Where Heaven and Earth MeetRead Now
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
Imagine that it’s November 1947. You’re sitting with your family, huddled around your radio, waiting with bated breath to hear the results of the UN vote on Resolution 181, which would give international sanction to the birth of what would become the State of Israel. What an extraordinary moment to witness—you know both the pain and struggle that have led to this day, and you know the vision and hope that blazed the path. When Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897, fifty years earlier, he set in motion a critical movement to establish a homeland where all Jews could depend on safety above all else, an oasis of security in a world that could no longer guarantee our people the ability to pursue a life of liberty and dignity. As the specter of anti-Semitism darkened the world, Herzl’s cause became more and more emergent. The horrors of the Shoah demonstrated that we could no longer entrust the destiny of the Jewish people to anyone besides our own. In his pamphlet der Judenstaat, Herzl wrote: “We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution.”
The Jewish question, he posited, would have to be solved by our own gumption. And the world saw, decades later, just how right he was. But the post-Shoah urgency forced the Zionist movement to encounter an impossible choice: should they stick to the original vision set forth in our sacred Torah, securing our biblical right to the land to the west and to the east of the Jordan, up to the Golan and down to the Red Sea? Surely, if God ordained these borders, we would have Divine support in asserting this path. There should be no need to compromise.
But in the post-war proceedings, our leaders began to see that insisting on the ideal at the outset, instead of working to achieve it over time, would mean losing the opportunity to ever establish a Jewish State. After all, when the UN produced a map, based on the British Peel commission report, it looked like a checkerboard: carving up our homeland, limiting our access to our holiest city, Yerushalayim. Jewish cries from around the world rose in a desperate chorus: voices like the Mizrahi delegation to the American Congress, who declared: “[We] will never consent to the partition of Palestine because every particle of earth of this land, promised to us by the Torah and the Prophets, is holy to us.” Chaim Weizmann, who served as the President of the Zionist Organization, cried: “Zionism is a modern expression of the…ideal. Divorced from that ideal, it loses all purpose, all hope…”
How challenging this moment must have been for the leaders of the Zionist movement. To come so close to achieving a dream our people held in their hearts for so long, and yet to be faced with the possibility that that dream would not include sovereignty over our most sacred places, including Jerusalam and Hevron, the burial place of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs.
Were the Mizrahi delegation or Weizmann wrong to demand the ideal? How could any reader of the Torah deny that the integrity of our land was not just our right, but our divine sanction?
But slowly, the truth emerged: that if Zionists didn’t accept the UN’s offer, their hope of 2000 years would be dashed. Jews would again be scattered to the corners of the earth, back to their tenuous existence of fear and hiding or disappearing into assimilation.
And so, after a painful reckoning, it became clear that we needed to take the offer. We needed to put on hold our dreams of the ideal, and take the compromise so that we could be safe. That’s why, when Jews around the world hunched over their radios on that miraculous day in November 1947, hearing enough “yes” votes to secure our rights to the land, we celebrated. Finally, we could begin to work through the tragedy and devastation that gripped us. Finally, we could feel like a people with power and agency to set forth our own path. Finally, we could live in our homeland, eretz tzion and, one day, yerushalayim.
More than 70 years later, with the hindsight that we have now, we know this was the right decision. But that doesn’t resolve the profound heartbreak that our forbearers felt when they had to put Divine dreams aside to make room for reality.
This wasn’t the first time that we’ve had to compromise.
When God created the world, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the land of the ideal, the place where perfection dwelled. With God imminently present, there was no room for doubt or conflict or competition, all those things that make our lives harder and more complicated. But we learned very quickly that paradise is not for us, creatures of free will, who need to grow and progress and analyze and improve and learn. Our best chance to live our destiny was not in a utopia, but in a world where we must live with the entire range of human experience and create meaning and sanctity in our own language. It is the messiness and unpredictability of our lives that force us to take hold of our own stories.
The Torah lays out an ideal system for worship: the Temple and its sacrifices. With the help of the cohanim, the priests, we could bring an offering that would help us express to God our gratitude, our forgiveness, our devotion. God told us exactly how to communicate and so we could follow those directions exactly. We always knew how to be in step with God, so that God would continue to protect and guide us.
But then our temples were destroyed and our people were on the brink of despair. Without our central touchstone, we lacked both national unity and the ability to continue our dialogue with God.
The rabbis knew that if they continued only to mourn and lament the Temple’s loss indefinitely, they would lose the opportunity to establish an enduring Jewish practice that could protect us through this painful transition. And so, no longer having access to the ideal setup, they created and choreographed a system of prayer: morning, afternoon, and night, that would mirror the devout devotion of the sacrifices. Instead of giving up an object of great value to express our piety, like a cake of choice flour or a blemish-less ram, we would offer ourselves, our time, our concentration, our service. Vaani tefilati lecha Adonai—we, the contents of our own hearts, became the sacrifice. Though we are now very far away from the ideal approach to worship delineated in the Torah, our post-Temple world has forced us to come before God with open souls, engaged intellects, and empowered creativity. And in this way, we discover the power of our own voices.
