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:
To mark the year anniversary of The Ladder Project our first participant, David Corn, joined us for Rosh Hashanah services, which he greatly enjoyed.
David has reached many milestones this year. He moved out of The Bridge homeless shelter to his own studio apartment, which our congregation furnished, outfitted and subsidized for several months. He got a job at Studio Movie Grill, thanks to congregant Joe Harberg. He's now certified as a tactical team leader, overseeing theater prep operations and training new employees. Since April, he's been totally financially self-sufficient—paying all his bills, including food, phone, DART passes, rent, renter's insurance, and utilities. (The recent tornado hit David's apartment complex, and the Ladder Project paid for David to go to a motel near his job for several nights until power could be restored; we also replaced the food that was spoiled in David's refrigerator and freezer.) David also became noticeably more handsome this year—thanks to Dr. Rowan Buskin, who volunteered his labor to give David dentures (the Ladder Project paid the out-of-pocket expenses). David is also extremely fortunate to have CSI congregant, Dr. Lawrie Friedman, serving as his pro bono general practitioner.
"I don't have words to express how grateful I am for all of the support," David said recently. "I'm growing up again in a way—by rebuilding my life, reconnecting with family, and gaining new family. It's my honor to know you all. Thank you. I couldn't have done it without your support. We continue with the journey."
As David's self-esteem and self-confidence grew this year, he reached out to his 35-year-old son, who he hadn't communicated with in years. He also went to Houston for a poignant reunion with his sister, who he'd been estranged from during his homeless years.
David reunited with his sister, Patricia Gonzalez.
We are now ready to help David get to a new level of independence. Although David enjoys his job, he only makes $12 an hour, the top of the pay scale. David struggles to cover his bills. When emergencies happen—like the tornado—David can't make ends meet without help. And, unfortunately when the theater is slow, David is sometimes let off work early, without pay. AND a significant portion of David's wages are deducted by the state for court-ordered child support for a 20-year-old son, who was raised by his grandmother.
We are actively looking for a job for David that pays at least $15 per hour. Our rabbis made this appeal to the congregation on Yom Kippur Day, but we have yet to be contacted by anyone with a job offer. However, one congregant, who wishes to remain anonymous, has agreed to pay David the difference between his current wage and his dream wage (a difference of $3 per hour) until he finds a new job. David will use this money for emergencies, and will also put it aside for future expenses, particularly car insurance, gas and repairs.
Used Car so David can get to a better paying job
Which brings us to the second ask the rabbis made on Yom Kippur: we are looking for a used car for David so that he can stop relying solely on public transportation. The flexibility that comes with a car will create more opportunities for a better job. David turned down one good job last year that would have required a 2-hour trip on three different DART buses. David just signed a new, year lease at his apartment, which is owned by congregant Michael Ochstein, who made a $5,000 donation to the Ladder Project. We prefer the car be donated to the synagogue but have some Ladder Project funds that could be allocated for this. thanks in large part to David's personal commitment to his job, and the many in-kind donations of furniture, household items and medical care.
We have been interviewing candidates to be our next participant family, and we will have an update about that in the next issue of The Shofar.
Thank you for all you have done to save a life. David certainly feels we have saved his, and we look forward to celebrating his future successes and enjoying his friendship.
Ladder Project Executive Committee: Chair Laura Miller; Mindy Fagin, Glenn Geller, Jeff Hoppenstein, Larry Krasner, Marsha Lev, Andrea Solka, Sally Wolfish
A sermon by Rabbi Adam Roffman
Among the tales in the Roffman family lore is a story about my brother who, when he was very young, before I was born, went out to eat one night with my parents. It was February and the restaurant had been releasing, a week at a time, commemorative plates featuring the faces of the great American presidents. That week, they honored our 16th president, drawn, as usual, in his impressively tall top hat.
“Do you know who that is?” my parents asked my brother.
“Yes!” he answered. “That’s Abraham Lincoln! He freed the slabes!”
No, that’s not a typo. S-l-a-b-e-s. Slabes.
And then he said: “And that’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving!”
I think of that story often this time of year, as I reflect on the meaning of a holiday that holds great significance for American Jews. After all, we have a lot to be thankful for, living in the greatest diaspora community in the history of our people, afforded the rights and privileges denied to us for so many years.
And yet, because we are taught that expressing our gratitude through prayer and ritual is one of the fundamental tasks of daily Jewish life, it seems a little odd that we should celebrate that gratitude on any one day of the year. Is there something more to the nature of this holiday that might help us understand why this day of thanks is, as we say, different from all other days of thanksgiving? And is that “something” also reflected in our tradition?
Turns out—the answer is yes.
One of the most famous symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. We’ve all seen pictures, no doubt, of the basket with a narrow opening that leads to a widening passage filled with the fruits of the season, gourds and grains that are so abundant they spill out of the end of the horn.
As I reread the account of the story of the first Thanksgiving, I realized why both ends of the horn have something to teach us about why those Pilgrims and Puritans were so grateful in 1621.
In his account of those difficult first few years off of Massachusetts Bay, Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford writes:
“The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God.”
The Englishmen who arrived on these shores were expecting something very different from what they found—a land of plenty, with ample resources to build and sustain a growing colony that would generate wealth and prosperity. Instead, they encountered harsh winters, disease, and famine. It wasn’t until the Native-American Squanto taught them how to grow corn that the land delivered on its promise and devastating hunger was replaced overwhelming gratitude at the abundance that now adorned their very full tables.
Like the horn of plenty, those who experienced that first Thanksgiving had known both a narrow, difficult beginning, and a seemingly infinite and expansive present and future now that the vastness and potential of the American landscape was revealed to them. This potential led them and their descendants to spread out as far as their ambition, hard work, and sacrifice could take them, filling their bellies and their pocketbooks with the rewards of the richness of this country.
And yet, we know that the widening of their enterprise came at a great cost for those who had lived for generations on that same land. Eventually, when you spread out as far as you can go, either you will run out of room or you will have to dispossess others of what they own in order to satisfy your own appetite.
We Jews also know a great deal about the challenges of moving from scarcity to abundance, from the narrowness of the meitzar (the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt), to the blessings of a land filled with milk and honey.
In last week’s parasha, Toldot, our patriarch Isaac also runs into some trouble when he tries to expand his territory. In the unfriendly confines of the territory of the Philistines, the wells which were rightly his, an inheritance from Isaac’s father who dug them, were stopped up. Isaac successfully reopens them, but when he finds new source of mayim hayim, living waters, the locals challenge his right to this most precious resource in the arid land of Canaan.
Eventually, Isaac manages to wrestle away a well of his very own—one he names, appropriately, with gratitude to God, Rehovot, the wide-open spaces.
Still, if our sense of gratitude is dependent on our ability to constantly expand outward, to possess more and more, what happens when that isn’t possible or isn’t ethical? If we are only able to say “thank you” when we have more, how will we maintain our gratitude to God when we, inevitably, have less?
One of the rabbinic teachings frequently mentioned this time of year comes from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion.” Rabbi Jonah Gerundi explains further:
“Anyone who is not happy with his lot and is not satisfied with what God, may He be blessed, gave him is a poor person; as it is explained in the verse (Proverbs 15:15), "All the days of a poor man are bad, but one with a good heart has a constant feast." This teaches that all the days of a 'poor man,’ one who desires only money are bad, for ‘a lover of money never has his fill of money': but all the days of the one with a good heart, who is happy with his lot, are good [as the one] one who makes a constant feast.”
Gerundi ingeniously understands the terms “rich” and “poor” to be not indicative of the balance of one’s bank account, or the size of one’s home, or the breadth of one’s holdings, but of the condition of one’s spirit.
If all we desire is to “widen” what we already have, if that is the only thing that gives us satisfaction, then we do not understand the meaning of the word gratitude. If, on the other hand, we can learn to temper our desire to constantly expand, or use that desire to do good for others, those whose lot is still narrow, then we will truly be able to share in a Thanksgiving that is both authentically American and unmistakably Jewish.
Rabbi Shira Wallach and Rabbi Adam Roffman
Yom Kippur 5780
Shira: Dear Hannah, my precious first born: I hope that you’ve been holding onto this letter for a good long while. And now that you’re finally reading it, I trust it means that God granted us the gift of a long time together, in which I had the opportunity to watch you and your sister grow into the strong, compassionate, curious, loving women that we always knew you would be. We shared a lot of meaningful conversations throughout our lives, moments in which our souls encountered one another. I heard you learn to articulate yourself with wisdom and insight beyond your years, and I hope that you always felt heard and validated. But as I took stock of the ideas we often broached together, I realized that there were things left unsaid.
Adam: Dear Rebecca: I pray that despite the grief and sadness you’re feeling, that opening this letter and seeing how long it is has brought a little bit of a smile to your face. After spending so many years watching me go on and on and on in front of a crowd at important moments in people’s lives, you must have known, of course, there’s no way I’d pass up the opportunity, at this moment of transition, to write one last sermon for you. Without a doubt, you and your sister were the greatest sources of pride in my life. And despite the tough road that we sometimes put in front of you, I hope that you were proud to be my daughter. But we both know that there were many times when I could have done better.
Shira: As rabbis, it was so important to your father and me to project success—because our success represented the success of our Jewish community and of the Jewish people. But just like everyone else in my generation, I was guilty of editing my story so that people only saw the happy times, the times when it looked like we were in control and everything was going great. When I was your age, we had this thing called Facebook, which was created for that very purpose.
Adam: Failure was not a word we used a lot in our house. Your mom and I never wanted you to feel defeated by missed opportunities or ill-advised decisions. We never wanted you to hear us admit that we had failed, because we didn’t want you to carry the burden of our mistakes with you. But what I realize now is that this too was a mistake. Because, ultimately, what we came to understand was that our success was, very often, predicated on remembering our failures and learning from them.
Shira: Judaism is the most enduring success story in human history. We survived as a people for 4000 years despite the persecutions, the exiles, the destructions, and the threat of losing our identity to the cultures that surrounded us. But if you look closer, you’ll see that we’ve had to admit to and own our failures many, many times over the generations. Only then could we undertake the soul searching necessary to earn our place as a light unto the nations, or lagoyim.
The book of Genesis tells us where we came from: three generations of patriarchs and matriarchs who were courageous and tenacious in their steadfast faith in God, but as parents and siblings, not so much. Abraham basically tried to murder his son on the top of some mountain without consulting with his wife—by the way, for the record, whenever I wanted to murder you, I always ran it by your father first. Isaac, at the end of his life, was blind and impotent, outsmarted by his younger son Jacob who stole the blessing he meant to give to his elder, Esav, and Rebecca not only allowed this manipulation, but gave Jacob this idea in the first place! Not exactly the Partridge Family (sorry, you won’t get that reference. Actually, that part was your dad’s idea. I’m also too young to get this).
Adam: At the end of Jacob’s life, after being reunited with his long-lost son Joseph in Egypt, Pharaoh asks him a simple question—how old are you? —and Jacob gives a very revealing answer. “I am 130,” Jacob replies. “Few and hard have been the years of my life, and they cannot compare to the lifespans of my ancestors during their travels.” What he’s trying to say is this: Here I stand, at long last, beside a son I thought was dead, as he stands at the right-hand of one of the most powerful people in the world. I should feel like shouting from the rooftops! And yet, I can’t dismiss the profound failure in my life that has led to this moment.
We are called B’nai Yisrael, the children of Jacob, not Abraham or Isaac. Why? Because like Jacob, we admit that there were times when we struggled with the angels and lost. But also, like our namesake, we have seen that on the other side of that struggle, was forgiveness, kindness, redemption, and unparalleled success.
Shira: Like Jacob and his descendants, who came down to Egypt seeking sustenance during a time of scarcity, our ancestors came to this country, famished and diminished from years of hardship, only to build their own versions of the American Dream. The story we inherited from our grandparents and our great-grandparents is remarkably similar to that of the 70 who came down to Egypt: incredible resilience in the face of obstacles that most in our generation never had to overcome. Starting out as poor peddlers on the streets, they sold their wares to eke out a meager existence for their families, but within a generation, they owned their own department stores, grocery chains, scrap metal businesses, you name it. The path to success was a straight line to the top.
And because we’ve had to reinvent ourselves so many times in order to survive, we don’t talk about our failures. Just like your father and I always had to project success in the microcosm of the communities we served, it’s not difficult to imagine why our people always had to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards: so that we’d never have to admit defeat, so that we’d never be targeted by the rest of the world for our shortcomings. So that we wouldn’t fall victim to the paralysis of fear. We couldn’t afford to fail.
But as powerful as these stories are, they are incomplete. Of course there were times when our forebearers made wrong decisions that led to loss of friends, money, security, and power. And though those stories of failure may not have reached us, or may not have been spoken about with the same sense of pride, nonetheless, I’m sure they played a central role in shaping the journey that led to their ultimate triumph over adversity.
Adam: You know that one of my favorite things to talk about from the pulpit is that the rabbinate was my second career, that I spent several years after graduating from college in training to be a musical theater actor in New York. I so often spoke, longingly, about what I gained from that period in my life and how my training as an actor informed my work as a rabbi. But I don’t think I ever told you this story of the exact moment I knew that I was never going to make it as a professional actor.
