The Darshan: Preacher and Teacher of Talmudic Times

The Darshan:
Preacher and Teacher of Talmudic Times

by Marc Bregman

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

Masters of the Aggadah

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

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

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

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

Itinerant Preachers

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

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

Aggadah: A Laughing Countenance

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

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

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

Discourteous Congregations

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

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

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

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

The Seat of Moses

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

A Living Loudspeaker

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

Elites vs. Masses

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

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

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

“He…will sit in Paradise and Preach”

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

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


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

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


How To Be Grateful, Even When Successful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is My Very Last Sermon

Rabbi Sydney

Mintz Yom Kippur 5772

Congregation Emanu-El

This is my very last sermon. It could be. I don’t know. This is your last Yom Kippur. It might be. You don’t know. It is possible that we will not be here next year. Are you ready? Is your house in order?
Yom Kippur is the most awesome day of the entire year because it is the dress rehearsal for your own death. Yom Kippur is Yom Ha-mitah-the day of death. We are emptied, without our creature comforts to remind us of life: no food, no drink, no sex, no perfume, no comfortable leather shoes. We even wear white, a kittel, a shroud, which says: This is what I will wear when I die.

So, what about death? Most of us deal with death through either denial or fear! Even when Rav Nahman was dying, the Talmud teaches that he begged Rava to implore the angel of death not to torment him. Rava replied, “But, Master, are you not esteemed enough to ask him yourself?” Rav Nahman considered this for a moment, and then pondered aloud, “Who is esteemed, who is regarded, who is distinguished in the face of Death Himself?” Then, after he died, Rav Nahman appeared to Rava in a dream. “Master, did you suffer any pain?” Rava asked. Rav Nahman replied, “Almost none. Still, if the Holy One were to say to me, ‘Go back to that world,’ I would not consent, the fear of death being so great.”
The fear of death.

In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class at Stanford University. He said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in Life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

Steve Jobs was right. No one wants to die and in reality no one wants to talk about his or her own death. Yet, we think about death all of the time. Both life and death are a part of our daily lives. So, how can Yom Kippur help us to prepare for death? Just think about the wisdom in taking a day every year to confront death, to contemplate it, to face it, so that when we arrive there it is not as scary, unfamiliar or shocking.

The central prayer of these Awesome days, the U’Netaneh Tokef is blatant in its theology. The great shofar is sounded and whether it is in a blast or a still small voice, we all hear the same thing-we are here to reckon with the end. Whether it is in our face as we read through the obituaries-Who in old age? Or, when we see an ambulance at the scene of a car crash-who by accident? Or, watching a documentary about the drought in the horn of Africa-who by thirst? Or, waiting for the results of a blood test or a biopsy-who by sickness?

The U’Netaneh Tokef teaches us that God writes us in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. But, three things can temper, mitigate or even change this severe decree. They are Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah. Teshuvah-the act of reflection and repentance, Tefillah-the prayers of your heart and Tzedakah-the act of creating justice in our world. Doing these three things can transform your death into life everlasting for those who come after you.

The U’Netaneh Tokef makes it clear that we have no control over when or why or how we will die. That is truly only in God’s hands. But, doing these things doesn’t change death. The severe decree is not death, but what of you lives on after you are gone. You have the choice: your death can be a blessing or it can be a curse. In the Yom Kippur Torah portion, God says: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.” Choosing how we live now will affect how we will live on after we die.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last words should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace and gratitude. We have been given so much. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the meaning of dying: to give one’s whole self away. For the pious person, it is a privilege to die.”

Jewish traditions around death and burial and mourning are so wise. If you have the opportunity to partake in them, to engage in them, to let them be your guide, going through the inevitability of loss is a much different experience. As your Rabbi, I have buried many, many people. I have stood with you to bury your parents, your spouses, your siblings and even your children. I am there in the hospital room when death arrives, I am there at the cemetery as you say goodbye and shovel earth onto the casket or scatter ashes in the wind. And I am there with you at home for shiva. This year I buried three children under two years old. I have lived in your grief. I have passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with you. I have learned a great deal about death from you and I have something to tell you. Death is as natural as birth. If we can understand death not as a terrible negating disappearance or abandonment, but as a homecoming, we can pass ourselves and our legacies on in a healthy and righteous way. I have seen the profound difference it makes in the grieving process when someone dies and their house is in order and when someone dies and their house is a mess. I have the profound blessing to witness the fabric of your lives and I am there when families are strengthened by our tradition or their life unravels without it.

Consider these two experiences:
Judy was 81 when she died. She was still living in the four-bedroom home on the Peninsula, where she and her husband Paul had raised their children. In the 20 years since Paul had died, she had not revisited their will, nor had she discussed her end of life plans with anyone. Her children assumed she wanted to be buried next to their Dad, but her daughter was insisting on cremation. Her children had turned the house upside down looking for her documents, bank statements and bills. Anger seeped out of wounds from the past. Her daughter could only talk of the number of boxes it would take to pack everything and where they would donate it before they sold the house. Her grandson Jake took me aside and cried because he felt that no one was honoring her memory-they could only fight because no one knew what else to do. Judy’s shiva was cold, short and lifeless. People stayed for only a brief amount of time. I asked her son why he had never talked to his mom about what she wanted. He told me that she never brought it up and that he never had the time.

