Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

Four Stories for Four Children

Sermon delivered at the “Traditional Egalitarian Minyan,” Adas Israel Congregation, Washington, DC

Shabbat morning, Saturday August 9, 2014

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff


Four Stories for Four Children

In 1982 my four-year old daughter Malka was attending her first day at a Catholic  pre-school in a small town in Italy.  I was stationed there as a Navy chaplain for the U.S. Sixth Fleet, and the hope was that Malka’s school would help her learn Italian and make some friends outside the base.

However, waiting for her school bus to return I began to wonder whether I had adequately prepared her for a school run by nuns in traditional black habits.  Did she even know what a nun was?

When the school bus pulled up, I could see her through the window, very excited, with the look she had when she couldn’t wait to share news.  When the bus door opened, she jumped out and shouted to me, “Abba – Abba – you’ll never believe it. All my teachers are from The Sound of Music!”

The stories we know become the prism through which we view the world: the foundation and framework for our vision.  Had she grown up with anti-Catholic stories, her first encounter with nuns might have been filled with fear or hatred, not happiness and excitement, in the way stories of “the other” prepare children in so many parts of the world, including the Mid-East.

An old saying teaches that we believe what we see, but the reverse is often true: we see what we believe.  And what we believe is often colored by the stories we’ve learned.

When Abraham told the story of one God creating the universe, the idea of history – the belief that we can learn from our past — was created. After all, if there were many gods, as so much of the ancient world believed, what happened yesterday might have no bearing on today, because we might be dealing with a different god.  But with one God there could be one plan and one set of rules, so learning from the past – from yesterday, from our parents, or from the lives of our ancestors – became both possible and essential. No wonder that the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, not only records the victories of the Jewish people, like the hieroglyphics do for the Egyptians, but also our failures.  We must learn from both.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, understood the power of stories when he had Adolph Eichmann captured and publicly tried in the first televised trial in the history of television.  Ben-Gurion wanted the story of the Holocaust/Shoa told, so that misperceptions could be corrected and lessons could be learned.  He wanted a new generation of men and women who came of age after WWII, during a time when many of those who experienced the war or the Holocaust first-hand kept silent about them, to hear and to learn in a way that would make them remember.

Peoples, nations, cultures, faiths: all have stories that inform their vision and help shape their thinking.

For many Americans, our national story is one that was re-envisioned and re-imagined after the Civil War, through the words of leaders like President Lincoln: words so powerfully describing our nation’s new burst of freedom, and our government of the people, by the people, and for the people, that the frequently used phrase these United States would be set aside in favor of the more-straightforward, more unified the United States.

For many Christians, the world is seen through the story of death and resurrection. For many Muslims, through the image of struggle and war – at the very least, spiritual struggle and war – between Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb, the Islamic and non-Islamic “worlds.”  For Jews, our vision is one of leaving the slavery of the past, wandering through the wilderness of the present, and moving toward the promised land of the future.

Significantly, while so many other peoples spoke of “the golden age of the past,” Judaism’s story put the best of times in the future.  And so, whether or not Judaism and Christianity agree on the “identity” of the messiah, it is the Jewish vision that laid the groundwork for the belief in messianic times for so many people of the world.

So important is the Jewish belief in the power of stories – and in particular, our Jewish story – that four times in the Bible we are commanded to tell our story to our children, whether or not they ask to hear it.  Three times in the portion Bo in Exodus/Shmot we’re taught to tell the story, twice linked to a child’s question and once not; and once in the portion Vaetchanan in Deuteronomy/Dvarim, again as a response to a question.

This four-fold repetition of the command to tell our story raised questions in the minds of the ancient rabbis, teachers who believed that nothing in the Bible was superfluous: no extra word, and not even an extra letter, could exist without meaning.

Therefore, the rabbis taught, we are commanded to tell the story four times because we must tell it in four different ways, because there are four different kinds of children. One size does not fit all.  This teaching is the foundation for the haggadah’s four children section, traditionally referred to as the four sons.

In a way, the image of the four children is an early example of personality profiles like Myers-Briggs: a reminder that differences in individuals must drive differences in the ways we interrelate with them.  Educationally, it is linked to the verse in Proverbs/Mishlei (22:6) that teaches chanoch l’naar al pi darko – teach a child according to his or her way:  an approach that would eventually become the basis of today’s Montessori schools!

Based on the verses surrounding the four commands to tell our story, the haggadah’s personality profiles include:

  • hacham: wise
  • rasha: wicked or sometimes, “ill-mannered”
  • tam: simple or pure
  • sheh-ayno yodaya lishol: one who does not know how to (or does not care to) ask – the one I will call the detached child, not engaged or involved in any way.

The haggadah’s image of four children has sometimes been explained as stages in our life as we age, parts of our personality, or even, more metaphorically, as generational differences, as we’ve moved from “the old country” to (for those of us in the U.S.) life in America.

Of course, neither indicators like the Myers-Briggs personality types nor the haggadah’s four children should make us think that human beings – ourselves or others – easily or completely fit into any one category.  Instead, we are presented with archetypes that help us understand the trait or approach that is most prominent in a person’s general attitude or during a particular exchange.

To understand these four Jewish archetypes, it’s important to remember that “quadruples” in Judaism, sets of four, are often best understood based on the interplay (combinations and permutations) of two major factors or characteristics. So for example, the four species we use during Sukkot can be compared and contrasted through the characteristics of taste and smell:  the etrog or citron has both, the willow has neither, the palm has taste but no smell, and the myrtle has smell but no taste.  Similarly, individuals can be understood based on knowledge and good deeds: some with only the first or only the second, some with both, and some with neither.

This approach can be applied to the four types of children we have as well.

Towson University Professor Russell Jay Hendel has suggested that the two categories for the children might be knowledge and respect, but for me the best approach is head and heart: what educators might call cognitive and affective approaches to learning and teaching.

  • The tam – the simple or “pure” child – represents the heart without the head.  When a simple question is asked, a simple answer should suffice.  This might be a child for whom pure faith is enough, and who seeks a spiritual connection, not an intellectual understanding.
  • The rasha – the wicked — represents the head without the heart.  When the only connection is intellectual, it is easy to become a skeptic or cynic: an outsider with no emotional commitment to give foundation to a struggle to understand, let alone embrace, what is not yet understood.

The Bible’s description of this child’s words make those words sound like a question (“what is…?”), but the verb says is used, not asks.  For me, this child’s words represent so-called questions that are not questions at all: they are challenges, attacks, or put-downs.  Two people can ask the same “question,” but while one’s words sound like a request for information, the other’s make our blood boil, putting us on the defensive, and making us feel we are under attack.  That’s because we are.

When I worked on Holocaust remembrance materials for the military, one question that was frequently asked of me was why six million Jews should be remembered in a separate way from the millions of others who died during the war.  For a serious question, there was a serious answer.  But I knew that sometimes there was no question at all behind those words.

  • The hacham – the wise child – combines both head and the heart.  This child asks for information, but as an insider, part of the family and part of the community.  He or she asks about the testimonies, statutes, and laws that were commanded by “the Lord our God.”
  • Finally, the sheh-ayno yodaya lishol – the detached child, the one who does not know how to ask or is not interested enough to ask – is the one with no connection, neither head nor heart. The danger is that this child represents so many of our children today: perhaps not yet completely lost, but not at all involved.

Strengthening this understanding of the fourth child as non-engaged, Professor  Hendel (whom I mentioned earlier) writes that he heard the late Rabbi Dov Baer Soloveitchik give a pre-Passover lecture in March of 1971, teaching that “does not know how to ask” could also be translated as “does not care to ask.” Hendel explains that this translation might be based on the way the same verb is used in  Ex 2:25, “and God saw the suffering of the Jewish people and God cared.”

The late Lubavitcher rebbe once taught there is a fifth child: the one who does not come to the seder at all. But if we understand this fourth child as detached and uninvolved, then no discussion of a fifth child is needed. However, we should understand that while the Passover Seder might be our tradition’s foremost attempt to engage our children and tell our story, we should never believe this one night is sufficient. Whether or not a child is physically present at the seder, we cannot always be sure he or she is really “with us” as the story is told that night.

In any event, dealing with children who are so apathetic that they have no interest at all in our traditions and beliefs – in our story – presents parents and the community with the challenge to find other ways to engage.  But does not know how to ask can also describe an altogether different child: one who literally has never learned to ask because all past efforts have been rebuked; one who never imagines that his or her question might be heard or considered; one taught to remain silent, because he or she has nothing worthwhile to say.

Perhaps, like Abraham’s wife Sarah — about whom the midrash recounts that she died of a heart attack when she heard the news of the akedah (the binding of Isaac), learning that her husband had come so close to sacrificing their son – some individuals (or whole groups of individuals) are left out of the most important discussions and decisions of all. They are left to suffer consequences over which they had no power and no say.

In other words, some individuals are detached and apathetic because they have not yet been successfully engaged; but others are detached – bewildered, even, at the thought of asking a question — because they are so often ignored and excluded; or because they are brainwashed, battered, or numb.

It is important to note that even the so-called wicked child is still engaged. The Broadway musical Wicked, a play about the “Wicked Witch of the West” in the Wizard of Oz, makes the point that some individuals we call wicked might be misunderstood, even ultimately representing the best in us after all, challenging the system through engagement with it. The detached child, on the other hand, may not yet be lost, but without a connection to serve as lifeline to the Jewish story, that child may ultimately drift away completely, from the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.

Four times we are commanded to tell our story to our children, to pass along the Jewish message to the next generation.  It is a story that does not turn a blind eye to suffering, but it is one that sees hope in the future.  One lesson from our stories should be to keep faith that better times – the best of times – are yet to be.  No Jew should ever be taken in by the belief that “the situation is hopeless” or “things will never change.” Our story should drive our vision and our most basic belief: that the world can change for the better, and we can be part of that change.

But we should remember the lesson of the four children: we must work to understand each individual and hear each question before we respond. Otherwise, we may be providing answers important to ourselves, not those important to our students or children.

For example, when I was in college, many Jewish teachers were touting Judaism as “the most rational” of religions, demythologizing it to show how reasonable it was.  Partly as a result of that approach, I think, many of my contemporaries turned at least temporarily to faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism, in search of spirituality and mystery, not rationality.  Perhaps, at least at that time in their lives, the questions so many young people were asking were more those of the simple child than any of the others, but their questions were not answered, and probably not even heard.

Our hope is that all our children – every Jew – will be connected to our people and our faith with head and heart, but we should begin to teach and begin to share based on where each child and each person is now.

Jewish teaching explains the verse “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” – as opposed to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – as a lesson that each of us must struggle with faith until that “faith relationship” becomes personal: becomes our own. We must never forget that we are part of a community, learning the lessons of the past and the stories passed down to us. But we each must wrestle like Jacob did with the angel, even to the point that it hurts or wounds us to do so, until our relationship with God, with Torah, and with Israel becomes uniquely ours. That faith relationship must be one that touches our minds and our hearts: our lives and our souls.

Then, through us – as individuals and as a people — our stories will continue to touch, inspire, and eventually even repair the world.

The Value of Echad

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769
The Value of Echad
by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Just over a week ago, my friends, our shul hosted two important events, both were
connected to our love of the State of Israel, and our passion for our Jewish identity: First,
on Shabbat, we hosted a well respected politician, Member of Knesset, Aryeh Eldad, and
his wife, Elyorah. MK Eldad is from the right of center Moledet Party.– some I know
would think them way to the right, others would call them “just right”. And he has strong
views against many of the policies of the former government and the main ruling parties.
Moledet used to be the party of voluntary transfer, but now is a little more discreet . But
this is Anshe Sholom and we believe that someone who loves Israel and loves the Jewish
people and is a civil, mentschlich person, deserves to be able to address those in the
community who want to hear him.

Then, just two days later, we hosted our fourth annual Iftar co-sponsored with the Jewish
Council on Urban Affairs, which many would describe as a left of center, social justice
organization. The Iftar, literally, a breakfast in Arabic, has been a time to share our Jewish
religious passions with Muslims in Chicago who are interested in coming to a synagogue to
break their Ramadan fast. Who came? Of the 80, about half were Jews, some from our
shul, some not from any shul, about thirty Muslims, men, women and children, and a few
Christians and people from other religions. People from all over Chicago . Some were
individuals who worked for organizations I have to say that are not seen as great friends of
Israel .

But everyone who came was interested in learning about Judaism, eating a kosher meal,
and, if they were observant Muslims, breaking their Ramadan fast in a synagogue. As
typical of our own members, people did not all arrive exactly on time at 5:30 – even Imam
Ryan was late. But by 6:00 PM, thirty or forty, Muslims, Jews and others sat in the
Marovitz Sanctuary, with our Israeli and American flags flying high over all of us, and
listened to me and Imam Ryan talk about Tzedaka and Zaqat, about Ramadan and the
Jewish month of Elul, and about how our religions speak to us about issues in the

Imam Ryan, wanting to be respectful, asked his five year old son, Omar, to cover his head
in shul. So of course Omar took out what looked like a black, knitted kipa from his pocket.
And when it came time to daven mincha – about 18 minutes before sunset that ends the
Jewish day and ends the Muslim day of fasting – everyone stayed, and all the men in shul –
and all the religious Muslim women – covered their hair out of respect for our shul.
In fact, everyone seemed so into the davening – especially the women – that after we
started Ma’ariv, I had to tell those Muslims who were fasting: Higya z’man shel Kriyat
Shma shel Arvit! It’s sunset, time for evening sh’mai, but also time to go downstairs to the
Shlensky Social Hall to break your Ramadan!My friends, hosting the Moledet Party and Iftar in one weekend, all at our shul, is not only
the Anshe Sholom way, but the embodiment of the Sh’ma of the evening and sh’ma of the
morning: Where we tell ourselves that God is ECHAAAAAD. Where we tell ourselves to
think of how Hashem can bring together all of reality, and challenge ourselves, Can we do
something like it as well? Can we fulfill Vehalachta bidrachav – you will go in God’s ways
– with the mitzvah of Echad?
Echad is not easy and it doesn’t always make sense.

