On November 19, 2020, for the third year, Congregation Shearith Israel joined with local churches and mosques for an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. As in past years, the event served as a special opportunity for people of different faiths to come together in the spirit of gratitude. This year’s theme—Embracing Gratitude in Adversity—was fitting, as the 12 participating faith communities and organizations gathered virtually because of the pandemic.
The event highlighted the important mission and impact of the Dallas Street Choir. Rabbi Ari Sunshine, who founded this event in 2018, led the Shearith Israel contingent, which included his welcome message (minute 1:30), Cary Rudberg blowing the shofar (minute 2:50), Charlie Waldman sharing his Bar Mitzvah speech on gratitude (minute 7), and Hazzan Itzhak Zhrebker singing On Holy Ground with the One Voice Gospel Choir (minute 31). You can watch a recording of the service on the Shearith Israel YouTube channel at https://is.gd/3ITgiving
Along with Congregation Shearith Israel, other participating faith communities and organizations included: Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, University Park United Methodist Church, Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square, First United Methodist Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Thanks-Giving Foundation, Islamic Association of North Texas, Ismaili Muslim Youth Choir, Millennial Choir & Orchestra, OneVoice Gospel Choir and Muslim American Society of DFW.
Reflecting on this year’s unusual service, Rabbi Sunshine commented, “We were nervous about how this would translate to an online-only format, but thanks to the diligent efforts of our event committee chair, Rev. Kathy Lee-Cornell from Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, and the rest of our planning team, we were thrilled with how it all came together in the end as an inspirational, uplifting, and communal experience. We were even able to include online networking opportunities after the conclusion of the service, as if we were once again standing together at a dessert reception meeting people from other faith communities.” Hazzan Zhrebker added, “This service allowed us to express our shared gratitude in a unified way, singing words of thanks.”
Next year’s service will take place on Thursday, November 18, 2021, and will be hosted by First United Methodist Church.
Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Today I thought I’d open my remarks with a few words about food. Dangerous territory in which to tread on a fast day, right? 😊 On the bright side, at least I’m confident I’ll have your, or your stomach’s, attention now. That is, until I tell you what food I wanted to talk about. You see, I wanted to talk about matzah. You heard me right, matzah. I know what you’re thinking. Rabbi, of course it makes total sense for you to talk about a food, matzah, in the midst of a fast day half a year away from Pesach. But now you must admit, you’re a little curious where I might be going with this. So let’s find out. 😉 It seems strange that the Torah and our tradition would choose such a shvach, non-descript food as the symbol of one of the most iconic and formative moments in our people’s history, our miraculous deliverance from slavery through God’s metaphorical hands. Why not a symbol that represented power or perhaps at least greater flair? Somehow it’s a simple unleavened bread, referred to as lechem oni, typically translated as “bread of affliction”, that is the calling card for our people as we became a free nation. How does that have anything to do with the process of redemption? The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel, a 16th and 17th century sage also known for his legendary associations with the Golem, offers an answer in his work Gevurot Hashem. He explains that matzah is called lechem oni because it is the opposite of enriched, or egg, matzah with its added oils or honey, since the oni, meaning “poor person” in Hebrew, has no money; he has only himself. Instead of framing matzah as the “bread of affliction”, the Maharal looks at it as essentially “simple bread”, with no additives or sweeteners, just flour and water, which is a perfect symbol for the “oni”, the poor person who has nothing except for the absolute basics. The Maharal’s take is that the poor person, while not being in a great position financially, is essentially unshackled from the physical world, unburdened from it, and thus MORE free than someone who has a great many possessions and a standard of living to maintain. It’s a representation of autonomy that, while coming with its own challenges, is quite different than the slave, in Egypt or anywhere, who is beholden to his or her master’s bidding. So the Maharal teaches that we are commanded to eat this simple, poor bread on the original night of the Exodus and every Pesach since. Neither the matzah, nor we as the people Israel and as individual Jews, are weighed down on the night of our redemption by any extra ingredients—save for maybe the debatably worth it pareve flourless cake, sorry, couldn’t resist 😊—it’s just us, and God, together, existing outside of the bonds and burdens of slavery. A simple but fulfilling life.
Well, a quick flip through the rest of the Torah after the Exodus, in particular the book of Numbers, suggests that the relationship between Israel and God was, well, COMPLICATED. Challenges, baggage and distractions seeped into the mix, and the relationship got a lot harder. LIFE got a lot harder, which seems only natural when you’re wandering in a wilderness for a long period of time. And this led to questionable choices and prioritizations on the part of the Israelites. And yet God pines, if you will, for a return to that simple, original and pure state of the relationship, as the words of Jeremiah 31:20, which we heard last week during the Zichronot section of Musaf, attest: “Ha-ven yakir li, Ephraim, truly Ephraim is a dear son to Me, im yeled sha’ashu’im, a child that is dandled, ki midei dabri bo, zachor ezk’reinu od, whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still; al ken hamu me’ai lo, that is why My heart yearns for him, rachem arachameinu, n’um Adonai, I will receive him back in love, declares Adonai”. We may have strayed from who we were as simple, free Israelites just out of Egypt, but there’s always a pathway back to that special snapshot in time and that treasured relationship with God. And, time and time again, the Israelites end up getting a wake-up call to this reality, either by hearing it from one of the prophets, or by dealing with an external crises that highlights the importance of a reboot and a return to the simplicity of their core relationship with God.
In a number of ways the experience we’ve been going through as individuals, as families, as a community, and as a society over these last six months is quite similar to what our biblical ancestors went through. An external crisis, a pandemic, has gotten our attention, dramatically altered our way of life, and shaken us to our core. As businesses of all kinds and all around us—restaurants, retail shops, movie theaters and others—have been forced to close or re-organize and re-prioritize to find ways to be profitable in the COVID era and its aftermath, and we have been largely isolating ourselves in our homes, the theme of change management looms large in our lives. The world has gotten even more complicated around us—how have we adapted and responded to that change?
One of the most common answers I’ve been seeing and hearing to this question in our community and in society in general is that we’ve been forced to simplify things. To go back to the basics. A number of you have specifically shared with me in these recent months how profound this change has been for you, and how grateful you are that you have been forced to re-examine your life choices and priorities and embrace a simpler life. Cooking together and enjoying daily meals as couples or families at the kitchen table, or socially distanced in the backyard with other extended family members and friends. Walking, hiking, running, or biking to be out in nature and get exercise and take care of our bodies. Playing games. Reading books and taking online classes. More frequent calls or FaceTimes or Zooms with your friends and loved ones, even folks you hadn’t been in touch with in a long time. Seeking community and connection with the shul and with God. In a real sense, what we are taught in the opening words of the biblical scroll of Ecclesiastes seems to ring true now more than ever: “Havel havalim, ha-kol havel”, vanity of vanities, everything is utterly futile—framed dramatically for rhetorical flourish, yes, but meaning that most everything we have in life is extra “stuff”, and is never meant to last. What is not havel, futile or vain, are these basic core building blocks of our lives. Those are meant to last and remain constant if we only choose to prioritize and nurture them.
19th century American author Henry David Thoreau looks to have been cut from the same philosophical cloth as Ecclesiastes. Unlike Ecclesiastes, though, whose reflections seem to have emerged from living in the metaphorical “fast lane” of the societal highway, Thoreau’s desire to understand and examine the worth and meaning of life, and to strip it down to its most basic elements, led him to live in isolation for two years in a small house on the shores of Walden Pond. Reflecting in his work Walden on the reasons for having made this decision, Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”. And Thoreau added: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”. Whether we frame it through the experiences and reflections of Ecclesiastes or Thoreau, or through the lens of our own recent life experiences, perhaps at this moment in our lives we can realize that we may have been spending too much time and energy on non-essential things. Thoreau advises us in Walden, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand”. The essence of his, and Ecclesiastes’, message, is clear: cut out what’s unnecessary and focus on what’s important.
And this return to basic values and priorities, my friends, is actually the essence of teshuva, the process of “returning” to ourselves, to our community, and God with which we are tasked during these Yamim Noraim, these High Holy Days. When a properly run organization is going through a process of change management and strategic planning, as we did here at Shearith two years ago, it starts with identifying its mission, vision and values to make sure it is focusing on its core essence, BEFORE moving forward and figuring out what kind of change is necessary. So, too, with each of us as individuals. We can’t begin the process of successful change until we strip ourselves down to our core essence and then see what’s been getting in the way of us being our best selves. We can then cut those obstacles or distractions out and focus on what’s most important.
