Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This summer, in the midst of our highly successful Shearith Family Mission to Israel, our group of 34 people spent a morning wandering the alleys of the mystical city of Tzefat, watching a Bar Mitzvah celebration at the historic Abuhav Synagogue and exploring the beautiful works in the Artists’ Colony. Soon after we boarded our bus and headed on our way, we abruptly stopped at the bottom of a narrow road where three cars were parked illegally on two of the corners. Even our skillful bus driver, Shlomi—who had previously gotten our bus unscathed through narrow berths that had us listening for the sound of metal scraping the walls or the cars on either side of us—was left with no way to get the bus around the corner and continue our drive. At Mitchell Fonberg’s urging, we briefly considered having several group members try to lift the cars and move them out of the way. Worries about people hurting themselves and liability for damage to the cars won the day, so, short of waiting for those drivers to return, the only option we had was to call the Tzefat police. Our beloved guide, Gila Rosenfield, with whom I’ve worked six times in the last 12 years on synagogue Israel trips, called the Tzefat police department to complain and ask for help solving the problem. Listening to Gila’s side of the conversation, in Hebrew, I was pretty amused: “Are the drivers of the cars there?” “Of course they’re not here, otherwise we wouldn’t be calling you and asking for help!”…”No, we haven’t gone looking for the drivers, how would we even know who they are if we found them?”…”But you’re the Tzefat police! Get down here and take care of the problem!” I couldn’t help but laugh at this exchange and think to myself, this could only happen in Israel, where a tour guide would call and yell at the police and tell them to “get down here and do your job!” And it worked. After a while, the police came, located the drivers, moved the cars, and freed up our bus, though it was too late for our rafting appointment, leaving our quest to tame the mighty Jordan River waters for a future visit to Israel!
This quirky moment is one of a number of such “only in Israel” moments I’ve experienced during my 22 visits to Israel over the years. The ingathering of the exiles—absorption of Jews from all different countries and backgrounds all over the world to unite in this shared project of building the Jewish state—has likely contributed to the relentless “can-do” approach of Israelis for any situation they may encounter. A person double parks his car in Tzefat because he needs to get something done urgently and at the same time assumes that the person who is “inconvenienced” isn’t going to be upset about it, because they’re Israeli and they’ll figure out a way to solve the problem, just like Gila and Shlomi ultimately did. For Americans on a tour bus, it seems inconsiderate and, ultimately, funny; for Israelis, it’s “no beeg deeel”.
I was thinking recently about that experience in Tzefat and recalled that moment, on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion stood up in Heichal Atzma’ut, Independence Hall, in Tel Aviv, and read the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel while thousands of people waited anxiously in the streets. I wondered whether he could have envisioned that 70+ years later, Israel would both be a country of ingenuity, world-renowned robust innovation, and growth, as well as a country where the tour bus still gets stuck in Tzefat? Moreover, could he have envisioned that Israel would have as many faces as it does: Ashkenazi and Sefardi, native born and immigrants, secular and religious, different skin colors, straight and gay, left and right, Jew, Muslim, and Christian? I wonder: Could Ben-Gurion have envisioned the wide-ranging tapestry of Israel’s faces, and places, today?
A look into Ben-Gurion’s philosophies and priorities during the pre-state era and in his years as Prime Minister can help us answer that question. In Dennis Ross and David Makovsky’s new book, Be Strong and of Good Courage, they note that:
[Ben-Gurion’s] unwavering goal was Jewish sovereignty. [He] embraced with singular focus connecting people with the land, a strategy based on Jewish immigration…. [For Ben-Gurion establishing sovereignty] was a process with two equally important dimensions:… creating a political entity in the Holy Land by building new proto-governmental institutions…and transforming the consciousness of the Jews who came to Palestine from all over the world and fostering among them a shared political culture and sense of community…. (pp. 9-12)
Ben-Gurion’s vision reached its watershed moment in May 1948. With the British Mandate set to end on May 15 at midnight, and war looming with the neighboring Arab states, three days before, on May 12, the Zionist provisional government met for 14 hours straight in Tel Aviv. The meeting focused on making a most difficult choice: postponing independence and accepting a three-month truce, or declaring independence on May 14. Ben-Gurion refused to budge from his stance: a declaration of statehood would: … allow the Zionists to tap their greatest resource—supporters abroad—who could help smuggle weapons into the nascent country once the British departed…. The opportunity to [revitalize their military], prompted by statehood and denied by a truce, must not be missed. Alongside the military advantage was that offered by unchecked immigration, Ben-Gurion’s touchstone. Open gates would mean an inflow of greatly needed manpower.”
Independence was indeed declared on May 14, hours before the coming of Shabbat, to great celebration in Israel and its supporters outside the land. Ross and Makovsky comment later that, When French president Charles de Gaulle asked Ben-Gurion in 1960 what he most wanted for his country, the prime minister replied, “More Jews”. And when de Gaulle asked where they would come from, Ben-Gurion answered: from the Soviet Union, which will collapse in thirty years. (p.72)
Amazingly, he was off by only one year in his prediction. J Ross and Makovsky comment further on Ben-Gurion’s approach: Even in Israel’s early years, when it was impoverished and coping with the terrible losses of the War of Independence, he insisted that Israel must act urgently and open its gates to all the Jews, who came with no resources or possessions, from Middle Eastern Countries…. Israel roughly doubled its Jewish population within the first three years of the country’s existence…. Ben-Gurion dedicated all his effort to consolidating and building the infrastructure of the state, while also seeking to cultivate a sense of common identity among the new immigrants who now found themselves living in their ancestral homeland. (p.73)
Among the many Jews who have made Aliyah to the Israel David Ben-Gurion was so instrumental in creating, I’d like to share the story of two of them with you today. One is our tour guide Gila, and the other is Matan (Josh) Rudner, son of our congregants Lisa and Steve Rudner, who is a Lone Soldier in the Israeli army. Gila, originally known as Jill, Rosenfield, grew up in Zimbabwe in a traditional, non-religious Jewish home and went to Jewish day schools both in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Like most of the Jewish kids in Zimbabwe, she also belonged to a Jewish youth movement, Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth movement and so she grew up with a strong connection to Israel and the belief that this was the Jewish homeland and therefore, her homeland, and a seed was planted in her with a dream of going to live on a kibbutz. She visited Israel for the first time after finishing high school and fell in love with the land and the people that she met there, as well as the freedom and the feeling of belonging that she felt here. She made Aliyah to Israel in 1982, as part of a group of young idealists from her youth movement to a kibbutz on the Lebanese border, as they wanted to experience life in the north of Israel and what it felt like to live under the threat of Katusha missiles. During her first years in Israel, she participated in various programs both to learn Hebrew and to experience and learn more about the land. Later, she worked as a special education teacher and, despite loving her job, she sought a change from classroom teaching but still wanted to stay in the educational field. At a dinner party, a friend told Gila she had enrolled to do the tour guide course and suggested jokingly that Gila come study with her. After a sleepless night, Gila decided that this was the perfect way to combine her love of hiking and touring while still working in education. Her demanding tour guide studies reignited her passion for Israel, for history, and she developed a passion for archeology. When she graduated, her first guiding job was a 6-week program over the summer taking 10th and 11th graders around and working not only as a guide but also as a madricha, a counselor. Somehow, she survived and she was hooked, and so for the past 22 years, she has worked as a guide and educator. When I asked Gila what she likes most about guiding, she said:
I really enjoy being able to share my love for this complicated but wonderful country and rediscovering it through the journeys of a wide variety of people. I love introducing the historical, cultural and culinary wonders of Israel to people, and I love the connections and friendships that I have formed and seeing how each group and individual connects differently to this land. I also really like the fact that even though I may often go to similar sites, each tour offers something new and deepens my knowledge and understanding of that site.
