Yom Kippur AM Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
After seventeen years of marriage, a man dumped his wife for a younger woman. The downtown luxury apartment was in his name and he wanted to remain there with his new love, so he asked his wife to move out and said he would buy her another place. The wife agreed to this, but asked that she be given three days.
The first day she packed her personal belongings into boxes and crates
and suitcases. On the second day, she had the movers come and collect
her things. On the third day, she sat down for the last time at their candlelit dining table, soft music playing in the background, and feasted alone on shrimp (yes, full disclosure, this is not a story of traditional Jewish origin) and a bottle of Chardonnay. When she had finished, she went into each room and deposited shrimp leftovers into the hollow of her curtain rods. She then cleaned up the kitchen and left.
Her husband returned with his new girl, and all was bliss for the first few days. Then it started; slowly but surely. Clueless, the man could not explain why the place smelled as it did. They tried everything. First, they cleaned and mopped and aired the place out. That didn't work. Then they checked vents for dead rodents. Still no luck. They steam cleaned the carpets and hung air fresheners. That didn't solve the problem. They hired exterminators; still no good. They ripped out the carpets and replaced them. But the smell lingered.
Finally, they could take it no more and decided to move. The moving company packed everything and moved it all to their new place. Everything. Even the curtain rods.
On one level this story may seem amusing, and fair. The wife, who was certainly a victim, gets her revenge on her unsuspecting ex. But is revenge what we should be looking for in a case like this? Granted that the short time frame captured in this story doesn’t even begin to allow for the process of healing to really begin, in principle, instead of looking to “get even” on some level when we have been hurt by another person, even someone close to us, over time we are better off pursuing a different, and more noble, value—FORGIVENESS.
Our tradition places a huge emphasis on the importance of forgiveness. We may be aware that, during this time of year, it is customary to approach people whom we have wronged during the past year to apologize for what we have done and ask them for their forgiveness BEFORE we can try to repent to God. But we may not all know that our tradition goes a bit further than that. You see, if you have the strength to approach someone three times in sincere repentance to ask them for their forgiveness, and they refuse to grant that forgiveness all three times, then the burden shifts to them and you are free to continue on your path of teshuvah, return, to God. This particular law in our tradition teaches us two important things: ONE—it is vital that, over time, we move to forgive others, otherwise, why would this law assume that three real attempts at an apology ought to clear the slate; and TWO—forgiving can be very difficult—otherwise, why would this law acknowledge that it might take three legitimate attempts before an apology would be accepted!
The command to forgive IS a difficult one to fulfill when we have been wronged or hurt, and we are certainly not the only ones who have struggled with what might seem to us like an unrealistic obligation. Going back in history, let’s just take two examples of people who simply refused to forgive when someone did them wrong, and made that point very publicly.
One was Michelangelo. Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Not much debate on that front. He could carve incredible statues that still amaze us whenever we look at them to this day. He could paint pictures that still fill our souls with wonder. But there was one thing that Michelangelo could not do. He simply could not forgive anyone who had hurt him.
A friend of his once dared to criticize one of his works of art. How did Michelangelo respond? When he painted the Sistine Chapel, he used that man’s face as the model for the devil. So that everyone who enters the Sistine Chapel to this day looks at a work which is a testimony to Michelangelo’s genius as an artist, but which is also testimony to Michelangelo’s smallness as a human being.
For another example, how about Dante? Dante was arguably the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. And yet, Dante had a major flaw. He could not forget, and he could not forgive anyone who crossed him. And so when he wrote his masterpiece the Inferno, he described the terrible torment that those who suffer in hell will endure, and he used the names of his enemies as the examples. So whoever reads the Inferno sees the work of a man who was a brilliant poet, but not so noble in his character.
So if we’re having trouble with forgiveness, we’re in good company. If Michelangelo, who was an artistic genius, and Dante, who was a remarkable poet, could not forgive someone who hurt them, then maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad? How can I be expected to forgive, if they couldn’t? And yet, our tradition is replete with examples of people who showed remarkable strength of character in their decisions to ultimately forgive. Here, too, let’s make mention of two such examples, both from the Torah.
The first is Joseph—many of us may be familiar with the general nature of his story; Joseph, the dreamer, the bratty, and even arrogant, kid brother, was sold into slavery by his jealous and hateful older brothers. Some years later, when the fortunes of both parties had turned completely—Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt and his brothers were suffering through a famine in Canaan—Joseph found himself in a position of power over his brothers who had come to Egypt to beg for food for their family and did not recognize that they had come face to face with the little brother they had once victimized. Joseph faced a dilemma—exact vengeance and make them pay for their sins against him or forgive and reconcile. When they were willing to trade themselves to redeem the youngest brother Benjamin, Joseph recognized that they, in fact, had been redeemed—they had changed. And with that came forth the emotional cry from within Joseph—“I am Joseph. Does my father yet live? Come near to me, I pray you. I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Joseph had finally reached the moment when he could let go of the memory of the wrong they had done him. Under the circumstances, reconciliation had to have been extremely difficult for Joseph, and yet he showed us that forgiveness can triumph.
For our second example, let’s turn to our tradition’s greatest prophet and teacher—Moses. Was there ever a Jewish leader who was rebelled against more often, who was betrayed more often, who was criticized more often, than he was? His brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, both spoke out against him; his cousin, Korach, tried to overthrow him, the people of Israel rebelled against him over and over and over again for forty years in a row! Moses had to put up with this nonsense for 40 years! And yet, somehow Moses was able to forgive his people and to continue to lead them and love them until the end of his life.
And on the day that he died, the Midrash says that Moses made the rounds of the twelve tribes, hugged each one of them and accepted their apologies, and gave them his apologies. The Midrash says that they said to him, “We are sorry that we rebelled so often,” and he said to them, “I am sorry that I was so hard on you,” and they made up with each other and then he died.
Could any of us have done what Moses did that day? If we were in his position, could we have forgiven the people that harassed us mercilessly for forty years? Deep down we can admire Moses for having been able to forgive his people, for it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.
Long after Moses lived, an anecdote was told about the life of one of Judaism’s Talmudic sages, Mar Zutra. Each night before he went to sleep, Mar Zutra would say, “I forgive all who hurt me today”. He understood that people weren’t perfect, and he genuinely forgave those who had hurt or disappointed him. He gave the gift of forgiveness freely to others as well as to himself. He knew he would sleep better and live happier if he had removed the bitterness and hatred from his heart.
And that’s just it—as Steve Goodier, who shared the story with which I began, analyzed the story this way: “The problem is... we can't carry a grudge and carry love in our hearts at the same time. We have to give one of them up. It's a choice we make. Some resentments are large; they've built up over a long time and will not be easy to part with. Some have been fed by years of pain and anger. But all the more reason to give them up. When we're tired of the anger and resentment and bitterness, we can choose a better way. We can be forever unhappy, or we can be healthy. We're just not made to carry a big grudge and a heart filled with love at the same time”.
I think that the truth is that we don’t like to forgive, because there is something inside of us that enjoys the taste of revenge, like the woman in the story. Let’s be honest. On an instinctual level, it feels good to get back at someone who has hurt you, doesn’t it? Refusing someone’s apology gives us a certain amount of power over that person and that power feels good.
It is tempting to nurse a grudge. And yet our tradition is emphatic in telling us not to do it. Here are three important reasons why: The first reason: When you hold on to a grudge, who does it hurt: your enemy or you?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi and world-renowned, best-selling author, tells the story of how a woman once came to him, and poured out in detail her anger against her husband for how he left her for another woman, and how he had mistreated her and their children. What advice did Rabbi Kushner give her? “Let it go, not for his sake, but for yours. For ten years this has been burdening you. If you wouldn’t let him live in your house, rent free, why on earth do you let him live in your mind rent free?”
What harm does it do to the one who has hurt us for us to brood and wallow in our anger and in our self-pity? It is better for us to get on with our lives, and not let the one who has hurt us continue to control our lives and pull our strings and drive us crazy.
The second reason why we ought to forgive can be illustrated by a brief story, told by Rachel Naomi Remen. Years ago, she went to a Yom Kippur service to hear a well-known rabbi speak about forgiveness, thinking he would be speaking about God’s forgiveness. Instead, as she tells it, “he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father’s arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and, with his customary dignity, began a traditional Yom Kippur sermon”. The baby girl started grabbing his nose; he freed himself and went on; then she took his tie and put it in her mouth. Everyone chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie, and then said to the congregation—“Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?” After the nods and murmurs of assent came from the crowd, he went on—“And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before we forget that everyone is a child of God?” We are all God’s children, part of the same family; we expect forgiveness from God, for anything we do, and God’s children, our family and extended human family, deserve that same forgiveness from us.
Finally, here is a third reason why we should try to forgive, and that is: That the truth is—although we don’t like to admit it, that we have slandered just as much as we have been slandered; that we have insulted, just as much as we have been insulted. We have said and done hurtful things to friends, co-workers, loved ones. The only difference is that when WE do it, we justify it, and we rationalize and we forgive ourselves. But when it is done to us, we get upset, and we want retribution.
It is much easier to think of times when we have been wronged than it is to think of times when we have done wrong. Somehow the human mind works that way. We have a selective memory, and so we find it easier to remember the times when we have been hurt than it is to remember the times when we have hurt.
And so I pray that this year you and I may work on developing not only our memory skills, but, as my colleague Rabbi Jack Riemer terms it, a good “forgettery” as well. Because without a good “forgettery” we really cannot live. If we hold on to every insult, and every harsh word, and every misdeed that has ever been done to us, we become so weighed down by this burden that we can barely walk or breathe or live.
The truth is that, with no exceptions, everyone has his own baggage and there is no need for any of us to add any more to each other’s pain and suffering; on the contrary, there is a need for comfort and companionship. Let us try yet again this year to minimize the hurt that we cause with our words and deeds; but, when inevitably we slip up, AND WE WILL SLIP UP, may we learn how to let go of the anger that we all carry around inside us that chokes us and that does not let us love. And let us forgive, so that we may truly live.
May this new year be a good year, a peaceful year, a year in which we offer forgiveness to our family, friends, neighbors, fellows, and God, and a year during which we receive that same powerful, sacred and healing gift of forgiveness in return. And to this, may we all say: AMEN.