At the end of the biblical scroll of Lamentations, we read a phrase that is likely more familiar to many of us from the conclusion of the Torah service when we return the Torah to the ark. “Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem”, “Bring us back to you, O God, and we shall return, renew our days as they were before”. When we think of renewal, we might first make the mistake of getting bogged down in the root “new” and understand it as something emerging from scratch. But here are some definitions of renewal: an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption; repairing something that is worn out, run-down, or broken; the act of being made fresh or vigorous again.
And so our scripture reminds us that renewal and change actually starts with a return to where, and WHO, we were, back when we were at our best, and picking back up from where we left off then. When our hearts were focused on the right things. When we channeled more of our time into pursuing and committing to those relationships that mattered. As with our Israelite ancestors, life got complicated, and some of these basic priorities got away from us and became worn down or broken. But these last six months we’ve been challenged to figure out how we’re going to make it through the wilderness of COVID and emerge stronger from it. We have been forced to simplify, to get back to being like the matzah, the no-frills symbol of our people when we first got our start in relationship with God once Egypt’s oppression was stripped away.
How do our best selves and lives look? When we are deeply connected in relationships, in person or virtually, with family, friends, and community who are the strongest anchors in our lives; when we are focused on maintaining our health by taking precautions and exercising; when we are reading and learning and expanding our appreciation for, and understanding of, our world in general and also of our Jewish tradition specifically, and thinking about how we can contribute to the world and to the continuing chain of Jewish generations; and when we are cultivating our faith in, and commitment to, God who can also be a rock for us even in the most turbulent of times. This is what our best selves look like, and what teshuva looks like, this year and every year. And so we pray together with the familiar words: Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Bring us back to you, God, and we shall return, to being our best selves and focusing on what matters. Renew our days and clear away the distractions from our souls so that we may once again be fresh and vigorous in the pursuit of meaning in our relationships and in our lives and in our commitment to you and to serving as your agents of goodness in your world. And let us all say, AMEN.
Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
With gratitude for the inspiration of our teacher and friend, Dr. Arnold Eisen
Adam: The Friday night before our wedding, Shira berated our guests because they couldn’t count to 6.
We had gathered everyone together for an intimate shabbaton at a retreat center outside Baltimore and, after shabbat dinner, we had an oneg. Some dessert, some wine, an essential ingredient in this story, and, most importantly for us, some singing.
A half empty bottle of Moscato in her hand, Shira, who cannot hold her liquor, had the brilliant idea that she would teach a complicated three-part round to our assembled guests.
We love our friends very much, but let’s be honest: they weren’t exactly up to our high musical standards. And so, a minute or two into the singing, Shira yelled: “STOP! It’s in 6/8 people!”
In other words: in order not to get lost, you had to count off musical patterns in two groups of three. Which, needless to say, for a well-intentioned group of middling musical talent, resulted in chaos.
Shira: It’s been a challenge for us, over these past few months, listening to the broken rhythms of our time. We’re reminded of this every time we hold services on Zoom, a virtual platform on which it is technologically impossible for people, sitting in their own homes, to speak or sing in unison. For the leader of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the experience is even more disorienting. You begin, and then the sound of everyone else returns to you seconds later.
For those like Adam and me, who can be particular about how things sound, it’s been like nails on a chalkboard. How are we to make sense of this cacophony, this overlapping jumble of words, when we are supposed to be praying to God and comforting mourners?
This experience of saying kaddish is yet another example, of many, of why we are living in a time that has no rhyme or rhythm. It is impossible to predict what will happen and when, impossible to know what to do or how to respond, or if, when we do, it will have any impact at all on the myriad of crises unfolding around us. Put simply, right now, the world makes no sense.
Adam: It makes no sense that, in the most advanced age of medicine ever, over 200,000 of our fellow countrymen and women have died in a pandemic that has ravaged the world.
It makes no sense that, in the streets of our cities and towns, people are turning on one another, fighting and screaming and shouting, looting and burning, each side claiming the moral high ground.
It makes no sense that people are forced to choose between their health and their livelihood, between keeping their children at home or sending them to school, when both seem like a losing proposition.
It makes no sense that after nearly 250 years of progress, Americans are at war with each other about the very systems we have created to maintain unity and order.
As people of faith, it is tempting to believe that there is a relatively simple answer to why terrible things happen in the world. You are either with God or you are not. You are either pious and observant, or you are godless and pagan.
A system of reward and punishment has been outlined in some of our religious texts to lift up those who follow God’s instructions and put out those who don’t. But look a little more closely, and you’ll see that this system unravels very quickly.
Shira: In the book of Job, we read of a man who was one of God’s most devoted followers. And yet, for the sake of a devil, his home is destroyed, his body is wracked with illness, and his family killed. Job demands to know why he has been treated so unfairly. Three men, seeing Job in his wretchedness, come to confront him for railing against God. If you are suffering, his companions tell him, it is because of some fault in you, something you have yet to uncover and to confess.
One of the men, Eliphaz, insists: im tashuv el Shaddai tipaneh. If you do teshuvah, if you return to God, you will be restored (Job 22:23). When you pray, God will listen to you. If only you make good on your promises, God will deliver the guilty and be absolved in your eyes, through the cleanness of your hands.
We are here today, partially, because of these words. Because we believe that if we repent, God will reward us with another year of life. And yet, we all know if the answer were truly as simple as that, many others would be standing here with us on this day with full faith that they too would make it through to another year.
Job speaks for our sense of betrayal at the thought that, if we do everything right, the pieces will fall into place around us and the world will once again make sense. “Until the last moment I die, I have and will maintain my integrity, for I know that I am righteous, and will not yield” he says (Job 27:5). Maintaining his innocence, Job is eventually met with a voice from heaven, explaining away his suffering as a consequence of God’s mysterious ways. “Where were you when I created the universe?” God challenges him.
Adam: Ultimately, Job is rewarded for finally praising God, even in the midst of tragedy. His body is healed, his house is rebuilt, his family is reborn. But make no mistake, this too makes no sense.
Most scholars believe that these last chapters of Job were editorial additions, meant to blunt the harsh argument and the charges against God enumerated in the previous chapters.
Accept that we will never understand. Is that really the answer? What comfort can that provide us in these times? And is this really a story that ends with happily ever after? As if the new wife and children Job were given could really take the place of those he lost?
And while there can be no true answer to Job’s challenge, what we can learn from his story is that those who seek a black and white explanation of why things go so terribly wrong will be disappointed and their faith will be broken.
The truth is: Judaism offers not just a different answer, but a different question. When we assume that the world is supposed to add up; when we insist that it must make sense, we are not making a truly religious claim. From the start, the Torah teaches us that we begin not with order, but with chaos. For it is out of chaos that God created the world.
And so the question is not: how do we get the world to make sense? It is: what do we do when it doesn’t?
Shira: There is another biblical figure who lost everything, who was forced to confront a world of pain and loss, robbed of those who gave her life meaning and direction. Her name was Naomi.
After the death of her husband and sons, she tells those who come to comfort her: “do not call me Naomi, call me Mara. Call me bitter, for Shaddai has made my lot miserable. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20-21). Calling God by the same name, Shaddai, her language is an exact parallel of Job’s, who also describes his soul as bitter (Job 10:1). And yet, the story of the rest of her life is nothing like his.
Why? Because in the face of his pain, those who gathered around him insisted that he was suffering because the world is ordered. The righteous get rewarded and the wicked get punished.
Where Job’s advisers offer him only cold and calculating logic, Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth offers her something else, something that is much more reflective of the true nature of our tradition and the instructions we receive in the Torah. What is that gift? Chesed. Love. Understanding. Compassion.
Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. We usually read this as a statement of faith in God. It’s not. It’s a statement of faith in goodness, in kindness, in how God wants us to act in this world.
What follows in the Book of Ruth is a progression of kindness. Ruth shows chesed to Naomi and in turn, her future husband Boaz pays it forward to Ruth.
Adam: For many hundreds of years, our religion has been accused of being one primarily concerned with only the minutiae of law. What is the right way to tie your tzitzit? Which direction should the mezuzah on your door face? What are the dos and don’ts of Shabbat?
This reductive and infantile description of our 4000-year-old tradition misses the point. Despite the fact that other religions have laid claim to it, in its essential character, Judaism is and has always been a religion of chesed, of faith with love at its heart. And when it comes to being a religion of law—guilty as charged. Because in the Torah, law is love.
Law is veahavta et Adonai elohecha. Your relationship with God should be a loving meeting of souls.
Law is veahavta lereacha kamocha. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
Law is veahavta et hager. Show mercy, show compassion, to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the vulnerable.
But it’s more than just acting with love, it is also learning to reorient oneself, to recalibrate the way we take in the world, so that even at its worst, we see it with love.
We are commanded to put fringes on the corners of our garments because God wants to remind us that the power of mitzvah, the potential of sanctifying the world, exists in every moment and every place that we go.