Our rabbis, in their profound wisdom, gave us language to understand the relationship between these two paradigms—the ideal and the real.
The ideal, or in Aramaic, lechatchila, imagines a world like the Garden of Eden. Everything that we need in order to fulfill mitzvot perfectly exists within arm’s length. Keeping kosher is easy because we have access to all of the kosher food we need, we have kitchens equipped with two sets of everything (and two more sets for Passover!), and when we don’t have time to cook, we can easily find affordable and delicious places to dine or pick up prepared food. Speaking of Pesach, avoiding chametz is easy because every single place we go is empty of it. We don’t have to worry about craving bagels and pasta and doughnuts because we don’t see them over those eight days, and we definitely don’t see that delicious-looking baking tutorial on our Facebook feed. Shabbat is easy because we have the time to prepare meticulously, so that once the sun sets on Friday, everything is in its place. All of our food is prepared, all of our work is done. Every place we’ll need to go in order to celebrate Shabbat is in walking distance. We are free to spend the entire day reveling in the miracles of rest and togetherness because everything is perfect, just as it is.
Doesn’t that world sound nice?
Of course, if we could, we would choose that world. How beautiful does that life sound, where we never have to think about achieving perfection because it’s already in our grasp? And not just in our fulfillment of mitzvot, but in all other aspects of the holy lives we seek to create?
What if we never had to worry about the physical and mental health of our families and loved ones? What if we never had to worry about managing a perfect household in which we put a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table every night and our kids always cleaned their plates? What if we didn’t have to worry about whether we’ll be able to save enough money so that our kids can go to their dream colleges, and we’ll be able to retire before the age of 90?
And while we’re at it, let’s expand our aspirational universe, because God knows how we all lay up in bed at night, worrying about escalating rates of poverty and homelessness, deaths from gun violence, dangerous weather anomalies from an increasingly volatile climate and I could go on… for a world in which we’re supposed to aspire to and live according to the ideal, we find ourselves over and over in a situation that is leagues away from perfect. Taking cues from our most sacred values of equity and lovingkindness and the inherent dignity of each and every person, of course we wish we had the power to obliterate these sources of hardship. But if we commit ourselves to that level of perfection, we will fail every time. Believing that it is in our grasp to solve these insurmountable problems only leads to disillusionment, powerlessness, and defeat. We become overwhelmed and paralyzed and decide that because we can’t access the perfection we seek, there’s no use in even trying.
But Judaism gives us a remarkable gift.
The counterpart to lechatchila is bediavad: how we act when we can’t control everything. A brilliant rabbinic mindset that never allows us to lose sight of the ideal, and yet, gives us breathing room as we pursue lives of meaning and purpose.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the most important voices of 20th century American Judaism, wrote about the pursuit of holiness in Halakhic Man, the person who sees the world through the prism of Rabbinic Jewish law, not as a single-minded aspiration to the ideal, but as a cosmic joining of ideal and real. He wrote: “Halakhic man’s ideal is to subject reality to the yoke of [Jewish law]. However, as long as this desire cannot be implemented, halakhic man does not despair, nor does he reflect at all concerning the clash of the real and the ideal, the opposition which exists between the theoretical Halakhah and the actual deed, between law and life…Holiness means the holiness of earthly, here-and-now life” (29, 33).
He shares a beloved midrash, a rabbinic allegorical teaching, to illustrate the crucial and life-saving relationship between our people and our laws.
In Masechet Shabbat (88b-89a), the rabbis imagine a conversation between God and the ministering angels in heaven, arguing whether human beings, who are mortal and susceptible to failure, deserve the exquisite gift of Torah. The heavenly hosts cry: That secret treasure—You, God, would defile it by placing it in the hands of flesh and blood?!
God then tells Moshe to begin reading from the two tablets: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt! God bellows: Angels, were you enslaved by Pharaoh? Did I bring you out of Egypt with signs and wonders? Moshe continues: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. God shouts: Angels, do you perform work and then need to rest? Again, Moshe reads: Honor your father and mother. God demands: Angels, do you have parents? And on and on.
Our tradition isn’t for creatures of perfection and divine imminence, for heavenly hosts that lack free will and never have to worry what will happen next. It is for those who doubt and fear and wonder why we are here on this earth. It is for those who are just trying to eke out a life of meaning and connection, purpose and sanctity.
