Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Today I thought I’d open my remarks with a few words about food. Dangerous territory in which to tread on a fast day, right? 😊 On the bright side, at least I’m confident I’ll have your, or your stomach’s, attention now. That is, until I tell you what food I wanted to talk about. You see, I wanted to talk about matzah. You heard me right, matzah. I know what you’re thinking. Rabbi, of course it makes total sense for you to talk about a food, matzah, in the midst of a fast day half a year away from Pesach. But now you must admit, you’re a little curious where I might be going with this. So let’s find out. 😉 It seems strange that the Torah and our tradition would choose such a shvach, non-descript food as the symbol of one of the most iconic and formative moments in our people’s history, our miraculous deliverance from slavery through God’s metaphorical hands. Why not a symbol that represented power or perhaps at least greater flair? Somehow it’s a simple unleavened bread, referred to as lechem oni, typically translated as “bread of affliction”, that is the calling card for our people as we became a free nation. How does that have anything to do with the process of redemption? The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel, a 16th and 17th century sage also known for his legendary associations with the Golem, offers an answer in his work Gevurot Hashem. He explains that matzah is called lechem oni because it is the opposite of enriched, or egg, matzah with its added oils or honey, since the oni, meaning “poor person” in Hebrew, has no money; he has only himself. Instead of framing matzah as the “bread of affliction”, the Maharal looks at it as essentially “simple bread”, with no additives or sweeteners, just flour and water, which is a perfect symbol for the “oni”, the poor person who has nothing except for the absolute basics. The Maharal’s take is that the poor person, while not being in a great position financially, is essentially unshackled from the physical world, unburdened from it, and thus MORE free than someone who has a great many possessions and a standard of living to maintain. It’s a representation of autonomy that, while coming with its own challenges, is quite different than the slave, in Egypt or anywhere, who is beholden to his or her master’s bidding. So the Maharal teaches that we are commanded to eat this simple, poor bread on the original night of the Exodus and every Pesach since. Neither the matzah, nor we as the people Israel and as individual Jews, are weighed down on the night of our redemption by any extra ingredients—save for maybe the debatably worth it pareve flourless cake, sorry, couldn’t resist 😊—it’s just us, and God, together, existing outside of the bonds and burdens of slavery. A simple but fulfilling life.
Well, a quick flip through the rest of the Torah after the Exodus, in particular the book of Numbers, suggests that the relationship between Israel and God was, well, COMPLICATED. Challenges, baggage and distractions seeped into the mix, and the relationship got a lot harder. LIFE got a lot harder, which seems only natural when you’re wandering in a wilderness for a long period of time. And this led to questionable choices and prioritizations on the part of the Israelites. And yet God pines, if you will, for a return to that simple, original and pure state of the relationship, as the words of Jeremiah 31:20, which we heard last week during the Zichronot section of Musaf, attest: “Ha-ven yakir li, Ephraim, truly Ephraim is a dear son to Me, im yeled sha’ashu’im, a child that is dandled, ki midei dabri bo, zachor ezk’reinu od, whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still; al ken hamu me’ai lo, that is why My heart yearns for him, rachem arachameinu, n’um Adonai, I will receive him back in love, declares Adonai”. We may have strayed from who we were as simple, free Israelites just out of Egypt, but there’s always a pathway back to that special snapshot in time and that treasured relationship with God. And, time and time again, the Israelites end up getting a wake-up call to this reality, either by hearing it from one of the prophets, or by dealing with an external crises that highlights the importance of a reboot and a return to the simplicity of their core relationship with God.
In a number of ways the experience we’ve been going through as individuals, as families, as a community, and as a society over these last six months is quite similar to what our biblical ancestors went through. An external crisis, a pandemic, has gotten our attention, dramatically altered our way of life, and shaken us to our core. As businesses of all kinds and all around us—restaurants, retail shops, movie theaters and others—have been forced to close or re-organize and re-prioritize to find ways to be profitable in the COVID era and its aftermath, and we have been largely isolating ourselves in our homes, the theme of change management looms large in our lives. The world has gotten even more complicated around us—how have we adapted and responded to that change?
