Category Archives: Rosh Hashanah

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

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.

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!

God Will Gather Me In

Rosh Hashanah 5768 (Day 2)
Shmuel Herzfeld


I happened to notice a sign on the street advertising that Bob Dylan will be performing in concert in DC in two weeks.

Of course, I sent him an invitation to join us for a meal in our Sukkah.  I am still awaiting a response.

Bob Dylan was born as Robert Zimmerman, a nice Jewish boy from Minnesota. He led the life of a Rock Star.  He was a hit musician, brilliant poet, and inspiration to many people.  He was an activist and a symbol.  He also had a life of ups and downs.  He went through multiple relationships and periods of depression and despair.  He suffered one period where he broke his neck falling off a motorcycle and had to fight his way back to life.

Spiritually, he also wandered from his roots.  For a while he embraced all religions.  Then, in the late 1970s, he became a born-again Christian and produced albums celebrating his faith in Christianity.

But can anyone ever really leave their roots?  In the late ‘80’s Dylan seemed to reconnect to his yiddeshkeit.  And he seems to have remained with it ever since.  As late as 2005 there was an article noticing that he attended services at an Orthodox synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.  Who knows?  He might even show up today.

In the meantime, here is my favorite Bob Dylan story.  On February 20, 1991, Bob Dylan was given a Grammy award for lifetime achievement:

Dylan took his trophy from a beaming Jack Nicholson; he squinted, as if looking for his mother, who was in the audience.

“Well, my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said” – there was a long pause, nervous laughter from the crowd – “you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.”
Dylan’s remarks were almost a verbatim account of the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch: “Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.” (Taken from Ronnie Shcrieber’s website.)
Rav Hirsch was a brilliant rabbi in Germany in the 19th century.  His comments (which inspired Dylan) were written for the words of psalm 27 which we recite every day in the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, “ki avi ve-imi yaazavuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni, for though my father and mother forsake me, God will gather me in.”

This psalm is a psalm of King David who wrote it to express his loneliness.  King David was the most powerful man of his generation.  He was a great warrior.  He ruled all of Israel and conquered Jerusalem.  No one had been able to do that before.  He had six wives and many children.

And yet, David was a profoundly lonely man.  He was racked with the guilt of the sins he had committed and with despair from the losses he had suffered.  His first son from Bathsheva died as an infant.  Then, one of his sons, Amnon assaulted his own sister, Tamar.  David’s other son, Avshalom then killed Amnon and led a rebellion against David.  David felt betrayed by everyone around him.  He was all alone in the world.

David dies virtually alone—betrayed by everyone.  He cries out in pain, “Avshalom, Avshalom, my son.”

David put this feeling of loneliness to paper and he wrote a beautiful psalm which is the center of our liturgy.  In the psalm he expresses both his loneliness and his reliance upon God.  He cries, “ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”  No matter what he has done, he feels that God will still embrace him and draw him in closer.  Even if his own parents give up on him, God still makes room for him.

Today we read the story of another spiritual giant who might have also felt David’s sense of loneliness and betrayal.

This morning’s Torah reading tells the story of the Akedah.  Abraham leads Isaac up Mount Moriah and binds him with his hands tied behind his head and his legs down to the ground.

When we analyze this story we often ask ourselves: “How could Abraham have done this?  How could he have had the strength to tie his own son up with the intention of slaughtering him?

But for just this morning why not think about it from Isaac’s perspective as well?  Imagine how Isaac must have felt as his own father—his only father, the one whom he loved—bound him and stood above him with a knife and drew close in an effort to slaughter him.

Even scarier than the knife which stopped just inches from his throat must have been the sense of abandonment.  Can you imagine?  Your own father abandoning you!

But, of course we all can imagine.  We have all been abandoned at one point in our lives.  And we will all be abandoned.  Our loved ones have died and will die; our friends have forgotten us and will forget us; our bosses or customers don’t appreciate us.  We can get very lonely.

At that moment Isaac might have thought: “Ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”

We too cry out: “Ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”

Even though everyone around us will abandon us, God will still draw us in.  We can return to God for a relationship.

Loneliness is something that is all around us.  Whenever I visit someone who is all alone in this world, I think of one of my favorite poems, Eleanor Rigby, by the Beatles.  “Ah, look at all the lonely people….”

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that as long as we are with Hashem we are never alone.  Hashem will be there to comfort us and be our friend.  No matter how dark, Hashem is by our side.

Isn’t this what the sound of the shofar is really all about?

We often forget to focus on the original meaning of the shofar blast.  The Torah tells us (Numbers 10:7): “U-vehakhil et ha-am titkeu, when you GATHER THE PEOPLE you should blast the shofar.”

The basic—perhaps the primary–purpose of the shofar is to gather us in.  At its core, the shofar is a cry from Hashem calling us to Him; He calls to us and tells us to come home to His embrace.

In that same verse in the Torah, a secondary meaning of the shofar also appears.  The Torah continues, “utekatem teruah ve-nasau, you must blast the shofar and then you will travel.”

After the shofar was used to gather the people, it was then used to signal the start of the travels of the Israelites in the desert.

On a symbolic level we can understand this to mean that if we allow Hashem to gather us in we can then travel with Him.  We can journey with God, holding His hand, and ascend to higher places.

Once we allow Hashem to gather us in then we can travel with Hashem.
Perhaps my favorite verse from the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf is when we say the words of Jeremiah, zakharti lakh chesed neurayikh, “I remember the kindness of your youth…how you followed Me through the desert….” (Jeremiah  2:2).
Jeremiah is telling us that God remembers us how we once were—pure and innocent and like a child, he gathers us up and believes in us when no one else does.

God is like a parent always believing in us.  Parents always believe in their children.
Let us remember that on Rosh Hashanah we remind ourselves that God is King of the Universe.  Since God is King, then who are we?  We are of course princes, nobles with an awesome opportunity.  As Jews we believe that Hashem requires us to carry a unique message to the world—the message of Torah.  Since we have such an important message, we MUST carry ourselves with confidence on our path to serve Hashem.

If God believes in us and God knows what he’s talking about, shouldn’t we also believe in ourselves?  Shouldn’t we avoid the trap of loneliness and low self-esteem?  Shouldn’t we allow ourselves to be drawn in by the sound of the shofar?

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

In a fascinating book entitled How God Changes Your Brain, Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg tells us that if we add spiritual practices to the daily activities of our lives, we will enhance the neural functioning of the brain AND “improve our physical, emotional, and cognitive health, adding years of greater happiness to our lives.”

At the University of Penn’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind, Newberg teaches that setting our intentions, getting clear about our goals, being able to clearly articulate for ourselves what we want as our outcome – is the first step which enables our frontal lobes to more efficiently direct our motor cortex to carry out our desire.
That’s so cool that they know that!

