goal is not a finish line. It is ourselves. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

15 Elul

Cleaning the Hard Drive

"Defragging" is a process that physically reorganizes the contents of your computer hard drive into the smallest number of contiguous regions (fragments). It is the computer equivalent of taking a jumbled pile of miscellaneous papers that are strewn across your desk, organizing them into files, and then putting them into a cabinet in alphabetical order.  In the same way as our computers run more quickly, efficiently, and smoothly after a process of defragging, human beings could benefit from a similar process.  While we could do emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal "spring cleaning" at any point, if we take this time period seriously, Elul affords us our yearly opportunity to "defrag."  The best part about defragging is that, as it organizes the files, it also creates larger areas of free space.  When we get all of the various "stuff" that clogs our lives in order, we function better.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

14 Elul

Regina Dugan opened her TED talk by asking:  What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? 

As we approach the High Holy Days, our days of judgment, this question is one we should take to heart.  Why is it that when we have made all the amends, made all the apologies, forgiven those who have hurt us, that we still feel dread?  Why do we still feel scared instead of confident going into judgment?  Perhaps because of this – that we did not attempt to change the world, to change ourselves, with our whole hearts.  Our faith teaches us "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:20).”  We are partners in the work of creation.  The mystics teach that God created us for the soul purpose of perfecting and completing the work.  When we fail try, to even attempt to do so, we ignore our purpose in life.  And so we walk into the Day of Judgment full of dread.  But there is still time.  Be who God meant you to be – yourself, a creator; and use your power to begin to change.  You are enough.  God made you who you are for a reason.


13 Elul

The website recently posted this video.  (If you can, click here to watch it, then read on.)  Anyone who has lived in New York City knows that just about every subway ride involves a panhandler or two or eight walking up and down the car, telling their story, and asking for money.  The story often involves a large family, a fall from grace, unexpected expenses such as from an injury, or accolades that no longer help the person.  This man took that story (and its usual cadence) and flipped it on its head, turning it into a tale of success and happiness.

T’shuvah, “repentance,” shares its root with the word lashuv, to turn.  The point of making T’shuvah is that we try to turn away from the behavior we wish to change.  We alter our path, try to take a different course, and make active changes in our lives.  It is a turn towards a positive change in our lives.  The Upworthy video shows a different aspect of T’shuvah: once we have made successful changes in our lives, it is good to celebrate, to acknowledge the good things that we or others have done, and to take a hand shake, a high five, or a hug.  Our own positive changes can have lasting impact on others, inspiring them to change because they see that it is possible.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

12 Elul

An often repeated quote from the Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him the most about humanity: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” 


How much time has been lost this year planning for living?


Friday, August 16, 2013

10 Elul/11 Elul

Once again, a double portion of Elul Thoughts to prepare us for Shabbat, and to allow us to give our technology a rest on the Sabbath.

10 Elul:
Recently I noticed a scab on our daughter’s knee, and I was brought back to when she was born.  Babies’ knees are perfect when they are born, and she was no exception.  Of course I believe she was perfect all over, but I found myself transfixed by her perfect little knees.  By the time our daughter was born, our sons were 5 and 3.  Their knees were already roughed up and often scabbed over.  In fact, most of us tend to picture knees as these scarred, ugly things that tend to go out on us with age.  This is probably why her knees fascinated me.  If our knees are a testament to how active we are at roughing them up, then her knees were a completely blank slate.  Her smooth, pudgy legs had endured nothing, and she had her whole life ahead of her to bang them up and make them into the rough joints that look so natural—just like the rest of us.

With knees we do not expect perfection.  Coarse, bumpy, slightly greyed patches of skin are normal, and perfectly acceptable.  Why then, would we expect any less of the rest of us? 

Life makes us marred.  Humans are not perfect (except maybe when they are babies), so there is no reason to expect anything more than coarse, bumpy, slightly greyed individuals.  The High Holy Days are a time to reflect on that which makes marks on us, and how we impact others.



 11 Elul:
An often repeated quote from the Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him the most about humanity: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” 

How much time has been lost this year planning for living?


Thursday, August 15, 2013

9 Elul

Bungee Cords
I love bungee cords.  There is some question as to who invented them, but whoever it was, I wish it was me.  They are unbelievably useful in a variety of situations.  However, as great as they are for tying down, attaching, securing, and holding together stuff, they are terrible for us as human beings.  The key to a bungee cord is that it springs back into place.   A Bungee Cord is a metaphor for all that pulls us back into the bad habits, old patterns, or wayward actions.
What are the cords that you should untie, detach, loosen, and let go of during Elul and the High Holy Days?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

8 Elul

On Yom Kippur morning, many Reform synagogues read the words of Deuteronomy 29-30 in lieu of the traditional Torah reading from Leviticus, which focus on the ancient Yom Kippur sacrifices.  Regarding the Torah, Deuteronomy 30:12 teaches, “Lo bashamayim hi – It is not in Heaven,” meaning that it isn’t too far away from us that we cannot grasp it. In a beautiful Talmudic legend known as the story of the Oven of Akhnai (Bava Metzia 59b)[1], the Rabbis use this quote as justification for their authority to interpret Torah according to their own understanding.  Judaism teaches that every Jewish soul, in one way or another, stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah.  This beautiful gift is ours to learn, ours to interpret, and ours to pass on.  How will we use this gift in the year to come?


[1] An excerpted version of the story may be found at

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

7 Elul

I always find it fitting that our Torah readings for the month of Elul come from Deuteronomy, which is basically Moses reminiscing, looking back on his life, the life of the Hebrew people, and offering insights (albeit, some in the form of threats).  This is what we do the entire month of Elul.  We look back, we measure, we evaluate and we begin to change in order to build a better future.  Many of us like to try and ignore the past, push it out of our heads.  We don’t want to deal with mistakes, confront our failings, reopen wounds.  Then we come to the month of Elul.  Elul reminds us that if we want our future to be different than our past, we have to reflect, no matter how uncomfortable we feel, we need to take a long and hard look at our choices, learn from our mistakes and commit to not making them again. Looking back is not being stuck in the past; it is what ensures that the past remain there, and not follow us into our present.