One of the most common answers I’ve been seeing and hearing to this question in our community and in society in general is that we’ve been forced to simplify things. To go back to the basics. A number of you have specifically shared with me in these recent months how profound this change has been for you, and how grateful you are that you have been forced to re-examine your life choices and priorities and embrace a simpler life. Cooking together and enjoying daily meals as couples or families at the kitchen table, or socially distanced in the backyard with other extended family members and friends. Walking, hiking, running, or biking to be out in nature and get exercise and take care of our bodies. Playing games. Reading books and taking online classes. More frequent calls or FaceTimes or Zooms with your friends and loved ones, even folks you hadn’t been in touch with in a long time. Seeking community and connection with the shul and with God. In a real sense, what we are taught in the opening words of the biblical scroll of Ecclesiastes seems to ring true now more than ever: “Havel havalim, ha-kol havel”, vanity of vanities, everything is utterly futile—framed dramatically for rhetorical flourish, yes, but meaning that most everything we have in life is extra “stuff”, and is never meant to last. What is not havel, futile or vain, are these basic core building blocks of our lives. Those are meant to last and remain constant if we only choose to prioritize and nurture them.
19th century American author Henry David Thoreau looks to have been cut from the same philosophical cloth as Ecclesiastes. Unlike Ecclesiastes, though, whose reflections seem to have emerged from living in the metaphorical “fast lane” of the societal highway, Thoreau’s desire to understand and examine the worth and meaning of life, and to strip it down to its most basic elements, led him to live in isolation for two years in a small house on the shores of Walden Pond. Reflecting in his work Walden on the reasons for having made this decision, Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”. And Thoreau added: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”. Whether we frame it through the experiences and reflections of Ecclesiastes or Thoreau, or through the lens of our own recent life experiences, perhaps at this moment in our lives we can realize that we may have been spending too much time and energy on non-essential things. Thoreau advises us in Walden, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand”. The essence of his, and Ecclesiastes’, message, is clear: cut out what’s unnecessary and focus on what’s important.
And this return to basic values and priorities, my friends, is actually the essence of teshuva, the process of “returning” to ourselves, to our community, and God with which we are tasked during these Yamim Noraim, these High Holy Days. When a properly run organization is going through a process of change management and strategic planning, as we did here at Shearith two years ago, it starts with identifying its mission, vision and values to make sure it is focusing on its core essence, BEFORE moving forward and figuring out what kind of change is necessary. So, too, with each of us as individuals. We can’t begin the process of successful change until we strip ourselves down to our core essence and then see what’s been getting in the way of us being our best selves. We can then cut those obstacles or distractions out and focus on what’s most important.
At the end of the biblical scroll of Lamentations, we read a phrase that is likely more familiar to many of us from the conclusion of the Torah service when we return the Torah to the ark. “Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem”, “Bring us back to you, O God, and we shall return, renew our days as they were before”. When we think of renewal, we might first make the mistake of getting bogged down in the root “new” and understand it as something emerging from scratch. But here are some definitions of renewal: an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption; repairing something that is worn out, run-down, or broken; the act of being made fresh or vigorous again.
And so our scripture reminds us that renewal and change actually starts with a return to where, and WHO, we were, back when we were at our best, and picking back up from where we left off then. When our hearts were focused on the right things. When we channeled more of our time into pursuing and committing to those relationships that mattered. As with our Israelite ancestors, life got complicated, and some of these basic priorities got away from us and became worn down or broken. But these last six months we’ve been challenged to figure out how we’re going to make it through the wilderness of COVID and emerge stronger from it. We have been forced to simplify, to get back to being like the matzah, the no-frills symbol of our people when we first got our start in relationship with God once Egypt’s oppression was stripped away.
How do our best selves and lives look? When we are deeply connected in relationships, in person or virtually, with family, friends, and community who are the strongest anchors in our lives; when we are focused on maintaining our health by taking precautions and exercising; when we are reading and learning and expanding our appreciation for, and understanding of, our world in general and also of our Jewish tradition specifically, and thinking about how we can contribute to the world and to the continuing chain of Jewish generations; and when we are cultivating our faith in, and commitment to, God who can also be a rock for us even in the most turbulent of times. This is what our best selves look like, and what teshuva looks like, this year and every year. And so we pray together with the familiar words: Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Bring us back to you, God, and we shall return, to being our best selves and focusing on what matters. Renew our days and clear away the distractions from our souls so that we may once again be fresh and vigorous in the pursuit of meaning in our relationships and in our lives and in our commitment to you and to serving as your agents of goodness in your world. And let us all say, AMEN.
