Broken Rhythms, Whole HeartsRead Now
Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
With gratitude for the inspiration of our teacher and friend, Dr. Arnold Eisen
Adam: The Friday night before our wedding, Shira berated our guests because they couldn’t count to 6.
We had gathered everyone together for an intimate shabbaton at a retreat center outside Baltimore and, after shabbat dinner, we had an oneg. Some dessert, some wine, an essential ingredient in this story, and, most importantly for us, some singing.
A half empty bottle of Moscato in her hand, Shira, who cannot hold her liquor, had the brilliant idea that she would teach a complicated three-part round to our assembled guests.
We love our friends very much, but let’s be honest: they weren’t exactly up to our high musical standards. And so, a minute or two into the singing, Shira yelled: “STOP! It’s in 6/8 people!”
In other words: in order not to get lost, you had to count off musical patterns in two groups of three. Which, needless to say, for a well-intentioned group of middling musical talent, resulted in chaos.
Shira: It’s been a challenge for us, over these past few months, listening to the broken rhythms of our time. We’re reminded of this every time we hold services on Zoom, a virtual platform on which it is technologically impossible for people, sitting in their own homes, to speak or sing in unison. For the leader of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the experience is even more disorienting. You begin, and then the sound of everyone else returns to you seconds later.
For those like Adam and me, who can be particular about how things sound, it’s been like nails on a chalkboard. How are we to make sense of this cacophony, this overlapping jumble of words, when we are supposed to be praying to God and comforting mourners?
This experience of saying kaddish is yet another example, of many, of why we are living in a time that has no rhyme or rhythm. It is impossible to predict what will happen and when, impossible to know what to do or how to respond, or if, when we do, it will have any impact at all on the myriad of crises unfolding around us. Put simply, right now, the world makes no sense.
Adam: It makes no sense that, in the most advanced age of medicine ever, over 200,000 of our fellow countrymen and women have died in a pandemic that has ravaged the world.
It makes no sense that, in the streets of our cities and towns, people are turning on one another, fighting and screaming and shouting, looting and burning, each side claiming the moral high ground.
It makes no sense that people are forced to choose between their health and their livelihood, between keeping their children at home or sending them to school, when both seem like a losing proposition.
It makes no sense that after nearly 250 years of progress, Americans are at war with each other about the very systems we have created to maintain unity and order.
As people of faith, it is tempting to believe that there is a relatively simple answer to why terrible things happen in the world. You are either with God or you are not. You are either pious and observant, or you are godless and pagan.
A system of reward and punishment has been outlined in some of our religious texts to lift up those who follow God’s instructions and put out those who don’t. But look a little more closely, and you’ll see that this system unravels very quickly.
Shira: In the book of Job, we read of a man who was one of God’s most devoted followers. And yet, for the sake of a devil, his home is destroyed, his body is wracked with illness, and his family killed. Job demands to know why he has been treated so unfairly. Three men, seeing Job in his wretchedness, come to confront him for railing against God. If you are suffering, his companions tell him, it is because of some fault in you, something you have yet to uncover and to confess.
One of the men, Eliphaz, insists: im tashuv el Shaddai tipaneh. If you do teshuvah, if you return to God, you will be restored (Job 22:23). When you pray, God will listen to you. If only you make good on your promises, God will deliver the guilty and be absolved in your eyes, through the cleanness of your hands.
We are here today, partially, because of these words. Because we believe that if we repent, God will reward us with another year of life. And yet, we all know if the answer were truly as simple as that, many others would be standing here with us on this day with full faith that they too would make it through to another year.
Job speaks for our sense of betrayal at the thought that, if we do everything right, the pieces will fall into place around us and the world will once again make sense. “Until the last moment I die, I have and will maintain my integrity, for I know that I am righteous, and will not yield” he says (Job 27:5). Maintaining his innocence, Job is eventually met with a voice from heaven, explaining away his suffering as a consequence of God’s mysterious ways. “Where were you when I created the universe?” God challenges him.
Adam: Ultimately, Job is rewarded for finally praising God, even in the midst of tragedy. His body is healed, his house is rebuilt, his family is reborn. But make no mistake, this too makes no sense.
Most scholars believe that these last chapters of Job were editorial additions, meant to blunt the harsh argument and the charges against God enumerated in the previous chapters.
Accept that we will never understand. Is that really the answer? What comfort can that provide us in these times? And is this really a story that ends with happily ever after? As if the new wife and children Job were given could really take the place of those he lost?
And while there can be no true answer to Job’s challenge, what we can learn from his story is that those who seek a black and white explanation of why things go so terribly wrong will be disappointed and their faith will be broken.
The truth is: Judaism offers not just a different answer, but a different question. When we assume that the world is supposed to add up; when we insist that it must make sense, we are not making a truly religious claim. From the start, the Torah teaches us that we begin not with order, but with chaos. For it is out of chaos that God created the world.
And so the question is not: how do we get the world to make sense? It is: what do we do when it doesn’t?
Shira: There is another biblical figure who lost everything, who was forced to confront a world of pain and loss, robbed of those who gave her life meaning and direction. Her name was Naomi.
After the death of her husband and sons, she tells those who come to comfort her: “do not call me Naomi, call me Mara. Call me bitter, for Shaddai has made my lot miserable. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20-21). Calling God by the same name, Shaddai, her language is an exact parallel of Job’s, who also describes his soul as bitter (Job 10:1). And yet, the story of the rest of her life is nothing like his.
Why? Because in the face of his pain, those who gathered around him insisted that he was suffering because the world is ordered. The righteous get rewarded and the wicked get punished.