Rav Soloveitchik continues: “The earth and bodily life are the very ground of halakhic reality. Only against the concrete, empirical backdrop of this world can the Torah be implemented; angels who neither eat nor drink, who neither quarrel with one another nor are envious of one another, are not worth and fit for the receiving of the Torah” (34).
Judaism doesn’t ask us to be perfect. It doesn’t WANT us to be perfect. If we were, then we’d be the wrong match for God and for Torah. And if our world were perfect, we would have no need for God, for Torah, or for one another. We need to come into conflict and encounter difficulty, we need to understand what it feels like to despair, to yearn, to break down, to lose faith in the world around us, because these are all essential experiences of being human.
And when we’re down there, in the pit of hopelessness and disillusionment, God doesn’t abandon us. God reaches down to us and says: Now you’re ready. Let’s build this world. I know about eternity and transcendence, you know about longing and imperfection. Together we can construct holiness.
In our world of bediavad, ideal and real establish a symbiotic relationship, oscillating back and forth between what is and what could be. Without a vision of perfection, without a window into heaven, we would never be able to conceive an aspiration of the ideal. We wouldn’t be able to imagine the attributes of a perfect world and set those always on the horizon. But without an acknowledgement of where we are, we would never be able to speak honestly about our needs, our missing pieces, our reality, and to think creatively about how to our live our values in an imperfect world.
Because we live in a world of bediaviad on Pesach, for example, we have to make intentional choices in each moment to renew our relationship with our story and our laws. We live in a society that mixes the secular and the religious. During the holiday, we are indeed constantly surrounded by delicious doughnuts and pizza and pasta as we go about our daily routines. Therefore we are also are given the opportunity to know that we can overcome our cravings in order to fulfill God’s laws. Understanding our reality, our rabbis gave us a ritual statement nullifying all chametz during the week of Pesach as afra de’ara, as dust of the earth. Our construct of bediavad creates this opportunity for a powerful shift in our mindset, one we would never have been given if we lived in the lechatchila world of the Torah, where in all of the land there was not a crumb of chametz to be found.
If we didn’t live in a world of bediavad, then we would not know illness and suffering. How we all long for the lechatchila in which our loved ones and sisters and brothers around the world would never have to contend with cancer or heart disease or depression or dementia or malaria or so many other terrible diseases that plague us. Faced with this bediavad case, our human compassion and ingenuity have been animated in order to increase the quality of life and dignity for all who suffer. We are forced to pool our best intellect and resources in our pledge to understand and treat these illnesses so that we can build a world of opportunity and lovingkindness for each and every person. And though sickness is a terrible price we have to have pay, think of how these medical advances have benefitted the world far beyond the original intent for which they were created. Medicine doesn’t only cure sickness, it also enables us to prolong life and elevate its quality.
And in fact, Rav Soloveitchik argues that this is how we bring about redemption: “…not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of Halakhah.” In this way, “a lowly world is elevated through the Halakhah to the level of a divine world” (37-38).
God wrote the Torah FOR US, created the world FOR US, and is waiting FOR US to complete revelation as we live our lives through the lens of our tradition. Is it uncomfortable to know that we will never, ever, fulfill every aspect of Jewish law? Is it painful to admit that we will never, ever be the spouse, child, parent, sibling, employee, citizen… that we aspire to be? Is it crushing to confess that we will always miss the mark in some way?
Yes. But that’s right where we need to be.
Because then we have a choice to make. We can either quit while we’re ahead, knowing that we’ll always end up with something less than perfection or, we can revel in the discomfort. We can celebrate our endless quest to touch heaven while standing on earth.
And that is what Judaism wants us to do. To always be a little uncomfortable. Because out of that discomfort comes our best ingenuity, our most stunning creativity, our redemptive honesty.
Our rabbis (Ein Yaakov Taanit 1:11) tell a story about Yerushalayim Habnuyah, the rebuilt Jerusalem of the future. You might think that this Yerushalayim would embody only the vision of Yerushalayim shel Maalah, that heavenly Jerusalem that exudes idealized perfection. But instead, the rabbis teach us that God refused to enter this Yerushalayim until God could fill Yerushalayim shel Matah, the earthly Jerusalem, with the Divine Presence.
In this way, the rabbis teach us that Yerushalayim habnuah, the fully-realized dream of a rebuilt and reunited Jerusalem contains both Yerushalayim shel maalah and Yerushalayim shel matah. As Rav Soloveitchik taught us, it is in heaven’s longing for earth and in earth’s longing for heaven where holiness is found.