Gila’s last comment reminds me of the classical rabbinic teaching of “shiv’im panim la-Torah”—“70 faces of Torah”—being able to turn the words of Torah around and around and constantly see new facets and insights.
Interestingly, Matan Rudner, who made Aliyah back in August of 2017, also has been reflecting a lot this year on the myriad facets of Israel’s places and its people. Since January, Matan has been writing a monthly column in the Texas Jewish Post called “Dispatch from the Homeland”. Take for example his June 6 piece, commenting on the two very different places he has lived so far in Israel, Kibbutz Urim and Tel Aviv. He contrasted them both with Jerusalem, when he wrote, “Each week as I ascend by train through the forested hills of Judea toward our golden city, my material concerns seem to dissipate and I am captivated by the story of this place—the story of a land and a people liberated and conquered and liberated once more. To live in Jerusalem, this living testament to the sacred bond between people, land and God, is to experience Jewish civilization in all its majesty”. Matan went on to add that:
This heterogeneity of Jewish experience, between the lifestyles of the kibbutzim, of Tel Aviv, and of Jerusalem, is not the result of the random physical development of our state. Every part of Israel is the fruit of a different ideological movement: Labor Zionism, Cultural Zionism, Religious Zionism, and so many others each propose unique visions of what Jewish life in our homeland can be, visions that reflect all of the facets of the Jewish soul that yearns within us.
Recently, I reached out to Matan and asked him what message he would share with all of you if he were standing in front of you today. Here’s what he shared with me:
Israel is miraculous because it is ours. The language reflects our values and history, the food adheres to our dietary restrictions, the old men and women fought for us and the children will fight for us if and when the time comes. This land is the only place in the world where we can express and explore parts of our identity as yet undiscovered. Here I’m not just the Jew- as I often was in America- I am gay and a leftist and a brother and soldier. I’m free to be whatever I want to be. And at the same time I’m Jewish in ways I couldn’t have imagined- I have the opportunity to manifest my tradition and values in public, out loud, on a national level. Whatever happens here, it will always be that place for our people, in fact the only place, where we are free to be ourselves as individuals and as a nation.
Sometimes Israel frustrates me- the bureaucracy and the politics and the invasiveness. And sometimes the tragedy of our conflict with the Palestinians makes me scream and cry. But never have I questioned my commitment to this land, never has my love of our people wavered. Because my love and my commitment are based not in Israel as it once was, as it is today or as it is in my dreams- rather they are based in what Israel represents- a bond between land, people, and God that is eternal.
Both Matan and Gila saw –and see—Israel as their homeland and a powerful gravitational force for the Jewish people, and they also both see that Israel has, as it were, 70 faces, enabling different points of connection for each individual or group in their experience of Israel.
I want to introduce you to one more face of contemporary Israel, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, part of a new generation of Israeli-born Masorti—Conservative Movement--rabbis. Born into a mixed Ashkenazi-Mizrahi family with both French and Moroccan roots, and raised in an Orthodox home, it was only when she was wrapping up her B.A. in Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University and signed up for a Master’s Degree program to train both religious and secular teachers in the Jewish tradition that a new possibility presented itself: become a Masorti rabbi. At that time, at age 23, she wasn’t even aware that there were women rabbis in the world, that this was even a possibility. In Elad-Appelbaum’s words, as related in an article by Beth Kissileff in CJ Magazine, voices of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, this was a revelation that “threw me into a new story.” She received her ordination from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem in 2005, and then spent time as the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. She says that her time in America “gave me the courage to come here and re-dream Jerusalem.”
In 2013, she and her husband Yossi founded Tzion: Kehilla Yisraeli Artzit (Zion: An Israeli Community) in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka. At Tzion, where I have personally davened a number of times over these past several years, you’ll find one of the more unusual and diverse congregations in the state of Israel. As another article in Tablet Magazine subtitled “Shepherding a New Judaism in Jerusalem” describes, “Unlike most houses of worship, which self-sort along religious and denominational lines, Tzion’s attendees span the spectrum from devoutly Orthodox to entirely secular”.
The CJ Magazine article adds that, “like her own Ashkenazi and Sephardi family, Elad-Appelbaum’s congregation brings together the “heritage of families that made us who we are.”… [honoring] three pillars of tradition: Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Eretz Yisraeli, in other words, the Sephardic, Eastern European and Israeli traditions. Elad-Appelbaum tries to speak a Klal Yisrael language for all Jews. The blend is unique to their minyan…. She is very much committed to welcoming people from all avenues of life and enabling them to participate in Jewish life in ways with which they are comfortable.
Rabbi Tamar says about her work: “My father fought in wars for Israel,” and [my mission is] “bringing Klal Yisrael back to Jewish tradition.” She believes that the earliest years of Israel, the years involving the founding of the state, were “dedicated to the body”, [and that], going forward, the coming decades should be dedicated “to the soul.” For Elad-Appelbaum, her generation’s task is to be the “pioneers of reviving the soul, to be the magshimim (the fulfillers)…. We call our community Tzion with deep belief that this is the destiny of Zionism, and always has been: that Jews come back to the land of Israel, after walking through all cultures and nations and pains, so we can care for humanity as a whole”.
For all his brilliance and foresight and inspiring leadership of the pre-state and early Israel, I don’t think David Ben-Gurion saw Rabbi Tamar-Elad Appelbaum in Israel’s future. Ben-Gurion was supremely focused on what Rabbi Tamar refers to as the “body” of Israel, securing its sovereignty, building its governmental institutions and infrastructure, and getting as many Jews as possible to make Aliyah to Israel and rally around the common purpose of building a Jewish state. Over the years this has led to countless numbers of Jews making Aliyah from all over the world, bringing amazing and inspiring people like Matan Rudner and Gila Rosenfield to make their home in the land and share a sense of community and peoplehood, together doing whatever it takes to help solve problems and shape the country, and try to share their love for the land with others in the different ways they can. But when we add Rabbi Tamar’s story to the mix, we can see that, beyond the scope of secular Labor Zionist Ben-Gurion’s vision, emerging from the diverse populace there are amazing and inspiring things happening now with Israel’s blossoming “soul”, and not just by the hands of foreign olim, but even from the work of native-born Sabras. Matan, Gila, and Rabbi Tamar are all faces of contemporary Israel, and all part of Israel’s story— like the legendary “Start-Up Nation” innovation, the current Knesset electoral impasse, and a tour bus getting blocked by illegally parked cars. My call to each of us here today is to think about how we see our own faces as a part of Israel’s story. Visitors? Financial supporters? Investors? Advocates? Olim? We can be one of these faces, or some of them, or all of them.