Kol Nidre Sermon 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman, Rabbi Shira Wallach
L’Eyla u’L’Eyla. Higher and Higher. These are the words that we utter in the Kaddish prayers during these Aseret Y’Mei Teshuvah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days in between. We add an extra word “L’Eyla” to our customary recitation to remind us that during this 10-day period God is elevated even more beyond the prayers we human beings can offer in God’s praise. And during this High Holy Day period we also try to lift ourselves up to commit to being at our most godly going forward into the New Year.
Last year during this Kol Nidre Service in all three of our sanctuaries, the rabbis shared the same message about a way our community could elevate itself while at the same time elevating someone else in need in the way our teacher Maimonides once instructed us. We are proud of David Corn as he completes a year in our Ladder Project program. Since January, David has been paying his own rent and utility bills, and just renewed his apartment lease for another year. He has worked steadily since last November at Studio Movie Grill, where he has been promoted to a team leader -- both training new employees and supervising the teams who maintain and prep the theaters in between showings.
But what we have learned is that $12/hour is not enough money for David to live on since he is currently paying court-ordered child support for one of his sons, leaving him no ability to put aside money towards obtaining and maintaining a car, which is his #1 goal. David recently passed his driver’s test and is excited about being able to drive. We are asking congregants to let us know if they can offer David a full-time job that pays a minimum of $15/hour AND donate a used car to David, which would significantly change his life. Reliance on public transit greatly limits where, and how often, David can work. We feel confident that David can reach a new level of financial self-sufficiency with a new job and a car.
As you are hopefully aware, David joined us for Rosh Hashanah services last week and was extremely proud to be celebrating his new life -- a life far away, physically and emotionally, from the homeless shelter he lived in for several years before meeting us. He speaks often of the generosity and caring hearts of this congregation -- his spiritual family, as he calls us -- that made all of this possible. We are grateful for all of your support in helping David this past year.
We look forward this next year to further success for David and to hopefully welcoming a new person or family to our program. Our Ladder Project Executive Committee is currently searching for candidates and we have had a couple of possibilities, but we are doing due diligence to make sure we pick someone who is ready to be helped.
Just as last year the three Shearith rabbis decided to give a unified message, so, too, this year we also decided to speak about the same topic this evening. And the choice of topic will likely not come as a surprise to anyone in any of our three sanctuaries. One of our congregants recently commented on Facebook that this was the first year our congregants were ever asked to come to a security briefing before High Holy Day services. Who would have even thought this was necessary a decade, or perhaps even five years, ago? 250 congregants attended six briefings in total, which speaks to how concerned folks are with recent trends in anti-Semitism and violence, both here in the United States, and around the world as well. Why are we concerned?
We’re concerned because of October 27, 2018, a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh, which could have been a Shabbat of shalom and joy and community like every Shabbat before that one and every Shabbat we hope to celebrate in the future, but instead was a Shabbat that bore witness to the murder of eleven Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill as the killer shouted, “All Jews must die”.
We’re concerned because six months later, on Shabbat morning, April 27, the last day of Pesach, another shooter visited death on another synagogue, this time a Chabad in Poway, California, taking the life of Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounding several others including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, having posted online just beforehand an open letter in the form of an anti-Semitic rant blaming Jews for the “meticulously planned genocide of the European race”.
We’re concerned because, according to the ADL, the U.S. Jewish community experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018—1,879 attacks in total, the third-highest year on record since the ADL began tracking data in the 1970s, a number not far off from the 1,986 incidents reported in 2017, 48% higher than in 2016 and 99% higher than for 2015. 59 people were victims of 39 anti-Semitic assaults in 2018, almost three times as many victims and twice as many incidents as in 2017.
We’re concerned because anti-Semitism thinly veiled as anti-Zionism continues to rear its ugly head. This extends from the United Nations, on down to college campuses through the pernicious BDS movement which constantly forces our students to have to defend the right for a Jewish state to exist, and has even seeped into the halls of our U.S. Government.
And we’re concerned because we’ve read in the news locally that a Jewish convict named Randy Halprin was sentenced to death by Judge Vickers Cunningham who allegedly called him “that [expletive] Jew”, and much worse, during the trial. Saying nothing of Halprin’s guilt or innocence, it seems incredulous to us that this could happen in a courtroom in the United States. Thankfully Halprin’s attorneys, with the support of 100 Jewish attorneys and numerous rabbis from all over Texas including Rabbi Sunshine, convinced the Appeals Court to stay the execution and remand the case back to a Dallas County court for further review.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen that many rabbis across Dallas and across the nation have also chosen to address the fearsome rise in anti-Semitic incidents in America during this High Holy Day season. What’s notable about these powerful statements from our colleagues is that despite the diversity of communities they serve in areas across the country, many make, essentially, the same three points.
First, if we are to understand the threat we face, we must also ensure that we understand the underlying ideology that fuels it. Anti-Semitism is a specific form of hatred and it cannot be equated with mere ignorance, intolerance, or prejudice. It is born out of an irrational fear of our particular beliefs, values, and way of life. It takes the form of conspiracy theories, double-standards, and scapegoating narratives.
Anti-Semitism is Pharaoh, paranoid that our growing nation would inexplicably rise up against the same land and people that sustained us through a devastating period of famine in the land of Canaan.
Anti-Semitism is Haman and Antiochus Epiphanes, who saw a people not apart, but against. Ironically, for all the charges of dual loyalty that have been laid at our feet, it was their inability to believe that we could, at once, serve a God that was ours, and yet still contribute to the well-being of a land that wasn’t, that inspired them to plot our destruction.
And yes, Anti-Semitism is Adolf Hitler and his Nazi collaborators, who followed in the example of so many before them when they blamed Jews for the economic and political catastrophes their government had wrought on its own people.
Second, though Anti-Semitism has been used as a political tool for more than two millennia, Anti-Semitism is not politics. It is hatred. Therefore, Anti-Semitism cannot be accurately categorized as left or right, progressive, populist, or conservative. It can however, usually be found at the ideological extremes and, terrifyingly of late, it has been countenanced and tolerated, if not yet embraced, by those who claim to speak for the mainstream and the center. It has defiled the cause of those who say they champion equality and social justice and it has profaned the lips of those who argue that they are fighting to preserve and defend our national identity and culture. It has inspired violence both directly and indirectly, and when it is present in the sacred halls of our government or regularly evident in the temples of international diplomacy, it is a sign of impending danger, not only for Jews, but for all oppressed people across the globe.
Finally, should this unsettling trend continue, we would do well to remember that the most powerful weapon against those who would seek to destroy the agency, prosperity, and sovereignty Jews have enjoyed since the middle of the twentieth century, is, paradoxically, that very thing which inflames their hatred of us: our love for and pride in being Jewish. For if we allow our Jewish identity to be defined, principally, by our fight for survival, then we will have already lost. How did we defeat Pharaoh? By recovering our ability to cry out to God in the words of our ancestors. How did we defeat Haman and Antiochus? By harnessing our ingenuity, our wits, and our chutzpah to once again defy the odds. How will we defeat the men who murdered twelve of our fellow Jews as they clasped prayer books in their hands in the House of God? By holding our families close as we light Shabbat candles, by gathering for simchas and sorrows, by teaching our children to love our tradition and to love Israel, and, as we have all demonstrated tonight, despite whatever uneasiness may lurk in our souls, by showing up, as a community, to shul.
Each year, on Kol Nidre, we are gifted a remarkable opportunity: to renounce any vows that we made over the last year that we didn’t have the chance to fulfill. And while we reflect on all the ways in which we were too optimistic or too forthcoming with the power of our promises over the past year, we also use this moment to decide which new vows to make this coming year, knowing just how much weight they carry. In light of recent events, we propose three new nedarim, three sacred oaths that we make to one another in this precarious time.
First: that we must vow lo tishkach, never forget. On the Shabbat before Purim, we read a special maftir from the Torah that reminds us why we must blot out the names of those who try to annihilate us: not just Amalek, but Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus Epiphanes, Adolf Hitler, and all of those who walk in their footsteps. Those who target us purely because of our identity have a particular appetite for blood; Amalek attacked us from the back as we traveled toward our Promised Land, killing the weakest and most vulnerable among us in order to strike fear into our hearts. And as the blood of our children, our ill, our elderly, called out to us from the ground, what was, and what will be our response? God hopes it will be: never forget, and blot out the names of our attackers from under Heaven. Never think that there won’t be another Amalek or Haman or Hitler. And yet, as long as blood still fills our veins and air still fills our lungs, we have a sacred duty to build a world in which it is impossible for hatred to survive.
But this vow of lo tishkach isn’t only about never forgetting those who are filled with anger and hatred against us. It is also about pledging to never forget those victims who were murdered, defamed, persecuted, and tortured. It’s about telling their stories and devoting our lives to theirs, lifting up not only their mourning families and communities but also the values that animated them. If you go to Pittsburgh today, and visit the Tree of Life*Dor Hadash Congregation, you’ll see first of all the chain link fence that surrounds the building. Then, if you hang around a bit, you’ll notice that the only person who goes in and out of the dark building is the custodian, who maintains the synagogue, until its leaders decide what to do with it. The one thing that is certain: they cannot see themselves ever praying there again, without experiencing violent flashbacks to October 27th, when eleven of their community members were shot and killed. For now, the building remains as a reminder, as a sacred memorial, lest we ever forget, for if you look through the fence at the synagogue’s front door, you’ll see an Israeli flag, a note thanking first responders, a list of the eleven victims’ names in Jewish stars, and a promise: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Second: that we must vow to protect and advocate for ourselves. We must not be afraid to speak out on behalf of our people and call out anti-Semitic language and behavior when we see it. Unfortunately, we must come to terms with the reality that no one else can be entrusted with this task; there is no one else as deeply entrenched or invested in the destiny of our people. As Rabbi Hillel asked: Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If even we cannot recognize and condemn attacks against our people, then who else will take up our cause?
The blood of our brothers and sisters cries out to us from the ground! When our people are slain in Pittsburgh and Poway, beaten on the streets of Brooklyn, defamed in political ads in Rockland County, we must rise above the fray, attend to our dead and our injured, and speak out against this injustice! We must call out this hatred and this violence for what it is.
Third and finally: that no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, no matter who we’d like to see leading the Knesset, no matter where we like to sit on the High Holy Days at Shearith Israel, that we pledge to uphold our sacred unity above all else.