Once, after a train wreck of an audition, ruined by a terrible accompanist, I collected my things, and walked back out into the crowded New York city streets and stood there, staring into space for maybe 20 minutes. I had been dragging myself to audition after audition and, no matter how well they went, I just wasn’t getting anywhere. I was leaving each one feeling worse than I had felt walking through the door.
I went into the theater business thinking I would find community, companionship, meaning and connection. But the life of an actor, even for the successful ones, is often one of isolation and merciless competition. In order to succeed, you have to be CEO of a one-man company, to constantly sell and promote yourself and make yourself heard above the hundreds and hundreds of voices often competing for the same job. Standing there that day, alone in a sea of people on the streets of Manhattan, I thought to myself, “I just can’t do this.” But then, almost immediately, I realized, “Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something with this.”
Community, companionship, meaning, connection—surely, somewhere in my life, I had found all of these things together in one place. It was the crucible of that failure that clarified for me what I was really looking for. And one year later, I had enrolled as a student at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on my way to Rabbinical School.
Shira: Over the course of his life, I watched your father tear himself down and build himself back up more times than I can count. And each time he emerged closer to the rabbi he wanted to be, the father he wanted to be, the person he wanted to be. With renewed energy, creativity, and a sense of purpose, he found focus and clarity about where he wanted to go next. And by the time you were born, that’s the man that you saw and came to love. But at the most difficult moments, I would often remind him of one of my favorite rabbinic teachings about the creation of the world.
The Torah tells us that God commands light to come into existence, and the cosmos responds immediately and with perfection. But the Torah only transmits to us the story of God’s success. Only the wisdom of the rabbis fills in what’s so often missing from these narratives: that God created and destroyed a thousand worlds, failing each time to come up with just the right combination of forces and elements, until finally God created this one. What the rabbis understood is that even God couldn’t create the world without trying and failing. And the only way God could learn enough to bring the version that we know into existence was to try and fail all those times before.
Adam: As a people, how many times have we Jews remade ourselves after a national catastrophe? How many times have we rebirthed ourselves after suffering loss, destruction, or losing our way? When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, we faced what should have been the end of the story of the Jewish people. The Temple was the center of our lives, spiritually, economically, and nationally and suddenly, it was gone. We were lost.
But through interpretation, our sages turned the Torah on its head in order to create an entirely new world, centered around prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness. Where before our lives revolved around just one holy place, now every home was a temple, and every synagogue was a Holy of Holies. Kings and priests had destroyed our way of life with sinat chinam, corruption and senseless hatred. But it was their mistakes that gave rise to to these audacious rabbinic pioneers who ensured that every Jewish home had an altar at its center, a Shabbat table where we salt our challah in remembrance of the sacrifices of old. That every Jewish child could create their own connection to God when they covered their eyes and recited the shema, as we did with you, when you were a child, every night before we went to sleep.
Shira: You know that your father and I started dating in Israel when we were studying to be rabbis. And when I think back on it, I’m not surprised that being in such a magical place helped me recover from one of the worst years of my life.
Just a couple of months before we left for Israel that year, I called off my engagement. I had a ring and a dress, we had picked a wedding date, we (my parents!) had placed deposits on a venue, a caterer, and a band. And when it was revealed that he wasn’t the person I thought he was, I felt my life unravel. Of course I was sad that the relationship was over, but mostly, I just felt ashamed. Mortified that I had let my family and my friends become so invested in a choice that I had made and then had to undo. I was convinced that everyone around me saw nothing but my failure and because of that, I stopped trusting myself and believing that I could ever give myself over to love again. If I couldn’t even trust my own judgment, how could I trust another person?
Adam: The first time I asked your mother out on a date, she was shocked. Not because such a handsome, intelligent, funny, and eligible bachelor like me would take an interest in her, but because she couldn’t see past the failure of the relationship that she had just ended. She thought everyone looked at her and felt only pity. I knew that she had recently broken off an engagement, but what I saw when I looked at her wasn’t a person who was broken, but a kind, talented, ethereal angel who was waiting to be made whole, who deserved to love and be loved. The fact that she had tried and failed only made her more alluring to me because she had been in a broken relationship and therefore would know even more how to create one that would be enduring and nurturing.
What she perhaps didn’t understand at the time is that there’s a big difference between failing and being a failure. This is something that I had to remind myself of and many others every year on Yom Kippur. I was so often asked: rabbi, why do we need to spend 25 whole hours beating our breasts, repeating the same confessions over and over and over again? Why are we presenting ourselves before God as people who are so completely inept, immoral, unkind? Am I really supposed to feel all that bad about myself? Are all those things we say in the machzor really true?
Of course they’re true, I would say. But just because you’ve sinned, that doesn’t make you a sinner. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a joyful day because we are unburdening ourselves, letting go of our failures one by one. We read over and over again that if we repent God will take us back in love. And why does God do that? Because God knows making a mistake is the prerequisite for teshuvah, for understanding how and why to make a better choice.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “man’s sin is his failure to live what he is. Being master of the earth, man forgets that he is the servant of God.” When God created the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve and gave it over to their stewardship, he took quite a risk. Contained within the Garden was all the good that God created in six days, but God also knew that Adam and Eve were imperfect beings, subject to temptation. And so it would only be a matter of time before their curiosity caused them to fail. Why then, knowing that this was inevitable, would God place that temptation at the forefront of their consciousness, warning them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Perhaps part of the plan all along was knowing that Adam and Eve would fail. And not just that, but that God would be there for them to love and comfort them as they learned the lessons of their failure. After Adam and Eve discover with their newfound knowledge that they are naked, God removes their shame by harnessing the very creation they had corrupted—the leaves of the Tree—and lovingly fashioned clothes to cover them. Their mistake became their redemption.
Shira: My sweet Hannah, you know that your father and I had so much nachas from you, that our hearts exploded with joy every time that we saw you succeed: the first time we saw you take center stage in your ballet tutu with a huge smile on your face, so composed, so filled with light. When your academic record was so stellar that you earned a FULL scholarship to college so that Mommy and Daddy could pay for all the cars that your younger sister wrecked. And when you discovered for the first time the incredible joy of what it is to love another person and to earn their love in return, when you were 37 and not a day younger!
But Hannah, don’t discount the times when you would come to us crying, broken, and afraid after you had bombed a test or ended a relationship or let a professional opportunity pass through your fingers. Just as our parents did for us, we wiped your tears and held you close and sat together and said, ok now what? And then, a day, a week, a month later, you showed us all what the answer to that question was. That my love, is the very definition of pride.
Adam: Rebecca, as you find yourself telling our stories over these next many days, I know that people will encourage you to share the good times, of the things we did to raise you with love and strength, and also the efforts we made to strengthen the Jewish people with love. But, don’t leave out half of the story. Don’t leave out the times when we got it wrong, when we misjudged, when we let you and others down. Because chances are, that behind every success story that you tell is also a story of learning to harness the lessons of failure and how powerful it is to emerge on the other side, after a long period of introspection, purified and reborn, ready to begin again.
Shira: Hannah, as the days of my life are coming to a close, I am reminded of the words we said each year at Ne’ilah just as the gates of heaven were swinging shut, marking the transition from one year of life to the next: kerachem av al banim, ken terachem Adonai aleinu. Just as a parent has compassion upon her child, so too God will show mercy unto us. We have held each other, you and I, many times, weeping, hoping that the love we hold for each other in our hearts will transform the sins of our past into the merits of our future. In my absence, I hope that God will hold you in a similar embrace and remind you to have compassion on yourself, to believe that every failure is an opportunity to draw closer to those in your life who will show you the way to goodness.
With all my love,
Adam: With all my heart,
Adam & Shira: Mom/Dad
Yom Kippur AM Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
After seventeen years of marriage, a man dumped his wife for a younger woman. The downtown luxury apartment was in his name and he wanted to remain there with his new love, so he asked his wife to move out and said he would buy her another place. The wife agreed to this, but asked that she be given three days.
The first day she packed her personal belongings into boxes and crates
and suitcases. On the second day, she had the movers come and collect
her things. On the third day, she sat down for the last time at their candlelit dining table, soft music playing in the background, and feasted alone on shrimp (yes, full disclosure, this is not a story of traditional Jewish origin) and a bottle of Chardonnay. When she had finished, she went into each room and deposited shrimp leftovers into the hollow of her curtain rods. She then cleaned up the kitchen and left.
Her husband returned with his new girl, and all was bliss for the first few days. Then it started; slowly but surely. Clueless, the man could not explain why the place smelled as it did. They tried everything. First, they cleaned and mopped and aired the place out. That didn't work. Then they checked vents for dead rodents. Still no luck. They steam cleaned the carpets and hung air fresheners. That didn't solve the problem. They hired exterminators; still no good. They ripped out the carpets and replaced them. But the smell lingered.
Finally, they could take it no more and decided to move. The moving company packed everything and moved it all to their new place. Everything. Even the curtain rods.
On one level this story may seem amusing, and fair. The wife, who was certainly a victim, gets her revenge on her unsuspecting ex. But is revenge what we should be looking for in a case like this? Granted that the short time frame captured in this story doesn’t even begin to allow for the process of healing to really begin, in principle, instead of looking to “get even” on some level when we have been hurt by another person, even someone close to us, over time we are better off pursuing a different, and more noble, value—FORGIVENESS.
Our tradition places a huge emphasis on the importance of forgiveness. We may be aware that, during this time of year, it is customary to approach people whom we have wronged during the past year to apologize for what we have done and ask them for their forgiveness BEFORE we can try to repent to God. But we may not all know that our tradition goes a bit further than that. You see, if you have the strength to approach someone three times in sincere repentance to ask them for their forgiveness, and they refuse to grant that forgiveness all three times, then the burden shifts to them and you are free to continue on your path of teshuvah, return, to God. This particular law in our tradition teaches us two important things: ONE—it is vital that, over time, we move to forgive others, otherwise, why would this law assume that three real attempts at an apology ought to clear the slate; and TWO—forgiving can be very difficult—otherwise, why would this law acknowledge that it might take three legitimate attempts before an apology would be accepted!
The command to forgive IS a difficult one to fulfill when we have been wronged or hurt, and we are certainly not the only ones who have struggled with what might seem to us like an unrealistic obligation. Going back in history, let’s just take two examples of people who simply refused to forgive when someone did them wrong, and made that point very publicly.
One was Michelangelo. Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Not much debate on that front. He could carve incredible statues that still amaze us whenever we look at them to this day. He could paint pictures that still fill our souls with wonder. But there was one thing that Michelangelo could not do. He simply could not forgive anyone who had hurt him.
A friend of his once dared to criticize one of his works of art. How did Michelangelo respond? When he painted the Sistine Chapel, he used that man’s face as the model for the devil. So that everyone who enters the Sistine Chapel to this day looks at a work which is a testimony to Michelangelo’s genius as an artist, but which is also testimony to Michelangelo’s smallness as a human being.
For another example, how about Dante? Dante was arguably the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. And yet, Dante had a major flaw. He could not forget, and he could not forgive anyone who crossed him. And so when he wrote his masterpiece the Inferno, he described the terrible torment that those who suffer in hell will endure, and he used the names of his enemies as the examples. So whoever reads the Inferno sees the work of a man who was a brilliant poet, but not so noble in his character.
So if we’re having trouble with forgiveness, we’re in good company. If Michelangelo, who was an artistic genius, and Dante, who was a remarkable poet, could not forgive someone who hurt them, then maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad? How can I be expected to forgive, if they couldn’t? And yet, our tradition is replete with examples of people who showed remarkable strength of character in their decisions to ultimately forgive. Here, too, let’s make mention of two such examples, both from the Torah.
The first is Joseph—many of us may be familiar with the general nature of his story; Joseph, the dreamer, the bratty, and even arrogant, kid brother, was sold into slavery by his jealous and hateful older brothers. Some years later, when the fortunes of both parties had turned completely—Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt and his brothers were suffering through a famine in Canaan—Joseph found himself in a position of power over his brothers who had come to Egypt to beg for food for their family and did not recognize that they had come face to face with the little brother they had once victimized. Joseph faced a dilemma—exact vengeance and make them pay for their sins against him or forgive and reconcile. When they were willing to trade themselves to redeem the youngest brother Benjamin, Joseph recognized that they, in fact, had been redeemed—they had changed. And with that came forth the emotional cry from within Joseph—“I am Joseph. Does my father yet live? Come near to me, I pray you. I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Joseph had finally reached the moment when he could let go of the memory of the wrong they had done him. Under the circumstances, reconciliation had to have been extremely difficult for Joseph, and yet he showed us that forgiveness can triumph.
For our second example, let’s turn to our tradition’s greatest prophet and teacher—Moses. Was there ever a Jewish leader who was rebelled against more often, who was betrayed more often, who was criticized more often, than he was? His brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, both spoke out against him; his cousin, Korach, tried to overthrow him, the people of Israel rebelled against him over and over and over again for forty years in a row! Moses had to put up with this nonsense for 40 years! And yet, somehow Moses was able to forgive his people and to continue to lead them and love them until the end of his life.