Setting Intention, having Kavanah, is one element required to make the most of our special time, here, now.
So, What do you want from this Day of Remembrance? Yom Hazikaron. Hayom Harat Olam. … The Day the World was Conceived… what is waiting inside of you to be born?   What brings you back to a sense of the sacred, where new beginnings are possible? Where the once-unimagined is now manifest?
For some it’s a week in NY City, a Broadway play, a museum, listening to jazz, the lights of Las Vegas, a Jewish queer San Francisco.

What helps me to reconnect my heart and soul with the Divine is to place myself in nature.

Recently, I was fortunate to be able to travel with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, to the Inside Passage in South East Alaska, and there for seven quiet days sea kayak and meditate, daven and pray, celebrate Shabbat, and practice paying attention – to EVERYTHING.

With wonderful teachers and a minyan of other seekers…. I was challenged to re-discover a Jewish spiritual life separate from my role as rabbi.

Instead of focusing on how to lead prayer for other people, I was asked to pay attention to my own personal prayer. Each morning awakening to a bell at 6am; Qi Gong exercises on the deck in silence; silent sitting practice 30 minutes, tefillah/davenning/blessing/, silent breakfast, silent time to walk, write, sit, clean. 10 am spiritual practice check-in and conversation; kayaking 11 to 4; mostly in silence. Paddling 30 minutes; and then taking long, silent, delicious drifts.  Lunch stop on an island to explore, learn about the habitat and head back to the water for more awesome, stunning encounters with the GREATNESS of CREATION.

Here, I remember that I am small. Very, very small. Brief and transitory, like a ripple in a vast ocean, like a bald eagle en route. Here, I am relieved of my own self-importance; the persistent allusion that I am at the center of the universe.  Here, I assume my proper proportion in the Cosmos. I remember: I am small in the face of God’s power, God’s eternity. I am comforted, relieved, panicked, terrified…really ALIVE!

Being half-immersed in the surface of the bay; gliding along, in silence, and then easing up from our paddling practice to enjoy some long, quiet drifts…  amidst the wildness, the grandeur, the refuge —   I remember the feeling of the oar in my hands and all of the questions in my heart agreeing to retreat as I concentrate on the subtleties of my stroke, my technique, my stamina, my joy.

Every now and then I start to worry…. What if my hands become blistered? What if my hunger doesn’t subside? What if it starts to pour and I can’t reach my raincoat? What if that helicopter is coming to find me because of a catastrophe back home?

My teacher invites me to notice when I’m in “Planning Mind,” thinking about the future. “Let go.”  “Be Here Now and trust in the Unfolding Mystery.”

It took two days for me to quiet down the conversations in my head, but when I did, I discovered an ability to pay attention that I had lost.  Eating in silence helped me to notice the way foods look on a plate, the distinct smell of a particular fruit, the mixtures of tastes that come in a meal, and most important, the incredible blessing of abundance in my life.  In the quiet of the silence, as I listened to the still, small voice, I could feel the divinity that flows through me and connects me to other beings.

I could hear angels calling.  (What? My last name is Angel! My parents Rabbi and Mrs. Camillus Angel. My sister, Naomi Angel…]  my ancestors, and those who one day will consider us theirs.
And I began to respond, “Hineini.”
“Hineini”  –
I am here. I am here now.
I am awake, fully awake – and this is awesome.
Yesh Nora HaMakom Ha Zeh!

A poem that I discovered on the trip and which expresses much of what I discovered in that time, entitled Lost by the North West poet, David Wagoner.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

I realize now that the trip for me was kind of like the journey we are all on, now; these ten days, when our tradition asks us to go to a deeper connection within ourselves; to deepen our connection to the universe, freshen our perspective and recalibrate our Kavanah.

IN that sacred place, B’MAKOM, in that sacred time, I came to a kind of stillness, in which I could begin to hear the still small voice and I awakened to what is important to me in a different way.

How can we, who are here now, get in touch with more of our senses?  Our sense of acceptance for all that is REAL? Our sense of Compassion for our human limitations; our sense of size and proportion in relationship to creation and Creator; our sense of hope for realizing that which is not yet actual but is becoming!
We are called to exert our selves, to stretch and expand. We are challenged to reach out with hands and hearts to do good. And to accept that not everything is in our HANDS to control.  We live in the WILD.

Being in my kayak, sometimes on my own, sometimes with a twin, half immersed in water, surrounded by evidence of a Force greater than me, allowed me to see things differently.
In the next ten days WE are going to be half immersed in prayer, in silence, in teshuvah work; sometimes alone, sometimes with others…. searching our hearts, looking for clues so that we might emerge with clear and renewed intention, kavanah.

As we paddle thoughtfully into the new year, what can we do to help ourselves get still; get quiet; and check in with the climate of our heart?

At times, our lives, our responsibilities, our sense of priorities –  Overwhelm us.
It’s the human condition.
Raise your hand if you’re not living with challenges?

That’s part of life.
We will always have times that challenge us.

If our desire is to live with balance,  silence is a structure that helps us cultivate awareness of what is happening in the moment. Shabbat is a practice that can help us create an oasis in the midst of the constant barrage of input in our lives.

I have found that Torah and mitzvoth, prayer and embodied meditation help me live with a Being-Here-Now quality of attention. Spiritual practices give me “eyes to see and ears to hear.” They hone my sensitivity to the potential of a miracle arising out of any ordinary day.
Often, we are just too caught up in the demands of the hour to perceive the miracle of which we are a part. Only later does understanding dawn and we realize that, in the words of our ancestor Jacob, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).
There are myriad ways to experience this sense of wholeness.
If you’re looking for ways to develop balance within yourself  … we’ll be offering several opportunities to practice in the coming year, including:  a daytime class in Embodied Judaism led by the adorable Zvi Bellin; a monthly, Spiritual Practices check-in group, that I’ll be hosting;  We have scheduled sitting meditation, chanting and learning with our beautiful cantor and other gifted spiritual friends and teachers.
We’ve got plans Shabbat morning hikes with Torah on the Trails, outdoor immersions in nature… and I’ve even reserved 10 kayaks for a Sha’ar Zahav Alaska Expedition, 2012.
Because I want company on the journey.

Out there on my kayak, I remember how good it feels to be guided, spiritually led through new terrain, new landscape and new ways of seeing.  I remember how lucky I am that I am part of a community striving together towards a shared vision, helping each other when we feel lost. And what’s more, I have this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to be your spiritual leader.  How cool is that!

As a way for us to pay deeper attention, now
To the sensations in our body, I’d like to lead you in a Guided Meditation.   (And for those of you ready to leap from your seats…. Take an extra deep breath and remind yourself…this too shall pass.)

Hands – Guided Meditation, adapted

Sit erect, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed, hands resting comfortably in your lap, palms up; take a moment to get in touch with your own breath.