This year will be full of bediavads. We will continue to find ourselves in situations beyond our control that leave us floundering. Each day will bring new challenges in our homes, our jobs, and our relationships. Our beloved State of Israel will continue to fend off anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic attacks at the same time as she struggles, internally, to establish a government that will protect her security and allow her citizens to thrive. The political climate in our own country will continue to fuel divisiveness and hateful rhetoric, bringing us to the point where those on the left and those on the right can’t even talk to each other, much less think, that someone with a different opinion might have a useful or insightful perspective to share. And though we feel great distance from the ideal world that we seek, we cannot dismiss the extraordinary opportunities we have before us to bring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness back into our midst, for we have the redemptive and creative power to do so.
I pray that in 5780, we finally come to terms with our inability to be perfect, to ever rise to our expectations for ourselves, in a world beyond our control. Rather, I pray that this New Year gives us the permission to be inspired by our imperfection and the sacred opportunity that it gives us to partner with God. May our discomfort lead to new creativity and discovery and may our longing bring us ever closer to a united vision of heaven and earth.
A Revolution of KindnessRead Now
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
In Bend, Oregon—about three hours south of Portland—tucked away in a strip mall shop between Papa Murphy’s pizza and a Chevron gas station, you’ll find a vestige of a bygone era.
Walk in and you’ll see 1,000 square feet or so of aisles crowded, not with people, but shelves and shelves of rectangular boxes organized alphabetically by category. And should one of these boxes catch your eye, if you’re lucky, you’ll find another identical in size right behind it, marked with an iconic logo in blue and yellow.
For $3.99, the contents of that box could be yours for an evening, if you flash your membership card at the counter. Just don’t forget to bring it back by 7 pm the next evening.
For the 75,000 residents of Bend, I imagine that walking through the doors of what is now the last Blockbuster Video on earth is almost like stepping through a time machine. How quaint it must be to think of the world as it was in the 1990’s, back when commodities were physical, not digital. When face-to-face human interaction was required to deposit a check, or borrow a book, or file your taxes.
In its heyday, the business model at Blockbuster was based on a social contract my children will never fully understand. Because if, after 24 hours, that summer blockbuster was still sitting on your kitchen counter, or hidden out of sight in the belly of your VCR, that means that some little boy would go home that night disappointed, his plans for the evening scuttled, as he is forced to endure his parents’ copy of Singin’ in the Rain for the umpteenth time this month.
And remember those little stickers they affixed to the label of those tapes? “Be kind, rewind.” I’m pretty sure my older daughter has never even heard the word rewind and that it would probably take some sort of diagram to explain it to her.
I’m turning 40 this year. And though I usually get a good laugh from the folks around here whenever I say that I am starting to feel my age, these little reminders of the way things used to be two generations ago are a pretty significant marker of how far we’ve come since I was born, or, in some cases, how much we’ve lost in the meantime—just in the small details of the way we live.
“Be kind, rewind.”
If you think about it, what makes that expression so quaint is not the pithy rhyme, but the overall message. Is returning something in the same condition in which you received it really an act of kindness? It’s certainly the right thing to do, but that’s not the same thing as being the nice thing to do.
We lament, with good reason, the meanness, even the cruelty, in so much of our societal discourse. But there are times when I wonder if the genteel era we are missing was an illusion conjured up by the language of politeness and civility. Even before the chasms of ideology and technology created such distance between us, if we convinced ourselves that rewinding a tape, or returning a book on time, was a gesture of the heart rather than simply meeting the bare minimum of our obligations to each other, did we ever really understand what kindness was? Are we missing something that was never actually all that present in the first place?
If you look up the Hebrew word for kindness in the dictionary, you’ll find a number of unsatisfactory entries: nechmadut, better defined as niceness, or chavivut, which means dearness or fondness. Only the two-word phrase tuv lev, good-hearted, comes close—because kindness, in our tradition is not a simple concept. It is a compound idea, an action that results from a feeling. Kindness comes from the soul.
Perhaps that’s why Jews don’t really aspire to be kind, they challenge themselves to commit acts of loving-kindness—of chesed.
Chesed is not simply “kindness,” because kindness is a unidirectional act. In our secular lexicon, we do kindnesses for others. We volunteer, we offer, we give of ourselves. Sometimes we act out of love, but sometimes also out of sympathy, or pity, or even self-interest.
Gemilut chasadism, acts of lovingkindness, are mutual, as suggested by the Hebrew word gomel, which means to remunerate, to pay back. They are based on the assumption that kindness is relational. God extended His kindness to us by giving us life and the blessings that make it fulfilling and we, in turn, send that kindness back heavenward when we obey God’s commandments, particularly those that increase goodness in the world.
Of course, the concept of gemuilut chasidim also reflects an equal exchange between humans, as our sages so succinctly put it: mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One good deed engenders another. Each time we are kind to another person, we perpetuate a sacred cycle of generosity that elevates us all, bringing us closer to the source of all chesed, back to God.
Believing in the power of chesed is an act of faith, one that assumes that these reciprocal actions can fundamentally change not just the way we live, but the world we live in.