Jeremy had been diagnosed with Lymphoma when he was 68 years old. After his diagnosis, he and his wife Susan sold their home, donating most of their belongings to Jewish Family and Children’s Services. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment very close to their son Sam. In the year after his diagnosis, Jeremy walked Sam and his sister Rachel through all of his files. He had a living will, an advanced care directive, and had taken care of all of his arrangements before he began to
deteriorate. He spoke honestly and openly with his family, even through his tears. Sam told me that one of the best and worst days was when he and his mother went to the Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma to pick out graves for them. When I asked why it was a best moment, Sam told me because he was so relieved that he had the time to have the hard conversations with his parents, while they were still alive. He really said goodbye to his Dad, heard his stories, laughed and cried together. Those conversations were the key to his own ability to truly mourn and to engage in the tradition of shiva.

Jeremy told Sam to serve his mother’s chopped liver at the shiva and Sam showed me the recipe in his grandmother’s handwriting. At Jeremy and Susan’s apartment, people shared stories and laughed and remembered Jeremy with love. The members of the synagogue, who had served Susan and Jeremy meals during the months leading up to his death, arrived with copious amounts of food. We listened to his favorite music, his granddaughter played his piano and we all ate chopped liver.

What is the difference between these two families? One had been given the gift of a peaceful ending. This is the gift of Judaism’s wisdom, to comfort, carry and bring them from death back to life. One had stories and joyful memories and a house in order. One had pain and anguish and no real way to come to any kind of closure in the end. Shiva works. Stop shaving, wear a black ribbon over your heart, show everyone your pictures, share your memories, take a break from life and live in death for seven days and then, slowly make your way back to life. Don’t deny your experience of grief, of loss. Shiva can bring you back to life. It can bring you closer to home and closer to your Judaism.

Just as you are courageous and show up here each year to confront the most awesome and, in many ways, most terrifying day of the Jewish year, be audacious in what you say, what you ask, and how you prepare yourself and others for your own death. The mitzvot that temper the severe decree take courage. Yom Kippur is ultimately telling us that the way we live, is the way we will die. The way that we do our Teshuvah and Tefillah and Tzedakah is the way that we will live on in the hearts and minds and lives of those whom we love. They really do take us with them. On this Yom Kippur I am asking you to do something:

Start the conversation with your parents or your children. Make time to talk face to face about one of the most difficult subjects about life. I have found that many parents don’t talk to their children about their own death, not because they don’t want to, but because they think that their children don’t want to have that conversation. Your parents will thank you, and your children will, too. No one wants to say goodbye to their parents and no one wants to leave this earth, but, just the same, we all do. It’s better to have your conversations while you and they are still here. Don’t let anything go unsaid. There is someone in your life today with whom you need to talk, but you haven’t initiated or finished the conversation. If this is your last Yom Kippur, imagine what you need to say to that person that you won’t be able to say after you are gone. Say it this year. Say it today. Call them, visit them, talk to them. Do your Teshuvah, as Rabbi Eliezar taught, the day before you die.

Let go and get rid of your stuff. I mean it. Go through your clothes, your jewelry, your attic, your boxes and your garage. Your children and our environment will thank you later.
Write a Living Will, an Advanced Care Directive, Power of Attorney. Write an Ethical Will and choose to become an Organ Donor.

Be clear with what you want to have happen to you. Most people I know that are under 50 and that have all of this in order have gone through some sort of health crisis, a heart attack, a cancer diagnosis or have suffered a loss earlier in life that made these decisions seem much more imminent.

Finally, think about where you are sitting right now. Look at this magnificent sanctuary, look down, at your seats. Think about the Jews who created this community 161 years ago. Think about those who labored to build this synagogue. I know they were thinking of you. It is their legacy to us. Now, remember who was here last year and is no longer with you. And think about who will be sitting in these seats when you are no longer here. Think about your spouse, siblings, children and grandchildren. Who will get them through shiva and back to life. Look around you. Really, take a look. The people here will help carry your legacy, too.

I know that this is a lot to ask, but it is Yom Kippur. I have posted resources on the Emanu-El Website including Living and Ethical wills, Power of Attorney and Advanced Care Directives that will help you begin the conversation and help to get your house in order. They are in the Sermons section of the site.

Some people write their own obituaries. I know a few who have written theirs several times. Think about it. Wouldn’t you want the way that you perceive your life to be the way that those around you perceived you and then your legacy? Now, some people do take this idea of being in control over their shiva or their obituary a little too seriously. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the story of the man on his death bed who is roused from his slumber by the wonderful aroma of his most favorite food in the world-his wife’s chocolate chip cookies. He pulls himself out of bed and very slowly makes his way down the hallway to the kitchen. There, he sees his wife and trays and trays of warm, delicious chocolate chip cookies. He reaches behind her to pick up a cookie and she turns around. She smacks him on the back of the hand with a spatula and says: “Don’t you dare, those are for the shiva.”