I invite you now to become aware of the air at your fingertips, between your fingertips, on the palm of your hands.  Experience the fullness, strength and maturity of your hands.  Think of your hands, think of the most unforgettable hands you have known – the hands of people who have loved you well.  Remember the oldest hands that have rested in your hands.  Think of the hands of a newborn child – perhaps your nephew or niece or your own child or grandchild. Once upon a time, your hands were the same size.

Think of all that your hands have done since then.  Think of all the learning your hands have done and how many activities they have mastered, the things they have made.

There is a mystery in the hands of a person we love.  Through touch we say things we cannot say in any other way.  Our hands are sacred. They write love letters and Torah. We use a tiny silver hand to read Torah.

Now rub your hands together and feel all of this sacredness/energy. Slowly raise your left hand and place it softly on your forehead, where the tefillin are meant to rest.  Feel beneath your warm hand the electricity of your many thoughts, memories, dreams, the capacity of your amazing brain to think and feel and move your body through the world.

Now raise your right hand and gently place it over your heart.  Press more firmly until your hand picks up  the beat of your heart, that most mysterious of all human sounds, the rhythm of life itself. Now feel the aliveness of who you are in the space between your hands, shining, beating, alive. Now lower them to your lap very carefully, still feeling all of your aliveness.

Now, without opening your eyes, extend your hands on either side and find another hand. Do not simply hold it, but let your hand speak to it and let it listen to the other. Express your gratitude for this hand stretched out to you, and for the way that all of us are now linked together, hand to hand to hand.

Now bring your hands back again to your lap, continuing to feel the many ways in which we are connected.

Whose hand was that?  It could be any hand; it could be the hand of love, of the Creator.  Indeed, it was, for the Creator has no other hands than ours with which to do the work of creation.

May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the wisdom of our hands, be what makes a difference in the world as we enter together this new year.


Rosh Hashanah Evening 5768

Temple Beth Zion

Buffalo, New York

Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld


Throughout our Torah, God exhorts us to remember those among us, either least able to care for themselves or easiest for us to forget. Over and over the Torah reminds us to, in its ancient language: “care for” or “not oppress” the widow, the poor, the stranger and the orphan.  For us today, these categories represent those who still need an extra measure of our consideration, recognition, outreach and perhaps even help. Over the course of these High Holy days, we will look at each of these categories of people and our modern obligation to them. Tomorrow morning we will talk about the needs of children, on Erev Yom Kippur the poor, and on Yom Kippur afternoon the mourner. Tonight we begin by examining what I consider to be the overarching category, what it means to care for and  not oppress the stranger.

The Torah gives but a few reasons behind the Mitzvot, the Commandments. Not oppressing others because: “we were strangers in the land of Egypt” ranks in the top two most frequent reasons the Torah does give. We often talk about the Exodus as our Meta story, the story which defines us as a people. Yet we also often forget that before we could move to freedom we lived as slaves, as strangers in a strange land. The Egyptians defined us as “other” as “strangers” enabling them to take away our freedom and impose forced labor upon us. In essence, our humanity became and remained invisible to the Egyptians.

Repeated through human history, the phenomenon of defining the stranger as other is almost a constant. Some of the most egregious recent examples include: the African slave trade, our American Constitution’s original definition of African Americans as 3/5 of a person, denial of suffrage to women in America until the 20th Century and of course the Nazi definition of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and people with limited intellectual capabilities as being sub-human.

To be honest, the Torah used the term Ger – Stranger to indicate “non-citizens”, resident aliens in modern parlance. Rabbi Michael Goldberg in his book Why Should Jews Survive echoes the historic Jewish practice of the past 2000+ years to not take our texts literally but to find in them ways to expand their application in each time period to contemporary Jewish life. Using the example of counting women as equal to men in the minyan as a metaphor for the inclusion of women in every aspect of Jewish life he says: “…as the Exodus master story tells it – and as the minyan retells it every day – it is through the surviving presence of the community of the Jewish People in the world that God’s own presence is most clearly made known to the world. As Jewish women were counted among those God rescued in the Exodus from Egypt in ancient days, so, too, in our day they ought to be counted in the minyan among those who can rightfully proclaim God’s saving presence to the world.”

The Torah teaches that our Brit, our covenant with God includes all Jews alive and present at Sinai as well as those yet to be born, old and young, women and men, the so called upper crust of society and those whose work many consider menial. If all Jews count, then all Jews count!

Further, we are also taught that along with the Israelites, many non-Jews attached themselves to our people as they left Egypt. Thus today we include in our congregation non-Jews who choose to affiliate with us as a full part of our family.

If Torah teaches us to include all, then why do we still see some as strangers, as other? Part of the answer lies in our unintentional, and yes at times intentional blindness. As our eyes scan those around we tend to see only what stands clearly in our line of sight. We assume everyone resembles us or, we have yet to grow to perceive those that feel “strangered”, who feel unseen for what their uniqueness adds to our community.

For most of us, our cultural upbringing limits our vision. Some of you have heard me discuss the book: Gentleman’s Agreement written by Laura Hobson, a non-Jewish woman, in 1947. If you read the book or saw the movie you know Ms. Hobson tells the story of a non-Jewish newspaper reporter who poses as a Jew and experiences first hand the subtle, not quite below the surface, anti-Semitism of the post World War II era. The protagonist meets a divorced woman with a career whose ideal of being a complete, fulfilled woman means giving up her career for marriage and motherhood. A non-Jewish woman with incredible sensitivity and understanding of anti-Semitism could not see beyond the definition of ideal woman of her time period. How prescient must have been the leaders of the abolitionist, civil rights and gay rights movements to be able to see beyond their reality to identify others, or even themselves, as living as strangers in society?

Throughout our 157 years and particularly in the past four score plus years, our congregation and its leadership reached out to and tried to embrace the strangers among us. From Rabbis Fink and Goldberg’s leadership in the areas of civil rights and interfaith relations to our more recent efforts to reach out to the intermarried and those new to our community, we traveled on a road of welcoming the stranger. Not only accepting those who are different from us but striving to hear, appreciate and understand the uniqueness they add to our congregational family’s life.

But, others live and worship among us and still feel estranged, left out. Even though on a policy level we consistently “do the right thing”, on the personal level, on the individual level we sometimes fall short. My parents, especially my father, taught me to treat each person the same regardless of race, religion or background. Just as Michael Goldberg says in the quote above, it is my natural tendency to expand that “same treatment” to other groups of which my parents could not conceive. Feminism as a concept was as alien to them as it was to many of their generation. Homosexuality was buried so deep in the closet that the gay community was the only group I ever heard my father speak of disparagingly.

Just as my feminist awakening took place in rabbinic school, so did the beginning of my acceptance of the GLBT community. During my years in seminary, don’t ask don’t tell would have been considered a huge step forward. If a student came out as gay or lesbian, expulsion was automatic. But of course there were gay and lesbian students in my classes. Not as an open secret, but only acknowledged in quiet whispers behind the closed doors of dorm rooms or apartments. How far our Reform movement has come! The rabbinate now includes, not only gays and lesbians but the first transgender rabbi will be ordained in the next few years.