Where Job’s advisers offer him only cold and calculating logic, Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth offers her something else, something that is much more reflective of the true nature of our tradition and the instructions we receive in the Torah. What is that gift? Chesed. Love. Understanding. Compassion.
Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. We usually read this as a statement of faith in God. It’s not. It’s a statement of faith in goodness, in kindness, in how God wants us to act in this world.
What follows in the Book of Ruth is a progression of kindness. Ruth shows chesed to Naomi and in turn, her future husband Boaz pays it forward to Ruth.
Adam: For many hundreds of years, our religion has been accused of being one primarily concerned with only the minutiae of law. What is the right way to tie your tzitzit? Which direction should the mezuzah on your door face? What are the dos and don’ts of Shabbat?
This reductive and infantile description of our 4000-year-old tradition misses the point. Despite the fact that other religions have laid claim to it, in its essential character, Judaism is and has always been a religion of chesed, of faith with love at its heart. And when it comes to being a religion of law—guilty as charged. Because in the Torah, law is love.
Law is veahavta et Adonai elohecha. Your relationship with God should be a loving meeting of souls.
Law is veahavta lereacha kamocha. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
Law is veahavta et hager. Show mercy, show compassion, to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the vulnerable.
But it’s more than just acting with love, it is also learning to reorient oneself, to recalibrate the way we take in the world, so that even at its worst, we see it with love.
We are commanded to put fringes on the corners of our garments because God wants to remind us that the power of mitzvah, the potential of sanctifying the world, exists in every moment and every place that we go.
We are obligated to point the mezuzah toward the inside of our homes because, when we enter that space, the space where we nurture and foster the most important relationships we have, we must be ever-conscious of this obligation to be loving and patient.
If we care so much about the behaviors we engage in on Shabbat, it’s because God insists that we be granted one day in every seven to imagine what the world could be, instead of dwelling on what it is.
Shira: On this day of vidui, of confession, let us confess something to you. For the past several years, as we have watched the world spin faster and faster off its axis, we have approached the high holidays with greater urgency, believing that if we just delivered the right message, if we were persuasive and optimistic enough, the words that we uttered might make some small difference in helping to push the world back toward order and civility. And though there may come a time again when that might be possible, we’re not sure that, this year, that is the case.
We cannot promise you that the world will make more sense this year than it did last year.
But what we can promise you, is that because you are Jewish, because you are invested in the mission of our people, to bring chesed into the world, you can make it through these challenging times. With the love that resides within you and the wisdom of our tradition, you can work to banish tohu va’vohu, chaos and upheaval, and usher in, little by little, a new era of tzedek and mishpat, justice through laws of compassion.
Because Jewish history lives within us, we are experts at enduring the world at its worst, while also insisting that it be at its best. Job teaches us: it is not our project to unravel the mysteries of good and evil, and how and why and when manifestations of both occur in our lives.
Rather, it is our purpose to accept the chaos around us as the way of the world, and to go to work, soul by soul, on comforting and lifting up those who are facing it.
Adam: Put another way, the act of God is not the virus, the violence, or the anger and resentment that poisons so much in this world. The act of God is when those who are inspired by God’s Torah open their hands and hearts to those who are in need of its redemptive message.
Just as Ruth did, we must say to those around us: your pain is my pain, your fight is my fight. Your story is my story and your healing is my healing.
On Tuesday morning, at 7am, we’ll leave behind this beautifully designed, technologically advanced portal, and re-enter the humble and generally uncooperative virtual environment of Zoom.
We’ll go back to saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with voices that overlap and overwhelm.
But here’s the thing: you can make the same choice that we have learned to make. In that chaotic chorus of voices, words of praise about God and the world God created, you can choose to hear not disjointedness and disconnection, but the opposite.
Voices filled with love and reverence, with longing and hope, reaching out across the geographies of physical and virtual space.
You can reorient yourself to a world that seems to be a total mess, and yet, if you listen hard enough to the beating heart within you, and at the center of our faith, you can transform both your perception of the world and free yourself of the malaise that has weighed us all down for far too long.
Shira: And you will come to understand, just as we have, that what you’re listening to is not out of rhythm at all, but a sound perfectly calibrated for this moment. And then, you can leave your home, and go out into this chaotic time that we all live in and see not brokenness, but opportunities to make the world whole.
Adam and Shira: [overlapping] Yitkadal veyitkadash sheme raba. Oseh shalom b’imromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu. May the one who brings peace above, bring peace to us, to all of Israel, to all those who dwell on earth.
[in unison] Ve’imru: Amen.
Joint Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman and Rabbi Shira Wallach
Congregation Shearith Israel
From the day Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden, they lived together East of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children and struggling to stay alive.
After those many years of struggle, when their children were grown, Adam and Eve decided to take a journey before it was too late and see the world that God had created.
They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other and explored all of the world's wonders. They stood up on the great mountains, treked across the vast deserts, walked amid the mighty forests, and traversed the magnificent seas.
They watched the sunrise over the endless wilderness and saw it set into the boundless ocean. All that God had created they beheld.
In the course of their journeys, wandering from place to place, they came upon a place that seemed so familiar. They came upon the garden of Eden from which they had been exiled on the very first day of their lives.
The garden was now guarded by an Angel with a flaming sword. This Angel frightened Adam and Eve who fled.
Suddenly they heard a gentle imploring voice. God spoke to them: “My children, you have lived in exile these many, many years. Your punishment is complete. Come now and return to my garden. Come home to the garden.”
Suddenly to the Angel disappeared. The way into the garden opened and God invited them in. But Adam, having spent so many years in the world, had grown shrewd. He hesitated and said to God, “You know it has been so many years. Remind me, what is it like in the garden?”