We are obligated to point the mezuzah toward the inside of our homes because, when we enter that space, the space where we nurture and foster the most important relationships we have, we must be ever-conscious of this obligation to be loving and patient.
If we care so much about the behaviors we engage in on Shabbat, it’s because God insists that we be granted one day in every seven to imagine what the world could be, instead of dwelling on what it is.
Shira: On this day of vidui, of confession, let us confess something to you. For the past several years, as we have watched the world spin faster and faster off its axis, we have approached the high holidays with greater urgency, believing that if we just delivered the right message, if we were persuasive and optimistic enough, the words that we uttered might make some small difference in helping to push the world back toward order and civility. And though there may come a time again when that might be possible, we’re not sure that, this year, that is the case.
We cannot promise you that the world will make more sense this year than it did last year.
But what we can promise you, is that because you are Jewish, because you are invested in the mission of our people, to bring chesed into the world, you can make it through these challenging times. With the love that resides within you and the wisdom of our tradition, you can work to banish tohu va’vohu, chaos and upheaval, and usher in, little by little, a new era of tzedek and mishpat, justice through laws of compassion.
Because Jewish history lives within us, we are experts at enduring the world at its worst, while also insisting that it be at its best. Job teaches us: it is not our project to unravel the mysteries of good and evil, and how and why and when manifestations of both occur in our lives.
Rather, it is our purpose to accept the chaos around us as the way of the world, and to go to work, soul by soul, on comforting and lifting up those who are facing it.
Adam: Put another way, the act of God is not the virus, the violence, or the anger and resentment that poisons so much in this world. The act of God is when those who are inspired by God’s Torah open their hands and hearts to those who are in need of its redemptive message.
Just as Ruth did, we must say to those around us: your pain is my pain, your fight is my fight. Your story is my story and your healing is my healing.
On Tuesday morning, at 7am, we’ll leave behind this beautifully designed, technologically advanced portal, and re-enter the humble and generally uncooperative virtual environment of Zoom.
We’ll go back to saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with voices that overlap and overwhelm.
But here’s the thing: you can make the same choice that we have learned to make. In that chaotic chorus of voices, words of praise about God and the world God created, you can choose to hear not disjointedness and disconnection, but the opposite.
Voices filled with love and reverence, with longing and hope, reaching out across the geographies of physical and virtual space.
You can reorient yourself to a world that seems to be a total mess, and yet, if you listen hard enough to the beating heart within you, and at the center of our faith, you can transform both your perception of the world and free yourself of the malaise that has weighed us all down for far too long.
Shira: And you will come to understand, just as we have, that what you’re listening to is not out of rhythm at all, but a sound perfectly calibrated for this moment. And then, you can leave your home, and go out into this chaotic time that we all live in and see not brokenness, but opportunities to make the world whole.
Adam and Shira: [overlapping] Yitkadal veyitkadash sheme raba. Oseh shalom b’imromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu. May the one who brings peace above, bring peace to us, to all of Israel, to all those who dwell on earth.
[in unison] Ve’imru: Amen.
Joint Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman and Rabbi Shira Wallach
Congregation Shearith Israel
From the day Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden, they lived together East of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children and struggling to stay alive.
After those many years of struggle, when their children were grown, Adam and Eve decided to take a journey before it was too late and see the world that God had created.
They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other and explored all of the world's wonders. They stood up on the great mountains, treked across the vast deserts, walked amid the mighty forests, and traversed the magnificent seas.
They watched the sunrise over the endless wilderness and saw it set into the boundless ocean. All that God had created they beheld.
In the course of their journeys, wandering from place to place, they came upon a place that seemed so familiar. They came upon the garden of Eden from which they had been exiled on the very first day of their lives.
The garden was now guarded by an Angel with a flaming sword. This Angel frightened Adam and Eve who fled.
Suddenly they heard a gentle imploring voice. God spoke to them: “My children, you have lived in exile these many, many years. Your punishment is complete. Come now and return to my garden. Come home to the garden.”
Suddenly to the Angel disappeared. The way into the garden opened and God invited them in. But Adam, having spent so many years in the world, had grown shrewd. He hesitated and said to God, “You know it has been so many years. Remind me, what is it like in the garden?”
“The garden is paradise,” God responded. In the garden there is no work. You need never struggle or toil again. In the garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the garden there is no death. In the garden there is no time: no yesterday, no tomorrow, only an endless today. Come my children, return to the garden.”
Adam considered God's words. He thought about a life with no work, no struggle, no pain, no passage of time, and no death. An endless life of ease with no tomorrow and no yesterday.
And then he turned and looked at Eve his wife. He looked into the face of the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He read in the lines of her face all the tragedies they had overcome and the joys they had cherished. He saw in her eyes all the laughter and all the tears they had shared.
Eve looked back into Adam's face. She saw in his face all the moments that had formed their lives: moments of jubilant celebration and moments of unbearable pain.
She remembered the moments of life-changing crisis and the many moments of simple tenderness and love.
She remembered the moments when a new life arrived in their world and the moments when death intruded. As all their shared moments came back to her, she took Adam's hand in hers.
Looking into his wife's eyes, Adam shook his head and responded to God's invitation. “No thank you,” he said. “That's not for us not now. We don't need that now. Come on Eve,” he said to his wife. “Let's go home.” And Adam and Eve turned their backs on God's paradise and walked home.
It’s interesting, that on this evening, when we celebrate the creation of the universe, we don’t usually recount its story. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not the next day. Ironically, Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s beautiful retelling of the exile from Eden might help us understand why.
In his version of the story, God reopens the gates, allowing Adam and Eve an opportunity to return to the perfection He created for them before they corrupted it. And yet, they refuse, deciding instead to make their own way in the world.
Why? Because what they realize after a long period of struggle and hardship is that there is more meaning, more possibility, and more humanity in a world that is imperfect. In Eden, there is no conflict, so there is no growth. In the garden of the Divine, there is nothing to work for, because everything is provided for you. In the realm of the Godly, there are no problems to solve, and nothing to build.
It may seem like the world we live in right now couldn’t be farther removed from Gan Eden or a conventional definition of paradise, and yet what drives us isn’t a return to idyllic isolation from a complicated and demanding world, but rather a way to ground ourselves so we can engage fully with that world.
Like Adam and Eve after the fall, we live in a world where we are called, day after day and year after year for 5780 years and counting, to help reinvent and recreate in partnership with God. Every morning, before we say the Shema, we praise God for being m’chadesh b’tuvo b’khol yom tamid, ma’aseh bereishit—the one who is constantly renewing and re-creating our world, and charges us to do the same as much as we are able.
We are the ones who, inspired by the teachings of our Torah, decide what sacred space is, where we learn, how prayer is offered up to heaven, and how we lift each other up right here on this earth. This year, we have truly recreated all of these experiences anew.
We have been challenged to find connection with each other and with God, despite the awful circumstances in the world around us.
And how have we fared in these endeavors?
We have re-defined the possibilities of sacred space. We already knew we could find it in our synagogue building while doing things such as davening or learning or packing sandwiches for the sandwich drive, and experience it while outside the walls of the shul studying Torah together in a bar or restaurant, delivering Shabbat meals to some of our homebound seniors, or enjoying a weekend away at the Family Retreat or a week and a half on a congregational mission to Israel.
But did we know before this year that we could also create and enter sacred space when we assemble in our little boxes on a Zoom screen, and form daily or Shabbat minyanim, share a meal in a virtual breakout room for Shabbat Across Shearith, or assemble for Havdalah online every weekend with a number of congregants joining in from their homes with their own Havdalah sets?
We have expanded our notion of where we can learn, and developed our tech skills even when many of us felt we had none, connecting with teachers and fellow eager learners in accessible and versatile mobile classrooms for adults and children of all ages, and learning a lot of patience (and how to mute and unmute!) along the way, looking forward to the day when we can again discuss and debate with our fellow students across the table from one another.
We have broadened our perspectives on how we can offer our prayers to God. In the absence of our ability to gather in one room for a minyan, we have greeted each other warmly onscreen, turned to digital versions of our liturgy when we didn’t have siddurim handy, met the powerful emotional and ritual need of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for our loved ones, and even figured out how to sing together as a group without ACTUALLY singing together with our fellow worshipers.
And we have innovated ways to lift each other up amidst the peaks and valleys of our lives, extending virtual embraces whether celebrating a Bar Mitzvah or a bris or a baby naming, or offering heartfelt condolences to mourners at a funeral or a shiva while others quietly listen in rapt attention to the warm memories being shared.
One common thread links all of these experiences together, and that is community. Whether we are in each other’s physical presence, or seeing each other’s faces online, or even some of both, we can create a powerful sense of sacred space, we can learn and grow together, we can worship and break bread together, and rejoice or mourn together. In this we draw strength from the precept imparted to us at creation--lo tov heyot he’adam levado, we do not go through life alone, but with companionship in community.