The author, Mitch Albom, writes in his book Have a Little Faith: “A man seeks employment on a farm. He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It reads simply, `He sleeps in a storm.’ The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man. Several week pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley. Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly. So he dashes off to the barn. He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins. He races to the silo. The doors are latched, and the grain is dry. And then he understands. `He sleeps in a storm.’ My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our beliefs, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of `I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm. And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.”

Don’t worry. This is only a dress rehearsal for death. Or, this may really be your last Yom Kippur. Get your house in order. You aren’t taking anything with you.
But, they are taking you with them. Ken Yehi Ratzon-May this be G-d’s will.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz’e Resources and Suggestions for planning for End of Life Issues:

1. The Union of Reform Judaism’s resources on aging and end of life:
2. The Five Wishes is a resource for those who are planning ahead and includes books and guides to planning for illness and end of life issues:
3. Home of Peace in Colma is Congregation Emanu-El’s own historic cemetery:
4. This site gives resources to Interfaith Families who are in need of support around death and mourning: nterfaith_Families.shtml
5. Rabbi Jack Reimer gives the History and Practice of Writing Ethical Wills:

Lessons on Leadership and Responsibility

Parashat Ki Tavo

September 24, 2005

Rabbi Francine Roston


Recently I sat on an interfaith panel and noticed once again the differences between Judaism and Christianity. In particular I am thinking about the role of religious leaders in their communities. I also reflect on this frequently as I start this new position and make decisions about next steps. What is the role of clergy in the Jewish community? Are we intermediaries between God and the Jewish people? Or are we facilitators and guides? Do we say prayers and study on behalf of our congregation or alongside our congregation?

At the beginning of our Parasha this morning, the answer is clear. Each Jew is responsible for his or her relationship with God. The religious leader is there to assist, facilitate and guide but not to DO in place of the individual Jew.

Two sections of Ki Tavo teach us this lesson.

The parasha begins with a description of the Bringing of the First Fruits ceremony. This ceremony was done by the individual after the harvest had yielded its first fruits. In the Torah this ceremony is not connected with a specific holiday. The timing is dependent on the individual harvest which comes at different times of the year depending on the fruit of the land. Later this ceremony has been associated with Pesah because the pronouncement of the first fruits presenter became integrated into the body of the Passover haggadah…

Important to our question is the teaching that each individual must bring and present his first fruits. Although the priest is present and assisting, the individual must present his gifts and he can not use a substitute. Even a king must present himself, according to the Mishnah, and not put someone in his place.

From the descriptio n in Mishnah Bikkurim: A group from an area of the country would go up to Jerusalem with all of the first fruits of the village. They would be met outside Jerusalem by a delegation which would accompany them to the Temple, where each person would go up to the Temple himself, carrying his basket and make the proper declaration before the Priest. [I did not adjust this to say his or her because only the man was allowed to enter this far into the Temple precincts…but I’m sure his wife helped with the harvest!] Even the king would carry his own basket—not using an intermediary or agent.
The task and the declaration were made by each individual not by the priest as an intermediary. There did come a time during which the question arose regarding how the priest should behave. There came a point where not everyone knew the proper declaration nor knew how to recite it and it was asked whether the priest should say it for the presenter.

The teaching in Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7 is: At first all those who knew how to recite would recite and all those who didn’t know how to recite would be helped to recite. [The priest would say part and the presenter would repeat and they would continue in this way.] After people help back from coming [out of embarrassment because it would be clear that they didn’t know how to recite in contrast to others that did], the rabbis instituted the rule that all would be prompted whether they knew the declaration or not.

It would have been much easier and quicker if the priest just recited the declaration for the presented who didn’t know how. But, no, the rabbis said. It was important for each individual not only to bring his gifts but also to state the meaning behind them and make his personal connection with God. And, when it was clear tha t people might be embarrassed or made to feel uncomfortable because of their varying levels of traditional knowledge, the rabbis leveled the playing field. Everyone would be prompted. No one would be shamed.

The second section that speaks to our question comes in chapter twenty-seven, verses one through eight. When the children of Israel enter the promised land they are to set up large stones and engrave upon them et kol divrei ha-Torah ha-zoht—every word of this Teaching ba’er heteiv most distinctly. My friend Len Wanetik suggests that the meaning of ba’er heteiv is “in a way that is easy to understand.” Every Jews must be able to read and understand the laws of the Torah so that every Jew can fulfill his or her obligations. Why does God command this Mitzvah to Moses and the elders, to the leadership of the community? They are being reminded that they are not to be the experts and so the intermediaries for the people. They are to be the teachers and the guides. They are to help facilitate each Jew’s journey through Jewish life.

At the time of Elul, as we reflect on this past year and for what we need to atone, I invite you to focus on the positive as well. What have you done over the past year that has moved your Jewish life forward? What has helped you to learn more and do more? And what are you going to do next year so that you can continue to learn and grow Jewishly.

It is up to each one of us to continue our Jewish learning and it is my privilege to serve as your rabbi and your guide on your Jewish journey.
Shabbat Shalom.

King, Heschel, Obama & You!