In the haftarah that we read this past Shabbat morning, the prophet Isaiah offered us words which simultaneously comfort and call on us: “Ivru ivru ba’sh’earim, panu derekh ha’am; solu solu ha-mesilah, saklu mei-even, harimu nes al ha-amim”. Pass through, pass through the gates! Clear the road for the people; build up, build up the highway, remove the rocks! Raise an ensign over the peoples! Speaking to the exiles in Babylonia after the destruction of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah offered a hopeful message that a pathway would be cleared for their return to Zion, to Israel, a comforting message that still resounds today after our people once again returned to Zion, this time after 2000 years of exile. And the message also calls on us: While the road was cleared 71 years ago for our return, it’s still up to each of us to roll up our sleeves and build up the highway and remove the rocks, to contribute to the still unfolding narrative that is the body and soul of the State of Israel, in the land of our Jewish people. In the words of Matan Rudner, “The work lies with us, to build and to be built, to shape and to be shaped, by the land to which we have returned”. AMEN.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
In Bend, Oregon—about three hours south of Portland—tucked away in a strip mall shop between Papa Murphy’s pizza and a Chevron gas station, you’ll find a vestige of a bygone era.
Walk in and you’ll see 1,000 square feet or so of aisles crowded, not with people, but shelves and shelves of rectangular boxes organized alphabetically by category. And should one of these boxes catch your eye, if you’re lucky, you’ll find another identical in size right behind it, marked with an iconic logo in blue and yellow.
For $3.99, the contents of that box could be yours for an evening, if you flash your membership card at the counter. Just don’t forget to bring it back by 7 pm the next evening.
For the 75,000 residents of Bend, I imagine that walking through the doors of what is now the last Blockbuster Video on earth is almost like stepping through a time machine. How quaint it must be to think of the world as it was in the 1990’s, back when commodities were physical, not digital. When face-to-face human interaction was required to deposit a check, or borrow a book, or file your taxes.
In its heyday, the business model at Blockbuster was based on a social contract my children will never fully understand. Because if, after 24 hours, that summer blockbuster was still sitting on your kitchen counter, or hidden out of sight in the belly of your VCR, that means that some little boy would go home that night disappointed, his plans for the evening scuttled, as he is forced to endure his parents’ copy of Singin’ in the Rain for the umpteenth time this month.
And remember those little stickers they affixed to the label of those tapes? “Be kind, rewind.” I’m pretty sure my older daughter has never even heard the word rewind and that it would probably take some sort of diagram to explain it to her.
I’m turning 40 this year. And though I usually get a good laugh from the folks around here whenever I say that I am starting to feel my age, these little reminders of the way things used to be two generations ago are a pretty significant marker of how far we’ve come since I was born, or, in some cases, how much we’ve lost in the meantime—just in the small details of the way we live.
“Be kind, rewind.”
If you think about it, what makes that expression so quaint is not the pithy rhyme, but the overall message. Is returning something in the same condition in which you received it really an act of kindness? It’s certainly the right thing to do, but that’s not the same thing as being the nice thing to do.
We lament, with good reason, the meanness, even the cruelty, in so much of our societal discourse. But there are times when I wonder if the genteel era we are missing was an illusion conjured up by the language of politeness and civility. Even before the chasms of ideology and technology created such distance between us, if we convinced ourselves that rewinding a tape, or returning a book on time, was a gesture of the heart rather than simply meeting the bare minimum of our obligations to each other, did we ever really understand what kindness was? Are we missing something that was never actually all that present in the first place?
If you look up the Hebrew word for kindness in the dictionary, you’ll find a number of unsatisfactory entries: nechmadut, better defined as niceness, or chavivut, which means dearness or fondness. Only the two-word phrase tuv lev, good-hearted, comes close—because kindness, in our tradition is not a simple concept. It is a compound idea, an action that results from a feeling. Kindness comes from the soul.
Perhaps that’s why Jews don’t really aspire to be kind, they challenge themselves to commit acts of loving-kindness—of chesed.
Chesed is not simply “kindness,” because kindness is a unidirectional act. In our secular lexicon, we do kindnesses for others. We volunteer, we offer, we give of ourselves. Sometimes we act out of love, but sometimes also out of sympathy, or pity, or even self-interest.
Gemilut chasadism, acts of lovingkindness, are mutual, as suggested by the Hebrew word gomel, which means to remunerate, to pay back. They are based on the assumption that kindness is relational. God extended His kindness to us by giving us life and the blessings that make it fulfilling and we, in turn, send that kindness back heavenward when we obey God’s commandments, particularly those that increase goodness in the world.
Of course, the concept of gemuilut chasidim also reflects an equal exchange between humans, as our sages so succinctly put it: mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One good deed engenders another. Each time we are kind to another person, we perpetuate a sacred cycle of generosity that elevates us all, bringing us closer to the source of all chesed, back to God.
Believing in the power of chesed is an act of faith, one that assumes that these reciprocal actions can fundamentally change not just the way we live, but the world we live in.
I was reminded of how transformative a force kindness can be when I came across the story of Braysen Gabriel, a 4 year old boy with autism, who boarded a United Airlines flight from San Diego to Houston with his parents. Just before takeoff, he unbuckled his seat belt and insisted that he needed to lie down on the floor. Knowing that the crew would never allow the plane to takeoff unless he was seated, Breyson’s parents forced him, kicking and screaming, back into place.
When the flight attendants came over to the family to see what all the commotion was about, Breysen’s mom explained the situation, fearing perhaps that it wouldn’t be long before they were taxiing back to the gate and removed from the plane.
Instead, the flight crew huddled, come up with a plan and sprang into action. They allowed Breysen to sit on his dad’s lap during takeoff. Seeing that he was still out of control when the seat belt light indicator turned off, the crew led Greyson by the hand to a place on the floor of the plane, where they sat with him, hoping that the vibrations would calm him.
It wasn’t long before Breysen wandered off to first class, where he began kicking the back of a passenger’s chair repeatedly. Once the boy’s condition was explained to him, he replied, “He can kick my chair, I don’t care,” and began giving Breyson high fives.
Pretty soon, everyone in first class was asking his name, showing him pictures on their phones, and giving him free reign of the cabin.
Needless to say, Breyson’s parents were overwhelmed by the patience, care, and kindness these strangers had bestowed on their son, and on them.
As Breyson’s mom was headed down the aisle off of the plane after a long flight, another passenger, an off-duty flight attendant gave her a hug and handed her a note. “You and your family are loved and supported. Do not ever let anyone make you feel as though your son is an inconvenience or a burden. He is a blessing. God bless your patience, your love, your support and your strength. Continue to be a super woman.”
Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One act of kindness inspires another.
What inspires me about that story is that it so perfectly illustrates what it takes to build a community of chesed. These strangers, cooped up in a tiny capsule just a few feet wide and who certainly had reason to behave otherwise, became united, no pun intended, in a sacred purpose---not just to get this boy and his family through the ordeal of a difficult three-hour flight, but to ensure that they walked off that plane together not ashamed or angry, but feeling that even though they had landed safely on the ground that they were still 30,000 feet up in the air, uplifted by generosity, admiration, and yes, kindness.
And though listening to stories such as these can make us feel as if the answer to what is poisoning our discourse, our relationships, and at times, even our own hearts, these days is so simple—“be kind,” we would do well to remember the lesson our tradition teaches us. Kindness is not simple. Chesed can’t be defined in a word. And acts of chesed reflect a soul that has been cultivated and conditioned to respond in ways that often defy the culture we live in.