On an official level, Temple Beth Zion has moved with the times. In all of our staff searches since I arrived, the issue of sexual orientation has not been a factor in determining who we hire. While we have not, as of yet, hired gay or lesbian clergy, in our clergy searches, each search committee committed itself to the understanding that the sexual orientation of our candidates would not determine who we would bring into our congregational family. We have for other program and professional positions hired gay and lesbian men and women. And when it comes to lay leadership, just as they do in so many ways, our young people have led the way by not only electing gay and lesbian YPS/TBaZy members to positions of leadership but supporting their gay and lesbian members when they feel some want them to remain strangers.

Consistently, we reaffirm that policy stand. We perform same sex commitment ceremonies and I am a proud and active member of the New York State Pride Agenda working toward the day when marital rights and marriage itself will be available to all members of our society. Our withdrawal from the Buffalo Jewish Review has in part, led to the Review reevaluating its decision to not even mention the words gay or lesbian in its pages. Just a few weeks ago, the editor of the Review ran a notice that in light of the Conservative Movement’s decision to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis as well as the Gay Pride service at Temple Sinai, the Review will now cover events involving, gay, and lesbian and yes also transgender Jews. I will be meeting with the editor of the Review after Yom Kippur to discuss this change in their policy and, if appropriate, see how TBZ can be supportive of their new position.

If God redeemed every Jew alive at the time or yet to be born in the Exodus and all stood at Sinai and entered into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, then clearly all Jews became and remain a part of that covenant regardless of race, gender, social standing AND sexual orientation. Just look at the Confirmation pictures on the wall at the Broder Center and look around this room. It is easy to see Jews of different races. It is easy to see Jews of different genders. It is not as easy to see Jews of different social standing. It is nearly impossible to see Jews of different sexual orientations. But they are in the pictures and they are in this sanctuary tonight. Therefore we must take our “official position” and make it personal.

Have we done enough as a sacred community to recognize, accept, reach out and meet the unique needs of the GLBT members of our congregational and our Jewish communities as we have with for example our youth and our intermarried households?

The answer is: no we have not. But beginning with this sermon, we take the first steps. After airing their concerns, some of our members have graciously agreed to set up opportunities for Rabbi Schwartzman and me to listen to the voices of GLBT Jews and we have agreed to actively listen and hear as they tell us their stories. Then together we will begin to plan how to provide an extra measure of our consideration, recognition, outreach to meet the needs of GLBT Jews, who too often feel like our ancestors in exile; strangers in a strange land. We are also committing ourselves this year to take a serious look inward. Are there others who feel as strangers in our midst? How can we transform TBZ into a congregation that has no strangers, a congregation in which all are recognized for the unique qualities they bring to our community and our people.

If we do not follow the command to know and accept the stranger, then we are guilty of abandoning our identity as Jews – those who understand the heart of the stranger because we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. If we do not follow the command to know and accept the stranger, then we become the Egyptians, seeing some of those among us as “less”. In the ranking of sins, this falls among the most egregious.

One year during these days of awe, the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Chasidism passed near a small shul. The baal habatim, the leaders of the congregation, rushed out to meet him and invite him in to pray with them. The Baal Shem Tov agreed but when he reached the door of the shul he stopped and did not enter. “What is the problem?” they asked him. “Why do you just stand here and not enter to pray with us?” The Baal Shem Tov answered: “There is no room for me. Your words of welcome and prayers of teshuvah, of repentance and change cannot rise to heaven. They fill the room from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling.” “What can we do?” the people asked. Gently he replied: “Match your actions to your words, welcome the stranger, reach out to help those in need and truly direct your prayers to God and then your prayers will ascend in a whirlwind to heaven.”

This year and every year, may our actions match our words. May we reach out to those who feel as strangers among us, get to know them and help them become strangers no more. And then may our prayers ascend in a whirlwind to heaven.


Reform Judaism at 200

Rosh Hashanah 5771/2010

Rabbi Kenneth Milhander

 Magen David

Rabbis Levy, Samuel, and Kosiner were “progressive” Reform rabbis and were talking one day about the recent advances made by their synagogues.  Rabbi Levy said, “We’re very modern – we allow cell phones to be used during services – we even have recharging points all over the synagogue.”

“Well,” said Rabbi Samuel, “we’ve installed a snack bar at the back of the synagogue for those who feel hungry or thirsty during services – we serve falafel in pita and hot salt beef with latkes and new green cucumbers.”

“That’s nothing to what we do, my friends,” said Rabbi Kosiner.  “We close our synagogue for the Jewish holidays.”

Okay, so we all know some jokes about Reform Jews or Reform rabbis, which usually focus on a lack of belief or observance, or a lack of Jewish knowledge, or a disregard for Jewish tradition.  These stereotypical jokes are often funny and as is true with most stereotypes, they have some minute element of truth to them, but overall, I think we sometimes get a bad rap.

Reform Jews and Reform Judaism are well ingrained into the fabric of American Jewish life, and our long history bespeaks of our incredible accomplishments, especially in the area of civil rights and advancement for women, gays and lesbians, and all minorities.  It is Reform synagogues that still stand in small towns across this nation and it is Reform Jews more often than not in those small towns and big cities alike that echo the Torah’s call for justice, righteousness, and peace.

This past summer marked the two hundredth anniversary of the official beginning of Reform Judaism in Germany.  On July 17, 1810, Rabbi Israel Jacobson, the then-president of the Jewish Consistory in the Kingdom of Westphalia, dedicated a small temple building erected adjacent to his educational gymnasium in Sessan.  Back in those days, they built the school building first, and the temple second!  It shows you where their priorities truly were.  Jacobson’s little temple is considered the first house of Reform Jewish worship because it introduced what was then considered pioneering liturgical changes: prayers and sermons in the vernacular, accompaniment by choir and organ, and mixed-gender seating.  On that day, before an audience of Jews and non-Jews, Jacobson spoke these words: “On all sides, enlightenment opens up new areas for development.  Why should we Jews alone remain behind?”  And ever since that day, not only have we not remained behind, we have been far out in the lead with respect to new areas of development that continued enlightenment has opened up.

Now, I have always held the radical idea that Reform Judaism did not begin with Jacobson in Sessen.  It did not begin with the philosophical foundations proposed by Mendelsohn a generation before Jacobson.  It did not begin with Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch Jew whose heretical-for-his-time views of modern biblical criticism, using Euclidean methods to demonstrate a metaphysical concept of the universe with ethical implications, led to his excommunication in 1656.  No, from my point of view, Reform Judaism began with Judaism itself.  Yes, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and later, the rabbis, were all good Reform Jews.  Where do I get such a crazy notion?