Rabbi Francine Roston,

Congregation Beth El, South Orange, NJ

Delivered on Shabbat Shemot in honor of the Inauguration of our 44th President

January 17, 2009 / 21 Tevet 5769

On this Shabbat, we begin a new book of the Torah, a new story of the Jewish people, and in our nation a new story is unfolding as well. While it’s a story that repeats itself cyclically, there is always something new to see and learn. This year, the remarkable confluence of history in our parasha and in America is overwhelming.

This past week we observed the yahrzeit of our great teacher and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Monday we celebrate the birth of the great teacher and activist Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. And the very next day we will witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama. The son of a Kenyan man and a woman from Texas is moving into the White House with his wife and two daughters. The future First lady’s great-great-grandfather Jim Robinson was a slave on South Carolina plantation. The Obama family is moving into a White House that was built by slaves of West African descent. America is starting a new book.

As I have been reflecting upon this mystical confluence of events these past weeks, I can’t help but conclude that: Dr. King took us to a certain point; Rabbi Heschel took us to a certain point; and President Obama can only take us so far. It’s up to each and every one of us to tell the story, to ask the questions and to turn our dreams into reality.

The story of the Exodus, the movement from slavery to freedom, is told again and again, year after year. We act it out at the seder, we study it in depth as we read the Torah…every year we revisit the story and we ask ourselves have we left Egypt, have we left behind the crippling chains that bind us to oppression, injustice and suffering.

Every year we read the story and descend with Jacob into Egypt. We suffer the oppression of Pharaoh. We groan with Israel and struggle with Moses. As we read and experience the pain of slavery, we know that Israel will reach the Promised Land. We watch Moses and Israel stumble but we have the certainty of faith that the dreams of our people will be fulfilled. And, as we live the story, over and over again, we are reminded that the journey is not without its struggles, it is not without its losses, it is not without suffering. It is filled with ups and downs.

In our parasha, when Moses arrives in Egypt and shows the Israelites signs of God’s power behind him, the Israelites are happy and receive Moses with reverence. As it says in Chapter 4: Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron repeated all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, and the people were convinced. When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that God had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.”(4:29-31)

And, then, all too quickly, they suffer disappointments, Moses suffers setbacks and the people’s suffering fuels their anger. In the very next chapter, just a few verses later, we learn that Moses’ and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh did not go well. Pharaoh orders harder labor for the Israelite slaves. The Israelites turn to Moses and Aaron with curses: “May the Lord look upon
you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”(Ex 5:21)
Every year we read the story and watch Moses struggle as a leader. In our parasha, he goes from a man who is not sure who he is and who God is, to the mouthpiece of God speaking to Pharaoh, breaking down the barriers of oppression. Moses becomes with voice of liberation calling out—Shalach et Ami! Let my people go!

The imagery of the Exodus infused the speeches of Dr. King, and the God of the Exodus inspired a friendship between King and Heschel. When Heschel first met King in 1963 at the Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, Heschel opened his speech by saying, “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses … The outcome of that summit meeting has not yet come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed.”

As every child asks at some point on the journey…are we there yet? Where are we going? When are we going to get there? We can’t help but ask it ourselves. Is this the Promised Land? Are we living in the America of our dreams? As Barack Obama stands at the podium Tuesday and takes his place as the 44th President of the United States of America, we can be pretty certain that we have not reached the Promised Land. We are standing in a new place, but we have great work to do.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us the importance of the journey. In his identification with Moses and is intuitive sense of destiny, he taught us also the relative importance of the leader.

In his last speech, the night before he was assassinated, King prophetically invoked the imagery of the Torah: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

As we watch the character of Moses develop in the Torah, as we read the commentaries and see the elevation of Moses in our tradition, we can not forget what King reminds us. Not even Moses, the greatest of all prophets reached the Promised Land. What does this teach us? Does it teach us that every leader, even the greatest are destined to fall and fail? Yes and No. Every leader will someday fall. Every term eventually expires, our time our earth is limited, the time in office as well…but, the greater lesson is that our story, the story of the Jewish people and the story of humanity played out in this great land, is not about the great leader; it is about the great people, the great values that drive them on and inspire them, the great power that is found when no man or woman stands alone but is joined by her neighbors in the march toward freedom.

This week we celebrate the great leaders of our nation—Dr King, Rabbi Heschel and the newest leader President-Elect Obama. Each one stands in the place of Moses and calls us all to task.

I want to conclude with a segment of the Nominee Obama’s words as he invoked Dr. King and the march toward the Promised Land.
“This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and dour culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

Instead it is that American spirit—that American promise—that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen; that better place around the bend.

That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours—a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines and women to reach for the ballot.
And it is that promise that 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington before Lincoln’s Memorial and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream… [and] what the people heard …people of every creed and color, from every walk of life—is that America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.

‘We can not walk alone,’ the preacher cried. ‘And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.’”
We couldn’t turn back at the edge of the Sea of Reeds. We couldn’t turn back at Sinai. We couldn’t turn away from the dream of the Promised Land and we can not today, either. For many of us America is the land that guarantees us the ideals that we hold dear and our people has always held dear—freedom, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

As we watch President Obama walk to the podium Tuesday morning, we can not forget where we have come as a nation. We can not forget the dreams and visions of past leaders. And, as we listen to President Obama and hear his charge to our country, we can not just sit back and wait for him to take us to the Promised Land. It is up to each and every one of us to ask ourselves the questions that Moses asked of himself: who am I, what am I put on this earth to accomplish and what great Power or ideals call me to do good work.