“The garden is paradise,” God responded. In the garden there is no work. You need never struggle or toil again. In the garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the garden there is no death. In the garden there is no time: no yesterday, no tomorrow, only an endless today. Come my children, return to the garden.”
Adam considered God's words. He thought about a life with no work, no struggle, no pain, no passage of time, and no death. An endless life of ease with no tomorrow and no yesterday.
And then he turned and looked at Eve his wife. He looked into the face of the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He read in the lines of her face all the tragedies they had overcome and the joys they had cherished. He saw in her eyes all the laughter and all the tears they had shared.
Eve looked back into Adam's face. She saw in his face all the moments that had formed their lives: moments of jubilant celebration and moments of unbearable pain.
She remembered the moments of life-changing crisis and the many moments of simple tenderness and love.
She remembered the moments when a new life arrived in their world and the moments when death intruded. As all their shared moments came back to her, she took Adam's hand in hers.
Looking into his wife's eyes, Adam shook his head and responded to God's invitation. “No thank you,” he said. “That's not for us not now. We don't need that now. Come on Eve,” he said to his wife. “Let's go home.” And Adam and Eve turned their backs on God's paradise and walked home.
It’s interesting, that on this evening, when we celebrate the creation of the universe, we don’t usually recount its story. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not the next day. Ironically, Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s beautiful retelling of the exile from Eden might help us understand why.
In his version of the story, God reopens the gates, allowing Adam and Eve an opportunity to return to the perfection He created for them before they corrupted it. And yet, they refuse, deciding instead to make their own way in the world.
Why? Because what they realize after a long period of struggle and hardship is that there is more meaning, more possibility, and more humanity in a world that is imperfect. In Eden, there is no conflict, so there is no growth. In the garden of the Divine, there is nothing to work for, because everything is provided for you. In the realm of the Godly, there are no problems to solve, and nothing to build.
It may seem like the world we live in right now couldn’t be farther removed from Gan Eden or a conventional definition of paradise, and yet what drives us isn’t a return to idyllic isolation from a complicated and demanding world, but rather a way to ground ourselves so we can engage fully with that world.
Like Adam and Eve after the fall, we live in a world where we are called, day after day and year after year for 5780 years and counting, to help reinvent and recreate in partnership with God. Every morning, before we say the Shema, we praise God for being m’chadesh b’tuvo b’khol yom tamid, ma’aseh bereishit—the one who is constantly renewing and re-creating our world, and charges us to do the same as much as we are able.
We are the ones who, inspired by the teachings of our Torah, decide what sacred space is, where we learn, how prayer is offered up to heaven, and how we lift each other up right here on this earth. This year, we have truly recreated all of these experiences anew.
We have been challenged to find connection with each other and with God, despite the awful circumstances in the world around us.
And how have we fared in these endeavors?
We have re-defined the possibilities of sacred space. We already knew we could find it in our synagogue building while doing things such as davening or learning or packing sandwiches for the sandwich drive, and experience it while outside the walls of the shul studying Torah together in a bar or restaurant, delivering Shabbat meals to some of our homebound seniors, or enjoying a weekend away at the Family Retreat or a week and a half on a congregational mission to Israel.
But did we know before this year that we could also create and enter sacred space when we assemble in our little boxes on a Zoom screen, and form daily or Shabbat minyanim, share a meal in a virtual breakout room for Shabbat Across Shearith, or assemble for Havdalah online every weekend with a number of congregants joining in from their homes with their own Havdalah sets?
We have expanded our notion of where we can learn, and developed our tech skills even when many of us felt we had none, connecting with teachers and fellow eager learners in accessible and versatile mobile classrooms for adults and children of all ages, and learning a lot of patience (and how to mute and unmute!) along the way, looking forward to the day when we can again discuss and debate with our fellow students across the table from one another.
We have broadened our perspectives on how we can offer our prayers to God. In the absence of our ability to gather in one room for a minyan, we have greeted each other warmly onscreen, turned to digital versions of our liturgy when we didn’t have siddurim handy, met the powerful emotional and ritual need of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for our loved ones, and even figured out how to sing together as a group without ACTUALLY singing together with our fellow worshipers.
And we have innovated ways to lift each other up amidst the peaks and valleys of our lives, extending virtual embraces whether celebrating a Bar Mitzvah or a bris or a baby naming, or offering heartfelt condolences to mourners at a funeral or a shiva while others quietly listen in rapt attention to the warm memories being shared.
One common thread links all of these experiences together, and that is community. Whether we are in each other’s physical presence, or seeing each other’s faces online, or even some of both, we can create a powerful sense of sacred space, we can learn and grow together, we can worship and break bread together, and rejoice or mourn together. In this we draw strength from the precept imparted to us at creation--lo tov heyot he’adam levado, we do not go through life alone, but with companionship in community.
And it’s this last point that we’d like to emphasize on this erev Rosh Hashanah, as we begin this season of High Holy Days together--not in our beautiful sanctuaries, in the seats that some of our families have occupied for generations-but in a way none of us could have possibly imagined a year ago-spread out across the city in our own homes, very far from Gan Eden.