And it’s this last point that we’d like to emphasize on this erev Rosh Hashanah, as we begin this season of High Holy Days together--not in our beautiful sanctuaries, in the seats that some of our families have occupied for generations-but in a way none of us could have possibly imagined a year ago-spread out across the city in our own homes, very far from Gan Eden.
In Rabbi Feinstein’s story, Adam and Eve decline the opportunity to return to Eden. It may be paradise, but it’s not home. Because, you see, as humans we also get to define what home means to us. Home isn’t defined by perfection. Instead we may define it in its broadest sense as a place where we feel loved and valued, comfortable and comforted, where we experience joy and laughter, where we break bread, where we struggle and where we grow. No matter how crazy the world is around us, those constants remain. For Adam and Eve, companionship was the key to these constants being realized. And with that in mind, I’d like to ask each of you to reach into your High Holy Days Box and take out and unwrap the special gift we’ve included for you. I’ll give you all a moment so you can untie the ribbon and take out what’s inside the box. As you can see, we’ve given you a compass. A compass will always point out your “true north” and let you know where to find it, even if you’re lost in a forest filled with trees and can’t see which way to turn to get home, or just feeling lost in a world that feels decidedly un-Eden like. Friends, throughout these High Holy Days, before each private Amidah prayer that we recite, we hope you’ll try picking up this compass to orient yourselves eastwards toward Yerushalayim in your prayers, as well as link yourselves symbolically, along with your fellow congregants wherever they may be located, to the unfailing true north of companionship and community which you can count on here at Shearith Israel, where we are so much more than a building. We are a strong, vibrant and caring community where we hope you will always feel that sense of home I just described a few moments ago. Whether we’re online as we are right now, in person as we hope to be very soon, or some combination of both, we remain, Shearith Israel, here for you in good times and bad, a community where you can Enrich Your Life, Elevate Your Soul, and Embrace Your Judaism. We look forward to establishing new relationships and connections, and strengthening longstanding ones, as together we journey forward into this next chapter of creation, the as yet unwritten story of 5781, one which we hope will be filled with sweetness, growth and good health for all. Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Some folks are called gym rats for their intense devotion to working out, or practicing their chosen sport or sports. My Dad, however, is what I’d affectionately refer to as a “shul rat”, someone who just LOVES to be in shul. It could be at his shul, Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, where my classmate and dear friend and a former member of Shearith’s rabbinic team, Adam Raskin, is now his rabbi. It could be when he goes and leads services for the residents of Revitz House, a Jewish senior living facility in Rockville, Maryland. It could be when he’s traveling in the U.S. or elsewhere around the world. Wherever he is, he wants to be in shul on Shabbat. In this regard, the circumstances of the COVID pandemic have actually provided him with a small but meaningful silver lining while he and my Mom largely continue to shelter at home. Because, you see, any given Shabbat morning, my Dad can hop on two, three, or as many as five online Shabbat services, joining the Shabbat community in shuls all around the U.S—and the difference in time zones sure helps with that! Ok, admittedly he has a few favorites, whether it be Har Shalom, or Shearith where he gets to watch his son do the rabbi thing, or Beth Am in Baltimore where my cousin is the rabbi, and a handful of others. But I get a kick out of talking with him and my Mom after Havdalah or on a Sunday and hearing him say, “I went to three shuls today!” or telling me that he went to shul with his sister, my Aunt Bette, that morning. Of course, Bette was sitting in her home in Ann Arbor, MI, and my Dad was in his home in Maryland. And yet they shared the same shul experience and it was as if they were sitting next to each other, able to kibitz about the rabbi’s sermon (chances are the reviews are usually fairly positive when they’re watching one of their children preach), and the tune that was used for Adon Olam. The world has gotten considerably smaller during these past six months.
Certainly my family’s ability to “go to shul” together online on Shabbat is not the only example of this. How many of you watching today shared one or more Pesach seders this year with friends and loved ones all over the country? Yes, it’s true we could say “dayenu” at this point to the problem of not being able to sing together on the same beat, but weren’t the “Zeders” of 2020/5780 pretty special in their own way, effectively expanding our Seder tables to include folks who wouldn’t all otherwise have necessarily been able to join us? And we can say the same thing about brises, simchat bat ceremonies, b’nei mitzvah, funerals, and shiva minyanim, where family members and friends from faraway places have been able to smile and celebrate onscreen with us, or comfort us with their presence, which even as recently as the beginning of 2020 would not have been considered as an option for people, let alone one that so many folks are now taking advantage of to draw closer to those they care about.
Finally, let’s not forget that this closeness has not been limited to the boundaries of the U.S. Back in June we arranged a virtual tour for our congregation of Gabrieli Weaving’s studio in Rechovot, Israel and store in Jerusalem. We got a glimpse behind the curtain of what I would argue is the best source in the world for beautiful tallitot, from which more than 2/3 of my 16 tallitot—not a misprint—come, and a number of our members purchased tallitot for themselves, their children or their grandchildren, including several of our Shearith B’nei Mitzvah families, after setting up personal shopping appointments. We were 7000 miles and 8 hours on the clock apart, and yet there we were, connecting intimately and forging or strengthening our bond to Israel and to Jewish ritual at the same time. And we wouldn’t even have thought of trying this a year ago.
Yes, the world definitely feels smaller than it used to feel. Our reach and capacity to connect with others has been extended exponentially, which has opened up new opportunities for us personally and professionally. But what are the implications of this for us going forward, as we continue to grind our way through a pandemic, but also prepare for its eventual aftermath? Does our ability to reach further challenge us to think about widening our circle of concern, or is this just a short-term way of thinking that should yield to insularity and parochialism once things “go back to normal” within our communities or in general with the practice of our Judaism?
Friends, I would suggest that the answer to this question is found in Jewish values, and it gets back to the very core of how we see ourselves as Jewish people relative to the rest of the world. Deeply ingrained in our traditional texts and our prayer liturgies are many reflections of this basic tension, the tension between particularism and universalism.
Take the Aleinu prayer for instance. It’s a prayer many of us know well and can sing along with, but how well do we really know it? You might know a little more about it if you watched my On Demand video clip on it on the portal, but otherwise feel free to check that and our other On Demand content out later. The prayer begins, “Aleinu l’shabeach la-Adon ha-kol, lateyt g’dulah l’yotzer b’reishit, she-lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishp’chot ha-adama, she-lo sam chelkeynu ka-hem, v’goraleinu k’chol ha-monam”—It is for us to praise the Ruler of all, to acclaim the Creator, who has not made us merely a nation, nor formed us as all earthly families, nor given us an ordinary destiny. In these opening lines of the Aleinu, as Jewish people we are called upon to praise God as the master and creator of all, BECAUSE God assigned us a different kind of responsibility and destiny in the world. Over the course of the full text of the two paragraphs of the Aleinu, we reflect back on God as the universal creator, and yearn for the day when we will be able “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai”, to establish the world in the kingdom of the Almighty, or, in modern usage, to repair the world according to God’s blueprint, a world that includes, as our machzor says in a comment on p.156, “the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and protection of the planet itself from destruction”. And then, at the conclusion of the prayer, when we cite the words of the prophet Zechariah, we hope that the day will also come when our God will be acknowledged as the one God who is sovereign of all the earth. Once again, we are pulled back and forth between universal and particular aspirations.
Aleinu is actually one of a number of prayers in our High Holy Day liturgy that reflects themes that are both particularistic towards the Jewish people and universalistic towards all of humanity. This should not surprise us when we recognize that the rabbis saw Rosh Hashanah not only as a time of judgment for the Jewish people, but also as the anniversary of the birthday of the world and a time that all pass before God in judgment: in the words of the Mishna and the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer we recited earlier, “v’chol ba’ei olam ya’avrun l’fanekha kivnei maron”, ALL that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Judgment and accountability isn’t just something reserved for Jews, it’s something all human beings have to deal with. And on Rosh Hashanah, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman points out in his book “All the World”, we as Jews “appear before God in our capacity as universal man or woman, not simply as a member of the Jewish People. To be sure, says Hoffman, it is Jewish tradition that summons us here to synagogue today, but once here, “we appear naked before God as the human descendants of Adam and Eve in Eden. We are either worthy of continued existence in God’s world or we are not; and if we are not, we engage in teshuvah” (23). We come to terms with who we have been in this past year and attempt to recreate ourselves, and the world, in a better image going forward. Hoffman adds, “Passover is one bookend in Jewish time, the particularistic one, the High Holy Days are the other bookend, the universalistic one, recalling that as much as we are Jews, we are also members of the world community, with a mission to advance the well-being of the world in which we find our existence” (23). This is right in line with the Aleinu insight of appreciating our particular peoplehood while situating it firmly in the context of the universal human experience and consequently embracing our mission of contributing to the betterment of the world.