I was reminded of how transformative a force kindness can be when I came across the story of Braysen Gabriel, a 4 year old boy with autism, who boarded a United Airlines flight from San Diego to Houston with his parents. Just before takeoff, he unbuckled his seat belt and insisted that he needed to lie down on the floor. Knowing that the crew would never allow the plane to takeoff unless he was seated, Breyson’s parents forced him, kicking and screaming, back into place.
When the flight attendants came over to the family to see what all the commotion was about, Breysen’s mom explained the situation, fearing perhaps that it wouldn’t be long before they were taxiing back to the gate and removed from the plane.
Instead, the flight crew huddled, come up with a plan and sprang into action. They allowed Breysen to sit on his dad’s lap during takeoff. Seeing that he was still out of control when the seat belt light indicator turned off, the crew led Greyson by the hand to a place on the floor of the plane, where they sat with him, hoping that the vibrations would calm him.
It wasn’t long before Breysen wandered off to first class, where he began kicking the back of a passenger’s chair repeatedly. Once the boy’s condition was explained to him, he replied, “He can kick my chair, I don’t care,” and began giving Breyson high fives.
Pretty soon, everyone in first class was asking his name, showing him pictures on their phones, and giving him free reign of the cabin.
Needless to say, Breyson’s parents were overwhelmed by the patience, care, and kindness these strangers had bestowed on their son, and on them.
As Breyson’s mom was headed down the aisle off of the plane after a long flight, another passenger, an off-duty flight attendant gave her a hug and handed her a note. “You and your family are loved and supported. Do not ever let anyone make you feel as though your son is an inconvenience or a burden. He is a blessing. God bless your patience, your love, your support and your strength. Continue to be a super woman.”
Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One act of kindness inspires another.
What inspires me about that story is that it so perfectly illustrates what it takes to build a community of chesed. These strangers, cooped up in a tiny capsule just a few feet wide and who certainly had reason to behave otherwise, became united, no pun intended, in a sacred purpose---not just to get this boy and his family through the ordeal of a difficult three-hour flight, but to ensure that they walked off that plane together not ashamed or angry, but feeling that even though they had landed safely on the ground that they were still 30,000 feet up in the air, uplifted by generosity, admiration, and yes, kindness.
And though listening to stories such as these can make us feel as if the answer to what is poisoning our discourse, our relationships, and at times, even our own hearts, these days is so simple—“be kind,” we would do well to remember the lesson our tradition teaches us. Kindness is not simple. Chesed can’t be defined in a word. And acts of chesed reflect a soul that has been cultivated and conditioned to respond in ways that often defy the culture we live in.
When you buy an airplane ticket, you aren’t just paying for the journey, you’re paying for the space you occupy along the way. And these days, when the pricing structure for airline seating is more complex than figuring out how to buy floor seats at a rock concert, folks can be pretty protective of the 3.7 square feet that their money or their frequent flier status has earned them. Go ahead, try putting both your right and your left elbow on the armrests next to you and see what happens. The more expensive and exclusive and small these spaces get, the harder we fight to keep every inch for ourselves.
And yet, the passengers on United Airlines 2210, somehow found the room on that cramped flight for Breyson, a boy who was breaking every single convention of personal space with every limb of his body.
In our tradition, no figure is more revered for his acts of chesed than Abraham. And in the litany of good deeds he committed throughout his 175 years of life, perhaps no act of kindness is more well-known than the hospitality he showed to three strangers, wandering in the desert in the midst of a long journey. Notwithstanding the physical agony he was enduring three days after he circumcised himself at God’s command, Abraham opened his tent wide, providing his guests food and shelter.
What makes his act of chesed, of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, so instructive, is not that it was easy, or expected, or polite, it’s that it was hard, painful even. Abraham’s story is an important reminder that acts of kindness are not acts of convenience. They require us, in ways that are often quite literal, to push ourselves past the boundaries of our own comfort zones.
Indeed, some of the most impactful acts of chesed occur precisely at the moments where we are most uncomfortable. Welcoming new faces, feeding the hungry, consoling the recently bereaved—these moments where kindness is required, require us, to overcome our anxiety that so often stops us in our tracks.
Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus famously teaches in the holiness code, which contains the most essential commandments for creating a sacred community: lo tachmod al dam re’echa. Do not stand idly by when the life of your friend is at stake.
It’s worth asking why it’s necessary for the Torah to command something that should be obvious to all of us. Did God believe us to be so unfeeling, and so uncaring, that we wouldn’t value the life of our fellow Jew whose life stands in the balance, right before our eyes?
Biblical commentators knew this could not be the case and so Rashi narrows the situation described in the verse—Do not stand idly by if you are able to rescue him; if for instance he is drowning in the river, or if a wild beast is attacking him. In other words, do not let your fear stop you from being kind.