In Rabbi Feinstein’s story, Adam and Eve decline the opportunity to return to Eden. It may be paradise, but it’s not home. Because, you see, as humans we also get to define what home means to us. Home isn’t defined by perfection. Instead we may define it in its broadest sense as a place where we feel loved and valued, comfortable and comforted, where we experience joy and laughter, where we break bread, where we struggle and where we grow. No matter how crazy the world is around us, those constants remain. For Adam and Eve, companionship was the key to these constants being realized. And with that in mind, I’d like to ask each of you to reach into your High Holy Days Box and take out and unwrap the special gift we’ve included for you. I’ll give you all a moment so you can untie the ribbon and take out what’s inside the box. As you can see, we’ve given you a compass. A compass will always point out your “true north” and let you know where to find it, even if you’re lost in a forest filled with trees and can’t see which way to turn to get home, or just feeling lost in a world that feels decidedly un-Eden like. Friends, throughout these High Holy Days, before each private Amidah prayer that we recite, we hope you’ll try picking up this compass to orient yourselves eastwards toward Yerushalayim in your prayers, as well as link yourselves symbolically, along with your fellow congregants wherever they may be located, to the unfailing true north of companionship and community which you can count on here at Shearith Israel, where we are so much more than a building. We are a strong, vibrant and caring community where we hope you will always feel that sense of home I just described a few moments ago. Whether we’re online as we are right now, in person as we hope to be very soon, or some combination of both, we remain, Shearith Israel, here for you in good times and bad, a community where you can Enrich Your Life, Elevate Your Soul, and Embrace Your Judaism. We look forward to establishing new relationships and connections, and strengthening longstanding ones, as together we journey forward into this next chapter of creation, the as yet unwritten story of 5781, one which we hope will be filled with sweetness, growth and good health for all. Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom
Arriving at ShehechiyanuRead Now
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
ADAM: vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.
SHIRA: Praised are you God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, who has sustained us, and who has enabled us to reach this day.
SHIRA: This blessing of thanksgiving, the shehechiyanu, recited at the start of every major holiday on the Jewish calendar, helps us transition between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Like all ritual at its best, it is also a hyperlink, a portal that connects us to the highlights of our lives, filling us with the warm glow of sweet emotions, reminding us of the essence of what life is truly about and why it’s worth living.
But what does it mean to say this blessing today, on the start of this new year, when the distance between us and the fear and uncertainty around us feel so great?
ADAM: A story is told of the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Spira, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in Bergen Belsen during the shoah. One year, on Erev Chanukah, after a particularly brutal day, one where many of his fellow Jews had been randomly shot, their bodies still lying on the ground as night fell, the Rebbe found an old shoe, made some oil out of shoe polish, a wick out of threads of a garment, and gathered others around him to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
Rabbi Spira recited the first two blessings, marking the start of the holiday and thanking God for the miracles that saved our ancestors from destruction at hand of the Greeks.
Then, he paused for the briefest of moments and offered the final prayer—the shehechiyanu.
SHIRA: One Jew who witnessed this scene later came to the Rebbe and said bitterly, “I understand how you can make the first two blessings, but tell me Rabbi Spira, how can you, in this terrible place, with dead Jews lying all around us, make the shehechiyanu blessing thanking God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this time?”
The Rebbe looked at him and said “You know, I had the same problem. But then I looked around and saw these Jews in the worst of circumstances, surrounded by death and destruction, gathering together and insisting on fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
I said to myself: for this alone one can and should make the blessing: “shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higeeyanu lazman hazeh.”
No matter how grim the world around us becomes, no matter what challenges we face, (and make no mistake, the difficult times we are living through now in no way compare to the horrors of the Holocaust), when the New Year arrives we recite the shehechiyanu.
We give ourselves the permission to fully embrace not just the holiness of this moment, but also the life-affirming forces within us and around that have brought us to this day.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: who has kept us alive
Breathe, in and out. Feel the air rush in and out of your lungs. Put your hand on your chest and detect your heartbeat. Tense and release your muscles.
The magnificent body that God made for you, before you even knew there was a ‘you,’ continues to breathe, to beat, to move, to eat. You have the ability to sense the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun.
Today, we say shehechiyanu…we’re still here. Judaism insists that gratitude must come from what we already have, not what we are given. Pirkei Avot teaches: Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with her portion. We arise in the morning and say, Modeh Ani, thank you God for my restoring soul, for returning life to my body after a full night’s sleep.
Hineni, I exist. But is that enough?
SHIRA: Has it been enough for you, parents--who had to quickly figure out how to juggle work, school, and childcare, and not cry in front of your kids more than once a day?
Or for you, the homebound seniors, who have endured inexplicable loneliness, unable to visit in person with those who give your life meaning?
Or for your children and families, who yearned with all their hearts just for the ability to throw their arms around you, to let you know that you’re not alone?
Or for all of us, who have struggled with the fear of falling ill, or of breathing our last breaths alone?
Psalm 115 suggests a surprising answer to this existential question: Lo hameitim yehallelu yah. The dead cannot praise God.
Notice: what separates us from those who no longer walk this earth is not our beating hearts or our breathing lungs or our tensing muscles. It’s the ability to transcend, to rise. To take in, to acknowledge every single element in our lives, and then to send that gratitude heavenward as praise.
In Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moshe Rabeinu gives us a last glimpse of his vision of Life, before our ancestors crossed over into the Promised Land, and he crossed over into the World to Come. In this final, pivotal moment, Moshe pleads with us: uvacharta bachayim, choose life! Don’t just stay alive, choose a life that is resplendent with justice and love, goodness and blessing.
ADAM: Vekiyemanu: who has sustained us
The word kayam should be familiar to all of you; you’ve sung it many times before. David Melech Yisrael chai, chai vekayam. David, King of Israel: he is kayam, he is eternally sustained. And if you read the Bible, you’ll see that King David, despite facing countless enemies and obstacles, was a man of boundless energy, spry enough to leap and dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and prolific enough to write and score all 150 of the psalms.
But think about what King David had to keep him going--a direct line to a God that adored him, legions of women and men who loved him or were in love with him. And his destiny was never in doubt--he knew exactly where he was going and why because the prophets who anointed him and advised him made sure of it.