I don’t have to tell you that we are at our most vulnerable when we are divided. Our factionalism has cost us dearly in the past, pitting Jew against Jew, contributing to the rise of sin’at chinam, senseless hatred, that ultimately caused the destruction of our beloved Temple. We must not let our own ideologies distract us from who the true enemy is.
The Talmud, in Masechet Shevuot (39b), the tractate that addresses the nature and power of our oaths, asks about the difference between those sins that only punish the offender, versus the sins that punish both the offender and his or her world. The rabbis respond: for the sins of swearing and lying, and murdering and stealing, and committing adultery, it is only the offender who has sinned and bears the weight of punishment and responsibility to atone. And with regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, punishment is exacted from the entire world, in which each and every person is inextricably bound to one another, because one person’s sin mars the humanity of everyone else. It was this idea that led the rabbis to say: kol yisrael arevim ze bazeh, the entire Jewish people must serve as guarantors for one another.
As we know, there are a myriad of different ways to categorize and separate Jews. It’s profoundly difficult to see how Haredim have anything in common with Reform Jews and it’s so much easier to look out for our own little corner of the Jewish world. But the rabbis of the Talmud challenge us with the responsibility of KOL Yisrael, ALL of Israel. This means that at all times, but especially during times of threat, we must transcend the boundaries that divide us in order to support the sacred whole.
When Mattathias and his son Judah began their revolt against the Hellenist occupiers of the land of Israel in 167 BCE, they faced overwhelming opposition. But not only from the Greeks, from their fellow Jews, as well. On one side, the Pietists, or Chasidim, believed that if salvation was at hand, it would come from God, not from a band of guerilla fighters from Modi’in. To fight without divine sanction was sacrilege. And on the other side, those Jews who had adopted the Greek way of life, embracing both its scientific and literary advancements, resisted what they saw as an unwise struggle against the natural progression of Jewish life in the Ancient Near east.
The first major victory the Maccabees won was not against the Greeks, it was for the trust of their fellow Jews. By demonstrating both their respect for the ancient wisdom and practice of our Torah and by allowing that practice to be informed by the realities of their time, Mattathias and Judah created a broad coalition of Jews who fought to reclaim the beating heart of the Jewish people, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple at its center.
It is no accident that in this extraordinary Dallas Jewish community of some 70,000 souls, this 135-year-old flagship Conservative synagogue has served as a vital center—a place for those on the right and the left and all those in between, both religiously and politically, to come together. Because in our shul we believe that all those who love our tradition, who love Israel, and who are called to serve and love each other and God should be made to feel welcome.
It was at Shearith Israel that hundreds gathered after the Pittsburgh shooting to grieve, to offer our support to the families of the fallen, and to pledge that we would do everything in our power to fight back against the terror that our brothers and sisters faced that horrific Shabbat morning in October.
And beyond these walls, the contributions of our Shearith members to ensuring that we and others never forget, that we have the means and the strength to fight back, and that will do so as a united Jewish community, are immeasurable. Who had the largest team at the ADL Walk Against Hate on September 15th? Shearith Israel. Who sends the largest delegation in town, every year, to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C? Shearith Israel. Of the broad spectrum of Jews from across Dallas who have championed and sponsored the Federation’s Community Security Initiative, who often took the lead? Members of this community. And there is no better example of the extraordinary efforts our community has made in the fight against hatred than the time, financial resources, and brilliant vision so many members of Shearith have given to the newest crown jewel among our local Jewish institutions, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. And I look forward to seeing all of you at our Shearith Night at the Museum, November 10th, when it will open exclusively for our community so that we can celebrate this remarkable achievement together.
Friends, we can take great comfort, great strength, and great pride in the fact that we are Maccabees—that we have always been and will always strive to be a community that stands together. But more than that, because of who we are, and the consensus we work hard to achieve, we can fulfill this role of being a uniter, not just for ourselves, but for the good of all our fellow Jews in Dallas.
This Kol Nidre, we pledge ourselves to this great cause. To stand as one before the sha’are hashamayim, the gates of Heaven, and cry out before God, for ourselves, and for the martyrs of our people whose voices we must now carry within each of us—Anu ameicha—we are one nation. Anu kehalecha—we are one congregation. Anu nachaltecha—we are the stewards of the legacy you entrusted to us, that no one will ever deny us, Am Yisrael Chai—the people of Israel, whose story, whose destiny will live forever and ever.
Ken Yehi ratzon, so may it be God’s will.
  Sales, Ben. “Reliving the massacre every minute: How Pittsburgh survivors are struggling a year later.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Published October 2, 2019.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This summer, in the midst of our highly successful Shearith Family Mission to Israel, our group of 34 people spent a morning wandering the alleys of the mystical city of Tzefat, watching a Bar Mitzvah celebration at the historic Abuhav Synagogue and exploring the beautiful works in the Artists’ Colony. Soon after we boarded our bus and headed on our way, we abruptly stopped at the bottom of a narrow road where three cars were parked illegally on two of the corners. Even our skillful bus driver, Shlomi—who had previously gotten our bus unscathed through narrow berths that had us listening for the sound of metal scraping the walls or the cars on either side of us—was left with no way to get the bus around the corner and continue our drive. At Mitchell Fonberg’s urging, we briefly considered having several group members try to lift the cars and move them out of the way. Worries about people hurting themselves and liability for damage to the cars won the day, so, short of waiting for those drivers to return, the only option we had was to call the Tzefat police. Our beloved guide, Gila Rosenfield, with whom I’ve worked six times in the last 12 years on synagogue Israel trips, called the Tzefat police department to complain and ask for help solving the problem. Listening to Gila’s side of the conversation, in Hebrew, I was pretty amused: “Are the drivers of the cars there?” “Of course they’re not here, otherwise we wouldn’t be calling you and asking for help!”…”No, we haven’t gone looking for the drivers, how would we even know who they are if we found them?”…”But you’re the Tzefat police! Get down here and take care of the problem!” I couldn’t help but laugh at this exchange and think to myself, this could only happen in Israel, where a tour guide would call and yell at the police and tell them to “get down here and do your job!” And it worked. After a while, the police came, located the drivers, moved the cars, and freed up our bus, though it was too late for our rafting appointment, leaving our quest to tame the mighty Jordan River waters for a future visit to Israel!
This quirky moment is one of a number of such “only in Israel” moments I’ve experienced during my 22 visits to Israel over the years. The ingathering of the exiles—absorption of Jews from all different countries and backgrounds all over the world to unite in this shared project of building the Jewish state—has likely contributed to the relentless “can-do” approach of Israelis for any situation they may encounter. A person double parks his car in Tzefat because he needs to get something done urgently and at the same time assumes that the person who is “inconvenienced” isn’t going to be upset about it, because they’re Israeli and they’ll figure out a way to solve the problem, just like Gila and Shlomi ultimately did. For Americans on a tour bus, it seems inconsiderate and, ultimately, funny; for Israelis, it’s “no beeg deeel”.
I was thinking recently about that experience in Tzefat and recalled that moment, on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion stood up in Heichal Atzma’ut, Independence Hall, in Tel Aviv, and read the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel while thousands of people waited anxiously in the streets. I wondered whether he could have envisioned that 70+ years later, Israel would both be a country of ingenuity, world-renowned robust innovation, and growth, as well as a country where the tour bus still gets stuck in Tzefat? Moreover, could he have envisioned that Israel would have as many faces as it does: Ashkenazi and Sefardi, native born and immigrants, secular and religious, different skin colors, straight and gay, left and right, Jew, Muslim, and Christian? I wonder: Could Ben-Gurion have envisioned the wide-ranging tapestry of Israel’s faces, and places, today?
A look into Ben-Gurion’s philosophies and priorities during the pre-state era and in his years as Prime Minister can help us answer that question. In Dennis Ross and David Makovsky’s new book, Be Strong and of Good Courage, they note that:
[Ben-Gurion’s] unwavering goal was Jewish sovereignty. [He] embraced with singular focus connecting people with the land, a strategy based on Jewish immigration…. [For Ben-Gurion establishing sovereignty] was a process with two equally important dimensions:… creating a political entity in the Holy Land by building new proto-governmental institutions…and transforming the consciousness of the Jews who came to Palestine from all over the world and fostering among them a shared political culture and sense of community…. (pp. 9-12)
Ben-Gurion’s vision reached its watershed moment in May 1948. With the British Mandate set to end on May 15 at midnight, and war looming with the neighboring Arab states, three days before, on May 12, the Zionist provisional government met for 14 hours straight in Tel Aviv. The meeting focused on making a most difficult choice: postponing independence and accepting a three-month truce, or declaring independence on May 14. Ben-Gurion refused to budge from his stance: a declaration of statehood would: … allow the Zionists to tap their greatest resource—supporters abroad—who could help smuggle weapons into the nascent country once the British departed…. The opportunity to [revitalize their military], prompted by statehood and denied by a truce, must not be missed. Alongside the military advantage was that offered by unchecked immigration, Ben-Gurion’s touchstone. Open gates would mean an inflow of greatly needed manpower.”