Clearly this universal stamp is all over our machzor, and all over these High Holy Days, even when we are in the midst of our peak season of focusing on our own distinctly Jewish practices and rituals. But this theme isn’t just found during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s found in our Shabbat liturgy every week of the year, in the Kiddush. The first paragraph of the Kiddush focuses on Shabbat rooted in the creation story—God created the entire world and all life within it, and then carved out a 7th day in the cycle to rest once the creative process was completed. The second paragraph of the Kiddush adds another component: it refers to Shabbat as both a memorial for the act of creation, and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, noting “ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha-amim”, “God chose us and sanctified us from all the nations” by giving us the Shabbat. In the Kiddush we move from Shabbat as a universal gift in response to a universal act, to Shabbat as a gift to the Jewish people as part of a particular act of redeeming Israel from Egypt. Clearly we would not have been redeemed from Egypt had we, and the rest of humanity, not been created in the first place. Every week, we are charged with holding on to both contexts of Shabbat when we recite the Kiddush.
So how do we navigate this particular vs. universal tension in practice? Well, as with so much else in Judaism, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, we focus inwardly on the powerful mandate of building our own community, learning as children and as adults about our Jewish tradition, and turning that learning into active Jewish living, observing Shabbat and holidays, eating a traditional Jewish diet through the laws of kashrut, and engaging regularly in personal and communal prayer. And on the other hand, we focus our gaze outwards, looking to reinforce the bond we share with the rest of humanity and do our part to elevate those who need lifting up.
There’s a famous maxim from Pirkei Avot, one of our earliest rabbinic collections of wisdom literature from 2000 years ago. It is “Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li—U’ch-she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani”? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I’m only for myself, what am I? It’s a compelling call for both particularism and universalism in our approach to living. But there’s also a third part of the maxim: “V’im lo achshav—eimatai”. This task of looking out for both our own interests, and those of others in the world around us, is imbued with urgency. We can’t put it off, says Pirkei Avot, because we’ll just keep coming up with excuses. So today I’ll offer you a pathway to fulfilling the mandate of helping others besides ourselves, by calling to your attention the impactful work of our Shearith Israel Social Action Committee, headed up by Mindy Fagin and Andrea Solka. Here are just a few of the things they’re currently working on:
This week I ordered the newest tallit in Gabrieli’s line, one of only 72 individually numbered special blue and white tallitot made in celebration of Israel’s 72nd birthday back in May. No, I didn’t need a 17th tallit—I just loved the design and wanted to support my friend Ori Gabrieli’s business as it suffers with no tourism during the pandemic. But it’s fitting in light of my comments today that the atara, the collar, of this tallit is embroidered with the words “V’ahavta L’rey-acha Kamocha”, love your neighbor as yourself, from the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. We do have to love and value ourselves and treasure what makes us unique, but even as we work hard to develop our particular Jewish identity, we have to value our neighbors and reach out and work hard to help them too. And in this small and very connected world we now find ourselves living in, when people all over the globe are struggling with the impact of the same pandemic, where geographic or perceived distance can be bridged in one Facetime call or online gathering, we have lots more “neighbors”. Two brothers, Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman wrote a catchy little melody back in 1963, the lyrics might be vaguely familiar to you: “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears; There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware—It’s a small world after all”.
Zeh Olam Katan M’od. It’s a small world after all, so our reach can extend further than ever before, in our own backyards and beyond. But that just means there’s that much more we can do to pitch in. What do you say we get started? Im lo achsav, eimatai. If not now, when?
Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom.
Watch this sermon at vimeo.com/460269520
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
ADAM: vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.
SHIRA: Praised are you God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, who has sustained us, and who has enabled us to reach this day.
SHIRA: This blessing of thanksgiving, the shehechiyanu, recited at the start of every major holiday on the Jewish calendar, helps us transition between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Like all ritual at its best, it is also a hyperlink, a portal that connects us to the highlights of our lives, filling us with the warm glow of sweet emotions, reminding us of the essence of what life is truly about and why it’s worth living.
But what does it mean to say this blessing today, on the start of this new year, when the distance between us and the fear and uncertainty around us feel so great?
ADAM: A story is told of the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Spira, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in Bergen Belsen during the shoah. One year, on Erev Chanukah, after a particularly brutal day, one where many of his fellow Jews had been randomly shot, their bodies still lying on the ground as night fell, the Rebbe found an old shoe, made some oil out of shoe polish, a wick out of threads of a garment, and gathered others around him to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
Rabbi Spira recited the first two blessings, marking the start of the holiday and thanking God for the miracles that saved our ancestors from destruction at hand of the Greeks.
Then, he paused for the briefest of moments and offered the final prayer—the shehechiyanu.
SHIRA: One Jew who witnessed this scene later came to the Rebbe and said bitterly, “I understand how you can make the first two blessings, but tell me Rabbi Spira, how can you, in this terrible place, with dead Jews lying all around us, make the shehechiyanu blessing thanking God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this time?”
The Rebbe looked at him and said “You know, I had the same problem. But then I looked around and saw these Jews in the worst of circumstances, surrounded by death and destruction, gathering together and insisting on fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
I said to myself: for this alone one can and should make the blessing: “shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higeeyanu lazman hazeh.”
No matter how grim the world around us becomes, no matter what challenges we face, (and make no mistake, the difficult times we are living through now in no way compare to the horrors of the Holocaust), when the New Year arrives we recite the shehechiyanu.
We give ourselves the permission to fully embrace not just the holiness of this moment, but also the life-affirming forces within us and around that have brought us to this day.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: who has kept us alive
Breathe, in and out. Feel the air rush in and out of your lungs. Put your hand on your chest and detect your heartbeat. Tense and release your muscles.
The magnificent body that God made for you, before you even knew there was a ‘you,’ continues to breathe, to beat, to move, to eat. You have the ability to sense the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun.
Today, we say shehechiyanu…we’re still here. Judaism insists that gratitude must come from what we already have, not what we are given. Pirkei Avot teaches: Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with her portion. We arise in the morning and say, Modeh Ani, thank you God for my restoring soul, for returning life to my body after a full night’s sleep.
Hineni, I exist. But is that enough?
SHIRA: Has it been enough for you, parents--who had to quickly figure out how to juggle work, school, and childcare, and not cry in front of your kids more than once a day?
Or for you, the homebound seniors, who have endured inexplicable loneliness, unable to visit in person with those who give your life meaning?
Or for your children and families, who yearned with all their hearts just for the ability to throw their arms around you, to let you know that you’re not alone?
Or for all of us, who have struggled with the fear of falling ill, or of breathing our last breaths alone?
Psalm 115 suggests a surprising answer to this existential question: Lo hameitim yehallelu yah. The dead cannot praise God.
Notice: what separates us from those who no longer walk this earth is not our beating hearts or our breathing lungs or our tensing muscles. It’s the ability to transcend, to rise. To take in, to acknowledge every single element in our lives, and then to send that gratitude heavenward as praise.
In Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moshe Rabeinu gives us a last glimpse of his vision of Life, before our ancestors crossed over into the Promised Land, and he crossed over into the World to Come. In this final, pivotal moment, Moshe pleads with us: uvacharta bachayim, choose life! Don’t just stay alive, choose a life that is resplendent with justice and love, goodness and blessing.
ADAM: Vekiyemanu: who has sustained us
The word kayam should be familiar to all of you; you’ve sung it many times before. David Melech Yisrael chai, chai vekayam. David, King of Israel: he is kayam, he is eternally sustained. And if you read the Bible, you’ll see that King David, despite facing countless enemies and obstacles, was a man of boundless energy, spry enough to leap and dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and prolific enough to write and score all 150 of the psalms.
But think about what King David had to keep him going--a direct line to a God that adored him, legions of women and men who loved him or were in love with him. And his destiny was never in doubt--he knew exactly where he was going and why because the prophets who anointed him and advised him made sure of it.
Good for him.
SHIRA: We face a somewhat murkier picture--an endless stream of how longs and what nexts and what fors. It makes even the simplest act of being kayam, of standing up and getting out of bed in the morning, feel as daunting as facing a giant without a slingshot.
This was our struggle too, until our 15-month-old hit a sleep regression, waking us up screaming at odd hours of the night. Soon enough, we were stumbling up the stairs in a zombie daze at 1:30, 3:15, 4:45am to pick her up before the 5-year-old woke up too. I challenge you to come up with a stronger adrenaline rush.
But it wasn’t only these moments that pulled us out of our stupor.