And on the day that he died, the Midrash says that Moses made the rounds of the twelve tribes, hugged each one of them and accepted their apologies, and gave them his apologies. The Midrash says that they said to him, “We are sorry that we rebelled so often,” and he said to them, “I am sorry that I was so hard on you,” and they made up with each other and then he died.
Could any of us have done what Moses did that day? If we were in his position, could we have forgiven the people that harassed us mercilessly for forty years? Deep down we can admire Moses for having been able to forgive his people, for it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.
Long after Moses lived, an anecdote was told about the life of one of Judaism’s Talmudic sages, Mar Zutra. Each night before he went to sleep, Mar Zutra would say, “I forgive all who hurt me today”. He understood that people weren’t perfect, and he genuinely forgave those who had hurt or disappointed him. He gave the gift of forgiveness freely to others as well as to himself. He knew he would sleep better and live happier if he had removed the bitterness and hatred from his heart.
And that’s just it—as Steve Goodier, who shared the story with which I began, analyzed the story this way: “The problem is... we can't carry a grudge and carry love in our hearts at the same time. We have to give one of them up. It's a choice we make. Some resentments are large; they've built up over a long time and will not be easy to part with. Some have been fed by years of pain and anger. But all the more reason to give them up. When we're tired of the anger and resentment and bitterness, we can choose a better way. We can be forever unhappy, or we can be healthy. We're just not made to carry a big grudge and a heart filled with love at the same time”.
I think that the truth is that we don’t like to forgive, because there is something inside of us that enjoys the taste of revenge, like the woman in the story. Let’s be honest. On an instinctual level, it feels good to get back at someone who has hurt you, doesn’t it? Refusing someone’s apology gives us a certain amount of power over that person and that power feels good.
It is tempting to nurse a grudge. And yet our tradition is emphatic in telling us not to do it. Here are three important reasons why: The first reason: When you hold on to a grudge, who does it hurt: your enemy or you?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi and world-renowned, best-selling author, tells the story of how a woman once came to him, and poured out in detail her anger against her husband for how he left her for another woman, and how he had mistreated her and their children. What advice did Rabbi Kushner give her? “Let it go, not for his sake, but for yours. For ten years this has been burdening you. If you wouldn’t let him live in your house, rent free, why on earth do you let him live in your mind rent free?”
What harm does it do to the one who has hurt us for us to brood and wallow in our anger and in our self-pity? It is better for us to get on with our lives, and not let the one who has hurt us continue to control our lives and pull our strings and drive us crazy.
The second reason why we ought to forgive can be illustrated by a brief story, told by Rachel Naomi Remen. Years ago, she went to a Yom Kippur service to hear a well-known rabbi speak about forgiveness, thinking he would be speaking about God’s forgiveness. Instead, as she tells it, “he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father’s arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and, with his customary dignity, began a traditional Yom Kippur sermon”. The baby girl started grabbing his nose; he freed himself and went on; then she took his tie and put it in her mouth. Everyone chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie, and then said to the congregation—“Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?” After the nods and murmurs of assent came from the crowd, he went on—“And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before we forget that everyone is a child of God?” We are all God’s children, part of the same family; we expect forgiveness from God, for anything we do, and God’s children, our family and extended human family, deserve that same forgiveness from us.
Finally, here is a third reason why we should try to forgive, and that is: That the truth is—although we don’t like to admit it, that we have slandered just as much as we have been slandered; that we have insulted, just as much as we have been insulted. We have said and done hurtful things to friends, co-workers, loved ones. The only difference is that when WE do it, we justify it, and we rationalize and we forgive ourselves. But when it is done to us, we get upset, and we want retribution.
It is much easier to think of times when we have been wronged than it is to think of times when we have done wrong. Somehow the human mind works that way. We have a selective memory, and so we find it easier to remember the times when we have been hurt than it is to remember the times when we have hurt.
And so I pray that this year you and I may work on developing not only our memory skills, but, as my colleague Rabbi Jack Riemer terms it, a good “forgettery” as well. Because without a good “forgettery” we really cannot live. If we hold on to every insult, and every harsh word, and every misdeed that has ever been done to us, we become so weighed down by this burden that we can barely walk or breathe or live.
The truth is that, with no exceptions, everyone has his own baggage and there is no need for any of us to add any more to each other’s pain and suffering; on the contrary, there is a need for comfort and companionship. Let us try yet again this year to minimize the hurt that we cause with our words and deeds; but, when inevitably we slip up, AND WE WILL SLIP UP, may we learn how to let go of the anger that we all carry around inside us that chokes us and that does not let us love. And let us forgive, so that we may truly live.
May this new year be a good year, a peaceful year, a year in which we offer forgiveness to our family, friends, neighbors, fellows, and God, and a year during which we receive that same powerful, sacred and healing gift of forgiveness in return. And to this, may we all say: AMEN.
Yom Kippur Sermon 5780
Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed.
When I was in the fifth grade, I read a book which, unbeknownst to me then, would eventually change my outlook on life. It was “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. It is a book about a dystopian future in which books are outlawed and firemen are civil servants who don’t put out fires but instead cause them, destroying any books that can be found. According to the chief fireman, the reason all books were banned is that some people started to complain about books that challenged their own worldviews and the practice spread like, well, wildfire. In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon, Scientia Potentia Est, Knowledge is Power, and oppressors will try to control knowledge to protect their power. Ironically, this book about banning books is one of the most banned books in US History due to the fact that one of the books burned by the firemen is the Bible.
When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, he saw it as a vision of America in 1999 - which is now 20 years in the past! I realized upon learning world history, especially Jewish history, that this is not a vision of a dystopian future but a retrospective of a very real dystopian past.
Book Burning is not a new concept. For as long as words have been written on flammable media they have been burned. Jewish history goes back to words carved into stone and our written words have been frequent victims of destruction. If you look at the Wikipedia article "List of book-burning incidents" the most frequent books listed are Jewish, starting from the Judean King Yehoyakim burning the scroll written by the Prophet Jeremiah and when Antiochus IV ordered all Jewish books burned - a causus belli for the Hanukkah story.
Today we are about to recite the Eleh Ezkera which begins with ten of the Rabbis who were martyred by the Romans; one of these rabbis was Hananya ben Tradyon. He violated the capital crime of teaching the Torah and he was burned, wrapped in the Torah scroll with which he was caught teaching. He tells his horrified and heartbroken students that, though the parchment burns, the letters of the Torah are flying back up to their Author in Heaven.
In 1242, urged by Pope Gregory IX, the Talmud was put on trial in Paris and found guilty of blasphemy against Christianity. The Pope was allegedly shocked to learn that Jews did not solely follow the Old Testament but also the Talmud! 24 cartloads of an estimated 10,000 volumes were burned that June. This was especially staggering considering this was 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable printing press so many of these volumes were handwritten and forever lost.
It is perhaps the ubiquity of books after that point that, last year, Time Magazine, commenting on the 85th Anniversary of Hitler’s 1933 Berlin book burning, wrote,
“the idea that you could get rid of the books you didn’t like seemed impossible. That is perhaps [...] why it took a little while for the wider world to understand what the Nazis were up to. Some authors initially felt pride to have been included in such a bonfire, [and that] that some book lovers in English-speaking countries expressed a certain wistfulness that in Germany books were thought to hold such power. But the Nazi authorities really were out to close off society to certain ideas, and they were unfortunately far more successful at it than many expected.”
The very same Time Magazine in May of 1933, prophetically dubbed this book burning “The Bibliocaust”. A few years ago, I saw the words of 19th century Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine inscribed in that Berlin plaza, The Bebelplatz, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” How tragically correct he was!
With the creation of electronic media, the Internet, and the Cloud, it once again seems that the written word is indestructible and eternal, much like it must have seemed at the development of the Movable Printing Press. While government agencies may try to control and block information people also successfully find ways around blocks and fight for Net Neutrality.
While one war may be fought in the clouds another is taking place on the ground and in ivory towers. Go to any college campus in America today and you will stumble upon something counterintuitive. You will see people protesting for their own freedom of speech while simultaneously denying another’s ability to share their own worldviews and exercise their own free speech. I, myself, have been involved in such shouting matches.
From 2001 to 2005, I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, a place that has been well-known as a hotbed of debate since the days of Alexander Hamilton. Before he dropped out to fight in the American Revolution in 1776, Hamilton engaged in heated debates on a campus evenly-split over Independence vs Loyalism; Hamilton supported Independence but decried the ubiquitous mob violence.
I entered Columbia University in the City of New York only a week before everything changed on 9/11 and things got even more polarized and vocal on campus. In 2004, voices crescendoed when a documentary was released, Columbia Unbecoming, which created a firestorm about allegations of academic intimidation in Middle Eastern department classes. The David Project interviewed a number of Israeli or pro-Israel students, many of whom are my close friends, about cases of Muslim anti-Israel professors in the department being explicitly prejudiced against them for their nationality, religion, or political views; these range from professors not allowing contrarian students to share their views to a professor asking an Israeli student how many Palestinians he murdered when serving in the IDF. Both sides claimed the other side was academically intimidating them and it launched an investigation and ultimately dismantled the Middle Eastern department.
One of these accused professors, it should be noted, is Rashid Khalidi, a founder of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) movement which attempts to eliminate all dialogue in favor of completely shutting down the Israeli side. Thankfully, his and others’ attempts to bring BDS to Columbia have been repeatedly and overwhelmingly thwarted by students and administration, both in my era and in recent months. However, it seems that things have changed for the worse. Whereas, 15 years ago, we would be very vocal in our defense and support of Israel, today’s students, particularly those who are pro-Israel, are engaging in self-censorship. They are remaining silent so they will not be attacked or bullied by those who oppose their view. Instead of the wise child or even the wicked child, many are now the child who does not know how to ask, how to speak up for themselves!
In my final month as an undergraduate, in my capacity of serving on the Executive Board at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and being the chairman of Koach, the Conservative movement’s group, I was invited to be one of the two representatives of the Jewish people at Barnard’s first annual Interfaith Summit. It was an event explicitly created in order to create healthy dialogue in the wake of the Middle Eastern department controversy. In the very same issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator that covered this event in which I was pictured having deep theological discussion with Hare Krishnas, the grumbling began against the pulling down of flyers advertising a speaker who was about to arrive on campus: US Attorney General John Ashcroft. He was invited by the College Republicans and, very quickly, a group formed, calling themselves the “John Ashcroft Welcoming Committee,” composed of members of the College Democrats and the ACLU.
In college, I was fortunate to be present for speeches by luminaries such as the Dalai Lama, Natan Sharansky, First Lady Laura Bush, and Senator John McCain. Somehow, I got a ticket to the free, but sold-out, event with John Ashcroft. I didn’t go to support nor to protest, I went to hear him speak, more out of curiosity than agreement or disagreement with his policies, positions, or deeds. After all, he was an important government official who had just left the administration! I came to listen. Others came to scream at the top of their lungs. They said they would protest outside and some got tickets, ostensibly, in order to ask hard-hitting questions. This was meant to be a dialogue but what happened is that the “Welcoming Committee” didn’t even let him speak. I was shocked and dismayed at what I was witnessing, what I was hearing and what I was not hearing due to the attempts to drown out the speaker like we drown out the name of Haman on Purim! Here I was, weeks away from earning my Bachelor’s Degree, majoring in American Political Science and I was suddenly becoming disillusioned by politics! Roone Arledge Auditorium became an echo chamber that night and I was not having it.
In college, I was also a member of the Philolexian Society, Alexander Hamilton’s own college literary & debate society given a name, a name which translates as “lovers of discourse” and our raison de’ȇtre was to engage in friendly debate and never take ourselves too seriously. What was happening that night was completely anathema to my identity and my college pride. Where was the Columbia of vigorous but respectful debate, the one where I witnessed the healthy protests and counter-protests during my prospective-student visit in high school during the confusion three weeks following the 2000 Presidential Election, the events which made me want to be a Political Science major in the first place? Columbia’s motto is “In Lumine Tuo Vidibimus Lumen,” from Psalm 36: “BeOrcha Nireh Or,” “in Your Light we shall see light.” And yet, Columbia was becoming a place of darkness. Ashcroft’s speech, or, more specifically, the disrespectful reception that silenced him, really struck me that day. I decided then-and-there to listen to everybody and make my decisions - not by agreeing with a partisan slate of positions and political platforms - but by learning to listen to everything and everyone and making educated decisions. We may not be burning books today but we ARE definitely burning bridges!
I should feel the same way about the students shutting down Attorney General Ashcroft as I do toward the professors and students who intimidate and bully the Israeli, Zionist, and Jewish students. Free speech swings both ways! We live in a country where freedom of speech, expression, religion, assembly, press, and petition are enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. As much as we treasure that right for ourselves, it would be hypocritical to deny it to those with whom we disagree.