Abraham had reason to be fearful of those strangers on the road. The passengers on Breyson’s Gabriel’s flight had cause to be anxious that his behavior would prove a nuisance at the least, or so far up in the air, dangerous, at worst.
And yet, when kindness took hold, row by row, cabin by cabin on flight 2210, fear transformed into joy and the air of anxiety was pierced by the sound of laughter. And, I believe, most importantly, judgement gave way to understanding.
Of all the rabbinic ethical dictums, dan l’chaf zechut, judging others favorably is, perhaps, the most challenging to carry out in today’s world. The Torah imagined a society where only the most learned and the most pious would be given what was once a divine prerogative--the power to judge. And yet, in our time, we are all judges. Because all that humans can possibly know, all the collective wisdom of the ages, can be accessed in a moment on a tiny screen we hold in our hands and store in our pockets. And when we feel we cannot judge, or are yet unable to, we can search an infinite trove of electronic writing until we find the opinion that seems most valid in our own eyes and we then allow the author to judge for us.
It would be naïve to assume that everyone we meet is deserving of kindness. There will be many sermons devoted to that particular topic this high holiday season, but if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll find that in too many of our encounters, our predisposition to judge precludes the activation of the chesed within us. If we are to follow in Abraham’s example, we have to find a way to let our guard down.
Of the more than 1000 hours I’ve been privileged to sit in a theatre watching a Broadway show, I have never been so moved, so delightfully undone, than I was last summer when Shira and I went to see the new musical, The Band’s Visit (which by the way, is coming to the Winspear this winter, and I encourage all of you to go). The show, which is based on an Israeli film, begins at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, as an Egyptian band, invited to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petach Tivkah, stands awkwardly in a line in their powder blue uniforms. But as they make their way, they mistakenly end up stranded for the night in the fictional desert town of Beit Hatikvah until a bus can come for them in the morning.
The plot is put in motion by an unexpected act of kindness, as only a sabra can offer it. The otherwise prickly proprietress of the one café in town, invites the members of the band to spend the night in the apartments of her fellow employees. What follows is an evening of surprise and connection, as they bond over music and tales of unrequited love and longing.
The musical is set in 1996. More than 20 years later, Israel and Egypt, America and the Middle East are very different places. It is hard to know when or if we will ever recover the time when we could think to ourselves—“Be kind, rewind, reset, renew.” That the secret to dissolving what lies between us could be just as simple as an act of welcoming a stranger for a night.
But in the end, this very Jewish musical is not really about easy solutions. At its conclusion, morning comes. The uneasy and fleeting bond shared by the residents of Beit Hatikvah and the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police orchestra is broken by the harsh desert sunlight, in which they discover that despite what brought them together in the shadow of night, by day they are Arabs and Jews, Egyptians and Israelis.
A year after seeing it, I confess that despite listening to the cast recording more than a few dozen times, it’s difficult for me to get through it without shedding some wistful tears. And though there were so many elements of the musical that came together to make it hit home for me, what truly caught me so off guard, was the gemilut chasadim, the completely unexpected acts of kindness and compassion that these beautifully drawn characters paid back to each other for 90 minutes.
For a time, after the show was over, I just sat there weeping, lamenting the loss of a time I could barely remember, until finally, the emotion subsided, my mind cleared and something that had been eluding me, that is eluding too many of us, I believe, came into focus.
It is unreasonable and unrealistic to simply expect a world of kindness. Because kindness is not instinctual. Kindness, like hatred, must be taught. It must be cultivated, nurtured, and practiced. And most importantly, it must be chosen. To learn to be kind is to learn how to overcome your fears, your boundaries, and your judgments and allow for the transformative possibilities of soul encountering soul.
In today’s world we hear so much about the changes, even the upheaval, in some cases, that is necessary to restore and renew our values—to protect liberty, and establish justice, to end corruption and to counter cruelty.
We have spoken about political revolutions, about building movements to retake and reclaim what is ours or what should be. But what I do not hear from any side of the debate these days is that what is needed is not a revolution of policies and politicians, but a revolution of kindness.
Because it has become crystal clear to me that in the climate in which we live now, kindness is a revolutionary act.
In the story of Abraham’s life there is a pivotal moment, that is often overlooked. To save his nephew Lot, Abraham intervenes in a war—a war of five kings against four others. When, thanks to Abraham, the four kings claim victory, saving Lot and his family, Abraham is taken to meet them so that he can be rewarded. One of the four kings is the wealthy and powerful ruler of the city of Sodom, a sinful place ultimately, destroyed by God, for being, among other things, inhospitable.
Riding in on his horse, the King of Sodom offers Abraham an enticing bargain. “Take all the spoils of war, all of the cattle, all of the precious gold and silver. But those you have captured, give them to me.”