Independence was indeed declared on May 14, hours before the coming of Shabbat, to great celebration in Israel and its supporters outside the land. Ross and Makovsky comment later that, When French president Charles de Gaulle asked Ben-Gurion in 1960 what he most wanted for his country, the prime minister replied, “More Jews”. And when de Gaulle asked where they would come from, Ben-Gurion answered: from the Soviet Union, which will collapse in thirty years. (p.72)
Amazingly, he was off by only one year in his prediction. J Ross and Makovsky comment further on Ben-Gurion’s approach: Even in Israel’s early years, when it was impoverished and coping with the terrible losses of the War of Independence, he insisted that Israel must act urgently and open its gates to all the Jews, who came with no resources or possessions, from Middle Eastern Countries…. Israel roughly doubled its Jewish population within the first three years of the country’s existence…. Ben-Gurion dedicated all his effort to consolidating and building the infrastructure of the state, while also seeking to cultivate a sense of common identity among the new immigrants who now found themselves living in their ancestral homeland. (p.73)
Among the many Jews who have made Aliyah to the Israel David Ben-Gurion was so instrumental in creating, I’d like to share the story of two of them with you today. One is our tour guide Gila, and the other is Matan (Josh) Rudner, son of our congregants Lisa and Steve Rudner, who is a Lone Soldier in the Israeli army. Gila, originally known as Jill, Rosenfield, grew up in Zimbabwe in a traditional, non-religious Jewish home and went to Jewish day schools both in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Like most of the Jewish kids in Zimbabwe, she also belonged to a Jewish youth movement, Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth movement and so she grew up with a strong connection to Israel and the belief that this was the Jewish homeland and therefore, her homeland, and a seed was planted in her with a dream of going to live on a kibbutz. She visited Israel for the first time after finishing high school and fell in love with the land and the people that she met there, as well as the freedom and the feeling of belonging that she felt here. She made Aliyah to Israel in 1982, as part of a group of young idealists from her youth movement to a kibbutz on the Lebanese border, as they wanted to experience life in the north of Israel and what it felt like to live under the threat of Katusha missiles. During her first years in Israel, she participated in various programs both to learn Hebrew and to experience and learn more about the land. Later, she worked as a special education teacher and, despite loving her job, she sought a change from classroom teaching but still wanted to stay in the educational field. At a dinner party, a friend told Gila she had enrolled to do the tour guide course and suggested jokingly that Gila come study with her. After a sleepless night, Gila decided that this was the perfect way to combine her love of hiking and touring while still working in education. Her demanding tour guide studies reignited her passion for Israel, for history, and she developed a passion for archeology. When she graduated, her first guiding job was a 6-week program over the summer taking 10th and 11th graders around and working not only as a guide but also as a madricha, a counselor. Somehow, she survived and she was hooked, and so for the past 22 years, she has worked as a guide and educator. When I asked Gila what she likes most about guiding, she said:
I really enjoy being able to share my love for this complicated but wonderful country and rediscovering it through the journeys of a wide variety of people. I love introducing the historical, cultural and culinary wonders of Israel to people, and I love the connections and friendships that I have formed and seeing how each group and individual connects differently to this land. I also really like the fact that even though I may often go to similar sites, each tour offers something new and deepens my knowledge and understanding of that site.
Gila’s last comment reminds me of the classical rabbinic teaching of “shiv’im panim la-Torah”—“70 faces of Torah”—being able to turn the words of Torah around and around and constantly see new facets and insights.
Interestingly, Matan Rudner, who made Aliyah back in August of 2017, also has been reflecting a lot this year on the myriad facets of Israel’s places and its people. Since January, Matan has been writing a monthly column in the Texas Jewish Post called “Dispatch from the Homeland”. Take for example his June 6 piece, commenting on the two very different places he has lived so far in Israel, Kibbutz Urim and Tel Aviv. He contrasted them both with Jerusalem, when he wrote, “Each week as I ascend by train through the forested hills of Judea toward our golden city, my material concerns seem to dissipate and I am captivated by the story of this place—the story of a land and a people liberated and conquered and liberated once more. To live in Jerusalem, this living testament to the sacred bond between people, land and God, is to experience Jewish civilization in all its majesty”. Matan went on to add that:
This heterogeneity of Jewish experience, between the lifestyles of the kibbutzim, of Tel Aviv, and of Jerusalem, is not the result of the random physical development of our state. Every part of Israel is the fruit of a different ideological movement: Labor Zionism, Cultural Zionism, Religious Zionism, and so many others each propose unique visions of what Jewish life in our homeland can be, visions that reflect all of the facets of the Jewish soul that yearns within us.
Recently, I reached out to Matan and asked him what message he would share with all of you if he were standing in front of you today. Here’s what he shared with me:
Israel is miraculous because it is ours. The language reflects our values and history, the food adheres to our dietary restrictions, the old men and women fought for us and the children will fight for us if and when the time comes. This land is the only place in the world where we can express and explore parts of our identity as yet undiscovered. Here I’m not just the Jew- as I often was in America- I am gay and a leftist and a brother and soldier. I’m free to be whatever I want to be. And at the same time I’m Jewish in ways I couldn’t have imagined- I have the opportunity to manifest my tradition and values in public, out loud, on a national level. Whatever happens here, it will always be that place for our people, in fact the only place, where we are free to be ourselves as individuals and as a nation.
Sometimes Israel frustrates me- the bureaucracy and the politics and the invasiveness. And sometimes the tragedy of our conflict with the Palestinians makes me scream and cry. But never have I questioned my commitment to this land, never has my love of our people wavered. Because my love and my commitment are based not in Israel as it once was, as it is today or as it is in my dreams- rather they are based in what Israel represents- a bond between land, people, and God that is eternal.
Both Matan and Gila saw –and see—Israel as their homeland and a powerful gravitational force for the Jewish people, and they also both see that Israel has, as it were, 70 faces, enabling different points of connection for each individual or group in their experience of Israel.
I want to introduce you to one more face of contemporary Israel, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, part of a new generation of Israeli-born Masorti—Conservative Movement--rabbis. Born into a mixed Ashkenazi-Mizrahi family with both French and Moroccan roots, and raised in an Orthodox home, it was only when she was wrapping up her B.A. in Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University and signed up for a Master’s Degree program to train both religious and secular teachers in the Jewish tradition that a new possibility presented itself: become a Masorti rabbi. At that time, at age 23, she wasn’t even aware that there were women rabbis in the world, that this was even a possibility. In Elad-Appelbaum’s words, as related in an article by Beth Kissileff in CJ Magazine, voices of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, this was a revelation that “threw me into a new story.” She received her ordination from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem in 2005, and then spent time as the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. She says that her time in America “gave me the courage to come here and re-dream Jerusalem.”
In 2013, she and her husband Yossi founded Tzion: Kehilla Yisraeli Artzit (Zion: An Israeli Community) in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka. At Tzion, where I have personally davened a number of times over these past several years, you’ll find one of the more unusual and diverse congregations in the state of Israel. As another article in Tablet Magazine subtitled “Shepherding a New Judaism in Jerusalem” describes, “Unlike most houses of worship, which self-sort along religious and denominational lines, Tzion’s attendees span the spectrum from devoutly Orthodox to entirely secular”.
The CJ Magazine article adds that, “like her own Ashkenazi and Sephardi family, Elad-Appelbaum’s congregation brings together the “heritage of families that made us who we are.”… [honoring] three pillars of tradition: Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Eretz Yisraeli, in other words, the Sephardic, Eastern European and Israeli traditions. Elad-Appelbaum tries to speak a Klal Yisrael language for all Jews. The blend is unique to their minyan…. She is very much committed to welcoming people from all avenues of life and enabling them to participate in Jewish life in ways with which they are comfortable.
Rabbi Tamar says about her work: “My father fought in wars for Israel,” and [my mission is] “bringing Klal Yisrael back to Jewish tradition.” She believes that the earliest years of Israel, the years involving the founding of the state, were “dedicated to the body”, [and that], going forward, the coming decades should be dedicated “to the soul.” For Elad-Appelbaum, her generation’s task is to be the “pioneers of reviving the soul, to be the magshimim (the fulfillers)…. We call our community Tzion with deep belief that this is the destiny of Zionism, and always has been: that Jews come back to the land of Israel, after walking through all cultures and nations and pains, so we can care for humanity as a whole”.
For all his brilliance and foresight and inspiring leadership of the pre-state and early Israel, I don’t think David Ben-Gurion saw Rabbi Tamar-Elad Appelbaum in Israel’s future. Ben-Gurion was supremely focused on what Rabbi Tamar refers to as the “body” of Israel, securing its sovereignty, building its governmental institutions and infrastructure, and getting as many Jews as possible to make Aliyah to Israel and rally around the common purpose of building a Jewish state. Over the years this has led to countless numbers of Jews making Aliyah from all over the world, bringing amazing and inspiring people like Matan Rudner and Gila Rosenfield to make their home in the land and share a sense of community and peoplehood, together doing whatever it takes to help solve problems and shape the country, and try to share their love for the land with others in the different ways they can. But when we add Rabbi Tamar’s story to the mix, we can see that, beyond the scope of secular Labor Zionist Ben-Gurion’s vision, emerging from the diverse populace there are amazing and inspiring things happening now with Israel’s blossoming “soul”, and not just by the hands of foreign olim, but even from the work of native-born Sabras. Matan, Gila, and Rabbi Tamar are all faces of contemporary Israel, and all part of Israel’s story— like the legendary “Start-Up Nation” innovation, the current Knesset electoral impasse, and a tour bus getting blocked by illegally parked cars. My call to each of us here today is to think about how we see our own faces as a part of Israel’s story. Visitors? Financial supporters? Investors? Advocates? Olim? We can be one of these faces, or some of them, or all of them.
In the haftarah that we read this past Shabbat morning, the prophet Isaiah offered us words which simultaneously comfort and call on us: “Ivru ivru ba’sh’earim, panu derekh ha’am; solu solu ha-mesilah, saklu mei-even, harimu nes al ha-amim”. Pass through, pass through the gates! Clear the road for the people; build up, build up the highway, remove the rocks! Raise an ensign over the peoples! Speaking to the exiles in Babylonia after the destruction of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah offered a hopeful message that a pathway would be cleared for their return to Zion, to Israel, a comforting message that still resounds today after our people once again returned to Zion, this time after 2000 years of exile. And the message also calls on us: While the road was cleared 71 years ago for our return, it’s still up to each of us to roll up our sleeves and build up the highway and remove the rocks, to contribute to the still unfolding narrative that is the body and soul of the State of Israel, in the land of our Jewish people. In the words of Matan Rudner, “The work lies with us, to build and to be built, to shape and to be shaped, by the land to which we have returned”. AMEN.
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This past Wednesday up at the North Texas Food Bank in Plano, more than 1000 volunteers from all over the area, including a number of folks from our congregation, came to pack up 279,280 meals for those in need as part of the Communities Foundation of Texas’ 18th Annual Freedom Day. This year was the first year that our local Freedom Day was linked into the federally-recognized September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance and the associated efforts spearheaded by friends Jay Winuk and David Paine and the 501c3 they founded, 9/11 Day. The Dallas Meal Pack was one of eight major hunger-related service projects 9/11 Day organized around the nation this year, including New York, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Atlanta. It was also one of many volunteer service projects that Communities Foundation of Texas organized in the DFW area in observance of the CFT-created “Freedom Day.” Nationally, close to 12,000 volunteers participated in 9/11 Day Meal Pack projects with the goal of packing over 3,000,000 meals for people in need.