In today’s world, we know all too well that Yishmael – who in the Jewish tradition
represents the Arab peoples – is still Metzachek – still overwhelmingly plotting against
Yitzchak – Yitchak who was not allowed by God to leave Israel . We take Achmedinajad
seriously, when he calls for our destruction the destruction of our beloved State, and is
allowed to address the community of nations with impunity. It’s fine to come together and
pray and talk and eat, but the reality is that Yishmael and Yitzchak are not “Echad”, and
were not Echad even in the house of Avraham. But the reality also is that Avraham wanted
Yishmael and Yitzchak, his two boys, to one Echad. He was desperate for them to grow up
together – to learn from each other, to help each other in an idolatrous world. Sarah new
the reality – they were not going to survive as Echad. Yishma’el had to be sent out. But our
instinct to drive towards Echad needs to be there. We can’t just ignore Avraham – we need
to feel his frustration – we need to feel his irrational desire – even blind desire for Echad.
This passionate yearning for Echad is even more important when we are not talking about
Yitzchak and Yishmael, but when we are talking about Yitzchak and Yitzchak.
Just a week before MK Eldad and the Iftar came to Anshe Sholom, I was invited to be part
of The Conversation which is an annual Jewish think tank with people from all over the
world talking about anything we wanted to talk about relating to Judaism and Jews. The
session that I initiated came from my own frustration and passion for Echad: Starting with
the Conversion issue, but then moving on to issues of Who is a Jew? Who is a halachic
Jew? Who’s grandmother didn’t have an Orthodox conversion? Boy meets girl, Jewish boy
meet Jewish girl –Bubbie is delighted – Who tells her that a Reform conversion was
involved 60 years ago? Reports from Birthright Israel : So many passionate Jews, who
grew up totally Jewish, but found out there mother wasn’t Jewish. Soldiers who came to
Israel as Jews, fought for the IDF, gave up their lives for Israel and for us, but are not
“Jewish” enough to be buried together with other “halachic” Jews. How do we deal with
this? How do we deal with those who fall outside those laws?
Should the Orthodox community tell them: Sorry, no luck for you: Either you become fully
observant, every detail, or we are not interested in your converting, we don’t need you, we
are fine without you! And those who want to marry passionate, committed Jews who are
not-halachically Jewish – what do we say to them? Are we Sarah and say “Go away”?
Ahah- it was easy being Sarah when it came to her sending away Yishma’el, but is it so
easy being Sarah when it comes to chasing away hundreds of thousands in Israel, and,
millions in America, who are part of the Jewish community, part of the destiny of Judaism,
but are not halachically Jewish by Orthodox standards?

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 2 And in my session there were voices there who spoke like our mother Sarah, and said:
Look at the entrance of the conference center lobby– and we were in a nice conference
center: The sign says Shoes and shirt required: Well we as the community can say: Halacha
required! Halchic Jews only! Keep our standards, or you don’t belong here! There were
voices who said: That is our right – to defend who we are, to protect our autonomous
selves. You are welcome to come in, but on our terms.

And yet, Echad screams out at us – are we really going to complacently reject so many – so
many who are part of us, so many Yitzchaks who are so passionate about their Judaism, so
committed to the Jewish people, willing even – in Israel – to die for the Jewish people by
fighting for the Jewish state – are we willing to tell those people: Chaval – sorry, “Shirt and
shoes required”. And you just don’t have the right shirt, or the right shoes to make it in to
our definition of who is a halachic Jew. Is that Echad?

And don’t think that God doesn’t hear Avraham: Vegam et ben Ha’ama l’goi asimenu, KI
ZARACHA HU – the son of the slave – Yishmael – God says is also going to be a great
nation, God tells Avraham, because he is your descendent. He may not be your halachic
descendent, but he is your son because you love him like a son!
My friend – there has to be tension and struggle: We need to jump into the lives of
Avraham and Sarah, and we need to be the voice of both of them.

Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, sh’lita, has heard the voice of Avraham – and he has head the
voice of Echad: He has directed his followers to reach out to those who are Jewish only
through their father, and not their mother, those who are Jewish because of a non-halachic
conversion, or merely clutching on to the Jewish people by being in a serious relationship
with a Jew. Rav Eliashiv – the leader of Hareidi Orthodoxy –hears the voice of Avraham,
and the answer of God – Avraham I hear you – and I struggle with you as well. Echad.
Tova Hartman, an Orthodox thinker and practitioner in Jerusalem , finds the voice of Echad
in feminist thought, which is Jewish thought, not just feminist thought. Tova Hartman
challenges the classics of Modern Orthodoxy who are not as sensitive to Echad in her new
book, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: She writes:

“Modern Orthodox thinkers have to a large extent assimilated Western liberal ideals and
values in their religious philosophies, especially the ideal of human autonomy… “The
Modern Orthodox person must see him/herself as committed to …autonomy … and
individualism” (Ravitsky). Thus for example, Rav Soloveitchik did not hesitate to integrate
some of modern philosophy’s view of autonomy into his phenomenology of Halakhic Man.
“…The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.” (108 – 109)…
Y. Leibowitz (1976) establishes a strong connection between the performance of mitzvot
and the achievement of a form of human autonomy as its outcomes. “The one who lives in
the world of Halakha… is autonomous…free…only the autonomous creature deserves to
be called Man” (Hartman’s translation of p. 60).

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 3“Feminist theory,” continues Hartman, “has called into question the assumptions,
presumption and contentions of autonomy as a universal human value. It has posited
alternative models of morality and identity, based on women’s experience, that hold
relationship as a central concern… [I]t asks: How can I grow in connection to the friends,
relatives, traditions and institutions that figure so prominently in my life?”
So we struggle for relationship; we struggle for echad; we struggle to connect with our
brothers and sisters, and even, sometimes, with those beyond. And sometimes Avraham
wins, and sometimes Sarah wins: Sometimes we can come together and build a lasting
relationship, and sometimes and an Iftar is just once a year, and we go back to our passion
for Israel , and they go back to their passions. But we can never forget that Echad is a
value; Echad is a something worth fighting for and struggling for. If Rav Eliashav can tell
his Chareidi Talmidim to look harder for Echad within halacha, we can do so as well.
Yes, sometimes we may have to say, “Shoes and shirt required.” But it should hurt us, it
should cause us to squirm, and to struggle– that we had to put “Echad” aside. And then
there are the moments when maybe Echad can break through: When we realize Hashem’s
Oneness through our own efforts at oneness. When we realize that if our State of Israel –
not the Rabbanut, but Israel itself – can bring together Jews of such diversity, maybe we
should as well. Maybe we should see who struggles for their Jewishness, who would die
for their Jewishness, and we should re-examine how to open the gates of halacha to such
blessed people.

In a few minutes we will surround the every single broken t’ruah and the broken sh’varim
with the connected sound of t’kiah.
We hear the arguments of Sarah and Avraham – but we don’t let Sarah’s autonomy along
without a t’kiah – without the sound of Echad. Do we want God to tell us, “Shirt and shoes
required?” Of course we need to shape up, to do t’shuva, be we need to know that Hashem
wants “Echad”, that Hashem believes in Echad, that Hashem hears the voice of Avraham as
much as the voice of Sarah.

Let us answer God not only by putting on our shirt and shoes, but by understanding Echad
– the eternal struggle, the eternal value, to connect with our brothers and sisters, and even
with those who have been our enemies. Sarah and Avraham call out to us: Let us listen to
both of them as we say every day, twice or three times a day, Sh’ma Yisrael…Hear O
Israel, God is our Lord – God sets our standards – but God is One.
May this year bring Echad to the Jewish people and bring Hashem’s blessings to God’s one
land – to our beloved State of Israel – and to God’s united city of Jerusalem and may we
continue to struggle for Echad – for the T’kiah – in a broken world of T’ruah – to bring all
Jews together and bring peace to our world.

L’shana tova tikateivu veteichateimu

A Happy and Healthy New Year for all of us

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 4The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 5

Kol Nidre Sermon 10 Tishre 5773

BI-TWT Kol Nidre Sermon

September 25, 2012 – 10 Tishre 5773

 I do not get to go to the movies very often – and lately, Harry and I have been visiting the library and selecting films that we missed during their first-run status. We had heard much about the film Avatar – as well as all the hoopla about the super-advanced technology used to film it and the 3-D aspect that makes the figures jump off the screen… It was time to see it – and we did… on our very not-up-to-date television and without the 3-D glasses.  And despite the absence of super-technology – or maybe because of it – I was very moved by this movie and knew that it would make its way into one of my sermons.  And so it has.

As it came out a while ago, a short synopsis of the of the film is in order: Avatar tells the story of Pandora, a distant moon in the year 2154 where there is a conflict between human colonialists of the Crusher Corporation, who are mining Pandora’s resources because they have exhausted earth’s, and the indigenous inhabitants called the Na’vi, who are trying to expel the foreigners.

The film follows Jake Sully, a former marine who is paralyzed during combat on Earth. His twin brother was working for the Avatar Program on Pandora which constructed genetically engineered human-Na’vi hybrids that allow the humans to control these “avatars” with their minds while their own bodies sleep. An avatar can only be controlled by a person who shares its unique genetic material and when Sully’s twin brother dies, he is asked to take his place and join the squad, as he is the only one who has the genetic make-up to control that particular avatar.

On his first assignment, Jake’s avatar gets lost and is attacked by a gang of dangerous creatures. It looks like he might not make it until he is saved by a female Na’vi named Neytiri. While her people fear outsiders, Neytiri feels like there is something different about Jake – something special. So she takes him to the Na’vi Hometree, the spiritual and physical home of her clan. The Na’vi then decide to teach Jake about their culture.

However, once back at his base, Jake is ordered by Colonel Miles Quaritch to initiate a diplomatic mission, in order to obtain the trust of the Na’vi tribe and is given three months to convince them to abandon their Hometree, which sits above a large deposit of unobtainium – the valuable substance that the humans are mining. [And, as you can tell from its name, it is fairly unobtainable.]  As Jake learns the way of the Na’vi, he gradually finds himself caught between the military-industrial forces of Earth and a new found love for his adopted home and people. In fact, Jake is successfully initiated into the tribe after passing their rites of passage to become a man of the Na’vi .

At the end of Jake’s three months, because he has not convinced the Na’vi to abandon Hometree, Colonel Quaritch leads a military campaign and destroys the Na’vi’s beloved home. The Na’vi are devastated and when they find out that Jake knew of the plan, they are furious and abandon him. Faced with a decision of fighting with his race, the people who are destroying Pandora and wiping out the Na’vi, or his newfound tribe whom he has come to love, he chooses the Na’vi and leads them in a revolt against Colonel Quaritch. With the help of the Na’vi, the other tribes on Pandora, and even all of the Pandorian wildlife, Jake is successful in fending off the attack and sending the human mission home.

And, finally, Jake decides that he has become more Na’vi than human, so he agrees to have his soul transplanted from his human body into his Na’vi avatar at the “holy” Tree of Souls. As in all good Hollywood films, Jake ends up marrying Neytiri, the Na’vi princess who discovered him three months prior.

Yes, it’s very Hollywood.  But there are some subtle – and not so subtle – themes that are quite moving.  Indeed, it shouldn’t escape us that as one of those rare films meant to be watched ideally in 3-D, it literally begs to be viewed in every dimension, with keener vision and deeper understanding. And, indeed, as we examine certain aspects of the movie, the themes of vision, understanding and community come into focus.


The name of the heroic people who live in the Garden-of-Eden-like moon of Pandora is Na’vi. Interestingly, the Hebrew word navi means prophet; but not in the sense of prophet able to predict the future. The root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.

With all the technological prowess of the earthly invaders, the humans who came to despoil this new-found planet simply could not see – they did not have the vision; they could not see what the far simpler and “less civilized” inhabitants recognized so clearly.  The inhabitants of Pandora lived together in a balanced system – a balanced eco-system – with their environment.  Their Hometree was indeed their Tree of Life, the center of their system.  James Cameron, the movie’s director, explained that he saw his movie as a metaphor for our presence here on our own planet Earth. “We’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains; we therefore are entitled to every thing on this planet and beyond. But… that’s not how it works, and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth.”


Along with vision, comes understanding – a deeper understanding of one’s surroundings and those who are in it.

The Na’vi, when they are in a total reciprocal relationship with someone, will say “I see you.” This is a deep type of seeing, the type that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber would have called an “I-Thou” relationship and explicitly makes the act of seeing into a spiritual discipline. For Pandora’s people, the Na’vi, these words “I see you” express what, in Hebrew is “yode’a,” an interactive “knowing” that is emotional, intellectual, physical, sexual, and spiritual all at once. 