When Rabbi Heschel was invited by Dr. King to March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he took up the charge. He said of that experience: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

May the prayers we utter in this Beit El, this House of God, never stop inspiring our limbs to action. May we each remember this morning the power of great leaders, the promise of great visions and the potential of a nation united in its ideals. Every year, we experience suffering, every year we march toward freedom, every year we enter the Promised Land. May we be inspired by the stories of our tradition, the dreams of our preachers and the vision of our President to move this country and the World to a greater version of itself. As Barack Obama reminded us: that is the true genius of America—that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”(acceptance speech, Nov 4, 2008 in Chicago) May we each be inspired to do our part to bring about a better tomorrow.

As Psalm 27 concludes: Lulei he’emanti lir’ot b’tuv Adonai b’eretz chayim. Kavei el Adonai Hazak v’ya’ametz libekha, v’kavei el Adonai. Yet I have faith that I shall surely see Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in Adonai. Be strong, take courage and hope in Adonai.

The Last Lecture

Yom Kippur Morning
Rabbi Stephen Wise
October 9, 2008    Tishrei 10, 5769

Unetneh tokef, kedushat hayom – let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.  Yom Kippur, it is awesome and full of dread.  On Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live and who shall died, who shall see ripe age, and who shall not.  [Page 613 in The New Mahzor/Mahzor Hadash.]

This humbling powerful prayer we read this morning reminds us of our own vulnerability to life.  It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the Middle Ages who was tortured for refusing to convert to Christianity and in his pain and suffering, composed these words.  In it we hear his cry for justice in an unjust world.  We are reminded that throughout time, our fate is determined.  We do not choose what will happen to us.  We cannot control death, sickness, nor pain.  It’s not fair.  Life isn’t fair.  Some things are beyond our control and we are forced to look into ourselves, at our own mortality.  Its not something we want to think about. This prayer reminds us that we are but flesh and blood, created by God, and so it is God who determines our fate.
Many believe we control our own destiny, because we make decisions on a day to day basis, what we are going to do, where we are going to go.   But deep down we know, and its sometimes frustrating, that we do not have power over everything.  When you lose your job even though you were proficient and valued.  When you don’t get an A on a paper you worked diligently on.  When someone very close to you falls terminally ill.

In those moments, we often turn to despair and bemoan our lack of control and throw ourselves to the wind.  But we have another choice, to face it head on and ask: “What is within my grasp that I do have control over?”.  What can I teach others?  How can my life be an example?  How can I inspire?

This year, one of North America’s bestselling novels is called “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch.   At Carnegie Mellon, each year faculty members are asked to consider their demise, and ruminate on what matters most to them.   To give a “last lecture”.  What wisdom would they impart to the world if they knew it was their last chance?  What would they say to an audience of students?  How would they sum up the lessons of life in one hour?

For Randy, the last lecture became very real when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  A young man in his 40’s, married with three small children, a scientist and Virtual Reality originator, Randy had to examine his own life for real.  At first he didn’t want to do the lecture.  Preparing for it would take valuable time away from his wife and kids in the last days of his life. But Randy realized putting the work into the lecture would help him actualize what was important to him.  He wanted something to pass on to his family, and to all the students he ever taught.  He was quite open with everyone.  When he went to Pittsburgh to deliver his “last lecture” in September 2007, the hall was overflowing.

He delivered one of the most heartfeld and inspring lecturs I’ve ever heard.  He titled it, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.  Randy proceeded to talk about the dreams he had as a child and all he had accomplished.  His last lecture wasn’t about dying, it was about overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment.

Randy always wanted to win one of those huge lifesize stuffed animals at a fair.  We’ve all seen them.  They’re huge and whenever someone wins, they walk around the whole park with it on their back and everyone stares.  For Randy, it wasn’t about showing off, its just that he wanted to win it.  His advice, do it alone, away from your critical family.  Over a life time he had won almost 10 of those huge dolls, never paid for one.  He actually won them in games at the fair.  At the Last Lecture, he brought them all on stage and invited participants to take them  home as examples of achieving dreams.

He talked about how being a younger brother, he watched his sister get married and have kids.  He got to be the crazy single uncle helping to raise his neice and nephew.  His favorite thing was to take them out.  There was only one rule, don’t tell mom what we do.  One time after buying a brand new car, he wanted to take the kids for a spin.  His sister didn’t want to but he insisted, even if they got it dirty he didn’t care.  After all it was just a car.  He had scratches and dents on his old car, and it didn’t matter to him.  To prove the point he purposely spilled coke all over the back seat before the kids got in.  They were in shock, but they loved him for it.  Randy built great memories and life lessons for his niece and nephew, and his last words to them were, “Now my kids are growing up and I wont’ be alive to see it.  I want you to take them out, just like I took you out”.  You’ll pass on my lessons, on to my children, and I’ll remain alive through you.