I was privileged to be invited to share a blessing with the hundreds of assembled volunteers at NTFB before the 12-noon packing shift began. But I was also privileged to share the stage with David Paine, who came in to support our efforts and then was on his way to hop a flight to Phoenix to visit their project as well; with Ruben Martinez, the sixth-grader from El Paso who created the viral #ElPasoChallenge, who has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN and other media to help spread the word and is asking Americans to do 22 good deeds for each of the 22 people killed in the El Paso shooting; and with my colleague Imam Azhar Subedar from the Islamic Association of Collin County, a real mensch and a huge advocate for interfaith collaboration. I was inspired by their presence and the presence of the hundreds of volunteers in the room. As a woman from our ceremony team sang “America, the Beautiful”, I looked around the room and saw people of all different faiths and colors and backgrounds gathered together for this sacred purpose of serving others and honoring the memory of lives tragically cut short and I was moved to tears. This truly was America, the Beautiful.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that today’s parasha, today’s Torah reading, Ki Tetze, ends with three powerful verses about memory. We read these verses today and also on the Shabbat prior to the holiday of Purim every year, known as Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory. These verses instruct us to “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget!”
Rather emphatically, the Torah calls on us to remember this arch-enemy of the Jewish people throughout our generations. The evil Haman on Purim is descended from Amalek and whenever his name is mentioned in the Megillah reading we blot it out with the sound of the graggers in fulfillment of the verse. Jews are known for our long-term memory, not only of the attacks and persecutions of our enemies, but also of the gracious acts of God on our behalf. And when God asks us to remember, there is an expectation on God’s part that we will take appropriate action as well in response to our remembrance.
When it comes to the events of 9/11, for many of us, these memories are still very painful and traumatic and difficult. Some of us may have lost loved ones, or known victims or their families, or had friends who narrowly escaped being among those individuals. Others have the indelible images of the attacks in our memory banks from the repeated showings on television and elsewhere. But we are now at the point, 18 years later, where close to a generation of people in our country either weren’t alive when this devastation occurred or were only toddlers and thus have no conscious memory of the attacks or the aftermath. I was at Yavneh Academy’s High School Back-to-School Night on Wednesday evening, and when I met my son Jonah’s Hebrew teacher, he told the assembled parents that for class that morning he had not focused on Hebrew, but instead showed the students some clips of video and audio footage from 9/11, including calls from the doomed planes and other similarly emotional testimony of the tragedy. For most of the kids it was the first time they had seen or heard these clips, which is why the teacher felt it was important to take class time out to show them.
This is an important reminder that memory quickly becomes history. Some among us are still survivors of the Holocaust, or children or grandchildren of survivors, and some may still remember U.S. national traumas like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but none of us remembers firsthand the blowing up of the Maine in Havana Harbor near the end of the 19th century, or the defeat of the defenders at the Alamo in the 1830s. But we still as a nation recall these events and others. The cries of “Remember the Alamo” or “Remember the Maine” or “Remember Pearl Harbor” still reverberate in our collective memory as a nation, just as “Never Forget” reverberates in the shadow of the Holocaust almost 75 years later.
It is important that we remember the pain and the sorrow, the trauma and the shock and that we express our feelings each year. However, it is also important to remember as well the response of our nation, the heroes, police, firefighters, military service members, doctors, nurses, health care providers, and others who tried to and in some cases succeeded in saving lives, who ministered to the injured and the bereaved, and those who attempted to bring comfort to all who were impacted by these traumatic attacks. I’ll never forget what I experienced at NY Penn Station the Friday after 9/11 when I was heading down from the Jewish Theological Seminary to my student pulpit at Beth El in Baltimore, MD. I saw people all around me and throughout the station begin to rise and applaud and was not sure why they were doing so, until I saw several firefighters in dirty uniforms emerge at the top of an escalator. An entire train station worth of people gave these four firefighters a prolonged standing ovation, which I must say was an incredibly powerful moment. Just a few short years later, would that still have happened? Or more generally, do we express our continued appreciation to our first responders for all they do and what they risk every day to help us and keep us safe?
It is important as well to remember how we came together as a nation and how we, for a moment at least, were united as one great family and were embraced by countless strangers around the world who felt our pain and offered their support. No doubt there are real and troubling questions as to what is left of that communal and national unity that was felt 18 years ago, but when I stood on the stage at NTFB on Wednesday I felt an incredible rush of pride in our country and in what we can be and what we can do when we set our minds to it. 18, “Chai”, years after 9/11, we must still treasure the gift and sanctity of life and challenge ourselves regularly to use that gift to leave a lasting impact on the world around us.
As I bring these remarks to a close, I’d like to share with you now the brief one-minute blessing I shared with the assembled crowd at NTFB on Wednesday, inspired by a prayer written by my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levy. And then I’ll ask you all to rise and join me in reading A Prayer for Our Country together on p.177 in our Siddur, followed by the singing of America, the Beautiful, on p. 453.
There’s a phrase in the Haggadah, the book from which we tell the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder:
מאבל ליום טוב, ומאפלה לאור גדול
“From mourning to a day of goodness, from thick darkness to a great light”.
We remember the victims of the tragedy on 9/11. We remember those who stood up on 9/11 and gave their lives so that others might live. When all seemed lost, when the world seemed like a dark and heartless place, they restored our faith in people and our trust in God. They taught us hope, and fearlessness, and honor.
We will never forget their heroism and their sacrifice. We will teach our children and grandchildren about their courage in the face of danger. We will try with all our might to live up to the example they have set.
We will not ignore human suffering, we will not be indifferent to the cries of those who are hungry, or in need, or in pain; we have been changed forever by that fateful day of 9/11. May we who have gathered here today continue to honor the memory of those who perished and move from that day of deep and profound darkness to a day, THIS day, of profound goodness, blessing, and light. AMEN.
At the Annual Meeting on Wednesday, June 5, Rabbi Ari Sunshine thanked outgoing President Jack Jacobsen for his exemplary service. Here are Rabbi Sunshine's remarks:
Jack, Pirkei Avot offers us another teaching that speaks of the derekh tovah, the good path in life to which one should cleave. Among the characteristics that are listed, we find “chaver tov,” a good friend and colleague, “ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad,” foresight, and “lev tov,” a generous heart. All three of these characteristics befit you to a "T."
Throughout your presidency you have partnered and collaborated expertly with your fellow officers and lay leaders and with our Klei Kodesh and staff team, making for an extremely smooth two years that has seemingly flown by in the blink of an eye as our congregational life has flourished. You have the gift of foresight, trying to stay one step ahead of things and plan for our congregation’s exciting future with the development of Ma’alot, our new strategic plan, during your tenure.
And you most certainly have a generous heart. You are generous with your time, always finding ways to carve out the space for meetings or to deal with an issue on the phone or via text or email amidst your incredibly busy professional commitments with your day (and night and weekend!) job. You are generous with your resources, leading by example both a couple of years ago, and again last month, with your meaningful and significant donations to our Burn the Mortgage Campaign. You never seek accolades or credit for your efforts, you’re comfortable just doing what needs to be done, because our community needs it. And you are generous with your friendship, the nexus between chaver tov and lev tov, caring and unwaveringly loyal to those you care about. You readily make space for them to be a part of your life, as you have done so warmly for me and Jen and our family over these past two years since we arrived here in Dallas. It has been a real honor and a pleasure and, quite frankly, a lot of fun. Jack, working with you during your tenure, I’m personally grateful for all of your support and for your friendship which I know will long outlast these two years of our partnership. I’ll miss my Chai Tea Latte and Blueberry Muffin on Wednesday mornings, but I know there will still be many shared l’chaim’s in our future.
On behalf of the Klei Kodesh, I’d like to present you with this gift of a beautiful wine fountain. We know how much you like to host others in your home for Shabbat and holidays, and with this fountain you can easily share kiddush wine with all of your guests just as you have shared with us so much else as president of our shul. We hope you will enjoy this and use it often in the months and years ahead.
Jack, we extend a hearty and heartfelt yasher koach to you for all of your efforts as president of Congregation Shearith Israel over these past two years, and we know you won’t be a stranger as you continue to be an integral leader in our community. With that, I now formally discharge you from your position as president of our congregation and welcome you to the “past presidents club!”
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
For those of you who attended my installation here at Shearith Israel back in December of 2017, you might recall that I was installed by Rabbi Murray Ezring from Temple Israel in Charlotte, NC. Murray is my rabbinic mentor, the Senior Rabbi I worked with at the beginning of my rabbinic career, and a dear friend and trusted advisor and confidant throughout the years since. This past weekend I was privileged to return the favor and celebrate with Murray and his wife Barbara and their kids and grandkids in Charlotte as he retired from Temple Israel after 25 years of service. I was honored to be able to offer him a charge during Shabbat morning services, and I wanted to share with all of you what I shared with Rabbi Ezring and the assembled congregation, reflecting on his impact on my life and rabbinate and on his entire congregation.
It’s a real treat to be with all of you today back in this beautiful sanctuary and on this bimah that was the first pulpit I ascended when I was a “baby rabbi”. Moreover, it’s a special privilege to be able to stand before you and before Rabi Mori, my rabbi and teacher, my mentor and dear friend Rabbi Murray Ezring, to honor him on this milestone weekend celebrating his retirement after 25 years of faithful and dedicated service to Temple Israel.
Where to begin? How about we start with 5 things I learned from Rabbi Ezring in those first 5 years of my rabbinate:
1) When you write a sermon, first come up with the message you want to give and then look for the text that will reinforce that message. People want to hear about real life and want to hear Torah that is relatable and impacts the way they think and the choices they make.
2) Never be afraid to experiment when it comes to synagogue services, programming, or initiatives. Rabbi Ezring used to say he was always willing to try something once, and I have followed that advice in my own rabbinate.
3) Be accessible as a rabbi and a human being and always go out of your way to be there for, and with, people. Rabbis should not be distant from their community. The way we celebrate with a family at their simcha or are fully present for them when they are in crisis or after a loss is vital to building relationships and being the pastor congregants need us—and deserve for us—to be.
4) When clergy colleagues earn your trust, partner with them and work together to create an effective clergy team. Empower each other and encourage each other to do what each of you does best and the congregation as a whole will benefit. Among other things, this is partly why Murray gave me flexible time on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings when I worked here so that I could play in the JCC basketball and softball leagues and build important relationships that way.