In contrast, the invading business and military presence is completely blind to the presence of others – seeing only their needs and making it very evident that when we do not truly see another, when another is seen only as “other,” [Martin Buber would call that kind of relationship “I-It”] – we will indeed become destructive toward them.

Dr. Michael Rand, a member of our congregation and professor of Communications at Cleveland State University, focuses on this “I-It” relationship in his documentary film “Defining Race.”  When a person (or a group of people) is seen as “other” (as not human) that enables the haters, the bigots, the Nazis – to negate the humanity of that person or group.  And in their disregard of the humanity of that person (or group of people), they in turn, think nothing about destroying that person (or group of people).


         With true vision comes an awareness of, an appreciation of, and an understanding of one’s surroundings.  And with this larger, fuller understanding comes a true sense of community.  For the Na’vi, this sense of community is found in the sense of interconnectedness they feel with their environment, with each other, and with their goddess – Eywa – all are truly part of the Pandoran web of life.

Set against the uber-technology of the earthly invaders, the Na’vi appear to have no technological resources.  But that is not true.  They have a technology, but it is not mechanical. It is organic. The Pandoran ecology forms a vast neural network spanning the entire lunar surface into which the Na’vi and other creatures can connect.

The biological fringes with which they connect to each other are living, pulsating versions of the tzitziot, the fringes on the corners of the tallit.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow describes them as “… the technology of organic intimacy.” There is even a point in the film when one of the Crusher Corporation’s engineers sees, in an uncharacteristic moment of deep vision, that their biological fringes make possible a “global network.”

I must admit, when I saw these fringes and how they were used to connect to fellow Na’vi-im, and to the creatures they rode upon, and to the Tree of Souls to connect to their goddess – I saw tzitzit. Through their fringes they made their connections, they made their community.  Through our fringes, through our tzitzit, we, too, have the spiritual technology to make connections – to each other, to our environment, and to the Holy Presence in our lives.

In the book of Numbers (chapter 15, verses 37-41), we are instructed to make tzitzit on the corners of our garments and to look at – to see – the tzitzit and be reminded of what we are called upon to do.

Traditionally, the collective number of strands and knots of the four tzitzit on our prayer shawl equals 613, the traditional number of mitzvot – of holy actions that connect us to each other, to our world, and to God.

When we visit the sick, we are connecting to each other through the mitzvah of bikkur holim.

When we recycle and re-use, we are connecting to our world through the mitzvah of baal taschhit, in helping to sustain our planet.

When we light Shabbat candles, when we hang the mezuzah on our doorpost, when we study Torah – we are connecting to the Holy Presence in our lives through the mitzvot of l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat, lichbo’ah mezuzah, and la’asok b’divrei Torah.

Am I asking you to take on all 613?  No.  It would be impossible, anyway, since many of the mitzvoth have to do with the Temple and the ritual of offerings and sacrifices.

I am not talking about those.

The English translation of Yom Kippur is “Day of Atonement.”  The word “Atonement” can also be read as “at one-ment”… and, indeed, that is what we are to seek on this day… on this day and throughout the coming year.  As we think of the tzitzit as symbolizing the mitzvot – the holy actions in our lives – they can provide us with the spiritual technology to truly be at-one with each other, with our world, and with the divine.  Our goal is to connect broadly and deeply, by seeking out what is truly important in our lives.

Although many of us recognize the word avatar as a representation of the self in computer games (a “mini-me,” so to speak), in fact the term originates in Hindu mythology. An avatar is a personification or an embodiment of a divine principle. 

So, let us take Avatar’s themes to heart and make the conscious effort:

  • to see and appreciate each other and the world around us,
  • to more deeply understand each other, and
  • to connect with each other and build our community in a richer and more meaningful way… in a holy way.

Then, truly, each of us will embody the divine.

L’Shanah Tovah u’Metukhah Tikateivu v’ Chotmeinu – May we all be written and sealed for a good and sweet year.


Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Second Morning

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Second Morning


September 19, 2012 – 2 Tishri, 5773

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Daniel Levin

On the first Sunday in May in 2003 in the affluent Chicago suburb of Northbrook, girls in the junior and senior clases met at a park for the annual “powder puff” football game.  But the game was not about good-natured fun.  In fact some say no one even brought a ball.

As part of a hazing ritual in which senior girls initiated their junior classmates, videotape of the so-called game shows how junior girls were punched and slapped, covered with urine, paint, fish guts and trash, wrapped in pig intestines and smeared with excrement.  One girl needed stitches from the beating; another suffered a broken ankle.  The tape also shows that alcohol was available to the participants, all of them underage.

Upon learning of the incident, the school principal suspended 28 girls and four boys for 10 days.  And then came the phone calls.

Three families sought legal orders to rescind the suspensions, claiming that missing school would cause the students irreparable damage.  The father of one 18-year-old boy allegedly involved in the hazing told the Chicago Tribune, “They make one mistake, and you’re punishing them for the rest of their lives… This may affect college.”  One student’s complaint notes that the suspension would preclude her from attending the prom.

A Kansas City teacher found that 28 students had plagiarized on their botany projects.  After parents protested, the school board ordered the teacher to lower the weight of the project in the final grading.  In Bethesda, Maryland, the family of a boy who was kicked out of school for helping another student cheat on the SAT filed suit asking for $1.1 million to compensate for the “loss of invaluable childhood friendships … and loss to his reputation.”

Think of the message these parents are communicating to their children.  While many parents say they think bad actions should yield bad consequences, when push comes to shove, a good college is often seen as more important than good character.  Joy Behar, who wrote an advice column in Good Housekeeping magazine, received a letter from a parent whose daughter had been admitted to a prestigious college, and afterward read her essay in which she wrote a deeply moving story of overcoming the hardship of losing her brother to cancer.  Problem was, however that the girl is an only child and had made up the entire essay.  Her mom wanted to know if her daughter should inform the college that she was not truthful in her essay.  And the response?  Joy said her daughter needed a good talking-to, but they ought not inform the college.

A 2010 Ethics of American Youth survey found that 59 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test at least once during the previous year, and 34 percent said they cheated at least twice.  One in three said they had stolen something from a store, and 39 percent said that you had to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.

I mention these stories because in many ways we are all guilty of the massive erosion in character and integrity we find in our society today.  Far too often we are taught and teach each other that nothing is worth doing unless it looks good on your resume, that nothing is wrong unless you get caught, and if you do get caught, evade, cover up, obfuscate, litigate, but under no circumstances should you stand up and take responsibility.

This was the advice given to Commander Scott Waddle of the U.S.S. Greenville submarine.  In 2001, the Greenville surfaced underneath a Japanese trawler called the Ehime Maru, sinking the vessel and killing nine of the passengers and crew in one of the worst accidents involving a submarine in the history of the U.S. Navy.  In the aftermath of the accident, Commander Waddle asked his superiors if he could apologize to the families of the victims and was denied the opportunity.  When the court of inquiry denied Commander Waddle immunity from testimony he might offer, he chose to testify anyway, to explain in his own words what happened.  Here is the opening of his remarks to the court:  “I accept full responsibility for the actions of the crew of the USS Greenville on 9 February 2001.  As the commanding officer, I am solely responsible for this truly tragic accident.  And for the rest of my life, I will live with the horrible consequences of my decisions and actions that resulted in the loss of the Ehime Maru and nine of its crew instructors and students.  I am truly sorry for the loss of life and the incalculable grief that those losses caused the honorable families of those lost at sea. … I understand by speaking now I may be forfeiting my ability to successfully defend myself at a court-martial.  This court and the families need to hear from me, despite the personal legal prejudice to me … and because it is the right thing to do.”

Throughout his testimony, Commander Waddle refused to pass the buck on to those officers below him whose mistakes had not averted the accident.  A gifted and talented Navy officer, his entire career was torpedoed because of an eight minute span in which he and his men did not perform at their peak.  As Commander Waddle writes in his account – “Eight minutes and how eternal are the results.”  Sometimes what we do in eight minutes can change our life forever, but we can transcend our mistakes and move forward. If we are willing to accept the consequences of our mistakes, we may come to learn that deep down, we are more than the mistakes we commit on a given day.

Each of us who comes here this Rosh HaShanah, each of us who enters this sanctuary today, has done things we regret.  But what will redeem us these High Holy days is a resolve to stand up and take responsibility for our lives, to own up to our faults, our mistakes, and the harms we have committed.  We must dedicate ourselves to doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing to do.

In 2003 and 2004, I was privileged to chair a task force of leaders in Livingston, New Jersey that sought to build a more emotionally and spiritually safe community.  In one of our discussions, we spent more than an hour trying to identify how the community defined success.  We came up with lots of criteria – success meant attaining a level of economic wealth equal to or better than the wealth from which we came.  Success meant being the best at what you do, be it on the athletic field, in the arts, in the classroom, in our varied professions.  Success meant ensuring that our children have a solid foundation on which to build their lives – high achievement in school, attendance at highly competitive colleges and universities.

And if that is all that success entails, then why not lie to get a job, why not cheat on a standardized test, why not steal from a store – after all, if success is all that matters, then who cares how you get there?

Success ought to mean more than what we can list on our resume.  Success should be defined not by being the best, but by doing our best.  Success should be defined by not by our place in line but by what we accomplished to earn our advancement.  Success should not be defined by the quantity of our assets but by the quality of our character.

The ironic thing is that we are happier and more at peace when we stand up and accept responsibility for who we are and what we do.  Real living is found in the struggle, in the growth that comes in looking ourselves square in the mirror and honestly coming to terms with the image that looks back at us.  Real living comes in saying “my fault” not “your fault”.

My good friend Michael Brooks serves as the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Michigan, and received a phone call many years ago from the father of a young man who got caught cheating on an exam, and the university had decided to expel him.  The father asked if Michael would meet with the young man.  Michael met with the student and over the course of their conversation said to him, “What were you thinking?  You cheated on an exam.  That’s terrible.  They’re going to expel you.  They should expel you.  But I’ll tell you what.  If you spend the next year doing some real soul searching, and you take real stock of who you are and who you want to be, you call me, and I’ll get you back in.

And so the young man left.  And he took stock of himself, and called Michael who got him back in.  The young man thrived at Michigan, went to the University of Michigan medical school, did his residency in cardiology at the University of Michigan, and now practices in Ann Arbor. Michael turned to him recently and said to him:  “You know what was the best thing you ever did in your life?  It was cheating on that test.  Because if you hadn’t cheated on that test, you never would have engaged the struggles that you fought, and you probably would never have grown to be the fine and sensitive person you are today.

If God had wanted us to be perfect, then God would have made us perfect.  But God understood that real living comes from growth, and real growth comes from struggle.  I once got a fortune cookie that explained it best – it said:  “Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

But if we never take responsibility for ourselves, if we never take responsibility for our faults and our failures, then we will never grow.  Owning up to our misdeeds and mistakes is hard – it hurts, it’s embarrassing, but it’s so necessary if we are to realize our spiritual potential.  Because a life that endures no struggle, a life in which there is no struggle, is not really living.

What do we teach our kids when they come home with a 79, and we call their teachers and beg for the “b”?  And what do we teach our kids when the teacher won’t change the grade, and we call the guidance counselor?  And when the guidance counselor won’t change the grade, so we call the principal?  We teach them that what matters is not the struggle, but the grade.  We teach them that it is not their personhood that matters but their report card.  Better we should teach our kids that they are more than their GPA, more than their test scores, more than their athletic statistics and more than the trophies they may or may not collect. We think that by running interference we are easing their way, but instead we may leave them completely ill-equipped to face the struggles of the real world.

At one of our task-force meetings, someone shared just the right metaphor.  When you see a butterfly trying to emerge from a cocoon, and you see it struggle to break free of its chamber, you would think that the right thing to do is to help it, to rip open the cocoon and release the butterfly.  But if we do this, then the butterfly will never take wing.  Through its struggle to emerge from the cocoon, the butterfly cleans the mucous off its wings.  Without the struggle, its wings will be laden with mucous and it will never fly and die.  It is only through its own personal struggle that it can survive.  And it is only in our own personal struggles that we can survive as well.

I wonder what would have happened to that young woman who lied on her college essay if she had confessed to her dishonesty.  What do you suppose would have happened if she had called the dean of admission and taken responsibility for her lie.  If she had said:  “I’m young and I made a mistake.  I thought that my life wasn’t interesting enough, so I made up a fantasy because I thought that was what you wanted.  But I’ve learned that it’s more important for me to be just me than to live a lie.  And so here’s another essay that explains what I’ve learned.”  Maybe the Dean would have rescinded her admission, but I suspect not.  I suspect he would have admired her decency, her integrity, her character, and said this is the kind of kid we need at our school.  And even if he had rescinded the admission, think of how good her essay would be when she applied the next year, an essay that reflected on the idea that there is more to life than admission to college.

I pray that we might find within the strength to struggle, we who are called Yisrael – God wrestlers.  I pray that in the coming year we will take ownership of our lives and assume responsibility for the choices that we make.  I pray that we will have the faith to see that though we may get battered and bruised in the struggle to live life with honesty and integrity, the strength of our character and our soul will only grow from the battle.  I pray that like the butterfly who must assume for itself the lonely mission of its own redemption, that at the end of the struggle, having taken responsibility for ourselves and our lives, we will find that we have wings with which to soar.  On these holidays, God opens the Book of Life to our page and asks us to take responsibility for all that we are and have become.  May it be that as we sign our names to that page, that our signatures also inscribe us for a New Year of blessing, of meaning, of wholeness, and peace.