When you buy an airplane ticket, you aren’t just paying for the journey, you’re paying for the space you occupy along the way. And these days, when the pricing structure for airline seating is more complex than figuring out how to buy floor seats at a rock concert, folks can be pretty protective of the 3.7 square feet that their money or their frequent flier status has earned them. Go ahead, try putting both your right and your left elbow on the armrests next to you and see what happens. The more expensive and exclusive and small these spaces get, the harder we fight to keep every inch for ourselves.
And yet, the passengers on United Airlines 2210, somehow found the room on that cramped flight for Breyson, a boy who was breaking every single convention of personal space with every limb of his body.
In our tradition, no figure is more revered for his acts of chesed than Abraham. And in the litany of good deeds he committed throughout his 175 years of life, perhaps no act of kindness is more well-known than the hospitality he showed to three strangers, wandering in the desert in the midst of a long journey. Notwithstanding the physical agony he was enduring three days after he circumcised himself at God’s command, Abraham opened his tent wide, providing his guests food and shelter.
What makes his act of chesed, of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, so instructive, is not that it was easy, or expected, or polite, it’s that it was hard, painful even. Abraham’s story is an important reminder that acts of kindness are not acts of convenience. They require us, in ways that are often quite literal, to push ourselves past the boundaries of our own comfort zones.
Indeed, some of the most impactful acts of chesed occur precisely at the moments where we are most uncomfortable. Welcoming new faces, feeding the hungry, consoling the recently bereaved—these moments where kindness is required, require us, to overcome our anxiety that so often stops us in our tracks.
Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus famously teaches in the holiness code, which contains the most essential commandments for creating a sacred community: lo tachmod al dam re’echa. Do not stand idly by when the life of your friend is at stake.
It’s worth asking why it’s necessary for the Torah to command something that should be obvious to all of us. Did God believe us to be so unfeeling, and so uncaring, that we wouldn’t value the life of our fellow Jew whose life stands in the balance, right before our eyes?
Biblical commentators knew this could not be the case and so Rashi narrows the situation described in the verse—Do not stand idly by if you are able to rescue him; if for instance he is drowning in the river, or if a wild beast is attacking him. In other words, do not let your fear stop you from being kind.
Abraham had reason to be fearful of those strangers on the road. The passengers on Breyson’s Gabriel’s flight had cause to be anxious that his behavior would prove a nuisance at the least, or so far up in the air, dangerous, at worst.
And yet, when kindness took hold, row by row, cabin by cabin on flight 2210, fear transformed into joy and the air of anxiety was pierced by the sound of laughter. And, I believe, most importantly, judgement gave way to understanding.
Of all the rabbinic ethical dictums, dan l’chaf zechut, judging others favorably is, perhaps, the most challenging to carry out in today’s world. The Torah imagined a society where only the most learned and the most pious would be given what was once a divine prerogative--the power to judge. And yet, in our time, we are all judges. Because all that humans can possibly know, all the collective wisdom of the ages, can be accessed in a moment on a tiny screen we hold in our hands and store in our pockets. And when we feel we cannot judge, or are yet unable to, we can search an infinite trove of electronic writing until we find the opinion that seems most valid in our own eyes and we then allow the author to judge for us.
It would be naïve to assume that everyone we meet is deserving of kindness. There will be many sermons devoted to that particular topic this high holiday season, but if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll find that in too many of our encounters, our predisposition to judge precludes the activation of the chesed within us. If we are to follow in Abraham’s example, we have to find a way to let our guard down.
Of the more than 1000 hours I’ve been privileged to sit in a theatre watching a Broadway show, I have never been so moved, so delightfully undone, than I was last summer when Shira and I went to see the new musical, The Band’s Visit (which by the way, is coming to the Winspear this winter, and I encourage all of you to go). The show, which is based on an Israeli film, begins at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, as an Egyptian band, invited to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petach Tivkah, stands awkwardly in a line in their powder blue uniforms. But as they make their way, they mistakenly end up stranded for the night in the fictional desert town of Beit Hatikvah until a bus can come for them in the morning.
The plot is put in motion by an unexpected act of kindness, as only a sabra can offer it. The otherwise prickly proprietress of the one café in town, invites the members of the band to spend the night in the apartments of her fellow employees. What follows is an evening of surprise and connection, as they bond over music and tales of unrequited love and longing.
The musical is set in 1996. More than 20 years later, Israel and Egypt, America and the Middle East are very different places. It is hard to know when or if we will ever recover the time when we could think to ourselves—“Be kind, rewind, reset, renew.” That the secret to dissolving what lies between us could be just as simple as an act of welcoming a stranger for a night.
But in the end, this very Jewish musical is not really about easy solutions. At its conclusion, morning comes. The uneasy and fleeting bond shared by the residents of Beit Hatikvah and the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police orchestra is broken by the harsh desert sunlight, in which they discover that despite what brought them together in the shadow of night, by day they are Arabs and Jews, Egyptians and Israelis.
A year after seeing it, I confess that despite listening to the cast recording more than a few dozen times, it’s difficult for me to get through it without shedding some wistful tears. And though there were so many elements of the musical that came together to make it hit home for me, what truly caught me so off guard, was the gemilut chasadim, the completely unexpected acts of kindness and compassion that these beautifully drawn characters paid back to each other for 90 minutes.
For a time, after the show was over, I just sat there weeping, lamenting the loss of a time I could barely remember, until finally, the emotion subsided, my mind cleared and something that had been eluding me, that is eluding too many of us, I believe, came into focus.
It is unreasonable and unrealistic to simply expect a world of kindness. Because kindness is not instinctual. Kindness, like hatred, must be taught. It must be cultivated, nurtured, and practiced. And most importantly, it must be chosen. To learn to be kind is to learn how to overcome your fears, your boundaries, and your judgments and allow for the transformative possibilities of soul encountering soul.
In today’s world we hear so much about the changes, even the upheaval, in some cases, that is necessary to restore and renew our values—to protect liberty, and establish justice, to end corruption and to counter cruelty.
We have spoken about political revolutions, about building movements to retake and reclaim what is ours or what should be. But what I do not hear from any side of the debate these days is that what is needed is not a revolution of policies and politicians, but a revolution of kindness.
Because it has become crystal clear to me that in the climate in which we live now, kindness is a revolutionary act.
In the story of Abraham’s life there is a pivotal moment, that is often overlooked. To save his nephew Lot, Abraham intervenes in a war—a war of five kings against four others. When, thanks to Abraham, the four kings claim victory, saving Lot and his family, Abraham is taken to meet them so that he can be rewarded. One of the four kings is the wealthy and powerful ruler of the city of Sodom, a sinful place ultimately, destroyed by God, for being, among other things, inhospitable.
Riding in on his horse, the King of Sodom offers Abraham an enticing bargain. “Take all the spoils of war, all of the cattle, all of the precious gold and silver. But those you have captured, give them to me.”
Knowing that Sodom was a place without chesed, Abraham refuses. “I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or sandal strap of what is yours; for none shall say it is the King of Sodom who has made Abraham rich.”
In that moment, Abraham faced a critical choice. He could accept the way of the world as it was, a world where indifference to cruelty gave men access to power and wealth.
Or, he could revolt. He could resist. He could stare into the eyes of a man who dared to judge the fate of multitudes in an instant, who stood idly by as his people shut out the vulnerable and the needy, who built a city with cynicism and fear in his heart, and say to him, “For me and my descendants, I will build the world anew. I will remake this land in the image of the One who charged me to fill it with tzedek and mishpat, justice and righteousness. And as the psalmist wrote, olam chesed yibaneh, I will build that world with acts of lovingkindness.