5) Seek out partnerships in the interfaith community and cultivate them, and not just for the sake of educating each other and our congregations about different religious traditions. We live in a world that is much larger than the walls of any one synagogue, church or mosque, and we need to work together to make that world better. The faith community can play a vital role in that effort. The relationship Rabbi Ezring has with Dr. James Howell at Myers Park United Methodist Church and so many other local clergy has been a model for me to follow in the congregations I have served since I left here.
When I sat down in a room at JTS with Rabbi Ezring and David Miller back in the spring of 2002, I was already a finalist for several associate rabbi positions and the three of us had a frank discussion about whether Jen and I could see me taking the job and us moving to Charlotte. I told them, of course we could see it happening, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it and considering an interview weekend. But it’s important that you all know what the single biggest reason was that I chose to take this job at Temple Israel back in 2002. That reason was Rabbi Murray Ezring. Having met with several different senior rabbis that were looking for associates, and then having spent time talking with Murray that night in NY and then here during my interview weekend, I quickly became convinced that Murray would welcome me as a trusted partner and provide me the opportunity to learn and grow, and succeed and fail, as a “baby rabbi”. I knew he would be the right mentor for me. And I am so incredibly grateful for the choice I made, and for the relationship and friendship that developed between us in those 4.5 years and continued to thrive in the 13 years since. Murray and Barbara and their kids and grandkids came to Maryland to celebrate Jonah’s BM with us back in 2016, our families vacationed together in Orlando for Pesach one year, Murray and Barbara came to Dallas in December of 2017 to install me as Senior Rabbi at Shearith Israel, and they also came to visit us this January for several days. That’s not to mention the time I flew down to Charlotte to take Murray and his family out to dinner to make good on a bet after the Yankees beat the Orioles in the 2012 ALDS. Moreover, Murray and I still talk frequently and if I’m ever in a pinch and need Rabbinic advice, I’ll always pick up the phone and call him.
Being a congregational Rabbi is an incredibly demanding job, one that never really stops or yields even late at night or when on vacation. It can be exhausting and there are days when it can feel burdensome for a rabbi and his or her whole family who pay the price for the rabbi needing to be available sometimes on a moment’s notice to help with a crisis. In today’s parasha, Bechukotai, we find a juxtaposition of 11 verses of blessings God will provide us if we do what we’re supposed to do, followed by 32 verses of curses in case we choose not to follow the plan. At first glance one might think the curses—the burdens—of a pulpit rabbinate might outweigh the blessings, which at times could appear to be fewer in number. But at the end of the day the blessings that we experience as rabbis when we become an important part of your lives are so much deeper, richer and more powerful than those burdens or curses. And likewise it is a tremendous blessing for a congregation to be in relationship with their rabbi for such a long time, reflecting the importance of mutual care for each other as human beings. Temple Israel is so fortunate to have experienced Rabbi Ezring’s leadership, wisdom, wit, and warmth, over this last quarter century—yes, 25 years. We’re all better off for being able to call him Moreinu Rabbeinu, our rabbi and our teacher, and our friend.
Murray, thank you for all you’ve done for me over the years, thanks for trusting me, for laughing with me and occasionally at me, for advising me, and for being my very good friend. And thank you for all you’ve done for Temple Israel over these last 25 years of partnership. Mazal Tov to you and Barbara, to Aviva, Tami, Adam, Ron and Gil, and to Addison and Kobe of course, for reaching this amazing milestone. May the years ahead bring you as much fulfillment as these years you are concluding now. Love you, buddy.
Parashat Emor 5779
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Friends, Thursday night marked the end of an era. No, unfortunately I’m not talking about Dirk Nowitzki’s last game after 21 seasons, since the Mavs didn’t manage to make the playoffs, so that was over a month ago already. Actually, I’m talking about the end of another memorable 12 season run, one that was marked by stellar performances week after week, consistently entertaining the fans. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. Now, I have to confess, for the first 6 seasons I watched the show religiously either live or on DVR and was always laughing throughout. Then, through no fault of the show, just a matter of life getting in the way, I stopped keeping up with the show, and haven’t watched in the last several seasons, but when I noticed that Thursday was going to be the series finale, I made sure to record it and watch it when I came home from work. I promise I won’t provide any spoilers, but I will say that I jumped right back into the feel of the show and found the conclusion very satisfying even after several years away.
I also listened to an interview on NPR with Mandalit Del Barco the other day about the show and found it quite interesting as well. One of the executive producers of the show, Chuck Lorre, noted that the show was always for and about geeks and nerds, and that’s why it worked. He said: “The characters were outliers and felt somewhat disenfranchised from the world and clung to each other—they created a surrogate family.” He added that he is proud that the show connected with viewers who didn’t always fit in, commenting “this is for the rest of us who weren’t the king and queen of the prom”. His co-creator of the show, Bill Prady, who used to write computer software, once talked with Lorre about how brilliant his coworkers were at programming, but how bad they could be interacting with people, and women in particular. When Prady told him about a programmer who could do amazing calculations in his head but couldn’t manage to tip the waiters in a restaurant, Lorre said, “Hang on, I’ve never seen that guy on television”. Then they made their protagonists scientists instead of programmers, and they were off to the races in creating a successful show. In the NPR interview this week, Prady became emotional and commented that “all of the people who have said that they see themselves in the show because they were outsiders and people who didn’t fit in—that was me”.
The disappointment and frustration of those on the fringes of society, those who feel like they don’t fit in or are marginalized, is not a modern-day phenomenon. It is a problem almost as old as, dare I say it, The Big Bang, or at least since human community began in ancient times and in the Bible. Take the disturbing narrative of “the blasphemer” as recounted in this week’s Torah portion, Emor: A man came out among the Israelites whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. This man, for reasons unstated in the text, gets into a heated argument with another Israelite and blasphemes the name of God. He is brought by witnesses to Moses for adjudication, after which God instructs the people, “V’samchu kol ha-shom’im et y’deyhem al rosho”, all those who heard the man curse God must lay their hands upon his head, and then the whole community must stone him to death.
Why did this man, known as the Ben-Isha Yisraelit (literally “the son of an Israelite woman”), instigate a fight with another Israelite? A 5th century C.E. Midrash [Leviticus Rabbah 32:3], rabbinic legend, imagines a vivid picture of the events preceding this altercation. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit, who as I previously mentioned had an Egyptian father and a mother from the Israelite tribe of Dan, attempted to pitch his tent in the quarters of Dan. He is rejected by his presumptive tribesman and told that since tribal affiliation is determined through the father, he has no place amongst the tribe of Dan. Even though the Ben-Isha Yisraelit clearly saw himself as an Israelite, others were unwilling to accept him. In fact, according to the medieval rabbi and commentator Rashi, he was the first child of intermarriage in Israelite or Jewish history. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit takes his case to Moses, thinking that perhaps because Moses also grew up as an outsider in Egypt, he will have empathy for his predicament. However, Moses ruled in favor of Dan, and the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, angry and dejected, responds by blaspheming God’s name.
Imagine this man’s utter disappointment in what he believed to be, wanted to be, his community. He had a religious crisis and lashed out with a religious response. As a sympathetic reader, we cannot help but feel troubled by this narrative. This is not to trivialize this man’s offense per se— after all, the Ben-Isha Yisraelit violated the prohibition of desecrating God’s name, a law stated explicitly just a few verses earlier. But what are we to make of the community’s seeming lack of compassion? As my colleague and friend Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, NY, points out, a careful reading of this narrative suggests that the Torah seems unsettled by this as well.
In announcing the punishment of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, God commands the Israelites: “Let all those who heard [the blasphemy] place their hands upon his head, and let the entire congregation stone him.” Generally, the placing of hands is a symbolic gesture whereby one transfers sin onto another; such is the case with sacrifices such as the burnt offering listed at the beginning of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, and also with the Yom Kippur ritual enacted by the High Priest back in ancient times, when he would place both his hands on the head of a live goat — the scapegoat—and confess the sins of Israel onto its head before it was sent off to die in the desert. The people who witnessed the blasphemer, most likely the very people who banished him from their midst, were obligated to atone for their lack of compassion by means of s’micha, placing their hands on his head. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit died for his transgression, but he also became the scapegoat, sent to his death because of the sins of his neighbors.
That the community was at least partially responsible for the sin of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit is further evidenced by the juxtaposition of this story to the upcoming portions of the Torah that describe our responsibility to help integrate the lonely and downtrodden. The Torah emphasizes our obligation to take care of the impoverished, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
The Ben-Isha Yisraelit is the paradigmatic outsider. He is someone who does not fit in, someone out of sync with societal expectations, a newcomer who cannot find his place in the community. The genesis of the Big Bang Theory show and the biblical story of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit remind us that in our society, ancient and modern, it’s often hard to connect and find a way to fit in and become “accepted”. Sometimes it’s because we are newcomers to a country or community, school or house of worship. And sometimes we may already be settled in and yet are still having trouble finding kindred spirits who accept us for who we are without judging our background, parentage, skin color, sexual preference, gender, religion, or interests. I would reasonably guess that many, if not all of us, in this sanctuary have experienced this feeling of disenfranchisement at some point or another in our lives. It’s never a good feeling to be an outlier to a group or a community. But sometimes all it takes is one person, or a small group of people, to help break down those barriers and obstacles to connection. And remembering that we’ve experienced moments like these may be just the push we need to keep an eye open for others who may be struggling on the periphery.
In a synagogue or church community, or in a school setting, a sense of belonging should mean more than just pitching your tent like the Ben-Isha Yisraelit attempted to do on the land of the tribe of Dan, saying you want to be a part of the community; it should mean that people INVITE you to pitch your tent and even lift up the flap periodically to check on you and see how you’re doing. Perhaps had the Israelite community embraced the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, rather than pushed him away, he would not have felt compelled to blaspheme God’s name. How would this man have felt here in Shearith Israel, or in the houses of faith of others present here today, or in the schools of our students here in the room? It’s a question that merits serious reflection. Do we treat these various settings as our home, and anyone in it as our personal guest? While we’re in these settings, who are we talking to, and who AREN’T we talking to? Who are we stopping to greet in the hall, or sitting next to in services or at kiddush lunch or in a cafeteria at school, and who are we passing by and ignoring? Are each one of us taking a share of the responsibility for making OUR communities—faith or school—more inviting, or are we leaving that job for someone else? Our actions and inactions, kind words or harsh ones, truly do make an impact on others whether we realize it or not.