Knowing that Sodom was a place without chesed, Abraham refuses. “I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or sandal strap of what is yours; for none shall say it is the King of Sodom who has made Abraham rich.”
In that moment, Abraham faced a critical choice. He could accept the way of the world as it was, a world where indifference to cruelty gave men access to power and wealth.
Or, he could revolt. He could resist. He could stare into the eyes of a man who dared to judge the fate of multitudes in an instant, who stood idly by as his people shut out the vulnerable and the needy, who built a city with cynicism and fear in his heart, and say to him, “For me and my descendants, I will build the world anew. I will remake this land in the image of the One who charged me to fill it with tzedek and mishpat, justice and righteousness. And as the psalmist wrote, olam chesed yibaneh, I will build that world with acts of lovingkindness.
It will not be easy, it will not happen all at once. And it will require each of us to harness the power of teshuva, of refining the soul, and returning it to its purest form.
To create a world where one act of kindness inspires another, and another, and another, until this small crowded space we all inhabit is filled with the music of love and joy and connection, we will have to begin again. It starts today.
By Mandy Golman
When I saw the notice that the Shabbat Hour service led by Rabbis Wallach and Roffman was resuming this past week, I was elated. This service is just one hour long on Saturday mornings in Fonberg Family Chapel. Rabbi Roffman and Rabbi Wallach lead us through a series of “spiritual moments,” the same ones that happen in a traditional service, but in a much more focused and intentional way.
I grew up in a Reform temple and attended Jewish camp and, truthfully, Jewish camping is where my Jewish connection was established and has really been the link to my spirituality for me. Over the years, I’ve often struggled to find that same connection when I’ve attended services. All that changed when I attended the Shabbat Hour. Being welcomed by Rabbi Wallach on the guitar and Rabbi Roffman on the piano to a melodic Halleluyah was just beautiful. I felt transformed back to my camp days. The service is very informal and participatory. The Rabbis add meaningful and relevant reflections and guidance as we go through the service and songs. Believe it or not, I find myself wishing it would continue when we come to a close. I now mark these services on my calendar and make it a priority to attend.
If you would have told me 26 years ago that I would find this spiritual connection at Shearith Israel I would have never believed it, but after this one hour service I leave feeling grounded and renewed and ready for the week ahead. This service will resume after the high holidays. While I know it will not be for everyone (and that’s ok!) if you have struggled at services, grew up in a Jewish camping world, or would just like to try something different, I would encourage you to try it. You will be glad you did!
Editor's Note: Thanks to Mandy Golman for sharing this reflection. If you would like to write a blog post about your positive experiences at Shearith Israel, please contact Communications Director, Julie Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Responding after the deathsRead Now
Sermon--Acharei Mot 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
The title of our parasha today, Acharei Mot, literally “after the death of,” refers to the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were struck down by God a few chapters earlier in parashat Shemini for bringing an “esh zarah,” a strange fire, to the sacrificial altar. There Aaron reacts with stunned silence and he and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are unable to mourn their loved ones formally and ritually because they must maintain their pure sanctified state to be able to fulfill their priestly duties for the Israelite people. Instead, the rest of the Israelite community mourns on their behalf. Ultimately Moses instructs Aaron and his two other sons to resume their sacred work as priests. Here in our parasha the reference to the deaths from several chapters ago serves as a warning to Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, not to enter the innermost part of the sanctuary improperly in the context of his fulfilling the annual Yom Kippur atonement ritual for the community. The words “acharei mot” here teach that, after we’ve experienced death and loss, we have to take something away from that devastation. To say we could justify death or explain away loss by saying we can “make the loss worth it” or “make someone’s sacrifice worth it,” is itself an overstatement that potentially trivializes the depth of the loss or suggests a direct connection between a death and something positive that comes about in its aftermath or is allowed to continue by virtue of a person’s or people’s ultimate sacrifice. And yet, it’s also true that, when we’re in pain and have a permanent hole in our heart that cannot be filled because of a loss or losses we’ve suffered, we may find at least some measure of comfort in knowing that something positive came about as a result, some kind of silver lining to carry us forward.
Friends, the idea of “acharei mot” could not be a more appropriate parasha for today in light of the shooting at Chabad of Poway last Shabbat morning, that claimed the life of Lori Gilbert Kaye and wounded three others, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. A congregant was gunned down on Shabbat and the 8th day of Pesach in her synagogue, just as 11 congregants were gunned down in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a Shabbat in October. Both shootings were perpetrated by anti-Semitic murderers, and last week’s shooting was carried out by a 19-year-old. How do we respond “after the death?" We can seek inspiration from Rabbi Goldstein, who, after he had already seen his beloved congregant lying dead in the synagogue lobby, and with his hands bloody from being shot, managed to help evacuate children from the building and then, amazingly, after the shooter had fled, even spoke to his community outside the building. In his opinion piece in the New York Times this week, he wrote that he didn’t “remember all that [he] said to [his] community, but [he did] remember quoting a passage from the Passover Seder liturgy: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And he remembered shouting the words “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!” He commented, “I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.” And then Rabbi Goldstein added:
“I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish. From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue—especially this coming Shabbat.”