Other countries don’t have that blessed right. Take Iran. A year after the Ashcroft debacle, Columbia invited the President of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Now, let me make it clear that I wouldn’t have invited him (nor fellow Holocaust-denying anti-Semitic Malaysian President Mahathir bin Mohamad a few weeks ago) to have an unqualified bully pulpit at my alma mater, however, I was thrilled to see him get defensive when the university’s president, Lee Bollinger (who argued free speech cases in front of the US Supreme Court) asked Ahmadinejad about the mistreatment of homosexuals in Iran. Ahmadinejad was flabbergasted and flustered! “In Iran we don’t have any homosexuals. In Iran we don't have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you we have it,” he exclaimed to the derisive laughter of the audience. In the wise words of an elderly King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:17, “Words spoken softly by wise people are heeded sooner than words screamed by a foolish leader.” As long as there can be fair dialogue is it that dangerous to hear from a plurality of opinions, to open a dialogue and perhaps learn something new and teach something new? Open dialogue is very Jewish.
In fact, our own Jewish tradition is a strong proponent of us attaining as much knowledge as possible from as many sources as possible. The very first reference to knowledge in Judaism is Etz HaDaat Tov v’Ra, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Ancient Greece warned against Prometheus giving the world fire, Pandora succumbing to curiosity, and they executed the great philosopher Socrates for corrupting the minds of Athenian youths and not believing in the gods. In our own story, Christian interpretation calls the eating from the Tree “Original Sin” with which each and every baby, a descendant of Adam and Eve, is born into the world tainted by sin and must be purified by the waters of baptism. It seems to me that Judaism not only does not denounce the action of Adam and Eve but supports it! In God’s perfect Paradise where would a disobedient snake have come from and why would God tell us about an easily seen and accessible tree that could have been hidden or locked far away? It could be open for debate that God never intended us to remain in the blissful ignorance of the Garden of Eden! For the early rabbis, the idea of Paradise in the World to Come is the ability to learn directly from God. Eating from the tree was not an Original sin; on the contrary, eating from the Tree is the beginning of the Jewish tradition to learn and teach as much as possible to the next generation.
We are commanded, in the Shema: Veshinantam Levancecha v’Dibarta Bam, “You shall repeat them to your children and speak of them!” It is a paramount mitzvah to teach Torah to your children. The first petition we make in the weekday Amidah, Chonen HaDaat, is asking God to give us knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. God is pleased with Solomon when the newly crowned king asks God for wisdom. Among many other aphorisms about wisdom, Solomon writes in chapter three of his book of Proverbs:
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, the man who attains understanding. Her value in trade is better than silver, Her yield, greater than gold. She is more precious than rubies; All of your goods cannot equal her. In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy. (Proverbs 3:13-18)
You might recognize that we just sang these last two verses in reverse as we put the Torahs away: עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכָל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Just this past Shabbat we read in Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 30:19) that God places before us life and death, blessing and curse and we are commanded to choose life. We are invited to return to Paradise with unfettered access to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. We weren’t expelled from the Garden to protect the Tree of Life; in fact, it wasn’t eternally forbidden fruit, we just weren’t ready - but we are now and God commands us to choose it!!
In the context of Proverbs chapter 3, King Solomon is not just talking about Torah but wisdom in general! Knowledge and life are inextricably tied together! There isn’t meant to be esotericism in Judaism. Modern tradition may restrict the study of the mystical Zohar to men above the age of 40 but this tradition isn’t universal and has nothing to do with one’s caste or level of wisdom. Even the more forbidden fruits should be tasted, as in the Talmudic story of the student hiding under his rabbi’s marital bed to learn about sex. Upon being chided by his teacher the student responds, “This too is Torah and I must learn it!”
We are commanded to acknowledge and learn from those with whom we disagree. It’s Debate 101 and Judaism 101! The Mishnah and Talmud, the fonts of Jewish law, record multiple opinions and often don’t come to conclusions or resolutions. You may have heard of the famous debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, but there was never any acrimony between the two. In Talmud Eruvin 13b we read: “Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. These said: The law is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The law is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Eilu v'Eilu Divrei Elohim Chayim Hen, both these and those are the words of the living God... v'Halachah k'Veit Hillel, However, the law is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel. The Talmud asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the law established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the law, they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.” That’s how you win a debate!
Indeed, we can - and should - learn from everybody. We can’t just preach to the choir. The editor of the Mishnah and Rabbi par-excellence Yehuda HaNasi says in Pesachim 94b that, contrary to popular belief, even Rabbis don’t know everything. In fact, Rebbe says that there are things that gentile scientists know that we don’t know and that we should learn from them as well! We should learn about other faiths not only to be good global citizens but also so we can dialogue and respond when someone tells us something that challenges our faith or understanding. I teach a class to my 8th graders that includes significant time learning Comparative Religion. They will certainly meet people who aren’t Jewish. A former student of mine told me that a girl on her soccer team asked her about Isaiah 7:14, a key text for Christians from the Hebrew Bible, and she was not only able to identify the verse but successfully refute the teammate’s claim. If we refuse to learn from one another, to learn about one another, to dialogue, we don’t have a chance as individuals, as Jews, as Americans.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “man is a messenger who forgot the message.” I realize now, as I realized back in college, that one of the purposes of life is to gather information and to learn as much as possible, not just to win hundreds of dollars in HQ Trivia (though I’ve done that) nor to appear on Jeopardy! (still waiting on that) but so I can be an informed citizen of the world and know as much as possible.
The very first mishnah of Pirkei Avot, the Lessons of our Sages, says one of the three most important things for a rabbi is to raise many students. In a battle between quality vs. quantity, one might think that quality is the better ideal. You might have a few great students, but with quantity everyone has a chance. I’d like to think I do the same with my students, I’m never gonna give up on them and there’s always a better chance of finding a diamond in the rough if I teach many than if I only teach a few. So too with content; even if you think you will never need math or science or a random sugya of Talmud, you never know what you might do with your life that will require it.
In Ray Bradbury’s fictional America of 1999, the country was burning down, page by page. Twenty years later, in 2019, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. They tried to incinerate our knowledge.“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” However, all is not lost! We can learn once again from the rabbinic pair of Hillel and Shammai:
A gentile came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Annoyed, Shammai pushed him away with the measuring stick in his hand. He then came before Hillel. Hillel converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.
We have the ability to learn and to teach. You can be a Shammai, shutting down and chasing away anyone who is disagreeable to you. Or you can be a Hillel, welcoming in people of different opinions and starting a dialogue with them, even if they annoy you. The world is filled with Firemen and Shammais, burning down the world and pushing people away. In a world where there are no Hillels be a Hillel! Create the brilliant light of learning that will burn even brighter than the fires of those burning books. Let there be light.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
Kol Nidre Sermon 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman, Rabbi Shira Wallach
L’Eyla u’L’Eyla. Higher and Higher. These are the words that we utter in the Kaddish prayers during these Aseret Y’Mei Teshuvah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days in between. We add an extra word “L’Eyla” to our customary recitation to remind us that during this 10-day period God is elevated even more beyond the prayers we human beings can offer in God’s praise. And during this High Holy Day period we also try to lift ourselves up to commit to being at our most godly going forward into the New Year.
Last year during this Kol Nidre Service in all three of our sanctuaries, the rabbis shared the same message about a way our community could elevate itself while at the same time elevating someone else in need in the way our teacher Maimonides once instructed us. We are proud of David Corn as he completes a year in our Ladder Project program. Since January, David has been paying his own rent and utility bills, and just renewed his apartment lease for another year. He has worked steadily since last November at Studio Movie Grill, where he has been promoted to a team leader -- both training new employees and supervising the teams who maintain and prep the theaters in between showings.
But what we have learned is that $12/hour is not enough money for David to live on since he is currently paying court-ordered child support for one of his sons, leaving him no ability to put aside money towards obtaining and maintaining a car, which is his #1 goal. David recently passed his driver’s test and is excited about being able to drive. We are asking congregants to let us know if they can offer David a full-time job that pays a minimum of $15/hour AND donate a used car to David, which would significantly change his life. Reliance on public transit greatly limits where, and how often, David can work. We feel confident that David can reach a new level of financial self-sufficiency with a new job and a car.
As you are hopefully aware, David joined us for Rosh Hashanah services last week and was extremely proud to be celebrating his new life -- a life far away, physically and emotionally, from the homeless shelter he lived in for several years before meeting us. He speaks often of the generosity and caring hearts of this congregation -- his spiritual family, as he calls us -- that made all of this possible. We are grateful for all of your support in helping David this past year.
We look forward this next year to further success for David and to hopefully welcoming a new person or family to our program. Our Ladder Project Executive Committee is currently searching for candidates and we have had a couple of possibilities, but we are doing due diligence to make sure we pick someone who is ready to be helped.
Just as last year the three Shearith rabbis decided to give a unified message, so, too, this year we also decided to speak about the same topic this evening. And the choice of topic will likely not come as a surprise to anyone in any of our three sanctuaries. One of our congregants recently commented on Facebook that this was the first year our congregants were ever asked to come to a security briefing before High Holy Day services. Who would have even thought this was necessary a decade, or perhaps even five years, ago? 250 congregants attended six briefings in total, which speaks to how concerned folks are with recent trends in anti-Semitism and violence, both here in the United States, and around the world as well. Why are we concerned?
We’re concerned because of October 27, 2018, a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh, which could have been a Shabbat of shalom and joy and community like every Shabbat before that one and every Shabbat we hope to celebrate in the future, but instead was a Shabbat that bore witness to the murder of eleven Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill as the killer shouted, “All Jews must die”.
We’re concerned because six months later, on Shabbat morning, April 27, the last day of Pesach, another shooter visited death on another synagogue, this time a Chabad in Poway, California, taking the life of Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounding several others including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, having posted online just beforehand an open letter in the form of an anti-Semitic rant blaming Jews for the “meticulously planned genocide of the European race”.
We’re concerned because, according to the ADL, the U.S. Jewish community experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018—1,879 attacks in total, the third-highest year on record since the ADL began tracking data in the 1970s, a number not far off from the 1,986 incidents reported in 2017, 48% higher than in 2016 and 99% higher than for 2015. 59 people were victims of 39 anti-Semitic assaults in 2018, almost three times as many victims and twice as many incidents as in 2017.
We’re concerned because anti-Semitism thinly veiled as anti-Zionism continues to rear its ugly head. This extends from the United Nations, on down to college campuses through the pernicious BDS movement which constantly forces our students to have to defend the right for a Jewish state to exist, and has even seeped into the halls of our U.S. Government.
And we’re concerned because we’ve read in the news locally that a Jewish convict named Randy Halprin was sentenced to death by Judge Vickers Cunningham who allegedly called him “that [expletive] Jew”, and much worse, during the trial. Saying nothing of Halprin’s guilt or innocence, it seems incredulous to us that this could happen in a courtroom in the United States. Thankfully Halprin’s attorneys, with the support of 100 Jewish attorneys and numerous rabbis from all over Texas including Rabbi Sunshine, convinced the Appeals Court to stay the execution and remand the case back to a Dallas County court for further review.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen that many rabbis across Dallas and across the nation have also chosen to address the fearsome rise in anti-Semitic incidents in America during this High Holy Day season. What’s notable about these powerful statements from our colleagues is that despite the diversity of communities they serve in areas across the country, many make, essentially, the same three points.
First, if we are to understand the threat we face, we must also ensure that we understand the underlying ideology that fuels it. Anti-Semitism is a specific form of hatred and it cannot be equated with mere ignorance, intolerance, or prejudice. It is born out of an irrational fear of our particular beliefs, values, and way of life. It takes the form of conspiracy theories, double-standards, and scapegoating narratives.
Anti-Semitism is Pharaoh, paranoid that our growing nation would inexplicably rise up against the same land and people that sustained us through a devastating period of famine in the land of Canaan.
Anti-Semitism is Haman and Antiochus Epiphanes, who saw a people not apart, but against. Ironically, for all the charges of dual loyalty that have been laid at our feet, it was their inability to believe that we could, at once, serve a God that was ours, and yet still contribute to the well-being of a land that wasn’t, that inspired them to plot our destruction.
And yes, Anti-Semitism is Adolf Hitler and his Nazi collaborators, who followed in the example of so many before them when they blamed Jews for the economic and political catastrophes their government had wrought on its own people.
Second, though Anti-Semitism has been used as a political tool for more than two millennia, Anti-Semitism is not politics. It is hatred. Therefore, Anti-Semitism cannot be accurately categorized as left or right, progressive, populist, or conservative. It can however, usually be found at the ideological extremes and, terrifyingly of late, it has been countenanced and tolerated, if not yet embraced, by those who claim to speak for the mainstream and the center. It has defiled the cause of those who say they champion equality and social justice and it has profaned the lips of those who argue that they are fighting to preserve and defend our national identity and culture. It has inspired violence both directly and indirectly, and when it is present in the sacred halls of our government or regularly evident in the temples of international diplomacy, it is a sign of impending danger, not only for Jews, but for all oppressed people across the globe.