A Sermon Regarding Anti-Semitism


September 29, 2011

Rabbi Dr. Ronald L. Androphy

East Meadow Jewish Center

         If it were not for a judge’s ruling, on Tuesday, November 8th, the citizens of San Francisco would be going to the polls to vote on a referendum to ban the practice of circumcision.

We may ridicule this attempt to outlaw a ritual that is at the very core of Judaism.  We may laughingly dismiss the anti-circumcision ban as being so “left coast,” thinking, “It is, after all, San Francisco.”  We may have felt certain that the referendum would have been defeated; we may have had faith that even if it were enacted the circumcision ban would be ruled unconstitutional by a court.

But, my friends, let us not be so smug in our assumptions, for San Francisco is not the only locale where circumcision is being condemned, nor is circumcision the only Jewish practice that is being challenged.  At this very moment the Netherlands is considering whether to ban shechitah, the traditional Jewish method of slaughtering animals for kosher food.  If passed, Holland will join Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden in banning the practice.  At this very moment, similar anti- shechitah campaigns are underway in Australia, New Zealand, England, and Denmark.  And lest you think that this type of campaign takes place only overseas, an anti-shechitah initiative was recently ruled off the ballot in Washington state.

As those of you who have been with me for the past twenty-eight years are keenly aware, I am not, nor have I been, a person or a rabbi who sees anti-Semitism lurking behind every tree.  In fact, I have delivered sermons, even on the High Holy Days, in which I have declared that anti-Semitism is no longer a major challenge or issue for us Jews, and should not consume a tremendous amount of American Jewry’s energy or resources.  I have suggested that the fact that almost every one of the Ivy League colleges and universities and their Sisters – schools that not so long ago placed quotas on the number of Jewish students they would accept – have had Jewish presidents or deans of their constituent schools; the fact that most Gentile families do not oppose their children’s marrying a Jew; and the fact that few Fortune 500 businesses are Jew-less – all demonstrate that anti-Semitism has virtually been vanquished.

Well, the High Holy Days are the occasion on which we admit our mistakes.  So let me admit my error: Anti-Semitism is not dead; rather it has reemerged in a particularly insidious form: this contemporary anti-Semitism is not an attempt to kill Jews. No; understand it for what it is:  Today’s anti-Semitism is an attempt to delegitimize Judaism.  That’s right: it is an attempt – curiously not primarily from the right, but equally, and I might even add “especially,” from the left – to delegitimize our Jewish religion.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s examine the San Francisco referendum.  Those who were proposing the ban claim that circumcision is a form of mutilation over which the victim, in our case the eight-day old boy, has no say.  They claim that it is unfair to inflict such permanent damage on a child who has not reached the age of consent.  But let me ask a question:  why are these people fighting only circumcision?  Why don’t they seek to abolish, for example, the piercing of young children’s body parts?  I am certain you have seen babies who have had their ears pierced.  Now you might argue that ear piercing is reversible in that a person can let the holes fill in.  Not always.  And I am sure you have seen young children with other parts of their body pierced, obviously before the age of legal consent.  Why not ban that?  You know, we live in an age in which tattooing has become the rage.  How many men and women did you see this past summer — when people wear shorts, and short-sleeve shirts or tank-tops — sporting tattoos on one part of their body or another?  How many times have you seen men and women who look like walking cartoons with their arms and legs almost fully tattooed?  I have also seen children with tattoos, children far below the age of legal consent, and I have a feeling that there are more cases in San Francisco than there are on Long Island, and despite laser abrasion, tattoos are still extremely difficult to remove.  Why don’t the anti-circumcision supporters try to abolish child tattooing and/or child piercings?  I’ll tell you why: because their goal is to delegitimize Judaism.

Need further proof? – Look at the rhetoric they use.  They employ words like “mutilation,” barbaric,” and “child abuse” to describe circumcision.  These are words of delegitimization.  Is anyone here in favor of mutilation? barbarism? child abuse?  Of course not.  What they fail to mention is that a brit milah, a circumcision performed by a skilled mohel, is not barbaric at all; it is invariably quick and safe.  While I am not going to tell you that a bris is painless, I doubt very much if any of us males remembers his bris or was irreparably harmed by it.

As all of us know, brit milah is one of the foundational mitzvot of our Jewish religion.  Every Jewish family knows that circumcising our infant males at the age of eight days is what we Jews do; it is constitutive of being Jewish.  That is why bris is probably the most observed Jewish ritual, even amongst unreligious or non-observant Jews.  A Jewish boy without a bris, while still Jewish, is an incomplete Jew; he always stands in need of repair.  A bris is the hallmark of male Jewish identity; it is the quintessential symbol of male Jewishness.  That is why throughout history Jews have fought and sacrificed their lives in order to circumcise their young.

And what about the anti-kosher slaughter campaigns?  Shechitah, the traditional Jewish method of killing an animal in a kosher manner, reflects the Jewish concern for what is called in Hebrew tsa-ar baalay chaim — not causing pain to an animal.  In the hands of a skilled shochet, using the required razor-sharp knife, an animal is killed almost instantaneously, and virtually painlessly.  When I was in rabbinical school, I saw kosher slaughter performed.  I was as close to the animal as I am to the people seated in the third row.  The shochet drew his long, sharp knife across the cow’s neck, there was a massive outpouring of blood, and, almost instantaneously, the animal was dead.  No lowing, no contortions of the animal’s face, no screaming; the animal didn’t even blink its eyes.

What the anti-shechitah movement is campaigning for is to require that all animals be stunned, either electrically or percussively, prior to slaughter.  Supposedly, this causes the animal less pain, but I cannot imagine that being shocked with electricity or being smashed on the skull with a high-powered pneumatic device, is painless for the animal.  From the kosher standpoint, stunning is problematic because it causes coagulation of the blood, and prevents its free flow, as is required.

By banning kosher slaughter, these people are undermining one of our cardinal Jewish observances.  Whether you personally keep kosher or not, you must be concerned that attempts are being made to ban a traditional Jewish practice, a ritual that has been observed by our people for thousands of years.  And, again, the opposers of kosher slaughter are using the language of delegitimization: they call shechitah “cruel,” “barbaric,” “inhumane,” etc.  And who is in favor of anything “cruel,” “barbaric,” or “inhumane?”

Switzerland first enacted its anti-shechitah ban in order to keep Jews out of the country.  Once Jews began fleeing Russia and Poland in the face of pogroms, Switzerland did not want to be inundated with what they considered to be backwards, dirty Jews. So it passed laws to prohibit kosher slaughter so that Jews would not immigrate to Switzerland.  See, even in the 1890s the Swiss did not want us, a situation that would be repeated during the Holocaust.   But in Europe today the anti-Semitic, anti-kosher slaughter campaign is more devious.  The European Union is considering a requirement that all meat bear a label indicating whether an animal was stunned before slaughter.  Obviously, kosher-killed meat would not bear such a stamp; some treyf meat would, some would not.  Sounds harmless, no? But here’s the insidious part: what would happen next is that there would be a campaign to pressure stores to carry only meat that was stunned prior to slaughter, and/or to boycott meat that was not derived from animals that were stunned.  Sounds relatively benign, right?  But, as you probably know, only the front quarters of an animal are koshered in the United States and Europe; the hind quarters are sold to non-kosher meat packing companies.  This helps keep the price of kosher meat lower than it would otherwise be. But imagine that under pressure from the anti-shechitah movement, stores would no longer buy meat that came from the hind quarters of kosher-killed animals.  The price of kosher meat would at least double or triple, rendering keeping kosher extremely difficult.

And the attempt to delegitimize Judaism does not end with bris and shechitah.  It even goes to the very heart of Judaism.  As all of you know, I have earned a doctorate in Bible.  Those of you who took a Bible course in college undoubtedly learned about the Documentary Hypothesis, the theory, enunciated in its clearest form over 120 years ago by the German Protestant scholar, Julius Wellhausen.  This theory suggests that the Torah is not a monolithic text, but rather an edited book comprised of four different strands written over a period of approximately 500 years.  As a Bible scholar, I can tell you that much of the Documentary Hypothesis is beneficial for the study of the Bible, and much of it is simply wrong and is no longer accepted in the realm of modern Bible study.  Today, however, an even more daring theory has gained considerable acceptance: this minimalist hypothesis claims that none of the Bible was written before the Persian Period. What this theory suggests is that there never was an Israelite/Jewish presence in the land of Canaan/Israel prior to the fifth century B.C.E.  In other words, there was no Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; no Moses and Exodus; no Joshua and Conquest; no King Saul, David, and Solomon; no Kingdom of Judah or Kingdom of Israel.  Its more radical expression denies the historicity of such great prophets as Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah.  While I am not a Biblical fundamentalist, while I do not believe that everything the Bible records occurred exactly as stated, while I realize that the texts and stories of the Bible were subject to the some of the same forces of transmission and story-telling that characterize all literature, nonetheless, I maintain that substantial evidence – archaeological, linguistic, etc., — supports much of the Bible.  Do you realize what this theory – the product of European universities – means for us Jews?  It totally delegitimizes our religion; it totally delegitimizes our claim to the Land of Israel.  It says that the Jewish religion is a sham, and that we Jews have no right to the Land of Israel.

Which leads me to the most concentrated attack against the Jewish people, and that is the attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel.  And, my friends, at this point the attacks against Israel – especially in Europe, but also here in the United States – go far beyond demanding that Israel surrender the West Bank and Golan Heights. These attacks deny that Israel has any right to exist as a Jewish state.  In other words, these assaults delegitimize Israel.  Israel, they claim, has no right to exist – not within the 1947 Partition borders, not within the 1949 armistice borders (which are the pre-Six Day War borders), and certainly not within Israel’s current borders.  They would argue that the Jewish State of Israel should be erased.  Just look at the boycotts against Israeli products that have been organized around the world.  Until recently these embargos were directed only against products that emanated from the West Bank, Golan, or Gaza.  More recently, however, the sanctions have involved a boycott of all products made in Israel, no matter whether those items derive from the West Bank, etc., or whether those Israeli products are produced within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.  Some of these boycotts have been successful in Europe (witness the recent closing of the Ahava store in London), some have failed on college campuses here in this country – but almost all of these boycotts today unjustifiably equate Israel with South Africa of the apartheid era, and just as many people refused to buy goods from South Africa, so, according to these anti-Zionists, should people boycott Israeli products.  And these attempts to delegitimize Israel will only become more pronounced and more vociferous with last week’s appearance by Mahmoud Abbas before the United Nations seeking the UN’s recognition of a Palestinian State.

As all of us know from seeing the article that has circulated on the internet, if a person boycotts Israeli products, he/she will have to give up his smartphone, her computer, etc., since all of these technological devices were invented in Israel.  Such a person would also have to refuse many forms of medical treatment since many medical devices and pharmaceuticals were developed in Israel. Nonetheless, these Israel delegitimizers should have all of us worried.  With the Palestinians about to proclaim unilaterally a Palestinian State, these delegitimizers will make Israel’s already tenuous standing in such international forums as the United Nations even more unstable.  Israel’s existence as we know it is very much in the balance.

So what do we have here?  We have an attempt to delegitimize bris, the basic Jewish symbol of identification for males; a challenge to the legitimacy of shechitah, the indispensible method of eating kosher meat; the denial of the sacredness and basic historicity of our Bible, the foundation of everything we Jews hold sacred – our religion, our rituals, our morals and ethics, our history, our homeland; and a massive campaign to deny Israel’s right to exist as an independent Jewish state.        So what is left?  Not much, and that’s the whole point.  By delegitimizing much of what is Jewish, these modern anti-Semites do not intend to kill us physically; they are out to destroy us spiritually and to rob of us all Jewish distinctiveness.

And this attack against us is not coming from its usual sources: right-wing, super-nationalistic groups like the skinheads and neo-Nazis.  These attacks against Jewish individuality are coming from the academic and political left.

I am certain that most of us here today, including me, consider ourselves liberal to one degree or another, though I am well aware that here on Long Island there is a tendency for former liberals to magically transform into conservatives.  Nonetheless, those of us who view ourselves as liberal must realize that liberalism today, at least in its academic form, has changed radically.  No longer is liberalism about supporting rights of all people, like fighting against discrimination and supporting liberalization of immigration laws, and the like. Academic liberalism today basically works toward the elimination of all distinctions amongst people, especially those associated with First World groups like Jews, and in its political forms its goal is the elimination (which is a polite word for “destruction”) of all supposedly bourgeois societies.  It does so by branding a group’s distinctive practices as “barbaric,” and its society as “evil.”  And since we Jews are one of the most distinctive ethnic/religious groups, and since these delegitimizers know that Jewish rituals and our Bible are major factors in our distinctiveness, they label our practices “barbaric,” and question the validity of our sacred texts.  And since the State of Israel has been one of the most successful countries on the face of this earth in terms of economy, technology, education, social services, and integrating immigrants; and since Israel does exert authority over more than a million Arabs on land that these groups erroneously consider Arab land, the State of Israel is vilified and its legitimacy denied.