Joint Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman and Rabbi Shira Wallach
Congregation Shearith Israel
From the day Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden, they lived together East of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children and struggling to stay alive.
After those many years of struggle, when their children were grown, Adam and Eve decided to take a journey before it was too late and see the world that God had created.
They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other and explored all of the world's wonders. They stood up on the great mountains, treked across the vast deserts, walked amid the mighty forests, and traversed the magnificent seas.
They watched the sunrise over the endless wilderness and saw it set into the boundless ocean. All that God had created they beheld.
In the course of their journeys, wandering from place to place, they came upon a place that seemed so familiar. They came upon the garden of Eden from which they had been exiled on the very first day of their lives.
The garden was now guarded by an Angel with a flaming sword. This Angel frightened Adam and Eve who fled.
Suddenly they heard a gentle imploring voice. God spoke to them: “My children, you have lived in exile these many, many years. Your punishment is complete. Come now and return to my garden. Come home to the garden.”
Suddenly to the Angel disappeared. The way into the garden opened and God invited them in. But Adam, having spent so many years in the world, had grown shrewd. He hesitated and said to God, “You know it has been so many years. Remind me, what is it like in the garden?”
“The garden is paradise,” God responded. In the garden there is no work. You need never struggle or toil again. In the garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the garden there is no death. In the garden there is no time: no yesterday, no tomorrow, only an endless today. Come my children, return to the garden.”
Adam considered God's words. He thought about a life with no work, no struggle, no pain, no passage of time, and no death. An endless life of ease with no tomorrow and no yesterday.
And then he turned and looked at Eve his wife. He looked into the face of the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He read in the lines of her face all the tragedies they had overcome and the joys they had cherished. He saw in her eyes all the laughter and all the tears they had shared.
Eve looked back into Adam's face. She saw in his face all the moments that had formed their lives: moments of jubilant celebration and moments of unbearable pain.
She remembered the moments of life-changing crisis and the many moments of simple tenderness and love.
She remembered the moments when a new life arrived in their world and the moments when death intruded. As all their shared moments came back to her, she took Adam's hand in hers.
Looking into his wife's eyes, Adam shook his head and responded to God's invitation. “No thank you,” he said. “That's not for us not now. We don't need that now. Come on Eve,” he said to his wife. “Let's go home.” And Adam and Eve turned their backs on God's paradise and walked home.
It’s interesting, that on this evening, when we celebrate the creation of the universe, we don’t usually recount its story. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not the next day. Ironically, Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s beautiful retelling of the exile from Eden might help us understand why.
In his version of the story, God reopens the gates, allowing Adam and Eve an opportunity to return to the perfection He created for them before they corrupted it. And yet, they refuse, deciding instead to make their own way in the world.
Why? Because what they realize after a long period of struggle and hardship is that there is more meaning, more possibility, and more humanity in a world that is imperfect. In Eden, there is no conflict, so there is no growth. In the garden of the Divine, there is nothing to work for, because everything is provided for you. In the realm of the Godly, there are no problems to solve, and nothing to build.
It may seem like the world we live in right now couldn’t be farther removed from Gan Eden or a conventional definition of paradise, and yet what drives us isn’t a return to idyllic isolation from a complicated and demanding world, but rather a way to ground ourselves so we can engage fully with that world.
Like Adam and Eve after the fall, we live in a world where we are called, day after day and year after year for 5780 years and counting, to help reinvent and recreate in partnership with God. Every morning, before we say the Shema, we praise God for being m’chadesh b’tuvo b’khol yom tamid, ma’aseh bereishit—the one who is constantly renewing and re-creating our world, and charges us to do the same as much as we are able.
We are the ones who, inspired by the teachings of our Torah, decide what sacred space is, where we learn, how prayer is offered up to heaven, and how we lift each other up right here on this earth. This year, we have truly recreated all of these experiences anew.
We have been challenged to find connection with each other and with God, despite the awful circumstances in the world around us.