Finally, should this unsettling trend continue, we would do well to remember that the most powerful weapon against those who would seek to destroy the agency, prosperity, and sovereignty Jews have enjoyed since the middle of the twentieth century, is, paradoxically, that very thing which inflames their hatred of us: our love for and pride in being Jewish. For if we allow our Jewish identity to be defined, principally, by our fight for survival, then we will have already lost. How did we defeat Pharaoh? By recovering our ability to cry out to God in the words of our ancestors. How did we defeat Haman and Antiochus? By harnessing our ingenuity, our wits, and our chutzpah to once again defy the odds. How will we defeat the men who murdered twelve of our fellow Jews as they clasped prayer books in their hands in the House of God? By holding our families close as we light Shabbat candles, by gathering for simchas and sorrows, by teaching our children to love our tradition and to love Israel, and, as we have all demonstrated tonight, despite whatever uneasiness may lurk in our souls, by showing up, as a community, to shul.
Each year, on Kol Nidre, we are gifted a remarkable opportunity: to renounce any vows that we made over the last year that we didn’t have the chance to fulfill. And while we reflect on all the ways in which we were too optimistic or too forthcoming with the power of our promises over the past year, we also use this moment to decide which new vows to make this coming year, knowing just how much weight they carry. In light of recent events, we propose three new nedarim, three sacred oaths that we make to one another in this precarious time.
First: that we must vow lo tishkach, never forget. On the Shabbat before Purim, we read a special maftir from the Torah that reminds us why we must blot out the names of those who try to annihilate us: not just Amalek, but Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus Epiphanes, Adolf Hitler, and all of those who walk in their footsteps. Those who target us purely because of our identity have a particular appetite for blood; Amalek attacked us from the back as we traveled toward our Promised Land, killing the weakest and most vulnerable among us in order to strike fear into our hearts. And as the blood of our children, our ill, our elderly, called out to us from the ground, what was, and what will be our response? God hopes it will be: never forget, and blot out the names of our attackers from under Heaven. Never think that there won’t be another Amalek or Haman or Hitler. And yet, as long as blood still fills our veins and air still fills our lungs, we have a sacred duty to build a world in which it is impossible for hatred to survive.
But this vow of lo tishkach isn’t only about never forgetting those who are filled with anger and hatred against us. It is also about pledging to never forget those victims who were murdered, defamed, persecuted, and tortured. It’s about telling their stories and devoting our lives to theirs, lifting up not only their mourning families and communities but also the values that animated them. If you go to Pittsburgh today, and visit the Tree of Life*Dor Hadash Congregation, you’ll see first of all the chain link fence that surrounds the building. Then, if you hang around a bit, you’ll notice that the only person who goes in and out of the dark building is the custodian, who maintains the synagogue, until its leaders decide what to do with it. The one thing that is certain: they cannot see themselves ever praying there again, without experiencing violent flashbacks to October 27th, when eleven of their community members were shot and killed. For now, the building remains as a reminder, as a sacred memorial, lest we ever forget, for if you look through the fence at the synagogue’s front door, you’ll see an Israeli flag, a note thanking first responders, a list of the eleven victims’ names in Jewish stars, and a promise: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Second: that we must vow to protect and advocate for ourselves. We must not be afraid to speak out on behalf of our people and call out anti-Semitic language and behavior when we see it. Unfortunately, we must come to terms with the reality that no one else can be entrusted with this task; there is no one else as deeply entrenched or invested in the destiny of our people. As Rabbi Hillel asked: Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If even we cannot recognize and condemn attacks against our people, then who else will take up our cause?
The blood of our brothers and sisters cries out to us from the ground! When our people are slain in Pittsburgh and Poway, beaten on the streets of Brooklyn, defamed in political ads in Rockland County, we must rise above the fray, attend to our dead and our injured, and speak out against this injustice! We must call out this hatred and this violence for what it is.
Third and finally: that no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, no matter who we’d like to see leading the Knesset, no matter where we like to sit on the High Holy Days at Shearith Israel, that we pledge to uphold our sacred unity above all else.
I don’t have to tell you that we are at our most vulnerable when we are divided. Our factionalism has cost us dearly in the past, pitting Jew against Jew, contributing to the rise of sin’at chinam, senseless hatred, that ultimately caused the destruction of our beloved Temple. We must not let our own ideologies distract us from who the true enemy is.
The Talmud, in Masechet Shevuot (39b), the tractate that addresses the nature and power of our oaths, asks about the difference between those sins that only punish the offender, versus the sins that punish both the offender and his or her world. The rabbis respond: for the sins of swearing and lying, and murdering and stealing, and committing adultery, it is only the offender who has sinned and bears the weight of punishment and responsibility to atone. And with regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, punishment is exacted from the entire world, in which each and every person is inextricably bound to one another, because one person’s sin mars the humanity of everyone else. It was this idea that led the rabbis to say: kol yisrael arevim ze bazeh, the entire Jewish people must serve as guarantors for one another.
As we know, there are a myriad of different ways to categorize and separate Jews. It’s profoundly difficult to see how Haredim have anything in common with Reform Jews and it’s so much easier to look out for our own little corner of the Jewish world. But the rabbis of the Talmud challenge us with the responsibility of KOL Yisrael, ALL of Israel. This means that at all times, but especially during times of threat, we must transcend the boundaries that divide us in order to support the sacred whole.
When Mattathias and his son Judah began their revolt against the Hellenist occupiers of the land of Israel in 167 BCE, they faced overwhelming opposition. But not only from the Greeks, from their fellow Jews, as well. On one side, the Pietists, or Chasidim, believed that if salvation was at hand, it would come from God, not from a band of guerilla fighters from Modi’in. To fight without divine sanction was sacrilege. And on the other side, those Jews who had adopted the Greek way of life, embracing both its scientific and literary advancements, resisted what they saw as an unwise struggle against the natural progression of Jewish life in the Ancient Near east.
The first major victory the Maccabees won was not against the Greeks, it was for the trust of their fellow Jews. By demonstrating both their respect for the ancient wisdom and practice of our Torah and by allowing that practice to be informed by the realities of their time, Mattathias and Judah created a broad coalition of Jews who fought to reclaim the beating heart of the Jewish people, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple at its center.
It is no accident that in this extraordinary Dallas Jewish community of some 70,000 souls, this 135-year-old flagship Conservative synagogue has served as a vital center—a place for those on the right and the left and all those in between, both religiously and politically, to come together. Because in our shul we believe that all those who love our tradition, who love Israel, and who are called to serve and love each other and God should be made to feel welcome.
It was at Shearith Israel that hundreds gathered after the Pittsburgh shooting to grieve, to offer our support to the families of the fallen, and to pledge that we would do everything in our power to fight back against the terror that our brothers and sisters faced that horrific Shabbat morning in October.
And beyond these walls, the contributions of our Shearith members to ensuring that we and others never forget, that we have the means and the strength to fight back, and that will do so as a united Jewish community, are immeasurable. Who had the largest team at the ADL Walk Against Hate on September 15th? Shearith Israel. Who sends the largest delegation in town, every year, to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C? Shearith Israel. Of the broad spectrum of Jews from across Dallas who have championed and sponsored the Federation’s Community Security Initiative, who often took the lead? Members of this community. And there is no better example of the extraordinary efforts our community has made in the fight against hatred than the time, financial resources, and brilliant vision so many members of Shearith have given to the newest crown jewel among our local Jewish institutions, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. And I look forward to seeing all of you at our Shearith Night at the Museum, November 10th, when it will open exclusively for our community so that we can celebrate this remarkable achievement together.
Friends, we can take great comfort, great strength, and great pride in the fact that we are Maccabees—that we have always been and will always strive to be a community that stands together. But more than that, because of who we are, and the consensus we work hard to achieve, we can fulfill this role of being a uniter, not just for ourselves, but for the good of all our fellow Jews in Dallas.
This Kol Nidre, we pledge ourselves to this great cause. To stand as one before the sha’are hashamayim, the gates of Heaven, and cry out before God, for ourselves, and for the martyrs of our people whose voices we must now carry within each of us—Anu ameicha—we are one nation. Anu kehalecha—we are one congregation. Anu nachaltecha—we are the stewards of the legacy you entrusted to us, that no one will ever deny us, Am Yisrael Chai—the people of Israel, whose story, whose destiny will live forever and ever.
Ken Yehi ratzon, so may it be God’s will.
  Sales, Ben. “Reliving the massacre every minute: How Pittsburgh survivors are struggling a year later.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Published October 2, 2019.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This summer, in the midst of our highly successful Shearith Family Mission to Israel, our group of 34 people spent a morning wandering the alleys of the mystical city of Tzefat, watching a Bar Mitzvah celebration at the historic Abuhav Synagogue and exploring the beautiful works in the Artists’ Colony. Soon after we boarded our bus and headed on our way, we abruptly stopped at the bottom of a narrow road where three cars were parked illegally on two of the corners. Even our skillful bus driver, Shlomi—who had previously gotten our bus unscathed through narrow berths that had us listening for the sound of metal scraping the walls or the cars on either side of us—was left with no way to get the bus around the corner and continue our drive. At Mitchell Fonberg’s urging, we briefly considered having several group members try to lift the cars and move them out of the way. Worries about people hurting themselves and liability for damage to the cars won the day, so, short of waiting for those drivers to return, the only option we had was to call the Tzefat police. Our beloved guide, Gila Rosenfield, with whom I’ve worked six times in the last 12 years on synagogue Israel trips, called the Tzefat police department to complain and ask for help solving the problem. Listening to Gila’s side of the conversation, in Hebrew, I was pretty amused: “Are the drivers of the cars there?” “Of course they’re not here, otherwise we wouldn’t be calling you and asking for help!”…”No, we haven’t gone looking for the drivers, how would we even know who they are if we found them?”…”But you’re the Tzefat police! Get down here and take care of the problem!” I couldn’t help but laugh at this exchange and think to myself, this could only happen in Israel, where a tour guide would call and yell at the police and tell them to “get down here and do your job!” And it worked. After a while, the police came, located the drivers, moved the cars, and freed up our bus, though it was too late for our rafting appointment, leaving our quest to tame the mighty Jordan River waters for a future visit to Israel!
This quirky moment is one of a number of such “only in Israel” moments I’ve experienced during my 22 visits to Israel over the years. The ingathering of the exiles—absorption of Jews from all different countries and backgrounds all over the world to unite in this shared project of building the Jewish state—has likely contributed to the relentless “can-do” approach of Israelis for any situation they may encounter. A person double parks his car in Tzefat because he needs to get something done urgently and at the same time assumes that the person who is “inconvenienced” isn’t going to be upset about it, because they’re Israeli and they’ll figure out a way to solve the problem, just like Gila and Shlomi ultimately did. For Americans on a tour bus, it seems inconsiderate and, ultimately, funny; for Israelis, it’s “no beeg deeel”.
I was thinking recently about that experience in Tzefat and recalled that moment, on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion stood up in Heichal Atzma’ut, Independence Hall, in Tel Aviv, and read the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel while thousands of people waited anxiously in the streets. I wondered whether he could have envisioned that 70+ years later, Israel would both be a country of ingenuity, world-renowned robust innovation, and growth, as well as a country where the tour bus still gets stuck in Tzefat? Moreover, could he have envisioned that Israel would have as many faces as it does: Ashkenazi and Sefardi, native born and immigrants, secular and religious, different skin colors, straight and gay, left and right, Jew, Muslim, and Christian? I wonder: Could Ben-Gurion have envisioned the wide-ranging tapestry of Israel’s faces, and places, today?
A look into Ben-Gurion’s philosophies and priorities during the pre-state era and in his years as Prime Minister can help us answer that question. In Dennis Ross and David Makovsky’s new book, Be Strong and of Good Courage, they note that:
[Ben-Gurion’s] unwavering goal was Jewish sovereignty. [He] embraced with singular focus connecting people with the land, a strategy based on Jewish immigration…. [For Ben-Gurion establishing sovereignty] was a process with two equally important dimensions:… creating a political entity in the Holy Land by building new proto-governmental institutions…and transforming the consciousness of the Jews who came to Palestine from all over the world and fostering among them a shared political culture and sense of community…. (pp. 9-12)
Ben-Gurion’s vision reached its watershed moment in May 1948. With the British Mandate set to end on May 15 at midnight, and war looming with the neighboring Arab states, three days before, on May 12, the Zionist provisional government met for 14 hours straight in Tel Aviv. The meeting focused on making a most difficult choice: postponing independence and accepting a three-month truce, or declaring independence on May 14. Ben-Gurion refused to budge from his stance: a declaration of statehood would: … allow the Zionists to tap their greatest resource—supporters abroad—who could help smuggle weapons into the nascent country once the British departed…. The opportunity to [revitalize their military], prompted by statehood and denied by a truce, must not be missed. Alongside the military advantage was that offered by unchecked immigration, Ben-Gurion’s touchstone. Open gates would mean an inflow of greatly needed manpower.”