That modern academic liberalism is the epitome of hypocrisy is manifest in a phenomenon that occurs on many college campuses, an action that defies logic.  As you probably know, Israel is frequently maligned on college campuses, and pro-Israel speakers are commonly heckled and prevented from speaking, even though a university campus is supposed to be a bastion of free speech.  But the ludicrousness goes beyond that.  Isn’t it farcical that many feminist groups on college campuses have issued anti-Israel resolutions and taken anti-Israel, pro-Arab stances?  Something is wrong here.  How free exactly are women in Arab countries?  In many they cannot vote.  In some they are not allowed to drive a car.  In all Arab countries they are legally subservient to their husbands, fathers, and brothers.  How many Arab women have been murdered in honor killings by male members of their very own families?  Yet, these women’s groups on campus, which include many Jews, incidentally, praise the Palestinians and condemn Israel, the very country in which women have more rights, have achieved more equality, and have attained the highest levels of success than in any other country in the Middle East or in the rest of the world, for that matter.  Let me ask a question: would any woman here today want to live in an Arab country?

Or what about gay and lesbian groups on college campuses that have denounced Israel and proclaimed their solidarity with the Arabs, or those GLBT groups that have prevented Israeli representatives from marching in gay pride parades in Europe?  How can they condemn Israel and voice support for the Palestinians and Arabs when homosexuals have been executed in Iran and other Arab countries, have been maimed and imprisoned in others, and have been victims of, for lack of a better term, embarrassment killings in the Palestinian controlled areas?  Do you know that many Palestinian homosexuals flee their homes in the West Bank or Gaza, and settle where? – In Israel, which takes a live and let live attitude towards GLBT people and hosts one of the most popular gay pride parades in Tel Aviv.   I would love to ask the members of these college LGBT organizations if they would want to live as open, active homosexuals in any Arab country; somehow I doubt that they would. Yet, the delegitimization of Israel and anything Jewish is so rampant that it causes these activist groups to endorse ridiculous positions that fly in the face of the very principles for which they were created.  That’s how deep and pernicious this anti-Israel, anti-Jewish campaign has become.

My friends, these modern anti-Semites are out to deny the validity of everything we Jews hold sacred: our Bible, our religious traditions, our Jewish way of life, and our ancestral homeland.  It is not that they are out to kill us; instead, they want to destroy us spiritually, they want to destroy us religiously, they want to destroy us politically.  They want to obliterate everything that is unique about the Jewish people.

And we must not let that happen.

Those of you who have been here over the years know exactly in what direction this sermon is heading.  You can probably guess – correctly – that I am going to suggest that the way we counter this modern anti-Semitism that seeks to deprive us of our uniqueness and our identity is through greater devotion to Judaism; more observance of Jewish laws, rituals, practices, and traditions; stronger determination to conduct our lives according to Jewish morals, ethics, and values; and greater allegiance to the State of Israel.

Specifically, if bris is under attack – we make sure that we circumcise our male children.  If attempts are being made to outlaw the traditional Jewish method of slaughter – we keep kosher.  If the validity of our Bible is challenged – we both study and live by the Bible.  If the very existence of the State of Israel is questioned and threatened – we increase our support for Israel, through visits, through financial donations, and through political activism.  If Jewish uniqueness is derided – we celebrate our uniqueness.

All of us here today must decide what Jewish course of action we want to undertake this year.  All of us here today must decide what Jewish rituals, traditions, and observances we are willing to assume this year.  All of us here today must decide on those Jewish values and ethics by which to live this year. All of us here today must decide on how we will demonstrate our support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people this year.  All of us here today must decide how we will demonstrate our support for the synagogue and the Jewish community this year.  And every person here today must decide on how he/she will express through ongoing deed and action his/her uniqueness as a Jew.

If we fail to engage in any of these actions, then we will hand a victory to these modern anti-Semites who seek our delegitimization, and, trust me,  Judaism will become a bastard religion, our Bible will be viewed as a forgery, and Israel will become even more of a pariah state, God forbid.

One final thought:  as a Rabbi, I do not want anti-Semites to define how I express my Judaism.  Yes, I have just asked you to assume greater Jewish commitment and identity in the coming year in the face of the multitudinous attempts to delegitimize much of what is Jewish.  But that should not be the only reason we embark upon a more intense Jewish way of life.  We must do so primarily because it is the right course of action to undertake, and because it can add tremendous meaning and significance to our lives.

Remember: it has been the Jewish willingness to be distinct and unique that has not only molded us into the extraordinary people we are as individuals and as a people; through our distinctiveness and our uniqueness we Jews have contributed disproportionately to the betterment of the entire world, the world whose creation we celebrate this day.

I call upon each and every one of you: do your share so that עם ישראל חי  — the Jewish people continues to exist!

Shana Tova.

When Hatred Becomes the Core Value

Yom Kippur Morning 2012/5773

When Hatred Becomes the Core Value

I am proud to be your Rabbi.  I am proud to be an Israeli.  I am proud to be a Jew.  I am proud to be a Rodefet Shalom v’tzedek… one who at her core pursues, teaches and insists upon peace and justice.  The essence of Yom Kippur is exactly that.  It is the opportunity for each of us to do an honest accounting of where we are and what our deeds have been…and to commit to and insist upon the changes necessary to protect, sustain and prioritize “sacred living”.

Atonement is reaching for the sacred.  True atonement requires a stubborn refusal to succumb to or make excuses for or tolerate evil.

Three weeks ago during the days of Elul, the period of heightened awareness leading up to these days of Awe… as I prepared my Shabbat Sermon on Parashat Shoftim, the portion named “Judges”, I was inspired by the words of Deuteronomy 16:20 Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof; justice justice you shall surely pursue.  And as the teaching of the weekly Torah portion came into focus so did the breaking news from Israeli newspapers that in downtown Jerusalem, Tzion Square, a late night hangout for young people, 10-15 Jewish youth, their ages ranging from 13-19, beat a 17 year old East Jerusalem teenager Jamal Julani until he was unconscious.

What can I tell you, my Congregation.  How do we make sense of this heinous act?  Jamal was beaten almost to death…by a group of Jewish Israeli teens, for no other reason than because he was Arab.  The attack was unprovoked.  He was set upon by with a ferocity and hatred and willingness to kill.  But as if that is not devastating enough, a few dozen other young people stood by and watched without intervening.

In the aftermath of the incident eight young Israeli’s were arrested, two of them girls.  After his arrest a 13 year old countered: “he could die for all I care he is an Arab.”  The Times of Israel ran an article entitled “The Kids are not okay and neither are their parents”.  The discourse evolving from Israel described not an aberrant tragic incident but rather a world view that has tragically become tolerated.

Two weeks ago Germany was shaken by a series of anti-Semitic incidents.  In one incident a Rabbi wearing a kippah was approached by several youths who asked him if he was a Jew.  When he answered in the affirmative they attacked and beat him.  Horrendous, intolerable… the Rabbi was beaten…by a group of German teens, for no other reason than because he was Jew.

Tzedek Tzedek tirdof , the word for Justice appears twice in succession.  Wanting justice for ourselves, that is simple.  The repetition of the word suggests implicit reciprocity; justice must be assured for the other as well.  The phrase Tirdof is the assurance, we will surely pursue.

Justice Justice you shall pursue.  Do not pervert justice.  Do not oppress your neighbor.  Love the Stranger as Yourself.  More than any other mitzvah commanded in the Torah, 36 times we are implored to love the other.  Thirty six times because when we really care for the other, then we forge justice.

It is too easy to hear these stories and point a finger at the anti-semitism that rears its ugly head in Germany.  It is too easy to point at the Arab communities and remind ourselves that they teach violence and hatred to their children.  But ultimately, the only way forward is for us to ask ourselves, what are we teaching our children.  What message do we justify in our hearts.  Are we ourselves harboring, justifying and tolerating racism?  What action do we take in this world that we live?  There is only justice for us when we assure justice for the other.

Let me tell you what followed in Germany.  A kippah campaign was launched in response to the unprovoked attack on the Rabbi.  Prominent German actors and politicians were asked to and elected to wear a kippah in an act of solidarity with the Rabbi and defiance of the resurgence of racism.

Let me tell you what happened in Israel.  Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin visited Jamal Julani in the hospital.  He said these words “we are sorry… it is hard to see you hospitalized because of an inconceivable act… what happened is the responsibility of every leader and Member of Knesset.”  The Education Ministry ordered schools to confront the episode in the opening day of the school year in EVERY middle and high school classroom throughout Israel.  Educators were told to let they youngsters express themselves, but that “the unequivocal message must be a condemnation of racism and violence.”  I am proud of these steps that Israel has taken but we all must recognize that an unequivocal message of condemnation of racism and violence must emanate from the very top of Israeli leadership and must be reflected not only perfunctory platitudes but must be protected and preserved as policy and creed.

As your Rabbi, a proud Israeli and a proud Rabbi I cannot accept that racism will be tolerated by us.  Whether we are behaving poorly and inadequately with our Ethiopian Brethren, whether it is our intolerance and lack of compassion for illegal African immigrant workers in Israel or illegal immigrants in the United States arriving from Central and South America or whether it is a hatred of Arabs that is fostered and tolerated in Israeli Society and in the fear tactics and nuances of American society, this we cannot afford to condone or allow.

Last year I delivered a sermon describing an act of racism in the parking lot of my children’s high school.  Here we are today Yom Kippur 5773 once again racism is a topic that I feel compelled to address if we are to make an honest accounting of where we have been and where we are going.

May our teshuvah lead us to an insistence of tzedek.  We must be vigilant, not about other’s racism, but about the racism that we harbor through our ignorance, justifications and complacency.  Real teshuvah means that we do not repeat the same mistakes.   Tzedek tzedek tirdof, we will have justice for ourselves only when we assure justice for the other.

– Rabbi Yael Romer

The Darshan: Preacher and Teacher of Talmudic Times

The Darshan:
Preacher and Teacher of Talmudic Times

by Marc Bregman

Throughout the Rabbinic period, one main instrument of popular education-particularly what would today be called “adult education” – was the scriptural sermon given in the synagogue on Sabbaths and Festivals. The “preacher” who fulfilled this important pedagogic function was known as the darshan, from the Hebrew root DRSH, meaning to interpret or explicate scripture. The public explication and elaboration of the Bible has a long and varied history. Its roots may well reach back even to Biblical times (see, for example, Ezra 7:10). And though public preaching in the synagogue may have been banned by the Byzantine authorities at the end of the Talmudic period, Jewish homiletical art did not die, but has continued to flourish up to the present day. While a great proportion of the voluminous Talmudic-Midrashic literature seems to be derived from actual sermons given in the synagogue, the development of the Darshan’s role and the nature of his oral homily are not entirely clear. For, the main sources of our information about this living institution are literary adaptations of such homilies which were largely redacted at the close of the Talmudic period when oral preaching was apparently in decline. These sources reveal some aspects of Jewish homiletics which were remarkably similar and others which were surprisingly dissimilar to what we are accustomed to in the modern synagogue. The following discussion is an attempt to describe some of these aspects by looking at the role of the Darshan as preacher and teacher of Torah.

Masters of the Aggadah

Though many Darshanim were certainly ordained rabbis, a scholar who was truly master of all liturgical skills was apparently rare enough to deserve special note. Such a talented teacher was R. Elazar berabbi Shimon, who served as “Torah reader (or: “Bible teacher”), prayer leader (or: “Mishnah teacher”), synagogue poet and preacher” (Leviticus Rabbah 30:1 according to some versions, cf. ed. Margulies, p. 690). However, some rabbis seem to have specialized more in Halakhah (ba’ale halakhah), while others were more renowned for their homiletical achievements. It was apparently these “masters of the Aggadah” (ba’ale aggadah) who normally served as Darshanim in the synagogue.

Some synagogues seem to have had not only a head rabbi who preached the main sermon on the Sabbath, but “assistant preachers,” who received a salary, as well. This arrangement naturally led to the occasional exegetical disagreement, as the following story illustrates:

Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yehudah bar Nahman would receive two selaim each Sabbath to assemble and occupy the congregation before Rabbi Yohanan would enter. Rabbi Levi entered and taught that Jonah the prophet was from the tribe of Zebulon. But when Rabbi Yohanan entered he taught that Jonah was from the tribe of Asher. The next week Rabbi Levi said to Rabbi Yehudah bar Nahman: Though it is your Sabbath, you take the two selaim, but let me enter and assemble the congregation before Rabbi Yohanan. When he entered he said to the congregation: Though Rabbi Yohanan taught last Sabath that Jonah was from the tribe of Asher, actually his father was from the tribe of Zebulon and his mother from the tribe of Asher.

According to the version of this story in Genesis Rabbah, R. Yohanan responded to Rabbi Levi’s resolution of their difference of opinion by expressing the hope that his assistant would “deserve” to teach his own opinion when he became a full-fledged Darshan. Happily, the Midrash tells us that Rabbi Levi did go on to serve in that capacity for no less than twenty-two years (Genesis Rabah 98:11, cf. P. Sukkah V.1, 55a, Deuteronomy Rabah 7:8).

Itinerant Preachers

Smaller synagogues, however, were not able to employ even one Darshan on a regular basis; and some of the Darshanim seem to have been itinerant preachers (see B. Sanhedrin 70a, 88a, Hullin 27a, cf. Matthew 4:23, Acts 13:4). The arrival of a Darshan in such a smaller community was an event of such significance that certain leniencies in the observance of the Sabbath were permitted to allow people living nearby to attend: ” A man may make conditions about his Eruv by saying: If a sage comes from the East, let my Eruv be to the East; but if from the West, let my Eruv be to the West; if one comes to here and there, let me go to the place I wish” (M. Eruvin III.5). Similarly, though it was generally deemed improper to run on the Sabbath, it was acceptable and even praiseworthy to do so in order to arrive in time to hear a sermon (see B. Berakhot 6b, Sheiltot Bereshit 1, Tanhuma Bereshit 2).