And how have we fared in these endeavors?
We have re-defined the possibilities of sacred space. We already knew we could find it in our synagogue building while doing things such as davening or learning or packing sandwiches for the sandwich drive, and experience it while outside the walls of the shul studying Torah together in a bar or restaurant, delivering Shabbat meals to some of our homebound seniors, or enjoying a weekend away at the Family Retreat or a week and a half on a congregational mission to Israel.
But did we know before this year that we could also create and enter sacred space when we assemble in our little boxes on a Zoom screen, and form daily or Shabbat minyanim, share a meal in a virtual breakout room for Shabbat Across Shearith, or assemble for Havdalah online every weekend with a number of congregants joining in from their homes with their own Havdalah sets?
We have expanded our notion of where we can learn, and developed our tech skills even when many of us felt we had none, connecting with teachers and fellow eager learners in accessible and versatile mobile classrooms for adults and children of all ages, and learning a lot of patience (and how to mute and unmute!) along the way, looking forward to the day when we can again discuss and debate with our fellow students across the table from one another.
We have broadened our perspectives on how we can offer our prayers to God. In the absence of our ability to gather in one room for a minyan, we have greeted each other warmly onscreen, turned to digital versions of our liturgy when we didn’t have siddurim handy, met the powerful emotional and ritual need of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for our loved ones, and even figured out how to sing together as a group without ACTUALLY singing together with our fellow worshipers.
And we have innovated ways to lift each other up amidst the peaks and valleys of our lives, extending virtual embraces whether celebrating a Bar Mitzvah or a bris or a baby naming, or offering heartfelt condolences to mourners at a funeral or a shiva while others quietly listen in rapt attention to the warm memories being shared.
One common thread links all of these experiences together, and that is community. Whether we are in each other’s physical presence, or seeing each other’s faces online, or even some of both, we can create a powerful sense of sacred space, we can learn and grow together, we can worship and break bread together, and rejoice or mourn together. In this we draw strength from the precept imparted to us at creation--lo tov heyot he’adam levado, we do not go through life alone, but with companionship in community.
And it’s this last point that we’d like to emphasize on this erev Rosh Hashanah, as we begin this season of High Holy Days together--not in our beautiful sanctuaries, in the seats that some of our families have occupied for generations-but in a way none of us could have possibly imagined a year ago-spread out across the city in our own homes, very far from Gan Eden.
In Rabbi Feinstein’s story, Adam and Eve decline the opportunity to return to Eden. It may be paradise, but it’s not home. Because, you see, as humans we also get to define what home means to us. Home isn’t defined by perfection. Instead we may define it in its broadest sense as a place where we feel loved and valued, comfortable and comforted, where we experience joy and laughter, where we break bread, where we struggle and where we grow. No matter how crazy the world is around us, those constants remain. For Adam and Eve, companionship was the key to these constants being realized. And with that in mind, I’d like to ask each of you to reach into your High Holy Days Box and take out and unwrap the special gift we’ve included for you. I’ll give you all a moment so you can untie the ribbon and take out what’s inside the box. As you can see, we’ve given you a compass. A compass will always point out your “true north” and let you know where to find it, even if you’re lost in a forest filled with trees and can’t see which way to turn to get home, or just feeling lost in a world that feels decidedly un-Eden like. Friends, throughout these High Holy Days, before each private Amidah prayer that we recite, we hope you’ll try picking up this compass to orient yourselves eastwards toward Yerushalayim in your prayers, as well as link yourselves symbolically, along with your fellow congregants wherever they may be located, to the unfailing true north of companionship and community which you can count on here at Shearith Israel, where we are so much more than a building. We are a strong, vibrant and caring community where we hope you will always feel that sense of home I just described a few moments ago. Whether we’re online as we are right now, in person as we hope to be very soon, or some combination of both, we remain, Shearith Israel, here for you in good times and bad, a community where you can Enrich Your Life, Elevate Your Soul, and Embrace Your Judaism. We look forward to establishing new relationships and connections, and strengthening longstanding ones, as together we journey forward into this next chapter of creation, the as yet unwritten story of 5781, one which we hope will be filled with sweetness, growth and good health for all. Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Some folks are called gym rats for their intense devotion to working out, or practicing their chosen sport or sports. My Dad, however, is what I’d affectionately refer to as a “shul rat”, someone who just LOVES to be in shul. It could be at his shul, Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, where my classmate and dear friend and a former member of Shearith’s rabbinic team, Adam Raskin, is now his rabbi. It could be when he goes and leads services for the residents of Revitz House, a Jewish senior living facility in Rockville, Maryland. It could be when he’s traveling in the U.S. or elsewhere around the world. Wherever he is, he wants to be in shul on Shabbat. In this regard, the circumstances of the COVID pandemic have actually provided him with a small but meaningful silver lining while he and my Mom largely continue to shelter at home. Because, you see, any given Shabbat morning, my Dad can hop on two, three, or as many as five online Shabbat services, joining the Shabbat community in shuls all around the U.S—and the difference in time zones sure helps with that! Ok, admittedly he has a few favorites, whether it be Har Shalom, or Shearith where he gets to watch his son do the rabbi thing, or Beth Am in Baltimore where my cousin is the rabbi, and a handful of others. But I get a kick out of talking with him and my Mom after Havdalah or on a Sunday and hearing him say, “I went to three shuls today!” or telling me that he went to shul with his sister, my Aunt Bette, that morning. Of course, Bette was sitting in her home in Ann Arbor, MI, and my Dad was in his home in Maryland. And yet they shared the same shul experience and it was as if they were sitting next to each other, able to kibitz about the rabbi’s sermon (chances are the reviews are usually fairly positive when they’re watching one of their children preach), and the tune that was used for Adon Olam. The world has gotten considerably smaller during these past six months.
Certainly my family’s ability to “go to shul” together online on Shabbat is not the only example of this. How many of you watching today shared one or more Pesach seders this year with friends and loved ones all over the country? Yes, it’s true we could say “dayenu” at this point to the problem of not being able to sing together on the same beat, but weren’t the “Zeders” of 2020/5780 pretty special in their own way, effectively expanding our Seder tables to include folks who wouldn’t all otherwise have necessarily been able to join us? And we can say the same thing about brises, simchat bat ceremonies, b’nei mitzvah, funerals, and shiva minyanim, where family members and friends from faraway places have been able to smile and celebrate onscreen with us, or comfort us with their presence, which even as recently as the beginning of 2020 would not have been considered as an option for people, let alone one that so many folks are now taking advantage of to draw closer to those they care about.
Finally, let’s not forget that this closeness has not been limited to the boundaries of the U.S. Back in June we arranged a virtual tour for our congregation of Gabrieli Weaving’s studio in Rechovot, Israel and store in Jerusalem. We got a glimpse behind the curtain of what I would argue is the best source in the world for beautiful tallitot, from which more than 2/3 of my 16 tallitot—not a misprint—come, and a number of our members purchased tallitot for themselves, their children or their grandchildren, including several of our Shearith B’nei Mitzvah families, after setting up personal shopping appointments. We were 7000 miles and 8 hours on the clock apart, and yet there we were, connecting intimately and forging or strengthening our bond to Israel and to Jewish ritual at the same time. And we wouldn’t even have thought of trying this a year ago.
Yes, the world definitely feels smaller than it used to feel. Our reach and capacity to connect with others has been extended exponentially, which has opened up new opportunities for us personally and professionally. But what are the implications of this for us going forward, as we continue to grind our way through a pandemic, but also prepare for its eventual aftermath? Does our ability to reach further challenge us to think about widening our circle of concern, or is this just a short-term way of thinking that should yield to insularity and parochialism once things “go back to normal” within our communities or in general with the practice of our Judaism?
Friends, I would suggest that the answer to this question is found in Jewish values, and it gets back to the very core of how we see ourselves as Jewish people relative to the rest of the world. Deeply ingrained in our traditional texts and our prayer liturgies are many reflections of this basic tension, the tension between particularism and universalism.