Independence was indeed declared on May 14, hours before the coming of Shabbat, to great celebration in Israel and its supporters outside the land. Ross and Makovsky comment later that, When French president Charles de Gaulle asked Ben-Gurion in 1960 what he most wanted for his country, the prime minister replied, “More Jews”. And when de Gaulle asked where they would come from, Ben-Gurion answered: from the Soviet Union, which will collapse in thirty years. (p.72)
Amazingly, he was off by only one year in his prediction. J Ross and Makovsky comment further on Ben-Gurion’s approach: Even in Israel’s early years, when it was impoverished and coping with the terrible losses of the War of Independence, he insisted that Israel must act urgently and open its gates to all the Jews, who came with no resources or possessions, from Middle Eastern Countries…. Israel roughly doubled its Jewish population within the first three years of the country’s existence…. Ben-Gurion dedicated all his effort to consolidating and building the infrastructure of the state, while also seeking to cultivate a sense of common identity among the new immigrants who now found themselves living in their ancestral homeland. (p.73)
Among the many Jews who have made Aliyah to the Israel David Ben-Gurion was so instrumental in creating, I’d like to share the story of two of them with you today. One is our tour guide Gila, and the other is Matan (Josh) Rudner, son of our congregants Lisa and Steve Rudner, who is a Lone Soldier in the Israeli army. Gila, originally known as Jill, Rosenfield, grew up in Zimbabwe in a traditional, non-religious Jewish home and went to Jewish day schools both in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Like most of the Jewish kids in Zimbabwe, she also belonged to a Jewish youth movement, Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth movement and so she grew up with a strong connection to Israel and the belief that this was the Jewish homeland and therefore, her homeland, and a seed was planted in her with a dream of going to live on a kibbutz. She visited Israel for the first time after finishing high school and fell in love with the land and the people that she met there, as well as the freedom and the feeling of belonging that she felt here. She made Aliyah to Israel in 1982, as part of a group of young idealists from her youth movement to a kibbutz on the Lebanese border, as they wanted to experience life in the north of Israel and what it felt like to live under the threat of Katusha missiles. During her first years in Israel, she participated in various programs both to learn Hebrew and to experience and learn more about the land. Later, she worked as a special education teacher and, despite loving her job, she sought a change from classroom teaching but still wanted to stay in the educational field. At a dinner party, a friend told Gila she had enrolled to do the tour guide course and suggested jokingly that Gila come study with her. After a sleepless night, Gila decided that this was the perfect way to combine her love of hiking and touring while still working in education. Her demanding tour guide studies reignited her passion for Israel, for history, and she developed a passion for archeology. When she graduated, her first guiding job was a 6-week program over the summer taking 10th and 11th graders around and working not only as a guide but also as a madricha, a counselor. Somehow, she survived and she was hooked, and so for the past 22 years, she has worked as a guide and educator. When I asked Gila what she likes most about guiding, she said:
I really enjoy being able to share my love for this complicated but wonderful country and rediscovering it through the journeys of a wide variety of people. I love introducing the historical, cultural and culinary wonders of Israel to people, and I love the connections and friendships that I have formed and seeing how each group and individual connects differently to this land. I also really like the fact that even though I may often go to similar sites, each tour offers something new and deepens my knowledge and understanding of that site.
Gila’s last comment reminds me of the classical rabbinic teaching of “shiv’im panim la-Torah”—“70 faces of Torah”—being able to turn the words of Torah around and around and constantly see new facets and insights.
Interestingly, Matan Rudner, who made Aliyah back in August of 2017, also has been reflecting a lot this year on the myriad facets of Israel’s places and its people. Since January, Matan has been writing a monthly column in the Texas Jewish Post called “Dispatch from the Homeland”. Take for example his June 6 piece, commenting on the two very different places he has lived so far in Israel, Kibbutz Urim and Tel Aviv. He contrasted them both with Jerusalem, when he wrote, “Each week as I ascend by train through the forested hills of Judea toward our golden city, my material concerns seem to dissipate and I am captivated by the story of this place—the story of a land and a people liberated and conquered and liberated once more. To live in Jerusalem, this living testament to the sacred bond between people, land and God, is to experience Jewish civilization in all its majesty”. Matan went on to add that:
This heterogeneity of Jewish experience, between the lifestyles of the kibbutzim, of Tel Aviv, and of Jerusalem, is not the result of the random physical development of our state. Every part of Israel is the fruit of a different ideological movement: Labor Zionism, Cultural Zionism, Religious Zionism, and so many others each propose unique visions of what Jewish life in our homeland can be, visions that reflect all of the facets of the Jewish soul that yearns within us.
Recently, I reached out to Matan and asked him what message he would share with all of you if he were standing in front of you today. Here’s what he shared with me:
Israel is miraculous because it is ours. The language reflects our values and history, the food adheres to our dietary restrictions, the old men and women fought for us and the children will fight for us if and when the time comes. This land is the only place in the world where we can express and explore parts of our identity as yet undiscovered. Here I’m not just the Jew- as I often was in America- I am gay and a leftist and a brother and soldier. I’m free to be whatever I want to be. And at the same time I’m Jewish in ways I couldn’t have imagined- I have the opportunity to manifest my tradition and values in public, out loud, on a national level. Whatever happens here, it will always be that place for our people, in fact the only place, where we are free to be ourselves as individuals and as a nation.
Sometimes Israel frustrates me- the bureaucracy and the politics and the invasiveness. And sometimes the tragedy of our conflict with the Palestinians makes me scream and cry. But never have I questioned my commitment to this land, never has my love of our people wavered. Because my love and my commitment are based not in Israel as it once was, as it is today or as it is in my dreams- rather they are based in what Israel represents- a bond between land, people, and God that is eternal.
Both Matan and Gila saw –and see—Israel as their homeland and a powerful gravitational force for the Jewish people, and they also both see that Israel has, as it were, 70 faces, enabling different points of connection for each individual or group in their experience of Israel.
I want to introduce you to one more face of contemporary Israel, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, part of a new generation of Israeli-born Masorti—Conservative Movement--rabbis. Born into a mixed Ashkenazi-Mizrahi family with both French and Moroccan roots, and raised in an Orthodox home, it was only when she was wrapping up her B.A. in Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University and signed up for a Master’s Degree program to train both religious and secular teachers in the Jewish tradition that a new possibility presented itself: become a Masorti rabbi. At that time, at age 23, she wasn’t even aware that there were women rabbis in the world, that this was even a possibility. In Elad-Appelbaum’s words, as related in an article by Beth Kissileff in CJ Magazine, voices of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, this was a revelation that “threw me into a new story.” She received her ordination from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem in 2005, and then spent time as the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. She says that her time in America “gave me the courage to come here and re-dream Jerusalem.”
In 2013, she and her husband Yossi founded Tzion: Kehilla Yisraeli Artzit (Zion: An Israeli Community) in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka. At Tzion, where I have personally davened a number of times over these past several years, you’ll find one of the more unusual and diverse congregations in the state of Israel. As another article in Tablet Magazine subtitled “Shepherding a New Judaism in Jerusalem” describes, “Unlike most houses of worship, which self-sort along religious and denominational lines, Tzion’s attendees span the spectrum from devoutly Orthodox to entirely secular”.
The CJ Magazine article adds that, “like her own Ashkenazi and Sephardi family, Elad-Appelbaum’s congregation brings together the “heritage of families that made us who we are.”… [honoring] three pillars of tradition: Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Eretz Yisraeli, in other words, the Sephardic, Eastern European and Israeli traditions. Elad-Appelbaum tries to speak a Klal Yisrael language for all Jews. The blend is unique to their minyan…. She is very much committed to welcoming people from all avenues of life and enabling them to participate in Jewish life in ways with which they are comfortable.
Rabbi Tamar says about her work: “My father fought in wars for Israel,” and [my mission is] “bringing Klal Yisrael back to Jewish tradition.” She believes that the earliest years of Israel, the years involving the founding of the state, were “dedicated to the body”, [and that], going forward, the coming decades should be dedicated “to the soul.” For Elad-Appelbaum, her generation’s task is to be the “pioneers of reviving the soul, to be the magshimim (the fulfillers)…. We call our community Tzion with deep belief that this is the destiny of Zionism, and always has been: that Jews come back to the land of Israel, after walking through all cultures and nations and pains, so we can care for humanity as a whole”.
For all his brilliance and foresight and inspiring leadership of the pre-state and early Israel, I don’t think David Ben-Gurion saw Rabbi Tamar-Elad Appelbaum in Israel’s future. Ben-Gurion was supremely focused on what Rabbi Tamar refers to as the “body” of Israel, securing its sovereignty, building its governmental institutions and infrastructure, and getting as many Jews as possible to make Aliyah to Israel and rally around the common purpose of building a Jewish state. Over the years this has led to countless numbers of Jews making Aliyah from all over the world, bringing amazing and inspiring people like Matan Rudner and Gila Rosenfield to make their home in the land and share a sense of community and peoplehood, together doing whatever it takes to help solve problems and shape the country, and try to share their love for the land with others in the different ways they can. But when we add Rabbi Tamar’s story to the mix, we can see that, beyond the scope of secular Labor Zionist Ben-Gurion’s vision, emerging from the diverse populace there are amazing and inspiring things happening now with Israel’s blossoming “soul”, and not just by the hands of foreign olim, but even from the work of native-born Sabras. Matan, Gila, and Rabbi Tamar are all faces of contemporary Israel, and all part of Israel’s story— like the legendary “Start-Up Nation” innovation, the current Knesset electoral impasse, and a tour bus getting blocked by illegally parked cars. My call to each of us here today is to think about how we see our own faces as a part of Israel’s story. Visitors? Financial supporters? Investors? Advocates? Olim? We can be one of these faces, or some of them, or all of them.
In the haftarah that we read this past Shabbat morning, the prophet Isaiah offered us words which simultaneously comfort and call on us: “Ivru ivru ba’sh’earim, panu derekh ha’am; solu solu ha-mesilah, saklu mei-even, harimu nes al ha-amim”. Pass through, pass through the gates! Clear the road for the people; build up, build up the highway, remove the rocks! Raise an ensign over the peoples! Speaking to the exiles in Babylonia after the destruction of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah offered a hopeful message that a pathway would be cleared for their return to Zion, to Israel, a comforting message that still resounds today after our people once again returned to Zion, this time after 2000 years of exile. And the message also calls on us: While the road was cleared 71 years ago for our return, it’s still up to each of us to roll up our sleeves and build up the highway and remove the rocks, to contribute to the still unfolding narrative that is the body and soul of the State of Israel, in the land of our Jewish people. In the words of Matan Rudner, “The work lies with us, to build and to be built, to shape and to be shaped, by the land to which we have returned”. AMEN.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
Imagine that it’s November 1947. You’re sitting with your family, huddled around your radio, waiting with bated breath to hear the results of the UN vote on Resolution 181, which would give international sanction to the birth of what would become the State of Israel. What an extraordinary moment to witness—you know both the pain and struggle that have led to this day, and you know the vision and hope that blazed the path. When Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897, fifty years earlier, he set in motion a critical movement to establish a homeland where all Jews could depend on safety above all else, an oasis of security in a world that could no longer guarantee our people the ability to pursue a life of liberty and dignity. As the specter of anti-Semitism darkened the world, Herzl’s cause became more and more emergent. The horrors of the Shoah demonstrated that we could no longer entrust the destiny of the Jewish people to anyone besides our own. In his pamphlet der Judenstaat, Herzl wrote: “We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution.”
The Jewish question, he posited, would have to be solved by our own gumption. And the world saw, decades later, just how right he was. But the post-Shoah urgency forced the Zionist movement to encounter an impossible choice: should they stick to the original vision set forth in our sacred Torah, securing our biblical right to the land to the west and to the east of the Jordan, up to the Golan and down to the Red Sea? Surely, if God ordained these borders, we would have Divine support in asserting this path. There should be no need to compromise.
But in the post-war proceedings, our leaders began to see that insisting on the ideal at the outset, instead of working to achieve it over time, would mean losing the opportunity to ever establish a Jewish State. After all, when the UN produced a map, based on the British Peel commission report, it looked like a checkerboard: carving up our homeland, limiting our access to our holiest city, Yerushalayim. Jewish cries from around the world rose in a desperate chorus: voices like the Mizrahi delegation to the American Congress, who declared: “[We] will never consent to the partition of Palestine because every particle of earth of this land, promised to us by the Torah and the Prophets, is holy to us.” Chaim Weizmann, who served as the President of the Zionist Organization, cried: “Zionism is a modern expression of the…ideal. Divorced from that ideal, it loses all purpose, all hope…”
How challenging this moment must have been for the leaders of the Zionist movement. To come so close to achieving a dream our people held in their hearts for so long, and yet to be faced with the possibility that that dream would not include sovereignty over our most sacred places, including Jerusalam and Hevron, the burial place of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs.
Were the Mizrahi delegation or Weizmann wrong to demand the ideal? How could any reader of the Torah deny that the integrity of our land was not just our right, but our divine sanction?
But slowly, the truth emerged: that if Zionists didn’t accept the UN’s offer, their hope of 2000 years would be dashed. Jews would again be scattered to the corners of the earth, back to their tenuous existence of fear and hiding or disappearing into assimilation.