A Darshan arriving in such a community did not necessarily know ahead of time on what verse he would be expected to preach (see Leviticus Rabbah 3:6). This is understandable in light of the fact that in Talmudic Palestine there was no single fixed lectionary cycle. Rather, each community seems to have read through the Torah, not in one year, but in about three years, determining its own consecutive Torah portions and related Haftarah portions. This custom made considerable demands on the Darshan’s ability to improvise an entire sermon on short notice. However, anyone planning to preach was warned against relying on previous knowledge and experience to give him the right words on the spur of the moment. The Darshan was expected to rehearse what he was going to say on any particular occasion; though the actual delivery could be, and most likely was, largely extemporaneous (see Exodus Rabbah 40:1).

Aggadah: A Laughing Countenance

The lively and dramatic inventiveness of the Darshan’s homily was probably one of the main factors that contributed to its enormous popularity, particularly among the less academically inclined levels of society. Indeed, the sages bewail the fact that many people avoided the rigorous study of the Halakhah, preferring instead to listen to the more entertaining Aggadic elaborations of Biblical stories (see, for example, Pesiqta DeRav Kahana 12:3). Significantly, in comparing the major divisions of rabbinic study, the Bible is described as having “an angry countenance,” Mishnah ” a neutral countenance,” and Talmud “an understanding countenance”; but Aggadah is described as having “a laughing countenance” (Pesiqta deRav Kahana 12:25). Such a statement points up the fact that the Darshan, while fulfilling an important pedagogic function, was expected to do so with a sense of humor and even with an attitude of intellectual play.

One feature of preaching in Talmudic times that added to the listeners’ affective involvement in the educational process was the possibility for the active participation of the audience within the framework of the homily. Several sources suggest that the sermon, like the liturgy, was sometimes punctuated by congregational responses such as the public recitation of the Kaddish (See Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:15.7; Midrash to Proverbs Ch. 10). One kind of homily, found frequently in the Tanhuma and related midrashic works, actually may have begun with a question raised from the audience, usually about a halakhic point, which was asked in a formalized pattern: “Let our Master teach us…” (yelamedenu rabbenu…).

A variation on this patten, somewhat similar to the format found in the Sheiltot, is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 30a-b). Here, Rabbi Tanhum develops an elaborate homily in answer to a question about the permissibility of extinguishing a lamp on the Sabbath in order to help a sick person to sleep. However, other scholars could be overcome by such questions offered from the audience. It is related that when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi sent a scholar to the people of Simonia at their request, they built him a pulpit, sat him upon it and began by asking him questions of Halakhah. Though he did in fact know the answers, the young scholar, Levi bar Sisi, was so flattered by all the attention that words failed him. Whereupon, the people asked him to address himself to a purely exegetical question, which he also failed to answer. Realizing how unsuccessful he had been in publicly imparting his knowledge, he rose early the next morning, left town and returned to the school of his teacher (Genesis Rabbah 81:2). Happily, Levi bar Sisi seems eventually to have mastered the art of public preaching, for elsewhere he is numbered among the “masters of words, good readers, good preachers” (Pesiqta deRav Kahana 24:18).

Discourteous Congregations

It would appear that some congregations could be quite discourteous when they found the Darshan’s comments unacceptable. According to several sages, when Mordecai was once unable to find a wet-nurse for Esther, he himself produced milk and was able to suckle her. However, when Rabbi Abbahu related this legend in a sermon, his audience is said to have laughed. But this Darshan was well prepared to counter their incredulity by retorting: “But is this not in accordance with the Mishnah which teaches: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: The milk of a male is ritually pure!” (Genesis Rabbah 30:8).

Other Darshanim, faced with the difficulty of holding their audience’s attention, did not hesitate to purposefully shock their listeners:

Once when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was sitting and preaching, he realized that the congregation was beginning to doze off. In order to awaken them he said: In Egypt, a woman gave birth to six hundred thousand at one time! There was a student there by the name of R. Yishmael berabbi Yosi who asked: Who was that? He replied to him: That was Jochabed who bore Moses who was equivalent to all the six hundred thousand of Israel! (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:15.3).

It would seem that, by and large, such questions raised by members of the congregation during the sermon were not a sign of disrespect. Rather, such interchanges between the Darshan and his audience reveal the dialogical nature of rabbinic homiletics and the Darshan’s willingness to adapt his presentation to the specific needs and responses of each individual audience.

The Seat of Moses

In a very literal sense the Darshan did not stand above his audience. Though, as we have seen, the preacher might speak from a raised platform or pulpit (bimah), he did not stand, as we might expect a public speaker to do today. Rather, the Darshan normally was seated. This practice is clear from the fact that throughout Talmudic literature the expression used to introduce what happened or was said by a particular Darshan during a public sermon is “He sat and preached” (yashav vedarash) (see Avot deRabbi Natan, Version A, Ch. 4; Song of Songs Rabbah 1:15.2; cf. Luke 4:20) It may be that in some synagogues the Darshan was seated facing the congregation on a kind of special throne. This may well have been the function of the “seat of Moses,” mentioned already in the New Testament (Matthew 23:2) as occupied by “scribes and Pharisees.” Examples of such thrones have been discovered in the excavations of synagogues from Talmudic times, at Hammat Tiberias and Chorazin in Israel. A splendid example comes from the synagogue on the Aegean island of Delos, thought to date from the first century B.C. The Darshan could actually make use of such synagogue fixtures in graphically illustrating his interpretation of scripture, as we can see from an otherwise elliptical midrash on the biblical description of Solomon’s throne: “And the top of the throne was round behind” (I Kings 10:19). R. Aha said: Like this seat of Moshe (kehada kathedra demoshe) (Pesiqta deRav Kahana 1:6). It would have been most fitting to refer to the throne on which the Darshan sat as the “Seat of Moses,” since his role was specifically equated with the role of Moses as teacher of Torah, as we can see from the following midrash: “And Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet” (Exodus 7:1). Just as the preacher (hadoresh) sits and preaches and the Amora speaks before him, so you (Moses), “Thou shalt say all that I command thee and Aaron thy brother shall speak, etc.” (Ibid.,2) (Tanhuma Va’era 10, Exodus Rabbah 8:3).

A Living Loudspeaker

This midrash also illustrates another interesting feature of the public sermon in Talmudic times. The Darshan did not speak in a loud voice directly to his audience. Rather, this was the function of the Amora or Meturgeman, who served as a kind of “living loud-speaker.” The Darshan apparently communicated his comments in a low voice or whisper to the Meturgeman who, standing, then “broadcast” them to the congregation with great rhetorical flourish which may even have taken on the character of chanting or a kind of song (See Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:5). Similar to the practice of having the Darshan seated, possibly on a special throne, the use of the Meturgeman was probably meanto to emphasize the dignity of the Darshan. For the sage was expected to speak only in a quiet, restrained voice, leaving any histrionics to the Meturgeman. Indeed, the Meturgeman, who did not hesitate to raise his voice to the audience was thought to lord it over the simple congregants: “The words of sages are better heard in quiet” (Ecclesiastes 9:17). This refers to the Darshanim. “Than the shout of him who rules over the simple” (Ibid.). This refers to the Meturgemanim who stand over the congregation (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, ad loc.).

Elites vs. Masses

Though the public sermon given in the synagogue seems to have been particularly intended for the instruction of the less well educated strata of society, such instruction was considered important for all. The Talmud warns that two respected families in Jerusalem died out because they preferred to take their Sabbath meal at home just when the sermon was being given (see B. Gittin 38b). It is possible that such people felt that the public sermon was too popular in content and style, or they may have disdained to mingle with the lower classes who attended the sermon both as a source of entertainment and education. Indeed, in Sepphoris, apparently even the thieves came to hear the sermon; though what they learned about the “modus operandi” of the Generation of the Flood was, unfortunately, put to professional use! (See P. Ma’aser Sheni V.1, 55d, cf. B. Sanhedrin 109a).

Given the great differences in educational level, the Darshan had to be able to adapt his remarks to the audience he was addressing on a particular occasion. It is related that Rabbi Levi had two very different metaphoric interpretations of the same scriptural passage, “And the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 11:2). The one which he reserved for his academic colleagues (lehavraya) is quite poetic: “When a man begins to cry his eyes stream with tears.” But when he preached to the uneducated (leboraya), he did not hesitate to interpret this biblical passage using an analogy which, to us at least, seems shockingly scatological: “When a man begins to make water, feces come first” (see Leviticus Rabbah 18:1). The Darshan’s willingness to relate to his audience on their level reflects not disdain but rather a certain respect for those who were less academically inclined. Indeed, even the most respected rabbis were willing, it seems, to include in their public sermons a good midrash learned from an ignorant man, and were even willing to quote it in his name:

An ignorant man (in the Aramaic: am deara, i.e., Am HaAretz) said to Rabbi Hoshaya: If I tell you a good one, will you quote it in my name in public? He answered: What is it? All the gifts that our father Isaac gave to Esau, the nations of the world will return to the messianic king in the time to come; what is the proof? “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles will return gifts” (Ps. 72:10). It is not written that “they will bring gifts,” but that “they will return gifts.” R. Hosayah said to him: By your life, you did tell a good one; I will quote it in your name (Genesis Rabbah 78:12).

“He…will sit in Paradise and Preach”

The many different forms which the public homily may have taken on various occasions and at different times during the Talmudic period is an interesting and complicated question which deserves fuller discussion elsewhere. However, one feature, which is suggested by the complex “literary” homilies found in such works as Leviticus Rabbah and Pesiqta deRav Kahana, bears mention here. It was apparently customary to conclude the homily on a note of hope, by mentioning the promise of the messianic age. The same tendency to conclude each section or session of learning on a similar or positive note can be seen in the conclusions of many tractates of the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmudim and in the formal ending of the Passover Haggadah with the hopeful expectation: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to the Darshan as preacher and teacher of Torah was to compare his role to that of God Himself in the world to come:

In the future the Holy One, blessed be He, will sit in Paradise and preach. And all the righteous will sit before him. And all the righteous will sit before him. And the heavenly host will stand on their feet; to His right, the sun with the constellations and to His left, the moon and the stars. And the Holy One, blessed be He, will interpret to them the teachings of a new Toah which He will give to them in the future through the Messiah. And when He comes to teach Aggadah, Zerubbabel ben Shealtiel will rise to his feet and say: May His great name be magnified and sanctified, etc. And his voice will be heard from one end of the Universe to the other. And all those who dwell on the earth shall answer: Amen! (Alpha Beta deRabbi Aquiva, Bet HaMidrash, ed. Jellenik, III, p.27-28).


Published in The Melton Journal, Spring 1982, No. 14, Sivan 5742

At the time of publication, Marc Bregman, a student of the late Professor Joseph Heinemann, was completing his doctorate in Midrash at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was serving then as the director of the program in classical Hebrew texts at the Hebrew Union College Jerusalem campus.


How To Be Grateful, Even When Successful

Yiskor Sermon 2010
Shemini Atzeret
September 30th, 2010
How To Be Grateful, Even When Successful
(sermon influenced by Rabbi Hayyim Kieval)

One of the most famous preachers in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century was Rabbi
Jacob Krantz, the Dubner Maggid, who was renowned for his parables or meshalim. A fine example is this mashal, explaining the purpose of Sukkot.

Once there was a country ruled by a good-hearted king, who ordered that, at his expense,
the kingdom‟s slums and shacks were to be replaced by pleasant, bright houses. The citizens immediately carried out this generous law, and the land became prosperous as never before.

The good king went on a tour of inspection. Everywhere he was greeted with expressions of gratitude. But in his capital city, the king found in a forgotten corner, one old broken-down shack housing a poor family. The king was shocked.
“How is it that you also have not been given a new house to live in?” asked the monarch.
The old man who lived in the shack answered,
“The townspeople have forgotten us!”
The king said to himself,
“If my people can forget this poor man, whom they see all the time, then surely they can
forget me, whom they never see! I must, therefore, give them a reminder, as that they shall
never forget what I have done for them.”

So, after providing the forgotten family with a new dwelling, the king had the shack moved to
the center of the capital city. Above it hung this sign:
“This Is the Kind of Shack We All Used To Live In”Said the Dubner Maggid: When the Hebrew nation became prosperous in Eretz Yisrael, God commanded them to build Sukkot each year, lest they forget what He did for them after forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
Maimonides gave a similar explanation for the Sukkah: “To teach man to remember his evil
days in his days of prosperity”.
Just a few days ago, we went through the difficult fast of Yom Kippur. A very curious law in
the Mishnah (R.H. 9:1) states,
“Whoever eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishri is considered . . . to have fasted both the ninth
and tenth days of Tishri!”
In other words, we get just as much credit for feasting on Erev Yom Kippur, as we do for fasting
on Yom Kippur! How is that possible?

A brilliant explanation was given during the past century by the Rabbi of Bucharest, the
“Malbim”. He said that the sages realized that it is just as hard to feast for the sake of God as
it is to fast for the sake of God…..
The “Malbim” put his finger on a well-known truth of human nature that prosperity and religion
do not often go well together. It is an axiom that the yearning for God and the passion for
righteousness is to be found more among the troubled and the oppressed, than among the
comfortable and secure.