Take the Aleinu prayer for instance. It’s a prayer many of us know well and can sing along with, but how well do we really know it? You might know a little more about it if you watched my On Demand video clip on it on the portal, but otherwise feel free to check that and our other On Demand content out later. The prayer begins, “Aleinu l’shabeach la-Adon ha-kol, lateyt g’dulah l’yotzer b’reishit, she-lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishp’chot ha-adama, she-lo sam chelkeynu ka-hem, v’goraleinu k’chol ha-monam”—It is for us to praise the Ruler of all, to acclaim the Creator, who has not made us merely a nation, nor formed us as all earthly families, nor given us an ordinary destiny. In these opening lines of the Aleinu, as Jewish people we are called upon to praise God as the master and creator of all, BECAUSE God assigned us a different kind of responsibility and destiny in the world. Over the course of the full text of the two paragraphs of the Aleinu, we reflect back on God as the universal creator, and yearn for the day when we will be able “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai”, to establish the world in the kingdom of the Almighty, or, in modern usage, to repair the world according to God’s blueprint, a world that includes, as our machzor says in a comment on p.156, “the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and protection of the planet itself from destruction”. And then, at the conclusion of the prayer, when we cite the words of the prophet Zechariah, we hope that the day will also come when our God will be acknowledged as the one God who is sovereign of all the earth. Once again, we are pulled back and forth between universal and particular aspirations.
Aleinu is actually one of a number of prayers in our High Holy Day liturgy that reflects themes that are both particularistic towards the Jewish people and universalistic towards all of humanity. This should not surprise us when we recognize that the rabbis saw Rosh Hashanah not only as a time of judgment for the Jewish people, but also as the anniversary of the birthday of the world and a time that all pass before God in judgment: in the words of the Mishna and the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer we recited earlier, “v’chol ba’ei olam ya’avrun l’fanekha kivnei maron”, ALL that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Judgment and accountability isn’t just something reserved for Jews, it’s something all human beings have to deal with. And on Rosh Hashanah, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman points out in his book “All the World”, we as Jews “appear before God in our capacity as universal man or woman, not simply as a member of the Jewish People. To be sure, says Hoffman, it is Jewish tradition that summons us here to synagogue today, but once here, “we appear naked before God as the human descendants of Adam and Eve in Eden. We are either worthy of continued existence in God’s world or we are not; and if we are not, we engage in teshuvah” (23). We come to terms with who we have been in this past year and attempt to recreate ourselves, and the world, in a better image going forward. Hoffman adds, “Passover is one bookend in Jewish time, the particularistic one, the High Holy Days are the other bookend, the universalistic one, recalling that as much as we are Jews, we are also members of the world community, with a mission to advance the well-being of the world in which we find our existence” (23). This is right in line with the Aleinu insight of appreciating our particular peoplehood while situating it firmly in the context of the universal human experience and consequently embracing our mission of contributing to the betterment of the world.
Clearly this universal stamp is all over our machzor, and all over these High Holy Days, even when we are in the midst of our peak season of focusing on our own distinctly Jewish practices and rituals. But this theme isn’t just found during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s found in our Shabbat liturgy every week of the year, in the Kiddush. The first paragraph of the Kiddush focuses on Shabbat rooted in the creation story—God created the entire world and all life within it, and then carved out a 7th day in the cycle to rest once the creative process was completed. The second paragraph of the Kiddush adds another component: it refers to Shabbat as both a memorial for the act of creation, and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, noting “ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha-amim”, “God chose us and sanctified us from all the nations” by giving us the Shabbat. In the Kiddush we move from Shabbat as a universal gift in response to a universal act, to Shabbat as a gift to the Jewish people as part of a particular act of redeeming Israel from Egypt. Clearly we would not have been redeemed from Egypt had we, and the rest of humanity, not been created in the first place. Every week, we are charged with holding on to both contexts of Shabbat when we recite the Kiddush.
So how do we navigate this particular vs. universal tension in practice? Well, as with so much else in Judaism, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, we focus inwardly on the powerful mandate of building our own community, learning as children and as adults about our Jewish tradition, and turning that learning into active Jewish living, observing Shabbat and holidays, eating a traditional Jewish diet through the laws of kashrut, and engaging regularly in personal and communal prayer. And on the other hand, we focus our gaze outwards, looking to reinforce the bond we share with the rest of humanity and do our part to elevate those who need lifting up.