Feeling my heart burst with pride as Hannah suddenly realized how to ride her bike, without training wheels. Watching her face as she figured out how to read, how to build circuits, how to add and subtract, how to listen to music for its time signature, instruments, and themes.
And just a few weeks ago, as I rode my elliptical still asleep, I looked up and saw Adam come in the room holding Rebecca. She regarded me with her dreamy eyes and when I said “I love you,” she said it right back. When I stepped off, she held her body against mine in the longest hug I could remember.
These are the things that sustain us, that enable us to be here today. Not only the fun, easy, joyful moments, but the hard ones too-- all of these remind us that we CAN find meaning between the bookends of our lives. What prevents us from going numb is acknowledging the mere possibility that the entire gamut of human emotion and experience is out there, waiting for us.
So we must discover, with God’s help: how are we sustained? How do we find the strength to stand, lakum? To rise up? To be an upstander? To be outstanding?
And, with the strength that we have left after an exhausting year, how do we remain focused for whom and what we must sustain, to ensure that we, our family, our community, are always chai vekayam?
ADAM: Vehigiyanu: Who has enabled us to reach, to arrive at this joyous occasion.
The Hebrew verb l’hagiyah, is causative—it implies dynamic movement that results in an action, in our case, a destination.
The start of a New Year is a true moment of arrival. We have made it to this moment and we will not be denied the opportunity to celebrate it. You may be watching this service from a screen in your own home, but the moment is no less real despite the medium through which we are all sharing in the experience.
One of the things that amuses me on the twelve-hour flight to Tel Aviv on El Al is watching the plane’s crew figure out who speaks what language. But, of course, no matter how full the plane is with tourists from America and Europe, the first attempt at communication is always in Hebrew—after all, that’s part of the pride of bringing people to the Jewish homeland on our own national airline. Once, during dinner service, a flight attendant finally made her way to my row with my favorite part of the meal, the part served from a basket.
“Magiah lecha lechem,” she said to the person next to me.
“What?” he replied.
“You deserve bread.” Not “atah rotzeh,” would you like some, but, “magiah lekha.” This is something you paid for, something you are owed.
SHIRA: Our tradition teaches, and the blessing reminds us, that the cause we referred to earlier, the one who provided us with a reason to mark this day is God.
Hayom harat olam—God has brought us to the day in which we are obligated to celebrate the miracle of God’s creation.
Hayom te’amtzeinu—To prove that we are deserving of these gifts we face God’s judgement, denying ourselves the sustenance of life until we have proven that we are worthy of it.
And yet, each time, before we read from the Torah, we call out: V’atem hadevekim b’adonai eloheichem hayim, kulchem, hayom.
All of you, all of us, who have clung to Adonai your God, we are the ones who are standing here today receiving the blessing of the Etz Chayim, the tree of life.
As Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno remarks on this verse—it is because you have been wise enough to avoid the lures and temptations that might lead you toward the path of death rather than life, curse rather than blessing, that you have been granted this moment of reunion with our most sacred of objects in the presence of holy community.
This moment is ma’giah lanu, because with an effort that has exhausted even the most spirited among us, we have earned it.
ADAM: And not only this moment, but all the moments that are ya’gia, that are yet to come for all of us in this new year.
The moment where we gather members of our community for the first time in six months in our sukkah to share in a meal, even if it is socially distanced.
The moment when we set our table for seder and instead of one or two or three place settings, we break out the folding tables from the garage, squeezing every possible square inch of space out of our living room and dining rooms to accommodate family and friends.
The moments when our children enter their school without a mask on, when we can walk them to the front door to embarrass them with that final hug or kiss.
The moment when our personal and professional achievements, when our lifecycle events are celebrated not on a screen or in a parking lot, but in a banquet hall or at an office party.
Yes, even the moment when we attend a funeral and we can go up to the mourners without hesitation or reservation and comfort them with a loving embrace.
All these moments I hope, I pray, I know are magi’im lanu. And part of the joy that we feel on this day is the anticipation of all these blessings and more that we will celebrate together in this new year.
SHIRA: In Masechet Brachot, the Talmud’s tractate on blessings, the sages relate one more occasion on which we are commanded to stop and give thanks to God for a moment that we surely had been taking for granted, but no longer.
Rabbi Yehoshua said : One who sees his friend after an interval of thirty days recites, "Blessed you Adonai, Who has kept us in life, who has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day."
ADAM: In the Wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites constructed a tent at the outskirts of the camp, one where Moses would consult with God, receive instruction and pray for his people. The Torah describes these encounters with words whose significance has grown tremendously over these past few months:
וְדִבֶּ֨ר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר יְדַבֵּ֥ר אִ֖ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֑הוּ
And Moses spoke to God, face to face, like a person encountering a dear friend.
When we can finally greet each other, friend and stranger alike, panim-el-panim, face to face inside our sacred tents--our homes, our synagogues, our beloved community of Shearith Israel, on that day too, we will recite the shehechiyanu.
And we will feel, I imagine, some of the same radiance that Moses and God felt as they beheld the fullness of each other’s countenance, no barrier, no obstacle, no mask between them.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: Thank you God, for keeping us alive and helping us find reasons to live.
SHIRA: V’kiyemanu: For sustaining us and inspiring us to sustain others.
ADAM: V’higiyanu: For the blessings of today, and all the blessings to come.
SHIRA & ADAM: Amen.
Watch the sermon at https://vimeo.com/460295310
Help Our Ladder Project Families as We Usher in the New Year
Our Ladder Project families have faced unprecedented challenges in this time of COVID, and while our Shearith Israel family has helped them emotionally and financially throughout, they are at a critical juncture. In order to establish housing security for their children, these single moms must have jobs. We are looking for three things from our congregants right now: two jobs and one laptop.
"We need two jobs and one laptop."
This is the challenge: If our nearly 1,000-member congregation cannot help find employment for two smart, motivated women, how can the community at large ever hope to significantly reduce homelessness in Dallas?
Jane lost her $17/hour clerk's job at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courthouse in March when DISD shut down and her children could no longer go to school. She has been home caring for her children since then, including home-schooling so they don't fall behind in their academics (which suffered when school went virtual last spring). Ladder Project Executive Committee member Mindy Fagin has taken the family on several outings during COVID—including an animal preserve, an ice cream store, and Mindy's backyard pool—all while practicing safe distancing.
Jane, 42, had been receiving a monthly rent subsidy from the Shared Housing Center, where she and the children lived while homeless, but that ended July 31. The Ladder Project had fully furnished her apartment pre-COVID and has intermittently helped with phone, internet, and food bills. But by August, she was unable to pay her rent. In order to prevent Jane from being evicted, the Executive Committee struck an arrangement with her landlord to pay the $1,150 monthly rent going forward until the children can be cared for during the day and Jane can resume working, on the condition that the landlord forgive the August rent. Which the landlord agreed to do.
Now we need to help Jane find work.
In the short term, until her children have a place to go during the day, we are looking for hourly remote work. (We are also looking for a gently used or new laptop donation—Jane's tablet cannot download Microsoft or other office products.)
Jane completed 86 credits at Central Michigan University and is handy with a computer—she entered criminal cases into the Dallas County Clerk's computer system—and she has excellent phone and customer service skills. She boasts a wonderful, engaging personality. Any remote work you can give Jane no matter how small or short-lived, would be a mitzvah and her only income at the moment.
If you have an in-person, part-time or full-time receptionist or administrative job available for her please let us know that too. The Boys and Girls Club near her apartment will soon allow students to work remotely at its facility, and perhaps other child care arrangements can be found.
Petrina is another single mom we are helping. She lost her $15/hour job doing intake for Dallas Housing Authority clients when COVID shut down the agency in March. Petrina's daughter Jacelyn is 13 years old and can stay at home by herself during the day, so Petrina has more work flexibility. She is looking for a full-time job—remote or in-person—and would ideally like to find a job in the non-profit sector so she can help people.
Petrina, also 42, has a BA from Georgia State University and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. She is an excellent writer, having worked at a Houston area newspaper as a reporter for several years. Unlike Jane, Petrina owns a car. Petrina's monthly apartment rent was subsidized by the Shared Housing Center until recently; the Ladder Project fully furnished her apartment and paid off two revolving expenses in order to free her from debt. But Petrina receives only $688/month in child support and disability payments from her daughter's father, and if she does not find work soon, she too could be facing eviction.
There is no greater mitzvah as we start the Jewish New Year in the middle of a pandemic than helping these two single mothers keep a roof over the heads of their children. They want to work, which is a requirement of our program. Please let us know if you can help by contacting Executive Committee Chair Laura Miller at email@example.com
David Corn's Success Story
In case you question whether our efforts actually change lives, we'll end on a positive note by bringing you news about our first Ladder Project participant David Corn, who we recruited two years ago from the city's downtown homeless shelter The Bridge.