Can we step up to our responsibilities to be pleasant, friendly, inviting, and concerned, to do our part to help more people in our respective faith and school communities feel like insiders instead of outsiders? Individuals’ feeling of belonging and sense of self-worth, and the vibrancy and even the very essence of these types of communities and our society is what’s at stake.
A 19th century Rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda of Berlin (the Netziv), once taught that each individual has immeasurable potential and excluding the outsider or the outlier means the world may miss out on untapped greatness. He wrote, “Never underestimate the human potential of the stranger. Never forget that he or she could also be destined for greatness and, hence, never be responsible for the suppression of another’s potential. Rather, open your heart to the stranger in love so that you can enable him to flourish and realize his potential.” Maybe that’s why Sheldon and Amy won the Nobel Prize in Thursday night’s Big Bang Theory finale (oh shoot, that was a spoiler): they reached their maximum potential because they were surrounded by a group of friends and surrogate family who embraced them for all of their quirks and loved and supported them all the same. It’s all any of us can ever ask for from others, and something we can give freely in return if we only choose to.
Sermon--Acharei Mot 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
The title of our parasha today, Acharei Mot, literally “after the death of,” refers to the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were struck down by God a few chapters earlier in parashat Shemini for bringing an “esh zarah,” a strange fire, to the sacrificial altar. There Aaron reacts with stunned silence and he and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are unable to mourn their loved ones formally and ritually because they must maintain their pure sanctified state to be able to fulfill their priestly duties for the Israelite people. Instead, the rest of the Israelite community mourns on their behalf. Ultimately Moses instructs Aaron and his two other sons to resume their sacred work as priests. Here in our parasha the reference to the deaths from several chapters ago serves as a warning to Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, not to enter the innermost part of the sanctuary improperly in the context of his fulfilling the annual Yom Kippur atonement ritual for the community. The words “acharei mot” here teach that, after we’ve experienced death and loss, we have to take something away from that devastation. To say we could justify death or explain away loss by saying we can “make the loss worth it” or “make someone’s sacrifice worth it,” is itself an overstatement that potentially trivializes the depth of the loss or suggests a direct connection between a death and something positive that comes about in its aftermath or is allowed to continue by virtue of a person’s or people’s ultimate sacrifice. And yet, it’s also true that, when we’re in pain and have a permanent hole in our heart that cannot be filled because of a loss or losses we’ve suffered, we may find at least some measure of comfort in knowing that something positive came about as a result, some kind of silver lining to carry us forward.
Friends, the idea of “acharei mot” could not be a more appropriate parasha for today in light of the shooting at Chabad of Poway last Shabbat morning, that claimed the life of Lori Gilbert Kaye and wounded three others, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. A congregant was gunned down on Shabbat and the 8th day of Pesach in her synagogue, just as 11 congregants were gunned down in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a Shabbat in October. Both shootings were perpetrated by anti-Semitic murderers, and last week’s shooting was carried out by a 19-year-old. How do we respond “after the death?" We can seek inspiration from Rabbi Goldstein, who, after he had already seen his beloved congregant lying dead in the synagogue lobby, and with his hands bloody from being shot, managed to help evacuate children from the building and then, amazingly, after the shooter had fled, even spoke to his community outside the building. In his opinion piece in the New York Times this week, he wrote that he didn’t “remember all that [he] said to [his] community, but [he did] remember quoting a passage from the Passover Seder liturgy: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And he remembered shouting the words “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!” He commented, “I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.” And then Rabbi Goldstein added:
“I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish. From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue—especially this coming Shabbat.”
Rabbi Goldstein powerfully teaches us that, “acharei mot,” after Lori Kaye’s death and the deaths at Tree of Life Synagogue and after so many other deaths at the hands of anti-Semites throughout history and into modern times through the Shoah, the Holocaust, which we coincidentally also commemorated this week, and even in the 70+ years since, we must continue to say to anti-Semites and to the world that you are not going to erase us from history. You are not going to erase our story or our narrative. And you will never stop us from living as Jews and proudly carrying forward our traditions and our peoplehood.
This theme of acharei mot carries forward into next week when we will observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, on Tuesday evening, immediately followed the next day by Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. When the government of the State of Israel established the date of Yom HaZikaron in 1963, they deliberately and intentionally placed it immediately before Yom Ha’Atzma’ut on the calendar, starkly reminding us of the “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter of which renowned Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote, referring to the men and women who sacrificed their lives so that the modern State of Israel might be established and so that it would survive in the face of any and all threat that has come its way since. As we celebrate the miracle of Israel’s independence, we can never forget the price that was paid, and continues to be paid, to secure a homeland for our Jewish people. In this vein, I was shocked to learn yesterday that a prominent synagogue in Washington, D.C., the 6th and I Synagogue, will be observing an “Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day” this coming Tuesday night on the evening of Yom HaZikaron, describing it on their synagogue website as a “memorial based on the values of hope, solidarity, and non-violence” in which people will “hear from Israelis and Palestinians as they share their families’ stories of loss." When I learned about this event at 6th and I, I dug a little deeper and found that sadly this is not the only example of dilution of sacred Jewish days and ceremonies into something that obscures or devalues the Jewish heart of the commemoration itself. For example, Jewish Voice for Peace has created a Pesach Haggadah that makes equivalences between the Israelite experience in Egypt and the Palestinian experience, and a Tisha B’Av ritual that compares the Palestinian reaction to the establishment of the State of Israel to the Jewish people’s reaction—and millennia-old day of mourning—for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, expulsions from European countries in the Middle Ages, pogroms and other tragedies throughout Jewish history.
Now, let me be clear—I do very much hear and recognize the narrative of loss experienced by Palestinian Arabs, and I very much want to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And there is an appropriate time to focus on those sentiments and hopes. But on Yom HaZikaron, Pesach, Tisha B’Av? Sacred days of our people are NOT that time. We deserve our day, or days, to have them be just about our unique experience, our narrative. When we water down that narrative, as 6th and I Synagogue is doing this coming Tuesday night, it makes it harder for us to stand up to anti-Semites like the murderers in Poway and Pittsburgh because we are devaluing ourselves and we are devaluing our own story and our own right to exist! Why are we doing the work of the anti-Semites for them, making it easier to say our story doesn’t matter, our religion doesn’t matter, our people doesn’t matter, the State of Israel doesn’t matter? Like Rabbi Goldstein said in his opinion piece, we need to proudly stand up for ourselves and assert our right to exist, our right to gather safely and securely and practice our rituals and traditions here in the U.S. and in any country, and our right to have a national homeland in the land of Israel, “lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion Yerushalayim,” to be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem, as the words of Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah proclaim. This is us, the Jewish people. We will not back down from anti-Semites or from anyone who would seek to devalue us or the sacrifices we’ve made or eliminate us from history.
Acharei Mot. After the deaths. How do we respond to the deaths of Lori Kaye, the 11 Pittsburgh victims, the multi-thousand Israeli soldiers fighting to establish, secure and defend Israel, the countless victims of anti-Semitism throughout the ages, and the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah? We respond by living proudly as Jews, by testifying through our actions that Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and Jewish statehood is somehow worth the unimaginable and impossibly high cost we’ve paid and still pay to this very day. I hope you’ll join me in our Dallas Jewish community’s commemoration of Yom HaZikaron this coming Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm at Anshai Torah, as we gather and remember some of these sacrifices that have been made in the name of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People. May the memories of those who have paid this price for us, our “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter for our Judaism, continue to bless us and inspire us to treasure the Judaism and the Jewish state that meant so much to them. AMEN.
Parashat Tazria 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Lilly definitely struck gold when it came to the Bat Mitzvah parasha lottery. I mean, who doesn’t get excited when they find out they get to speak about contagious skin diseases in front of a large crowd of family and friends? Lilly did a great job giving us a contemporary perspective on this vis-à-vis inclusion and exclusion from community, so I’m going to spend a few minutes on a related theme that emerges towards the end of this parasha and appears in similar form in next week’s parasha of Metzora, and this is the issue of what happens when this same disease referred to as “tzara’at” manifests not on human skin, but instead contaminates fabrics and leather or even plastered or mud-covered building stones in houses. Most of our rabbinic commentators on the Torah tend to see the spread of these contagious diseases to inanimate objects such as clothing or houses as something natural, as if the object were just falling prey to a fungus or rot. But there are a few commentators who look at this somewhat differently, including Nachmanides from 13th century Spain. Commenting on the infection of clothing in this week’s parasha and on the “house plague” in next week’s parasha, Nachmanides says, “When the Jewish people are at one with God, God’s spirit is always upon them, keeping their bodies, clothes and homes in good appearance. When one of them happens to sin, however, an ugliness appears on his flesh, his clothes, or his house, to show that God has departed from him.” Nachmanides goes on to say that this only occurs in Israel, because only there could we be fully prepared to know God and have God’s Shekhinah, God’s presence, dwell amongst us.
Rashi, our medieval biblical commentator par excellence, from 11th century France, offers us a different explanation for the house plague right out of the Midrash, rabbinic legend—that the Amorites dwelling in Canaan, ultimately the land of Israel, had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses throughout the period of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, which the Israelites would find when they knocked down the ugly, moldy, “infected” houses upon their arrival in the land. Needless to say, the Israelites would be very pleased at the results of their cleanup effort.
That’s a fascinating midrash—and an outlandish one. Maybe instead of focusing on Rashi’s take that God infecting the houses was a roundabout way to reward the Israelites (and punish the non-believing Amorites,) we should instead think about a common thread between Nachmanides’ and Rashi’s comments. Nachmanides suggests that our clothes and our houses, if infected, would testify to the moral decay of the person wearing them. And if we look a little closer at Rashi’s take, perhaps he’s also criticizing the Amorites for hoarding and hiding wealth, seemingly prioritizing saving and protecting their wealth at all costs. Furthermore, if we set aside Rashi’s fanciful midrash altogether and just focus on the biblical text itself, we see that if an Israelite’s house is afflicted with this plague, then all the property within must be removed from the house, and the house must be diagnosed. Then a Kohen, a priest, tries to assure its ritual purity, and if that fails, the infected stones must be removed. And if that doesn’t work, then the entire house is supposed to be destroyed. Maybe we can’t picture this literally, but metaphorically this could be teaching us that our homes can theoretically decay morally to the point of destruction, to the point of holiness departing from their midst. That kedusha, holiness, should ideally find expression in our homes, should not surprise us on any level. Our ancient sages liked to encourage each of us to make our homes a “mikdash m’at,” small sanctuary, a sacred space for our family and for anyone else who enters into its confines. By the way, this is why we traditionally take the step of salting our challah every Shabbat, because in the times of the Ancient Temple, we used to salt the sacrifices that were brought to the altar, and now we salt our challah as a stand-in, helping transform our Shabbat tables into sacred altars. We can also think about the symbolism of the chuppah, the wedding canopy, which is open on all sides, reminding us not only of the importance of inviting others into that space, but also that we have the responsibility to fill in the walls of our home, so to speak, to frame our home symbolically with the values that we want expressed both within the house and outside of it when we interact with the world.