And so, after a painful reckoning, it became clear that we needed to take the offer. We needed to put on hold our dreams of the ideal, and take the compromise so that we could be safe. That’s why, when Jews around the world hunched over their radios on that miraculous day in November 1947, hearing enough “yes” votes to secure our rights to the land, we celebrated. Finally, we could begin to work through the tragedy and devastation that gripped us. Finally, we could feel like a people with power and agency to set forth our own path. Finally, we could live in our homeland, eretz tzion and, one day, yerushalayim.
More than 70 years later, with the hindsight that we have now, we know this was the right decision. But that doesn’t resolve the profound heartbreak that our forbearers felt when they had to put Divine dreams aside to make room for reality.
This wasn’t the first time that we’ve had to compromise.
When God created the world, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the land of the ideal, the place where perfection dwelled. With God imminently present, there was no room for doubt or conflict or competition, all those things that make our lives harder and more complicated. But we learned very quickly that paradise is not for us, creatures of free will, who need to grow and progress and analyze and improve and learn. Our best chance to live our destiny was not in a utopia, but in a world where we must live with the entire range of human experience and create meaning and sanctity in our own language. It is the messiness and unpredictability of our lives that force us to take hold of our own stories.
The Torah lays out an ideal system for worship: the Temple and its sacrifices. With the help of the cohanim, the priests, we could bring an offering that would help us express to God our gratitude, our forgiveness, our devotion. God told us exactly how to communicate and so we could follow those directions exactly. We always knew how to be in step with God, so that God would continue to protect and guide us.
But then our temples were destroyed and our people were on the brink of despair. Without our central touchstone, we lacked both national unity and the ability to continue our dialogue with God.
The rabbis knew that if they continued only to mourn and lament the Temple’s loss indefinitely, they would lose the opportunity to establish an enduring Jewish practice that could protect us through this painful transition. And so, no longer having access to the ideal setup, they created and choreographed a system of prayer: morning, afternoon, and night, that would mirror the devout devotion of the sacrifices. Instead of giving up an object of great value to express our piety, like a cake of choice flour or a blemish-less ram, we would offer ourselves, our time, our concentration, our service. Vaani tefilati lecha Adonai—we, the contents of our own hearts, became the sacrifice. Though we are now very far away from the ideal approach to worship delineated in the Torah, our post-Temple world has forced us to come before God with open souls, engaged intellects, and empowered creativity. And in this way, we discover the power of our own voices.
Our rabbis, in their profound wisdom, gave us language to understand the relationship between these two paradigms—the ideal and the real.
The ideal, or in Aramaic, lechatchila, imagines a world like the Garden of Eden. Everything that we need in order to fulfill mitzvot perfectly exists within arm’s length. Keeping kosher is easy because we have access to all of the kosher food we need, we have kitchens equipped with two sets of everything (and two more sets for Passover!), and when we don’t have time to cook, we can easily find affordable and delicious places to dine or pick up prepared food. Speaking of Pesach, avoiding chametz is easy because every single place we go is empty of it. We don’t have to worry about craving bagels and pasta and doughnuts because we don’t see them over those eight days, and we definitely don’t see that delicious-looking baking tutorial on our Facebook feed. Shabbat is easy because we have the time to prepare meticulously, so that once the sun sets on Friday, everything is in its place. All of our food is prepared, all of our work is done. Every place we’ll need to go in order to celebrate Shabbat is in walking distance. We are free to spend the entire day reveling in the miracles of rest and togetherness because everything is perfect, just as it is.
Doesn’t that world sound nice?
Of course, if we could, we would choose that world. How beautiful does that life sound, where we never have to think about achieving perfection because it’s already in our grasp? And not just in our fulfillment of mitzvot, but in all other aspects of the holy lives we seek to create?
What if we never had to worry about the physical and mental health of our families and loved ones? What if we never had to worry about managing a perfect household in which we put a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table every night and our kids always cleaned their plates? What if we didn’t have to worry about whether we’ll be able to save enough money so that our kids can go to their dream colleges, and we’ll be able to retire before the age of 90?
And while we’re at it, let’s expand our aspirational universe, because God knows how we all lay up in bed at night, worrying about escalating rates of poverty and homelessness, deaths from gun violence, dangerous weather anomalies from an increasingly volatile climate and I could go on… for a world in which we’re supposed to aspire to and live according to the ideal, we find ourselves over and over in a situation that is leagues away from perfect. Taking cues from our most sacred values of equity and lovingkindness and the inherent dignity of each and every person, of course we wish we had the power to obliterate these sources of hardship. But if we commit ourselves to that level of perfection, we will fail every time. Believing that it is in our grasp to solve these insurmountable problems only leads to disillusionment, powerlessness, and defeat. We become overwhelmed and paralyzed and decide that because we can’t access the perfection we seek, there’s no use in even trying.
But Judaism gives us a remarkable gift.
The counterpart to lechatchila is bediavad: how we act when we can’t control everything. A brilliant rabbinic mindset that never allows us to lose sight of the ideal, and yet, gives us breathing room as we pursue lives of meaning and purpose.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the most important voices of 20th century American Judaism, wrote about the pursuit of holiness in Halakhic Man, the person who sees the world through the prism of Rabbinic Jewish law, not as a single-minded aspiration to the ideal, but as a cosmic joining of ideal and real. He wrote: “Halakhic man’s ideal is to subject reality to the yoke of [Jewish law]. However, as long as this desire cannot be implemented, halakhic man does not despair, nor does he reflect at all concerning the clash of the real and the ideal, the opposition which exists between the theoretical Halakhah and the actual deed, between law and life…Holiness means the holiness of earthly, here-and-now life” (29, 33).
He shares a beloved midrash, a rabbinic allegorical teaching, to illustrate the crucial and life-saving relationship between our people and our laws.
In Masechet Shabbat (88b-89a), the rabbis imagine a conversation between God and the ministering angels in heaven, arguing whether human beings, who are mortal and susceptible to failure, deserve the exquisite gift of Torah. The heavenly hosts cry: That secret treasure—You, God, would defile it by placing it in the hands of flesh and blood?!
God then tells Moshe to begin reading from the two tablets: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt! God bellows: Angels, were you enslaved by Pharaoh? Did I bring you out of Egypt with signs and wonders? Moshe continues: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. God shouts: Angels, do you perform work and then need to rest? Again, Moshe reads: Honor your father and mother. God demands: Angels, do you have parents? And on and on.
Our tradition isn’t for creatures of perfection and divine imminence, for heavenly hosts that lack free will and never have to worry what will happen next. It is for those who doubt and fear and wonder why we are here on this earth. It is for those who are just trying to eke out a life of meaning and connection, purpose and sanctity.
Rav Soloveitchik continues: “The earth and bodily life are the very ground of halakhic reality. Only against the concrete, empirical backdrop of this world can the Torah be implemented; angels who neither eat nor drink, who neither quarrel with one another nor are envious of one another, are not worth and fit for the receiving of the Torah” (34).
Judaism doesn’t ask us to be perfect. It doesn’t WANT us to be perfect. If we were, then we’d be the wrong match for God and for Torah. And if our world were perfect, we would have no need for God, for Torah, or for one another. We need to come into conflict and encounter difficulty, we need to understand what it feels like to despair, to yearn, to break down, to lose faith in the world around us, because these are all essential experiences of being human.
And when we’re down there, in the pit of hopelessness and disillusionment, God doesn’t abandon us. God reaches down to us and says: Now you’re ready. Let’s build this world. I know about eternity and transcendence, you know about longing and imperfection. Together we can construct holiness.
In our world of bediavad, ideal and real establish a symbiotic relationship, oscillating back and forth between what is and what could be. Without a vision of perfection, without a window into heaven, we would never be able to conceive an aspiration of the ideal. We wouldn’t be able to imagine the attributes of a perfect world and set those always on the horizon. But without an acknowledgement of where we are, we would never be able to speak honestly about our needs, our missing pieces, our reality, and to think creatively about how to our live our values in an imperfect world.
Because we live in a world of bediaviad on Pesach, for example, we have to make intentional choices in each moment to renew our relationship with our story and our laws. We live in a society that mixes the secular and the religious. During the holiday, we are indeed constantly surrounded by delicious doughnuts and pizza and pasta as we go about our daily routines. Therefore we are also are given the opportunity to know that we can overcome our cravings in order to fulfill God’s laws. Understanding our reality, our rabbis gave us a ritual statement nullifying all chametz during the week of Pesach as afra de’ara, as dust of the earth. Our construct of bediavad creates this opportunity for a powerful shift in our mindset, one we would never have been given if we lived in the lechatchila world of the Torah, where in all of the land there was not a crumb of chametz to be found.
If we didn’t live in a world of bediavad, then we would not know illness and suffering. How we all long for the lechatchila in which our loved ones and sisters and brothers around the world would never have to contend with cancer or heart disease or depression or dementia or malaria or so many other terrible diseases that plague us. Faced with this bediavad case, our human compassion and ingenuity have been animated in order to increase the quality of life and dignity for all who suffer. We are forced to pool our best intellect and resources in our pledge to understand and treat these illnesses so that we can build a world of opportunity and lovingkindness for each and every person. And though sickness is a terrible price we have to have pay, think of how these medical advances have benefitted the world far beyond the original intent for which they were created. Medicine doesn’t only cure sickness, it also enables us to prolong life and elevate its quality.
And in fact, Rav Soloveitchik argues that this is how we bring about redemption: “…not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of Halakhah.” In this way, “a lowly world is elevated through the Halakhah to the level of a divine world” (37-38).
God wrote the Torah FOR US, created the world FOR US, and is waiting FOR US to complete revelation as we live our lives through the lens of our tradition. Is it uncomfortable to know that we will never, ever, fulfill every aspect of Jewish law? Is it painful to admit that we will never, ever be the spouse, child, parent, sibling, employee, citizen… that we aspire to be? Is it crushing to confess that we will always miss the mark in some way?
Yes. But that’s right where we need to be.
Because then we have a choice to make. We can either quit while we’re ahead, knowing that we’ll always end up with something less than perfection or, we can revel in the discomfort. We can celebrate our endless quest to touch heaven while standing on earth.
And that is what Judaism wants us to do. To always be a little uncomfortable. Because out of that discomfort comes our best ingenuity, our most stunning creativity, our redemptive honesty.
Our rabbis (Ein Yaakov Taanit 1:11) tell a story about Yerushalayim Habnuyah, the rebuilt Jerusalem of the future. You might think that this Yerushalayim would embody only the vision of Yerushalayim shel Maalah, that heavenly Jerusalem that exudes idealized perfection. But instead, the rabbis teach us that God refused to enter this Yerushalayim until God could fill Yerushalayim shel Matah, the earthly Jerusalem, with the Divine Presence.
In this way, the rabbis teach us that Yerushalayim habnuah, the fully-realized dream of a rebuilt and reunited Jerusalem contains both Yerushalayim shel maalah and Yerushalayim shel matah. As Rav Soloveitchik taught us, it is in heaven’s longing for earth and in earth’s longing for heaven where holiness is found.
This year will be full of bediavads. We will continue to find ourselves in situations beyond our control that leave us floundering. Each day will bring new challenges in our homes, our jobs, and our relationships. Our beloved State of Israel will continue to fend off anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic attacks at the same time as she struggles, internally, to establish a government that will protect her security and allow her citizens to thrive. The political climate in our own country will continue to fuel divisiveness and hateful rhetoric, bringing us to the point where those on the left and those on the right can’t even talk to each other, much less think, that someone with a different opinion might have a useful or insightful perspective to share. And though we feel great distance from the ideal world that we seek, we cannot dismiss the extraordinary opportunities we have before us to bring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness back into our midst, for we have the redemptive and creative power to do so.
I pray that in 5780, we finally come to terms with our inability to be perfect, to ever rise to our expectations for ourselves, in a world beyond our control. Rather, I pray that this New Year gives us the permission to be inspired by our imperfection and the sacred opportunity that it gives us to partner with God. May our discomfort lead to new creativity and discovery and may our longing bring us ever closer to a united vision of heaven and earth.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
In Bend, Oregon—about three hours south of Portland—tucked away in a strip mall shop between Papa Murphy’s pizza and a Chevron gas station, you’ll find a vestige of a bygone era.
Walk in and you’ll see 1,000 square feet or so of aisles crowded, not with people, but shelves and shelves of rectangular boxes organized alphabetically by category. And should one of these boxes catch your eye, if you’re lucky, you’ll find another identical in size right behind it, marked with an iconic logo in blue and yellow.
For $3.99, the contents of that box could be yours for an evening, if you flash your membership card at the counter. Just don’t forget to bring it back by 7 pm the next evening.
For the 75,000 residents of Bend, I imagine that walking through the doors of what is now the last Blockbuster Video on earth is almost like stepping through a time machine. How quaint it must be to think of the world as it was in the 1990’s, back when commodities were physical, not digital. When face-to-face human interaction was required to deposit a check, or borrow a book, or file your taxes.
In its heyday, the business model at Blockbuster was based on a social contract my children will never fully understand. Because if, after 24 hours, that summer blockbuster was still sitting on your kitchen counter, or hidden out of sight in the belly of your VCR, that means that some little boy would go home that night disappointed, his plans for the evening scuttled, as he is forced to endure his parents’ copy of Singin’ in the Rain for the umpteenth time this month.