Randy passed away this summer on July 25th, 2008.  His story stays with me, and probably with the millions of others who either read the book or watched the lecture online.  He didn’t have these wise sayings, or quotable one liners.  I can’t recite them for you.  But I was moved and inspired by his words, because he reminds us that yes we are mortal, but we have gifts to offer to others.  He couldn’t control his life, the disease took over, he had no say in that.  He did have a say in how he was going to go.  In the lessons he could pass on to others.  Randy led his death as in life, teaching right to the very end.

[See the lecture including introductions, but lower quality than link at the top.  [A slide show was used during the presentation.] “Thank you Randy Pausch, Your work is in our hearts”.]

This summer Cheryl and I were dealt two blows close together, the passing of our grandmothers.  For each of us, they were our last surviving grandparents, and last great-grandparents for our children.  When we were thinking about moving home from Florida, one consideration was that we wanted to spend some time with our bubbie’s.  We knew they were sick and elderly.  We wanted our kids to be around them on Shabbat or holidays, or visit their apartments and just sit and talk.  And we did that.  Over the course of the year, we made sure we visited, even it it was just for half an hour.  They loved it so much and we are grateful for the time we spent together.   When they both passed away we were terribly upset, but we knew that at least we had had those moments with them.  They both died peacefully, without suffering, in their own homes, with their families gathered around them.

For my bubbie, one of my best memories is how she answered my phone calls.  “Oh Stephen, thank you for calling.”  She gushed over me,  and was so happy I called, it was like it made her entire week.  She made me feel extraordinary, just for picking up the phone.  I remember thinking to myself, clearly, I am the favorite grandson.  Obviously she loves everyone, but she has a special spot for me.  When I gathered with my cousins at the shiva, we were sharing memories.

Michael, my oldest cousin, said he was the first grandson. He reminded everyone that he was the favorite, because bubbie used to show him off on the way to their store.

Shari, my cousin added she was the favorite.  Whenever she went to bubbie’s house, bubbie cooked the most amazing meals.

My sister chimed in that Bubbie made her favorite meals, and even sent her home with cookies.  By the way, that’s a life lesson for sure, always have cookies available.

Anyways, we all suddenly realized that we were all her favorite grandchild.  How?  Because she had that ability to make everyone she talked to feel like they were the most important person in the world.

My uncle told me this story of how bubbie used to run the fish and chips restaurant.  Picture this.  It’s Friday night, in the summer.  It must be over 90 outside, which means that inside the kitchen where she’s frying fish, its probably over 100 degrees.  My bubie, sweat pouring down her face, notices a break in the line and rushes to the back of the store, where they lived.  She opens the oven to put in the chicken for shabbos dinner for the family.  She comes back to the restaurant, shoos the family back to the kitchen to begin dinner and says she’ll finish up with the last customers.  That was my Bubie.  Ran the restaurant, made the chicken soup, loved her family and made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the whole world.  That is the legacy she left behind, that was her last lecture.  She didn’t even have to deliver it, she said it through her actions.
Cheryl’s bubbie’s life could be summed up in three sentences – Zaieh mensch, zahey yid, zahey Shtark.  Be a mensch, be a Jew and be strong.  Bubbie S. came from the same fabric as my bubbie.   Both came to Canada after the war, losing most of their family, restarting a new life here.  During the Holocaust, she had so many near misses.  She even got shot once in the barracks, but, zahey shtark.  She was strong.  And her Jewish faith never wavered in the face of atrocity.  She raised her kids and especially her grandkids, to be proud of who they were, to love Judaism, to live Judaism.  Zahey yid, be a Jew.  At her shul, right until she was 93 years old, she organized the Kiddush, she signed the check book as treasurer.  (Right Mark [our treasurer].  93 years old. )

And menschlikeit, that defined her.  The summer I met Cheryl, we were staff at camp.  Her parents came up for visitors day, bringing both her zaide and bubbie.  It was a summer romance.  We had just started dating, but bubbie S. looked at me and said, “Welcome to the family”.  I don’t know if she meant this in a Godfather sense, like it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  But at that point, I had fallen head over heals for Cheryl anyway.  But a nice jewish boy for her granddaughter, a counselor at a Jewish camp, a bubbie’s dream.  So she came right out and said it, welcome.  That was her last lecture, zahey yid, zahey mensch, zayeh shtark, be a jew, be a mensch, and be strong.

This summer I suggested reading Michael J. Fox’s book called “Lucky Man”.  What a title. I thought I knew him, but I clearly didn’t know his story.  I knew of him, he’s one of the biggest Hollywood stars on the planet.  At one point, in 1985, he had the top two grossing movies of the year, Back to the Future, and Teen Wolf, as well as the number one rated TV show, Family Ties.  This little shrimp from BC had made it from a high school play to stardom, making millions.  But in the process he was drinking himself into oblivion, had no concept of money or how to treat people.  He was never able to sustain a loving relationship and spoke sporadically to his family back home.  In some ways it was the typical Hollywood story, “boy makes millions, ego inflates, turns to vices and addictions and burns out.”