There’s a famous maxim from Pirkei Avot, one of our earliest rabbinic collections of wisdom literature from 2000 years ago. It is “Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li—U’ch-she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani”? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I’m only for myself, what am I? It’s a compelling call for both particularism and universalism in our approach to living. But there’s also a third part of the maxim: “V’im lo achshav—eimatai”. This task of looking out for both our own interests, and those of others in the world around us, is imbued with urgency. We can’t put it off, says Pirkei Avot, because we’ll just keep coming up with excuses. So today I’ll offer you a pathway to fulfilling the mandate of helping others besides ourselves, by calling to your attention the impactful work of our Shearith Israel Social Action Committee, headed up by Mindy Fagin and Andrea Solka. Here are just a few of the things they’re currently working on:
This week I ordered the newest tallit in Gabrieli’s line, one of only 72 individually numbered special blue and white tallitot made in celebration of Israel’s 72nd birthday back in May. No, I didn’t need a 17th tallit—I just loved the design and wanted to support my friend Ori Gabrieli’s business as it suffers with no tourism during the pandemic. But it’s fitting in light of my comments today that the atara, the collar, of this tallit is embroidered with the words “V’ahavta L’rey-acha Kamocha”, love your neighbor as yourself, from the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. We do have to love and value ourselves and treasure what makes us unique, but even as we work hard to develop our particular Jewish identity, we have to value our neighbors and reach out and work hard to help them too. And in this small and very connected world we now find ourselves living in, when people all over the globe are struggling with the impact of the same pandemic, where geographic or perceived distance can be bridged in one Facetime call or online gathering, we have lots more “neighbors”. Two brothers, Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman wrote a catchy little melody back in 1963, the lyrics might be vaguely familiar to you: “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears; There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware—It’s a small world after all”.
Zeh Olam Katan M’od. It’s a small world after all, so our reach can extend further than ever before, in our own backyards and beyond. But that just means there’s that much more we can do to pitch in. What do you say we get started? Im lo achsav, eimatai. If not now, when?
Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom.
Watch this sermon at vimeo.com/460269520
Should We Be Afraid? Reflections on the Future of Conservative JudaismRead Now
Parashat Vayishlach 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Earlier this week I was in Boston, along with our president, Shirley Davidoff, and our Chief Operating Officer, Kim West, for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly’s joint “20/20 Judaism” conference, a conference for the lay and rabbinic arms of the Conservative Movement. As an aside, when I found out that the Reform Movement’s conference this week was being held in Chicago, I couldn’t help but wonder: note to conference organizers, would it be too much trouble for you to plan winter conferences in WARMER PLACES? I’m just sayin’…
In any case, heavy jackets aside, the convention was bustling and lively, with about 1400 people in attendance, including some staff, volunteers, and exhibitors. I’m not sure if it’s the largest convention USCJ and the RA have ever had, but it certainly was the largest in some time, and there was a great deal of energy in the building from convention-goers. As you might expect, we had a series of large group, full-convention plenaries, including the opening session on the topic of “Why Are We Dreaming Together?” featuring a keynote address by NY Times columnist Bari Weiss; a session on “Why Be a Conservative Movement” featuring a dialogue with the leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; and a session on “Will We Serve the Jews of Today and Tomorrow?”, looking at research regarding Jewish youth today and where they’re at. In addition to thought-provoking presentations to the entire convention body that fed our minds, we also gathered together to listen to, and sing along with, the engaging and inviting styles of contemporary liturgical singers like Joey Weisenberg from Machon Hadar and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, feeding our Jewish souls with the uplifting ruach, spirit, of these moving encounters. We also had ample opportunities over meals and coffees to network, idea share, and brainstorm, with colleagues and friends from all over the Conservative Movement—keep in mind the Movement spans not just the U.S., but also Canada, Latin America, Israel, and Western and Central Europe, not to mention in places as far away as Melbourne, Australia! And of course, there were a number of slots in the convention schedule for breakout sessions where we could select topics that were of most interest and relevance to individual convention-goers.