Prosperity often makes people self-satisfied and arrogant. Successful people are often
tempted to think of themselves as “self-made”. They begrudge any share of the credit to
anyone else – not even God.

This pattern was already well-known in the days of the Bible. Moses predicts the growth of this
attitude among the former Hebrew slaves, once they become rich and successful. He warns,
“Take care lest you forget the Lord, your God . . when you have eaten your fill, and have built
fine houses . . . and when your silver and gold have increased. Beware lest your heart grow
haughty, and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage . . .and you say to yourselves: „My own power and the might of my own have
won for me this wealth.‟ But you shall remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you
the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant which He swore with your fathers . . .”
(Deuteronomy 8:11-18)

We usually think of misfortune and crisis as the true test of character. But it may be an even
greater test to pass through good fortune and success. Perhaps wealth is a stronger
temptation, morally and spiritually, than poverty. Perhaps the “Malbim” was right when he
said, “It is harder to FEAST for God than to FAST for God”.

Suppose we neglect to thank God for our prosperity. As long as it does not hurt anyone else,
what difference does it make?

The answer is that it makes a great deal of difference to others how we feel about our good
fortune. When we feel that our success is self-made, we forget that life‟s gifts have spiritual
meaning only if they are shared with others!

We forget that life itself is a gift; that health, beauty, cleverness, strength, talent, are blessings
which may be taken away from us without notice. We are not the “manufacturers” of most of
life‟s blessings. Nor should we satisfy ourselves with being the “consumers” only.

The spiritual attitude is to consider ourselves “distributors”. When we come to understand that
we are merely the instruments of a power greater than ourselves, when we realize that our
prosperity or success is given to us not merely to consume but to distribute and share, then we
are truly grateful and truly human. But, as long as we are insensitive to these spiritual truths, we
lose some of our humanity.

The Yiddish play “The Dybbuk” contains a memorable scene. A wealthy man was afflicted
with a miserable illness. No doctor could diagnose him so he went to a renowned Hassidic
Rebbe for help. The Rebbe led him to a window and said,
“Tell me what you see”.“I see people in the streets.”
Then the Rebbe took him to a mirror and said,
“Look into this glass and tell me what you see.”
“I see myself, of course.”
“See”, remarked the wise Rabbi, “what a difference a little silver makes. Through a plain glass
you see other people, but when you put silver on the back of the glass, you have a mirror in
which you can see only yourself! This is your trouble. Ever since prosperity has come upon
you, you have forgotten your humanity. Use your blessing for the benefit of others and you will
be well again!”

The Rabbi was telling the unhappy rich man of the basic meanings of Sukkot: Be thankful even
in the time of prosperity!

I began this Sukkot message with a mashal of the Maggid of Dubno. Let me conclude it with
a modern parable, which I thing the Maggid would have liked.
The playwright Moss Hart, brought up in the poverty of the lower East Side, finally made his
fortune on Broadway and in Hollywood. He purchased a huge estate and proceeded to
renovate it from end to end. No expense was spared. Lakes and ponds were created. Trees
were uprooted and replaced. Every visitor was given the grand tour, and would lavish praise
on Hart‟s handiwork.

All except one guest, the playwright‟s friend and professional partner, George S. Kaufman.
After his tour of the grounds, Kaufman remarked,
“My friend, all I can say is, What God could do if only He had your money!”
Even in their tough times, American Jews have more money than Jews have ever had before.
The challenge before us now is this: What could we do with our money, if only we had God!

Creating a Culture of Jewish Food on Yom Kippur Day

5770 Yom Kippur Day Sermon

Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein

Creating a Culture of Jewish Food on Yom Kippur Day

There are generally two topics which are taboo to discus in mixed company: religion and politics.  On Yom Kippur we add a third: food.

Today I have planned a sermon that deals almost exclusively with that very delicate subject matter.  Don’t worry, though, I will do so not to tempt your taste buds, but instead, hopefully, to remind us why we are not eating and drinking in the first place.  (I should warn you that there is one potentially dangerous area of the sermon.  At that point I will let you know, so anyone who chooses to can cover his or her ears.)

Let’s start with the other important “f-word” of this day: fasting.  According to the Torah, on Yom Kippur we are commanded to “Anitem et Nafshechem,” “to impoverish our souls.”  “Anitem” comes from the Hebrew word, Ani, for poverty.

While the Torah offers no explanation of what this word, Anitem, means, our rabbis, of blessed memory, have proscribed six specific prohibitions on Yom Kippur: not eating, drinking, wearing perfume, bathing, wearing leather shoes, or sexual relations.    By refraining from these activities we are literally impoverishing ourselves and forcing our attention away from our bodies and onto our souls.

Of course, as all of us in this room are no doubt aware, by depriving ourselves of our basic physical needs, we, in fact, focus more attention on these needs than on any other day of the year.  While there are other fasts in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is the only one where work is also prohibited, and thus we have little to distract ourselves from the pangs in our bellies and in our hearts.

As Americans in the 21st Century we live in a world of utter and almost incomprehensible abundance.  Nothing epitomizes this more than the search for non-leather shoes on Yom Kippur.  While leather used to be so rare that only the wealthy could afford such a luxury, it has now become so commonplace that it is difficult to find a shoe, of any kind, that does not include leather.  I, myself, always choose my Teva sandles, both because they are Israeli, and because when else can I wear them to synagogue and get away with it.

At no time in human history has food been cheaper and more readily available.  While the economic crisis of this past year has brought a slight increase in price in some of our basic necessities, compared to the struggles many of the people in this room went through in the 1920’s and 30’s, we still have it easy.

I am reminded of a story that I shared in one of my newsletter column’s this past year.  It involved a lobbying session I participated in a few years back in Washington DC, where, as part of a contingent of Reconstructionist rabbis, I visited with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorim.  Our group, led by Rabbi Shawn Zevit, had confronted Senator with the statistic that over 36 million Americans, including 8 million children, are hungry.

“I don’t like the word hunger,” Santorim said to us. “Hunger implies starvation and we all know that there are no starving people in America?”

While the Senator’s suggestion is, of course, ludicrous, he does point out the plenty that is seemingly available to almost every single person in this country.  According to statistics I culled in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, “US farmers now produce 3,900 calories per US citizen, per day.  That is twice what we need, and 700 more calories than they grew in 1980.”  She goes on to say, “in fact, all the world’s farms currently produce enough food to make every person on the globe fat” and can continue “to sustain world food needs even for the 8 billion people who are projected to inhabit the planet in 2030.”

To find evidence of this extreme production, one has to look no further than your own refrigerators or drive down the street to the nearest Wegmans or Topps.  I remember a call I received from Ashirah a few days after our arrival in Buffalo.  She had gotten lost in the Wegmans in Alberta.  And, I do not mean lost getting to the Wegmans on Alberta.  She had literally gotten lost in the store itself!!!

“Alex,” she told me, “you would never believe this.  There are twenty-seven aisles just for the checkout.”

Still, with all of this food readily available, how much do we really understand about where it comes from, what’s inside of it, and how it gets to our plates?

In her book, Kingslover, who is better known for her novels like The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Tree, tells the story of her family’s one year journey to eat locally.  She, her husband, Steven, and two children, Camille and Lily, move across the country from Tucson, Arizona, to rural Virginia, to experience life on a farm.  They commit themselves to growing as much of their food as possible, and, other than the one luxury item each family member is permitted, buying as much food from local sources as possible.

This, as the family quickly finds out, is not an easy task.  We are so used to eating foods out-of-season at any time of the year, we hardly have any sense of what in-season means anymore.  A perfect example of this is apples on Rosh Hashanah.  While we know that this is the traditional fruit of the High Holidays, how many of us are aware that the reason for this is this is also the time of the year of the apple harvest?  Yes, apples help us bring in a sweet new year, but they also remind us of what is happening in nature.

Kingslover uses her book to argue that Americans, as well as many people of the world, have lost their food cultures.  By this she means, that the secrets that were once passed down from generation to generation, about how to grow and prepare food, are no longer being passed down.  “Food cultures,” she writes, “concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place, and the complex ways of rendering them tasty.  These are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess.”

We have forgotten our roots, literally- our connection to the roots that grow in the ground.

In fact, so little is taught today about food production that, Kingslover argues, it is almost like we think the food magically appears for us at our neighborhood supermarkets.  She writes, “when we walked as a nation away from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial.  Now, it’s fair to say, the majority of us don’t want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints.  Except as straw-chewing figures in children’s books, we don’t quite believe in them anymore.”

By fasting on Yom Kippur, I would argue, we are reminding ourselves, that there is no fairy godmother of food.  That hard work does go into growing, preparing, and presenting food.  And, that despite the incredible food production of our nation and world, 800 million people live on the edge of starvation because they simply cannot afford to eat the plenty that our farmer’s provide for us every day.

Anyone who has any relationship with their Bubbe, or is a Bubbe themselves, knows that Jews have a very strong food culture.  And – (this would be the time to cover your ears) – from how our knowledge of how to make the perfect kneidelach, to what temperature to roast a brisket, (okay you can open them) Jewish food culture is very much alive today.  I have the luck of having married into a family that cares deeply about these traditions and preserves them from one holiday to the next.  Ashirah’s maternal grandmother Rose, who is now 97-years-old, still knows how to make a… and, you can close your ears again… fluffy matzah-ball and chicken soup (okay you can open them).  While she suffers from dementia, and has difficulty communicating with the word around her, her hands still have that precious food memory that was passed down to her from her long deceased family who, almost all, perished in the Holocaust.

Even on Yom Kippur, food is the centerpiece that all else revolves.  As they say in the Hillel world, if you are going to hold a program for students, just write “Free Food” in really big letters, and the name of the actual program in the smallest font possible.  Or in the joke about what connects all Jewish holidays: “we were enslaved, God saved us, now we can eat.”

Jewish cookbooks, like all other Jewish books, abound, and are filled with tasty and long standing recipes.  These recipes come not just from our Bubbe’s, but from over four thousand years of Jewish writing.  In the Torah, the laws for kashrut teach about what our ancestors believed about what foods are permissible or forbidden.  And, while the sacrificial texts from Leviticus, like the one we just read today, may make Reconstructionists’ squeamish, they teach us about how the priests both prepared and used food.

One of my favorite texts on Jewish food culture, comes from the pages of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, the first real abstract written about Jewish law.  A physician for the Kalif, he preached the value of moderation and while some of his teachings on food still hold true today, others not so much.  Here are just a few of the gems from his writing, several of which are extremely applicable to our environment here in Buffalo:

  • In the summer, one should eat unseasoned foods without many spices and use vinegar. In the rainy season, one should eat seasoned foods, use many spices, and eat some mustard and chiltit.
  • One should follow these principles in regard to cold climates and hot climates, [choosing the food] appropriate to each and every place.
  • All pickled fruits are harmful and should be eaten only sparingly in summer weather and in hot climates. Figs, grapes and almonds are always beneficial, both fresh and dried. One may eat of them as much as he requires. However, he should not eat them constantly even though they are the most beneficial of fruits.
  • Honey and wine are harmful to the young and wholesome for the old. Certainly, this applies in the rainy season. In summer, one should eat two-thirds of what he eats in the winter.

As evidenced by Rambam, just as Jews have lived all over the world in every possible climate, so too Jewish food comes from all over the world.  Every stop Jews have made, and often have had to make, along the way, has been an invitation to learn about the delicacies of that particular area and make them our own.  Many Jewish food didn’t start out Jewish at all, but became Jewish with the love and the care of our Bubbies in our Jewish home.

That said, when Kingslover talks about a food culture she is not only referring to the preparation of food in the household, but also how food is grown in our gardens.  And, for much of Jewish history, Jews have been forcibly removed from this segment of food culture.  While Judaism began as an agricultural religion, starting in the middle-ages, Jews in Europe and other places were forbidden from owning land.  This made us almost completely dependent on others in fulfilling our basic food needs, and made it much easier for Jews to be expelled the powers that be decided we were no longer needed, or they had more to gain by kicking us out.

Our synagogue president, Adrienne Crandall, writes about this in her October newsletter column: “This summer I had the good fortune to visit England.  I took an opportunity to visit the East End of London where a guide explained the history of Jewish England.  I sat in a synagogue, Bevis Marks, the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Europe and listened to how the Jews were first invited to England by King William I (William the Conqueror of Normandy) around 1066 CE so that they could act as money lenders to aid the King in financing his endeavors.  But as our history so often reveals, this created a situation that eventually led to their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I.  They did not return for 400 years.”

At the turn of the 20th Century as Jews explored returning to Israel to create a homeland of our own, they realized that there was a sizable impediment to making this happen.  After all the many centuries of being off the land, how would we possibly able to reclaim our agricultural roots?  Nationhood would only be possible if Jews once again could grow and produce our own food.

To this effect, a group of ten men and two women, all of them teenagers, established the first Kibbutz in 1909 at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee.  They called their community “Kvutzat Degania,” after the cereals which they grew there.  And, while the work was backbreaking and dangerous, Degania grew in size to fifty members by 1914.

In 2001, on my year in Israel through the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I had a chance to spend time at Degania and learn about the trials and tribulations of the first Kibbutzniks.  The land that they dedicated themselves was filled with dust and mosquitoes.  They worked until they could work no longer, and then spent the night arguing about ideology.  Many of this first cohort died of malaria and starvation.