David was furloughed in March, due to the virus, from his $12/hour job at Studio Movie Grill, where congregant Joe Harberg had originally found him a job. With the help of the Ladder Project Executive Committee, David applied for unemployment in April and also worked briefly for $12/hour at Tom Thumb Preston Forest. The extra $600-per-week in unemployment benefits provided by the federal government in response to COVID kept David afloat for several months. In August, with $26 left in his bank account and a September deadline to renew his apartment lease, David had applied to Costco, his dream employer, but he began to worry that the job applications he had submitted via his phone, had not gone through. He made copies of his resume and spent a day on DART buses and light rail traveling to three of Costco's stores in Dallas and Plano. At the last store, on Churchill Way and Coit, a manager told David he was impressed with his assertiveness and introduced him to his management team. David started at the Churchill Way store on August 6—at $15/hour, which is a significant increase for him.
This past week, in a phone call on one of his days off work, David teared up on the phone when talking about his two years in our program, the lifelong friends he has made at Shearith Israel, and the progress he's made professionally since he first met us. "At Costco, no one knew the manager, or had a special friend who agreed to talk to me about a job. I do feel good that I went to get this job. I did. I went and got that job."
The Ladder Project and Shearith Israel are extremely grateful to everyone for their previous in-kind and cash donations, which continue to help our Ladder Project recipients. Please email Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org with any job leads or if you have a laptop to donate.
L'shana tova tikateyvu
The Ladder Project Executive Committee
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
March 21, 2020
Not many people know this about Shira, but long before she decided to enter the rabbinate, she wanted to be in a different kind of synagogue business—the synagogue design business. Combining her geeky love of math and science with her fondness for the sacred spaces of her youth at Congregration Kol Ami in Tampa (which her father helped renovate, by the way), Shira imagined that becoming a synagogue architect would be the perfect way to harness her strengths while also giving back to the Jewish community that had brought her so much joy.
It’s no surprise then that the design of this beautiful sanctuary was a real draw for us when we went searching for positions out of Rabbinical school. The beautiful light, the magnificent aron kodesh, and the warmth of a room designed for an intimate kind of sanctity—these elements all combined to move us quite profoundly when we first visited—as they have for many others in our community and beyond.
It’s been a bedrock principle of our faith, since Sinai, that an exquisitely designed space, built with the resources and talents of the Jewish people, was the vehicle for bringing a little bit of the heavens down to earth. That if we get the design just right—if we find the perfect materials and arrange them with precision, kevod Adonai, the glory of God, will reveal itself in our midst. That’s why we spend so much time, in this’s parasha and at the end of the book of Exodus. reflecting on the nature of that space.
And yet, here we are, on Shabbat morning, a dozen or so people gathered together in this gorgeous room so that, at least in part, a much larger number of participants can watch this service on a computer screen in their homes.
How could we have ever anticipated, when this sanctuary was dedicated 13 years ago, that, one day, it wouldn’t be the skyward facing windows, but a discreetly placed camera, mounted to the back wall, that would serve as the most indispensable part of this sacred transmitter, beaming God’s presence into our lives and into our souls?
I’ve spent a lot of time this week, watching God’s glory being beamed back and forth across the Jewish world. I’m proud to say that my colleagues and I have done our fair share of beaming ourselves, just here in Dallas.
Just one week ago, the thoughtfully designed sanctuaries at shuls across the country became temporarily obsolete overnight. The plans we had made for filling them and energizing them with spirited davening and inspirational Torah were suspended and we were all left to wonder—what now?
The answer came rather quickly. Overnight, rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and lay leaders became experts at Zoom, Facebook and YouTube Live. Curricula for Jewish day schools, religious schools, even early childhood centers, were adapted for distance learning. Religious ritual was reimagined, in some cases, quite radically, so that prayer could continue, mourners could say Kaddish, and lifecycle moments could be celebrated.
And that was only on the local level. National organizations have been stepping up, as well. Camp Ramah, the movement’s wonderful network of summer camps sent out a notice two days ago, that Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, a talented and popular young songwriter would be holding an impromptu Facebook live concert in his living room. Now, the Indigo Girls got more than 30,000 folks to tune in earlier in the day on Thursday, but Josh got a pretty impressive number later that evening to join him in song as well—more than 1500 screens, each with several people watching, no doubt. On the comments section, I could see friends of mine from New York to Baltimore to Chicago to California who had tuned in and were putting in their requests and expressing their gratitude.
The result of these efforts has been nothing short of inspiring.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that the creativity borne out of the uncertainly and fear of this past week has been one of the most impressive feats the American Jewish community has pulled off in quite some time.
And part of what’s been so extraordinary to watch and to experience is that what has emerged from all of this has been not a decrease, but an increase in engagement and connection.
Our Friday night service from last week has been viewed more than 1000 times on Facebook. The “attendance” at our virtual minyan is nearly double what it had been when we were meeting in the chapel. The classes that we have moved online are even more well attended than the ones held in our beit midrash.
Yes, there is a real need for connection, for the comfort of community, and the wisdom to get us through this difficult time. But there is also no denying the fact that our Jewish communities have responded to this crisis in ways that have brought out the best in us.
I want to share just one of these moments from the past week. We lost two members of our community over the weekend—two beautiful neshamot, Sydel Rudner and Bob Brenner. And our concern for their families’ care, for the mitzvah of nichum avelim, of comforting the mourner, was magnified by the fact that they couldn’t be physically present with us for shiva.
And yet, when Avi conducted the virtual minyan, which the families attended, he reminded everyone that our custom was to conclude the service with our traditional words of consolation, “May God comfort you along with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” and then he purposely left the video chat open so that those who were also participating could express their condolences with their own words. One by one, our virtual minyanaires shared the most beautiful and heartfelt words of comfort, words so touching that tears instantly began to roll down my cheeks.
Now, usually, when we gather in person and conclude our services with these words, we say “thanks everyone for being here” and folks usually approach the mourners to greet them, but because we were on a computer conference, and people couldn’t talk over each other and be heard, each individual was given the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of nichum aveilum in full volume, so that everyone could hear.
This was not the plan. This was not the way we drew up shiva minyanim on the blueprints. In fact, it took a surprisingly bold and swift move by the CJLS, the Conservative movement’s law committee, to sanction the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish without the physical presence of a minyan—a decision that fundamentally changed one the most ancient ritual standards we have. And yet, bending the rules for the sake of an emergency allowed us to comfort these two families in ways that, I pray, are as soul nourishing as they can be in this time of social distancing.
So yes, we sit here in this amazingly beautiful, nearly empty sanctuary, not spiritually depleted, not missing the presence of God, but full of it, knowing that even if the physical sanctuary we have built is not accessible to everyone, the virtual sanctuary we erected, nearly overnight, is serving us quite well for the time being.
When Moses called the people together to begin the construction of the original sacred space, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness of Sinai, he gave them detailed instructions for its design. And all those among the people, whose hearts moved them, brought forward gifts of silver and gold, fine linens of blue and purple and crimson, spices for incense and oil for kindling. But the most important instruction Moses gave them was not what to build—but the intention, the spirit of the builders.
וְכָל־חֲכַם־לֵ֖ב בָּכֶ֑ם יָבֹ֣אוּ וְיַעֲשׂ֔וּ אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖ה ה׃
Let all who are chachem lev—who are wise-hearted--come and do everything that God has commanded.
Yes, the design of what we build matters. But earthly materials, no matter how precious, can only become sacred conductors of divinity when they are arranged and, when necessary, rearranged with wisdom. They can only become sacred emitters of the contents of our souls, when they are activated by the love we hold in our hearts for each other, for the Jewish people, and for God.
This past week has been a difficult one. We have seen the number of cases of coronavirus rise sharply in our country and in many countries throughout the world, and we have also seen the terrible consequences that rise will bring in its wake. We know that we have not yet reached the peak of this pandemic, nor do we know whether that peak will be the height of this crisis, or just one in a series of mountains that we will have to climb together.
We do not know when we will all be able to return to work, to school, or, to the beautiful spiritual home we have constructed thanks to the tremendous heart of this generous community.
But what we do know, and what we have seen this week, is that when Jews set their hearts and minds to creating the sacred spaces that will keep us together in faith, in relationship with each other and with God, a beautiful design always emerges.
By Rabbi Shira Wallach
One of the most beautiful Jewish ideas is our vision of community: an embracing, loving, expansive, caring family. Because we rejoice our simchas together, our shared joy is magnified. Because we mourn our losses together, our shared despair is a bit easier to bear. Because we all feel a sense of responsibility for one another, Jews who have never met are still bound together by our common history and experience.