In true rabbinic fashion, I have to answer that question with a question:  What is it that Reform Judaism seeks to do?  If you understand Reform Judaism as the attempt to apply Judaism to the world in which we live, then that is what Jews have always sought to do.  That is until it really happened a few hundred years ago, when there was then a backlash against modernity, against enlightenment, against progress, and against the outside world.  That backlash ultimately became what today we call Orthodoxy – that is, Orthodox Judaism as a movement along the lines of the Reform and Conservative Movements.

Now I know my Orthodox colleagues, at least those who recognize me as a rabbi, would vehemently disagree with my assertions, and perhaps my theories are way off base.  But since I am not trying to defend a PhD thesis or sell any books, I reserve the right to have my own opinions just as I give that right to others.  So, let me provide just one historical example of what I consider to be Reform ideas and principles at work long before Jacobson and his little temple introduced what was then revolutionary liturgical changes.

Last night, I spoke about Rabbi Hillel, the first-century scholar of the Second Temple period.  Along with teaching a non-Jew the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot, Hillel is credited with many other familiar teachings, most notably among them: Im ein ani li, mi li / If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Uch’sheani le’atzmi mah ani / If I am only for myself, what am I?  V’im lo achshav eimatai / And if not now, when?  The following story is told about the famous Rabbi Hillel, known as Judaism’s model human being:

Every day, Hillel used to work and earn one tropiak, half of which he gave to the doorkeeper at the House of Learning, the other half he spent for his food and that of his family.  One day he found nothing to earn and the guard at the House of Learning would not permit him to enter.  He climbed to the building’s roof and went over to the skylight to hear the word of the living God from the mouths of the great scholars, Sh’mayah and Avtalyon.  It was Friday evening, in the winter, and snow fell upon him from heaven.  When the dawn rose, Sh’mayah said to Avtalyon: “Brother Avtalyon, on every day this house is light and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day?”  They looked up and saw a man’s figure in the window.  They went up and found him covered by four feet of snow.  They removed him, bathed and anointed him – acts not normally permitted on the Sabbath – and placed him opposite the fire, and they said: “This man deserves that the Sabbath be violated on his behalf.”  Within a few years, Hillel was Sh’mayah and Avtalyon’s successor, and acknowledged as the greatest scholar of his generation.

However, Rabbi Hillel’s greatest legacy is a revolutionary reform he instituted.  In order to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of debtors, the Torah commands that all personal loans must be forgiven every seventh year.  Unfortunately, the result of this utopian law was that it hurt the very class it intended to help.  Imagine today if mortgages, auto and business loans, and all personal debts were forgiven every seven years.  I, for one, would love it.  But the banks would stop lending money, especially near the end of the seven-year cycle.  And that is exactly what happened in Hillel’s time as well.  Hillel realized that the Torah’s own legislation was destroying the Torah’s ethic of helping the poor and for providing for a stable economy.  So, Hillel in essence did what we Reform Jews do today.  He found a way of applying Torah to the world in which he found himself, given all its realities and complexities.  Hillel found a way around the biblical law by instituting a procedure that became known as the Prosbul.  He noted that the Torah only cancelled personal debts, but not debts due in a court in the seventh year.  So, he created a legal fiction whereby the lender only had to note before the court that he was going to collect his debt.  Having made such a legal declaration, the debt was simply transferred automatically from the lender to the court.  The Torah’s law was upheld along with the ethic of helping the poor.  The Talmud even later praised Hillel and his Prosbul procedure, saying that it was mipnei tikkun olam / for the betterment of the world.  Many later Jewish principles were also based on this idea, that tikkun olam sometimes takes precedence over tradition.

That is in essence, ironically, the tradition that I believe Israel Jacobson and the early Reformers in Germany were following.  They were responding to the new realities and complexities of the world in which they found themselves.  And today, we are the inheritors of that tradition, a set of ideals that once seemed ominously revolutionary but have become eminently conventional convictions.  Such erstwhile radical assertions are today the bedrock and foundation of Reform Judaism, pioneering values that the vast majority of modern Jews now embrace, regardless of their denominational affiliation.  There are many, of course, but let me name just four.

First, the early Reformers insisted that the modern Jewish prayer service must include more than mere rote recitation of meaningless words.  They adapted and changed the Jewish prayer service to include meaning, inspiration, comprehensibility, and personal relevance.  Now two hundred years later, these ideals have become so widely accepted that we are prone to forget that these values were once frighteningly unconventional propositions.  But they are not unheard of in Jewish tradition.  Even the rabbis in the Talmud taught that one must not pray in a fixed manner alone.  The Jewish worshipper must also have what they called kavannah or intentionality in addition to keva or rote recitation.  Today, that Talmudic notion has been expanded to include new prayers, new ways of praying, new interpretations of traditional prayers, and perhaps most importantly, the use of music and in Reform congregations, musical instruments to inspire and uplift the Jewish soul.  Our new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, is designed to guide the worshipper on a personal prayer journey while at the same time making the ancient Hebrew words accessible to those who cannot read them so they can fully participate in the communal prayer experience at the same time.  Even in Conservative and Orthodox congregations, there is a concerted effort to make the worshipper feel welcome and included and to use texts that are what today we call user-friendly.

Second, contemporary Jews of all stripes embrace modern science.  This was not always the case.  Not long ago, modern science and religion were seen as incompatible systems of thought.  But the early Reformers were among the first and staunchest advocates of what was once a controversial contention.  Today, no matter what one’s level of piety, few if any argue that one’s religious life requires the abandonment of free scholarly inquiry.  Some Jewish communities in America and throughout the world may shun certain symbols of modern life, but the basic notion that science and religion are in conflict with each other has long been decided in the Jewish world.  And that is due in no small measure to the actions of the early Reformers who embraced Wissenschaft des Judenthums, the scientific study of Judaism, insisting that the tools of modern scholarship actually render Judaism more compelling and intriguing to present day Jews.  Almost no one today challenges that assertion.  As an ancient people, we have one foot firmly and solidly planted in our history, our tradition, our sacred values, teachings, and ethics.  But as Jews living where and when we do, given the incredible changes and challenges of the past 300 years or so, we have the other foot just as firmly and solidly planted in reality, modernity, and science.  How we balance and how much weight we put on each of those two feet is a matter of degree, personal preference, community standards, one’s upbringing, and a host of other factors.

Third, the Reform Movement has relentlessly promoted and pursued the value of religious equality, not just internally but externally as well.  Among the very first generation of reformers back in Germany, there were already those who recognized that without the full and equal participation of women, the synagogue would never achieve a truly vibrant future.  Unfortunately, it took at least another 150 years to achieve full and equal participation on the bima and in many leadership positions, but today women rabbis, cantors, synagogue and organizational leaders are not the exception or oddity they once were.