And remember those little stickers they affixed to the label of those tapes? “Be kind, rewind.” I’m pretty sure my older daughter has never even heard the word rewind and that it would probably take some sort of diagram to explain it to her.
I’m turning 40 this year. And though I usually get a good laugh from the folks around here whenever I say that I am starting to feel my age, these little reminders of the way things used to be two generations ago are a pretty significant marker of how far we’ve come since I was born, or, in some cases, how much we’ve lost in the meantime—just in the small details of the way we live.
“Be kind, rewind.”
If you think about it, what makes that expression so quaint is not the pithy rhyme, but the overall message. Is returning something in the same condition in which you received it really an act of kindness? It’s certainly the right thing to do, but that’s not the same thing as being the nice thing to do.
We lament, with good reason, the meanness, even the cruelty, in so much of our societal discourse. But there are times when I wonder if the genteel era we are missing was an illusion conjured up by the language of politeness and civility. Even before the chasms of ideology and technology created such distance between us, if we convinced ourselves that rewinding a tape, or returning a book on time, was a gesture of the heart rather than simply meeting the bare minimum of our obligations to each other, did we ever really understand what kindness was? Are we missing something that was never actually all that present in the first place?
If you look up the Hebrew word for kindness in the dictionary, you’ll find a number of unsatisfactory entries: nechmadut, better defined as niceness, or chavivut, which means dearness or fondness. Only the two-word phrase tuv lev, good-hearted, comes close—because kindness, in our tradition is not a simple concept. It is a compound idea, an action that results from a feeling. Kindness comes from the soul.
Perhaps that’s why Jews don’t really aspire to be kind, they challenge themselves to commit acts of loving-kindness—of chesed.
Chesed is not simply “kindness,” because kindness is a unidirectional act. In our secular lexicon, we do kindnesses for others. We volunteer, we offer, we give of ourselves. Sometimes we act out of love, but sometimes also out of sympathy, or pity, or even self-interest.
Gemilut chasadism, acts of lovingkindness, are mutual, as suggested by the Hebrew word gomel, which means to remunerate, to pay back. They are based on the assumption that kindness is relational. God extended His kindness to us by giving us life and the blessings that make it fulfilling and we, in turn, send that kindness back heavenward when we obey God’s commandments, particularly those that increase goodness in the world.
Of course, the concept of gemuilut chasidim also reflects an equal exchange between humans, as our sages so succinctly put it: mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One good deed engenders another. Each time we are kind to another person, we perpetuate a sacred cycle of generosity that elevates us all, bringing us closer to the source of all chesed, back to God.
Believing in the power of chesed is an act of faith, one that assumes that these reciprocal actions can fundamentally change not just the way we live, but the world we live in.
I was reminded of how transformative a force kindness can be when I came across the story of Braysen Gabriel, a 4 year old boy with autism, who boarded a United Airlines flight from San Diego to Houston with his parents. Just before takeoff, he unbuckled his seat belt and insisted that he needed to lie down on the floor. Knowing that the crew would never allow the plane to takeoff unless he was seated, Breyson’s parents forced him, kicking and screaming, back into place.
When the flight attendants came over to the family to see what all the commotion was about, Breysen’s mom explained the situation, fearing perhaps that it wouldn’t be long before they were taxiing back to the gate and removed from the plane.
Instead, the flight crew huddled, come up with a plan and sprang into action. They allowed Breysen to sit on his dad’s lap during takeoff. Seeing that he was still out of control when the seat belt light indicator turned off, the crew led Greyson by the hand to a place on the floor of the plane, where they sat with him, hoping that the vibrations would calm him.
It wasn’t long before Breysen wandered off to first class, where he began kicking the back of a passenger’s chair repeatedly. Once the boy’s condition was explained to him, he replied, “He can kick my chair, I don’t care,” and began giving Breyson high fives.
Pretty soon, everyone in first class was asking his name, showing him pictures on their phones, and giving him free reign of the cabin.
Needless to say, Breyson’s parents were overwhelmed by the patience, care, and kindness these strangers had bestowed on their son, and on them.
As Breyson’s mom was headed down the aisle off of the plane after a long flight, another passenger, an off-duty flight attendant gave her a hug and handed her a note. “You and your family are loved and supported. Do not ever let anyone make you feel as though your son is an inconvenience or a burden. He is a blessing. God bless your patience, your love, your support and your strength. Continue to be a super woman.”
Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One act of kindness inspires another.
What inspires me about that story is that it so perfectly illustrates what it takes to build a community of chesed. These strangers, cooped up in a tiny capsule just a few feet wide and who certainly had reason to behave otherwise, became united, no pun intended, in a sacred purpose---not just to get this boy and his family through the ordeal of a difficult three-hour flight, but to ensure that they walked off that plane together not ashamed or angry, but feeling that even though they had landed safely on the ground that they were still 30,000 feet up in the air, uplifted by generosity, admiration, and yes, kindness.
And though listening to stories such as these can make us feel as if the answer to what is poisoning our discourse, our relationships, and at times, even our own hearts, these days is so simple—“be kind,” we would do well to remember the lesson our tradition teaches us. Kindness is not simple. Chesed can’t be defined in a word. And acts of chesed reflect a soul that has been cultivated and conditioned to respond in ways that often defy the culture we live in.
When you buy an airplane ticket, you aren’t just paying for the journey, you’re paying for the space you occupy along the way. And these days, when the pricing structure for airline seating is more complex than figuring out how to buy floor seats at a rock concert, folks can be pretty protective of the 3.7 square feet that their money or their frequent flier status has earned them. Go ahead, try putting both your right and your left elbow on the armrests next to you and see what happens. The more expensive and exclusive and small these spaces get, the harder we fight to keep every inch for ourselves.
And yet, the passengers on United Airlines 2210, somehow found the room on that cramped flight for Breyson, a boy who was breaking every single convention of personal space with every limb of his body.
In our tradition, no figure is more revered for his acts of chesed than Abraham. And in the litany of good deeds he committed throughout his 175 years of life, perhaps no act of kindness is more well-known than the hospitality he showed to three strangers, wandering in the desert in the midst of a long journey. Notwithstanding the physical agony he was enduring three days after he circumcised himself at God’s command, Abraham opened his tent wide, providing his guests food and shelter.
What makes his act of chesed, of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, so instructive, is not that it was easy, or expected, or polite, it’s that it was hard, painful even. Abraham’s story is an important reminder that acts of kindness are not acts of convenience. They require us, in ways that are often quite literal, to push ourselves past the boundaries of our own comfort zones.
Indeed, some of the most impactful acts of chesed occur precisely at the moments where we are most uncomfortable. Welcoming new faces, feeding the hungry, consoling the recently bereaved—these moments where kindness is required, require us, to overcome our anxiety that so often stops us in our tracks.
Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus famously teaches in the holiness code, which contains the most essential commandments for creating a sacred community: lo tachmod al dam re’echa. Do not stand idly by when the life of your friend is at stake.
It’s worth asking why it’s necessary for the Torah to command something that should be obvious to all of us. Did God believe us to be so unfeeling, and so uncaring, that we wouldn’t value the life of our fellow Jew whose life stands in the balance, right before our eyes?
Biblical commentators knew this could not be the case and so Rashi narrows the situation described in the verse—Do not stand idly by if you are able to rescue him; if for instance he is drowning in the river, or if a wild beast is attacking him. In other words, do not let your fear stop you from being kind.
Abraham had reason to be fearful of those strangers on the road. The passengers on Breyson’s Gabriel’s flight had cause to be anxious that his behavior would prove a nuisance at the least, or so far up in the air, dangerous, at worst.
And yet, when kindness took hold, row by row, cabin by cabin on flight 2210, fear transformed into joy and the air of anxiety was pierced by the sound of laughter. And, I believe, most importantly, judgement gave way to understanding.
Of all the rabbinic ethical dictums, dan l’chaf zechut, judging others favorably is, perhaps, the most challenging to carry out in today’s world. The Torah imagined a society where only the most learned and the most pious would be given what was once a divine prerogative--the power to judge. And yet, in our time, we are all judges. Because all that humans can possibly know, all the collective wisdom of the ages, can be accessed in a moment on a tiny screen we hold in our hands and store in our pockets. And when we feel we cannot judge, or are yet unable to, we can search an infinite trove of electronic writing until we find the opinion that seems most valid in our own eyes and we then allow the author to judge for us.
It would be naïve to assume that everyone we meet is deserving of kindness. There will be many sermons devoted to that particular topic this high holiday season, but if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll find that in too many of our encounters, our predisposition to judge precludes the activation of the chesed within us. If we are to follow in Abraham’s example, we have to find a way to let our guard down.
Of the more than 1000 hours I’ve been privileged to sit in a theatre watching a Broadway show, I have never been so moved, so delightfully undone, than I was last summer when Shira and I went to see the new musical, The Band’s Visit (which by the way, is coming to the Winspear this winter, and I encourage all of you to go). The show, which is based on an Israeli film, begins at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, as an Egyptian band, invited to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petach Tivkah, stands awkwardly in a line in their powder blue uniforms. But as they make their way, they mistakenly end up stranded for the night in the fictional desert town of Beit Hatikvah until a bus can come for them in the morning.
The plot is put in motion by an unexpected act of kindness, as only a sabra can offer it. The otherwise prickly proprietress of the one café in town, invites the members of the band to spend the night in the apartments of her fellow employees. What follows is an evening of surprise and connection, as they bond over music and tales of unrequited love and longing.
The musical is set in 1996. More than 20 years later, Israel and Egypt, America and the Middle East are very different places. It is hard to know when or if we will ever recover the time when we could think to ourselves—“Be kind, rewind, reset, renew.” That the secret to dissolving what lies between us could be just as simple as an act of welcoming a stranger for a night.
But in the end, this very Jewish musical is not really about easy solutions. At its conclusion, morning comes. The uneasy and fleeting bond shared by the residents of Beit Hatikvah and the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police orchestra is broken by the harsh desert sunlight, in which they discover that despite what brought them together in the shadow of night, by day they are Arabs and Jews, Egyptians and Israelis.
A year after seeing it, I confess that despite listening to the cast recording more than a few dozen times, it’s difficult for me to get through it without shedding some wistful tears. And though there were so many elements of the musical that came together to make it hit home for me, what truly caught me so off guard, was the gemilut chasadim, the completely unexpected acts of kindness and compassion that these beautifully drawn characters paid back to each other for 90 minutes.
For a time, after the show was over, I just sat there weeping, lamenting the loss of a time I could barely remember, until finally, the emotion subsided, my mind cleared and something that had been eluding me, that is eluding too many of us, I believe, came into focus.
It is unreasonable and unrealistic to simply expect a world of kindness. Because kindness is not instinctual. Kindness, like hatred, must be taught. It must be cultivated, nurtured, and practiced. And most importantly, it must be chosen. To learn to be kind is to learn how to overcome your fears, your boundaries, and your judgments and allow for the transformative possibilities of soul encountering soul.
In today’s world we hear so much about the changes, even the upheaval, in some cases, that is necessary to restore and renew our values—to protect liberty, and establish justice, to end corruption and to counter cruelty.
We have spoken about political revolutions, about building movements to retake and reclaim what is ours or what should be. But what I do not hear from any side of the debate these days is that what is needed is not a revolution of policies and politicians, but a revolution of kindness.
Because it has become crystal clear to me that in the climate in which we live now, kindness is a revolutionary act.
In the story of Abraham’s life there is a pivotal moment, that is often overlooked. To save his nephew Lot, Abraham intervenes in a war—a war of five kings against four others. When, thanks to Abraham, the four kings claim victory, saving Lot and his family, Abraham is taken to meet them so that he can be rewarded. One of the four kings is the wealthy and powerful ruler of the city of Sodom, a sinful place ultimately, destroyed by God, for being, among other things, inhospitable.
Riding in on his horse, the King of Sodom offers Abraham an enticing bargain. “Take all the spoils of war, all of the cattle, all of the precious gold and silver. But those you have captured, give them to me.”
Knowing that Sodom was a place without chesed, Abraham refuses. “I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or sandal strap of what is yours; for none shall say it is the King of Sodom who has made Abraham rich.”
In that moment, Abraham faced a critical choice. He could accept the way of the world as it was, a world where indifference to cruelty gave men access to power and wealth.
Or, he could revolt. He could resist. He could stare into the eyes of a man who dared to judge the fate of multitudes in an instant, who stood idly by as his people shut out the vulnerable and the needy, who built a city with cynicism and fear in his heart, and say to him, “For me and my descendants, I will build the world anew. I will remake this land in the image of the One who charged me to fill it with tzedek and mishpat, justice and righteousness. And as the psalmist wrote, olam chesed yibaneh, I will build that world with acts of lovingkindness.
It will not be easy, it will not happen all at once. And it will require each of us to harness the power of teshuva, of refining the soul, and returning it to its purest form.
To create a world where one act of kindness inspires another, and another, and another, until this small crowded space we all inhabit is filled with the music of love and joy and connection, we will have to begin again. It starts today.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share