It’s no different in the way this week’s parasha, Yitro, characterizes the incredibly climactic and coalescing moment of Revelation, when God bestowed upon us the deeply precious gift of Torah. When we left Egypt, we were downtrodden refugees escaping from Pharaoh’s soul-crushing oppression, but when we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, we became Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—united under a common law, protected by a sacred covenant with our God.
This moment was so transformative, so central to the Jewish narrative, that our tradition teaches us that it was not only those who were physically present for Revelation at Sinai, but “all the souls still destined to be created” (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). It is because of this midrash that we cherish the ubiquitous belief that every single Jewish soul—by birth or by choice, from that generation all the way into the infinite future—shared the ecstatic fusion of heaven and earth on that day, when God’s voice echoed across the great expanse of the wilderness.
But if we look closely at the Torah, we make the heartbreaking discovery that this is only a half-truth. To adequately prepare the Israelites for Revelation, “Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people: be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:14-15). Commentaries suggest that part of achieving spiritual readiness is to attain a state of sexual purity. And so, in the heteronormative world of the Ancient Near East, we can only assume that Moses was addressing the men. In his mind, the men were Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, the inheritors of tradition, and the women were not only excluded from Moses’ assumed audience, but were a potential source of impurity that would render the men unfit to receive God’s laws.
Furthermore, God delivered the Ten Commandments in the masculine singular verb formation. How does our experience change, when only the men are told: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt” or “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy” or “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20)? How can the women of our history, our present, and our future move from the periphery to the center of Jewish tradition and study?
Dirshuni, a collection of modern commentaries written by women rabbis and scholars, imagines a conversation between God and a young woman who is struggling with her invisibility in the Torah’s account of Revelation. “God says to her: How long I have waited for you to come to Me and challenge Me, so that I can clarify for you what has been hidden away for three thousand years! I told Moses: ‘Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready on the third day: for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people’ (Exodus 19:10-11).”
Tamar Beulah, the author of this midrash, points out that Moses made an erroneous assumption in response to God’s warning about purity. It was never God’s intention to name women as a source of impurity. It was never God’s intention that women should be separated—physically or intellectually—from the most important event in our history, or any subsequent conversation about Torah, halakha, practice, or prayer.
This Shabbat, when we hear the majestic and timeless words of the Ten Commandments, let us ponder their revelatory brilliance, and at the same time, let us challenge their assumptions. For it is only when we embrace the entire community that our fullest joy and greatest potential become possible.
Parashat Vayishlach 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Earlier this week I was in Boston, along with our president, Shirley Davidoff, and our Chief Operating Officer, Kim West, for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly’s joint “20/20 Judaism” conference, a conference for the lay and rabbinic arms of the Conservative Movement. As an aside, when I found out that the Reform Movement’s conference this week was being held in Chicago, I couldn’t help but wonder: note to conference organizers, would it be too much trouble for you to plan winter conferences in WARMER PLACES? I’m just sayin’…
In any case, heavy jackets aside, the convention was bustling and lively, with about 1400 people in attendance, including some staff, volunteers, and exhibitors. I’m not sure if it’s the largest convention USCJ and the RA have ever had, but it certainly was the largest in some time, and there was a great deal of energy in the building from convention-goers. As you might expect, we had a series of large group, full-convention plenaries, including the opening session on the topic of “Why Are We Dreaming Together?” featuring a keynote address by NY Times columnist Bari Weiss; a session on “Why Be a Conservative Movement” featuring a dialogue with the leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; and a session on “Will We Serve the Jews of Today and Tomorrow?”, looking at research regarding Jewish youth today and where they’re at. In addition to thought-provoking presentations to the entire convention body that fed our minds, we also gathered together to listen to, and sing along with, the engaging and inviting styles of contemporary liturgical singers like Joey Weisenberg from Machon Hadar and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, feeding our Jewish souls with the uplifting ruach, spirit, of these moving encounters. We also had ample opportunities over meals and coffees to network, idea share, and brainstorm, with colleagues and friends from all over the Conservative Movement—keep in mind the Movement spans not just the U.S., but also Canada, Latin America, Israel, and Western and Central Europe, not to mention in places as far away as Melbourne, Australia! And of course, there were a number of slots in the convention schedule for breakout sessions where we could select topics that were of most interest and relevance to individual convention-goers.
In one such session I attended, entitled “Who are Today’s Conservative Jews?”, we were presented with combined data from surveys conducted of the Jewish communities in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, in 2015, 2017, and 2017, respectively. That data was also compared at various points in the session to findings from the 2013 Pew Research Center study of the American Jewish community and framed to offer us some potential takeaways from the available data. Here are a few interesting stats: when asked in these surveys what denomination Jews identified with, the Pew Study had 35% identify Reform, 18% Conservative, 10% Orthodox, 6% Other, and 30% No Denomination; and the merged data of the other three studies came up with 32% Reform, 19% Conservative, 6% Orthodox, 2% Other, and 41% None (which included Secular/Cultural and “Just Jewish”). Another stat: for those who, when asked, identify denominationally as Conservative Jews, 57% of them are members of synagogues, with 32% belonging to Conservative synagogues specifically and 25% belonging to other types of synagogues; whereas 85% of those who identified Orthodox are members of any synagogue, and 41% of those who identified Reform are members of any synagogue. When it comes to age groups, one might be surprised to find out that the percentage of those who identify denominationally as Conservative barely varies whether the person asked is 18 or over 80 or anywhere in between—the percentages hold steady in a very narrow band at 18-21% throughout that timeline. Unsurprisingly, where the numbers vary more are in the synagogue affiliation rate itself, with only 25% affiliation between ages 18-34, moving up to 36% affiliation from ages 35-49, peaking at 41% between ages 50-64 and then trending slightly downward to 37% from ages 65-79 as well as age 80+. A few other stats about behaviors and attitudes in these 3 Jewish communities that were surveyed: of those who identify Conservative--
Among the takeaways presented from this data, our session leader, a researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, noted that the data complicates our understanding of the label “Conservative” in that there are Conservative Jews who are not synagogue members and there are also members of Conservative synagogues who don’t actually identify as Conservative Jews denominationally. It certainly raises important questions about who we’re currently serving, and who we might yet serve. The fact that Millennials and the Gen Z generation are still affiliating at lower rates than Gen X and Baby Boomers is one that has been consistently noted in recent survey data and challenges us as modern Jewish institutions to continue to create more entry points and lower bars to participation into synagogue life and Jewish life in general. I was pleased to learn that, in the communities studied, 57% of Jews who identify as Conservative Jews are members of at least one synagogue, whether the synagogue itself is Conservative or an independent minyan or affiliated with another movement—that number seemed higher than I would have expected. And I was likewise encouraged to see some of the behavioral and attitudinal data that I shared with you a couple of minutes ago, which suggests, as the Pew Study data suggested as well, that Jews who are identifying as Conservative on balance are relatively engaged Jewishly, both in ritual practices as well as in supporting Jewish community here and in Israel.
So where does all of this leave us? At the outset of today’s parasha, when Jacob is anticipating his reunion with Esau, knowing Esau is coming his way with a large company of men and not knowing Esau’s intentions for him, the text says “va-yira Ya’akov m’od”, Jacob was greatly frightened. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic legends on the Torah from close to 2000 years ago, teaches us (76:1) that “two people received God’s assurances, yet they were afraid; the chosen one of the Patriarchs—Jacob—and the chosen one of the Prophets—Moses—despite the teaching from Proverbs (3.5) to “trust in God with all your heart”. Thus, according to the Midrash, the Jewish people in other precarious moments in our history—like in the days of Haman and the Purim story, for example--could justify their own fear by saying, “If our ancestor Jacob, who had received God’s assurance of protection, was nevertheless afraid for his survival, how much the more so are we justified in feeling afraid?” Jacob’s example illustrates that fear, or anxiety, is actually fully compatible with deep faith.
A number of scholars and sociologists have, in the last 10-20 years, sounded the alarm bell for Conservative Judaism, warning that the Conservative Movement is rapidly heading for extinction. So, should we be afraid of what they’re saying? Should we be feeling hopeless for the future, or perhaps even fearing for our survival as a Movement? Friends, I think we should take a page out of our ancestor Jacob’s book. Namely, on the one hand we should embrace the healthy anxiety that some of the statistics may cause us, because it is out of this anxiety and concern and even fear that a meaningful way of Jewish life is being lost, that we are forced to rise to the challenge. We must continue to do more outreach, embrace innovation, and passionately and energetically model Jewish engagement and practice that is both traditional and adaptive, and thought-provoking for our minds and inspiring for our hearts and souls. And on the other hand, we should not just embrace our anxieties on this issue, but we should also have faith:
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share