We have continued to expand the tent of Reform Judaism by welcoming the children of Jewish fathers, non-Jewish spouses, non-Jews interested in conversion, gays and lesbians, those with mental and physical limitations, and so many others once placed at the periphery of society and Judaism itself.  We have reinterpreted many ancient rituals and introduced new ones to address life events not considered by traditional Judaism.  We have also espoused loud and clear, perhaps louder and clearer than anyone else, the notion of religious equality not just for ourselves but for all of God’s children.  If you look at the make-up of interfaith groups throughout the nation, more often than not, it is Reform Jews who participate and who take up the mantle of leadership.  Equality is not just a sound bite or a nice catch-phrase we put on a bumper sticker.  Equality is the bedrock upon which we live our lives, and despite it once being a revolutionary idea, it is today widely accepted as the norm.

Finally, and to that point, Reform’s early thinkers insisted that Judaism’s distinctive ideals, teachings, and religious precepts exist not only for the benefit of the Jewish people, but also to promote the betterment of all humankind.  We have always sought to balance the notions of particularism and universalism.  While at the same time having to care for the well being of Jews throughout the world, we have used our traditions and teachings to inspire others raise the banner of hope, to light the way forward for all God’s children, and to work towards the fulfillment of the essential messages of the Torah, the prophets, and our Sages.  The idea that we – a mere two percent of this country, and an even smaller one-third of one percent of the world’s population – that we have something to offer the entire world is a remarkable assertion, but one that must be fulfilled.  We have been and will continue to be champions of justice and righteousness in this world as we have been for the past two hundred and two thousand years.   For the next two hundred and two thousand years, I know that, whatever the makeup of the Jewish community, there will always be Jews who uphold and fight for our essential principles, who take the words of Torah to heart and seek advancement, progress, healing, and betterment not just for themselves, but for all of God’s creation.  I also know that there will always be plenty of jokes about Reform Jews and Reform rabbis.  May they continue to be funny, but may we also continue to confront the issues and challenges we face with honesty, dignity, sincerity, a sense of history, and an embrace of modernity.


Happy Is The One…


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

This evening I wish you “L’Shanah Tovah”, while in English we say Happy New Year.” These are not exactly the same. “L’Shanah tovah” implies all will be well, but also that you will live a good life to be worthy of blessing and inscription in the book of life. I want that for you, but this evening I wish you a Happy New Year as well.

It is my sincere hope that you can find happiness in the year and years to come. Times have been challenging the past two years. All of our lives have been turned upside down. Uncertainty is an ongoing theme in our community. Recognizing and accepting that reality, we seek to live meaningful, fulfilling lives. As your rabbi, someone who has known many of you for decades, I want you to be happy, but first we have to determine what happiness is, how to attain it and avoid impediments to maintaining it.

This past summer, while working with some of our children at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, I was asked to describe one of my happiest moments. This was an easy recollection. Eight years ago we were celebrating Karen, my oldest daughter’s, wedding. During the reception, I was dancing the hora in the center circle with Lynn, and all of our children. Twirling around, I recall the thrill of celebrating this life cycle event, being immersed in the moment. We were surrounded by family and friends. I clearly remember saying, “it doesn’t get any better.”

There is a verse from the Talmud, that the world is like a wedding hall, which Rabbi Hanoch of Aleksandrov explains with a story:

A man came to an inn in Warsaw. In the evening he heard sounds of music and dancing coming from the next house.

“They must be celebrating a wedding,” he thought to himself.

But the next evening he heard the same sounds, and again the evening after that.

“How can there be so many weddings in one family?” the man asked the innkeeper.

“That house is a wedding hall,” he answered. “Today one family holds a wedding there, tomorrow another.”

“It’s the same in the world,” said the rabbi. “People are always enjoying themselves. But some days it’s one person and other days it’s another. No single person is happy all the time.”

I have been blessed to share simchas with many of you: weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, births and birthdays and anniversaries. It never becomes old or boring or repetitive to see the glow in a father’s face, to hear the joy in a mother’s voice, to feel the love and excitement of a young couple. The high simcha moments are few and far between. I urge you, when it is your time, embrace the experience as much as you can.

When you are invited to be with others for their milestones, by all means attend. You add to their happiness and can access your own at the same time. It’s a mitzvah.

The study of achieving happiness is now its own field of legitimate psychological study. Who knew? “Positive Psychology” focuses on mental wellness, as opposed to mental illness. You can see how this might become quite popular, studying what is good in life, not just our psychoses and neuroses. The Intro class in Positive Psychology at Harvard had 855 students, the most attended class in the university.

Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the trailblazers in the field, has determined that each of us has a set range of happiness, some are more open to being happy than others. Our common experience tells us that there are some people who feel life and react to it more deeply than others. The goal is to learn how to live at the top of our set range.

Based upon extensive testing in Happiness Research, Professor Ed Diener of the University of Illinois focused on three ingredients that are vital to happiness:

1. Family and Friends- the wider the grouping and the deeper the relationships, the higher will be the level of happiness. Those who are or have been parents of teenagers know how significant friends are in their lives. We may think that this changes as we age, but it does not. According to the studies, friendship, correlated with happiness, even seems to protect us from disease. Specifically, marriage, potentially the ultimate close friendship, adds 7 years to the lifespan of men and 4 years to the life span of women. (With the difference between men and women, I’m sure there is a joke in there, but I’m not about to touch it, at least not if I want to go home tonight.)

2. Meaning in life- This is when you embrace a belief in something bigger than yourself. Formal Religion, disciplined spirituality or holding steadfastly to a particular philosophy of life provides the structure for happiness. You’d have been disappointed had I not re-discovered that religion can make a qualitative difference in your happiness quotient.

3. Happiness comes when you have clear goals and values towards which you dedicate your life. This includes jobs, projects, hobbies that are both interesting and enjoyable, which call upon you to use your strengths and abilities. Albert Schweitzer once said: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” And when you are successful, you will be happy.

Judaism has understood these ideas for quite some time. In particular the Psalmist provides a variety of prescriptions for finding happiness. In the very first Psalm and the very first verse we read: “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked and does not stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful.” In other words, if you want to be happy, first choose your company wisely. You obviously don’t want to be with people who will lead you astray down the wrong paths of life. Every parent regularly monitors those with whom their children associate. But we also need to be aware that there are those who drag us down either by their values or with their pessimism and negativity. These too are people to avoid.

The Psalmist continues: “rather the teaching of the Lord is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” (Psalm 1:1-2)  What a surprise, the Psalmist calls upon us to study Torah, the teachings of what it means to be a good Jew, how to lead a meaningful life. Then, when we are well grounded, and live according to the values we know to be right and just, we are able to face each day with a sense of equanimity and happiness.

We often equate happiness with wealth and pleasure. There is a Talmudic teaching, which many of you have appreciated over the years. We learn: “Enjoy life while you can. When you face your Maker, God will ask why you did not partake of the pleasures of life which were available… and you’d better have a good explanation.” (Yerushalmi) Judaism does not call upon us to withdraw from the world’s pleasure, but neither should we overindulge.