In one such session I attended, entitled “Who are Today’s Conservative Jews?”, we were presented with combined data from surveys conducted of the Jewish communities in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, in 2015, 2017, and 2017, respectively. That data was also compared at various points in the session to findings from the 2013 Pew Research Center study of the American Jewish community and framed to offer us some potential takeaways from the available data. Here are a few interesting stats: when asked in these surveys what denomination Jews identified with, the Pew Study had 35% identify Reform, 18% Conservative, 10% Orthodox, 6% Other, and 30% No Denomination; and the merged data of the other three studies came up with 32% Reform, 19% Conservative, 6% Orthodox, 2% Other, and 41% None (which included Secular/Cultural and “Just Jewish”). Another stat: for those who, when asked, identify denominationally as Conservative Jews, 57% of them are members of synagogues, with 32% belonging to Conservative synagogues specifically and 25% belonging to other types of synagogues; whereas 85% of those who identified Orthodox are members of any synagogue, and 41% of those who identified Reform are members of any synagogue. When it comes to age groups, one might be surprised to find out that the percentage of those who identify denominationally as Conservative barely varies whether the person asked is 18 or over 80 or anywhere in between—the percentages hold steady in a very narrow band at 18-21% throughout that timeline. Unsurprisingly, where the numbers vary more are in the synagogue affiliation rate itself, with only 25% affiliation between ages 18-34, moving up to 36% affiliation from ages 35-49, peaking at 41% between ages 50-64 and then trending slightly downward to 37% from ages 65-79 as well as age 80+. A few other stats about behaviors and attitudes in these 3 Jewish communities that were surveyed: of those who identify Conservative--
Among the takeaways presented from this data, our session leader, a researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, noted that the data complicates our understanding of the label “Conservative” in that there are Conservative Jews who are not synagogue members and there are also members of Conservative synagogues who don’t actually identify as Conservative Jews denominationally. It certainly raises important questions about who we’re currently serving, and who we might yet serve. The fact that Millennials and the Gen Z generation are still affiliating at lower rates than Gen X and Baby Boomers is one that has been consistently noted in recent survey data and challenges us as modern Jewish institutions to continue to create more entry points and lower bars to participation into synagogue life and Jewish life in general. I was pleased to learn that, in the communities studied, 57% of Jews who identify as Conservative Jews are members of at least one synagogue, whether the synagogue itself is Conservative or an independent minyan or affiliated with another movement—that number seemed higher than I would have expected. And I was likewise encouraged to see some of the behavioral and attitudinal data that I shared with you a couple of minutes ago, which suggests, as the Pew Study data suggested as well, that Jews who are identifying as Conservative on balance are relatively engaged Jewishly, both in ritual practices as well as in supporting Jewish community here and in Israel.
So where does all of this leave us? At the outset of today’s parasha, when Jacob is anticipating his reunion with Esau, knowing Esau is coming his way with a large company of men and not knowing Esau’s intentions for him, the text says “va-yira Ya’akov m’od”, Jacob was greatly frightened. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic legends on the Torah from close to 2000 years ago, teaches us (76:1) that “two people received God’s assurances, yet they were afraid; the chosen one of the Patriarchs—Jacob—and the chosen one of the Prophets—Moses—despite the teaching from Proverbs (3.5) to “trust in God with all your heart”. Thus, according to the Midrash, the Jewish people in other precarious moments in our history—like in the days of Haman and the Purim story, for example--could justify their own fear by saying, “If our ancestor Jacob, who had received God’s assurance of protection, was nevertheless afraid for his survival, how much the more so are we justified in feeling afraid?” Jacob’s example illustrates that fear, or anxiety, is actually fully compatible with deep faith.
A number of scholars and sociologists have, in the last 10-20 years, sounded the alarm bell for Conservative Judaism, warning that the Conservative Movement is rapidly heading for extinction. So, should we be afraid of what they’re saying? Should we be feeling hopeless for the future, or perhaps even fearing for our survival as a Movement? Friends, I think we should take a page out of our ancestor Jacob’s book. Namely, on the one hand we should embrace the healthy anxiety that some of the statistics may cause us, because it is out of this anxiety and concern and even fear that a meaningful way of Jewish life is being lost, that we are forced to rise to the challenge. We must continue to do more outreach, embrace innovation, and passionately and energetically model Jewish engagement and practice that is both traditional and adaptive, and thought-provoking for our minds and inspiring for our hearts and souls. And on the other hand, we should not just embrace our anxieties on this issue, but we should also have faith:
Forgive to LiveRead Now
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.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share