It’s on this point that the midrash about the Amorites hoarding gold and treasure in their walls again becomes useful to us. Thinking about the recent college admissions scandal that rocked—at least in the short term—the confidence of many in the college admissions process, we have to ask a crucial question, which is, “How did this happen?” And by that question I don’t mean how did these specific individuals cheat the system and take advantage of wealth and access, because for that, we can all read the many articles on the details of the case and perhaps be surprised, and perhaps not, at the brazenness of the scheme. No, I’m asking a different question, which is, “How did our society get to this point where parents are demonstrating to their children that the only thing that matters is getting ahead of others, getting what you want, and “winning,” not whether you got there fairly and on your own merits?” And while I don’t presume to say there’s only one answer to this troubling question, I’ll offer one now. Over a period of time too many people have succumbed to this temptation to cut corners and game the system, perhaps because they are convinced that what matters most in our society is THAT you get ahead, and that money can solve any problem. But even if it may be tempting to go down that path, our Jewish tradition reminds us that there is always another path, even if it runs counter to what others in society may be doing at the time. We always have a choice when we frame our home and shape the character of the space inside. At our dinner tables, sitting on the couch watching TV, or on our patio having an iced tea or another beverage on a nice spring evening, we can share our values with our children, our grandchildren, and our friends and neighbors. Yes, we could emphasize that anything goes as long as you end up getting ahead and getting what you want, or we can instead choose to frame things differently: that how we act matters. That dedication and hard work yields fruit. That happiness in life is not just about getting ahead professionally or financially. That kindness and generosity and helping others should not be an afterthought, but where it begins and ends for us. We have tremendous power to impact society and its values by way of first laying a strong foundation within the walls of our own houses. And while Nachmanides may have believed that both holiness and its absence, brought about by the decay of our morality and values, were limited to the land of Israel, I’ll respectfully disagree with him and say as clearly as I can that, going forward, what happens in our homes here in the U.S. can either validate the moral decay suggested by the occurrence of the college admissions scandal, or serve as a counterweight of kedusha, of holiness, that can inspire us and those around us to be our best selves and our best society and invite God back into our midst. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it soon be so.
Sermon--Parashat Terumah 5779
Tiny Treasures Shabbat, 2/9/19
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
According to a teaching of Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kappar in Pirke Avot (4:22), the Ethics of our Fathers, a collection of rabbinic wisdom and maxims included in the Mishnah some 1800 years ago, when we are born, we are actually born into the world against our will. Which is to say that no one consulted with us or asked our opinion before our arrival on this earth. And, moreover, we were also born into a world that had already benefited and suffered many times over because of choices our predecessors had made for us. We had no say in the matter of where our parents lived, how they made their living, whether they were compatible, or whether they provided us with food, clothing and shelter, even though every one of these factors had an impact on our lives when we began to live them. This idea that our world and some of our options and circumstances have already been shaped and constrained by decisions others have made seems to run counter to our society’s insistence that a persistent individual can determine his or her own destiny. While it’s true that there is certainly much that we can accomplish owing to our own individual initiative, we are also enmeshed in a larger context that is not of our own creation or doing that impacts our lives.
In that way, we are often dependent on the foresight of those who came before us, in much the same way that our children will ultimately face the consequences or reap the benefits of the choices we make—or don’t make—today. This week’s parasha, Terumah, speaks to this interconnection of the generations quite clearly through an interesting and surprising detail we encounter in the parasha. In the early stages of the Israelites’ wandering through the Sinai wilderness, God instructs them to gather material with which to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that will serve as the symbolic home for God’s presence in their midst. Among the specific materials listed in Shemot, Exodus 25:4-5, we find “gold and silver and brass, and blue and purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen and goats’ hair, and skins of rams dyed red, and skins of seals, and acacia wood.” While I realize too much goats’ hair might have required the invention of the world’s first lint brush, it’s not the inclusion of the goats’ hair that particularly puzzled the rabbinic sages. Rather, it is the mention of the atzei shittim, the acacia wood. Rashi, in his 11th century commentary, asks the obvious question, “From where did they obtain this in the wilderness?" After all, there are no acacia trees in the desert! How could God expect the Israelites to be able to obtain this type of lumber? Gersonides, the 14th century French philosopher and commentator also known by the acronym Ralbag, suggests that the Israelites might have cut down this wood in one of the places they passed through on the way in order to make furniture, and now donated whatever of it they had for the purpose of constructing the Mishkan. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th century Portuguese commentator, explained the disconnect by noting that most probably this wood, like the oil and spices, was purchased from the neighboring peoples who came to the Israelite camp to sell things. But Rashi in his day offered up a different explanation, which he brought from the Midrash Tanhuma, which was that our patriarch Jacob prophesized through God’s Divine Spirit that his descendants the Israelites would one day build the Tabernacle in the wilderness. So Jacob brought cedars—he believed the acacia was a kind of cedar—down to Egypt with him, planted them, and instructed his children to take them along when they left.
According to Rashi’s answer, our ancestor Jacob showed foresight and anticipated the needs of a future generation and then went out of his way to plan for and provide for those needs. He did not personally have any need for cedars or acacia wood, nor did he personally reap any benefit from them. Moreover, schlepping wood and trees along may have seemed like an unnecessary encumbrance to his family and contemporaries. Yet Jacob knew that his descendants would need it—and for a sacred purpose, no less—so he went the extra mile to provide it for them. This kind of selflessness and foresight is not always common, so it’s not surprising to see that the Midrash attributes Jacob’s foresight to ruach ha-kodesh, Divinely inspired prophecy.
In a similar vein, some of us may be familiar with the oft-cited Talmudic legend of Honi ha-m’agel, Honi the circle maker, and the story of his encounter with a man planting a carob tree. Honi asks the man how long it takes for the tree to bear fruit, to which the man replies, “70 years." Honi, puzzled by this response and thus the seemingly illogical action this man is taking, asks further, “So, are you sure you’ll be living for another 70 years?” And to this inquiry, the man responds, “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my children.” Honi then sits down to a meal, finishes eating, gets tired, and falls asleep for 70 years—according to the legend, no one found him in all that time because a rock formation grew around him and hid him from view. When he finally wakes up, sure enough, he sees a carob tree near him and a man picking fruit from the tree, prompting Honi to ask the man if he was the one who planted the tree. The man informed Honi that he was, in fact, the man’s grandson, to which Honi replies that now he knows he must have slept for 70 years. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a)
In our own day and age, there are multiple parallels to Rashi’s midrashic explanation for how the Israelites obtained the acacia wood cited in our parasha and the Talmudic story of Honi and the man who planted the carob tree. First of all, the unnamed man in the story planted a carob tree so that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have fruit in their lifetime, and Jacob planted trees that his children would need some 400 years later. Thus, like Jacob in the midrash and the concerned carob-tree planter in the story, it is important that we remember to measure our choices and actions by their consequences that extend forward multiple generations hence, not just by our short-term wants and needs. This approach most certainly applies to taking care of our society, our environment, and our planet.
But this parallel is also apt for Judaism and our Jewish communities. Specifically, when we “build” our own Judaism and our synagogue communities, we need to be forward thinking and not reactive, avoiding the trap that I know I’ve paraphrased here before in the name of Rabbi Ed Feinstein—one of the rabbis here at Shearith back in the day--that American Jews are really good at building synagogues that their parents and grandparents would have loved. We have an unfortunate habit in the modern Jewish world of either looking backwards at “glory days” gone by or being content to tread water in the present. We should be satisfied with neither if we are really intent on creating a vibrant Jewish future. Yet it is important to note in this vein something that we also often lose sight of: our children and grandchildren can only inherit what we ourselves possess. If we don’t plant and cultivate nourishing trees of life, as it were, meaningful Jewish experiences for ourselves that engage and inspire us regularly through the weeks of our year, then what exactly are we passing on to our children and grandchildren? We want to bestow on them values and guidance that will help them in their Jewish journeys when they are ready, and Jewish memories they would want to hold on to and cherish like a treasured possession.
So this is the challenge we face, the delicate balance we must strive for: creating a living and evolving Judaism and synagogues and Jewish communities that both resonate with us AND will resonate with our children and grandchildren. And this week, and today in particular, we are witness to the nexus of this balance, with the presentation of Shearith’s Strategic Plan, “Ma’alot: Ascending New Heights” and our celebration in a few minutes of our Tiny Treasures, many of the new babies who have been born in our Shearith community during these last 12 months. The general focus of Ma’alot is to push us to build on the solid foundation we have already established at Shearith and move forward and upwards from here in all the broad areas of our congregational life and culture, inviting more participation and engagement and inspiring others to join in and rally around our mission, vision and values. This upward push towards creating an even more sacred community than the one we are already part of means involvement of all demographics in our congregation, from our eldest seniors, even 101 year old Alex Jonas who recently told his son Hylton how excited he was to see how much was going on at the shul, all the way down to our littlest babies and their families who we’ll be welcoming into the sanctuary momentarily. And, regardless of what demographic each of us fits into, it is these beautiful little babies and their sweet faces—well, when they’re not crying, anyway :) —that remind us what is at stake in the long run with the work we’re doing. We want these Tiny Treasures—our tiny treasures—to treasure the Judaism and the community that we are building and re-shaping for us and for them—and then, one day, to have that same foresight as our ancestor Jacob and the carob tree planter did and bequeath a compelling legacy, mission, and framework for living to their children and grandchildren. This is the holy responsibility we are holding in our hands at this crossroads. May we be worthy stewards of our tradition and our congregation for ourselves and for the generations who will follow us. AMEN.
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