However, pleasure seeking does not necessarily result in real happiness.

Positive Psychologist Todd Kashdan helps his college students discover that feeling good , whether through sex, drugs, drinking or most other forms of  pleasure seeking actually only creates a hunger for more pleasure. After exploring the limits of pleasure seeking, they learn that doing good for others leads to a more lasting form of happiness and they back this up with research.

During our trip to Israel this past summer, we visited a 3rd century synagogue and homes in the village of Tsippori, where part of the Talmud was written. I came across a lesser known bit of Talmudic wisdom. There was a bedroom and not far from it, what we would refer to as an outhouse for which the rabbis wrote: “Happy is the man who has a privy near his bed.” As some of us get older, we appreciate that saying even more. Clearly having some of the basic creature comforts of life engenders a feeling of happiness. As many of us were forced to renovate our homes, we added those little touches that were not there before, but which provide us with pleasure: the flat screen television, nicer kitchen appliances and countertops, perhaps in keeping with the teachings of the Talmud, we even upgraded our bathrooms.

However, the Positive Psychologists teach that being richer does not make us happier, once you have the basics of life- home, food and clothes. Why is it that money and material things do not ultimately make us happier? Scientists say it is first because we adapt to pleasure. We enjoy short bursts, whether chocolate or a new car, but then the joy wears off. We also tend to compare ourselves; while richer people feel happier compared to poor, the poorer do not feel happier as they look up and there is always someone richer than we are.

Real wealth according to our tradition comes to those who are happy with their portion in life. It is a matter of attitude. One man who brought laughter and happiness to millions had this philosophy: “Each morning when I open my eyes, I say to myself: ‘I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy. I can choose which it will be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it’.” Along with the wit, we now have the wisdom of Groucho Marx and you can bet your life on it.

The problem is that we tend to put up barriers to our own happiness. Some of us are worriers. “Yes, I’m healthy now, but you can never tell about tomorrow.” “Yes, there are more restaurants and life is pretty much normal, but all it takes is one more storm.” “Yes, the kids are doing well right now, but will it last?”

To all of the worriers among us, the Talmud teaches: “Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you do not know what the day may bring. Tomorrow may come and you will be no more, and so you will have worried about a world that is not yours.” (Yevamot 63b) In other words, deal with life’s challenges when they come. Don’t allow them to diminish the happiness and contentment of the moment.

Of course greed and envy are twin traits, which easily tear away at our happiness. We see what we have, but all too often try to compare to others, diminishing our own lot in life by doing so. “Yes, I like my Camry, but it’s not a Lexus.” “Yes, I have a good job that I enjoy, but I could be earning more if I were promoted.” “Yes, I made the team, but I should have been chosen Captain.”

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. There is nothing wrong with having high goals and aspirations, but when they cloud your appreciation of the moment then you are diminishing your potential for happiness. A Chasidic saying puts it well: “while we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.”

Another barrier is a guilty conscience. We cannot be happy when our sins weigh upon us. Once again the Psalmist hits the nail on the head: “Happy the one whom the Lord does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2) This is one of the basic themes of our High Holy Days- teshuvah, repentance.

We are called upon to use this season to come to terms with misdeeds, confess to God and those whom we may have wronged by word and deed, action and inaction. Let us make amends where possible. The reference to the spirit where there is no deceit, suggests that we must mean what we say and do. A clear conscience opens the path to happiness and contentment with who you are.

We put up so many obstacles to feeling happy and enjoying life. So stop waiting…

Until your car or home is paid off

Until you get a new car or home

Until your children leave the house

Until you go back to school

Until you finish school

Until you lose 10 pounds

Until you gain 10 pounds

Until you get married

Until you get a divorce

Until you have kids

Until you retire

Until summer

Until spring

Until winter

Until fall

Until you die

Now is a time to appreciate the happiness that is in your life and seek it with all you ability.

This evening we are here as a community and I truly wish you a New Year in which you find abiding happiness. As was indicated by the positive psychologists, just being here creates that possibility. A Psalm which is frequently utilized as a prayer begins: “Ashrai yoshvai vaitecha, od yehallelucha sela- Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they forever praise you.” (Psalm 84:5-6) By spending regular time in the synagogue, whether connecting with God and all that is eternal or socializing with the person sitting next to you, psychologists suggest and tradition teaches that you can increase your happiness. So may it be this holy day. So may it be throughout the year as you enjoy a Happy New Year.



The Other Abraham


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This morning I would like to speak of the famous legislator from the State of Illinois, a man renowned for his engaging oratorical skills, who rose from humble origins. Perhaps he is best known for being on the cutting edge of race relations in America, breaking down traditional barriers, as well as from the beginning of his political career being opposed to a popular war on the grounds that “you can’t allow the President to invade a neighboring nation… whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.” This would be the kind of man to lead America during a time of great peril. I am of course speaking of….Abraham Lincoln.

Gotcha!! It was President Polk’s war against Mexico that he opposed.

It is not surprising that both Barack Obama and John McCain try to lay claim to the legacy of this great American. Senator Obama announced his presidential race and later introduced his Vice Presidential choice on the steps of the Illinois State House, as did Lincoln before him. Senator McCain frequently invokes the idea that Republicans are the party of Lincoln.

But why speak of Abraham Lincoln today? This is not my typical High Holy Day sermon topic. As you will be hearing more this coming year, Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809. Thus it will be the 200th anniversary of his birth prompting reflection on the man and his pivotal role in American history. Earlier this year at the CCAR national convention of Reform Rabbis, I had the opportunity to hear presidential scholar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, discuss, and later I read, her book, “Team of Rivals” the story of Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency as he competed with his political opponents and how once in office, melded these same men into the team, which led the country.

As Lincoln entered the White House, our country was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. I do not believe divisions in America are as bad today, but still there are major issues that need to be addressed. We Jews are a people who learn from history, not limited to Jewish history. With Presidential and congressional elections approaching, the qualities that Abraham Lincoln exemplified throughout his life are attributes that we might like to see in those men and women, who seek to lead our country. On a more personal level, he possessed traits applicable to our own lives. Is that not one of the purposes of being here today, to reevaluate how we interact with others and conduct our daily affairs? Teachers come from many places.

Many of you are familiar with parts of Lincoln’s life story. His childhood was challenging as his mother died when he was 9 years old, so that his sister Sarah helped to raise him. She, too, later died at a young age during childbirth. He had a total of 12 months of formal education, since he needed to earn for the family, working on the river barges and famously splitting rails and building log cabins. Physically, he was tall and gangly, with sharp not necessarily attractive facial features.