It will not be easy, it will not happen all at once. And it will require each of us to harness the power of teshuva, of refining the soul, and returning it to its purest form.
To create a world where one act of kindness inspires another, and another, and another, until this small crowded space we all inhabit is filled with the music of love and joy and connection, we will have to begin again. It starts today.
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Thank you all, so much, for the good wishes and the joy you’ve shared with us after the birth of our new daughter. As today is the eighth day of her life, we’d like to share with you the names that we’ve chosen for her as she enters into the Covenant of the Jewish people—Rebecca Joelle, Rivka Yael bat HaRav Shira Esther vHaRav Avraham Elimelech.
Rebecca is named for Adam’s mother’s cousin, Ruth Ginsburg, or Ruthie as everyone called her. She was a kind, deeply spiritual, unapologetically eccentric woman who just happened to be a highly respected professional advocate for women, patron saint of progressive causes, and all-around fun-to-be with, easy-to-love soul. One year, on a visit to her home in Boston, Ruthie and Adam spent the day whale watching. He was maybe eight or nine years old, and yet, his mother trusted Ruthie to keep Adam occupied through the five- or six-hour cruise on the Atlantic. They spent the time chatting about how whales poop, counting the number of baby teeth Adam had left, and snapping photographs with his disposable camera. In other words, the kind of conversation any eight- or nine-year old might share with a buddy, except in this case the buddy was three decades older than Adam. No matter what they talked about, Ruthie was absolutely fascinated by the smallest details, each one a jumping off point for a conversation that could last minutes or hours.
We pray that Ruthie’s memory will inspire and remind Rebecca that the best way to earn someone’s trust, and respect, and love is to be deeply invested in them—in what they fight for, in what they care about, in what makes them laugh, and think, and wonder, and smile—no matter what those things are. Ruthie taught us that if something is important to someone you care about, you have to make it important to you. If you do, that person will never leave you, not even after they’re gone.
Rebecca’s middle name, Yael in Hebrew, Joelle in English, honors two remarkable rabbis.
First, Shira’s zaydie Rudy Adler, Yosef in Hebrew. When Shira reflects on his life, she marvels at his strength and perseverance, his sustained faith, and the drive that led him to touch so many lives, bringing as many people as he could closer to the Torah. She wonders how he survived with his relationship with Judaism and God intact as he traveled north from Nazi Germany to Liverpool, England with his yeshiva, leaving his parents behind, how he endured during the tumultuous voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to Toronto, eating only pickled fish and gasping sea air. She can’t fathom what it does to a person to finally make it safely to North America, only to be thrown into an internment camp for German nationals and always having to sleep with one eye open.
But through all of this, Shira’s zaydie kept his faith in God and in people. In Germany, in 1933, which was the year Hitler rose to power, he celebrated his bar mitzvah. In Liverpool, England, he learned to be a brilliant student of Talmud and earned semicha, rabbinic ordination. In the internment camp in Canada, he kept pages of Talmud folded in his sock so that he could retreat to a secluded part of the forest and study. And when he was finally released, he met Shira’s bubbie, Rose, at a young Judea meeting in Toronto, and she took on his life so whole-heartedly that his relationship with faith turned into a team effort. With her by his side, he moved from pulpit to pulpit until ending up in Orlando, with three beautiful children in tow. He lived to see his kids grow up, he spent wonderful quality time with his grandchildren, and near the end of his life, he met his great-granddaughter Hannah Rose, who we named for his beloved.
We pray that Rebecca experiences Shira’s zaydie’s long life and many joys. We also pray that she is inspired by his deep commitment to faith, to optimism, and to light. He always believed that blessings would come to him.
We also hope that she will take after Shira’s zaydie in his humor and lightheartedness. One of the best photographs ever taken of him is Rudy sitting next to Shira’s mom, when she was pregnant with her, each of them with tea mugs comfortably balanced on their round and buoyant tummies. We recreated the photo this Pesach with Shira’s dad, Hannah and Rebecca’s zaydie. When Shira was three years old and loved dancing around in her ballet tutu, he dressed up with her and did his best to keep up with her plies, arabesques, and jetês. And each year in his shul, he gave an annual sermon on Jewish humor—he would start a joke, remind himself of the punchline, and start laughing so hysterically that the rest was completely undecipherable as he dissolved into a mess of giggles. People would come from all over to watch this.
Rebecca's middle name, in English, changed from what we had initially decided on the night she was born, after we realized that she came into the world on the same day as Shira’s childhood rabbi’s 5th yartzeit. Unlike Shira’s zaydie, Rabbi Joel Wasser wasn’t given the opportunity to live out his days, but his legacy shines just as brightly.
Joel came to Tampa when Shira was 9 and brought with him a version of Judaism that centered around wholehearted passion and delight, unbridled faith and commitment to torah. His favorite teaching was from psalms: ivdu et hashem besimcha, serve God with joy, which soon became emblazoned in shining gold letters above the ark at Shira’s shul. When he entered a room, he would bellow “Shalom my holy friends,” in a way that made each person feel important, part of a sacred encounter. His charisma bounded off the walls on Purim, his voice carried all of the hakafot on Simchat Torah, his spirit filled the sanctuary on Yom Kippur. He spent his summers at Camp Ramah Darom and though he could have chosen the nicer staff housing (which his family would have appreciated), he insisted on rooming in the dilapidated shack with no AC in the middle of camp so that he could run into everyone as they were huffing and puffing up the hill. You wouldn’t expect it, but being short of breath was a great condition to insist that someone stop for a while, have a drink, and discuss whatever esoteric Jewish idea Joel was thinking about at the time. Or more often, he’d look right into your soul and ask: how’s your neshama?
Instead of traditional bat mitzvah lessons, Joel taught Shira how to study Mishnah. You can probably imagine that in 6th grade Shira was used to knowing everything and being right all the time . . . so after reading their first passage together, he asked Shira if she had any questions. She said “no, of course not, I understood everything.” And in the next 30 seconds, he asked Shira 50 questions to which she had no response. A perfect introduction to rabbinic literature, a perfect representation of how Joel illuminated Shira’s path forward.
We pray that Rebecca Joelle learns these lessons from Rabbi Joel Wasser:
Don’t do anything half-assed. If you care enough to do something, throw your entire self into it. And if you can throw in a couple of SAT vocabulary words, even better.
Figure out who you are and live out loud. Then, create space for others to do so.
Believe in the possibility of holiness. If you don’t see it around you, it’s your job to kindle it.
Understand that strength and fragility often go hand in hand. Don’t be afraid to give someone permission to have both.
And finally, ivdi besimcha. Do your life’s work, express and receive love, and envelop it all in joy.
Before we were married, we each insisted that the other share in an experience that reflected an essential part of who we are as individuals and what our life together would look like. Naturally, for Adam, that meant taking Shira to his favorite sacred place, his most beloved sanctuary—Oriole Park at Camden Yards, so that we could watch the Red Sox throttle the Orioles. Shira insisted that we do something she could not believe Adam hadn’t done—watch the movie version of the Sound of Music. He was pleasantly surprised by the movie, but even more surprised by what happened last week, the afternoon we brought Rebecca from the hospital. Adam swaddled her in a blanket, and fulfilled his life-long dream of putting his newborn daughter in his lap as he sat at a grand piano in the music room of his own home. When he reached for the sheet music, it wasn’t “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler or “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd that he instinctually took down from the shelf. Instead, it was a score from a show he never really understood until he held Rebecca Joelle in his arms and gently played his heart out on an instrument that we hope will echo in her soul and her children’s soul forever, just as it echoes in ours.