But he had two strokes of luck.  First was meeting his wife Tracy, who put his life on track.  And the other stroke of luck.  Parkinson’s disease.  You might say, that’s not quite so lucky, a terminal debilitating disease of the body in your late 30’s, for an actor no less.  And yet in his book he says, it changed his life, for the better.  He had to stop, assess what was important.  His wife, his kids.  Even religion.  He is not Jewish, but his wife is and they wanted to raise the kids Jewish.

He belongs to Central Synagogue in NYC.  One of my classmates was a youth group advisor there.  She was given a list of families to call about an upcoming event for 5-6th graders.  One kid was named Fox.  So she calls, and Michael J. Fox answers the phone.  He said, “yep, I’ll bring her, what time?”  Amazing guy.  He cut back on his work to accommodate the disease that was dominating his body.  He began donating his money and time to work for stem cell research and finding a cure for Parkinson’s.  It was in this capacity that last year he addressed the Union for Reform Judaism delegates on our biennial convention in San Diego last year.  How humbling it must have been to stand in front of 5,000 people, shaking uncontrollably because of his disease, yet speaking clearly and concisely about his passion and poise in fighting for a cure.  This might have been his last lecture and he left us all with an inspiration message.  He is a lucky man.  It’s all in how you look at your life.    (Both these books are available to borrow in the lobby today.)   [Michael J. Fox From San Diego,  BROWSE VIDEOS,  Michael J. Fox  Michael J. Fox Bring the Light – Blog.]

Finally we must also pay tribute to one of the great last lectures, from the biggest bestseller of all time, the bible.  The book of Deuteronomy, which we will finish during this Shabbat reading of haa’zinu, is one long farewell speech by Moses, just before he dies.  God has already explained that Moses will not enter the promised land but die on Mount Nebo.  Thus Moses is provided with one opportunity to address the people he has led from slavery to freedom over the past 40 years.  Ironically, Moses is the same man who when first approached by God at the burning bush declared his inability to speak in front of people as a reason to find someone else to be the leader of the Jewish people.  Whether it was modesty or a true awareness of his own limitations, Moses was given Aaron as his companion to address Pharaoh.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut suggests that when Moses was younger, he thought of himself as a man of few words, but became more confident over time.  Moses teaches us many lessons in his last lecture.  His ability to overcome a speech impediment in order to address the entire Jewish nation.   His ability to overcome his own heartbreak and disappointment at being prevented from leading the Israelites into Israel.  Instead of complaining in anger, he chooses instead to reiterate complete faith in God, to choose life.  To remind the people if they follow God’s laws, the Torah, they will be blessed and successful in everything they do.  He inspires the people to trust in God and devote themselves to the mitzvot and gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.  And in the end Moses dies in perhaps the most beautiful and poetic way possible.  God picks him up, and buries Moses, in a place that no one will ever know.  God did not want his tomb to be a shrine, rather his life should be a lesson of humility, perseverance and accomplishment.

Friends, on this day of atonement, Yom Kippur, we must ask ourselves, what is our legacy, what are we teaching those around us, and those who will follow us when we are gone.  Yom Kippur asks us to take a reckoning of our lives, as the book of life is opened, and we understand our own limitations, for it is God who decides, who shall live and who shall die.  In this great day of awe, take a moment to think about what life lessons you have learned from great mentors and teachers from your past.  If you were to give your last lecture to your spouse, your parent, your sibling, your child or your best friend, what would you say.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.  Treat everyone as if they are the most important person in the whole world.  See yourself as lucky, no matter what tragic or painful thing comes your way.  Give of yourself to others and lead the way.  Always have cookies available.  Zahey mensch, zayeh yid, zayeh shtark.


Creating a Culture of Jewish Food on Yom Kippur Day

5770 Yom Kippur Day Sermon

Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein

Creating a Culture of Jewish Food on Yom Kippur Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leaving Your Comfort Zone

Erev Rosh HaShana Sermon, 5768
Rabbi Julie Greenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are the small ruts of habit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s accept the invitation to choose life.

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

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?

Excerpt: Health Care

Sermon by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie at the San Diego Biennial ,

December 15, 2007


In our Torah portion this morning, we read of the first known example of centralized economic planning. Joseph used the seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine, and then with the famine as a pretext, seized the land of the peasants for his Egyptian master.

However, while the Torah describes this economic model, it does not endorse it. When the Children of Israel arrived in the Promised Land, the biblical text mandates that property rights and economic freedom were to be respected there, along with the rule of law. Still, this is not the end of the story; the Jewish view of economics is a nuanced one. The Torah also mandates that free markets were not to be given full sway—they were to be tempered by social welfare and practical compassion. No one—no one—was to be reduced to humiliating dependence or excluded from the support of the body politic.

These considerations come to mind as the debate continues in America over the economic arrangements appropriate for American society. When talking today of those denied the blessings of our political system, we think most frequently of the 47 million people without health insurance, and thus without assured access to decent medical care. We think of the pain, chaos and indignity imposed on these Americans, who know that a single profound illness or injury can devastate their lives.