Good for him.
SHIRA: We face a somewhat murkier picture--an endless stream of how longs and what nexts and what fors. It makes even the simplest act of being kayam, of standing up and getting out of bed in the morning, feel as daunting as facing a giant without a slingshot.
This was our struggle too, until our 15-month-old hit a sleep regression, waking us up screaming at odd hours of the night. Soon enough, we were stumbling up the stairs in a zombie daze at 1:30, 3:15, 4:45am to pick her up before the 5-year-old woke up too. I challenge you to come up with a stronger adrenaline rush.
But it wasn’t only these moments that pulled us out of our stupor.
Feeling my heart burst with pride as Hannah suddenly realized how to ride her bike, without training wheels. Watching her face as she figured out how to read, how to build circuits, how to add and subtract, how to listen to music for its time signature, instruments, and themes.
And just a few weeks ago, as I rode my elliptical still asleep, I looked up and saw Adam come in the room holding Rebecca. She regarded me with her dreamy eyes and when I said “I love you,” she said it right back. When I stepped off, she held her body against mine in the longest hug I could remember.
These are the things that sustain us, that enable us to be here today. Not only the fun, easy, joyful moments, but the hard ones too-- all of these remind us that we CAN find meaning between the bookends of our lives. What prevents us from going numb is acknowledging the mere possibility that the entire gamut of human emotion and experience is out there, waiting for us.
So we must discover, with God’s help: how are we sustained? How do we find the strength to stand, lakum? To rise up? To be an upstander? To be outstanding?
And, with the strength that we have left after an exhausting year, how do we remain focused for whom and what we must sustain, to ensure that we, our family, our community, are always chai vekayam?
ADAM: Vehigiyanu: Who has enabled us to reach, to arrive at this joyous occasion.
The Hebrew verb l’hagiyah, is causative—it implies dynamic movement that results in an action, in our case, a destination.
The start of a New Year is a true moment of arrival. We have made it to this moment and we will not be denied the opportunity to celebrate it. You may be watching this service from a screen in your own home, but the moment is no less real despite the medium through which we are all sharing in the experience.
One of the things that amuses me on the twelve-hour flight to Tel Aviv on El Al is watching the plane’s crew figure out who speaks what language. But, of course, no matter how full the plane is with tourists from America and Europe, the first attempt at communication is always in Hebrew—after all, that’s part of the pride of bringing people to the Jewish homeland on our own national airline. Once, during dinner service, a flight attendant finally made her way to my row with my favorite part of the meal, the part served from a basket.
“Magiah lecha lechem,” she said to the person next to me.
“What?” he replied.
“You deserve bread.” Not “atah rotzeh,” would you like some, but, “magiah lekha.” This is something you paid for, something you are owed.
SHIRA: Our tradition teaches, and the blessing reminds us, that the cause we referred to earlier, the one who provided us with a reason to mark this day is God.
Hayom harat olam—God has brought us to the day in which we are obligated to celebrate the miracle of God’s creation.
Hayom te’amtzeinu—To prove that we are deserving of these gifts we face God’s judgement, denying ourselves the sustenance of life until we have proven that we are worthy of it.
And yet, each time, before we read from the Torah, we call out: V’atem hadevekim b’adonai eloheichem hayim, kulchem, hayom.
All of you, all of us, who have clung to Adonai your God, we are the ones who are standing here today receiving the blessing of the Etz Chayim, the tree of life.
As Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno remarks on this verse—it is because you have been wise enough to avoid the lures and temptations that might lead you toward the path of death rather than life, curse rather than blessing, that you have been granted this moment of reunion with our most sacred of objects in the presence of holy community.
This moment is ma’giah lanu, because with an effort that has exhausted even the most spirited among us, we have earned it.
ADAM: And not only this moment, but all the moments that are ya’gia, that are yet to come for all of us in this new year.
The moment where we gather members of our community for the first time in six months in our sukkah to share in a meal, even if it is socially distanced.
The moment when we set our table for seder and instead of one or two or three place settings, we break out the folding tables from the garage, squeezing every possible square inch of space out of our living room and dining rooms to accommodate family and friends.
The moments when our children enter their school without a mask on, when we can walk them to the front door to embarrass them with that final hug or kiss.
The moment when our personal and professional achievements, when our lifecycle events are celebrated not on a screen or in a parking lot, but in a banquet hall or at an office party.
Yes, even the moment when we attend a funeral and we can go up to the mourners without hesitation or reservation and comfort them with a loving embrace.
All these moments I hope, I pray, I know are magi’im lanu. And part of the joy that we feel on this day is the anticipation of all these blessings and more that we will celebrate together in this new year.
SHIRA: In Masechet Brachot, the Talmud’s tractate on blessings, the sages relate one more occasion on which we are commanded to stop and give thanks to God for a moment that we surely had been taking for granted, but no longer.
Rabbi Yehoshua said : One who sees his friend after an interval of thirty days recites, "Blessed you Adonai, Who has kept us in life, who has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day."
ADAM: In the Wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites constructed a tent at the outskirts of the camp, one where Moses would consult with God, receive instruction and pray for his people. The Torah describes these encounters with words whose significance has grown tremendously over these past few months:
וְדִבֶּ֨ר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר יְדַבֵּ֥ר אִ֖ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֑הוּ
And Moses spoke to God, face to face, like a person encountering a dear friend.
When we can finally greet each other, friend and stranger alike, panim-el-panim, face to face inside our sacred tents--our homes, our synagogues, our beloved community of Shearith Israel, on that day too, we will recite the shehechiyanu.