Somehow, despite the emotion of moment, his fingers found the right keys, and his voice clearly whispered the words—with a few, small changes:
Our home is alive with the sound of music
With songs we have sung for four thousand years
These walls fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears
My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds
That rise from the lake to the trees
My heart wants to sigh like a shofar that flies
From a shul on a breeze
To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way
To sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray
I go to my home when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I've heard before
Your heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And together, you and me and your mother and your sister, will sing once more.
Welcome to our home, Rebecca Joelle.
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
There’s an incredible moment in the new Avengers movie (don’t worry, no spoilers!) in which all of the women superheroes suddenly materialize on the screen together, united in their collective duty to protect the object that is the lynchpin of the final battle…you might say… the Endgame. And though there are certainly other parts of the film that are meant to draw tears, I found myself suddenly and deeply moved by the moment of feminist solidarity.
In the universe of superheroes, women have only recently begun to take center stage. Usually these comic books, television shows, and movies exalt the masculine form: the übermensch of brawn and sometimes brains through which audiences can vicariously experience the satisfaction of vanquishing evil. But we have seen a shift in the approach lately: women are no longer there just for eye candy; rather they are essential to the plot. Perhaps they’re even the protagonist! And they bring both brains and brawn. After so many decades of the male-centric superhero universe, it was poignant to watch the strong and beautiful women take up the whole screen.
Tomorrow will bring to a close our second year of Women’s Torah Study, a weekly class in which we reflect on how Judaism engages women. This year, we took a deeper dive into the presence and absence of women’s voices in our tradition, tackling hard questions like:
The Torah seems to posit that a woman’s value lies in her ability to give birth. How can women become worth more than that?
As preparation to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah instructs: “do not go near a woman.” Does this mean that women are not the Torah’s intended audience?
Women’s involvement in Jewish practice often seems as a supporting role for her family, rather than for her own fulfillment of mitzvot. How can a woman create her own relationship with God and with Judaism, regardless of whether she chooses to marry and have children?
Traditional Judaism relegates women to their own side of the mechitzah and off the bimah. How do we encourage women to step forward and lead?
Our conversations took us to places expected and unexpected, unearthing deep questions that were always present but never acknowledged. We explored modern Midrashim written by women scholars and rabbis, we learned about societal trends that gave rise to waves of both Jewish misogyny and feminism, and we reflected on how to raise our own voices in response. And though we all emerged at the end with a different image of how we each express our Jewish voices, we are all united by the same approach: that becoming a Jewish feminist means having the freedom to challenge foundational assumptions about gender roles in Judaism.
I am profoundly grateful to the group of committed, insightful, passionate women who inspired me every Wednesday. You are all superheroes—and when you assemble before me, I know that our Torah is in good hands.
Parashat Tazria 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Lilly definitely struck gold when it came to the Bat Mitzvah parasha lottery. I mean, who doesn’t get excited when they find out they get to speak about contagious skin diseases in front of a large crowd of family and friends? Lilly did a great job giving us a contemporary perspective on this vis-à-vis inclusion and exclusion from community, so I’m going to spend a few minutes on a related theme that emerges towards the end of this parasha and appears in similar form in next week’s parasha of Metzora, and this is the issue of what happens when this same disease referred to as “tzara’at” manifests not on human skin, but instead contaminates fabrics and leather or even plastered or mud-covered building stones in houses. Most of our rabbinic commentators on the Torah tend to see the spread of these contagious diseases to inanimate objects such as clothing or houses as something natural, as if the object were just falling prey to a fungus or rot. But there are a few commentators who look at this somewhat differently, including Nachmanides from 13th century Spain. Commenting on the infection of clothing in this week’s parasha and on the “house plague” in next week’s parasha, Nachmanides says, “When the Jewish people are at one with God, God’s spirit is always upon them, keeping their bodies, clothes and homes in good appearance. When one of them happens to sin, however, an ugliness appears on his flesh, his clothes, or his house, to show that God has departed from him.” Nachmanides goes on to say that this only occurs in Israel, because only there could we be fully prepared to know God and have God’s Shekhinah, God’s presence, dwell amongst us.
Rashi, our medieval biblical commentator par excellence, from 11th century France, offers us a different explanation for the house plague right out of the Midrash, rabbinic legend—that the Amorites dwelling in Canaan, ultimately the land of Israel, had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses throughout the period of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, which the Israelites would find when they knocked down the ugly, moldy, “infected” houses upon their arrival in the land. Needless to say, the Israelites would be very pleased at the results of their cleanup effort.
That’s a fascinating midrash—and an outlandish one. Maybe instead of focusing on Rashi’s take that God infecting the houses was a roundabout way to reward the Israelites (and punish the non-believing Amorites,) we should instead think about a common thread between Nachmanides’ and Rashi’s comments. Nachmanides suggests that our clothes and our houses, if infected, would testify to the moral decay of the person wearing them. And if we look a little closer at Rashi’s take, perhaps he’s also criticizing the Amorites for hoarding and hiding wealth, seemingly prioritizing saving and protecting their wealth at all costs. Furthermore, if we set aside Rashi’s fanciful midrash altogether and just focus on the biblical text itself, we see that if an Israelite’s house is afflicted with this plague, then all the property within must be removed from the house, and the house must be diagnosed. Then a Kohen, a priest, tries to assure its ritual purity, and if that fails, the infected stones must be removed. And if that doesn’t work, then the entire house is supposed to be destroyed. Maybe we can’t picture this literally, but metaphorically this could be teaching us that our homes can theoretically decay morally to the point of destruction, to the point of holiness departing from their midst. That kedusha, holiness, should ideally find expression in our homes, should not surprise us on any level. Our ancient sages liked to encourage each of us to make our homes a “mikdash m’at,” small sanctuary, a sacred space for our family and for anyone else who enters into its confines. By the way, this is why we traditionally take the step of salting our challah every Shabbat, because in the times of the Ancient Temple, we used to salt the sacrifices that were brought to the altar, and now we salt our challah as a stand-in, helping transform our Shabbat tables into sacred altars. We can also think about the symbolism of the chuppah, the wedding canopy, which is open on all sides, reminding us not only of the importance of inviting others into that space, but also that we have the responsibility to fill in the walls of our home, so to speak, to frame our home symbolically with the values that we want expressed both within the house and outside of it when we interact with the world.