Of course, this is hardly a new story. Because the fact is that we live in a country with a pitifully inadequate health insurance system that causes horrors every day so tragic that they could rip the heart out of a stone.

We know that the uninsured tend to let minor illnesses grow into major illnesses before seeking treatment. The press is filled with stories of a mother with a lump on her breast who worries about the cost of checking it out, and a father with chest pains who decides that seeing a cardiologist is too expensive. We are aware that lack of insurance sends thousands of people to an early grave every year and plunges millions of Americans into severe financial distress.
It is not my intention to discuss with you the mechanics of providing health insurance. Some, including our Movement, prefer a single-payer system in which the government provides health insurance, and some want insurance delivered by private entities under government regulation.

But what we do need to discuss is the fundamental question of values that is as yet unresolved by our society: What do we owe each other as Americans?
The Jewish answer is: Communities are obligated to provide healing to all of their citizens. The Shulchan Aruch makes the point very simply: “If the physician withholds his services, it is considered as shedding blood” (S.A., Yoreh Dei-ah 336:1).

The Jewish answer is: Something is profoundly wrong when somebody else’s medical crisis is no longer our problem, and when we are so unwilling to come to each other’s aid.

The Jewish answer is: Providing health insurance for all is about helping a family member, a neighbor, or a fellow citizen because, next time, any one of us could be facing catastrophe. It is not just about them, it is about us.

We all know the practical problems that have, thus far, prevented us from providing medical insurance to all Americans. What ever plan is adopted, drug and insurance companies may face reduced profits; health-care providers may have to accept reductions in income; and middle-class families may have to pay more for the coverage they receive.

In a country such as ours, it is natural that honest, well-intentioned people are going to differ about how to fix health care. But that is what we pay politicians for—to lead our country in finding some reasonable compromise.
And now is the time. Every uninsured family is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The time has long since passed when our leaders should have done what every other advanced country has somehow managed to do: provide all its citizens with essential health care.
No more excuses, please.

And no more claims that we have nothing to learn from other countries. Our Canadian members, as well as British and Israeli Reform Jews, will be happy to tell us about the health care problems in their countries. But how many of them would prefer the American system to their own?
And no more talk by congressional leaders and White House aides, all with superb health insurance provided by the taxpayers, about how we need to focus on “the long run.” What do we say to the uninsured divorced mother, valiantly raising three children, hounded by medical bills she cannot pay? She doesn’t need access to medical care in the long run; she needs access right now. And what do we say to the 9 million children in this country who do not have health insurance? We ask those children every day to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and the time has come for us to pledge them the unfettered access to decent health care that they deserve.

We don’t know if this country will elect a president committed to providing health insurance to all Americans. And if we do, we don’t know if he or she will follow through. We have watched many times before as our leaders, bullied by the drug and insurance industries, rationalize their surrender in clouds of earnest words and good intentions.

But we need not look only to Washington for answers. In light of federal failures to address this issue, most states are considering plans to cover uninsured residents. In California, Maryland and Vermont, the crucial debate is well underway. Our Massachusetts congregations have already demonstrated how effective we ourselves can be. Progress on the state level is important in and of itself; and if we succeed there, our next president will be far more likely to actively promote a national solution.

I propose, therefore, that this Movement begin immediately to support state initiatives to expand health insurance. In almost every state of the Union, we have identified one Reform synagogue that has agreed to coordinate these efforts. We will bring Reform Jews, and our allies, to state capitals and we will make our voice heard and our presence felt.

I also urge the major communal organizations of the American Jewish community to join with us. There was a time when the Jews of America would have spoken with a single voice on this issue. There was a time when to be a Jew in America meant not only to care for our own, to fight for Israel, to educate our children as Jews; it also meant that whenever we saw injustice afflicting our neighbors, our Jewish souls would rush in to bring balm to their wounds. But I fear that is far less true today than it once was.

In recent years, there has been a feverish conversation among communal leaders about how to connect young adults to Jewish life. We all agree that they need Torah study, Jewish ritual and connection to Israel. But all of this has not been enough.
Well, here is my suggestion to these leaders about what they need to do next: They need to speak up for justice. They need to speak up loud, proud and unafraid.

Because our young people are very wise. They know that a Judaism that ghettoizes itself has no real mission and therefore no real purpose. They don’t understand how Jews can pray for the sick every day and then do nothing to get health care to those who need it. In the end, if the Judaism we offer our young does not speak to the great moral issues of the world and of their lives, it will fail to capture their imagination or their hearts.

And one more point: Our synagogues have a responsibility to promote good health that goes beyond public activism. Are we providing healthy food choices at our meetings, onegs and in our classrooms? Are we educating children and adults about Jewish teachings on health? Are we offering fitness programs to our members in all age categories? Our Department of Jewish Family Concerns has prepared a congregational audit that suggests how each of our synagogues can do more to keep its members healthy, and I urge you to review it with your leadership.

My friends, the health insurance situation in this country is a disaster. If we continue to tolerate it, we will lose our humanity, and no matter our other accomplishments, we will have failed as a people and a nation. So let us work to change it, piece by piece and child by child—until no cry for help goes unheard. Only in this way can we honor the image of God in every human being.