And we will feel, I imagine, some of the same radiance that Moses and God felt as they beheld the fullness of each other’s countenance, no barrier, no obstacle, no mask between them.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: Thank you God, for keeping us alive and helping us find reasons to live.
SHIRA: V’kiyemanu: For sustaining us and inspiring us to sustain others.
ADAM: V’higiyanu: For the blessings of today, and all the blessings to come.
SHIRA & ADAM: Amen.
Watch the sermon at https://vimeo.com/460295310
Sacred CyberspaceRead Now
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
March 21, 2020
Not many people know this about Shira, but long before she decided to enter the rabbinate, she wanted to be in a different kind of synagogue business—the synagogue design business. Combining her geeky love of math and science with her fondness for the sacred spaces of her youth at Congregration Kol Ami in Tampa (which her father helped renovate, by the way), Shira imagined that becoming a synagogue architect would be the perfect way to harness her strengths while also giving back to the Jewish community that had brought her so much joy.
It’s no surprise then that the design of this beautiful sanctuary was a real draw for us when we went searching for positions out of Rabbinical school. The beautiful light, the magnificent aron kodesh, and the warmth of a room designed for an intimate kind of sanctity—these elements all combined to move us quite profoundly when we first visited—as they have for many others in our community and beyond.
It’s been a bedrock principle of our faith, since Sinai, that an exquisitely designed space, built with the resources and talents of the Jewish people, was the vehicle for bringing a little bit of the heavens down to earth. That if we get the design just right—if we find the perfect materials and arrange them with precision, kevod Adonai, the glory of God, will reveal itself in our midst. That’s why we spend so much time, in this’s parasha and at the end of the book of Exodus. reflecting on the nature of that space.
And yet, here we are, on Shabbat morning, a dozen or so people gathered together in this gorgeous room so that, at least in part, a much larger number of participants can watch this service on a computer screen in their homes.
How could we have ever anticipated, when this sanctuary was dedicated 13 years ago, that, one day, it wouldn’t be the skyward facing windows, but a discreetly placed camera, mounted to the back wall, that would serve as the most indispensable part of this sacred transmitter, beaming God’s presence into our lives and into our souls?
I’ve spent a lot of time this week, watching God’s glory being beamed back and forth across the Jewish world. I’m proud to say that my colleagues and I have done our fair share of beaming ourselves, just here in Dallas.
Just one week ago, the thoughtfully designed sanctuaries at shuls across the country became temporarily obsolete overnight. The plans we had made for filling them and energizing them with spirited davening and inspirational Torah were suspended and we were all left to wonder—what now?
The answer came rather quickly. Overnight, rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and lay leaders became experts at Zoom, Facebook and YouTube Live. Curricula for Jewish day schools, religious schools, even early childhood centers, were adapted for distance learning. Religious ritual was reimagined, in some cases, quite radically, so that prayer could continue, mourners could say Kaddish, and lifecycle moments could be celebrated.
And that was only on the local level. National organizations have been stepping up, as well. Camp Ramah, the movement’s wonderful network of summer camps sent out a notice two days ago, that Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, a talented and popular young songwriter would be holding an impromptu Facebook live concert in his living room. Now, the Indigo Girls got more than 30,000 folks to tune in earlier in the day on Thursday, but Josh got a pretty impressive number later that evening to join him in song as well—more than 1500 screens, each with several people watching, no doubt. On the comments section, I could see friends of mine from New York to Baltimore to Chicago to California who had tuned in and were putting in their requests and expressing their gratitude.
The result of these efforts has been nothing short of inspiring.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that the creativity borne out of the uncertainly and fear of this past week has been one of the most impressive feats the American Jewish community has pulled off in quite some time.
And part of what’s been so extraordinary to watch and to experience is that what has emerged from all of this has been not a decrease, but an increase in engagement and connection.
Our Friday night service from last week has been viewed more than 1000 times on Facebook. The “attendance” at our virtual minyan is nearly double what it had been when we were meeting in the chapel. The classes that we have moved online are even more well attended than the ones held in our beit midrash.
Yes, there is a real need for connection, for the comfort of community, and the wisdom to get us through this difficult time. But there is also no denying the fact that our Jewish communities have responded to this crisis in ways that have brought out the best in us.
I want to share just one of these moments from the past week. We lost two members of our community over the weekend—two beautiful neshamot, Sydel Rudner and Bob Brenner. And our concern for their families’ care, for the mitzvah of nichum avelim, of comforting the mourner, was magnified by the fact that they couldn’t be physically present with us for shiva.
And yet, when Avi conducted the virtual minyan, which the families attended, he reminded everyone that our custom was to conclude the service with our traditional words of consolation, “May God comfort you along with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” and then he purposely left the video chat open so that those who were also participating could express their condolences with their own words. One by one, our virtual minyanaires shared the most beautiful and heartfelt words of comfort, words so touching that tears instantly began to roll down my cheeks.
Now, usually, when we gather in person and conclude our services with these words, we say “thanks everyone for being here” and folks usually approach the mourners to greet them, but because we were on a computer conference, and people couldn’t talk over each other and be heard, each individual was given the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of nichum aveilum in full volume, so that everyone could hear.
This was not the plan. This was not the way we drew up shiva minyanim on the blueprints. In fact, it took a surprisingly bold and swift move by the CJLS, the Conservative movement’s law committee, to sanction the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish without the physical presence of a minyan—a decision that fundamentally changed one the most ancient ritual standards we have. And yet, bending the rules for the sake of an emergency allowed us to comfort these two families in ways that, I pray, are as soul nourishing as they can be in this time of social distancing.