Rabbi Goldstein powerfully teaches us that, “acharei mot,” after Lori Kaye’s death and the deaths at Tree of Life Synagogue and after so many other deaths at the hands of anti-Semites throughout history and into modern times through the Shoah, the Holocaust, which we coincidentally also commemorated this week, and even in the 70+ years since, we must continue to say to anti-Semites and to the world that you are not going to erase us from history. You are not going to erase our story or our narrative. And you will never stop us from living as Jews and proudly carrying forward our traditions and our peoplehood.
This theme of acharei mot carries forward into next week when we will observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, on Tuesday evening, immediately followed the next day by Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. When the government of the State of Israel established the date of Yom HaZikaron in 1963, they deliberately and intentionally placed it immediately before Yom Ha’Atzma’ut on the calendar, starkly reminding us of the “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter of which renowned Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote, referring to the men and women who sacrificed their lives so that the modern State of Israel might be established and so that it would survive in the face of any and all threat that has come its way since. As we celebrate the miracle of Israel’s independence, we can never forget the price that was paid, and continues to be paid, to secure a homeland for our Jewish people. In this vein, I was shocked to learn yesterday that a prominent synagogue in Washington, D.C., the 6th and I Synagogue, will be observing an “Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day” this coming Tuesday night on the evening of Yom HaZikaron, describing it on their synagogue website as a “memorial based on the values of hope, solidarity, and non-violence” in which people will “hear from Israelis and Palestinians as they share their families’ stories of loss." When I learned about this event at 6th and I, I dug a little deeper and found that sadly this is not the only example of dilution of sacred Jewish days and ceremonies into something that obscures or devalues the Jewish heart of the commemoration itself. For example, Jewish Voice for Peace has created a Pesach Haggadah that makes equivalences between the Israelite experience in Egypt and the Palestinian experience, and a Tisha B’Av ritual that compares the Palestinian reaction to the establishment of the State of Israel to the Jewish people’s reaction—and millennia-old day of mourning—for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, expulsions from European countries in the Middle Ages, pogroms and other tragedies throughout Jewish history.
Now, let me be clear—I do very much hear and recognize the narrative of loss experienced by Palestinian Arabs, and I very much want to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And there is an appropriate time to focus on those sentiments and hopes. But on Yom HaZikaron, Pesach, Tisha B’Av? Sacred days of our people are NOT that time. We deserve our day, or days, to have them be just about our unique experience, our narrative. When we water down that narrative, as 6th and I Synagogue is doing this coming Tuesday night, it makes it harder for us to stand up to anti-Semites like the murderers in Poway and Pittsburgh because we are devaluing ourselves and we are devaluing our own story and our own right to exist! Why are we doing the work of the anti-Semites for them, making it easier to say our story doesn’t matter, our religion doesn’t matter, our people doesn’t matter, the State of Israel doesn’t matter? Like Rabbi Goldstein said in his opinion piece, we need to proudly stand up for ourselves and assert our right to exist, our right to gather safely and securely and practice our rituals and traditions here in the U.S. and in any country, and our right to have a national homeland in the land of Israel, “lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion Yerushalayim,” to be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem, as the words of Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah proclaim. This is us, the Jewish people. We will not back down from anti-Semites or from anyone who would seek to devalue us or the sacrifices we’ve made or eliminate us from history.
Acharei Mot. After the deaths. How do we respond to the deaths of Lori Kaye, the 11 Pittsburgh victims, the multi-thousand Israeli soldiers fighting to establish, secure and defend Israel, the countless victims of anti-Semitism throughout the ages, and the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah? We respond by living proudly as Jews, by testifying through our actions that Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and Jewish statehood is somehow worth the unimaginable and impossibly high cost we’ve paid and still pay to this very day. I hope you’ll join me in our Dallas Jewish community’s commemoration of Yom HaZikaron this coming Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm at Anshai Torah, as we gather and remember some of these sacrifices that have been made in the name of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People. May the memories of those who have paid this price for us, our “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter for our Judaism, continue to bless us and inspire us to treasure the Judaism and the Jewish state that meant so much to them. AMEN.
In Good HandsRead Now
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.
A Plague Upon Our Houses?Read Now
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!
59 Days of JoyRead Now
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.
Planning for the futureRead Now
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.
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