It’s on this point that the midrash about the Amorites hoarding gold and treasure in their walls again becomes useful to us. Thinking about the recent college admissions scandal that rocked—at least in the short term—the confidence of many in the college admissions process, we have to ask a crucial question, which is, “How did this happen?” And by that question I don’t mean how did these specific individuals cheat the system and take advantage of wealth and access, because for that, we can all read the many articles on the details of the case and perhaps be surprised, and perhaps not, at the brazenness of the scheme. No, I’m asking a different question, which is, “How did our society get to this point where parents are demonstrating to their children that the only thing that matters is getting ahead of others, getting what you want, and “winning,” not whether you got there fairly and on your own merits?” And while I don’t presume to say there’s only one answer to this troubling question, I’ll offer one now. Over a period of time too many people have succumbed to this temptation to cut corners and game the system, perhaps because they are convinced that what matters most in our society is THAT you get ahead, and that money can solve any problem. But even if it may be tempting to go down that path, our Jewish tradition reminds us that there is always another path, even if it runs counter to what others in society may be doing at the time. We always have a choice when we frame our home and shape the character of the space inside. At our dinner tables, sitting on the couch watching TV, or on our patio having an iced tea or another beverage on a nice spring evening, we can share our values with our children, our grandchildren, and our friends and neighbors. Yes, we could emphasize that anything goes as long as you end up getting ahead and getting what you want, or we can instead choose to frame things differently: that how we act matters. That dedication and hard work yields fruit. That happiness in life is not just about getting ahead professionally or financially. That kindness and generosity and helping others should not be an afterthought, but where it begins and ends for us. We have tremendous power to impact society and its values by way of first laying a strong foundation within the walls of our own houses. And while Nachmanides may have believed that both holiness and its absence, brought about by the decay of our morality and values, were limited to the land of Israel, I’ll respectfully disagree with him and say as clearly as I can that, going forward, what happens in our homes here in the U.S. can either validate the moral decay suggested by the occurrence of the college admissions scandal, or serve as a counterweight of kedusha, of holiness, that can inspire us and those around us to be our best selves and our best society and invite God back into our midst. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it soon be so.
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
I realized the other day that I probably spend six months thinking about the High Holidays and six months thinking about Purim.
Seems a little strange that a relatively minor holiday should take up so much of my consciousness over the course of a year, but it’s true. I start thinking about what my Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermon topics should be in April and gather my thoughts and sources over the course of the summer so that, by August, I’m ready to start writing.
And right after Sukkot, we decide, as a staff, what our theme should be for Purim and my mind gets to work on imagining skits and videos and costumes (and this year a Broadway style show!) A month out, I start to write, and record and edit film, and plot about how much I can get away with when I ask the other Klei Kodesh to make a fool of themselves for our community’s entertainment (and they always oblige!) at the Family Megillah Reading. Shira contributes a great deal of the material (and does an incredible job of keeping me calm).
And if you think that’s a lot of work, it’s nothing compared to what the rest of the staff and the rest of the community puts in to making this an incredible celebration.
Katie Babin organized nine separate bakes that produced 3500 hamantashen so that, for the first time, we delivered homemade goodies, preservative free, and made with love to each and every member home. Our WFRS kids helped out as well. Their restraint in keeping themselves from eating the fruits of their labor was remarkable.
Between the hamantashen and Mishloach Manot deliveries (which was GPS-aided by a new mapping application this year!) over 200 people volunteered (special thanks to our chairs, Jennifer Charney, Scott Cobert and Andrea Steiger) to fulfill the mitzvah of sharing food packages with neighbors for Purim. Our entire administrative staff also volunteers their time to staple, stuff, and organize our bags. And of course, we received so many generous donations from our community, so that we can continue to put on efforts like this year after year.
Katie also works with Sarah Katz and Julie Carpenter to design signs and decorations to transform our sanctuary and social halls into superhero lairs, or Dr. Seuss books, or Hogwarts, and this year—a Broadway theatre. Sarah Lipinsky spends several weeks getting our students ready, this year helping them to organize booths for the younger children to enjoy.
And Nathan and his crew get all the moving pieces in the right places and the right times.
Needless to say, hundreds and hundreds of hours go into making this a very joyful and special day.
This year, everyone has really outdone themselves. I’m especially excited for our Family megillah reading this year, which will feature amazing performances of some my Broadway favorites featuring our Klei Kodesh and special guests. The curtain goes up promptly at 6:30 pm in the Beck Family Sanctuary. Don’t be late for the show!
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
One of the things that I love about being Jewish is that we are commanded to feel.
God tells us that we must love Him. The Torah teaches us that we must be joyful on Festivals like Sukkot. And our sages insist that, even at a wedding, we should hold some sadness in our hearts for the sufferings of our people.
For me, Judaism is often like a very powerful mood drug. Even if I’m commanded to feel sorrow, I’m grateful, because I know the emotion it evokes is an appropriate and even a productive one.
We are now most of the way through the month of Adar I (this a leap year, so there are two months of Adar), a time associated with the ancient saying, “mi shenichnas adar marbim b’simcha” – those who embrace the month of Adar merit an overabundance of joy. For thirteen days, we anticipate the raucous celebration of Purim, and in the two weeks following we bask in the afterglow of one of the sweetest and most festive days of the Jewish year.
But as you can imagine, maintaining this joyful countenance for a month straight—and this year for two months—is quite a challenge. The natural high of entering into this season only lasts so long. So, I often find myself looking ahead, planning moments of joy to ensure that I wear a smile on my face for as much of Adar as possible.
This past Shabbat, we certainly succeeded in creating a moment of great happiness for our community. As we welcomed Dr. Benjamin Sommer, our Scholar-In-Residence, we also marked the first of what I hope will be many annual Shabbatot dedicated to the memory of Irene Kogutt, z’ll, a beloved figure in our community.
Irene was a devoted member of our Shabbat morning Torah Study class, the Topletz Minyan, and our Adult Education classes for many years. She also made an extra effort to study on her own, with her chevruta Susan Ehrlich, in anticipation of her adult Bat-Mitzvah, no doubt one of the most joyful days of her life.
That Irene so steadfastly pursued the mitzvah of Torah study was reason enough to honor her, thanks the generosity of her family and the many of our members who contributed to the Kogutt fund for Scholars-In-Residence in her memory.
But what was also so fitting about this past Shabbat was that it fell right in the middle of the month of Adar.
If the practice of Judaism is a mood drug, a surefire way to lift your spirits, so was the occasion of spending time with Irene. Except for the times when she expressed serious concern about my parenting skills (which, fortunately, was not too often), Irene always, always, had a smile on her face. She made the study of Torah joyful through her presence, her curiosity, and her infectious spirit. Even today, more than a year after her passing, it is impossible not to think of her and smile – even grin.
This month, I pray that we continue to find ways of marking our time with joy – by honoring and remembering those we love, by committing ourselves to the study of our tradition, and by giving ourselves over to the celebration and the revelry of the season of Purim.
Sermon--Parashat Terumah 5779
Tiny Treasures Shabbat, 2/9/19
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
According to a teaching of Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kappar in Pirke Avot (4:22), the Ethics of our Fathers, a collection of rabbinic wisdom and maxims included in the Mishnah some 1800 years ago, when we are born, we are actually born into the world against our will. Which is to say that no one consulted with us or asked our opinion before our arrival on this earth. And, moreover, we were also born into a world that had already benefited and suffered many times over because of choices our predecessors had made for us. We had no say in the matter of where our parents lived, how they made their living, whether they were compatible, or whether they provided us with food, clothing and shelter, even though every one of these factors had an impact on our lives when we began to live them. This idea that our world and some of our options and circumstances have already been shaped and constrained by decisions others have made seems to run counter to our society’s insistence that a persistent individual can determine his or her own destiny. While it’s true that there is certainly much that we can accomplish owing to our own individual initiative, we are also enmeshed in a larger context that is not of our own creation or doing that impacts our lives.