So yes, we sit here in this amazingly beautiful, nearly empty sanctuary, not spiritually depleted, not missing the presence of God, but full of it, knowing that even if the physical sanctuary we have built is not accessible to everyone, the virtual sanctuary we erected, nearly overnight, is serving us quite well for the time being.
When Moses called the people together to begin the construction of the original sacred space, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness of Sinai, he gave them detailed instructions for its design. And all those among the people, whose hearts moved them, brought forward gifts of silver and gold, fine linens of blue and purple and crimson, spices for incense and oil for kindling. But the most important instruction Moses gave them was not what to build—but the intention, the spirit of the builders.
וְכָל־חֲכַם־לֵ֖ב בָּכֶ֑ם יָבֹ֣אוּ וְיַעֲשׂ֔וּ אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖ה ה׃
Let all who are chachem lev—who are wise-hearted--come and do everything that God has commanded.
Yes, the design of what we build matters. But earthly materials, no matter how precious, can only become sacred conductors of divinity when they are arranged and, when necessary, rearranged with wisdom. They can only become sacred emitters of the contents of our souls, when they are activated by the love we hold in our hearts for each other, for the Jewish people, and for God.
This past week has been a difficult one. We have seen the number of cases of coronavirus rise sharply in our country and in many countries throughout the world, and we have also seen the terrible consequences that rise will bring in its wake. We know that we have not yet reached the peak of this pandemic, nor do we know whether that peak will be the height of this crisis, or just one in a series of mountains that we will have to climb together.
We do not know when we will all be able to return to work, to school, or, to the beautiful spiritual home we have constructed thanks to the tremendous heart of this generous community.
But what we do know, and what we have seen this week, is that when Jews set their hearts and minds to creating the sacred spaces that will keep us together in faith, in relationship with each other and with God, a beautiful design always emerges.
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.
Honoring our FailuresRead Now
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
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.
A Revolution of KindnessRead Now
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.
By Mandy Golman
When I saw the notice that the Shabbat Hour service led by Rabbis Wallach and Roffman was resuming this past week, I was elated. This service is just one hour long on Saturday mornings in Fonberg Family Chapel. Rabbi Roffman and Rabbi Wallach lead us through a series of “spiritual moments,” the same ones that happen in a traditional service, but in a much more focused and intentional way.
I grew up in a Reform temple and attended Jewish camp and, truthfully, Jewish camping is where my Jewish connection was established and has really been the link to my spirituality for me. Over the years, I’ve often struggled to find that same connection when I’ve attended services. All that changed when I attended the Shabbat Hour. Being welcomed by Rabbi Wallach on the guitar and Rabbi Roffman on the piano to a melodic Halleluyah was just beautiful. I felt transformed back to my camp days. The service is very informal and participatory. The Rabbis add meaningful and relevant reflections and guidance as we go through the service and songs. Believe it or not, I find myself wishing it would continue when we come to a close. I now mark these services on my calendar and make it a priority to attend.
If you would have told me 26 years ago that I would find this spiritual connection at Shearith Israel I would have never believed it, but after this one hour service I leave feeling grounded and renewed and ready for the week ahead. This service will resume after the high holidays. While I know it will not be for everyone (and that’s ok!) if you have struggled at services, grew up in a Jewish camping world, or would just like to try something different, I would encourage you to try it. You will be glad you did!
Editor's Note: Thanks to Mandy Golman for sharing this reflection. If you would like to write a blog post about your positive experiences at Shearith Israel, please contact Communications Director, Julie Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Thank you all, so much, for the good wishes and the joy you’ve shared with us after the birth of our new daughter. As today is the eighth day of her life, we’d like to share with you the names that we’ve chosen for her as she enters into the Covenant of the Jewish people—Rebecca Joelle, Rivka Yael bat HaRav Shira Esther vHaRav Avraham Elimelech.
Rebecca is named for Adam’s mother’s cousin, Ruth Ginsburg, or Ruthie as everyone called her. She was a kind, deeply spiritual, unapologetically eccentric woman who just happened to be a highly respected professional advocate for women, patron saint of progressive causes, and all-around fun-to-be with, easy-to-love soul. One year, on a visit to her home in Boston, Ruthie and Adam spent the day whale watching. He was maybe eight or nine years old, and yet, his mother trusted Ruthie to keep Adam occupied through the five- or six-hour cruise on the Atlantic. They spent the time chatting about how whales poop, counting the number of baby teeth Adam had left, and snapping photographs with his disposable camera. In other words, the kind of conversation any eight- or nine-year old might share with a buddy, except in this case the buddy was three decades older than Adam. No matter what they talked about, Ruthie was absolutely fascinated by the smallest details, each one a jumping off point for a conversation that could last minutes or hours.
We pray that Ruthie’s memory will inspire and remind Rebecca that the best way to earn someone’s trust, and respect, and love is to be deeply invested in them—in what they fight for, in what they care about, in what makes them laugh, and think, and wonder, and smile—no matter what those things are. Ruthie taught us that if something is important to someone you care about, you have to make it important to you. If you do, that person will never leave you, not even after they’re gone.
Rebecca’s middle name, Yael in Hebrew, Joelle in English, honors two remarkable rabbis.
First, Shira’s zaydie Rudy Adler, Yosef in Hebrew. When Shira reflects on his life, she marvels at his strength and perseverance, his sustained faith, and the drive that led him to touch so many lives, bringing as many people as he could closer to the Torah. She wonders how he survived with his relationship with Judaism and God intact as he traveled north from Nazi Germany to Liverpool, England with his yeshiva, leaving his parents behind, how he endured during the tumultuous voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to Toronto, eating only pickled fish and gasping sea air. She can’t fathom what it does to a person to finally make it safely to North America, only to be thrown into an internment camp for German nationals and always having to sleep with one eye open.