But out of this came some of the leading lights of modern Israel: A.D. Gordon, Joseph Trumbeldor, Moshe Dayan and, even, David Ben Gurion.  With Rabbi Amy Klein, and two other rabbinical students, I toured the famous cemetery down the hill from Degania, right on the edge of Sea of Galilee.  The passion of those first settlers came through on their gravestones, many of which were marked with pictures of mosquitoes.  Most remarkable was how young they were, and how much they sacrificed for all of us here today.

These are the words of the poet Rachel, a woman known just by her first name, who is buried in that famous cemetery:  “I have not sung you, my country, not brought glory to your name with the great deeds of a hero or the spoils a battle yields. But on the shores of the Jordan

my hands have planted a tree, and my feet have made a pathway through your fields. Modest are the gifts I bring you. I know this, mother. Modest, I know, the offerings of your daughter: Only an outburst of song on a day when the light flares up, only a silent tear for your poverty.”

On this Yom Kippur Day, I think about the efforts of those few Israeli pioneers.  They made many mistakes, including purchasing only male trees and not realizing why they would not spread their seeds, but they did something, that, I believe Kingslover would be proud of, they restored our Jewish agricultural soul.  After two thousand years of wandering, finally, we had been returned to a land flowing in milk and honey.

“L’Dor L’Dor, from generation to generation,” is a phrase we recite at the end of the Kedushah.  On a day like today we feel the very real thread that ties us to our ancestors.  It is as if our hands are extended through the ages from grandparent to grandchild.  And, by touching that long line of our Jewish past, we know the struggles our ancestors went through to preserve this faith we call Judaism.

Our fast is a way of showing our commitment to maintaining this line of knowledge.  Here in this room, we have once again stripped away the gadgets of the 21st Century, and stand impoverished just like our ancestors have been for thousands of years.

“Anitem et Nafshechem,” “to impoverish our souls,” by abstaining from eating and drinking, let us be reminded of the bounty that we have in our world.  We should not take our good fortune lightly.  In Judaism, food is spiritual nourishment as well as physical nourishment.  At the beginning of each meal we recite, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, Ha’Motzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz.”  “Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, who has allowed us to bring forth bread from out the earth.”  By this, we are saying that food is only made in partnership with God.

Nothing at Temple Sinai symbolizes this partnership more than our Tzedukah Garden.  Conceived of by one of my predecessors, Barry Schwartz, and then worked on for over ten years by our synagogue members, most notably Marty Bates, zichrono l’vrachah, may his memory be a blessing, our Tzedukah Garden demonstrates our commitment to a dictate that was given to us at the beginning of Genesis, “L’Avodah V’lishmorah,” “to till it and to tend to” the earth.  With all of the produce from the garden, goes to local food banks and other charitable operations.

This past summer I had a chance to work in the garden.  Now, I can assure you that I was not born with a green thumb.  My childhood was spent in the city of Philadelphia with very little land to call my own.  Coming to work with Marty, was extremely intimidating to me.  He stood tall, with his farmer’s physique and strong, weathered hands.  And, he seemed to know everything about the garden.  We rototilled the ground, I word I had not even heard of before this year, and smoothed it out for the planting.  I watched as he lay the strings to define the area of each vegetable that we would be growing.  Then, we planted.  Suddenly, within a few weeks, the barren earth was transformed into a bed of luscious growth.

On one of my days with Marty, I went close to his good ear, and asked him whether he had grown-up gardening.  “No,” he said with the wide smile he always carried with him.  “It’s just something I picked up along the way.”

In that moment, with the sun beating down on us, Marty was one of the first Kibutzniks, slaving at the ground, to ensure that our community and this generation would not lose its culture of food.

On this Yom Kippur day, in the spirit of our beloved Marty, let us remind ourselves about the sacred value of food.  May each bite you take at your break-the-fast, whether here or elsewhere, be for you a step closer to your understanding and appreciation of food.  In this age of overindulgences, let us choose not to overindulge, let us choose, “l’acaltah v’savatah,” “to eat and be satisfied.”

An easy fast, a safe fast, a meaningful fast to us all.


Leaving Your Comfort Zone

Erev Rosh HaShana Sermon, 5768
Rabbi Julie Greenberg

In past years, on this auspicious evening, as we step into the New Year, I have frequently spoken about the sense of home: all of us from far-flung places, honing in as if by instinct, coming to this holy place at this holy time. We’ve talked about the yearning for home and the challenges of realizing that home means something different for each one of us.

This evening I want to talk about an idea that is about as opposite from home as one could possibly get. Instead of talking about comfort zones, I want to delve into our tradition’s wily commitment to jerking us out of our comfort zones.

Think of Abraham and Sarah, happily living in their polytheistic homeland in Mesopotamia when they get the call “Lech lecha,” “Lechi lach.” Go on a journey to find yourself. And they set forth on this adventure, leaving behind everything they know in a quest for their future.

Think of Moses, happily herding his sheep in the desert of Midian when he gets the call to lead the campaign to free the slaves.

Not just our biblical ancestors but our personal ancestors often took amazing leaps of faith that helped us reach this day. My grandmother, Bertha Greenberg, was 15 years old when she, alone, left her village in Bukavina, in eastern Europe, to travel to the big city to get on a boat to cross the ocean. Her brave actions planted our generations here in this country.

The whole Torah and much of Jewish history is one big tale of journeying. In the Torah, there isn’t even a conclusion to the story. The big story in the Torah, as you know, is “We were slaves in Egypt, we wandered in the wilderness, we got to the edge of Israel”. And that’s the end of the story. The Torah ends. Can you imagine a movie that is framed like that? What kind of a movie director would end the story right there? Rabbi Avram Davis teaches that through this framing, Torah emphasizes that the journey towards freedom is what matters, not the destination. The Promised Land is not a place, but a process.

In the journey of life, all of us get stuck in ruts at times. There are the grand ruts that come along with the particular scripts handed down from generation to generation:

There are the small ruts of habit.

Someone recently described these ruts to me like this: it’s as though you load up a wheelbarrow and push it on a certain path toward the forest. The next day when you do it again, it’s easier to take the same path the wheelbarrow already went on. Every day that wheelbarrow track gets deeper and it becomes harder and harder to move away from that well worn rut even if you want to go somewhere else.

The New Year is a huge invitation to leave these comfortable ruts, to be more aware, more free, to be more of who you can be, to make this world more of what it could be.

The New Year is a wonderful invitation to make choices about what scripts from the past are life affirming. What patterns in your life are effective and actualize your vision? What needs to change?

Torah proclaims,“I put before you this day the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.”

Following in the tradition of our ancestors, what would it be like to shake it up a little, try something new, try a new attitude, a new behavior? Could we each leave our homeland whether it be Mesopotamia or Egypt or Center City Philadelphia, the Main Line or South Jersey? These Holy Days provide tremendous collective support for the inner work each of us is called to do to grow ourselves. We’re here together providing a spiritual container, otherwise known as community, to make it possible for moral development to happen.

These days are about change. They are about not just having to do and be the same old, same old, but with the power of prayer and the strength of community, taking a step into a New Year with greater clarity and greater consciousness to fuel the good deeds we hope to do in the year to come.

In the Torah that we learn on these days, there are stories that teach us to take the power to choose our perspective on life.
In one story, Hagar and her baby Ishmael are about to die in the desert wilderness from desperate thirst. There seems to be no hope at all. All of a sudden she lifts her eyes, the text says, and lo and behold there is water. She had to change her perspective by lifting her eyes, our sages teach, before the water could save her life.

In another case, Abraham is on the verge of sacrificing his son Isaac. There is Isaac bundled on the altar about to be slaughtered. There seems no way out of this debacle. Then Abraham looks up and lo and behold there is a ram in the bushes. He had to change his perspective by looking up before that ram could save his son. We get to choose our perspective even when that means leaving the comfort zone of habitual mindset.

Maybe you’d like to choose a new perspective on some of the questions that often arise when we all come together for a service such as this. Naturally questions arise such as will I feel comfortable in this service? Are these my kind of people? Do I belong here? What a liberating idea, that each one of us can choose our own vantage point. Of course you belong, of course you are welcome, of course there is something for you here.

Today, I am taking stock of where the Jewish people are on our collective journey and I am particularly going to look at where we are stuck. I see some stuck places where old pain is keeping people from moving freely forward. It’s like we are camping out with the wagons circled, protecting entrenched positions, well defended but unable to move forward on the journey. I’m going to name some of those stuck places.

A big stuck place that is really hampering our journey has to do with past disappointments and hurts the Jewish people have experienced.

The Holocaust of course was a huge, devastating wound for us. The six million included a generation of teachers who could have enriched Jewish life for years to come. As the Rabbis said, when you save a life, you save a whole world and we lost many many worlds. Our people has not recovered from this terrible trauma.

On a different scale, but still significant, there are also more recent Jewish wounds that many of us carry with us. People pour their hearts out to me as a Rabbi, at social events and in counseling sessions. It’s amazing how many stories I hear about what didn’t work for individuals in their past relationships with Jewish community.     Sometimes Hebrew school is the sore spot. Hebrew school failed many people—- “I never understood a word of Hebrew and so it’s all meaningless to me.”

Sometimes insensitive clergy people fail those who seek them out, especially in interfaith situations. For instance a Rabbi refuses to participate in the sanctification of love between a Jew and a non-Jew and judges or dismisses a couple’s relationship. This has caused terrible hurt feelings and pain about Jewish community life.

Another example of past hurts, that is extremely prevalent, is how painful the finances of Jewish community life have been to many people. It has shamed and enraged people to have to pay for their religion. Again and again I hear powerful negative reaction from people who have been asked to buy tickets for prayer services, or to pay to belong to a synagogue.

Each of these areas—the Holocaust, the question of Jewish education, of interfaith relationships and of how to sustain a synagogue without offending people—-are very complex. At this moment I am only looking at how painful these issues have been for many Jews today. We are a wounded community. We are literally survivors of trauma. Our ability to move forward is severely hampered.

Specialists who study trauma have identified pathways to recovery that would be very relevant to Jewish experience. Judith Hermann, a respected leader in the world of trauma recovery, posits three stages of healing: establishing safe space, remembering the trauma, moving on into new relationships and commitments. As a spiritual community we have many resources for establishing safe space. Our liturgy is a liturgy of remembrance; and most exciting of all Jewish community offers new opportunities for learning, relationship, fun and caring.

But none of this communal resource will do any good unless each one of us does the holy inner work of renewal. This is the time of year to open the heart, to let God’s grace, God’s healing chesed gently in. This is the time to let some of that old pain melt. Jewish baggage is unavoidable, but you don’t have to carry quite as much of it into the New Year.

I’ll share with you a very powerful image. Midrash asks, where will we find Messiah when the time comes? Where will mashiach be? And the answer is, mashiach will be sitting outside the gates of Jerusalem bandaging his/her wounds. From the wounded comes hope and renewal. Mashiach is hurt and yet brings forth a time of redemption, justice, peace. This is such a rich image of transformation.

If any one of you experiences yourself as holding back, staying on the margins of Jewish community life, because of old hurts, I want you to know two things: I want you to know that there are people inside, power-houses of Jewish continuity, who are lonely for you, who need you. And number two, there are young people and people new to Judaism coming into the Jewish world who need the strength of our people, standing together in all of our diversity, to welcome them.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in Dignity of Difference (quoted in the article by Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, “Spiritual Direction: No Inside, No Outside” that we are reading in community this week),

How can I let go of that pain when it is written into my very soul? And yet I must. For the sake of my children and theirs, not yet born. I cannot build their future on the hatreds of the past, nor can I teach them to love God more by loving people less…. The duty I owe my ancestors who died because of their faith is to build a world in which people no longer die because of their faith. I honour the past not by repeating it but by learning from it…by refusing to add pain to pain, grief to grief. That is why we must answer hatred with love, violence with peace, resentment with generosity of spirit and conflict with reconciliation.

I picture a New Year, in which all of us who harbor old Jewish pain, are able to let that melt a bit in the light of new possibilities. It’s a time for second chances, a time for healing. To stay in the disappointments and failures of past Jewish experience is like taking that wheelbarrow down the same path again and again. It’s staying in a comfort zone of familiar pain that isn’t really very comforting. The call of the shofar is to leave that well worn place, to discover bravely, together in community, a new way.

This new way will have deeply personal ramifications and also vast political ramifications.
In the realm of the personal, it is a blessing to clean up the misery that holds you back from joy and right action.
In the realm of the political, look at the impasse we are in in the middle east. There is a place of such stuckness for Jews: a place where we are so hurt and so fearful that we can’t listen to other voices, we can’t do creative problem-solving, we become part of the problem rather than the solution. We need to clean up our collective pain in order to step into our future.

In the spirit of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, of Bertha Greenberg, my grandmother and all the other brave ancestors of each one here, let’s let go of the debilitating stuck places, let’s let God in, and let’s choose a future of involvement, respect, co-operation, sharing, and peace. Living in the painful memories of the past damages our prospects for a future. Memory is important but let’s also remember that we are a people called to pursue justice, called to create peace, called to live in holy community.

Let’s accept the invitation to choose life.

Welcome to Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City! We look forward to journeying with you into the New Year. May it be a year of consciousness and commitment. May it be a year of fun and happiness. May it be a year of abundance, friendship and good deeds.  Shana Tova!