In that way, we are often dependent on the foresight of those who came before us, in much the same way that our children will ultimately face the consequences or reap the benefits of the choices we make—or don’t make—today. This week’s parasha, Terumah, speaks to this interconnection of the generations quite clearly through an interesting and surprising detail we encounter in the parasha. In the early stages of the Israelites’ wandering through the Sinai wilderness, God instructs them to gather material with which to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that will serve as the symbolic home for God’s presence in their midst. Among the specific materials listed in Shemot, Exodus 25:4-5, we find “gold and silver and brass, and blue and purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen and goats’ hair, and skins of rams dyed red, and skins of seals, and acacia wood.” While I realize too much goats’ hair might have required the invention of the world’s first lint brush, it’s not the inclusion of the goats’ hair that particularly puzzled the rabbinic sages. Rather, it is the mention of the atzei shittim, the acacia wood. Rashi, in his 11th century commentary, asks the obvious question, “From where did they obtain this in the wilderness?" After all, there are no acacia trees in the desert! How could God expect the Israelites to be able to obtain this type of lumber? Gersonides, the 14th century French philosopher and commentator also known by the acronym Ralbag, suggests that the Israelites might have cut down this wood in one of the places they passed through on the way in order to make furniture, and now donated whatever of it they had for the purpose of constructing the Mishkan. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th century Portuguese commentator, explained the disconnect by noting that most probably this wood, like the oil and spices, was purchased from the neighboring peoples who came to the Israelite camp to sell things. But Rashi in his day offered up a different explanation, which he brought from the Midrash Tanhuma, which was that our patriarch Jacob prophesized through God’s Divine Spirit that his descendants the Israelites would one day build the Tabernacle in the wilderness. So Jacob brought cedars—he believed the acacia was a kind of cedar—down to Egypt with him, planted them, and instructed his children to take them along when they left.
According to Rashi’s answer, our ancestor Jacob showed foresight and anticipated the needs of a future generation and then went out of his way to plan for and provide for those needs. He did not personally have any need for cedars or acacia wood, nor did he personally reap any benefit from them. Moreover, schlepping wood and trees along may have seemed like an unnecessary encumbrance to his family and contemporaries. Yet Jacob knew that his descendants would need it—and for a sacred purpose, no less—so he went the extra mile to provide it for them. This kind of selflessness and foresight is not always common, so it’s not surprising to see that the Midrash attributes Jacob’s foresight to ruach ha-kodesh, Divinely inspired prophecy.
In a similar vein, some of us may be familiar with the oft-cited Talmudic legend of Honi ha-m’agel, Honi the circle maker, and the story of his encounter with a man planting a carob tree. Honi asks the man how long it takes for the tree to bear fruit, to which the man replies, “70 years." Honi, puzzled by this response and thus the seemingly illogical action this man is taking, asks further, “So, are you sure you’ll be living for another 70 years?” And to this inquiry, the man responds, “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my children.” Honi then sits down to a meal, finishes eating, gets tired, and falls asleep for 70 years—according to the legend, no one found him in all that time because a rock formation grew around him and hid him from view. When he finally wakes up, sure enough, he sees a carob tree near him and a man picking fruit from the tree, prompting Honi to ask the man if he was the one who planted the tree. The man informed Honi that he was, in fact, the man’s grandson, to which Honi replies that now he knows he must have slept for 70 years. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a)
In our own day and age, there are multiple parallels to Rashi’s midrashic explanation for how the Israelites obtained the acacia wood cited in our parasha and the Talmudic story of Honi and the man who planted the carob tree. First of all, the unnamed man in the story planted a carob tree so that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have fruit in their lifetime, and Jacob planted trees that his children would need some 400 years later. Thus, like Jacob in the midrash and the concerned carob-tree planter in the story, it is important that we remember to measure our choices and actions by their consequences that extend forward multiple generations hence, not just by our short-term wants and needs. This approach most certainly applies to taking care of our society, our environment, and our planet.
But this parallel is also apt for Judaism and our Jewish communities. Specifically, when we “build” our own Judaism and our synagogue communities, we need to be forward thinking and not reactive, avoiding the trap that I know I’ve paraphrased here before in the name of Rabbi Ed Feinstein—one of the rabbis here at Shearith back in the day--that American Jews are really good at building synagogues that their parents and grandparents would have loved. We have an unfortunate habit in the modern Jewish world of either looking backwards at “glory days” gone by or being content to tread water in the present. We should be satisfied with neither if we are really intent on creating a vibrant Jewish future. Yet it is important to note in this vein something that we also often lose sight of: our children and grandchildren can only inherit what we ourselves possess. If we don’t plant and cultivate nourishing trees of life, as it were, meaningful Jewish experiences for ourselves that engage and inspire us regularly through the weeks of our year, then what exactly are we passing on to our children and grandchildren? We want to bestow on them values and guidance that will help them in their Jewish journeys when they are ready, and Jewish memories they would want to hold on to and cherish like a treasured possession.
So this is the challenge we face, the delicate balance we must strive for: creating a living and evolving Judaism and synagogues and Jewish communities that both resonate with us AND will resonate with our children and grandchildren. And this week, and today in particular, we are witness to the nexus of this balance, with the presentation of Shearith’s Strategic Plan, “Ma’alot: Ascending New Heights” and our celebration in a few minutes of our Tiny Treasures, many of the new babies who have been born in our Shearith community during these last 12 months. The general focus of Ma’alot is to push us to build on the solid foundation we have already established at Shearith and move forward and upwards from here in all the broad areas of our congregational life and culture, inviting more participation and engagement and inspiring others to join in and rally around our mission, vision and values. This upward push towards creating an even more sacred community than the one we are already part of means involvement of all demographics in our congregation, from our eldest seniors, even 101 year old Alex Jonas who recently told his son Hylton how excited he was to see how much was going on at the shul, all the way down to our littlest babies and their families who we’ll be welcoming into the sanctuary momentarily. And, regardless of what demographic each of us fits into, it is these beautiful little babies and their sweet faces—well, when they’re not crying, anyway :) —that remind us what is at stake in the long run with the work we’re doing. We want these Tiny Treasures—our tiny treasures—to treasure the Judaism and the community that we are building and re-shaping for us and for them—and then, one day, to have that same foresight as our ancestor Jacob and the carob tree planter did and bequeath a compelling legacy, mission, and framework for living to their children and grandchildren. This is the holy responsibility we are holding in our hands at this crossroads. May we be worthy stewards of our tradition and our congregation for ourselves and for the generations who will follow us. AMEN.
Many of you have heard me talk about my zaydie, the rabbi, who was born in Germany and marked his Bar Mitzvah in 1933, the year that Hitler rose to power. You’ve heard me talk about his Bar Mitzvah tefillin, one of the only possessions that made it through the journey north to Liverpool, across the Atlantic to Toronto, to Saskatoon, to a suburb of Cleveland, and then finally, to Orlando, where my zaydie sat with me when I was just eight years old, and gave them to me.
If there’s one thing we Jews can agree on, it's that the Ten Commandments are the most important commandments in the Torah, right?
Not so fast.
Sure, murder is really wrong, and honoring your parents is very important and Judaism wouldn’t be a monotheistic religion if idol worship was permitted. But it doesn’t say anywhere in Parashat Yitro, the account of the revelation at Sinai that we read this week, that these mitzvot should be prioritized above all others. Nor is the punishment for coveting your neighbor's wife or stealing as severe as the one for eating chametz on Passover (for which the offender is “cut off” from the Jewish people and from God).
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share