But through all of this, Shira’s zaydie kept his faith in God and in people. In Germany, in 1933, which was the year Hitler rose to power, he celebrated his bar mitzvah. In Liverpool, England, he learned to be a brilliant student of Talmud and earned semicha, rabbinic ordination. In the internment camp in Canada, he kept pages of Talmud folded in his sock so that he could retreat to a secluded part of the forest and study. And when he was finally released, he met Shira’s bubbie, Rose, at a young Judea meeting in Toronto, and she took on his life so whole-heartedly that his relationship with faith turned into a team effort. With her by his side, he moved from pulpit to pulpit until ending up in Orlando, with three beautiful children in tow. He lived to see his kids grow up, he spent wonderful quality time with his grandchildren, and near the end of his life, he met his great-granddaughter Hannah Rose, who we named for his beloved.
We pray that Rebecca experiences Shira’s zaydie’s long life and many joys. We also pray that she is inspired by his deep commitment to faith, to optimism, and to light. He always believed that blessings would come to him.
We also hope that she will take after Shira’s zaydie in his humor and lightheartedness. One of the best photographs ever taken of him is Rudy sitting next to Shira’s mom, when she was pregnant with her, each of them with tea mugs comfortably balanced on their round and buoyant tummies. We recreated the photo this Pesach with Shira’s dad, Hannah and Rebecca’s zaydie. When Shira was three years old and loved dancing around in her ballet tutu, he dressed up with her and did his best to keep up with her plies, arabesques, and jetês. And each year in his shul, he gave an annual sermon on Jewish humor—he would start a joke, remind himself of the punchline, and start laughing so hysterically that the rest was completely undecipherable as he dissolved into a mess of giggles. People would come from all over to watch this.
Rebecca's middle name, in English, changed from what we had initially decided on the night she was born, after we realized that she came into the world on the same day as Shira’s childhood rabbi’s 5th yartzeit. Unlike Shira’s zaydie, Rabbi Joel Wasser wasn’t given the opportunity to live out his days, but his legacy shines just as brightly.
Joel came to Tampa when Shira was 9 and brought with him a version of Judaism that centered around wholehearted passion and delight, unbridled faith and commitment to torah. His favorite teaching was from psalms: ivdu et hashem besimcha, serve God with joy, which soon became emblazoned in shining gold letters above the ark at Shira’s shul. When he entered a room, he would bellow “Shalom my holy friends,” in a way that made each person feel important, part of a sacred encounter. His charisma bounded off the walls on Purim, his voice carried all of the hakafot on Simchat Torah, his spirit filled the sanctuary on Yom Kippur. He spent his summers at Camp Ramah Darom and though he could have chosen the nicer staff housing (which his family would have appreciated), he insisted on rooming in the dilapidated shack with no AC in the middle of camp so that he could run into everyone as they were huffing and puffing up the hill. You wouldn’t expect it, but being short of breath was a great condition to insist that someone stop for a while, have a drink, and discuss whatever esoteric Jewish idea Joel was thinking about at the time. Or more often, he’d look right into your soul and ask: how’s your neshama?
Instead of traditional bat mitzvah lessons, Joel taught Shira how to study Mishnah. You can probably imagine that in 6th grade Shira was used to knowing everything and being right all the time . . . so after reading their first passage together, he asked Shira if she had any questions. She said “no, of course not, I understood everything.” And in the next 30 seconds, he asked Shira 50 questions to which she had no response. A perfect introduction to rabbinic literature, a perfect representation of how Joel illuminated Shira’s path forward.
We pray that Rebecca Joelle learns these lessons from Rabbi Joel Wasser:
Don’t do anything half-assed. If you care enough to do something, throw your entire self into it. And if you can throw in a couple of SAT vocabulary words, even better.
Figure out who you are and live out loud. Then, create space for others to do so.
Believe in the possibility of holiness. If you don’t see it around you, it’s your job to kindle it.
Understand that strength and fragility often go hand in hand. Don’t be afraid to give someone permission to have both.
And finally, ivdi besimcha. Do your life’s work, express and receive love, and envelop it all in joy.
Before we were married, we each insisted that the other share in an experience that reflected an essential part of who we are as individuals and what our life together would look like. Naturally, for Adam, that meant taking Shira to his favorite sacred place, his most beloved sanctuary—Oriole Park at Camden Yards, so that we could watch the Red Sox throttle the Orioles. Shira insisted that we do something she could not believe Adam hadn’t done—watch the movie version of the Sound of Music. He was pleasantly surprised by the movie, but even more surprised by what happened last week, the afternoon we brought Rebecca from the hospital. Adam swaddled her in a blanket, and fulfilled his life-long dream of putting his newborn daughter in his lap as he sat at a grand piano in the music room of his own home. When he reached for the sheet music, it wasn’t “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler or “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd that he instinctually took down from the shelf. Instead, it was a score from a show he never really understood until he held Rebecca Joelle in his arms and gently played his heart out on an instrument that we hope will echo in her soul and her children’s soul forever, just as it echoes in ours.
Somehow, despite the emotion of moment, his fingers found the right keys, and his voice clearly whispered the words—with a few, small changes:
Our home is alive with the sound of music
With songs we have sung for four thousand years
These walls fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears
My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds
That rise from the lake to the trees
My heart wants to sigh like a shofar that flies
From a shul on a breeze
To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way
To sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray
I go to my home when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I've heard before
Your heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And together, you and me and your mother and your sister, will sing once more.
Welcome to our home, Rebecca Joelle.
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