Though judged by history as one of the greats, Lincoln endured numerous failures throughout his years. At one particularly low point early in his life, he suffered from a broken engagement, the collapse of one of his pet projects as a state legislator, and his dearest friend, Joshua Speed, was leaving town. Clearly he was depressed and the friend was concerned lest Lincoln be suicidal. To relieve Speed’s worry, Lincoln confided that to that point in his life he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived, and that … to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”  (p. 99) He wanted his life to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Years later, following the Emancipation Proclamation he stated, “I believe that by this measure my fondest hopes will be realized.” (p. 501)

So who was Abraham Lincoln and what were some of his attributes that we might seek in our elected officials or find admirable and worthy of emulation for ourselves? In many ways he was an exemplar of the “middot- Jewish values” for quality living.

Though his formal education was limited, he was always learning. Reading was his window to the world of knowledge from classics to contemporary literature and philosophy, fiction and non-fiction. He understood that the science and technology provided great avenues for advancement of civilization, knowledge that became quite useful in the execution of the Civil War. As Jews we know that the person who continues to learn continues to grow.

The Talmud teaches that we should receive all people pleasantly. Lincoln knew this intuitively. Following his election it was the President’s role to screen potential job seekers within his administration, not just the Cabinet, but the myriad of other positions in government. Hour after hour he met with would-be office holders, yet with a positive demeanor. It prompted a journalist to report: “he is the very embodiment of good temper and affability. They (the seekers) will all concede that he has a kind word, an encouraging smile, a humorous remark for nearly everyone that seeks his presence, and that but few if any, emerge from his reception room without being strongly and favorably impressed with his disposition.” (p. 281) Lincoln came into office with many doubters, winning many over simply with his warmth of personality, treating all people decently.

Torah teaches us to love others as we love ourselves. In other words a starting point in human relations is to be empathetic, to put ourselves in others’ positions, not to assume that we have the absolute high ground when it comes to differences of opinion.  Slavery was of course the great issue of his day and he was opposed to it. Still, unlike others, he did not demonize or castigate those with whom he differed. As a pragmatist he initially was willing to allow slavery to continue where it was, but opposed its spread into new territories as the country grew.

In framing his speeches against the spread of slavery he sought common ground with those with whom he differed. Reflecting on the founding principles of the country, he argued: “No man is good enough to govern another man, without the other’s consent.” (p. 167) He recognized that slavery had been in existence for years and that the southern economic way of life was dependent upon it. Rather than demean southern slaveholders, he identified with them saying, “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst us, they would not introduce it.” He chose empathy as a means to advance his position, saying: “To win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.” (p. 168)

When the rabbis of the great academies debated points of law, they respectfully maintained the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim- these and these are the words of the living God.” While there was competition among the rabbis to win their points of law, they respected their opponents. The same was true with Lincoln. He refused to denigrate his opponents with negative campaigning. In fact he and Steven Douglas, with whom he debated and to whom he lost the senatorial election, were good friends.

The thrust of the Goodwin book, “Team of Rivals,” is to emphasize how Lincoln competed with William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates for the presidency, men who were very different from him. In truth they generally looked upon him contemptuously, as the unsophisticated, uneducated country bumpkin. Yet, when he formed his cabinet of the best men he could find, the first became Secretary of State, the second, Secretary of the Treasury and the third, Attorney General.

Earlier in Lincoln’s life he also met Edwin Stanton, a leading litigator of the time. Lincoln had been hired to argue the biggest case of his career in Ohio, spending hours preparing his brief. Stanton was later called into the case to lead the legal team and pompously opined about Lincoln: “Why did you bring that long armed ape here?… He does not know anything and can do you no good.” Lincoln was then dismissed from the case. As President he would appoint Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton came to respect and love the “long armed ape” more than any person outside his immediate family. (p. 175) His former rivals became his trusted counselors providing real wisdom, not serving as “yes” men. Our tradition teaches us to learn from all people and turn our enemies into friends.

Lincoln knew that life needed its lighter moments. He could spend hours listening to and telling stories. As serious as life could be, it requires moments of levity even in the darkest of times. Prior to revealing the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, a document that would change the course of human events in America, he read from a light hearted story book. When Lincoln faced a reporter’s criticism of one of his most successful generals for drinking too much, he asked what kind of whiskey it was, so that he could send it to some of his other generals. When someone told him he was “two faced,” he responded, “if I had two, would I keep this one.”

Like the rabbis of old, he employed parables to make a point. On one occasion, following a series of highly critical newspaper articles lambasting his leadership, he responded with the following: “A traveler on the frontier found himself out of his reckoning one night in a most inhospitable region. A terrific thunderstorm came up to add to his trouble. He floundered along until his horse gave out. The lightning afforded him the only clue to his way, but the peals of thunder were frightful. One bolt, which seemed to crush the earth beneath him, brought him to his knees. By no means a praying man, his petition was short and to the point: “O Lord, if it’s all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little less noise.” And this was long before blogs, internet and cable television.

Though Lincoln may not have known the word “teshuvah,” he certainly understood the concept. First he was one who readily acknowledged his own errors and was willing to learn from his mistakes. When the Union Army was routed at Bull Run at the beginning of the war, he accepted responsibility and went about ensuring that nothing similar would happen again. On a number of occasions he accepted the blame for blunders by his Cabinet members, even when he was not directly responsible. He realized that we are all responsible. Similar to the way we will recite “for the sin that WE have sinned on Yom Kippur, he discussed the sin of slavery for which all must share in his famous 2nd Inaugural address.

We all have moments of weakness. On some occasions when Lincoln gave in to his temper, he regularly followed up with sorrow and sincere apologies. He was wise enough to recognize that sometimes frustration with others could be best expressed by highly critical letters that never are sent.

And Lincoln had the ability to forgive. Many individuals during his lifetime acted against him. Some would say that he could be too forgiving, but mostly this attribute enabled him to stand out from others. Salmon Chase performed his role as Treasury Secretary admirably, arranging for the finance of the War, but he continued as a critical thorn in Lincoln’s side. Finally, when Lincoln could stand no more, he eased him from office, but shortly thereafter appointed him to the Supreme Court, prompting one of Lincoln’s aides to observe: “Probably no other man than Lincoln would have had the degree of magnanimity to thus forgive and exalt a rival who had so deeply and so unjustifiably intrigued against him.” (p. 680)

As the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln’s message became one of forgiveness and reconciliation. In his own family, he invited his sister-in-law, whose husband fought and died for the South to come and live in the White House. He arranged for Robert E. Lee and all the southern soldiers to return to their homes with dignity. Rather than prolong the pain of war, he secretly allowed Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin to live out their days in exile, rather than face trials for treason. Sometimes forgiveness involves simply moving on after the pain.

When Lincoln first ran for office at the age of 23, he wrote to his possible constituents: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other ambition so great as that of truly being esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed.” With the hindsight of the years, we can all agree that he was successful. But more than that, as we enter our new Jewish year, we can be inspired by his goal, instructed by his example and strive to emulate the qualities of the man who came to be known as “Father Abraham.”



This sermon was based upon and all page references are from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.